I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded. Ecclesiastes 9, verses 13 through 16.
What do you make of this story? I’m forgoing political commentary online until after the election tomorrow is decided; I’m doing this to keep a promise to friends. So, instead, I’m reading a book about the American presidency itself, about how the men who have held the office built it into what it was. These men mattered.
In reading today’s verses, I’m reminded of John Adams. The US would not have become a nation but for Adams and his intellect. It was Adams who led the faction that pushed for independence. It as Adams who designed and obtained the appointment of George Washington to lead the Continental Army in the Revolution. It was Adams who arranged for Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence and for it to be adopted as it was. It was Adams who negotiated most of the foreign loans that sustained the nation throughout the Revolution, and it was Adams whose leadership and insight narrowly avoided what would have been a disastrous war with the French in 1798.
Yet today Adams is remembered as a minor president, a mostly ineffective executive who tended the office in-between two presidents (Washington and Jefferson) of larger stature and greater impact. The things he did in his one four-year term bridged the founding presidential terms of Washington and laid the groundwork for the strengthening years of Jefferson. When I read these verses, I think of a man like John Adams.
In reading them again, I also think of a man like Ross Perot, my former employer and two-time presidential gadfly. I’ve met Mr. Perot several times and can attest that he is the real deal; what you see on TV is who you meet in person. His style of management in a company is exemplary. Yet the two companies he started and built into information technology powerhouses have been gobbled up by struggling and mismanaged competitors. If you talk with people who worked for him, there is loyalty remaining to H. Ross Perot and his solid, moral leadership. If you talk to the men his mercenaries rescued from Iran in 1979 (read “On Wings of Eagles” by Ken Follett for the whole story), they still have undying affection for their patron. All over Dallas, where I live, there are buildings and evidence of Mr. Perot’s impact, donations, and philanthropy. Yet despite the fact he is a billionaire, Mr. Perot is little remembered. A generation from now, his work will be recalled as work by one of many who lived and thrived in an age where that was both possible and encouraged. When I read these verses, I think also of a man like Ross Perot.
And when I read the verses yet again, I’m reminded of my father, Ken Terry. Only a few of the people who read these words actually remember him in person. He’s been gone for fifteen years. My dad was a modest man, a civil servant who worked with the Army for 30 years. In other jobs, he sold insurance, helped young people get job training, and he even drove a cab. But it was the Army he loved the most. As a middle manager and middle-level instructor, he taught other people how to do their jobs. Dad always loved jokes, and I’ve talked with more than one person who remembered him fondly as a man who always had a joke at hand or a smile on his face. Whether we know it or not, the government functions because of people in the various departments doing their jobs well. Policies and regulations may be formed at the higher levels, but it is the people in the middle who do their jobs, from delivering mail to accounting ledgers to teaching others how to handle ammunition, that actually make the government function. My dad was one such person who impacted the lives of others. Yet now, only 15 years after his death, his work is gone to obsolescence, the people he taught are all past or nearing retirement, and even the Army ammunition school in which he once taught is no longer as it was. Dad’s contributions were important, but now they are largely forgotten. So when I think of these verses, in addition to President Adams and Mr. Perot, I think of men like my father.
This is the way of mankind. In my own career, the systems I used to master in the Air Force are either being decommissioned or are already on the scrap heap. The software I taught (for Mr. Perot in fact) is being shut down because it can’t remain competitive. The hotel where I used to work no longer remembers me. And even the career in which I now ply my skills is in real danger of being rendered moot. My contributions have been important at the time but to be honest with you, they won’t matter much by the time I’m ready to retire.
And yet, I still believe the best is yet to come. Not just in my job or how I make a living, but in life in general. Men like John Adams, Ross Perot, and my father all mattered to God. I matter too.
Know what? I bet you can say the same. Maybe you and I didn’t do great or marvelous things in our lives, and maybe only those who are in our immediate circle think we have done special things. But our lives do indeed have meaning, and our vocation hasn’t been in vain. We have impacted others; in our own ways, you and I have helped to save the city…just like Adams, Perot and Dad. You and I do our best, just like so many millions of others, making the wisest, best choices we can at the time and doing our part to make the world go around. It’s not the presidents or company owners or senior level consultants who do all the deciding and creating in the world. It’s you and me and billions of others like us. We matter too.
We matter because we matter to God. Even if the world sees us as insignificant, God doesn’t. To Him, we matter. We matter enough to die for.
And that’s good enough to me. Last night, I flew into Baltimore where I’m working this week. My flight was delayed in Ohio while we waited on the ground for Air Force One to taxi away. The president was in town, campaigning at some last minute stop, hoping to pick up a few more votes before tomorrow’s election. As I write these words, I can’t say I think of the current American president as either poor or wise because what I think of him doesn’t really matter. I can’t say he has done anything to save the city, or even to govern boldly like that powerful king; that too doesn’t really matter. What I can say is that I’m sure he too is doing his best at whatever he’s doing. And just like you, me, John Adams, Ross Perot, my dad, and the opposition candidate, and the current president matters to God as well. We all do.