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If would have gone up the way you came down…

There’s a story told about a brash young Scottish preacher that went into the pulpit with an easily-apparent confidence or swagger. He knew this sermon would be good. Then the sermon bombed and he stepped down from the pulpit dejected and humbled.

An elder says to him, basically, “If you would have gone up the way you came down, then you may have come down the way you went up.”

On Talking About Yourself

The Apostles Creed begins with the pronoun “I”; but it goes on to rather more important nouns and names.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows

One of my rules of thumb about preachers is that you can almost immediately tell what kind of preacher they are by the introduction of a sermon. If they start out talking about themselves, you might as well run away, and fast. But that’s not always true. There is still a chance that they can move on from the “I.” A small chance, but a chance.

Do you know people who constantly talk about themselves? Are you one of those people yourself? Here’s the question: does the talking get beyond the “I” to ‘rather more important nouns and names’? Notice also the percentage of the Creed devoted to “I” versus the more important nouns and names.

Here’s a goal (for me, but you can use it if you like): always try to move from the “I” to rather more important nouns and names. And try to do it in similar percentage to the Creed.

Let It Go – What if He did?

We used to be told in the nursery that if a man were to bore a hole through the centre of the earth and climb continually down and down, there would come a moment at the centre when he would seem to be climbing up and up…

…Whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril. It is but a symbol; but it happens to fit the psychological fact. St. Francis might love his little town as much as before, or more than before; but the nature of the love would be altered even in being increased. He might see and love every tile on the steep roofs or every bird on the battlements; but he would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence. Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it would not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not be dropped…

-G.K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, p. 87

Chesterton sees the humiliation of Francis (that is, his becoming humble before God) as a parable; perhaps even as an allegory. As he went down, down, down he began to go up, up, up. He began to see the world from the perspective of God, or at least from a godly perspective. The great weight of society was no longer reason to boast, but reason for dependence. What if all that weight were dropped and came crashing down?

He really does have the whole world in his hands – in its entirety and in its parts. Should he choose to let go, then all of that mass goes crumbling down. Hence, the heavier we are, the more we should take heed lest we fall. This was the entire point of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God. If the Lord does not hold our hand, in due time we shall slip and fall.

We must humble ourselves – go down, down, down – if we are to rise up as satellites and see the world as it actually is. We must become small enough to see the bigness of the world, and therefore the power of the God who upholds it, and his grace not to let it go.

I Do Not Know What I Do Not Know (Augustine)

How, then, shall I respond to him who asks, “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” I do not answer, as a certain one is reported to have done facetiously (shrugging off the force of the question). “He was preparing hell,” he said, “for those who pry too deep.” It is one thing to see the answer; it is another to laugh at the questioner–and for myself I do not answer these things thus. More willingly would I have answered, “I do not know what I do not know,” than cause one who asked a deep question to be ridiculed–and by such tactics gain praise for a worthless answer.

Rather, I say that thou, our God, art the Creator of every creature. And if in the term “heaven and earth” every creature is included, I make bold to say further: “Before God made heaven and earth, he did not make anything at all. For if he did, what did he make unless it were a creature?” I do indeed wish that I knew all that I desire to know to my profit as surely as I know that no creature was made before any creature was made.

-Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 11.12

I was having a casual conversation with a ‘secular’ teacher today and I made a passing reference to Augustine. He told me that he often uses a quote by him in one of his classes. ‘What quote?’ I asked. His response: ‘I do not know what I do not know.’

I had never heard that one before, so I asked him where it came from. When he said that it was from the Confessions, I was taken aback. I’ve read Confessions, and made all sorts of notes on it, so how could I have missed such a gem? He gave me the exact reference (book 11, section 12) so I checked it as soon as I got home this evening. I found that the translation I own, the Penguin Classics edition, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, does not contain the phrase. I then did a quick Google search and found that the exact phrase is found in Outler’s translation (which is the version available at CCEL; see above).

The Penguin edition puts the phrase in question like this:

For in matters of which I am ignorant I would rather admit the fact than gain credit by giving the wrong answer and making a laughing-stock of a man who asks a serious question (p. 262).

In other words, Augustine was not afraid to admit that he didn’t know what he didn’t know.

Those are wise words, and, though I cannot read the Latin, the English is particularly loaded. I see at least a double meaning in the phrase (as it is in English). On the one hand, it can simply mean admitting your ignorance. On the other hand, it can mean admitting your ignorance to your ignorance. Not only are you ignorant (there are things you do not know), but you are also ignorant of your ignorance (you don’t know the depth of your ignorance, and how that ignorance affects your knowledge. In fact there are times that, since you don’t know what you don’t know, you actually don’t know that you don’t know). That’s quite profound, and it is a true expression of, and call for, intellectual humility.

Rent-a-Everything

How can I take pride in something that isn’t mine to begin with? That would be like bragging about my new Hummer H3 – right after I pick it up from Budget Rent-a-Car for the weekend. When we rightly understand that God is the owner of all and everything is on loan, our hearts will be free from pride in what we have.

– Anonymous, Embracing Obscurity, p. 81

In a book filled with illustrations, this was probably the best. It’s all on loan people. Every book you have is a library book. I’d say that has some implications.

  • For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it? (1 Cor. 4:7).

I finished the book last week and it didn’t quite live up to my expectations; but the concept itself, of embracing obscurity, is worthwhile and timely. It succeeded in stimulating my imagination (see the poem from last week).

The Value of a Crumb

Two unrelated, yet related, quotes in this one:

The Canaanitish woman in the fifteenth of Matthew sets a high price upon a crumb of mercy. Ah, Lord, says the humble soul, if I may not have a loaf of mercy, give me a piece of mercy; if not a piece of mercy, give me a crumb of mercy. If I may not have sun-light, let me have moon-light; if not moon-light, let me have star-light; if not star-light, let me have candle-light; and for that I will bless thee…Every smile of God, and every discovery of God, and every drop of mercy from God, is very highly prized by a soul that walks humbly with God. The name of Christ, the voice of Christ, the footsteps of Christ, the least touch of the garment of Christ, the least-regarded truth of Christ, the meanest and least-regarded among the flock of Christ, is highly prized by humble souls that are interested in Christ.

-Thomas Brooks, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ from Works vol. 3, p. 16

As a great shoe fits not a little foot, nor a great sail a little ship, nor a great ring a little finger, so a great estate fits not a humble soul…So an humble soul is more contented and satisfied with Daniel’s pulse and John’s coat than proud princes are with their glistering crowns and golden scepters (pp. 21-22).

It strikes me that the richest among us often struggle with contentment. I am certain that the poor do as well, but that is beside the point here. The Christian can do all things through Christ, who strengthens him. That is, the Christian can find contentment in any circumstance. Why? Because the company of the simplest saint is more to be desired than the audience of the pagan prime minister. Because a touch of Christ’s garment is of more value than the touch of a diamond ring, or of celebrity skin. Because a crumb of the mercy of Jesus is more valuable than whatever dainties a Michelin Star chef might put on the plate. And he gives us more than crumbs, more than a touch, and a church full of simple saints to meet every week.