Tag Archives: Humility

A Small Cog in the Works

Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.
Esther 10:3 (NIV)

I found myself working with a small Inside Sales team that was a small cog in the works of a large business silo of a global corporate empire. The fact that we had this gig was a bit of a minor miracle. You see, the corporation they worked for didn’t care about their customers. The corporation didn’t survey their customers because they didn’t want to know. The corporation made it virtually impossible for customers to reach the right people by virtue of a labyrinthine phone system in which you could get lost for days among vague menu choices, endless loops, ignorant operators, and unempowered employees who long ago ceased to care. The corporate system was set up to serve the system itself. Customers were treated as a necessary nuisance.

So, how in the world did I end up there?

There was one front-line manager in charge of this small Inside Sales team. He couldn’t do anything about the corporate empire, the phone system, or any of the other teams, departments, divisions, or silos of the system. He determined, however, that he could control his little cog buried in the systemic works. He hired me and my team to help his little team to apply what I call Customer Service Rule #1: Do the best you can with what you have.

The sheer size and scope of the corporate system working against their efforts made it feel, at times, like we were Quixote tilting at windmills. Still, I had to admire the manager and his team for their courage to make a small difference and do their best to do the right thing for customers in a corporate environment that would never support their efforts, and would only undermine those efforts time and time again.

Over the past weeks on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been making my way through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message. It was a period of history when the ancient Israelites had been taken into captivity and were ruled by the Assyrian, Babylonian, Median, and Persian empires. Individuals like Daniel, Esther, and Mordecai were strangers in a strange land. They were despised by many and the odds were stacked against them in a myriad of ways. Yet, their stories tell of God using these small individual cogs to accomplish His work in the foreign empirical machines and the often horrific circumstances in which they found themselves.

Today’s final chapter of Esther is simply a brief epilogue that honors Mordecai for his accomplishments. It’s a literary epitaph of sorts and it leaves us with the reminder that Mordecai rose to power because concerned himself with the needs of all his people and worked tirelessly for the welfare of others.

I find myself reminded of two statements this morning. One from Peter’s letter to the believers who, like the Jewish exiles, were scattered by persecution around the Roman world:

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”
1 Peter 5:6 (NIV)

The other from the prophet Micah:

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
    be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously.
Micah 6:8 (MSG)

The exiles were like the Inside Sales team that I and my team worked with inside their own corporate empire. In many ways, that Inside Sales team was small, impotent, and relatively insignificant in the grand corporate scheme of things. But, they chose to humbly do the best they could each day to serve as best they could with what little power and influence they had. Sometimes, that’s the best you can do.

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that along life’s road I will encounter many situations and circumstances that are out of my control. There are so many times when I’m really powerless to make a significant change to large problems. The exiles provide a good example to follow as they, themselves, heeded Micah’s advice. I can do the same. Humbly, quietly, mercifully, faithfully do the best I can each day, in every circumstance, with what I have.

When Life Throws a Wicked Curve

As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.
Daniel 2:30 (NIV)

One can’t control some circumstances. Life sometimes throws you a curve, and you stand there in the batter’s box with only a proverbial moment to decide what you’re going to do with it.

The latest curveball in our journey happened on Friday when my dad suffered a (thankfully small) stroke. In the course of a few hours, our weekend plans were scuttled and our plans for a week at the lake were placed on hold. I quickly found myself spending my nights caring for my mother who is living in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and spending my days with her and my dad at the hospital entertaining a small army of doctors who are trying make sense of my father’s puzzling mixture of medical issues. I’m glad to report that everyone is well, and it could have been much, much worse.

As doctor after doctor has come in to discuss the various tests that have been continually run over the weekend, my dad has been intent on asking them exactly when his stroke occurred. He’d had symptoms starting on Tuesday of last week and went to the hospital on Friday. I’ve watched as every doctor he asks will look at him quizzically and laugh at the question. Strokes apparently don’t leave a time and date stamp on the brain. Undaunted by this, he continues to ask.

His doctors should be happy they aren’t serving King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In today’s chapter, King Neb asks a similar unknowable question to all of the prophets, magicians, and enchanters on his royal payroll. The mad king had a puzzling dream, and he wanted the interpretation, but he wanted to make sure the interpretation could be trusted. So, he asked them to first tell him what the dream was, and then tell him the interpretation. If no one could do it, then they’d all be killed and their homes destroyed. Talk about a major league curveball.

Daniel and his friends were, at this point, minor minions at the bottom of the King’s org chart of advisors. Nonetheless, the decree of death applied to them, as well, when Neb decided that he was cleaning house in the Advisory Department.

I find Daniel’s response fascinating. He doesn’t seem to panic. Having not been aware of any of the circumstances leading to the fateful knock on his door, he makes a bold move. He asks for an audience with King Neb. It’s possible that Daniel had not even been in the King’s presence since he and his friends were tested and made the cut to be on the King’s advisory staff. Daniel requests a night to see if he could do the impossible. Then he and his friends pray. That night, Daniel receives a vision explaining both the dream and interpretation.

When Daniel approaches the King with the answer, he is quick to let the King know that there was no magic involved and Daniel did not have some kind of ESP. He simply says that God had a message for the King and Daniel was the messenger. In the entire affair, Daniel’s thoughts, words, and actions appear humble, measured, and focused on seeking God’s purpose in the midst of it all. He stands in, keeps his eye on the ball, and knocks the curveball out of the park.

This morning as I write from my folk’s apartment and help get my mom going so we can head back to the hospital, I’m finding inspiration in Daniel’s attitude. As I wrote in my previous post, Daniel had already faced several wicked knuckleballs and curveballs in life. Perhaps he had learned from those experiences. Nonetheless, he provides a good example.

Don’t panic. Take some time. Seek God’s purpose. Be humble. Flow.

My dad was supposed to be discharged from the hospital today. He called last night to report that the doctors have found another complication. Another procedure today, and I have no idea what it will reveal or whether we’ll bring him home today or not.

Here we flow.

 

The Recipe of Stereotype

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
1 Timothy 1:15 (NIV)

The other day I wrote about seeing through stereotypes, as it is very common for people to paint certain “other” people groups with a broad brush of generalization. I approached this notion from the perspective of being the perpetrator of the stereotype, but this morning I find myself thinking about it from the perspective of being stereotype’s casualty.

For the record, I have never suffered serious injury or been particularly harmed by another person’s stereotype. I have, however, experienced being labeled, misunderstood, falsely accused, and socially marginalized in specific situations because I have always been up-front about being a Jesus follower. I get that stereo-types are often rooted in partial-truths. The world is full of judgmental, condemning, narrow-minded groups and individuals who wear the label of Christian. When I have been causality of stereotype, I recognize that I am being lumped into one’s mental basket with them.

Here’s a thing that I’ve found to be true in my faith journey. The further I get in the journey the more clearly I see my own faults, the more important I find it to own my mistakes, and the more readily I feel the on-going need for God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. I find myself less concerned about the moral speck of dust in the eyes of non-believers because I’m blinded by the 2×6 of moral failure in my own. Whatever righteous anger I might feel is not stirred by sinners in need of Jesus’ grace, but by the legalistic, self-righteous religious types who sourced the stereotype with which I’ve occasionally been labeled.

Paul’s letters to Timothy are, chronologically, the final two of his surviving letters.  They were written late in his life to the young protégé who traveled with him and became a leader among the groups of Jesus followers they founded. One of the interesting observations to be made in these two very personal and heart-felt letters is how different they are in spirit and tone from the fiery letters Paul wrote to the believers in Galatia and the Corinth earlier in his journey. Paul’s passion for Jesus’ message and his ministry have not abated in any way, but there is a tenderness and humility with which he is passing the baton. Paul is embracing Jesus’ mercy and his personal need of grace as he owns that of all sinners “I am the worst.”

Stereotype is made with just a few ingredients: a pinch of truth, a pound of ignorance, and a cup of passivity. I’ve been guilty of it more times than I’ve been a victim of it, and so this morning I find myself whispering a prayer of grace, forgiveness, and blessing over those who may have stereotyped me unfairly along the way.

An “Eternal Question”

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Colossians 3:12 (NIV)

I call them the eternal questions. This is not because the questions have no answers, but rather because no matter how many times you answer them they must be answered again. Perhaps they should be called the “perpetual” questions, but the phrase “eternal questions” has a certain ring to it. The eternal questions are the boulder of Sisyphus, the mythic schlep who perpetually rolled the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again. In our home, the most common eternal questions are:

  • “What are we having for supper?”
  • “So, what’s the plan today?”
  • “What am I going to wear?”

I’ve learned along my life journey not to fight the eternal questions. It’s futile. It’s best to make your peace with them. For me, a step in the process of making peace was the understanding that the eternal questions come from an abundance of blessing. We are blessed to have choices. Indeed, we are blessed to have so many choices available to us from which the eternal questions spring.

In today’s chapter, I found myself intrigued by Paul’s encouragement to “clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” We don’t often think of kindness as a garment. I don’t think of myself slipping into gentleness and patience like a pair of yoga pants.

Nevertheless, as I meditated on the word picture Paul gave, it struck me that when it comes to my attitude and responses towards both circumstances and people, I have an entire wardrobe available to me. I can choose that bright rage coat, or I can choose the suede jacket lined with gentleness. I have an entire wardrobe of choices available to me. Welcome to the walk-in closet of free will.

“What should I wear today?”

Of course, if you’re anything like me there are those “go to” choices that don’t seem like a choice at all because they’re easy and require no thought. No effort needed, and the choice is oh so comfy. Passivity slips on me like a familiar old sweatshirt. I’ve worn prejudice so long I’ve worn holes in it like my ancient pair of 501 blues. And then there are those well-worn flip-flops of pessimism I can just slip into as I head out on my daily trek.

I once had a prophet who was given a word picture for me. It was the image of Father God handing me a shirt to put on. It was a shirt I would have never picked for myself, but once I slipped it on and looked in the mirror I realized it looked so good on me.

That came to mind as I meditated on the notion of choosing what I’m going to clothe myself with today. My spiritual closet is stocked with love, kindness, patience, joy, peace, gentleness, and self-control. How often do I reach down to the dirty clothes scattered on the floor of my closet and slip into my old stand-bys of resentment, apathy, impatience, complaint, discontent, bitterness, and indulgence?

This morning I’m once again asking myself the eternal question “What am I going to wear?” This morning, however, it’s not about the clothes I put on my body. I’m on a business trip and there’s only one outfit in the suitcase for today. Today, the eternal question is about how I’m going to clothe my spirit, temperament, and attitude as I work with colleagues and clients. Father God has an outfit picked out that I might not normally choose for myself. Maybe I should try it on. I bet it’ll look fabulous.

Dress well, my friend.

The Doorway of Defeat

…for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.
Romans 11:29 (NIV)

I reached out to shake his hand as I was introduced. The lights in the room were dimmed but the darkness couldn’t hide the look of defeat. Shoulders slumped, eyes down cast, and the smile that was clearly being conjured by sheer will. I could feel the discouragement. I sensed the fear that God just might be done with him. I also instantly felt an affinity for him. Something clicked deep inside, and I knew that somehow Holy Spirit had connected us for a reason.

I have seen the look of defeat on the faces of some of the most amazing people. I’ve seen defeat come in a myriad of ways. Sometimes it’s moral failure, a personal failure, a relational failure, or a combination of all. Sometimes it’s a life tragedy and the inequities of circumstance. At times it might be some kind of physical or chemical issue wreaking havoc on a person’s spirit. Then there are times when the source of the funk is spiritual, and a rational explanation is elusive.

When defeat descends on a person life gets very small. Vision is reduced as focus turns inward. Interaction is avoided which only tends to extend and exacerbate the symptoms. A person wraps him or herself in layers of self-protection that, ironically, not only serves to deflect further injury, but also prevents any kind balm from reaching the spirit wound. When the individual experiencing defeat is a believer, the person also feels a spiritual impotence that can be so pervasive as to prompt an unshakable belief that this is all permanent.

But, it’s not.

Defeat is never a permanent destination. Defeat is a doorway to deeper understanding. It is through the doorway of defeat that I discover humility’s sweet gifts and where I experience grace’s sufficiency. On the other side of defeat comes the understanding that Spirit power is perfected in weakness.

Resurrection must, by definition, be preceded by death. Redemption’s prerequisite is always some kind of damnifying defeat. This was the grand spiritual paradigm that Jesus ultimately exemplified, yet I always want to dismiss the fact that if I choose to follow He said I have to follow in His foot steps down that same path.

I saw my defeated acquaintance the other day. It’s been a few years since we were introduced. We’re now friends. His shoulders were squared, there was a sparkle in his eye, and the smile on his face was no longer conjured by will. His smile was clearly the effect of an inner joy that radiated off of him. I had the privilege of helping him through the doorway, and watching him discover, over time, what was on the other side.

So good.

My Lessons from Diverse Experiences

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:40

Along my journey I have experienced worship in diverse traditions and settings. I grew up in a mainline Protestant tradition that could be described as “high church.” I grew up wearing a formal choir robe and marching in a long, formal, choral processional into the sanctuary accompanied by a pipe organ. There was a dictated pattern and order to every service even to the point of the minister standing in different positions to deliver different parts of the liturgy and message.

From that launching point I’ve worshipped in rather raucous Pentecostal services, in cold medieval cathedrals, in squirrelly Junior High church camp chapels, in fundamentalist Baptist churches with their own take on legalistic liturgy, in a third world, tin-shack hut you would scarcely call a church, in stadium revivals, and, well, you get my point.

In my early adult years I spent some time in the Quaker tradition, which is 180 degrees from the experience of my youth. The Quakers attempt to recapture the spirit of the early gatherings of the Jesus Movement like what Paul is addressing in his letter to the believers in Corinth. It’s a small, egalitarian setting. Everyone is welcome to participate. They spend time in silence to “center” themselves and wait for Holy Spirit move. People stand and speak as the Spirit prompts them with a word, or a song, or a prayer. It was a fascinating experience from which I learned some valuable lessons.

In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing what was a pressing issue within the context of the corporate gatherings of Jesus’ followers when there was no real tradition, very little organization, a loose authority structure, and everything that was happening was new and different than anyone had experienced. With lack of structure, authority, and order things can quickly get out of control. That was happening among the Corinthian believers. Paul is writing to try and to encourage some order.

There are three broad lessons that I’ve learned from the diversity of my worship experiences in different traditions.

First, if my spirit is open I can learn from every experience. The metaphor and pageantry of high church liturgy is beautiful and layered with meaning once you begin to see it. The Quaker tradition taught me the power of quiet, and that Holy Spirit can and does speak through the most unlikely of vessels in extraordinary ways. It’s so easy to fall into “either-or” thinking when it comes to different worship traditions. I have benefitted from the “both and” approach, entering every worship experience with an open and seeking heart and mind.

Second, there are opportunities and threats in every established tradition. I found the liturgical provides me the opportunity of structure, order, and a comfort that comes with repetition and discipline. The threat is that it can easily become rote words and religious actions void of the Spirit or any personal connection. Likewise, the contrasting organic style of the Quaker tradition gave me the opportunity to experience learning from diverse individuals and recognizing how God can move and speak through everyone. The threat I found is that discerning between flesh and Spirit is always a bit messy, and individuals sometimes speak their own personal desires and opinions cloaked in “God told me” language.

Third, no matter the corporate worship setting or experience, ultimately I am responsible for my own spiritual journey and my own divine dance in every corporate worship experience. I am responsible for my attitudes going into corporate worship. I am responsible to be humble, loving, and gracious in the midst of it. I am responsible to observe, to learn, to ask, seek, and knock. I am am responsible to be grateful for the opportunity, forgiving of that which may possibly offend me, and humble enough to admit there may be things which I don’t fully understand.

Walking Humbly

The Lord Almighty planned it,
    to bring down her pride in all her splendor
    and to humble all who are renowned on the earth.
Isaiah 23:9 (NIV)

The autumn season it a busy time for my business. We begin looking the coming year, preparing proposals for clients, and forecasting what the coming year will look like for us. Over a quarter century I have experienced both the highs and lows of business. For a long time it seemed that our company’s business would continue to grow at a fast pace. I can remember a number of years of continuous expansion when it seemed nothing could stop us.

I’ve learned, however, that things can change in a hurry. It’s amazing how quickly a person can go from dreaming big to scrambling to make ends meet. It’s a humbling experience.

In today’s chapter, Isaiah turns his prophetic eye on the city of Tyre which was a powerful port of trade on the Mediterranean. The trading ships of Tyre did a lot of business, and they had been on a good run for a long period of time. Isaiah prophetically warned them to get ready for a devastating change in the business forecast.

Isaiah points out that the coming devastation was intended by God to teach humility. It was another one of the ancient prophets, Micah, who said that what God really requires of us is to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.” I like the image of walking humbly. Humility is not momentary. It’s not like a coat we put on for a chilly day. It’s an everyday mindset for every stretch of life’s journey, both the  bears and the bulls, the peaks and the valleys, the good times and the bad.

This morning I’m thinking again of our nation. Some are feeling smug and assured in victory. Some are feeling devastated in the sting of defeat. Days like these bring out the absolute worst that pride produces in us, both in triumph and tragedy. I am thinking about Tyre in its booming heyday, and impending decline. I am remembering my own pride when I believed nothing could go wrong, and the painful days when it actually did. I am reminded this morning of walking humbly every step of this journey.

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featured image by antrover via flickr