Holy humor and the practice of humility

NOTE: My weekly sermon notes this week as I work through the summer series: Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace. This is the first of two reflections on how humor can be a spiritual practice that nourishes humility. If you happen to find yourself in town at 10:30 am, please join us for worship, ok? I would love to see you.

There is a story told about a spiritual seeker who asked his beloved rabbi why it was that people were not allowed to see the face of God. “From the time of Moses until today God’s face has been kept from us. “What happened that keeps us from reaching high enough to see the Lord?”

+ The rabbi, who was very old, had experienced the fullness of life and said tenderly, "My child, reaching higher is not the way at all. We cannot see the face of God because there are so few who can stoop that low. How sad this is, but also the truth: learn to bend, to bow, to kneel and stoop and then you will be able to see God face-to-face." (www.spiritualityandpractice.com)

+ It’s like that old song from the Shaker community: “tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where you ought to be; and when you find yourself in the place just right, ‘twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed: to turn, turn will be our delight till by turning, turning we come round right.”

This morning we’re going to consider another of the spiritual practices that can help us become people of focus, inner peace and outward integrity in the world: humility. It is one of the standards for living – one of the unforced rhythms of grace – that can round off our rough edges, help us find a measure of beauty in even the busiest moment and bring a bit of tenderness to a world that seems hell-bent on sacralizing selfishness without regard to the consequences. Jesus put it like this in Luke 14:

When you're invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, 'Friend, come up to the front.' That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I'm saying is, “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you're going to end up flat on your face. But if you're content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself."

Then Jesus turned to the host. "The next time you put on a dinner, don't just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You'll be—and experience—a blessing. They won't be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God's people."

The invitation – the spiritual admonition – here has to do with letting go of both our insecurities and our need for social recognition long enough that God can work some compassion through us, right? It is summons to get out of our way from time to time so that blessings might be found in some of the oddest places.

But here’s what I’ve discovered over the years: not only is the practice of humility so counter-cultural that it baffles most of us, but also there is at the very least some ambiguity about what type of humility really advances the cause. In fact, there are three distinctive types of humility described in the Bible that can cause us confusion. So, let me first give you a quick survey course concerning what the scriptures say about humility and then move on to a way of cultivating and practicing it that I think you will find intriguing.

And the first thing I have to get out of the way is this: spiritual humility is NOT the same things as being a DOOR MAT. Sometimes we have been led to believe something like this, so let me disabuse you of it right now. Being meek – being gentle – being humble has NOTHING to do with being used and abused and then hung up wet to dry. When Jesus says: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” in Matthew 5: 5 do you know his reference? Do you recall the two people in the Bible who are described as meek? Jesus and Moses. Period.

+ So think about this: is there ANYTHING you know about in the story of Moses that resembles acting like a doormat? When Moses confronted Pharaoh, how did he act? Timid? Oppressed? Confused?

• Not at all: when Moses visited Pharaoh he didn’t whisper, “Please, dear man, if you don’t mind, would you kindly consider letting my people leave the agony of their slavery?” NO, he marched into the king’s chambers and announced: “Thus saith the Lord – let my people GO!”
Apparently the word we translate as meek – praus in classic Greek – “refers to horses… horses who have been trained to wear a bridle… those who have been broken in for the race.” (Clarence Jordan, Cotton Patch Sermons, p. 64) Which is to say that: "… a person who is meek is the one who obeys the pull of God, who never tunes his or her ears to the whispering of society, who isn’t afraid to be a fool for God… the meek are those (like Moses and Jesus) who turn the world upside –down… and becomes partners with the Lord across the land." (Jordan, p. 64)

When we’re talking about humility, therefore, we’re talking about living in a way that responds to God’s calling – a way of seeing that starts with the upside down kingdom of God – and continues to make God’s way real in our ordinary lives. Not a doormat, but a wise and tender fool for the Lord: that’s the first insight.

The second is that there seems to be a few competing notions throughout the Bible concerning how it is we cultivate humility. How do we nourish the upside-down blessings of meekness? How do we get from here to there? Well, there seems to be three options:

+ The first is to hit bottom – to crash and burn – and be down so long everything looks like up to you. That’s essentially what our text from Job points towards: after Job has lost his health, his family, his security, his friends and his pride – and after he is so low that all he can do is scream at the Lord – then a breakthrough of sorts seems to happen.

+ Those of us who have wrestled with addictions or other wounds understand what it means to hit bottom: you can’t go any lower so either you start to accept reality on the road towards health or you die.

That’s one way that humility can come to us – hitting bottom – and interestingly we have very little control over it.

The second seems to be through an encounter with awe – it can be beauty, it can be power, it can be nature or it can be love – but awe seems to move us beyond ourselves so that we are open to the realization that we are not the center of the universe. I think that is part of what the gospel story for this morning hints at when we’re told that Jesus calms the storm. Consider the following:

+ First, the reason why everyone is on this boat crossing the lake is to get to the Decapolis – Gentile territory – a place where Jesus is expanding his mission of grace and healing. They are taking God’s upside-down blessings out into the streets – they are sharing the joy – and welcoming the outcasts.

+ Second, when the storm comes up, the disciples are terrified and literally cry out: Lord, don’t you care that we are all about to die? Ever felt like that yourself? Ever cry out and curse God because you were in danger or trouble or worse? It is a very human reaction and this story grounds us in the humanity of those who first followed Christ, ok?

+ And third, please notice that throughout the whole voyage Jesus was at rest. He was a non-anxious presence in the midst of worry and a source of strength to those in distress. For the love of God, for most of the trouble, he was asleep! And not because he didn’t care. But rather because of his complete trust in God – not half-hearted or fingers crossed trust, ok? – complete trust. The disciples were worried about the obvious; Jesus was at rest in his abiding faith beyond the obvious.

Lutheran scholar and preacher, Brian Stoffregen, likes to point out that the empirical evidence about our worries includes only 2% of concern about the things we can change. Listen: “only two percent of our "worrying time" is spent on things that might actually be helped by worrying stress management experts have discovered… the other 98 percent of this time” is spent like this: 40% on things that never happen; 35% on things that can't be changed; 15% on things that turn out better than first expected; and 8% on useless, petty worries.

Most of our time is wasted worrying about things we can't change - but every once in a while a rainbow breaks through (or we notice a flower) or we get a note in the mail or a loved one's embrace - and we wake up to grace through awe. In our story this is exactly what happened: Jesus told the wind – the externals – to pipe down and the world became quiet. There was calm and rest – and in the awe of the moment the disciples’ hearts and faith were strengthened. I don’t try to explain away the miracles. I don’t understand them and I don’t even try: I like serving a God who is beyond my ability to comprehend. At the same time, I recognize something in this story that I have seen over and over again: in the face of awe, we become still and recognize something of God’s grace that changes us.
Awe is another way we meet up with humility. And like hitting rock bottom, awe is pretty much beyond our control, too.

Which suggests to me that the only practice we can embrace that will move us from selfishness to sharing has to do with taking on the role of servant: St. Paul was pointing toward this.

Don't put it off; don't frustrate God's work by showing up late, throwing a question mark over everything we're doing. Our work as God's servants gets validated—or not—in the details. People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we're beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we're telling the truth, and when God's showing his power; when we're doing our best setting things right; when we're praised, and when we're blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.

And here is my suggestion for learning the way of the servant – the meekness that empowers us to live as partners with God in the upside-down kingdom – it has to do with your humor. I’m not kidding: your sense of humor – and the jokes and stories you choose to share – can either help you become more Christ-like and humble or not. Are you with me? Think of the things that make you laugh:

+ Are they at the expense of another? Do they compound stereotypes? Deepen social wounds?

+ Or are they self-deprecating? About wisdom and how we’re all in this together?
There is nothing holy or helpful about racist or sexist jokes. There is nothing of God in sarcasm that lifts us up by putting another down. But, I suggest to you, there is spiritual nurture in cultivating the ability to laugh at yourself, yes? That’s why I have come to see comedians as some of the best prophets and teachers of spiritual maturity we can consult.

+ Dear St. George Burns said: The secret of a good sermon is to have a strong beginning and good ending – and to have the two as close together as is possible. Someone else noted: Want to get God to laugh? Tell him (or her) your plans!

One of my current favorites, however, comes from the late spiritual master, St. George Carlin, who understood something true about the upside down nature of God’s kingdom when he said:

I want to live my next life backwards: You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in a nursing home feeling better every day. Then you get kicked out for being too healthy and enjoy your retirement and collect your pension. Then, when you start work, you get a gold watch on your first day. You work 40 years until you're too young to work and then you get ready for High School where you drink alcohol, party and go all wild and crazy.

Then you go to primary school, become a kid, play, and you have no responsibilities. Only to become a baby, and then... spend your last 9 months floating peacefully in luxury, in spa-like conditions: central heating, room service on tap, and then... you finish off as an orgasm. I rest my case.

I have come to believe – and experience in my own spiritual life – that one of the best ways of practicing humility and cultivating a commitment to servant hood comes through our humor. So here’s what I would like you to do for me – but really for the sake of your soul – send me some of your favorite stories and jokes by email over the next week.

+ Be on alert for those gentle stories that help you laugh at yourself – or the anxieties of real life – and send them to me, ok?

+ Next week, in the second part of this message, I’ll share some of these stories with you and talk about the connections between humility and humor – they both come from the root word humus which means of the earth – as we try to discover real ways to help us deepen our commitment to integrating the holy with the human.

And, so far as I can tell: that is the good news for today so let those who have ears to hear, hear. Let's pray together with these words from St. Mark Knopfler...


Black Pete said…
Reminds me of the late Mike Yaconelli.
RJ said…
He was so sweet, yes?

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