Thursday, September 2, 2010

Valid Testimony

The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going.” (John 8.13-14)

Obviously Not What It Seems

Lately we’ve been hooked on “Perry Mason” reruns. Viewed a half-century after it was “must-see” TV in America, a veneer of camp attaches to its somber tone. Part of it comes from observing the writers shy away from romantic subplots for the debonair attorney. We initially assumed this was a concession to the star, Raymond Burr, who avoided onscreen affairs to dampen interest in his private life as a gay man in a committed relationship. As it turns out, the Erle Stanley Gardner novels on which the series is drawn allude to Mason’s ongoing affair with his longtime associate, Paul Drake—which adds fizz to their exchanges and explains how one always knows what the other is thinking. It also helps explain why Mason invariably believes in his clients’ innocence, all evidence to the contrary. He approaches every case on the premise nothing is ever what it seems.

If you’ve not seen the show or it’s been a while, here’s the formula. A fairly elaborate set-up puts a number of characters in motion, one of whom has the bad luck of being spotted at the scene of an un-witnessed crime just before or after it occurs. The suspect always has an apparent motive for murder, forcing Mason to unravel the prosecution’s timeline placing the defendant on the scene at the precise moment of the crime. He probes his client for every detail reconstructing the day in question. Where were you coming from? What time did you leave that place and how long did it take you arrive at the crime scene? Why were you there? What was so urgent that you felt it necessary to go there at that time? How long did you stay? Where did you go after you left? Did anyone else know of your plans? Mason shrewdly validates his defendant’s testimony by restoring proper context to the case. What looks obvious at first is obviously not what it seems. In John 8, we see Jesus using the same strategy to answer Pharisees’ charges that His teaching is baseless and indefensible without a corroborating witness. From this, we learn why our witness as Christians requires no objective validation when it’s called into question.

Itching for a Showdown

The Pharisees are itching for a showdown. Jesus recently humiliated them and their lawyer friends in public when their latest scheme to entrap Him backfired. It’s perhaps the definitive episode in their ongoing antagonism toward Him. They bring Him a woman caught in the act of adultery, removing any question of her guilt, and challenge Him to officiate at her stoning, as Mosaic Law directs. But in an act that presages His offering on Calvary, Jesus stands with the woman as a sinner among sinners. He invites the person without sin to throw the first stone, which excludes everyone but Him. When the troublemakers wander off—most unhappy with their failed strategy—Jesus lifts the accused woman to her feet and, even though He alone is qualified to condemn her, He refuses. One can only imagine how it infuriates Christ’s adversaries to see this woman walking unashamedly through the streets. How it must enrage them to hear that her encounter with Christ changed her life for the better. This is not what they hoped for. This is not the way they were taught. This does not fit with traditional doctrine that brings them comfort and confidence.

So the air pulses with tension, as everyone anticipates the Pharisees’ next move. Before they can remobilize, however, Jesus graciously accommodates their desire for another confrontation. In John 8.12, He says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The Pharisees hear His implication they’ve led their followers into darkness. They pounce. Referring to Deuteronomy 19.15’s demands for two witnesses to establish testimony, they object to His statement. “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid,” they declare. (v13) Jesus isn’t shaken. He answers, “My testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one.” (v14-15) In a nutshell, it’s the Mason defense. Without proper context, the charge carries no weight. Since only Jesus knows whence He came and where He’s going, only His testimony is valid. The Pharisees’ prosecution fails because what seems so obvious to them obviously is not what it seems.

Only We Know

Whenever I say I’m a gay Christian, those who question my testimony fall into one of two groups: devout believers fixated on Mosaic Law and/or Paul’s condemnation of same-sex idolatry rituals; or gay advocates fixated on organized religion's infamous hostility toward same-sex orientation. Either way, both groups demand objective, third-party proof my witness is valid. They ask me to judge myself as they judge me—by human standards. Whatever your personal circumstances, you’ve probably met similar confrontations. People who can’t release themselves from traditional views feel compelled to challenge anyone whose faith doesn’t fit the mold they’re most comfortable and confident with. But Christ’s precedent in John 8 overturns tradition and ideology.

Only we know where we come from and where we’re going. We know the battles we’ve fought and miles we’ve traveled to seize God’s promise of grace and acceptance. We’ve heard God’s call to our wayward spirits, bringing us back to Him to reside in each of us as temples He created. We understand our compulsion to heed Hebrews 12.1-2: “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” We recognize what seems so obvious to our critics—whether in the Christian or secular community—obviously isn’t what it seems. Like the once-adulterous woman, only we know how our encounter with Christ forever freed us from condemnation. Following Jesus means abiding by His precedents. John 8 assures us our testimony is valid.

Knowing where we’ve come from and where we’re going validates our testimony. Our witness speaks for itself.


Sherry Peyton said...

Sigh, I know this only too well Tim. I too seem on a path that nobody largely understands but me. I'm questioning my leave-taking of my Catholic faith, for an admittedly easier road, and now not at all sure that it was best. I am keeping it mostly quiet, since I don't expect many people to understand what I am doing. Thanks for this. I obviously was gently prodded to make sure to read this post.

Tim said...

Sherry, I completely empathize with the anxieties that come from leaving the community of one's upbringing and adjusting to one that provides what the other lacked. It's inevitable that the new one will also lack many marvelous things about the old one. And though I'm growing and being fed where I am, I'm often homesick for the place I left.

Because my former church condemns gay people--who head up their list of untouchables--I can't return. I have managed to hang on to many of the things I loved about my "home" by incorporating them into my private devotions and worship, though.

Of course, my situation may not compare very closely to yours--and I'm hardly in a position to encourage you to remain where you are or return to the RCC. But as your brother and friend, I suggest you reevaluate why you left Catholicism to see if the reasons have sustained relevance or if they're now secondary to the sacrifices you've made. Then, on the other side, perhaps you should assess the differences you discovered between your expectations and the realities of life in your chosen faith community. I think most of us who leave one communion for another tend to enter the new one with high, high hopes--sometimes unrealistic ones--and deal with having to re-calibrate them once we're there. It's good to ask yourself, "What will lose that I love from this place if I return to my former church?"

This is a difficult decision. Above all else, I urge you to listen to the Spirit's inner voice. If He's calling you back, there's work there you need to do. But it's also possible you've been led where you are for the same purpose. Lofty and idealistic as this sounds, I can tell you from experience, if you release your concerns and misgivings and still your spirit (which takes a while to do, BTW), what you hear the Spirit say to you will extinguish all doubt regarding where you should be.

I'm praying for you, dear sister, in total faith that this trial will lead to great and wondrous things.

Blessings, and much love,