The Stranger

The little boy walked out of the classroom and on to the crowded school playground. Everywhere he looked, he could see kids. Kids chatting away happily. Kids playing games excitedly. Kids chugging down sandwiches ravenously. Lots of happy, contented, comfortable kids … except one.

The little boy walked slowly across the playground, hoping that someone would say something to him. They didn’t. He stopped to watch a soccer game optimistically, hoping someone would invite him to join. They didn’t. Finally, awkwardly, he reached a bench by the fence under a tree. He sat down, alone, and began to chew on his lunch, trying all the time to look as if he was deep in thought, and sitting alone by choice.

Of course, he wasn’t.

Have you ever had an experience like this? If you have, then you probably grew up with a fear of being the outcast. you will understand perfectly the horror of the kind of situation I have just described. There’s no doubt about it: being the stranger, the outcast, must be one of the worst experiences in the world.

Or is it?

There was one Outcast who didn’t seem to mind very much. He sort of hung around with other outcasts and strangers, until He sort of made His own little circle that every stranger could feel a part of. This new circle was well outside the normal ‘in crowd’, and most of those in the in crowd smirked and then wondered, and then grew jealous and decided to squish it. But the nice thing is that although they thought they squished it, it is still growing bigger.

Even now, strangers and outcasts are finding this society of outcasts, and being welcomed with open arms. In fact, most people don’t ever find their way into it until they are outcasts and strangers. Which means that you generally don’t get in unless you’re pretty down and out, at the end of your tether, on your last legs, and any other metaphor you can think of.

Funnily enough, we spend most of our lives pretty much trying to avoid joining this group, and thus never get to meet it’s wonderful Founder. We invest a tremendous amount of effort and time into fitting in and making ourselves feel at home. We do this in a hundred different ways. We are doing it when we laugh at that crude joke, or let ourselves get so attached to that electronic gadget, or feel that we are part of the furniture at work.

I learned how to be a stranger at a young age when my family had to move from the house I had grown up in. I loved that house! On the last day, I even secretly gave the wall a kiss to say goodbye (I was pretty young). I learned that day that it is painful to be too attached to any material thing on this earth, because sooner or later, you were going to have to lose it, and then it would feel like you were losing a part of yourself. Better not to let it become such an important part of yourself in the first place!

But you have to be attached to something. No one can live their life in a sort of free fall! Every single one of us has to belong somewhere. Enter the Stranger. The nice thing about Him is that He will never disappear on you. Never. Ever. When you feel you belong to Him, you feel like you don’t need to belong to anything else. You have your identity, you know who you are, you know where your house is (and your treasure and your heart also).

… and we too who are sojourners in this world, keep us in Your faith, and grant us Your peace until the end …


Continuing on the topic of pride, Tony writes about arrogance.

I think everyone has a mental picture of the arrogant person. You know what I mean, haughty, sneering, belittling everyone else as he (or she) ries to take control of every situation, supremely confident in their own unassailable superiority. Perhaps you can even think of a few characters who best illustrate arrogance: King Nebuchadnezzar (I love that name!) ruling with a rod of iron; Goliath sneering down his rather large nose at the frail little boy in front of him; George W Bush saving the world … the list could go on.

That is the obvious kind of arrogance. It is pretty easy to spot, well, in others at least. Perhaps it is much harder to spot in ourselves? But there is a much more subtle form of arrogance, a sort “humble arrogance” if that is not an oxymoron.This type is far harder to detect, and thus far harder to be rid of. This subtle arrogance whispers rather than roars and insinuates rather than storms.

I have found it sometimes (far more often than I like) lurking hungrily at the back of my thoughts, just waiting for its opportunity to pounce. Someone, Mr X, let us say, says something rather silly in front of me. Immediately, my Judgement Resistance Program kicks into action: Poor fellow – he didn’t notice what he was saying. I’m sure he didn’t mean it to come out that way. He’s really quite a nice guy deep down inside… But then, the trouble begins:

You noticed how stupid that was, didn’t you. Of course – that’s why you’re making excuses for him. Naturally, it is obvious that if you noticed and he didn’t, then you must be much smarter than him, eh? That’s nice to know. Very nice. Wish a few other people knew it to. Why can’t they see and appreciate my humility? Why don’t they listen to me more? Isn’t it so obvious that the person who can immediately see through such stupidity is worth listening to? What’s wrong with them? Am I the only one who can see this? HELLO!

I’d rather not try to write any more of that voice. I find it rather disturbing; perhaps because it is a little too close to home? We don’t need to be outwardly arrogant in order to be arrogant. In some ways, subtle arrogance is much worse than blatant arrogance. At least blatant arrogance is out there for everyone to see. There is no hypocrisy involved, and there is always the chance that one day, someone will point out my arrogance to me so clearly that I will wake up to myself and do something to fix it. But with subtle arrogance, what you see is most certainly not what you get. There is a humble modest facade covering a stinking tomb of pride. And so long as it remains hidden, it is very hard to repent from it. Sin is always most comfortable in the dark.

Yet even the subtle arrogance will sometimes manifest itself indirectly in public. Three years later, and we are standing around talking about an upcoming wedding. “Who do you think will give the speech at the reception?” someone asks. “It would have to be Mr X, wouldn’t it? He’s the best public speaker I know by far!” Before I know it, my tongue has taken on a life of its own and I find myself blurting out, “Mr X? That little twerp!?”

Oops. What was it that Jesus said? “A good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit”. Or what about, “For there is nothing that is hidden that shall not be made manifest.” With either one of them, I’m in trouble!

How much nicer instead to ba able to sincerely apply the words of St Paul to Titus: “To the pure, all things are pure”


Some thoughts on Humility

Someone once told me that that trying to knock over the sin of pride is like trying to knock over a ball. If you push it over from any direction, it is still standing. I think what that means is that pride is a very resistant sin indeed. So here are a few recent thoughts on the subject…

When we fall into other sins, it should make it easier to overcome the sin of pride. After all, what have I to be proud of when my weakness and disgrace is laid bare before my very eyes? Yet strangely, sometimes we don’t see it that way. Sometimes the pride is so resilient within us that we think something like: “Yeah, sure I messed up, but I’m still better than so-and-so! He messed up much worse than me!” Or perhaps: “Ok, so I made a mistake. I know I’m not absolutely perfect, but Im still pretty close!” Then of course, there’s the old favourite, Buck Passing: “It wasn’t my fault I messed up – it was him/her/them. They made me do it!”

The Desert Fathers often encourage us to always place our sins before our eyes. This is not meant, I am sure, in the morbid way it is sometimes understood. It is not meant to ‘beat us down’ and make us feel miserable about ourselves. The Desert Fathers actually had a pretty healthy sense of self-esteem that could bear with this burden of sin, but their self-esteem was built on different foundation to most of us. One of my favourite sayings is the Father who described his spiritual battle thus:

Whenever I become proud, I think of my sins and I say to myself, there, what have you to be proud of you awful sinner? And whenever I fall into despair because of my sins, I say to myself, yes, but God still still loves me!

What a beautifully balanced personality! His self-esteem does not come from the kinds of things we use for self-esteem, like our abilities or achievements, the kind of job we do, the size of our house, the gadgets we own or comparing ourselves to others. This happy man builds his self esteem on something that he can never lose – the love of God for him. But there is an added benefit to this way of thinking: that is that there can be no pride in this self-esteem. Think about it. Can he take any of the credit for being loved by God? God does not love him because he is saintly (God sees all his sins, hidden and manifest), nor will God be impressed by his achievements or talents (where did he get them in the first place?). God doesn’t care about the latest gadget, and He isn;t impressed that you are clever enough to get one. In fact, you can’t impress God no matter how you try. The only reason God will love you is because He is Love. And that makes all the difference.

It isn’t easy, learning to think like this. We find it so much more secure to cling to our little bag of self-admiration, and we constantly seek for new things to boost our ego. It makes us feel better about life: there is no doubt of that. But in the long run, it is fighting a losing battle. A human being and his/her abilities is just too fragile a base to support our self-esteem for long. Sooner or later, we will have to face up to the fact that we are faulty, mixed up and terribly fallible. And when that kind of self-esteem comes crashing down, it’s pretty ugly.

If you think about, it is a pretty wise investment in the future to start working on this now. Better to begin transferring all my self-esteem stocks to the Bank of God, before the Bank of Me comes crashing down to earth.