“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense,” Lewis Carroll wrote. “Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?” It’s a topsy-turvy world, a through-the-looking-glass reality where everything is reversed. It sounds like Jesus when he said, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11), or when he said, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Luke 17:33).
When the world tells us about “abundant life” (John 10:10), it usually tells us about moving up in the world, like the theme song from the old TV series The Jeffersons, “Well we’re movin’ on up to the East Side / To a deluxe apartment in the sky / Movin’ on up to the East Side / We finally got a piece of the pie.” The business magazine Inc. will give you forty daily rituals for getting ahead in business and life, and in less than a second, Google will take you to 43 million other articles on the same subject. I haven’t read all of them, but I’ll bet none of them will tell you that you move up in the world by moving down.
But Jesus does. He says there’s a problem with getting ahead, with moving up in the world, with climbing too high up the ladder of success, and he talks not about greatness but about humility. It’s a concept the world doesn’t like very much, but it’s worth paying attention to what Jesus meant by it.
There’s a classic story about a man – an important man, a man of power, a man accustomed to having people obey his commands. He had everything the world could offer, but he wanted something more, something that was missing from his life. So like the powerful and influential Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night to ask how to have the kind of life Jesus had (John 3:1-12), this fellow went to a wise teacher and asked to have his mind opened.
The teacher smiled and said they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served, the teacher poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured, and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the wealthy man’s clothes. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough! You’re spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?” The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this teacup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”
One thing we need to empty from our mind is our notion of humility. When we think of a humble person, we may think of someone like Uriah Heep, the character in Charles Dickens’s novel David Copperfield – the obsequious, fawning, hand-wringing law clerk who wore his humility like a badge of honor and who turned out to be a scheming parasite. But that’s not what humility is at all.
“Humility” comes from the Latin humilis, meaning “on the ground,” which comes in turn from humus, “earth,” where we get our word “human.” Humility is the quality of being human; it’s to have both feet on the ground. In classical mythology, the giant Antaeus was invincible as long as he remained in touch with his mother, the earth. Hercules was able to defeat him by lifting him off the ground, so that his feet were no longer in contact with the earth. To take the lowest place, as Jesus advised, is to come down to earth, to be in touch with the source of our strength, to remember who we are, to remember we are human and to act like it.
“In returning and rest you shall be saved,” Isaiah heard God say; “in quietness and trust shall be your strength” (Isa. 30:15). In remembering and returning to your source, you shall find the life you’re looking for. In moving down in the world and getting your feet back on the ground, you’ll find what’s been missing from your life. In emptying yourself of all the busyness in your head and all the worldly clutter in your life, you will find the pearl of great value that you’ll give your life to own (Matt. 13:45-46).
In returning and rest, in quietness and trust, you may hear the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:12), the still, small voice that calls you to be who God is creating you to be. Before you go looking for your vocation in life, before you climb the ladder toward whatever the world tells you success is, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it,” Parker Palmer wrote, “listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation).
Every day, find a quiet place where you can get your feet back on the ground. Find a quiet moment where you can hear the sound of sheer silence and listen to the voice of the Spirit breathing in you. Make the opportunity to empty your cup so you can receive what life offers. Take time to be truly human.