October 18, 2009
Job 38.1-7; Hebrews 5.1-10; Mark 10:35-45
I have a picture of my daughter Rachel taking her first step. I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. She has taken many steps since then. In fact I have seen her daughter take her first steps. She is also on her way. Thankfully, for most of us that first step just happens naturally. At some point we are ready to walk and so we walk getting more and more steady until we take it for granted that our feet and legs will carry us wherever we want to go. We probably don't appreciate enough the fact that we can walk until that day that we are not so steady anymore and need help to walk or even lose the ability to walk at all.
Learning to walk with God also begins with a first step. Job found out about it the hard way. He had assumed that being righteous was the first and only step needed to walk with God but he finds out differently when his world falls apart and his suffering is terrible, random and apparently without meaning and he questions God about how this can be, how is it that he, Job, a good man, should suffer so, should lose everything? In the stunningly beautiful words of our first reading he hears God say: "Who is this that darkens council by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will declare to me. Where were you when laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
The first step on our walk with God is humility, a profoundly clear assessment of who we are in relationship to God as those who are made by God, as those who live because of what God has made, and as those who remain dependent on God for life in this world and in the world to come. We have no claim on God by merit of our good works or faithful devotion or anything else. God's mercy and grace and love are all we really have.
It is one thing to become clear about the requirement of humility if we are to walk with God or even to fully realize how humble we in fact are. It is quite another thing to actually be humble, to live out of our humility. Everyone who has ever written on this subject says the same thing. You cannot strive to be humble and as soon as you think you are humble you are not humble anymore.
In fact I suspect the more normal response to the reality of our humble state is to pretend that it is not so. We tend to experience it as insecurity and so we attempt to secure ourselves by pretending that we are not as helpless or dependent as we are. As innocent, perhaps even unconscious, as this might be at first, it can lead to much trouble. It divides us from each other because it is essentially a defensive posture out of which we must always be justifying ourselves often resulting in taking the offensive against others to secure ourselves. It also keeps us from a relationship with the God of grace who requires from us an acceptance of our condition as it is and a radical trust in God alone to secure us, what we call faith. To walk humbly with God requires enormous faith in the love of God.
Richard Foster speaks in his book on Simplicity: "But humility is elusive. We all know that it can never be gained by seeking it. The more we pursue it the more distant it becomes. To think we have it is sure evidence that we don't. But there is a way for humility to come into the habit patterns of our lives. Holy obedience opens the door. It is a central means of God's grace to work humility in us. "In another place he makes the connection between holy obedience and a life of service. When we obey God's call to serve we practice and learn humility.
This is what Jesus said plainly to his disciples who were demanding the places of honor. "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
To serve by holy obedience means that the motivation for our service is our love for God and our desire to do what God wants. Humble service seeks to meet the needs of others before our own. Such service does not need or even want recognition other than the inward and private assurance that God is pleased. If we serve to gain recognition, perhaps even the recognition that we truly are humble, perhaps even attempting to convince ourselves that we are now humble and able to walk with God we have lost our way. We cannot serve because we want to be humble. We serve because we love God and want to be obedient to God's call to serve. Ironically by serving in this manner we become humble only by not seeking to become humble. With a humble heart the love is enough.
When Jesus asked the disciples if they were able, there answer was yes. It was the wrong answer. It is not because we are able that we ultimately choose to follow Jesus on this way of humble self-giving service and love but because we are no longer able not to.
Even our service can become just another false claim on God to secure our place in the kingdom until we surrender to the fact that our place in the kingdom has already been secured by the grace of the one we obey and serve, the one who himself learned obedience by suffering for us. This act of surrender to our need for grace opens our hearts and souls to the reality of humility as a way of life. It is to live always in the presence of the awareness of what grace has done and of the depth of the mercy of God for our fractured and fragile lives. This is why the fruits of a humble life include mercy and forgiveness because the humble soul having experienced being forgiven can no longer hold back forgiveness from others who need it, knowing in the depths of our souls that we live and love by God's abundant mercy. This is what it means to love kindness. Mercy, even Shakespeare knew, blesses both the giver and the receiver of such mercy equally. "
"The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."
The first step is difficult not only because humility eludes our grasp but also because obedience requires further surrender than the acceptance of our need for mercy and grace. There is also the surrender of power.
In the Wisdom of the Desert the Abbot was asked by a certain brother: How should I conduct myself in the place where I live? The abbot replied: Be as cautious as a stranger; wherever you may be, do not desire your word to have power before you, and you will have rest. In the scriptures Paul famously wrote: "Love does not insist on its own way."
Humility yields in love to the other. It not only does not insist on its own way, it does not presume anything. In our culture of entitlement and individualism this sounds like a foreign language. Sometimes I wonder if we appreciate the huge gap between the way of God and the way of our world. It is still God's world but we who abide here have taken a very different path than the one required by God. Humility is strange to us and so it should not surprise us that it is not comfortable to live this way in the world we know and with which we are familiar.
Humility is not weak but strong. Considerable courage is required to give up our own way but stay on God's way for God's way is a way of justice as well as mercy. In both cases God is asking us to risk our own comfort. If Jesus learned obedience through suffering it is not too far fetched to think that humility might cost us something too. Yet this is the first step, only the first step. We cannot really know God unless we take the first step. Just like my little ones who have to take a first step before leaning to walk through life we cannot walk with God until we take the first steps. It is so many things all at once. It is humility and obedience and service. It is to surrender to love. Yet at the same time it is one thing at a time. In obedience and service we learn humility ad in humility we discover love and in love we experience suffering and so on. While it all sounds a bit much it is also as simple as simply taking the first step. Of letting go of the burden of justifying yourself to the world and simply uttering this simple prayer to God saying Lord, have mercy, taking that first step off the beaten path and falling into the arms of God.
It's all about the falling. From the Wisdom of the Desert there is legend that one of the great Abbots said at his time of death these words: "From the time I came to this place in the desert, and built me a cell, and dwelt here, I do not remember eating bread that was not earned by the work of my own hands, not do I remember saying anything for which I was sorry until this hour. And thus I go to the Lord as one who has not even made a beginning in the service of God."
There may be some irony in the fact that for this icon of humility his final confession was that he never really took even the first step. His humble confession is that he never really knew humility at all. Perhaps it is the ultimate humility to realize one has failed even to be humble. He took care of him self. He lived by his own strength. He never allowed himself to fall into the arms of God until of course the time of dying when there is finally no other choice.
Perhaps the ultimate humility of humankind and the love that saves us all is best described in literature. It is a classic that many of us had to read in school entitled The Bridge of San Luis Rey, written by Thornton Wilder, in which a bridge collapses killing five people who just happened to be on it at the time. The book traces each random life to find meaning for the tragic loss of life and ends with this thought: "But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
The first step is to accept the truth about who we are and how much we are loved and whether we live or die we belong to God. The first step is to fall into the arms of God.
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