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Posts Tagged ‘humility’

Humble Worship

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. Matthew 6:1

Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you. Matthew 6:2

Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door. Matthew 6:6

Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites. Matthew 6:16

The first half of the sixth chapter of Matthew contains some unsettling instructions for worship. Jesus contrasts the ways hypocrites worship with a methodology more consistent with accessing the kingdom of heaven. Spoiler Alert: humility is required! Jesus does not criticize the religious practices of his day – praying, fasting, and giving; but he does give specific direction for the way those practices are carried out. If we are practicing religion in order to look good to others, we are not likely to enter the kingdom of God.

It is easy to get into a comfortable rhythm of worshiping but neglect whom we worship. Certainly, we claim God as the focus for worship, but does God really care about how we are dressed or that we sing our songs of praise loudly, in tune, or even if we sing at all? If we are honest, much of how we approach worship is to either impress, or at least avoid the criticism of our brothers and sisters in the worship space. I wonder about the motivation of folks who post their church attendance to social media – not that that is necessarily bad. If they advertise their church attendance to encourage others to join them, fine. If they do it to show themselves to be holier than their neighbor, shame on them. Jesus says, Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. Why? He continues, For then you have no reward from your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1). Once we are honest about whose response we are most focused on receiving, we know whom we worship.

It is easy to become obsessed with our appearance to others. Ultimately, this is a form of idol worship, seeking our rewards from someone or something other than God. And this is exactly Jesus’ point – that our focus needs to be on God. What is apparently important to God, according to Jesus, is a humble and focused heart. Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:6). It is safe to assume that this sort of private worship is not only what connects most effectively with God, but is also the most beneficial form of worship for us. Everything else is window dressing – obstacles and idols we place between God and ourselves that inhibit any sort of a direct connection. Certainly, there is an element of safety in approaching the throne of God with others. And granted, we need to approach God in awe and with reverence, which naturally includes an element of fear. Our fear of coming face-to-face with God and exposing ourselves in our naked imperfection, however, is a fear we must learn to overcome if we wish to experience the all-inclusive love of our creator. We are loved as we are, where we are, completely and unconditionally, but we cannot fully receive that love when our attention is directed elsewhere.

When we give our offerings, we should not announce it to the world in order to be praised by others. Yes, we should be generous according to our ability, but we should give for the furtherance of God’s work on earth, not for our own glorification.  When we fast, we are not to make a production of how intolerably we are sacrificing. Rather, we are to sacrifice with joy, knowing that fasting is a practice that opens our heart to the presence of God. Giving and fasting bring their own rewards.

Focusing on ourselves or how others perceive us makes our God too small. The purpose of worshiping God is not to make ourselves feel insignificant and sinful, but to acknowledge and know that we are intimately connected to something large, loving, and wonderful. Ultimately, our joy resides within the community of believers, members of the body of Christ. And not only is our joy there, but also our security, for abiding in that body is the only truly safe place to reside. To enter that amazing space of worship, however, we must enter with humility.

This is the 23rd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

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First, Be Reconciled

 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  Matthew 5:23-24

We live in increasingly angry times, or so it seems to me. Perhaps our expectations of ourselves and others have been set so high that it is impossible for them to be met. In an age of photo-shopped images and unreal “reality” TV, perfection has seemingly become the new normal. No one measures up to that standard and many of us resent the self-imposed expectation that we could or should. On the rare occasions when I watch the news, I see stories of anger manifesting in families, schools, and workplaces. Whether we are stuck in traffic, annoyed by political commentary, or offended by the thoughtless actions of another, we are quick to become angry and slow to forgive. In many ways our self-righteous anger has morphed into the lifeblood of our society – if we are not angry about something, it seems we cannot be alive to the moment.

I am not implying there is nothing worthy of our anger. Hunger, homelessness, poverty, child and spousal abuse, injustice and oppression in their many manifestations, all should fill us with fury, and a commitment to action. My point is not that we should never be angry, but that it is not helpful to respond to anger with more anger. Becoming angry is a hollow, unhealthy emotion if it goes no further than being an emotion. When we sit in our easy chair, point our finger at the television and scream, “Someone should do something about that!” we are correct. Someone should do something about it. Unfortunately, we miss the point whenever we think the someone who should do something is someone else.

Where we stray from Jesus’ teachings about anger is when we demand retribution or retaliation when confronted with injustice or inconsiderate behavior. Jesus did not preach retribution or retaliation; Jesus taught reconciliation, and the difference is profound. Anger separates us from others and tells us, in essence, that we are better, more righteous, or more Christian than they. Jesus encourages unity with others, honoring and respecting the diverse ways in which each person manifests God’s presence in the world. This is especially true in our churches, where Jesus tells us to first be reconciled to our brothers and sisters before we offer our gifts at the altar. Anyone preaching hatred, intolerance, punishment, retribution, or retaliation from the pulpit is, in my opinion, not faithfully relaying the message of Christ. In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven times.” In a word, always.

Anger is a gift from God intended to motivate us to action, not a sword to divide us one from another. It is the energy and passion that empowers our words and actions. We do well to remember, however, that that which upsets us is almost always a reflection of some deeply repressed dissatisfaction within our own being. Therefore, humility is always a wise companion to anger.

In the 1970’s movie Network1, a former news anchor played by Peter Finch goes into an on-air rant, encouraging people to stick their head out the window and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The movie pans to scenes throughout the country where people yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Being mad is neither the problem nor the solution, however. The problem comes when we focus outside of ourselves first, blaming and demanding change from others, before assessing our internal motivations and responsibilities. Yes, we should be mad as hell; and yes, we should do something about it. This is our world – yours and mine – and it is our responsibility to make it better for everyone. Our righteous anger can help us do so, but meaningful change begins within.

Once we have lovingly reconciled with our brothers and sisters – and our spouses, parents, children, co-workers, neighbors, strangers-on-the-street, immigrants, and those of different ethnicities and orientations – then can we lay our offerings at the altar in peace.

This is the 19th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

1           Network, motion picture. United Artists. 1976.

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Humble Yourself

 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:4

In general, I try to build people up and make them feel good about themselves and their lives. Never mind that some of my friends are gagging now because I also enjoy humbling others on occasion (for their own good, of course). Nevertheless, I truly believe that everyone and everything is an amazing and unique work of creation, unlike anything created before or that will be created in the future. We are literally the only one of ourselves out of countless trillions of beings. In that sense, we are special beyond comprehension. Our specific blend of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual traits will never again see the light of day when we pass. We could interpret this as a reason for arrogance.

While some may agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, others are suspecting there is a catch. And there is. Are you ready? Yes, you are unique in all of creation. BUT (make sure you are sitting down for this). Here’s the catch (take a deep breath now): Everyone and everything else is a completely unique creation, too!!! This includes the pebble in your shoe and the gnat you swatted away from your food at dinner. God expresses absolutely uniquely in and through the specific nature of everything. I once heard a bit of business wisdom that goes, “If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” The corollary on the topic of uniqueness is this: “If everyone is a unique creation, no one is unique.” While this is may be overly cynical, it does perhaps shed some light on why Jesus tells us to humble ourselves.

The context for Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:4 is that he is sitting with his disciples who ask who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by setting a child on his lap and saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Indeed, the call for humility is not unique to Jesus in the Bible. The Old Testament prophet Micah (6:8) wrote, “…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God!”

It is interesting and instructive that Jesus uses children to illustrate humility. Many parents, myself included, put enormous amounts of energy into building our children’s self-esteem and trying to assure they develop a positive self-image. We want our kids to celebrate their distinct place in creation and to know themselves as a beloved child of God. While we do not want them to feel inferior, we also do not want them to believe themselves superior to others, either. Uniqueness does not equal preeminence.

In general, children are curious, optimistic, joyful, easily awed, and have short memories. They are not “smart” in the ways of the world, but they learn to shape their unique character into the puzzle of the life around them. Children possess important traits of humility we often forget as we grow up and become “wise.” Children are more likely to be present to the moment, and in that moment to see and appreciate the beauty and joy in the specificity of everything around them. Jesus warns that the childlike traits we shed as we age are the very ones we should most strive to retain.

One might wonder about the purpose for our unique blend of skills, characteristics, and insights if not for us to gain an advantage over others in life. At least two responses come to mind. First, we are creations of God, created in God’s image and likeness, so whatever uniqueness we have comes from God and not from anything we have done. Where, then, is our cause to brag? Secondly, we are given special qualities in order to make this world a better place for ourselves and others. For every talent we are given, there is a need nearby that we alone are uniquely gifted to meet. The biggest question is whether we are humble enough to use our talents in service to others (like Jesus did). That, I think, is becoming humble like a child and holds the key to the kingdom.

This is the 6th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 16: Meekness is not Weakness

 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5

Among the definitions for the word meek are docile, spiritless, obsolete, and overly submissive or compliant. These do not sound particularly holy, given that Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth. The word meek, however, can also mean humble, gentle, and kind. As we wonder why Jesus held meekness in such high esteem, the latter definitions may lead us to a better answer. Certainly, Jesus modeled these positive characteristics of meekness.

To say that the meek will inherit the earth seems like a paradox of giant proportions. As we look around our world today, we see a small percentage of people controlling the largest share of the earth’s bounty. My perception of the very rich is hardly meek. I see people who are bold, aggressive, assertive, opportunistic, hard-driving risk-takers. While some may be humble, gentle, and kind in their private lives, their public persona is usually very different.

Meekness, in any of its forms, is not particularly encouraged in character development by our current culture. We have popular, anti-meekness bits of folk wisdom like, “Go for the gusto,” or “You only live once,” or “Just do it!” I suspect the type of meekness Jesus advocated for was not the sniveling, whiny, frightened, spiritless, spineless sort we often associate with the word today. Rather, the meek who will inherit the earth are the strong but humble, gentle, and kind people who place other’s needs above their own. These are common traits of women and men who model their lives after Jesus.

The difficulty in understanding this concept is in our understanding of what it means to inherit the earth. If our desired inheritance is one of vast riches, nice homes, fancy cars, lavish clothing, or a private jet, then meekness is not likely to get us there. These riches are transient, in that they do not last in a way that extends beyond our time on earth. There are other riches uniquely of the earth, however, that imprint on our souls and, I believe, shape our existence beyond this life. Enjoying a stunning sunset, watching the full moon rise over a still ocean, experiencing long-term, deeply-loving relationships, making a positive difference in someone else’s life, and working for causes greater than our own. These are opportunities the earth gives that are available to all, but are only sought and valued by those with a propensity towards meekness. Only the meek will inherit these more lasting gifts of the earth – everyone else will forego them for something more material.

The meek will inherit the earth. How did I miss that?

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Imminent Death

Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. Luke 22:41-42, 44

If I could see into the future, and if I knew this would be my last evening on earth, how would I choose to spend it? I might decide to cram as much frolic and debauchery into the evening as possible. There would be no concern about the personal consequences of my actions, because I would be dead tomorrow, anyway. There are a host of sins I might decide to commit in my attempt to stuff as much fun into my final moments as possible. On the other hand, I might decide to spend my last evening on earth quietly, with those I have grown closest to. I might want to make certain they have the information only I can share. I might want to assure myself that those I leave behind will be okay.

While none of us knows exactly when our physical death will occur, all of us know death will come. Jesus, however, knew the when and the how of his death. He foresaw his betrayal into the hands of the Temple guards, his sham trials, and his being handed over to the Roman authorities for crucifixion. He knew, in a few short hours, he would be beaten, scourged, spat upon, humiliated, and nailed to a cross for the most excruciating death imaginable. He also knew he would suffer and die on behalf of his own murders.

Jesus chose to spend his final hours as one with more tasks on his to-do list than hours remaining to accomplish them. He shared his final meal with his closest friends. There was a lot of instruction shared by Jesus during this closing evening, knowing that was his last opportunity to teach. The Gospel of John tells of a moving act of humility, when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-11). The other Gospels record Jesus instituting communion at his last supper, as in Luke 22:14-23. Shortly before his arrest, he went to a quiet garden to pray. It would be difficult for me to decide how best to spend my last hours on earth. Jesus had a plan, however, that would lay the foundation for His church. Jesus spent his last hours on earth accomplishing what only he could know would be required for our salvation, today.

Come home to church this Sunday. Witness the risen Christ in the body of His church!

Greg Hildenbrand

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