A Little Humility Helps

A Holocaust Love Story 

Oprah called it “the single greatest love story” she had ever heard.

When Herman Rosenblat recounted his experience as a teenage inmate at Buchenwald, he described a young girl who saw him from the other side of the barbed wire. She pulled an apple from her pocket and threw it across the fence to feed a starving boy.

Twelve years later on the other side of the ocean, he recognized that young girl when he was on a blind date at Coney Island.  The couple married and were together for more than 56 years until Herman’s recent death at 85.

It is a beautiful story.  It appeared in “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and resulted in Mr. Rosenblat’s appearance on “Oprah” along with advances for a book and movie.  Unfortunately, it never happened.  The headline in The New York Times obituary read, “Herman Rosenblat, 85, Dies; Made Up Holocaust Love Story.”

After celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on “Oprah” in 2007, Mr. Rosenbalt confessed, “The reality was that I wasn’t telling the truth, because she didn’t throw the apple to me, but in my mind I believed she did.”

Why did Mr. Rosenbalt embellish the truth of his experience in the concentration camp and his long marriage with the fictional apple tossing story? “I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to hate but to love and tolerate all people,” he said. “I brought good feelings to a lot of people and I brought hope to many. My motivation was to make good in this world. In my dreams, Roma will always throw me an apple, but I now know it is only a dream.”  At least his motives were good.

Resume Inflation 

We’ve seen some serious biography inflation in the media lately.  Brian Williams lost his anchor seat at NBC for exaggerating his experience in Iraq. At least he acknowledged it an apologized.  Bill O’Reilly is fighting mad at the folks who uncovered his exaggeration about being in a “war zone.”  The head of the VA apologized for saying that he was in the Special Forces when he wasn’t.  What’s with these guys?  What leads people to exaggerate their experience or inflate their resume?

The biblical diagnosis is pride.  Not healthy pride, but the unhealthy kind.  It’s the self-absorbed pride that caused the Hebrew sages to say, “Pride comes before disaster, and arrogance before a fall.”  (Proverbs 16:18)  

Any of us — all of us — can be tempted to inflate our importance or to make ourselves look just a little bit better than we actually are.  All of us can present a polished persona to the world that is inconsistent with who we really are. The biblical antidote is humility.

The Beauty of Humility 

Now, there’s a word we don’t hear often. That’s part of what got the President into trouble at the National Prayer Breakfast. Any sign of humility on the red carpet at the Oscars?  Who really wants to be “humble” these days?  And yet, when we actually see it, genuine humility is a beautiful thing.

Preparing for Lent this year, I found myself led to explore the beauty of humility.  Old Testament professor, Ellen Davis, said that humility begins in recognizing that we are not God.  It means acknowledging that I’m like everyone else, with strengths and weaknesses, imperfect, prone to spiritual arrogance and infected with a tendency toward self-righteous judgement of others.

The 25th Psalm promises that the Lord “leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.”  Duh.  That makes sense.  The only people who can be taught are those who know they don’t have all the answers.  That’s humility.  

On Ash Wednesday I found myself praying: “Lord, teach me the beauty, strength, peace, compassion and freedom that is grounded in humility. May I be humble enough to be taught; unsure of my own wisdom so that I may learn the ways of God.”

A little humility helps and there’s no better time than Lent to discover it.

Grace and peace,

Jim

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What the President Really Said

What the President Said

The hyper-reaction of some folks on the religious right to what the President said at the National Prayer Breakfast reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Col. Jessup in “A Few Good Men.” It’s when he shouts, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Maybe a thoughtful reflection on historical and theological truth is more than most folks expect at an event that often turns out to be little more than a polite recognition of religious tradition or, at worst, a self-righteous celebration of American civil religion. If all you hear is the shouting, you’d think the President went on an all-out attack on Christianity. But if you actually listen to the speech, you have to wonder if these folks were in the same room. I encourage you to watch it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_9qPMqE_TQ&feature=youtu.be&t=1h1m20s) or read the text (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/05/remarks-president-national-prayer-breakfast.)

The President actually expected religious people to think. Instead of offering pious pabulum that would go down as easily as the scrambled eggs, the President invited his listeners to wrestle with the question: “How do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?”

It’s a good question, even when it is an unwelcome one.

In no uncertain terms, he gave a blistering condemnation of the Islamic State as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yazidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”

But then, he dared to speak truth. “We’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.” It was like pointing out that gravity pulls down.

He reminded us that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” and that “in our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” He could have added the Salem Witch Trials, the English Reformation, the Holocaust and Apartheid in South Africa, all of which were endorsed or passively accepted by some branches of the Church or by faithful Christian people.

Naming the dark side of our history doesn’t justify evil behavior in the present. But it does call us to humility.  That was the theme of the rest of the message. Unfortunately, humility is not a welcome guest at these events, either.

Abraham Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will” was lurking in the background when the President said, “If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. ‘We see through a glass, darkly’ — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”

When it comes down to it, the hostile reaction to the speech says more about the opponents than it says about the President. We can debate whether it is the role of a President to function as a theologian or preacher. But the challenge to name what Wesley called “our bent to sinning” and the call to some measure of humility is a central, if often unwelcome, part of the gospel.

It is, in fact, what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about.

Grace and peace,

Jim