The Taser's Edge

Humility, To Be Seen or Not to Be Seen, and the Imitation of Christ

 “Never trust yourself to appear in public, unless you love solitude; to speak, unless you love silence; to come to the front, unless you would sooner be at the back; to give orders, unless you know how to obey them.” (The Imitation of Christ, Book I, chapter 20b.)

During my Parish Discernment Committee (a component of my ordination in which a number of people, mostly laity, from the local congregation and community join with me to help discern my calling to ordained ministry with me), there were a few questions on Christian leadership.  When I hear “Christian leadership”, I have a next-to-involuntary strong negative reaction.  So strong of a reaction, in fact, that it makes me suspicious.  Why do I care so much, if my claim is that I don’t care?  Why can’t I just live and let live?

The first part of that answer is that I get really defensive when people in authority (yes, the ‘in authority’ part matters) ask for me to talk about Christian leadership.  On the Parish Discernment list of questions: “What kind of leadership style is most comfortable for you? Have there been instances when your favorite leadership model needed to be modified? In what way? Why? What was that like for you?”  On the rational level, I dislike the question because is it corporatespeak rather than the language of the Church.  Corporate-mindedness has damaged the American Church, its members, and its image (and the image of the Church is important, because its face is the face of Christ in the world).  But there is, as always, an irrational level.

It’s not that I don’t think some Christian leaders have a lot to teach others.  It’s that I believe the basis of Christian leadership is character development not skill development (Aristotle by way of Hauerwas, but with an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit that Aristotle—understandably—and Hauerwas—regrettably— lack).  God calls me to be a Christian leader, because in the divine economy, the way God is saving me is by binding me to a particular people as their leader.  I ‘work out my own salvation with fear and trembling’ by serving others.  It’s not works righteousness but a way of salvation, a process by which God saves me.  Ministering to others is the way that I am broken down, chiseled, and sanded into the image of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  Others are saved through other processes, but I have been called into this.

But putting the light back on me emotionally, my incredibly strong emotional reaction to ‘Christian leadership’ is not from any burning desire to save the American Church from wrong understandings, as dangerous as I believe those understandings to be.

Well, if it’s not that, then what is it?

In CPE, I have been challenged on my reticence to claim the good work that I do as the good work that it is.  In Anglican Missional Pastor (my ordination training), I have been challenged to speak up more often and I have been told that I have good things to say when I do speak.  In my church small group, I have heard the same thing.  And in my Parish Discernment Committee, I have had something important named for me: “You do not like to be seen.”

This matters a lot for my calling, as I wrestle back and forth with the idea of being a parish pastor, and eventually the rector (head pastor) of a parish.  I truly do not like to be seen, and I don’t currently have any better words to name it in.  Several years ago, I took some version of the Myers-Briggs personality test, and one of the things it said of me was that my personality type is one of very capable and competent leaders whose ‘leadership style’ is to sit back and let other people lead, even if those people are less capable, even if they are screwing things up, and even if we of this personality type have something substantial to offer.  At the time, it was very accurate; now, I have made some good movement away from that, but there are echoes still.

At the same time I have been hearing this naming of my desire not to be seen from various sources, I have been reading Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.  It’s a divine convergence to me.  The Imitation of Christ is the definitive verbalization of my particular way of understanding Christian humility.  Reading it now, having not been raised by anyone or any community which particularly prizes it, I see that I come honestly to this not wanting to be seen, and claiming it as a virtue.  It’s not just the Catholic tradition, but Scripture.  Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says over and over again that we are to practice our piety in secret.  St. James says that we should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”  And those are only two examples of many.

But how far does this go?  What does true humility look like?  I prize it, I desire it, I seek it, I pray for it.  I have always been struck by Numbers’ characterization of Moses as the most humble man on earth (proof that Moses did not write Numbers if it’s true).  I have always seen Jesus as the actual most humble man.

But then I have to realize that, for all their similarities, Jesus’ humility and Moses’ humility look very different.  Moses whines to God in the desert over and over that he is not capable of being saddled with this people and their cares.  (Perhaps I could pick an example that makes Moses look better, as there are plenty examples, but this one sounds the most like my own response to God’s call.)  Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and dies the death of a slave.  The only critiques that will stick to Jesus are the ones that Nietzsche noticed for me; all of them amount to Jesus being weak rather than asserting his strength.  The basic accusation is that Christ’s humility—Christian humility—is not a virtue.  Nietzsche is right—Christ was too humble for his own good.  And that is the point.

I haven’t gotten to the bottom of why I have such a strong, from the gut, emotional reaction to the idea of being seen, of being out in front, of being noticed, of being in charge, of being in power, of being in the lead, of being responsible.  But I have come to the end of two pages.

One last thought, though: God sees me.  As uncomfortable as that is, as much as it makes my skin crawl at the thought of absolute vulnerability—shame, nakedness, unholiness, being seen as I actually am—the belief that God sees me is really what all my hope rests on.