The letter to the Philippians is the most affectionate of Paul’s letters. Perhaps because the church in Philippi was the first European church he planted. Perhaps because they cared for Paul, sent him gifts when he was in prison and were concerned about his safety. Or perhaps because Paul seems to be nearing the end of his life and fears he may never see them again. Whatever the case, this is the most caring of all of the letters we have of Paul and he fills it with words of hope, joy and consolation.
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Paul also seems to want to share some final words, parting advice based on what he’s learned. In this specific passage he touches on their mutual life in Christ and pulls their heartstrings a little to essentially say that “if our relationship and history mean anything to you, then please stay united in your convictions and your love. Don’t let it all pass away if I’m not here anymore.” This is the one thing Paul says would make him happy – to know all his work was not going to pass away with him. To accomplish this unity he says, “there must be no competition among you, no conceit, but everybody is to be humble…”
I’d like to address the “be humble” part of that statement because the concept of humility can be tricky to grasp. And, the more I delve into the topic, the more I believe there is a deep spiritual need for humility on the spiritual path.
To define humility, I think it helps to define what it is not. Humility is not:
- being proud, haughty or arrogant
- being full of oneself
- putting yourself above others
But it is also not…
- putting oneself down
- low self-esteem
- downplaying one’s assets
- being insecure of oneself
So, what is humility? I believe humility is:
- Honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses
- Ego awareness
- Having a beginner’s mind, willingness to learn no matter how good you are at something
- Knowing we don’t have all the answers, comfortable saying “I don’t know.”
- Not judging
- Seeing yourself as equal to others
But “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble…” If you know me, you know, I’m not one to brag about my preaching ability. In fact, I’m constantly humbled by the fact that folks actually return every week to hear me speak! I’m sure there are better preachers out there, but I can’t help being critical when I hear others preach. Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard. I’ve also been to a few funerals over the years where I left thinking, “I really need to figure out how to lead my own funeral…”
“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble…” I’ve had some fairly big screw-ups in my day. I’ve said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing, made poor choices… enough to make me carry a decent load of guilt. And there were years that I wasn’t willing to let that guilt go because surely I must be worse than everyone else. I wouldn’t accept anyone’s forgiveness (not really, anyway), nor God’s forgiveness, which I know is always there, because my screwing up was beyond forgiveness. I was too awful a person to deserve anyone’s forgiveness or compassion. There’s no humility in that… to think that I’ve messed up worse than everyone else and that forgiveness is beyond me. It’s almost pride in my screwing up!
“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble…” I’ve never believed in wearing clerical robes or sitting up front in the throne chair “presiding” over a service. I appreciate respect, but I didn’t want it because I had a title. I wanted folks to know that I’m really not that much different (aside from vocation and education) than anyone else. I wasn’t loved any more by God because I stood behind a pulpit every Sunday. That is truly how my heart feels about all this. Which, in my humble opinion, is a fairly good example of being humble… right up to the point where I start judging other pastors for not doing it the same way.
John Shea, in his book On Earth as it is in Heaven, tells the story of a foremost teacher of a certain musical instrument who was giving lessons to a small class of eight. First he instructed them as a group. Then he would move from student to student to give them individual counsel. One of the students noticed that the great teacher was mumbling to himself as he moved from student to student. The student wanted to know what the teacher was saying, but she did not want to ask. So, as the teacher approached her, she stopped playing and listened intently. She caught what the teacher was saying. Under his breath to himself, barely audible, the teacher was saying, “Allah knows. I don’t.”
Here is the foremost teacher of this musical instrument constantly reminding himself that he needs to be open to learning from even his students. Shea says, “he holds his knowledge lightly, always countering with ‘not-knowing.'”
From what I’ve read of Dom Helder Camara, he was a pretty good example of a humble person. He was the Brazilian Catholic Archbishop, 4-time nominee of the Nobel Peace Prize, countless awards from foreign universities, becoming second only to Pele in the international recognition he received. But he lived in a modest 3-room house behind a church, wore brown cassock adorned with a simple wooden cross and ate every day at the bar on the corner with construction workers and alcoholics. Camara was a staunch advocate of the poor and oppressed and believed the church needed to work not just for the people, but with the people
One article written about his life said that “Camara refused to live in the Episcopal Palace, and he liked recalling how one day, at a crowded meeting in the palace, he had persuaded a peasant to take the only remaining seat – the episcopal throne. Another favorite anecdote that he recounted with great glee concerned Mother Teresa. When she asked him how he managed to retain his humility, Camara replied that he had just to imagine himself making a triumphant entry into Jerusalem, not as Jesus but as the donkey who carried him. Years later Mother Teresa reminded Camara of this conversation, saying that she had adapted his advice to Indian conditions by thinking of herself serving God as an old cow.
In 1985, Camara, by then aged 75, retired as archbishop. In his place, Pope John Paul II selected a very different man, Dom Cardoso Sobrinho. At the ceremony it was already clear that there would be fundamental change: whereas frail and weather-beaten Camara wore as usual his scruffy cassock, Sobrinho, a large and healthy man, wore ornate purple vestments, with a huge gold cross. Camara never complained publicly, but one of his closest friends said that his eyes filled with tears whenever he discussed events in his old diocese. The close group of progressive priests and lay people who had gathered around Camara was disbanded. The human rights campaign was effectively ended.”
This is where we see that being humble has a deeply significant spiritual component. So much so that I’d say it is impossible to grow spiritually and truly walk the spiritual walk without increasing in humility. Why? Because humility demands recognition that we are all an equal part of the tapestry of the Universe. If we are humble enough and attentive enough we’ll recognize that we’ve hidden this shared oneness from ourselves. We’ve bought into the illusion that we are sometimes better, sometimes worse than everyone else, but not so much the same.
I do know this, without humility we’ll “help” others “less fortunate,” rather than serving as equals. Without humility we can’t extend genuine compassion . Without humility we won’t strive for social justice and what is best for all people. Without humility forgiveness, graciousness and mercy become much more difficult. Without true humility we lack the one element we need to seek understanding instead of condemning. Without humility we will never achieve the unity Paul so fervently hoped for.
In all humility,