Nearly 150 years ago the New England philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, penned an observation about something very small that, in turn, left a huge impression. It was just a tiny flower on an old country road. But this flower spoke volumes to him and perhaps to us as well.
Thoreau mentioned, “I saw a delicate flower had grown up two feet high, between the horses’ path and the wheel track. An inch more to right or left had sealed its fate, or an inch higher; and yet it lived to flourish as much as it had a thousand acres of untrodden space around it, and never knew the danger it incurred. It didn’t borrow trouble, nor invite an evil fate by apprehending it.”
Like the flower, we cannot always choose the spot or season in which God planted us to bloom. Neither can we necessarily control what heads our way down the road of life.
Sadly, many people never get beyond the spot of their seeding. They simply look around and say, “Is this it?” Then they proceed to slowly wither in despair. They didn’t have a choice where they started, but they made a choice as to how to grow from whence they were planted. They chose to be bitter, not better. And that, my friends, is a choice before us all.
A story about such choices recently crossed my desk featuring someone choosing to be better, not bitter. It’s a powerful saga with a conclusion still in the making. It’s the story of where a person was planted in life and what she has done to make a difference. Yes, a growing and blooming difference like Thoreau’s “thousand acres of untrodden space.” Yet this story takes place far apart from the woods of New England.
“The love of liberty brought us here”
It’s the story of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. You may never have heard of her, but I think you’ll come to appreciate getting to know her. She is the newly elected president of the African country of Liberia.
She recently had the privilege of addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress. It is a rare individual who receives the honor to address this august body. But upon reading the transcript, I would say it was the listeners who had a special opportunity and honor that day. Her words are a witness of a life well lived, a life of right choices in difficult times, spots and seasons in her nation’s history.
Liberia’s legacy goes back to the 19th century when African-Americans returned to the continent of their ancestors and strove to develop a nation in the mold of America. But like much of Africa, its recent history has been one of civil war, dictatorship and untold human misery. From the ashes of Liberia’s recent turbulent past of brutality and mayhem has arisen this lady—the first elected female president of an African nation.
Let me rest my pen and allow her to do the talking. She began by stating, “I am deeply touched by the honor bestowed on my small but proud West African Republic of Liberia and on myself by inviting me to address this body of representatives of the people of the great United States of America. By this invitation, you have paid one of the greatest tributes there is to those who laid down their lives for my country to be free and democratic. I can only say a big thank you.
“The people of Liberia and the people of the United States are bound together by history and by values. We share a deep and abiding belief in the power of freedom of faith and of finding virtue in work for the common good. The national motto of Liberia—founded, as you know, by freed American slaves—is ‘The love of liberty brought us here’…
“But our ties greatly exceed the historical connection. I stand before you today, as the first woman elected to lead an African nation thanks to the grace of Almighty God; thanks to the courage of the Liberian people who chose their future over fear…”
“No one would have picked me”
President Johnson-Sirleaf goes on to explain her humble origins: “My family exemplifies the economic and social divide that has torn our nation…
“Both of my grandmothers were farmers and village traders. They could not read or write any language, as more than three-quarters of our people still cannot today—but they worked hard, they loved their country, they loved their families and they believed in education. They inspired me then, and their memory motivates me to serve my people, to sacrifice for the world and honestly serve humanity. I will not—I cannot betray their trust.”
She plainly and honestly goes on to state, “I was not born with the expectation of a university education from Harvard or being a World Bank officer or an assistant secretary-general of the United Nations. When I was a small girl in the countryside, swimming and fishing with twine made from palm trees, no one would have picked me out as the future president of our country.”
“My feet are in two worlds”
“I graduated from the College of West Africa, a United Methodist high school. I waited tables to support my studies in the United States—college in Wisconsin and graduate school in Massachusetts. I went on to enjoy the benefits and advantages of a world-class education.
“So my feet are in two worlds—the world of poor rural women with no respite from hardship, and the world of accomplished Liberian professionals, for whom the United States is a second and beloved home. I draw strength from both. But most of our people have not been as fortunate as I was. Always poor and underdeveloped, Liberia is only now emerging from two decades of turmoil that destroyed everything we managed to build in a century and a half of independence.”
President Johnson-Sirleaf nearly perished at one time. “In 1985, after challenging the military regime’s failure to register my political party, I was put in jail with several university students who also challenged the military rule. This house [the U.S. Congress] came to our rescue with a resolution threatening to cut off aid to the country unless all political prisoners were released.
“Months later, I was put in jail again, this time in a cell with 15 men. All of them were executed a few hours later. Only the intervention of a single soldier spared me from rape. Through the grace of Almighty God and the mercy of others, I escaped and found refuge here in Washington D.C.”
Face to face with war’s devastation
She then spoke of what she discovered traveling her country during the election campaign: “I came face to face with the devastation of war, which killed a quarter of a million of our 3 million people and displaced most of the rest. Hundreds of thousands escaped across borders. More—who could not—fled into the bush, constantly running from one militia or another, often surviving by eating rodents and wild plants that made them sick…
“Our precious children died of malaria, parasites and malnourishments. Our boys, full of potential, were forced to be child soldiers to kill or be killed. Our girls, capable of being anything they could imagine, were made into sex slaves, gang-raped by men with guns, made mothers while they were still children themselves.
“But listening to the hope and dreams of our people, I recall the words of a Mozambican poet who said, ‘Our dream has the size of freedom.’ My people, like your people, believe deeply in freedom—and in their dreams, they reach for the heavens.
“I represent those dreams. I represent their hopes and their aspirations. I ran for president because I am determined to see good governance in Liberia in my lifetime. But I also ran because I am the mother of four, and I wanted to see our children smile again. Already, I am seeing those smiles. For even after everything they have endured, the people of Liberia have faith in new beginnings.”
A new beginning
I could not help but propel myself forward in time and think of Liberia as a microcosm of year one of that thousand-year period mentioned in the Bible as the reign of Jesus Christ, when a jubilee of restoration begins for all who will yield to His righteous rule (Revelation 20:4 Revelation 20:4And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
American King James Version×). This restoration will have a global focus, for the entire earth will need restoration—physically, emotionally and spiritually.
God says that He is going to make kings and priests of His saints and have them rule the earth (Revelation 5:10 Revelation 5:10And have made us to our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
American King James Version×). This fantastic calling supersedes the marvelous story of President Johnson-Sirleaf. Just like her, these are individuals with feet planted in two worlds—the present and the future.
Their beginnings are humble and their lives may be frustrating, like that little flower of Thoreau’s story. They are unlikely leaders, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26 1 Corinthians 1:26For you see your calling, brothers, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:
American King James Version×, NIV).
Verse 27 describes “the why”: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” Just like the Liberian leader, no one would have picked us out to be a president of a country, much less a king and priest under the reign of Jesus Christ.
Paul plainly declares our ultimate citizenship as part of the Kingdom of heaven (Philippians 3:20 Philippians 3:20For our conversation is in heaven; from where also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ:
American King James Version×). God wants us to take that citizenship and the opportunities it affords us literally. We may not have the opportunity to travel abroad and go to a university, but much more significantly, we can receive an education from the Holy Spirit of God. Moreover, we can understand the purpose, plan, provisions and promises of God to allow us to flourish as if we had a thousand acres of untrodden space around us.
It is not where we were planted on the road of life that determines our destiny, but what God can do with us. So what is in that heart of yours? Are you getting more and more bitter—or growing better and better?
I hope the latter, because Christ wants to call on you for service to Him for others if only your “dreams will have the size of freedom”—freedom from anger, freedom to forgive, freedom from Satan, freedom from sin, freedom from self, freedom to give and freedom to smile like the children of Liberia are learning to do once again.
“This is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21 Isaiah 30:21And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk you in it, when you turn to the right hand, and when you turn to the left.
American King James Version×) resonates in the words of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as she extols “the courage of the Liberian people who chose their future over fear.” Isn’t that a choice each of us has to make?
What do Thoreau’s flower, the people of Liberia and you have in common? Choices! A choice to see what is or what can be. Like the flower of old and the people of Liberia, choose wisely. WNP