Speaking the truth

Posted by brianmaas in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

One of the challenges I’ve always struggled with is healthy confrontation. Like too many pastors, my own desire to be liked has blunted my willingness to be honest, direct or prophetic. I have grown over time, but I know I have a long way to go. I frequently grow frustrated with myself, but I grow frustrated with all of us as “church” as well. One of our greatest challenges is speaking the truth, especially to one another.


I’ve heard people ask, “How do we speak the truth in love?” I think the more important question is simply “Will we speak the truth in love?” We live in an era when we are able to celebrate growing tolerance–an enormous step forward. Yet we too often confuse tolerance with “anything goes.” It really is true that “good fences make good neighbors”–not because they keep people out but because they help maintain clear boundaries. Clear boundaries are helpful, appropriate and necessary to healthy human relationships.

In a community like the church, built on relationships through the shared relationship with Jesus Christ, those boundaries are no less important. Confessing the faith means assenting together to shared expressions of belief, shared norms of behavior, shared mores and practices and stories. Each of the things we share brings with it the task of holding one another accountable, and of speaking honestly when we believe boundaries have been crossed.

We won’t all agree on where those boundaries lie all the time. But unless we’re willing to talk about them, we’re not being faithful to our call or responsible to our relationships. As Lutheran Christians, living in the tension between two different points is as natural as breathing. We shouldn’t be uncomfortable living in relationship with someone with who we have a disagreement–or honestly naming and living into the shared tension of that disagreement.

Yet too often, we find accountability offensive. We find ways to excuse our own behaviors or boundary violations, and/or to criticize those who would dare to name them. We ignore limits and expectations we’ve agreed to, declaring our situations exceptional or dismissing those shared expectations as immaterial.

In the parish, I heard comments like, “we can’t expect people to come to the church more than once a week,” or “setting expectations for confirmation turns people off,” or “we have to make it as convenient as we can to get people involved.” We need to take such concerns into consideration, but those can’t be our sole considerations. The Gospel asks us to die to ourselves and to the secondary demands of the world around us for the sake of growing deeper in faith and stronger in discipleship. How can we pretend there’s any integrity, power or worth to that proclamation if we’re too timid to ask people to choose involvement in the Body of Christ over another activity?

In my current position, I hear things like “we’ve got to stop talking theology and doing mission.” And I wonder–speaking the truth in love–whether we don’t instead need to stop talking mission and start doing theology. An artificial division between one and the other violates the definitions of both–mere talk isn’t truly theology, and mission not rooted in theology is just activity.

These are two small examples; there must be thousands. How do you feel we need to hold one another accountable? What is it that you would like to be able to say in your ministry setting in order to “speak the truth in love”?

12 Responses to Speaking the truth

  1. Andrew Chavanak says:

    Thank you for this reflection. I agree that the perceived dichotomy between theology and mission is really unhelpful, because we know that each informs the other in ways that are truly indispensable. How often have we heard stories of people whose work in mission has profoundly shaped their view of God and what it means to be a disciple of Christ? How many people who have had the benefit of vibrant teaching and preaching about who God is have found themselves inspired to embrace God’s mission and carry it out in their daily lives? This is the same sort of dynamic that (hopefully) plays out in worship, which forms a community that is continually being gathered and sent. I pray that our congregations (and the church at large) continue to find new meaning as we dwell in the many paradoxes that are so integral to the life of faith!

  2. John Bacus says:

    Thank you, Bishop. Mission and Theology should never be divided from one another, or (worse yet) set against one another.

  3. Vickie Olsen says:

    I would like to know if active homosexuality is a sin. I would like to have direction from a religious leader and not just the platitude, “follow your own conscience”. The reason I would like an answer is: If it is a sin, and we are to repent of our sins (turn around) how can an active homosexual pastor take communion every Sunday and still be a good leader for his congregation. Am I being a “pharisee ” and rule oriented when I feel that we should not have active homosexual pastors or am I defending the faith and putting standards to our behavior. How do we know where to take a stand when we know “God’s Grace” does abound and Jesus did go to all people? I question whether I have the true love for people, as Jesus did, when I feel this way. Am I just shallow and old fashioned and hanging on to what is comfortable for me?

    • brianmaas says:

      Vickie: you’re asking all the right questions–because you’re willing to question yourself. I don’t think people who honestly struggle and question themselves are in any way “shallow.” I am grateful to have been formed by a tradition that doesn’t claim to have all the answers but is persistent in asking questions, and comfortable living in the tension that arises when those questions provoke different responses.
      I too would like to “know” not only about matters of sexuality but a host of other elements of the human realm. I long for the day when Paul’s promise is fulfilled: “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Honesty if not humility compels me to admit that there is much I do not “know,” but that I believe and trust. For me, the most important part of Paul’s promise isn’t that someday I will get to know fully, but that now I am “fully known.” God’s full knowledge of me, and my knowledge of others–that relationship–trumps the certainty that too often passes for knowledge in our polarized world.
      The truth is, Vickie, I can’t tell you how to engage this matter. Faithful, earnest, brilliant, humble people have studied, prayed and been in unending conversation and yet come out at different places.
      While “follow your conscience” might sound like a cop-out, it’s really an expression of confidence that you, surrounded by a community of faith, engaged in study, prayer and conversation, will come to a right understanding that will guide your words and actions. And that understanding may change over time.
      As we persistently disagree with one another and persistently go to the Table of Grace together, one or the other of us may change our attitude, opinion or behavior. Consider matters of slavery, divorce, the role of women leaders in the church and other previously divisive issues. Those matters changed–many others didn’t, in spite of intense work. But change happened–or didn’t–only because people spoke the truth in love to one another, and let love hold them together when their utterances of truth drove them apart.
      I hear your desire for a specific answer. I want certainty too. But I remember the only time in history that we really managed to nail God down. And I repent of that daily, living in the ambiguity of life until the Kingdom comes.
      Thank you for your honesty and for your struggle.

      • Tobi White says:

        I appreciate the permission to change. Not only does the mission field continue to change, but the ways in which we respond to the needs of the world, the ways in which we respond to the Truth of Scripture, the ways in which we respond to the challenges of sin and repentance also change as we, ourselves, change. I know it’s a ‘four-letter word’ for most people, but change is perhaps the most grace-oriented word we have. It allows each of us the opportunity–the PERMISSION–to repent, to turn, and then to turn again and again as we grow, listen, and are re-oriented to God’s Word of love.

  4. Good words, Bishop Brian. Theos – God; logos – word: theology = talk about God. Theology is by definition missional. So here’s another tilt of the kaleidoscope. Lots of folks I know are doing mission, but they’re not putting it into words. It could be that they don’t see what they’re doing in their vocations or volunteer time or child-rearing or parent-caring hours as missional or based in their faith, or maybe they do; but for whatever reason they don’t talk about it. So perhaps helping ordinary sinners and saints redefine what they’re doing is a valid focus for church leaders. If we preached what we practice, we might be better equipped to lovingly speak to ourselves and one another about our boundaries, and to confront our low expectations.

  5. :auren Muratore says:

    PREACH! And as one who will be writing an approval essay on the “missional church”, thanks for a great quotation: “Doing theology”- awesome.

  6. Jan Christensen says:

    Brian, you loaned me a set of books to read on a daily basis and on the same day as your post here, one of the readings I was reading that day was Ezekiel 1:28-3:3. What an interesting coincidence? “…open your mouth, and eat what I give you.” …”Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.”

    Aren’t we all struggling with being acceptable to each other and acceptable to God?

    If we stand before a mirror and look at ourselves, what do we see?
    Do we just see only our sin or do we see a human being looking back at us (granted with our share of flaws)?
    Do you see your own gifts in your reflection?

    Now stand in the mirror next to a gay, lesbian, transgender, or “other” (female, poor, black, etc.) person.
    Do you see their _humanity_ or do you just see their “sin?” Who has the right to say what they were born with or what they “choose?” If I decide to say they “chose” their gender, or eye color, or skin color, then does it make it righteous for me to judge them as being sinful, or more sinful than I? To deny them the love and companionship I might reserve for myself?

    If I judge them, isn’t that sin looking back at me in the mirror from my own face? If I fail to see the fullness of their humanity or don’t give them a chance to show their gifts, have I failed at Jesus’ request, nay command, that we “Love God and Love One Another?” And wouldn’t that be a sin? So whose sin is greater?

    I would rather err on the side of understanding & appreciating the fullness of someone’s humanity, than to make their life more hellish by my disapproval and shunning — especially when Grace is for God to decide.

  7. Jonathan Jensen says:

    Continual re-centering complements the task of boundary and limit setting. A boundary pushed too far creates a condition of being “off-centered.” We are centered in the cross and empty tomb. Earnest dialog informs us, but the cross and empty tomb define us. From our center we are also positioned to better discern the work of the Holy Spirit so that, like the early church which saw the Spirit validating the Gentile Christian communities about which they had so many doctrinal questions, we might be able to discern that the Spirit is at work through, for instance, a practicing homosexual pastor who has brought people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

  8. Sarah Cordray says:

    Thank you Bishop Brian and others for your thought-provoking insights and “speaking the truth in love” through questions, struggles, and centering of Jesus Christ and the Spirit. I so enjoyed our synod’s phrase, “We do mission,” but I’ve come to however wish we would have spoken differently because I feel we did build a dichotomy between theology and mission. What if we said instead, “We are mission, therefore we do mission.” We are made in the image of our Triune God who draws us into community with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this gathered community we receive God’s mission of grace, forgiveness, and our purpose to live out this image. Just as the Father sent the Son…the Son sent the Spirit, etc. we in the image of our Triune God are sent people. We ARE missional people by our very nature. We do theology–talk God–because we discover our center in Christ who through the cross and resurrection brought us into community. As God’s missional people, we therefore go out and engage with God’s activity in the world. God is the agent and we are the proclaimers who have the missional purpose of naming God’s presence. Talking about God-doing theology will inevitably move us by the Spirit to living out our missional identity…we cannot help ourselves because the Spirit moves! We are Mission, therefore we do mission!

  9. Joel Schroeder says:

    Thank you all for sharing. Can mission and theology just get married? I’m wondering about words. “missionology?” or “theomission?” But then theomission looks too much like the-omission. And confession takes over or at least another question. And I think of my “better half” when the world tries to pull us apart.

  10. Ashley Hall says:

    This was yet another very fine reflection. Thank you, Bishop Maas. I would only echo that theology and mission meet in Word and Sacrament. When we focus on either a theology (whether academic or spirituality) and/or a mission (that seeks to do justice) that is not tightly bound to the use and means of grace by which we encounter the person and work of Christ, we’ve lost before we’ve started. Said another way, if all the challenges we face are not first and repeatedly informed by a knowledge of Christ and his benefits, our theology and mission are no longer focused on Christ and his Church; we might as well be any other charitable group, e.g.,the Rotarians or the Elks Club (no offense against these groups but I hope you see my point). Only the Gospel — proclaimed and made tangible in water, bread and wine, absolution and reconciliation — will prosper our theology and mission.

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