‘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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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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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.

GET THE HELPFUL ‘GUIDE FOR CAREGIVERS’

Now, 1 in 5 adult Americans is a caregiver—more than 50 million of us. Together, we are women and men who give of body, mind and soul to care for the wellbeing of others. In this calling, we all need help—more than financial and medical assistance. We know anger, frustration, joy, laughter, purpose, mortality and immortality. We need daily, practical help in reviving our spirits and avoiding burnout.

Benjamin Pratt’s book, Guide for Caregivers, is intended to restore a new and right spirit in us. Our goal is to restore balance to our spirits—to replace sadness with laughter, fear with hope, exhaustion with vitality, mourning with gratitude, emptiness with joy and burnout with a rekindled passion.

Guide for Caregivers is drawn from the wisdom of many caregivers and we have taken their advice: These are short, easy-to-read sections packed with wisdom and practical help! This book is designed to let readers jump in almost anywhere and explore at their own pace.

Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—’The Last Best Hope of Earth’

This entry is part 32 of 33 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

THIS BRIEF VIDEO was made to introduce a 2013 Baltimore performance of Paula Vogel’s ‘A Civil War Christmas,’ a play that’s referenced in this column. The setting: It’s a bitterly cold Christmas Eve during the war and, from the White House to battlefields, friends and foes alike find their lives strangely and poetically intertwined. The New York Times calls this perennial classic a “beautifully stitched tapestry of American lives.” Due to the pandemic, this may be the first year in more than a decade that Vogel’s play will not be not presented somewhere across the U.S. In this column, Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer invokes Lincoln’s and Vogel’s wisdom about hope in the midst of chaos.

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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 a Lincoln quote for you: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

“The last best hope of earth.” Once again, Lincoln coined a phrase that has cascaded across more than a century into countless contexts and meanings—a phrase he built around that timeless virtue: hope.

Hope. A candle in the dark.

Hope is one of the three theological virtues in Christianity. It’s the theme of the first candle lit in the Christian ritual of lighting weekly candles during Advent, the four weeks that prepare us for Christmas. Lincoln was delivering these words 24 days before Christmas of 1862.

Here’s the context. He already had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September of that year. He had not yet delivered his full summation of these themes at Gettysburg, an address that would come in November 1863. These words about “last best hope” appeared in the closing lines of Lincoln’s December 1, 1862, message to Congress. Today, we would call it his State of the Union. The full closing paragraph was:

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless. 

In his line about “hope,” Lincoln was summoning a global vision—the hope of the world for free government, for self government, for equality. A hope that belongs to the whole earth—that was Lincoln’s scope. Lincoln knew this was a rare and precious moment. He told Congress that history had given them an opportunity—a fiery trial—to make that hope come true.

A fiery trial. An opportunity to embody hope. So, too, as 2020 heads toward 2021 in this nation.

We see again how much the world needs the hope of equality and freedom—perhaps even the last best hope of earth.

The Christmas coming in 1862 was particularly bleak for Abe and Mary. Their boy Willie had died in February of that year. They were grieving. Two of the three most recent major Civil War battles had gone very badly for the Union. Abe and Mary would spend Christmas that year visiting the wounded soldiers in various hospitals in Washington. The many sick and the many, many dying were their concern.

He was the President, offering the hope of only his presence to the grieving and the dying.

Helping us to envision Lincoln and Christmas during the Civil War is a moving musical play, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel: A Civil War Christmas. Until the pandemic shut down most theaters, the play was presented somewhere across the country almost every year since Vogel wrote it more than a decade ago.

What does the play show? It shows Black people. It shows white people. It shows Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s Black American dress maker, future stalwart companion and author. The play shows us far more than just Abe and Mary. In fact, there are 61 different characters in this play, rich and poor, safe and in danger, all played by 16 actors. It is an American Musical. Folksongs, hymns, Carols, marches and spirituals bring the lost and the isolated into that one open-hearted place of hope we call Christmas in America.

The spirit of community is at stake in this play. We see the best of the human spirit arise in hope and forgiveness for so many different people—just as it can today.

One of outstanding lines from the play is this: “The hope of peace is sweeter than peace itself.”

And, for Christians, peace is the theme of the second week’s Advent Candle.

The play echoes Lincoln’s message. It is nothing less than the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every hospital and grave, every flooded hurricane-hit city to every burned-down town and home, from every Black life that didn’t seem to matter, to every living and opened heart in this broad land, yet swelling the chorus of the union, when again, all are touched, as surely they will be this Christmas, by the better angels of their nature.

Those are the candle flames that can light us, as they did Abraham Lincoln, 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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In nearly a century of living, here’s what my mother taught me about light and darkness

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Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do,
Do not wait to shed your light afar,
To the many duties ever near you now be true,
Brighten the corner where you are.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

My mother lived for 95 years through all manner of challenges—from the Great Depression to life-threatening illnesses. In her final year, she had such excellent care that she survived the COVID pandemic, despite needing frequent visits by caregivers in her apartment in Grand Blanc, Michigan. Although she had been receiving hospice care for a month for a variety of illnesses, she still was hoping to greet 2021 and perhaps celebrate her 96th birthday in February. At the very least, she expected to make it to Christmas.

All of us were shocked that she simply and peacefully slipped away on the morning of December 1, which isn’t technically the start of the Christian Advent season—but, in effect, is the first day because all of our family Advent calendars start with December 1. For Christians, Advent is a season in which all of us bring out our holiday lights and do our best to summon bright hopes in the darkest season of the year. In preparation, on November 30, I had laid out the elaborate, lighted, miniature Christmas village that has graced the mantle over our fireplace for many years in December. On another long surface in our living room, I arranged the many Advent calendars we had collected to mark this month. With all of that preparation, on December 1, we were ready to open the first December 1 doors in those calendars.

I know that many families like to open the little doors on Advent calendars at night, perhaps around dinner time—but, we always open them at dawn. In our home, the first rays of sunshine each day angle through the front windows to warmly illuminate our display.

Summer 1956: Mom and Dad with me at Jones Beach, along New York’s Long Island, not far from where Dad served a parish while in seminary.

That custom was encouraged by Mom. She hated dark and gloomy afternoons. Part of her legacy is a family history of depression, which was so severe when she was a young mother of 35 in 1960 that she had to be hospitalized. I was just 5 years old and had no clue at the trauma that ensued. Suddenly, Mom was gone! And so was my little brother Stephen, who vanished as relatives in another city decided it was impossible for my father to care for two small children while Mom was hospitalized. My brother was gone for months.

That trauma—Mom gone with a mysterious unspoken illness and my own shuttling between daytime caregivers for months on end—was especially scarring because we were a clergy family. Dad served a prominent church in northwest Detroit. Mom’s descent into that severe level of depression—and then hospitalization—wasn’t what a pastor’s family should experience, especially 60 years ago when mental health carried far more mythic baggage than it does today.

What do I recall of that dark and mysterious year of disappearing loved ones? I remember that I began to carefully place my collection of stuffed teddy bears around the perimeter of my bed before I felt safe enough to fall asleep. I drifted off in a circle of bears, each night.

And what was Mom’s response to this new night-time obsession she discovered when she finally did return home? She didn’t try to disturb my elaborate circle of bears. Instead, she invited me to begin spinning stories of a fantastic world called Bearland. I had no idea that she was still struggling to recover from a condition that was invisible to me. What I knew was that my entries into Bearland—as narrated by Mom—always began with my journey by bus “into the deep, deep woods” until finally I would spot the first lights of Bearland—and the bears would emerge to greet me. From there, we had wild and suspenseful adventures in fantastical realms. After hundreds of Bearland stories with Mom in the 1960s, I went on to spin thousands—one each night—in the late 1980s and early 1990s when my own children were young.

What Mom taught me in summoning the wondrous realms of Bearland—in the wake of the dark nights of that 1960 year of vanishing loved ones—was that none of us can control what may befall us in life. None of us can avoid calamities. None of us can escape grief and fear.

What we can do is grasp the power of the stories we tell about our adventures. Bearland was far more than a cycle of fairy tales. Bearland was the birth of my vocation as a writer. When I joined with our Publisher John Hile and other colleagues in 2007 to found a publishing house, our simple motto became: “Good media builds healthy communities.”

None of us can avoid the world’s trauma. But—all of us can choose what stories we tell about our lives together, even after loved ones vanish.

And let me be crystal clear about our family’s experience with chronic depression: Mom’s enduring legacy to her four children isn’t the depression itself—no, her real legacy is that she received good medical and psychological treatment and recovered and learned that living with this challenge was just a part of life. Most people contend with some kind of chronic condition in life. This was just one that she had to manage. She knew this condition ran in families and taught us that we should learn the warning signs and know how to respond.

And, that’s where this particular story returns to the theme of light and darkness. One of the warning signs for her each year were the gray dusks that crept ever deeper into the day as our hemisphere whirled toward December. Not surprisingly, I inherited that from her as well. We both knew it; we both dealt with it.

When I arrived to spend an afternoon with Mom recently, her first words were: “Turn on more lights! You can’t see the poetry you’re going to read if we don’t have more light.” She wanted me to read her favorite Robert Frost poems and had the well-worn hardback of his collected works all ready for me to pick up. We set every lamp in her apartment ablaze—even as I read aloud Stopping by Woods.

Light. Darkness. Light. Darkness.

In the late 1950s, a Methodist clergy family’s life was tightly defined by customs such as this bishop’s tea for young pastors and their wives.

Over the years, Mom loved to talk at length about my work as a journalist and publisher, raising global awareness through stories about the world’s colorful diversity of faiths and cultures. She enjoyed my telling her stories of holidays and festivals that I had witnessed in my own travels around the globe. And, she especially liked me to describe the dozens of exotic shrines and holy sites surrounding Jerusalem, where soot from oil lamps has blackened many of the ancient mosaics and icons. Jerusalem is a wonderland of light and darkness. She loved to hear the traditional story of Hanukkah lamps. She also loved my describing Diwali, the Indian festival of light in late autumn when families lay out elaborate displays of flickering flames. Over the years, I even brought her back tiny clay lamps from Jerusalem and Asia that she tucked into corners of her bookshelves.

And so, we fell into a lifelong pattern—trading in a currency of light, darkness, light, darkness.

As a girl, she was born and bred and saturated and sanctified in the language of darkness and light. She was born into an Evangelical Methodist family in Howe, a tiny town in northern Indiana where most families in the 1920s and 1930s were evangelical with a capital “E.” She was a White Ribbon baby from the moment she was born in the family farmhouse in 1925, which meant her mother formally festooned her crib with a white bow as a visible pledge that alcohol would never touch this child’s lips no matter how long she might live! And, although Mom had no personal interest in the Christian Temperance Union by the time she reached college age, she and my father were never drinkers.

When Mom reached her 80s and 90s, as I talked with her about the faith of her youth, she acknowledged that the small-town Indiana version of Christianity was freighted with the traumas of guilt and all the prejudices of white rural life in that era. Throughout her life, she regretted the sometimes overwhelming burdens and biases of that brand of Evangelical fire on herself and on her nieces and nephews.

But let me also be clear about this: She never, ever abandoned her faith that the loving legacy of her own family outweighed any of its flaws.

Light. Darkness. Light. Darkness.

That was a lesson I’ve never forgotten as a journalist. In the midst of trauma, even in the midst of painfully apparent biases and scars, we can rest on a solid faith that light will always shine in the darkness. No person is beyond redemption. Even the most seemingly dark figure we encounter is not without a spark of light. That may sound like high-flown spiritual reflection. Frankly, it’s Journalism 101: Each life is a unique and irreplaceable mix of experiences and values. Our challenge as journalists is to tell the fair, accurate and balanced story.

Our vocation is to be honest about the darkness. And, to lift up the light as well.

A Song That Stretched 

So that’s why Mom, in her 80s, taught me a song that stretched all the way back to her family’s Evangelical tap roots: Brighten the Corner Where You Are. In recent years, we’ve laughed about this old song; and we’ve traded sightings of the song both online and in the movies and on TV. The next time the TCM cable channel reruns the 1931 James Cagney and Jean Harlow classic, The Public Enemy, pay attention to the pompous temperance band that marches right through the worst part of Cagney’s gangster’s lair booming out: Brighten the Corner Where You Are.

At first, this old song seemed to be nothing more than nostalgic amusement of century-old Bible thumping. In one family gathering, just to poke fun at each other, family members would spontaneously bellow the opening verse, guaranteed to spark laughter.

Then, I took time as a journalist to research the story behind the song. It’s easy to trace the song back as far as the evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935) and his famous musical collaborator Homer Rodeheaver. In fact, when 78 rpm records became all the rage, Brighten the Corner became Rodeheaver’s greatest hit! Both of those evangelical collaborators, Sunday and Rodeheaver, have lengthy Wikipedia biographies. It’s easy to think that the story stops there. Tracing the song’s origin is even foggier because, as the musical rights shifted hands, Rodeheaver eventually owned the song outright.

But he didn’t write it.

Ina Duley Ogdon—who doesn’t have a Wikipedia page—wrote the lyrics in 1913. The music was written by Ina’s friend and collaborator in her music ministry, Charles Gabriel. If you look up all the verses, the song may sound like it’s focused on saving poor sinners’ souls—and it certainly was used in countless tent meetings for exactly that purpose. That’s how Mom first heard it nearly a century ago.

But, that wasn’t the song’s original purpose. In fact, the song is about caregiving and disability. Ogdon was part of a noted family of evangelists. She wrote hymns, toured the sawdust trail of visiting evangelists herself, and spoke at services even though she was a woman in a man’s realm. But in 1912, her father suffered a devastating automobile accident and she had to give up her travels, including an invitation from the prestigious Chautauqua circuit, to become his full-time caregiver. She wrote that song out of pent-up frustration and eventually downright anger at the seemingly unfair trauma life had dealt her father—and herself, by extension. She dearly wanted to be out there on the road as a leader of revivals for thousands, not locked away with an invalid. The song was her coming to terms with the spiritual power of the smallest choices we make each day in whatever tiny corner we may be confined.

Mom came to love the song more and more—and seriously relied on its inspiration—as her own physical body gave way to the point that she could no longer walk and could survive only with the help of caregivers who visited her small apartment around the clock.

A Simple Story of a Hat

Mom in one of her many hats enjoying her 95th birthday in February 2020.

In a number of long telephone conversations in recent years, she would discuss with me versions of this question: “What’s left for me to do of any value in this world? What does God want me to do when I can’t seem to do anything?”

Then, we would talk about that old song, because Ogdon was answering those very questions.

Even in the most limited corner of her little home, Mom could be a warm and supportive friend to those around her, especially her own caregivers. And, in Mom’s case, thanks to 2020 technology, she could be loving and supportive to lifelong friends and family she could reach with telephone calls and personal notes. She could live her life as a visible symbol of not only survival, but real thriving.

In her final years, Mom completely lost her hair, a condition that most women would greet with anxiety. Mom celebrated that she could wear a variety of colorful and sometimes quirky hats—most of them with a story connected to the chapeau. Among her favorites was a beautiful white-lace topi or kufi, given to me by the Muslim author Victor Begg who explained, “You do know it’s actually a men’s cap, right?”

“I do,” I said.

For Mom, the hat was a chance for her to tell anyone who asked about the lace cap about Victor and our friendship. Then, this also became an especially welcoming kind of story because the doctor who tirelessly cared for Mom until the very end was a Sudanese-American Muslim. Our entire family now regards Dr. Osama Galal, who would respond to her medical crises at any hour of the day or night, as a living saint—a brilliant light in our midst.

That’s miles and miles from the Evangelical fire of Mom’s childhood and our family’s roots a century ago.

And Then, a Final Ray of Light

That funny old song we once joked about held real wisdom—so much so that my wife Amy and I had a copy of the sheet music nicely matted and framed for her as a gift for Christmas 2019. In our custom of trading in the currency of light and darkness, this would be a perfect beam of light to send her way. Then, as soon as we brought this artful piece home from the framer, I put it somewhere safe in our home until the holiday—and completely lost track of the gift. We searched. We never found it.

So this brings us back to this past week—to the morning of December 1, 2020—when we began our annual ritual of lighting up our home and opening the first doors on our brightly colored Advent calendars. About 8:30 a.m. that morning as we opened the little doors on more than a dozen calendars, my wife declared that we had once again collected far too many calendars! She instructed me to take a half dozen unopened calendars and store them for next year on a shelf in our basement.

In her apartment in Grand Blanc, Michigan, Mom took her last breath. None of us expected it. I wouldn’t receive a call about her passing for a while.

Dutifully following my wife’s instruction, I turned on the basement light and reached up to store the unused calendars, which is when I spotted a flat, brown-paper package I had never noticed on that shelf. Yes, it was the framed sheet music that had been missing for a year! I peeled back the paper wrapping to see the sheet music and read:

Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do,
Do not wait to shed your light afar,
To the many duties ever near you now be true,
Brighten the corner where you are.

Here for all your talent you may surely find a need,
Here reflect the bright and Morning Star;
Even from your humble hand the Bread of Life may feed,
Brighten the corner where you are.

I laughed out loud! The frame I had lost was found. Now, we had the perfect last Christmas gift for Mom this year. As I went back up into the living room, I kept chuckling at my own forgetfulness for that entire year—and the pleasure that old song had given to me, and to Mom, and to our entire family. What a perfect final present for her.

At 9:30 a.m., the telephone rang.

She was gone.

In our final morning on this earth together, I thought I had found one last gift for her. In fact, I had received the gift myself. Just as she lay dying, I had opened that brown paper wrapping to reveal one final ray of sunlight she had beamed my way.

Of course, I knew what she wanted me to do with that little beam.

She wanted me to give it to you.

And now I have.

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Care to Read More?

YOU’LL FIND MY MOTHER’s formal obituary at the Sharp Funeral Home website.

MY MOTHER ALSO ACTIVELY RECOMMENDED many of the individual books we produced since our publishing house was founded in 2007. Here are just a few of the books she cared about: