Billy Graham tells a story about a time early in his ministry when he arrived in a small town where he was scheduled to peach at an evening service. Before heading to the church he wanted to put a letter in the mail, but had no idea how to find the post office. He happened upon a boy and asked for directions, which the child provided with great clarity. Then Graham said to him, “Why don’t you come by the Baptist Church tonight because I’m going to be telling everyone how to get to heaven.” “Heaven,” smirked the boy, “How you gonna tell ‘em how to get to heaven when you don’t even know the way to the post office!”
Life does have a way of keeping us humble.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke we encounter one of Jesus’ better known teachings: “When invited to a banquet, don’t sit at the place of honor lest you be asked to move down. Rather, sit at the lowest place and receive honor from the host when you are asked to move up.” I suspect even people who don’t know much of the bible know something about this teaching. It is very clear and concrete. It is easy to identify with the humiliation of a person asked to move aside. It is thrilling to contemplate how it might feel to be asked to move forward. It is possible to reduce this parable to little more than proper etiquette; simply a strategic maneuver to avoid humiliation and disgrace.
Jesus’ second teaching is not nearly as well known… or followed. “When you give a meal, don’t invite friends or relatives or rich neighbors – the people who can reciprocate. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. You will be blessed because they cannot repay you.”
Paired together, these teachings challenge us to cultivate a certain disposition in life. They call for selflessness and a focus on others. They invite us not to consider a person based on what he or she can do for us, but rather to engage each person you meet wondering what you can do for them. The single word the bible uses to name this disposition is humility.
The best definition of humility I know comes from C.S. Lewis’ classic work Mere Christianity. He held, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” I like that. It helps frame today’s teachings in a way that makes sense. It means you are not to be focused solely on promoting yourself and thus naturally do not sit at the position of honor unless so invited. It means you use what you have to serve those who have not. Being humble means you invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame to your banquet. Being humble does not mean when they say it is the best food they have ever eaten, you respond by saying, “Oh, please, I am a terrible cook.”
I suspect most people consider humility to be the opposite of arrogance, pride, boastfulness, insolence, and being self-absorbed. We don’t care much for braggarts or for those who exaggerate their own importance. In today’s “Notice Me” culture, we dinosaurs of a time long ago wish people had just a tad more modesty, which is a derivative of humility.
I also suspect some of us who are trying to cultivate humility equate it with being self-effacing. We act as if Jesus’ wants us to minimize our contribution and to demean our gifts and good qualities. We take it to mean we should shrug off every compliment and renounce every recognition that comes our way.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less in order to focus on something else. But focus on what? The bible answers this in two obvious ways. First, focus on God. Phillip Brooks once preached, “The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is.” Brooks suggests we are to be all we can be and do all we can do. God created you to be you and it is up to you to be you to the best of your ability. The servant with the one talent who buried it, then gave it back to his master was not humble. He was rebuked for wasting his life. Our faith calls us to stand at our real height and to measure ourselves against the greatness of God.
Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on thing and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.” Hopefully the mere act of coming to this place week in and week out, the observance of the ritual, being attentive to the reading of God’s word, saying the creeds and offering our prayers changes our perspective. If you look up long enough never again will you be able to look down, only around.
Which leads to the second thing the bible teaches about humility: focus on others. Gordon Hinkley said, “Being humble means recognizing that we are not on earth to see how important we can become, but to see how much difference we can make in the lives of others.” Isn’t this what we admire most about the people in our lives… not so much what they have accomplished, but how they have served. Sometimes the person possessing the most impressive résumé is the last person you want to hire, because he or she cares little for others.
The last thing I want to say is humility is a lifelong work in progress. It is not a threshold we achieve but a destination toward which we walk. There is no better reminder of this than something I came across recently called The Prayer of an Anonymous Abbess:
Lord, thou knowest better than myself that I am growing older and will soon be old. Keep me from becoming too talkative, and especially from the unfortunate habit of thinking that I must say something on every subject and at every opportunity.
Release me from the idea that I must straighten out other peoples’ affairs. With my immense treasure of experience and wisdom, it seems a pity not to let everybody partake of it. But thou knowest, Lord, that in the end I will need a few friends.
Keep me from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point.
Grant me the patience to listen to the complaints of others; help me to endure them with charity. But seal my lips on my own aches and pains -- they increase with the increasing years and my inclination to recount them is also increasing.
I will not ask thee for improved memory, only for a little more humility and less self-assurance when my own memory doesn’t agree with that of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be wrong.
Keep me reasonably gentle. I do not have the ambition to become a saint -- it is so hard to live with some of them -- but a harsh old person is one of the devil’s masterpieces.
Make me sympathetic without being sentimental, helpful but not bossy. Let me discover merits where I had not expected them, and talents in people whom I had not thought to possess any. And, Lord, give me the grace to tell them so.