Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 8: Four Score and Seven

This entry is part 8 of 13 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

WHAT A POWERFUL PHOTO! This is one of only 2 confirmed images of Lincoln on the day he delivered his Gettysburg Address in 1863. The power of the photo certainly doesn’t lie in its visual clarity of Lincoln himself—it lies in the visual truth of the overwhelming forces surrounding Lincoln at this time. This photo was taken just as Lincoln was arriving, hours before he would deliver his address. He appears here without his trademark stovepipe hat, bareheaded and looking downward, right in the middle of this vast sea of people who are almost submerging him in the press of bodies.

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EDITOR’s NOTE—In honor of Memorial Day, which began after the Civil War, we are including a chapter from Duncan’s book of collected radio commentaries, 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln, which recalls Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863. On that battlefield, Lincoln forever changed our understanding of what that tragic conflict represents in our history.

And, here is Duncan …

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

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

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you that most of us know by heart: “Four score and seven years ago …” The quote is, of course, the memorable opening to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which he delivered on November 19th, 1863.

CLOSEUP of Lincoln (center) from the larger photograph.

Note that he says “four score and seven,” rather than “87 years ago.” In understanding the spiritual life of Lincoln, there is a reason why he chooses to start with the number 87 and there is a reason why he chooses the archaic “four score and seven.”

Often, Lincoln thinks and speaks more like a spiritual poet than a rational politician. At Gettysburg, Lincoln was attempting to invoke the “Spirit of ’76,” when the banner-raising Declaration of Independence was signed by people with the commitment to risk their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.

As Lincoln saw it, 1776 was when the blood of the American Revolution began to flow—and the idea of America was conceived. For him, the nearly mystical idea of a freed and equal people governing themselves was the real origin of America. Those powerful ideas were, Lincoln believed, even more important than the Constitution, which came a decade later.

As Lincoln looked back, he believed that the conception of America—while not exactly an immaculate conception—was much more of a holy idea than a law book. And it is conception and birth that are the metaphors and verbs he used in this speech.

We have two really different frames of mind here: the fever and blood of an ideal versus the debate and ink of a document.

So, Lincoln used biblical language—not arithmetic—to name the value of the moment. “Four score and seven years ago” is how Lincoln, who had memorized much of the Bible, echoes the language of Psalm 90’s meditation on the life span of a human being, especially in relation to the eternity of God:
The days of our years are threescore and ten;
And, if by reason of strength, they be fourscore years,
Yet is their strength labor and sorrow;
For it is soon cut off, and we fly
away.

In other words, human life is short—perhaps only 70 years. Even if we do reach 80 years, labor and sorrow will use up our strength. Lincoln did not get to 80 or 70, and nearly all of his labor was in sorrow.

Lincoln could not help himself in casting his comments in biblical tones, because for him, the vocabulary of the holy is what was called for when a battlefield (and all it represented) was being dedicated to the sacrifice of young American warriors. Secularizing forces in our modern Western world have drained our religious traditions of many of their riches, encouraging us to prize material success over spiritual depth. Lincoln was never fooled by that temptation.

As a spiritual poet, Lincoln stood at the cusp of this looming secularization. He was born at the height of what we call, today, “that old-time religion,” and his mind was formed in the thought patterns of the Bible first and then the law. So, as he pulled out his little slip of paper and began his address at the battlefield, it was natural for him to reach, first, for the Bible. He looks to the past because that is where biblical authors look as they survey the history of God’s people. Lincoln’s restless mind was always trying to understand his moment within the grand sweep of history.

At Gettysburg, he does not gain his inspiration from the crowds around him; he does not look to the stars and the trees and the beauties of nature. He looks to history.

Why is looking to history a spiritual thing to do? History is bigger than we are. History is a driving force, pushing us from behind into a “now” that is colliding with the future. Lincoln’s favorite line from Shakespeare was:
“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends
Rough hew them how we will.”

All of Lincoln’s thoughts, words and actions flow from his humility: his sense that he is small and history and God are vast. The sweep of the eternal infinite is the mindset and the vocabulary of a spiritual person.

Lincoln believed that we cannot escape history, but we can take up our responsibility and find, if not our significance, then our honor—even down to the latest generation.

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Stay Tuned!

We will let you know when Duncan is able to begin recording the radio versions of these weekly reflections again—and we will provide links to that audio as well as these texts.

Coming next week: We will take an imaginative journey. Like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (one of Lincoln’s early and favorite books), we will see Lincoln encounter two spiritual heroes on his progression. One is Joan of Arc, who becomes Saint Joan, and the other is John Chapman, who becomes Johnny Appleseed.

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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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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 7: Lincoln looks toward his spiritual hero, Washington

This entry is part 7 of 13 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

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

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you, strangely predictive perhaps:
“Is it unreasonable then to expect that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”
Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum Speech, 1838

Lincoln has in mind the heroic tyrants of the old world: “an Alexander the Great, a Caesar, or a Napoleon.”

This speech is Lincoln’s first public lecture in his role as state legislator and aspiring lawyer in the new capital of Illinois, Springfield. He is two weeks shy of his 29th birthday, his hair is probably slicked down, and he is raring to go, to talk to the esteemed young men of his town about the urgent need to perpetuate our political institutions, which he fears are in danger, and they were.

He is astute morally and psychologically about good and bad leaders and about the nobility and baseness of people. He is laying a monumental foundation for why George Washington is the answer to all our problems because he was a noble and a spiritual hero. Lincoln, in effect, is calling people to consider just “what would George Washington do?”

Lincoln is urgent and passionate. He will extol reason but he is filled with emotion about the importance of Reason, our civil religion he will call it. Washington, he sees, was a passionate and a reasonable man. His virtue could turn enemies into friends, and he believed in the rule of law.

Washington and the Founding Fathers with a revolutionary spirit had built a new world, an edifice to “civil and religious liberty.”

However, and here’s the spiritual crisis that threatens this democratic republic, the passion for our early ideals is gone. It has been spent. Once, Lincoln argues, our base emotions—hate and revenge—were either aimed at the British or subdued by our noble cause. Now hate and revenge, racially motivated, are roaming freely about the country and a tyrant, who can no longer build a new world “…would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”

He says there will always be men who want to be great, to have the passion to rule and to build. What can they do with that passion and ambition now?

In the spiritual evolution of Young Man Lincoln, in his pilgrim journey, his ethical and religious solution is to say that passionate emotion needs to be replaced by a passion for Reason, and the greatness of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon, must be replaced by the greatness of Washington.

It will be 20 years before Lincoln himself takes up the mantle of Washington to try to save the government and the law, civil and religious liberty. By then his own suppressed passion for equality will be aroused, and his hatred of slavery. He will take the place of Washington by having the courage to be Lincoln. He will live up to the virtues he had read about as a boy, including the spiritual one of turning enemies into friends. Like Washington, he would fight against tyranny without becoming a tyrant.

Looking back we can see that Lincoln, as a young man, was a card-carrying George Washington Fundamentalist.

He was so devoted to Washington—having read about him as a boy, including his thrill over Washington’s surprise victory at the Battle of Trenton—that he closed this public address to the young men’s group by calling them to revere Washington’s name and to permit “no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place.”

Don’t step on his grave! And, Lincoln concluded, “the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.” In other words, on Judgment Day it will be Washington, as like Christ himself, who will be raised from the dead.

This is a serious blend of religion and civics. But even these two presidents’ February zodiac signs are entwined with “Loyalty and Honesty.” From the famous Parson Weems biography: Lincoln, at age twelve, learned that like himself Washington was a great runner and athlete (they were both eventually 6-feet-4-inches tall) and was so honest that when he confessed to the cherry tree hatchet event his father celebrated his pure-gold honesty rather than punish the act, so went the story that Lincoln read. Lincoln saw a moral model of a spiritual man whose life followed “the divine policy of doing good for evil. It melted down his iron enemies into golden friends.”

Lincoln was just two generations away from the American Revolution. Washington and Lincoln’s grandfather, who fought in the Revolution, were in the same generation. This heritage had apostolic gravity to it.

In his almost prayer-like Farewell to Springfield on his way to the presidency, Lincoln connects his fate to that of Washington. He asked his gathered friends to pray to the God that abided in Washington, abides now in them, and can abide in Lincoln as he goes to take up a task, he says, that now is even greater than Washington’s.

But as we see, by that time, 1860, Lincoln is two decades older than when he gave his absolute commands to be faithful to Washington. Then Lincoln had conceived of the Constitution, and its covenant of liberty, to be a rock, like the church itself, an institution against which even hell could not prevail.

Why would Lincoln be so avid about such articles of faith? Because he was urgently afraid that our political institutions were going to be lost to race-baiting mob rule and a tyrant’s ambition, at the expense of the rule of law.

Lincoln at the age of 29 was looking at what he called “the slow artillery of time.” He saw that the greats of the past were like a forest of giant oaks now despoiled by the hurricane of time. Lincoln as a boy had seen the massive devastation left by a hurricane through the primeval forest of Indiana. Against such mutilation Lincoln looked for spiritual strength. He saw in the Founding Fathers, like Washington, both Enlightenment Reason and moral passion.

But passion now was spent, he feared, and the pillars of the temple that the Fathers had built had crumbled. Only Reason, pure cold and calculating Reason, intelligence and morality, the Constitution and the Law, could maintain our freedom.

Fundamentalism is what can happen when a spiritual hero is taken as a role model rather than an inspiration. Lincoln had to learn that it was the inspiration of Washington not the model that would serve him.

In his spiritual progress Lincoln found his own emotion, his own passion for equality. The love of that and the hatred of slavery moved him to lead. His heart was shaped both by grief and the noble virtue he saw in Washington and it kept him from becoming one of those “great” old world tyrants.

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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David Finnegan-Hosey Invites Congregations to Help with a Major Healthcare Concern for Millions

Click on the cover image, above, to visit the book’s Amazon page. David’s book also is available from Barnes & Noble—or, you can order it directly from the Church Publishing website.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine

In the midst of a global pandemic, millions of Americans are losing their jobs at a rate of “devastation not seen since the Great Depression,” according to the NY Times. While millions of those jobs are predicted to spring back after COVID-19 is controlled—a largely ignored tsunami is building across America:

Along with their jobs, millions have lost health insurance—and are facing soaring medical debt that can cripple an entire generation of Americans.

America’s more than 350,000 congregations are working overtime to serve families with a wave of new online inspirational offerings—as well as tangible help including new kinds of community service and food distribution. What no one is discussing, in the midst of this crisis, is the years-long impact of the pandemic on public health as well as the medical debts families will shoulder for many years.

That’s why David Finnegan-Hosey’s new book, Grace Is a Pre-Existing Condition—Faith, Systems, and Mental Healthcare—should be in the hands of clergy and small-group leaders in congregations nationwide, right now. There is not a more timely—and uniquely focused—book for congregations this spring. The book comes from our friends at Church Publishing, the publishing arm of the Episcopal Church.

“The brokenness of our health care system has been on grim display in recent weeks,” Finnegan-Hosey said in an email as we were preparing this cover story. He is known nationwide as an advocate specifically for the millions who have fallen through the fragile mental healthcare safety net—but he is well aware that spiraling medical debt will spring up in many families, this year, for a wide range of conditions.

Certainly, all of us are in awe of the courage and commitment of medical personnel. All of us cheer the scenes of celebration when COVID-19 survivors leave hospitals. However, the medical professionals in our communities are the first to tell us: Our American system of health care and insurance is crumbling. Suddenly, tens of millions of unemployed Americans are being pushed outside the safety net of insurance, which was full of holes in the first place.

If you have medical professionals in your small group or congregation, ask them to read Finnegan-Hosey’s book with your discussion group. You likely will find them welcoming this opportunity to shine a helpful light on these issues affecting millions. Very likely, some families in your congregation are silently shouldering crushing medical debt already—with more families to be affected soon.

FOR PEOPLE OF FAITH,
OUR PRE-EXISTING CONDITION IS:
CARING

David Finnegan-Hovey (Clicking on David’s photo will take you to his website, which is packed with resources to learn more about his ministry with physical and mental healthcare—including a discussion guide for his new book, which will be available soon.)

Finnegan-Hosey’s own story—and his national advocacy in books and public appearances—begins with the largest gap in our healthcare system: mental health services.

In 2018, we introduced our readers to his first book, a memoir he called Christ on the Psych Ward. In that Cover Story, we reported: “This personal narrative tells of David’s struggle to overcome his crisis with mental health. Along the way, he invites us to look at how churches can respond more appropriately to the millions of families facing these issues every year. His theme draws on the same deep religious traditions that have animated our online magazine for more than a decade: the spiritual solace of stories.”

His new book examines more closely how our American healthcare and insurance systems are designed to favor the healthy—and to ignore millions of men, women and children with exclusions such as “pre-existing conditions.” For Christians, Finnegan-Hosey argues, that insurance-industry concept smacks of a moral argument that blames and excludes huge numbers of at-risk families as if their health problems are their own fault—not the insurance company’s responsibility. That’s not what our Jewish and Christian traditions teach about God’s loving grace that extends to every single soul in the world, he argues. From the beginning of the world—and the beginning of our lives—God’s grace underscores the unique and irreplaceable value of each life and calls us to care for each other.

“Stories are powerful,” Finnegan-Hosey said in our interview. “Stories create community. Our multiple stories join together to become a chorus for change to the way the system operates. How we start our story matters. In the beginning, as we are created, God says that this is good. Our story begins with a vision of wholeness. But, our healthcare system starts with pathology—brokenness—and how risks will be managed.”

In the opening pages of his book, he explains this shift in thinking in much more depth, including this passage:

“When I name grace as a pre-existing condition, what I mean is that grace is the original state of creation, the foundational reality on which our existence is presupposed and form which it arises. … We are breathed into being, formed, by grace. Nothing to be done about that. But what we can do, what we are quite stunningly capable of doing, is get in the way of grace, restricting and blocking the channels by which divine love flows in and through us. When we refuse to listen to people who are sick and suffering, people struggling with cancer or mental illness or diabetes or chronic pain, people who have been targeted by violence or abuse or oppression—we block grace. When we shut down our inherent capacity for empathy and connection, see people as problems to be solved, sickness as personal failure, suffering as moral inferiority—we block grace.”

This Is, Indeed, Our Moral Issue

In other words: This is, indeed, a moral issue—and a matter at the core of our faith—that should be openly discussed in our congregations. Our acceptance of an American healthcare system that, by its very structure, dooms millions to disability, death or a lifetime of debt shows that people of faith have ignored the moral underpinnings of that system for too long, Finnegan-Hosey argues.

This is a bitter irony for faith leaders who know that, over many centuries, religious communities in various parts of the world invented our healthcare systems. Right now, it’s crucial for congregations to reclaim our traditional role as advocates for health and wellbeing. Right now, it’s crucial to begin talking, studying, praying and building a national momentum for change, he argues.

What’s more? Finnegan-Hosey predicts that the situation will get far worse as the astronomical U.S. national debt from this pandemic already is driving fiscal conservatives to consider a host of legal measures to cut even more gaping holes in the healthcare safety net.

What should congregations and individuals be doing now? In a new email as we were preparing this story, Finnegan-Hosey writes, “Don’t advocate for policies like taking away protections for pre-existing conditions, preventing the expansion of Medicaid, and cutting community mental health budgets, and then suddenly pretend to care about mental health.”

How To Use This Book with Congregations

We turn, now, to the Rev. Joel Walther, pastor of a United Methodist congregation in southeast Michigan, who has taught many classes and led many small groups. Walther is a long-time colleague of Finnegan-Hosey and was part of our earlier ReadTheSpirit Cover Story about Christ on the Psych Ward.

We asked Walther to describe how he might introduce this book to a congregation:

One of the greatest gifts in David Finnegan-Hosey’s writing is its easy accessibility for study in small groups. I would strongly encourage you to consider studying Grace is a Pre-Existing Condition with some small group of which you’re a part.

In religious settings this could be a Sunday school class, a women’s or men’s group or a couples’ group. In a secular setting it could be a book study, or a quilting or knitting group. Studying a book lends itself naturally to a group that already tends to study things, but this book addresses such an important topic that I suggest things like knitting and quilting groups because I think it would be a great opportunity to engage people in discussion of these issues.

The urgency of this particular book may give you a chance to revive a group that hasn’t been meeting during the pandemic. You can set up a virtual meeting through a conference call or a video conferencing program like Zoom, Google Hangouts/Meet or Webex.

This is a time to be creative! A group could even set up an e-mail or Facebook group and engage in discussion through e-mail or posting.

For those who are resistant to studying books because they feel their time is too limited to read, Finnegan-Hosey’s book is brief but deep. No one need worry about lengthy chapters that are a challenge to finish. His writing is approachable, honest, fun and engaging. This is easy reading guaranteed to spark good discussions.

This need not be a long commitment. There are nine chapters, so you could spend nine sessions—but his book also could easily be broken up into three parts. A group could spend just a few weeks discussing the book. I’d suggest tacking on one extra week where, after having studied the material, the group challenges one another to act in some way on what they’ve learned and to report back at the final gathering.

Finally, if you happen to be a religious leader this is easily broken down into a series for teaching, preaching or use in your weekly newsletters for the congregation. It would be a wonderful way to engage a religious community around a pertinent subject and challenge them to make visible change in our world around the issues of health care and health insurance availability in particular.

There’s a lot of good work we can do together to meet these crises that so many of our families are shouldering right now.

And, Torn from the Headlines …

Click on this snapshot from David Finnegan-Hosey’s front page to visit his website.

As we prepared to publish this cover story, we asked Finnegan-Hosey to help us gather some recent headlines about these issues—to help you share with friends the urgency of this discussion. His best suggestion was a link to his own website: https://davidfinneganhosey.com, which is packed with resources. His blog posts and social media updates often direct readers to up-to-the-minute headline news on these issues.

One of the most widely shared reports in early May is headlined: One Thing the Pandemic Hasn’t Stopped: Aggressive Medical Debt Collection. This link takes you to the Mother Jones magazine version of the story.

Many congregations and other groups nationwide have learned about ways to dramatically pay off existing debt at pennies on the dollar—helping to free countless families from these debts. Here is one story about the Massachusetts Nurses Association helping to free nearly 700 families.

The problem is growing dramatically.

On May 15, TIME magazine reported: “As of May 2, nearly 27 million Americans could potentially lose their employer-based health insurance amid the coronavirus pandemic.” TIME then described options such families could consider.

Also in early May, the Pew Trusts published an in-depth look at how debt collection is transforming the court system—often involving cases where an attorney representing a company is taking action against individuals who have no legal representation.

On May 12, the National Alliance on Mental Health updated its 24-page, downloadable COVID-19 Resource and Information Guide.

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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 6: Lincoln’s Courage to Judge and to Lament

This entry is part 6 of 13 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

This was Lincoln’s devastating assessment of the Civil War’s overwhelming cost—and its transcendent meaning—as expressed in his Second Inaugural. The entire inaugural address was engraved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a meditation on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome. Here’s a Lincoln quote for you—as penned in a secret 1862 meditation he wrote that later was echoed in that powerful passage from his Second Inaugural Address.

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party; and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun, he could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

What were the origins of this view of these cataclysmic events?

Most every wagon coming down the Wilderness Road, or out the Cumberland, packed a Bible, maybe wrapped in a quilt. The Bible was the code book for the coming civilization.

The Bible was the iPhone of the New World. It could bring up most of the Old World. It was basic social media. There were some who also had a Shakespeare, or Blackstone’s English Common Law. A few others had a small library with Enlightenment philosophy, the Greek and the Roman classics.

The language of Lincoln’s new world was a hybrid of the Bible, of law, Enlightenment and slang. “Americanese” became almost ungovernable, a vernacular something—secular and sometimes almost sacred. Those who spoke or wrote about America brought forth new ideas with old words. This was going to be the new kingdom of God in America or the new republic without the old world King.

There was an underlying obsession: Could the New World be free of the old? Was it better? Was it to be judged as a shining light when seen by the old world? They were watching. They were judging and a judgment was required to make this meaningful.

Nowadays, when a newly aggrieved citizen cries out, “God, why are you doing this?” it is a cry of judgment against the old judge. Making judgments makes meaning.

Lincoln himself put God on the witness stand in his secretly written Meditations of the Divine Will in 1862, just after the war had begun. In that meditation, he says pretty much the same thing as our aggrieved citizen—except that Lincoln does not whine and doesn’t think it’s about him. With his own profound logic and heart, he does try to judge the Eternal. Today’s citizen or yesterday’s Civil War solider can cry out, why are you doing this to us, God? Lincoln cried a lot. Lincoln truly wept his way through the Civil War. But when he did cry out—he followed with a resolve to meditate.

Of course, “why” is a parent’s question (“Why are you late?!”) and to turn it back on the Parent God is a nearly blasphemous thing to do. But this is America and we have rights. The Enlightenment philosophers did encourage us to question God, even God’s judgmental analytics.

Lincoln put God on trial again in his Second Inaugural. He puts the North and the South on the witness stand. He passes some judgments on them all: North, South and God. Both sides are guilty of the war because slavery is, he says: “American.” One side is guilty of fighting for slavery, but all Americans are guilty of slavery. God, to Lincoln, is not guilty, or only guilty of being a righteous god.

But then in a modest tongue in cheek he says, quoting Jesus obliquely: Let us judge not, that we be not judged.

But of course he has already passed on his view of God’s judgment. In Lincoln’s mind God willed this war as a blood punishment for the blood spilled in the sin of slavery.

There is some pilgrim’s progress going on. The pilgrim nation has to go from a bad starting point to a good end. It is a moral journey that implies a judgment at the end to make it meaningful, good or bad. This is the biblical code that Lincoln grew up in.

America will be good when, but only when, it seems, a judgment—even a punishment—has been meted out.
The wrath of God, the grapes of wrath, and God’s judgment, were not thoughts hidden from the 19th century Americans, whether they believed them or rejected them.

In a recent newspaper interview, in a poignant plaintive lament, a 75-year-old single American woman in lockdown with her cats and dog says, “I must apologize to God for what I feel.” I must apologize, she is saying, to the one great standard of meaning and truth, because God must surely judge her for what she is thinking and feeling nowadays about God and America. She, like a Civil War widow, feels estranged from God, has a voice of lament and complaint that, she fears, would offend God or at least hurt God’s feeling. She is saying: “I don’t not like what is happening. I do not approve. I judge it as all wrong. I’ve almost had it.” Then: “Sorry, I apologize. I’m sorry God, but really…! I’m sorry America but….”

But, now is when we can be good. Lincoln would have thought that. “When” is when suffering cleanses us like a Greek tragedy, or transforms us in the Divine Will of a righteous God, stamping out the vintage of the grapes of wrath. Americans could be good after the Civil War, he believed. Healing would be a matter of recognizing that we have all been in a state of estrangement, the united states of estrangement.

That is what Lincoln recognized when he saw the judgment on all of us, on both sides. That is why he could have asserted that we must not be enemies. We are guilty friends who belong together. Unfortunately, few really heard what he had to say.

Lincoln had told Congress, we must all rise with the occasion and see ourselves in each other. We would free ourselves as we free the slaves because we are all enslaved by slavery. But they were enthralled in a truly un-American way of life, not what the Kingdom of God in America was to be.

The tragedy of Lincoln was that too many Americans were not able to see themselves in the Other. John Wilkes Booth did not see his white face in the black face. Yankees did not see their money in the Cotton Gin’s wealth. The Fire Eater did not see his own righteous indignation in the coming terrible swift sword.
Lincoln’s sermon-Inaugurals failed.

People couldn’t just start out trying to see the better angels in the other’s nature. Not until they wept. That is where Lincoln was taking us.

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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Benjamin Pratt: In These Seasons of Life and Death

By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author of Guide for Caregivers

We enjoyed naming her—Patience, was the final selection. We considered other names: Unfluffable, Purrsisstent, Queen for the Month, Constance, Perseverant. Patience seemed the most accurate, stable, defining name for our Mallard Mama in these restless, unstable times.

Every day for more than two weeks our walks took us by the pond to see Patience, who faithfully incubated her 11 eggs. We were not alone in cautiously keeping tabs on her, hoping that one day soon we would see her waddling along with ducklings trailing behind. Mamma Mallard, the model for persistent patience—embodying for us Love in the Time of Pandemic—gave us guidance, hope, comfort as she sheltered against the hours while remaining faithful to her loving task of bringing new life into a threatening world. We need teachers like Patience in these times when so many of us are confined and restrained from our hurry-scurry lives.

In Tennyson’s words, “Nature—red in tooth and claw” dashed our hope.

One morning recently, early walkers discovered Patience floating on the pond—her 11 eggs gone. Only a few downy feathers remained on the nest.

The word passed through our community like the plague—breaking hearts, dashing hopes, erupting anger and a few tears. Nature was teaching us the cruel, fragile, vulnerable, uncertain reality of life, the side we try most to avoid.

After enduring my own moments of sadness and disappointment, I remembered the phrase I learned from my study of Bond, James Bond, that “one must teach them there is no top to disaster.” This is a reality most of us hope to never encounter. Yet, in these seasons—we do.

We do.

A STORY WITHIN A STORY—
A VIEW TO A KILL

Often, in seasons like these, we turn to stories. You are reading my story about Patience, right now. In my own grief, I reached even further back to the novels I have studied—and written about—over the years that delve deeply into life’s unfathomable waves of violence.

Ian Fleming, the scribe who recorded the tales of James Bond, 007, set out to provide modern parables about the deadly sins that afflict our world. Some claim that his James Bond, in moments of the most dramatic urgency, had “The Nelson Touch,” for his amazing ability to escape with only minor injuries. Such was the case when Bond courageously risked life and limb, sustaining only cuts, bruises and loss of blood, in his mission to destroy Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s biological warfare. Unfortunately, Blofeld and his invention, which was designed to unleash bacteria (anthrax) and viruses on England—escaped!

One would think, even hope, that Nation, God and Life itself, would reward this public servant for his sacrifice, service and distinguished work on behalf of all mankind. However, life does not always give rewards to those most due them. In Fleming’s fictional world, Bond was granted ten days leave to marry Tracy, La Comtesse Teresa di Vicenzo, on New Year’s Day at the British Consulate in Germany. That very afternoon his wife, Tracy, was murdered by Blofeld. He never remarried.

Bond’s spirit was broken, his soul and body wounded. He suffered from shock, grief and guilt. He stopped showing up for work, lost his sense of mission, and his zest for life was gone. He was not interested in his job or even his life. He drank, gambled and smoked more. He, who didn’t usually make mistakes, had become accident-prone. He bungled the jobs he was given.

M—Bond’s ever-demanding boss—fearing that he was losing one of his best agents, sent James to be examined by Sir James Molony. After the exam, Moloney reported to M that his agent was in shock, suffering from despair over the loss of a loved one, a death he believed he caused.

If you are a veteran of war, a first responder, one who has lost a comrade in battle, you may recognize the symptoms of agony in soul and body, the loss of zest for life and purpose, as experienced by James Bond. Listen to the wisdom of Sir James Molony.

He reminds M that “one must try and teach people there’s no top limit to disaster, that so long as breath remains in your body, you’ve got to accept the miseries of life. They will often seem infinite, insupportable. They are part of the human condition.” When, not if, life sends us over the top, we are not sure how or if we will cope and recover.

Molony has more wisdom to give. In response to M’s bewilderment about what to do with his agent, Molony says, give him “something that’s desperately important but apparently impossible…what he needs most of all is a supreme call on his talents.” Three months on a sunny beach won’t do it—give him an impossible mission.

So, M sends Bond to Japan where Blofeld has reincarnated himself as Shatterhand. (This is an important clue, a classic ability of the Devil to reappear as a new form of evil.) Here, Shatterhand has created a Castle of Death where people can go to commit suicide. James Bond might well have chosen this direction with his own despair. Instead, Bond confronts Shatterhand, the dragon of despair. Bond slays the despair in himself, in Shatterhand, and he destroys the Castle of Death.

Truly, an impossible mission!

A STORY WITHIN A STORY—
WITHIN A STORY

On the morning of 9/11/2001, Michael Flocco and his wife lost their only child who had been on the plane flown into the Pentagon. Michael, a sheet metal worker, was in shock, devastated by grief.

Like Bond he drank more, stopped showing up for work, and was on the edge of despair. Every morning he sat at his kitchen table, drinking a pot of coffee, turning to booze by 11 a.m., leafing slowly through their only family album with pictures of his son.

One morning his wife saw a classified ad: “Sheet metal workers needed to restore the Pentagon.” She clipped the ad and placed it in the album. Michael found it and stared at it quietly.

Then he called his boss and asked to be assigned to the Pentagon. Michael went to restore the building where his son had died, and hopefully, to restore his own body and soul.

An impossible job!

Michael Flocco is one of my true life Bond heroes.

MEETING PATIENCE

Nature teaches us, as do fictional characters and real people like Michael Flocco. We need their wisdom, patience, courage and faith in these times which are testing and trying our souls.

Please, meet our late friend Patience …

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This photo of Patience by Benjamin Pratt. Photo at top by Alain Carpentier, shared via Wikimedia Commons.

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Care to read more?

BEN’s book Guide for Caregivers is one of four books recommended by Susan Stitt in a column about books that can help families deal with their burdens and their grief in the midst of a global pandemic.

BEN’s book Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass has circled the globe, sparking discussions in congregations and among friends worldwide. A group in New Zealand even hosted a series on this unique book. Here’s a link to the book’s Amazon page.

One of the 5-star reviews says, in part: “The questions Pratt poses are contemporary, relevant and perfect for a small-group Bible study setting. Don’t get hung up on the immorality portrayed in the James Bond movies. Read the original literary texts of the James Bond series, which are so much more satisfying than the films, and you will recognize the Biblical themes which Benjamin Pratt desires for us to consider.”

Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 5: When will we be good? God knows!

This entry is part 5 of 13 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

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

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you, in his own writing—the very first we have. If you cannot make it out (above), the text says:

Abraham Lincoln
his hand and pen
he will be good but
god knows When

We begin to see the spiritual life of Lincoln when he first takes hand to pen in school. This is the beginning of what we can see. Perhaps he is plagiarizing every other school boy. But he is putting down in ink what we forever see in him, his sincerity about being good—and his thrift of pride. He doesn’t know “When” this will ever happen, his being good, and so between him and that un-capitalized “god” he sees himself on the poor side of goodness. And we love him for this humility.

We love him for the ethical impulse. This man would not be an artist, although there is Truth and Beauty in his addresses.  He would not be a saint or savior, although there is purity in his long-lived self-sacrifice. He would just be Good, addressing the Common Good with his personal honesty.

Lincoln once told a group of aspiring young lawyers that they should try to be honest lawyers, and if they could not be honest lawyers—then, just be honest men. The reason Lincoln becomes more than an honest man himself, the kind of honest man we might see in a Dickens novel, is because the school he went to in order to become an honest man was the school of severe suffering.

We have been looking, then, at the boy who suffered and the young man who suffered, and have been asking where does the courage to be, the courage to be Lincoln, come from in such a curriculum, or is it a catechesis?

The courage to be tells us more about the spiritual life of Lincoln than his faith to believe. His spiritual life is lived out in the courthouse and the White House. He is a lawyer and a politician, not a priest or preacher, although he may have become a prophet. So in his secular life and especially in his childhood and youth we look to the natural events of his life, sharp events of suffering.

We have named two in this series, death and isolation.

His mother’s death was from an epidemic that haunted the frontier for years. It was called “the milksick”. As well there was the death of his younger brother as an infant, and his older sister in childbirth. These deaths belong to his youth. They happen before two of his own sons, and the multitudes of the sons of America, are taken.

We have also looked at his isolation and confinement. At age 10, for several months, he and his cousin and sister survived in their Indiana cabin with a dirt floor, wearing animals skins, hunting game for food and wood for warmth in the winter of 1818 while his sole surviving parent went to find a new wife back in Kentucky. And then a dozen years years later, there were many months of the infamous “Winter of Deep Snow” in 1830-31 in Illinois that froze the whole prairie in a bizarrely deep and steady snow and ice storm, trapping hunters and animals outside. Six-foot drifts trapped families inside, including Lincoln, age twenty, with his father and step-mother and half-siblings in their log cabin in a new state.

This is what a professional in the field of childhood spirituality, Sally Thomas in Maine, has said about such traumatic events as these:

1. This is how Lincoln became an Old Soul at an early age.

2. This is where he begins to take that inner soulfulness and make of it an outer union of people, how he was a social engineer creating healing relationships for the wounds he suffered.

In a recent webinar sponsored by New York Disaster Interfaith Services on pastoral counseling in times of trauma, the presenter, the Rev. Fred Meade, reminded us that we cannot give to others what we do not have ourselves. Self-care and our own ability to find our inner rock are critical to the spiritual task now before so many clergy and care givers.

Sharing, the giving of spirit, is the social dimension of the healing of Lincoln’s childhood traumas. Healing in relations goes inward and outward. We may not have seen it as social engineering, but it is the giving to others of what they need to re-weave the social fabric of life.

For Lincoln the virtue of politics is just that. It is, as he said in his last address, to bind up the “nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” We do that so that we ourselves “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

He once had enjoined Congress to recreate a nation that the “world will forever applaud, and God must surely bless.”

The healing of Lincoln’s youthful trauma—as a spiritual process—was his relationship-rebuilding within himself and with others. He, also, could not give the country what he did not have. There is evidence that when we look at his childhood spiritual life, we see a young spirit become an old soul not unlike his healing stepmother who took a divided, blended family and made it one house, one home, a union, that he carried within. His Private Secretary John Hay called President Lincoln, “The Ancient.”

It can be said that all spiritual leaders—from the German Martin Luther and the Reformation to the American Lincoln and our Civil War—that they both gave the spirit of God as it was shaped by their most internalized parent. Martin Luther divided Europe and the Church with his great and holy anger against his father. Lincoln rebirthed this nation with the great and sacred love he had for his two mothers.

Trauma in the spiritual life of children, as Christian educator and spirituality researcher Sally Thomas has said, goes to the existential limits that the child experiences: aloneness, death, freedom and purpose. But she says, “Because each person’s experiences and how they are shaped to respond to them are unique, spiritual development does not follow any developmental or predictable pattern.”

We shall see that in a coming episode on the paths of an unpredictable Lincoln and an unimaginable Joan of Arc.

But even without a pattern, as we see in the biblical prophets, Sally Thomas adds from her work with the Godly Play curriculum (by Jerome W. Berryman. Church Publishing): “Prophets come so close to God and God comes so close to them that they know the most important things. And they are all around, maybe even sitting in our circle right now.”

Scholars differ on whether Lincoln was a prophet, but no scholar can say he was not close to God nor that God was not close to him—and that he did know and tell us the most important things.

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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Martin Davis: Thanking Our Mothers and Grandmothers for their Legacy of Love

My grandmother Martha in 1934 at depth of the Great Depression. She was 22 as she posed with the family cat and the family car. Why do I call her “Martha”? When I was born, the story goes, my grandfather insisted he was too young to be called Grandpa, so we grew up calling them simply Martha and Ben.

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By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

My grandmother Martha at age 16 in 1928, just a year before the stock market crashed.

My grandmother’s little house on Shenandoah Avenue in Durham, NC, still stands. Until I was 10, my brother and I lived just two houses down. We loved our daily walks to Martha’s house.

Her home was a palace!

The backyard where we played baseball seemed as big as any ball park we’d ever seen. The front yard where we talked with neighbors seemed as cosmopolitan and alive as the Upper East Side of New York.

I recall many of their names:

Alice, the single woman across the street with no TV, but a veritable Library of Alexandria.

Jack, who both scared me and amazed me at the same time.

The mailman who walked his route and spoke with us each day.

Drawers in Martha’s living room always held Hershey candy bars. The refrigerator was always stocked with cold Cokes.

Martha always had a smile on her face and plenty for us to do. Together we would cook breakfast, wash dishes. On special days, we baked cookies. On some evenings, Christine from across the street would come over and we would dance. The only lessons in ballroom dancing I ever received were from her.

Our best times were spent on the front porch.

On summer afternoons, before her house was equipped with air conditioning, my brother and I would run to the end of the concrete walkway to the porch and Martha would play Simon Says with us. The game—and our laughter—seemed to keep the oppressive heat and humidity at bay.

When the games were done, she would tell us stories of the Depression.

“Golly,” she would say in her well-mannered Southern accent, “we had nothing. No food, no clothes, we all thought we were going to die.”

My brother and I always laughed at that part.

We laughed because the very thought of not having food, of not having clothing, was so far removed from our reality. My grandmother, we felt, was rich. And so, we believed, were we.

Golly! How Did Martha Get through It All …

My Great Uncle Wallace holding my mother in 1942, just before he left to serve in World War II—and would never return.

My brother and I often recall those talks. They always made us smile. I suppose because—despite the fear her warning was meant to spark—Martha herself never seemed unhappy.

We’re a lot older now—about the age that Martha was when she told us those stories. My brother has two small children, and is a successful partner with Deloitte and Touche. I am much less successful, but certainly smart enough to understand well the challenges that lie before us.

And we are wiser about our grandmother. Her yard was no grand pasture, her home no palace, and our little neighborhood on Shenandoah Avenue no cosmopolitan center.

What we are less wise about is how Martha got through it all—with joy.

“I suppose,” my brother said the other day, “you and I will say to our grandchildren one day: ‘Golly, the pandemic was horrible. We all thought we were going to die.’ ”

As we spoke, we both wondered if our grandchildren would feel as safe and secure as the two of us did on Martha’s porch all those years ago. Secure enough to not really understand the fear that we will try to describe. And safe enough to laugh at our stories, as we did Martha’s.

I wondered: Will we get through this with all the joy my grandmother eternally displayed. Now many weeks into sheltering in place, we are getting a glimpse of the fear that my grandmother must have felt during the Depression. And I realize that most of us really are unprepared for the rigor of hard times ahead.

Now that I can begin to really appreciate the fear that grips us in times like this, I wish I could talk with her and learn how she got through it all.

The Best of Times in the Darkest Eras

Martha holding the author in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy’s buildup in Vietnam, the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Nelson Mandella’s arrest that would send him to prison for many years, and James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi escorted by federal marshals.

The best years of Martha’s life were lived in some of the darkest eras of American history.

Born in 1912, Martha was 17 when the Stock Market crashed in 1929. She spent the most carefree years of her young-adulthood working as a clerk at Rose’s in South Boston, Virginia. She married in 1935 at the age of 23, during the depths of the Depression. She spent those early years wondering how, with no money, they would survive and start a family.

In 1938, she went to work at Ligget & Meyers Tobacco Company sorting cigarettes as they rolled off the production line. She loved that job, and no doubt the security it brought. By the age of 30, she was living the nightmare of World War II, the horrors coming all the way to her doorstep. Her husband’s brother, Wallace, was killed in the Pacific when his boat was torpedoed. In my family still is a picture of Uncle Wallace holding Martha’s only infant: my mother.

By the time I came along in 1962, and my brother in 1966, Martha was again living in a world on the brink.

Through it all, my grandmother was more than up to difficulties of living in troubled times. Faith was the cornerstone of Martha’s life. As the old Southern adage goes, she couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but her near daily signing of the hymn How Great Thou Art was always music to my ears.

I can still see her, standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window, and singing:

“O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed
“Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.”

One has to wonder how an individual can stand in awe of the divine in the midst of life that endured such struggle and pain. I can’t speak for Martha, but I do have a hunch.

In the Southern Baptist world in which I was raised, How Great Thou Art was not the hymn of choice. In church, the core of my religious upbringing were hymns such as Amazing Grace, with its strong theology of personal redemption and Holy, Holy, Holy, another powerful statement about the Trinity.

Martha’s hymn of choice was in many ways the opposite of these.

It was a hymn of modesty: “When I in awesome wonder.”

It was a hymn grounded in the natural world: “I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder.”

It was a  hymn of quiet confidence, not evangelical soul saving: “Then sings my soul … How great Thou art.”

In all my memories of Martha, I never recall her talking about personal salvation or bringing people to Christ. I remember, instead, a woman of internal fortitude who lived through the toughest economic and political periods of the past 100 years of U.S. history—who despite the troubles she endured, focused on the beauty before her.

And, who no matter the difficulties, found God in helping others—a litany of names too long to even recall.

My grandmother’s “palace” on Shenandoah Avenue in Durham, NC, in 2020—the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Martha’s no longer with us, but her legacy of love endures as we retell the stories of her life.

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How do we spell love? C-A-R-I-N-G

I do not wish to downplay the pandemic, or the very real fears we all have right now about the future and what it holds for us and our families.

I do, however, hope that we maintain perspective through it. It’s been a difficult four weeks. We don’t know how many more of these weeks remain.

Martha endured difficult decades, when hope was even harder to find than it is today.

I do not carry Martha’s connection to the church—but I do carry her abiding sense of humility and wonder at the amazing world that we inhabit. And I carry her belief that in trying times—caring for others is how we move forward. One day at time.

A day filled with burdens and fears.

A day filled with opportunities to care.

A day filled with moments to just sit still, humbled, by the world all around us.

Golly! I wish I could stand on that porch again and hear those stories of the Great Depression. And feel again the strength of the woman who told them.

We need these stories now more than ever.