I grew up near a small town that had a big Labor Day weekend celebration. For a farm kid, it rivaled Christmas for excitement. There were carnival rides, barkers hawking games, a big parade, an alumni dance at the local ballroom, contests of all kinds.
The streets were closed to traffic, and people spilled out of the pubs that overflowed with revelers. No Knight of Columbus missed his chance to flip a pancake.
Eventually, I moved far away but every Labor Day would bring memories.
So, since I live in Nebraska now, I decided to head out to the Labor Day parade in the old hometown.
You know that Thomas Wolfe novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again”? There’s a reason that title has worked its way into the American lexicon. Labor Day sure wasn’t what it was when I was 12.
However, I did experience one of those little God moments that St. Ignatius speaks of — the idea of finding God in all things, sometimes unexpectedly. That Sunday’s readings had focused on humility, a hard virtue to define.
Jesus said not to hide your lamp under a basket, and we know a lack of self-esteem is not true humility. Yet, we live in an uncomfortably self-promotional age.
Publish something? Receive an award? Broadcast it on Twitter and Facebook. Move up in the company? Announce it on LinkedIn. Traveling? Be sure that Instagram shot is flattering. Tout your accomplishments.
Where does humility fit in?
At the parade, we found a shady spot and an old friend joined us. He unexpectedly provoked some thoughts about humility.
Our family farms had been close, and as kids we all spent much time together. Unlike me, after college he returned to our small hometown, married, had a large family and worked in a local bank until he became the president. After many years, he recently retired, and was enjoying 15 grandchildren, including an adorable baby he brought over to meet me.
I told him I was a little disappointed in the celebration, and that I’d be really disappointed if I found no old friends, or even anyone who recognized me.
Then he told me a story. After retiring, he went back to the bank one day to open a new account — probably for the adorable grandchild on his lap.
A young woman who was a new hire assisted him, and before the bank manager could come out to greet him, the clerk asked, “And have you ever had a prior relationship with us?” She had no clue he was until recently the bank president.
He found it funny; she was ultimately quite embarrassed.
Then, he reminded me of some men who were very prominent when we were kids — the grain elevator owner, the oil company guy, the big shots who became mayor or held court at the golf course.
“You know,” he said, “if you walked down the street right now and mentioned them, these people wouldn’t know who you were talking about.”
On the drive home to the city, I looked at the corn waving in the breeze, awaiting the harvest. I thought of how small each of us is in the universe and how briefly, like the grass of the field, we live. The important things have nothing to do with recognition or honors or fame.
Maybe this knowledge is at the heart of humility. In this mystery of faith, we’re loved by God in this moment, this transient and beautiful gift. To be humble is to accept that and to be present to each fleeting moment, to each ordinary grace-filled, God-filled moment.