Humility

Things Too Wonderful for Me

What do you see when you gaze into the rotting carcass of an animal? Something deeply revolting? Or do you see an ecosystem being sustained? Most people know those nasty necessities—worms, maggots, feces, viruses, roadkill—play essential and exquisite roles in sustaining our environment. But we still look or run away.

Of course, our recoil is instinctive. But it also reveals that the typical person’s view of life on earth may be absurdly immaculate and pitifully immature.

I think that may also describe our view of leadership. Having worked with many leaders, across several decades and a wide spectrum of fields, I’ve seen it over and over. Leaders just tend to be odd; inconsistent, irrational, unsettling. They often seem to dance to music no one else can hear.

But, history has a way of managing leadership eccentricity, a way that is often long, messy, and completely unacceptable to the pious, the impatient, and those who need to control things beyond their own jurisdiction or influence.

That’s probably why our “absurdly immaculate and pitifully immature” culture encourages the mocking or wrecking of what it doesn’t understand. Let’s face it; we created a monster when we invited pop culture to define fitness or candidates for leadership. The more we do that, the more we damage it…and our society.

Higher Ground

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. But, whether I voted for him, like him, respect him—or not—I walk in a mission that leaves no room for speculation about him (or anyone else). Aside from praying for “all who are in authority,” (1 Timothy 2:2), I rarely think about the man. My life purpose demands my full attention. I have to keep my eye on the ball, regardless of who occupies leadership positions.

That’s why the hysterical fixation (positive and negative) with Trump is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Look; we have elections; they produce change, incremental or cataclysmic. That’s called “process.” It works. So, to spend my time contemplating Trump’s fitness for (or the possibilities of removing him from) the presidency would indulge the most boring depths of silliness. Worse, it would admit that I have no purpose, no self-respect, no job, and no lawn to mow.

Many biblical passages proclaim the very high-altitude view that God reigns over all and that He chooses earthly rulers according to His will. One of those scriptures seems aimed at this age of Trump, telling us that God “…rules over the kingdoms of the world. He gives them to anyone he chooses—even to the lowliest of people.”[1]

Just as the Creator loves the ecological wonders of the putrid carcass and the magic of maggots, maybe He also chooses leaders according to His criteria, not ours. Do you think His ways really might surpass ours? Could be; that may be why there’s no biblical record of Him ever seeking human opinions of His processes, ecological or governmental.

Good grief, He’s the One Who appointed David as king. You know, David, one of history’s greatest leaders. And, the same guy that killed 200 Philistines, then circumcised them and presented the bloody remains to King Saul as part of his application to be Saul’s son-in-law. And some think Trump is creepy.

Could This Be the Time for Humility?

Robert Farrar Capon reminds his pure-minded readers that when the Bible speaks of seed falling into the soil, it does not mean religious or sanctified soil; it is foul and disgusting. Dirt is, well…dirty. In fact, Capon notes, some seeds first pass through birds and are then defecated onto the soil.[2]

The Psalmist wrote, “My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”[3] Have you ever heard someone try to command a conversation with no knowledge of the topic? Do you think that may also describe human comprehension of the micro world’s pathogens and parasites? Or, the majestic sweep of galaxies and light years?

If so, maybe the world of leadership is also too inscrutably wonderful for us. Maybe we should just walk away from the mob and return to our families, farms, businesses, and villages to take on the jobs that do fit our capacities.

[1] Daniel 4:17 taken from Tyndale House Publishers. 2004. Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers.

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985

[3] Psalm 131:1 taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984.

 

Storm Warning

My friends, Glen and Roberta Roachelle, once sat in a beachside restaurant as a storm moved in. Just as they took their first sip of coffee, a wave crashed over the seawall and against the windows. As diners laughed nervously, Glen told Roberta, “Let’s leave right now.”

When they stepped outside, a larger wave blew out the windows. Water and shards of glass filled the area where they had sat moments earlier.

The Gathering Storm

Storms are essential; they transport water, often across areas of drought, and redistribute temperatures between the poles and the equator. They cleanse the air and land, nourish crops, replenish aquifers, etc.

They also kill. Storm surge, wind, lightning, freezing, and flooding can wipe out human life, quickly and extensively. The Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900 killed 8 – 10 thousand people. In 1970, a cyclone wiped out a half million people in East Pakistan.

A massive (and essential) storm is moving across our land. We see features of it every day; a culture of outrage, random violence, family and friends divided by politics, shocking increases of suicide and opioid usage, escalating vulgarity, and a general loss of decency and decorum.

Despite the transitory pain and disruption, I believe the storm will bring long-term transformation (as storms always do). That’s why I think focusing on Trump, immigration, Islam, sexual identity, or technological intrusions misses the larger picture. Comparatively, they are all mere data points for the massive storm.

Be There

Just as no one can control earthquakes, tornados, droughts, or hurricanes, humans have no power over the direction, intensity, or consequences of the storm pounding our country now. But, we might survive if we take precautions. Here are a few:

  • BE KIND

    Because our social environment is so combustible, words explode as matches dropped in dry leaves. I know conflict screams for engagement, but be careful! Think about it; getting combative over politics, Facebook, or Jesus is not going to change anyone’s mind. But, kindness often shifts the focus to the things that really matter.

  • STAY HOME

    In 2017, I heard an ER doctor tell a high school graduating class, “Trust me; nothing good happens after midnight. Please go home.” Remember, home is (or can be) a sanctuary. You don’t need a reason to go home; you need a reason to leave.

  • BE SUBVERSIVE

    We all live through an insane insistence that we conform to the dysfunction around us. But, the sane person must be subversive—a secret agent of lucidity and stability—in times of insanity. And to be sane today is to live and speak generously. Reach through the fog of politics to connect with people. Serve others. Stop, look, listen. Pray for one another. Give a damn.
  • KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL

    Our cultural storm includes a tornadic swirl of nudges, suggestions, invitations, and demands. Ignore them. Good grief; you’re on home plate and the pitch is screaming toward you. The gnats don’t warrant your attention.

  • REMAIN INSIDE MORAL AND ETHICAL SAFETY

    We are living through a monumental collapse of those who ignored the classic standards of ethics and morality. We should not judge them, but the career destruction and humiliation should be all the warning we need to humble ourselves and increase our moral and ethical vigilance. Run to God’s safety and rest.
  • BE QUIET

    One line of the Miranda warning says, “Anything you say can and will be used against you…” What do we not understand about “can and will?” Stop talking! Pretending you’re mute can save your time, money, reputation, and perhaps your freedom. My brother Vernon, a longtime Kansas Sheriff says, “The right to be silent is one of our most precious freedoms, and so few use it.”

  • TRANSCEND REACTION

    Our culture invests great energies and dollars to goading people to react. And, when we are continuously prodded by anger, outrage, temptation, and other provocations, we tend to become reactive. We wait to be told when to click, buy, get mad, exhibit outrage, what to believe, etc. But, remember, you don’t have to explain anything or make everyone happy. Rise above reaction; live straight ahead.

Look; storms are inevitable. They serve the Creator’s purposes. But, they’re also dangerous. That’s why civilizations develop storm warnings. By taking mindful cautions, you can survive and continue in your life’s purpose. As Coach Dan Reeves said in an old pharmaceutical commercial, “It’s your future. Be there.”

Eyes of the Heart

“What do you see?” is the most haunting question of my life. It seems to continually hang suspended in midair just inches from my eyes. I don’t know if God cares what I feel or think. But He continually challenges me to see. Deeper. Clearer.

In Eyes of the Heart, a book about “contemplative photography,” author Christine Paintner calls readers to take the time to really see our world. “Slow down enough to see what is around you, notice the details of things—the many shades of flowers, the texture of tree bark, architectural details on houses, and even the patterns on manhole covers or gutters.”[1]

She keeps reminding us to be patient and wait to receive (not “take”) a photograph.

Then she applies the same kind of patience to being able to see people. “When the stranger arrives—that which is unexpected, strange, and mysterious—we are called to recognize the holy shimmering presence there. This means inviting strangers into our world without imposing our own agenda on them…staying open and curious to what we might discover when we don’t know what to expect, when we make the effort to see beneath the surfaces.”

Right there, she throws the floodlight on one of the biggest frauds of life: the human presumption of making judgments about other people. Look, I simply do not have the skill or enough information to be able to reject another person. I certainly don’t have the authority to reject anyone created and loved by God. Yet I do it regularly.

 

Lift the Chalice

To reject any human is like despising a gold chalice because it holds cheap wine. Most people are doing the best they can. But they pick up bad stuff – insults, injuries, false measurements, destructive ideologies – as they pass through life. All of that gathers like foul water sloshing around in the bottom of his or her personality. Do you think it may be possible that God can pour it out and clean them up in His own way and time? Is it possible that my only role is to bless and encourage?

And then the Lord God saith, “Is that your role toward Joanne?”

Why is it so easy to understand that a cup’s content has nothing to do with its value, but we reject people because they voted for Donald Trump? Or because they kneel toward Mecca to pray? Or because their cars display confederate flags or Climate Change bumper stickers?

Why is it so difficult we just make eye contact, smile, and stay “open and curious to what we might discover when we don’t know what to expect, when we make the effort to see beneath the surfaces?”

 

The Grace to See Beneath the Surface

Goethe famously said, “Treat an individual as he is, and he will remain as he is. But if you treat him as he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” That line is one of the pillars of a good life, and I try to do it. But I am not good at it.

I do, however, know what that looks like in a person. Our dear friend, Roberta Roachelle, lives that more fully than anyone I know. When she looks at you and smiles, you suddenly realize that you’re loved, and life is far better than you ever dreamed. In more than a half-century, I’ve seen her unfailingly treat everyone as he or she ought to be. And I’ve watched people become what they “out to be and could be.”

My brother Vernon, the longtime (and recently retired) Sheriff of Pratt County, Kansas, often drove his inmates to the state penitentiary to begin serving their prison time. He had others who could do that, but he saw it as a chance to touch and encourage those headed into a dark place and time. He treated them, not as they were, but as they could be.

My point is not to promote Roberta or Vernon but rather to declare that anyone can do this! But it requires humility, patience, grace, and the time to focus the eyes of the heart.

Photographers may sit in one spot for hours. Waiting for sundown, dawn, cops, or snowfall, they are endlessly patient as they seek to find and focus the eyes of the heart. They carry no judgments; they only want to see.

What if we all did that toward the people we meet every day?

[1] Christine Valters Paintner, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2013

Warriors in the Rain

My dad was one of the survivors when a Japanese bomb sank the American aircraft carrier Princeton on Oct. 24, 1944. Naturally, he came home with very specific ideas about the Japanese. And, just as naturally, those ideas took root in the soil of our family.

Twenty-seven years later, my wife and I took my parents on a vacation to Japan. Although Dad seemed happy to be going, he grew increasingly somber as we traversed the country. I did not realize the full meaning of his journey into the heartland of a still-vivid enemy.

After one day of sightseeing, we all emerged from the subway at Tokyo’s Akasaka Station into a heavy rain. With no umbrellas, we faced a walk in the downpour to our hotel, which was two blocks away.

Immediately, a well-dressed Japanese businessman came up behind my parents and held his umbrella over them. He got drenched as he graciously and silently walked them all the way to our hotel. When we were all under the portico, he simply bowed and walked away. Dad shouted, “No, no, come back.” The man turned and walked back to Dad.

In that moment, those two men — clearly about the same age and undoubtedly veterans of the same war — stood face to face and shook hands. Neither said a word. But volumes passed between the eyes of the old warriors; each knew that he knew that he knew.

The son of one of those warriors saw it all. And what I saw that day in a Tokyo rainstorm changed me deeply. Things I had long assumed, things my father had conveyed to me, took a mortal hit that day. Over time, they totally fell apart.

More than 40 years later, that incident continues to speak to me.

I think part of the reason that moment was so life-altering was that no one was trying to change, or even enlighten anyone. An unrehearsed real-life moment had simply produced an updraft that carried its participants above and beyond some old bigotries. The moment gathered its power from its purity and spontaneity.

Although education is one of the basic functions of civilization, life’s most educating moments are nearly always unplanned. They remain free of human design. Life has a way of teaching its own lessons. It doesn’t need human torque.

When humans work at changing other humans, the result is inevitably dehumanizing. Whether the changers are left-wingers or right-wingers, believers or infidels, dreamers or scoffers, whether they are motivated by sales or by God, the message comes through loud and clear: Respect is contingent on purchase. Human value is subject to someone buying someone else’s concepts or commodities.

The movie The Big Kahuna features three industrial lubricant salesmen — Larry (Kevin Spacey), Phil (Danny DeVito) and the evangelical Christian Bob (Peter Facinelli) — at a convention in Wichita. In one very penetrating scene, Phil tells Bob:

“You preaching Jesus is no different than Larry, or anybody else, preaching lubricants. It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha, or civil rights or how to make money in real estate with no money down. That doesn’t make you a human being. It makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to somebody honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids, find out what his dreams are — just to find out — for no other reason. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation, to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore — it’s a pitch — and you’re not a human being. You’re a marketing rep.”

That scene goes to the heart of what it means to be human. On what basis do we grant respect and value? Is intellectual agreement a prerequisite to friendship? Must we remake people before we can love them?

Or can we, like a Japanese warrior I once observed, step out of our bunkers in order to be genuinely compassionate to those who are different (and who may even have tried to kill us)?

As far as I can tell, very little (if any) serious change is wrought by human planning and force. Real change occurs when a serendipitous something — a birth, a death, an act of kindness, an act of brutality, a moment in the rain — pushes us out of the smallness of our world into larger truths.

“Love your enemies” is not a harmless and naive religious platitude — it is one of the largest truths in history. Embracing it carries us beyond our own borders and connects us to a larger revelation of what it means to be human.

Hurricane Donald

I recently had to face my offensive harshness with telemarketers. For the first time I saw one as a fellow human who was struggling, stressed, and locked into a job he hated. And my glorious Edness had just made his load heavier. That epiphany broke something in me that needed breaking.

The sudden exposure (even in private) of a bad habit or hurtful way is one of the most humiliating and painful episodes in life. I fully understand the Apostle Paul’s harrowing question, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

But, those moments are also essential and helpful. We all need those interruptions of cosmic kindness that disrupt our forward movement. They come to break, refine, and equip us with more grace.

The Beauty and Power of Disruption

Nations, cultures, and groups also need that refining force. Well, guess what. We have it; we are living through a powerful and historic disruption. It’s called “Trump.” But it has very little to do with policy or politics…or Trump. In fact, if he doesn’t already know it, he’ll soon learn that he’s caught in it too.

I think it’s dealing primarily with our arrogance and attitudinal sclerosis. In other words, it’s confronting our swagger and inflexibility. And it is applicable across the board. Like a hurricane, it is staggering across the land, bearing down on every person, group, relationship, event, and institution.

But why?

I believe it is because disruption brings newness into the present, “new” as the invading, explosive, and transformative power of the future. That new will—like a hurricane—rip and splinter old ways.

And that is for our good!

Have you noticed that most people seem to know our present national path is not healthy and not sustainable? So everyone claims to want change—but as a tool they can deploy to manage the future. It doesn’t work like that; real change invades. It’s not controllable by anyone or any agenda, and that’s the secret of its power and beauty.

From time to time, we all need to be so challenged, provoked, and terrified that body fluids leak through our clothes. That’s why and how we change. The great kindness of our Creator always has and always will tear up old ruts, comfort zones, and corruption in order to bring renewal. He will always cut across me; His purposes are too important to leave me (or you) intact.

Where did we ever get the idea that we and our tribe don’t need disruption? Why would anyone think that we get to create, educate, innovate, and negotiate only with those who feel exactly as we do about everything? That’s silly. Maturity requires the ability to work with different and difficult people.

Right here, it gets personal. I didn’t vote for Trump. He was the proverbial “bridge too far” for me. OK, so now what? Looks like I have decisions to make about adaptation, humility and learning new skills and rhythms.

I appreciated seeing the Tech titans—none of whom could be called Trump supporters—actually sit down and talk with the President-elect. For years some have lectured us on the need to sit down together, to “cross the aisle” to work with “the other side.” Oddly, so many of those voices never did that. But Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg, Elon Musk and several others did. Furthermore, they agreed to keep meeting together with the new President.

Maybe they understand how the world works.

All Things New

Over the past year I have learned that loss always feels personal. But it never is.

Human instinct seems to always view loss from a close and immediate angle…it happened to me, took something from me, and now forever diminishes me and my future. But that is a distortion, like one cell in a drug addict’s body contorting in pain when he goes cold turkey. That cell cannot see the larger picture and purpose.

Much of what we’re seeing now is the contortion of individual cells. Too many bloggers, political elites, media voices, entertainers, and college students are only looking at Hurricane Donald from a very personal perspective.

To all of them I would say, “Close your eyes and take deep and long breaths. Humble yourself. Walk outside. Look up. Reconnect with the deeper rhythms of the universe. This is not personal any more than a hurricane is personal.”

Relax, trust, and prepare to live in a renewed and beautified landscape – one you didn’t design and one that lies far beyond the ramshackle real estate of your own habits and preferences.

The Wisdom of “And” 

Minutes before I spoke to a Christian leadership retreat, another speaker took a position disputing what I would soon be saying. Wanting to avoid conflict or embarrassment, I discreetly asked my friend Mike Bishop to step outside. When I sought his counsel, he nodded his understanding and said, “Just remember, and, not or.”

         Mike’s wisdom set me free. I could add to – rather than contradict – what had just been spoken. 

         I’ve often thought about Mike’s “and” in this election season. The swirling accusation that attends presidential elections seems to pull all of us into sharp (but quite unnecessary) polarization and conflict. Everything tends to be either/or. We seem incapable of reasoned, thoughtful, and charitable assessments of opposing views or candidates.

Both Sides Now

Columnist William Raspberry once told me “most people believe more than one side of any issue.” That has become an enormous and orienting truth for me. But when the structures of our time cannot tolerate complexity or nuance, everything becomes either/or. 

         To live in “And” just screws up the algorithms of the age.

         Let’s face it; most of those who prefer Trump are genuinely concerned about the integrity of national borders, terrorism, pervasive incompetence, and the loss of respect for America throughout the world. Those people are not crazy or evil; they are grappling (however inarticulately) with serious issues. 

         And most of the people supporting Clinton are reaching for a more just and inclusive society, one that rejects the old structures of privilege and power. In fact, I think most people on the left yearn for a new story, one that rises above the old rules and allows dreamers some space. 

         As author Jonathan Haidt suggests in his book, The Righteous Mind, conservatives are more concerned about authority, loyalty, and sanctity issues. Liberals are more focused on care, fairness, and choice. Those tensions are valid and necessary. They are all “and, not or” issues; surely a civil society can and must discuss all of that intelligently and kindly. 

         But for some reason it is difficult to just listen to a position and then respond with, “Yes, I see that. And perhaps we also need to also consider…” The biggest problem with that position is pride; what I know is often the enemy of what I dont know. 

         Humility is the only antidote for pride.

The Path of Humility

Humility is always appropriate, always in season, and always dignifying. Humility is not self-degradation or passivity; it isn’t a servile posture. Real humility is based on the conviction that my view is incomplete. My capacities and perspectives are limited; I need others. 

         That’s why I like what pastor and author Tim Keller says about the integrity of conversation. He says we should “do the work necessary to articulate the views of your opponent with such strength and clarity that he or she could say, ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’ Then, and only then, will your polemics have integrity…”[1]

         Now imagine Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sitting at a table in a TV studio, earnestly and humbly talking about issues. Clinton says, “Now, Donald, here is what I heard you say in Cincinnati. Now, please tell me if you agree with the way I express it or not.” And Trump listens carefully, nods, and says, “Hillary, that’s it. Thank you. That is my position.” 

         Sadly, we all know that is never going to happen.

But you and I can practice that kind of relational and conversational integrity. We can humbly, patiently, and respectfully listen to one another – even on Facebook! Even when others speak in anger and exaggeration, we can love, listen, and respond gently. 

         When I think of how little I really know about life, God, His creation, about anything, I catch a glimpse of the towering ignorance that drives anger and conflict. 

         What if…we all stopped fighting, humbled ourselves, and turned our energies to exploring the deep and immeasurable riches all around us? It is just possible that you may discover a vital link to a beautiful treasure…one that would be enormously helpful to others, including me. 

         What a beautiful world. 

[1] Keller, Timothy. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012. 

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