Needed: Humility Shaped by Mystery

“You know, Ken, nothing is simple. Every molecule, every drop of water, every blade of grass, every light ray is filled with mystery. We never unlock the secret of anything, including the atom. We only discover a secret and each unlocked door opens into new doors inviting us to unlock them.”

These comments came in a personal conversation with Dr. William Pollard, a renowned physicist and Episcopal priest who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

One of the great joys of serving as a pastor in Oak Ridge was getting to know Dr. Pollard. He was, undoubtedly, one of the smartest people I have known. Coupled with his intellectual brilliance was an extraordinary humility. While his genius could have been intimidating, his gentleness and modesty put others at ease and invited them into his world of wonder and awe.

What accounts for such humility combined with intelligence? Perhaps the secret lies in the title of two of Dr. Pollard’s books, Faith and Science: Twin Mysteries and “The Mystery of Matter.”

Dr. Pollard had a keen sense of and appreciation for mystery! He saw the complexity in the simple, the mysterious in the minuscule. He said in one of our conversations, “Science doesn’t remove mystery; it only deepens it. Every answer we discover raises new questions.”  He added that dogmatism in science or religion is dangerous and idolatrous for it truncates knowledge and eliminates transcendence.

The highly respected scientist and priest saw everything, from the microscopic neutron to the constellations of galaxies, as inexhaustible mysteries and revelations of Transcendence (God). Indeed, for him, Rudolph Otto’s description of God as Mysterium Tremendum or “Tremendous Mysterious,” is foundational for science and religion.

A great calamity of fundamentalism in science or religion is rigidity which eliminates humility rooted in mystery. When truth is conceived as closure or final, dogmatism is the results. Continued discovery is curtailed. Sustained searching gives way to defending present perceptions. Truth becomes static certainty rather than a dynamic journey toward the infinite mystery.

Certainty and firm conviction have their proper place. We need the courage to affirm, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Faith involves firm commitment to enduring truth, conforming to lasting values, and adherence to noble convictions.

The problem arises when we lose the mystery inherent in truth, values, and convictions. The consequence is arrogance, closed mindedness, and smug judgmentalism. Without humility grounded in mystery, we prioritize defending dogma over being formed by it. We speak without listening, attack without understanding, and coerce instead of invite.

If mystery is at the heart of matter, how much more it is inherent in theological affirmations about God and human beings.  No person or group has a monopoly on the truth on any subject whether it be human sexuality or economic policy, immigration or racial justice, the Trinity or the doctrine of the Atonement.

In a religiously and politically polarized world, we desperately need more humility springing from a sense of mystery. Arrogance rooted in dogmatic certainty splits communities, churches, and governments.  And, it shuts us off from one another, blinds us to yet undiscovered insights and beauty, and reduces God to the limits of our little minds.

With humility grounded in a sense of mystery, we would do

  • more listening than pontificating
  • more searching than defending
  • more inviting than demanding
  • more loving than legislating
  • more uniting than dividing
  • more worshiping than exploiting!

A Most Sacred Vocation

“How do you maintain such a positive attitude while doing this work”? I asked a caregiver as she gently brushed Linda’s hair.

She responded, “I’m doing what I am supposed to do and I love these people!” Her love and sense of calling are evident in the way she treats others with respect, dignity, and compassion. She goes to great lengths to preserve the dignity and modesty of those whom she undresses, bathes, and dresses.

She adds, “These are precious children of God, too!”

In a world that honors the politically, economically, academically, and religiously prominent, the humble caregivers who give their lives in ministry with the vulnerable exemplify an alternative model of greatness and power. They embody true servant ministry and sacred vocation.

These caregivers have become my heroes, my models for ministry! Since God has chosen the most vulnerable, pushed aside, and powerless as incarnations of divine presence and mission, those who care for “the least of these” are participating in the most sacred of vocations. They are literally the “last who become first” and “the greatest” in God’s new community.

One of the most egregious injustices in our society is our failure to properly affirm, honor, and compensate those who serve among the most vulnerable: the children, the frail, the mentally ill, the cognitively impaired, the imprisoned, the immigrants, the poor, and homeless.

Many of these servant ministers—childcare workers, teachers, nurses, social workers, nursing assistants, housekeepers—live in or near poverty themselves.  Many work long hours for minimal pay with limited or no benefits. Many are single mothers who work multiple jobs. They get limited vacations and little time off.

I’ve been privileged to serve in a variety of vocations within the church. My first job in the church was as a teenager when the little congregation hired me as janitor. My vocational journey in chronological order has included janitor, student, pastor, bishop, and seminary professor.

In 2009, I faced a new vocational direction. Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia, a disease of progressive cognitive impairment.

Believing that God calls within life’s contexts and circumstances, I felt that my priority calling would now be the care of Linda.

So, I relinquished my full-time faculty position at Duke and we proceeded to move near our daughters who would share in their mother’s care. She would need lots of emotional support and attentiveness. The years ahead would consist of persistent losses, receding memories, declining capacities, and growing dependency.

Though the journey is filled with grief and multiple challenges, my vocation as caregiver continues to be filled with abundant joy, profound experiences of divine grace, and opportunities for growth in discipleship and mission. I have never felt more engaged in a sacred vocation.

One of the remarkable gifts has been the opportunity to learn anew the meaning of servant ministry. My image of servanthood and sacred vocation has sharpened. The towel and basin are prominent Christian symbols, reminding us of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet.    towel_basin

Yet, there is an even more poignant expression of servanthood: that of a caregiver tenderly washing more than the feet, but the whole body of a vulnerable, frail person, even as that person resists mightily.

May we learn from these who embody true servant ministry by participating in God’s presence among the vulnerable and the marginalized. Let us honor them and treat them with gratitude, compassion, and justice!