I've been thinking and thinking and praying a lot about what I want to write this time. I keep going back to the four candles of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love, and finally, the Christ Candle. This year for my Christ Candle post, I shared some scriptures about hope, peace, joy and love, and then wrote about Elizabeth and Mary's visit prior to the birth of the baby Jesus, and Elizabeth's proclamation, "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." (Luke 1:45). You can find the post here.
Because it was Christmas Eve, and I was busy, and I knew you were busy, I didn't spend as much time pondering the Christ Candle as I might have liked. But now I am pondering it.
I'm thinking of humility. Jesus was nothing if not humble - how much humility was reflected in his birth in a barn, and being laid in a manger? How much humility was present in the poor, refugee family of Mary and Joseph? How much humility did it take for Jesus to hang on a cross - in the most humiliating of deaths, by crucifixion?
I've been reading the letters of Paul each morning. I was going to write about Paul's love, or Paul's joy, but I think that each is captured in Paul's humility. In Acts, chapter 9, Paul, who was previously known as Saul, is walking to Damascus to continue his persecution of the followers of Jesus, known as the Way:
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah. (Acts 9:1-22, NRSV)
There is so much humility in this passage! First, Saul gets up from the road and is blind. He has to be led by the hand. The fearsome and mighty Saul, being led by the hand! That is humbling. He spends three days blind and when Ananias arrives, Saul humbles himself and allows Ananias to lay hands on him. It doesn't explicitly say this, but once Saul's sight was restored, he was baptized. I think there was a whole lot of repenting going on, and that requires humility.
And how about the humility of Ananias? Ananias knows that Saul is the enemy of the Way. He points out to God the evil that Saul has done, but when God says, "Go," Ananias goes. He doesn't question further, he doesn't sulk, he isn't mean to Saul or try to take revenge. He takes Saul to the disciples in Damascus, where Saul listens (another instance of humility) and learns. Again, the disciples do not pass judgement, and do not punish. They teach, and Paul immediately begins to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. The disciples don't try to shut him up, either - there doesn't seem to be much, "Who do you think you are? We've been at this since the beginning so just shut up and listen - you latecomer newbie!" No - the disciples share what they have seen and heard and know to be true and allow Paul (still Saul) to be the instrument of God that he is. This is humility at its core. Saul becomes Paul and goes on to be the person who shared the gospel outside of the Jewish people. It was Paul who spread the Good News to Europe and Asia. Paul was beaten, imprisoned, and ultimately killed for his faith, but he never lost his love for the people he met along the way and the joy he felt bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to those he encountered. He never forgot that he was in service to someone more important and bigger than himself and made a point to let the people to whom he was writing never forget it either. That is humility.
I looked up humility in the Bible and found this:
The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility goes before honor. (Proverbs 15:33)
Before destruction one’s heart is haughty, but humility goes before honor. (Proverbs 18:12)
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath. (Zephaniah 2:3)
There is this parable:
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14: 7-14)
There are plenty more. I looked up the Jewish description of humility to try to get a sense of what the Jewish writers and Jesus himself were talking about. Holman's Bible Dictionary defines humility as, "A personal quality in which an individual shows dependence on God and respect for other persons." The dictionary goes on to say that in the Old Testament humility is connected to Israel's humble beginnings as slaves in Egypt. "Remember your humble beginnings," God seems to say, "and remember who brought you out of your affliction." The glory is God's.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs writes that humility is one of the most important of Jewish values, and that greatness and humility can go together, and, in fact, complement one another. "The Torah, say the rabbis (Taanit7a), is compared to water for just as water only runs downhill, never uphill, the word of God can only be heard in a humble heart." If the word of God is the water (remember -water sustains life) then it only flows from God. Prayer is different - we are not telling God what to do or how to be. Perhaps we are telling God what we would like God to do, but our influence is limited. If we insist on elevating ourselves above God, we will never hear what God has to say to us.
There must be "great" leaders in our world - political leaders, teachers, CEOs, health care professionals, scientists, and so on. There must be "great" thinkers, writers, painters, poets, musicians, and the like. Each of us has a gift, and some of us are able to use those gifts to move people and change the world. Some of us do well to move ourselves. As Mother Teresa said, "We cannot all do great things. But we can do small things with great love."
Brene' Brown has what I think is the best definition of humility. She defines humility as, "openness to new learning combined with a balanced and accurate assessment of our contributions, including our strengths, imperfections, and opportunities for growth." She sums up humility in one sentence: "I'm here to get it right, not to be right."
I think humility is something sorely lacking in our world right now.
Rather than listening, we talk. Rather than following, we lead - even when we have no idea where we are going. Rather than submitting, we fight. Rather than giving up our seat, we demand our place at the table. Instead of trying to get it right, we insist we are right.
Now, as I read that last paragraph, I can hear some of you saying, "We have to fight for our place at the table because we have never had one! We could lead if someone would let us - we know where we are going! And just shut up and listen to ME because I know what I am talking about!"
Yes, some of you do know better what you are talking about - but don't assume that I don't have some valid insights, too.
Some of you haven't had your deserved place at the table.
Some of us really do need to shut up.
One of the verbs that seems to go with humility is "submit." According to the Holman Bible Dictionary, in Old Testament thought, humility was akin to being poor and afflicted. Thus we have those who give up everything: wealth, health, self-esteem - you name it - in the drive to have humility.
I don't think this is what God is talking about when God, and Jesus, ask us for humility.
I think God is saying to us that we are not better than God, and it is hubris to think we know what God's thoughts and ways are. I think we have reframed Godly humility into a "look at how humble I am" kind of pride. I think we have taken some of the verses of the Bible about submission out of context and and some of us demand that someone else be more "humble" than we are. I'm thinking of the place of women in many churches because there is a verse in a letter from Paul that says that women are to submit to their husbands: 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:22-24). The part that is overlooked, though, are the next verses: 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5:25-30). If we approach each other recognizing that each of us has equal value, then we see that sexism and misogyny have no place in the church. Neither do racism, ableism, nativism, classism, or any other "-ism." To demand this kind of submission degrades another's humanity, and that is definitely NOT humility.
To be humble means to believe that one is no better than another. White people are no better than black or brown people. Men are no better than women. Rich people are no better than poor people. None of us is right all the time, and NONE of us know the thoughts and ways of God.
Each of us has skills that are better than someone else's: that is what spiritual gifts are all about. Some of us are good at teaching, some at healing, some at prophecy, some at interpretation. Some of us are good stewards of money. Some of us are good at discerning where the money should be spent (I guess that goes with stewarding). In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul (formerly Saul) writes that as members of the body of Christ, each of us is to use our gift(s) to lift each other up, not tear each other down. Just as the lungs can't function without the heart, and the heart without the kidneys, and the kidneys without the intestines, the body of Christ can't function without the gifts each of us brings.
The trouble comes when one of us (or some of us) begin to think that our gift(s) are more important than another's gift. If the choir director thinks he is more important that the person who makes the coffee every Sunday morning, then the church has a problem. If the coffee maker thinks she is more important than the Sunday school teachers, there is conflict. And if the pastor forgets that he or she is there because of the gifts that he or she brings and wouldn't be there if not for the congregation, then there is a really big problem.
Recently, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was quoted as saying, ""People decide to have families and become parents. That's something they need to consider when they make that choice. I've never really felt it was society's responsibility to take care of other people's children." Apparently, Senator Johnson doesn't believe in federal funding for childcare. This, to me, is the total absence of humility. Senator Johnson believes that every family should be like his (they aren't). Senator Johnson implies that people are making immoral choices when they have children they have to put in daycare (they aren't). And Senator Johnson has apparently not considered who will serve his lunch in the Capitol Cafeteria, who will clean his house, who will teach his grandchildren, who will take care of him when he gets sick, who will clear the snow from his Wisconsin highways, who will clean the bathrooms in the Senate Office Building, who will stock his grocery store shelves so he can eat, and who it is that makes his life so easy. All those people that he chooses not to see are beloved people of God, members of the body of Christ, and he indicates that he thinks he is better than they are.
Humility does NOT mean that we submit to abuse. It does not mean that we have a right to abuse or demand "submission" from someone else. It means that we recognize ourselves as beloved children of God, and know that if we are beloved, which we are, then everyone else is beloved as well. I might have more knowledge and skills in the nursing field than you do, but you have much more knowledge of banking, or building, or creating than I do. It also means that we are right to insist upon being treated with the respect EACH OF US deserves as children of God.
We need to stop. We need to listen. We need to learn. We need to do what we need to do to follow God - and sometimes that means accepting that whatever we think we should do is not what God thinks we should do. I have sometimes been so busy doing "God's work" that I forgot to listen to what God had to say about it. I could make all the sacrifices in the world, but if I am not doing what God calls me to do because I'm too busy doing what I call me to do, then it is no good.
I have gifts. You have gifts. In humility, we use our gifts as we support each other and build each other up. We need to ask God to show us God's way. We need to confess where we have gone wrong - and we need to repent of that behavior. We need to listen to each other because who knows what wisdom you have that I don't yet? I will have that wisdom once I listen to you, and vice versa.
It is humility that lets us recognize our differences. It teaches us that our way is not the only way - and not necessarily the best way either. Sometimes differences are just different, and equally valued in the eyes of God.
The more important you are, the more important it is that you have humility. Proverbs tell us that humility goes before honor. The truly humble person puts others needs ahead of his or her own wants and desires. The humble person continues to learn and improve, and always knows that no one has all the answers. The humble person asks questions and listens to and for the answers and adjusts accordingly. The mark of a great leader - whether at work or at home - is humility.
Here are some ways I think we can demonstrate humility:
Prioritize the needs of workers ahead of shareholders, executive bonuses and space travel
Make necessary adjustments to protect water and air for those who must drink and breathe it. Can't afford it? Consider where you can cut expenditures (see above) or start small and do one thing this year and another next year until it is done.
Before asking for or having sex, consider whether this is the right thing for your partner - long term. Is he more invested in the relationship and will be led on by physical intimacy? Is she able to cope with pregnancy? Are you cherishing or using your partner?
Admit when someone else knows better.
Adjust work practices to meet the needs of those who depend on you, whether due to community changes, altered resources, or - um - things like a pandemic.
Ask for and accept help when you need it.
Welcome someone new to your community - including refugees and immigrants. Consider what they bring more than what you lose
Use your imagination to consider that people's lives aren't all like yours and find ways to learn about people who are different from you - visit or read a book for example.
Think of what you can do without to protect those who are vulnerable: reduce taxes if you must but consider who will lose needed services if you do; tolerate a little less "beauty" to protect the ocean; pass on the fancy coffee if it isn't sustainably grown and fairly traded; replace your lawn with native plants - there are myriads of ways that we can make our voices heard and improve the world, one ??? (child, cup, tree, etc) at a time
VOTE - and consider voting for the candidate who will do the most good for the most people, not necessarily the one who agrees with you on your favorite issue
Recognize that each person has autonomy over him or herself. No one owns another - not corporations and not spouses.
If using your fists or angry words is the only way you know to cope with frustration, get therapy.
Spend time talking listening to your elders - what wisdom can you glean? Spend time with kids - they have wisdom to impart and will humble you every time.
Never ever, ever, ever use language or tell jokes that demeans someone else. It isn't funny - I recent heard a pastor say to someone, "I don't know how you put up with all these women in here!" It was good I was on the other side of the room and had a mask on - he couldn't hear the vulgar insults I muttered in his direction, and neither could his wife. But what do you think this tells me about his church? I'll never go there.
LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN
God asks nothing less.
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Brown, Brene'. Atlas of the Heart. New York: Random House. 2021.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Humility'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/h/humility.html. 1991. Accessed 1/30/22.
Dahhaj, Zaid K. "Humility" (Image). The Fruits Of Humility. “It is impossible for a man to learn… | by Zaid K. Dahhaj | Medium Accessed 1/30/22.
Jacobs, Louis. "Humility in Judaism." My Jewish Learning. Humility in Judaism - My Jewish Learning. Accessed 1/30/22.
Villareal, Daniel. Anti-Abortion Sen. Ron Johnson Opposes Funding Child Care: 'People Decide to Have Families' (msn.com). Newsweek, 1/