Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
All I keep thinking when I listen to the news is that someone is lying. If you don’t like President Trump, you may think he is lying. If you don’t like his enemies, you may think they are lying. We may find out who is lying, or we may not. The liars may be held accountable, or they may not. But here is the bottom line – the lies are having the impact they are meant to have: division, suspicion, and uncertainty.
We are all experiencing this. I did just the other day. I got a call from one of my best friends who was incensed over the “Democrats’” campaign to get rid of ICE. He is not a Trump fan, though he is a stalwart Republican, and his concern was that the Democrats’ position on ICE would drive people to re-elect Trump. We talked about it for a while, each piling on facts we may have heard, or more to the point, would have liked to have heard somewhere, and so, we’ll say them in the hope they are true, even if they are only rumors. That is what many of the conversations in this era of lies sound like.
I learned later that, while some Democrats are interested in shutting down ICE, the fervor that my friend was responding to was fueled by a Russian agency seeking to create disunity within our nation.
Lies sow seeds of doubt with the objective of stoking fear, creating chaos, and weakening relationships.
Jesus calls the devil, in the Gospel of John (John 8:44) “the father of lies.” Paul in this letter to the Ephesians we hear today implores us “to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:10). I’m not going to preach about the devil today, but I am going push back against the culture of lies that seems to so pollute our public discourse and weaken the fabric of our society.
To start I want to share with you my thoughts about character and how I believe, as we move further into the 21st century, character will become the dominant determinant upon which we make decisions about what we believe and what we do not believe. The character of the messenger matters, fundamentally, more than ever. Why? Because over the last thirty years, with the explosion of information and the Internet facts seem to have become a fungible commodity.
I’ll give you an example: Rheumatoid Arthritis. If you type Rheumatoid Arthritis in to your search engine, and then read all of the two million plus hits, by the time you are finished you will be more confused by the facts than when you started.
Now I believe in facts. I believe in objective truths. But I also know that with all this information, and the innumerable sources from which it comes, if one is not a complete expert in the field…well, it can be near impossible to discern what facts are real and what facts are fake.
The character of the messenger matters. People of character have a track record of telling the truth. They represent truth in all venues of their lives. They are people of constancy and self-control who speak truth even when it is unpopular.
It is important to remember that character is formed over time. You can’t just change your character in the same way you can pass out an updated fact sheet. Character is a potted plant, not a cut bouquet, and it is the role and responsibility, I believe, of the neighborhood church to be a place where character is considered and practiced and character assessment is taught.
This morning I’d like to consider four ways in which we assess the character of a person.
1. Ask if they know something of suffering.
2. Ask if they believe in God.
3. Look at their relationships to see what the balance is between their non-transactional and transactional relationships.
4. Finally, if you can ask them one question ask them to tell you about love.
I want to run through these four character considerations with you this morning to give a tool for making character assessments of the person bringing you the message. As we do so, I also invite you to reflect upon your own character in relationship to these four tools.
What do you know of suffering, and how that has impacted your character? How often do you let God be your decision-making reference point?Take stock of your relationships, and the balance between your non-transactional and your transactional relationships. And finally, it is always good to think of love. It is what makes the world go around… after all.
So let’s move forward, and begin with a look at suffering. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes: “Suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:3-5)
There is a lot being said in that Pauline sentence, but it all beings with suffering. Suffering is an incomparable state of being. When we consider the suffering of another, it is not an objective exercise, but rather a query into the person’s capacity to self-reflect and then connect. To know how one has suffered, (and everyone has suffered, everyone,) to know suffering, is to have access to empathy, both for yourself, and for others. Empathy connects us. A person of character is empathetic because they understand their own suffering and allows it to connect them with others. When assessing some one’s character ask yourself if they are connected to their own suffering.
The second point I feel is critical for assessing the character of a person is whether or not they believe in God. I know, right, he’s a priest, and that his thing, but let me at least say why this is important. To be accountable to God keeps a person from falling into the ditch of self-serving relativism. That is what happens when we follow our own moral compass. When north is me, that is not orienting direction for others…even if I tell myself that it is. In addition, belief in God assumes that the believer understands that God sees them, and God cares about who they are,and how they act, and how their actions impact others.
This question about belief in God reveals a person’s accountability to a force bigger than themselves that calls them to be transparent even when no one else is watching. That matters when assessing character. A belief in God will tell you much about a person’s character.
The third query in character assessment is looking at the balance between the person’s transactional and non-transactional relationships. Here is what I mean by that…a transactional relationship is one that a person engages in to get or achieve something. So, a teacher student relationship is transactional. Coach to player is transactional. Employee to employer is as well.
A marriage should be non-transactional, as should family relationships. Now that is not always true. Someone may marry someone for their money, and there are certainly parents who make their relationship with their children conditional. And in turn, deep friendship can develop between mentors and students, or employers and employees.
But the more non-transactional relationships you witness in a person’s life, the less erratic and impulsive they tend to be, because they have someone who just loves them for who they are not what they bring to the table. When assessing the character of a person, measure, to the best of your ability, the balance between their non-transactional and transactional relationships.
That is tool #3.
Tool #1 was suffering and empathy.
Tool #2 was a belief in God.
Tool #3 was the balance between non-transactional and transaction relationships.
And finally tool #4 is to ask, if you can, or wonder based on the information at hand, what they would say if you were to ask them to speak on love. What would that mean to them? How might they say it works? Where do they find it in their life? Their answers will tell you much about their character.
Love is both complicated and simple. But however deeply felt or clearly articulated, love makes the world go around. I believe as a Christian, that God made this world and bound it together with love. And I believe that God wove love into the very fabric of creation. And I believe that this vibrant love is an expression of God’s self; because our God is Triune; Father AND Son AND Holy Spirit. And so, at the core of our God is a relational God, bound by the substance of love. Love matters, and people of character know this.
And so, we have some tools for measuring the character of the messenger. It is my prayer that the character of a person matters more to you than the facts they spew or the promises they make. Because we know that facts can be twisted to meet self-interest, and promises can be easily broken by people who lack character.
Character comes first, and it will be more and more important as the tool we use to fight back against the lies that so pollute our national discourse at this time. People of character bridge divisions; they reduce suspicion; and they instill confidence rather than uncertainty. They strengthen relationship; bring about order; and drive out fear with love.
That is what we talk about here. It is what we teach here. And it is a significant way in which the neighborhood church brings hope to the world.