Thursday, March 11, 2010

Humility? What's That? #2

O God, it is hard for me to let go, most times, and the squeeze I exert garbles me and gnarls others.
So, loosen my grip a bit on the good times, on the moments of sunlight and star shine and joy, that the thousand graces they scatter as they pass may nurture growth in me rather than turn to brittle memories.
Loosen my grip on those grudges and grievances I hold so closely that I may risk exposing myself to the spirit of forgiving and forgiveness that changes things and resurrects dreams and courage.
Loosen my grip on my fears that I may be released a little into humility and into an acceptance of my humanity ...
Loosen my grip on my ways and words ... that letting go into the depths of silence and my own uncharted longing, I may find myself held by you and linked anew to all life in this wild and wondrous world you love so much. so I may take to heart that you have taken me to heart
Excerpted from Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle by Ted Loder

I confess that I am not a patient person. It's also true that over the years I've learned to be much less impatient than I used to be. From that distance I've gotten a glimmer of what Paul meant when, in his familiar ode to love in his letter to the Corinthians, the first word he uses to describe the subject is, "Love is patient ..." He had to start with a damnably hard trait, didn't he? No wonder I'm still working on patience. I do a little better at it with my wife, Jan, and slightly better with my kids and grandkids. But from that little knoll in my personal landscape, patience slides downhill like Lindsay Vohn on skis. With friends and neighbors my patience is a occasional; with strangers it's sporadic; with enemies (and ridiculous car drivers) it's rare. That gives you keyhole peep at my rather flawed love life.

You see, patience sets the bar very high for love's other qualities according to Paul. For him, there's not much of fluttering hearts, soaring moods or beguiling aura about love, not that those things aren't wonderful, delightful experiences for us. But essentially, I think Paul is right because even those delightful experiences won't last long or be re-experienced very often without patience. Love that is deeper, stronger, more authentic than that is quite improbable without patience.

Why? Doubtless you can figure it out by skimming the traits of love that follow, or more accurately, depend on, patience: "love is kind ... not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude ... does not insist on its own way ... is not irritable or resentful ... does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." We may not "rejoice in the truth" that no matter how long we've been at it, we're all beginners in being patient and, consequently, in loving like that. We just have to keep trying until we make some progress at it!! There's always some giving in to love, but never any giving up!!

And Voila, we're back to humility! Most of Paul's list of love's traits, with which I suspect most of us would agree, also fit humility. The two are joined at the hip, or better, at the will, or heart, or soul. Each require the other if either is to be realized in our lives. Love is humble; humility is loving.

I dare to remind you that what I said about humility in my last post apply equally to love. Both humility and love are assertive, not passive, take the initiative and are not reluctant. Both take risks and make sacrifices of something (like our egos) for the good of friends, neighbors, even enemies because both love and humility live in personal pronouns - us, we, our, you. Neither is pretentious, timid, manipulative or self-promoting. Neither insists on its own way but both are persistent, open to compromise, that is, to giving something in order to get something for the good of the other as well as the self. Mark it: There's some giving in to both humility and love, but there's no giving up!

Confession two: I'm not much better at giving in than I am at being patient. One annoying symptom of that people often tell me about is that I can be overbearingly helpful, with the overbearing part negating the helpful. And they're right. Come to me to talk over a problem and I'm compelled to give you the solution and at least infer that it's the right and true one. Same with social issues, political problems. I suppose that's a little like being a benevolent dictator when you think about it. Benevolent intent, oppressive consequences. I've learned, slowly, that what people want most deeply is to share their lives with me, warts, pain, problems, joys, whatever, not for me to take over their lives for them.

It's about control, isn't it? We like to feel we're in control and none of us like things to be out of control, not for ourselves, or for anyone else around us because it makes us anxious. So we we keep trying to control things, which includes controlling people, processes, outcomes. And yet, we can't!! Control is an illusion but an addictive one. And a destructive one!

What we can control is our selves, our actions, thinking, responses, how we deal with circumstances beyond our control. We can contribute, make some impact, help, innovate, interpret, share but not control. We can participate, engage, speak out, organize, negotiate, never play the victim, never blame, always accept responsibility for our mistakes, never assume all is lost when we don't get our own way and never give up doing whatever we really can and ought, then willingly paying the cost for our actions and trusting that however much or little it does to benefit the plural pronouns of life matters more than we know. That's humility. That's love. That's patience.

The nub of it is this, in my view. We don't really live in an either/or world: either good or bad, right or wrong, win or lose. Most of the time, life is a both/and process, a mixture of right and wrong, good and bad, win and lose. Our choices are seldom between absolutes. Oh, we do choose between options, this one, not the other one, and in a sense, that is an either/or choice.

So let's put it this way, we live in a world of serial either/or choices or decisions and most of those decisions may be more good than bad, right than wrong but they still have portions of both in them. One good does not eliminate all bad, or most bad. The wonder is that we never run out of choices, of decisions to make. For me the wonder of the inexhaustibility of choices we have in life reflects the grace of God. I don't believe God exercises power by controlling everything. That is not love. I believe God exercises power through God's capacity to cope with whatever happens, whatever the outcomes are of decisions and choices we make. There are no dead ends in life.

One of the last things Paul says about love there in his letter to the Corinthians, is that "love never ends." Of course, you and I end, at least as residents of this world. But love does not. And we can trust and live in the promise that though we do not fully love the way Paul maps it out, God does. So, love really does never end. If that's so, then the loved ones, the beloved, don't either which means, we don't either. Those we love, whether we like them or not, (we don't have to like anyone to love them, thank God!) don't end either.

To trust God and sin on bravely, as Luther put is, is to give in to being loved. We can stop trying to control things or other people. We can stop being so damnably anxious, so easily made afraid. We can humbly live the plural pronouns and love the best way we can, battling for our vision of justice, truth, compassion, mercy, reconciliation, peace, and then be at ease with whatever small steps we can mutually take in that direction day by day. We can stop measuring our lives, our love lives, by whether we win or lose, are right or wrong, good or bad, or who is saved and who isn't, because the mystery is we all are both and do both in some way beyond our understanding and none of that is finally up to us, anyway. We can leave that up to the gracious power we can trust is at work in our lives, our world, our history, our future since, 'love never ends." It's all about giving in but never giving up.

Toni Morrison's incredibly moving novel Beloved is about the demonic inhumanity of slavery and the unfathomable, almost terrifyingly beautiful love of slaves. At the end of her novel, two slaves who have been close friends, are reunited. The woman, Sethe, comes to the door of the house of Paul D, the man. She is sick, exhausted and collapses in a chair by the window. Both have managed to escape and take a long, hard, dangerous, almost lifetime journey to Ohio, to freedom. Paul sits and looks at Sethe sitting next to him with her eyes closed. As he does, he remembers what a slave friend had said about the woman in his life: "She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind."

Paul keeps looking a Sethe, thinking of her that way. 'The wet dress steaming before the fire. Her tenderness about his neck jewelry -- it's three wands, like attentive baby rattlers, curling two feet into the air. How she never mentioned or looked at it, so he did not have to feel the shame of being collared like a beast. Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that. He wants to put his story next to hers." Friends, can you feel the humility, patience, love in that scene?

Faith is something we have, more or less. Humility, love, patience, trust is something we do. Something like giving in but never giving up. Something we do with and for each other. Something we do to put our story next to the plural pronouns of our lives.

And most of all, putting our story next to God's, the Mother-Father whose love never ends.

Think about it. Ted

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Humility? What's That? #1

Lord, we come together with each other and with you in a serious time, with serious concurs about serious matters. Enable us to take ourselves less seriously that we may take you more seriously and be lightened by your Presence and your grace ... Enchant us into becoming more like children, laughing, asking, imagining, and trusting you as the God and Father-Mother in whose spirit we live and move and have our being, and pray. Amen
Excerpt from Loaves, Fishes and Leftovers: Sharing Faith's Deep Questions - Ted Loder

I don't recall which Justice came up with the memorable description but when the Supreme Court was struggling to define obscenity one of them said, "I know it when I see it." I suspect most of us have the same struggle when we try to define "humility" except these days we don't see enough of it to be sure we'd recognize it if we did. The rarity of humility is a serious problem for us, our country, our world. There is a lot of arrogance, privilege, entitlement, dominance, superiority around and I suppose it could be said the humility is the opposite of those traits. In a sense, that may be helpful but, again, the opposite of those traits in our midst is nearly undetectable. Besides, being the opposite of something is too vague a definition.

So, let's give a try to defining it in a more positive way. Most often, humility is thought of as being being submissive, obsequious, passive, compliant, docile, lowly. But, as the old song has it, "It ain't necessarily so!" Not at all! Once when I was a guest preacher in Richmond, VA, the Senior Pastor asked me to accompany him to a men's breakfast meeting at the church. It turned out the focus of the discussion that morning was humility. It was such a slippery subject that no one could get a hold of it. Most men associated it with weakness, groveling, timidity, cowardice, loser. Finally, the pastor asked me what I thought. Being on the spot, I rather causally suggested, "Perhaps humility is the willingness to be humiliated." I am not sure where that thought came from. I suppose it somehow seemed obvious, maybe even a little humorous.

But the gathering didn't see it as obvious or funny, but took it as something of a serendipitous idea. Then I realized maybe it really was that and started seriously considering the idea. I decided, with some of the others there, that my definition was on target but not quite a bulls eye. But at least it was a starting point needing more tweaking than was possible in the limited time of the meeting.

I've since concluded that essentially humility is not really a willingness to be humiliated because you can't be humiliated unless you let yourself be, and if you do you aren't being humble, your letting yourself be a victim for whatever advantage is in being that. Of course, there are exceptions to that view such as those who suffered slavery, the holocaust, collateral damage in war, random violence of crime and you can probably name others. There are people who are truly victims but not because of being humble. They're victims of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or chance circumstance. In a profound way, those victims mostly did not, and do not, let themselves be humiliated. They usually did and do act in ways more noble, more moral, more human than their perpetrators.

But among other things to be considered later, I've concluded that humility is essentially the capacity to think, act and live in plural pronouns. A biblical scholar once said that the most important words in the prayer Jesus taught are, "Our," "Us," and "We." Those words, along with "your," emphasize the community or communal or social dimension of human life as being the key to what it's about. It takes humility to live accentuating plural pronouns.

The word "humble" has its roots in the Greek word for "earth" and "on the ground." It isn't much of a stretch to connect that basis for the word humble to the more primal Genesis story of creation in which God "formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." I believe that in significant part, humility is grounded (pun intended) in keeping that mythic truth constantly in mind -- mythic referring to truth that is too large to be contained by scientific fact, though actually this one is quite close to the theory of evolution in which life started in the muck of earth and took a few millions years longer than in Genesis for human beings to emerge. Either way, both truths refer to the mystery and miracle of life itself, and the origins of human life which we all share in common.

That commonness of us is the focus of the plural pronouns of living with humility. Being humble is to think, act and live for the common good and it is hard to do. It is contrary to the norms of our present society and governance. Evan Thomas, journalism professor at Princeton, wrote this about our present predicament in Newsweek, , March 8, 2010: "Our problem is not the system. It's us -- our 'got mine' culture of entitlement ... Our leaders are paralyzed by the very thought of asking their constituents to make short-term sacrifices for long-term rewards ... lately, politicians seem to have lost the most essential element of the art of governing -- meaningful compromise. In its pure form, compromise means mutual sacrifice. On Capital Hill, there is only getting ... Still, to get something you have to give up something. That is the true test of compromise." This issue of Newsweek came a couple days after I started this post (and Yes, it takes me at least a week to write one) but I'm grateful for Thomas' piece because it gives a more powerful example than I could of why humility is so needed these days.

It would be easy and wrong to conclude that our problems result solely, or even primarily,from the vicious partisanship in and out of Congress even though those leaders do have some notable responsibility for the situation. But Thomas is right, "Our problem ... (is) us." Why? Because our leaders in government are afraid they'll not get re-elected if they ask us for even short-term sacrifices for the common good. And they are right. History shows that, apart from wartime, if leaders ask us to sacrifice any of our "got mine," they lose in the next election. Our leaders reflect us rather than lead us. Only the great ones lead us, like Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King among others you know.

In any case, just at this point is where humility becomes definitely assertive, believe it or not. Because humility is willing to risk personally giving up something in order to respect and get something for the plural pronouns, the common good. Humility is not passivity, it is activity. Humility is pragmatic as well as visionary. It fights for its side yet makes compromises in the battle to get something, some portion of what it values, its vision of the good. It sacrifices something like ego because humble people know they are not infallible, not always totally right, and insisting otherwise is to end up with nothing for the common good via the exercise of empty arrogance. Humility is willingness to stay grounded in the common rather than claiming to be exalted above others. And that kind of humility is what helps a country's governance work, helps states, cities, towns,and communities, neighborhoods, and certainly families work.

The problem is us. What if we "got it" about humility and aggressively work to help others "get it" including our representatives in government, our family members, our colleagues, our neighbors. What if we stopped being angry promoters of "got mine, want more" self-interest or sulking passive whiners and blamers. What if we started advocating for sacrifice, for the common good, for brothers and sisters of the plural pronouns, and began living in and for those plural pronouns -- "us, we, ours, yours" -- instead of single ones -- "I, me, mine."

What if we entered the public arena, engaged in the controversial issues by enlisting in organizations with those plural pronoun goals like Common Cause, Earth Justice, Bread for the World, Oxfam, Church World Service, find your own as there ere many. What if we got humbly active in politics and told our leaders we are ready to make sacrifices for our nations good and will work for their re-election if they legislate accordingly? Pipe dream? Maybe. Make an impact? Possibly, if we persist. Build community? Would help. Solve the problem? Not solvable without it. Add humility to the human mix? Like leaven in the lump. Begin to give humility recognition? Doesn't need that, only a good try. Worth it? Up to you, and the future.

More about this later? Count on it.

Think about it. Ted