Beyond the Talking Points: Of Fake News and Real. . .ly Annoying News

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There is a fascinating line in John’s gospel that is often overlooked.  Jesus is on trial before Pilate, the politically weak governor of Judea.  Jesus was brought to him by a group of religious fanatics with no real data or evidence, just blind rage with a petty accusation.  Pilate is all questions, just trying to get a hold on the situation.

Jesus replies, “For this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37 CEB)

This vague theological statement is par for the course for Jesus.

But Pilate gets the million dollar question, the question we all are asking, “What is truth?”

This is my question as a pastor in today’s world.  “What is truth?” and I am as equally frustrated as Pilate that Jesus doesn’t give me an easy answer.

Over the last three weeks I have been reading all the articles about the fake news which saturated our feeds over the last several months.  My favorite is this one put out by NPR about a liberal who writes fake news articles that attack liberals because he enjoys how quickly conservatives will spread lies.

And those lies have spread quickly.  Over the last several months, completely false articles were shared more times on Twitter and Facebook than real news.  Over the last year fake news sites have grown exponentially and they are now a legitimate economic market.  People are becoming rich by spreading lies on the internet.  Some days I hate having integrity.

If it all stayed on the internet I would probably be okay with it.  In fact, I most certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post.  However, those lies have spread into my congregation and into my friendship groups.  They’ve even spread into my family.  Everywhere I go someone says, “I heard somewhere that.  .  .” followed by a completely unverified piece of data.

I would correct people on how wrong they are but there is no use to it.  After all in a world saturated by lies, I am not even sure if I know what is correct.  And the last thing anybody wants is a smart phone stand off where our thumbs quickly search to verify opinions as we argue about which websites are authoritative.

“Fox News said.  .  .”

“You can’t believe anything they say!  They’re conservative.”

“Well Huffington Post says,”

“Huffington Post?!  Really, Huffington Post?!?!?!  They are a glorified dorm room blog!?”

“Well The New York Times,”

“I can’t believe you would even bring them up!  You lousy liberal!”

Nobody is friends after such a conversation.  Nobody is even Christian after that.

The problem isn’t just fake news.  There is also the problem that now more than ever people are claiming the “real” news’ sites are hopelessly compromised.  I saw a conversation the other day where someone cited “Snopes” and was quickly dismissed with “Snopes is getting everything wrong now too.”

It seems we have successfully created a world where no one can be trusted.

This has crept into my sermons as well.  I now step out of the pulpit every Sunday morning wondering that if some datum was attacked if I’d even be able to defend it.  There is always another way to interpret a passage, always another theory left out, always another resource to double check and as is commonly held to be true in my profession, “The next Sunday is always 3 days away!”

In such dilemmas, historical perspective has always helped.  After all Mark Twain noted in the mid 19th century, “A lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Only Mark Twain didn’t say that.  After all it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”  I read that on the internet.

Putting fake quotes aside, for centuries, even millennia, lies spread around the world with no help from the internet.  Let us not forget the earth was once almost certainly flat and the best way to heal people was to bleed them slowly but surely.  Even John Wesley, the great patriarch of my tradition, published a book of home remedies that weren’t exactly remedial.  He was one of the great fake news anchors of his generation.  His brother Charles Wesley also embarrassingly and wrongly predicted the end of the world.

So fake news isn’t new.  Lies have been spreading faster than the truth for millennium.

That is of no comfort to me.  The fact that we have never been good at “truth” doesn’t help me when I have to get up and preach a sermon once a week that is supposedly “true” but which even I can tear apart with relative ease.

With poor Pontius Pilate, I ask, “What is truth?”  If I can’t trust anything I am hearing and have huge qualms even about what I am sharing and saying, how can I pastor with any sort of integrity?  What is truth?

Luckily the good gospel has all ready answered the question.  Truth has actually come up in John’s gospel several times before chapter 18 but nowhere more prominently than in Jesus’ famous declaration to weeping sisters, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

For us Christians, truth is not a datum or an article or a fact and it certainly isn’t a book.  Truth is a person.

What is truth?  “Well Pilate, I am the truth.”  Truth is a personality.

When I get up to preach or sit down to write or even engage in conversations I am way more concerned with proclaiming a person than I am with facts or data.

If this is “true” than our obsession with data and articles and how true or false they are may be idolatrous.  We may be more obsessed with facts than with Jesus and if that is true repentance is needed, not fact checks.  This is a repentance that seeks to serve the true God of humility while rejecting the serve of fact checks which serve our pride.

At the very least that is what I am going to tell myself next time someone fact checks me.

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Feeding Toddlers, Feeding Church People

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My kids do this thing that I think all children do.

My wife and I are like most parents.  We want our children to receive good nutrition and to receive it often.  We balance out their meals with fruits, vegetables, meat and grains.  Regularly we place this well balanced smorgasbord of great proteins, carbs and sugars in front of them.

My children do a great job of picking through the options, eating their favorites of that day.  The fruit usually disappears first.  After that the cheese.  Then, if they are in a growth spurt, the meat and grain.  If not they are usually done.  Some days they don’t eat much at all because they really aren’t hungry.

But other days they look up at my wife and I, with plenty of food still on the plate, and say, “I am still hungry.”

“Well then eat your ham.”

They look at us awkwardly.

“I don’t very much like ham.  I was planning on more grapes.”  Or applesauce, or oatmeal or something else completely random.

As it turns out, in toddler terms, “I am still hungry” does not mean, “you are not feeding me.”  It means, “you are not feeding me what I want.”

Church people do this thing that all people do.

I am like most pastors.  We want our congregation to receive great spiritual nourishment.  We want their lives to be drenched in the Scriptures.  We want their love to overflow to the least and lonely.  We want their trust in Jesus to be commendable, the faith worthy of the saints!  We want their hope to be encouraging, conquering and casting out the worst of fear.

So we pastors work hard to balance out their spiritual plate with outreach events, discipleship groups, book studies, engaging worship services, and just plain fun get together’s.

They do a great job of picking through their favorites, going to what they want to go to and participating where they want.  But then they look at the rest of our ministries and tell us, “I am not being fed.”

To most church people this sounds like a brilliant critique.  After all it is biblical, stemming from John 21 where Jesus tells Peter three times, “Feed my sheep/lambs.”

They think that the pastoral job is Peter’s job, to make sure that the good church people are “fed.”  They think they can get away with insulting our work if they use the metaphor that Jesus did.  “Jesus said you should feed me and I am not being fed.”  That is code for, “You are failing Jesus.”

They are right that Jesus’ command to Peter was not just for Peter.  What they get wrong is that Jesus’ command to Peter was for everybody who calls themselves a “church person.”  After all, the church’s mission is the apostolic mission and the apostolic mission extends to the “sheep that are not of this fold.”  (see John 10:16).   When Jesus told Peter to feed the sheep, he was talking to the entire church, laity and clergy alike to feed the world and nourish them into the Spirit’s presence.

In light of that, I wonder if those who are “still hungry” are so because they have a full plate in front of them, a plate full of ministry and service opportunities that give spiritual food to both the giver and receiver.  But they don’t realize it because that food looks like green beans.  And they are not very hungry for green beans.

In their lingo, “I am not being fed” doesn’t really mean, “I am hungry.”  It means, “I don’t like the food that you are offering.”

Just a thought for a winter’s Sunday afternoon.

Blessings on the week ahead.  May God give you the food you need to feed others.

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Fight or Flight or Follow

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Well we are nearing the end of Holy Week and that means we are getting to the good stuff.  Today we commemorate the Last Supper and the new command Jesus gave to “love one another.”  Tomorrow we end up at the cross and who knows what might happen on Sunday morning? (I know, but it isn’t as much fun if you admit it.)

But no matter what the weekend holds, today we eat of the bread and drink of the cup with Jesus.  Some of us may even wash a foot or two.

All of this is to remind ourselves that Holy Week is ultimately about love.  “Maundy” means “commandment” or “mandate” and “Mandate Thursday” is about the new commandment recorded in John 3:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another.”

Whatever else happens this weekend, we remember that as Christ followers, we are following love wherever love may go.

Most of us know that the disciples followed Jesus out of the upper room and into the garden of Gethsemane but there the following ended.  When guards showed up to arrest Jesus, they chose not to follow but to flee.

Mark focuses on two particular disciples.  The first fights.  He draws a sword and uses it to cut off the ear of a guard.  The second flees and in so doing ends up naked.

Both the zealous swordsman and the naked runner represent ways that we betray love.  The zealous swordsman, presumably clinging to his hope of a military Messiah, refuses to see Jesus for who Jesus is.  By taking up arms and lashing out for the sake of power, he rejects love, choosing might instead.  He does not deny himself but seeks to save himself or, worse, save God with his sword.

The naked runner too betrays love, by fleeing from it.  He is also seeking to save himself but his legs are his sword, the means by which he escape the consequences of love.

As we recommit ourselves today to this new mandate to love one another, I wonder about the ways we still betray love.  I think we forget that sometimes love has negative consequences.

In today’s world “love” poorly defined has become the way we try to solve all the problems.  I hear social activists, politicians, celebrities and, yes, even pastors claiming that if we just love people enough suddenly violence will end, addicts will become sober, the attendance of all Christian churches in America will double, unicorns will sprout from the ground and the federal budget will get balanced.

I wonder what will happen to those types when instead of unicorns, guards sprout up to arrest us.  Will we then betray love by drawing a sword?  Or will we flee from the scene naked?

For this reason, I am always a little bit frustrated when people suggest the best evangelism strategy is love.  They mean well and I am all about practicing compassion, but we don’t practice compassion to double our attendance.  Love is not a means to another end.  Love is the end, the telos, the goal for which we strive.

This side of eternity true love does not reward us but instead has consequences.  When we love the world, the world will hate us back.  When we show compassion to one person, someone else is going to jeer, “What worth are they?  You are sinning by loving them!”  All of our motives will be called into question and we may even be arrested just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When we love truly, we should not expect unicorns and swords but rejection, humiliation and crosses.

Therefore, the words of Jesus in John 15, after the “new commandment” are all the more important, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

As we follow love out of the upper room and into the garden, may we not fight or flee but follow, not for any other goal but to be completely enraptured in the love of our God.  And may our tombs be emptied on Sunday morning as we embrace the new life of love.