In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable of a Pharisee who stood at the temple and declared, "God, I thank You that I am not like other men." The Pharisee went on to give specific examples of who he was better than and why. You can tell he had really thought this out! He had a very, very high opinion of himself. Meanwhile, a humble Publican stood far off with downcast eyes and a contrite heart. Beating his breast, he was able to say nothing else but, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!"
This story is one of those that just makes me internally say, "Ouch!" Been there. Done that. I am sooooo a Pharisee sometimes. Pride is a passion with deep and far-reaching roots. It rears its ugly head every chance it gets. Even when we don't realize it, we size people up and make judgments. Often, those quick judgments are way off the mark, but they will color our perception of the person in every way. We think we're better than other people. Maybe it's the guy at work who just never gets it right, and you're the one having to come behind and do all the clean up with no credit. Maybe it's the relative who has made a royal mess of her life, while you and your excellent wisdom saw it coming from a mile away. Maybe it's the family at church who just doesn't ever seem to do it the way it should be done, while you are a model of piety. The opportunities to make ourselves feel better than someone else are everywhere. Everywhere. Even if it's just getting huffy, because you didn't get to go first in line at the grocery store. Doesn't everyone know that you only have three items in your cart and that lady has five hundred and forty-three and you've been waiting there for two whole minutes and she just walked up and by golly you deserve it??? Thinking we know it all, can do it all, should be it all. Pride, pride, pride. Even when we do well, sometimes we ruin it by patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. Where is our humility? Where is our brokenness and emptiness that realizes our sin and our distance from God so profoundly, that all we can do is ask for mercy?
After we did our reading last night, we discussed pride as a family. I asked Lonna and Jared to go around the room and name three things that each person did well. I made them start with their little sister, which really made them have to think! Then, my husband and I added things to the mix. Finally, I gave them each a name of a person outside our family who I know they struggle getting along with. Someone they complain about who just doesn't do things right. Someone they think they're better than, whether they realize it or not. I asked them to name something that person did better than they did. I was impressed with their answers. They didn't go for the surface. They saw those people in a different light and bent those heads in humility. Good job guys!
Four year old Hilary listened to the Gospel reading, but then I did an activity with her to bring it on her level. "The Big Brag" is a story in the collection Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss. A rabbit and a bear get into an old-fashioned bragging contest, each claiming to be the best of the beasts. The rabbit brags that he can hear remarkably well. So well, that he can hear a fly on a mountain ninety miles away cough. Next, it's the bear's turn to brag. He claims that way, way past that silly little fly on the mountain is a tree. In that tree is a hummingbird nest. In that nest are two eggs. The bear can in fact smell that the egg on the left is a little bit stale! Just when the bragging is at its peak, a lowly worm appears. He claims that he can see better than they can hear or smell. He can see all the way to Japan and China. He says,
"I'd looked 'round the world and right back to this hill!
And I saw on this hill, since my eyesight's so keen,
The two biggest fools that have ever been seen!
And the fools that I saw were none other than you,
Who seem to have nothing else better to do
Than sit here and argue who's better than who!"
After the story, we talked about bragging. We started out by naming all the glorious things about the people in her life. We discussed how God made everyone good at different things, and how instead of seeing how good we are at something, we should focus on how good our neighbor is at what they do. Now, that concept flies in the face of much of our society's message to kids. In an attempt to build self-esteem, the world bends over backwards to give kids the battle cry, "I'm special!" Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying any child should be made to feel worthless, but sometimes it swings too far the other way. There's often no counterweight to kids being told they're the best. It's very difficult to be an American kid and not be filled to bursting with pride. Our "me" society grooms kids early to have it their way, on their schedule, and in their favorite color to boot. "No" is often a word that doesn't even appear in their vocabulary. Later, these same kids grow up to struggle with issues of tolerance and acceptance. They run over others in their endless pursuit to be the best, and they are devastated, when in shock, they realize that in fact they are not the center of the universe.
What a change there might be in our culture if we didn't wait so long to tell our kids that they're not always the best. Yes, shower them with praise for all the unique and generous gifts that God has given them as individuals! But also point out how smart, how talented, how loving, how giving, how beautiful, how wonderful the other kids are, too. Teach your child how to see that shining icon of God in everyone else. Especially the people that get on their nerves! Teach them how to go last. How to be a good loser. How to celebrate someone else. Teach them to be merciful, so that they may see how much they need to ask for mercy.
After our discussion, Hilary did some handwriting practice. We didn't use the words, "I'm the best," but rather, "You're the best!" As she wrote, we continued to talk about how loving it is to put others first.
Next, we used the idea of this craft. Hilary threaded beads on a chenille stem to make a bendable version of the worm from the story. I sneaked in some math skills by asking her to follow the pattern of one big bead and two little beads.
She loved the finished product. We bent him around her bedpost, so he could watch her sleep. She named him "Butter", which has nothing to do with a lesson on pride, but it's such a completely random and silly name, I had to include it!
The prayer that the Publican prays is the basis for that cornerstone of Orthodox prayer of the heart, the Jesus Prayer. In it, the words, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," are repeated over and over. In mystical simplicity, the heart turns to God in communion, and the soul repents anew each moment. No bragging about what we can do. Just humility and a yearning for the only One who can do it all. I'm encouraging Lonna and Jared to pray the Jesus Prayer more often this week. Pray it and think about the Publican who inspired it.
This week, I'm challenging myself to find one person each day who is better at something than me. Doesn't mean I'm bad, just that I'm not the best. We'll also refrain from fasting this week as a reminder that we can't use it to point out, like the Pharisee, that we're better than people who never fast. I'll defrost my turkey still waiting from those holiday sales and begin the ritual of getting rid of all the meat hiding in the depths of the freezer before Lent starts.
I think I might just have to make myself a worm, too. He would have a good home at my desk or somewhere else he could easily be seen. I need a reminder, too, that I'm not the best. My way is not the best. My ideas are not the best. My behavior is not the best. I am chief among sinners, and every time I think so highly of myself, I stand in the way of God. Only with humility, a bowed head, and beating my chest can I cry, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" I'm not the best, but I know Who is. I need Him more each day. Lord have mercy!