New York Times columnist David Brooks begins his new book, "The Road to Character," – that our men’s breakfast group just started reading- writing about driving home one Sunday evening listening to an NPR replay a radio program called Command Performance, a variety show that went out to the troops during World War II. The episode he happened to hear was broadcast the day after V-J Day on August 15, 1945.
The episode featured some of the era’s biggest celebrities, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Bette Davis and many others. But the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility. The Allies had just completed one of the noblest military victories in human history, Brooks writes, and yet there was no chest beating…."Well, it looks like this is it," the host, Bing Crosby, opened. "What can you say at a time like this? You can’t throw your skimmer in the air. That’s for run-of-the-mill holidays. I guess all anybody can do is thank God it’s over." The mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens came on and sang a solemn version of "Ave Maria," and then Crosby came back on to summarize the mood: "Today, though, our deep-down feeling is one of humility."1
"Humble yourselves before the Lord," James says, "and [the Lord] will exalt you." James has become pretty relentless over the past few weeks. Chapter 1, 3 weeks ago, James reminds us that "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above…" . BUT, when James starts talking to us about US, as Betty reminded us in her sermon that week, things get hard. "You must understand this," James says: "let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. … But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves."
James digs in in chapter 2: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?…So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." It is not a faith you need to improve, James says, but is DEAD if you aren’t about living that faith in the world. James presses us, over and over, to think about who we are and why we do what we do. Taylor last week spent time with a splendid portion of chapter 3 on the taming of the tongue: "How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell." Whew. What we say matters. How we say it matters, and is not something separate from our faith but an essential component of it. As Heather reminded us during the Children’s Message, we know the phrase, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me," and we know it isn’t true.
After these chapters that challenge us to think deeply about the relationship between faith and action, James pushes us deeper still. He begins chapter 4 asking questions, rhetorically pulling us in. Where do these conflicts among us come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war with you? He gives examples – you want something that you don’t have and so you go get it. Sometimes people kill to get what they don’t have. Even more so, I think, we step on people, don’t care who is in the way, are more concerned with the end goal that we are convinced is righteous than who gets hurt. Collateral damage. You covet something, James says, and are draw into conflict by desires. We desire something and we go get it, seeking our pleasure first. James specifically mentions adultery, another way of destroying relationships with others to feed our desires. Therefore, James says, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. If you want too much of this world, all of this world, desires fed, then you might as well give up on friendship with God.
This stings. But James keeps moving us, quoting in verse six Proverbs 3:34: ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ We then get a rapid fire set of commands – submit to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, cleanse, purify, lament and weep, all moving us towards a certain posture before God. Then the stirring verse ten: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you."
I think James is trying to challenge us to do two things here. One is to, perhaps said a bit crassly, be aware of our own stuff. We are called to take the time to think about our own motivations, to consider why we do what we do. Therapy is good for that. So is prayer. God, why do I feel called to do this work? Why do I desire this thing, this relationship, this project? What in this – and I think this is a crucial, crucial discernment question we should be asking ourselves EVERY DAY: what in this is FOR ME, O God, and what is for YOU? Being prayerful about our, as James calls them, cravings. The Greek is hedone, your pleasures, the source of our word hedonism. I wonder where those kinds of struggles might be in play for you. What do you want in your life, and why do you want it?
This kind of discernment, at its best, James argues, leads us to a certain posture before God. One of deep humility. Humble yourselves before the Lord. The word here has a physical aspect of making low, lowering oneself, maybe not necessarily of bowing down but of making one’s self small before God. The way that happens is through regular prayer, through slowing down a little bit, through taking time to remember that WE did not create all of this, God did. And the God who created it all and sustains it and in some mysterious ways also made us. We are not creator we are creation. Therefore, we’re not in charge, which is hard, especially for a bunch of privileged in the eyes of the world, well educated, type A’s who are used to running things. We are not in charge. God is.
And this God calls us to a practice of humility before God, of understanding that God is in charge and we are not, of the appropriate posture before our creator, which leads right into humility before others. I think that means much more listening than speaking. Much more. It means working to understand another’s viewpoint, especially people with whom we disagree. It means – and I am guilty of this a lot which is why I mention it – NOT coming in with what you are confident is a better idea every time someone else is speaking. Humility means being kind. A posture of humility before God, if we can cultivate that, flows right into humility with and for others, of putting others before yourselves. Other’s ideas. Other’s work.
Later on in the introduction of "The Road to Character," Brooks writes: As years went by…my thoughts returned to [that] episode of Command Performance. I was haunted by the quality of humility I heard in those voices. There was something aesthetically beautiful about the self-effacement the people on that program displayed. The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space – self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry. Humility is infused with lovely emotions like admiration, companionship, and gratitude. "Thankfulness," the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said, "is a soil in which pride does not easily grow."
Humility is rooted in gratitude to God – the God who created us all, who loves the world, who pours our grace upon us day after day. Starting with the love and promises of God, as we baptize babies, as we ordain and install leaders God has called, as we go about our work and our lives. That gratitude and humility are bound up together, calling us to submit ourselves to God, and our deeply discerned wisdom for who God would have us be – lowering ourselves, but also leaning into that love.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. David Brooks, The Road to Character, (New York: Random House, 2015), pages 3-4.