Let us Ramble: Humility and Community

This year in my annual report to the church there’s a strong statement. I wrote in November and revised earlier this month the idea that “ We need to remember that we are a community unified and united in purpose.” I did not make this statement lightly as unity within the body of Christ is one of the most challenging and most important characteristics of a healthy church.

You will notice I did not write the phrase “uniformity” as the goal is one of connection and not utter conformity. Unity and unification around a concept is important for any community, but especially a religious community. To borrow from Henri Nouwen (on the ninth page in his book “Discernment”) we should be united around the idea of our “one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things.”

There is nothing as antithetical to unification around this desire than arrogance. Arrogance leads us to believe it is okay to ignore God’s call to simple concepts like talking to people instead of about people. Arrogance leads us to believe that we are better than each other or better than those called to particular ministries. Arrogance leads us to engage in a lot of the behaviors that hurt and harm churches.

I think Bernard of Clairvaux puts it well. The saint from the 1100s has been translated (by the Cisterian Order in their 1973 critical translation) as saying “If ignorance makes beasts of us, arrogance make us like demons. It is pride, the greatest of sins, to use gifts as if they were one’s by natural right and while receiving benefits to usurp the benefactor’s glory.”

Now, what’s interesting about this quote is that Bernard prefaces it by pointing out that everyone should know two facts: what they are and that they are not who they are by their own power. Bernard states clearly that everyone needs to know that they are who they are by the gift of God and to accept their role with humility.

Leaders in the church (both lay and clergy) are called by God to places of leadership. They are given gifts and graces to fulfill their role. It is great arrogance to both take these gifts for granted and to ignore the responsibilities that come with them. Bernard warns strongly against dulling one’s blessing by forgetting one’s call and forgetting the purpose for which one has been blessed. Bernard, holding a very strong opinion, writes (pardon the 1970s language of translation)

“When a man, promoted to a high dignity, does not appreciate the favor he received, because of his ignorance he is rightly compared to the animals with whom he shares his present state of corruption and mortality. It also happens when a man, not appreciating the gift of reason, starts mingling with the herds of dumb beasts to the extent that, ignoring his own interior glory, he models his conduct on the object of his sense. Led on by curiosity, he becomes like any other animal since he does not see he has receive more than they.”

Leaders are called to live up to the blessings they have received. One of the greatest challenges that faces me as a United Methodist Elder is the echoes of the words spoken by Bishop Marcus Matthews over me at my ordination. I was told to “Take thou authority…” The bestowed authority is an authority that comes with challenges that are well addressed by this article from Ministry Matters. Nonetheless, it is a promotion that comes from a place of high dignity within my tradition.

On my desk there’s a list of people with arrows. I was ordained by Bishop Marcus Matthews, who was ordained by Bishop James Kenneth Mathews, who was ordained by Bishop Benton Thoburn Badly, who was ordained by Bishop James Mills Thorburn, who was ordained by Bishop Edward Raymond Ames, who was ordained by Bishop Robert Richford Roberts, who was ordained by Bishop Francis Asbury, who was ordained by Bishop Thomas Coke, who was ordained by Archbishop Potter, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Church of England, which was born out of direct apostolic succession from the beginning of the church.

There’s a high calling to the authority that was passed to me by Bishop Matthews. To ignore the weight and the responsibility of that calling would be a great sin. My authority as an Elder in apostolic succession comes with a great responsibility to not only maintain the standards of my office but to lead with integrity the people of God towards our one great and true desire.

Bernard’s words are not simply for leaders though. Believers in the church who are called to follow (both lay and clergy—especially if clergy serve in an episcopally based system or in a system where there is discernment of the body held over the discernment of the clergy) are called to know who they are, where they are, what is expected of them, and to accept the gifts granted to them by God with humility as well. Leaders are gifts from God often sent to teach us things that come unnaturally without help. Do leaders make mistakes? Yes, but they are often present to teach us things beyond ourselves.

As an Elder in that line of apostolic succession, I am also called to be a follower. I am asked to respect the bishop who has been discerned and sent to be the leader of my Annual Conference, am asked to respect my District Superintendent and the clergy who are called to assist in leadership through both the Order of Elders and the Board of Ordained Ministry. I am called to respect the Annual and General Conference, the Book of Discipline, the Book of Resolutions, and even to consider the non-binding words of the Council of Bishops with respect. I am called to participate in the life of the Conference and to use my voice, but I am also called to be a part of a system that is larger than myself. I am even called to consider the advice of the folks that I am called to lead, even if obedience is not required in that last situation due to the traditions surrounding both freedom of the pulpit and the role of the pastor within my church tradition. The calling to be a follower is as integral to my leadership as my call to be a leader.

In both these roles there’s a role both for knowledge and humility. Bernard writes:

“We should, therefore, fear that ignorance which gives us a too low opinion of our selves. But we should fear no less, but rather more, that which makes us think ourselves better than we are. This is what happens when we deceive ourselves thinking some good is in us of ourselves. But indeed you should detest and avoid even more than these two forms of ignorance that presumption by which you, knowingly and on purpose, seek your glory in goods that are not your own and that you certain are not in you by your own power.”

Bernard (in context) is talking about more than just physical goods. Bernard previously calls accepting praise for the spiritual blessings and spiritual roles that God has granted and gifted ability for to be no less than vainglory, which is excessive pride and vanity. Goods in Bernard’s view are more than just physical things. All that we have is given to us for the glory of God. When we claim anything as rightly ours by our own hand, whether it be a pair of jeans, a work of art, or a paycheck, then we are missing the point of why we have what we have in this life. To tie it back to Henri Nouwen, we have what we have for our “one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things.”

It is the greatest arrogance to take what we have been given for this one purpose and to use it to do the exact opposite. God is love and calls us to love. If we turn what God has given us to purposes of hate, isn’t that rightly named demonic? God calls us to care for the least of the children of God. If we hoard what we have from God to the detriment of those who need us to be the hands and feet of Christ, isn’t that the very heart of arrogance? Aren’t such acts drawing away or usurping the very glory of our one true benefactor?

When we are blessed by God we are called to live for that one true desire. When the Holy Spirit works and weaves within us, the tapestry is meant for God’s glory. When the Son grants us life and a place within the family of God, we are called to follow his teachings instead of our own.

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