I want to start off today with a story about a car that I saw here in Austin. I’m taking a little risk in telling this story because there’s some possibility that this car might be yours. If it is, then please know that I mean this story in love. I saw a car that had a bumper sticker with a cartoon drawing of a cat and it said “I love my adopted cat” and a second bumper sticker that said “Ask me about my adopted cat.” Meanwhile, just next to this on the same car was a sticker with the classic logo featuring the extended and pointed M and A designed by guitarist James Hetfield. I’m – of course, you already know it – describing the classic logo of the heavy metal band Metallica. Now, if I were to make a Vinn diagram – those overlapping circles – of people who self-describe as “cat people” and people who self-describe as “Metallica people,” I would venture a guess that the overlap is pretty small, although maybe larger here in Austin than in other places.
Again, if this is your car, I’m sorry and also thank you.
And maybe there’s a bigger overlap with Metallica people and cat people than I know; and maybe most Lyle Lovette fans have dogs; and perhaps Kiss fans love their parakeets. It’s appropriate to talk about music here during South by Southwest.
And I really do have a theological point here, jokes aside; here’s the point that I want to make with this story: we are complex people, and the truth about us is complex, and it doesn’t always follow the scripts handed to us. We don’t always fit into the boxes set in front of us. And I mean this in a broad sense: the truth that we experience in our lives, the truth about the world, about our experiences of the Holy, the truth that we experience – when we’re honest about it – is complex, it doesn’t always fit the script.
The author of John’s gospel writes a lot about the Truth – big T truth – but he’s not writing about a set of ideas. It’s about a lived truth; Jesus says I am the Truth. Today, the author of John says – my paraphrase here – those who do what is true do it in God. There’s so much in today’s Gospel, I want to focus on that sentence.
And I started off talking about cats and Metallica because John is not describing a truth that is disembodied or abstract; John is writing about a truth that is enfleshed in us. One that reveals for us the God in whom we live and move and have our being – those are St. Paul’s words to describe our relationship to God. I’m talking about the holy that’s written on our hearts – again, paraphrasing Paul.
The spirit of truth, that John writes about a few chapters after this reading, that leads us.
This truth – big T truth – that is a theme in John’s Gospel, it’s a little different than the way we usually think of truth. I think of truth as a set of ideas, a set of facts. Something you could write down. An explanation, a set of statements. But for the author of John truth is much more like a verb, instead of a noun. It’s a relationship. My paraphrase of John: “Those who do what is true, they do that truth in God.” This is a truth that aligns us most fully with the way we are to participate in God.
We all come with scripts that we pick up from our families, our schools, the air around us. They tell us what do to, how to relate to other people, what to think about ourselves. They tell us what is valued and valuable and what is not. And we learn early on to be afraid of departing from these scripts. If you depart from these scripts, you should be ashamed of yourself, you’ll let people down, you won’t be valued. Sometimes the most powerful of these expectations are unspoken, or barely spoken; often they’re the most powerful. The ways we live out something other than the truth written in our hearts.
A priest that I respect a great deal, Ed Bacon, writes that when we’re evaluating our call to truth in God, we should listen carefully for the stories that operate out of fear and the stories that operate out of love.2 Fear will tell you to watch out so that you don’t fail to live up to the expectations of others; fear will tell you to stick closely to the scripts handed to you so that folks don’t disapprove of you. Be sure you relate to others just the way everyone else does; stick with what you know.
Following truth always involves taking risk. Bacon’s words: “…however Truth comes,” he writes, “it bears with it just enough of its own sense of rightness to overcome the fear of risk taking.”3 It is the rightness that comes from knowing that you are expanding love.
The risks for us can seem significant: chief among them, losing the approval of people who are important to you. But the heart of faith for us, at the core of God’s promise to us, is the promise that if we follow truth, we will have what we need for the journey. It may very well be a journey of loss, but the promise is that on the other side there’s resurrection.
All of us have our own versions of this journey. For me, it involved a career change. It was a slow process over many years and involving many people. And I had to leave some scripts of mine, and it was disruptive and difficult and joyous and life-giving. I hope by doing so I can better express the Word implanted in me.
When you’re called to leave something you know, it’s impossible for you to have all of the implications worked out in advance. Bacon writes that this is one of the markers of a plan based in fear or a plan based in love. Fear wants every risk accounted for, and love – even with all of its possibility – it always carries with it risk. We all know this from our own experiences. If you wait for a risk-free, nondisruptive time to have kids, for example, you’ll be waiting a long time.
Thomas Merton – the American monk who had a fascinating journey from atheist to monk and who thought a lot about truth and purpose along the way writes that – his words – “For me to be a saint means to be myself…. Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal….But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we are [unreal] to ourselves and to others…If we have chosen the way of falsity, we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it!”
Merton points out the other side of the coin: if we operate out of the scripts handed to us, then when we most need connection to other people, when we most need to experience love ourselves, our ability to experience love and connection will be limited. It will be limited to the exact proportion that we’ve been real.
John’s Gospel begins with a cosmic poem: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” The Word of Jesus, the Word in us, the imprint of God in us, the one that when we choose to reveal it in our actions, in the patterns of our lives, the one that aligns us with our unique call, aligns us with the love of the Holy, beyond just what we know now. That’s the truth that will set us free, the truth that will let us be conduits of the Beloved One, the Truth to which we are called.