Truth Is a Person

As we make the Spiritual Exercises we ask for various graces. Recently I have been asking for the grace to admire people.

It started with a seemly simple assignment a couple weeks ago: List the people you admire, people you would like to imitate.

I had a hard time making that list. In fact, it took me a week to think of one person that I very conditionally admired and might want to imitate in certain aspects.

I could, however, quite easily list qualities that I admire, skills that I want to develop, and character traits I would like to emulate. That’s not what I’d been asked to list, but I figured it was something, so I started writing:

courageous, fierce, just
joyful, spontaneous, still
voiced, diligent, kind, gentle
nurturing, loving, blessing
patient, laughing
feeling emotions, open to God
generous, honest, humble
open to people, open with time

As I wrote “open to people” the Spirit nudged me:

“Embody, Helen –
not theory, never pure virtue –
‘I am the truth.’
Embody.”

“I am . . . the truth.”

Jesus’ claim shakes me.

It wouldn’t bother me if Jesus said, “I always tell the truth,” or “I live an honest life.” Those statements would fit my understanding of reality. But “I am the truth”?

I tend toward idealism. I don’t mean that I tend to set impossibly high standards (though I do that too). I mean I tend to think that ultimate reality is in ideas and thought, to value a concept above a person, and to think of truth and love as abstract.

Basically, I tend to think that there’s an ultimate standard of goodness that God conforms to and is, therefore, good.

In so doing, I idolize goodness; I idolize my understanding of goodness; I idolize my understanding.

Then Jesus steps in and says, “I am the truth.”

And my idol crumbles, vaporizes, vanishes in thin air. Truth is a person.

I am undone.

I want to love this person, admire this person, emulate this person. I want out of the idealized world where flesh and blood are shadows. I want to live in physical reality. I want to enter stories, not theories. I want to admire people, not ideas. I want to know Truth.

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in the middle

“What has been on your heart this week? What are your reflections on the materials from the week? or on this evening?”

Every eye in my small group was on me, waiting for me to speak. I started talking, meandering through the last couple weeks of life, Lent, and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. I began telling the story of what God has been revealing and changing. Then, in the middle of the story, I paused, my hands open.

The story was not finished, but I was. I didn’t know what came next because, whatever it was, it hadn’t happened yet. I was in the middle of the story, and I’m still in the middle of the story.

I’m uncomfortable being in the middle. I want to know how the story unfolds, and I want to know now. When I pick up a novel I read the first chapter, then the last chapter, then the rest of the book. I can’t enjoy the story unless I know how it ends; and, even then, I am frustrated by the suspense of a winding plot. I won’t go to bed for the night until I’ve reached a comfortable pause in the story. But life doesn’t work that way.

Years ago I sat up late one night, pouring out my heart to a friend. I was in the middle of a different story then, and I desperately wanted to resolve the problems and find the end. Sometime after midnight I stopped talking, exhausted.

“Helen,” my friend said, “you didn’t get here in a day, and you’re not going to find your way out in a day. Get some sleep. Eat. Do your homework. Live life. It’s going to take a long time to work through this story.”

I’ve remembered her words many times. She was right. I could have tried to figure out that story for three weeks straight and would have gotten nowhere. I had to live the rest of the story. I had to enter the twists and turns and suspense. I had to go to bed every night for years without knowing the end.

Now I am in another middle: the middle of Lent, the middle of the Spiritual Exercises, the middle of major decisions. As much as I would like to finish telling the story, I can’t. I just have to live it.

Good Works: created for me

American culture is largely utilitarian. As a people we are obsessed with productivity, usefulness and efficiency. This obsession extends to the way we think about people, including ourselves. “What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask a new acquaintance. “What have I done?” is the question we ask ourselves, the question on which we often hang our worth.

A local organization recently started a job training program. The program, like every other job training program I know of, has the goal of equipping people to be useful in the current economy (and be paid for being useful). We expect our high schools and colleges to do the same. There are tasks to be accomplished and positions to be filled. We want our schools to prepare young people to be useful, to take on those works.

As Christians we often expect our discipleship programs and Bible schools to do the same: to produce productive people. We might not be as concerned with the money making aspect of productivity, but we want to train people to be useful in the Kingdom, to do good works for the Kingdom.

We prepare people for good works.

When I was eleven years old, I memorized Ephesians 2:10 for Awana (think Evangelical version of the Scouts). Ostensibly, I memorized it so that I could, through hard work, reach the goal: “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.” Actually, I memorized it to look good, out-do my friends, and get enough points to buy rubber stamps. Those who designed the program anticipated my motives. They did, after all, invent Awana bucks.

All that to say, I memorized Ephesians 2:10 nearly 20 years ago. I’ve read and recited it hundreds of times since. And, until this week, I never heard the last phrase. In my mind, the verse—the universe—read this way: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus just so that we could do some of the good works on the long list of good works that God needs to get done.”

After all, I buy a vacuum cleaner because I need my carpets cleaned; I hire a plumber because I need someone to fix my clogged drain; I build a shelf because I need something to hold books. It makes sense that God would make me because he needs a Sunday school class taught, a child fed, or a room cleaned. When I was asked to consider who I am, who God made me to be, my question formed accordingly: What good works did God make me for?

This week, while engaging the First Principle and Foundation in the Spiritual Exercises of St.Ignatius of Loyola, I was asked to consider, once again, Ephesians 2:10. This time, in one disorienting moment, I saw what was written. Yes, God creates me for good works. But God creates those good works for me. Rather than having a list of good works and creating me to accomplish them, God creates me and forms good works that are suited to me. I am the primary creation, the good works secondary.

When interacting a child, I often prepare a task particularly suited to the interests and abilities of the child. I might suggest baking cookies or making cards. I might invite the child to help me rake the yard. I might give the child a puzzle to solve. In every case I think about the child and prepare the good works accordingly. Whether the child is useful or efficient does not cross my mind. I want to see the child enjoy her work. I want to build a relationship with the child as we work together. I want to encourage a child to grow in his confidence. Could it be that God’s love and care for me is greater even than mine for children?

A few months ago I was talking with a friend about her vocation to full-time ministry. One portion of her story has remained in my heart, a foretaste of this week’s reorientation.

She talked about being called to enter full-time ministry, exploring options, and sensing that the work she was called to did not yet exist. She did other things for a few years. Eventually she sensed God saying, “Now.” She quit her job and started walking through open door after open door. Soon she was in full-time ministry, a ministry perfectly suited to her, and that didn’t exist until God said “Now.”

I ponder these things: my reading of Ephesians, the way I prepare works for children, the way God prepared good works for my friend. God, it seems, is not utilitarian. He’s more interested in relationship with me than in making me productive.  My earlier question, I see now, is the wrong one. As I consider who I am, the real question is not What good works did God make me for? The real question is Who has God made me to be? What talents, desires, gifts, skills, and story has God given me? Where in time and space has God placed me?

What good works has God made for me?