Humility: The Beginning
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 16, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Proverbs 1: 7, 22-33
I’m not sure now when I started using this prayer as my all-time prayer for Illumination, but I have done so for a while now, like at least 4 years or so, but today it takes even more importance because it is a statement of what I am talking about. It is a statement of humility, a statement asking for help, a statement that says not my will in this, but thy will, thy will be done. . . Father fill me with what it is that you would have me be filled with. . . it is not my eyes where this begins, for my eyes may not see all that is, and are shaped too often by my own bias, it is not my mind where this begins, because my mind is limited to my own perspective, and therefore I must break outside, looking outside of my own mind. . . and all of this is to ask what we can be, more than our own lives, a part of the whole, a piece of the amazing work of creation, on going and true, the work of God’s hands. . . his eyes, his mind, his being. . . the way, the truth, and the life. . . I didn’t plan to always say the same thing, but I can think of no better way to begin.
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
So, this morning’s Old Testament Passage that Erick read really gets at this morning’s issue. . . Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom—the beginning. I said last week that we are going to look at the pattern that I outlined, that looking at life we can see cycles that fit this pattern description. Maybe at some point in these 8 weeks I can figure out what to call them. . . not really patterns. . . not really stages. . . not really steps. . . oh well. . . Humility, Discernment, Resolution, Perseverance, Fulfillment, Legacy, Retirement. . . so today we are all about the first, for lack of a better term, step: Humility. Humility is the beginning. . . or again Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. . . and this is a good place to start because wisdom is what we are seeking. . . when we act, when ask who we are, when we seek the truth as basis for our actions, we are seeking wisdom. We want to be a person confident, and cool, able persevere into fulfillment, and leave behind a legacy, a trail of life that makes a difference in the world, the difference that God meant us for. . . interesting that humility is the starting point, that lack of wisdom is the first step, that not knowing is the beginning, that we start with a question, we start with doubt, we start with the realization that the answers to our questions are not already known by us but instead need to be sought. Why is this so important? I thought I’d use Saul’s conversion into the Apostle Paul as an entry point. . . so let’s take a look at that Acts 9: 1-9:
9 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
The conversion of Saul is such an amazing story because here is a man, the chief persecutor of the burgeoning Christian movement, the one who had just approved the stoning of Steven, he who in what we just read is “breathing threats and murder against the Disciples of the Lord, who is on his way to Damascus to find any followers of Jesus, so he can bind them and bring them back to Jerusalem to face trial and punishment. . . perhaps even like that which he approved for Steven. . . It is this Saul, who becomes converted, with a blinding light on the road to Damascus, the converting blinding light of Jesus himself. . . . but I want to take a look first at the Saul who was the persecutor. . . where does his initiative for action come from? From where does he derive his mission to kill and persecute? Can we say that he was wrong in that mission? We can can’t we, especially if his life is about to do a complete 180 degree turn. . . we must deduce from the completeness of his change that he was wrong before and right after, that Christ’s interception of him on the road to Damascus was the beginning of his wisdom and not the end of it. So what made Saul the persecutor? What made him think that, that was the right thing to do? Where did he go wrong? We don’t necessarily have answers to those questions.
We don’t know exactly what happened to Saul, but we can imagine where someone would go wrong because it is not hard to do. There is a great old Chinese anecdote. I’ve talked about it a few times because it is great for illustrating a point about our tendency to become misdirected in life. It’s called “The Missing Axe.” There is a man, who loses his axe, and then he sees a boy, and the boy looks like a thief, he walks like a thief, and he talks like a thief. . . but then the man finds his axe, and the boy transforms back into just any ordinary boy. That story is created to show the difficulty with our perception. One thing is that is true about human beings is that often what we think determines what we see. . . and the flipside is also true. . . what we see determines what we think. . . so if both of these are true at the same time, it is easy to get into a downward spiral of error, and stuck completely in delusion. You can’t trust your eyes, and you can’t trust your mind because neither of them points to the truth anymore. And there is only one way to fix that problem, only one way to save yourself from that spiral of illusion. . . do you know what it is? To doubt. . . To Question. . . to question what your eyes see and what your mind thinks. . . that one little question of doubt can break that spiral of illusion. . . it doesn’t necessarily get you on the right path, but it let’s you realize for once and for all you weren’t on the right path to begin with. . . perhaps, and maybe that is what happened to Saul. . . his mind told his eyes to see Christians as criminals. . . and therefore they were, nothing could stop him from what he was doing except for one moment doubting that his assumptions were true. . . it took a blinding light. . .
But perhaps it wasn’t just hat. . . another piece from literature is W.H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio poem called, For The Time Being. . . in this poem he shows how, what he calls our four faculties are at war with eachother, the idea that there are four aspects about the way our minds and bodies perceive. . . that they can all be looking at the same exact issue and all see it differently, he says that the fact that there are four and not one is on account of our brokenness, he has them say together:
Over the life of Man
We watch and wait,
The Four who manage
His fallen estate:
We who are four were
Once but one,
Before his act of
We were himself when
His 'will was free,
His error became our
Chance to be.
The four faculties as he sees them are Intuition, Feeling, Sensation, and Thought. . . he introduces each one:
As a dwarf in the dark of
His belly I rest;
So intuition is our gut, our gut reaction. . . that pit in your stomach that let’s you know what is going on
A nymph, I inhabit
The heart in his breast;
The feeling then is in your heart, this is your emotions. . .
A giant, at the gates of
His body I stand;
This is the part based on your senses, what you see, what you take in and observe
His dreaming brain is
Then thought is last, your imagination, wherever your mind goes
Now you can imagine how powerful these four faculties would be for keen detection of what is going on in the world around us and our place in it, that is if they were all functioning in order and were all on the same page, but we all know that at times these point to different things, all at once. My mind tells me this, my heart tells me this, but I have a bad feeling in my gut that I should do that, and everything I’m seeing around me says I should do something else entirely. Many of us have one or another of these faculties that is dominant over the others. . . maybe you let your emotions run. . . or maybe you never do. . . maybe you can only believe in something if you see it. . . maybe you believe that what you see is all that there is. . . and the other three do not exist. . . maybe you live in a world of your own creation. . . that what you imagine is the case. . . You can see how Auden’s theory of the Four Faculties could lead a person to have no clue about who they are and what they should do. . . but also how the person would have no concept at the same time that anything is wrong. . . they would simply follow their dominant faculty. . . and like my students would say. . . Imma do me. . . but who is you. . . what is it that we are supposed to do?
I asked my students at the beginning of one class how in control of what they think they are, how in control of their own identity they are. . . they all said like 99%, but then I asked them, ok, so how do you come to know what it is that you know. . . and we broke it into three categories, that some of knowledge is gained by experience, the trials and errors of life, the moment to moment keys and lessons we all face minute by minute. . . then we said that some knowledge is gained from external sources, like other people, friends, television, teachers, peers, even books are the external sources of times gone by, and lastly some knowledge is gained through internal sources of information. . . one may call it instinct, or wiring, or conscience, or chemical synapses, or genetic coding and DNA, but there is something there as to what we know already there innate at our birth. . . so we come to knowledge through experience, external, and internal. . . I asked them again. . . how much in control of who you are and what you think are you. . . most were still in the 90’s some were starting to have their percentage drop. . . seeing already where I was going with this. I asked them, How much control of your experiences do you have? Sure there seems to be some choice there, but many things that you have no control of, like where you will be born and who will come into your life, what major life shaping events you will be a part of. Many in this room were in some ways affected by the Vietnam War, but how much influence did you have over that war happening? How much do you have over most? Ok so now their percentages are really dropping, most to 33%. Because having experienced my talk about experience, they could see where I was going with the internal because there is hardly any control there. . . right? And that leaves the external. . . and we certainly have some control there right. . . we can listen to what we want right. . . we get to choose what from the outside world has an influence enough. . . so we get 1/3 of our knowledge and identity from things we can control. . . ah ah ah, not so fast, we might get to control who we listen to, but we cannot control who speaks to us, what we have access to, etc. . . so the percentage dropped remarkably. At this point all of my student’s minds are blown.. . . I can see them all going off. . . pow, pow, pow. . .Yes there is not much about our lives that we control. . . a Calvinist’s dream. . . but there is some.
We do get to act and choose somewhere at some level. We get to act. . . but what should determine that action? Proverbs 1—fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. . . maybe that just means realizing that you don’t know everything, that you are not in control of everything, much less even yourself, that there is much more about this world that you don’t know, than it is you do know, that you have something to seek. Humility, or this first step is about just for a minute doubting that you have it all figured out for yourself. . . and that if there is a God. . . which we believe to be the case. . . to him we can go for the beginning of those answers. . . that if he created us, knows us, calls us to a purpose of his devising, that if he knows and has formed our inward parts, that if we are fearfully and wonderfully made by him. . . that he had plans for us from the womb, it is to Him where we can take these questions, that it is to him where we can begin our search for the answers, and it is on the foundation of Him, that doubt, and that question where we can only hope to begin to take our part in the Kingdom of God. All else would be building something else, something entirely different from the Kingdom of God.
The story of Adam and Even and the fruit in the garden is an amazing allegory for this, how building on a lie can create the problems of the world. The serpent says, take eat there is no harm in it, you will not surely die, God lies. . . and they do. I don’t see this story as one from the past, but rather one that is representative of us daily. We here a lie, and then we begin to build our truth our life of action based on that lie, and we grow hopelessly far from the Kingdom of God really quickly. Perhaps in Saul’s case that thing he was building was his own kingdom, maybe he was a pawn of another, maybe there was an ancient misstep that he was building on. . . I don’t know what, but whatever he was building on came crashing down in a blinding flash of light, that left him blind for three humbling days. . . yes even for Saul it was not too late to change. If the beginning of wisdom is humility, then it is accessible to everyone. But like AA, it seems like the first step is admitting you have a problem. . . and that admittance is the humble first step along this path. . . the next is about discernment, and it is there we turn our attention towards next week. I mentioned earlier that our sources for knowledge, for coming to know things in our lives are experiential, external, and internal. . . as a sneak peak at next week. . . isn’t it cool how the Holy Trinity encapsulates all three. . . The experience of the Risen Christ. . . God made flesh for us to experience. . . the external of the otherness of God, the Father. . . creator, Holy, righteous, eternal, omnipotent, out of time. . . and then the internal of the indwelling Holy Spirit. . . quite an interesting place to begin with the question of discernment next week. . . I can’t wait!