Who is Indispensable?

According to George Washington’s biographer, James Flexner, he was the “indispensable man” of US history. While other statesmen were signing documents, Washington was in the field training an army in the courage, stamina, and skill required to stand behind those documents. Outnumbered by the enemy, Washington’s ability to keep his troops together under dire circumstances was indispensable. In securing our Independence, he did the impossible against all odds and against the most powerful military force on earth.

Washington lived in an era of tyrants; like King George III, Robespierre, and Napoleon. He had enough popularity and prestige to become America’s first king, but he refused! He symbolized the American spirit at its best with his personal virtue, integrity, perseverance and sacrifice. In exile, the power-hungry Napoleon whined, “They wanted me to be another Washington.” Despite his military genius, Napoleon was incapable of that. Even King George III called his nemesis “the most distinguished man alive.”

In his Farewell Address on September 19, 1796, Washington told us what he considered as indispensable, and it was not himself:

    “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

At Washington’s funeral in 1799, Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee famously said the father of our country was: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Still, despite his passing, America survived.

There comes a time in every human life when politics, science, entertainment, education, money, and romance can no longer hold the hope we need to carry on. Yet, we often see this hope rise in brave hearts facing desperate circumstances. Where do they get it?

Funerals present a unique challenge to ministers like me who are no less human than those we are called on to comfort. So much is lost when death takes its toll. Devoted moms and dads seem indispensable. Loving wives and husbands, irreplaceable! Priceless legacies of faith, patriotic gratitude, and family values are often buried along with breathless bodies. As the minister, I try to bring the perspective of eternity to help mourners cope with the inevitable dispensability of our bodies. I also work to keep young people hinged to the positive, often indispensable, life legacies of the dear departed.

On February 13, 2016, the passing of a great American once again seemed to rob us of an indispensable man. In nearly 30 years of service on the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia (1936 –2016) became the single greatest defender of the US Constitution in an era when America needed it most.

Justice Antonin Scalia

Scalia graduated from high school in 1953 as the valedictorian, first in his class, and then from Georgetown University, summa cum laude, in 1957. While at Harvard law School, he met Maureen on a blind date and married her in 1960. She bore him nine children and they were together for 55 years. He graduated from Harvard magna cum laude and then served as a law school professor at the University of Virginia and at the University of Chicago. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia as judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Four years later, Reagan nominated him for the Supreme Court where he gained a unique reputation for a firm commitment to Constitutional textualism and originalism. He respected the Constitution as a binding legal document that meant what it said, not what power-players wanted it to say.

Our first President would be proud. Washington once said, “The Constitution which at any time exists, ’till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People, is sacredly obligatory upon all.”

Alas, too few of America’s most powerful leaders today share Washington and Scalia’s convictions on the US Constitution. Thus, Scalia’s passing left the impression on the hearts of millions that an indispensable defender of the Constitution was gone. However, Scalia himself understood the folly of thinking that a seat on the bench is somehow essential to the preservation of the society. He cited the time when Charles de Gaulle (1890 – 1970), President of France, was told he could not resign because he was indispensable. The French leader said, “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.”

American Individualism

Politicians profess great love for the common man while promising to use government wealth and power to take care of commoners. Sadly, this works like a charm in the new America that sees rugged individualism as a vice, not a virtue.

Rugged individualism is a tremendous force for good when it takes shape as a selfless advance toward accepting personal responsibility. Virtuous individualism calls up the courage to emerge from the crowd to play a self-reliant productive role in in the world as a grown up. You can take it to a detached or arrogant dark side, but that is your misunderstanding.

I enjoy movies with a message. In Frank Capra’s 1939 classic film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a young senator named Jefferson Smith gets his idealism tested in the face of relentless political corruption. Many of his new colleagues on Capitol Hill had long ago surrendered their dignity to the collective to ride the tide of popular power. Smith is overwhelmed by cynicism until he finds his spine and realizes he cannot stay free and decent without it. Finally, he rises up as a lone individual to face down the corruption, come what may.

In Mr. Smith, the American ideals and symbols we treasure take on meaning only when a man stands up all alone as a brave individual willing to live or die for his convictions. Sentimental patriotism is fine but without the courage of one’s informed conviction, it’s nothing.

American movie director, Frank Capra (1897 –1991) was an American by conviction, not by blood. Coming to America from Italy, he saw Lady Liberty with torch in hand for the first time at age five. His father exclaimed, “That’s the light of freedom!” The boy believed it. He learned that being an American had nothing to do with one’s race, gender, class, group, or social status. It has to do with seeing individual worth and dignity in all human beings endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights and liberties. Capra went on to win three Best Director Oscars.

Its a Wonderful Life
In another Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey watches his personal life fall apart. He is tempted to sell his entrepreneurial aspirations short and take a cushy job working for a heartless rich competitor. He resists this easy option, affirming his character as a self-reliant risk-taking American individual. George had always used his independently owned business to enable others to fulfill their dreams, while his dream remained on hold. When things went from bad to worse, he considers suicide, losing sight of his worth as an individual. An angel comes along, not to change his circumstances but to enlighten his perspective. He is shown a bigger picture of the good he had done for his community and his worth as an individual is reaffirmed.

Authentic American individualism is not about rejecting mutual association with others or running from commitments to family, church, community, or nation. We need each other. An English cleric named John Donne (1572 –1631) wrote: “No man is an island.” We get that. But belonging to a family, church, state, and country should never mean forfeiting your individual worth, personal integrity, or moral responsibilities.

Frank Capra’s films embody the plight of the individual against power politics, mass production, collective greed, mass media, lazy dependency, and mass conformity. He dedicated his art to keeping the principles and virtues he valued alive in the common man, not to make him/her weak and dependent but to cultivate strength and liberty. To this day, Ivory tower cynics scoff at Capra’s virtue-centered, freedom-loving worldview and it seems the scoffers are winning.

Having demonized rugged individualism, many Americans today seek cradle-to-grave care from our government. Self-reliance is belittled as coldly unrealistic. The desire for dependency is swallowing up nearly every virtue upon which the American character was built. The clamor for politicians to provide for our wealth, health, and happiness has yielded astronomical debt and unprecedented corruption. This is no fiction. There will be no way out of America’s debt-ridden state of dependency without some real rugged individualism, leaving all the selfish and arrogant stereotypes behind.

Finding Philip!

There are three Philips in the New Testament, all mostly forgotten. None were mentioned in the great faith chapter in Hebrews (11) but two out of three lived with a faith in Jesus worth finding.

Philip the Apostle.

First, there was a Philip from Bethsaida (a fishing village) among the 12 disciples. He was the pragmatist who calculated how much it would cost to feed a crowd (John 6:7). Later, Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father and Jesus replied, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip?” (John 14:9). Philip had missed Jesus’ teaching point that seeing Him amounted to seeing the Father. But after the risen Jesus ascended to heaven, Philip was among the apostles devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 1:13) and, presumably, much more.

Philip the Tetrarch.

Another Philip in the Bible was a son of Herod the Great, the brother of Herod Antipas, and the tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis. He married a woman named Herodias who left him to marry his brother, Herod Antipas. John the Baptist had the moral courage to stand up to Herod Antipas (tetrarch of Galilee) and say, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” (Matthew 14:4). Herod was not amused.

Philip the Evangelist.

The third Philip emerges from three passages that reveal several wonderful qualities of faith worth finding and keeping:

  • Acts 6:1-7. Not long after Jesus’ resurrection, the number of His followers in Jerusalem increased rapidly. The early church attracted both native Hebrew and Hellenist disciples. When some Hellenist widows in the Jerusalem church were being slighted in the daily serving of food, Philip was among the seven servants chosen to resolve the dispute that ensued. Each humbly deferred to the apostles decision. They were “men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). The result of this practical table-waiting ministry was that “the word of God kept on spreading.” (vs 7). Even some priests in Jerusalem obediently believed.
  • Acts 8. As the early church learned how to handle her internal disputes, persecution quickly rose from outsiders. Christians scattered abroad and preached Jesus wherever they went. Philip went to Samaria where his energetic preaching (and healings) attracted enthusiastic crowds and inspired great rejoicing (vs. 8). A former magician named Simon saw great power in Philip and came to believe and was baptized. Simon’s sincerity, however, turned out to be questionable. Later, on the south road from Jerusalem to Gaza, Philip encountered an Ethiopian eunuch (court official to queen Candace) and clearly explained a passage in Isaiah that pointed to Jesus the Messiah. The Ethiopian confessed faith and was baptized. Then, the Spirit of the Lord “snatched Philip away” and he ended up in Caesarea. The persecution of preachers back then was real but it did not deter the early church from amazing growth because bold but humble preachers like Philip were still willing to go wherever the Spirit led.
  • Acts 21:7-14. When the missionary Paul arrived in Caesarea, he was welcomed into the house of Philip the evangelist, a family man now with four faithful virgin daughters who were prophetesses. Twenty years previously, Paul presided over the brutal stoning of Stephen, one of the seven servants mentioned above. No doubt Stephen had been Philip’s friend. Yet, now he was hosting his friend’s killer in his own home. Philip trusted fully in Paul’s forgiveness. He understood the transforming power of grace. Now, fearing Paul would come to great harm in Jerusalem, Philip and others did their best to beg Paul not to go. They cared but Paul persisted. They submitted to God’s will.

Points of Inspiration!

The first Philip may have been a slow learner but Jesus saw great things in him and we see him as a man of prayer. The next Philip had power, but not enough to keep his wicked wife. The third Philip can be found in the following 12 points of inspiration:

  • He served the early church willingly, humbly, and unselfishly.
  • He helped resolve social and racial tensions in the church.
  • He submitted himself under the authority of the apostles.
  • He enjoyed a good reputation.
  • He was filled with and led by the Spirit.
  • He was known for his wisdom.
  • He was willing to be uprooted and spread the gospel as a refugee.
  • His healing and preaching ministry inspired great joy.
  • He was a powerful preacher, baptizing many regardless of skin color.
  • He knew his Bible well.
  • His outreach to strangers did not hinder his ministry to his family.
  • He preached forgiveness in Christ and practiced what he preached.