Text: John 8: 31-32
Then Jesus said; “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
Language is such an interesting thing. A few years ago Heidi and I traveled to Italy and other parts of the UK and noticed again there is a bit of a language gap among many of the people in Europe and people here in the US. While we were there, we learned a few new words to add to our limited UK vocabulary. We already knew a few words that were different from having traveled in England before; for example we knew they called an elevator a lift and when you stand in line for something you que up. I also knew that if you had to use a rest room you went to the lieu and they called a flashlight a torch. While we were visiting we learned a few more words that were fun; we learned that often they called a truck a lorry that I would call a semi. One day we were talking with some locals about traveling overseas and the subject of Japan came up; I said I had never been, but would maybe like to go someday. Then they asked if you had to have any special jabs to go to Japan; that was their word for shots – jabs; pretty descriptive, if you ask me. They also spoke of swimming in the hotel pools and how the chlorine was hard on their costumes – what we would call swim suits or bathing suits. Even though we all spoke English, at times there was still a communication gap.
Imagine then, how difficult it is to translate something from an ancient text into modern English and have the meaning of the text come through. I would suspect it is very difficult and not always very successful. I’m thinking this may be true for the text that I just read a few minutes ago. Jesus speaks of the truth – like it is an object or a physical item that can be held in your hand and studied. This word truth can be very slippery and I’m not certain what Jesus or John meant when they spoke or wrote about truth.
In almost every case, I think the word truth would be better when prefaced with a personal pronoun like my truth, or your truth, or even the collective our truth. Truth is very personal and depends entirely upon your experience and perception of the world. But even what our eyes tell us sometimes can be incorrect; at least from a certain point of view.
Consider this perspective of truth that comes from the best selling author, Neale Donald Walsch in his book “Home With God.” THE truth does not exist as an objective reality. Perspective creates perception, and perception creates experience. The experience that perception creates for you is what you call ‘truth.’
What this is saying, I think, is that our truth is what we experience it to be. In many cases the experience is collective, that is it is experienced by all of us all of the time and becomes what some would consider being an absolute truth. Gravity, for example, could be an absolute truth because we all experience it all the time. At least until we invented space travel; once we discovered areas in the universe where gravity is not, our perspective and understanding of this truth had to change.
Truth is also subject to what our brains can comprehend. Our brains are limited to what we have been exposed to or told about or things that make sense to us. If something happens that goes beyond what our brains can process, the truth will be altered to fit what we are able to perceive.
One example of this, which I experienced personally still doesn’t make sense to me today. But I know what my truth is, and the truth of those who were with me when it happened, so we have a collective truth, but our comprehension of what that truth actually was is limited. I believe we only have a partial truth and the balance of the truth is left for our brains to fill in.
So, here is what took place; this is my literal truth. When I was growing up in Iowa, one of the toys we had around the house for many years was an old 1946 Willys Jeep. This Jeep burned equal parts of oil and gasoline, but stayed functional for many years. One of our favorite pastimes when there was a raging snowstorm was to go cruising around town in the Jeep. This was an open air event, so you had to be bundled up, and the later in the night it was, the better it was.
On this particular evening, the snowstorm was a pretty good one and they had already called off school for the next day, so I was free to stay up as late as I wanted. Around midnight or perhaps a little later, a group of 4 of us decided to go cruising around town in the Jeep. I was there, my brother was there and two cousins that were about the same age as my older brother, Bruce – which made me the youngest of the group. I’m thinking I was in my early teens, probably 13 or 14, but not any older than that.
So we all piled into the Jeep and took off. When it is late in a small town and there is a raging blizzard going on, you generally have the streets to yourself-and of course, that is half the fun. We went in search of giant snowdrifts and steep hills and cruised around town for an hour or so. By then we were cold and wet and ready to come home. We parked the Jeep in the backyard and headed for our back door, but we paused for a minute to throw a few snowballs. It was now about 1:30 AM or close to that time.
As we were throwing our snowballs, the sky lit up from horizon to horizon; not just a bright light, but the whole sky lit up. It was red and then it went out, and then it was green and then it went out, and then it was blue and then it went out. It did that three times, in the same order-illuminating the sky from horizon to horizon and then it was gone. To this day, none of us know what it was that lit the sky up that night in that weird way.
Can you begin to appreciate how elusive this thing we call truth is? Neale Donald Walsch told us that truth depends on perception and experience. So what was our truth? What was the source of the lights? Had we experienced something ordinary made special by the snowstorm, or had we experienced something extraordinary? These are the kinds of questions that will drive you crazy – and in my case it is a pretty short drive. The truth is there somewhere, but our experience and perceptions only yield a partial truth.
You see, our world is full of false positives. We experience things that are not true all the time and we learn to compensate through language, through understanding and through experience. Let me give you some examples of what I mean. We talk all the time about a sunrise and a sunset; even though we all know that is not true-the sun never moves-we experience the sun moving and so this false experience becomes a truth that everyone accepts and talks about. When you say sunrise or sunset everyone knows what you are talking about, even though it is not true. There are other examples where our perception and our experience deceive us. Consider a table for example; we all know that a table top surface is solid and will hold something up if we place it there. This table has no problem supporting my Bible, for example. That is our perception and our experience and it becomes truth.
Except that it isn’t true. This table is mostly empty space and if it were not for the alignment of the molecules and the opposite polarity of the charges of the electrons of the table and my Bible, the Bible would fall right through this table. But it doesn’t, and we can’t see the molecular structure, and our perception is that the table is solid so we accept the solid table as truth; even though it is not truth.
Consider the creation stories that are recorded in the first two chapters of Genesis. Yes, I said stories in the plural, there is more than one and they are quite different if you read them both and compare notes; something that Creationists don’t like to talk about. But I digress-in the creation stories you find reference to some things we now understand to be very different, but you can clearly see how the truth of the story was created from perception and experience, rather than from some higher absolute truth.
For example, the story tells us that God created a great dome and placed it over the earth. Well if you have ever been on the plains during a very clear day and have gazed from horizon to horizon, the idea of a dome is very evident – it is understandable-but it isn’t true. But for generations it was considered true or truth. The creation story also tells us that God placed two great lights in the sky, one to rule by day and the other to rule by night; this may be splitting hairs, but the moon is not a light, it only reflects light. We experience the moon as a light, people talk about moonlight all the time like it really exists, but it doesn’t. Moonlight is reflected sunlight. But it doesn’t matter what it is – when we poetically speak of the grandeur of the Snake River bathed in moonlight, everyone knows what we mean and can conjure up a mental image of what we are talking about. So is the truth of that description of the Snake River the mental image or the facts regarding the light? I prefer to think of the truth as being the mental image.
Which brings me back to our scripture this morning; far too often this scripture is lifted up as a reason to oppress and confine people to a particular set of beliefs. Truth is what I tell you it is and nothing more and nothing less – is how some approach this text. Consider your personal experience of God as truth; there was a time in your life, I’m quite certain that you felt close to or felt the presence of a creator or higher power; you felt close to God. That experience may have been at church camp, it may have been in church, it may have been fishing on the Snake River bathed in moonlight. Your experience of God is your truth about God and it is a mistake to pursue a truth that does not match your experience. It only leads to resentment, confusion and ultimately a loss of faith. And so when you discover the truth; when you discover your truth – that truth will set you free. There is great freedom in believing what matches your experience and your perception and allowing others to believe what matches their experience. That is the truth that will set you free.
This is our great asset as United Methodists, we offer each individual the opportunity to create a truth which matches their unique perspective and their unique experience. Some believe that a truth must be the same for everyone or else it isn’t true-but a truth that must be the same for everyone, at least in my mind, is not setting you free, it is confining you to only a single perspective. So from a certain perspective, in order for this scripture to be true, you must retain the ability to have individual truths and individual realities, if the truth is indeed going to set you free.
And that, I believe, is food for thought.
Go in peace, go with God and go find your truth. Amen.