Category Archives: Humility

A Tale of Two Women

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary

Readings

Comparing and contrasting Eve and Mary is interesting. In our readings today, we see the stark contrast between the two. Eve shifts blame and shirks responsibility. Mary embraces the call of God. Eve’s reaction to her unexpected visitor, the serpent, marred humanity and the world. Mary’s reaction to Gabriel enabled the most critical event of all history.

Both Eve and Mary were created without sin. Eve came into a sin-free world, whereas Mary was sinless in a sin-saturated world. Eve’s sinlessness made her like the rest of creation. Mary’s sinlessness distinguished her from everyone else. Eve’s act of sin degraded her and everyone else. Mary chose to obey.

God created Eve sinless by default, since he cannot cause sin. He created Mary without sin as an exception. While Eve was truly an act of creation, Mary was born like everyone else, except that she was without sin.

Gabriel did not spend decades appearing to various virgins, being repeatedly rejected. He went to Mary, and Mary alone. There was no reason to visit anyone else. She was the one who had been set aside and prepared.

In contrast to Eve’s, “The serpent tricked me and I ate,” Mary pronounces, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Mary embraces her appointed mission. She has no way to know how it will all play out, but she knows who she is; she is one consecrated to the Lord.

We know very little about Mary outside of Luke’s Gospel, but it makes sense that people would have noticed something different about this Galilean girl. She never did anything wrong. She wasn’t just a teacher’s pet, able to get away with questionable behavior because of her position. On the contrary, humility is Mary’s defining virtue. She would not parade around perfection.

In this season of Advent, which is to focus us on the comings of Christ — past, present, and future — we are given a model in Mary. She knew Messiah was to come; she did not question Gabriel on those points of his proclamation. But she presumably did not know she was to become the Mother of God until Gabriel appeared to her.

When he did, though, she was ready. She had always been “the handmaid of the Lord.” She had dedicated herself to the Lord’s service. This disposition is what enables her to say, “Be it done to me according to your word.” And it is that submission to the Word of the Lord that makes one a handmaid. The two are inseparable.

As we look toward Christ, our only reasonable response is humble submission. We are, after all, sons and daughters of Eve, stained by sin and given to chasing it. But we are also called to become sons and daughters of God. In other words, we are brothers and sisters of Christ, which makes us sons and daughters of Mary.

May we seek to embody and exemplify our adoptive mother’s character.

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Are We There Yet?

Monday, the First Week of Advent

Readings

When we read a prophetic statement in the Scriptures, we must ask: “Did it happen yet?” “Has this been fulfilled?” “Has it been totally fulfilled or just partially fulfilled?” In other words, “Are we there yet?”

It can be hard to know. Isaiah is proclaiming what will become of Judah and Jerusalem. In so doing, he speaks of the elevation of Jerusalem and it becoming a place of pilgrimage and influence. He speaks of the word of the Lord being present in Jerusalem and He judging between the nations — in a foreshadowing of the prologue of the Gospel of John where we equate the Word of the Lord with Jesus incarnate. He speaks of lasting peace and an end to war.

Certainly it seems we are not fully there, and it would be hard to find a time in Israel’s history where this was fulfilled. We could say, though, that perhaps the Church has partially fulfilled this prophecy.

In the Gospel, we encounter an interchange between Jesus and a centurion. In Matthew’s Gospel, this account comes swift on the heels of the Sermon on the Mount. His disciples are presumably following him as he walks into Capernaum and encounters this soldier.

The disciples, if they are behaving the way we witness them acting in other passages, are at least pondering the Lord’s teaching of the previous verses, if not actively discussing it. They may even be asking, “Are we there yet?” How much farther do we have to go to attain to the teaching we just heard?

In the midst of this, a Roman soldier approaches Jesus. That’s enough to divert your attention, just like seeing a police car behind you in traffic. You get a bit self-conscious, even if you’re not doing anything wrong.

“Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.”

Jesus replies, “I will come and cure him.”

Already this is a remarkable interchange. The centurion merely relayed the situation, he made no explicit request. But Jesus understood the intent and the need and responded with a promise to fix it.

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof, only say the word and my servant will be healed….”

And we know what happened. Jesus was amazed.

He said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

With no one in Israel. That includes you, disciples. No, you are not there yet.

The centurion models for us humility, “Lord, I am not worthy….”

And he models faith, “…only say the word….”

Both in simple, yet profound statements which were delivered with sincerity and no presumption or posturing.

When we are tempted to try to gauge ourselves, asking, “Are we there yet?” may we be reminded by the witness of the centurion that the answer is, “No.”

May we look to his witness as a model to aspire to.

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Well Done

If you haven’t seen Mandy Harvey’s audition on America’s Got Talent (or even if you have), take a moment to watch this video. I’ve watched it about a dozen times in the last month and I get teary eyed every single time.

Let’s clear up a few things. First, she’s been working at singing while deaf for 10 years. She has 3 albums already, singing mostly jazz standards. She tours. She has also performed for various Christian and charity events and causes. She didn’t just decide, “Well, I’m deaf. I guess I’ll go try to sing on AGT today.” To get where she is, she worked hard before she lost her hearing, and she works hard now. She’s not “just” deaf (as if…); her connective tissue disorder affects her every day.

And yet, it’s a beautiful story and a great song. It’s not a story unrelated to what she’s doing on stage. Her being on stage is completely related to, and in defiance of, her deafness.

I really like how unassuming she is. I’m touched by how she gets choked up when everyone stands on their feet halfway through her song and she starts singing with her eyes closed so she can finish.

In a small way, I identify with her story. I was up to my neck in music in high school and had thoughts of studying music in college. Like her, it was a music theory class that crushed that dream. I didn’t sing; I played various woodwind instruments. But to really do music, to do music theory, you need to be able to sing, at least a bit.

I remember standing next to the upright piano in the music room while Dr. Montgomery played intervals. I was supposed to sing them back to him as part of a test. Thankfully, no one else was in the room. I couldn’t do it. Apparently I don’t hear music like most people hear music. I’m tone deaf.

There in about 10 minutes, my ideas about what I might do with music pretty well ended. My life took a different path, and with the perspective of almost 30 years, I can see how it was a good thing for my character. If I had been musically gifted, I could easily have become a prideful, insufferable jerk.

I still enjoy music. I still sing in the car when I’m by myself. But it’s just for me. I sometimes wonder what music sounds like to other people.

I also like Mandy’s video because it touches something else. We get to witness her being totally affirmed for a few brief moments. All of her years of hard work are recognized in a few glimmering moments. Those moments are rare in our lives. Even rarer is one so public as this.

I suppose I’ve had a few I can look back on. Two sermons come to mind (out of hundreds I’ve given). One blog post. Nowhere near a golden buzzer, but some genuine affirmation. It felt good. It was encouraging, but it was fleeting. No high lasts for very long.

I think we enjoy these kinds of moments, even vicariously, because they touch something even deeper within us. We are made to be part of something big. We are made to be God’s people and to have him be our God. As awesome as the golden confetti must be for those rare few on America’s Got Talent, how much more so if we hear our Lord say, “Well done.” That is worth striving for above any accolades we can earn from each other.

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I’m Stuffed

No more for me, thanks!

Independence Day affords us a long weekend. A chance to relax, enjoy family, and eat. I try to watch what I eat, to not over-eat, and to not eat too much of certain things that I know I’ll regret the next day. But food isn’t all that important. Jesus instructed the crowds, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles man.” (Matthew 15:11)

Psalm 123 is a short “song of ascents.” Praying the last two verses today clarified a thought that had been slowly forming in my mind concerning them.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Too long our soul has been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease,
the contempt of the proud.

Psalm 123:3-4 (RSV)

For years I read these verses along the lines of, “Have mercy on us because of all those nasty, proud people out there.” I still think this is a reasonable reading of the passage. But I think one more applicable to my life (and maybe yours) is also present.

I have had more than enough contempt in my soul. Contempt for those different than me. Contempt for those whom I deem less able than me. Contempt for those who injure my pride.

Too long has my soul been satisfied being at ease. Too long have I been willing to kick my feet up and coast. Too long have I not given my Lord the attention and obedience he deserves. (See verses one and two of the Psalm for what that should look like.)

Too long have I harbored the contempt of the proud. Too long have I launched scorn either silently or aloud at others.

Have mercy upon me Lord, have mercy.

May I not be filled with scorn, contempt, ease, and pride. When I am, I know that I will regret being so stuffed, either in this life or in the judgment to come.

I offer thee, O my God, all my thoughts, all my words, and all my actions of this day. Grant that they may be thoughts of humility, words of humility, and actions of humility — all to Thy glory.

Fr. Cajetan, Humility of Heart

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Longing for Singularity

As someone who makes a living as a “provider of religious services” in a “pluralistic environment,” I am tired. The cost of admission to work in this context seems too high. I am tired of freedom, though this has little to do with current social issues regarding homosexuality and transgenderism.

The problem starts with what seems like a good idea. We gather a bunch of pastors / priests / rabbis / imams / etc. to provide religious support to a diverse population made up of all sorts of different religious adherents. In order to serve them all, we provide for their religious preferences. That is where this starts to unravel. Religion is reduced to a preference. Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, manual or automatic, Seahawks or Packers. Those are preferences. Choosing any one of those has no lasting impact.

If the claims of any one religion are true, however, then logically, at least some of the others must be false. Furthermore, if the claims of a religion are true, then to choose any other religion has dire eternal consequences. This is error of the most serious sort. I could have wrongly learned, “In 1493 Columbus sailed the deep blue sea” and miss a point on a history exam or in Trivial Pursuit, but to get God wrong is a very grave error.

In our pluralistic environment where we are to “cooperate without compromise,” I find that we are forced to act as if religion is merely a preference. We can promote the overall program and general benefits of religious practice, but we cannot talk about truth and error. This applies not only in chaplaincy settings, but increasingly in our overall western culture. We are committing an error when we allow that which is most dear to us to be reduced to a preference, even though the Church teaches and we believe that it is worth dedicating our lives to and even giving our lives for.

I am not advocating that we cannot or should not be civil to those of different faiths. The sword has historically been a poor evangelistic tool. But we must have the conviction to stand on and for the truth. We must be willing to seek the truth. We must, if we are intent on living in the truth, be willing to step away from error, expose it, and move toward the truth.

This is not a popular stance, especially not in the area of religion. It is seen as elitist, bigoted, and even racist in some cases. However, to seek the truth is not to claim that I am right, but to seek to know and do what is right. It is not to lord it over others, but to live in humble subjection to the truth and encourage others to do the same.

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Take and Read

Sola Scriptura folks like to point to Augustine of Hippo’s experience in a garden in Milan as an example of the power of Scripture. He heard what sounded to him like a child chanting, “Take and read; take and read.” He picked up a copy of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans he had with him and read:

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:13-14 (ESV)

These folks, however, forget that this is the climax of the story. Book VIII of Augustine’s Confessions tells the whole story — about 20 pages in my edition. Augustine did not just hang out in a garden, hear a voice, read, and become converted. It was a much longer road than that. Indeed, the entire book of Confessions up to this point chronicles the long, twisting road he had been traveling to true faith.

It was not merely two verses of Scripture that worked such an effect on his life. He knew saints and he knew of saints — Ambrose, Anthony, and Victorinus among others. He had at least some of the Scriptures available to him and he studied them. He resisted the drawing of the Holy Spirit but eventually came to surrender. His story reveals that he had already surrendered before he heard, “Take and read,” and repented in tears before God in the garden. The passage he read in Romans was more of a confirmation than a call.

Scripture is important — vitally so — in the life of the believer and the church. But it is not magical. It is not a spell book to read incantations out of in order to command the divine to our will. It is a gift of God, by the Holy Spirit, through the church.

There is benefit in taking and reading, but just as with prayer, humility is crucial. If we come to the pages of Scripture seeking support for what we think, we are on dangerous ground. We should come asking what we ought to think. What we ought to believe. What we ought to do. We should listen to Scripture, and to the Holy Spirit, and to the Church.

As Americans, we get excited when we hear stories of someone opening a Bible for the first time and being converted. This demonstrates our individualism more than our reverence for God’s Word. We are a nation of individuals who value doing things our own way. Our patron saints, from a cultural perspective, are John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do it your way. But this is not the way of Christ or his church.

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is…. giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:17, 20-21 (ESV)

We should hold up stories of those who come to Scripture and then walk into a church, saying, “Help me understand.” This, if we read the story, is much closer to Augustine’s actual experience than merely the “take and read” snippet at the end of the chapter.

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Prayer and Pride

We must be humble in order to pray. In pride, we may do things that are prayer-like, but they are not prayer. At its most basic level, prayer is either asking for something (daily bread, forgiveness of sins, healing) or thanking for something (God’s grace, family, health).

We cannot ask for something out of pride. If I have pride, then I either deserve it (at least in my mind) so I can order it, or I expect it. I may even think I can do it myself. Humility asks. Humility acknowledges dependence upon another. Even in human relationships, just because I am “in charge” or “superior” to someone in position doesn’t mean I can’t ask, or that by telling them to perform some duty I am not acknowledging my neediness. Leaders have staffs because they cannot do it all themselves.

We also cannot give thanks out of pride. If I am full of pride, then I deserve whatever it was that was provided. I expect such service or quality. To be thankful is to acknowledge the receipt of something from outside of oneself. Thankfulness is acknowledgement of a gift.

To petition God in humility is to acknowledge our powerlessness. We ask because on our own we cannot cause it to be. We cannot forgive ourselves of sin. We cannot provide all that we need for life. We may come to think that we are “putting bread on the table” but without God to cause the crops to grow and the rain to fall, there is no bread. We may have a part to play, but it is secondary to God’s, or even tertiary, since most of us don’t even make our own bread today. We are dependent; to acknowledge this truth is a prerequisite to prayer.

To thank God in humility is also to acknowledge our limits. We thank God for his character because if it were different, we would be doomed. We thank God for his deeds because we are the beneficiaries of them constantly. From the breathtaking grandeur of his creation to the blessing of a warm bed on a cold night, we thank God for providing us what we need and so much more.

There is a reason Christians have historically knelt to pray. It is a posture of submission, of humility. It reminds us that we come before one more powerful than ourselves when we address God. Standing is also a common posture for prayer and reflects this as well, especially in our contemporary society. We don’t have many instances outside of church where we are expected to kneel, but we may have superiors at work to whom it is appropriate to show respect by remaining standing until invited to sit.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)

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