Pride and Humility

Praise and Humility

This Sunday is the beginning of Advent. We lit the first Advent Candle this morning, we decorated the Sock and Glove Tree. If there is any message in the incarnation, the meaning of the word made flesh is that God enters the world humbly, as a new born infant, born to a poor homeless peasant family, with no money for the motel. We wouldn’t give a poor family like that a second glance. God is humble, so what’s our problem? Why are we continually tripping over our egos?

The Greeks called it hubris. The church labeled it one of the seven deadly sins. The ancient Hebrews believed pride was a source of personal undoing: Proverbs 16:18-19 “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” “Proverbs 29:23 A man’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.” Much of the “craziness” in our lives is rooted in the inflation of our egos. Robert Moore describes our problem in his book Facing the Dragon:

Once you begin to understand what a great struggle against infantile grandiosity we all have, then you will understand how important prayer is, and liturgy, and active imagination. We need creative ritualization. We really blew it when we depreciated the importance of ritual in the Enlightenment. We need ritualized containment,

(worship)to help people manage unregulated grandiosity.

Another resource for regulating grandiose energies is a regular participation in communal worship and liturgy. This recommendation of prayer is perhaps my most radical suggestion,

Dr. Moore writes. People who have a regular prayer life ritual handle their compulsions and impulsivity better than those who do not. They are less fragmented than those who do not pray regularly. Prayer is any spiritual discipline that enables you to be connected with the basic energies of life and keeps you from an unconscious fantasy that you yourself are God.

Praise is a particular prayer discipline that proclaims, “God is God, and I am not.” Unfortunately, not all that passes for praise is really praise. What do I mean? Some praise music is pretty, but that’s really all it is, and rather than calling attention to God it calls attention to the performers or the worshippers. I ran across a good story about the difference between praise choruses and hymns.

An old farmer went to the city one weekend and attended the big city church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was. “Well,” said the farmer, “it was good. They did something different, however. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns.”
“Praise choruses?” said his wife. “What are those?”
“Oh, they’re OK. They are sort of like hymns, only different,” said the farmer.

“Well, what’s the difference?” asked his wife.

The farmer said, “Well, it’s like this – If I were to say to you: “Martha, the cows are in the corn”‘ – well, that would be a hymn. If on the other hand, I were to say to you: ‘Martha, Martha, Martha, Oh Martha, MARTHA, MARTHA, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows the white cows, the black and white cows, the COWS, COWS, COWS are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn, the CORN, CORN, CORN.’ Then, if I were to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well, that would be a praise chorus.”

The next weekend, his nephew, a young, new Christian from the city came to visit and attended the local church of the small town. He went home and his mother asked him how it was. “Well,” said the young man, “it was good. They did something different however. They sang hymns instead of regular songs.”

“Hymns?” asked his mother. “What are those?”

“Oh, they’re OK. They are sort of like regular songs, only different,” said the young man.

“Well, what’s the difference?” asked his mother.

The young man said, “Well, it’s like this – If I were to say to you: ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn’ – well, that would be a regular song. If on the other hand, I were to say to you: ‘Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth
Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by To the righteous, inimitable, glorious truth. For the way of the animals who can explain There in their heads is no shadow of sense Hearkenest they in God’s sun or His rain Unless from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced. Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight have broken free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed. Then goaded by minions of darkness and night they all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn have chewed. So look to the bright shining day by and by where all foul corruptions of earth are reborn Where no vicious animals make my soul cry and I no longer see those foul cows in the corn.’ Then if I were to sing only verses one, three and four and do a key change on the last verse, well that would be a hymn.

Praise comes in many different forms and it’s not the music that counts, but our intent when we offer praise – God is God, and we are not.

There is another form of prayer that looks like praise, but it is really manipulation. This kind of praise is the flattery of God. O God you are great. We love you. You are all wonderful and all bountiful and generous, now give us what we want. Divine flattery is a kind of cheap manipulation, that doesn’t really work, because God isn’t interested in our praise.

God doesn’t need our praise. We need to offer praise in order to help contain our egos. God doesn’t need our worship. We don’t somehow make ourselves pleasing to God by coming to church on Sunday – by singing hymns or praise choruses. We need to gather with our faith community to contain our egos through worship and praise, reminding ourselves that God is God and we are not, and then joining in praying with and for each other, so that we might become open to the healing power of God in our lives.

When we turn to God in prayer there is a power larger than ourselves that is accessed in prayer. When we prayer with and for other people, that power becomes magnified through mysterious connections of love. Jesus said, “love is the secret of the Universe. Love is more powerful than all forms of death – physical death or spiritual death.”

We also gather for worship in community to be reminded of God’s unfinished work in the world, the mission of Jesus Christ to transform the world through love. And hopefully, because we gather as a faith community we will link up with other people to go into the world together to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, provide medical care for the poor, clean water for people to drink, places to live for the homeless. Maybe even bake some cookies together to help provide food for kids who scrounge for their food at the City Dump in Tegucigalpa. That’s why we come to church, because we need it. We need praise, and a community of spiritual friends to help us regulate our grandiose energies of pride.

Since we are now officially in the Christmas Season, let me mention one other resource for containing our consumeristic pride. Michael Slaughter has written a book entitled Christmas Is Not Your Birthday. We celebrate the birth of Jesus as if it is our birthdays focusing on giving presents to people who have almost no real needs. Most of us have adequate homes. Most of us have too much to eat. We all wore clothes this morning. Oh we have bills, but that’s because we spend money. Michael Slaughter suggests that we contain our egos and our consumer spending and celebrate the birthday of Jesus by giving to people in real need.

A closing poem from Thomas Troeger:

One gift the magi bore

Worth more than all the rest:

The grace to kneel and bow before

The child whom starlight blest.

Their myrrh and frankincense

Lay sweet upon the air;

But sweeter yet and more intense

The magi’s humble prayer

And though their gift of gold

Shone brightly with the skies

Still heaven’s light was twice as bold

In their adoring eyes.

One gift the magi bore

Worth more than all the rest:

We give that gift when we adore

The child whom starlight blest.

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