So I’m walking into Boston’s Prudential mall the other day, and I see this art on the staircase beneath my feet. All the bright colors and the phrases: You are strong. You are capable. You are enough.
You are strong. You are capable. You are enough.
How do you react to those phrases? How do you react to them as artwork at the entrance to a high-end shopping destination?
I asked about this on social media this week and got kinda the same range of reactions I had.
On the one hand, I cringed. Honestly, I thought: this is corny. And I wondered what the intent is here for customers walking into a mall. Like it’s trying to amp us up to think, I am awesome, I am enough, and I deserve it. So we can smile while dropping eight hundred bucks for a new phone while sipping eight dollar cups of coffee. Some of my fellow cynic friends on social media felt the same way.
But on the other hand, I was like maybe this is just great. And to be honest, this was the reaction of more of my friends, to say:
Hey, don’t we all need encouragement? I mean, life can just beat us down. And if a little stairway art can lift our spirits, isn’t that a good thing?
I grew up in a family, myself included, that could tend toward critical, and so even though I was pretty strong and capable when I launched out into my adult life, it wasn’t always easy for me to own that.
And this phrase “you are enough” is one I’ve wrestled with over the years. The Christian faith I came into in my youth did so much good for me, but it also mostly encouraged me to feel the opposite of this.
I am not enough. I am unworthy, I was taught, just riddled with sin that merits my guilt and shame. But thanks be to God, I have been loved by God in Christ, so if I confess all my not enough-ness, I am accepted, forgiven, adopted as a beloved child.
And I actually believe exactly what I just said, word for word. But the way I received this faith seemed to often leave me still feeling less of the acceptance and connection and beloved-ness of adoption and more of the guilt and shame of never enough. Still not enough.
So I’ve come to appreciate this phrase: you are enough. Maybe by myself I am, maybe I’m not. Depends on the situation. But with the love of God and the help of friends, I am. Maybe not enough for some weird idea of perfection or sufficiency I got in my head. But with the love of God and the help of friends, enough to be good. Good enough. Every time.
Today, we’re talking about Reservoir Church’s core value of humility. It’s the second to last week of a month we do each year called We Are Reservoir, inviting our community to consider who and what this church is and is still becoming, and inviting everyone who’s interested to a joyful belonging as members of the community.
I think this value of humility is one of our most important. I think it’s a critical value for the future of the Christian faith too, and as a personal way of being, it also helps us live fuller, more joyful lives.
But first we’ll look at a bit of scripture together and why humility is central to following Jesus and central to the future of the Christian faith, if that future is going to get any better than it looks these days.
Our passage is from this little letter called Philippians. We’ll read a few verses from the second chapter.
Philippians 2:5-8 (Common English Bible)
5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
6 Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7 But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
So like a good Marvel superhero story, the writer of Philippians gives us a Jesus backstory, told here in a poem.
It says that once upon a time, his spirit, his essence was God himself. But he emptied himself. He became one of us. He humbled himself. Even to the point of a brutal, undignified death.
There are different ways to read this.
One is that the whole “form of God” thing is an exaggeration, that Jesus was a pretty great person but not really divine. The early churches rejected this view as unworthy of how Jesus embodied and revealed God to us.
Two is the idea that Jesus was indeed son of God but was kind of faking it as a human, sort of like the Greek gods in their temporary earthly visitations or like Clark Kent just hiding his Superman superpowers. The early churches also rejected this view because it was clear to them that while Jesus was a special human being, he was still very much a human.
In fact, Jesus is the kind of human we aspire to be and who with the help of God, we can indeed become.
Calm, curious, clear, compassionate, confident, courageous, creative, and connected.
Those eight C’s are actually the image of human goodness, the fully present, fully developed self. They’re not a bad description of Jesus either.
The good human life isn’t superhuman. It’s not a Marvel superhero-like striving after god-like powers. Unlimited wealth, power, skill, opportunity – that’s not a good human life, it’s a myth, a sham, a chasing after the wind. Jesus’ biographers tells us that at a key moment in his young adult years, someone or something called the satan, the accuser, tempted Jesus to strive for this kind of superhuman perfection. And Jesus said:
Or as Philippians puts it, Jesus didn’t try to exploit divinity. He didn’t strive to be more than he was as a human. He accepted the path of humility.
This meant serving others, not using others to suit his own needs for sure. The passage focuses on that.
But it also meant experiencing a beautiful, humble, human life.
Growing and learning throughout his life as we do. Asking lots of questions all the time, so many questions, because asking questions, being curious, is a great way to grow and deepen relationships, but also because Jesus didn’t know everything.
Jesus did know where he came from – he never doubted how valuable, how beloved he was. But Jesus also had limits, he suffered, he could not do and chose not to do everything he wanted and still knew that within all those human limits, he was enough.
This is what it means to be humble. It’s to not try to play the status game of curating our image to impress for sure.
But at a more basic level, it’s also just being who we are, no less and no more. It’s growing, learning, and making joyful peace with our limits, that we are beloved and more than enough not as gods but as humans, not as cocky and certain and arrogant, but as calmly confident even with our doubts and limits.
That’s Jesus, and with the help of his Spirit, it can be us too.
You’ve got to wonder, though, if Jesus is so humble, why can’t the church founded in his honor be as well?
Christians, and the Christian religion, are not known – either historically or in our own times – as humble.
Reservoir chose humility as a core value of the church because it says something important about how we do faith community, but also because it’s a little surprising for a Christian church.
Christians have had a thing with power and control, getting aligned with empires and colonizers and political parties to advance their influence and get what they want in the world.
And sometimes a hangup about perfection too, like we need to hide our faults and pretend we’re perfect, or like God sees how imperfect we are, then God will be angry or disappointed.
I don’t think this is the way of Jesus, though, who let God shine in his true humanity. Jesus, the humble one. Jesus, the one who said:
Blessed are the meek, the humble, for they’re the ones who will inherit the earth.
What if Jesus’ followers didn’t strive to be perfect or in control but to, like Jesus, be of maximum service to the well-being and flourishing of others?
And what if Jesus’ followers didn’t worry about perfection of faith – being always certain, or free from doubt or error? And what if instead they, or we, accepted doubt and error as a no-big-deal part of confident faith?
This past week, I had the chance to speak with Brian McLaren for the first time. Brian is one of the elder statespeople of a healthy, evolving Christian faith. He visited this church in our early days in the late 90s, and remembers us fondly. He’s published loads of books since then, including his latest I’m reading now: Do I Stay Christian? It’s really good.
To the students in my theology doctoral program, McLaren was talking about the difference between goodness and perfection.
He said that
perfection is sterile and stagnant, but goodness is growing and fertile. And so goodness is so much better than perfection.
This idea of perfection wasn’t part of the earliest Christian faith, born in the humble, earthy thinking and experience of Middle Eastern Jews. It came in through the Greek philosophers, who had a notion of perfection they associated with the divine – never changing, never feeling. And so the idea of a perfect human and a perfect society would be the same – unemotional, unchanging, always powerful, always in control.
McLaren was like: not only is that not achievable, it’s not desirable. It’s stagnant, static, sterile. He reminded me of Christena Cleveland’s comments years ago to another group I was in, that perfection is a figment of the colonial imagination.
People who are so insecure they always need to be right, people who are so power-hungry they always need to be dominant, they’re into perfection, and whatever illusions, whatever control, whatever dominance of conformity it takes to get there.
People who are secure, who know they are beloved, don’t need to chase some illusory idol of perfection – we know that’s pointless, it’s vapor. We can grow into greater goodness instead, growing, humble, but fertile.
This is at the heart of Reservoir’s experience of Christian church, or Jesus-centered faith community. One of our values is humility, defined like this:
We are wholeheartedly committed to pursuing the truth of Jesus through multiple sources, including the Bible, reason, culture, and experience, and we take the posture of learners, recognizing that our understanding of God’s truth continues to unfold.
I promise that this church will never pretend to know everything or have all the answers. We’ll keep on our steady, humble pursuit of God and pursuit of truth, trusting it will keep unfolding for us over time. And we hope you’ll have the freedom of doing the same, not striving after status or certainty, and not worrying about your imperfection, but seeking God, seeking truth wherever you find it, and letting a good life unfold within your imperfections.
Reservoir’s not a perfect church. But I think we’re a good church.
And neither you nor I are ever going to have a perfect life. But we can have a good life.
I think this humility thing isn’t just a value of our faith but a pretty big part of the good life, a joyful and fulfilled human life.
This past week or two I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with quite a number of people from this community who are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. And I didn’t tell them this, but I was keeping an eye out for the ways they are aging well, continuing to live a good life as the years march on.
And I noticed that in their own way, they’d all been leaning into these four phrases the sociologist Brene Brown associates with what she calls the gifts of imperfection, these four phrases I’m connecting with Jesus’ way of true humanity through deep humility.
I don’t know but I’m learning
I am enough
One of them shared with me about how after the attacks at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh a few years ago, he realized he had never really explored the Jewish roots of his Christian faith, or thought about how as an anti-racist person of color, he could also stand against anti-Semitism.
So he visited a synagogue that week, and he kept going back, visiting every week for a full year, eventually becoming a member of that community as both a participant and an ally, even while remaining Christian.
He did something similar after a prominent hate crime against Asian Americans, visiting a series of Buddhist temples and saying:
I’m learning regarding the cultures and experiences of East Asian Americans.
I’m learning for him led to I’m sorry too, as it often does, as he started to reckon with what he called his “ignorance, implicit bias, and complicity” regarding Asian Americans.
What a beautiful thing, as a community leader in his own right, to now be in his 60s and to be able to say:
I’m not finished. I’ve not arrived. I’m still growing. I’m still learning. That’s humility.
And that’s part of a good life, in my book.
I met with another person in this same phase of life whose: I’m not done. I’m still learning, was taking other forms. This person was talking with me about their faith journey, which for them is a healing journey. She was sharing how at last, deep into middle age, she finally started to learn that God really loved her.
She was like:
I would have said that earlier, but mostly I was just saying that. My faith was really just skimming the surface of my life.
And she talked about the insights and help that eventually let her see she didn’t need to be anyone that she wasn’t to be enough, to be fully loved.
Her journey had a lot of connections with mine, which I shared, and we talked some about how to help others reach a deeper, quiet confidence in their beloved-ness.
I spent time with an older couple last week too and got them talking about their history as a couple and what was bringing them joy or challenge these days as well.
Mostly, it was joy. They shared their stories of how life was going, including the things they were still learning after many decades of life on this earth. But the most striking thing to me was the ease with which they talked about some hard patches in their lives – painful memories from their working lives, regrets in parenting, rougher patches in their marriage.
Their lives have been imperfect, and are imperfect still. But in the midst of those imperfections, they had an ease with saying I’m sorry and I’m still learning. And they had gratitude for how good their lives have been and how good they are still becoming.
One of them even used the word humility to capture this. They weren’t complimenting themselves, saying look how humble I am, that famous oxymoron of non-character development. No, they were saying:
my life is humble – it’s small in its own way, it’s imperfect. I still need God and friends. But I’m beloved, and my life is so good, and that is enough.
I’m only on the verge of 50, but I hope to move through the decades to come like my friends – not chasing certainty, control, security, the sterile figment of the colonial imagination that is perfection.
I want to be able to keep saying
I’m learning, I’m sorry, and I’m so beloved. So this good, good life of mine is enough.