“Mind Your Manners:” Humility in an Age of Arrogance
Job 38:1-7 Hebrews 5:1-1 Mark 10:35-45
I’ve never been much of of a rule-breaker. Instead a classic nerd who usually plays it safe. But I’ve watched stuff happen…. I’ve laughed even when I didn’t think something was funny. Way back in seventh grade, I had a classmate name Tom Mesick. Some of my girlfriends called him “Umake.”
“’Umake?’ I don’t get it.”
They giggled. ”Umake! Umake me sick!”
“Oh, yeah, that’s perfect.” I laughed.
The rule-breakers in my early life did everything from bullying, to underage drinking to smoking at parties. Often they seemed to think it was all hilarious.
Many of us grew up with the quaint phrase “Mind your manners” which meant respecting your elders, writing thank you notes, not grabbing food at the dinner table, or hogging a conversation. The admonition to “mind your manners” echoes the Ten Commandments in many ways; calling us not to swear, not to lie, not to be jealous, but to be generous, and faithful.
Today’s lessons have that same antique overtone. Of all things, they talk about humility. Jesus rebukes his disciples as they elbow each other aside to get to the head of the line. He tells them that status and “greatness” are defined by service to other people and by that alone. The Epistle revolves around words like “reverence,” “submission” and “obedience.” And the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is a heart- stopping rebuke to Job for his whining and ignorance.
How do we pursue humility in a culture of arrogance? Where some times basic decency is up for grabs? These are the daunting questions for the day.
I like this definition: “Genuine humility is a reflection of neither weakness nor insecurity. Instead, it implies a respectful appreciation of the strengths of others, a lack of personal pretension and a more relaxed sense of confidence that doesn’t require external recognition.” Jesus says it also involves service – think Jimmy Carter.
I’d like to first examine some relevant cultural influences at play in 2018, and then suggest some ways to think about humility and service in that context.
It’s been coming for a long time, I know, but I am flabbergasted at how politically divided we are. The Pew Research Center did a survey of 10,000 adults early this year and found that “Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history.” This polarization extends to the personal lives and lifestyles of those on both the right and the left. Half of us say that our close friends share our political views and we would prefer to live in communities that reflect what we believe.
This polarization is enhanced by social media. We are fed articles that support our point of view and that of our friends. How many of us thoughtfully read a journalistic piece from “the other side”?
Also consider the epidemic or televised political ads playing ad nauseum until the election: the name-calling, the unsubstantiated attacks, the half-truths and even lies, all masquerading as facts.
The polarization of the electorate is amplified by the highest leadership. In his landmark book The Soul of America, Jon Meacham writes: “As Truman and Roosevelt and Jackson and Lincoln and Grant and TR and Wilson and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson and Reagan understood, the president of the United States has not only administrative and legal but also moral and cultural power. FDR pointed out that ‘The presidency is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. All of our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.”
Do you consider moral leadership as a prerequisite for a president or any elected office? Or can we get moral leadership from our religious institutions (if we have one) or reading books or by clinging to our own core values? Programs and policies aside, morality is one thing we talk about in church. So we will do this in the context of humility.
As a woman today, I confess my frustration and my sadness. Jesus treated women as equals; he understood the vulnerability of widows, cautioned against men divorcing their wives whenever they felt like it (a privilege not open to first century women), and when the disciples criticized the woman who anointed his feet with expensive perfume, Jesus told them, “Leave her alone,” as if to say you don’t understand what she’s doing here. You don’t understand that this is an act of humility and service to me…
And yet our highest leader repeatedly belittles women on the basis of their appearance –their faces, their weight, the most intimate aspects of their femininity – “she was bleeding from her eyes…”. also fat slobs,” “pigs” …
Each time this happens, I wait for an apology, an explanation, something. It never comes, and then it happens again, Last week another insult: “horseface.”
Have you no decency, sir?
An irony is that most women I know are their own harshest critics about their appearance, and to hear insults coming from the president is outrageous. Maybe it feels like a disabled person would feel to have their movements mocked. Or in the case of “he said/she said,” not to be believed because your account doesn’t fit an arbitrary time frame that someone decrees it must.
As a young person, I experienced some incidents of questionable behavior from an uncle that I never had the courage to speak about until I was grown up, and then only to a few friends. I didn’t mention it earlier because I knew my mother would not have believed me, or if she did, would have minimized it to keep the peace in the family: “Oh Barbara, now it couldn’t have been that bad….”
Well, I still remember it decades later….
In 1851 at a Women’s Convention, the great black leader Sojourner Truth said: “I think ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women of the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon…”
Only they‘re not in a fix – at least yet. At least two have been appointed to the highest court, with minimal investigation. We need more humility, openness, in understanding how women have experienced the world. No one treated women with more respect than Jesus did, and I would add, as do so many good men as well. In no way am I minimizing your steadfast love and respect for all the fortunate women in your life. You are giants.
So what does humility ask of us in this day and age – with these particular challenges?
Humility calls us to acknowledge how much we don’t know. All we have to do is look at a complex piece of machinery, or at brain surgery or at a child learning to read, or a bird building a nest to realize that the internal working of these things are only known—and then only in part—by the people who make it their life’s work to study them. So humility demands that we defer sometime to mystery, but at other times to evidence and facts. Personally, I defer to the conclusions of the 99% of scientists who say that our planet is in peril and that the window is closing for action. I am happy to listen to opposing facts and evidence but haven’t heard them. Some people know more than we do and we should pay attention, especially when the very air we breathe is at stake.
Some time humility is an attitude. On our blog on Friday I wrote about the death of Carrol Finney, the man who retired after playing Big Bird on “Sesame Street” for most of his life. Someone told me that this character was first conceived as a teacher who would instruct children, but Finney said it didn’t feel right playing it that way. So instead he played Big Bird with childlike qualities: innocence, curiosity, discovery, the authentic humility we see in children.
Humility embraces vulnerability: a willingness to admit mistakes, to share part of yourself even when it’s difficult (as part of this has been for me today), and even to learn from surprising sources. I cannot tell you how much I have learned from the animals in my life, from their faithfulness, kindness, and some times just from looking deeply into their eyes, those beings that are so different from us and so so much the same. I am at my best when I can embrace “the peace of wild things,” even if it’s just petting the faithful cat in my lap. (Sidebar: I feel that the president should have a pet. There is precedent: Besides the numerous dogs that humanized their owners at the White House, President Taft had a Holstein named Pauline that grazed on the lawn and President Harding’s dog Laddie Boy had his own carved seat for Cabinet meetings.)
Or maybe not…
Most importantly, I think, humility is an awareness of context, giving deep attention to where we are living out our lives. In the poetic, thundering episode from the Hebrew Scripture, God says this to Job and to us:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone ….
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
For several more chapters, God puts Job in his place and then showers him with love.
Where we live — our real “address” — is Planet Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way, Infinite space. We exist on a small blue and green ball spinning in space, in the quietness of infinity amidst billions of other planets. The Hubble telescope tells us that are a hundred billion galaxies, a number likely to increase to 200 billion as technology allows us to see further. (And there’s the fact that the new soccer stadium even looks like a flying saucer… so we’re prepared – for something…)
We exist here on the great timeline of human history, where our lives are merely a dot and yet infinitely precious to the Creator, as was Job’s.
Humility is acknowledging the privileged lives we lead… as famine ravages Yemen, as children in our own country go to bed hungry, as immigrants desperately seek a better life while we return to our warm homes and struggle not to eat too much.
Jesus says service trumps status… How do we each deal with that reality and not let it fade away before we are out the door today?
Finally, humility demands we acknowledge that there are solutions to problem we haven’t thought of — even elections. Humility is having the audacity to hope.
Calls to service can be overwhelmingly easy to disregard. When I was a liturgical deacon for many years, there was a dismissal I always liked because it was specific and empowering. It recognized the unique realm in which we each “live and move and have our being” and also the power we have that is ours alone. You’ll hear it later but also now:
“Go forth into the world and know that there are words of hope and healing that will never be spoken unless you speak them, and deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless you do them.”
That is your individual power and your mandate in a polarized country, on “this fragile earth, our island home.”
Jon Meacham, The Soul of America, 2018.
Pew Research Center, ‘Seven Things to Know About Polarization in America,” June 12, 2014.