If we can’t elect a Garfield, maybe we each can be a Garfield
On Saturday, returning from a daylong meeting with church members, someone mentioned the name of an Ohio town. “Isn’t that where Garfield was from?” I asked, realizing in an instant that people would think I was referring to James A. Garfield, America’s twentieth president, and not to the orange cat in comic strips.
Garfield doesn’t come up often in conversation and the only biography I’ve read of him wasn’t very good.
But most people who know a little about him remember that he was assassinated. (That was the subject of an excellent recent installment of the PBS series, The American Experience.)
Others will know that Garfield was an ordained minister, the only such person to ever be president.
None of that came up during the Saturday drive. But having briefly mentioned Garfield one day, I was surprised the next day to find an article in Christianity Today‘s The Local Church about Garfield.
According to Brannon Marshall, the writer of the piece, Garfield also exemplified humility, being one of the few people elected president who didn’t actually want the job. (I’ve talked before how much I would love for us to elect people to public office who aren’t desperately grasping for power.)
In this, Marshall asserts, Garfield has a lot to teach modern Christians (and, I’d say, others):
Garfield’s modesty would make him seem wildly out of place in today’s political arena, but it fits his role as a lay-minister well. Of the church leaders I’ve known, those who have contributed the most to those in their care have achieved their influence as a result of character that’s unseen and humility that’s steady. It’s never been done through declarative muscle; instead, like Garfield, they faithfully followed the humble path and have inspired others to do the same. They’re the pastors who hang around after everyone’s gone, get out the mop, and clean up red Kool-Aid stains in the church kitchen without thought of recompense or recognition. They’re the tired-but-tireless Sunday school teachers who are in their fifth decade of helping children understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” They’re everywhere—but rarely rewarded. And that’s probably how they want things to be…
Garfield’s relative anonymity in history shouldn’t surprise us—an
assassin’s bullet tragically ended his life less than seven months into
his term. His legacy, however, is important because his story relates an
enduring lesson: true, dignified influence is often achieved not
through force or compulsion, but through quiet humility.
In the midst of this year’s wretchedly depressing presidential campaign, as we watch more than a few candidates pander, grovel, assault, and misconstrue the records or beliefs of others, it would be refreshing to be surprised by the nomination of a Garfield, a candidate not seeking the office, but seeking to do the first thing all leaders must do, serve. It’s something to pray for.
But barring that miracle, maybe we who follow Christ could pray that, like Garfield, we could learn what it means to humbly follow the crucified and risen Jesus. We probably won’t ever be elected president. But filled with the power of our Lord, God may use us to change the lives of the people we encounter each day for the better. And doing that would be a great ambition for each of us to hold.
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