Iron Sharpening Iron

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately rereading the Old Testament Book of Proverbs and let me tell you something – ol’ Solomon was a pretty sharp dude. Now granted, he was a long way from perfect, and as he grew older, he made the mistake of letting his many wives draw his heart away from the Lord, but when he was good, he was very, very good. And he is good in Proverbs.

A favorite verse of mine is Proverbs 27:17 – “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” One of the things I appreciate about this verse is that it reminds us that we are called to live in community, and it is through this community that we grow in our wisdom and maturity. As another favorite verse, Proverbs 13:20, teaches us, “Those who walk with the wise grow wise.” When our friends are people of godly character, they will challenge us to grow in our faith and hold us accountable for areas in which we fail. And they will expect us to do the same for them.

One of the ways that we cheat ourselves out of this blessing is by only associating with people who agree with us on everything and who tell us what we want to hear. Another way is by reading only books and articles that simply confirm what we already think. If we get all our news from a network that only reinforces our own prejudices and presuppositions, then how can we grow? How is our character being “sharpened,” to use the language of Proverbs?

When we stick our heads into the echo chamber of social media, we usually hear lots of our own opinions and points of view coming back to us, and it makes us feel good about ourselves. But it’s not making us any sharper. In the runup to the American Civil War, many churches in both the North and the South stopped communicating with congregations on the other side and would only listen to voices that confirmed what they already thought. As a result, their own beliefs on secular matters grew more entrenched and inflexible, and they saw anyone who disagreed with them on politics or anything else, not merely as someone with a different point of view, but as someone who was evil and stupid.

When I was helping lead a neighborhood program in North Abilene, one of my favorite annual activities we did was called “Abilene Dinner Table.” Different individuals would host a dinner in their home, for however many folks they could comfortably seat. In our case, we had room for about a dozen guests, I think. Those interested in participating would register with our office, and then our administrative staff would randomly assign people to a particular group. Then they would furnish some questions for the attendees to discuss during and after their meal. It was a wonderful time for everyone to come together, enjoy a good meal, meet some new people, and hear a lot of different opinions on various subjects. I remember that I learned a lot about people of different races, religions, and backgrounds, and it challenged some of the stereotypes that I had cherished.

It sharpened me.

There is a growing movement in this country, and particularly in this state, to ban certain books from school libraries. Some churches have even held “book burning” parties. The justification is that they disagree with the author’s point of view, or the book deals with a subject that they would rather not discuss. That’s unfortunate, because some of the books that they’re wanting to eliminate are some of the giants of American literature. Huckleberry Finn. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Grapes of Wrath. Even Fahrenheit 451, which is pretty ironic if you think about it, because that’s a book about – wait for it – burning books.

These books have helped mold and shape generations of young students, myself included. They have challenged us. They have made us think and sharpened us. And the fact that the author challenges our presuppositions or teaches us about a dark chapter in our nation’s history or causes us to think about things that make us “uncomfortable” in some way – that’s not a bad thing. It’s part of what education is supposed to do.

Iron sharpening iron.

Worth the Read

In previous columns, I have written about different books that I like and recommend. With your kind permission, I would like to suggest a book that is turning 25 years old, and still very much worth the time to read, or to re-read. It’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey.

What’s So Amazing About Grace is my favorite book by Philip Yancey. It has been in print now for 25 years.

By his own admission, Philip Yancey has had a difficult road of faith. Born in Atlanta in 1949, he grew up in a very rigid, fundamentalist church. When he was still a child, Yancey’s father contracted polio and had to be placed in an iron lung so he could breathe. Then he died from complications of the disease after church members told him he needed to “turn off the machines” so that God could heal him.

Yancey’s journey of faith was a long road back from that.

He went on to become the editor of Christianity Today magazine (now retired) and has authored a number of outstanding books. The first thing of his I ever read was Disappointment with God – I love the honesty of that title. I’ve also read The Bible Jesus Read, Where is God When It Hurts?, and The Jesus I Never Knew, but I think his best work is the one I’m suggesting for you, this book on grace.

Early on in the book, he acknowledges the difficulty in writing about the subject of grace.

As I look back on my pilgrimage, marked by wanderings, detours, and dead ends, I see now that what pulled me along was my search of grace. I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.

I have barely tasted of grace myself, have rendered less than I have received, and am in no wise an “expert” on grace. These are, in fact, the very reasons that impelled me to write. I want to know more, to understand more, to experience more grace.

In this book, Yancey describes examples of grace and forgiveness that are so lovely they will make your heart ache and your spirit soar. He points to soul-crushing examples of what he calls “ungrace” – attitudes of pettiness and meanness that we see all around us, and too often, still within ourselves. He tells stories of grace extended that will absolutely make you weep until you cry out with joy – my favorite is chapter four, “Lovesick Father.” And I will not spoil it by saying more than that.

In a later chapter, Yancey writes –

Jesus’ images portray the kingdom as a kind of secret force. Sheep among wolves, treasure hidden in a field, the tiniest seed in the garden, wheat growing among weeds, a pinch of yeast worked into bread dough, a sprinkling of salt on meat – all these hint at a movement that works within society, changing it from the inside out. You do not need a shovelful of salt to preserve a slab of ham: a dusting will suffice.

Jesus did not leave an organized host of followers, for he knew that a handful of salt would gradually work its way through the mightiest empire in the world. Against all odds, the great institutions of Rome – the law code, libraries, the Senate, Roman legions, roads, aqueducts, public monuments – gradually crumbled, but the little band to whom Jesus gave these images prevailed and continues on today.

Søren Kierkegaard described himself as a spy, and indeed Christians behave like spies, living in one world while our deepest allegiance belongs to another. We are resident aliens, or sojourners, to use a biblical phrase.

He goes on to say,

The Christian knows to serve the weak not because they deserve it but because God extended his love to us when we deserved the opposite. Christ came down from heaven, and whenever his disciples entertained dreams of prestige and power he reminded them that the greatest is the one who serves. The ladder of power reaches up; the ladder of grace reaches down.

Amazing.

A Few Good Books

Read any good books lately? One thing is for certain – there’s no shortage of books, Christian and otherwise, on the market. I’m not claiming to have any special insight about what makes a book “good” to read; it’s obviously very subjective. I’m not saying that these are the best books ever written, only that they have especially blessed me over the years. My point is to encourage us to read more, and to choose books that will challenge, inspire, sharpen our thinking. Too many of us either don’t read at all, or we only read stuff by writers who agree with us.

Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis

Although now better known for his “Chronicles of Narnia” fiction series, C.S. Lewis was also the author of numerous non-fiction books on Christian beliefs and theology. Mere Christianity was originally a series of radio talks given on the BBC between 1942 and 1944, which he later edited and compiled into its present form. He uses “mere” the sense of “basic” – in other words, the book contains the principles and teachings which are held in common by ALL Christian groups, rather than more “advanced” doctrines about which different denominations would disagree.

Now, I will freely admit, this is NOT an easy book to read. Lewis was British, and his writing can sometimes come across as wordy and cumbersome, especially to Americans who are used to three second sound bites and 140-character tweets. But I urge you: please make the effort to read this book. C.S. Lewis is a deep breath of very fresh air.

What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey

By his own admission, Philip Yancey has had a difficult road of faith. When he was still a child, his father died from complications of polio, after church members told him he needed to “turn off the machines” so that God could heal him. Yancey’s journey of faith was a long road back from that. He went on to become the editor of Christianity Today magazine (since retired) and has authored a number of outstanding books. Here, Yancey describes examples of grace and forgiveness that are so lovely they will make your heart ache and your spirit soar. He points to soul-crushing examples of what he calls “ungrace” – attitudes of pettiness and meanness that we see all around us, and too often, still within ourselves. I especially enjoy chapter four, “Lovesick Father.” And I will not spoil it by saying more than that.

God Came Near, Max Lucado

Many Christians would list Max Lucado as their favorite Christian author, and it would be hard to disagree. In God Came Near, Lucado explores the implications of the humanity of Christ. My favorite chapter is, “The Question for the Canyon’s Edge,” based on the encounter between Jesus and Martha, after the death of Martha’s brother, Lazarus. When Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?,” what He is really asking each of us is, “Do you trust Me?”

A Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card

The church in America today is often criticized for being out of touch with the harsh realities around it. We put up fake smiles and phony friendliness, offering shallow “bumper sticker” platitudes and coffee mug theology, while ignoring the complexities and pain of the world around us. And then we wonder why the world has written off the church for being clueless and irrelevant.

Author Michael Card argues that we have lost the ability to LAMENT, and I think he’s absolutely right. When you read the psalms, for example, you often come face to face with the honesty of someone struggling with the pain of a bad situation. But in most churches today, you would have a hard time finding anything that reflects that level of transparency.

Rather than avoiding hard or uncomfortable conversations, the author invites us to be honest enough with God to trust Him with our pain. I highly recommend this book, especially if you’re feeling angry or questioning about God, and some well-meaning friend has told you that “you shouldn’t feel that way.”

When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

If you only like reading books that agree with what you already think, you probably should stay away from this one, because it will challenge you. The authors tackle the very difficult subject of how should we as believers help others and what does that look like. The chapter on those who want the King without the Kingdom – or those who want the Kingdom without the King – is excellent. As someone who has been deeply involved in flood relief as well as neighborhood outreach ministries, this book really rattled my cage and made me think about the difference, to use the author’s words, between relief, rehabilitation, and development.

A Few Good Books – 3

(Third and final in a series)

Regular readers of these posts will know that I have been offering a list of several of my favorite Christian books, a list which I’m ready to wrap up today. Just to review the requirements for inclusion: written in the last hundred years, non-fiction, only one book per author, only five books in total. The first two books discussed were Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, and What’s So Amazing About Grace?, by Phillip Yancey.

Number 3: God Came Near, Max Lucado

I went back and forth about this choice; in fact, when I originally began putting this list together, I had a different Max Lucado book in this slot. (Check out the “Honorable Mention” category, below.) Many Christians would list Max Lucado as their favorite Christian author, and I would be hard pressed to argue against that opinion. Six Hours One Friday and No Wonder They Call Him the Savior were the first two books of his that I read, and I remember how deeply moved I was by his writing.

The complete title of this book is God Came Near: Chronicles of the Christ, and that is a pretty good summary. In God Came Near, Lucado explores the implications of the humanity of Christ. My favorite chapter is, “The Question for the Canyon’s Edge,” based on the encounter between Jesus and Martha, after the death of Martha’s brother, Lazarus.

Number 4: A Drink at Joel’s Place, Jess Moody

This little book is based on a radical notion – there are a lot of ways in which the church should be more like the neighborhood corner bar. (The TV show Cheers, with its promise of a place “where everybody knows your name,” is another example of this idea.) The title comes from the story of the birth of the church in Acts 2. When Peter and the other apostles, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, were accused of being drunk, Peter pointed the audience to Joel 2:28 ff.

In this book, Jess Moody explores the idea that a church should deliver on its promises, that accepts everyone who walks in the door, and that offers excitement and fellowship. He emphasizes the need for the church to stay relevant to the culture around it, and he also goes on to argue for a quality that is sorely lacking from many churches (and especially lacking in many pulpits!) today – PASSION!

I have thoroughly enjoyed this little book every time I have read it, and as in so many other ways, I am deeply indebted to my friend, mentor, and former professor, Dr. Mark Berrier, for the recommendation.

Number 5: A Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card

The church in America today is often criticized for being out of touch with the harsh realities around it. We put up fake smiles and phony friendliness, offering facile, “bumper sticker” platitudes and coffee mug theology, while ignoring the complexities and pain of the world around us.

And then we wonder why the world has written off the church for being clueless and irrelevant.

Michael Card is a brilliant Bible scholar and writer, who first came to public attention through His music. (If you’ve heard Amy Grant sing, “El Shaddai” or “Emmanuel,” then you’ve heard his music.) Besides his music, he has also written a number of really good books, including one I like called A Violent Grace. In A Sacred Sorrow, he argues that the church today has lost the ability to LAMENT, and I think he’s absolutely right. When you read the psalms, for example, you come face to face with the honesty of someone struggling with the pain of a bad situation. But you would have a hard time finding music in most churches today that cry out with that level of transparency.

Here, Card examines four people from the Bible – Job, David, Jeremiah, and Jesus – and considers what each of them can teach us about growing closer to God through our pain. Rather than avoiding hard or uncomfortable conversations, Card invites us to be honest enough with God to trust Him with our pain. I highly recommend this book, especially if you’re feeling angry or questioning about God, and some well-meaning friend has told you that “you shouldn’t feel that way.”

Honorable Mentions

Want more? Here are five additional recommendations –

  • The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis (or Miracles, or The Problem of Pain)
  • The Bible Jesus Read, Phillip Yancey
  • The Applause of Heaven, Max Lucado
  • Your God is Too Safe, Mark Buchanan
  • An Arrow Pointing to Heaven, Rich Mullins

Good luck, and God bless.

A Few Good Books – 2

(Second in a series)

In a previous installment, I began listing some of my favorite Christian books, starting with Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. To review, here are the ground rules:

  • One book per author.
  • Non-fiction.
  • Written in the last hundred years.
  • Only five books on the list.

Let me again say that I realize that, by its very nature, a list like this is highly subjective. My list almost certainly will not be your list – AND THAT’S OKAY! My point is not to argue about whether I should have chosen C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, instead of Mere Christianity, or if my fourth or fifth choices should be ranked in a different order.

The point here is to encourage believers to read more, and to choose books to read that will challenge, inspire, sharpen their thinking. Too many of us either don’t read at all, or we only read stuff by writers who agree with us.

I recall a conversation I once heard about between a college student and one of his professors. The professor asked the student what he was reading, and the student replied by naming a famous novel (I’ve forgotten which one). The professor smiled tolerantly and said, “Yes, yes, that’s fine for the gravy, but what about the meat?” In other words, the professor was saying, that while there was nothing wrong with reading that particular novel, it was not going to challenge the student in the way that the professor was hoping.

So, my next recommendation is –

What’s So Amazing About Grace? – Philip Yancey

Copyright © 1997, by Philip Yancey – Zondervan Publishing House

By his own admission, Philip Yancey has had a difficult road of faith. Born in Atlanta in 1949, he grew up in a very rigid, fundamentalist church. When he was still a child, Yancey’s father died from complications of polio, after church members told him he needed to “turn off the machines” so that God could heal him.

Yancey’s journey of faith was a long road back from that.

He went on to become the editor of Christianity Today magazine, and has authored a number of outstanding books. The first thing of his I ever read was Disappointment with God – the love the honesty of that title. I’ve also read The Bible Jesus Read, Where is God When It Hurts?, and The Jesus I Never Knew, but I think his best work is the one I’m suggesting for you, this book on grace.

Early on in the book, he acknowledges the difficulty in writing about the subject of grace.

As I look back on my pilgrimage, marked by wanderings, detours, and dead ends, I see now that what pulled me along was my search of grace. I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.

I have barely tasted of grace myself, have rendered less than I have received, and am in no wise an “expert” on grace. These are, in fact, the very reasons that impelled me to write. I want to more, to understand more, to experience more grace.

In this book, Yancey describes examples of grace and forgiveness that are so lovely they will make your heart ache and your spirit soar. He points to soul-crushing examples of what he calls “ungrace” – attitudes of pettiness and meanness that we see all around us, and too often, still within ourselves. He tells stories of grace extended that will absolutely make you weep until you cry out with joy – my favorite is chapter four, “Lovesick Father.” And I will not spoil it by saying more than that.

In a later chapter, Yancey writes –

Jesus’ images portray the kingdom as a kind of secret force. Sheep among wolves, treasure hidden in a field, the tiniest seed in the garden, wheat growing among weeds, a pinch of yeast worked into bread dough, a sprinkling of salt on meat – all these hint at a movement that works within society, changing it from the inside out. You do not need a shovelful of salt to preserve a slab of ham: a dusting will suffice.

Jesus did not leave an organized host of followers, for he knew that a handful of salt would gradually work its way through the mightiest empire in the world. Against all odds, the great institutions of Rome – the law code, libraries, the Senate, Roman legions, roads, aqueducts, public monuments – gradually crumbled, but the little band to whom Jesus gave these images prevailed and continues on today.

Soren Kierkegaard described himself as a spy, and indeed Christians behave like spies, living in one world while our deepest allegiance belongs to another. We are resident aliens, or sojourners, to use a biblical phrase.

He goes on to say,

The Christian knows to serve the weak not because they deserve it but because God extended his love to us when we deserved the opposite. Christ came down from heaven, and whenever his disciples entertained dreams of prestige and power he reminded them that the greatest is the one who serves. The ladder of power reaches up, the ladder of grace reaches down.

Amazing.

A Few Good Books

Read any good books lately?

One thing is for certain – there’s no shortage of books on the market, and more coming out every day. And for Christian believers who want to grow in their faith, or perhaps be challenged in their thinking, there are literally entire bookstores selling nothing but “Christian” books. But having so many available is in itself is a problem: how can you know what’s worth the money to buy it, or the time to read it?

I’m not claiming to have any special insight about what makes a book “good” to read – it’s obviously very subjective. But I wanted to highlight a few volumes that have especially blessed me over the years. These are books that have challenged me, taught me, annoyed me, made me think, made me question, helped me grow closer to God, and in the end, blessed me.

First, the ground rules: First, this list is for non-fiction ONLY. Sorry to disappoint fans of Christian fiction, but that’s not my purpose here. Second, only ONE book allowed per author. Third, I’m only including books from the last hundred years – I’m aware of great Christian books from earlier times, but I’m excluding them. And finally, I’m limiting myself to only FIVE books. I’m not saying these are the best five, or that they are somehow better than a list of your top five, just that these are some books that have blessed me, and that I recommend for your consideration.

So, with that said, here’s the first in my list of favorite Christian books. Future installments will follow in blogs to come.

Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis

(Copyright © 1952, renewed © 1980, C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.)

Anyone who knows me well is not surprised at this point. And I freely admit it: I am a HUGE C.S. Lewis fan. (In fact, without Rule #2, this entire list might have been his stuff!) The story is well known of how Lewis went from being a reluctant churchgoer in his youth, and moved from agnosticism to theism, and finally to Christianity. Mere Christianity was originally a series of radio talks given on the BBC between 1942 and 1944, which Lewis later edited and compiled into its present form. “Mere” is used in the sense of “basic” – in other words, the book contains the principles and teachings which are held in common by ALL Christian groups, rather than more “advanced” doctrines about which different denominations would disagree.

Now, I will freely admit, this is NOT an easy book to read. Lewis was British, and his writing can sometimes come across as wordy and cumbersome, especially to Americans who are used to three second sound bites and 140 character tweets. When you read the book, you have to remember that it started out as a radio script, and so you should read it as a good announcer would on the air, with appropriate pauses. And the subject matter is considerably deeper and “denser” than most of us are used to reading. There’s no denying it: this is heavy stuff!

But I urge you: please make the effort to read this book. It may take a while to get used to Lewis’ rhythm and style of writing, but I assure you – it’s worth it. In these days of bumper sticker theology and coffee mug wisdom, Lewis is a deep breath of very fresh air.

Here’s a favorite passage:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

 

 

Great American Railroad Stories

(Note – I am on my way to Guatemala this morning for a mission trip, and will be gone into next week. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Meanwhile, here’s a book review that I wrote for our local model railroad club’s newsletter.)

GreatAmericanRailroadStoriesTrains magazine recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and to mark the occasion, Kalmbach Publishing has released a new book – Great American Railroad Stories: 75 Years of Trains Magazine. The book is available both as a softcover and hardcover.

As the name suggests, it features 51 stories chosen from across the magazine’s three-quarters of a century, including stories by some of the most famous railfans in the country: Lucius Beebe, A.C. Kalmbach, J. David Ingles, David P. Morgan, Jim Boyd, and many others. The stories include selections from the magazine’s first year of publication (1940), up through 2009, but many of the stories are historical pieces that document earlier railroad history – from the wild ride of “Death Valley Scotty,” to a firsthand account of taking a transcontinental train ride just weeks after it opened in 1869, and others.

There are stories about working on the railroad, whether as a fireman or a telegraph operator, and stories about riding trains; some pay tribute to a favorite locomotive or railroad, while others tell about memorable people encountered on the rails. One of my favorites is “Confessions of a Train Watcher,” from 1957, by David P. Morgan, where the then-editor of Trains magazine explains his fascination with railroading.

The book is beautifully produced, with 256 glossy pages and an easy-to-read typeface. The cover has only a single, small photograph of a stream locomotive pulling a passenger train – appropriate, since the emphasis is on the best stories from 75 years, and not necessarily the best pictures. But there are plenty of great pictures; the editor notes that they used the original photos to accompany the article whenever possible, but he acknowledges that there are fewer pictures, to keep the focus on the writing.

If you like reading great railroad stories, or have an interest in how trains shaped American life, you’re going to want this book. If you have a friend or family member who is a railfan, he or she will DEFINITELY enjoy it. It’s probably not the kind of book you would read from cover to cover, but more like a magazine, where you skip around and read the stories that really interest you. The softcover has a list price of $24.99, and is available both at local book stores and online. It’s a little cheaper on Amazon, but if you have to pay for shipping, it probably comes out about the same.

Great American Railroad Stories: 75 Years of Trains Magazine (Kalmbach Books, Waukesha, Wisconson) is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it.

 

History All Around

I love history. I love good stories, and history is all about the stories. Those stories are all around us, if we will just take the time to listen.

I don’t understand people who say they don’t like history. Undoubted, they had a poor history teacher somewhere back along the way – someone who thought you could teach history by making kids memorize dates from a calendar. But just as there is more to music than notes on a page, so also there is much more to history than dates on a calendar.

abilene stories coverA dear friend recently gave me a copy of a wonderful book, Abilene Stories: From Then to Now. It’s a collection of fascinating recollections and remembrances by and about people from Abilene. Most of the stories are no more than two or three pages long, and the book contains dozens of them. It was compiled by Glenn Dromgoole, Jay Moore, and Joe W. Specht, three guys who know something about Abilene and how to tell a good story.

I’m still reading through the book, enjoying the stories, intrigued by what I’m discovering about this town. That street corner on Chestnut and South First, where they’re putting in new sidewalks? That was the corner where Abilene’s first chief of police used to fire his gun on New Year’s Eve, to tell the bars it was time to close. That stretch of concrete across the north end of the airport, disconnected from everything and looking like it was put there at random? It’s actually a remnant of the Bankhead Highway, the first paved coast-to-coast, all-weather road in America. It came right through Abilene.

Camp Barkeley? It was named for a Texas soldier in WW I who died three days before the war ended, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the face of the enemy. And he is now recognized by the Army as the first Hispanic recipient of the nation’s highest honor for valor. The stories go on and on.

It’s a great book, but you don’t have to read a book to discover amazing stories – they are literally all around us. Even on the block where you live.

  • That sweet little old lady who hobbles around with a walker? She had polio as a little girl, spent a year and a half in an iron lung, and showed incredible determination in learning to walk again. She can tell you a thing or two about courage, for those who will listen.

  • The old man down the street who keeps to himself? He’s the last surviving member of his unit from WW II, that liberated a concentration camp. No one knows the nightmares he has endured for this country.

  • That quiet couple across the way? They spent 30 years overseas as missionaries before their retirement. Let them tell you about raising their kids in another culture, and what they learned together.

These are my neighbors. Your neighbors. When we take the time to get to know them, we discover they enrich our lives in ways we can’t even begin to expect. It’s history, not from a book, but from people who were there and who lived it. It’s a special wisdom that they will share for those who will turn off the TV long enough to listen.

It’s history all around us.

So Costly a Sacrifice

November 21, 1864: Lincoln (allegedly) writes a letter of condolence to a Mrs. Bixby of Massachusetts, whom he was told had lost five sons in the war.bixby_letter

This letter is one of the most powerful compositions I have ever read.  The language and the images move me to tears ever time I read it.  Of course, as it turns out, there are some corrections to the story:

  • Mrs. Bixby herself was a Southern sympathizer.
  • She had lost two sons in battle, not five. (As if having “only” two sons killed was no big deal.)
  • Some modern historians don’t think Lincoln actually wrote it, but rather, his secretary, John Hay.

101PoemsNone of which diminishes the majesty of this prose and the incredible command of the English language.  I fell in love with this letter a long time ago, when I literally found a copy in a little book, in a pile of trash in the closet of an old house we were cleaning out.  (Anybody else remember, “His Place”?)  The book was an anthology called “One Hundred and One Famous Poems, with a Prose Supplement.”  Not exactly an elegant title, but a great collection, none the less.

I was a Freshman at DCC, and just beginning to appreciate the power of language, and here was a brilliant example.  Movie fans will also note that this letter was used in “Saving Private Ryan.”

 

Executive Mansion,

Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Thank you, Mr. President.

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

addressIt was on this date 150 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:  John Kennedy’s Inaugural, and “Ask not;” Martin Luther King, Jr., and “I have a dream;” FDR and “Fear itself;” even Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and “Malice towards none.”  And as important as those speeches – and many others – were, none have had the lasting impact on our national identity and purpose as the Gettysburg Address.

gettysburgIn 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.

There was a time when school children had to memorize it.  In my case, it was in Mrs. Thigpen’s eighth grade class at Orangefield Junior High.  Some may still have to commit it to memory, at least long enough to pass the test.  Good for them.

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 the Executive Mansion (as the White House was called in those days).

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 true that it was short.  But then, 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.

In the Bible, words have the power to create.  When God created the cosmos, He did it by speaking it into existence.  When John was writing his gospel under the influence of the Holy Spirit, when he wanted to find a way of describing Jesus’ inner nature, he chose the Greek term “Logos” – the “Word.”

Authors use words to create the reality of other worlds in their books as they write; good speakers can do the same, helping see things “as they could be.”  And so 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.

garry_wills_lincoln_at_gettysburgOut of all the books written about the Gettysburg Address, I think the best is Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg.  Prof. Wills is, in my opinion, a really great historian, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books, including John Wayne’s America.  But he received a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg, and I think the committee got it right.  If you enjoy American or Civil War history, or want to better understand how to use language effectively, I highly recommend it.

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.