The Thing about Glory

I read something this week that made a big impression on me because it seemed so simple and so true. It was, “Working together, we can do an amazing amount of good in this world when no one is concerned with getting the credit.” Think about it and you’ll quickly find examples of that in your own life. Fun groups you’ve been part of that did what they set out to do. In caring, coordinated efforts like that—simple things like bake sales or garden shows or Meals on Wheels or grief groups—people work together, assisting each other, and cooperating to accomplish something they all feel inspired to do.

When this is a fun experience, the effort unfolds the way it should, meals are delivered, goals are accomplished, and people typically, mostly, enjoy the time they spend together doing that thing—whatever it is—shoulder to shoulder. It feels good to work with a shared purpose, aiming at something positive for others, whether that’s income for the church, education for the community, meals for hungry shut-ins, or finding homes for shelter pets. This type of tangible good happens over and over again, every day, all over the globe, as groups of kind-hearted and well-intentioned people work together to meet needs in their communities.

When you’re working with a group and it isn’t a fun experience and things never seem to come together the way you’d hoped, it’s often because something specific is gumming up the works. And that something specific usually has something to do with the human ego. We don’t do it on purpose, and we may not even see it when it’s right under our noses, but we’ve all experienced it: Personalities clash. People want to be the boss. Others don’t feel heard or valued. Someone wants all the credit. The whole group effort stalls because it can’t get any momentum going toward the goal. That’s because people are preoccupied with themselves—their wants, their needs, their glory—and they lose sight of their shared intent, that larger good goal just ahead that could be drawing them all forward together.

It occurred to me that I had never studied and really didn’t understand this idea of glory very well. So I did a little research and found some interesting things. Quotes that talk about human glory—glory in battle, glory after achieving some big personal or professional goal—usually has something to do with persistence, human effort, personal will, our ability to keep going even though we face setback after setback. One popular quote that shows up at the top of search results is, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” That quote is attributed to Confucius, Nelson Mandela, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. So much for Internet searches.

But the quotes that point toward a bigger glory—God’s glory, the unfolding glory of the goodness of life—have a much different feel. They point toward a higher, freer, more transcendent aim, something capable of lifting us all, not just a select few who do something special. For example, a statement by Johann Sebastian Bach back in the early 1700s says,

“The aim and end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

That’s a goal as big as it gets. Bach didn’t want the glory pointing back his way, even though he was so extraordinarily gifted and in human terms, deserved some glory for what he contributed to humanity. He saw what he did—the sharing of his talent, his life’s work—as all for God and the uplift of God’s beloved children across the ages. God’s glory lifts us all.

In this quote, by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who lived just a few hours south of us in Kentucky, we hear how reading scripture brought him inspiration that helped him see God’s glory reflected in the world around him. He wrote:

“By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a purer, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.”

My favorite quote about glory comes from Early Friend William Dewsbury in 1688. He wrote,

“If anyone has received any good or benefit through this vessel called William Dewsbury, give God the glory; I’ll have none. I’ll have none. I’ll have none.”

What a beautiful way to look at the good that God pours through every life, through our thoughts and actions, prayers and efforts, and flowing into the lives of others. The good inspired in us—it’s all God’s goodness. The love we feel for others—that’s the reflection of God’s love. We are all simply inspired to share what we’ve received. The concern we feel for the animals that need homes, the shut-ins that need meals, the church that needs bake-sale funds: That’s concern that is stirred in our willing hearts by our God who loves all these beloveds through us. The glory of it all is God’s. But it lifts us all.

That’s what the psalmist is getting at in the first verse of Psalm 115: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.”

My commentary here says that this is a prayer of the people, saying that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the only one to trust, the one to whom all glory belongs. This prayer was offered during worship as a song echoed back and forth between two large groups, like a call and response. The idea at the heart of it set a standard in their community, reminding them as a whole that God was the source of all the good in their lives.

Part of what causes us to forget that–what brings the blindness that makes our egos run amuck and gets in the way of us working together–is a great confusion about who we are and how we see ourselves both as children of God and in relation to one another. A quest for personal glory—especially when it sets us against others—may be coming from a place in us where there is a need that hasn’t been met. Perhaps deep down, we’ve never been able to feel truly loved, that we have value, that we matter, just as we are, right now. It’s possible that that aching, unmet need is behind a lot of what we see in our culture today, with great numbers of young people now saying they want to grow up to be “social media influencers”—picturing the glory of online fame and worldwide followings. But that kind of glory is an empty pursuit, and seeking it only distracts us from finding something real that will bring lasting peace and the community and connection we need.

Fortunately, God has a tender, consistent and ready answer for just those types of deep, unmet needs. God assures us—day by day—that we are loved, we have value, and we matter, just the way we are, not because we are heroes and celebrities, but because love is the truth of who we are, made in God’s own loving image. When we begin to recognize that, we start listening more closely to the leadings of our hearts, and that’s where we find our real identity as God’s beloved children. That’s where true glory—God’s glory—really shines, reflecting in us as we work together, with each other and with that of God in each other, combining our care, our compassion, and our effort to make things better for our world.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, as I mentioned last week, he is just coming through what has been a tumultuous time with the young church at Corinth. There have been conflicts and upset and some people walking out in a huff—that would be Paul, who we can be certain had his own struggles with ego. And yet Paul is truly dedicated to the bigger vision and charge God has given him, to carry the message of Christ—even more, the living example of Christ—to those near and far, inspiring and supporting new Christian communities as they take root and begin to grow. Here in Corinth Paul’s mission was sorely tested. The personalities of those he tried to lead rebelled and questioned and weren’t quite sure they wanted to follow Paul’s leadership. So in the second letter, Paul attempts to turn their eyes and hearts back to the larger purpose they all shared. In our New Testament verses today, he wrote,

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

This is really a remarkable statement Paul is offering here. He lets go of his own need to be right, his own desire to lead and to see everyone fall in line with what he thinks is best, and he reminds them all—himself included—that the Lord is Spirit, shining His glory into all our lives, and lighting up our potential for peace and harmony, goodness and love. If we listen, and follow, it will transform us from the inside out and inspire us to pray for, care about, and work to meet the needs and heal the brokenness and rancor in the world around us. Wherever this Spirit of God is, Paul writes—and it is everywhere—there is freedom. Freedom from personality. Freedom from conflict. Freedom from all the little irritations and squabbles that divide us and sets us at odds with each other. The Spirit of God frees us to see the larger, overarching goal of God’s goodness, drawing us to work toward a world where all can flourish.

When we are preoccupied with seeking glory for ourselves, we get crabby and competitive. We keep scorecards of peoples’ behavior; we hold on to grudges and grievances. In doing so, we perhaps inadvertently block God’s light in us because we’re so concerned with our own needs and wants, thoughts and desires. Those attitudes separate us and cause conflict—which deep down is the opposite of what most people truly want. But when we remember God and let a desire for God’s glory touch our hearts, the blinders of self-centeredness drop away, and we begin to see how God is already loving our world. We want to join in, and when we do, our loving gifts contribute to what Quaker Thomas Kelly calls, “the beloved community.”

In closing, I’d like to share a wonderful poem called “Work,” written by Mary Oliver:

I am a woman sixty years old and of no special courage.
Everyday – a little conversation with God, or his envoy
the tall pine, or the grass-swimming cricket.
Everyday – I study the difference between water and stone.
Everyday – I stare at the world;  I push the grass aside and stare at the world.

The spring pickerel in the burn and shine of the tight-packed water;
the sweetness of the child on the shore;  also, its radiant temper;
the snail climbing the morning glories, carrying his heavy wheel;
the green throats of the lilies turning from the wind.
This is the world. . .

Everyday – I have work to do.
I feel my body rising through the water
not much more than a leaf;
and I feel like the child, crazed by beauty
or filled to bursting with woe;
and I am the snail in the universe of the leaves trudging upward;
and I am the pale lily who believes in God,
though she has no word for it,
and I am the hunter, and I am the hounds,
and I am the fox, and I am the weeds of the field,
and I am the tunnel and the coolness under the earth,
and I am the pawprint in the dust,
I am the dusty toad who looks up unblinking
And sees (do you also see them?) the white clouds
In their blind, round-shouldered haste.
I am a woman sixty years old, and glory is my work.


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