To end this series on the excellent book Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas we will move into the church setting. A politician, an athlete, and a pope walked into a bar. Er, I mean, walked into the blog post…
While the first two men highlighted this month were giants of their respective arenas, this next man was a powerful man who was remarkably different from his peers.
Karol Wojtyla was 58 when he was selected as the next pope, which is a baby by papal standards. Pope John Paul II was quickly seen as different because he was Polish, an outdoorsman, wrote plays and poetry, and jogged. This jogging pontiff was also friendly, optimistic, and was devout without being a sour religious type. Quite frankly, he seemed to know God while also remaining full of life.
Born in 1920, Karol lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland. However, he managed to get through WWII while holding onto both his faith and life. Through much sorrow and suffering early in his life (his mother, father, and brother all died before he hit 20), the future pope began to see that God’s hand was at work in his life. He realized that there were no coincidences and that every event in his life helped him on the path God had in store for him.
Young Karol had a full life, he attended a secret seminary away from the prying eyes of the occupying forces, while also maintaining his involvement with theater and work at a chemical factory. He worked hard and eventually would become ordained in 1946.
Karol would rise in the Roman Catholic Church quickly, moving from a subordinate to the bishop of Krakow to archbishop to cardinal in a decade. A man who never aspired to a life of politics, Karol was well liked and he was placed in positions of great power out of this genuineness. When Pope John Paul I died unexpectedly (after a month in office), Karol was elected to the papacy. Here the incredibly down to earth man was cut off from his previous life with no possible exit to his former life. Still, Karl did not hesitate to accept the call, even if it meant his life would irrevocably change.
John Paul II addressed the crowds with such vulnerability and grace that people gravitated to him. He humbly communicated with clarity and he was charming without any sort of guile. His lifetime equipped him for this moment, his devotion, trust, humility, and service empowered him for this leadership.
What stuck out to me was his generous, broad minded nature while remaining seriously orthodox. Metaxas pointed out that the views of John Paul II flowed out of a place of love. His theological views were rooted in the belief that we are created in God’s image and that everything flows from this place. Our rights, freedoms, and responsibility flowed from this love. Even in the last stage of his life, he demonstrated that in suffering and weakness, God still provides strength. Once a strong man, Pope John Paul II would rely on Christ for strength. His grace, humility, life of prayer, and intellectual prowess help show that John Paul II was truly a man worth admiring.
To continue the story of William Wilberforce from the previous post, William felt that God called him to suppress the Slave Trade and to reform the country.
On the first point, William and other deeply committed Christians fought tirelessly to end the slave trade and to free the slaves within the British Empire. Against the tide of big businesses, status quo politicians, and the nominally Christian culture of Great Britain, William and his allies stood in the gap for the voiceless and prophetically called out against the outrageous evil of African slavery.
On the Second Objective, William believed all of Great Britain had broken down and needed reform. He found that there was a blatant disregard in British society about the intrinsic worth of a human being. He believed that all humans were created in God’s image, which therefore meant all are intrinsically worthy of dignity. This unbiblical view, in Williams’ mind, led to every kind of evil. While slavery was the most horrific, other evils ran rampant in society at that time. Poor children were forced into labor as early as 5 years old for 10-24 hour days! Alcoholism was rampant (MPs were frequently drunk in sessions) and sexual trafficking soared as a result of alcoholism (25% of single women in London were prostitutes, with the average age being 16). Extreme animal cruelty and public hangings were provided for the perpetually plastered crowd and prisons were in utterly nightmarish conditions.
Simply put, society used and abused others and this realization grieved William’s heart. However, once he realized God was love and that he loved everyone, then William saw the world differently. By his own strength, William knew he couldn’t reform Britain on his own, instead either God needed to transform society or it could not be done. William knew in his core that God called him to these tasks and subsequently relied on God to provide victory.
While the views of William and other evangelical Christians at the time were in stark contrast to others, William knew the culture wouldn’t change unless goodness was seen as fashionable. He dared to dream that those with power, money, and influence would use it to help others. Or as the saying goes, “blessed to be a blessing.”
William was the impetus for society to recover the profoundly biblical principle that the fortunate have some obligation to help those who are less fortunate. At that time, British society held a more Eastern Karmic idea that the poor were meant to remain poor while the top stayed at the top and never shall the two meet. The changed mindset stemming from William’s life spread throughout Western Europe and the US via the British Empire.
William was an impressive and driven man, but really you need to understand that he was not just “religious.” He had a deep personal relationship with God that was rooted him in his causes. He was motivated from a place of love (love of God, love of others) over and above a sense of justice or right and wrong. He knew that the God of the universe is loving and graciously intervened in his life, so out of gratitude to God, William was slow to condemn his political opponents and quick to humility. He worked with people who were different for a common cause and was gracious to those on the fence. He passionately fought but was charitable to others as William lead Great Britain to better days.
William sacrificed a comfortable life to lead significant changes in Britain and the world. The deep faith of this MP helped end slavery and reform a bankrupt society.
The first figure I wanted to highlight from Eric Metaxas book Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness is a great baseball player. Ask any baseball fan who is the greatest player of all time and you are likely to get a variety of opinions. Names like Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, and Williams would come out from several different people. While there were great players with integrity and some with a mixed nature, one man stands out as a phenomenal player and a deep man of character. This man is none other than the great 42, Jackie Robinson.
Jackie was born in 1919 in Georgia to a large family. When his father left the family, his mother Mallie moved her five kids to Pasadena, CA where she sought to bring her children up to value “family, education, optimism, self-discipline, and above all God.” His childhood was rough, he worked to help support his single mom and siblings, and Jackie encountered racism in his neighborhood early on. However, his mother taught him a lesson that would help him years down the road. When Jackie retaliated against a white man’s racial slur by tarring his lawn, Mallie forced Jacked to repair the damages. Mallie believed that Christians are called to bless those who persecute you, and undoubtedly that would have been tough amid racial injustice.
Jackie was a gifted athlete and he was phenomenal in nearly every sport he played. Though he was remarkably talented, his skin color prohibited him from joining white teams. As could be imagined, racial injustice would bring Jackie’s fierce temper to the surface. His explosive anger landed him in jail and in conflicts throughout his early life. He was not a trouble maker though, he simply wouldn’t take the garbage people threw at him.
A life changing moment occurred when Jackie met a Methodist preacher named Karl Downs. Karl taught Jackie that explosive anger should not be a Christian’s answer to injustice. Instead, the answer was to demonstrate heroic type of love modelled after the life of Jesus. This conversation marked a big turning point, because injustice would be confronted on the playing field.
After a great career at UCLA and in the military, Jackie would see the racism he frequently encountered through the lens of his deep religious faith. This belief would help get through the tumult and prepare him for the worst when he entered professional baseball.
This is where the executive for the Brooklyn Dodgers Branch Rickey comes into the picture. Rickey wanted to change the face of the MLB by integrating his team for his devout faith told him that injustice was meant to be fought, even in sports. His position on the team would provide him the chance to fight racism by recruiting an athlete to break the color barrier
While the story is too long to cover here in one post, Rickey found Jackie in the Negro Leagues and offered him the chance as a partner to change the moral fabric of America. Their common, robust faith rooted both men in this monumental undertaking.
As a result, Jackie was threatened, harassed, abused, and mocked at every turn, yet he turned the other cheek and quietly let his superior athletic ability do the talking. Both Rickey and Jackie knew that if God was calling them to this task, then God would strengthen Jackie in the endurance through this incredible opportunity.
In Jackie’s play, he demonstrated to the crowds that black men could indeed compete and excel alongside whites. Not only was he one of the greats, but his conduct under hostile racial persecution won people to his side. Jackie and Ricky demonstrated that devout Christian faith is not just reserved for the pews, but is lived out in real life. Robust faith confronts injustice and leads to reconciliation and peace.
Much ink has been spilled over what makes a man within Christian circles. I really don’t want to dive into the debate on Biblical Manhood or Womanhood, I’ll leave that to Mark Driscoll, Rachel Held Evans, and many others to robustly argue it out. Instead,I wanted to take a different approach by using Eric Metaxas excellent book Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness. In his book, Metaxas highlights (wait for it) seven men to help convey character and encourage the reader to cultivate positive traits that marked these seven. Out of those seven, I wanted to highlight three figures that stood out prominently to me. The next three weeks will center on the lives of William Wilberforce, Jackie Robinson, and Pope John Paul II.
Just to clarify, I am writing as a man (just in case you were wondering) and my appreciation of these highlighted men will come from that perspective. I also want to mention that these brief biographies will not be marked by hero-worship or overly critical treatment of these men. I believe we are in critical need of heroes, as imperfect as they might be, to help point us to being rooted in positive character. There is neither naivety nor cynicism in these posts, instead I wanted to draw some helpful good from these heroes of the faith for both men and women.
Manhood and Fatherhood
These posts came about through my own adventure into fatherhood and it made me want to read more about solid men from our past. In his introduction to the book, Metaxas pointed out that fatherhood is marked by a strong and loving heart demonstrated by sacrificing for those he loves. It’s choosing to be more than just a boy who can shave, it’s found in a love that is costly. That’s real manliness.
Strong men ought to protect the weak, whether it’s a child, other men who need help, or disadvantaged people in need. Through these principle, he can exhibit the same mind of Jesus, while having all power, courageously chose to serve others, not being a macho “tough guy.” Interestingly enough, to have courage (rooted in the Latin cor) means to have heart. It means that the man is strong and does the right thing even when all else points towards not doing it. Courage is sometimes quite costly! Having heart is like the boyfriend who shielded his girlfriend from an evil man’s gun at a movie theater in Colorado. Having heart is the father who choose to be present with his family, instead of constantly placing himself in his work at all hours of every weekend.
With these men, they were courageous by “surrendering themselves to a higher purpose, of giving something away that they might have kept.” In short, they had heart.
Wilberforce gave up the comfortable life to stop slavery within the British Empire and the world. Robinson chose to give up fighting back in order to lead the way for minorities to become integrated in American society. John Paul II chose to give up his former life to vulnerably lead the Roman Catholic Church for decades. These and the other four had heart.
As will be seen this month, these men took their Christian faith seriously and changed the world because of it.