To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Who was the first president of the United States?
That may sound like the easiest question on an American history pop quiz.
But over the years a surprising number of different answers have been proposed.
It really comes down to when America actually became a nation. The Fourth of July commemorates 1776’s Declaration of Independence – the courageous public statement by key colonial leaders of their intention to break with English rule. But that was not actually the same thing as launching a new government.
Early in 1781, after years of negotiation, the last of the 13 colonies agreed to abide by the Articles of Confederation – America’s first organizing document. It became the law of the land on March 1 of that year.
Representatives from each colony promptly elected John Hanson of Maryland (shown above) to be “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.” He was granted a house and a handful of servants, and was assured that his leadership “takes precedence of all and every person in the United States.”
Was Hanson’s authority widely acknowledged? Here’s a note he received shortly after taking office: “I congratulate your Excellency on your appointment to fill the most important seat in the United States.” It was signed by none other than George Washington.
Before we begin to wonder if the wrong guy’s face ended up on the one-dollar bill, we should note that Hanson wasn’t particularly thrilled by this role. After just one week, he felt bored and was ready to walk.
His colleagues, however, talked him into serving his entire one-year term. Under his leadership, Congress established the Treasury Department, the Great Seal of the United States (which still appears on that same one-dollar bill), and declared that the fourth Thursday of November should annually be “a day of Thanksgiving” – a decision which would ultimately bring joy to many merchants and the National Football League, but not so much to a considerable number of turkeys.
Six additional one-year presidents served under the Articles of Confederation before America’s official Constitution was adopted in 1788 – the one that would bring Washington to power.
A few historians have therefore suggested that George was actually our nation’s eighth president. Others have pointed out that men like Samuel Huntington, Samuel Johnston, and Thomas McKean were, at one time or another, America’s chief executive during a time when our country was struggling to move from a ragtag collection of colonies to a sovereign nation.
What we know for sure is that America’s “founding generation” was blessed with hundreds of extraordinary leaders.
The spotlight generally shines on just a few – particularly Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson.
That’s the Iceberg Effect. In every human endeavor, a small number of players receive the headlines, while the vast majority remain “under the surface” – quickly forgotten (like President John Hanson) or hidden entirely from view. The story of America’s independence couldn’t have happened without them. But their faces didn’t end up on our currency or their names on local high schools.
According to Jesus, something similar is happening in the grand Story of God’s relationship with humanity.
At any given moment, there are a handful of men and women who stand out against the backdrop of spiritual history. We hear their sermons, read their books, and thrill to their stories of undertaking great tasks for God. But the vast majority of what is happening at any given moment, and what God is actually accomplishing in the world, is taking place amongst the “supporting cast.” That would mean the rest of us who are going forward quietly, prayerfully, and sometimes painfully – under the radar – one ordinary day after another.
Jesus has a surprise for us.
Matthew 20:16 is one of his most striking statements: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Theologians call it the Great Reversal. When God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, we’ll find out that many of the headline-makers were actually entangled by mere sideshows. The real Story was advancing by means of people who were simply trusting God.
In his short work of fantasy The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis takes us to the suburbs of heaven where, through a narrator and his guide, we have the chance to observe some of those who have graduated to the next world.
At one point there is a procession marked by dancing light, scattered flowers, and joyful musicians. A special lady is approaching. The narrator is overcome by “the unbearable beauty of her face.”
“Is it? Is it?” he asks, perhaps thinking he’s experiencing the incredible privilege of seeing the Lord’s own mother. “No,” says the guide, “this is someone you will never have heard of. She went on earth by the name Sarah Smith.” Is she a person of particular importance? “Aye,” continues the guide, “she is one of the great ones.”
If she’s one of the great ones, why hasn’t the narrator ever heard of her?
“Fame in this country and fame on earth are two different things,” he explains.
She is surrounded by what appear to be her sons and daughters – not because they were her actual children, but because “every young man or boy who met her became her son, even if it was only the boy who delivered meat to her back door.” And “every girl who met her became her daughter.” A menagerie of cats, dogs, horses, and birds accompany her as well, because “every beast that came near her had a place in her love.” In her presence, such creatures became themselves.
Lewis intends for us to understand that Sarah Smith appeared to be no one special. She bore no titles and heard no accolades. Her picture never appeared on a magazine cover.
But she is one of God’s great ones. Fame in heaven and fame on earth on two very different things.
It’s no doubt a very good thing that there’s no Discipleship Mount Rushmore – the chiseled faces of God’s four greatest spiritual heroes. God alone would know whose faces might belong on such a monument.
In the meantime, the only thing we need to know is that our job assignment is the same today as it will be tomorrow and the next day:
Love God and love others.
That’s what it means to be one of God’s champions.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.