On Truth Telling


Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Psalm 49:1-12

Colossians 3:1-11

Luke 12:13-21

Prayer of the Day: Benevolent God, you are the source, the guide, and the goal of our lives. Teach us to love what is worth loving, to reject what is offensive to you, and to treasure what is precious in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.” Colossians 3:9-10.

This should go without saying. We have all been taught that lying is immoral. Still, most of us would confess that, at some point in our lives, we have been guilty of telling a lie. Those who profess otherwise are probably compulsive liars who have lost the capacity to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Such types appear to be on the increase in this age of “alternative facts.” Civil discourse has been rendered impossible by lies which have gained large public credence. There has been much lament in recent years about “polarization” in our society. But I do not believe polarization is the problem. Every community, including ecclesiastical ones, are polarized or divided to some extent. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It is possible for two intelligent people of good will to examine the same facts and come to very different conclusions about how significant those facts are, how they are related and what response they require from us. But as long as we are dealing with the same facts, it is possible to learn from each other’s perspective on them and find common ground and mutual concerns. Compromise can lead to agreed upon courses of action that are beneficial to all, even when they do not give all of us everything we might want.

In an environment where we cannot agree on the facts, however, no such constructive dialogue can take place. If one side dismisses all the science supporting the threat of climate change as “bunk and propaganda,” there is no likelihood that any meaningful joint response to the threat can be made. Lies that dismiss, deny and distort the facts make communal life impossible. Lies and misinformation abound these days and addressing every crackpot notion, conspiracy theory and piece of junk science bubbling up through talk radio, the internet and shadowy online communities feels a little like playing whack a mole. Still, I believe it is important that responsible citizens and, as Saint Paul reminds us, disciples of Jesus speak up to stop the lies and witness to the truth.

The opportunity for truth telling arises in the arena of social media, letters to the editor of local papers, in our congregations and within our families. The truth about our nation’s racism, misogyny, and homophobia needs to be told in our schools, in our churches, in our legislatures and in our courts. Most importantly, the truth needs to be told in barbershops, quilting groups and family gatherings because that is often where it makes the greatest impact. Crazy uncle Ned’s racist comments and wild conspiracy ravings should not be politely tolerated at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Uncle Ned needs to be told, in the clearest terms possible, that he is lying and and that he needs to stop it. That might make for some uncomfortable moments and perhaps some permanent family rupture. But Jesus warned us that such might well be the result of faithfulness to God’s reign. Luke 12:51-53.  

That being said, it is important to remember that truth is more than the sum of the facts. Back when I taught confirmation, I posed a hypothetical to my class. Imagine, I said, that you are on the school board. The board is planning to hire Mary Smith to be its treasurer. As such, she will be responsible for managing funds for the whole school district. You learn that Mary was formerly convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to ninety days in prison. Should you inform the board about Mary’s conviction?

Under these circumstances, the class unanimously agreed that the board should be made aware of this event in Mary’s past. After all, as treasurer, Mary will be responsible for managing a substantial amount of public money critical for the operation of the schools within the district. It would be a breach of duty for a member of the school board to turn a blind eye to the facts and allow the board to place a person with a history of financial dishonesty in this important position. 

But then I added to the hypothetical. Mary was a foster child who aged out of the system when she turned eighteen years old. At that time, she was informed that she could no longer live in the halfway house where was staying. Mary was working at a convenience store during this period of her life. One evening, when her employer left early and asked her to close up the store for the night, Mary took three hundred dollars from the cash register to cover her deposit for a room she planned to rent. She had intended to pay the money back again once she got established, but her theft was detected and Mary was arrested shortly thereafter. Upon release from prison, Mary found a job at a restaurant. She put aside as much money from her meager salary as she could each week. As soon as she had saved enough, she went back to her former employer at the convenience store and repaid the three hundred dollars she had taken with interest. Her former employer was impressed with Mary’s act and offered to re-hire her. Mary soon became her employer’s assistant and has been managing the store’s finances faithfully for over twenty years. In addition, Mary has been doing volunteer work with an agency helping first time offenders newly released from prison to find work and integrate back into society. She is currently serving as treasurer for her church.

The class agreed that having this additional information made the decision a great deal more difficult. Is something that happened so long ago in the life of a desperate and inexperienced young girl relevant to the woman she has become? There was some lively discussion over what obligation a school board member had under these circumstances. Some of the kids felt that there was no need to disclose Mary’s conviction and that doing so would be unfair. Others expressed the view that, although duty bound as a member of the board to disclose the conviction, they would also be obligated to provide the context and relate the exemplary nature of Mary’s subsequent life of integrity and service. All agreed that simply disclosing the conviction, without more, would be wrong.

Speaking truthfully involves more than accurately relating facts. Within the parameters of my hypothetical, Mary’s conviction at the age of eighteen was a true fact. Standing alone, however, it did not accurately reflect the true content of her character. Without more, simply relating the fact of Mary’s conviction to the school board would have been a lie. It would have led the board to conclude that Mary was not trustworthy when, in fact, she clearly was. It would have reduced the rich and varied narrative of Mary’s life to a single exercise of poor judgment in a state of desperation at a young age. How many of us would want our whole lives to be measured by the worst thing we have ever done? Truthful speech is not “just the facts.” Truthful speech places facts into a larger narrative where they can be understood properly.

Saint Paul teaches us that, in order to speak the truth, one must be “clothed […..]with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.” That is to say, one must view the facts from God’s perspective-something that happens gradually and only as the “mind of Christ” is formed in us. Philippians 2:5. Facts need to be contextualized and the context in which disciples view individual facts is the end toward which God is moving all creation revealed in the obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. The truth about any person or nation cannot be understood apart from what we believe God’s loving purpose is for all people. Each individual is created in and with the potential for reflecting God’s image. Jesus could see in Peter the coward, James and John the self seeking brothers, Judas the terrorist and Matthew the collaborator the apostles they each ultimately became. So, too, we are challenged not merely to see in one another what in fact is, but also what in Christ each of us can become. That context shapes the way we speak truthfully. Truthful speech is always healing, redemptive and restorative-even when it is difficult to utter and painful to hear. What is spoken with the intent to tear down, hurt and destroy is never true, however factually accurate it might be.

Here is a poem by Patricia Goedicke reflecting the difficulty as well as the urgency of speaking truthfully.

I have arrived here after taking many steps

Over the kitchen floors of friends and through their lives.

The dun-colored hills have been good to me

And the gold rivers.

I have loved chrysantheumums, and children:

I have been grandmother to some.

In one pocket I have hidden chocolates from you

And knives.

Speaking my real thoughts to no one

In bars and at lecterns I have told the truth

Fairly often, but hardly ever to myself.

I have not cried out against the crimes of my country

But I have protected myself, I have watched from a safe corner

The rape of mountains, the eagle’s reckless plunge.

Ever since high school I have waved goodbye to history:

I have assisted you to grow

In all ways that were convenient to me.

What is a block vote against steam shovels?

My current events teacher was a fine man

But his moral precepts were a put-up job and I followed them.

Well-dressed, in my new Adidas

At every gathering I investigated my psyche with friends

And they investigated theirs with me.

But whenever Trouble came in the front door I ran out the back

And fell into the pit of my bones.

Escaped from those burning buildings, the past,

What balance can any of us hope for?

I was comparing lipsticks

The day Nagasaki vanished.

The day Solzhenitsyn disappeared into the Gulag

I was attending a cocktail party.

Perhaps there are only ashes in my handbag.

A man at the corner of Broadway and Forty-Second Street

Tried to sweep me into a trash barrel and I almost agreed.

Already the dried blood was sifting along my wrists.

Already my own hands

Were tightening around my throat

But Sorrow saved me, Sorrow gave me an image

Of bombs like human tears watering the world’s gardens.

How could I not answer?

Since then I have been planting words

In every windowbox, poking them to grow up.

What’s God, That he should be mindful of me?

Sometimes I feel like wood

Waiting for someone to peel me.

Indeed I have been lukewarm

At heart, which is all that matters.

Of tiny bread-colored atoms,

Equal fragments equally dispersed

That love each other and are never hungry.

What have I ever ignited

That warmed anyone?

I have not followed the rivers.

Dangerous as a pine needle

Packed in among others, in the dense multitudes

And dry timbers of the West

I am afraid of greed,

The rich taste of it, the anger

Hidden in my pockets.

Columns of smoke on the horizon,

Pillars of green fire.

But I have arrived here somehow,

Neither have I stopped talking.

Numberless are the kitchens I have sat in,

Chewing my fingers, trying to say something,

Anything, so that the daughters of men should see

As many sides of themselves as possible.

Word after word my footprints

Have stumbled across deserts.

How should I escape them?

They keep following after me.

A little wind stirs itself,

Whisks across my eyelids,

And I know what it is before I say it:

What if the world really articulates itself

In the socket of a human knee?

God save me

From the swamps of hubris but it may be, it may be.

Before the idea, the impulse.

I feel it moving in me, it is there

Arthritic but still powerful, a seizure

Delicate as grasshoppers, a light

Gathering in the skull.

Between thumb and forefinger

And the ballbearing joints of the tongue

In soft, glottal convulsions

Out of no alien skies

But out of the mind’s muscle

The hieroglyph figures rise.

The little histories of words

Cannot be eaten.

I know it, you know it

And the children…

But the images we make are our own.

In the cool caves of the intellect

The twisted roots of them lead us

Backwards and then forwards.

If only we could understand

What’s in our pockets is for everyone!

I have a dictionary in one hand, a mirror.

Strangers look at themselves in it,

Tracing the expressions they use

From one family to the next

They comfort themselves, murmuring

The tongues we speak are a blizzard

Of words like warm wool flying:

In the shy conjugal rites

Of verb, consonant, vowel,

In the dark mucosal flesh lining

The prismed underside of the skin

Each one is a spark sheared

From the veined fleece of the spirit

Of the looking-glass body we live in.

It is the one I have been cherishing,

The one all of us speak from,

For the world as we know it moves

Necessarily by steps.

Breath, pulse beat, ten digital stops.

At the foot of the mountains I look up. Does God

Lift up His hand to cover them?

Blinded by tears like rain

My bones turn granite, the spine of the hills congeals them.

Where is the eye of the storm,

Or where is the center of my seeing?

The wind of my breath is a hurricane:

I am locked inside myself.

Painfully, up the bald stepladder I climb,

But sometimes the light in my head goes on

More like the sun than a match.

Just as they said in Arabia

There’s a huge pantalooned angel swelling

Inside the body’s glass jar.

The white-haired thread of steam

From the teakettle on the range whistles

And sharpens itself into a voice

Bodiless as history, invisible

But still whispering in ears

That keep trying to hear it.

It is as if midgets were bellowing their names

Down sets of cardboard cylinders.

But we have not disappeared


My friends, we have said many things to each other

In new combinations, seed upon seed exploding

And blossoming in kitchen gardens.

I confess I am ashamed of myself:

I have not tried hard enough to understand

Or listen to you speak.

But the Word is mindful of itself

And always has been.

Littering every street

In the sly eyes of tin cans,

Drops of water in the gutter

The world looks back at us

From every known language:

Yoruba, Hebrew, Chinese,

Arrogant English, the subject

Subjecting all to its desires,

Even the softer tongues, romantic

Self-reflexive, done to

As we would be done by,

Whatever life we cultivate

Out of the animal moans of childhood

It is all wheat fields, all grass

Growing and being grown.

With poisoned bread in my pockets, or gumdrops,

Or armies like Myrmidons rising

What I say is true

For a time only, thank God,

If I have only arrived anywhere it is to look

Carefully, at all I thought I knew.

In living rivers of speech

The reflections I make are my own

And yet not:

Though the old growth rings are hidden from us

And the echoing tomorrows of the acorn,

The warm currents of the senses

Are a two-way street, my friends:

The palms of our hands are crisscrossed

With as many intersections as a leaf.

Source: The Tongues We Speak (c. Patricia Goedicke; pub. by Milkweed Editions, 1989). Patricia Goedicke (1931-2006) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, but she grew up in Hanover, New Hampshire where her father was a resident psychiatrist at Dartmouth College. During her high school years, Goedicke distinguished herself as a downhill skier. She earned her B.A. at Middlebury College where she studied with Robert Frost. Her awards and accomplishments include the Rockefeller Foundation Residency; a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship; a Pushcart Prize; the William Carlos Williams Prize; the 1987 Carolyn Kizer Prize; the Hohenberg Award, and the 1992 Edward Stanley Award from Prairie Schooner. Her last book was recognized as one of the top 10 poetry books of 2000 by the American Library Association. The Tongues We Speak, featuring the above poem, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1990. Goedicke was awarded The Chad Walsh Poetry Prize by the Beloit Poetry Journal in 2002. You can read more about Patricia Goedicke and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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