A few days ago I posted a picture on Instagram of all the trophies I had ever won.
There were plaques and medals of every sort — relics of past successes with a fine layer of dust topping off each. I have carted them around through no fewer than four moves. Name placards were missing off several. Super glue could not cure every ill–some were beyond repair. I never could bring myself to get rid of them. Just too many memories.
- The t-ball trophies marking a mediocre baseball career. I barely batted .100. Though I could field well and had a good arm, retirement was necessary upon completion of the 8th grade. No high school ball for me.
- Proof that I was a halfway decent basketball player lay dutifully in the box. Our 28-3 varsity team from my junior year of high school warranted a little glass trophy with an orange basketball sticker plastered to the middle. I barely saw any action that year, but I was on the state-ranked team nonetheless. And there were four or five All Tournament team plaques from college, too. But it was Bible college basketball–not exactly a huge deal.
- There were nods to my farming days. Some trophies with sheep perched upon the top from my 4-H and FFA livestock shows. One plaque read “Market Lamb Carcass,” a sort of gross prize, when you think about it, awarded to the best–well, lamb carcass.
- There were cross country medals (not many), Preacher Boy contest trophies (if you don’t know what a Preacher Boy contest is, you’re missing out), and a gavel from my election to the Supreme Court at Boys State from the summer before my senior year.
- The crown jewel–my Panther of the Year trophy at Northwood R-4 Elementary School. I love that piece of fake gold and wood. I remember my nerves being on edge while I wait for the announcements. I remember my childhood hero handing me the trophy. I remember being over the moon with excitement at winning the prize for best student athlete in my school. Seriously, I love that trophy.
Or “loved,” I should say.
Right after I took the picture I loaded them up in one of those colorful plastic Rubbermaids and hauled them out to the dumpster at the corner of our church parking lot. I had used the pile of memorabilia to make a point a few days prior. I’d like to make that point here, too.
There are certain things we elevate to a status they were never meant to enjoy. For some people, money rests atop the pedestal. For others it’s human relationships: sex, belonging, and the like. Power players chase success, lazy bums conquer video games. They eat up our minutes and hours and days. We call them by other names — jobs, hobbies, extracurricular activities. In the Scripture they are called by another name:
It’s a strong word and one I don’t take lightly. And I don’t want to overstate things. I never bowed down to my Science Fair medal from 6th Grade (Did you know rabbit dung makes the most fertilizer? This is the discovery that fetched me Grand Prize.) The purpose of this post is not to point out your idol and convince you to smash it. The point of this little narrative riff is to confess mine and let you know that I have done my smashing, and it hurt a little.
My name and my past hold a place in my heart they don’t deserve. It matters to me what people think. It matters to me whether or not I’m liked. Since I was a young guy without much, riding the bench of the basketball team and finishing second place in just about everything, I wanted to matter. Who doesn’t? The problem is, that kind of ambition can get misplaced in your head. You can want to matter for your own glory or you can want to matter for God’s glory. I had a big old stack of fake gold commemorating my name and my mattering and my achievements, and they were singularly devoted to my own glory. At some point since I won them they had ceased being memories and started being a definition of who I was. I wasn’t okay with that. Jesus defines me, not how good I was at basketball fifteen years ago.
Even as I told the students in my youth ministry stories of past successes (as an intro into a discussion on the idols in their own lives) I could see it on their faces:
“Hey, Old Geezer. It’s cool and all that when you were 15 you had a well-musceled sheep. But seriously…cart around the trophy for almost 20 years following? Seems a little desperate.” It’s hard to argue with their assessment.
But idols do that to us. They hypnotize us into believing that they are more important than they actually are. Before you know it, we are bowing to them subconsciously.
So I threw all my trophies in a tub and dumped them in a dumpster. I know, I know, I could’ve recycled them or donated them or made cute little crafts out of them (as my favorite suggestion that appeared on my Facebook wall after posting the commemorative picture of my loot jokingly proposed). The only problem is I had already dumped them before I saw a single suggestion. And the other problem was I didn’t need to cling to them one more moment.
It was a sad day. Dumping things that matter too much to us into a dumpster usually is sad. The hardest was my Panther of the Year trophy. Honestly, it was a little heart-wrenching. It was my most significant adolescent achievement, hands down. But when that hardwood descended into the mound of trash bags for it’s final resting place, I didn’t un-win the award. The memory is still in my mind, the nervous feeling is retrievable from my sensory hard drive. My coach that handed it to me is still a hero of mine, and he always will be. And there’s a picture of me receiving the prize tucked away somewhere in another box marked “Memories.” Probably also in my garage, collecting dust.
The validation I once clung to is presently being compacted into a dense cube of banana peels, plastic cups, wet paper towels, and fast food bags with a few leftover french fries.
Somewhere in there is every trophy I ever won, finally in it’s rightful place.