If I had just one gift to give you, I think it would be the gift of integrity—such a gift that when you come to the last chapter of your story, you could have the inspired chutzpah of Psalm 26 and say to God, eyeball to eyeball, "Vindicate me, because I have walked in my integrity." What a way to go!
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer could almost hear the stomping of the Gestapo boots to take him away and execute him, he wondered on paper what kind of people the church was going to need most when the last bomb had exploded and the last person had been killed. He said this: "What the church will need, what our century will need, are not people of genius, not brilliant tacticians or strategists, but simple, straightforward, honest men and women." Bonhoeffer, we need you now. What a gift!
We may have our Presbyterian panache or our charismatic chic and we may build empires, but if we don't have integrity, we're moral cadavers. They haven't buried us yet, but we're walking dead people.
If I had the gift, I'd give you the gift of integrity. But I can't give it to you. This is not a gift that zaps us in the night; this is a gift we have to work at all of our lives as we co-author our stories with God. And it comes very hard.
I was watching an interview on television some years ago in which a beautiful, dignified British lady in her eighties appeared as though she had just come from tea at Buckingham Palace—a woman who could have done anything. The parting question she was asked was this: "What has been the hardest thing for you to do in your life?"
She said, "Be honest." I felt an instant rapport with this wonderful lady.
I told this story once at the First Presbyterian Church in beautiful downtown Burbank, and a lady asked me, "How can a so-called evangelical leader admit that it's hard for him to be honest?"
I said, "Lady, it's hardest of all for us. There are so many big shots to impress, so many people to please, so many powerful reasons why we should make believe that we are what we appear to be, or pretend to be what we think other people expect us to be—to fake it, to gloss it, to make believe instead of make true. It's tough to walk in our integrity."
And we're talking about walking; we're not talking about talking. We're not talking about speaking the truth; we're talking about living truthfully. We're not talking about having the truth the way you can have a genetic code or have a hundred shares of IBM; we're talking about living truthfully.
Like a baseball game, the story of our integrity isn't over until it's over. Integrity isn't a possession that we have once and for all. Integrity is a calling. We're on a journey to integrity. I'd like to suggest a few stages that we've got to go through on our private journeys to our own integrity. There are more, but consider these.
Accept the raw material God gave you
I think the first thing that we have to do is accept the raw material that God has given us to write our stories with. Every one of us has to write our own story. I cannot write yours; I cannot write my children's (though God knows I've tried sometimes). I can write only mine, and you can write only yours. And each of us is given by God, in his providence, some raw material out of which we have to write our story—the way a poker player is dealt a hand with which he has to play the game, though God knows he wishes his hand had been better.
One of the hardest things for some of us to do is accept the hand God gave us. It is so hard. One of the most powerful stories that I have read in recent years was a book titled Racehoss: Big Emma's Boy. Here was a man who was born the son of a black prostitute in a little town in Texas, and the son of a white traveling salesman. Big Emma, his mother, was a prostitute, a gambler, and a bootlegger, and she did a good business near one of the railroad stops. But when Big Emma was drunk, she was brutal, very brutal. Albert Sample lasted it out until he was 11 years old, when he left home and became a hobo and rode the tracks. He says the one thing that was true about hobo life in America in the thirties was violence. Violence became his being. He was caught and drafted into the Army. They couldn't hold him there; he was constantly going AWOL, and every time he went AWOL he would be arrested for assault and battery. Violence was his being.
He was sentenced to the toughest prison in Texas for 28 years, and after serving some 17 years, he had learned the truth that if you treat people like animals, they become animals. One time for a minor infraction he was put into a dungeon—solitary confinement, no light. He stayed there for 14 days, and he thought he heard water running down the walls and became terrified that he was going to drown in his own dungeon. He fell on the floor and beat the cement with his fists and yelled, "Help me! Help me!"
A voice came, and the voice said, "You're not an animal. You're a person. You're not an animal; you're a person." A light shone with a softness, he says, that was the softness of God. In 30 seconds, he says, all the violence of his being was drained from his body. He said to the voice, "What shall I say?" The voice said, "Tell 'em you met Me here."
Now that's not the way I have met God, but that's the way he met God. My point is this: As he went on to create a new life, the one thing that was most urgent for him was to come to terms with his beginning with Big Emma. The one thing he had to do was rise up in the magnificence of forgiveness and forgive and understand her. Because he accepted his beginning, he could go on and make a story of integrity.
It was the only beginning he had, and some of us have beginnings we would rather not have had. We spend our lives demanding that our parents be smarter and wiser and more gentle and more kind and more loving to us than they were. But they're the only parents we've got, the only beginning God gave us. With a dose of forgiveness and a generous portion of understanding, to create a story of our own integrity we've got to accept the beginning as the beginning, the raw material God gave us to write our stories with. Stage one: Accept the beginning.
Own the bad chapters you've already written
Stage two: Own the bad chapters you've already written. All of us have written some paragraphs and sentences and some old chapters that we wish we had not written and would give anything to delete from our story. We can do it with a word processor. It's wonderful—pressing one button, we can delete a whole chapter and it is gone. But you can't do that with the story you're writing with your life; it's there.
We try to recreate it. Senator Biden tried to rewrite the story of his past and discovered the hazards of it. One man running for president wrote an autobiography some years ago in which he said that he knew from God he was never to enter politics. A recent issue of that autobiography deletes that paragraph.
We all do it. Some of you have, as I have, chapters you don't want to be there, but they're there. We've got to arise in the sublime arrogance of self-forgiveness and own them, but own them as chapters we're finished with. They're not the chapters we're writing now, and they're not the chapters we're going to write with God in the future, but they're chapters that we did write, and they're part of our story. In self-forgiveness we can own them without being owned by them. Own the chapters you've already written.
Create an unabridged consciousness
The third stage on the journey to integrity is the creation of an unabridged consciousness. We all like to do a Reader's Digest job on reality. We abridge reality in our consciousness to suit our comforts, because we don't want to be troubled and bothered and discomforted by the reality that intrudes on our awareness.
I don't suppose we have ever again gathered under one roof such an assembly of wise and noble people as created our Constitution and declared that all people are created and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. But they abridged their consciousness to the presence of half a million black people who had claim to the same rights.
Huck Finn saw an accident down at the riverside, and a white lady asked him if anybody had gotten hurt down there. He says, "No, Ma'am; nobody got hurt. Just a couple niggers got killed." She said, "Oh, that's good. A person could get hurt in an accident like that." Abridged her consciousness.
David abridged his consciousness about the reality of Uriah and Bathsheba, and it took a prophet to poke his finger into David's eyes to pry them open, to let the reality come in.
We all do it. O God, we all do it. There are pieces of reality we just don't want to let in. Some evangelicals like us are so triumphant that we don't really like to let in the reality of tragedy, that there are people who are morally and spiritually handicapped and that there are scars that never do become stars. We abridge our consciousness because we don't listen to what Saint Thomas called "the silent voice of reality." We don't listen to the cries of the oppressed. We don't listen to the sighs of the homeless. We don't listen to the reality that discomforts us. Without creating an unabridged consciousness, to let all of reality in, we will not write a story of integrity.
Keep in touch with your calling
Fourth, the stage that we come to next on our journey to integrity is being in touch with our calling. We can talk all we wish to about the need for integrity in public life these days, but we need to keep integrity with our own calling. All of us are here not because we didn't have the talent for a cushier job, or because we think the ministry pays off well in power and prestige; we're here because we believe that God is somehow in his odd way nudging and pushing and wooing and luring us to write a story, with him, out of our lives.
I don't believe that God has one calling for us forever, and after that we need only to make sure we're on the track of that one calling. I think God moves and pushes us in new directions frequently, and that's precisely why we need to keep in touch. It is so easy to be so preoccupied with success and means that we get our eyes off the end, the purpose, the point of it all.
Max De Pree tells a wonderful story, and he swears that it's true, about those wonderful tomato growers in central California. More successful at tomato growing than the tomato growers of all human history, they grew more tomatoes per acre than anyone ever had. But they did have one problem. That was to get their tomatoes into the salad bowls of Chicago and the fruit baskets of the Bronx unbruised, because a magnificent bruised tomato, in the hands of the tomato squeezers of the world, is only a bruised tomato. So they set agrotechnology to work and accomplished two marvelous things. First, they got a machine to pick the tomatoes while they were still yellow but very firm. Then they put the tomatoes on an assembly belt, passed them under a certain kind of light for seven seconds, and they came out a rosy red—a rosy pink, almost red. And then they devised a packaging such that you could put a bunch of tomatoes in a Styrofoam crate, and lift it twenty feet high above solid concrete, and also take a bumper from a Chevy pickup, lift it twenty feet high above solid concrete, drop them both, and the bumper would come off worse than any one of those tomatoes. Agrotechnology wins again.
But they had one problem: The tomato that the chef sliced into his salad in Chicago and the woman bought from the market in Boston didn't taste the way a tomato was supposed to taste. They had enormous success at means, but forgot the point and purpose, the end of it all.
I think that everybody in the ministry has got to take at least three or four hours out of every week to ask, "What I've been doing this week, Lord—is it part of my story with you? Does it serve the point and purpose of service and servanthood to people? Or am I being intoxicated with success at means?"
Keep in touch with the calling daily, weekly, monthly. That's one of the stages on the journey to integrity.
Make sure your story fits into God's story
Finally, the fifth stage: Make sure your story fits into God's story because God is writing a story with his life, too. It's a story with a beginning and a middle and an ending, like every good story: the beginning with his commitment to his people, the middle with Christ and Calvary, and the ending with his coming again to dwell with his people and create a new people of peace and justice. The question is, Does the paragraph that I'm writing this week, the sentence that I'm writing today, the story that I'm writing with my life, contribute to the making of God's story?
If you knew my story, would you get a hint, a clue, of what God's story is about? If you see me daring to make, and caring to keep, commitments to people, will you get a hint that God is the God who dared to make and continues to care to keep commitments to his people? When you see that in my story being important is not really important, but being a servant is important, will you see a clue that God's story is really all about divinity at the service of humanity? Will my story, will your story, be one paragraph, one sentence, that is congruent and coherent with, and even contributes to, the climax of God's story of redemptive love?
Imagine this scenario: You've come to the last chapter in your story, and you say to yourself, I've struck it rich. I've even built an evangelical empire. But somewhere along the line I lost my integrity. What a terrible ending to a story!
But imagine this one: You're standing before the Lord God of Glory, and he says to you, "I know that it was tough going sometimes. I know that it cost you something. I know that your story was not a best seller. But I vindicate you, my child, because you with me, together, have walked in your integrity." What a way to go!
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
The late Lewis Smedes, author of My God and I, was professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.