Wednesday, July 25, 2007

We (Pridefully) Are Number One!

This fall at some football game it is inevitable you will see zealous students waving their index finger in the air and proclaiming "We're Number One" over and over. And it will be just as certain that they are not. They may have a good won-loss record, perhaps 7-3, but more than likely they will be second or third in their conference, certainly not number one in the nation.

Rampant, exuberant pride will blind the student body to its losses and propel their unfounded claim. We understand all this and take it with a grain of salt. Kids love their school, want to think of it as great, and, allow some of the "greatness" to filter down on themselves.

But it is harder to understand when adults make such a claim for themselves, when the evidence so clearly points elsewhere.

Witness: Pope Benedict XVI a couple of weeks ago declared that the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) was the only true church.
Other churches havc elements of holiness, the Pope said, but are defective.

Oh my, oh my! This pronouncement, echoing such claims of a bygone day, came during the very same week when the Los Angeles diocese of the RCC announced it was going to pay $660 million to persons who claimed to be sexual abuse victims of church priests.

Add to that the millions and millions other archbishops have coughed over to those offended by their priests and you have a "defect" larger that a billion dollars, and -- even worse -- thousands and thousands of lives blighted. The only true church? We're number one indeed!

Weekly a small group of men meet in our church. Recently one person noted that pride was one of the deadly sins. Quite a discussion ensued, with such statements as "I'm proud to be an American." and "I take pride in my work." And those meanings of "pride" do abound in our popular usage.

But pride's first meaning in your dictionary (look it up) is "overhigh opinion of oneself, exaggerated self-esteem and conceit". It is this kind of "blowing oneself up" that leads us humans to think we are better than everyone else.

When I was growing up in West Texas there was a church there which claimed it was the only true church. All other churches (including the RCC) were false churches because they had practices which were not found in the New Testament (e.g., using pianos in worship, calling their building a "church", naming their churches after saints, etc.).

Many other churches or religious bodies have asserted their exclusive righteousness, their special standing before God. Ever hear the phrase "chosen race" or "chosen people"? In the Christian church we struggle with the early church's quote of Jesus: "No one comes to the Father except through me." And the Islamic and Jewish faiths have adherents who make a similar claim, "we are the only way to salvation".

It is a childish arrogance to proclaim oneself or one's group as the one group or people on all the earth whom God loves more than others.

Years ago I worked as a caseworker on a psychiatric unit at a state hospital. It was not unusual for us to admit persons with many different delusions. E.g., unwed mothers often claimed to be the virgin Mary. Once we had two different patients, both claiming to be Jesus Christ. Even to them it was obvious that there could not be two of them. When confronted with that contradiction, one of them replied, "Well, I am the real Jesus, he is a fake." And, of course the other patient said the same thing.

Whenever we are led to claim that we are special, while others are ordindary, chances are our claim is based on prideful delusion.

Why do we do this? Do we not all want to be special? Do we not all want to be important? In the Christian Scripture the mother of James and John wanted to insure a seat of importance for her sons in heaven. As disciples of Jesus, they were already important to Jesus, but their mother wanted them to sit in places of honor (Matthew 20.21). She wanted her sons to be number one (and number two, I suppose).

The antidote to this kind of thinking is humility---the opposite of pride. I have often wondered about the relationship between the word "humility" and "humus". The latter is a rich and fertile dirt, but still, only dirt. And, in the Jewish story of creation, God made man out of dirt. To me this suggests that our true satisfaction in life is rooted in the knowledge that we come from "dirt" and to "dirt" we will return.

In a "first-shall-be-last" kingdom, claiming we are number one almost certainly assures that we are not.