catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 5 :: 2011.03.11 — 2011.03.24


Leading with humble hands

What are humble people like?  We often define humility as an attitude of self-deprecation.   Humble people regard everyone as greater than themselves. Humble people function without accolades or encouragement.  Humble people listen instead of speak, put the needs of others first, and generally prop up a society where there is so much to be done for little notice and less pay.  They are so humble that they don’t have awareness that they are humble, which would be prideful!

But what particular things do humble people do?  It may be helpful to consider the etymology. Humility is more tangible than an internalized self-concept that we try hard to have while trying harder to be uncertain we have it. The word “humble” shares the same Latin root as “humus,” which is a component of soil. Soil is what we rely upon for food, but we treat it like…well, like dirt.   Humble people are literally down to earth.  Grounded.  Humble people do things that get their hands soiled. 

How does a person practice being humble?  It might have something to do with what materials our hands routinely touch in a day.  What if an attribute of humility is its close proximity to the organic matter of eating and digestion?  Then we could say that farmers and gardeners are humble by trade, with feet and hands in the ground to turn soil, spread manure, push seeds in and take food out of the dirt.  Cooks are humble; they handle the produce, washing, peeling, cutting, stirring, kneading.  Hosts are humble, buttering bread, ladling soup, pouring juice.  Cleaner-uppers are humble, scraping chicken bones off the plates, sudsing greasy griddles, scooping soggy food bits out of the drain trap, laundering the dishtowels, scrubbing chocolate milk stains. Dental hygienists are humble, scraping bits of popcorn out of our teeth.  Caregivers of young, disabled, ill or elderly persons are humble, helping them eat their meals and go to the bathroom and wipe up afterwards. Janitors are humble, kneeling down to clean in and around toilets. Plumbers are humble, getting down and dirty with our sewer pipes when we need them to. Animal keepers are humble, setting out food and water, and scooping or shoveling out all the brown stuff on the bottom of the pen. All of them are so close to those smelly but beautiful daily messes we make as God’s creatures who eat and digest in order that we can live.

Not everyone has the upside-down privilege of practicing humility as a workday occupation, but those of us who push papers and computer keys, or drive trucks and strategic initiatives, or take class notes and play musical ones for a living don’t have to look too far to find an occasional way of getting some compost-related material on our hands.  Everyone alive eats several times a day, so there is always a task to do in this realm.   It seems a little offensive and impure to human religious ideals, but in Christianity, holiness and love happen in sloppy circumstances.  Our cornerstone events of first Adam’s muddy formation and second Adam’s incarnation and blood sacrifice are as messy as they are sacred.  Do we have regular access to humble tasks that help us grasp the physical reality of these holy matters?

If the Christian life is closely related to humility, and if humility is closely related to humus, the Church aspires to become a setting where the humble tasks of its corporate life would be accessible to all its members.  It may be a remnant of traditional indoor/outdoor farm family roles, or a way of operating that we’re used to, or something more sinister, but there seems to be an unwritten rule that the majority of the humble tasks of corporate church gatherings are generally off limits to the menfolk.   Generally, I say, as I have observed many boundary crossings at my own home church.  Nursery is where someone gets the honor of a humble duty like squatting down to divide up Goldfish snacks among the toddlers, or hoisting a little one up to the drinking fountain, or sealing a smelly diaper in a baggie.  Children’s worship and elementary Sunday school provide such humble opportunities as passing out cookies or helping a child make a pretend hot dog out of lime green Play-doh.   It seems that there exists an expectation or restriction that church men need not or should not have the physical proximity to care for the church children. At our Mothers-Of-Preschoolers mornings, the men may serve as valets, but are they invited to sit in a rocking chair with a baby once the cars are parked?  Kitchen work, whether it is preparing the meal for family dinner night at church, or scrubbing the pans at the end of the evening, seems generally restricted as women’s territory.  Our family dinner night clean-up crew has two assignments: men handle the furniture and the women handle the dishrags.

Why do only women, generally, get to practice our humble messier tasks?  Is it because we women don’t trust the men to change a diaper or wipe down a countertop the correct way?  Or is it because we men prefer more sanitary and verbal ways to execute leadership in our ranks?  I’ve been hearing about church congregations who are offering intensive courses or seminars on leadership training to address a crisis of congregational leadership, especially in patriarch-oriented groups where there is shortage of men who feel equipped or willing to be installed as a church official.  But Jesus Christ’s capstone leadership seminar was that one suppertime when he washed dirt off of everyone’s feet, then passed out the bread and poured the wine. That challenges a thousand traditions about who does what in a social group.  Maybe whoever regularly picks up the washcloth and the water pitcher somehow becomes the acting head of household, even if that household has technically authorized someone else as its head.  Maybe a church leadership development room is furnished differently than we expect.  Does it look like a conference room or a nursery, is it a study or a mop closet, is it full of commentaries or colanders, three-ring binders or wet wipes?

During a women’s Bible study discussion about unlikely lowly spots where King Jesus prefers to show up in our world, one woman mentioned the TV show Undercover Boss.  I made sure to watch several episodes after that discussion.  Each episode gives a corporate executive the chance to anonymously wear the uniform of the messiest jobs in his or her organization.  The finance bigwig of Subway hustled to take orders in a sandwich assembly line.  The airline executive scrambled to clear cups and peanut bags out of the cabin seats, then fumbled to operate the hose that pumps the tanks of the lavatories.  The owner of the water park resort used a skimmer net to clean feces out of the evacuated pool.  All are humble tasks which brought them very close to the textures and smells of food and food-related waste.  The narrative of each episode ended with a transformed leader who had a clearer appreciation of the physical stamina that is required, and the constant pressure for speed and concentration that comes with a humble job that most executives would tend to view as unskilled labor.

It is nearly that time of year in our own church when the elder and deacon nomination letters will go out and we will be anxious to see whether there are enough people to serve as office bearers for a new term, and ask each other with an increasing sense of crisis, “How we can equip leaders in our ranks?”   What if the leaders in a church are formed out of the people who are willing or allowed to vacuum up the donut crumbs we leave behind, hold a child’s hand while escorting her to children’s worship, and work up a sweat scrubbing the encrusted rice from the intimidating amount of surface area on a deluxe size slow cooker?  How can we sisters in the church family make these messy, humble formational tasks more inclusive to all, and invite our brothers to participate fully in Jesus-style church leadership in this way?

A quote is taped near the light switch leading downstairs to our laundry room: 

I used to think that God’s gifts were on shelves one above the other and that the taller we grew in Christian character the easier we could reach them.  I now find that God’s gifts are on shelves one beneath each other.  It is not a question of growing taller, but of stooping down to get his best gifts. (F. B. Meyer)

Practicing humility is not a form of self-degradation.  It is the royal office of leaning in closer to Life and using all five senses as creation shows off its bio-chemical miracles of everyday transformation.  Those smelly, slimy potato peels and eggshells and coffee grounds and beef gristle and rabbit droppings may be headed for the compost heap, but what can be more honorable than the humble dirt we tread on?   It is the sacred realm from which our resurrected bodies will be birthed.

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