Tuesday, November 16, 2010

City on a Hill

When my husband came to Springfield on a house-hunting trip last year, he asked for directions to the church. "Just look for the power plant, and that's your exit," they said. Directions like that make even Vermont directions sound as specific as a chemical formula. I rolled my eyes and chuckled...until I saw the power plant. Accustomed to locating myself in relation to mountains, I find this flat farmland a little disconcerting. Fortunately for me, Springfield had the foresight to build a monstrosity of a power plant with huge smokestacks, visible from 20 miles away. As long as I can see those smokestacks, I know where I am.

While I appreciate the visibility of the smokestacks or Mount Mansfield, I have not always appreciated my own visibility. As a teenager, I hated my mother's lectures about example. "People watch you," she said, generally in relation to the modesty of my clothes (or the, um, occasional lack of modesty), my language, or how I treated others. Particularly as I left home for college, I fought against the pressure of expectation, hoping to relax and explore my boundaries. My personality never required a full-scale rebellious phase, but away from home my skirts slipped higher up my leg and my language descended rather closer to the gutter. I lived my religion faithfully, but that fact always surprised folks who knew me only casually. Their surprise brought my mother's voice to mind. "Avoid the appearance of evil." Bleah.

Twenty-five years later, I find myself reminding my teenage son that he is both cursed and blessed with visibility. With his confidence, his intelligence, and his engaging personality, he draws attention whether he likes it or not. "You and I do not have the option of anonymity," I tell him. Hopefully, he recognizes both the opportunity and the responsibility of being visible.

The Savior taught his disciples that a city set on a hill cannot be hid, reminding them of their responsibility to shine a light to lead the world to good things. I am sure Peter would have preferred to fade into the crowd outside the palace of Caiaphas, but his devotion to the Savior and his impetuous nature made that impossible. Peter rose to the challenge of example, though not always gracefully. In that messy process of learning to shine, he set a powerful, yet humble, example of discipleship.

I have thought a great deal lately about this business of being a city on a hill, particularly about the risks involved. After all, those who are visible risk succeeding. With success comes a powerful feeling of accomplishment, and with success comes praise. With that heady feeling of accomplishment and sometimes the warmth of the praise, it is easy to begin to believe that one's own powers of organization or insight somehow rise above the norm. Joy in success too quickly morphs into pride.

The problem is that the Lord cannot work with a prideful heart, and I cannot hear the Spirit effectively with my head and heart full of my own importance. I want desperately to serve in useful ways, to rise to my potential. That service requires humility, and humility is not one of my strong points.

I knelt in prayer the other night, wrestling with my need for humility and not wanting to pray for this gift that I need. After all, I know how the Lord answers those prayers. I have felt the benefit of painful humbling experiences. Remembering, I feared to say a prayer that would bring on another round of what my father used to call "learning experiences." But my desire to reach upward won out over my fear. I took a deep breath and quietly prayed for enough humility to serve effectively.

Surprisingly, the bottom has not yet dropped out of my world. As I knelt and prayed timidly for humility, thoughts began to take shape in my mind. Yes, trials are an effective method of inspiring humility. But there are other ways. I began to ponder how to humble myself without requiring circumstances to do the job for me. Almost immediately, my thoughts turned to gratitude as perhaps the single most effective method. When we take the time to consciously recognize the Lord's hand in all that we do, our pride melts away. We realize, for instance, that the wise counsel we gave came not from our own brilliance but from the Spirit. As we take the opportunity not only to recognize the Lord's hand in our lives, but also to record those experiences, our sense of our own nothingness and our confidence in the Lord grow in tandem.

Acknowledging the heavens leads us to gaze outward, as well. I find that my bloated sense of self-importance begins to return to acceptable levels as I look around me with the intent to recognize the talents and achievements of others. I quickly begin to realize all that I stand to learn from the son who has the ability to always see the positive or the friend with the remarkable talent of teaching her children with patience.

I learned a third ingredient to humility some time ago. I used to sing a bit, performed at church and for the odd wedding or funeral. I have a pleasant enough voice, but no matter how hard I practiced, I never achieved the powerful talent that I longed for, a voice that would sparkle and soar. It dawned on me, finally, that God gave me a certain measure of talent for a purpose. He blessed Audra McDonald and Jessye Norman with voices to reach across the world and inspire millions. My very little voice inspired just a few folks with the realization that they, too, could sing. Accepting and magnifying my gifts just as the Lord gave them to me brings humility.

I have no doubt that life will bring me more learning experiences somewhere on the road ahead, times of confusion and pain that will force me to my knees. The Lord has carried me through those times before and will do so again. But I also know that I do not have to wait for times of trial to bring me humility. The more I look upward and outward, the more I begin to understand my tiny, yet wonderful, place in the universe.


  1. such wonderful insights J! "Yes, trials are an effective method of inspiring humility. But there are other ways." That was a teaching moment for me, when I read that (you being the teacher, me the pupil).

    I am so glad you started blogging! ♥

  2. Julianna, one of the best parts of Christmas for me is reading your Christmas letters. They always inspired me and I really enjoy your writing style. Your mom was here on Sunday and told me you had a blog. I think I hit the jackpot! Thanks for sharing. Can't wait to dig in the archives.