Monday, March 2, 2009

Honesty is such a lonely word

Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.
Honesty is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you.
Billy Joel

Last year a colleague lost his job because his preaching was not honest. We can argue for a long time about what is and isn’t “honest preaching,” and many of his parishioners actually felt he got a bad deal. But in the end, he had to leave.

There were two problems. One was that he was taking his sermons from the internet. The second problem was that he was telling other people’s stories as if they were his own. He would tell a moving story about visiting someone who was facing a terrible crisis as if he had experienced it first hand, when actually he had only read about it.

Such a small change. Instead of saying, “Another pastor was counseling with . . .,” he said, “I was counseling with . . . .” The story would still work. It would still make the same point. What is it that makes a person feel that he or she has to be at the center of it in order for the illustration to be valid?

I have thought about this often as I have followed the aftermath of Governor Bobby Jindal’s speech last week. He told a story of being with a sheriff in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, as the sheriff argued with a government official about sending out rescue boats:

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office, I'd never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: "Well, I'm the Sheriff and if you don't like it you can come and arrest me!" I asked him: "Sheriff, what's got you so mad?" He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go, when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn't go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, "Sheriff, that's ridiculous." And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: "Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!" Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and go start rescuing people.

The problem, as you probably know, is that Mr. Jindal wasn’t there. The conversation with the sheriff is pure fiction. It did not take long for people to do some fact checking on the internet. Someone may have known the story was fiction before he finished the speech. While he was speaking folks were tapping and clicking their way to the truth.

What was he thinking? He could have told the story and let Sheriff Lee be the hero all by himself, but (apparently) he couldn’t resist putting himself at the center of the story.

Recently I had a lively argument with a friend about President Obama’s plans for economic recovery. We talked about everything from economic theory to New Testament ethics. But two things stand out in my memory.

First, he asked how we can have any confidence in a President who nominated tax evaders to his cabinet. Second, when the conversation went back through the Bush and Clinton presidencies, his bottom line on President Clinton was that he had lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Dishonesty undermines everything else.

We can argue about who is more dishonest, or which form of lying is worse. Those discussions matter and the differences are real. But the bottom line is that my friend is right, dishonesty undermines everything else.

Which brings me back to preaching. In the end, the most important thing is telling the truth. More than a century ago, Phillips Brooks said that preaching is “truth through personality.” He was right.

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