Another Definition

My attention recently has been drawn to words, particularly terms that challenge religious atheists. Another word brought to my attention in the past month deals with ministerial authority and discernment. That word is humility.

In my congregational polity class, we were asked from whence we will draw our authority as ministers. The author of one of our readings presumed that the pulpit for “serious” preachers has dimensions that are “scary and threatening.” Now, I might be willing to accept “daunting,” but the only nervousness I have when I am in the pulpit is simply the desire for service elements to go as I have planned. And even then, when worship goes in unplanned directions, the results can be amazing.

My source of authority, in the pulpit and throughout my ministerial development, has been human courage. As an historian, and particularly as a fan of Unitarian Universalist history, I cannot help but be infused with the numerous instances of courage displayed by my predecessors over the centuries. The enormous sacrifices paid by some, from imprisonment to even death, evidence the cost paid for our liberal faith. The bravery of countless women and men to commit heresy (“to choose”) when that choice ran counter to the dominant paradigm of society reveals the depth of our convictions. The dedication of our religious ancestors to acts of justice, acceptance, and compassion indicate the essential place of love in our collective theology.

When I stand in front of a congregation, I walk a path trod by many hundreds of others who have committed themselves to this task. I stand for the freedom paid for by the toil, sweat, tears, and even blood of comrades gone before. I speak with my own authentic voice since our commitment to polity does not bind me to creedal statements or hierarchies beyond the people I serve. I speak from my own experience because I can trust the wisdom and the capacity to reason of my congregants to think for themselves and to apply what they hear to their own lives. And, I prophesy because, as the author of that same article stated, I must say what I say and never compromise because that is how we grow and learn and be with each other.

When I have doubts, or question why I should assume this mantle of responsibility, all I have to do is to remember that I am not in the pulpit alone. I am with Arius and Origen, Servetus and David, the Polish Brethren, Murray and Ballou, Channing and Parker, and hundreds of current ministers and seminarians. My source of authority is the human courage to choose, to sacrifice for one’s beliefs, and to open oneself to others freely.

But, it has been pointed out to me that I can come across as “confident,” even “egocentric.” I have been cautioned to hone my humility. So, let’s look at this word “humble.” According to Wiktionary, the two meanings include:

1. Near the ground; not high or lofty; not pretentious or magnificent; unpretending; unassuming; as, a humble cottage.
2. Thinking lowly of one’s self; claiming little for one’s self; not proud, arrogant, or assuming; lowly; weak; modest.

Some of these meanings are, indeed, worth cultivating. As I become a minister, I am endeavoring to avoid being pretentious or arrogant, to pretending to be something I am not, or to assuming that I am more than I am.

But I find little value in thinking of myself as lowly and weak. And while I do not see myself as above others, I do represent the search for the loftiest of human concerns; our attempts to engage with our ultimate purposes. I am just a catalyst, here to play a small role to facilitate the reaction between souls and between each individual and the universe. Our liberal religious tradition is magnificent, and as its representative in that moment in time behind the pulpit, I would do it a disservice to aspire too much to modesty, and to regard it with too little pride.

Of course, the lines drawn here are thin. I can only hope that those listening to my sermons or reading my words sense the sincerity with which I present them. Not just as a candidate for the ministry, but as a human being, I aspire to greatness and to encouraging greatness in others. That is a humbling goal, but one that I strive achieve with every fiber of my being.

4 thoughts on “Another Definition

  1. Jeff, I really enjoyed reading this reflection – as a fellow seminarian, your call to stand in the shoes of our tradition’s greatest similarly resonates as one that can be both empowering and overwhelming. As for courage, the ‘middle way’ you propose between abject lowliness and belligerent self-aggrandizement seems just about right. Guru Nanak Dev Ji once opined: “Make humility the plow, consciousness the plow-person, remembrance the preparation of the soil, and union with the divine the planting time.” In this short musing, he seems to capture the necessary balance between un-puffing the self and staying present to and in the world, all the while remaining grounded in that infamous combination of memory and hope.


  2. I’ve been under the impression that “humility” is a cognate of “humus” or “dirt/soil” — a form of groundedness, if you will, that reminds us always that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return, that sort of thing. On a more practical level, the discipline of humility reminds me that no matter how smart I may be or how much I may know, EVERYONE around me knows something that I don’t, and if I can just learn to keep my mouth shut and my ears open, they might be kind enough to share it with me. Finally, for me humility is part of a package of virtues which includes gratitude, generosity, and service as well…we respond to the great gift of life itself by recognizing that it IS a gift, and by graciously and generously gifting back to posterity and the wider world though humble, useful service.



  3. Tim, thank you for your comments. Let me say that I can find common ground (pardon the pun) with your words, but worry that your point of view for me can be a slippery slope toward those definitions that I find distasteful and negative.

    For instance, I would say that the connection to earth/ground for me is too limiting. I see us as all part of the cosmic stuff that comprises not just the dirt beneath us, but the sky above us as well to the stars and beyond.

    And, I agree completely that we must always remember that others have unique gifts and memories. I guess I want to move beyond that dichotomy to a place where we all see each other as travellers in an unknown land – a place where those differences that separate us here in the mundane world have little import.

    I guess your last point is the one with which I find less resonance. Of course, I agree that service to posterity and the wider world is essential. What I don’t share is the sense that life as we recognize it is any more special or sacred than any other process of existence, material or immaterial. Therefore, I don’t understand the purpose of service being humble. For me, and I recognize that this is not the case for everyone, humility implies passivity and indirect action.

    But then, perhaps we are looking at two sides of the same coin. When some people look at Jesus, for instance, they see the gentle healer with soft hands and mild speech. I see the man arguing with pharisees, frustrated with his often doltish apostles, and overturning tables in the temple.

    Perhaps what really matters is whether we can work together, spanning that spectrum, for the common good.


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