Humility, imagination and laughter as prayer...

NOTE: More notes from my on-going summer series: Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace. And more connections between humility, imagination and become the childlike spiritually open adults of the Jesus life. Please join us if you are in town on Sunday, July 12th at 10:30 am.

There is an intimate connection between authentic humility and a lively imagination – and you can take that to bank! You see, living and breathing humility is alert to the moment – the pain, the pleasure and the promise – it notices and celebrates the potential in everything and every being. And it is part of what Jesus was telling us when he said:

I'm telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you're not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again – humble like this child – will rank high in God's kingdom. What's more, when you receive others who are childlike on my account, it's the same as receiving me.

No wonder Joan Chittister says to those interested in a mature and adult Christian life that, “The goals and values of the spiritual life… are just plain different from the goals and values we’ve been taught by the world around us. Winning, owning, having, consuming and controlling are just not the high posts of true spiritual maturity.”

Rather, if you want to be filled, you must live into your emptiness; if you want to be helpful, you must learn how to be served. If you want to be mature, you must become as a child again.

• And, if you hunger to know God intimately, you have to nourish your imagination with the spirit of humility. Otherwise, you’ll stay puffed up and blind to the blessings all around you.

That’s what Jesus is getting at when he speaks paradoxically – the upside down kingdom – where: If your hand or your foot gets in the way of God, chop it off and throw it away. And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away, too. You're better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.

This is humility talk, my friends, spiritual counsel in one of the ways we might learn the unforced rhythms of God’s grace. For at the heart of this truth is the assurance that if humility and imagination are woven together like a tapestry, they will bring God’s comfort, warmth and childlike delight into the ordinary moments of our existence. The poet, Mary Oliver, put it like this in something she calls, “Mysteries, Yes.”

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
(Isn’t that perfect?)
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
(Mary Oliver, "Mysteries, Yes" in Evidence, Beacon Press: Boston, 2009)

Are you with me? Do you grasp the intimate connection between authentic humility and a lively imagination; or the way becoming childlike can nourish our astonishment and joy? Our awareness of “mysteries too marvelous to understand?”

• That’s why I have been asking you to send me some of your favorite jokes and stories: it is an unforced way – a back door approach – to cultivating a childlike humility.

• There are other paths and other insights – there are the 12 Steps to Humility as taught by St. Benedict or the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyal – and they all have value and merit.

But most of us don’t have the time or resources to spend a month in a monastery polishing our souls. I know that I don’t: I have a family to love, bills to pay, friendship to strengthen and gardens to weed. What’s more, I am not really sure that you can cultivate a childlike humility by being so profoundly serious.

That’s why I asked you last week if you knew any funny Jesus songs: not that I want to diminish or trivialize the way of Christ – not at all – but it is just backasswards to try too hard to become like a child. Children, after all, learn many of life’s essential truths when they are at play. Listen to how Robert Fulghum puts it in his poem, “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

Most of what I really need
To know about how to live
And what to do and how to be
I learned in kindergarten.
Wisdom was not at the top
Of the graduate school mountain,
But there in the sand pile at Sunday school.
These are the things I learned:
Share everything.
Play fair.
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life -
Learn some and think some
And draw and paint and sing and dance
And play and work everyday some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world,
Watch out for traffic,
Hold hands and stick together.
Be aware of wonder.

So I’ve been encouraging you to laugh – be playful – treat laughter and funny songs as a prayer that opens you up to God’s grace. Because, you see, and let me get serious for just a moment, like Marshall McLuhan, student of how the medium is also the message, told us: “In a commercial society (like ours) whose members are essentially ascetic and indifferent… concerned primarily with the bottom line… social rituals have to be provided with blueprints and specifications for evoking the right tone for every occasion.”

We don’t really know how to be humble, spiritual children in a world like ours: we know how to win and spend money; we know how to be obsessed with our own needs; and we know how to feel guilty.

• But live as humble and spontaneous spiritual children…? That’s going to take some practice.

• So why not enjoy the path towards spiritual maturity – why not nourish the playful as Jesus encouraged – why not let our laughter become one of the ways we pray?

St. Peter put it like this: Whoever wants to embrace life and see the day fill up with good, here's what you do: Say nothing evil or hurtful; Snub evil and cultivate good; run after peace for all you're worth knowing that God looks on all this with approval, listening and responding well to what he's asked. Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, and be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that's your job, to bless. Then you'll be a blessing and also get a blessing.

Jesus Christ put it like this: I'm telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you're not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God's kingdom.

And RJ put it like this: if you want to become a healthy, loving, spiritually mature adult… you have to nourish your sense of humor – your path into humility – for then even your laughter becomes a prayer. Do this and your imagination will be unlocked and just like a child you will see God’s presence everywhere.

The spiritual masters are clear: humility is how we learn to bear bad things well. Once again Chittister hits it out of the park when she writes: The goal of our generation is to cure all diseases, order all inefficiencies, topple all obstacles, end all stress and prescribe immediate panaceas. We wait for nothing and put up with little and abide less and react with fury at irritations. We have become a people without patience. We do not tolerate process and we cannot stomach delay. But God does not come to us on hoof beats of mercury through streets of gold. God is in the dregs of our lives – and it takes a humble soul to find God where God is not expected to be.
(Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, Crossroads Publishing: New York, 1992)

It is so hard for us to become like children; so let me leave you with this… invitation to prayer. It comes from our mystical friends in Islam about the day Mullah Nasrudin bought a rooster. Now, it seems that Nasrudin was poor and have saved all his earnings for nearly a year to purchase this rooster. His neighbor assured him that it was truly a prize winning rooster and would do his new master proud. So, Nasrudin paid the man the highest price imaginable and brought the bird back to his home.

At first, he was very pleased and all went well: the chickens looked tired but also very happy so Nasrudin returned thanks to God. But within hours he discovered that there was no controlling this rooster’s romantic tendencies. Not only was he mounting the hens, but the ducks and the swans and the geese not to mention a few stray nanny goats and sows.

“What are you doing you crazy bird?” Nasrudin shouted. “Get it together. Look, I paid good money for you and if you keep this up you’re going to kill yourself.” But… there was no stopping him – this was a rooster with a mission – and before you knew it he was out of the barnyard heading for the stable. Well, Nasrudin became unglued and captured the rooster and locked him in the barn before heading into bed for the night. “Finally, I think I’ve solved my problem,” he said to himself before falling asleep.

But when he woke up and headed outside the next day, there was the rooster flat on his back: his eyes were glazed, his legs were sticking straight up in the air and there were a few buzzards flying ominously over head. “What did I tell you, you moron,” shouted Nasrudin. “I knew the life you were leading was going to be the death of you.” But then, to his total amazement, the supposedly expired rooster opened one eye and whispered hoarsely, "Pipe down and listen will you? When you are trying to romance a buzzard, you have got to play it their way!"

Keep laughing, beloved and before you know mystery and awe will be a part of your everyday blessings.

(CREDITS: 1) Digital Image -; 2); 3); 4) Imagination -; 5) Open Your Imagination, Ben Heine, -; 6) Isaiah 40:26 -


SGF said…
I wonder does simple and elemental mean child like but also genuine. honest and authentic? In other words a willingness to acknowledge where you the Tears for fears song, ELEMENTAL which says,

"Take another leap in the dark
With a humble heart
Do yourself some good...
What did you become? sure...Baby! Baby!

These days it's all in the mind...
It's elemental
Don't say you're up when you're down...
It's elemental
SGF said…
Oh yes, I forgot to say I love the art in this post!
RJ said…
YES, YES and YES... exactly.

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