Taking ourselves more lightly...

NOTE: Here are my notes/thoughts for this coming Sunday's worship. In the middle of politicians who talk about family values while carrying on behind their loved one's back, arguments about national health care and the courage and anguish of our sisters and brothers in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel my message might strike some as irrelevant - maybe even fluff. But I have found over the years that learning to take myself a little more lightly - actually learning to laugh at myself - is one sacred way of becoming more open and compassionate. I wonder what you think? If you are in town at 10:30 am on Sunday, please come join the conversation!

The Roman Catholic theologian, G.K. Chesterton, once said that the “reason angels can fly is because… they take themselves so lightly.” Today, as we go a bit deeper into the connection between humility and humor – and actually consider how our use of humor can help or hinder our life as disciples of Jesus – Chesterton’s observation is a good starting place. In a way, I think it captures a truth long neglected in organized religion.

+ Our spiritual forbearers in Judaism, you see, have a tradition that says: A cheerful heart brings a smile to your face; while a sad heart makes it hard to get through the day…. A miserable heart brings a miserable life; but a cheerful heart fills the day with song… Fear-of-GOD is a school for learning a skilled life — first you learn humility, then you experience glory. (Proverbs 15)

+ And St. Paul told the early church: You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction with one another, so stay together, outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Creator of all, who rules over all, works through all and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with unity... but please: never forget that your life together is built on humility and practice… pouring yourself out in acts of love for one another, alert to the wounds and quick at mending fences. (Ephesians 4)

Even Jesus in today’s healing stories embodies a sacred sense of humor that mixes things up so that joy overcomes sorrow, healing replaces our hurts, laughter triumphs over our tears and grace trumps karma in spades. We’re talking about this upside down kingdom business again, right? So much so that Jesus told the woman long afflicted with pain and isolation: “Daughter, you took a risk of faith and now you're healed and whole. Live well, live blessed! Be healed of your plague." (Mark 5)

There seems to be a connection between humility and wholeness and I have come to believe that humor is one of the best ways we can cultivate and nourish a holy humility in our ordinary lives. Not only does gentle humor turn the tables on our culture of cynicism, bringing us closer to joy, hope and trust, it does so in a way that is festive and satisfying.

And I suspect that intuitively we know this to be true even if our formal religious heritage has tended to be overly dour and serious. Don’t get me wrong: like the Hebrew wisdom tradition of Proverbs, I, too affirm that “awe and fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Awe is one of the ways we are humbled – it helps us live like we’re not the center of the universe – it gives us perspective.

But shock and awe are not the only way to acquire humility: just as there is a hard and demanding path, so, too, one that is gentle and even fun. Why do you think we were created with the ability to laugh? It is one of the very attributes of the One Who is Holy – the Lord God – who made us in the divine image and calls us in Christ to embrace holiness within our humanity so that the Word becomes Flesh. Dare I say that laughter… is prayer?

One old saint put it like this asking, “How enlightened are you?” If…

+ … you can live without caffeine, be cheerful, ignoring your aches and pains and resist complaining

+ If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time, take criticism and blame without resentment, ignore a friend's limited education and never correct him or her

+ If you can resist treating a rich friend better than a poor one, face the world without lies and deceit, conquer tension without medical help and relax without liquor

+ If you can sleep without the aid of drugs, honestly say that deep in your heart you have no prejudice against creed, color, religion, gender preference, or politics. Then, my friend, you have almost reached the same level of spiritual development… as your dog!
Brilliant, don’t you think? Honest, tender, humbling and insightful, this type of humor not only makes us laugh at ourselves but also notice just how far from the mark we are in most of our activities. That’s why I say that our laughter can also be a prayer: it is communion with the truth, spiritual insight and invitation to repent all in one delightful experience. It is the sweet side – the upside down way – of cultivating humility.

And humility, dear friends, is essential for our healing and the healing of the world. Simon Tugwell, scholar and author of a host of books exploring the wisdom of the ancient monastic world, has observed that, “The first work of grace is simply to enable us to begin to understand what is wrong.” (The Spirituality of Imperfection, Kurtz, p. 21)

And when we consider what is wrong with ourselves and the world, one of our first discoveries is “that we are not really in control of very much at all; we do not have the answers” and in many cases don’t even know the questions. Powerlessness – emptying – humility – fear and awe of the Lord in light of our limitations… is what? The beginning of knowledge, yes? The Christian poet T.S. Eliot put it like this:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is… where you really are not.

(Eliot, The Four Quartets)

The Sufi mystics are equally insightful when they playfully tell the story of Mullah Nasrudin – their Holy Fool – who was sitting in a cafĂ© one afternoon, drinking tea and talking about life and love. “How come you never got married, Nasrudin?” asked his friend at one point. “Well, said the mystic,” to tell you the truth, I spent my youth looking for the perfect woman.”

In Cairo, I met a beautiful and intelligent woman, with eyes like dark olives, but she was unkind. Then in Baghdad, I met a woman who was a wonderful and generous soul, but we had no interests in common. One woman after another would seem just right, but there would always be something missing. Then one day, I met her. She was beautiful, intelligent, generous and kind. We had everything in common. In fact she was perfect. “Well” said his friend,” what happened? Why didn’t you marry this wonderful soul?” To which Nasrudin sipped his tea reflectively and then replied: “It’s a sad thing. Seems she was looking for the perfect man…”

Embracing our powerlessness – accepting our lack of control – coming to terms with the fact that we really don’t know very much about anything – this, too, is the beginning of knowledge. It is humility – born of the word humus – from which we get the words humor and human. And I love the fact that these three words share the same etymological momma and poppa: “The dictionary describes humus as “a brown or black substance resulting from the partial decay of plant and animal matter… that is, it is the earth.” (Kurtz, p. 191)

+ Which is to say that humility is about earthiness – being grounded in what is real – a spiritual condition that bears fruit best through humor, don’t you think?

+ One of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, used to say that “humility begins with our rejection of perfection – trying to live an all-or-nothing existence. For to be a human be-ing – to exist and carry out our lives in the middle of reality – is to be neither all nor nothing… it is to be all mixed-up. Both saint and sinner” to say nothing of dark and light, holy and human, male and female and all the rest.

And humor helps us get to this mixed-up/upside down place almost better than anything else because it puts together crazy things together that at first don’t seem to fit or belong: juxtapositions or paradox. And if we are lucky – and paying attention – by the end of a good joke or story, a connection is made. The words become flesh, heaven embraces the earth and we see both joy and sorrow living side by side together. Look at how this unfolds in today’s gospel, ok?

+ The story begins with a series of seeming contrasts: a sick woman and a healthy man, a woman outcast from the community and a young girl surrounded by her family and friends, the poor and the rich, those who have been forgotten and those who are always embraced. Are you with me?

+ What’s more there is faith and fear, ritual impurity and healing as well as death and new life, too. There is one more set of contrasts that warrant our attention, too, and they have to do with those who are called unclean and those whom Jesus touches.

This is real life to paraphrase AA: the place where everything is mixed up, nothing is perfect and humanity is very, very earthy. Now watch how this story of Jesus unfolds: Last week we were told that Jesus and the boys took a boat ride across the lake to the land of the Gentiles – the Decapolis – where a Jew crossed the line to share God’s grace with the Gentiles.

Now they are returning to Israel where they will meet both a leader of the synagogue, Jairus, whose daughter is dying – and – a nameless, unclean outcast woman who is given no name.

+ The little girl from the wealthy family is probably pre-adolescent while the woman has been suffering from a menstrual hemorrhage for 12 years.

+ Do you see the contrasts here? Contrasts that Jesus will reconcile?


Now, in the ancient tradition there were three human conditions that were considered so infectious that other human beings were forbidden contact: leprosy, bodily discharge and touching a corpse. And in our story we are told that Jesus touches both the leader of the synagogue’s dead daughter – and brings her healing – and allows himself to be touched by the woman with the incurable menstrual flow so that the miracles of healing are multiplied.

+ This was foolishness in his time – clearly a violation of common sense, religious tradition and social norms – may I call it radial humility - a profound commitment to mixing it up in the earthy stuff of real life to advance hearling?

+ Think about it: Jesus went so far as to call the outcast, diseased woman… what? Daughter! He called her daughter – making this healing personal more than merely business or even religion, don’t you think?

You see, in the humble, upside-down/mixed-up humility of Jesus, we are never content with abstractions: we yearn for relationships. Jesus is just as committed to discovering the identity of the one who touched him as the woman was committed to reaching out for her cure. One scholar wrote: “He is not content to dispatch a miracle; he wants to encounter a person. For in the kingdom of God, miracle leads to meeting. Discipleship is not simply getting our needs met; it is entering into the presence of Jesus, being known by him and following him.”

And what is the consequence of all this touching and healing? It looks an awful lot like joy to me – a celebration of God’s awesome sense of humor that brings faith out of our fears. All the more reason to practice – and cultivate – something of this earthy, humor-filled humility in the midst of our mixed-up lives, it seems to me.

So I’m going to stick with this quest for humility through gentle humor for another week because not too many people sent me a joke:

+ I asked you to do some homework - think of a joke or story that made you laugh at yourself - something that humbled you - and send me an email.

+ But I only got four replies! So let me say that you don’t have to use email – you can write me a letter – or even stop by the church office and drop it off for me here.

The challenge, you see, is to start cultivating a way of living that is angelic – where we don’t take ourselves too seriously – and where we spread a little hope and healing through the prayer of laughter. So let's push the envelope a little here and see if we can do better, ok? And to prime the pump and practice what I preach, I'm going to leave you with these two gems that both puncture our self-righteousness and create a little space for humility.

The first comes from the country singer, Butch Hancock, who said that he learned two important truths from his fundamentalist Texas church: the first is that God loves you – and you’re going to burn in hell; and the second is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth – and you should save it for someone you love.

And the second tells the story of the Baptist preacher and his wife who decided to get a new dog. Ever mindful of their congregation, they knew that their dog must also be a Baptist, too. So they visited kennel after kennel and explained their needs. Finally, they found a kennel whose owner assured them he had just the dog they wanted.

+ The owner brought the dog to meet the pastor and his wife. “Fetch the Bible,” the owner commanded. The dog bounded to the bookshelf, scrutinized the books, located the Bible, and brought it to the owner. “Now find Psalm 23,” he ordered. The dog dropped the Bible to the floor, and showing marvelous dexterity with his paws, leafed through and, finding the correct passage, pointed to it with his paw.

+ The pastor and his wife were very impressed and purchased the dog. That evening, a group of church members came to visit. The pastor and his wife began to show off the dog, having him locate several Bible verses. The visitors were quite impressed. One man asked, “Can he do regular dog tricks, too?” “I haven’t tried yet,” the pastor replied. He pointed his finger at the dog and said, “Heel!” And the dog jumped onto a chair, placed one paw on the pastor’s forehead and began to howl. At which the pastor looked at his wife in shock and said, “Good Lord, Dianne: He’s not a Baptist, he’s a Pentecostal!”

Have some fun out there:
as Bill Coffin used to say, "Go out there and give 'em a little heaven and laughter - there's already too much hell, ok?" For this can be the good news for those who have ears to hear.

Comments

Black Pete said…
One of my favourite Nasrudin stories goes like this:

Nasrudin is sitting on his balcony above his front door, enjoying the sunshine. A visitor comes, knocks on the door. Nasrudin's servant asks his business and is told that the visitor wants to see Nasrudin.

"Just a moment," says the servant. "He's home. I'll go and get him for you."

Nasrudin shouts down to the visitor,"I'm not home!"

Puzzled, the visitor backs up, looks up, sees Nasrudin on the balcony, and says, "But your servant said you were home!"

"Who are you going to believe," Nasrudin says, "my servant or me?"
RJ said…
that is brilliant... thanks.

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