St. Paul’s Thanksgiving Message: A Chapel Reflection on Humility

St. Paul Preaching in Athens by Raphael
St. Paul Preaching in Athens by Raphael

[I gave the following talk in our 6 – 12 Chapel service this morning]

Happy Thanksgiving!

The excerpt from Chapter Twelve of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, today’s scripture, is just as much a message to us as it was to the members of the early church in Rome. Sent to us almost two thousand years ago, Paul’s letter has landed in our mailbox just in time. We find it there right when we need it most. Listen to this morning’s scripture again:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.”

To my ear Paul provides a perfect Thanksgiving message. To live toward the expectation he delineates would be to live one’s life as a form of thanksgiving.

I struggled to write my comments for today’s chapel service. I started and stopped. I postponed and delayed. I thumbed through quotations from Mahatma Gandhi to Ernest Hemingway, and from Abraham Lincoln to Elie Wiesel. I stared at my shoes, and stared at a blank computer screen. Sometimes in the days leading to one of my talks I have found a kind of easy inspiration from events beyond our school. Not so this time. Actually I have found much in the news this Fall to quash inspiration. Nationally, we often seem to be pulling apart, straining against each other at a moment when ideally we should be coming together. It is like we are forgetting something, something really important, amidst the din of fake news stories, shallow, angry debates, and the self-righteous commentary of talking heads. What is it we are forgetting?

Too often recently we have forgotten ourselves and lost sight of each other. We have been so focused on what divides us that we have missed what ties us together. Lost in our certainty that whatever position we hold is correct, we have become dismissive not only of opposing views, but far more dangerously, of the people who hold them. This is not a place we can or should stay as a nation. It is fortuitous that HUMILITY is our Chapel theme for the month of November because it is humility that should guide us in exactly the same moment that the world around us seems consumed by its opposites: narcissism and pride. If Pride is the sin of forgetting God, Humility is the virtue of remembering him. Thus Paul’s words call us to be counter-cultural, to resist what he calls the “pattern of the world” in order to be transformed through faith.

C.S. Lewis offers an informative and concise perspective on humility, saying in his significant work called Mere Christianity that: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Lewis in only fourteen words—“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less”—elevates humility to its proper place among human virtues. He pushes back against an inaccurate definition of humility—that it is a low view of one’s own worth—and instead asserts that humility is a recognition that we exist in connection and in relationship and that we should seek communion with others. Rather than diminishing us, being humble allows us to see that we are created by God to be part of God’s creation. Therefor, humility, perhaps ironically, allows us to see that we are a part of the eternal.

Fascinatingly, in Paul’s letter to us, he does the same thing. Hear it one more time:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.”

 Like C.S. Lewis, Paul is defining humility. He is also offering an approach to life where our actions can be the embodiment of thanksgiving. He is giving us the ground rules for living a good life. We need to listen to him.

In an essay called, “A Native Hill” Wendell Berry layers a challenge on top of all this talk of humility and of thanksgiving. He says:

“We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

Like St. Paul, and like C.S. Lewis, Berry is providing perspective on humility and, I believe, through his use of the word “reverence”, perspective on thanksgiving as well. He points us away from believing that we can know everything when he calls us to “acknowledge” “mystery”, to “stand in awe”, and to “recover the sense of majesty of creation.” He also challenges us to live by the idea that “what is good for the world will be good for us” instead of the more self-centered idea that what is good for me is good for the world.

St. Paul, C.S. Lewis, and Wendell Berry each share something valuable with us. They call us to see the essential role of humility, and they challenge us not simply to see Thanksgiving as a date on a calendar, but as the reverent condition within which we should live our lives.

Earlier in my remarks this morning, I said, “Too often recently we have forgotten ourselves and lost sight of each other. We have been so focused on what divides us that we have missed what ties us together.” Imagine a world where humility and thanksgiving are central. In that world we could say, “We acknowledge we are each part of God’s creation, so we recognize the value of each other. Thus what divides us never overtakes our commitment to what ties us together.”

I, for one, would like to live in such a place, and it is my hope, and my humble prayer for this Thanksgiving that, beginning in this place, we can make it so.

Amen.

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A note on the selection from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: As I was looking for a reading that would work with my thoughts about humility, I read a message to the University of the South: Sewanee Community (my alma mater) from both its Vice Chancellor and its student leadership. Paul’s letter arrived in my mailbox at the perfect moment. I have copied the message below:

TO THE UNIVERSITY COMMUNITY

As citizens, we have been dismayed by events following last week’s election results. As members of the University community, which ever strives to be a place where brothers and sisters dwell together in unity, we recognize that, although we may be at some remove from what is taking place, we are inevitably affected by it. At such a time as this, it is more important than ever for us not simply to state the words of our University motto but to live and to model those words, so that everyone at this University knows that the values we share, and for which this University stands, will not in any way be compromised.

St. Paul writes to the Romans: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.”

In this spirit, and as University leaders, we commit ourselves to living out this admonition. And we urge all members of this community – faculty, staff, students – to consider how you might do the same. Let us make a special effort to greet one another as we pass on campus; to sit with someone we don’t know in McClurg; to engage in the hard task of learning by broadening the limited reach of our own individual understanding and discussing our differences with civility; and thus to make this place, at least, one where liberty and wholesome restraint are kept in balance and the dignity of every human being continues to be respected.

Ecce Quam Bonum,

John M. McCardell, Jr., Vice-Chancellor and President

David Harkins, President, Student Government Association

Mark McAlister, Chair, Honor Council

Molly Payne-Hardin, President, St. Luke’s Community

Sarah Tillman Reeves, President, Order of Gownsmen

4 thoughts on “St. Paul’s Thanksgiving Message: A Chapel Reflection on Humility

  1. Kelly Tooman April 7, 2017 / 11:49 am

    Dear Mr. Peters,

    I wanted to write to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this posting. I found you in an odd way-through an advertisement for a teaching position on the NAIS site. In researching more about the school, I came across your blog. It’s unusual to find a head of the school writing such an interesting series of blog postings. I too, am a writer, photographer and teacher based in Cleveland, Ohio. In fact, I may use your C.S. Lewis quote in my coming blog post about why I became a teacher. Thank you for the wonderful reminder of why we are all here.

    All my best,
    Kelly Tooman

    • J Ross Peters April 7, 2017 / 12:38 pm

      Thank you for this, Kelly. I am grateful to have readers like you! I actually lived in Cleveland and worked at Hawken as Upper School Head awhile back–it always good to hear from a Cleveland!

      • Kelly Tooman April 7, 2017 / 10:41 pm

        Thank you! Small world. I worked for many years at Ruffing Montessori in Cleveland Heights. I’m thinking of applying to your school. I like the philosophy behind it. Sounds similar in many ways to Montessori. The spirituality is also a plus.

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