Loving God with my Mind

Several years ago, a mainline American denomination put out a series of publicity posters that I liked very much. One said, “Just because you’ve been baptized doesn’t mean you’ve been brainwashed.” Another went, “The only problem with groups that have all the answers, is that they don’t allow any questions.”

My favorite was “Jesus came to take away your sins. Not your mind.”

Many Christians have seemed confused over the years as to the proper relationship between reason and faith. Are we supposed to check our brains at the door and “just believe”? Is science automatically and irreversibly opposed to faith? Can a thinking person hold on to his or her intellectual integrity AND be a person of faith at the same time?

This was always a topic of special, personal importance to me. Expressing emotion was difficult for me growing up, but logic – ah, now you’re speaking my language. As a fan of the original “Star Trek” (don’t you roll your eyes at me!), my favorite character was, of course, Mr. Spock, who was totally cool, totally in control, totally logical.

The problem came when I tried to reconcile my fascination with logic, with what I was learning at church. I had questions but I learned pretty quickly that there are some questions you’re not supposed to ask. Logically, I thought I should be able to ask a simple question, but it’s not as simple as that. So you learn to keep your questions to yourself.

(Typical exchange – Me: “How do we know we can trust the Bible? Is it reliable?” Answer: “Yes, because the Bible says so.” Not exactly helpful.)

Perhaps without meaning to, pastors have often made the situation worse. You may know that I served as a pastor for nearly 40 years, so trust me when I tell you that pastors have their own questions and doubts, which they keep buried deep. Whenever they hear or read some skeptic raise the same questions they have, they become even more defensive, and think the answer is to “just believe” more. As if you could put enough coats of paint on a broken fence to cover up the break.

Some Christians will hear an “expert” on the Discovery Channel or History Channel make unproven, unchallenged claims about the Bible, or the life of Jesus, or some other matter of faith, and a believer who doesn’t know any better will think that there isn’t an answer, because they’ve never heard their preacher talk about it. And they may think that the skeptics have “beaten” faith, or that Christianity must somehow go begging in the marketplace of ideas. But our God is not the Author of confusion. He is the Giver of Truth. ALL truth. There are answers to these questions, even the tough ones. (By the way – “Where did Cain get his wife?” is NOT one of the tough questions. Trust me.) God is bigger than our questions. And there is not one question you can come up with that will stump Him.

Rather than commanding us to reject reason, over and over the scripture makes it clear that God has established order and logical thinking, and that these bear witness to Him. The fact is, Jesus INVITES us to love God with our MINDS – look at Matthew 22:37. After the resurrection, He appeared to His followers and gave them “many convincing proofs” that He was alive – Acts 1:3. Peter instructs believers to “always be prepared to give the reason for the hope” that we have – 1 Peter 3:15.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, our purpose is to “demolish arguments” and to “take captive every thought” in order to bring it in submission to Christ. That DOESN’T mean faith is opposed to logic or reason. It means that our logic and reason have to be “transformed by the renewing of our MINDS” (Romans 12:2), and in this way, we worship God with our intellect, as surely as we also worship Him with our emotion and passion.

Overcoming Fear

What is the most negative, most destructive, most harmful emotion? There certainly is no shortage of possibilities – anger, hatred, pride – but in my opinion, the worst of all has to be fear.

Have you noticed how many television commercials make their appeal by trying to make you afraid? A majority of money management and investment ads fall into this category. They’re trying to stoke your fears of outliving your money, or not being able to “keep up your lifestyle,” or some other vague concept to threaten you and make you afraid.

Our elected officials give lengthy speeches that pump up our fears and appeal to our lowest natures. A recent study by a major university found that an overwhelming majority of gun owners point to “being afraid” as their number one reason for buying weapons – and especially buying multiple weapons. And, I’m sorry to say, most national news networks seem to exist, not to keep us informed, but for the purpose of stoking our fears and inflating our anxieties, to keep us watching so they can sell more product.

We live in a society that seems to be drowning in fear – fear of running out of money, fear of burglars, fear of disasters, fear of “others.” We are afraid of dying, and afraid of living too long. We are afraid of the government and afraid of each other. Fear is destroying the very fabric of our society.

We need to realize this type of paralyzing, crippling fear is not new. In fact, one of the most frequently quoted phrases in the Bible is, “Do not fear” – by some counts, that phrase appears 365 times in the scripture. Consider –

  • God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Tim. 1:7)
  • Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isa. 41:10)
  • He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, … (Psa. 91:1-5)
  • The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psa. 27:1)

God wants us to walk in peace, not fear. So how can we do that? It’s natural and normal – even healthy – to have a certain level of fear about the unknown, about new situations, or other unfamiliar circumstances, but we can’t let that fear paralyze us into inaction. When we are making a decision about something, we need to evaluate that choice, consider the pros and cons, seek the counsel of wise friends – then decide! We must not let the fear make the choice for us.

One of the most important techniques for battling fear is to pray and to fill our minds with positive and encouraging thoughts. I am not suggesting any strategy that ignores reality, but as believers we should fill our minds with scripture, not Facebook, so that we are not so vulnerable to fear and despair. Remember that the first time God appears to Joshua after the death of Moses, three times in that conversation, God tells Joshua, “Be strong and courageous!” (Joshua 1:6-9).

I am certainly NOT against planning or preparation. By all means, we should be as ready as humanly possible. But at the same time, we must remember that we are not in charge, that sometimes situations and circumstances come that no one could have expected or prepared for. In those situations when our planning fails, let us not fall into fear, but let us know that our God is still bigger than our circumstances, that it has not taken HIM by surprise, and that He is with us, through everything.

Let us, then, have full confidence that we do not need to be anxious, that we can face each day and every situation knowing that He is with us, and that we need not fear. Strength and courage!

The Most Important Words

Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” In other words, just as the right frame can beautifully add to a painting or photograph, so the right word at just the right time can make a big difference to someone who needs to hear it.

Additionally, James 3:9-10 reminds us, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” All of us can think of people in our lives who have had a big influence over us, who always seemed to be able to say just the right thing at the right time. We can also remember times when we have been wounded by the careless words of someone whose opinion mattered to us.

The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is very mistaken. We need to remember that the words we use make a big difference to those who hear them – sometimes with the power to build up, but other times with a terrible power to hurt or tear down. And along those lines, remember St. Paul’s instructions to us from Romans 12: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

In the 1960s, there was a document being circulated and shared called “A Short Course in Human Relations,” author unknown. It was a list of what the writer considered the most important words and phrases that we can use in dealing with other people. At some point in the 1980s, it became a popular poster. After some consideration on this, here is my version of the list – suggestions for the most important words we can say to each other: 

  • Please.
  • I’m sorry.
  • I love you.
  • Thank you.
  • Let me help.
  • You can do it!
  • I made a mistake.
  • What do you think?
  • You did a good job.
  • I don’t know, but I’ll find out.
  • We (As opposed to I, me, my or mine)

May we all be known as people who build up others with words of encouragement. God’s richest blessings on you and yours for a prosperous, safe, and happy 2022.

The Train

As regular readers of these columns know, I love trains. I like riding on them, watching them, and reading about them. When I can’t do any of those things, I enjoy the hobby of model railroading. One of the great things about Christmas is that it’s the one time of the year when “playing with trains” is considered cool, rather than quirky. So the following piece is one of my favorites.

“The Train” is a dramatic reading by the late actor Geoffrey Lewis, performed with the musical and storytelling group, “Celestial Navigations.”  I first heard it a few years ago on an Abilene radio station, who had it in their Christmas music mix.  I don’t think it’s too well known, so I wanted to share it with you and hope you will enjoy it.

And from our family to yours, Merry Christmas!

“The Train”
As Performed by Geoffrey Lewis

There was hardly anyone on the train, as it moved through the countryside. The snow-covered land slipped smoothly by. Way out there I could see a lonely house now and again, just turning on their lights against the cold, oncoming night. Two thick-coated horses in the almost-dark, steam out of their nostrils, eating hay, then they were gone. The sky was quickly dark; the stars were crisp through the chill air.

Wasn’t very warm on the train. A man was asleep at the other end of the car, his coat rolled up for a pillow, a Christmas present had fallen on the floor. A few seats away a young woman sat with her baby. She was staring out the window. She saw me looking at her, reflected in the window, and she half-smiled at my reflection and she stared beyond that out into the cold dark landscape that was slipping away. I turned and gazed back out my window, then I heard a very soft, “Ohhh.” I turned and looked at the woman and I saw her hug her baby to her, very closely and very intently.

Suddenly I felt very close, very close and warm, and a door appeared in the back of my mind. I opened it and light flooded in and I heard my father say, “Burrrr, burrrr, it’s cold outside. You can put those logs right on the fire.” As I stepped in, he shut the door behind me. I was standing in my living room; the Christmas tree was all lit up over by the front windows.

I heard laughter upstairs, my mother came through the swinging kitchen door carrying a plate of red and green frosted cookies, and behind her came the smell of roasting turkey like a gauze that draped around my head, like the smell of earth that hangs out in the ocean and lets you know home is just over the horizon. Someone was stamping snow off their boots on the back porch and my little sister and two of her cousins were lying on their stomachs in front of the tree, staring at the presents, like sharks staring at a man’s legs under water, hoping to see beyond the tinsel and pretty paper.

I put the logs down and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. In the dining room my grandma was scolding my grandpa about “the best way for him to crack the walnuts” that he was already cracking. He looked at me through the doorway and shrugged his shoulders and continued shelling the walnuts. I took off my thick coat and threw it on the floor by the door and went to stand by my aunt who had just called me to come sing the tenor part at the piano. There was talk and loud laughter coming out of the kitchen where the windows were steamed. We were singing, sometimes forgetting the second verses, but sounding pretty good.

But suddenly, somewhere in all the warm and familiar sounds, I heard someone very quietly crying. I looked around trying to locate the person and then my eyes landed on the young woman in the train, a few seats away, holding her baby. Her eyes with tears, hardly seeing the back of the seat in front of her. I got up and walked awkwardly up the aisle of the swaying car. I put my thick coat around her shoulders, then I sat down beside her. I held her hand in both of mine and we rode like that, not looking at each other… looking straight ahead and I heard her whisper under her breath, “Merry Christmas.”

The train slipped away across the sleeping land, into the dark winter night.

The Secret of Christmas

First of all, I want to dedicate this week’s column to my wife’s late dad, Frank Rolens. Frank was a wonderful, gentle, Godly man, a great husband and father, and a World War II veteran. He was originally from Granby, Missouri, where his father was a physician. Granby is a tiny community near Joplin, in the southwest corner of the “Show-Me” state. Kathy’s mom Helen was from Neosho, another town near there, and they were married after he came home from the service.

Frank Rolens (1925-1995) in his World War II uniform.
He served in the European Theatre of Operations and was part of the
Allied Occupation Force that helped “de-nazify” Germany after the war.

Frank was not a pilot, but he LOVED flying, and spent most of his working life in the airline industry – 39 years of it with American Airlines. He told me that when he first started in that industry, he worked as a gate agent at a small airport, taking tickets, loading luggage, and directing pilots on where to park the planes. He did other jobs over the years, of course, and ended up in a department called “Flight Information.”

Back in the days when airlines still cared about, you know, real customer service, if you were having trouble making reservations or connections, your call would get transferred to “Flight Information.” An agent there – Frank or one of his co-workers – would help you navigate all of the different flight options, even putting you on another carrier’s planes, if that was what was needed to get you to your destination.

Frank served as an elder at Kathy’s home church in Bedford, where their family had been charter members of that congregation when it was established. That church’s name has changed over the years, but Kathy’s sister and her husband are still members there.

On top of all that, he was a terrific father-in-law and friend to me. He passed away in 1995. December 16 was his birthday. Frank loved to sing, especially men’s barbershop singing, and he was a big fan of the group known as the “Vocal Majority.” Now, if you’re not familiar with the Vocal Majority, they are a men’s chorus of about 150 guys who sing in classic “Barbershop” harmony. They are based in Dallas and have won numerous international singing competitions.

Back in 1982, radio station KVIL in Dallas released the first of what would become a series of Christmas recordings. This album, and the later CDs, contained some really beautiful Christmas songs – some old favorites, some newer material – and featured artists from the D/FW and North Texas area. One of my favorites was a recording by the Vocal Majority of “The Secret of Christmas.” I had never heard the song before, but it turns out it was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn for Bing Crosby to sing in the 1959 movie, “Say One for Me.” Besides Der Bingle, the song has been covered by numerous artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Andrews, and Johnny Mathis, but the VM’s version remains my favorite. If you would like to watch and listen to them perform this song, you can follow this link.

A lot of people talk about finding and holding on to the true “Spirit” of Christmas – qualities such as joy, generosity, hope, and surrounding yourself with loved ones. But the fact is, these are qualities that Christians ought to embody throughout the entire year. That certainly fits with this song.

So, in Frank’s honor, and to brighten your holidays, here are the lyrics for “The Secret of Christmas.”

It's not the glow you feel
  When snow appears,
It's not the Christmas card
  You've sent for years.
-
Not the joyful sound
  When sleigh bells ring,
Or the merry songs
  Children sing.
-
The little gift you send
  On Christmas day
Will not bring back the friend
  You've turned away.
-
So may I suggest, the secret of Christmas
  Is not the things you do at Christmas time –
But the Christmas things you do
  All year through.

Training for Christmas Fun

When someone finds out that I’m a model railroad aficionado, most of the time, it brings a sort of tolerant half-smile. That changes at Christmas. Tell someone you’re into model trains at this time of year, and their eyes will invariably light up, and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s so cool!” And you’ll hear a great story about a parent or some other loved one, a long-gone Lionel or other train set, and some wonderful memories. Even people who have no interest in trains the rest of the year, become nostalgic and even wistful thinking about trains around a Christmas tree.

So I am happy to tell you about a nearby model train club, the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders, and their annual Open House, coming up this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 11 & 12. The layout is at 598 Westwood Drive, at the intersection of North Sixth Street and Westwood, behind the McDonald’s on North First and across from Grandy’s, in Abilene. The Open House will be Saturday, 10 am – 5 pm, and on Sunday from 1 – 5 pm. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted, and all ages are welcome.

The club layout is in HO scale (the letters are pronounced separately – “aitch-oh”), which is based on a proportion of 1:87 – in other words, one foot on the layout represents 87 feet in real life. (Yes, that’s an odd number, and there’s a story behind how it developed that I won’t bore you with right now.) The club is seeking to represent the old Texas & Pacific Railway (now Union Pacific) from Ft. Worth through Abilene and on to Big Spring – although club members are allowed to “freelance” sections to reflect their personal interests.

Club members are happy to share their layout and passion for the hobby, and they invite everyone to come out this weekend and see the trains. Besides the main club layout, they will also have smaller displays of model trains in other scales, as well as a large collection of wooden Brio trains that the little ones can play with themselves. (Why should the big kids have all the fun?)

One reason that model railroading remains a popular hobby is that it incorporates many different interests in one. It can involve carpentry, architecture, engineering, electrical skills, computer programming, history, research, and many other sub-interests. You can express your artistic self with scenery for all types of terrain and landscapes; you can recreate a memory from the past or come up with an original expression of things the way you think they ought to be. You can create something out of pure whimsey – the Hogwarts Express visiting a train station on the planet Vulcan – or produce museum-quality reproductions that are accurate right down to the number of rivets.

A scene on the Abilene Society of Model Railroader’s club layout, with a Burlington diesel in front of a realistic model of the Abilene & Southern depot.

Some guys enjoy operating their model as a real railroad, complete with timetables and switching lists, making up trains, moving them over the road, picking up and dropping off cars along the way, and doing it all on time. Other guys just enjoy watching their train tick off the miles as it goes by, enjoying the smooth-running operation of the engines and cars. Some enjoy reproducing modern railroading, with its double-stack container trains and high-horsepower modern diesels, while others prefer the “old timey” tea kettle steam engines and short trains. It just depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC. In the old days, when you turned on the power to a particular stretch of track, every engine on it moved at the same time. This led to elaborate wiring schemes and dividing the track up into numerous “blocks,” each insulated from the others, so that you could turn on power to one little section of track at a time.

DCC has changed all that. Now, it’s possible to install a little computer circuit on the engine and give each engine a unique code number. With DCC on board, your controller sends out a coded signal that is read and understood ONLY by your engine. This allows you to run multiple trains on the same stretch of train, each independent of the others. You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects. All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive? Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be. As with any hobby – fishing, quilting, golfing – how much you spend is up to you.

If you’re interested in model trains, I know my friends in the Abilene club would be happy to welcome you to their layout and share a little bit of the fun of model railroading. All aboard!

Sounds of the Season

Okay, it’s time for me to come out of the closet. I love Christmas.

For years, I’ve enjoyed being a curmudgeon, wearing my Grinch tie, cheering for Ebenezer Scrooge when he says, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, would be boiled in his own pudding. And buried with a stake of holly in his heart!”

But the truth is, I love Christmas. Not the commercialism, or the insane busy-ness of it, of course. Those things, I did and do despise. But I love the decorations, the family traditions, the get-togethers with friends. Every year, we read the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke. Every year, we watch “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” (the 1984 George C. Scott made-for-TV version is my favorite). Every year, we marvel at the miracle of the King in the manger, and share candlelit communion, and give thanks for the Word became flesh.

And the music. The songs of Christmas may be my favorite part of the whole thing. So, in celebration of the season, here are some thoughts about three of my favorite Christmas songs, in no particular order.

O Holy Night

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular churchgoer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France. Over the years, its popularity has risen and fallen, but it remains one of my personal favorites.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

This song from the 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” a musical starring Judy Garland, Leon Ames, and Mary Astor, and directed by Judy Garland’s future husband, Vincente Minelli. The story deals with a prosperous attorney who is planning to move his family from St. Louis to New York – in spite of the family’s opposition. In the movie on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland sings this song to her little sister, portrayed by the very precocious Margaret O’Brien.

Originally, the song was supposed to be very bitter and sarcastic – even including the lyric, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last.” But Garland refused to sing such a grim line, and her opposition inspired the songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane to come up with the more optimistic, “let your heart be light.”

Hallelujah Chorus (from the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah)

“Messiah” is an English-language oratorio composed by Georg Frederic Handel in 1741. The words were compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Version of the Bible. The work was in three major parts: Part 1 deals with prophecies about the birth of Jesus taken from the book of Isaiah and other Old Testament passages, as well as a brief section from the Gospels. Part 2 deals with the Passion of the Christ and ends with the “Hallelujah” Chorus; Part 3 covers the resurrection and His glorification in heaven. Parts 1 and 2 make up the “Christmas” portion of the oratorio, and are often performed, either in part or in whole, during the holiday season.

I was first exposed to “Messiah” as a freshman in college when our choir sang the Christmas portion with a local high school orchestra. The “Hallelujah” Chorus is an amazing work, with four vocal parts singing back and forth to each other – “And He shall reign forever and ever. King of Kings! Forever and ever! and Lord of Lords! Hallelujah!” – all while the orchestral strings, brass, and drums are furiously praising God with their instruments.

It’s tradition that audiences will rise to their feet during “Hallelujah.” The legend is that at the oratorio’s London debut, King James II was overcome with emotion during its performance, and sensing the Presence of God in the music, he rose to his feet, for even royalty must stand in the presence of Divinity.

It’s Christmas time. Who’s ready to sing?

Another Christmas is Here

Several years ago, the Christian band “Truth” did a parody of “Silent Night” that included the line, “Christmas is the time I hate the best!” For many people, that sentiment is too true to be funny.

Our already-busy lives become even busier during the holiday season. And it’s going to continue like that for the whole month of December, right up until the 25th. Of course, by the time Christmas Day actually, finally, mercifully, gets here, we’re so exhausted that we won’t be able to appreciate it. So Christmas becomes something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

Stop this train. I want to get off.

Nobody WANTS to hate Christmas. The truth is, most people enjoy many of the things associated with the season, but we utterly despise – and absolutely reject – the crass merchandising of the holiday, the cynicism of too-slick marketing, the packaging of warm fuzzies as if they were so many beans for sale on a store shelf somewhere.

Slow down. Nobody said it had to be this way. Every year in December, we promise ourselves, “Next year, it will be different!” And every year, we keep doing he same things and expecting different results. (You know, the definition of insanity.)

I’m not going to tell you that you have to stay home from the office Christmas party, or not exchange gifts with Cousin Freddie, or skip putting up the outdoor decorations. But I AM suggesting that we all stop and think about what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. And maybe that DOES mean, simplifying our schedules and cutting back on some things, in order to focus on better things.

Almost everyone likes SOMETHING about Christmas. The music. The food. Spending time with family or friends. So, how about we focus on doing the things we enjoy, and skip (or at least, minimize) the rest of it?

If it’s Christmas music you like, give yourself permission to spend more time listening to it. Do you like Christmas movies? Skip one of the endless parties, make some hot chocolate and popcorn, and stay in for a family evening with “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Or even, “A Christmas Story,” if that’s your thing. (Just don’t put your eye out!)

Do you like to cook or bake? Whip up a batch of your favorite holiday snack treat – chocolate chip cookies, peppermint bark, Chex mix, whatever – and enjoy. Share some with friends. And don’t forget to take some to your neighbors.

Do you have little ones, kids or grandkids, that you can spend some time with? Find a way to make some Christmas memories for them. Think back to your own childhood: what was most special to you? Many folks remember something fun and special that their family did. So now, it’s your turn to help your young ones have some special memories of their own. But it’s not about the stuff – it’s about the time.

I’m suggesting we skip maxxing out our credit cards and over-scheduling ourselves into a holiday frenzy, and instead, slow down, think about what this season is all about, and spend some quality time with the people who matter in our lives. Share a second cup of coffee with a companion. Reach out to a friend. Don’t just forward another mindless Facebook meme about “the reason for the season.” Instead, let the Spirit of the Christ-child living in and through you be seen in how we care for others.

We can start by spending a little time in the Christmas Story as found in Luke 2. Notice that after the shepherds come for their visit, verse 19 says that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Treasuring up memories. Pondering them. Works for me.

Seven Score and 18 Years Ago…

It was on this date 158 years ago – November 19, 1863 – that Abraham Lincoln gave the most important speech in American history. Yes, I know there are plenty of other nominees for that honor, but as important as those speeches were, none have had the lasting impact on our national identity and purpose as the Gettysburg Address.

In this speech, President Lincoln redefined and refocused the reason for the Great Struggle, he provided comfort for a nation reeling from staggering losses; he took what had been a relatively obscure line from the Declaration of Independence and made it a national mantra, and once and for all seized the moral high ground in the war. And the fact that Lincoln did all this using only 272 words is a reminder that when it comes to words, it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.

Like any great historical event, numerous myths surround the speech and its delivery. For one thing, Lincoln did NOT compose it on the back of an envelope on the train ride up from Washington, nor did he scribble down a few thoughts at the boarding house where he stayed the night before the speech. The historical evidence shows that he had already completed at least one or two rough drafts of the speech that he had shown to some of his friends and advisers before he ever left Washington.

This lithograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg was originally published in 1905.

Another enduring myth is that the speech was a flop when it was first delivered, and the crowd was visibly displeased with it. Not so. It’s true that newspaper editorials about the speech differed widely in their reviews of it, but generally broke along party lines – most Republican papers praised and endorsed it, while most Democratic papers dismissed it.

It’s also true that it was short, but it was supposed to be. Dedication of the new cemetery at Gettysburg was primarily a state function, and national involvement was not considered necessary or automatic. The main speaker at the dedication was Sen. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, perhaps the most skilled orator of the time, who spoke for over two hours, reviewing the battle, condemning the Rebels and praising the Union. President Lincoln had been invited only to give a few brief remarks, and nothing more was expected.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate what a different time it was, politically. But if you know our nation’s history, you know that the framers of the republic didn’t know what to do about slavery, and since they couldn’t agree on a solution, they basically just punted that particular ball to a future generation. The Constitution says that a black man counts as 3/5 of a person when it comes to the census. It’s not clear just what the framers originally meant when they wrote, “All men are created equal,” but to one extent or another, they were thinking educated, white, landowning males.

Authors use words to create the reality of other worlds in their books as they write. Good speakers do the same, helping their audience see things “as they could be.” In this speech, Lincoln took the Declaration’s words about equality and breathed new life into them. He redefined a war that had been about political theory, economics, and states’ rights, and turned it into a moral struggle for liberty for all. To this day, we’re still debating some of those issues.

There are five versions of the speech with slight variations. Here is best known version, which the President himself wrote out and signed.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I would say the President was wrong about one thing: the world has indeed long noted what he said. And rightfully so.

A Window into the Past

In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd boy was in the Judean wilderness southeast of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea, taking care of some of his family’s flock of goats, when one of the goats wandered off. The limestone cliffs there are studded with dozens of small caves, and the boy didn’t feel like climbing up there to look in every cave, so he started throwing rocks into the caves, figuring he could hit the goat and drive it out. But he was startled when one of his throws brought a “crash” of breaking pottery.

He had just made the most important historical find of the 20th century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.

One of the caves at Qumran, near the Dead Sea, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

The scrolls opened for us a window into the past, to a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, who lived in the desert community of Qumran, near the NW corner of the Dead Sea. Not as large as other, better-known groups from the time of Christ like the Pharisees or Sadducees, the Essenes believed in strict personal holiness, sexual purity, and rejected wealth and worldly pursuits. They practiced daily immersion as a symbol of purity, and lived as a separate community, calling themselves the “Sons of Light” and looking for the Messiah.

John the Baptist may well have been their most famous member.

They had a large collection of Biblical and non-Biblical scrolls, which they studied regularly. So, when they saw Jerusalem being destroyed in AD 70, they took their precious scrolls, put them in large clay jars, and hid them in the caves above their community. The Essenes were pretty much scattered by the Roman occupation, and so the scrolls sat in those jars, in that dry desert heat, for nearly 2000 years.

The scrolls are important for Biblical scholarship because before their discovery, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts only dated back to about AD 1000 – that’s over 1400 years since the last book of the Old Testament was written. That’s a long time, skeptics said – too long to have any faith that the Old Testament (or Tanakh, in Jewish terms) could be trusted to be reliable.

Most of the Qumran scrolls, with a few notable exceptions, had deteriorated to being no more than fragments, a few inches in size. But scholars were still able to read them, to piece them together, and to determine which OT books they represented. And they found parts of every book of the Hebrew scriptures except Esther. Carbon dating and other methods confirmed that some of the scrolls dated back to about 200 BC.

When they compared the text of the scrolls to that of known Hebrew manuscripts, they found, even after 1,200 years of hand-copying, there was over 95% agreement between the documents! And a majority of the differences represented only variations in spelling or other minor changes; none of the variations involved any texts with doctrinal significance.

This fragment from the book of Hosea is typical of a Dead Sea scroll manuscript.

I’ve been to the Museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem, and I have to say how thrilling it is to actually see some of these ancient fragments of scripture. One of the most fascinating parts, to me at least, was to notice the wrinkling and cracking of the ancient leather parchment; it looked just like the wrinkling of an old leather glove.

One final thought: perhaps the single most important discovery of the DSS was a near-perfect copy of the complete book of Isaiah. So hear again the words of the ancient prophet, from Isaiah 40:8 – “The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”