Sunday, April 17, 2005

Strange But True

I was struck by something a friend of mine said today, about how we ought to relate to those around us. He observed that people who are part of the church create language-barriers to communicating with people outside of the church, by using obscure code-words such as "witness" or "evangelism" or "mission" or "outreach", but that one of Jesus' favourite phrases was, "I tell you the truth..." - a phrase my friend had read a million times, simply as a somewhat strange way of starting sentences, perhaps as a way of sounding wise, but had suddenly read as the whole point: the medium and the message, if you like. Now, I can imagine that a lot of people who are part of the church might read that and say, "Well, obviously; where's the revelation in that?" - but if you do, I think you might be kidding yourself. "I tell you the truth" is a phrase worth reflecting on.

As I reflect on what was said, I recognise that language does create communication barriers as well as connections (a sort of built-in frustration that I guess originates at the Tower of Babel, if not before), and that we need to be aware of how we use it (for example, a lot of people I know refer to "Up-In-Out" to describe their relationships with God, other Christians, and 'everyone else'; this is helpful as a diagnostic tool to check whether our lives are balanced - do I have any meaningful relationships outside of the church? - but becomes supremely unhelpful when people start talking about "doing an Out"). Moreover, "truth" is itself a word that comes with all manner of baggage, and if we believe we have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and that others must agree with us whether they want to or not, I think we still end up in trouble when relating to those around us.

But I think the problem is not just our choice of words, but our understanding of the words we choose. For example, I would choose to define my "mission" as seeing God's life-giving kingdom breaking into a situation and driving back satan's death-bringing rule - defined simply by anything that brings life, rather than death, being on the increase. So, going back to the Up-In-Out diagnostic above, I'd include my participation in MakePovertyHistory, and my choices to recycle, use washable nappies on my children, and eat organic and fairly-traded food, as all being part of the Out dimension of relating to the world and the people of the world around me. But I know (and love, though I am often frustrated by) a lot of people who would define "mission" in a much narrower sense.

Knowing that I do not have the full picture, I still want to inspire others to make the choices I am making - to come along with me on my journey - by telling them the truth as I know it, and allowing them to make up their own minds, hopefully through finding out more about the issue in question for themselves, and not just because I say so. Again, for some of the people I know and love that smacks of relavatism ("what do you mean, as you know it? We know it in full!"); but I think it merely smacks of recognising that I know in part and see as if I were looking at my own reflection in a highly-polished shield of bronze (as opposed to a modern mirror...) - and yet I am not paralysed, unable to make decisions that lead to movement. As someone else said to me recently (in relation to something completely different), it's not what you know that counts, but who you know.

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