(re)Imagine Posture

I love the fact that the word humus—the decayed vegetable matter that feeds the roots of plants—comes from the same root that gives rise to the word humility.  It is a blessed etymology.

roasting marshmellow

—Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

 Walking through the woods in my backyard this weekend as I gathered sticks for a bush pile, I heard the brittle branches of last summer crackle underfoot.  Each step’s snap sank twigs and leaves deeper into the earth that they were becoming. While gathering branches, I found myself amongst those trees and fallen leaves looking for something else, that properly shaped branch suitable for roasting marshmallows.  Selecting the right shaped stick, stripping off any excess bark, and sharpening the end, it and I were ready.  That walk and those preparations remind me that in our lives and in our faith transformative, altering work is needed.

Fallen leaves, dried undergrowth, snapped twigs become something new.  Leaves, undergrowth, and twigs mix with damp dirt. They breakdown. The greens of summer become the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn that become beiges, browns, and blacks of winter. This decaying layer forms the top of the soil called humus.

Humus is an essential layer, replenishing the dirt’s nutrients lost during the previous spring and summer. It is the layer that makes possible the promised explosion of new life that comes with spring. It is the gift from the forest back to the earth, offering thanks for another year of shared existence. Humus, as Parker Palmer reminds us above, is also the source of our English word humility.

Humility is that posture of willfully lowering ourselves to be broken down, making us available to be used for some greater purpose. Like leaves broken down to be used for the next spring’s rebirth, so too, we must willingly prepare to be broken down so that we might be used to make something greater than ourselves.

The writer of Luke’s gospel tells a story marking the significance of humility’s role in establishing a proper relationship, a relationship evidenced through divergent postures in prayer.  The author writes:

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, and even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; l give a tenth of all my income.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9-14)

Notice in the narrative from Luke’s gospel the prominent roles given to the two men’s postures.  The Pharisee prays, we may assume, using a standard prayer posture of the day, with his head raised up.  The tax collector prays, as the story deliberately points out, with his head down.  And, as is the case with most of the gospel stories, the narrative’s power is revealed in the dramatic reversal contained in Jesus’ summary.  Jesus declares that the sinful tax collector is righteous—i.e., in right relationship with God—while the self-righteous Pharisee is not.  More than this prayer posture evidencing right relationship, the story reminds us that our self-loathing—embodied in the tax collector—and self-righteousness—embodied in the Pharisee—might, also, lead to physical separation, a separation that is unnecessary.

Consider how both men separate from each other and others who have gathered for prayer.  The Pharisee stands alone and the tax collector stands alone.  For different reasons, they stand apart, positioning themselves apart from each other, from others, and from God.  This story is but a reminder, as Luke tells it, that the proper posture of our lives is not separation from anyone.  The Pharisee is separate because his self-righteousness, he believes, demands it.  And, the tax collector, believes himself to be separate from God, while in reality he is not according to Jesus’ judgment.

Ideas and images of posture and prayer, right-standing and proper relationship weave in and out through this story, tying together both men with a narrative thread suggesting that what God intends is not separation because of excessive humility or excessive righteousness but an eternal binding to God and each other because that is God’s hope, God’s desire.  The witness of the story and the entire gospel account offered by Luke is that all of humanity is bound together because of our common origin and destiny in the Divine.  Jesus’ life and work in the gospel is meant to stand as a witness to this binding character of God’s gracious intentions for us all.

As we consider this story from Luke’s gospel, may we each remember to foster communities of wholeness, a wholeness that requires some change in each of us.  Like the Pharisee, may we be broken down from our occasions of self-righteousness—I include myself, here.  Like the tax collector, may we spring to new life when reminded that our lives are of infinite value and worth even when we sometime are told and believe otherwise—I include myself, here, too. In the end, may we all find ourselves bound together in love, a love that weaves us together in a single garment of compassion, faith, wisdom, justice, and courage.  May this garment of love break us down and build us back up, all the while holding us close.

Have a great week and see you along the way.


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