One of the things I find fascinating about living here in Germany while on Sabbatical is the daily experience of humility that I encounter. Let me explain: While I speak German, I do not speak it perfectly. I make errors and must search for words. And when I am tired, no language seems to come out well for me. This is all significant for me because I love words, the way they feel in one’s mouth, the way they can be played with to get at the fine nuances of one’s thoughts, how they can be used to convey both mystery and clarity. And given that I both teach and write, words are part of what define me. But all of that is in English. In Germany I am quieter and slower to speak, I stumble about with language and while words may define me in English they really cannot define me in German. You could say that I experience a curious “loss” of identity here. And for this I say, “Thanks be to God.” Because in those moments of stumbling, those moments where I must ask for help to find a word I am missing, I learn again and again the lesson of humility.
We don’t hear much about humility from theologians. True to the meaning of the word, humility doesn’t quite seem to rank as high as such important words like justification and salvation or, if you come from a church with a different theological focus, justice and peace. More and more, however, I am coming to see humility as one of the key drivers of both Jesus’ ministry and the Christian life.
I have recently been researching and writing about Matthew 18. Many of you will know this chapter with respect to how to deal with differences in the church. But this chapter does not begin with exhortations on accountability and forgiveness. Instead, it begins with humility. Similarly, Paul’s great love passage, 1 Corinthians 13, includes the words, “For now I see in a mirror dimly…” Like Jesus, Paul promotes an inner stance of humility. What would it be like if we allowed humility to be the driving force in our lives, in our conflicts and in our congregations?
Many of you would agree that a community based on humility would allow us to hold our truth in such a way that we would recognise, a) that we don’t carry the whole truth in ourselves, and b) that the truth we carry may in itself not quite right. It would even mean that we come to God with genuinely open hearts and minds. To hold our truth with humility means we are willing to listen deeply and to learn from both God and the other.
But what if our truth is a matter of justice? Does humility have a place where matters of human dignity and fundamental “right and wrong” are concerned? The last sentence in the paragraph above remains instructive here: To hold our truth with humility means we are willing to listen deeply and learn from God and from the other – even when the other has committed great acts of harm. The human dignity of all, to which Jesus testifies again and again, reminds us that there is something of God, something to learn and a kernel of wisdom in each and every person we encounter, regardless of how distasteful we may find that person’s behaviour. Indeed, it is as we encounter God in the other that the beauty of the other begins to be revealed. Even more surprisingly, as we encounter God in the other our own true beauty is also revealed back to us – a beauty not defined by how we identify ourselves (for example, by facility with language) but instead a beauty defined by the that of God which lives also in us.