“Jesus did not come to make bad people good, but to give dead people life.”
That stories are true, matters.
A long time ago my wife was in search of a harvest table. We drove far and wide until we came upon a very charming man named Casey who lived in the country and had ten kids like steps on a ladder. He was a dealer in antiques, and he had a harvest table for sale. When we went out to his property, he compained about the antique dealers in downtown Toronto. “Those shysters are screwing people” he railed. “They get some piece of furniture cheap from some old widow cleaning out her garage, and immediately double the price. They are unethical”. Such was his bent. He next charmed us with stories of how “his guy” trolled up and down the east coast of Canada in a truck, finding treasures in someone’s garage, which he re-inforced, refinished, and resold for a fair price. He said “I knock out those old darned pegs that people used to use, and put in solid screws so things will hold together for a lifetime”. It sounded convincing at the time.
We bought a table and my wife was happy. Later on we were in the same area, and came by a flea market that had in the yard, a bevy of tables that looked like ours. Stopping, we perused the scene before us. There were a LOT of tables and they all were exactly like Casey’s. We went inside and asked the owner… “Do you know a guy named Casey?”. He started to swear. “Know him? I don’t deal with that guy anymore because he is full of stories and all his cheques bounce. Worse, he takes our stuff, and sells it to people for double the price. He is a liar and a crook”.
We went out back. Menonites in white shirts, suspenders and large black hats were throwing stones at tables behind the building. “What are you doing?” we asked. “Harvest tables”, they said. “The people from the city like them like this, a bit beat up. We tear down our old barns and make tables out of them. It’s good money.”
We had been fleeced. What we had bought was Casey’s charming story, the same one you trot out for your friends when they admire your antique table. Now all we had was a barn board table and a lie. My wife was apoplectic. We had to get rid of the table because every time she looked at it she got red in the face, thinking about the willful deception we had suffered.
“And what is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus rhetorically. It is something hammered out in courts of law with a fair amount of care and passion. Twelve people sit there and watch the proceedings and figure out whether they are going to buy the story or not. Fear not, the public weal is in good hands because regular people understand truth and justice very well. It is one reason why Jesus talked to regular people. He told them stories that were simple but true, and they got it.
You can argue which is better, a scientific dispassionate approach to the facts, or a personal rendition. I like personal histories myself. They are unlike the text book version. I tend to have a lot of oral history in my library. When you read about what the man on the ground went through, be it the destruction of Jerusalem, or the great depression, you forget all about economic factors and changes in the zeitgeist. Truth in the end is always quite personal. You cannot dismiss personal experience because it comes with a cost. That is why in courts, you cannot consider sentencing before you hear victim impact statements. What somebody did robbed someone else of a portion of their soul, in an evil transaction that tried to hide itself and slide under the rug. The truth must come out. You must hear it from the ones affected to understand it.
I recently sat through an evening of Catholic theology. My wife was excited because she is a born and bred Catholic and yet knows practically nothing of the Bible, or theology. She only knows the customs she was taught, and does them without a great understanding of what truths may or may not lie beneath them.
The session was put on by a Jesuit PHD scholar, whose bailiwick was Theology. He had a textbook answer for everything, had thought out all the angles, and had never heard the story I guess, of Saint Thomas Aquinas abandoning his project of explaining EVERYTHING when he had a dream of angels trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.
The enthusiasm of the speaker did not translate into speaking ability. I was falling asleep halfway through, and wondered how slow the second hand could turn on my watch. At break time a number of people stealthily made for the exits while they could. We had to endure another hour. It was like watching paint dry. I started thinking about the story of Saint Paul where he preached a long time and a man fell out of the window and was assumed dead. I thought he got off lucky. I was looking for a window at that point.
The bottom line, was that religion was all a theory to this man, like listening to someone teach a science class. Just memorize the periodic table. Don’t worry. The Magisterium has figured everything out. Just listen and obey.
I have to admit I had a few sharp words over that wasted evening, telling my wife I would not go back, for love or money. I might just prefer two hours of pins in the eyeballs instead. This is what rankled me. I didn’t buy what he was selling. Theory, is pretty dry fare. If that man had sat down and condensed his story into a bite-sized account of what his faith means to him, and what it has cost him, I would have been much more convinced.
Dry facts, are just that, pretty dry. They are why stories in the Bible like Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones exist. We need real people stories to give flesh to experience. Empty facts mean very little. Their blandness pokes us in the eyes. Their righteousness is unimpressive because they are like that three inch thick chemistry text that you did not crack open until the exam because it was so damned boring.
Experience is never boring. I want to hear about those times the Holy Spirit quickened your senses and pricked your heart, made you change your attitude to your fellow man. I want to hear about how the Gospel burned within you like the men on the road to Emmaus and you didn’t know why. I want to know why the story has come to mean everything to you, and how you just KNOW it is true. You cannot explain but I can see it in your eyes.
There is for every believer, a history of faith. It is those points where God got your attention and taught you something, your thick-as-a-brick humanity notwithstanding. You got it in ways you could never capture in a textbook. You forget all about right-ness when you start babbling on about the renewing and inexplicable love of God that washed over your soul and made you into a different person.
What's your story? Like a good country song, it should break your heart open, but for all the right reasons. Why? Because God is the God of the living. (Matthew 22:32). The Bible says “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
That won’t be on the exam, but I know when you tell me your version of the story, whether or not it is true to you. That it is, makes all the difference in the world.
Can I get a witness? How about an AMEN? I do believe I’m going to testify.