I experienced one of those moments recently in which you know what’s about to happen is going to be important for you.
You don’t know why, but you have a sense that you’re going to experience a transformative moment.
An encounter with Frank X Walker at a writing workshop in October was one of these moments for me.
Walker is an award-winning poet and an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Kentucky.
He is also credited with the creation of a new word, “Affrilachian,” which refers to the African Americans who live in the Appalachian region – commonly stereotyped as a predominantly impoverished Caucasian population.
Walker shared with us that it wasn’t too long ago in a lecture at a university on the West Coast that someone in the audience commented that they had never known there was any significant African-American presence in Appalachia.
Dispelling this prevailing myth has defined his life’s work, as he sees it as his calling to give voice to the voiceless.
His hour-long lecture passed too quickly as I could have listened to his stories, struggles, hopes and dreams all day.
Of all the thoughts he shared with us, the one that has continued to stick with me is: “If you define yourself, you get to tell the truth.”
A brief statement brimming with depth and validity born out of a life lived, as only a poet can do. It raises significant questions: What is truth? How do we define it?
Too often we seek truth, define it and expend large amounts of energy and resources defending it in the wrong way. Two recent examples come to mind.
First, this past election season was a brutal one in Kansas where more than $27 million was spent on campaign advertising for the U.S. Senate seat alone.
These numbers are staggering. And yet, I was more surprised by the heated polarizing convictions of Christians on both sides of the aisle who argued for their candidates.
Their actions conveyed that they saw this election as a matter of life and death for the direction of our country. Truth was defined by their political party or candidate.
Second, retail stores might have forgotten about it as Christmas decorations are already on display, but Thanksgiving will be here shortly.
I have noticed my Facebook feed becoming the place for protests focused on keeping stores closed on Thanksgiving so employees can spend time with their families.
Truth is being defined in opposition to the commercialization and commodification of this holiday.
I have no qualms with Christians being engaged in politics or protesting the commercialization of a holiday – although Christmas might be a better place to start.
What bothers me is the way we define truth as an effort to make the world in Christ’s image. This concept is found nowhere in the gospels.
Jesus often experienced people rejecting what he had to say and choosing not to follow him (see Matthew 19:16-22).
The invitation Jesus offered was for people, not the world, to be made in his image.
The difference might be considered small by some, but the implications are huge for how we define and live truth out.
I have no doubt that some are protesting stores being open on Thanksgiving because it will result in family members having to work.
Yet, I imagine there are others who would prefer stores not to be open on Thanksgiving so we don’t have to wrestle with temptation and can have the best of both worlds.
They can have the time to spend with family all day Thursday without missing out on the opportunity to shop for great deals.
The same goes with politics. Sometimes I think we fight so hard in politics not because we want to remove injustices and oppression, but rather we want our nation to conform to our Christian values so that it’s easier for us to live out our faith.
What does this say about our faith when we feel the need to create a world that makes it easier to live out?
We want a convenient faith, which fits nicely into our overbooked schedules, not a faith that requires intention.
We desire a faith that doesn’t cause us to worry about our convictions coming into conflict with the political machinery with which we have aligned ourselves. We want a faith that, more than likely, was completely foreign to Jesus.
The definition of what it means to be a Christian should derive from the biblical witness and should be demonstrated in our own lives, relationships and interactions with the world.
Too often we seek to make the world conform to us because we aren’t willing to live out our faith in ways that are costly and countercultural.
Seth M. Vopat is the associate pastor of youth and family at Louisburg First Baptist Church in Louisburg, Kansas. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas. You can follow him on Twitter @svopat.