1. Humility & Arrogance
Once a month, Bergstrom Snorgstrum drove through town in her creaking Dodge Caravan. She had a regular circuit. She would stop at cafes and barber shops. She always stopped at the public library on Main Street. Every time she stopped, Bergstrom Snorgstrum would open the rear hatch of her old minivan. The hydraulics lifts had grown feeble with age, so she had to prop open the door with a section of broom handle. Then she would lift a stack of newsprint from the back of the van and carry it inside.
In her arms, the newspaper felt like a sacrament. It smelled like ink and sweat and the blood of martyrs. Every month, Bergrstrom placed a stack of her newspapers in some inconspicuous corner.
The newspaper was called, The Shrill Informer. Bergstrom Snorgstrum was in charge of distribution. She also wrote long articles. Mostly, these were accusations. Fat cats were identified, and their foul deeds were brought to light.
One day, Bergstrom Snorgstrum stumbled across the biggest story of her career. She discovered that the Fire Department was a threat to pubic safety. The facts were compelling. According to insurance records, the amount of property damage went up when more fire fighters were called to the scene of the fire.
"If you suspect your house is on fire," Bergstrom warned her readers, "tell the Fire Department to send one fire truck and no more than that. If all the fire trucks in the city come to your house, you can expect the damage to be astronomical."
Bergstrom insinuated that fire fighters were probably a bad influence on one another.
The article caused quite a stir. For several days, reporters followed the Fire Marshall like sharks in blood infested water. The Fire Marshall turned her stern eyes to the cameras and said, "The matter is under investigation."
Eventually, the public was asked to make a distinction between correlation and causality. "It's true," the Fire Marshall admitted. "There is a correlation between the number of fire fighters at the scene of a fire and the amount of resultant property damage. However, there is no causal relationship. As Fire Marshall, I can say without reservation catastrophic property damage is caused by fire and not by fire fighters."
* * *
Although Bergstrom Snorgstrum may not concede the point, I hope you will agree that there is a difference between correlation and causality.
Here's another example: Scientists found that children who slept with a nightlight in their room tended to develop poor vision later in life. And so parents were warned: do not put a night light in your children's bedroom. Well, more research was done. I turns out that parents with poor vision are more likely to put a nightlight into their children's room. Those children were growing up to have poor vision because their parents had poor vision. The nightlights had nothing to do with it.
There is a difference between correlation and causality.
In our culture, we tend to association arrogance with success.
Our most successful athletes tend to be a little arrogant. Just a couple of weeks ago, I read an article about a famous basketball star. "Sure he's arrogant," wrote the sportswriter. "But that's the attitude you want in a top athlete." That's the attitude you want! This opinion comes from a sportswriter Ð someone who has built a career out of observing athletes. He believes that arrogance contributes to success.
It's not just athletes. We expect a certain amount of swagger from brain surgeons and recording artists and movie stars. We associate arrogance and success.
Henry Ford once said, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse." Henry knows: Being innovative is going to take you beyond conventional wisdom. If you are going to blaze a new trail, you will have to be very confident in your own sense of direction. And so we expect our artists and inventors and reformers to be a little full of themselves. We expect it.
We see a correlation between arrogance and success.
Maybe there's a correlation. But there is no causality.
Arrogance doesn't cause success. A big ego doesn't make you creative. Having an inflated opinion of yourself doesn't make you better at what you do.
I think this is where we have to start a conversation about humility. We need to demythologize arrogance. Arrogance is not the path to success. If it were, then all the most arrogant people in the world would also be the most successful. In my experience, this is not the case. When I look at my peers, I observe that the most arrogant pastors I know are not the most successful. When I think back on my education, I observe that the most arrogant teachers were not the best. Even when I play basketball in the community center, I observe that the most arrogant players on the court are not necessarily the best.
As soon as I think to ask the question, the answer seems plain to me. Arrogance is not the cause of success.
And so, moving from arrogance to humility does not mean moving from success to failure. Embracing humility does not mean embracing mediocrity. Humble doesn't mean bland. It doesn't mean settling for less.
Humility is about how we see our place in the world.
The word humility is connected to the Latin word for soil. In the United States, we call the organic matter in our soil, humus. The British still pronounce it hewmus. Humility connects us to the earth.
Humility reminds us that we come from the soil, and to the soil we will return.
Arrogance severs our tie to the earth. It is arrogance that leads us to damage to the planet for the sake of our convenience. For me, remembering a cloth shopping bag is an act of humility. Taking the bus is an act of humility. These small things don't debase me. I don't feel belittled by them. Rather, they help me to feel at home.
Humility is about how we see our place in the world.
I find it is humbling to remember my connection to the whole human family. All around the world, there are people just like me. They look up at the same sky. They find some things beautiful. They find some things annoying. They laugh. They hear music. They have children. I am no greater than any of them. I am part of one human family.
Arrogance is what severs our tie to other people. I think it is arrogant of me to pay careful attention to the price tag on a pound of coffee, but ignore the human story behind the luxury that I enjoy.
For me, fair trade is an act of humility. Trying to speak another language is an act of humility. These small things don't deprive me. Rather, they help me to feel at home.
I see God in this. Humility is a God-soaked thread, woven through everything I know. This quality of humility is something that can help me be a better husband and friend. It connects me to the work of earth care and peacemaking. This one idea connects them all.
I want to spend more time exploring this idea.
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves." Humility is a way of seeing.
Right now, the world desperately needs our humility.
2. Humility & Comparison
One day, while everyone was singing, "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," Jesus appeared. You could tell it was Jesus, because all the light in the room seemed to bend in his direction. Also, he had a beard.
When Jesus appeared, everyone stopped singing. Maybe the shock of seeing Jesus stunned them into silence. Or maybe they felt awkward singing to someone who was standing right there in the room. Unless you're Maria Von Trapp or the Phantom of the Opera, it feels quite strange to sing lines of dialogue to someone who is standing right in front of you.
The congregation fell silent, but the organist kept playing. She was very nearly deaf -- and in that way, she was very nearly like Beethoven. Jesus waited patiently. The stately sound of organ music rose to its final conclusion. Only then did the organist look toward the congregation. Clearly, everyone in the room was staring at the same spot. So, the organist followed the momentum of their collective gaze and saw that Jesus was standing nearby.
You never know how people will react when they find themselves in the presence of Jesus. The organist rose to her feet and started to clap. The entire congregation followed her example, and so the church was filled with applause.
"Hello," said Jesus. "Thank you for that warm reception. I came here this morning, because I have something I would like to give each of you."
A murmur of excitement passed through the congregation.
Jesus looked at everyone with eyes of compassion. He said. "I love you all -- very much. I know that life can bring you down, sometimes. Believe me, I know. Just remember, everything rests in the hands of God. There's no place, no time, and no circumstance that takes you beyond the reach of God's love. I hope these gifts will remind you of that."
Jesus stepped down from the platform and started to walk through the congregation. He walked to a woman in the font row, and greeted her by name. "Hello, Betty," he said. Betty rose to her feet. The two of them embraced like old friends. There was no awkwardness about where to place their arms or how long it should last. It was a really great hug. Jesus handed Betty a key, and said, "I'm giving you a house at the beach. It's all yours, and you can go there whenever you want. It will be your retreat from the cares of the world."
Betty's heart was so full that it eclipsed her ability to speak. Instead, she expressed her gratitude with a smile.
The congregation was touched by Betty's happiness. Also, people were starting to anticipate some vacation property of their very own.
Jesus stepped to the next person and greeted him by name. "Hello, Jerry." The two of them embraced like old friends. Jesus held onto Jerry's hands and said, "I am taking the pain away." Jerry blinked in surprise. His hands were gnarled and worn like driftwood, but his fingers unfurled to stir the air with an easy grace. Over and over, Jerry's hands curled into fists and sprang open.
People were touched by the look of wonder that dawned on Jerry's face. Some people became aware of the pain in their own knuckles and knees and backs. They wondered if -- maybe -- they too would be healed. Other people started to weigh the value of rental property against the value of renewed health.
Which is better? A house at the beach or hands that move without pain?
Jesus moved across the center aisle to a third person in the front row. "Hello, Evelyn," said Jesus. They embraced like old friends. Jesus handed Evelyn a small, white sack. A touch of grease had left a translucent spot on the bag. "I'm giving you a donut," said Jesus. "I found this little bakery in Klamath Falls. I'm telling you, the donuts are amazing."
The tantalizing smell of donuts wafted over the congregation. While it's true that some people felt a sudden craving, most people had a different feeling altogether. Call it, "a sudden stab of anxiety." A donut isn't really in the same category as a house at the beach or miraculous healing. So people started to worry. Apparently, some members of the congregation would get amazing gifts. And others would have to settle for pastry.
Meanwhile, Evelyn appeared to be quite content with her donut.
Jesus stepped to the next person, and said, "Hello, Adam." Adam did not fall immediately into Jesus' embrace.
Adam was watching Evelyn eat her donut. Adam said, "Wait a minute, Jesus. Just hang on, for one minute. I have to say, I'm going to be really disappointed with a donut." There was an echo of nervous laughter from the congregation. Adam had given expression to what many were feeling.
Jesus looked thoughtful. "I see," he said with a nod of understanding. "Today, you came to church and saw Jesus Christ with your own two eyes. You have heard the sound of my voice. You even had the chance to embrace me. And now you're worried that your day will end in disappointment."
Adam blushed. "It sounds bad when you say it like that," he admitted.
"How would you say it?" Jesus asked.
"I just think it should be fair," Adam said. "It's not fair that some people get real estate and others get a jelly donut."
Jesus sighed, then said, "I once told a parable about workers in a vineyard. Some of them worked all day. Others were hired just an hour before closing time. And at the end of the day, everyone received the same pay. Do you remember this story?"
Adam scratched his head.
"Look," Jesus went on, "there's no reason to compare yourself with someone else. Life is not a contest."
* * *
We compare ourselves to others all the time.
Most of the time, we look at those people whose house is a little bigger than ours. We look at the people who have a little more money than we do, or a little more free time. We look at someone who seems to rank ahead of us -- and we think, ÒWhy do they get all the luck?"
This sort of comparison embitters us. We feel shortchanged. We feel diminished by everything we lack.
This sort of comparison is bad for us. It wounds our spirit.
In the name of humility, we sometimes reverse the direction of our comparison. Instead of comparing ourselves to people who are just ahead of us, we compare ourselves with those who are less fortunate. "Be glad for what's on your plate," we are told. "There are starving children in Africa who would be very glad for those soggy carrots."
John Callahan is a local cartoonist. In one of my favorite cartoons, he drew a man with no arms and no legs. The severely disabled man sits in a pull cart on some forgotten corner of the sidewalk. He is speaking to another man -- who also has no arms and no legs.
The second man is wearing dark glasses. Apparently, he is blind. The first armless, legless man says to the second armless, legless, blind man: "People like you who are a real inspiration to people like me."
No good comes from comparing ourselves to others. Either we become embittered by what feels like our relative poverty, or we will become smug about what appears like our relative success. Either way, we lose.
There's no reason to compare yourself to someone else.
I think true humility is found when we learn to be where we are. Instead of finding our place in comparison to someone else, I think true humility allows us the freedom to occupy the place we are in.
It takes humility to release the people around from our judgment.
It takes humility to be grateful for where we are, and for all that we have been given.
In this humility, we will find freedom. Humility can open our eyes to see in a new way. We are where we are. And there are so many reasons to be grateful.
In humility, we will find God's strength. We will discover that God is enough for us. We will discover that the world is full of blessing.
3. Humility & Vision
Rene Descartes was a French philosopher. He died of pneumonia while visiting the queen of Sweden. Apparently, Swedish hospitality did not extend to the great hereafter. The Swedes thought it was improper to bury a Roman Catholic in their Protestant graveyard. So, Descartes was taken to a graveyard of unbaptized children in Stockholm. A few years later, the Pope placed Descartes life's work on the List of Prohibited Books.
But Descartes did not fade into obscurity.
Even his body did not rest. Sixteen years after he died, Descartes' supporters raised enough money to have him exhumed and shipped to France. The French ambassador to Sweden took charge of the whole thing. The ambassador went to the graveyard of unbaptized children. An honor guard of Swedish soldiers went with him. They all watched as Descartes' body was lifted from the grave.
Feeling the gravitas of the moment, the French ambassador decided to keep a souvenir. He took a finger bone from Descartes' right hand. This bone, the ambassador observed, had been "an instrument of immortal writing." Seeing that pieces of Descartes were up for grabs, a Swedish guard named Israel Planstrom grabbed the philosopher's skull.
Somewhat depleted, the remains of RenŽ Descartes were shipped to Paris. He was buried in a church. Descartes remained in the church for about a century. Then he was moved again.
It was right after the French Revolution. There was a plan to bury all the greatest heroes of France in one building. Descartes was seen as an obvious choice for this honor, and so his body was disinterred once more.
Well, things didn't work out. Descartes never made it into the Pantheon. Instead, he was taken to a different church. Eventually, his skull made its way to the Museum of Humanity in Paris. No one can say what became of the finger bone.
If all this stuff happened to Descartes after he died, it kind of makes you wonder what he did while he was still alive. What made Descartes so famous? Well, he's the guy who said, "I think, therefore I am."
This phrase has become part of the popular culture. "I think therefore I am." Everyone knows that. It's so popular that it has given rise to a thousand variations. I did a quick search on the Internet, to see what had become of Descartes' most famous maxim. Here's what I found:
- I shop, therefore I am.
- I rock, therefore I am.
- I ink, therefore I am. That was from a site for autograph collectors.
- iPod, therefore I am.
I have to say, the grand prize goes to web site selling baby clothes. Yes, baby clothes. An adorable little baby was wearing a one piece outfit that read, "Suck ergo sum." The web site helpfully explained that Suck ergo sum is "roughly translated as 'I suck, therefore I am.'"
The site also had this to say, "Don't let your baby have an existential crisis! The I Suck Therefore I Am Baby Bodysuit will help you to pass along Descartes' wisdom to your infant. 100% cotton. An ideal gift for Baby Showers!"
If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of Descartes headless skeleton rolling over in its 3rd grave.
When Descartes said, "I think therefore I am," he was not thinking of baby clothes. He was up to something much more daring. In Descartes's world, something was true because an authority said it was true.
Truth was found in the pages of Aristotle. Truth was found in the edicts of the Pope. Something was true because an authority said that it was true.
Descartes wanted to take a different path. Instead of relying on someone else's authority, he wanted to be a first hand witness to truth. Descartes decided he would refuse to know anything, until he could prove it to himself.
His first question was this: How do I know that I even exist? Before I can start looking for truth outside of myself, how do I know that there is any self at all? The phrase we all know is the answer to Descartes' first question. Cogito ergo sum. Descartes decided that he had to exist, or else how could he question his own existence? I think, therefore I am.
Next, Descartes turned his attention to other people. Although he never saw the Matrix, Descartes decided to doubt the reality of other people. Maybe other people are figments of his imagination. Or maybe they are sophisticated robots. Maybe they are ghosts. How do we know that other people are real?
To prove that other people exist, Descartes built a very complicated argument. It's all based on the benevolence of God. As an offhand remark, Descartes says, "Besides, I know that other people are real because of the way they look at me."
Have you ever had the electric shock of meeting someone's gaze? We know when someone is looking at us. We know that other people exist.
Of course they exist. We know that other people exist, because we have to wait in line behind them at the grocery store. They are in the express line with more than 12 items. We know that other people exist because they're driving down the freeway at 35 miles per hour, with their turn signals flashing the whole time. We know that other people exist, because someone is using the last of the toilet paper before we get there.
Jean Paul Sartre was another French philosopher. He said, "Hell is other people."
Other people are out there, alright. They are obstacles. They are rivals. We are exposed to scores of other people every day. We pass them on the street. We pass them on aisle 5. We maneuver our shopping carts around them. There are other people in the libraries. There are other people in the grade schools. People are everywhere.
Some of them are in this room.
The existence of other people was never really in question. Really, the question is more like, "What are we supposed to do with all these other people?" Increasingly, our answer is: As little as possible. As a society, we are getting better and better at ignoring one another. We have learned to move through the crowd with the fewest points of contact.
With cell phones and ipods, we can define the space around us as our space. We can listen to our music. We can continue our conversations without regard for the people around us. We are getting better and better at staying within ourselves.
Other people are so much work. Who has time for that?
* * *
Without knowing much about him, we have embraced Descartes's first maxim. But we have transformed it into a declaration of self. I think therefore I am. I rock therefore I am. iPod therefore I am. However we construct the sentence, the focus is on me and what I do.
We can even get religious about it. I go to church, therefore I am. I read the Bible, therefore I am. The focus is on me and what I do.
And if the focus is on me, then other people can only get in the way. Or maybe they can have a bit part in my story -- like a supporting cast. But the camera will stay on me. The spotlight will stay on me. Wherever I go, the orchestra will be playing my theme song.
For Descartes, proof of our existence was only the beginning. It was just a place to start. Descartes wanted to look at other people. We don't.
* * *
Scripture says, "If anyone sees a brother or sister in need, but has no pity, how can the love of God be in that person?" Ouch. Well... the easiest way around that little problem is learning how not-to-see. By learning how not-to-see, we can absolve ourselves from responsibility.
We learn not to see the poor. We learn not to see sick people.
We don't see each other. Instead, we have 800 numbers. You can push buttons 24 hours a day. But real people have all been outsourced.
Jesus keeps wiping the blindness from our eyes. When he walked among us, Jesus asked, "Do you see the Samaritan? Do you see the woman? Do you see the stranger standing in your midst? Do you see? Do you see?" Once the question is out there, of course we see! How can we stay oblivious when Jesus keeps asking to look?
The Spirit of Christ continues this work in our hearts. "Do you see the factory worker in Bangladesh? Do you see the refugees from Somalia? Do you see the children with no place to go? Do you see? Do you see?"
Yes. We see. Because the love of God is in us, we do see.
And with humility, we learn how to be present to other people. With humility, we learn how to step out of the spotlight of our own story. We learn how to silence the theme music that plays in our heads. With humility, we learn to be in the supporting cast for others.
Humility is a gift, because it allows us to be present to others.
There's more. When it comes to other people, humility is a gift because it allows us to have limits. Even Jesus withdrew from the crowd now and then. Humility reminds us that we need to rest. We need to set boundaries.
We are just people. There's only so much we can do.
But we are God's people. Instead of learning not to see, we are learning how to see better. We are learning to see the people around us as brothers and sisters.
4. Humility & Help
One day, the sunlit surface of the earth grew dark. A giant shadow fell across the seas, across the jagged mountains, across gleaming cities of the future. It was a total eclipse of the sun. The moon had nothing to do with it. Instead, the sun was hidden behind an enormous fleet of space ships.
For over an hour, the alien ships loomed above the earth. The aliens were greeted in every human tongue. They were sent clips of music, mathematics and the sound of whales. But aliens made no response. They were as silent as the stars.
Meanwhile, the Governing Council of Earth had gathered in emergency session. The humans were anything but silent. In the council chambers, everyone was talking all at once. The most strident voices were calling for a military strike. Someone shouted, "Do unto them before they do unto us!"
"What if they are friendly?" came the instant reply.
The Russian delegate rolled his eyes. "Does it really take 800,000 space ships to say, 'Hello?' They have blotted out the sun! This is not friendly greeting! Look! Look at them." The Russian pointed to the images captured by satellite. Each alien ship looked like the serrated tooth of a giant predator.
A more hopeful delegate observed, "Well, you can't judge a book by it's cover."
"A book?" spluttered the Russian. "Why are you talking book? Do you think they are here to read bedtime story?"
"We don't know why they are here," observed the delegate from Iran. She made no effort to shout above the others. Even so, her voice captured the attention of those around her. "We can act in ignorance, or we can wait and see what happens next."
For a quiet moment, the council reflected on what might happen next. The viewscreens around the council chamber showed the predatory beauty of the alien fleet.
"What happens next..." echoed the British delegate. "Aye. There's the rub."
When someone shouted, "Do unto them before they do unto us!" the council fell back into shouting.
* * *
Minutes later, the viewscreens around the council chamber started to flutter. Abruptly, the council fell silent. All eyes turned to the nearest viewscreen. Fractal patterns spiraled across the screens. Gaudy colors folded back on themselves like crayons in a blender.
Someone whispered, "What does it mean?"
Before anyone could answer, the viewscreens flickered once more. A face appeared. It was the face of an alien Ð soft, and dangerous, like the sort of mushroom it is best to avoid. The same face was repeated over and over, once on each viewer. When it spoke, the alien's voice came from all directions. "People of earth," said the alien. "We are the Vogon Constructor Fleet. We are going to destroy your planet in order to make way for a hyperspace express route."
The council listened in stunned silence.
The Korean delegate objected, "No one informed us about any hyperspace express route."
"I assure you," the alien replied calmly, "all the proper paperwork has been filed at the central office."
"This is absurd," said the delegate from Panama.
"It certainly is," agreed the delegate from India. Her dark eyes flashed with indignation. She informed the alien, "You are in gross violation of intergalactic copyright laws, therefore your entire operation must be suspended pending further review."
The alien recoiled slightly. "Copyright laws?"
"That's right," continued the Indian. "You are forbidden from destroying the earth for the sake of a hyperspace express route and you most certainly forbidden from calling yourselves Vogons. All those concepts belong to the estate of Douglas Adams. How dare you come to earth and steal the intellectual property of a human being?"
"We're not stealing anything," the alien said. "It's parody. We are making a little joke about the destruction of your planet. Anyone can see the humor in that."
"We're not laughing," growled the delegate from India. And it was true. No one in the room looked amused at all.
The alien shrugged. "I have to say, you aren't exactly our target audience."
"Explain yourself," demanded the delegate from Denmark.
"It's sort of like reality TV," explained the alien. "Every week, we appear in orbit around a different planet. We watch a sporting event. We eat some of the crazy stuff you people call food. We take pictures of the scenery . Then the audience back home gets to vote on whether or not we blow everything up. It's really quite popular."
"It's barbaric," pronounced the delegate from Mongolia.
The alien frowned. "To be candid, you're not doing very well. You seem a little dour. You didn't laugh at the joke. You talk about copyright law. Really, it's a little boring so far. Try to do something a little more entertaining. Remember, the cameras are rolling!"
The alien vanished from the viewscreen.
"So much for bedtime story," grumbled the Russian delegate.
* * *
The alien ships were too numerous to enumerate. They eclipsed the sun. Each one of them had devastating firepower. The humans were hopelessly outgunned. Finally, the Governing Council had to admit that a military response was out of the question.
The delegate from Hong Kong suggested, "We need to figure out what will entertain them. Maybe they would like to see trained animals, like monkeys or those dogs that can catch a Frisbee in mid air."
"We need something bigger than that," said the delegate from India. She was eager to make up for her earlier comments about copyright law. "We need to put on a musical," she said. "We need something with dancers."
"The play's the thing," suggested the British delegate. "Nothing beats Shakespeare."
"Shakespeare with dancing," offered the kindly delegate from Switzerland.
"And maybe some kung fu," added the delegate from Hong Kong.
The delegate from Iran sighed. "We're going to need some help."
* * *
Darcy was 1,000 years old. Her given name was "digital archivist," but these days everyone called her, "Darcy." She was a computer program and she had been collecting data for 100 centuries. When the Governing Council turned to Darcy for help, she said, "It would be logical to conclude that the aliens have some proclivity toward violence."
"They like to blow stuff up," translated the delegate from Australia.
"Affirmative," Darcy agreed. "However, it would appear that the aliens place a greater value on ambiguity. At this point, anything may happen. And we know the aliens have created this situation for their own amusement."
The delegate from Switzerland asked, "What about kung fu Shakespeare? Would it be better with or without the dancing?"
"The data is inconclusive," Darcy replied. Something in her voice sounded 1000 years old.
The delegate from Hong Kong threw his hands into the air. "Darcy is a computer," he observed. "She can't help us with this. We need the advice of another alien. Let's call Harkkenkrog."
And so, by subspace relay, the Governing Council of Earth contacted Rahkl Kirahk, the sovereign emperor of Planet Hrakkenkrog. Like all natives of Planet Hrakkenkrog, Emperor Kirahk was reptilian. The scales around his eyes were small and iridescent. The large scales that covered his snout and the top of his head were knobby, and covered in regal spines. Despite their ferocious appearance, the people of Hrakkenkrog were quite friendly. "Hello," said Emperor Kirahk. "What's up with you dudes?"
"The earth is surrounded by alien warships," said the delegate from Iran. There was no mistaking the tension in her voice. "They have threatened to destroy our planet unless we can do something entertaining."
"Wow," Kirahk replied. "That's heavy."
"We were hoping you could help," said the delegate from Brazil. "Give us your alien perspective on what you would find entertaining on Earth."
Kirahk looked thoughtful for a moment. His face brightened. "You know that city where the bulls run around in the street chasing people? That looks pretty fun. Hey, something with gladiators would be good, too. Are you guys still doing that?"
The delegate from Russia said, "Things are looking grim for us."
The Iranian gave voice to what many of them had been thinking. "Emperor Kirahk, we may need to evacuate the planet. If it comes to that, will you accept refugees from earth?"
The reptilian Emperor glanced from side to side, as if looking for a place to store refugees in his throne room. "Well," Kirahk drawled. "I mean, sure. You could send refugees. I will take the useful humans and turn them into slaves."
The delegate from Canada was horrified. "Slaves?"
Kirahk nodded. "Sure. An imperial slave has a pretty good life. We can find a place for your engineers and your accountants and your... gladiators. Those humans can work for the glory of the empire."
The delegate from Pakistan asked, "Um, what about the humans who aren't so useful?
"We'll probably eat those," said Kirahk casually. "We're willing to help," explained the reptilian ruler, "but we'll need to get a little something out of the deal."
* * *
After talking to the Emperor, the Governing Council contacted one other distant planet. The Council called the planet Zircon. The people of planet Zircon had long, slender necks and tawny spots on their skin. Their supreme ruler was known as the High Pantaloon. Her name was E. Jennae. "Hello," said E. Jennae, pleasantly. "How nice of you to call."
Urgently, the delegate from Nepal said, "Our planet is under siege!"
"Oh, how dreadful," replied E. Jennae.
"Will you help us?" asked the delegate from Peru.
"Of course we will help you," said the High Pantaloon. "Here on Zircon, we think of you earth people like distance cousins. If we had an eccentric aunt, for example, and she married an orangutan without any hair, then you would be like cousins to us. Do you see my point? Except you don't have any tails, do you. Oh dear, do orangutans have tails? I can't seem to remember."
The delegate from Kenya explained, "The situation is desperate here. We may need to evacuate the planet. High Pantaloon, would Zircon accept our refugees?"
"Do you mean the people?" asked E. Jennae.
"Yes," the Kenyan agreed. "Would you accept people from earth as refugees on Zircon?"
"We would be very glad for trees," said the High Pantaloon. "You have such lovely trees on earth. And I suppose you could send orangutans. The little beasties could go to live with our eccentric aunts. But we already have people. I'm sure you realize dear, we already have a whole planet full of people."
"High Pantaloon," said the Iranian delegate, "we have nowhere else to turn. Please. Won't you help us?"
"Oh, alright," said E. Jennae. "But for every human refugee, you must send 3 trees as well. If we're going to help, then we should get something out of the deal.
* * *
After talking to the High Pantaloon, the Governing Council had no one else to call.
That's when Sister Two Legs appeared. As a child, she had been raised by horses. Now she spoke a secret language without any words. For three years, Sister Two Legs had known she was supposed to say something to the Governing Council of Earth. The idea had been drifting around in her mind, the way continents drift on the molten core of the planet. For the past six months, she had been struggling to find the right words for what she was meant to say.
Finally, it occurred to her. She entered the council chambers and she said, "Ask God for help."
Then she arranged a handful of river rocks into a small circle on the floor. She bowed deeply, and left the room.
The delegate from Uzbekistan asked, "I guess we could try it. We could try asking God for help."
"Wait a minute," someone said. "Just wait a minute." It was the delegate from Albania. "Let's think about this. For his help, the Emperor wanted slaves and a cheap source of protein. For her help, the High Pantaloon wanted... foliage. If God helps us, then what will God want?"
"Oh, just the usual stuff," said God. "For you to love your neighbor, to be kind to strangers, to take care of the poor." God said this, but no one was really listening.
"It's a good point," said the Spanish delegate. "Help always comes with strings attached. What price will we pay for being indebted to God?"
"Oh," said God, "I will melt the hardness of your hearts. I will give you eyes to see. I will make you transparent, so the Light within you can shine brightly around you." God said this, but no one was really listening.
* * *
It takes humility to ask for help. It takes humility, because asking for help means letting go of our control. It is a place of vulnerability. When we ask for help, the ground upon which we stand is no longer ours alone. People will help us in their own way, and for their own reasons. When we ask for help, we become subject to other people's agenda.
This is true, even when we are asking God.
God loves us without condition. But that doesn't mean God's love is without effect. God's love is like the potter shaping clay. God's love is like the gardener pruning branches. God's love is like refiner's fire.
It takes humility to ask God for help. Asking God for help opens us to what God will do. And it can be scary to give God that much power in our lives.
* * *
Sometimes, we try to name the price up front. We say, "God, I want your help with something. And here's what I will give in return. Here is the contract that I will offer in exchange for your help." We say, "I will read the Bible more. I will donate to the cause. I will stop doing wrong. This is my end of the bargain." If we make a contract, then we are equal partners.
But of course, God doesn't work that way. God doesn't want to make a deal. God says, "I will help. Just open the door."
Open the door.
Humility is a gift, because it allows us to ask for help.
Humility is a gift, because opening the door changes everything.