Together in Guidance

Who tells you the truth? Today’s lesson is about the importance of truth tellers. King David is at the peak of his powers. He is expanding the Israelite kingdom with each and every battle. And at his side is Nathan, his trusted prophet and adviser, who is confronting him with a reality he has blissfully compartmentalized.

One of David’s greatest warriors is Uriah. Uriah is not an Israelite, but a Hittite. And yet, he has thrown his lot in with King David. He is out in the battlefield when David spies Uriah’s wife Bathsheba and is immediately, lustfully taken with her. In Uriah’s absence, they have an affair, in which Bathsheba becomes pregnant.

That’s the moment when David elevates the deceit to new levels: he calls Uriah home and urges him to, um, “spend quality time in his wife’s company”. That way, Uriah will think that the child is his. But unlike David, Uriah is a man of integrity. He refuses to enjoy the, um, “comforts of home” while his soldiers suffer in the field. After several tries, David then changes tactics: he sends Uriah back to the front lines carrying his own death sentence. The army is to charge; as soon as Uriah does, though, the rest of the army is to fall back. Uriah is killed in battle.

Nathan sees all of this transpire and confronts David. From the lesson, we don’t have any idea if Nathan was eager to do this or was quaking in his sandals. What we do know is that Nathan masterfully allows David to condemn himself with the parable of the rich and powerful man stealing all the poor man has. David loses himself in the story, becoming outraged at this tale of injustice. “This man deserves to die for what he did,” David shouts. “Not only does he need to repay the man, but repay him several times over. There’s no two ways about it: what this man did was flat out wrong!”

And that’s when Nathan drops the bomb: “You have condemned yourself! God has blessed you with riches and power beyond your wildest imagination. Have you forgotten that you were the youngest child of a shepherd in Bethlehem? And now, at the height of your power, in the palace God has built for you, you do evil. You said so yourself!”

With all of the authority that David commands, he is still subject to God’s word. And he is still capable of listening to the words of truth from the mouth of the prophet.

So: who tells you the truth?

This, to me, is a crucial question in the world we live in. It is the odd irony of the internet age that while the world is far smaller than ever before, we are able to silo ourselves off from others, condemning ourselves to isolation in echo chambers where all we hear are the voices of those who agree with us. We can even choose how we receive our news based on what it is that we want to believe. What we have lost is our ability to hear the unvarnished truth, especially when it’s hard for us to swallow.

So: who is it that tells you the truth?

Let me be clear: I’m less interested in who it is you tell the truth to. In some ways, that’s the easier task. What’s more difficult, and more needful, is to humble yourself to let others tell you where you have gone off track. In short, each of us needs a Nathan to keep us honest.

One of the reasons I am drawn to this idea of truth tellers is that I am struck a lot these days by the question of where the Church is headed. What we know is that what used to work doesn’t work any more. What we also know is that nobody knows what the answer is, what will cure our ill. The truth is that we can’t simply rely on “what we’ve always done” to keep the doors open. And for some of us, that’s a terrifying, even threatening, truth.

We don’t need to look much further than right here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian to recognize this. On the one hand, I see signs of God truly at work in our midst. We are a healthy church, one of the healthiest I’ve ever seen, in terms of ability to work through challenges and chart a course forward. There are a lot of dysfunctional congregations out there, and we are not one of them. I also see, time and time again, a leadership team that is willing to wrestle with difficult questions and think creatively. We are halfway through a successful Capital Campaign that has allowed us to deal with some of the more pressing issues in our facility.

Financially speaking, we ended 2013 with a surplus for the first time in years. We are almost on course for doing so in 2014, and are aiming for the same in 2015. We are in the middle of a new members’ class, the largest group we have had in a couple of years. And we continue to support a number of critical ministries outside of this building with our time, energy, and money.

At the same time, our attendance and membership numbers have been on the slow decline since last century. Depending on whose rule of thumb you follow, our Sanctuary can accommodate somewhere between 290 and 330 people, a capacity we have exceeded exactly once in the last fifteen years. That is, one Sunday out of 800. In fourteen of the last fifteen years, our average attendance has been less than 50% of capacity.

These are sobering statistics. What we are facing, my friends, is what churches across the nation are facing. And depending on your point of view, that is either welcome or distressing news. And what I know about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is what gives me hope. There are congregations who see realities like this and circle the wagons, clinging desperately to what once was, reminiscing in the glory days of decades gone by. I don’t think I have ever experienced that here.

And therein lies my hope for us, that God is still at work, that Christ is still in our midst. I am confident that this is not a time for despair, but a time for creativity. It is a time to be a part of the solution, not the problem. It is a time to see that we have an opportunity, a ministry here, one that the world needs.

Let me put it this way: think about the public face of Christianity today, and see if it matches up to the way I would describe us: We are a church where critical thinking and abiding faith go hand in hand. We are a church that doesn’t think it’s enough to say what we believe, but want to live that out as well. We are a church that thrives on transparency in our decision making, our financial management, in our joys and in our challenges. Is it just possible that we have been blessed with the distinctive and wondrous gifts of the Spirit that are God’s for the sharing? Is it conceivable that our ministry is a healthy antidote to the Americanized Christianity of 2014?

In short, we live in a time that calls us to be together in the guidance we seek from beyond ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I issued a challenge, one that I reiterate today. I invited each of us to reach out to someone we would like to get to know better, someone beyond this church community. The purpose is straightforward: to find out what makes them tick, what it is that moves them, what they find of value. I suggested that we each do this before the end of October. If you’re keeping score at home, you’ve got about two weeks left.

And the reason for this is simple. We, in the church, need relationships that are beyond these walls. We need to hear voices outside of our echo chambers. Because when we do, as a community, we begin to have a sense of what it is that matters to the world around us and where it is that we can connect with those deeper values.

In other words, we can see these voices as the truth tellers we seek. What is it that they desire? What are the barriers we unknowingly construct to keep them out? And where are those prophets, those modern-day Nathans, willing to confront us with the things to which we are otherwise blind?

My prayer today is that we would allow our eyes to be opened, to welcome the opening of our hearts, our lives, and ourselves. In doing so, may we become open to the truth of God’s creative possibilities, calling us more fully into who we might be!