I want to ask for your help as we begin today. I need you to snap your fingers with me. And now, keep that going, and I want you to echo what I sing:
Humble me, Lord (Humble me, Lord)
Humble my spirit (Humble my spirit)
Humble my spirit, Lord (Humble my spirit, Lord)
O won’t you humble me, Lord (O won’t you humble me, Lord)
I learned that prayer about 20 years, and it’s echoed ever since. It’s simple. It’s snappy. And it’s absolutely life-altering if we mean it.
Humble me, Lord? Is that really something we want to ask of God?
Richard Rohr, the Franciscan writer whom many of you know especially from his book Falling Upward, has said that for years he has prayed and asked that God would give him “One good humiliation a day” and then he tries to pay attention to how he responds. It’s not that Rohr has some sort of desire for insult or injury — it’s not that he wants to slip on a banana peel, or drop his coffee cup in the middle of Starbucks, or experience daily face-reddening embarrassment. He’s praying for something daily that checks his idealized image of himself; something that helps him to know if he is doing God’s work, or whether he is committed to his own work; something that calls him back, you see, to who he truly is. The word humiliation, like the word humble, has the root “humus,” which means earth, close to the ground. In other words, that out of which we were created. In other words, that which we truly are. O won’t you humble us, Lord.
It’s a prayer we hear in the third chapter of Colossians. Throughout Lent, we are focused on being “Clothed in Christ” — not only taking off those things that separate us from God, but putting on the virtues made possible through Christ. “Put on compassion, kindness, humility…” Colossians says. This command “put on” is most commonly used in the Bible for the literal act of getting dressed. John the Baptist is described “clothed in” camel skin and a leather belt. Herod is described “putting on” his royal robes. It’s the same word used here in Colossians, as it urges us to actively clothe ourselves with these qualities.
In our house, clothing is an active occurrence. Sometimes it’s multiple outfits a day, finding the hat or the headband, strategically picking out clothes before bedtime, cleaning, ironing, making sure we have the clothes for school, the clothes for soccer practice, the clothes for gymnastics, the clothes for flag football. This is the kind of clothing that Colossians is urging: daily, regularly, actively, constantly clothe yourselves in these virtues.
It was an essential message then as now. The audience of Colossians is a church experiencing challenges and competing philosophies, so the letter is written to urge them to remain devoted and committed to Jesus, and especially to remember what is made possible through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The letter terms it “a new humanity.” Through the power of Christ, we can be different people, and not just in a distant, idealized future, but now in the real places and spaces of our lives. We don’t have to wait. We can live out our hope for the future right now in the present. We can put on compassion now. We can put on kindness now. We can display humility — it can define our lives — not only in some ultimate age when Christ is all and is in all, as the letter says, but now. Clothe yourselves in humility.
It’s a virtue encouraged throughout the Bible. Again and again, we hear the urging: “Humble yourselves, and I will exalt you.” It’s the voice of the one who is always calling the unlikely and the overlooked — always shaming the standards of the world. The early Christian theologian, Archbishop John Chrysostom, said that if pride is the root of sin, so “humility is the root, mother, nurse, foundation, and bond of all virtue.” So “What is it that the Lord requires of you?”, the prophet Micah asks. These things: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
The word “humility” found in Colossians means to be without distinction, or of a low position, modest, unassuming. We know how this runs counter to the virtues encouraged by almost every other voice and influence in our lives… make something of yourself, ascend and climb and don’t look back, what does the world require of you but achievement, success, recognition…
Some years ago the St. Petersburg Times, in my home state of Florida, carried a story about legendary football coach, Don Shula. He was vacationing with his family in a small town in northern Maine. One afternoon it was raining and so Shula, his wife and his five children decided to attend a matinee movie in the town’s only theatre. When they arrived the house lights were still on in the theatre, where there were only six other people present. When Shula and his family walked in, all six people stood up and applauded. He waved and smiled. As Shula sat down he turned to his wife and said, “We’re thousands of miles from Miami and they are giving me a standing ovation. They must get us on television all the way up here. Then a man came to shake Don Shula’s hand. Shula beamed and said, “How did you recognize me?” The man replied, “Mister, I don’t know who you are. All I know is just before you walked in, the theatre manager told us that unless four more people turned up we wouldn’t have a movie today.”
That was Don Shula’s daily humiliation, thanks be to God. But it’s also a reminder to all of us of the fleeting standards of this world, how impermanent they are, and who we are. Humility is not self-hatred, or laziness, or acquiescence to some low position into which we’ve been forced. It’s an awareness of who we are before God, of our need for God, of the boundlessness of God’s love and forgiveness. It reminds us to suspend our own ambitions to actively seek God in all people and experiences. True humility is centered in the things of God – love, compassion, mercy, selflessness, forgiveness. It’s the realization that we share with every human being the sacred dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God. To put on humility is to see one another as God sees us and to rejoice in being able to serve one another.
Of course, for some in our world, humility is not an optional virtue or a daily spiritual exercise. It’s a reality. I’m speaking of those who find themselves, as Howard Thurman once said, “with their backs against the wall” or a boot on their throat; those who live amidst oppression, subservience, even slavery, so far from who and what God intends for God’s children. No, some are not in a position to “put on” humility, because it’s already all about them in ways unjust and unfair. But some of us are. What might it mean for us who have known power and elevated status to humble ourselves? To put on humility? To be listeners instead of speakers, servants instead of recipients, encouragers instead of achievers, advocates instead of isolated and self-absorbed individuals?
Some of the most significant humility I have known in recent years, has come in those moments when I have been in spaces where my voice is not the majority, and my perspective is not privileged or prioritized, especially in work in our community towards justice and the common good. In these moments, putting on humility, has meant taking the posture of learning, listening, really hearing what is being said. It means passing the microphone to voices that have waited to speak for too long in our world, and have more to contribute to conversations and common work on equity, race, poverty. Colleagues and friends who are women have helped me to understand things I do not experience as a man, as people of color have helped me to see the world and its inequity in ways I have not always seen as a person who is white, as people living in poverty help me to know an experience of the world that I have not known as a person with means.
This week, I was part of a conversation on panhandling in our community. room full of concerned and generally compassionate people in our community were convened at the Community Foundation. We represented a variety of sectors — social service agencies, businesses, people working in housing, those on the continuum of care, the faith community, members of the homeless community and the Homeless Coalition of Greensboro — all of us talking about panhandling, but really talking about a larger question of poverty and how our city’s growth and our city’s conscience can intersect in a hopeful future for all. It would have been easy for only those voices most prominent or highly placed to speak, but it was the voice of a woman who is currently homeless that resounded for me. This woman is a mother, only recently experiencing homelessness. She stayed in the WE Shelter that our church is a part of supporting this season. And she described how she had been living in Section 8 housing and her landlord didn’t want to renew the contract. The landlord didn’t want her there, in part because she had an emotional support animal, for a disability that is not obvious or visible. And so at the discretion of the landlord alone, she was evicted. “I paid my rent on the day I had to leave…” she said. And those of us humble enough to see, caught site of the image of God at the table.
It reminded me of what one of our church members once shared with me. A business person who worked downtown and for years had encountered people asking for money, he’d see someone panhandling in the distance and instinctively cross to the other side of the street, rerouting on his way to work or the parking deck. But at some point he started spending Fridays at Greensboro Urban Ministry, helping with Chapel services and serving a meal, and eating with people in our community whose life and circumstances so radically differ from his own. He shared, “Now I see someone coming that looks like they might be asking for money, and instead of crossing to the other side, my first thought is, ‘I wonder if I know that person.’”
Putting on humility. The kind of humility that can come from the people who have known grace.
“The greatest among you will be your servant,” Jesus says in the gospel of Luke, and to make sure we would understand fully, he took on every bit of the message himself, saying that he came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” On his last night with the disciples, he took a towel and basin and washed their feet, then told them that they could follow this example of servanthood and self-giving love with one another. So the movement that bears his name was founded on humility and service instead of authority and power, love and generosity instead or prestige and privilege.
Philippians describes it powerfully, how being in very nature God, Jesus Christ did not see it as something to be preserved or grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being found in human likeness, humbling himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.
As the gospel describes it, they stripped him, and they put a scarlet robe on him. They “clothed” him in it, the text says — it’s the same word. And they led him out to be crucified, clothed in humility.
Won’t you humble us, Lord. Humble us, Lord.
I first learned that song one summer in college while working at a camp for children with disabilities. At Camp Barnabas, it was more than a snappy song — it was lived out all around me by children and their families. One particular week of camp was devoted to children with chronic illnesses that caused them to use wheelchairs — “Challenge Week,” we called it. And the big man on campus during Challenge Week was a ten-yr-old boy named Justin. Justin had a chronic illness that caused tumors to grow throughout his body, both internally and externally. He had been through multiple surgeries in his young life, including one to install a trach to ease his breathing. As you might know, a trach can’t be submerged, so that made it particularly challenging for Justin to do his very favorite thing ever: the Blob. Some of you know the Blob — it’s like a giant rubber balloon filled with air, and placed in a pool or lake next to a tower. One person positions themselves on the edge, and another jumps onto it and sends them flying and flipping into the air and then to the water. Christopher Lyle did this to me at our Lake gathering last August, and some days I still feel it in my neck!
But Justin loved it. So he had called camp throughout the year, “I need you to get me a Blob Team.” Six months before camp, “Is my Blob team ready?” Then he wanted regular reports leading up to his week of camp. And to on the last day of camp, it all went down during free time. Justin and the “Blob Team,” consisting of 10 of us counselors or so, entered the pool area. Justin, like a prize fighter, came to the pool. And the whole place stopped. He threw off his robe. He climbed the Blob tower with several of his team, and as he jumped, a handful lowered him onto the Blob to the waiting arms of a few more of us positioned there. Then we all crawled together to the other end of the Blob, while others formed a border around the edge of the Blob in case he fell off. Once at the end of the Blob, Justin rolled off into the arms of others, and the whole pool just erupted as Justin was carried off, champ that he was. And the Kingdom of God came near, through his humility.
It was an amazing moment in my life, and I’m reminded of it by a small gift Justin gave, that today sits on a shelf in my office. Faded yellow construction paper with the message “Thank you, Blob Team. Love, Justin,” and in the center a cross made of popsicle sticks and masking tape. It’s a fitting symbol, that cross — a reminder that humility can change everything.