Philippians 2 – Humility

A lot of times I feel like I am in way over my head when I’m writting…but not now.  I’ve got humility down pat.  When it comes to humility, I’m the man.  I’ve won awards for my awesome humility.  Blue ribbons baby! 

Just kidding.

Honestly, humility is like a wet bar of soap.  I think I’m getting a good grasp on it and then all of a sudden I realize I’m just holding suds. 

I do know that the key to humility is embracing your brokenness.  You see, we’re all broken.  Yeah, yeah…there is the whole sin nature deal; but that is only partially what I’m referring to.  We were created to walk with God in the garden.  We were created to live in community with Him.  Not to look at a cloudy reflection in a mirror but rather to see Him face to face and know Him fully.  Because that relationship is broken, we are broken as well.  There is a core loneliness in us.  It is common to all humanity.  We miss our Dad.

My father died over ten years ago now.  His death was sudden, to soon, and unfair.  Still there is not a week that goes by that I don’t wish I could call him and get his council, or share a moment with him, or just see him again.  I think about him a lot.  When he died something in me was wounded and it won’t heal until I see him again. 

Now my God is not dead, He is alive and is present, now, as the Holy Spirit; but as I long to see my dad again I also long to see my Father fully.  I long sit down at a table with my Him and laugh, and share a meal, and listen to His stories, and see His smile.  I know that day is coming, but until it does something will be missing, something will be broken.

The key to humility is embracing that brokenness.  Once we come to terms with it we realize that we are on the same playing field as everyone else around us – we are all lonely kids longing to see our Dad again.  It is a defining state of being for all of us.  As we begin seeing that in all our neighbors we would never think to place ourselves higher than any of them.  All the things about them we look down upon, everything we judge, everything that drives us nuts, that pushes us to consider ourselves better than them…it all melts away in the face of our common brokenness.

Henry Nouwen shares a beautiful story in his book Wounded Healer that I will close today’s post with.  I know it is long, but it is worth reading.  Enjoy.

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In the middle of our convulsive world men and women raise their voices time and again to announce with incredible boldness that we are waiting for a Liberator.  We are waiting, they announce, for a Messiah who will free us from hatred and oppression, from racism and war – a Messiah who will let peace and justice take their rightful place.  If the ministry is meant to hold the promise of this Messiah, then whatever we can learn of His coming will give us a deeper understanding of what is called for in ministry today.

How does our Liberator come?  I found an old legend in the Talmud which may suggest to us the beginning of an answer:

Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron be Yoshai’s cave…He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” 

Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”

“Where is he?”

“Sitting at the gates of the city.”

“How shall I know him?”

“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds.  The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again.  But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Prehaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.'”

The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, binding his wounds one at a time, waiting for the moment when he will be needed.  So it is too with the minister (When Nouwen writes “minster” insert your name).  Since it is his task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, he must bind his own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when he will be needed.  He is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after his own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.  He is both the wounded minister and the healing minister…

The Talmud story suggests that, because he binds his own wounds one at a time, the Messiah would not have to take time to prepare himself if asked to help someone else.  He would be ready to help.  Jesus has given this story a new fullness by making his own broken body the way to health, to liberation, and to new life.  Thus like Jesus, he who proclaims liberation is called not only to care for his own wounds and the wounds of others, but also to make his wounds into a major source of his healing power.

(Nouwen goes on to explain that loneliness is the primary wound all humanity shares.)  

The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protest and cherishes it as a precious gift.  Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief.  But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence.  The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.

When we are impatient, when we want to give up our loneliness and try to overcome the separation and incompleteness we feel, too soon, we easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations.  We ignore what we already know with a deep-seated, intuitive knowledge – that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition.  This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence.  Thus we keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book which will explain everything, and the place where we can feel at home.  Such false hope leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing can live up to our absolutistic expectations.  

When the minister lives with these false expectations and illusions he prevents himself from claiming his own loneliness as a source of human understanding, and is unable to offer any real service to the many who do not understand their own suffering… 

…It is this wound which he is called to bind with more care and attention than others usually do.  for a deep understanding of his own pain makes it possible for him to convert his weakness into strength and to offer his own experience as a source of healing to those who are often lost in the darkness of their own misunderstood sufferings.

(How can wounds become a source of healing?)…Making one’s own wounds a source of healing calls for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition which all men share.  

How does healing take place?  Many words, such as care and compassion, understanding and forgiveness, fellowship and community, have been used for the healing task of the Christian minister.  I like to use the word hospitality, not only because it has such deep roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but also, and primarily, because it gives us more insight into the nature of response to the human condition of loneliness.  Hospitality is the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger, with the intuition that salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveler.  Hospitality makes anxious disciples into powerful witnesses, makes suspicious owners into generous givers, and makes closed-minded sectarians into interested recipients of new ideas and insights.  

What does hospitality as a healing power require?  It requires first of all that the host feel at home in his own house, and secondly that he create a free and fearless place for the unexpected visitor…

Hospitality is the ability to pay attention to the guest.  This is very difficult, since we are preoccupied with our own needs, worries and tensions, which prevent us from taking distance from ourselves in order to pay attention to others…  

The minister who has come to terms with his own loneliness and is at home in his own house is a host who offers hospitality to his guests.  He gives them a friendly space, where they may feel free to come and go, to be close and distant, to rest and to play, to talk and to be silent, to eat and to fast.  The paradox indeed is that hospitality asks for the creation of an empty space where the gust can find his own soul.

Why is this a healing ministry?  It is healing because it takes away the false illusion that wholeness can be given by one to another.  It is healing because it does not take away the loneliness and the pain of another, but invites him to recognize his loneliness on a level where it can be shared.  Many people in this life suffer because they are anxiously searching for the man or woman, the event or encounter, which will take their loneliness away.  But when they enter a house with real hospitality they soon see that their own wounds must be understood not as sources of despair and bitterness, but as signs that they have to travel on in obedience to the calling sounds of their own wounds…

A Christian community is therefore a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision.  Mutual confession then becomes a mutual deepening of hope, and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength.  

I started this chapter with the story of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”  This is an important conclusion to this story.  When Elijah had explained to him how he could find the Messiah sitting among the poor at the gates of the city, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi went to the Messiah and said to him: 

“Peace unto you, my master and teacher.”

The Messiah answered, “Peace unto you, son of Levi.”

He asked, “When is the master coming?”

“Today,” he answered.

Rabbi Yoshua returned to Elijah, who asked, “What did he tell you?”

“He indeed has deceived me, for he said ‘Today I am coming’ and he has not come.”

Elijah said, “This is what he told you: ‘Today if you would listen to His voice.'” (Psalm 95:7)

Even when we know that we are called to be wounded healers, it is still very difficult to acknowledge that healing has to take place today.  Because we are living in days when our wounds have become all too visible.  Our loneliness and isolation has become so much a part of our daily experience, that we cry out for a Liberator who will take us away from our misery and bring us justice and peace.

To announce, however, that the Liberator is sitting among the poor and that the wounds are signs of hope and that today is the day of liberation, is a step very few can take.  But this is exactly the announcement of the wounded healer: “The master is coming – not tomorrow, but today, not next year, but this year, not after all our misery is passed, but in the middle of it, not in another place but right here where we are standing.”  And with a challenging confrontation he says:  O that today you would listen to his voice!  Harden not your heart as at Meribah as on that day at Massah in the desert when they tried me, though they saw my work.  (Psalm 95:7-9)

If indeed we listen to the voice and believe that ministry is a sign of hope, because it makes visible the first rays of light of the coming Messiah, we can make ourselves and others understand that we already carry in us the source of our own search.  Thus ministry can indeed be a witness to the living truth that the wound, which causes us to suffer now, will be revealed to us later as the place where God intimated his new creation.

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Philippians 2 – Humility

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