Isa. 57:15,18,19; Mt. 18:1-4
Football commentator and former player Joe Theismann 1996 when a reporter said that he was a quarterback genius. Said Joe, “Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.”
Or Senior basketball player at the University of Pittsburgh: “I’m going to
graduate on time, no matter how long it takes.”
Pat Williams, Orlando Magic general manager, on his team’s 7-27 record
in 1992: “We can’t win at home. We can’t win on the road. As general manager, I just can’t figure out where else to play.”
Steve Spurrier, Florida football coach, informing Gator fans that a fire
at Auburn’s football dorm had destroyed 20 books. Said Coach, “But the real tragedy was that 15 of the books hadn’t even been colored in yet.”
Little wonder that we have the kind of ego problems that we have with professional athletes. These are the same people that we are paying tens of millions of dollars, so that we regularly get stories like that tragedy of a few years ago with Jason Williams, showing off his collection of shot guns after considerable consumption of alcohol and other drugs so that his limo driver was killed. Official cause of death- horseplay. Sounds like my teenagers… because it is my teenagers with 35 million dollars.
You don’t have to look far to see a myriad of examples of nearly unbridled hubris at work in our daily papers.
Vladimir Putin had one of his staunch critics, Boris Nemtsov, murdered in public, right in front of surveillance cameras, had crews wash the street of the blood, right in front of the world press. He met the same fate that 23 other journalists have already met since Putin has come to power in 2000.
Even among respectable leaders from democracies that promote the values of the free society, we still have the back and forth this week between Benjamin Netanyahu charging forward to address the Congress, the Republican House leaders trying to embarrass the Administration around foreign policy, and the President who doesn’t make the time to actually watch the speech. And my, the bloviating by partisan political handlers from the two political parties- James Carville v. Karl Rove. Swagger, bluster, righteous indignation. Or, as those of us on the treadmill at the gym call it, ‘the evening news cycle’.
Humility, as a virtue, has some bad connotations to overcome. Most of us first associate the word with ‘humiliation’, being someone who allows themselves to be degraded rather than stand up for themselves. That may be a fine ethic for Mother Theresa, but what in the world would it have to do with the actual work world that we live in day in and day out?
Or we associate the word with its root meaning, humilis, to be of the earth. We think of something lowly. Jesus taught us that the meek shall inherit the earth. And there may be some romantic sense in which people without possessions or power have an innocence to them that most of us certainly lack. Again, in truth, not many of us are inspired to emulate it.
But in classical thought, humility meant neither humiliation nor earthiness. It was an honest appraisal of ourselves. From Greek thought, there was a tradition that carried a skull with the dictum, Know Thyself. (Nosce te ipsum in Latin; gnothi seauton in Greek) It was an injunction to come to grips with the fact that we are mortal creatures. That means that even the most successful of us can only cushion ourselves slightly from the same reality that will be faced by the poorest. We all have to face the fact that we have just a limited time to make an impact. What kind of legacy will that be?
The beginning of wisdom, said the Greeks, resides in the awareness of our finitude. That didn’t abrogate the quest for success or riches in their mind. Certainly it didn’t abrogate the quest for reputation and fame. But it did give them both a context that should not be ignored. It limited how much they should determine who we are and what we are about, because they too are ephemeral.
Great deeds, heroic efforts in battle, great works of Art, great works of Music and Literature, these are as immortal as we can become, according to the Classic thinkers. In some sense, we stay alive as long as our memory stays alive. That means that Homer, since he is still read widely today, has had quite an impact down the generations, beyond the considerable impact he had across his own generation. Indeed, the impact of Homer’s work was far greater after he died than when he was alive. That was true of Johann Sebastian Bach and so many other authors, sculptors and painters. There is some sense in which their great deeds outlive them.
But, the Greeks were also concerned to understand how things really are, what the world is really like, what our role is in it, and what makes for the excellent life. They were in search of things eternal in the midst of breakdown and change and for that they needed philosophy. The consensus opinion was that riches and worldly success without any philosophical understanding of the world was empty and a waste. As Socrates once said, “The Unexamined life is not worth living.”
And in the realm of morals, in the search for what the meaning of our lives should be about, what makes for the excellent life, they agreed that we had to begin with honesty. That was what humility really described. Humility is an honest appraisal of yourself. It is an accurate knowledge of who you really are, what your gifts really are, what your limitations are really about, what vices hamper you from attaining your potential, what pleasures you overindulge, what characteristics you reflexively exercise to their developed tone.
Who are you really? The humble person can describe themselves honestly.
How rare that happens in the world in which we live. An investment Banker in town, who has worked on Wall Street for twenty something years now, was describing for me the way that reviews go at the end of the year, when the Bank is dividing up the all important bonuses. Here, at that dicey time of year, the wheat is supposed to be separated from chaff, excellence rewarded and sluggishness sent away empty- like that wonderful New Yorker cartoon, that shows a man waiting for his bonus and his boss says, “Smithers, you made me laugh, you made me cry, but you didn’t make me any money.” Ugh!
This investment Banker was telling me that practically every review of every employee he has ever witnessed across two decades begins like this. “Rush, he’s a great guy.” “Thompson, he’s a great guy.” We’re all great guys, some of us with more money, some of us with less, but great guys one and all. We do manners well, we do manipulation well, we do brokering well, but truth be told, we aren’t so great on honesty.
And because of that, some of us can go by for years without having anyone tell us what is really up. This is particularly true if we are successful. We can find ourselves surrounded by sychophants, manipulators, and people who have learned to tell us what we want to hear…
Next thing you know, it is several years since anyone has told you the truth. And one day, usually because of something really stupid that we have done with our spouse or our kids, somebody close to you actually attempts to tell you the truth- at least part of the truth about something you’ve been doing for years that you thought was okay and it is not okay- and a major fall out happens.
It is like a betrayal or something… but it is not a betrayal. It is like an assault… but it is not an assault. It is someone telling you the truth and it comes as a shock because everyone around you has been evading the truth for so long, and you have been evading the truth with yourself… that it is not pleasant.
That is why we need Lent in our lives. We need to take stock from time to time. We need to be honest with ourselves. And it is not just about dealing with our problems. We need to claim our gifts too.
But let me stay on dealing with our problems for just a moment. Because the Church has not done this well in the past. They don’t do it well enough in the present. And I have two observations about that.
The first has to do with actual sin, when we have screwed up. For centuries, the Church said, if you sin, come to Confession, admit it in the anonymous confines of the confessional, do your penance, take the sacrament, you will be okay.
Inadvertently, that fostered a climate of evasion. It unwittingly encouraged us to stop dealing directly with our wrongs in two ways. We stopped feeling the need to admit them to anyone except the Priest. And we stopped making amends for our errors to the people that we wronged. We thought that by going through some religious hoops, that was no longer necessary. The institution of the Church became a false place spiritually. We could come here to be inspired, to participate, but we would never really be honest or open with other people in the Church. And that is spiritually false.
That is one thing I found so disarmingly refreshing about Alcoholics Anonymous. I think it is step number 4 out of the 12. “Take a fearless moral inventory of yourself and #5 admit to one other person the exact nature of your wrongs. And #6 Make a list of people that you have wronged and seek to make amends with each of them.
What a healthy spiritual environment, especially in our culture, for men. There is nothing like a group of 15 men talking honestly about some of the stupid things that they have done- and some of these stories are so fantastic, you can’t make this stuff up.
There is nothing like seeing grown, burly men, making amends. Nothing quite like seeing them hold each other accountable, not letting them get away with their tricks to set themselves up to take another drink. The first time I saw that I realized that so many men are starved for that kind of real interaction, real community, real fraternity.
Someone asked me what I thought about attending that AA group? I didn’t really answer them. The real answer was, I felt like I went to Church- real Church. And I think part of that is that people were free to talk about what was really on their minds.
And the second thing is just that. We have not been good institutionally about creating a climate where people can really be honest about what is on their hearts. Ideally, the Church should be the one place where people can say, “I’m lonely”, “I’m hurting”, “I’m afraid”. Often, we don’t feel any more secure admitting these things in Church than we would at the Club and that is also false.
Probably the Church won’t ever be a whole lot better than the society in which it operates, at least not the Institutional Church. But hopefully, the institutional Church can spawn smaller circles of sharing, smaller groups, where the Spirit can really move. Because honest humility is not only being graced with others who care enough about us to tell us what is wrong with us, it is also being graced with others who will bless us and lift us up. People who will encourage us to live out of our higher selves and develop our potential and not compromise when we really shouldn’t.
The real Church meets when the Spirit really moves and we can be honest and supportive in love. And that kind of honesty is vulnerable without being threatening, intimate without being mushy, transparent with boundaries. It can happen. It does happen.
May you be lucky enough to become surrounded by people that really know you well. May you be blessed to find people that will tell you the truth with grace and supportive love. May you be loved enough to be surrounded by people that will not just let you slide but will impel you toward the higher way. May you know real church. Amen.