My step-dad, DeWayne, had what you might call a “humble beginning.” Born in the years just after World War II to a hard-working Army Veteran and a devoted Southern Belle, he himself was prevented from enlisting because of a bad back. Vietnam happened without DeWayne, even though he would rather have served.
Always hard-working, DeWayne had moved on to become a full-time farmer by the time I met him. I was 11 years old, and he was dating my mother. Those humble beginnings, the very ones that kept him out of ‘Nam and the rest of the world, kept him knee deep in the same dirt he sprouted from, planting and harvesting, birthing and slaughtering the rest of his life.
Throughout the years, as I abandoned my own humble beginnings and moved away from the gravel roads, fence-lined fields, and chicken-fried steak of rural Indiana, I couldn’t help but want to raise DeWayne’s sights, to give him a vision of the “more” he could have.
I had all kinds of ideas for his farm that would make him more money, offer him more attention, and generally help DeWayne and my mom spend more time away from the farm. I suggested he could subdivide the fields and sell them to the city people moving to our county for a simpler life. I introduced him to the term “agritourism” and suggested he sell u-Pick strawberries or cut-your-own Christmas trees and maybe offer a corn maze in October. I even pitched the idea of growing an organic garden and selling produce at the Farmers Market.
DeWayne’s response? A furled brow, head cocked slightly downward, and a definitive, “no” on his lips. He didn’t want more money or more attention. And he definitely didn’t want more time away. He intended to ride his humble beginning all the way to a humble ending right there on the farm.
When he took his last breath, he was sleeping on the couch, the crops nearing harvest in the field behind the barn, the calves being brought back home from a neighboring farm to pasture.
When I decided on the theme of “humility” for Thursday mornings here in December, I was thinking particularly of the incarnation and the humble King Jesus born in the stable. In her essay, “How Does Humility Factor into Your Role as a Leader?” Deidra Riggs says Jesus sets the best example of humility. “Whatever we believe about Jesus,” she writes, “it’s hard to overlook the fact that he was a servant, refusing to get up on his high horse, even though he had every right to do so.” Never was there a more humble beginning, especially when the truth of Jesus as Messiah was finally revealed.
And that’s just the connotation of the phrase “humble beginning.” Very rarely is it applied to someone like my step-dad whose life ended very much on the same social or economic strata as it began. Usually, we think of the “humble beginnings” of someone who now has “made it,” whose fame or fortune or power has propelled him away from his roots.
If we are honest, most of us want that, right? Or at least we want that for our children, or for their children. We want to grow and change and develop and improve. We want bigger and better. We want more.
In her essay, “Runner-Up: Lessons in Humility from Almost Willing,” Dena Dyer shares a story of that same kind of drive in her life as a performer and writer. “As a young woman with emotional baggage and a skewed view of God’s grace, I had made accomplishment and approval-seeking my idols. In my small town high school, I racked up awards, whether they were meaningful or not. None of it satisfied. There was always some other goal to strive for or pinnacle to climb towards,” she writes.
In Psalm 131, however, we see a different trajectory. In this song the Israelites sang on their way up to Jerusalem for feasts and festivals, we see humility celebrated as a possible middle, or even an end, not just a beginning.
God, I’m not trying to rule the roost,
I don’t want to be king of the mountain.
I haven’t meddled where I have no business
or fantasized grandiose plans.
I’ve kept my feet on the ground,
I’ve cultivated a quiet heart.
Like a baby content in its mother’s arms,
my soul is a baby content.
Wait, Israel, for God. Wait with hope.
Hope now; hope always! (from The Message)
In our “reach for the stars,” “everything is possible,” “the future is so bright you’ve gotta wear shades” culture, we don’t like the fact that some things may be above us or just aren’t our business. See, we want to reach for the stars not keep our feet planted firmly in the dirt.
I learned a lot from my step-dad about cultivating a quiet heart as he quietly cultivated hundreds of acres each year. And I’ve learned a lot about what it truly means to be king of the mountain, from a Galilean carpenter who wore a crown of thorns.
I’ve fantasized many a grandiose plan in my day. Now, I’m ready for contentment.
Contentment with hope.
Interested in reading more about Humility? In addition to The High Calling articles linked in the text above, here are a few resources from around the internet that address The High Calling of Humility.
In his August 26, 2013, article, “Why Humility Matters for Faith, Work, & Economics,” for The Institute of Faith, Work, and Economics, Hugh Whelchel advocates for a humble approach to complex issues. “We must learn from past mistakes Christians have made in the interpretation of general and special revelation,” he says, “and be reminded that we are capable of making the same kinds of mistakes.”
In an article by T. Patrick Donnelly on December 7, 2013, in Work Design Magazine, called “The Role of Organization Humility in Workpace Design,” he talks about organization humility, which differs from personal humility by emphasizing “an ability to learn and be open to new ideas” rather than “a mild or submissive demeanor.”
Organization humility affects every level of business, from leadership to workflow, from structure to production. “Far from indicating meekness or weakness, organizational humility requires confidence and courage,” Donnelly writes. “It is the backbone of successful organizations and enables great design.”
In the September 9, 2013, Harvard Business Review article, “Six Principles for Developing Humility as a Leader” by John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin, the authors not only praise humility as an exceptional leadership trait, they also believe humble leaders aren’t born. They’re made.
“But beyond refusing to hire or promote such extreme cases, can and should organizations try to cultivate more humility in their leadership ranks?” the authors ask. “How would that goal take shape in the context of a formal leadership development program? As a starting point, we would suggest a curriculum designed around six basic principles,” including “know what you don’t know, resist falling for your own publicity, never underestimate the competition, embrace and promote a spirit of service, listen, even (no, especially) to the weird ideas, and be passionately curious.”