Sunday, August 5, 2012

Hard Truths

II Samuel 11:26-12:13a (Ephesians 4:1-16)
August 5, 2012

            If there is one person in my family who isn’t afraid of speaking a difficult truth to me, it’s my dad.  He’s done it many times; sat me down, told me that he thinks I’m about to make a mistake or that I’m about to make a choice that’s unwise. 
            One time I remember in particular is when I was preparing to graduate from college.  Along with resume writing and job searches, I was also dating a young man who was – how can I put this nicely? – a jerk.   But I couldn’t see it.  And friends and family were concerned about me getting serious about him.  In fact we were getting fairly serious.  So my dad finally sat me down and had a talk.
            My dad is a pretty quiet man.  He listens intensely to what is being said around him and does a lot of thinking about it before he speaks.  He’s not afraid to make tough decisions or speak his opinion.  But you know that when his opinion is offered, it’s going to be one that’s based on careful thought.  He doesn’t often speak rashly or impulsively. 
            So when he decided to talk to me about my relationship, even though I didn’t want to hear it, I listened.  I hated the hard truths my dad was speaking, especially because they concerned me, but I knew that he was speaking from a thoughtful place – and, even more importantly, a loving place.  He spoke some hard truths, but they were truths I needed to hear.  I listened.  And thankfully I slowed the relationship down and eventually broke it off entirely.
            This week, as we continue the story of David’s abuse of power with Bathsheba and his manipulation of Uriah which led to the young soldier’s death, we hear hard truths.  Nathan has come to confront David about what’s happened but he does it in a way that will ensure David fully understands the consequences of his actions.  He tells David a story.
            “There were two men; one rich and one poor.  The rich man had many flocks and herds, but the poor man had only one little lamb.  The poor man raised the lamb like a child.  It grew up with the man’s own children.  It shared from his table.  It was a member of the family.  It was like a daughter to the man.”
            “But one day the rich man had a visitor, a traveler who came to stay with him.  The rich man wanted to serve his guest a fancy meal, but he hated to take an animal from his own flock.  Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and served it as the main course.”
            David became incensed at this terrible tale.  He was livid.  He said to Nathan, “This man deserves to die!  He should have to replace the man’s lamb four times over because of what he did, and because he had no pity.”
            Then in one powerful instant, Nathan turns the story on David, and cries out, “You are the man!”
            If I could turn this into a movie, I would have the actor playing Nathan standing with his back to David as David spouts off about the punishment this man deserves.  Then Nathan would whirl around to face David, pointing his finger at David’s nose and shout, “You are the man!”
            You are the man!
            These words must have felt like a razor-sharp punch right in David’s stomach, knocking the wind of righteous indignation out of him.
            You are the man!
            This isn’t some sad little story about some unknown guy out there somewhere.  This is about you, David; you, and what you’ve done to Uriah, to Bathsheba. 
            Nathan then proceeds to tell David what the Lord has to say about the whole ordeal that David’s lust and abuse started.
            “David!  I anointed you king over Israel.  I rescued you from the hands of Saul.  I gave you this house, your wives.  I gave you the house of Israel and Judah.  And if all this would have been too little, I would have given you even more.  But what you have done is evil in my sight.  You have despised my word.  You have killed Uriah the Hittite, and you’ve taken his wife to be your own.”
            “Because of all this, there’s going to be trouble for you; trouble in your household.  You took Uriah by the sword.  Well that sword will never leave your house from this moment on.  In other words, David, you will reap what you have sown.”
            David immediately recognized his deeds for what they were – sin – and he repented.  But the Lord’s words proved true.  In very short order, trouble raised its head in David’s household through his older sons – Amnon and Absalom.
            What really stands out to me about this story is not so much the content of the truths spoken to David, although certainly it was truth and it offers significant and important insight into the dynamics of David’s family and his kingship.  But more than that, what strikes me is the power that speaking this hard truth has to effect change.  David hears the word of truth, righteous truth, God’s truth, spoken to him through Nathan and he sees how far he has turned from God and repents.
            Speaking a word of truth to someone is never easy.  It’s difficult at best.  It can be grueling, painful, and leave both speaker and listener feeling vulnerable.  It had to have been hard for Nathan, and yes, even God, to speak this word of truth to David.  David was a beloved son, but he had to be told the truth about his actions and see that their consequences would be severe and far reaching.
            David had to be told a necessary, but hard truth.  But that truth was not spoken to utterly destroy him.  It wasn’t done just to lay him flat, to hurt him without any redemption.  I believe that this powerful word of truth was spoken so that David could see clearly what he had done, so that he could see the pain he caused and hopefully become a better king, father, husband and person because of it.  It seems to me that the truth was spoken to David because it had to be, but it also gave him the opportunity to learn and change.
            The Lord through Nathan spoke a word of truth to David in love.  It may not have sounded very loving, but it was.  That’s what Paul writes about in these verses in his letter to the Ephesians.  “Speak the truth in love.”  These words come at the end of Paul’s passage about maintaining the unity of the church, the body of Christ.  We are all members of one body.  We all have our own unique and useful gifts and talents that help the body to function.  We have all been called, in one way or another, to serve God and to build up the body of Christ.  And we can’t be like little kids anymore.  We can’t be naïve.  We can’t be blown off course by trickery or fancy words that deceive.  “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
            As I understand it, what Paul is really trying to teach the Ephesians is how to be in right relationship with one another.  Unity is found when people live in this right relationship.  Unity requires that people recognize and affirm the calling of each member, and it requires that people use their own gifts and talents for the good of all, for the good of that common relationship.  Perhaps even more than that, unity requires that when we are blown off course, when we are falling away from that relationship, the truth must be spoken to us in love.
            I guess the problem with this is that too often we speak the truth to one another, but it’s not spoken in love.  When my father spoke a hard truth to me, it was spoken in love, but there have been lots of other people who have spoken hard truths over the years as a way to lay me low.  I’ve had the truth spoken to tear me down, not build me up.  I know that I’m guilty of this as well.  I’ve spoken a truth to someone to hurt rather than to help. 
            The problem though is that when we tear down one another, we also tear down the body of Christ.  Speaking the truth in love is meant to be just that.  It’s meant to build up, not tear down, to grow, not destroy.  Yet we’re not always good at putting this speaking truth in love concept into practice.
            In one of the presbyteries that I served, there was a larger contingent of ministers and elders of one political and social persuasion than another.  Whenever there was a debate on a particularly controversial subject, commissioners on both sides of the line would queue up to take their turn at the mic and speak their particular truth.  Often, though, there would be far more from the majority opinion waiting to speak.  What disturbed me about this was not that the people on the majority side wanted to have their turn, it’s that they used their chance at the mic to just verbally beat the other side to death.  We’re going to use our truths, not as a way to build up, but to tear down, stomp on and utterly crush the other side.  It was discouraging, to say the least.
            But the presbytery I went to next had a different policy.  After witnessing how divisive and destructive these debates could be to the whole presbytery body, the Executive Presbyter determined that whenever a particularly controversial subject was to be debated on the floor of presbytery, always, ALWAYS, the agenda would be structured so that worship immediately followed the debate and communion was always celebrated during that worship. 
            This EP understood that no matter how angry or frustrated the commissioners might be over a hot topic, if we could worship with one another, if we could see each other through the lens of the Communion Table, we could find a way to overcome what divides us.  When we broke bread and shared the cup, we were better equipped to build up rather than tear down. 
            The hard truths were still spoken in that presbytery, but they were spoken in love.  That made all the difference.  At some point or another, we will either have to speak a hard truth or hear one.  But may we remember that whether we are hearing or speaking, that truth should be spoken in love.  It should be spoken to build up, to create, to liberate and to witness to the love of God for each of us.  Let us speak the truth in love to one another and to our hurting and broken world, so that God’s love can be felt in all places by all people.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

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