Benediction Online

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Humility, Gratitude and Gift

It is said that one of Jill’s ancestors disliked visitors. So he created a device which enabled him to rattle chains in the attic. When he tired of his guests he would rattle the chains and declare that they had better leave fast for the devil was coming…. Did I mention that he was a pirate? It’s perfectly true, or so Jill’s uncle told us. Jill’s uncle JR was a really good storyteller. When you listened to one of his tales you could never be sure where fact ended and story began.

Jesus was a lot like uncle JR. He told a good tale. So it’s important to remember that some of what he said was for the sake of the story and not to be taken literally. Some of us hearing today’s gospel might think that we are meant to berate ourselves and declare ourselves miserable sinners and less than worms in order to have God pay any attention to us at all. And so we justify giving ourselves guilt trips and feeding our feelings of shame and inadequacy.      I don’t for a moment think that that’s what Jesus is saying; rather he is painting a dramatic and humorous contrast between the two men, who are almost cartoon characters, not recommending that we always approach God as if we are worthless. After all, God sent his only Son that we might have life – if God loves us that much we are not at all worthless – we’re worth God’s Son.

The Pharisee is also a humorous larger than life figure – the true self-made man. This character is so full of himself that when he prays he reminds God of his own achievements, of how much he has made of his life, of how virtuous he is and how much better than others. Clearly we don’t want to be like him!

The moral of the story is that God loves those who are humble, but how are we to understand humility if it’s not making ourselves out to be miserable sinners?

We know that the heart of God is compassion, and so as we draw closer to God so we get to cultivate a habit of compassion which includes compassion for ourselves. Having compassion for ourselves means being able to take a step back and see ourselves clearly and honestly and with a touch of loving humor, just as we might see an old friend. Humility is having a clear, compassionate vision of our abilities as well as our failings, our flashes of brilliance as well as our bad habits, our foibles as well as our giftedness.

But beyond that, humility is the knowledge that we cannot do it alone, that there really is no such thing as a self-made man or woman - that we are totally dependent upon God who gives us breath, God who gives us consciousness, God in whom we live and move and have our being.

I think it’s difficult to find our bearings on this path of humility. A little like trying to get your sea legs – we find ourselves over-inflated – the ego doing its thing again - and so we over-compensate by being too self-critical, and then we correct that only to find that now we are feeling superior and judging others. Perhaps the mark of the mature Christian is the ability to be centered in a true humility which has a firm grip on the realities of our spiritual natures as the sons and daughters of the living God as well as our limitations of body and personality.

Being able to maintain the balance of humility means having a clear picture of oneself, but no longer needing to make comparisons. It means no longer needing to feel superior or to compare ourselves with others, because our primary relationship is with God and we rest secure on the knowledge of God’s never-ending love. From this humility comes a confidence and security which is rooted and grounded in God’s love and does not need to judge others. The awareness of one’s own failings is balanced by the experience of confession, forgiveness and absolution. We are human, and the more Christ-like we become the more we will see and know our limitations and our failings and also see them as another opportunity to open ourselves to God’s love.

But since humility is grounded primarily in the relationship with God, it brings with it tremendous joy because it is part of that never-ending heavenly song of love and praise which sounds wherever God is present. And from that swelling up of gratitude and hope and praise comes the desire to give all that we are. This is a God-given desire for God in Jesus gave everything for us, and as we come to appreciate that more and more so we find ourselves swept up into the divine song of gift.

That connection between humility, gratitude and gift means that we can approach humility from a number of different ways. We can come at it directly by noticing when we are judging others and choosing instead to pray for forgiveness for ourselves and joy for them. We can also back into it by cultivating praise and self-giving. One caution here; the cartoon Pharisee in Jesus’ story thought he was praising God by saying, thank you that I am not as others are, thank you that I am superior to them. That is not praise. Praise is about God not about me.

One of our members once said that she cannot believe that God is really sitting around waiting for us to pat him on the back and praise him with a “Well done, jolly good job, God”.  I agree. That is not what praise is about.

Praise is about our joyful adoration of our Creator. God alone is worthy to be praised and worshiped. When we praise God we are joining in that heavenly chorus and we ourselves are uplifted and sustained. This is not a reward for God’s work well-done but a joyful acknowledgement that without God nothing, including us, would exist. Without God the cosmos is not even a single subatomic particle.

Praise and humility are like two sides of the same coin. When we are praising God there is no room for our little egos to get in the way. When we are practicing humility we see clearly the wonder of God and our own relative insignificance. And from these two comes the desire to give because we know that everything we are and everything we have is a God-given gift for us to share and that in sharing the gift grows.

This is quite contrary to most economic theory which deals with a world of scarcity. In the world of spirit, when we give we are adding to the cycle of energy and as we give so what we have increases. We may not have so many toys, we may not have such a big house as we would had we hoarded our love and our money and our talents for ourselves, but the quality of our life in God and in love constantly grows.
Thus, as we grow into mature followers of Jesus we aim for praise, humility and self-giving. They are so interwoven that wherever we start we increase all three. Let us ask the Spirit of God who teaches us how to pray to teach us to praise and to increase in us the spiritual fruits of humility, self-giving, and a sense of humor. Just like Jesus.


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