Tag Archives: Humility

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

Words That Reach to What Was, and Is, and Yet Will Be

How you have fallen from heaven,
    morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
    you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
    “I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
    above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
    on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
    to the depths of the pit.
Isaiah 14:12-15 (NIV)

The language of God is metaphor, and metaphors (e.g. word pictures) are layered with meaning. That’s what makes them so powerful as a tools of communication. Their meaning resonates far deeper and reaches much further. Metaphors are layered with meaning. Like God, you keep mining the depths only to find there is more there than you ever realized before.

That is often what makes the words of the ancient prophets both confusing and powerful. Take the words from today’s chapter pasted above as an example.

Let’s start with the first layer of meaning: Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Babylon. Babylon was an aspiring superpower and becoming the largest city on Earth. Babylon was swallowing up peoples and territories. Babylon was swelling with pride at its greatness. One day its king, Nebuchadnezzar, would literally fulfill the sentiments cited by Isaiah (Read Daniel 4).

But let’s also go back in time and remember the root of Babyl-on. Think Babel. The story in Genesis 11. The people said, “Let’s make a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens and make a name for ourselves.” It’s the same root of pride. The same sentiment.

Let’s go back further to the Garden, where the serpent tempted Eve and Adam with the notion that they could eat the fruit and “be like God.”

Many commentators have said that Isaiah’s prophecy reaches further back and refers to Satan, or Lucifer, who tradition tell us was God’s most beautiful angel. Lucifer wanted to be like God and was cast from heaven to inhabit death. Again, the sentiment is the same. Wanting to ascend to the place of God. The same sentiment with which he tempted Adam and Eve.

Think forward to the prophecies of John in Revelation, in which he sees a woman, “Babylon the Great,” sitting on a beast covered in blasphemies.

Things that were. Things that are. Things that yet will be. The thread is the same: that which sets itself to ascend in its pride and become God, therefore diminishing God of all that God is (and was, and is to come).

And that’s where my heart settles in its meditation this morning. Where do the seeds and fruit of pride – those same seeds of Lucifer, of Adam, of Nebuchadnezzar, and of Babylon – show their roots in my heart and life? In what ways do I seek to be god of my life, my relationships, my spouse, my children, my business, my house, my possessions? Where does my pride ascend in thinking I create, conquer, possess, control, and/or dominate?

In what ways do I, in contrast to John the Baptist, seek to become more and make Jesus less?

Isaiah was writing about the nation of Babylon, but his word picture is layered with so much more meaning. His word picture stretches back before creation. It stretches forward to that which yet will be. It stretches forward in time to this morning, in this place, at this moment and ask this person to contemplate both the evidence of my pride, and my desperate need to seek humility.

When the Walls Come a Tumblin’ Down

[The travelers from Judah] replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
Nehemiah 1:3-4 (NRSV)

In ancient days, a nations walls were everything. Every major city (which subsequently controlled the nearby lands) was surrounded by walls. Walls were your security, making it impossible for enemies to easily invade. Walls were your pride. Their height, width, and engineering told the world how prosperous, industrious, and educated you were. Your gates were your calling card. Being the weakest point of defense, your gate said everything about you. The more secure, enamored, and embellished the gate, the more your city state would be held in high esteem.

The book of Nehemiah is about the walls and the gate of the city of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed (along with Solomon’s temple) by the Babylonian empire in 587 B.C. Most of the nations best and brightest were carried off into captivity in Babylon. Ezra, Nehemiah and their families were among them. As the scene is established in the opening sequence of today’s chapter, Nehemiah runs into some travelers who had arrived in Babylon from back home. He inquires about the state of their homeland and capitol city, and learns that the walls and gates had been utterly destroyed. The remnant back home feel utter shame.

If you have no walls, you are nothing.

Nehemiah’s reaction to the news was telling. He is grief stricken. He weeps. He fasts. He prays and confesses to God his sins, the sins of his family, and the sins of his nation.

We don’t have literal walls surrounding our homes and capitols [Unless you live in a gated community…there’s a good conversation to be explored there. Trump’s promised border wall is another interesting parallel conversation, but I digress] Walls as a line of defense became obsolete hundreds of years ago. The word picture, however, still carries weight for me in my personal life. I still build walls, metaphorically, around my heart and life. I build walls of protection against forces spiritual, emotional, relational, and cultural. I erect walls of possessions and words revealing to others what I want them to see, while hiding safely that which I desire to hide. I engineer relational walls that warn people off, walls that keep people out, and gates of relationship that open and close at my will.

And, my walls can crumble and fall just like Jerusalem’s.

On my left bicep I have a tat that references Psalm 51. It is an ancient song of confession, the lyrics written by King David at a moment when the walls of Jerusalem stood tall and proud, but the walls of his personal life had come crashing to the ground. The gates to his soul lay in utter ruin. It is on my left bicep because the ancients identified left, and left-handedness (I’m a lefty, btw), with foolishness, iniquity, and sin. It is on my bicep because it is a reminder to me that my strength is not in the quality of the walls I build around myself, but in humility and the utter honesty of my confession.

Nehemiah is having a Psalm 51 moment. I have had my own (multiple times). Walls crash and burn. Life sometimes lays in ruin before us. I have learned along the journey that in those moments when life crumbles around me the key to finding seeds of redemption and restoration lie not in the strength of my biceps, but in the condition of my spirit. Nehemiah gets it, too.

Seek Righteousness, Seek Humility

…seek righteousness, seek humility;
Zephaniah 2:3b

I have been making my plodding, repetitive trek through God’s Message for 35 years. One of the fascinating things I’ve experienced is the way in which it always seems to meet me right where I am on life’s road. The Message doesn’t change, but I change and my waypoint in the journey changes each time I return to a book, chapter, or verse. I get something new out of it each time.

Like most Americans, I’m finding myself caught off guard by our current political landscape. I’ve never experienced anything like it in and find myself daily scratching my head at the headlines and Presidential polls. A trash-talking, ego-driven reality t.v. celebrity who says things that would get any middle schooler running for Student Council expelled is one of our leading candidates. Amazing.

Perhaps that is why Zephaniah’s admonishment leapt off the page at me this morning. I acutely feel a desire to find more individuals on every gradient of the political spectrum who honestly and sincerely are seeking to do the right thing while at the same time seeking humility in their quest. It’s easy to find arrogance. It’s easy to find insults hurled at others. It’s easy to find trash talking and people screaming at each other (at the same time) from opposite sides of the issues. We have these things in abundance.

Today, what I seek are individuals willing to have respectful dialogue, willing to humbly listen to other opinions, willing to agree to disagree, and willing to hammer out compromises. Of course, I cannot control Presidential candidates or news channels or others. I can only control my own thoughts, words, actions and relationships. So I will continue to seek to do the right thing, and persevere in choosing humility.

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Featured image: gageskidmore via Flickr

Valuing “Others”

…do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.
Romans 11:18 (NIV)

Last week on my flight home from a business trip I encountered a group of Greek Orthodox students led by their priest. Their priest, with his impressively long black beard, was wearing traditional vestments including a long black robe, skullcap, and large wooden cross painted with the likeness of the crucified Jesus. Standing out like a sore thumb, the priest was joking in Greek with his students as they waited for the plane. They all seemed to be having a good time.

I remember thinking to myself how much I would enjoy sitting down and having a conversation with the priest. A follower of Jesus, his branch of Christianity is much different than the one in which I was raised and in which I live and worship. I don’t think that should not alienate us from one another. Quite the opposite, we have much to learn from one another and our differences.

I am transported in memory this morning to a class I attended at a conservative Bible college for one semester after high school. My professor boastfully played a video tape of a debate he’d participated in on local television with a scholar from another denomination. Much like the Presidential debates we’ve been subject to of late, my prof was proud and confident while spouting his views. He took snide, insulting jabs at his mainline “opponent” and the debate escalated until it nearly ended up in blows. The professor smiled and laughed as he watched. He wanted us to see how his theology had, at least in his mind, won the day against his denominational rival. I remember feeling sick. Is this how Jesus wants us to think, feel, and act with a person who is, himself, a sincere follower of Jesus?

In today’s chapter, Paul makes it clear to the followers of Jesus in Rome that they are not to consider themselves superior to other branches of God’s family tree. And, in this word picture he’s not referring to other branches of Christianity but to the Jewish branches rooted in the same trunk. I think the spirit of Paul’s teaching was embodied (coincidentally, in the city of Rome) this past week when Pope Francis paid a visit to the the main Jewish synagogue there much in the same way as he’s visited our Orthodox branch (see featured image). If we as followers of Jesus are to not to consider ourselves superior to the Jewish branches of God’s family tree, how could my old college professor justify his antagonizing treatment of our fellow Jesus follower, no matter what his theology?

I  am thinking this morning of the diverse cross section of humanity I am privileged to know, to have known, and to consider friends. I am a a non-denominationalist at heart, but I know or have known friends who are Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Methodist, Muslim, Quaker, Baptist, Episcopal, Sikh, Hindu, Athiest, Agnostic, Presbyterian, and those are just a few off the top of my head. Despite our differences, my life is better and more full having known each one of them. I am reminded of Paul’s command to the followers of Jesus in Philippi:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…

“Others” is not qualified, by the way. It is universal.