Text: Colossians 3:12-17
I don’t know about you, but it is stunning to me that we have come to the end of 2012. When I was a child, fifteen minutes until supper seemed like forever. Now months fly by in a blur. This has been another eventful year, full of accomplishments and challenges, great triumphs and heart-breaking tragedies. Some of us have lost loved ones and others have added new little family members. In 2012, some of us gained clarity about the direction of our lives and some of us lost it. Some hate the thought of New Year’s resolutions and others find meaning in setting fresh goals for 2013. So what might we consider together as we are gathered on the cusp of a new year?
Boyd read the text I’ve chosen for this morning. It comes to us from the letter to the Colossians. This letter opens with a greeting from Paul and Timothy, but once again the weight of scholarly opinion is that Paul is not its author. One of his followers likely wrote it. It’s important for us to understand that the field of intellectual property with its legal protection through copyrights and patents was unknown when our scriptures were written. Today if I wrote a book and attributed it to someone else, I’d be sued either for damage to his or her reputation if it was bad or for a share of the profits if it was good. But in the ancient world, it was considered flattering for someone to write in the name of a beloved mentor. So we should never disparage 1st century biblical writings because the purported author didn’t write it. Rather we need to consider the content to see if it contains a holy word for us as we enter a new year in the 21st century.
What our text describes is the clothes we should wear. Ironically, a number of passages in the bible use “dressing” as a metaphor for how we should live. In Isaiah we read “Put on your strength, O Zion.” In Romans we’re advised to “Put on the armor of light.” In Ephesians we’re told to “Put on the whole armor of God;” in 1 Corinthians we’re to “put on immortality” and in Galatians to “put on Christ.” There’s a lot of wardrobe advice in our sacred scripture.
So what are we supposed to wear in 2013? The writer of Colossians tells us. We’re to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, and peace. We’ve just talked about peace and love during Advent. Much has been said about the complicated nature of forgiveness. I think we know what compassion and kindness look like. The challenge is to embody what isn’t hard to understand intellectually. We also know a lot about patience and how difficult it is for some of us. Today as we look forward to a new year, I want to say a bit about humility. In our therapeutic, “put yourself out there” society, humility is about as counter-cultural as you can get. That’s why I chose the quote from Jonathan Edwards, an important American theologian, for the cover of today’s worship guide. His early 18th century language may have made your progressive stomach a bit queasy when the usher handed it to you. But like humility, Edwards’ faith commitment as stated in resolution form is also counter-cultural. He says essentially, “I am willing to be different from those around me if that is what it takes to keep my commitment to God.” That’s pretty gutsy in my book, because withstanding peer pressure and the demands of culture is really hard in any age.
Now I don’t think I’m admitting a vocabulary deficiency when I say that when I was growing up, I did not hear the word hubris…h-u-b-r-i-s. Hubris is defined as arrogance or excessive self-pride and self-confidence. The word is taken directly from the Greek hubris, meaning “insolence or pride.” It was used to refer to the emotions of Greek tragic heroes that led them to ignore warnings from the gods and thus invite catastrophe. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality through an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power. It is always associated with a lack of humility and the word’s use is becoming increasingly common in social and political commentary today. In fact, the word hubris appeared in 175 New York Times articles last year, in large part because it seems to be rampant in our nation today. Rarely-used words become common for a reason.
On the other hand, the term humility, even as a spiritual virtue, has gotten a bad rap. We tend to refer to weak, timid people or those who are simple or uneducated when we use the adjective “humble.” We associate it with being self-effacing and passive, qualities we don’t consider healthy, much less smart. But Benedict of Nursa had a different idea about humility when he wrote what has become known as the Rule of St. Benedict fifteen hundred years ago. Benedict’s Rule isn’t really a list of rules exactly as much as it is a description of a way of living a faithful life in community that has stood the test of time and still guides monastics and lay people even today.
Benedict offers us rich advice about many things. But when he gets to humility, he has a whole lot to say because his focus is on living well and faithfully with other people. And what he offers feels consistent with what the author of Colossians likely had in mind. In the Rule, Benedict describes “twelve degrees of humility” in the sometimes awkward language of his day. So I won’t do any quoting of Benedict himself. But I do want to share with you what two Benedictine monastics I’ve come to appreciate have to say about a way of living they have tried to follow for many decades. One is Sister Joan Chittister, a beloved American nun from Ohio, and the other is Abbot Christopher Jamison from Worth, England. Both agree that humility is the lost virtue in a nation focused on self-esteem, personal growth, and getting ahead. Their understanding of this virtue and the common conception of it in twenty-first century America are light years apart.
First, these monastics are careful to say what humility is not. It isn’t pride or hubris to enjoy my achievements. Humility is not a false rejection of God’s gifts. To exaggerate my gifts by denying them isn’t what it means to be humble since humility requires an acknowledgement of my gifts and that I have been given them to use for others. Nor is the pride that comes from doing well the opposite of humility. Rather the opposite of humility is the desire to be my own god and to control other people and things. It is the arrogance that insists that others shape their lives to make mine comfortable. And, Sister Joan notes, there is nothing worse than spiritual pride. Remember Jesus’ story of the wealthy man who prayed loudly in the temple so others would be impressed by his devotion. The contrast was the poor man who prayed quietly, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The latter is humility. The former is spiritual pride regardless of how often or how loud the prayers or how devout one purports to be.
Both monastic writers are also careful to distinguish humility and humiliation. These are totally different concepts and not necessarily related. Humiliation is about oppression and shame, and it is destructive whether self-imposed or inflicted by others. “Humility frees the spirit,” says Sister Joan, “it does not batter it.” However, humility can help you deal with unavoidable humiliations and come out psychologically well and spiritually sound.
Unlimited self-concern is destructive of the self. In fact, in the 1980’s this mind-set and way of being was named as a personality disorder. It’s called narcissism and one of its causes is probably the out-of-control individualism in our culture. Humility occupies a narrow sphere in the range of human behavior between extreme submission and extreme selfishness. It is the work of a lifetime because it is not a character trait innately possessed by some but not by others. It’s a quality of life and state of mind that has to be consciously developed. The word “humble” comes from the same root as “humus” or earth. To be humble is to be down-to-earth. The temptation for Adam and Eve, says Abbot Christopher, was to give up being humus and to become an all-knowing god. In this day of unlimited, instantaneous information at our fingertips, this is our temptation as well.
Humility is not only a desirable spiritual trait, but it also has practical benefits. Jim Collins, the author of a book entitled From Good to Great, gathered twenty researchers who spent five years analyzing 1500 companies trying to figure out why some were good and some could be characterized as “great.” They discovered that the critical turning point in the fortunes of good-to-great companies coincided with the arrival of a CEO who blended extreme personal humility with intense professional leadership and vision. These corporate leaders were ambitious, for sure, yet not for themselves but for the group. Says Abbot Christopher, “At the heart of humility there is real strength, and to be humble requires great inner resources. Somebody with humility must have learned how to handle their own emotions and how to touch the goodwill of other people…”
Yet the business world and increasingly government, education, and even churches are seen as places where humility is a liability rather than an asset. In her book Quiet, Susan Cain describes how our nation has moved in the last 100 years from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. As we entered the 20th century, the most desirable personal traits included duty, honor, integrity, manners, work, morals, and good deeds. Today adjectives like magnetic, fascinating, attractive, dominant, forceful, and energetic have risen to the top of the list of desirable traits. The ideal personality now is the one that “Puts herself out there” or “sells himself” by making sure everyone knows one’s value and importance. In spite of the research that indicates these are not what makes for good leadership, many corporations and institutions look for what Cain calls “a performing self.”
But spiritual development is not about performance. It is a life-long process if we decide that humility is a characteristic we want to pursue. Certainly we can work on being compassionate, forgiving, and peaceful people and not worry about this thing called humility. But my sense is that especially as Americans, all of the other ways of being that make us thoughtful, committed, and just people are easier for humble people. So let me share just a few of Benedict’s suggestions for moving toward humility as translated by 21st century Benedictines.
The first step toward humility is to let God be God and give up the idea that we are in control. We aren’t and life will remind us of this principle whether we want to learn it or not. Life is not in our hands. We are not the center of the universe and there is plenty we can learn from others at any age. We can control ourselves and nothing and no one else. And often when it comes to our health and the aging process, we can’t even control our own minds and bodies.
Benedict also says that if something hard in life persists in spite of our best efforts to remove it, we may need to give up trying to change it and learn what we can from it. Otherwise, we’re likely to spend our lives frustrated. Whether you understand these seemingly unchangeable things as God’s will or just life being hard, humble people are open to what being in difficult places can teach. This means being willing to subject ourselves to the direction of others, hopefully wise others, and give others’ ideas a chance. It means learning to accept criticism since there is plenty of room for growth in all of us. It means accepting difficulties imposed by others with “with patience and even temper and not grow weary or give up.” Says Sister Joan, “Life is full of hard things, most of which are not impossible nor immoral, simply difficult.” This obviously calls for a great deal of emotional maturity and patience, which is not the same as tolerance since some things should not be tolerated. “Patience is more subtle,” says Abbot Christopher. It’s about keeping a positive frame of mind through the difficulties that come from trying to love other people and ourselves.
Humility requires that we be willing to admit who we really are and not pretend to be something that we aren’t. This means being honest with ourselves and with trusted others. A fundamental tenet of the field of psychology is that shedding light on dark places may be hard, but it’s healthy. If we want to grow, self-disclosure and interaction with others are important. It’s OK to admit weaknesses and limitations. Mindfulness of our weaknesses reminds us of the mercy of God and the mercy of those who love us. The goal here is a personal integrity where the outer and inner person are one.
Benedict’s degrees of humility also encouraged his monks to be content with simple things. “We were not put here to have the best of life’s goods but to have what we need for our bodies so our souls can thrive,” suggests Sister Joan. This is a most un-American way of living since our culture pushes us to acquire more and more. Benedict’s way encourages us to get rid of things that clutter the soul and hold onto beauty, simplicity, need, sufficiency, and the just distribution of goods. This is not a call for poverty, say the monastics, but for right use, generous care, and an open hand. And simplicity is not just about things. The ability to be content at a soul level with whatever happens to you is the fruit of great self-awareness. Even when status is taken away, the humble person can live fruitfully and happily.
In another piece of advice that may rub us the wrong way, Benedict encouraged his monks to see themselves as possibly weaker or more sinful than those around them. The idea is that if we are the norm, who can ever meet our standards? If we see ourselves as Mary, the mother of Jesus, rather than Mary Magdalene or as Joseph rather than Judas, where is there room for conversion of our selfishness and space for compassion for others? Finally Benedict encourages speech that is soft and not rude so we can respond to others not arrogantly but reverently.
If this sounds challenging, it is. But it feels important because America seems to be drowning in hubris. We have so many people who absolutely insist on having their own way. This is most apparent in Congress right now but it’s present everywhere. And I’m convinced as I look at my own life and others’ that it isn’t just politicians and CEO’s who could learn from our monastic friends a better way of relating to ourselves and one another. Abbot Christopher reminds us that although we prefer to learn on our own terms and in our own way, the spiritual life is not like that. He advises his monks that important lessons come in simply making the tea, saying the prayers, and listening to the elders, not as a put-down but to help them grow toward a new framework where the Holy can speak.
As we move into a New Year tomorrow evening, remember that how we dress can make our lives richer and help us keep our bearings. The mother of a large family was explaining why she dresses her children alike, right down to the youngest baby. “When we had just four children, I dressed them alike so we wouldn’t lose any of them.” “Now,” she added, looking around at her brood of nine, “I dress them alike so we won’t pick up any that don’t belong to us.” In a culture drenched in hubris, people dressed in humility are easy to identify.
If we follow the advice of the writer of Colossians, our wardrobes in the coming year will include compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, and peace. This morning I invite us all to give special attention to humility – like Mary, to ponder these things in our hearts. For most Americans, it’s the toughest trait in the list because almost everything in our culture pushes against it. But humility isn’t weakness. It is strength. Earlier this week we celebrated the birth of One who demonstrated just how strong humility really is. So we have an example to follow. And if we take seriously the spiritual virtue of humility, maybe some of our politicians will. At least we can pray for it.