Category Archives: Humility

Well Done

If you haven’t seen Mandy Harvey’s audition on America’s Got Talent (or even if you have), take a moment to watch this video. I’ve watched it about a dozen times in the last month and I get teary eyed every single time.

Let’s clear up a few things. First, she’s been working at singing while deaf for 10 years. She has 3 albums already, singing mostly jazz standards. She tours. She has also performed for various Christian and charity events and causes. She didn’t just decide, “Well, I’m deaf. I guess I’ll go try to sing on AGT today.” To get where she is, she worked hard before she lost her hearing, and she works hard now. She’s not “just” deaf (as if…); her connective tissue disorder affects her every day.

And yet, it’s a beautiful story and a great song. It’s not a story unrelated to what she’s doing on stage. Her being on stage is completely related to, and in defiance of, her deafness.

I really like how unassuming she is. I’m touched by how she gets choked up when everyone stands on their feet halfway through her song and she starts singing with her eyes closed so she can finish.

In a small way, I identify with her story. I was up to my neck in music in high school and had thoughts of studying music in college. Like her, it was a music theory class that crushed that dream. I didn’t sing; I played various woodwind instruments. But to really do music, to do music theory, you need to be able to sing, at least a bit.

I remember standing next to the upright piano in the music room while Dr. Montgomery played intervals. I was supposed to sing them back to him as part of a test. Thankfully, no one else was in the room. I couldn’t do it. Apparently I don’t hear music like most people hear music. I’m tone deaf.

There in about 10 minutes, my ideas about what I might do with music pretty well ended. My life took a different path, and with the perspective of almost 30 years, I can see how it was a good thing for my character. If I had been musically gifted, I could easily have become a prideful, insufferable jerk.

I still enjoy music. I still sing in the car when I’m by myself. But it’s just for me. I sometimes wonder what music sounds like to other people.

I also like Mandy’s video because it touches something else. We get to witness her being totally affirmed for a few brief moments. All of her years of hard work are recognized in a few glimmering moments. Those moments are rare in our lives. Even rarer is one so public as this.

I suppose I’ve had a few I can look back on. Two sermons come to mind (out of hundreds I’ve given). One blog post. Nowhere near a golden buzzer, but some genuine affirmation. It felt good. It was encouraging, but it was fleeting. No high lasts for very long.

I think we enjoy these kinds of moments, even vicariously, because they touch something even deeper within us. We are made to be part of something big. We are made to be God’s people and to have him be our God. As awesome as the golden confetti must be for those rare few on America’s Got Talent, how much more so if we hear our Lord say, “Well done.” That is worth striving for above any accolades we can earn from each other.

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Filed under Humility, Music, Success

I’m Stuffed

No more for me, thanks!

Independence Day affords us a long weekend. A chance to relax, enjoy family, and eat. I try to watch what I eat, to not over-eat, and to not eat too much of certain things that I know I’ll regret the next day. But food isn’t all that important. Jesus instructed the crowds, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles man.” (Matthew 15:11)

Psalm 123 is a short “song of ascents.” Praying the last two verses today clarified a thought that had been slowly forming in my mind concerning them.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Too long our soul has been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease,
the contempt of the proud.

Psalm 123:3-4 (RSV)

For years I read these verses along the lines of, “Have mercy on us because of all those nasty, proud people out there.” I still think this is a reasonable reading of the passage. But I think one more applicable to my life (and maybe yours) is also present.

I have had more than enough contempt in my soul. Contempt for those different than me. Contempt for those whom I deem less able than me. Contempt for those who injure my pride.

Too long has my soul been satisfied being at ease. Too long have I been willing to kick my feet up and coast. Too long have I not given my Lord the attention and obedience he deserves. (See verses one and two of the Psalm for what that should look like.)

Too long have I harbored the contempt of the proud. Too long have I launched scorn either silently or aloud at others.

Have mercy upon me Lord, have mercy.

May I not be filled with scorn, contempt, ease, and pride. When I am, I know that I will regret being so stuffed, either in this life or in the judgment to come.

I offer thee, O my God, all my thoughts, all my words, and all my actions of this day. Grant that they may be thoughts of humility, words of humility, and actions of humility — all to Thy glory.

Fr. Cajetan, Humility of Heart

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Longing for Singularity

As someone who makes a living as a “provider of religious services” in a “pluralistic environment,” I am tired. The cost of admission to work in this context seems too high. I am tired of freedom, though this has little to do with current social issues regarding homosexuality and transgenderism.

The problem starts with what seems like a good idea. We gather a bunch of pastors / priests / rabbis / imams / etc. to provide religious support to a diverse population made up of all sorts of different religious adherents. In order to serve them all, we provide for their religious preferences. That is where this starts to unravel. Religion is reduced to a preference. Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, manual or automatic, Seahawks or Packers. Those are preferences. Choosing any one of those has no lasting impact.

If the claims of any one religion are true, however, then logically, at least some of the others must be false. Furthermore, if the claims of a religion are true, then to choose any other religion has dire eternal consequences. This is error of the most serious sort. I could have wrongly learned, “In 1493 Columbus sailed the deep blue sea” and miss a point on a history exam or in Trivial Pursuit, but to get God wrong is a very grave error.

In our pluralistic environment where we are to “cooperate without compromise,” I find that we are forced to act as if religion is merely a preference. We can promote the overall program and general benefits of religious practice, but we cannot talk about truth and error. This applies not only in chaplaincy settings, but increasingly in our overall western culture. We are committing an error when we allow that which is most dear to us to be reduced to a preference, even though the Church teaches and we believe that it is worth dedicating our lives to and even giving our lives for.

I am not advocating that we cannot or should not be civil to those of different faiths. The sword has historically been a poor evangelistic tool. But we must have the conviction to stand on and for the truth. We must be willing to seek the truth. We must, if we are intent on living in the truth, be willing to step away from error, expose it, and move toward the truth.

This is not a popular stance, especially not in the area of religion. It is seen as elitist, bigoted, and even racist in some cases. However, to seek the truth is not to claim that I am right, but to seek to know and do what is right. It is not to lord it over others, but to live in humble subjection to the truth and encourage others to do the same.

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Filed under Humility, Religion

Take and Read

Sola Scriptura folks like to point to Augustine of Hippo’s experience in a garden in Milan as an example of the power of Scripture. He heard what sounded to him like a child chanting, “Take and read; take and read.” He picked up a copy of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans he had with him and read:

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:13-14 (ESV)

These folks, however, forget that this is the climax of the story. Book VIII of Augustine’s Confessions tells the whole story — about 20 pages in my edition. Augustine did not just hang out in a garden, hear a voice, read, and become converted. It was a much longer road than that. Indeed, the entire book of Confessions up to this point chronicles the long, twisting road he had been traveling to true faith.

It was not merely two verses of Scripture that worked such an effect on his life. He knew saints and he knew of saints — Ambrose, Anthony, and Victorinus among others. He had at least some of the Scriptures available to him and he studied them. He resisted the drawing of the Holy Spirit but eventually came to surrender. His story reveals that he had already surrendered before he heard, “Take and read,” and repented in tears before God in the garden. The passage he read in Romans was more of a confirmation than a call.

Scripture is important — vitally so — in the life of the believer and the church. But it is not magical. It is not a spell book to read incantations out of in order to command the divine to our will. It is a gift of God, by the Holy Spirit, through the church.

There is benefit in taking and reading, but just as with prayer, humility is crucial. If we come to the pages of Scripture seeking support for what we think, we are on dangerous ground. We should come asking what we ought to think. What we ought to believe. What we ought to do. We should listen to Scripture, and to the Holy Spirit, and to the Church.

As Americans, we get excited when we hear stories of someone opening a Bible for the first time and being converted. This demonstrates our individualism more than our reverence for God’s Word. We are a nation of individuals who value doing things our own way. Our patron saints, from a cultural perspective, are John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do it your way. But this is not the way of Christ or his church.

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is…. giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:17, 20-21 (ESV)

We should hold up stories of those who come to Scripture and then walk into a church, saying, “Help me understand.” This, if we read the story, is much closer to Augustine’s actual experience than merely the “take and read” snippet at the end of the chapter.

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Prayer and Pride

We must be humble in order to pray. In pride, we may do things that are prayer-like, but they are not prayer. At its most basic level, prayer is either asking for something (daily bread, forgiveness of sins, healing) or thanking for something (God’s grace, family, health).

We cannot ask for something out of pride. If I have pride, then I either deserve it (at least in my mind) so I can order it, or I expect it. I may even think I can do it myself. Humility asks. Humility acknowledges dependence upon another. Even in human relationships, just because I am “in charge” or “superior” to someone in position doesn’t mean I can’t ask, or that by telling them to perform some duty I am not acknowledging my neediness. Leaders have staffs because they cannot do it all themselves.

We also cannot give thanks out of pride. If I am full of pride, then I deserve whatever it was that was provided. I expect such service or quality. To be thankful is to acknowledge the receipt of something from outside of oneself. Thankfulness is acknowledgement of a gift.

To petition God in humility is to acknowledge our powerlessness. We ask because on our own we cannot cause it to be. We cannot forgive ourselves of sin. We cannot provide all that we need for life. We may come to think that we are “putting bread on the table” but without God to cause the crops to grow and the rain to fall, there is no bread. We may have a part to play, but it is secondary to God’s, or even tertiary, since most of us don’t even make our own bread today. We are dependent; to acknowledge this truth is a prerequisite to prayer.

To thank God in humility is also to acknowledge our limits. We thank God for his character because if it were different, we would be doomed. We thank God for his deeds because we are the beneficiaries of them constantly. From the breathtaking grandeur of his creation to the blessing of a warm bed on a cold night, we thank God for providing us what we need and so much more.

There is a reason Christians have historically knelt to pray. It is a posture of submission, of humility. It reminds us that we come before one more powerful than ourselves when we address God. Standing is also a common posture for prayer and reflects this as well, especially in our contemporary society. We don’t have many instances outside of church where we are expected to kneel, but we may have superiors at work to whom it is appropriate to show respect by remaining standing until invited to sit.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)

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Presumption vs. Effort

We are well into Advent, and the lectionary turns our thoughts to John the Baptist and his preparation for the ministry of our Lord. John is an interesting character. We admire his candor and focus, but I dare say we are glad he isn’t hanging out in the back of our church. He came preaching a message of repentance. “Straighten up for the Messiah is coming,” is the main emphasis of his teaching. He had no great regard for the religious leaders of his day; he called them a bunch of snakes and challenged them to repent as well.

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

Matthew 3:8-9 (ESV)

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Do things that are congruent with pursuing holiness and turning from sin. Actively seek to root out pride, gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, envy, and wrath from your life. Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Don’t be presumptuous.

“We’re children of Abraham. We are God’s chosen race.” One would think that 70 years of exile in Babylon would have tempered that a bit, but they were short-sighted and stiff-necked, as are we. We always seem to hope for assurance but don’t want it to require much from us.

Jesus, once he eclipses John and begins his ministry, reinforces John’s message.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 7:21 (ESV)

If you skim the preceding chapters of Matthew, it seems like Jesus’ idea of “doing his Father’s will” is more than just “giving him your heart.” Matthew 7:21 and its implications unsettle those of the “eternal security” camp, as it should. There is something to be said for not constantly worrying about “losing” your salvation, but then again, this seems to have a long lineage in history. Most of the saints were concerned about pleasing God through their actions. They sought God with devotion and effort.

To some degree it comes back to Gnosticism. If we think that because “I know I’m saved,” then “I’m good,” we are proclaiming that we have knowledge (the meaning of gnosis) and by that knowledge we are saved. This idea that “we don’t have to do anything, just believe,” has become so entrenched in American evangelicalism that suggesting we must do something is viewed with shock and horror. John the Baptist would be scoffed as a legalist.

But what is Scripture? Is it not a lot of teaching on how we are to act? Perhaps we should quit worrying about vainly trying to earn our salvation and focus a bit on being cast into hell for not being obedient. Not very popular these days, I know. But Scripture hasn’t changed.

We are on dangerous ground we when presume to be “good.” Scripture’s default assumption concerning every one of us is that we are sinners worthy of judgement. We can do nothing to earn salvation — because we have already irretrievably blown it. God’s grace is truly the only thing that can save us, not because he’s so nice and wants to make it easy on us. He desires us to be holy as he is holy.

We should be working double-time to try to appease the wrath of God. We should cling to Jesus like a man dangling from a cliff clinging to a rope. Not presumptuously swinging about and enjoying the view, but doing everything we can to get back up onto the straight, narrow, and high way of the Lord.

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Filed under Faith, Gnosticism, Humility, Obedience

Guilt and Shame

guilt_woman

My wife was in a women’s Bible study that recently brought up the topic of guilt. The comment was made that, “All guilt is from the devil.” As we discussed this on our walk that evening, she said that the comment pretty well summed up the attitude of the group, but that she did not feel comfortable with it. When we got home, we turned to the dictionary to see if maybe we were missing something.

Guilt:
1: the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly : guilty conduct
2a : the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously
b : feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : self-reproach
3: a feeling of culpability for offenses

2b comes closest to something that may not be an accurate self-assessment, due to “imagined” offenses. Perhaps shame was what these ladies were really speaking of when they talked about guilt.

Shame
1a : a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety
b : the susceptibility to such emotion
2: a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute : ignominy
3a : something that brings censure or reproach; also : something to be regretted : pity
b : a cause of feeling shame

Well, maybe not. What is going on here? These ladies seem to be missing a fundamental truth.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

Romans 3:22b-23 (ESV)

We have sinned, therefore we should feel guilt and shame. So, what are we missing?

The dictionary tells me that guilt is feeling bad for what I have done and shame is feeling bad for what I am. I am what I do; that is the way the world (generally) works. It is also the way Scripture works. If I commit sin, I am a sinner. I am guilty, therefore I should be ashamed.

As we’ve continued to revisit this topic, we think the issue is not that guilt (and shame) are bad. The problem is that we don’t like them. Americans, and their churches, are about feeling good. The internet will gladly give up quotes along the lines of, “Don’t feel guilty; just do what you want.” Sounds a bit like, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5 ESV)

Yet Scripture is clear that we are to feel bad for our guilt.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:7-10 (ESV)

Just in case you think James is too harsh, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21b ESV) “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:25b ESV)

The proud man dwells more willingly on the little good he does, on the little devotion he feels, than on the thought of the evil he has committed and which he does daily. He puts behind him the multitude of his sins, so that he need not be ashamed and humble himself; and he reflects often upon certain of his minute exercises of Christian piety, so as to indulge his self-complacency, as St. Gregory says: “It is easier for them to see within themselves that which is  pleasing to them, than that which is displeasing.” Perhaps you also have this tendency.

Cajetan Mary da Bergamo, Humility of Heart

If we do wrong — and Scripture is clear that we all have — we are guilty and therefore should feel shame. Though it is unpleasant to feel guilt and shame, the answer is not to do away with them, but to fight against sin.

Consider this: Touching a hot stove hurts. What is the answer to this problem? Our society would tell us to find some sort of salve or medicine to deaden the pain. Common sense tells us to not touch the stove.

Some would call this being judgmental. I disagree. If you feel guilt and shame, it is because you think you have done wrong. I’m not going to argue that you haven’t, because we all have. Thanks be to God that we have hope of forgiveness through Jesus.

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