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Earl Palmer on Regarding Others as Better Than Ourselves

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, October 30, 2008

Part 14 of series: Sharing Laity Lodge
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This past weekend we had our annual Leaders’ Retreat at Laity Lodge. Earl Palmer was our main speaker, teaching four Bible studies on Philippians. Our musicians were Kurt Kaiser (composer, pianist) and Michael Davis (violinist and concertmaster for the Louisville Orchestra). Poet and writer, Olga Samples Davis, was our resource leader in the arts.

Earl Palmer, by the way, just last week retired as Senior Pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, after 52 years of ordained ministry. But don’t expect Earl to settle down into easy retirement living. He and some Christian partners have just launched Earl Palmer Ministries, a platform from which Earl will continue to teach Scripture with excellence and contemporary bite. Earl’s first “gig” will be at National Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., where he will be Preaching Pastor-in-Residence for several months. (Photo: Earl teaching at Laity Lodge.)

As always, Earl’s teaching of Scripture paid close attention to the original meanings of the words, in this case, the Greek words of Paul’s letter to the Philippian Christians. As he made his way through the text, he came upon an imperative that is often misunderstood: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3, NRSV). “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit” isn’t too tricky. But what does it mean to regard others as better than ourselves?

Earl pointed out that sometimes Christians have taken this as reason to think of other people as more valuable than themselves. But this is a mistake, he explained. Paul is not talking about personal worth here. After all, we are all equally valuable in the sight of God. We all bear God’s image and, if we belong to Christ, are God’s own creation.

Earl went on to show that Philippians 2:3 does not mean that we should consider ourselves as less valuable than others. Rather, Paul uses a turn of phrase that means to put others first, to give them the advantage, to regard them highly. Earl’s take on this verse is perfectly captured in Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message: “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead.”

To underscore this point, Earl supplied an humorous illustration I won’t forget. Suppose, he said, you’re on your way to a picnic and realize that you’ve forgotten the sunscreen. So you stop at a market and hurry to find some SPF-45. Grabbing a tube of sunscreen and hurrying by all of the tempting teasers in the store, you come to the checkout lines with only one item. In front of you is a woman with a cart filled to the brim with groceries.

“Don’t ever ask to go ahead of her,” Earl counseled wisely. “Instead, stand there, looking slightly rushed and sad,” he said in a joking manner. “You might even choose to yell, ‘Honey, I’ll be there in just a minute.’ If you’re lucky, the woman in front of you in line will take pity, saying, ‘Oh, you can go ahead.’ And so you do, happily.” (FYI: If you don’t know Earl, he’s not manipulative. This was all a bunch of silly hyperbole.)

This woman’s actions, Earl said, demonstrate what it means to regard others as better than ourselves. It’s not a matter of valuing people more than yourself, but rather of giving them a place ahead of yourself.

This kind of preferring of people does not mean that we think poorly of ourselves. In fact, Earl pointed out that the woman who let you go ahead of her in line will feel good about herself. She did something kind from a place of personal strength and generosity. Similarly, Paul does not want us to go around thinking poorly of ourselves. Rather, when we know who we are in Christ, we’ll have the freedom to “help others get ahead,” and we’ll feel good in doing it.

I won’t soon forget the waiting in line illustration. It does indeed capture Paul’s meaning in Philippians 2. And it reminds us of how we are to live as disciples of Christ, choosing in freedom and joy to imitate his servanthood.

Topics: Sharing Laity Lodge |

11 Responses to “Earl Palmer on Regarding Others as Better Than Ourselves”

  1. Thomas Buck Says:
    October 30th, 2008 at 5:51 am

    I must be missing something here. Mr. Palmer’s recommendations to “look slightly rushed and sad” or to speak something about somebody waiting seem manipulative to me.

    The other person was first in line. Let her be first.

  2. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    October 30th, 2008 at 11:07 am

    I would have rather that the illustration put “you” in the place of the woman giving the hurried person with only one item that place in line. Put the way it was here, it comes off as “how to get what you want,” which I assume you’ll agree wasn’t anyone’s intention.

  3. Kozak Says:
    October 30th, 2008 at 11:18 am

    I agree. Earl’s example makes the Christian passive-aggressive.

  4. Thomas Buck Says:
    October 30th, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    I’m thinking maybe there’s a word missing from the sentence. Mr. Palmer does not seem the manipulative type.

  5. Jim Says:
    October 30th, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Earl Palmer was my pastor while I was going to law school 30 years ago at Berkeley. He’s probably the single biggest reason I have continued my Christian walk through many years and many ups and downs since then. If you see this, thank you, Pastor Earl!

  6. Mark Roberts Says:
    October 30th, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Oh my. Earl was kidding. It was a joke. I thought that would be clear. The problem wasn’t with Earl’s example or attitude, but my unclear writing. Sorry. I’ll change the text to make that clear.

  7. Thomas Buck Says:
    October 30th, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Sorry, Mark!

    As a joke, it’s funny! I guess I take some things too seriously.



  8. Ray Says:
    October 30th, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    I find that driving in Atlanta gives me many opportunities to “give others a place ahead of myself”. It also provides many temptations to selfishly do otherwise. Isn’t it funny how driving, especially when we’re sole occupants of our vehicles, seems to bring out our most basic emotions and motivations - both good and bad? My behavior while driving has proven to be a pretty good barometer of my spiritual condition.

    I got the joke, by the way. Thanks.

  9. Mark Roberts Says:
    October 30th, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Tom: Mostly, I think my writing wasn’t clear in letting you in on Earl’s affect. So if you don’t know Earl, and you weren’t in the room, you wouldn’t get the point. I was glad for the chance to make myself clearer (and to defend Earl’s honor).

  10. Todd Bartel Says:
    October 30th, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    Earl used to do a seminar on “What is Humor?” and “Humor in the Bible”. I think you can get it from Univ. Pres. archives (1997, I think) His knowledge and understanding of humor, especially Jewish humor is second to none. Earl’s humor is hard to translate sometimes so don’t feel bad. It’s hard to capture his timing. Just an idea. Maybe Earl can do a series on “Humor in the Bible” on your blog. It’s really great! No joking.

  11. Laurence Brand Says:
    January 16th, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    I’m a new fan of Earl F. Palmer… and I love his “word studies”. I heard about him in late October 2009 through my pastor while trying to get permission to do a bible study where we “just listen to the what the bible says” . . . he handed me a periodical he’d found at a local bible college library, by Earl Palmer. (Earl Palmer, The Case for Expository Preaching, Theology, News and Notes, Dec ‘85, p.9) He only had half the article photo copied! And has yet to get me the rest of it! :) BUT!!! I looked Palmer on the net, and found:

    and since then I’ve listened to about 90 of his sermons which are available there FOR FREE :) and date back to the early ’70’s.

    In one of his sermons he uses this illustration of the shopping center line up. The emphasis is on the attitude of the lady who is first in line, not on the person who is impatiently waiting… BUT he is also depicting for us what we so often can do in church… we can often look down our noses at someone who hasn’t “earned” the right to do this or that… and give them no audience in our Royal Presence… ie) we judge them before we hear them… we judge them instead of listen to them… we are apart of one another it says in Romans 12.


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