Random thoughts on Humility & Servant Leadership

Job 38:1-7, (34-41) – Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: Gird your loins and I will question you.
or Isaiah 53:4-12– Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken by God and afflicted.

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c – You stretch out the heavens like a tent.
or Psalm 91:9-16 – You have made the LORD your refuge, and the Most High your habitation. (Ps. 91:9)

Hebrews 5:1-10– More great high priest stuff

Mark 10:35-45 – Make us to sit at your right and left in the kingdom of heaven.

Hey everyone,

Today as I’m writing this post, I’m at the Fall meeting of the ELCA Conference of Bishops, on the 11th floor of the Lutheran Center on Higgins Road in Chicago. It is our last full day and my brain is full. By the time you’re hearing this I’ll be home again. This is an incredible group of people who I dearly love. It’s good to be with them, but it is oh so good to be home. As you’re hearing this, on October 14, 2012, I was just at Advent Lutheran Church in Houston. This afternoon we’re having a hearing of the Social Statement on Criminal Justice, at Grace in Houston. Next Sunday, October 21st, I will be at New Hope Lutheran Church in Missouri City. That afternoon is the CROP Walk in Brenham. On the 28th I will be at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in College Station, Texas, the holy city of Texas A&M.

This month we are working hard at work on our strategic plan with four key areas:

  1. Streamline synod structures, creating a leaner organization
  2. Help congregations become better known in their communities
  3. Develop a "partnership" that is 100% devoted to providing top notch resources to help congregations grow
  4. Plant one new congregation a year

This month we also have our Leadership Gatherings, practical training for clergy and lay leaders. October 13 in New Orleans, October 20 at Salem, Brenham and October 28 in Houston at Faith Lutheran in Bellaire. It’s a really busy month. I hope to see you.

After his brother’s baptism last week, Jason sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. He wouldn’t say. Finally, when they got home, his parents sat him down and said firmly, "Tell us what’s wrong." Jason spilled it: "Well, this morning the pastor said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys."

Sorry, that was bad. Hey I want to just share some random thoughts on humility and servant leadership. When a text like this comes up, it sometimes seems right to remind people that being a Christian is about humility. This is a message we as a church need to remember, even as we strive for excellence in proclaiming and inviting. This past week I posted a quote by Douglas John Hall:

"How could we have been listening to the Scriptures all these centuries and still be surprised and chagrined by the humiliation of Christendom? How could we have honored texts like the Beatitudes ("Blessed Are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.") and yet formed in our collective mind the assumption that Christian faith would be credible only if it were popular and numerically superior, and respected universally? How could we have been contemplating the "despised and rejected" figure at the center of this faith for two millennia and come away with the belief that his body, far from being despised and rejected, ought to be universally approved and embraced?"

Humility is one of the hardest lessons to learn, but it’s absolutely essential.

Humility is seeing yourself for what you really are, and seeing the world as it really is. According to the Bible, humility is one of the things that God asks of us:

"He has shown you O mortal what is good, and what does the Lord require of you,

but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God."

Micah 6:8

In today’s gospel reading, James and John ask Jesus to sit at his right and left. They’re wanting glory. They imagine Jesus on his throne of glory, and two little thrones on each side. Jesus, on the other hand, might be imagining himself on the cross, with one thief crucified on the right and one crucified on the left. He look them in the eye and says, "You apparently have no idea what you are asking for."

Be careful what you ask for.

"Can you drink the cup that I am to drink? Can you endure the baptism I will endure?" The hearer of the gospel knows what is about to happen to Jesus. There has been plenty of foreshadowing. The disciples don’t get it yet. There is a cost to being an instrument of God’s justice in the world. Count the cost. Can you drink the cup?

"Oh, sure we can!" reply the James and John. "Well, okay. If that’s what you want," Jesus seems to reply. But this sitting at my right and left. That’s not mine to give. And then Jesus gives them a lesson in servant leadership.

Gentiles exercise authority by lording it over others. They are tyrants. It shall not be so among you. To be great, you must be a servant. Take note, I did not come to be served, but to serve, and give my life as a ransom for many.

This is not just a lesson about Christian leadership. It is the nature of all leadership. True leadership is servanthood. The leader does not lead to receive privileges. True leaders are called upon to make the greatest sacrifices. Jesus teaches this lesson over and over throughout the gospels. Divine leadership is servanthood.

One time Jesus went to eat at the house of one of the leading religious leaders. They were watching him closely. But he was watching them closely too. He noticed how they vied for the best seats in the house. The places of honor. Then he told them it’s better to take the lowest place and maybe get asked to come up, then to take the highest place, and then maybe get asked to step down. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. It’s Jesus’ upside down theory about how the world works: the more you tell people how wonderful you are, the more they begin to believe it’s probably not true.

The Bible warns against pride. Pride goeth before the fall. This is not Benjamin Franklin. It’s Proverbs 16. Here is a bit more:

18 Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.
19 It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor
than to divide the spoil with the proud.

Proverbs 16:18-19

Jesus warns to not worry too much about the splinter in your neighbor’s eye. You probably won’t be able to see it all that well with the log in your own eye anyway. This is a reminder to not get too uppity.

An antidote to pride is confession.The Bible says, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, but if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

We are encouraged to confess our sins not only to God, but to one another. To our family. To our coworkers. If we are going to practice humility it will probably mean asking for forgiveness daily, unless you’re perfect, and you never mess up. Humility invites us to practice these words, "You were right. I was wrong." Everybody practice. "You were right. I was wrong." This phrase costs you absolutely nothing. You lose no ground. In fact it will raise you up. Those who humble themselves will be exalted.

In Philippians (2:3), Paul says "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves." John Maxwell says to always remember this: "Every man is my superior, in some way." Every woman is my superior in some way. You will get farther in life if you remember this truth. In humility, regard others as better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3.

When we view things with an inflated opinion of ourselves, when we don’t see things how they really are, we risk making huge mistakes, like Napoleon invading Russia. Hitler invading Russia. (Well, for that matter, anyone invading Russia.) Saddam invading Kuwait.

When we get puffed up, life has a way of putting us in our place. Listen to others’ perspectives. Avoid megalomania at all costs.

Remember, you are always learning. When David Needleman was fired from Southwest Airlines, he lost what he considered to be a dream job. The person who had the unfortunate job of firing him was Ann Rhodes. Don’t ever think you’re indestructible. A few years later, Needleman had learned much from his experiences. When he started his own airline, Jet Blue, guess who he hired for his director of human resources? Ann Rhodes, the same person that gave him the boot a few years earlier. The airline took off (pardon the pun), because he had the humility to hire someone who had fired him. We are learning machines. If you think you know it all, and have no more to learn, you might as well dig your grave and get in.

Humility doesn’t mean being a whimp, or standing down when things get tough. After WWII, Winston Churchill humbly commented, "I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion’s roar." Humility doesn’t mean being a doormat. It doesn’t mean you don’t stand up for what you believe in. It’s just that you remember that no one has a corner on the truth. It takes all of us, all of our perspectives to see the truth. Humility takes strength: strength of character.

In fact, there is a danger of false humility. Colossians 2: Paul is talking with both Pagans and Christians when he says, 22All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence."

In other words, be careful that your attempts at righteousness or religiosity do not become for you a source of pride. Too much piety puffs people up. The writer of Proverbs puts it practically, with a touch of humor: "It is not good to eat too much honey, nor is it honorable to seek one’s own honor." (Proverbs 25:27)

Pray for humility. II Chronicles 7:14 – "If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, then I will hear from heaven, I will forgive their sin, and I will heal their land." If you’ve been humbled in life, rejoice in the difficult lesson. If you have been broken, rejoice. God uses the broken and fallen of this world.

In Philippians 2, Paul says, "Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

The humility of Jesus is the way of the cross. In his humility, Jesus reveals the true nature of God. But it does not stop there. Jesus invites us to follow in his way, to not think too highly of ourselves, to take the lowest place, to outdo one another in showing honor. By this shall all people know you are my disciples: not your theology, not your moral superiority, not your ability to argue a point, but by your love.

Yours in Christ,

Mike Rinehart, bishop