Election time is fast approaching in Danville, we’re voting in a new town board, and the town is abuzz with gossip and speculation. The yard signs are popping up like dandelions, people are staking out their claims, forming alliances, and avoiding people they’ve known most of their lives. There is no room for subtlety. Every candidate is either a budding Hitler or a George Washington. There’s no in-between. It’s more exciting than anything on television.
I decided this time around that in addition to gossiping about the candidates, I would meet with them privately and ask if the rumors I’d been hearing about them were true. (I’m not altogether virtuous, but I’m trying my best to head that general direction. It’s a long haul.) So I met with several of the candidates this week, all of whom seemed grateful for the opportunity to tell their side of things, tell me what they hoped to accomplish for the town, and what was important to them. Of course, people seeking political office have been known to mislead others, so now I have to discern who was being truthful and who was selling me a bill of goods, which isn’t always easy.
Ah, truth…It was Mark Twain who said, “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it ain’t so.”
I once heard on a police show on television, which makes me something of an expert on the subject, that the only way for a dishonest person to beat a lie detector test is if the person taking the test actually believes they’re telling the truth. Think about that—there are people so thoroughly convinced their lies are true that their bodies don’t experience and reveal the stress normally associated with lying. They don’t even know they’re lying. It causes all sorts of problems when liars don’t realize they’re lying, and speak with such certainty and conviction, others don’t believe they’re lying either.
You’ll remember we spent several months reflecting on the Apostle Paul’s fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. While I affirmed all those virtues, it occurred to me Paul’s list was not exhaustive, so these past several weeks we’ve been talking about the missing fruits. Thus far we’ve talked about curiosity, knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, awe, and courage. Today, I invite us to think about truthfulness, or what our Quaker ancestors simply called plain speech, when our “yes means yes and our no means no,” to paraphrase Jesus. Plain speech, as Quakers understood it, not only meant speaking truthfully and directly, but also with brevity. They believed with many words came the temptation to gild the lilies. Plain speech also meant avoiding language that was intended to impress or puff up or, God forbid, mislead.
No embellishment, no exaggeration, no flowery discourse to tickle the ears, just the facts, ma’am, simply spoken. Early Quakers, as you can imagine, were dreadful storytellers. On the plus side, they could be trusted, causing manufacturers to attach the Quaker label to their products, which is how Quaker Oats came to be. An enterprising distiller from Lawrenceburg, Indiana even bottled Old Quaker whiskey, whose label featured a very relaxed Quaker man, his Quaker hat slightly askew.
When you are aware of the integrity of your spiritual ancestors, it is a matter of some concern to realize your own record of honesty is inconsistent. When you recall how often you’ve relied upon the face-saving convenience of a well-crafted lie, and consider how often those lies have been employed in the service of an unworthy goal, you can’t help but grieve. When the prophet Nathan told King David about the poor man whose one lamb had been stolen by a man with many lambs, David was indignant and demanded the man’s punishment. But when David realized the story was metaphorical, that the story was actually about how he, David, had taken the cherished wife of another man, he wept and pled forgiveness. The realization of our moral failures ought always to grieve us. That grief is a blessing. It tells us our conscience has not been altogether muzzled. People who lie can at least attempt to correct the harm they have caused, but those who lie without awareness and regret leave in their wake a sad trail of ruin and pain.
Our son Spencer grows hay and raises cattle, which means he’s really busy during the growing season, so catches up in the winter months. This past winter decided he was going to build an equipment shed to store his hay equipment. His helpers are still in high school, so when he needed a third hand, he’d call me and I’d drive over to his farm to help. One bitterly cold morning our phone rang and I thought to myself, “Dear Lord, please don’t let that be Spencer needing help.” But of course it was, so I put on my warm clothes and went over. He’d decided it was the perfect morning to stake out the corner posts for his new equipment shed, so had his tape measure, rebar stakes, and hammer, and wanted me to hold what he called, without a trace of irony, the “dumb end” of the tape measure. “Here, Dad, you hold the dumb end.”
So I’m standing there like a dummy holding the dumb end of the tape measure and I’m freezing to death, and he’s taking each measurement two or three times and writing them down on a piece of paper. I’m telling him to hurry, that I’m near death, that it’s just an equipment shed, for God’s sake, and doesn’t have to be perfect, and he says, “It might only be an equipment shed, but it still has to be true.” An interesting word—true. In buildings, it means straight, level and plumb. If you want a building to stand any length of time, it must be true. Otherwise it will not endure the forces of nature, the pressures of time, wind, and rain. Not unlike our own lives, the early Quakers believed, which will collapse prematurely if not centered and true.