Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—Lincoln on the sacred call to freedom and unity in his first inauguration

Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. He stands in the middle of he small crowd under the wooden canopy. Only a small patch of his white shirt can be discerned between the middle two pillars of the canopy. (Another view of the scene is below.)

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

Here’s Lincoln quote for you: “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

Another view of the same moment. Cranes are visible on the roof, continuing the construction of the Thomas Walter-designed dome, which was not finished until 1866.

As President–Elect, Lincoln is on his way to D.C. to be inaugurated and is speaking early on the morning of February 22, 1861, on George Washington’s Birthday, in Old Independence Hall, Philadelphia, where he is to raise the flag.

To Lincoln this is a sacred event, at a sacred place. Philadelphia was our first capital, Independence Hall our first Capitol building.

His new guard, Alan Pinkerton, had told him he definitely could be killed that morning. They had tracked down multiple assassination plots. Yet Lincoln insisted that he be at Independence Hall on that morning, to raise that flag, to celebrate his boyhood hero, George Washington, and to do all in this first American capitol building.

It was there that he interrupted his prepared speech to say, “I would rather be assassinated on the spot than surrender it.”

“It” is the flag, the ritual event and place, and most, the country dedicated to the world-wide principle of liberty for all. To be there was more than rational. His emotions, the meaning of his words, the potential sacrifice, all add up to the theme of this program: the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

This was his courage to be faithful to something he knew to be sacred, the people there felt to be sacred, the political liberty that was a hope, as he said, “to the world, for all future time.” This is eternal for him.

What did the building and the flag have to do with it?

Lincoln’s speech begins, “I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live.”

He makes it personal.  “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”

This is the spiritual life of Lincoln.

So he presents himself this proposition: If this country can be saved on the principle of liberty, then he says he will be “one of the happiest men in the world.” If it cannot be saved through the principle of liberty embodied in the Declaration of Independence, then, he says “it will be truly awful.”

And that is when, after suddenly stopping and bowing his head, he adds “I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

He would rather lose his life than lose a country that lost its liberty and what that liberty means to the people of the world for all future time.

Later that day, Lincoln, at the State Capital in Harrisburg, speaks with light humility to the General Assembly about his role in that somber early morning event in Philadelphia. He says that he was allowed the privilege of standing in Old Independence Hall. He says, “our friends had provided a magnificent flag of our country.” And that he had been given the “honor of raising it to the head of its staff…and that he was pleased that it went to its place (there) by the strength of my own feeble arm.”

Now we know from his axe-holding demonstrations that his arms were anything but feeble. But he is humble about this ritual, this place, the flag.

What is it about flags?

You know as kids we play capture the flag. Obviously it isn’t the flag we want but what it means to be able to capture it. I knew a woman in Belfast whose father had a piece of his father’s American flag. Having been captured in battle on the first day at Gettysburg his unit had torn up their flag and each hid their piece of it so that the Confederates couldn’t get it. They promised to reunite the flag if they lived.

America planted the first flag on the moon. At military funerals a spotless new American flag is draped over the casket and then folded into a tight triangle and given to the family. Flags are signs by which we symbolize sacred values. For Lincoln he hoped it would represent the value of liberty for the people of the world.

A theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr writes this using the images of the flag: “The Puritans, Pilgrims, Quakers, with their associates, were first of all loyalists. They were loyal…(to what they considered)…to use (G.K.) Chesterton’s phrase, the ‘flag of the world’; they were convinced that this flag represented power and law as well as benevolence in which men could trust when they had lost confidence in their own good will and in that of their…” church and state. They were protesters and dissenters only because they desired to be loyal to the government of God” he writes, “and that was their positive unifying allegiance, despite their many quarrels.”

Lincoln concluded his remarks at the Pennsylvania capital praising the cooperation of the people who arranged the flag raising event, of which he said he was their humble instrument:

“And if I can have the same generous cooperation of the people of this nation, I think the flag of our country may yet be kept flaunting gloriously.”

That was his invitation then, and can be to us now, so that like Lincoln, we can be lighted down in honor to the latest generation.

This is Duncan Newcomer and this has been Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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A Breakthrough in Inclusion: Jets Hire Saleh and NFL Welcomes First Muslim Head Coach

Robert Saleh and his high school coach Jeff Stergalas

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By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

Robert Saleh shattered one glass ceiling when the New York Jets named him as head coach. He’s the first Muslim to lead an NFL franchise.

The bigger question will be how significant an impact his hiring will have in helping the nation as a whole begin to turn the page on the ever-increasing Islamaphobia that has driven too many people in this country since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Victor Begg, a successful entrepreneur in Michigan and the author of Our Muslim Neighbors: Achieving the American Dream, An Immigrant’s Memoir, believes Saleh is in a unique position to help Americans begin to move beyond their negative perceptions. Muslims “have been visible in sports and entertainment for a long time,” Begg says. “But Saleh stands out” in two important ways.

First, Begg says, “I think Saleh being an Arab Muslim … and a Dearbornite may put him in a different light” for many people.

Second, football is a sport watched by millions. It’s also extremely “results-oriented,” making it easier for fans to look beyond their own personals feelings or possible misperceptions about Islam and focus on the man.

These two factors combined could prove a powerful force in beginning to change for the better the way many Americans see Islam and Muslims.

Dearborn, Fordson and Community

Dearborn, Michigan, has long been a city of immigrants. For much of the 20th century it was dominated by Poles, Greeks, and Italians who came looking for work in the auto industry. Arab Americans were initially a smaller percentage of those immigrants in the city, but that began to shift in the latter part of the 20th century.

Saleh was born in 1979 in Dearborn, and quickly fell in love with football. It’s a game the city’s Arab Americans have embraced.

High school football in Texas rightly gets a lot of national attention. However, the passion with which Lone Star State fans follow and play the game is matched stride-for-stride, voice-for-voice by the folks in Dearborn. And Saleh’s high school alma mater, Fordson, is the epicenter of that passion.

Jeff Stergalas played against Fordson when he was a student at nearby Riverview High School in the mid-1970s. Even then, he recalls, “Fordson kids always played hard.”

In 1990, he became the head coach at Fordson and got an inside look at what made the school so special. What struck him then, and stays with him today, is the loyalty of players, fans, and everyone in Dearborn to the community.

Saleh demonstrated that loyalty in in 2001.

He played for Stergalas in the mid-90s. After college, he went to work with financial company Comerica. After his brother was briefly caught in Tower 2 World Trade Center on 9/11, however, Saleh had an existential crisis. He made the decision to quit his job and go back to what gave his life meaning–football. The person he turned to was none other than Stergalas. (The story of Robert Saleh, his brother, 9/11, and his decision to become a coach is told very well by the New York Daily News.)

“In this day and age,” Stergalas says, “loyalty is hard to find. Fordson people are very loyal.”

To be sure, the shared immigrant experience and enduring racial stereotyping plays a role in shaping that loyalty.

“Arab-American Muslims have had to endure constant discrimination and continued subjection to social devaluation,” says Abe Ahmad who played football for Fordson and recently graduated. “Due to the negative stigma surrounding individuals of Arab descent, and specifically those practicing Islam, it is especially hard for Arabs to break down barriers to success.”

This factor alone, however, doesn’t explain the level of devotion Dearbornites feel toward Fordson and their community. Stergalas is neither immigrant nor Muslim, but deeply respected and valued at Fordson.

“Not once during this whole ride that we’ve had with Robert,” he said, “have I even considered thinking about him as Muslim or Middle Eastern.”

So if race and religion doesn’t explain this community loyalty, what does?

It may be as simple as a deep appreciation for the freedom that Dearbornites feel in America that many of them did not feel in their ancestral homelands. They are also committed to succeeding in this country.

In my forthcoming book 30 Days with America’s High School Coaches, Ahmad talks about this: Our families, he says, “come from places where you simply don’t have the opportunities you have here in America, the greatest nation on earth. We understand what this country offers better than many people do,” because the memories of being in lands where opportunities weren’t available is never more than a conversation away.

That’s the community Saleh was raised in. It’s the community he turned to at the moment of greatest crisis in his life. And it’s this community he will represent as head coach of the Jets. It’s a type of community that a mobile American population often idolizes and wished they lived in.

Football First

While the relationship Saleh has with Dearborn and Fordson will certainly play well in the public imagination, it’s the respect he’s earned as a coach, and the success he will have in New York, that will also play a role in breaking barriers.

Fordson’s current football coach, Fouad Zaban, who also grew up in Dearborn and played at Fordson, stressed Saleh’s professional success in an email interview. “Although Robert is Arab American and a Muslim, and we are extremely proud of that,” he began, “the bigger picture is that he is a heck of a ball coach and has earned the right to become a head coach of a professional team.”

He certainly has a tough job ahead of him. The New York Jets have struggled, having experienced losing seasons every year since 2016. Saleh brings a reputation as an innovative defensive strategist, as well as a first-rate leader.

Two players on Saleh’s former team, the San Francisco 49ers, summed it up best.

He enters the job in New York having the respect of everyone in the NFL. As he builds his program in New York, he will also gain the respect of fans across the country who, had they passed him on the street, would have placed their prejudices above the man.

Rising Above It

Yes–Robert Saleh is carrying a lot on his shoulders. Fairly or unfairly, it’s there.

As a native of Dearborn, he’s been shouldering that responsibility his entire life. Just like every resident of Dearborn.

For Ahmad, Saleh is a reminder of what Coach Zaban constantly stressed to him while he was playing. Yes, we face a lot of discrimination. But you have to rise above it.

“Robert Saleh exemplifies what it means,” Ahmad said, “to ignore the noise of the outside world and the constant criticism of Muslims, and further show the world that the negative stigmas that surround Muslims are unjustified. Coach Saleh,” Ahmad continues, proves “that we Muslims are strong and committed contributors to various institutions such as sports, politics, [and] education.”

Saleh will continue to rise above it. And his community will continue to rally around him. As millions watch him in the coming years on television as he works to turn around a once-proud franchise, the more important American story of Dearborn and its residents will be told and retold.

The combination may be enough to finally shatter the glass ceiling that has kept too many Americans constrained by Islamophobic views they should have long ago been set aside.

At a time when we can’t seem to stop turning on ourselves, how good it is to know that there are people like Robert Saleh who–simply by being who they are–can help us see what Lincoln said 150 years ago: “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

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Care to read more?

FIRST, do you want to learn more about the remarkable diversity of Muslim Americans? The Michigan State University School of Journalism’s elite Bias Busters team of journalists publishes a helpful guide that is widely used nationwide: 100 Questions and Answers about Muslim Americans. The book is helpful for all readers, and is especially useful for anyone in education, health care, business, media and other professions that involve community leadership—like coaching.

THEN—ARE YOU INSPIRED by this column from journalist Martin Davis? Right now, Martin is working on an entire book of uplifting stories about high school coaches and players nationwide—men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike. His book will appear as an early 2021 volume in our series of 30 Days With under the title: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor, as well as his background as a veteran journalist for national publications.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns and podcasts. You’ll be glad you did!

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‘Love, Loss and Endurance’ shows how 9/11 extremism evolved to 1/6 storming of the Capitol—and how we can ‘unplug extremism’

WANT TO FIND OUT ABOUT THE BOOK RIGHT NOW? Click on this closeup image from Bill Tammeus’s cover and visit the book’s Amazon page.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

There is a bright red line in journalist Bill Tammeus’s new book, Love, Loss and Endurance that runs from 9/11/2001 through 1/6/2021—as deadly extremism has continued to spread around the world and across the United States.

The book is a gripping, page-turning journey through his family’s years of searching for answers after one of their own was killed in the first plane that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. As we meet Bill’s shell-shocked family and come to care about their lives after 9/11, Bill adds what he calls “interludes” explaining how extremist religious and political movements have continued to push thousands of men and women toward terrorism. His book ends with 16 pages of wisdom he has collected in two decades of reporting about how to respond to these dangerous movements—one person and one community at a time.

This is the a very timely and helpful book that individuals and congregations can discuss as 2021 dawns. The books ship from Amazon this week. Interested in a group order for your class or community? Email us at [email protected]

The Dangers of ‘Monochromatic’ Thinking

Clicking on this photo of Bill Tammeus will take you to his Faith Matters website, which shares his ongoing columns and a rich resource of past columns, as well.

Remarkably, Bill put the final touches on his book in November 2020. And, no, he does not specifically predict the details of the January 6 terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol. But, reading his book, that world-changing tragedy looms as clear as broken glass.

How was he so prophetic?

In our interview this week, Bill said, “What happened on 1/6 did not surprise me. As a journalist, I have studied history. I have been a journalist for many years and I have seen over and over again how tempting it is to fall into monochromatic—black and white—kinds of reasoning. In the last several years, some of this reasoning has become very dangerous and has led to crazy ideas. It’s the job of journalists to shine a spotlight on those things going wrong in our culture, to explain why the dangerous things we see are wrong—and to share with people what they can do about this.

“So, yes, there is my role as a journalist that helped me to know that something like this was coming. Then, I’m also a person of faith and our faith teaches us that people are fragile and can be drawn toward sin and these crazy ways of thinking that are destructive. Sometimes, we see things happening that are so tragic that they break God’s heart—like what we saw on 9/11 and 1/6—and this should also break our hearts. We should stand up as people of faith and say out loud that this is wrong. We should talk about what we can do to respond.”

How did Bill develop this metaphor of “monochromatic” thinking?

“I really have been thinking about this since Adam Hamilton’s book, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White,” Bill said.

And, that’s why the influential author and United Methodist pastor, Adam Hamilton, wrote the Foreword to Bill’s new book, which says in part:

“Tammeus, who is himself a devout Christian, writes ‘Interlude’ after ‘Interlude’ within the main narrative to educate and challenge us with meaningful insights on how religion is sometimes twisted and used as a justification for evil. And he doesn’t just complain that extremism of various kinds continues to cause shocking destruction across the globe, he offers a list of helpful suggestions for what you and I can do to stand up against such fanaticism.”

The Prophetic Wisdom of the ‘Interludes’

When Bill was writing the book, he explained to his editors that this book weaves together two parallel narratives: the real-life story of an American family struggling for answers about the extremism that took their loved one—and the real-life story of some other American families drifting toward deadly extremism. Woven together, these narratives make this book very compelling reading. As we turn these pages, the two paths are easy to identify. For the most part, the second narrative appears in short sections called “Interludes.”

To give you an idea of how prophetic these passages are today, here is one brief excerpt that could have been written in the days after 1/6/2021:

“We now will enter a protracted period of national grief that will be full of not only pain but also of recrimination and angry ideas for how to respond. As this takes place, let’s remember what we value. Let’s remember who we are. Let’s not give in to blind and widespread hatred. Rather, let us hold accountable those who rained havoc on us. Let us bind our wounds. … This will not be easy, but it is what we all must do, including me.”

Astonishing but true: That particular paragraph was written by Bill in the newsroom of The Kansas City Star on 9/11/2001. You can understand why we are describing Bill as a “prophetic” writer and teacher.

Widening our America-centric Vision

Nearly 20 years since he wrote those words, Bill now adds in the final 16 pages of his book eight different things individuals, families and congregations can do to “unplug extremism.” These ideas may seem simple at first glance, but they’re not. In fact, they are gleaned from decades of wisdom Bill has accumulated from around the world.

The first thing to realize, Bill advises in that final section of his book, is that this truly is a global problem we share with the entire human race. He writes, in part: “We Americans, not surprisingly, tend to see our lives through our America-centric eyes. When we talk about racism and the zealots who preach it, for instance, generally we’re referring to the idea of white supremacy that shaped our nation’s founding as well as the history of slavery in the U.S., to our Civil War, to Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, to the Jim Crow era and finally to the civil rights movement and later efforts to combat the worst of it all. But, in fact, monochromatic racist thinking that leads to violence is an international phenomenon.”

Why did he decide to bring his two narratives together in this section on solutions?

In our interview, Bill explained, “While I was writing our family’s story, and these interludes about other developments, I realized that these narratives only take us so far. What I need to do at the end of this book is offer hope and a way forward. I know this may sound like really simple stuff. For example, the first step I write about is learning to respect and love others. You might say, ‘Well, duh!’ But as you read through all the ideas in these final 16 pages, you’ll see I’m taking you through a progression of steps that causes us to engage in generative and constructive discussions—not only with our families and members of our congregations, but also people of other faiths and cultures.”

Where Was the Intersection of Religion and Extremism on 1/6?

Because Bill’s book was finished in November, he does not have a section in this first edition specifically analyzing the events on 1/6. However, Bill is an active journalist and writes regularly at his home website: Bill’s Faith Matters Blog.

This week, Bill has added a column headlined, What can we do about all the extremism? That column details some of the religious cross-currents in the attack on the Capitol and the related extremist movements in early 2021. This includes the ugly resurfacing of centuries-old religious movements that encourage racism and anti-semitism.

Bill certainly is not alone in his reporting. Since 1/6, we have seen significant reporting on this toxic brew of religious zeal and hatred by many leading journalists, among them: Carey Wallace in TIME as well as Elizabeth Diaz and Ruth Graham in The New York Times. Bill cites the work of other journalistic colleagues in his column, linked above.

Bill closes his column with the same kind of Call to Action that closes his new book: “We’re in for a long struggle against irrationality, baseless conspiracy theories, diseased theology and other extremism. But we’re not without tools and we’re not without hope. We cannot, however, just sit by and hope someone else will do the work of undermining all this evil.”

Get Involved with your Family and Friends

Why is it important to talk about these issues within your family, congregation and community? Because we all can play a role in showing others—including the next generations—how to balance faith and the future of our world in a peaceful way, Bill says.

In our interview, Bill concluded, “We forget that every generation has to learn this stuff. Let me speak for myself. I’m of the age where I have eight grandchildren, the oldest is 18 and the youngest is 4. I’ve always tried to be a source to help them learn the stuff we are talking about here. They are picking up on our history and the values that have shaped our lives.

“If we don’t do that, we fail ourselves and our communities and dangerous ways of thinking can emerge again. As every generation comes along, we have to teach the children well.”

As 2021 dawns and Bill’s book is released for sale nationally on January 19, 2021, he already is talking with other media professionals—and he is offering to appear with book-discussion groups and at special events and conferences. He will consider requests, depending on the specific details and his schedule. In this era of Zoom gatherings, author visits are now more popular than ever.

Are you interested in group sales or do you have a question about the book—or a future appearance by Bill? Email our publishing house team at [email protected] or go directly to Bill with your request at [email protected]

Bill also is interested in reader feedback about the book. Later this spring, he will develop a Discussion Guide for the book, based on initial feedback from early readers. So, yes, you can make a real difference in this project by reading the book, discussing it with friends—and getting in touch with us.

Care to read more now?

Get the book. It’s available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle from Amazon. It’s available as well via Barnes & Noble. You will also find the book in Walmart’s website and wherever else you regularly order books.

Care to read an excerpt? Bill’s home newspaper The Kansas City Star published an extensive excerpt about Bill’s family on January 17. 2021, headlined: Kansas City writer lost his beloved nephew in 9/11. His new book seeks lessons, hope.

On launch day Tuesday, January 19, 2020 Bill will appear online through the Kansas City Public Library. At that webpage, you’ll find a direct link to stream Bill’s appearance via YouTube wherever you’re based around the world.

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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—’A Christmas Carol’ with Abraham Lincoln

This entry is part 33 of 33 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

Charles Dickens

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This week we have an audio treat for you! All of Duncan Newcomer’s ReadTheSpirit columns—and the chapters of his book 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln: Quite Fireare based on episodes in a long-running radio series broadcast from Maine’s public radio station WERU. The stories always vary somewhat from text to radio broadcast. If you would like to hear Duncan’s recent 6-minute broadcast version of this column—please click here to listen via WERU’s online streaming service.

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

Here’s Lincoln quote for you: “Bah, Humbug!”

Charles Dickens’ 1842 tour. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

Right! Lincoln never said that. It is hard to imagine that he ever would ever have said this. Lincoln is the least “Bah, Humbug!” person you can imagine.

However, looking at the spiritual life of Lincoln, we can see that the pattern of redemption found in Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol would have been familiar to Lincoln. Dickens’ most enduring story was published in 1843, the year after the author toured America in 1842 to give public readings of his works. There’s little evidence that Lincoln read much of Dickens and we know the two men never met. However, we do know that Dickens came to admire Lincoln and was curious about him when he launched his second American tour in 1867. During that tour, Dickens wrote a long letter home saying that he had enjoyed a dinner with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, one of Lincoln’s closest advisors, during which Stanton described Lincoln’s final days in great, emotional detail.

While Lincoln and Dickens never met and there’s no record of Lincoln writing or talking about A Christmas Carol—Lincoln clearly would have known about this very popular story. More importantly, he would have recognized the arc of the story from his frontier camp-meeting revival days. Lincoln was very familiar with tales of poor sinners confronting their sins and reaching a heart-conversion.

At the end of the Dickens’ story, Scrooge sees the impact of his own miserliness. He fears that he may have missed any chance for redemption. Then, he awakens and opens his heart to his nephew’s family, his employee Bob Cratchit and Bob’s son Tiny Tim. We know Lincoln was the kind of person who would have smiled fondly and shed a tear at the character of Tiny Tim.

Charles Dickens’ 1867-68 tour. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

Dickens, of course, knew something of America’s Great Awakening revivalism. Among other things, he knew that classic American sermon by Jonathan Edwards about the sinner-spider dangling over the fire of hell suspended only by the hand of the angry but gracious God. We see that same pattern in the inner narrative of Ebenezer Scrooge’s awakening heart.

Scrooge is not so much greedy as he is miserly. He does not want to spend for anything, certainly not the poor. He is a hoarder. He growls that the needy are not his responsibility. “Is there not a safety-net!?!”

In his ghost-escorted tour, Scrooge begins by seeing himself when he was a lonely boy. He feels sympathy for himself and so do we, as readers of the tale. But he seems to feel that having things and keeping things will cure his wounded inner boy. We see him betray himself and his fiancée in his thirst for gold. Miserly greed becomes the habit of his heart and turns him into the heartless man who gives his assistant Bob Cratchit only a candle to keep warm during his long, cold, winter days at work.

Then, we are moved by the potential death of the ill Tiny Tim, the lame boy who finds joy in going to church on Christmas Eve so that people can see who it was that Jesus came to love. We are carried along to the good-hearted nephew’s family dinner.

But not Scrooge. He sees instead the greed of the very poor who he believes are willing to rob him. His spectral tour guide takes him to a future Christmas in which he has died and his servant steals his bed sheets and bed curtains from around him to sell for a bit of cash. He is remembered, in this vision, only as a cruel man resented by everyone.

Fear of his death, and of there being no chance left to change, seeps into Scrooge’s heart. He also is taken by the Ghost of Christmas Present to see the sufferings of the whole wide world on Christmas Eve. This begins to move Scrooge, to awaken his spirit.

The story is a morally inspired dream in which Scrooge finally does get the message, then awakens to celebrate his unearned reprieve.

Re-envisioning the tale:
A Christmas Carol with Abraham Lincoln

Now, Lincoln loved the theater of his own mind and said he’d rather read a Shakespeare play than see it on stage. So in the theater of our minds let us visit here another fantasy, a re-envisioning, A Christmas Carol with Abraham Lincoln:

Mr. Lincoln approached the White House door, but it opened slowly without his touching the latch. There, as he entered, was the ghost of old Thomas Jefferson with an urgent look on his face. He was draped in chains.

Jefferson moaned like Jacob Marley: “President Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, you know I had hold of a wolf by its ears, slavery! Now I have these chains myself. But what of the country, Lincoln? What of the country?! Slavery was something that the next generations would have to solve. I could not, embedded in my way of life. We couldn’t as nation. We needed foreign trade for economic growth, and to support our rural way of life. So for cotton we needed slaves, for then, for a while.

Jefferson continued: “But you know, as did I, this was a terrible contradiction of the very Declaration of Independence that I had written. All men are created equal, I proclaimed. It was self-evident, and it was sacred. We all knew that: Franklin, Adams, and others. But we knew we were building our house on sand, not rock. What has become of that wolf, Lincoln? What has become of the slaves? What is to become of my own chains, the country’s chains? You must do something as President. You must. If not you too will be haunted by these chains, as am I. A ghost will come to you Abraham, three times, beware!”

And so came the Ghost of America Past. What did they see? What did Mr. Lincoln see?

He saw slaves like fish on a trout line. He saw violent men cross state borders to capture runaway slaves. He saw a moral evil growing in new states. He saw blacks being defined by the Supreme Count as non existent. He saw slaves being counted for the census at 3/5th of a person. He saw slave power becoming an oligarchy, and white middle class and poor families pushed to the margins. He saw Slave Empires ready to move south into Mexico and Central America. He saw the hope of self-government dying because of the state power needed to enforce humans as property.

Then came the question: “And, what about now, Mr. Lincoln?”

That’s when the Ghost of America Present took Lincoln around the nation that night, December 24, 1864. What did they see? They saw more hate, not less. They saw war. They saw General Sherman invade the South and burn a path across it. They saw Black soldiers from the Union being shot as prisoners not as military men. And they saw more and more hatred: Southern whites hating the federal government; Northern whites hating to fight for Black freedom rather than for just the Union.

They saw Lincoln as a dictator. “King Abraham.” They saw hundreds of thousands of deaths, mostly young men as soldiers north and south.

Lincoln recalled Jefferson’s moaning: “Lincoln, Lincoln. I have left you a legacy and an albatross. What will you do? What can you do? What can Americans do?”

Then the Ghost of America Yet To Come took Lincoln’s arm.

What did they see? What did they hear?

A Christmas Carol?

Did they hear mystic chords of memory? A chorus stretching from every patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone, a swelling chorus of Union, touching our better angels?

Could there be a rebirth without malice, a just and lasting peace within America, with the other nations?

“Lincoln,” said Thomas Jefferson, “you must prevail. America must become America. It cannot be left to me and my chains.”

From a story such as this a vision could light us, as it did Lincoln, down in honor, even to the latest generation.

This is Duncan Newcomer and this has been Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

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So, what’s Christmas all about? The wisdom of Linus, Everett Dagué and 1 in 4 Americans

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Millions of us still to turn to Luke’s masterpiece

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How Greek Orthodox Christians saw Saint Luke in a 15th Century icon.

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

Fifty-five years ago, the CBS network broadcast this scene across North America: During a problem-plagued Christmas pageant, Charlie Brown shouted in exasperation, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about!?!”

That’s when thumb-sucking, blanket-clutching Linus calmly replied, “Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

Linus then moved to center stage, asking “Lights, please?”

With a spotlight illuminating him, Linus delivered what—at the time the cartoon was first broadcast—was considered a controversial passage direct from the Gospel of Luke, beginning with, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in their field keeping watch over their flocks by night.”

That Charles Schulz holiday TV special, sponsored by CBS and Coca-Cola, almost never saw the light of television. Network officials didn’t like the jazz music, the lack of a standard laugh track, the choice of real children to record the voices—and they especially didn’t like Linus’s recitation from Luke. Today, it’s hard to imagine why they were worried. At the time, more than 90 percent of Americans identified as Christians, but CBS network officials were afraid of making prime time “too religious.” In the end, they reluctantly broadcast the half-hour cartoon only because they already had paid for its production—telling Schultz bluntly that it would never be seen again.

Today, of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas is recognized as an innovative masterpiece. That’s despite the fact that America now is more secular than in the ’60s. An ever-growing number of Americans—it’s now about 1 in 4 of us—say they have no religious affiliation. My own occasional columns in ReadTheSpirit explore the spiritual lives of those of us who answer pollsters’ questions about our religious affiliation with: “None.”

So, where can all of us—including the millions of Nones—find meaning in this global celebration of Christmas?

This year for Christmas, I turned to a like-minded friend Everett Dagué to talk about Charlie Brown’s question 55 years ago. Like me, Everett is a None. But, as I soon learned in our interview, Everett was struck by Linus’s recitation in that TV special. That was the first time Everett can recall hearing the entire Nativity text from Luke.

I reached out to Everett because I was aware of a distinctive December tradition he has established that now reaches around the world. Everett spends a couple of weeks in early December on Facebook forgoing his usual posts highlighting dinosaurs, cats, military history and cleverly sarcastic political insights. Instead, he devotes a series of thought-provoking posts to re-telling the story of Jesus’ birth as recorded n the Gospel of Luke.

In fact, this year, he invited a couple of wise friends to collaborate in his series of Luke posts. (Care to see some samples of what Everett and his collaborators wrote? You’ll find three sample posts here.)

The Wisdom Everett Dagué Finds in Luke

Let me introduce our interview by telling you a little more about my friend Everett.

He doesn’t consider himself a Christian, and he doesn’t much care for the study of theology. He’s also progressive, although he’s no stereotypical bleeding heart. Everett served in Germany in the Cold War as a 19D Calvary Scout with the US Army. Today, he serves as Command Historian at the US Army NCO Leadership Center of Excellence and United States Army Sergeants-Major Academy and seems happiest when he’s on the firing range with a machine gun set on fully automatic.

He’s certainly not the guy you would expect to be presenting his own Nativity Pageant online every year!

So why this obsession with the birth of Jesus as described by Luke? The answers are as simple, and as complex, as the ways that Everett’s re-telling of this story has evolved. From a straight re-posting of the story over a period of days when he first began what has become an annual tradition—to re-posts with accompanying art or music. This year, he invited friends to help him ruminate on the meaning of the story for them.

Clearly, he has tapped into something. His re-posting of the story has become as much a tradition in many people’s homes as putting up the tree and singing carols. His effort has even gotten a person as devoutly non-religious as me to look forward to this annual series. I’ve known Everett since our days together in graduate school. So when Everett began this year’s retelling of the story, I sat down with him and talked about his journey over the past decade.

This is one of the illustrations Everett added this year to his Luke series on Facebook.

MARTIN: What motivated you to start this annual tradition of retelling the story of Jesus’ birth?

EVERETT: When I started this project, I was teaching at a small, private university in Kansas. The academic calendar is set up so that one has the time to really appreciate the stretch of holidays that begin with Thanksgiving and culminate with New Years. It always seemed to me that this holiday period was bookended appropriately. You begin by giving thanks for the year that you just had, and you end filled with anticipation for the year ahead. That all made sense. And it was all done in ways that celebrated our friends and families in ways that made us appreciate the moment we were in.

Christmas, however, was not this way. It finally dawned on me that we were approaching the holiday completely backwards. It wasn’t about the moment, or the people. It had become all about the stuff. I began writing the story of Jesus’ birth as a way to begin to turn the ship.

MARTIN: There are many people who would agree with you that Christmas has become too much about the stuff. Many of us would like to put the focus back on the spiritual. Is that what you’re trying to do?

EVERETT: Not at all. Just like you can over-materialize the holiday, you can over-religious it, too.
I enjoy retelling Luke’s story of the birth because it doesn’t depend on miracles, like Matthew and Mark do. It isn’t consumed with who Jesus is, like John is. It’s focused on the very human characters in the story. It gives us a window into the moments when Mary and Joseph and the shepherds experienced it all.

Being in that moment, embracing that humanity is what matters. I often think back to something we did growing up. Each year our family would draw names, and we had to take the name that we selected and write them a letter explaining what that person meant to us. That was placed in their stocking. This simple exercise allowed us to celebrate the people in our lives. To live in that moment.

MARTIN: You say that Luke doesn’t focus on miracles, but Chapter 1 is all about Mary’s conception, and the conception of John the Baptist. Both miraculous in their own ways.

EVERETT: Luke uses the miracles like virgin birth, but he does not rely on them to get his point across. For example, one of the most powerful images in Luke 1 is when Mary and Elizabeth meet, and Elisabeth is overcome with joy at seeing Mary, and she knows that Mary is pregnant. Elizabeth’s baby “leaps in the womb.” At that moment Elizabeth knows nothing about virgin births or angels or anything. All she knows is, her cousin is there with her and she is overjoyed. It’s a detail you wouldn’t find in the other Gospels.

Moreover, Chapter 2, the chapter that I focus on each year, focuses on the humanity of the story. And that’s why I picked it. I wanted to increase the awareness that there are more than two ways to read this story. The church would have you believe either you read this as the story of Jesus the savior, or you read this as a story of Jesus who was just a good person.

What both those approaches miss is the wonderful story of a birth. We can meet and understand Joseph the father. Mary the mother. Jesus the baby. Luke is the guy.

I’m not asking people to ignore the religious aspect. However, if all you’re seeing is the birth of the savior, you’re missing a lot there. No one knows he’s going to be the savior. Looking at what these people are doing, they’re doing it because there’s something good in them, and good in us, too. And that’s what Christmas is all about. That’s the world that we live in.

MARTIN: So are you saying that there is no miracle element to the story?

EVERETT: Not exactly. There is miracle. But it’s the miracle of the every day. You can be a Mary, unmarried and afraid, yet moving boldly forward with Joseph in spite of the insults and indignities the society heaped on her. You can be a Joseph. Joseph could have picked up and walked away and no one would have blamed him. But that’s not what Joseph does. The shepherds would have had no trouble just staying there with their sheep. But they don’t do that. Why do they do what they do?

When we think about the way we can make the world a better place, this is the story that tells you how to do that. By retelling the very human side of this story, I wanted to add an element that has been lost in this season. I get the centrality of Jesus, but for right now, for today, this is what this is about.

MARTIN: Your degree is in history. Is there a connection between the way you approach history, and the way you approach this story?

EVERETT: To be sure. One of the things I got in spades from Owen Connelly, the late, great Napoleonic scholar at the University of South Carolina, is that you read what’s there, not what you want it to mean or say. You have to learn to read a text for what it means. Not for what you want it to mean.

This doesn’t mean that you simply accept the words on the page blindly. You do your homework. You learn as much as you can about the writer and the period something was written in. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to take the text for what it is. That’s what I’m trying to regain in telling this story.

MARTIN: Your wife did her graduate work in literature. And you yourself are quite the fan of literature. I know from our years together, for example, that Moby Dick is a very important book for you. How has your approach to literature shaped the way you approach this story?

EVERETT: I’ve probably read Moby Dick 15 times, and every time that I read it I come away from it with a totally different understanding. This is what great literature does: Each stage of life that you read it brings new understanding and insights. So, let’s look at Moby Dick, since you’ve raised it. The last time I read it, I saw something I’d never really seen before. The Great Whale really represents God, and what drives Ahab’s fury is his inability to control God.

When I sit down and read Luke, I keep coming back to Joseph. I’m a guy, a husband, a father. I get him and understand him in ways I couldn’t understand Mary. When I think about what I should be like as a husband and a father, I find it in him. He doesn’t deal in anger. That’s what I’m seeing now. When I first encountered the story through hearing Linus recite it in the Peanuts Christmas special, I encountered it in a totally different way. This is the way you want your parents to be, your family to be. As you change, the meaning changes as well.

MARTIN: What’s been the biggest change in you in the years doing this?

EVERETT: There are a lot of things, but let me talk about one: I’ve learned how to be a parent from this annual reading. The birth of a baby is the beginning of something. You never quite lose the awe of that experience. And this is the nice thing about this story. But I’ve also learned a lot about how to accept my kids and my family as they are, and still grow to become who you need to be. It’s critical, however, as you grow to never forget that awe of experiencing the birth of a baby.

Then, if I might go for just a moment to a darker story that illuminates what I mean. When I was on faculty at Benedictine College, we had a Discovery Day where kids could work on any individual project they wanted. I had one student who wanted to put Joseph Mengele—the Nazi doctor notorious for the inhumane experiments he conducted on Jews—on trial. So we did. In the course of the trial, we had a “witness” (someone from the era whose memory was recorded in the record) who described a Nazi guard who kicked a baby just when it was born, killing it. The baby and the mother had just arrived on a train to Auschwitz.

The reason I do this reading every year, to remember the pure beauty of the birth of a child, is to counter that.
I have come to believe that you can change things within yourself and within the world itself by making people more aware of the miracle that is your kids. This story of birth is how we keep sight of that, by reminding people every year of the simple mystery and beauty of birth.

We have concentration camps right now in the United States along the border where the US government is doing unspeakable things to innocent mothers and children. Maybe what we need to do is be a little more aware that these are miraculous beings.

MARTIN: This year you are doing the story very differently. This year, you have collaborators. Why are you doing this?

EVERETT: I always try to do it differently. The first year I just posted the story. Then I began experimenting with art. I still have much to say, much to explore in this story. But I’m sure that people get a little tired of just me. So I’ve asked people who are good writers, but come from very different backgrounds, to help me write the entries this year.

It’s one more experiment in keeping the power of this story alive.

Want to Hear Linus’s Version?

You should see a YouTube video screen, below, where you can watch the now-famous clip of Linus from 55 years ago. If a video screen does not appear in your browser, you also can watch the clip directly on the YouTube website. (In some versions, you might have to briefly see a short advertisement.)

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ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm contributed to this story.

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Care to read more?
Or, hear more?

FIRST, you may want to read more from Everett and his friends. Because Facebook is such a fleeting medium, anyone trying to find the reflections on Luke’s Nativity story by Everett Dagué and his friends will have to search through lots of other posts before finding the Luke stories. So—with full credit and thanks to writers Everett, Rebecca Marie and James Lewis—we are presenting three sample posts from their December 2020 series.

THEN, are you inspired by our ReadTheSpirit magazine cover story this week by journalist Martin Davis? Right now, Martin is working on an entire book of uplifting stories about high school coaches and players nationwide—men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike. His book will appear as an early 2021 volume in our series of 30 Days With under the title: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor, as well as his background as a veteran journalist for national publications.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns and podcasts. You’ll be glad you did!

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Samples from Luke’s Nativity story as expanded by Everett Dagué, Rebecca Marie and James Lewis in 2020

NOTE  FROM MARTIN  DAVIS—Facebook is such a fleeting medium that anyone trying to find the reflections on Luke’s Nativity story by Everett Dagué and his friends will have to search through lots of other posts before finding the Luke stories. So—with full credit and thanks to writers Everett, Rebecca Marie and James Lewis—we are presenting three sample posts from their December 2020 series.

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One of Everett’s first posts in December 2020

The follow-up story Everett mentions by Rebecca

 

Then, here’s a piece in the series from James Lewis

Benjamin Pratt: Love Is a Verb

Christmas in Bethlehem’s Manger Square.

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‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’

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By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author and Contributing Columnist

When I began my work as a pastoral counselor one of the persons who came to me was a woman in her fifties dying of cancer. I can still remember her saying, “It’s not dying that scares me, it’s my fear of dying alone that haunts me.” As her condition worsened she was moved to Baltimore where she had daily treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital but spent her nights in a motel room. One of her neighbors who loved her dearly moved to be with her so she would never be alone at night.

That memory captures for me the essence of our deepest fear and deepest hope—the fear of isolation, the hope of a ‘home’ that holds us with love, presence and compassion.

Love is a verb—an action of compassion!

Whenever I sing Phillips Brooks’ hymn, O little town of Bethlehem, I remember the woman dying of cancer when I sing the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Each of us lives with some very deep fears and also very deep hopes. Some of us have identified our fear of isolation and aloneness. As Christians, we also feel the hope and comfort of knowing that in the child born in Bethlehem we are given a home with God, who is with us, cradling us with presence, compassion and eternal love. When our faith is strongest, we’re likely to hold more hope. When our faith is weakened, fear can take over.

Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year.

Few people would deny that we live in a dark and dangerous time—so pressing in upon our lives we don’t even need to name the darkness. The early church chose this time of year, not because they had the slightest idea when Jesus was born, but because they wanted to say that the birth of Jesus brought light to the darkest times of life. Therefore, the “Light of the World” was born into the darkest time of the year.

Phillip Brooks wrote that these two great emotions, fear and hope, meet in the birth of Jesus. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” They converge, and lying between them is a little baby in a manger. How could such a child gather in all the hopes and fears of all the years?

At this time of year, Christians put themselves in the picture: God has invited us to bring our hopes and fears into the birthing room of the child named Jesus, a child whom the angels will call Emmanuel, which means “God Is With Us.” God is the stranger in the manger who has come to give us a home in which we will not be alone, but welcomed with love. It’s a picture both of vulnerability and an opportunity to love.

The title of that picture we have entered is, of course, “Christmas.”

But it’s also like the picture of that woman fearing she would die of cancer all alone, who was met by the love of her neighbor who stayed with her. For wherever human love meets human vulnerability, there is the incarnation, there is the birth of God.

And therein we draw close to the realm that spans most of the world’s greatest religious traditions. God wants to connect with us. We are not alone. That Divine link is waiting, if we recognize it.

Love is a verb and Christians proclaim: God acted on Christmas Eve through Mary in the birthing of a child named Jesus, who later welcomed, loved and adopted us as brothers and sisters into the home of our loving, compassionate, ever-present, living God.

Love is a verb!

Our call in this season—as Christians awaken to the hope found in the Christ child—is to live that hope, and to tell that marvelous story over and over again until the hope within the story becomes part of who we are and what we do.

Those are Phillips Brooks words.

And to those, I add this prayer, which you may want to share with others this holiday season:

Whisper into our hearts, O Lord,
Fill us with hope and quiet our fears.
Love is a verb—
So, challenge us to live the life
Of your love,
Compassion 
And, presence.
Amen

 

 

Care to learn more?

Click this cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

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