From Rabbi Bob Alper: ‘And, I’ll take a side of laughter with that, too, please.’

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Letters to America


One way I’ve tried to fight the effects of this pandemic is to send out daily Quick Laugh videos. I started in late March. To create the clips for these daily emails, I edited video of some 90 original bits and jokes from my standup comedy act. I figured that after I posted all of these short clips, things surely would have returned to some semblance of normal.

Wrong! So, I repeated all 90. And, 180 days into the series, we’re still housebound.

Then, I heard that my fellow Vermonter and cartoonist Harry Bliss had collaborated with Steve Martin—yes, that Steve Martin—on a book of cartoons, A Wealth of PigeonsOf course, I know Martin. For years, I appeared on stage in my stand-up comedy act with him.

Well, at least I appeared on stage with a blow-up photo of him to show how much we’re alike.

Turns out, we both also love cartoons—and neither of us can draw.

Years ago, I beat him to the punch on this collaborative idea. I created A Rabbi Confesses, collaborating with the sensational cartoonist, the late Jack Lindstrom.

So, now that I’ve run—and rerun—all my Quick Laugh videos, I’m going to start sharing daily cartoons from that collection with my email subscribers.

If you haven’t already signed up for my Quick Laugh emails—go to my website and sign up in the box right there on the front page. You’ll start getting daily cartoons.

That is, until I run out of those.

Then? I’ll repeat the videos again. The fact is, I laugh each time I see them, even after performing the material hundreds of times. So I hope you, too, will experience some tension-relieving laughter when seeing an “old friend” piece of comedy rather than a brand new item.

So, if you’re just discovering this offer, this week: Hey, you’ve got 50 cartoons and 90 videos coming your way.

And that’s some something to look forward to each morning, isn’t it?





VISIT BOB’S WEBSITE where you can check out his upcoming appearances as well as his various books, two CDs and his DVD.

VISIT BOB’S AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE where you can order a copy of his books Thanks. I Needed That. and Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This.



Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 27—What shaped Lincoln’s soul?

This entry is part 26 of 28 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

FINISHING LINCOLN’S NOSE—Between October 4, 1927, and October 31, 1941, Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers sculpted the 60-foot-high carvings of United States Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln to represent the first 130 years of American history. As a result, we can argue that Borglum may have known more about the lines and shadows in Lincoln’s face than anyone else. After all, Borglum actually “lived” on that face for a very long time.


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.

When we call Abraham Lincoln the soul of America, which I do in my book 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln, we enter into a powerful process of discerning not only the meaning of Lincoln’s life. In exploring his life—we are peering deeply into our own.

That’s what The New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik argues he is doing in a long reflection on Lincoln in the magazine’s current issue. Gopnik charts how different eras of biographers have reinterpreted major themes in Lincoln’s life to find insights appropriate to their own needs. But therein lies the main flaw in Gopnik’s analysis. He keeps asking: What shaped these Lincoln biographers’ lives—or, we might say, what shaped their their souls as writers? Unfortunately, when he’s finished, Lincoln is more of a mystery than when he started.

So, let’s take a moment and ask the question Gopnik skips: What shaped Lincoln’s soul?

As we always do in Quiet Fire, let’s start with a quote—or, in this case, two short Lincoln quotes:

“All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Psychologically, we all know mothers have a lot to do with our invention.

And then: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

Of course, we still have so many questions! Theologically, we want to know: What did Lincoln think God had to do with what he became? Politically, what about Lincoln can we find in these words to guide us now? Ethically, what values can we find in his declarations?

What can we discern from these two quotes?

In the spiritual life, and the psychological life, coming to a positive regard for your mother, or at least towards the Sacred Feminine, is a real goal. Most religions have a Holy Mother.

Lincoln sets such a goal for himself. He also probably meant that the genetic heritage of his mother, not his father, was the source of his genius. Several people in his time acknowledged the feminine in Lincoln. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin thought that Lincoln’s steel-cable strength and yet tensile flexibility was—as she wrote in a newspaper column—his great feminine quality. In other words, he was not a rigid male authoritarian.

The man who photographed Lincoln the most, Mathew Brady, warned against photographing the left side of his face because, he said, it was too soft, dreamy and, of all things, too feminine.

The man who made the Mount Rushmore image of Lincoln, Gutzon Borglum, observed that mystic feminine side of his face, but did not, as a self-described “Western Man” like it as much as what he called his strong masculine right side.

However, in the spiritual life of Lincoln we move from thinking of him only in such psychological terms. Lincoln’s melancholy was not depression—it was spiritual. In that marvelous term of art from Elton Trueblood, it was his “theological anguish.”

The first title to Elton Trueblood’s ground-breaking book was Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish. Trueblood wrote over 25 books and taught at Earlham College for years. This book was “rediscovered” and mentioned in the press by Nancy Reagan, which lead to its revival, and it is now available as Abraham Lincoln: The Spiritual Growth of a Public Man, via The Trinity Forum in McLean,Virginia.

Lincoln becomes more than a psychologically integrated and mature person, he has a spiritual extra added attraction. His life with his good mothers—and he had two, Nancy Hanks his Sweet Angel, and Sarah Bush Johnston, his strong step mother—takes him up to another level. From there he has a vision of humanity without malice and of people with charity for all. From there his sadness is sorrow, his grief is love’s loss, and his steadfastness is faith in Providence.

Such vision takes us to the second short quote: “As I would not be a save, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

His political spirit is right there. Where did Lincoln get his idea of democracy? Just as he moves from psychology to spirituality, he moves from politics to the ethical axiom of democracy: the law of equality. He would, he says, not want to be a slave.

He once said that as a boy he felt like a slave. But he didn’t want to become a master. Unlike so many people who solve the oppression and abuse of their childhood by becoming oppressors and abusers, Lincoln turned to a love of democracy, where people would aim to be legally equal with each other. Nobody, by law, above anyone else.

For Lincoln, people were not pawns in a game, people were the game.  Of the people, by the people, for the people.

Lincoln did not try to divide people with anger, he tried to unite people with kindness, compassion really.

His political method was not to corner people in their hypocrisy, but to free people from their duplicity, to free America from its duplicity, freedom for some, slavery for some others.

Lincoln didn’t just invent the idea of democracy, nor was he the first to see democracy as a spiritual path toward the religious goal of a common wealth, a peaceable kingdom. Lincoln had ancestors who had a vision that the role of life was not to be the subject of a King, but a citizen of a community.

Lincoln never knew this but he had a great, great, great, great grandfather, Samuel Lincoln, who came to Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1637 to be a linen weaver. He came from Hingham, England. The folk in this eastern England area, called East Anglia, were radical Protestants, called by the dirty name Puritans. What was pure about these people was simply this: They wanted God, not a bishop; they wanted truth, not superstition; they wanted the Bible for themselves—and they wanted economic and political freedom from the King.

This idea, a vision of equality before God, rather than submission before a king or bishop travelled with the Lincolns to Massachusetts from England, and then with thousands of eastern English, down through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois.

When Lincoln moved out of the legal servitude to his father at the age of 21 he moved to a little town with an English name, New Salem. There was a doctor there who had graduated from Dartmouth, and there was a cohort of free thinking folks who formed a debating society. Lincoln joined and wrote a paper on the anger of God, and some ideas from radical French philosophers.

But there also were tent meetings of evangelical Christians. Lincoln didn’t go but he caught the spirit, saw that people could be reborn. Even he would come to say a nation could be reborn in a new birth of freedom. That’s where the “people” come back into his political and spiritual vision.

The spiritual life of Lincoln seems to begin when we see him with his mother. But we also can say that it began for him generations back in the beliefs of his Puritan ancestors, beliefs that lit his eventual faith.

Lincoln invented himself not just from his favorite texts in Shakespeare and the Bible but from his mothers and God and his Puritan heritage and community ethic. So he was not just a self-made man after all.

As we re-invent democracy, American politics and faith, to look at how Lincoln re-invented himself can be a guide lighting a way in honor, down to the latest generation.

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

ReadTheSpirit magazine Editor David Crumm contributed to this week’s column.




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.





How can we remember what we share as Americans? Meet 2 spiritual guides inviting us on a pilgrimage.


Discovering the Sacred in Our Heartland—



Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine

What’s the last thing most of our families are thinking about this fall?

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page. The book also is available via Barnes & Noble and many other retailers.

Taking a road trip.

But, that’s exactly what two spiritual guides are inviting us to undertake in a pair of unique, beautifully illustrated volumes that—we promise you—will be a welcome addition to your reading list this autumn and winter. That’s true even if your spiritual “road trip,” for now, is only the start of a plan for yourself as an individual or with your family, friends or congregation.

Now is the time to open our horizons, once again, as we think about what defines—and unifies—this vast and diverse nation of ours.

Co-authors Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer hasten to add that our National Parks (and monuments and historic landmarks and other park service sites) are open right now to visitors. Of course, some indoor or enclosed areas within these sites may be closed or access may be limited due to safety concerns during the pandemic. But, the sites themselves are open. You can leave your home whenever you feel so moved and wind up standing on these sacred grounds to renew your spirit.

“If you want to know about the current rules, all you’ve got to remember is the website and you’ve got access to the latest information about any of the locations,” said Lyons, who also is president and publisher of Chalice Press, which produced these books. “Wherever you live, there is a national park site not too far away.”

In fact, there are 421 sites in the National Park System with more added to the roster each year. The highest designation, “national park,” is held by 62 of the facilities, since the White Sands Monument became the official White Sands National Park on December 20, 2019. (NOTE: That was after press time for the first 61-site volume in this series, so Lyons and co-author Bruce Barkhauer are adding reflections on “Bonus Parks” to their website for the book series.)

Among the many new and upcoming sites within the system: The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial was recognized by the park service on September 18, 2020. The Civil War Mill Springs Battlefield was moved up to the status of a national monument on September 22, 2020. On the list of new sites in the planning process is the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument, which is authorized by the park service but still is in the process of acquisition and development of the facility.

How many park designations are there? Across the entire system, there are 19 different naming designations.


Ready to Open Your Spiritual Horizons?

The two books are: America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks—and America’s Sacred Sites: 50 Faithful Reflections on Our National Monuments and Historic Landmarks.

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page. The book also is available via Barnes & Noble and many other retailers.

Barkhauer and Lyons have been involved in the production of Christian books and resources for many years. Lyons supervises the entire Chalice Press publishing house, which is part of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ. A few years ago for Chalice, Barkhauer wrote: Community of Prayer—Stewardship Devotional.

So, after years of working on more traditional publishing projects, why did they launch such an unusual series?

“Because we realize that people have a desire to find something other than the typical religious books that were produced in the past,” Barkhauer said in our interview this week. “There is a hunger for something deeper among people who have experienced so much turbulence in these tumultuous times. People are finding that what they thought was anchoring them—now is shaking. People are asking: Where can I take my questions to look for deeper answers?

“When we started working on what is now the first volume, we thought of this as a closed set: There were 60 parks. We would cover all of them in one book. Then, as we were working on that book, there were 61. And, now, there are 62, so we’re adding a reflection on that 62nd site to our website.

“Then, when we decided to do a second volume, we realized we could respond to the geographic holes in our first book. The 62 national parks are not evenly distributed across every state. California and Utah have a lot. Not every state has one. But—when we knew we could plan the second volume, this gave us an opportunity to fill in some of the geographic gaps. There is a national park unit of some kind in every state. So, that’s why we did 50 in the second book—one per state.”

The Power of a Daily Spiritual Journey

Most of these entries are four pages long, each one illustrated with about four color photos—so they are ideal for daily reading. Millions of us try to follow some kind of spiritual practice, often including a daily, uplifting reading of some kind.

That is why we have launched our own 30 Days With series of inspirational books with the first two volumes drawing from the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln and King David. More volumes will appear in 2021. What we are aiming at is a timeless desire for readings that can enlarge our spiritual imagination. Since ancient times, men and women have found solace and hope in daily prayers and reflections. Pew Research says 55 percent of Americans continue to do so on a daily basis.

One way to enjoy these new books from Chalice is to think of them as “111 Days With Our National Parks,” spread across two volumes. That’s enough reading for more than three months. Lyons and Barkhauer understand how much we all can benefit from recalling on a daily basis what spiritually unites us in these turbulent times.

That’s why they close each entry with a few questions for reflection. Just one example: At the end of a chapter that involves Native American food traditions—they raise a common Native American concern for future generations. The questions at the end of that entry are:

“Can you think of small actions that have blossomed into something much larger? From whose seeds have you harvested fruit? What seeds are you planting for future generations?”

‘Something out of the Ordinary Happened There’

In the opening pages of their newest book, Lyons and Barkhauer remind readers that this intertwined process of remembrance and spiritual reflection stretches back to the roots of our Abrahamic faiths. They write:

“Consider the stories in the biblical witness where a place is marked as special or sacred. In Genesis 12, when Abram enters Canaan—God having told him in a dream that he and his descendants will one day inhabit this land—Abram sets up a pile of stones, an altar, at the oak of Moreh. The place is to be remembered because something out of the ordinary happened there. In this case, it was the first concrete step of Abram living into the vision of what would become the biblical nation of Israel. Marking the place allows the history to live on beyond the individual or generation that experienced the event. …

“What is most remarkable to us today is that there is a place in every state of our union that has some significance in shaping us and our history. Consequently, there is a place near you right now where a visit can get you started on discovering more of America’s holy ground. We wish you blessings and safe as well as amazing journeys as we remember that our memories of the past, well tended, not only define who we are now, but can shape us into something even greater in our shared future.”

And, the best part of these co-authors’ collaborative style? They keep guiding us; they show us one remarkable site after another; they evoke the spirit of each place; they raise probing questions—but they don’t force answers on us. Each reader can draw unique insights.

“Every one of these reflections is open to your own interpretation,” Lyons said. “And, that’s appropriate to this kind of journey—and to these places. If any two of us visit Yosemite—even if we are good friends and visit together—we will have two different experiences. That’s why we never say in these books: This is the experience you’re going to have. We don’t want to limit anyone. We are offering invitations. We are asking questions. Your own experience, then, will take over. And, that’s as it should be.”

Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 26—Choosing Humility over Humiliation

This entry is part 25 of 28 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

TWO HISTORICAL MILESTONES IN A SINGLE IMAGE: Frederick Douglass met Lincoln face to face three times. This famous painting depicts his first appeal to Lincoln in 1862 to combat discrimination in the Union army against black soldiers. The main effort to recruit black regiments began only after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in January 1863. No photographs were taken during that meeting. This 1943 painting of the encounter is a milestone for two reasons. First, it broke new ground because it was an official U.S. government commission painted for public display by an African-American artist, William Edouard Scott. Second, it depicted Douglass in a clearly dominant position as he argued the case of black troops with a seated and weary Lincoln.


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.

Nestled into many Lincoln literary collections, there is a large red book, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, published in 1885 by Allen Thorndike Rice, editor of the famous North American Review. My copy of Rice’s classic is in the autumn-leaves season of its life.

Included in these pages are the memories of 33 men, none more interesting than that of Frederick Douglass, interesting and representative of Lincoln’s silent empathy as he greeted him into his office.

Douglass, the famous Black abolitionist and feminist was an awe-inspiring man in his own right. After his encounter with Lincoln, he wrote, “I was somewhat troubled with the thought of meeting one so august and high in authority….but my embarrassment soon vanished when I met the face of Mr. Lincoln. When I entered he was seated in a low chair, surrounded by a multitude of books and papers, his feet and legs were extended in front of his chair. On my approach he slowly drew his feet in from the different parts of the room into which they had strayed, and he began to rise, and continued to rise until he looked down upon me, and extended his hand and gave me a welcome…. ‘You need not tell me who you are Mr. Douglass, I know who you are. Mr. Sewell has told me all about you.’ He then invited me to take a seat beside him.”

After Douglass presented his four points, which had to do with the recruitment, the pay, the safety and the honor of what they both called “the colored troops,” Douglass writes, “To this little speech Mr. Lincoln listened with earnest attention and with a very apparent sympathy….”

Again and again, Lincoln’s earnest and silent opening attention is what these men record. It puts them at ease, it honors their mission, and it enhances their dignity.

This book collects memories of famous men like U.S. Grant and Henry Ward Beecher, and less famous men like Schuyler Colfax and Elihu Washburn, who tell the of same welcoming encounter.

It is easy to see Lincoln unscrambling his long legs, striding toward the guest, his huge hand extended, his voice rising in greeting, and then his quiet attentive listening. Lincoln begins these meeting again and again with silence.

The hallmark of such a greeting is spiritual. The moment begins dwelling in silence, and it is physical. It is embodied. It communicates dignity and respect.

This is not the politics of humiliation, as recently critiqued in a New York Times editorial by Thomas L. Friedman on September 8, 2020.

This is the politics of humility.

It is both smart and good on Lincoln’s part. Smart because, as he once said, if you are to convince a man of your opinion you must first persuade him that you are his sincere friend. It is good because it places the esteem, the sense of the self-worth of the visitor, at the center of the conversation.

Lincoln loved to meet people. Quite simply, love was in his heart. One day while he was a young boy, he ran up to the split-rail fence to greet a visitor who had just ridden up. Lincoln began talking excitedly with the man. His father, Thomas Lincoln, struck his son down with his hand. Lincoln’s offense had been to speak first, before his father. However, as young Lincoln’s life unfolded, he preserved his natural affinity for people.

One of Lincoln’s favorite books was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In that book, a sinful character is appropriately named Talkative. Lincoln must have liked that sinner, because he certainly knew how to be talkative. But Lincoln also had a humble spirit, and he knew how to respect others.

It is really hard to humiliate someone who is humble. They just don’t go down.

Now Lincoln himself was the object and target of political satire and even craven contempt. What we don’t ever see in Lincoln is pay-back. He once said, “What I have to deal with is too vast for malice.”

So he holds a penetrating and deep silence when he meets a fellow human being. He expands his heart and furthers his mind reaching for human value, knowledge, and things too vast for malice.

Contempt, the inner looking down on someone, is a secular human behavior that all religions and spiritual practices counter. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a universal law of spiritual life. And it is very hard to come by.

George Washington, while desperately trying to defend the city of New York against the invading British fleet, was given needed reinforcements from New England, especially a group from Vermont called the Green Mountain Boys.

Washington was a Virginia gentleman, the wealthiest man in the state. He was well-practiced in proper rank and file behavior, in proper uniforms, and speech and discipline. When, earlier, he was in the British Colonial army he himself was openly humiliated by the English as a rube Colonial. He had a lot of pride and so quit out of a sense of his own honor.

But when he encountered the New England mountain boys as his new recruits he was nothing but disgusted with the rowdy Vermonters. He wrote home of his utter contempt for them. A spirit of humility is hard-earned.
A few generations later these tables turn in a story of the New York governor and future presidential candidate William Seward. He and his wife decided to tour the South in the years before the war.

The Sewards were contemptuous of the whole southern way of life. Not only were they disgusted with slavery, but they were revolted by the pomposities of plantation manners, the lack of general education, the run-down life among the poor black and white. They could hardly imagine a country in which people so different from themselves could be equal citizens. Contempt is easy to come by.

Humiliating and then re-humiliating The Other may be the single most dangerous secular political practice, one that calls for spiritual humility such as Lincoln’s.

How did Lincoln come to be this way? The element of silence was immense in the making of Lincoln. We will not understand his spiritual life of Lincoln if we don’t begin there. It is cosmos not history that is our frame of reference. This is an unusual perspective, but spiritual knowledge emerges from the same formless void that opens the book of Genesis. Born into that world, Lincoln’s inner life began.

Lincoln then held onto that silence throughout his life. In reminiscence after reminiscence, as we have seen in that big red leather book, those who knew him personally remark how he began their meeting with an extended silent listening.

Silence was not a technique with him, it was his spiritual practice.

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




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.





Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 25—How a true leader expresses the nation’s grief

This entry is part 24 of 28 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

�Shapell Manuscript Foundation. All Rights Reserved. For more information, please contact us at

EDITOR’s NOTE—September 2020 has been marked by many tragedies nationwide—from wildfires in the West to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to reflections on the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001. Our national conversation has often turned to the best examples of leadership in times of tragedy—so, Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer reminds us of this famous presidential response in 1862.

CLICK ON THIS snapshot of the 1862 letter to see it enlarged on your screen. (Shapell Manuscript Foundation. All Rights Reserved. For more information, contact us at

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 a Lincoln quote for you, which I’ve condensed for you: “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all.”

This is care and wisdom from the ready quill of Abraham Lincoln. It is in a personal letter to a young woman back in Illinois, Fanny McCullough, whose father was just killed in a Civil War battle in Mississippi.

In the spiritual life of Lincoln his ability to care is extraordinary.

To the historian who wrote Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin, such letters reveal “what may have been the most important of his emotional strengths—his unusual empathy, his gift of putting himself in the place of others…”

Lincoln’s letters of compassion come from a space in his heart that opens into a space in the receiver’s heart.

Not only are his words unbounded by space they are also timeless.

Fanny, in Illinois, will know his care, and eventually in our time we can also. Such feelings are mystical but they are also ethical.

Lincoln felt personally responsible for this man’s death and his daughter’s grief. He knew her father—a local sheriff and county clerk. He was an older man, had a crippled arm and was partially blind. He implored Lincoln to let him fight for America, fight for the union and the democracy that it was achieving. And so he had become Lt. Col. William McCullough. Killed on December 6th, 1862, 157 years ago, leaving behind his daughter and her mother.

Lincoln’s expressed empathy crosses space and time. But when you read it you don’t feel that this was written so long ago, December 23rd, two days before Christmas, 1862.

Lincoln writes to Fanny that time itself will help her heal. He says that her agony will change, over time, into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before.”

So this will be a revelation to her, a new and unknown place that he asserts as pure and holy. Is this not the spiritual life of Lincoln being created then and even shared now?

All scriptures are replete with stories and myths of space and time being crisscrossed by something spiritual.
But Lincoln of course, like all of us, was embedded in secular time. Let us look. It is December 23rd, 1862, and in ten days the final proclaiming of the Emancipation Proclamation will take effect. Ten days before Lincoln wrote this letter the Union army suffered 12,000 casualties in an horrific defeat at Fredericksburg. How could Lincoln have on his mind and heart 12,000 men lost, and then also one man lost, and one daughter in agony, and then, by his words alone, millions of slaves behind Confederate lines suddenly legally free. To add to the weight of time, for Lincoln, it has been just ten months since his dearest son Willie died.

In such a heavy time Lincoln asserts this loving wisdom, “I am,” he writes, “anxious to afford some alleviation to your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once.”

This is age-old wisdom, his pragmatic faith. “You need only to believe it to feel better at once,” he says.

This of course is an assertion of the spiritual principles promoted by many other American sages, including Phineas Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy: that divine love coupled with thinking can make something so.

In these dimensions beyond space and time Lincoln’s spiritual life can light us down in honor and in love even to the latest generation.

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




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.





Rosh Hashanah’s and Yom Kippur’s timeless question: ‘Who shall live and who shall die?’

“Whose name shall be inscribed in the book of life?” Ultimate questions are raised each year during the Jewish High Holy Days. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, congregations include the centuries-old prayer that begins “Let us now speak of the awesomeness“—a prayer that echoes many passages of the Hebrew scriptures from Genesis to Psalms. That powerful prayer emphasizes these life-and-death questions. The questions are so central to Judaism that this stained glass window (above) is dedicated to this prayer in the Renanim Synagogue, which now is part of the Heichal Shlomo complex in Judaism. Parts of this 18th-century Italian synagogue were painstakingly shipped to Jerusalem and reconstructed there. Today, Heichal Shlomo is a frequent destination for international visitors to Israel.


In 2020, the whole world asks these questions


Contributing columnist and author of Shining Brightly

When you’re healthy, you may not think twice about a question like: “Who shall live and who shall die?” For Jews, this is a central question of the High Holy Days: a small yet powerful handful of words among the hundreds of traditional words we pray, chant and contemplate between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Traditional foods for a “sweet” Rosh Hashanah. (Photo by Sufeco, courtesy of Flickr)

Right now, millions of Jewish families are looking forward to the start of Rosh Hashanah. It’s a happy yet solemn time of year—an eagerly awaited opportunity for spiritual renewal and family reunions. While services and dinners may be virtual this year, the themes of life and death remain as they have for centuries. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews take stock of their actions over the past year, ask for forgiveness to those they have wronged and vow to do better. Tradition tells us that God ponders who shall live, or be inscribed in the Book of Life, and who shall die by the close of Yom Kippur.

This year, millions more are pondering those sacred words, with the total of global cases of COVID-19 approaching 30 million and deaths exceeding 900,000.

Who else hears those solemn words in the service each year with high anxiety and often with broken hearts? Anyone who struggles with cancer in their own life or in the lives of loved ones. Believe me: For more than four years now, I have felt those words leap off the page at me. I have moved from a diagnosis of stage III in 2016 to state IV metastatic colorectal cancer with “3-6 months to live” the following year —to a patient determined to beat this disease in 2018—to rebuilding my life and celebrating my survival in 2019—to becoming a national advocate for all those who continue to suffer cancer’s effects currently.

“Who shall live and who shall die?” There is more than a simple annual tally in that question. It’s a deep question each of us struggles to answer every day.

My friend Sarah DeBord.

This story is my story, but also about some friends I met along the way—like the remarkable “cancer whisperer” and activist Sarah DeBord. It’s their story as much as it is mine. But—perhaps like your own life’s story—mine began as a surprise. I was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer after my 50th birthday in June of 2016.

My gastroenterologist was hovering over me as I was awakening from the procedure and my wife Lisa was at my side. This colonoscopy was supposed to be an unremarkable milestone—just one of those medical tests you’ve got to check off as you age.

So, I was groggy but jovial as I recognized him looming above me.

“Hi, doc! Everything is OK, right!” I wasn’t asking him. I was telling him. I was ready to pop back into the rest of my life. Like always, I just kept going: “I’m in great shape and feeling well.”

Then, I suddenly realized something was wrong in their faces. Dr. Goldmeier said, “No, Howard, everything’s not OK. I found something way up in your Cecum connecting your small and large intestines. Usually, this is bad news.” He took a biopsy and sent it to the lab. It was bad news and an 8-centimeter tumor turned into a diagnosis of Stage 3 colorectal cancer.

My thoughts were speeding 100 miles per hour: What if the screening age had been lower!?! And, finally after years of advocacy work, it has dropped from 50 to 45. Even now I think it needs to move even lower as younger-onset colon cancer is growing. The death of Chadwick Boseman at age 43 has become a national wakeup call to younger adults.

‘Get Your Affairs in Order’

“Get your affairs in order.” I heard those unimaginable words. My life span was constricting to a 4% chance of surviving 18 months. My daughter Emily had just completed her sophomore year in high school. My wife Lisa and I had just celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary.

I had beaten Stage IV Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer when I was in my 20s. Then, I had started out more passive, like a deer in the headlights. This time, I set out on that long, painful journey like a Marine on a mission—assembling my support team, relying on the strength of my amazingly supportive wife, family and large social network, determined to kill cancer rather than letting it kill me. Still, to be honest, there were those agonizing questions. Would I live to see Emily graduate? To grow old with Lisa? I am living out the ancient wisdom: Nothing in life is guaranteed and our tenure on earth is a short one.

And, one autumn after another as we—as cancer patients and care partners—struggle through surgeries, procedures, chemotherapy treatments and all kinds of crazy side effects, there came those inevitable lines in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services: Who shall live and who shall die?

In the fall of 2017, I started salvage or second-line chemotherapy called Irinotecan coupled with Avastin. With my body cooperating and God’s good graces I got some good news. I had a slight “regression” or shrinkage of the tumor set. My reward was six more cycles of chemotherapy. While doing more chemo, my wife Lisa “graduated” to the Stage IV Caregiver’s group of, a private Facebook support group and I joined its neighborhood group Hipec Heights through Vincent De Jong and Kim Sully (Stage IV colon cancer patient/survivors/advocates). In March of 2018 I had the mother of all surgeries: CRS/HIPEC at the Rose Cancer Center at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. The recovery was brutal and then more chemo and major side effects along the way. It took me a full year just to feel close to right again. I continue like many cancer patients and families trying to put “Humpty Dumpty” back together again and rebuild our lives.

To date, I survive. This year, when I hear those words in the annual prayers, I’m more confident for myself. I’ve been NED (No Evidence of Disease at this time) for four quarters. So, are those words less solemn for me? Less freighted with emotion? Easier to roll past me as the holidays come and go?

No. And the reason is: When coping with cancer, we learn that we cannot do this alone. We learn to lean on others, to depend on others—and eventually to reach out and let others lean on us, depend on us. And, in doing so we unwittingly sign up for a terrible toll we all know so well—the loss of fellow cancer patients.

‘Cancer whisperers’ and ‘survivors guilt’

Volunteering with Sarah Debord at Get Your Rear in Gear fun run in Grand Rapids in 2019.

The question quickly becomes: Why am I alive and great people like my dear friend Sarah DeBord have died—just recently—after the most courageous and inspirational eight-year battle with colon cancer? I did get to see Emily graduate and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next milestones I will enjoy with her and Lisa. But, Sarah just left behind her devoted boyfriend and 2 precious young boys.

Sarah was “a cancer whisperer” to me and so many others. Her life had such meaning! So many people depended on Sarah; and she graciously welcomed that. I keep asking: Why did Sarah die? Why am I still here? And, yes, I understand that we call this “survivor’s guilt” and it’s common among us. But, that still doesn’t answer the questions that keep rattling around in our hearts.

I met Sarah Debord in Denver at a, Empowered Patient and Caregivers Conference in October of 2018. I randomly sat next to her, but I had heard of her, and had read her blog. Sarah was a social media guru, working in marketing communications for the Minneapolis-based Colon Cancer Coalition. She promoted screening, awareness and funding via the signature Get Your Rear in Gear and Tour de Tush event series. These are volunteer-driven efforts in communities throughout the United States, granting over $1 million to local community programs that will raise screening rates, increase awareness, and educate the public about the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer.

The baseball world series was on TV and we watched “my” Boston Red Sox play “her” Los Angeles Dodgers at a restaurant that evening.

With Dr. Chelsea Boet

Violet Kuchar, who is now deceased, joined us and we spent time with Dr. Chelsea Boet and Facetimed with Stacy Hurt in Pittsburgh. This group of Stage IV women and myself formed a private group to share, support and send virtual hugs to each other as we each faced chemotherapy, surgeries, clinical trials and side effects galore. So much darkness was heaped upon our families—psychologically, financially, physically.

My next meeting with Sarah was at Get Your Rear in Gear in Grand Rapids, MI, in September 2019. Dr. Chelsea was the chair and she had her “Team Chelsea” there to support her and the event. I served as a volunteer.

Sarah was tired and frail, but at 95-pounds was tough as nails. At the end of the day I spent some quiet time that ended with a hug and some good-natured ribbing about my Red Sox’ World Series win over her Dodgers. I told her to hug her boys, she told me to hug my girls and left for the two-hour drive home not knowing that I would never see or hug Sarah again.

Death is a part of life

Who shall live and who shall die? As I think about those words this year, I’m overwhelmed with memories of Sarah and Violet. They’re gone. Meanwhile, Stacy and I are grateful for achieving NED but have much farther to go to get away from this crappy disease. Dr. Chelsea is in active treatment and still fighting her fight. It is an unfortunate fact the we see far too much death following a Stage IV metastatic cancer diagnosis.

What that ancient question in the prayers reminds me of each year, is that I do not have any say in the matter. I struggle with Violet and Sarah passing—and I may never be over it. I cry every day that I cannot instant message, text, call or social media post to them. I hope somehow that they know in heaven that they are missed so dearly, so whole heartedly by me and so many.

What that ancient question reminds all of us is: Men and women have been asking these questions—and crying these tears—for thousands of years. Death is a part of life. Death humbles all of us. And, even knowing that, death remains such a blow when it comes because we dare to love each other and help each other—especially those of us who build these daily bonds as cancer whisperers.

In this new year—Jews number it 5781—who shall live and who shall die?

I do not know. Only God knows. What I do know is that I can remember each life. I can retell the stories as I have just done. And that’s ultimately the purpose of the prayers we read and chant and sing at the High Holy Days. We can learn and grow from our challenges and the example of other cancer patients. We pass along our hard-earned wisdom. We remember. We can tell and retell the inspiring stories we share. We pray together. We hope together. We recommit ourselves to keep on loving as long as we live.

And, this year, when I hear those words twice—on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—I can say: “O God, may their names remain a blessing to those of us who knew and loved them.”

One of my Rosh Hashanah cards, this year. Thanks to all of my family and friends who have wished all of us—and I do mean “all of us” within our global circle of family and friends—a sweet new year.



Care to read more?

HOWARD BROWN’s memoir Shining Brightly will be released in early 2021. Howard will be featured in future issues of ReadTheSpirit. Keep watching our magazine’s weekly issues for further updates about this important new book. If you have not done so already, click on the green “Get free updates by email” link in the upper right corner of this page to receive a weekly reminder of our new stories.

HELP THE COLON CANCER COALITIONReadTheSpirit is simultaneously publishing Howard’s column along with the Colon Cancer Coalition. Here is how the coalition describes its work: “The Colon Cancer Coalition is led by a team of talented, knowledgeable staff and a board of directors who work tirelessly to bring understanding, raise awareness and eliminate fear of colon cancer. Along with the scores of volunteers and local event directors who plan and hold Get Your Rear in Gear®, Tour de Tush®, and Caboose Cup™ events across America, we’re driving a grassroots campaign to prevent, treat and beat colon cancer. And we like to have a little fun along the way.” Interested? Visit the coalition’s home page and you’ll find many opportunities to participate.


Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 24—Myths and wisdom in national conversation about rule of law

This entry is part 23 of 28 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

Want to learn more about this national conversation? Click on this snapshot from The Atlantic to read Steve Inskeep’s full September 1, 2020 story: What Lincoln Knew

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 a Lincoln quote for you, which I’ve condensed for you:

“Let every American….swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate … the laws of the country (my bold) … Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges…let it be preached from the pulpit…and enforced by the courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion (Lincoln’s italics) of the nation…”

People are still quoting this speech from 1838. He gave it to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, his first invited public address. He’s 28. Yet just the other day the Governor of South Dakota misquoted this speech as if it’s about government protection of private property.

Thankfully, acclaimed author and radio host Steve Inskeep answered boldly in The Atlantic. I, myself, took to the airwaves in Maine a few days ago, feeling the relevance of this speech. We’ve been talking about the relevance of Lincoln’s spiritual life up here on Maine radio for about five years now. Even the current President seems, as Mr. Inskeep noted, to have a fondness for comparisons with Lincoln

But, as scripture can put it, “as far as the East is from the West so far”—so far is Lincoln from this current President. And as the Psalmist continues could we wish for our transgressions to be taken so far from us. Especially the transgression Lincoln had in mind in this speech, lawless violence against Black lives.

Lincoln discovered the end point of our transgressions. That discovery was Lincoln’s spiritual gold. Our transgressions are taken away from us by the righteous wrath and merciful justice of the Living God in the blood-cost of the Civil War. By the time of his last major public address Lincoln transcended his political religion of law and order with the wisdom and charity generated by our suffering. Slavery was our transgression and we have had to pay for it.

How did Lincoln get to such theology in a mere 27-year spiritual journey from the Springfield Lyceum to his Second Inaugural Address?  “Lincoln offers an example of moral depth and subtlety that is hard to find elsewhere in American politics or for that matter American Literature.” so concludes John Burt in Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism. He balanced prophetic moral stances with a human sense of tragedy and irony, what history is really like.

But since law and order is on the front burner, once more, let’s try to understand how even Lincoln, as an ambitious young lawyer, split the difference between Abolitionist disorder and white lynch-mob lawlessness by appealing to one basic: Law.

When he first came to politics, devotion to the Law was his was spiritual life.

You could say that, as a spiritual person, Lincoln had to grow up from his young man’s fantasies of American greatness and his sole faith in law and order. And he did.

He paid for his wisdom with melancholy and was rewarded with compassion. In this first speech, however, Lincoln is not depressed. Nobody has ever said he was bi-polar, but he’s pretty high in this his first-ever major public address. And he’s going to give it all he’s got. He’s got a lot to give. The law really is his political religion. It is his spiritual life at that time.

He’s a struggling young lawyer in the new state Capital, Springfield Illinois, a city of dusty or muddy streets, wooden walk ways, running amuck pigs , horses everywhere and great exuberance for this new nation, America, the United States, barely 50 or 60 years old itself depending on how you count its beginning.

So you have to figure this: Lincoln is almost 30. The country is almost 60. He is half the age of the new nation, the nation is just twice as old as he is. Everything is that new.

This situation gives the words “these uncertain times” a real ring. Not only is this new government really new, it is almost the laughingstock of the Old World, Europe thinks this democracy idea is a fool’s errand. This is not an errand in the wilderness with a beacon on a hill shining back freedom to the old world, it’s, to them, a flickering candle, a smoke signal.

Lincoln is in a pressured position as he gives this speech. It has the marvelous title “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” He was invited by the prestigious town debating society called the Young Men’s Lyceum.

Lyceum is a word from the Roman and Greek heritage that the frontier people keep hoping to use to bless their new project. Athens would be a popular town name and Athenaeums and Lyceums would be popular elite conclaves for the pillars, young pillars, of society.

Surely there must have been a saloon down the boardwalk from the church, often such meetings happened in churches, where most likely this evening meeting was held.

But the setting is even more perilous than we have allowed so far. Lincoln has been in the militia. Many of Lincoln’s companions in the law had been fellow militia members with him in the Black Hawk War aimed at driving the seriously beleaguered Native Americans back up into Wisconsin territory.  Worse still, it was a time when most assuredly Black lives did not really matter. All up and down the Mississippi River, down in Alton, Illinois, into Louisiana, lynching and killings were rampant. The Presidency of Andrew Jackson had released what Lincoln and his Whig Party followers called mobs and were threatening institutions of America with Jacksonian mob-acracy.

To Lincoln this was not what America was for. The rule of law was the source of democratic government, it led to economic growth and social freedoms and stability.

Now this is where the spiritual life of Lincoln comes into play. Every one of his listeners would have known of the recent killing of journalists and clergyman Elijah Lovejoy by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois. Lincoln dare not say his name for fear of arousing the Abolitionists movement that Lovejoy supported. Lincoln was not that radical. His default position was what he called that “political religion,” love of the law, absolute total obedience to the law in every respect. So much so that by the end of this speech Lincoln is saying that no one should ever even walk on the grave of George Washington and the “proud fabric of freedom” should rest as the rock that has been like the church of Christ able to withstand the gates of hell.

Well. Lincoln learned a lot in his spiritual journey, and he learned not to mix his metaphors, with fabric and rock and church all rolled into one really manic law and order passionate plea. Remember, he’s young. He’s just starting out. He does not have a traditional religion. He doesn’t go to the Presbyterian church as a member. He is not a river rat either, nor just a storekeep or a day laborer taking a raft down the river. He is looking to build a life and help build a country and he knows, or hopes, that the reasonableness of law abiding people will do what the passions of the revolutionaries did: create a democracy.

Twenty seven years later Lincoln will have a full spiritual life and message and will empathically share with the nation in its sorrow over the Civil War and he will invoke love and mercy, righteousness and courage, a living God, and a devotion to peace and justice among ourselves and with all nations.

In the spiritual life of Lincoln we see fire early on and then we see a quiet fire were law and order take place along with peace and justice, charity and righteousness, and the humility of a people who have been chastened even punished by a Living God.

That is the arc of a spiritual life that can be seen in Abraham Lincoln, and it can be for us, as for him, a way to live on 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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