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I’ve been thinking a lot about truth-telling lately.
I’m working on a presentation for a preaching conference next month. I’ve titled the workshop “Preaching Towards Resilience,” and the ideas behind it stem largely from a post I wrote here last April.
In “Capacious,” I reflected on the words of Kate DiCamillo, who said in her second Newberry Medal acceptance speech, “We have been given the sacred task of making hearts large through story. We are working to make hearts that are capable of containing much joy and much sorrow, hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries…of ourselves and of each other.”
Kate also wrote a letter to fellow children’s author Matt de La Peña, in which she tries to figure out how, in Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White “told the truth and made it bearable.” Her conclusion? “E.B. White loved the world. And in loving the world, he told the truth about it – its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devasting beauty. He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we are not alone.”
I think capaciousness is an ingredient of resilience. One definition I read said that “resilience is about being able to process and understand your response to stress and difficulties and actively work through it, instead of shutting down and going numb.” I see resilience as the ability to remain whole in the face of that which is daunting or challenging…to not come undone in the face of change or conflict…to be able to yet exist in relationship with those who think or do differently than we would.
We could use some resilience these days.
In the book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff suggest that there are three “Great Untruths” that have become prominent in education and culture:
• The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
• The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings
• The Untruth of Us Verses Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people
These untruths diminish our capacity for resilience. They create hearts easily undone by conflict, change, or fear, hearts that aren’t capacious enough for a world filled with much joy and much sorrow, with complexities and mysteries.
In his book, The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life, Parker Palmer says we are robbed of our hearts when we lose “our ability to feel connected with others…it is a common malady in modern times, this inability to empathize with the stranger.” (Palmer wrote this in 1980.)
He references Thomas Merton, who listed two illusions, two untruths, that must die if we are to live as whole-hearted people. First, the false sense of self, which “tries to control life for its own benefit…which wants to resolve all contradictions by ignoring or denying them…which hopes to live without ambiguity or pain.” Second, the false conception of the world as “out there,” a place to be escaped, a foreign entity that compromises our purity, thus letting us off the hook – “the world made me do it.”
I think we could add a third illusion to this set, one particularly prescient for preachers…which is a false conception of God. The illusion that somehow God is fully understandable and completely rational, and that if God is not these things – if we cannot make sense of God – we should relinquish those parts of him we cannot understand.
This summer I preached on some of the major stories of the book of Genesis. If there’s ever a book in which God is presented as God’s-self with contradictions abounding, it’s Genesis. The whole book is one massive complex of sovereignty vs. free will, life vs. death, grace vs. holiness, promise vs. command.
Case in point, the Binding of Isaac. Here’s a God who has promised that Isaac would be the first in a line spanning generations, with descendants more numerous than the sky. Here’s also a God who tells Abraham to hike that son up a mountain, bind him to an altar, and kill him as a sacrifice.
That’s a hard God to deal with. One online commentator declared he refuses to preach this text, and believes all pastors should do the same, because the actions of God and Abraham in this story border on abusive. Martin Luther said that he couldn’t bear to be a spectator in this scene, let alone a participant, and that the demand of God in this story is a “contradiction with which God contradicts himself.” John Calvin said that in this story, “the command and the promise of God are in conflict.”
This is a hard God to deal with.
And yet – if we love God, and if we love God’s Word…we are called to tell the truth, as best as we are able, about even that which is hard. In the case of the binding of Isaac, I find Ellen Davis’ take on this difficult text compelling, that God, having been let down by Abraham before, desperately wants to know that the love he has for this covenant family will be returned. We tell the seemingly contradictory truth that the God who is sovereign and all knowing is also the God of love, which is, by necessity, vulnerable.
Sometimes telling the truth means saying, as Amanda Benkhuysen put it so succinctly in her synod interview, that the point of a text may simply be, “I am God, and you are not.” It means letting God be God’s-self, free of our expectations and reasonings, free of the boxes we would put God in for the sake of protecting our false sense of self, which would control all things.
Taking God as he comes to us, with all the contradictions and paradoxes woven into the story, is a move towards capaciousness, towards resilience, towards empathy. It is the calling of those who would make hearts “capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries…of ourselves, of each other,” and of God.