By Joe McKeever
"Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices…." (Colossians 3:9)
Got time for a lawyer story?
The lawyer told it at an early morning coffee time some of us were enjoying. Without permission to use his name, the story will remain anonymous for the time being. He said it happened in his office.
They sat in the lawyer’s office–the accused thief, his mama and his grandmama. The lawyer said, “The police say you burglarized that store.”
“I didn’t do it! I wasn’t even there! I was someplace else!” the accused shouted. At that, the mama and grandmama turned to each other and echoed softly but firmly, “He didn’t do it. He wasn’t even there. He was someplace else.”
The lawyer said, “The police have two fellows in custody who say you were their accomplice. They can identify you.”
“They’re lying! I didn’t do it! I wasn’t even there! I was someplace else!”
Once again, the mama and grandmother looked at each other and said, “They’re lying. He didn’t do it. He wasn’t there. He was someplace else.”
The lawyer said, “The police have a video and you’re in it. I saw the video and there’s no question about it. That’s you robbing that store.”
At that, the grandma stood to her feet, grabbed up her large purse, and whopped him upside the head with it.
“Boy!” she said. “You tell that lawyer the truth–and you let him do the lying for you!”
Most of us do our own lying, don’t we?
My bedtime reading these evenings is “Al Capp: a Life to the Contrary,” a biography of the cartoonist who gave the world the “Li’l Abner” comic strip, one of the most popular newspaper features ever, particularly in the 1940′s and 1950′s. At a time when cartoonists tended to be solitary figures working alone from home studios, Al Capp (whose real name was Alfred Caplin) was heavily into self-promotion, doing everything from writing movie screenplays to hosting radio and television shows. He was a favorite guest on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” I recall Capp doing State Farm commercials on the radio. He was brilliant, winsome, funny, and witty, as anyone familiar with the comic strip might expect.
He was also one of the great liars of our time. According to authors Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen, the story of exactly how Capp lost his leg at the age of 9 will never be known. What is known is that a street car ran over the left leg and it had to be amputated just below the hip. But Capp told the story so many times in such varied ways, the exact truth is lost to history.
Likewise with a hundred other events in Capp’s lifetime. He had a career-long feud with Ham Fisher, a cartoonist who gave him one of his first jobs and whose comic strip “Joe Palooka” was all the rage in the 1930s and 1940s. But the stories as told by Fisher and Capp were vastly different. At various times, other cartoonists such as Will Eisner (his strip was “The Spirit”) and Milton Caniff (“Steve Canyon” and “Terry and the Pirates”) added their own tales to the lore about Capp, with their accounts and his differing so completely. The reader comes away shaking his head.
I’m only halfway through the book, and do not intend this as a review. I’m merely struck by the tendency of the man to embellish the truth, always in his favor of course, even when a simple telling of the facts would often serve just as well. When the lawyer told his story this morning–”let the lawyer do the lying for you!”–I thought of Al Capp, this delightfully entertaining liar.
I’ve known a few embellishers in my years in the ministry. Almost always, they were preachers.
I say that to our shame.
Once, when a preacher friend came to my town and presented a program which I had organized, promoted, and overseen, we gave him all the receipts for the evening, a total, just over $2,000. The agreement was for $10 a head and the attendance was 200 or so. Later, in his publicity, the preacher announced that he had addressed a thousand people in my city that night.
Wonder why he did that? No doubt he hoped to impress someone else who would invite him to their town. Did he know that those of us who had sponsored his event in our city would see his numbers and catch the lie? Probably. The only conclusion, therefore, is that he simply did not care.
I find that more disturbing than the initial lie itself.
After that preacher died a few years back–by then he had long been an ex-preacher–on this blog I wrote a tribute to the man. Many years earlier, he had brought me on his staff and I had learned a lot from him and felt a debt of gratitude to him. In my posthumous tribute, I repeated the testimony I’d heard him present so many times concerning his conversion as a child, omitting all the uncomplimentary aspects of his life, of which there were several.
A couple of years later, his brother read what I had written and contacted me. “You know that’s all lies,” don’t you?
I was taken aback.
“What about it was a lie?”
He said, “All that business about how he came from a non-Christian family, how some fellow saw the truck being unloaded and came to the house and asked for that little tow-headed boy running around, and how he brought him to Sunday School and eventually led him to the Lord.”
“Not a word of it was true.”
He continued, “We were church-going Baptists. We always went to church.”
He was quiet a moment, then said, “I’m not blaming you. You told the story the way you got it from him, I’m sure.”
I said, “Why do you think he told that story if it wasn’t true?”
He said, “There’s no way to know. He was just a liar.”
He was also pastor of some large churches, and received a great deal of acclaim throughout his 20s and 30s. People could not praise him enough. However, he left the ministry in his late 30s and never came back. I think he was 66 when he died.
I cannot explain any of this–not lying lawyers, lying cartoonists, or lying preachers.
Self-interest is usually the primary motivating factor in embellishing the truth, I suppose, and especially for creating a story out of whole cloth. And who among us does not understand self-interest.
There are those among us, however, who will tell a lie when the truth would serve just as well. They are pathological liars. And thieves. They take what does not belong to them, claim what they are not entitled to, and then look you in the face and say, “I wasn’t there. I didn’t go nowhere near that place.”
“You have laid aside the old self with its evil practices.”
You can lie all you want to, but not and call yourself a follower of Jesus Christ.
You can lie convincingly if you have a criminal heart that does not attack your words as they are leaving your mouth.
You can lie and sleep well at night if you are lost with an unregenerate heart.
But not if you are a follower of Jesus Christ. He has forever changed you, and permanently put a crimp in your lying mechanism.
The Apostle Paul said, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 1:13).
Joe McKeever is retired missions director for the New Orleans Baptist Association. Before that Mr. McKeever pastored churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.