Today we’re going to consider the importance of humility in our spiritual lives as we wander in the wilderness with Jesus some more during Lent: humility as individuals, humility before the Lord, humility as a faith community and humility as a pathway to greater spiritual vitality. Just look at what the lessons from scripture have to say to us about all of this:
• Abram and Sarai are called by God to leave everything they have ever known behind and head out for a new home in a totally new land – at the ripe old age of 75! They have NO idea where they are going to ultimately settle. They have no clue about how the Lord will provide for them on this crazy journey. And they have had precious little experience travelling through hostile lands by the seat of their pants. These are wealthy and settled land owners – people rooted to family, earth and tradition – who are being asked to become more like the wind than farmers of a huge estate.
• What’s more, they are old – heart-broken – and unable to produce progeny. Yet God says to them: Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you and I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing for many.
One of the founders of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin, once wrote that: It was not enough for Abram to worship God in his heart; he had to declare by outward profession – and action - his faith before others. That is to say, faith demanded of him humility: get over yourselves saith the Lord – let go of all your old habits and comforts – and set out on a new way of living that trusts God more than self.
And just so that we don’t miss the point, our New Testament lesson from St. John’s gospel offers us a true double-whammy about humility in the story of Nicodemus:
• Here a learned man who winds up looking like a fool while Jesus the peasant articulates the very wisdom of the Lord.
• One operates in the darkness – symbolic of ignorance and confusion – while Jesus serves as the light.
• That’s how Peterson reworks the start of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, you know? Blessed are you when you are at the end of your rope because with less of you, there is more room for God.
• He does much the same thing in John 3: Unless a person submits to the origins of God’s creation – the 'wind-hovering-over-the-water' creation – the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life – it is not possible to enter God's kingdom. When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within that body is formed by something you can't see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit. So don't be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be 'born from above'—out of this world so to speak by the love of God. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it's headed next. And that's the way it is with everyone 'born from above' by the wind of God, the Spirit of God."
God is in control – and you’re not! Humbling, isn’t it? “In an era that fawns over the rich and famous – adopting as its rallying cry ME FIRST – humility as a spiritual path is both scorned and neglected.” Ernest Kurtz, A Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 186) See now why I asked you to find a story or a song that helped you laugh at yourself last week?
• We live in a world that denigrates humility while the Bible calls us to us wake up and accept that God is in control – the Spirit is in charge – and we have to get over ourselves!
• And there are really only two ways to encounter the spiritual wisdom of humility: humor and humiliation.
They both come from the same root word, hummus, you see, which means of the earth. Humor is the gentle path and I have to tell you that the older I get the more gentle I want to become. The world is already harsh and ugly enough so I don’t need to add any more insult to injury. That’s why I asked you to explore the gentle way of growing closer to God through humor…
Do you know that every authentic spiritual tradition has a collection of gentle, self-deprecating humorous stories that help us learn to laugh at ourselves – and let go – and trust that God really is in charge like Jesus said? That is really what being born again – or sired from above – is all about: it has to do with living as if you truly trust that God is God and you are not.
• You might have an ecstatic spiritual revelation – or not. It could simply come as a Zen-like “aha” moment – but what being born again is really about has to do with discovering and trusting that God is in charge and you are not.
I think of the ancient Sufi story – from the mystical Muslims of Persia, Turkey and Pakistan – who often use the character of Nasrudin – the holy fool – to make their gentle point. It seems that one afternoon Nasrudin and his friend were sitting in a café, drinking tea as was their custom and talking together about life and love.
“How is it that you never married, Nasrudin?” asked his friend. “Well,” the old fool replied, “to tell you the truth, I spent the whole of my youth searching for the perfect woman. Once, in Cairo, I met a beautiful and bright young woman with eyes like dark olives. But she was unkind. Later, in Baghdad, I met a woman who was wonderful and generous with a soul like the saints – but we had nothing in common. One woman after another would seem just right, but then there would always be something mission. And then it came to pass that I met her one day – the woman of my dreams – she was beautiful, intelligent, kind, generous and merciful. We had everything in common – and with Allah as my witness I can say that she was perfect.”
“Well,” said Nasrudin’s friend, “what happened? Why didn’t you marry her?” Sipping his tea reflectively the old one paused and then said, “It is a very sad thing. It seems that she was looking for the perfect man…” (Spiritual Literacy, Frederic and Mary An Brussat, p. 431)
The gentle path of humor can be very wise and useful in growing closer to the Lord, yes? But sometimes the other path into God’s wisdom in humility must come in a harder way – humiliation – or let’s call it hitting bottom, striking out or crashing and burning. That happens a lot in the Bible – especially to Abraham – who is often too full of himself even when he thinks he is being faithful. Same with Nicodemus – the so-called wise religious lawyer – who comes to Jesus seeking insight but can’t understand anything of the spirit: apparently he needs to be taken down a few pegs before he can find eyes to see and a heart to trust that God is God.
• The greed of Wall Street bankers – the vicious hubris of Mubarak in Egypt – our obsession with our own pain – the agony of the addict whether to alcohol, oil, sex or cocaine – the self-righteous politician who moralizes about others only to be caught with his own pants down or the Type A go-getter who needs a heart-attack before she slows down…
Creation seems to have been constructed by God in such a way that if we can’t or won’t enter the blessings of humility through the gentle path, then we’re probably going to have to experience the harder way of humiliation and hitting bottom. The artist, Paul Simon, said it poetically in his reworking of the old Christian hymn, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” in his “American Tune.”
I don't know a soul who's not been battered.
I don't have a friend who feels at ease.
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered,
or driven to its knees.
Ah, but it's all right. It's all right.
For we've lived so well so long.
Still, when I think of the road we're travelin' on,
I wonder what's gone wrong.
I can't help but wonder what's gone wrong.
Now here’s a man who has been humbled – humiliated, too – married and divorced three times until he learned it wasn’t all about him. He’s been at the top of popular culture and ridiculed and shamed, too.I think it was the wisdom of humility that helped him write that song – he couldn’t have done it as a cocky young hot shot – and this depth empowered him to write this, too that is one of the wisest and most spiritual soul songs ever to be recorded…
You could be Abraham or Sarah – you could be Nicodemus or Paul Simon – you could be Bill Clinton, George Bush, Abraham Madoff, Elliot Spitzer, Charlie Sheen or Lindsey Lohan: without humility you are going to miss the blessings of the Lord and find yourself slip-slidin’ away.
So here’s the deal: whether it arrives gently or with a crash the wisdom of humility asks us to practice three inter-related truths so that we can live as those born or sired from above:
• First, we are fully human – earthy and holy at the same time – sinner and saint together – and anything less than this earthiness is destructive and dishonest.
• And third, God has given us a choice – we can learn from the gentle or the harsh way – and if we don’t get it through humor… well, let’s just say most of us seem to need a combination of both to grow in the Spirit, yes?
This year, to enter and practice a Holy Lent is to embrace humility in all its rich fullness. Lord, may it be so among us all.