For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!
-1 Corinthians 4:7-10 (NIV)
I guess I’ve been losing him for a few years now (Alzheimer’s is like that), but this past Monday Darrell Hutchens traded in his earthly life to be with the Lord. He got the best end of that transaction, that’s for sure. I know that, but I still miss him. Been missing him for while, but still — seems like there’s kind of a hole in the world now that he used to occupy.
It’s hard to describe that loss, isn’t it? But it’s real, that feeling of someone’s absence. Darrell was an elder at my church for 40 years, so the fact that I won’t ever see him in his accustomed pew again, or stand with him at the back doors to the auditorium “shaking out the brethren,” as he used to say, or hear him crack a joke — that makes me pretty sad. But it’s more than his physical absence. Back in my early years as a minister, I’d call him pretty often. He wouldn’t usually tell me what to do, that wasn’t really his style, but somehow talking to him about this thing or the other was pretty comforting. Even better was the way he had of making me think that he believed in me, that he trusted me, that he knew I’d make the right call. (And when I didn’t, that he knew I would the next time.) I’ve had minister colleagues tell me about elders who undermined them at every turn, and when they do I can only shake my head and say how sorry I am. Never once did I receive anything but support and love from Darrell.
I knew Darrell for 26 years. For all but the last couple of those years, we were together two or three days a week. We made difficult decisions together, prayed together, stood beside deathbeds together. I thought I knew a lot about him. But at his funeral this week, I discovered a secret he’d been keeping from me.
I knew he was retired from the Army, and that he was in Korea during the Korean War. I had the impression, from what he had told me about his service time, that he’d spent most of his time there as support, not right on the front lines. He didn’t seem to mind talking about his time in Korea, but he mostly did so by making jokes. I should have known it was deflection, but that never occurred to me.
At his funeral, though, some of his grandkids had put together a table with military memorabilia. There was his dress jacket. A scrapbook. A Sharpshooter medal, like my dad has from his time in the National Guard. But also the secret, in its pretty velvet box: a Bronze Star.
There was an accompanying note, from the verification for the award. It told of Darrell being part of a company of soldiers under attack, being knocked to the ground by an explosion, and then getting to his feet to carry a wounded man to safety “at risk of his own life.”
My friend of 26 years was a Bronze Star recipient, and I had no idea.
In retrospect, though, I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised that Darrell would have done some courageous and selfless thing to help someone because I’ve seen him do that kind of thing for as long as I’ve known him.
Neither am I surprised that he never mentioned it, that it never came up in conversation. He would have felt the recognition was unnecessary because he wouldn’t have thought of the act as particularly heroic. In his mind, probably, he was doing what anyone would do and should do if they found themselves in that situation. Had someone else mentioned the medal, he would have probably blown it off with a joke, maybe about just being in the wrong place at the right time, or something like that.
Self-promotion is easier than it’s ever been. All you need is a Twitter feed, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, or any of a hundred other social media platforms. You can promote your own opinions, accomplishments, brand, business, talent, or status in any way you want to. I suppose there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, even if we wanted to. And sometimes that ability to self-promote is necessary and comes in handy.
We’ve even perfected the art of the humblebrag, wherein you can tout your achievements in a way that sounds self-effacing. (Here’s a clumsy attempt by actor Jared Leto.)
Darrell, though, was a relic in that way. He was a product of and a throwback to a time and place in which you didn’t boast about your accomplishments. You didn’t humblebrag; you just didn’t mention it.
There’s a place and time for self-promotion, maybe even for a strategic humblebrag. But I think it’s better for people who want to follow Jesus to keep the self-promotion to a minimum. Paul reminds us, after all, that what we possess, attain, accomplish, achieve, or earn doesn’t make us different — read, better — than anyone else. Oh, we may be better at this thing or that thing, but not a better person.
We tend to brag, I think, because we have a sneaking suspicion that we’re not enough. We want to be seen as competent, successful, interesting. We want to be admired. Boasting is our defensive reaction to feelings of inferiority and insecurity. It’s our clumsy attempt to vault over someone else in the rankings that are really only in our heads.
Jesus taught us, though, that we’re loved and valued by God just as we are, even stripped of anything that other people might find admirable. God doesn’t love us for what we can do. He loves us for who we are.
Paul reminds us, too, that the things we have achieved and attained aren’t only about us. They are, in one way or another, a gift. Ultimately, everything we have comes from God. Indirectly or directly, other people contribute, too. None of us only have ourselves to congratulate for our success. All of us need to thank God for his grace and generosity, and all of us have a long list of other people who have contributed to our successes. That doesn’t diminish what we accomplish, but it does put it in perspective.
Not only that, but there is a time to accept dishonor over honor, poverty over wealth. There is a time for us to accept the judgment of others that we are, even, fools. That’s because, when we follow Jesus, there will be times that we’re misunderstood by those who don’t. When those times come, we must resist the impulse for self-promotion. We must pull back from the reflex toward self-aggrandizement. Because, after all, the One we follow did exactly that. He accepted dishonor, ridicule, mockery, and even violence and death.
In accepting the hatred of other people and returning love, he found God’s life.
I’m convinced that Darrell didn’t brag about his accomplishments because he was clear on whose approval he most wanted.
Thanks, my friend, for one last lesson.
I’ll do my best to do you proud.