Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 4: The courage to say—’In spite of all this, I will be!’

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

 

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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, from him but not by him.

Tis the wink of an eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.
From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud.
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
William Knox

Lincoln quoted this poem incessantly. But for a meditative man so focused on death he also kept in his mind the uncertainty and mystery of birth. As a young boy he saw his infant brother be born—and die. His mother died when he was nine. His older sister died in childbirth.

There it all was: birth and death.

One of his very earliest memories was to see his doubled pumpkin seeds, planted in every other row in the field, all washed away by a sudden storm.

There it was again: life beginning and ending.

He, himself, was rescued from drowning, age seven, by a friend. He’d fallen into Knob Creek, having slipped trying to cross on a log, “raccoon-like.”

There was, then, that poem by William Knox that so marked his adult life. Folks for years thought he had written it. The theme really was a devotional teaching. It was about how foolish it is for mortals to be proud. A kind of one-sided Ecclesiastes.  There is always a time for death.

Lincoln’s spiritual life was born in a very un-American way, in the mysterious tradition called the via negativa. For all his jokes, joy and vitality it was his reaction to suffering and death that gave birth to his spirit.

He faced the frontier prairie, so infinite and yonder. What then was this finite life, with its reed-like frailty, its diseases, snows, hurricanes and vast primeval forests? Where was security and confidence? Yet he tells his young friends that the life of an ant must be as precious to it as ours is to us. But why was there the ant at all?

A precious and positive spirit began in Lincoln. While so much negated life, he still valued it, and himself. The spiritual life of Lincoln seems to begin with his many ways of saying to himself and others: “In spite of all this—I will be.”

That “I will be” was big, bigger than all the nothing all round. The big life that grasped him was a sense of Yonder, of Fate, and even, for a long time, a fate without God. And he was grasped by a precious sense of America and the idea of the equality of people.

America, and eventually his sense of God’s judgment, would call upon all the courage any one person could be asked to have. There was always in him a Yes and a No.

So where’s the courage in all of this? It is in the Yes that comes after the No.

There were many forms of No in his life. We have plenty of evidence of the prankster, the jokester, the boundary pusher. The rebel “I will be” was often very close to Albert Camus’s “I rebel therefor I am.” Eventually he became a rebel with a cause. As a rebellious boy he said No to hunting, swearing, drinking, unlike his friends.

The Yes seemed called up by the incidents in his life—like that ant. He said Yes to reading and writing and kindness, generosity, unlike most of his rough cohort and certainly his hard nay-saying father.

Lincoln’s nay-saying father is a key to Lincoln’s stalwart courage. Lincoln’s life schooled him in a dark fight. The great unrecognized wrestling match in Lincoln’s development was the physical and spiritual and nearly silent one he had with his father.

Thomas Lincoln was not a bad man, he was a hard man. He was built like an ox, was full of practical skills with carpentry. He had a dogged sense of wanting to make his own way in life, in a free way. He belonged to the Free Will Baptist church, was a leader, built their pulpit, and had himself and wife fully consecrated in that Calvinistic but institutionally free church.

Yet his life said No to everything that Lincoln was: a reader, a dreamer, a thinker, and a mind and spirit in quest of everything that America offered: self-government, the rule of law, freedom of mind and spirit, and freeing economic opportunity for the common man.

Lincoln said No to his father’s church and way of life. The most uncharacteristic act Lincoln ever performed was when he refused his dying father’s request to see him. It was a massive No.

The other No that was addressed to him was his mother’s death. Then all the other personal deaths, average for the age. These deaths were life’s No to him personally. And then the massive number of deaths in the Civil War. These deaths were a No to America. Lincoln had the courage and capacity to face that toll because he had his sad and melancholy spirit. Paradoxically, the courage of his sorrow kept him going. He was in touch with the power of these deaths, and in his daily way he found a way to say No back to them. No, in spite of all this, “I and we will be.”

Lincoln kept gazing at the impenetrable darkness of fate. His mantra poem, quoted above, was really an affirmation. Paul Tillich, the theologian, says in The Courage to Be, “Man’s knowledge that he has to die is also man’s knowledge that he is above death.”

Sin and death are not the last word. To live such an affirmation grasps one into the yonder and eternity of what Lincoln finally called the Living God.

His courage came facing the anxious quiver of life. Such a way of being can hold us, like Lincoln, down in honor to the latest generation, to eternity.

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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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 1: In this cruel month of death, what will be our legacy?

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you, as often, from Walt Whitman, this about the death of Lincoln:

“Oft, as the rolling years bring back this hour, let it again, however briefly, be dwelt upon. For my part, I intend until my dying day, whenever the fourteenth or fifteenth of April comes, to annually gather a few friends and hold its tragic reminiscence.”

And that is what Walt Whitman did—gave annual talks on the meaning of the death of Lincoln, not only on his life’s meaning but on the meaning of his death.

Whitman saw Lincoln’s death as a unifying moment in American history, the first great unifying moment in the drama of our country. He called Lincoln our “first great Martyr Chief”—capitalizing Martyr and Chief. Whitman was thinking about the timeless tragedies by Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks. He saw the same powerful themes in the story of a people—Americans—coming together to share in a great grief.

Whitman wrote: “He was assassinated—but the Union is not assassinated.”

It would be hard to measure the shock to the new nation, even divided as it was by the Civil War, when the news of Lincoln’s death came.

It was Sunday—Palm Sunday, April 9th, 1865—when Lincoln was steaming up the Potomac River from Richmond to Washington aboard The River Queen. Unknowingly he was entering his last week of life, at least in the way we usually credit how we know things.

What was on his mind?

He had visited the destroyed and vacant Confederate capitol, refusing proposals of a Victory Parade or a Mission Accomplished attitude. A Connecticut soldier said that they were entering the vanquished city like Roman conquerors—but Lincoln would have none of that. He was ingloriously rowed ashore to walk among the ruins. When former slaves tried to kneel in front of him, he told them that they should only kneel before God.

On the voyage back, Lincoln spent a very long time reading Shakespeare aloud to his traveling party.

His French companion Marquis de Chambrun wrote this later, “I cannot recall this reading without being awed at the remembrance….”

Lincoln was reading from Macbeth, perhaps his favorite, and the passage of the offense and guilt of Macbeth for killing the King.

“Offense” was a word Lincoln had known all his life, from the Readers he studied in his brief time in school. Offense was a big idea for youth in those days to learn from these heavily religious and moral lesson books. Lincoln was a boy with a heavy conscience.

Was Lincoln somehow feeling guilty? He was the victorious king, after all.

Was Lincoln somehow feeling aware of his death? He would soon become the first American regicide.

His French companion went on to write about Lincoln’s focus on the horrible torments of Macbeth, asking “…was (he) struck by the weird beauty of these verses, or by a vague presentiment coming over him.”

Ambition had always been a real conflict, a deep ambiguity, to Lincoln. He asked: What would fame ever gain a person when time itself was an empty vapor?

He went on, to his rapt passengers, to explain at great length how true the passages on Macbeth’s guilt were. How did Lincoln know about such guilt? He had just sat in the traitor Jefferson Davis’ chair. He had overseen and pursued war. But Lincoln had never personally killed a man and as a boy only one bird, a turkey—and he was very sorry he had.

So Lincoln is reading about the death of a king. Often he searched Shakespeare or the Bible for hope that his recently dead son Willie was somehow in eternity or with God.

When he had left Springfield for the presidency, his mother had worried that “something” would happen to him. His partner said Lincoln had felt the same. In his farewell speech in Illinois, he offered that he did not know if he would ever return. He had ominous dreams, often of a ship rushing to shore.

On his last day on a carriage ride with Mary he spoke of visiting the Holy Lands and seeing the places of Kings  David and Solomon.

In this cruel month, we all wonder: What will be the legacy of kings? The legacy for each of us?

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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 2: Coping with the Uncertainty and Mystery of a Deadly Disease

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

This famous lithograph of Abraham Lincoln as a candidate for president in 1860 was created from a painting by Thomas Hicks, made into a lithograph by Leopold Grozelier. It is available for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

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: “There is no announcement which strikes the members of a western community with so much dread as the report of a case of milk sickness. The uncertainty and mystery … makes it in the eyes of the inhabitants of a district the worst-looking foe which can best a neighborhood.”

That report of dreadful disease is from the city newspaper closest to where the Lincoln’s lived in southern Indiana.

“Uncertainty and mystery” were the words used by the Evansville Journal in the fall of 1840. This news was still in the papers some 25 years after the milk sick had hit the little Lincoln tribe hard, way south of the city.

Uncertainty and mystery are not journalistic language we recognize today—but they are signal words in the language of spiritual life, and never more than in the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln. Life-and-death uncertainty and mystery become the merciless angels that hovered over Lincoln all his life. These were angels he turned into charity and meaningful judgments. And those words, his words, charity and judgment are as unusual in a presidential address as were uncertainty and mystery in a newspaper report on a dreaded epidemic.

Lincoln became capable, even poised, in the midst of uncertainty, and compassionate, even wise, in the midst of mystery.

That is the pilgrim’s progress he completes.

Now, as Carl Sandburg tells us in his storied biographies of Lincoln, “Hardly a year had passed, however, when both Tom and Betsy Sparrow were taken down with the ‘milk sick’ … Soon after, there came to Nancy Hanks Lincoln that white coating of the tongue.”

(Betsy Sparrow was Nancy Hanks’ aunt and her husband was a brother of Nancy’s step-father. Dennis Hanks, who survived for all of Lincoln’s life, was his cousin. Like the Lincolns, Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow and young Hanks had to leave Kentucky because of land deed problems. Yes, the actor Tom Hanks is a cousin, what he calls “a poor relation,” to Lincoln’s mother.)

So it is that Carl Sandburg tells us of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother when she was 36 or so and he was 9. He was already on his way to being grown, having had an axe in his hands since he was seven. That was when boys began to be initiated to life and work away from their mothers.

But Lincoln never really left behind his mother, who he called his “sweet angel.”

The milk sick took many people in that year, 1818, as well as cows and calves themselves. For the Lincolns, there was no doctor nearer than 35 miles—not that they could have helped, man nor beast.

This particular frontier disease was later found to be caused by cows eating a poisonous snakeroot plant that made their milk itself poison and led to a grotesque death within a few days.

In the southern Indiana land that Lincoln’s father had staked out, there were other lethal diseases as well: malaria and other intermittent annual fevers. But it was this so called milk sickness that struck the most panic in the communities.

The local Evansville Indiana newspaper that reported the widespread dread of milk sickness goes on to report a shocking frontier fact that numerous farms and homes were suddenly found abandoned when the feared epidemic arrived. Fields full of corn, barns filled with hay, homes completely furnished, all left in an instant as people fled, not knowing how this milk-carried disease came. Was it some mineral in the water, some morning moisture in the air that made the cows begin to have “the trembles” and then, with their owners, untreatable death?

More than 100 years later, chemists and agricultural researchers in the late 1920’s began to publish their discoveries of the poison found in certain plants that poisoned the cows and their milk when they ate them.

Lincoln was a great advocate for science. He even gave a lecture on science and agriculture at a western state fair. But during Lincoln’s life, science and medicine never cured the world of uncertainty and mystery. Massive natural disasters were common during his lifetime. Unusual earthquakes, extreme winter snows and overwhelming summer rains, even a volcano eruption in the south Pacific that took out the sun for most of the northern hemisphere for a summer.

For most of his life, Lincoln was guided by practical reason and an overwhelming sense of fate or necessity which he cited with Shakespeare’s line, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them ‘tho we will.” Toward the end of his life he began to talk about what he called “a living God” whose judgements he said were true and righteous altogether, and whose ways were the ways of charity and peace.

Among the deepest mysteries he pondered: Why war? Why slavery? Why childhood death?

He did find some solace. Angels without mercy became for him “better angels” when they were made human by virtue of his tolerance for uncertainty and his humility before mystery.

As with Lincoln, uncertainty and mystery may never leave our lives, but neither did his hope, his humor, his reason, his desire for knowing God, and his belief in the idea of America.

 

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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 3: We Must Rise with the Occasion

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

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

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must.

We.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 5: When will we be good? God knows!

This entry is part 5 of 10 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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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 6: Lincoln’s Courage to Judge and to Lament

This entry is part 6 of 10 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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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 7: Lincoln looks toward his spiritual hero, Washington

This entry is part 7 of 10 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.

.

.

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.

 

.