We all want to make a mark in the world, to do something that will outlive us.
Prior to last night’s game between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sports Illustrated opined that “LeBron James is good enough to steal the NBA Finals.” Then Stephen Curry set an NBA Finals record with nine three-point shots as the Warriors defeated James and the Cavaliers 122–103.
Mortality is a fact of life, on the basketball court and everywhere else.
A teenager in Houston was hospitalized last week with an unusual and potentially deadly disease. Rhabdomyolysis causes a breakdown of muscle tissue, releasing a protein into the blood that can damage the kidneys. The cause? He worked out in the gym too much.
Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that a volcanic eruption less than thirty miles from Guatemala’s capital killed at least twenty-five people yesterday. Meanwhile, eruptions of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii have stranded nearly a dozen people in an area cut off by lava.
And this morning’s New York Times profiles two elite climbers who fell to their deaths while scaling El Capitan in Yosemite last Saturday. Tim Klein had reportedly climbed El Capitan more than one hundred times; Jason Wells had climbed it many times as well. The men were tethered together when they fell one thousand feet to their deaths.
The news reminds us of our mortality every day.
“What counts in life”
Nelson Mandela observed, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
Consider an example I discovered over the weekend.
A friend recently gave me Stephen Mansfield’s Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America.
I have long been fascinated by President Lincoln’s remarkable life and tragic death. A few years ago, I visited Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot, and the Petersen House across the street where he died nine hours later. The bloodstained pillow and pillowcases on display there are the ones used by the president.
I knew of Lincoln’s faith, a lifelong process that Mansfield summarizes succinctly: “He had once hated God, had felt tortured and rejected by him, like Job of old. Ultimately and through a process of years, Lincoln came to see God as good and just. He learned to rely on his comfort, trust in his guidance, and stand in awe of his perfect judgments.”
However, I did not know the role an overlooked Presbyterian minister played in his story.
“We will visit the Holy Land”
What Mansfield calls “one of the most defining events of his life” came when Lincoln was forty years old. His father-in-law, Robert Smith Todd, had died. Lincoln, a practicing lawyer, was asked to help resolve the estate.
In the fall of 1849, Lincoln was working in Todd’s library when he discovered a work by Rev. James D. Smith titled The Christian’s Defence, Containing a Fair Statement, and Impartial Examination of the Leading Objections Urged by Infidels Against the Antiquity, Genuineness, Credibility and Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, Enriched with Copious Extracts from Learned Authors.
For years, Lincoln had struggled intellectually with the existence of God, the veracity of Scripture, and the relevance of the Christian faith. Smith’s work fascinated him. He eventually met the author, himself a converted skeptic, and spent long hours discussing theology with him.
He kept Smith’s two-volume book on his shelf for the rest of his life and told his brother-in-law that, as a result of Smith’s influence, “I am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion.”
Years later, President Lincoln made a covenant with God that he would free the slaves, a commitment that led to his Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. He trusted the purposes of God through the death of two sons and the horrors of the Civil War.
According to his widow, his last words before he was assassinated were of his desire to see Israel. “We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior,” he told her as they sat in the balcony of Ford’s Theater. In the moment before he was shot, he added, “There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.”
“What is your life?”
Abraham Lincoln ranks at the top of any survey of America’s greatest presidents. It is hard to imagine our nation’s history without his courageous leadership and rhetorical genius.
Now consider how different his story—and ours—would have been without the influence of Rev. James D. Smith on his life and soul.
As today’s news shows, death is a fact of life. God’s word describes us well: “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
But we have today to love our Lord and our neighbor (Matthew 22:37, 39). We have today to live by God’s word and to share his word with those we influence. We have today to plant the seed of God’s Kingdom, knowing that it will become a tree so large that “the birds of the air” can nest in its branches (Luke 13:18–19).
God used Rev. Smith to change a man who changed the world. Can your Father use you today?