Friday, October 29, 2010

Can We Listen?

I got an email yesterday from Sojourners, a Christian social-justice organization.  It began like this:
Dear Candidate, Party Organization, PAC, Super-PAC or any committee that happens to be contributing to the non-stop political ads that have flooded my TV:

Give us all a break! We're sick of the attacks, the innuendos, the outright lies, and the prophecies of doom if the other candidate gets elected; and the same commercials over and over again. There is one week left before the election. Instead of filling the airwaves with noise, how about you give us all a chance to clear our heads and do some thinking? I'm pretty sure you have said everything you have to say and made all the arguments you can make. The only things the negative ads and robocalls are accomplishing at this point are annoying lots of people and wasting lots of money.
And it went on from there.

No one likes negativity, but... there is another side to this.  Sometimes, even in the most negative of attack ads, there is a grain of truth.  Should we reject that truth simply because of the way it's said?  Or can we listen anyway?  Normally, even if we need to look hard, there is truth there.  If truth may be there, I think we ought to pay attention.  I think we always need to look for the truth.

This Sunday (October 31) is Reformation Day, the day that marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  On this day in 1517, Martin Luther posted his "95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences."  Lutherans celebrate this day as a festival of the church yearThis is true even though the church authorities at the time were terribly offended.  Two and a half years after the Theses were posted, and after Luther had written many other criticisms of the church, the following statement came from the Pope:
Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause. Remember your reproaches to those who are filled with foolishness all through the day. Listen to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod. ... The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it....

...Lying teachers are rising, introducing ruinous sects, and drawing upon themselves speedy doom. Their tongues are fire, a restless evil, full of deadly poison. They have bitter zeal, contention in their hearts, and boast and lie against the truth...
And these attacks on Luther's negativity--these complaints against Reformation zeal--they went on from there.

How do you feel when someone makes critical or negative statements?  Many things Martin Luther said were negative!  Remember that as you evaluate what is being said by politicians or those who are debating church issues!  I wonder how much of the Roman Catholic Church's rejection of Lutheran teaching had to do with emotional or protective reactions to criticism.  Could the Roman Catholic Church have reacted differently?  Could the pope have said, "Martin, you make some good points in what you criticize.  Let's talk."

I believe God is calling us to listen to what is said no matter how it's said!  Remember: God's Word is not "nice."  God's Word often comes upon us sinners with fierce purpose.  God's Word is often negative.  God's Word does not leave us alone.  God does provide a way out, but on the way, his word stings and cuts.

Now, while it's true that we ought to be careful about what we say and write so we're not unnecessarily harsh, it's also important not to reject the "what" of a critical statement just because the way the statement was made causes us to be offended or annoyed.   The Roman Catholic church, for example, had every right to be offended by some of the things Luther said.  At his trial in 1521, he admitted:
...I have written against certain private individuals who attempted to defend such Roman tyranny and denounce my pious doctrine. I confess that I have been more bitter and vehement against them than is in keeping with my Christian estate and calling. ... 
But, instead of continuing his apology, he went on to say:
...I do not claim to be a saint, nor do I proclaim my life, but rather the doctrine of Christ.  I cannot revoke these [things I have written], since my revocation would mean the continuance of their tyrannical, violent and raging rule due to my compliance and hesitancy. The people of God would be treated more violently and unmercifully than ever. (The rest of Martin Luther's defense at his trial can be found here.)
What Luther is saying, I think, is this: "Don't focus so much on "how" I say something, though I could have said things in a kinder way.  I can't really apologize for it because there is truth to what I have said.  Please pay attention to what is being said and why I'm saying it, even though I know I could have done it in a better way."

This is an example of why the truth is far more important than the way it is said.  That's the case in church debates and, I think, in political ads and personal relationships.   

We should not reject what is said because of how it's conveyed.  Sometimes you may feel like the person or group making the negative statement is really wrong or even crazy!  Still, I suggest that we follow this advice by Valerie Porr:  "Find the nugget of truth.  Sometimes you may feel like you're searching for a lost ring in the sand at the beach, or a contact lens in an airport restroom."  Most of the time, somewhere, there is "a valid basis" for what is being said.  Look for it.  And don't be afraid.  By doing so we'll be more prepared to hear the truth of God's Word.

This Sunday, on Reformation Day, many of us will hear Romans 3:19-28 and John 8:31-36.  This morning I had the privilege of preaching on these texts at Brookridge.   The main message was this: Hearing the truth--even when it hurts--that is what will set us free.

How can that be?  Jesus gave his life to save sinners--no one but sinners--sinners like me.  So when the Word of God comes to you, in whatever form and by whatever messenger, even if it's comes to you in a way that feels hard instead of kind, don't be offended.  Don't put your guard up too high.  Be willing to listen.  Be willing to learn.  Jesus pays the penalty for all sin.  Admit it all.  Bring it to him in prayer.  He will bring you through as a new person.  You will be born again.

So rejoice when you are cut down to size.  Let God's Word do God's work.  Let it speak, even if you feel attacked.  Examine what is said, not based on how you feel.  Instead, consider the truth.

And the truth will set you free.

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