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.