Friday, January 27, 2012

“If someone bows to you, return the gesture, making your own slightly deeper and longer, just in case.” This advice comes from Nancy McDonough, who for many years was an English teacher in Japan. Bowing to another person remains an intricate part of Japanese culture, while westerners most often greet each other with a handshake. A bow communicates more than most handshakes do, and at its best becomes an act of humility.
            The Japanese bow expresses many things: respect, gratitude, remorse, sincerity, “Excuse me,” an apology, goodbye, or deference to status. “In general, the longer and deeper the bow, the more emotion or the greater the difference in social standing between the two parties,” says McDonough. Men bow with their hands flat against their sides, while women bow with their hands flat on the front of their thighs or crossed and flat. The back is held straight and eyes downcast.
            The angles of bowing range from a shallow fifteen degrees to a full forty-five degree angle, with the deeper and lengthy bows reserved for dignitaries. A person making a telephone call might even bow even though the other party can’t see them. Passersby may see an automobile driver acknowledge another driver’s courtesy with a slight bow. Friends greet each other with a quick bow. The bow also remains a part of the martial arts as a sign of respect. McDonough’s final advice to those who plan to travel to Japan, “Don't worry about doing it right -- just be sure to do it,” and she further said, the Japanese easily forgive a faux pas from a non-Japanese.
            I’m not planning a trip to Japan, but I am especially interested in the custom of bowing, dating back thousands of years. Because of this column’s emphasis on humility in 2012, a detail in Jacob’s return to his homeland leapt off the page and caught my attention. In the Old Testament, you recall how Jacob deceived his twin brother, Esau. Esau despised his birthright when he was famished, and Jacob greedily traded a bowl of soup for right of firstborn. Later, on another occasion, Jacob agreed with his mother’s plan and went to his aging and blind father disguised as Esau, so he could lay claim to the blessing of firstborn.
            When Esau found out about the deception, he grew angry and plotted to kill his brother. Rebekah, their mother, sent Jacob away to her family before murder became another family sin. While living and working with his mother’s relatives over twenty years, Jacob gained two wives, two concubines, twelve sons, and flocks, cattle, camels, and donkeys. Finally, he planned to return to his homeland.
            He sent a messenger ahead to alert Esau of his arrival. The messenger returned saying Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men. Jacob, “in great fear and distress” (Genesis 32:7), arranged his family in two groups, if one was attacked, at least one group might escape. That evening, he sent ahead a lavish gift of flocks, herds, camels, and donkeys.
            Jacob spent a restless night and time in prayer, during which his hip socket wrenched. The next morning, Jacob organized the four mothers of his children into family groups. Please picture the next scene in your mind: Jacob went ahead of his family, and as he approached Esau, Jacob bows to the ground seven times, in pain, he advances and bows on the ground and toward his brother. Seven times his knees hit the ground in humility.
            John T. Willis makes these observations about the humility and exchanges in the two more mature men: Jacob bowed seven times, called himself Esau’s servant twice, called Esau “lord” four times, sent an extravagant gift, insisted that Esau keep the gift, and said, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (33:10).
            Willis says about Esau: he brought four hundred men to provide Jacob with travel assistance and protection; he ran to meet Jacob, embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him. He offered to give back the gift; he addressed Jacob as ‘my brother,” and he finally accepted Jacob’s gift which in the day’s custom amounted to a pact of friendship.
            God’s timing, testing, and fine-tuning over twenty years caused these twin brothers to embrace the roles God planned for each of them. Through their stories, we see the continuing development of humility. May God grant the same growth to us.
            Hunger for Humility (4): “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
            Cathy Messecar welcomes comments or story suggestions at

Friday, January 20, 2012

Matching Speech to God's Standards

When asking for a snack, my four-year-old grandson Adam forgot to say “please.” I responded traditionally with, “What’s the magic word?” He thought for a long moment then hesitantly said, “Abracadabra?”

            Although “abracadabra” wasn’t the word I was listening for, it worked magic with this grandma. Skilled language and good manners are vital to children and adults, and some adults need refresher courses in speaking with humble words, low-key enough for the youngest ears.

            Plugged In Online is a Focus on the Family endeavor giving up-to-date reviews of movies and television programs. In one review, Plugged In reports on “the animated brats in ‘South Park’” a “series about a group of foul-mouthed third-graders.”

            The dialogue is a “near-constant flow of profanity” and “includes hateful exchanges.” The scripted lines apparently come from the dark recesses of adult minds. 

            Before the show debuted, “Newsweek” quoted its creator Trey Parker, “I can guarantee it will be the raunchiest thing on television.” In one interview, creators Parker and Matt Stone spoke about the show’s profanity. “It’s made us a lot of money.” I guess I have to ask where the adult-size bars of soap are when you need them.

            To point a blaming finger at propagators of filthy language is the easy way out. The difficult discipline remains closer to home, to match one’s speech to God’s standards. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

            Language atrocities range from filthy to flippant. Even indifferent responses leave impressions: Who cares? Whatever! No Problem. Oh well! When looking to Jesus as our model for humility, behavior, and language, it‘s difficult to picture him rolling his eyes and responding, “Whatever.”

            We adults can give ourselves a personal speech test by asking how much of our vocabulary hits the cutting floor before entering a church building, a house of worship. In everyday life, toes get hurt, hammers hit fingers, dishes slip and break, but profane words don’t have to spew.

            Brash, braggadocios words directly oppose humble language. Prayers and purposeful screening of television shows can create barriers to keep harsh communication from entering homes. To young ears, wholesome language, affirmations, and gentle corrections become antidotes to street-language. In addition, old ears don’t need to hear course language either.

            In the office, at home, and on the street, use magic words: those that benefit listeners. When we speak, remember God hears not only our prayers but also the useless words we utter. Let’s speak as though our sweet grandmothers were listening and we’ll develop humble language.

            Hunger for Humility (3): “Throw out the mocker, and fighting goes, too. Quarrels and insults will disappear” (Proverbs 22:10).

            Contact Cathy at

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Self-Imagined Greatness

            In last week’s column, I introduced our topic of conversation for 2012 – humility. Last week’s “assignment”: When you enter any room, think of yourself as the least, and look for ways to serve those present. How did you do? Did you find it tough to do? I certainly did.

            We’re embarking on this journey to deeper humility because Jesus called us to be like him, a servant. He set the perfect example and can inspire us to live as he did. One of the ways we’ll do that is to focus every three weeks or so on one of Jeremy Taylor’s (1613-1667) nineteen rules for humble living.

            The privileges you were born into or now have, do ever feel pride rise up because of them? If so, then consider Mr. Taylor’s first rule of living humbly: “Do not think better of yourself because of any outward circumstance that happens to you.” I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth. That’s one way of saying I was well fed but my family wasn’t the wealthiest on our block in Houston, Texas. However, compared to a child in an impoverished country, I had more than enough.  

            Consider some of the implications of Mr. Taylor’s first rule: If you are a whiz at math, do you get credit because your parents got together and created a mathematical genius? If you were born into a royal family, could you boast that personal achievement would eventually put you on the throne?

            Jeremy Taylor uses the example of a horse that can run faster than other horses. Triple Crown winner 1973, Secretariat was such a horse. A lot of circumstances and opportunities combined to put him in winners’ circles. Self-imagined greatness did not make him a winner. Good athletes’ usually have great DNA and opportunities that contribute to their successes, but how fast they run, swim, or swing a tennis racquet isn’t their true make up. The true make up of a pauper or king is on the inside.

            Richard Hagburg in a June 1996 issue of “Fortune” magazine relayed a story that a wealthy executive told him: The executive and his wife stood in line at a driver’s license bureau to get his license renewed. After a rather lengthy wait, the husband exclaimed to his wife, “Don’t they know who I am?”

            His wife replied, “Yeah, you’re a plumber’s son who got lucky.”

            Naaman, a leper, commanded Aram’s army, but pride almost thwarted God’s intended healing for him (2 Kings 5:1-19). Naaman’s wife had a maid, a young Israelite girl, who said, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Through a series of inquiries and letters, Naaman finally found his way to the Prophet Elisha’s home. The commander arrived with gold, silver, chariots, horses, and servants.

            Elisha didn’t even answer the door when this officer arrived; he simply sent a message for him to go take a bath in the Jordan River. Everyone knew -- even foreigners -- that the river wasn’t more than a muddy canal. Naaman had imagined the man of God waving his hand around and making a big commotion as he invoked God’s healing. After hearing the prophet’s instructions, Naaman departed “in a rage.”

            However, a lowly servant displayed common sense. He reasoned with Naaman: if the man of God had asked you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? When Naaman ditched pomp and pride, dipped seven times in the murky Jordan River, that’s when his skin became healthy. When pride rears its ugly head, it always casts a shadow on right thinking.

            A French proverb says, “The surest way to be deceived is to think one’s self more clever than others.” For the next couple of weeks, look backward in examination of your upbringing, and if extra attention, awards, or applause comes your way in the next few weeks, remember Jeremy Taylor’s rule for living humbly, “Do not think better of yourself because of any outward circumstance that happens to you.”

            Hunger for Humility (2): “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).




Friday, January 06, 2012

Humility--Nothing to Brag About

I find truth in what Tim Hansel says about Christians living out our beliefs, He says, “We must take our Theology and make it our Biography.” Through this column, we’ll embark on a journey to do just that in 2012.

            Last year, I read many books. However, one book and several of its reminders really stuck in my mind. The book is “Soul Work: Confessions of a Part-Time Monk” by Randy Harris, who teaches at Abilene Christian University. Randy is part preacher, part stand-up comedian, part professor, part mentor, but wholly dedicated to serving God as a single Christian man.

            He is part of an accountability group. As a group, they also have goals, one being when any of them enters a room that they see themselves as the least in the room. Whether they are the author with the most books, the scholar with the most credentials, or the preacher who has the highest salary, they long to heed the calling of Christ to be the least.

            What do you typically think about when you enter a room where there is one person or several people gathered? Do you think about the enjoyment you will get in their company? Alternatively, do you think how much fun others will have being around you? Maybe you are concerned that your attire matches the occasion. Maybe you have a few cute or fun stories you want to tell, real attention-getters. Or maybe it’s a group of people where you can shine, network, and get a payoff from the contacts in the room.

            How many of us typically walk into a room and ask ourselves, “Who may I serve in this room?” Harris’ practices, guidance, and thoughts challenged me. These words define humility:  humbleness, unpretentiousness, modesty, self-effacement. Self-effacement means looking at other’s needs before considering your own, much like the mother who sees one piece of pie left and declares she never liked pie anyway. Rick Warren said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.”

            Harris’ gives advice, lifted from the mid-1600s consisting of nineteen rules, Christian disciplines that help his readers develop humility. Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) was a cleric in the Church of England, who remains best known for his devotional works: “The Rules for Holy Living” and “The Rules for Holy Dying.” Among free spirits, rules are often snubbed as being out of fashion. However, we all live under rules. Try running red lights and stop signs and see how free you’ll be.

            Everyone has a personal rulebook. As a Christian matures, his or her list develops and governs their lives such as, always pray before meals, attend worship on Sundays, and meet at other times through the week with Christians. We have other rules we make to increase the order and harmony in our lives: make your bed every day, never let your gas tank get below one quarter, etc.

            A quest for humility opposes the quest for more power, more money, and more status. When we seek humility, that’s when we say to God, “Put me to work wherever you will.” One might serve breakfast to the homeless at the House of Prayer in Conroe, Texas, one might preach for 30 to thousands, or one might tuck three children in bed at night. James said, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (4:10).

            In this column through the next twelve months, our focus will be on humility. Each week, a scripture tagged “Hunger for Humility” will guide us. Again, I encourage you to write them in a notebook or on index cards and keep them near, so you can memorize and reflect on them. Every three weeks or so, we’ll discuss one of Jeremy Taylor’s nineteen rules for living humbly (I’ll introduce the first one next week). Randy Harris said he wrote the chapter on Jeremy Taylor’s nineteen rules because he’s “brilliant at looking inside of us and catching us.” So was Jesus. With the help of Jesus, nineteen tried rules, and scripture, we may ring in the year 2013 as more humble people. Although you realize, it will not be anything to brag about.

            Hunger for Humility (1): “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:6).

            You may contact Cathy at writecat at consolidated dot net