Slanted truth-telling – May 5, 2019
Emily Dickinson’s famous poem about truth-telling reads:
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
The point of the poem, as one writer describes, is: “that we should tell the truth – the whole truth – but tell it indirectly, in a circuitous and round-the-houses fashion. The truth, [Dickinson] says, is too bright and dazzling for us to be able to cope with it in one go. We can be overwhelmed by it.” Some believe that she was writing specifically about religious truth, but the message of the poem could relate to all manner of reality.
It is common wisdom that the first response to unexpected events is denial. We can only take in so much at one time and so the first thing we do when faced with something extraordinary is to deny the new information, the new reality. He couldn’t have died. The diagnosis can’t be right. Denial comes quickly but I don’t think it comes first. Rather, in the face of devastating or remarkable unexpected news, the human spirit knows instantly the full implications. In the very first nanosecond, we have full spiritual, soulful knowledge of the enormity of what it means for our life. And then depending on how shocking or devastating it is, in the second nanosecond, the human mind reaches for denial. The mind takes longer to absorb what the spirit knows in all its fullness. It can then take anywhere from a few minutes to a lifetime, to comprehend and integrate transformational changes into our minds and hearts and lives. “The Truth must dazzle gradually…”
The truth of Jesus’ resurrection is one such truth. It is so unexpected… so impossible… so incomprehensible… that the human mind cannot absorb it as quickly as the soul. Jesus’ resurrection is a truth more dazzling than lightening. After all the extraordinary love Jesus demonstrated in his short 3 years of ministry, Jesus’ death was hard enough to comprehend. How could a holy man be cut down, destroyed, in such a terrible way, and on such a short timeline? But at least we have experience of betrayal, of suffering, torture and death. Bad as they are, these are things we know. But resurrection?!? Life after death?!? It is unprecedented… (unless we manage to remember Lazarus… or the soldier’s little girl… but somehow it is easy to dismiss those extraordinary events…) Maybe those events in Jesus’ ministry were God’s way of telling the truth, but telling it slant… Foreshadowing the fullness of God’s life-giving power. God’s slanted truth-telling, until, that is, the empty tomb is discovered.
We are a few weeks now from that first Easter morning of confusion and fear. And it’s time to begin integrating the stunning new truth of Jesus’ resurrection into our faith and our life. In our Gospel story today, the Risen Jesus appears to disciples as they go back to their regular lives. The disciples have continued to gather and have already encountered the Risen Christ, appearing through locked doors, and showing off his woundedness. Further instructions, though, have not yet come. Jesus has appeared. Jesus has proclaimed peace to them and breathed the Holy Spirit on them. But day-to-day, the reality of the stunning turn of events has yet to make a significant impact. The disciples go back to doing what they know, just living their regular lives, as they were before.
Today the disciples are gathered by the Sea of Tiberias and decide to go fishing. It makes sense. Several of them had been fishermen before the craziness of the past 3 years. And miracles notwithstanding, you gotta eat. So fishing it is. But fishing this day takes a turn. Jesus appears again, this time on the beach, and shouts out instructions to improve the dismal results of their night’s work. They do as Jesus says and not only do the results of their fishing improve, but recognition, truth, also comes: “It is the Lord!” one says. They haul their catch ashore and enjoy the breakfast prepared for them by Jesus, risen and alive. They know it’s him, though they dare not ask. Their human minds take longer to integrate what their spirits know in all its fullness. They come to know the fullness of all the truth… told slant, and discovered gradually, and their sight remain intact.
How different it is from the story of Saul’s conversion in Acts. The Pharisee Saul, chief persecutor Jesus’ disciples, is travelling along an unassuming road when something remarkable happens. “Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” Slanted truth-telling it is not. It is the full on brightness of divine light. Saul responds: “Who are you, Lord?” His soul already knows it is the Lord and yet his mind needs to ask. And then a simple yet unimaginable answer comes with an equally simple instruction: “Get up and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do.” And Saul goes. The time between his knowing and his denying and his following is short… unimaginably short. Saul goes, following Jesus’ instruction, but he goes blind, literally blinded, by the dazzling brightness of God’s truth. The enemy of truth… the one who had no expectations, no prior experience… receives truth fully, in an instant.
The disciples who had been closest to Jesus in life… those who knew him better than anyone… who heard his teaching first hand… who betrayed him and ran away… the disciples who are among the first to hear the news of the empty tomb, they take awhile to absorb the truth that life has risen from death. Once it begins to dawn that Jesus is alive once more, it takes a while for them to integrate truth into their lives. Those who thought they knew how it was going to go, those closest to the action, have to experience the Risen Christ in a staged way. Resurrection is a truth too bright for their infirm delight. It is a truth that dazzles them gradually.
The Good News of slanted truth-telling goes on as the story continues. Jesus pulls Simon aside and asks: “Do you love me?” Three times Jesus asks and three times Simon responds: “Yes!” “Yes!” “For all that is good and holy, YES!” Simon’s three yes’s serve to reverse his three denials: “No!” “No!” “No, I don’t know the man!” And Simon’s three yes’s serve to deepen his commitment to their implication. For apprehending the reality of Jesus’ renewed life and embracing Jesus’ call to follow will mean sacrifice. It is a truth Jesus tells slant, saying: “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” It is a difficult truth that Simon’s mind could not immediately embrace, even if his soul knows fully. The narrator makes it clear to his readers, though, as an aside: “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.” Simon Peter too would be martyred. And still he’s called to follow, eyes wide open.
As witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, we too are called to follow. We are called to follow Jesus, risen and alive, even unto death. We are called to follow even when our minds are not yet ready to embrace the implications that our spirits know fully. Will we hear all the truth told slant? How long will we hold on to our denial? Will we willingly stretch out our hands to be taken where we do not wish to go? How will we come to live the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and be dazzled by the God of life?