Gatsby is getting older. He's still a spry old man, playfully pouncing at his ball for hours every day. Yesterday we went for a long walk in the morning and he insisted on two lengthy ball-playing sessions in the sweltering heat of the afternoon. In those moments you wouldn't guess that he's twelve years old.
But sometimes he has some old-dog moments on our dining room floor in the middle of the night. One of the reasons I've never bought a rug to put in there. Our faux hardwood makes for easy clean-up. Last night was one of those nights. I got up this morning to toast my bagel and found a mess that needed cleaning up. Whenever I discover one of these messes, I look at Gatsby. He's staring at me, cowering slightly, a look of sorrow on his face. He shrinks back into a corner, away from me and keeps his distance while I armor myself with paper towels. I'm not angry. It's been a long time since I've been angry with him for something like this. He isn't a puppy anymore, he doesn't need training. He needs patience. Reassurance. I pause from my clean-up, wash my hands, find him hiding in the darkness of the hallway. "It's okay. I understand." I say to him. He strains his neck, grateful, then bends down low, humble. And then he pounces up, tail finally wagging again.
I've been reading Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts this summer. (It gets better and better with each chapter. I highly recommend.) Today I was slowly making it through a chapter about humility, ingesting the words along with my bagel and honey-nut cream cheese. Something in it reminded me of a verse in the Bible, something about humble people being told secrets by God...something like that. My Bible memorization is super rusty, those years of AWANA seemingly wasted on me. I grabbed a disheveled-looking forest green NIV, one of the medium-thick ones, the name Andy Wermel embossed in gold on the front. It rarely does this anymore, but this morning, while the sun's rays began to climb over the fence in my back-yard, the pages fell immediately to the place I was looking. This is real magic, nothing can convince me otherwise, and my eyes water.
"Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way."
There it is. The part about God teaching humble people, revealing himself to them, teaching them his way. Humility. A word I struggle with. Who wants to be humble? With Facebook albums displaying only our most beautiful photos, and instagrams of our most buzz-worthy moments streaming all day every day, we sweat out our lives in a pressure-cooker society obsessed with significance. Who has any regard for humility? Certainly not me. Don't I post and stream and strive just like everybody else? It's true, in a day- to-day setting, I'm consumed with how to get ahead, how to be regarded well, even if just in my own little circles of influence. Instead of thinking of ways that I can make my neighborhood a better place for everyone who lives here, I think mostly of my own house and how I can make it look prettier, the cutest house on the street. Instead of investing time in prayer lifting up all of the teachers at Hill Country, I slave away at Word documents, trying to make my class the most organized and challenging. This is all vanity- devotion to myself and my tiny kingdom. There is nothing noble or beautiful about it. And there is no way that God would guide me and teach me his ways with a heart like that.
Christian circles are not a guaranteed relief from this type of thinking. Here, even so-called "humility" becomes a competition. I will never forget sitting in such a circle being told by someone, "We are being humble every day, and you are not." Doesn't identifying yourself as humble completely defeat the purpose of humility? I've been in Christian groups before where I've never been more aware of myself, more self-conscious of my short-comings, more terrified of what I'm not doing enough of, or doing too much of, for that matter. Sometimes there is a striving here for "humility"- for giving much, sacrificing much, refraining from much- food, drink, debt, you name it. Christians don't always suffer from pride in the form of how much they have, but in how little they do- their losses are their prizes, their ability to get by with so very little becomes their crown. But virtue becomes vice when it is the focus of our thought. For this I've always greatly admired God- He isn't unaware of these so-called Christian schemes. He's not fooled. He knows the stench of pride, no matter how cleverly we might try to hide it- even when we hide it from ourselves. Haven't I stood on such a pedestal as this, my spiritual pride stinking all the way to heaven? Again, how could God teach me his ways with me thinking that I know so much about Him, seeing as I have done so many Bible studies and read so many books and served in so many ministries?
The mess is made. Either way you shape it up- pride from a culture that seeks significance in what it has and does, or pride from a religious paradigm that worships its own worship-the stench surrounds me, fills me, because I am the one who has made this mess. And I sit in it, wreaking. What hope have I of heaven? How can I expect to be guided into his ways? How can I have anything worthwhile to give? Humility eludes me. So it's with sadness I read passages like Matthew 18:4 "Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." But how can I humble myself? I'll never be anything in the kingdom of heaven because I keep wanting to be something here. It's a disease I can't seem to find a cure for. A habit too strong to break.
But that's just it, isn't it? Humility is birthed from awareness of the reality that I am sin-diseased and slave to my own habits that steal joy and destroy abundant life. God is so clever, I am the one who fails to see, it's been right there, all along. Before he guides the humble, he does what? He instructs sinners in his way. Sinners. That is me. Mess-maker, cowering in a corner, sorrow-filled, so aware of my inability to clean up what I've created. Does he see me? What does he think? I understand Gatsby's slinking off into the darkness of the hallway, hiding. I am not new at this. I've been trained. I know it's wrong and I do it anyway. Make messes. Messes that I try to hide from. Messes too bad for me to clean up. Hiding seems the only thing to do. I am not one of the holy. I am not good. I should be. I was trained to be. But I have failed. I continue to fail.
He instructs sinners in his way.
He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.
Good Fathers bear with their children through repeated failures. True love cleans up messes without anger toward the mess-maker. In the darkness of the hallway, I cupped Gatsby's speckled snout in my hands, gently stroking the sides. He leans into it, grateful for touch, for the reaching-out that means that trouble is passing. My Father's invisible hands flipped the feather pages for me this morning, gilded edges faded by many days and many messes. Skimming over ancient words that tell other parts of his story- to the page in the middle that was for today. I lean into it- grateful for the touch. Real magic while sunlight spills, filling my backyard. It's okay. Trouble is passing. I stretch low, thankful- humble. A mess-maker. Who belongs to a Good Father. Who is able to clean the mess, who is able to clean me. I hate the mess. I do. I wish it weren't there. But I love my Father. All I can do is receive His touch, his gentle guidance that, not despite the mess, but because of the mess, will now guide me in what is right and teach me his way.