Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 3: We Must Rise with the Occasion

This entry is part 4 of 33 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

Abraham Lincoln in a reflective pose in 1861. Public domain photo held by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a program about the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln, and its relevance for us today. Welcome, this is Duncan Newcomer.

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you: “The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise—with the occasion.”

This sounds like wisdom from the I Ching, that ancient practice of throwing coins or sticks to find ancient hexagrams of sayings that suddenly seem wise and to the point of some present difficulty. Words seemingly random but with the force of truth a soothsayer or an astrologer might have.

So imagine opening up a fortune cookie and reading “The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise—with the occasion.”

Lincoln wants us to have a breath-holding pause as we take in the fact that we are facing a high challenge, and he wants to set us up for the significant preposition “with” as opposed to “to”. Because this is a matter of all boats being lifted by the same flood. We are to rise with the occasion. Or sink. It is not a matter of rising to the occasion as if we are going to challenge the occasion and be its conquering hero.

We have here Lincoln’s trademark moral challenge, his call to courage and fortitude as well as a passive awareness of the floodtides of the world.

Rather than a proverb, this actually is a Call. It is meant to be heard from one human voice to the hearing of the people in government and more.
We must rise with the occasion.

The spiritual life of Lincoln, of anyone, is guided by more than wise sayings. There are moral imperatives, calls to right living, summons to duty. These are words of urgency, but not only authority. This is not an order: “You must rise.” It is a leader making common cause with the people who have selected him to lead.

We must.


Here the spiritual life has a long tradition of indicatives and imperatives such as those uttered by Moses, Jesus and others. It is not the kind of thing you can imagine a psychotherapist saying. In the spiritual life there is a time and a vocabulary for telling people the right thing to do. It is a sacred trust.

The crises in spiritual life are of morality and community as well as of healing and wholeness.
This where, in the idea of America, not church and state but secular and sacred come so close together.
One reason so many still gravitate to the voice and life of Lincoln is we know about the high pile of difficulties he went through to get to the point of leadership. His courageous spirit is part nature and part nurture.

Here’s how Mother Nature nurtured him, with her piles of difficulty. We saw in my earlier broadcast how Mother Nature and the Milk Sick took his aunt and uncle and mother. How the uncertainty and mystery of that epidemic terrified homesteaders on the frontier right out of their home and farms to flee to God knows where.

Mother Nature had also piled high some difficulties for the Lincoln family as they moved to Indiana in 1816. Lincoln was 7 and moved with his father mother and sister less than 100 miles but across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Indiana. This was in December. Cold and snow. Thomas had only marked out with piles of brush, some trees and a small three-sided hut. That was home for the four Lincolns that December. With help from the sparse seven families around them, they built a log cabin but the cold kept them from making the mud pitch to seal out the wind from between the logs.

The winter of 1816 was coming after the traumatic summer of 1816 called the summer of no sun. The entire temperature of North America, as well as Europe, had gone down, the sun being strangely blocked out. Nobody knew then that a volcano in the South Pacific had spewed the planet with dark dust. Why the sun had grown so dim? It snowed in Boston in June. Crops around the world failed. Napoleon’s soldiers in France rioted. Thousands died of starvation.

Surely a summer of no sun was not a great year to set out for a new home where the forest was so thick the last 15 miles that they literally had to hack a pathway through, not around, the trees. Remember Lincoln, with his axe, was 7 at the time.

Between the weather and disease Lincoln’s life was piled high with difficulty—and then there was his presidency which still can, even now, help us rise with the occasion in honor down to the latest generation.

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


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Series Navigation<< Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 2: Coping with the Uncertainty and Mystery of a Deadly DiseaseDuncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln: When will we be good? God knows! >>