As I reflect upon many dimensions of our culture including politics, entertainment, sports, the news, and even religious institutions and its leaders, it seems that there is a dearth of a vital virtue, and that is humility. I’d like to think that humility appears absent because it is a quiet unassuming quality, but I am afraid there is more to it than that simple explanation.
While not a new thing, at the center of the lives of many, is the unsatisfied hunger for power, influence, control, ego, and financial capital. Obviously when such things are tempered and used for the right reasons, good things happen, but often when power and the like is used for good, humility, not control, is in the driver’s seat.
CS Lewis wrote the following. “According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil is pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind…It is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”
Issues of pride and the resultant problems are reflected in story after story in scripture. In the Old Testament, pride was the root cause of the demise of many leaders. Pride was at the core of much suffering. And in the New Testament, specifically it was prideful religious leaders who believed they knew it all that challenged Jesus the most and eventually asked for Jesus to be crucified.
Thomas Tarrants from the CS Lewis institute wrote, “The desire to lift up and exalt ourselves beyond our place as God’s creature lies at the heart of pride…with pride, God becomes smaller and the person becomes larger. The center of gravity shifts from God to the person…They become the center of their world, and God is conveniently moved to the periphery.”
As this same writer points out, pride is the not the same thing as being proud of another, like being proud a child for doing something well. Being proud is all about being pleased about something good and pleased for another person.
With that caveat in mind, the antidote for much of what ails the world is humility. CS Lewis wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”
Humility is a fundamental quality to pursue as followers of Jesus. In 2 Philippians we find, “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant….and being found in human form he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.”
And also from Philippians, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
In reflecting upon this, Thomas Tarrants states, “As we refuse to be preoccupied with ourselves and our own importance and seek to love and serve others, it will reorient us from self-centeredness to other-centeredness – to serving and caring for others as Jesus did. In the narcissistic culture of contemporary America, this is a particularly powerful countercultural witness of Christ’s presence and lordship in our lives.”
As we move into this fall season and as the leaves fall, I invite each of us to ponder, pray about, and explore where we are with humility realizing that Jesus calls us to lives of profound humility. But as we take the life long journey of learning to be humble, let us not be prideful of any progress we make.
We are entering into one of my favorite times of year. The warm days, chilly nights, and astonishing colors are enveloping us all. This Fall I have been thinking about another time a number of years ago when we lived in New Hampshire serving another parish.
My wife Regina and I took a hike up a long, steep and muddy trail on a gorgeous crisp and cool fall day. We were happy, glad to be together, and going along at a nice pace. I took in all of the scenery and each step I took was filled with gratitude for the wonder of God’s creation. But about 30 minutes into the hike things changed.
I began to take my mind off of the trees. I started to think about the slow pace we were walking. I wondered just how long the hike was going to take.
It was then that I noticed that Regina was lagging far behind me. I stopped and waited for her to catch up with me. When she finally did, I said, “If we walk faster, we will get to the top sooner. Why don’t we pick up the pace?”
She then asked me, “Why are you in such a hurry. It is a beautiful day. We are here to hike and enjoy the leaves and what difference does it make when we get to the top?” Although I knew she was right, I huffed and puffed and continued racing up the trail.
I think I reached the peak 20 minutes before she did. When Regina did eventually reach the peak, she sat next to me and together we took in the view of the peaks of distant mountains in New Hampshire and Vermont. And it was then that I said to Regina, “I have come to the conclusion that there are three kinds of hikers.”
“There are those who hike with only the destination in mind. They pay most attention to where they are headed and don’t spend much time thinking about and reflecting on the journey in getting there. Because they are so focused on where they are going, they really miss out taking in what is right in front of them. I am sorry to say that today this has been me.”
Then I said, “There are also those who hike with only the journey in mind. They pay most attention to where they are right at the moment and don’t spend much time thinking about where they are headed. Sometimes they are so focused on taking in what is right in front of them that they lose sight of where they are going.”
“Finally, there are those who hike with both the journey and destination in mind. They pay attention to where they are at the moment and where they are headed at the same time. Not only do they reach their destination, but they take the time to notice what is in front of them on the way.”
As I have thought back to that hike in New Hampshire, I have learned a lot. I have come to realize that just as there are different ways to take a hike in the mountains, there are different ways to live our journey in life. And what we pay attention to the most determines what our journey is like.
Not long ago, we were in California. Probably because it was so hot outside, I remembered another hot Southern California day from long ago. On that day, I remember I was in the mood for something cool to drink and refreshing to eat. The thought of a good glass of iced tea and a quart of artery hardening ice cream seemed like just the ticket. So off I headed to a local grocery store. As is the case in most places in the LA area, the parking lot was packed. Tempers rose as two to three cars competed for each open space.
Once I parked, I walked into the store and headed straight for the ice cream section. Instead of looking at the ice cream options through the glass, I opened up each door so the frigid air would cool me off. Finally I found a one of my favorite ice creams, a real Lipitor special. I then made my way to the check out line, which like the parking lot, was packed with people.
As I stood there, a man and his wife came up and stood behind me in line. As we slowly made our way forward, the man’s voice got louder as his criticisms of his wife got nastier and crueler. After several minutes, I along with the other shoppers in line became uneasy and uncomfortable. Just before it was my turn to check out, I had reached my limit. The man’s vicious attacks had his wife in tears. While I don’t remember exactly what I said, I tried to suggest to the man that there was another way to work things out. Needless to say, he did not respond well to my intrusion.
I won’t repeat exactly what he said. But he said something like, “who the heck do you think you are?” He followed me into the parking lot repeating the phrase over and over threatening to hit me as I got into my car and left without responding.
Although I was a bit undone by the experience, when I got back home, I sat down and began to eat the ice cream. With each spoonful, I thought not only about the incident, but I reflected on the man’s question. “Who do you think you are?” As I thought about the events that day, I realized that while the man’s actions, hostility, and treatment of his wife were completely not ok, in actuality, his question was and is a good one. “Who do you think you are?”
To this day, the question remains fresh and powerfully relevant. It is a question that is not only applicable to me, but I believe to each one of you as well. “Who do you think you are?” It is a relevant question because how we answer it powerfully determines and influences our thoughts, actions, feelings, and relationships with other people. It is a relevant question because our answer affects how we see ourselves and our purpose in life. It is also a relevant question because our answer reflects where we sit with God.
If we were to go out into the streets of Snowmass Village or Denver and ask people, “who do you think you are?” we would likely get a variety of responses and answers. Some would say, “who do you think you are to ask me such a question, bug off.” Others might say, “I am an accountant, teacher, or retired person.” Some might respond, “Gee, I have never thought about that question,” or “I am a mother with three children trying to make ends meet,” or “I don’t know.”
Regardless of how a person might answer that question publicly, I wonder how people privately would respond. I also wonder how many people would answer the question with God in mind. Do we spend thinking about how God sees us? Does this reflection ultimately determine how we see others and ourselves? Does how God see us, dramatically influence our behavior, thoughts, and feelings?
Who do you and I think we are?
The other day Jayla and I decided to go on a bike ride together. As with many husbands in this valley, it has long been a dream of mine for Jayla to fall in love with cycling. So when she seemed excited about going on an afternoon ride I jumped at the opportunity. We talked about it and decided that it would be cool to combine our bike ride with that grocery store run we so desperately needed. I was thinking that to bike with more weight could be hard, but if we didn’t buy too much stuff how hard could it be to bike back from Aspen? About thirty minutes later, with panniers attached, Jayla and I hit the bike path.
Out of the the Chapel, Jayla turned to go down the Brush Creek bike path. In my mind I was thinking, “That’s a little funny. I might have taken the Owl Creek bike path, but it would be fun to go down and take the Rio Grande all the way into town… “ And so I went with it. In what seemed like minutes we were at the junction where if you turn left you go towards the Woody Creek Tavern. To my surprise, Jayla was turning left! After some confused discussion we realized that she and I had been riding towards different destinations this entire time! While I had assumed we were riding towards the City Market in Aspen, she was planning on getting groceries in El Jebel! I knew I had to think about this. Not only would this be a further ride than I was anticipating, but it would be all uphill coming back home. On the other hand, we had daylight, Jayla seemed ready for it, and this was a route that I had never ridden before (famous last words).
I think you already know what we chose to do. I mean, it was a pretty obvious choice to take the path that is further, steeper, and unknown to get your groceries. What wasn’t so obvious to us was that there would be a point where we had to get off the Rio Grande bike path in order to get to Willits (where the City Market is). So after riding past the Woody Creek Tavern and the old trains (that evidently you can live in… very cool), through the canyon, over the huge bridge that you see on Highway 82, right by Basalt High School, and around the fertile landscapes of Emma WE MISSED A TURN. Now, missing a turn is no big deal if you notice. Our real problem was that we were having too much fun (riding downhill) to realize that we were going too far. The next time I thought about turning was conveniently at the next turn. We took it, and I was confused as to why everything looked so familiar. We rode a little further and on our left were these huge fields and stables that looked liked the polo fields that you see going in the backway to Carbondale. I thought, “That’s weird. How many polo fields does this valley really need?” But hey, it’s Aspen so who knows, maybe there’s a lot of polo going on.
We rode a couple minutes further only to realize that those WERE the polo fields going the back way into Carbondale! We were on Catherine Store Road! We went too far! Although it was still pretty funny to us at this point, we also realized that this excursion was taking a fair amount longer than we thought. So we hustled a bit to make up for lost time and we arrived at City Market. By this point I was starting to get pretty hungry and that burger place in Willits was looking amazing. As we were getting off the bikes Jayla looked at me with a concerning smile. She asked, “Did you remember to bring any money?” Oh no, had we really ridden all that way for groceries and not thought to bring our wallets?
By this point I was very hungry (I even went into Whole Foods to see if they had any samples… they didn’t) and feeling out of control. Periodically, I seem to encounter parts of my life that seem out of control. While these can be uncomfortable, or even painful, they do have a way of reminding me that I’m not in control. In fact, the times when I feel like I have everything handled are the times when I minimize what God is doing in my life. I even wonder if God uses the times when I feel small and out of control to show me how big and all powerful He really is. I mean, think about how out of control you might have felt if you were an Israelite following Moses (a leader who doesn’t even like public speaking) with an army behind you running straight towards the Red Sea… Or how Noah must have felt with a huge half built boat, a town full of critics, and no sea… Or how the Apostle Paul must have felt in jail… Or how any of the disciples must have felt when Jesus said, “Come, follow me.” But in each of these examples where people probably felt like their lives were unraveling, God showed up in a powerful way. So the next time you feel like things are going awry look up for second and ask Him if He’s doing something in your life that you just don’t see yet.
P.S. We made it home. Hungry. Tired. Dark. And thankful.