Sitting in the window seat on a train, backpack slung on the rack above, I know I have to get up. I have a ticket for the train, just not for this seat. Seeing it empty as I was standing against the luggage rack, I did not think anyone would mind if I sat down. And no one did, until the train stopped and someone got on with a ticket to the seat I was occupying – my seat.
A mixture of feelings come up. Embarrassment for myself and resentment for the person holding the ticket to the seat, among others. The obligatory politeness of the ticket inspector feels like an accusation. A veiled ‘you do not belong here’. In retrospect, I didn’t belong there. I was a recent university grad on a backpacking trip with the cheapest train ticket I could find. Deep down, I knew that, but it did not stop me from feeling angry at the person asking me to move.
Had I been thinking at all about scripture at this juncture of life, a specific passage from the Gospel of Luke may have come to mind. Attending a dinner with some prominent members of the community, Jesus notices guests jockeying for the most distinguished places. He shares this parable:
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. (Lk 14:8-10)
This passage contains an element of common sense. If I attended a wedding as a guest, I would not sit at the head table. It seems obvious. If I applied this thinking to my train ride, I could have saved myself some awkwardness. That said, Jesus was not trying to teach about seating arrangements as based on what he said next:
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Lk 14:11)
This stings; I see many times in my own life where I have been humbled after pursuing achievement or honour.
If I am honest, one of the things I liked choosing the career path I hoped to follow was the potential to sit at the ‘big boys’ table. I recall a cringe-worthy exchange at a family dinner when someone asked me about my goals at the company I was working for. I was very early in my accounting career and had been in this particular job for six months. My response: I want to run the place.
There is no possibility that I had even the remotest sense of what that meant. I was naïve (and dumb) enough to say it nonetheless. A part of me must have believed that after showing I could do a good job building a spreadsheet, that the path to CFO of a billion dollar firm would be no problem.
After two more years of experience, another opportunity presented itself. An advancement and another step closer to ‘making it’. This time, things did not go as I had planned. For the first time in my career, I felt pressed to deliver results and often had no answer. It was defeating and I knew there were areas were I was behind in experience, but was too stubborn and proud to admit it.
If I could go back to that place, I might have approached some things differently, but the lessons I learned were humbling and valuable. I concluded that I needed to go a different way to backfill some of the areas that I had missed along the way.
I had entered the world of professional leadership and felt unfinished. There were times when I half expected someone to walk into my office and ask to see my ticket. That doesn’t happen in corporate life – not like that, anyway. There are no ushers walking around to make sure that every person belongs in the seat they occupy. I am glad that is the case, because it would have been tempting to cover the cracks and pretend as if I had it all figured out.
As a husband and father, I often feel significant pressures to have it all figured out. To be the rock. There are many times when I fear I am not. I encounter this in not knowing how to do something handy around the house. Or not knowing what to say when my wife needs to talk to me about something and I do not feel equipped to handle the topic.
It is hard to admit that I don’t know how to do something that I expect I should know. Our refrigerator broke a few months ago. After a quick google search confirmed my fears that I was way out of my depth in trying to repair it, I started to quietly panic. I jumped straight to: “I guess we need to buy a new fridge”. There was a part of me that would rather spend $2,000 on the spot for a new refrigerator than admit that I needed some help.
In this case, I went into a quiet room and said a quick prayer. Father, I don’t know what I’m doing here. Please guide me. You might suggest a prayer is not required to know to call a repair man, but it brought clarity and calm to a mind that was spinning.
In the end, a knowledgeable repairman came by and explained what was wrong. We did need to buy a new refrigerator, but I felt much more at peace with it than I would have had I not asked for qualified help.
It is Ok to Take the Lowest Seat
Morgan Snyder, a writer and speaker who has become a prominent voice in my own journey, talks about receiving permission to take the lowest seat. In his book, Becoming A King, Morgan describes himself as a younger man, with ambitions to change the world. Morgan was asked to take part in the design of a life changing men’s retreat, but to do it from the lowest seat. Morgan’s mentor asked him “to give himself permission to be young”.
Morgan realized that there was only one way to true growth and fulfilment of who he was supposed to be. To “take the lowest seat at the table until God makes it impossible for you to do so”.
For me, this reinforces why it is critical not to fall into the trap of empty self-promotion and the pursuit of the next achievement. Or to pretend I have it all figured out. In my first post, I discussed the parallels between old growth trees and the building of character. Both need time and experience. This can be tough to hear. Especially when you are young and ambitious or when some parts of your life have skipped past a few important levels, leaving gaps.
Today, I am comfortable admitting I have knowledge and experience gaps. A hard truth I have learned: those gaps cannot be filled by pretending they aren’t there.
At this point in my life, I am in positions of leadership in my job, in the community, and in my home. There are gaps on all fronts. At one time, I perceived them as places of vulnerability and hid from them.
Now I realize that putting myself at the lowest seat is one true way to experience growth. It is ok to go back and be young in those places we are most unfinished.
The world pressures us to push ahead and self-promote – it is an exhausting and endless exercise. It often results in finding ourselves in territories where we feel unready and underprepared, but afraid to show it.
The alternative runs counter to the worldly narrative. That is, in humility, to place ourselves below others. To learn and to serve. It is a calling to root ourselves in our true identity as children of God and walk with confidence in Him, knowing He will provide what we need. Sourcing our confidence from our accomplishments or our place at the table will leave us wanting.
I invite you to reflect on the areas in your own life where you feel the gaps. Like Morgan did, consider giving yourself permission to be young in those areas. Find out where the lower seat leads you.
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