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Thoughts on Humility from Africa

by Marge Abbott 

As I’ve been working on my latest book which considers the ways in which Friends experience and talk about prophetic ministry today, numerous Friends have shared their perspectives. Esther Mombo of Kenya and the late Moses Bigirimana of Burundi both attended the 2012 World Conference of Friends in Kenya where I had the opportunity to speak at length about the nature of prophetic ministry. Moses, unfortunately, died in a motorcycle crash a few months later. What follows is a taste of these two extended conversations.

To Be Humble Enough to Step Down

Esther Mombo, of Nairobi Yearly Meeting, has spoken often with a strong clear prophetic voice and was the main plenary speaker at the World Conference representing African Friends. When asked about the nature of prophetic ministry, she emphasized the importance of being willing to test a call to ministry or leadership on an ongoing basis. We each must be aware of when it is appropriate say, “no, it is not from God for me to do this.” She went on to expand on this:

To be humble enough to step down.  I am speaking from a context where many people they may not step down until they die. There are too many who stay too long.  To be humble enough to say I think so and so can do that better than I, so that I am not the one who knows it all.

Prophetic ministry is shared ministry. That is why there were many prophets. Even today there are many prophets that come in our midst.

It takes humility to acknowledge that I am not the only one who can do it and to be able to raise the others as well into the ministry rather than to be the “lone ranger” as we say here.  I don’t believe the prophetic minister is the lone ranger. It is a shared ministry, either by couples or by meetings or by friends. But it is a humbling experience, it is not one you grab.

Esther adds the wonderful dimension of knowing prophetic ministry as giving permission to argue with God.

It is one ministry where you question God. When you read of the prophets, most of them say “why me?’  But I also believe that God does give us the strength to go on in that ministry. It is one where we have to be aware that God can move even stones.   This is where we need to be aware that God doesn’t even need you, but can use stones, trees.

“Why me?” is a question I’ve often asked, especially when I am preparing to speak and my nerves take over. But Esther also reminds us of the strength we will be given, a reality I have learned to trust. For me, it means stepping into the place of fear, and knowing that fear is often a guidepost showing what I most need to say.

It’s All About How You Relate to People 

Moses Bigirimana, of Kibimba Yearly Meeting, Burundi and served as the legal representative for Burundian Friends, lived through the terrible violence in his nation. When I spoke with him at the World Conference he reflected at length on the nature of humility.

Humility is all about behavior — how you relate to people, how you communicate to people, the socio-status you are giving yourself, the way you are treating other people. More precisely, it is the way you understand that even other people are important:  they have a place, they can do something. You are somehow equal to other people so there is room for other people in your attitudes.  You don’t undermine them; you give them chances to do things; you seek to understand them.

It is so easy to confuse humility with humiliation and see it as a sign of weakness.  Rather it has dimensions of self-discipline.Humility does not mean cowardliness, but to express yourself but to have room for the other ideas, have room for more understanding.  Also, the way you express yourself, both in writing and in speaking, you control your own words so as not to wound others. Avoid attacks, but just make yourself understood and use modest language.  Maybe your appearance, the kind of clothes you are putting on, can make a difference, not dressing extravagantly. That is how I understand humility.  But spiritually speaking, humility is just to recognize and abide with the inner voice of the Holy Spirit, just accept what he is telling you to do in all parts of your life.

These are powerful words from a man deeply affected by the turmoil his nation has faced and the trauma that results from such violence. He knew beyond doubt the painful consequences of arrogance and the need to stand up to the harshness that reality can throw into any of our lives.

Speaking Out Against Wrong-Doing

I asked Moses Bigirimana about how this stance of humility functions when a person has to say that something is really wrong, and assert that with enough authority to make his or her voice heard. This was his response:

One thing to do is not to be passive, don’t just let whatever is happening happen. You must address that but in a very bright manner, in being simple. Not confronting others, but seeking to understand what is going on, that is number one.  Then after understanding give your own insight as to what may be the way out and create a better space to communicate, communicating humbly, without attacking.

Moses’ approach is a good counter to the tendency of so many to avoid confrontation at all cost. He is clear that stepping forward when things go wrong is crucial. But if we can step forward with clarity, but without hostility new ways can open. By clarifying a situation, it is possible to learn some of the complexities of the situation and gain insight on the true issues to be resolved.

Yet whenever you want to talk about a sensitive thing, the other person may be looking at it as an attack. (Yes, I have experienced this several times).  But you just keep on. You don’t just persist — if doing that particular thing is not right, or if you are not the right person, you just find another one to do it.  It may not work for you, but if you find someone else it may work. It is a matter of assessing the situation and seeing how it is.

Two things stand out for me in this last paragraph. First is having the awareness that people will naturally be defensive, and if you are perceived as attacking them they will not hear what you have to say. Thus, the value of stepping back and considering alternative approaches. Secondly, the awareness that I might not be the right person to speak up in any given circumstance. This can be hard to admit.

All of this tells me how often the prophetic voice may be very gentle and unobtrusive. It is concerned with bringing the community more in alignment with God’s Way, not with making someone’s reputation or who can shout loudest or debate most effectively. To walk humbly with our God is a discipline all of us might practice.