Sunday, August 17, 2008

Humility and how I achieved it. Psalm 131.

If you are a fan of Only Fools and Horses you will remember the episode about the communion wine. For those not favored with this memory I should tell you that the Trotters are a working class family from south London. Derek (Del-boy) and Rodney are ne'er-do-wells who sail close the wind when it comes to obeying the law. Del-boy makes his living as a market trader and his gormless brother Rodney is his witless assistant. In this episode Del-boy wants to do the local vicar a favor. I can't remember exactly why - it was either because he wanted to get his young son Damien baptized or because he'd just stolen the lead off the church roof. Anyway, he proposes a scheme to the vicar that they go into business selling 'already-consecrated' Communion wine. Del-boy imports cheap wine from Portugal by the truck load while the vicar sprinkles holy water on the truck as it parks in the road outside the church.

Since they are undercutting the market, the scheme goes very well until the purchasers discover that the wine is Portuguese white, not red, and ask for their money back, at which point Del-boy scarpers, leaving the vicar to find the money.

I tell this story in order to boast about some changes I brought in when I was an elder at my church. We were buying our (unfermented) Communion wine from an ecclesiastic supplier at an exorbitant price. Since it is just grape juice, I suggested we buy (red) grape juice from Tesco and use that. We saved a bit of money that could be used to spread the Gospel that way. Communion bread and wine were previously served by the deacons who sat prominently at the front of the church dressed in smart business suits. I initiated a change whereby around 70 volunteers would join a rota for serving the Communion elements, so that no-one would get puffed up about having an exalted position in the church.

And I tell this story to show how insidious pride is. They may have been good changes in the way we ran the Communion service, although they may have offended some members of the congregation, but why am I boasting about introducing them?

Psalm 131 is a prayer about humility. You won't find much written about humility - probably because writing about it suggests that you know how to do it. "Lifelong humility; and how I achieved it." sounds rather presumptuous. The truth is that anyone who stands up and preaches or sits down and writes about this (or any other)subject always has to battle with pride. A habit has arisen recently of applause in churches. I must say that I am uncomfortable with it. If the under-fives sing "Away in a manger" they need to be encouraged perhaps, but when a soloist performs a song or an instrumentalist plays some music, I wonder whether they are there to entertain us or to worship God. Am I being stuffy? Perhaps I am, but I battle so hard with my own pride (there we are, boasting again) that I fear that others should not be subjected to the same temptation. I should hate it if anybody applauded one of my sermons.

How to react to praise is always very difficult. Deflecting the credit to the Lord is apt to meet with the response that it wasn't that good. One reply I heard from a pastor who was told that he had just preached a wonderful sermon was, "Yes, I know. The Devil just told me the same thing."

Yet a false humility is also out of place. If an expert pianist is praised for his performance, it sounds false and even patronizing to reply, "Oh, no it wasn't; you must have missed all the wrong notes and the way I fluffed my opening." I think the only true response is simply to thank them for the compliment and change the subject. I am tempted to respond to praise by asking in what ways I am wonderful and milking the applause.

What did David mean by 'haughty eyes' in verse 1 of the Psalm? Matthew Henry adds, "Either to look with envy upon those who are above me or with disdain on those that are below me." Neither envy nor disdain have any place in the church, but how they sneak in.

There was a time when I was envious of other people being asked to do things in the church. If someone was leading the service or doing the Scripture reading or interviewing a baptismal candidate I would ask myself, "Why is he doing that? I could do it far better." There were some things that I recognized that I had no talent for like flower arranging or singing solos, but if there were things that i could do, I felt quite bitter about not being asked. Thankfully, the Lord loaded tasks upon me until I had to cry enough. Now I am quite happy to sit at the back and be grateful that so many people have the opportunity to serve. I will do what I am asked to do, but I have learned to rejoice in other people's gifts.

However, I don't think I am free from envy. There is a well known story of Spurgeon being told that his dinner guest was now quite free from sin; the 'old man' within him was finally dead. At this Spurgeon threw a jug of water over him, causing the man to explode with anger. "Ah!" said Spurgeon, "I thought as much. The 'old man' isn't dead; he was only sleeping. A drop of water soon revived him." It would certainly be possible to revive envy in me, and I know I am not free of disdain.

When I was very young, before I was converted, I looked down on black people, Jews, immigrants, women, people who weren't as clever as me, people who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, people who weren't English (even Americans), people who didn't understand science, ugly people, cripples, Northeners, fat people and Roman Catholics. That was a whole lot of prejudice that needed cleaning out of my system.

One of the wonders of grace is that Jesus could love me enough to die for me while I was like that. I didn't have to get clean first. We often preach repentance to sinners. Chris Kelly gave me the remarkable insight that we repent after we are converted, not before. How could we repent when we were dead in our trespasses and sins?

In general I have been cured of most of my prejudices, but I still find it hard not to look down on people with poor personal hygiene and people who tow caravans behind them on the busy road. I still speak without thinking about the people who might be hurt by what I say, and I'm still prone to make a cheap joke about someone who suffers from a handicap (like being Irish, for example). (See what I mean).

When we are embarrassed we often try to dispel it with a joke. It is hard to really admit our pride. I have the following from Alister McGrath's textbook on Christian Theology. Apparently feminists think that even sins are gender-specific. The ones we hear about: pride, anger, arrogance, pomposity, self-importance are really sins that are male-specific; no woman ever feels like that. Female sins are those of slinking into the background, self effacement, thinking or themselves as nothing. The remedy, they say, is not less pride but more (only they call it self esteem). Doesn't sound like the woman of Proverbs 31:10-31 to me.

See how I digress when faced with my pride. It is hard to admit our failings and the truth is we are not required to enumerate them to the world, but we had better be honest before God (and our wives).

Verse 2 tells us to quieten our prattling. No, that's too harsh. The image is of a toddler who skins his knee or gets lost in a crowd. He wants his Mummy. And when he is enfolded in her arms, he is calm. He is quiet. He stops his sobbing. That's how we should be with God; like a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings. When we quieten our soul and are content with God's will; then we know true humility.

O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and evermore. We don't rely on ourselves, on our own talents, on our wealth, on our intelligence, on our gifts, on our masculinity, on our race, on our silver spoon, on our connections, on our networking; we rely on the Lord, both now and evermore.


Elizabeth said...

Believe me, I suffer from pride, arrogance, self-centredness and self-righteousness too :-)

It is not a male prerogative, whatever the feminists might say.........

Anonymous said...

Of course I am not without sin. I don't think I 'look down' or look with disdain upon fat people, but I do believe that they have a character flaw in that they cannot control themselves, or they indulge themselves to excess. My wife believes they have no self-regard.

Perhaps I should hold a neutral position on such matters, but I feel the same way about drug users, about those who won't work although are quite healthy and fully able to work, about cheaters and thieves, and so on.

Should we feel non-judgmental about such folks, or should we hold them to higher standards? I don't think it is a sin to expect people to pull their own weight.

Those who are burdened with afflictions such as being handicapped et cetera I do feel differently about.

Anonymous said...

"If any one of you is without sin , let him be the first to throw a stone..."(John 8:7b).

"As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say." (John 12:47-50).

If He, who has every right to judge us, does not, what gives us the right to do so?

Anonymous said...

Psalm 131 is a passage I have been going back to very often in the past year. I continue to be amazed at how it touches deep portions of my soul.
Thanks, Terry, for your insights and vulnerability. I sometimes smile when I think about what you have written in your blogs as something that I have been thinking about in the days previous to your post. Pretty wild how God works--fun, huh? (Oops...did I sound American here...ha!).