Let Me Be Empty
A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee.
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
Whenever I read the acknowledgements in a non-fiction book, I’m struck by most authors’s attempted humility. They offer credit for clarity, correctness, and other writerly virtues to others while insisting errors of fact, opacity of presentation, or other negative reactions rest solely with the author. It’s almost as if these authors seem to believe the years of research, thought, discussion, writing draft after draft, and final edit were performed by committee, with the author being the least competent on the committee. Yet, the work goes out to the public under only one name (usually), upon whose good name rests the success or failure, the acceptance or rejection, of the work at hand.
To be humble and to be an author presenting work to the public is a contradiction. There is nothing less humble than thinking to oneself, “You know what? I have something to say the world needs to hear.” Whether fiction or non-fiction, the result of years of work or something slapped together in the matter of hours or days or weeks, any writer who claims they only write for themselves – no matter how earnestly they may make that claim, denying any personal need for attention – is lying. All of us write for others. Otherwise, we’d keep our writing hidden. Most writers will dispute this, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
I, for one, desire nothing more or less than to live in humility. Which, obviously, collides with my desire to write so that others will read what I write. I recognize these as irreconcilable. Which leaves me conflicted pretty much every single day.
Last evening during a discussion about prayer, humility, and Divine dependence, a clergy person I respect offered a kind of Aristotelean understanding of humility: It is the mean between sloth and pride. Sloth, or acedia, along with pride are two of the Seven Deadly Sins. How this person presented the matter, sloth was thinking so little of oneself – self-esteem? – there is no room even to understand how it would be possible God would work through us. When it comes to pride, of course, the exact opposite is the case: One believes oneself in no need of the Divine presence, that all one’s actions are just that.
That sounds so nice. Humility is about maintaining a balance. On the one hand, we should never be so secure in ourselves that we forget our need for God. On the other hand, we should never forget ourselves so much that we become incapable of seeing all the gifts we have, and how they can be and are used for the work of the Kingdom. That sounds so mentally healthy, the kind of bourgeois reassurance we all need. Earlier this year, didn’t I affirm what Rev. Montel Putney said, viz., that being created in the Image of God, we ought to walk and talk and present ourselves as those who possess that Divine Image?
Except, alas, that message is not one for the ears and lives of the privileged. That is something those on the margins of life need to hear; there is nothing prideful about those whose humanity is consistently denied stepping out to the world and declaring they are blessed children of God, created in the Divine Image, with a story to tell that others need to hear.
We who live in positions of privilege – whether we recognize that privilege or not – would be far better keeping silent on so much that passes through the world. We are overflowing with the alleged wisdom and authority of those who consider their positions of authority the natural course of events; people for whom being white, being male, being straight being cisgendered are all just assumed to be “the way God created the world”, a way to which all those who differ should and must conform. The destruction of human life pursued in the name of such conformity is incalculable. The best thing for us to do is to sit in silent contrition.
Except life and the world and even the dictates of the Gospel seem to demand more of us. We are to live, to serve the world in the name of God and God’s Kingdom, words and actions rooted in love and self-denial flowing from the Holy Spirit through our lives. When people see us live, see us work, see how we relate to others, read what we write, they should never see us, read us, or hear us. We should strive, as Wesley’s Covenant Prayer reminds us, that our lives would always be transparent; that we become vessels through which the Divine Life and Work and Image become what the world sees. Ours should be a life lived not only in prayer, as St. Paul admonished. Like the priest pictured above, ours should be a life lived prostrate before the altar, our earthly representation of the Divine Throne (itself an image of that which is ineffable).
Yet don’t I and others continue to speak as if we had some kind of authority, whether secular or sacred? What possible notion enters our heads that the things we say are things to which others should listen? Well, I know Jesus was asked the same question: By whose authority do you teach? To this, he responded with a counter-question: So, John the Baptist: Prophet or Criminal? Jesus asked this because he knew the Temple Priests who demanded an answer about Jesus’s authority to teach were terrified of John, his disciples, and his on-going reputation among the people. Being careful, calculating politicians, they refused to answer. Jesus shrugged and turned away saying, “Fine. I won’t answer your question, either.” The question of “authority”, really, is artificial. The things I say and write, I don’t say or write them with any authority. I make no pretense to wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and certainly not truth (yet another word I would gladly toss from the English language). I take no authority because I have none.
True humility is a daily struggle. I continue to be confounded by the questions, perplexed and challenged by the answers, and prayerful that some day none will see or read “me” at all.