Honest to God! That’s the title of a 1963 book by then pretty radical Bishop JAT Robinson… He was encouraging church folks back then to stop all their religious posturing to ‘get real!’ with God! The Church of 1960s Britain was full of all sorts of religiosity: traditional rules and & traditions! …and we’re not so different. While lots has changed, it’s still as if we can’t help ourselves. We have the beautiful and profound simplicity of the Gospel which is all about us being released to know who we are in Christ and what that means… but we can’t just leave it at that! And so we embellish it! We add on so much to who and what Christ does, that we risk losing our Gospel selves, allowing ourselves to be all tied up in what we’ve embellished!
And so, that’s what JAT Robinson wrote his book, calling the church back to a place of deepest honesty. Willing to appear unmasked! Vulnerable![i] And THAT (Psalm 25 models for us) is the only truly authentic posture for us to take before Our God! But that’s difficult for us! We don’t like being empty-handed – we avoid that degree of vulnerability! We like to have some sense of entitlement before we receive anything from anyone – we like to feel we earn stuff. ‘You shouldn’t have’, we may say, if we receive anything we don’t really believe we deserve!
And so, coming before God, being the recipient of unlimited eternal grace it’s like we want to know how we can better earn it/deserve it. Is that partly why we develop all these elaborate religious systems – to help us feel at least a little more entitled to be in the presence of God’s holiness! I mean, seriously? As if we could ever actually earn any of this!!!
But what does God actually want of us? Surely, it’s just to be real![ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke about the need for us only ever to approach the Holiness of God with ‘the view from underneath’ describing the fear and trembling of us knowing our weaknesses and yet prepared to go there, because we know that it’s not ourselves but on GOD that we rely! It’s GOD’S strength! GOD’S faithfulness! NOT OURS! There’s nothing that I can do to earn any of this!
There is SUCH a liberation here: for all of us! It means that we can all actually just stop pretending to be anything other than what we truly actually are! The Gospel of Christ urges us just to let it go falling upwards into who Christ has made us to be!
All of ‘this’, then, to be pared back to the necessary vulnerability to which we are all called. This is the attitude, the posture, the liberating, but profound humility with which we are to come! It’s not about the defensive productivity that the world insists from us so much as honest, open-hearted/open-handed receptivity …vulnerability! This is the honesty we must bring – every time we gather – no pretending, just allowing God’s own Holiness free to investigate and convict and release and train and empower.
Yet, what most of us like to project, is actually not real! We’ve learnt not to be too real! We’ve learnt to be masked/ guarded, careful… Always to pretend to be better than we actually are…
It’s not that we are fake exactly, just that we believe it’s not safe for us to be as honest as we could be! Seriously. Most of us live with fear: for some it’s deep down, for others it’s more obviously! Or with bitterness. Or resentment! Disappointment. Sadness. Grief. Regrets. Guilt. Perhaps it’s because we’ve hurt others, or been hurt. Or overlooked. Or disrespected. Perhaps we’ve had relationship breakdowns… Perhaps we’ve been disillusioned, even by loved ones.
The point is that all of us are carrying stuff that we may be quite unable to let go. Psalm 25 models how we are given to respond to it all! Beginning with the outward praising of God!
This is us as we want to be, and to be seen by others – happy, counting our blessings… To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; but then, it’s almost as if that psalmists can’t help themselves, becoming very real! Hear as they pray‘…but please…do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
Hear that honesty? It’s us praying ‘Dear God, …Please look after me! Please… do something about those who are trying to do me in! Come on, Lord! I need some help! Smack those who are trying to smack me!” Take away my competitors, all those people who don’t like me… Or whomever I may feel threatened by… When’s the last time you prayed a prayer so honest? That’s what Will Willemon asks in his commentary on this text! We’ve all prayed prayers like that he says– not out loud, perhaps, but in the secret places of our hearts. And if you haven’t ever prayed such a prayer, then you’ve never been desperate or the victim of another’s injustice or so weak and vulnerable that you had no hope but God.
The psalmist is giving us permission – instruction even – to be ABSOLUTELY HONEST with God: We must come JUST AS WE ARE, bringing whatever it is that WE think we may need, bringing just as we are – Just COME… without trying to be religiously polite! It’s only then, only once we see ourselves through God’s eyes for what we actually are, that we are able to assess whether that thing gnawing away inside of us really is for what we most are longing. Until we’ve allowed ourselves to strip away all the polite and superficially righteous makeup exposing what’s really underneath, what’s there remains hidden, and so able to continue eating away at our souls – like some dark malignancy intent on destroying everything.
Be real! Honest to God! Entirely open to what comes next! …that’s how we get to change our prayers to the next verses: Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
It’s only once we are able to admit the childishly petulant, instinctively demanding prayer-posture of our GIVE ME! GIVE ME! GIVE ME! that we are empowered to move toward the infinitely more powerfully mature posture of NOW PLEASE TEACH ME…
Of course the psalmist goes on to continue bouncing between confidence and humility but it seems that’s OK – because that’s us! It’s what we do… It’s how we grow! But it must all begin by ‘being real!’ Honest! Openly vulnerable! To what extent are you? What is the challenge you are most hearing here today? And the blessing?
We are wanting to grow in all sorts of exciting ways in the next seasons of our life as a faith community, but unless we are prepared to begin by…
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[i] From Latin vulnus: wound
[ii] Jesus hints at this: …how he said it’s the sick who most need a physician, not those who pretend to be all well and perfect! Perhaps what He is mostly saying is that He needs for us to admit our sickness – at least stop pretending that we’re just fine! Better than we are! I mean, why pretend?