July 28, 2013
“The Art of Telling the Truth”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
A Psalm of David.
1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
3 who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
5 who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
At the beginning of 2006 there was a best-selling memoir on the market which had sold 1.6 million copies and was second in sales only behind the latest Harry Potter book.
It was a riveting tale of a man’s recovery from substance abuse and celebrity endorsers rallied around the author. And then the other shoe dropped – he had made it up. Not all of it but some of it. And he went on the Oprah Winfrey Show and said that he lied and asked for forgiveness, but he said in essence that the book “felt” true.
It was James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces.”
Around the same time in 2006 a word was selected as the word of the year by Merriam Webster – it beat out the word “google” – and it was “truthiness” – a word made famous by the comedian Stephen Colbert.
Truthiness is a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.
The use of the word “truthiness” spread like wildfire, turning up in articles about James Frey’s book, but on many other topics as well.
Its popularity pointed to something bigger happening in our culture where the truth was becoming a slippery thing – one journalist writing about truthiness asks, “When does the truth matter?” He argues that the truth matters in business and politics and science and sports – but in the wake of Ponzi schemes, and Lance Armstrong, the mortgage crisis, and the Edward Snowden intelligence scandal, perhaps we would say the truth only matters if you get caught.
Our scripture reading for today is a psalm, a piece of poetry or music often used in the worship life of the Israelite faith community. Scholars call this an entrance psalm, and suggest that it might have been used literally as a kind of call and response as worshippers were entering the temple.
And it paints in strong colors what God wants our lives to look like. We often mis-characterize the Jewish faith as one of rigid legalism in its expectations of moral behavior – you must eat this and not this or God won’t love you – and that is really not the case.
If you look back to the Hebrew Scriptures, God always loved first but to remain a part of God’s beloved community there were expectations about how you treated God and how you treated your neighbor. And if you look at this psalm the expectations all relate to how we deal with other people.
Of particular concern are what people do with their words and how they handle their money, and these things matter in terms of the effect our words and finances have on our friends and neighbors.
Whether we are in a tent, that is, down on the ground, everyday life, or on God’s holy Hill, the place of worship that is set apart, wherever we are, in order to enjoy God’s presence, in order to know God’s nearness our lives must begin to take a certain shape.
This psalm reminds us that dwelling with God is fundamentally linked to how we live. Worshiping God means a commitment to live in the world, to live in our everyday lives, the same way we live in God’s presence.
As protestants we like to take refuge in the belief that we are saved by grace through faith and by no works of our own. We can’t do anything to earn God’s love or God’s forgiveness – all we need in faith in Jesus Christ.
But this psalm is a reminder that we are not off the hook – and we find this message throughout the Bible: Jesus telling us to bear fruit, Paul in almost every letter pushing us to be better people because of our faith, telling us what the fruit of Spirit is, telling us that the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love, James telling us that faith without deeds is a dead faith.
We are not off the hook – grace should not make us lazy, it should make us ask the hard questions, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” and to hear the answer as we look at ourselves in the mirror. Do we walk blamelessly? Do we do what is right? Do we speak the truth from our hearts?
Truth-telling is hard work.
There is a great TED talk by Pamela Meyer who is the CEO of a social networking company and began researching deception and became an expert on lie detecting. She is coming from an industry perspective looking at and preventing fraud.
Fraud, dishonesty, costs American companies 3.5 trillion dollars a year.
The typical organization loses about 5% of its annual revenue to fraud.
But what she writes about applies to us: “One in four Americans believes it’s OK to lie to an insurer. One-third of all resumes contain false information. One in five employees say they are aware of fraud in their workplace but won’t report it.
Various researchers have determined that in a given day we may be lied to anywhere from 10-200 times.
In one study, strangers lied to each other three times within the first ten minutes of meeting each other. What makes this study interesting is not the volume of lies told — it’s that before seeing the video of themselves lying, participants overwhelmingly reported that they had been truthful.”
She says further, “If you’re in an average married couple, you’re going to lie to your spouse in one out of every 10 interactions.”
In the end, we all lie. Pamela Meyer even uses the example of Koko the gorilla who bonded with the little kitten. Remember that story? Koko once blamed the kitten for ripping a sink out of the wall.
Sometimes lying seems easier than the truth – it feels easier to tell someone, if they ask, that you like their haircut even if you don’t – what does it accomplish to hurt their feelings?
It might seem easier to lie and say you feel sick than say you have no interest in going on a trip or that you are afraid to go.
Easier to tell your spouse that you like their meatloaf than to endure that sad look on their face if you tell them the truth.
It might seem easier to lie to the boy who asks you in 8th grade to “go steady” and say that your parents won’t let you date until you are 16 – that might seem easier, until you find out that he found when your sixteenth birthday was going to be and put it on his calendar – that’s when you realize that the truth, that “I just want to be friends,” would have been much much better.
God doesn’t call us to truthiness – God calls us to speak the truth from our hearts.
I remember vividly a sermon that a pastor preached while I was a teenager about telling the truth and it has stuck with me, and I have tried to put it into practice with some successes and plenty of failures. Being a teenager involves a lot of lies. You want to be liked. You don’t want to lose friends because you tell them something they don’t want to hear. Easier to bend the truth or withhold it all together. Better to not tell your friend who is having unprotected sex as a freshman in high school that you are sick with worry about her and you think she should stop – better to withhold the truth than hurt a friend.
But then sometimes you get the other side of it – friends say they haven’t figured out their beach week plans yet, but really they have and they just don’t include you, but they don’t want to tell you the truth.
So as a teenager I heard this sermon on speaking the truth from the heart – and the point that I remember was this: that it is more loving, and more kind, to tell someone the truth, even if that is harder, than to withhold the truth from them. Better to tell your spouse that you are profoundly lonely than to pretend everything is fine, until it isn’t anymore. Better to tell someone you are breaking up with the real reasons, rather than to say “it is not you, it’s me” and have that person endure break up after break up never knowing why.
Speaking the truth from the heart is hard work. It means knowing deep down in the soul that whatever the consequences are the truth is much better than a gentle lie.
It requires strength – the psalm tells us that people who act as God wants them to act will never be moved.
But it also takes wisdom. Speaking the truth from our hearts does not mean sharing everything that pops into your head. It does not mean walking down the street and saying “hate that sweater” or “your dog is ugly.”
Speaking the truth means that we understand what God has told us – that words matter, we need to take them seriously – that the truth matters, and we need to take that seriously.
When I do pre-marital counseling with couples I have them read a couple books, and I reread the books along with them, and I am struck every time that almost all the advice and instruction boils down to just telling your loved one the truth.
Back to Pamela Meyer’s TED talk, she talks about how there is this gap between who we want to be or how we envision ourselves or want the world to see us, and how we actually are. She says, “Lying is an attempt to bridge a gap, to connect our wishes and our fantasies, about who we wish we were, how we could be, with what we’re really like.” And that description of why we often lie points to an issue of faith: we cannot bear to be just as we are and so we lie.
God’s truth is that we are created and loved just as we are – we don’t need to lie our way to greater glory because we already reflect God’s glory.
So we have before us this entrance psalm, this psalm that brings us into worship and shows us who God is calling us to be, but it is not only an entrance psalm it is also an exiting psalm. Its concern is not so much what happens in the sanctuary as what happens out in the world. So take it with you to your tents – to your everyday life – and live with it and work on it.