Posts Tagged ‘humility’

JOB 42:1-6, 10-17

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.

God’s invitation to Job to expand his mind so as to understand all the mysteries of the universe and to serve as its governor if he things that he can do a better job of things, sufficiently humbled Job – and we are careful to say “humbled” and not “humiliated,” since the effect was to bring him “down to earth” (the literal meaning of humility) and out of the abstract real of theories and explanations.

This is the point of the narrative where God has been traditionally understood to say something like, “I have my reasons and your mind is too small, so just let it go at that.” Some such phrase has been used, and abused, in countless situations of tragedy and loss in order to justify the sovereign will of God with the raw fact of personal suffering. In order to save the idea of an all-controlling God, condolences are gently extended along with a pious shrug over “the unfathomable purpose of God.”

When Job repents in dust and ashes, it is not for the now-discovered sin that is the real reason for his catastrophe. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear” – that is to say, God had been only a rumored reality haunting the vocabulary of religion: creator, lord, most high, ground of being. “But now my eye sees you” – or in other words, God has become for Job an experienced reality, a vibrant and awesome presence, the mysterious Other beyond the reach of words yet profoundly near.

What Job repents of is his earlier presumption that he could find comfort in theology (talk about God) rather than find God in his suffering.

EPHESIANS 4:1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

“When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
    he gave gifts to his people.”

(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Youth would have us believe that world-salvation is our heroic calling. We are idealistic, invincible, and immortal; and if the world would only submit to our truth, all would be well. As we mature, we thankfully learn that we are not as potent as we initially believed, and that life itself is less a problem to be solved by mastery than it is a mystery to be entered with humility and faith. Also, when we were younger we had, as the psychologist Robert Bly says, “a 360-degree personality, with energy radiating from all sides.”

This goes to explain our youthful savior complex. But with age our fantasy accommodates more and more to reality, and we discover that the world is just too large, its multiple currents too complex, and its habits too deep-set for us to achieve its salvation all by ourselves. We get wise and leave the salvation to God while looking for opportunities where we might be useful.

And that’s precisely where the whole matter of spiritual gifts comes into the picture. In the Christian worldview Jesus Christ is the redeemer and we together are the “body of Christ” – interdependent and integrated parts of the divine reality, cooperating for the single work of the whole. Just as the eye can’t do the work of the total body, so none of us alone can achieve what only the united body of Christ can. So you can only do x; now find a community where the wide variety of spiritual gifts and talents is affirmed and developed – and then plug in!

PSALM 9:9-20

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
    a stronghold in times of trouble.
10 And those who know your name put their trust in you,
    for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.

11 Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion.
    Declare his deeds among the peoples.
12 For he who avenges blood is mindful of them;
    he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.

13 Be gracious to me, O Lord.
    See what I suffer from those who hate me;
    you are the one who lifts me up from the gates of death,
14 so that I may recount all your praises,
    and, in the gates of daughter Zion,
    rejoice in your deliverance.

15 The nations have sunk in the pit that they made;
    in the net that they hid has their own foot been caught.
16 The Lord has made himself known, he has executed judgment;
    the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.

17 The wicked shall depart to Sheol,
    all the nations that forget God.

18 For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
    nor the hope of the poor perish forever.

19 Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail;
    let the nations be judged before you.
20 Put them in fear, O Lord;
    let the nations know that they are only human.

The lesson from the story of David and Goliath can be summed up in the maxim, “Put your trust in God, but still take careful aim.” God doesn’t hand us every success in life, but He has blessed us with a hearty stock of instincts, talents, and brains to make our way through. It’s easy to fall to either extreme, where we put it all in God’s hands and relinquish responsibility, or rely exclusively and often tragically on our own strength and ingenuity. It can take a Goliath-sized crisis in life to teach us that our confidence must rest in something greater than ourselves alone.

David’s request to God, to “let the nations know that they are only human,” reflects his own personal lessons in humility. When very young, he had found strength and courage in knowing that God was near. Later, having made a fantastic moral blunder in cultivating an adulterous affair and then arranging for the murder of his mistress’ husband, David had to face up to the fact of his own condemnable motives for power. And toward the end of his reign, on the run from his own son’s overthrow attempt on the throne, David realized once again that he was not invincible. Through it all, he learned to rely on God more deeply and to seek God earlier in his need rather than waiting until he was desperate.

Being “only human” is not a bad thing, but we need to remember that we are not God.

ISAIAH 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
    because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
    and do not remember iniquity forever.
    Now consider, we are all your people.

“Now consider, we are all your people.” You can hear the desperation, mixed with frustration, in the prophet’s words.

The collection of oracles in which they are found is know as “Third Isaiah,” written shortly after the exiles had been allowed to return home to Judah and its once-glorious capital, Jerusalem. First Isaiah (chpts 1-39) is attributed to the eighth-century prophet Isaiah himself and addresses the tense time leading up to the Assyrian invasion of 701 BCE. The anonymous writer of the so-called Second Isaiah (chpts 40-55) sought to extend and adapt the essential message of Isaiah to the crisis of the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE) and the harsh conditions of living in a strange land. Now, upon their return home, another anonymous contributor to the tradition (chpts 56-66) reworks it once again, this time in face of the challenge of clarifying a new destiny for the people.

The task of rebuilding Jerusalem was now a shared effort, between the returning exiles and their compatriots who had been left behind in the ruins a half-century earlier. But in addition to the physical repairs, there was some serious psycho-spiritual healing that needed to happen as well. The arrogance and complacency which the prophet Isaiah had predicted would end in national calamity, was now replaced by a rather serious guilt-complex and a crippling shame. There is reaffirmation of the moral balance holding reality together, but the dark interval of suffering in exile has definitely humbled (we might better say humiliated) the community’s sense of entitlement as God’s chosen people.

We don’t deserve security, happiness, or long life (the community admits via the prophet), and we are entirely at the mercy of God’s will. Perhaps we (the returnees) were spared total extinction in exile, but for what exactly we cannot know. We desire a prosperous future, but we are neither capable nor worthy of it. It’s all in your hands, God.

… But don’t forget, we are all your people!

This calling on God to remember his covenant promises would be a refrain throughout Jewish history, becoming especially fervent during and after the Holocaust under Hitler.

PSALM 31:1-5, 15-16

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
    do not let me ever be put to shame;
    in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me;
    rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
    a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
    for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
    you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

15 My times are in your hand;
    deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
    save me in your steadfast love.

If human beings were perfect and self-sufficient, the very concept of salvation would have no meaning, at least as it applies to us. In that case, maybe we would be the gods and saviors of lower and less perfect beings. As it is, we are neither perfect nor self-sufficient, but limited and dependent in ways we often try to conceal or deny.

By virtue of occupying a particular location in reality we lack the full view from where we stand; so we long for wisdom and understanding. We often lose our bearings and get confused on the way through life; so we long for guidance and direction. Because we are moral beings, we frequently get pulled down by the weight of our guilt and regrets; so we long for forgiveness and a fresh start.

But we also tend to make enemies and get tangled in troubles of our own design; so we long for refuge and freedom. And even though life itself is a passing career, our blessing (or curse) of self-consciousness makes us susceptible to anxiety; so we long for peace and dream of living forever.

Add to this the fact that we are animal organisms who need protection, company, and nourishment from outside ourselves and the list lengthens considerably.

So we have a choice. Either we can accept this about ourselves and use these inherent deficiencies to inspire our reach into a provident reality, or we can resent the fact and refuse to rely on anyone or anything beyond ourselves. Obviously the second option amounts to some serious delusions, as severing all ties of dependency to the world around would result in the quick extinction of even the most stalwart and rugged egoist among us.

Salvation, then, comes in many varieties. But the fundamental insight behind them all is that human beings are participants in a complex system of cooperation, resource, grace and support. Both the act of releasing oneself in surrender to the provident nature of reality and stepping into a life posture of humility, trust, and gratitude is what is meant by faith.

Consequently there are two basic types of religion: the kind that shames and scandalizes our deficiency as something that separates us from God, and the kind that honors and celebrates it as the places where God can be most real to us.

MICAH 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

One of the dangers that religion has had an impossible time avoiding is the temptation to think that its sacred symbols, ritual performances, and doctrinal formulations somehow qualify its members for God’s special favor.

The elaborate superstructure of religious tradition, architecture, and orthodoxy can become so impressive as to eclipse the metaphysics of spirit altogether. Consequently the holy Mystery and gracious Presence at the heart of all things can get lost in a view obstructed by the self-glorification of a belief system.

As often as religion has fallen to this temptation of an inflated self-importance, there have thankfully arisen the clear lights of men and women who knew better. In the biblical narrative we can find Abraham stepping away from the polytheistic practices of his countrymen, Moses grinding up the golden calf idol of the impatient Israelites, Amos exposing the systemic violence and inhumanity in the government programs of his day, and later Jesus defending human dignity and demonstrating God’s love in the face of a religion too fixated on being right to be concerned with doing good.

The prophet Micah was another one of these clear lights. In his day (a rough contemporary of Amos in the southern nation of Judah) so much of religion had collapsed into becoming little more than blind ceremony. People had been made to believe that giving the right sacrifice, on the right day, and in the right way, earned them merit in God’s eyes.

                                                                                  

What are sacrifices – and, we might add, what are buildings, writings, rituals, sacred objects, appointed officials, liturgies, and even tradition itself – but the “mechanics” of spirituality?

None of these things are that mystical current of creative power and love we call Spirit. Their role is to serve as vehicles for Spirit, icons of Spirit, witnesses to Spirit, and even bearers of Spirit, but never its substitutes or permanent containers. The problem, of course, is that Spirit is essentially ineffable (beyond words) and our brain (at least our left brain) is incessantly verbal.

Add to that the ingredient of our egos – that nervous bundle of insecure, guilt-ridden, and control-fixated self-consciousness – and you have the recipe for fundamentalism. Soon enough, we have made God in our own image: self-righteous, judgmental, vengeful and violent.

As one who “speaks for” God (Gk. prophetes), Micah confronted the dying system of his religion with the fresh winds of spirituality. What does God want of you, but to work for equality, practice charity, and cultivate your relationship with Spirit? Notice how these virtues and disciplines fit together in an organic whole: our journey deeper into God produces loving-kindness in us, which seeks to build a safe, fair, and just society for all.