Tel Me

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
Romans 12:3

If you’ve had the privilege to traveling to the Middle East, you’ve likely discovered the ubiquity of tels in those lands. Tels are the grassy, rounded hills that dot the landscape in Israel and Palestine. 

Tels aren’t naturally-occurring formations. They’re artificial landforms. Tels are quiet monuments to an unseen past.

The majority of Biblical tels represent the stacked remains of destroyed or dilapidated settlements. When ancient towns were razed by enemy armies or burned by accidental fires, there were no Caterpillar earth-movers or long-boomed cranes to clear the decks for reconstruction. Instead, the rubble was hastily leveled off and succeeding communities started over on top of the accumulated debris. 

Whatever inconvenience this caused for Bronze and Iron Age people, it has meant a great boon for archaeologists today. The heaped-up building projects of bygone civilizations provide a sort of sequenced layer-cake through which to learn about the ancient past. Tels are archives of humanity; they’re stories in the soil.

At spectacular sites like Beth-Shan, Megiddo, and Hazor, teams have trenched crosswise “slices” out of tels to explore the material remains of these important cities. Over time, in a shallower-to-deeper, more-recent-to-more-ancient progression, the past has been revealed.  Coins, pottery, statues, and other archaeological finds discoved in the layers of the tels bear witness to cultures and ideas of long ago. (For a compelling account of the narrative power of this process, carve a couple of months out of your schedule to read James Michener’s epic novel The Source.)

Recently, while participating in a wonderful learning event with Chuck DeGroat, it occurred to me that I’m a sort of tel myself. There are layers to me, too.

Moreover, I’ve come to understand, it’s important that I routinely excavate and carefully examine the sub-surface strata that undergird my personality and posture.

Philosophers throughout history have held that understanding reality begins with examining ourselves. While Socrates is frequently credited with the phrase “Know thyself,” an inscription containing those words on the Greek temple to Apollo at Delphi actually predates Socrates’ use. It’s instructive to think that Delphi – site of an oracle sought by people around the region – understood that knowing the world meant looking inward first!

The Apostle Paul valued introspection in the same way. Think of yourself with sober judgement, he urges the Roman Christians. Don’t overvalue yourself. Be honest.

How often do we think of ourselves with “sober judgement”? How often do we plow beneath our cavalier self-assessments to unearth the truth about our tendencies?

I want to give this a try.  Let’s turn over some earth together.

If I put the spade to my spirit, it’s easy to as ascertain that I have deeper and shallower modes of being.

There is a kind of surface-level presentation, and there are realities and thought-patterns that live at lower levels.

Level 1 is the stratum that most people see. It is Pastor Tim Breen, cool and confident. Lighthearted, witty, competent, detached. This is the grassy, sunny side. There are picnic tables and lawn darts up here.

This is really me.

But it’s not wholly me.

Because if I address myself with sober judgement – if I dig down a little bit – I quickly find that there is another layer underneath. Just below the breezy artifice lies an analytical level.

This aspect of my personality is calculating and skeptical. It wonders about peoples’ motives. It doesn’t like shoddy logic or bald contradictions. It sizes things up.

At this layer of the tel, there is a lot of scrutiny and judging going on.

I’m not proud of this level. Though it has served me well, it’s not humble or trusting. It probes for weakness and opportunity. It’s where I sense my competitive nature most palpably.

But the analytical stratum is undergirded by a still deeper layer. The reason that I analyze so much is probably because – at a more fundamental level – I’m anxious.

At this layer of Tel Timothy you’ll find a great deal of uncertainty.  There is nervousness about where I rank, whether if I fit, and how I’ll make it.  There is worry about my real value to others. I’m unsure if I can keep pace, prove my worth, or justify my existence. Many days I think that the thing I want most in the whole world is to know that people speak well of me when I’m not in the room; in this stratum I wonder if I have what it takes to make that happen.

Below this defensive/unsure place, things get very ancient and very murky. This is the bedrock level.

At this basement place all processing and all posturing ends. The roots of Tel Timothy aren’t about theories, hairtrigger reactions, or daily coping mechanisms.

At the bedrock place lives a collection of Formational First Things: Scars, Stories, and Sin.

At the deepest part of me are verbal and relational wounds. Down here, there are powerfully encoded narratives about how one should behave in one’s birth order. There are lessons taken from the tribal society that is the elementary school playground. There are experiences of being loved and unloved.

And at the base there is inescapable self-interest. As a Christian, I understand that I have been born with a problem. I’m in it for me more than I am for you. I’m ambitious and envious. I’ve inherited a disease common to all humanity – sin.

Together, these formative experiences push upward into my actions and words.

Wonder why I do what I do? Keep descending the staircase.

For most of us, it’s easiest to prance on the top shelf. We never want to think about it too much.

But that leads to problems, doesn’t it?

Some of us present as people-pleasers because we’ve never really looked below deck. Some of us trigger violently in certain situations because we’ve never gotten into the soil. Some of us fall victim to predatory people because the tel still lies unexcavated.

But in all of us, there’s always more going on than is seen on the hilltop.

Obedient to scripture, we must begin to plow the soil. In accordance to the faith God has given us – in other words, in ways commensurate with our confidence in Jesus Christ – we ought to explore the modes and motives that make us act the way that we do.

Grab a spade and join me. 



Follow Telos on Facebook

Recent Posts

Timothy Breen Written by:

One Comment

  1. June 5, 2019

    Hi Timothy,
    I love the ways you reveal the layers that lie below in all of us. I’ve done some of my own excavation myself and have found all sorts of things I didn’t know were there.

    When those excavations reveal things that I don’t like or wish were not there, I find that Jesus embraces all those things and loves me for who I actually am. Additionally, I am discovering that there is a deeper level still, that I am created in love, to be a blessing, and that nothing I have discovered on those other levels can change God has created me to be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *