Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Faith Works 2-11-06
Jeff Gill

Was Lincoln Unchurched?

Tomorrow we mark the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, whose bicentennial is coming soon (2009, to be precise).
His place in the American epic is unquestioned, his writings still read (his speeches among the last entirely penned on his own), his life an object of reverence.
Among the majestic works of Lincoln’s pen are the addresses, not only from Gettysburg but at the second inauguration, not long before his assassination, which reflect theologically on the times and seasons in which he and the nation found themselves.
There is also tucked away in his papers a page of focused moral reasoning in the light of God’s purposes, never shared in public. Lincoln’s "Meditation on the Divine Will" takes on the vexed question of war and public morality in ways that are reflected through each of his more official statements, but here more personally, as he wrestles with his decisions and influence while seeking a greater good for others. It is concluded, in a sense, by the phrases near the end of his Second Inaugural: "with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right; let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds,; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widw, and for his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
This man, an American exemplar in many ways, never joined a church. His parents were good Baptists, but their congregational records in Kentucky and Indiana survive, and young Abraham never was baptized there. My home tradition out of the Restoration movement tries to claim Lincoln from time to time, but the hard fact is that the Lincolns were put through a church trial for suspicion of being "Campbellites," and . . . they were acquitted.
Presbyterians take a turn at grabbing a piece of the great man, and it is true that he attended there in Springfield and Washington, where his wife was a member, but there too the records show he never came forward. Even Catholics take a flier on his having contributed to building a church for their tradition in Springfield, Illinois, but so did many leading citizens of the day. Unitarians point to parallels in some of his writing to their creed, but he had many opportunities to affiliate and passed them by as well.
It is not in me to say that, on this, Abraham Lincoln was ahead of his time. I am preacher enough to strongly affirm that even Lincoln could have missed out on something that he needed, but never claimed.
What he very carefully did, with enough care to show he knew what he was doing and did it on purpose, was that he stayed out of the organized church. Methodists know they can’t even sidle up to Lincoln as an adherent, since one of the great pioneer circuit riders, Peter Cartwright, not only preached against the infidel from New Salem and was one of the few to debate him to a standstill, he ran against Lincoln for elective office, and beat him. Joining a church would have been a smart political move.
So I can’t help but respect him for not joining: some careful scruple, probed at by many but revealed to few, and none who shared it, kept Honest Abe’s conscience from declaring his Christian affiliation.
Yes, I do believe that a thorough reading of his papers shows a man convinced of Christ as his Lord, but of no church as proper witness. To affirm any one doctrine or creed in full was not in him, for reasons we can only guess at.
Today, church membership is a social necessity almost nowhere. You don’t need it to run for office, sell insurance, get a job, or for anything else really. For the most part, if you join a church, it is because you want to, not because you gotta.
That is actually a help to building healthy church membership, I would think. But it makes all the more challenging the question: what kind of church would Lincoln join? A man who knew his Bible and the history of faith, a person with deep reflections on God’s will and a serious desire to live within Divine approval? Wouldn’t you want your faith community to attract someone like that? Forget music or liturgy or styles (though Lincoln always said that the best preachers in his opinion looked like they were fighting a swarm of bees!), but is your fellowship living out a faith and practice that would bring Abraham in out of the cold?
And what would that church look and feel like . . . a good question to mull over as winter slowly turns to Lent these next few weeks.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story of faith at disciple@voyager.net.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Notes From My Knapsack 2-12-06
Jeff Gill

What They Don’t Teach You

How would you feel if your child brought home a history book that was 1,200 pages long and weighed as much as a small engine block? If it came with wheels and a retractable handle it might not actually attract much notice. "Don’t forget to wheel along your text cart, honey."
As an occasional purveyor of history, in classrooms and less formal contexts, I get weary of the refrain "they don’t teach that in school." Truly, there is much we don’t teach in school. Give me your child for 180 days a year from K through 12th grade, six hours a day, and I’ve got access to about 9% of their life from birth to age eighteen. In that sliver of their lives, sayeth the teachers, we do math, science, grammar, health, too little gym and nowhere near enough music.
But somehow you don’t get a constant threnody of "boy-o-boy, they sure didn’t tell me about the rules for cricket in school," or "isn’t it sad that they never explain the Finnish mythology behind Sibelius’ symphonies in the classroom." Nope, it’s only history teachers who are all part of a vast academic conspiracy to hide vital information from the kids.
English teachers would love to show the development from Indo-European roots through Latin to our modern language, which reveals how our speech changes today, and Math folk wish they could spend some time on Euclid and Euler and Riemann and all the marvelous characters who pressed the sphere of our knowledge of numbers out towards infinity. Yet no one implies that they’re keeping this complex narrative from the public, just that in a certain amount of time, with texts a certain length, some stuff has to be left out.
History goes into a very different evaluation system. To some degree, historians, professional and otherwise, understand this. We are telling the story of communities and groups and nations who have a strong, usually passionate relationship to the narrative thread that is running through our hands. Minority perspectives and voiceless groups looked at history books from a past era (Our Nation Marches On To Her Manifest Destiny) and said, "Um, could you, like mention us? Other than as, say, "savages," please?"
Good points, most of which have been worked into the standard texts in use for decades now. We hear from the lower decks and not just the captain’s cabin on the voyages of discovery; the slave ships are shown through the magnifying end of the telescope, instead of the minimizing glance sweeping past on the way to the focus on the Civil War (which was fought why? The slaves just kinda showed up?).
And there is still some work to do, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. When I was teaching American history to college freshmen, I never felt like I spent enough time on Reconstruction. It came at the end of the semester (Native American empires circa 500 BC to Columbus 1492 to 1776 to 1877. . .can you feel the squeeze?) so was often noted on the last ill-attended day of class with "this is a tremendously important period in our nation’s history and I recommend Prof. Blank’s course on the Reconstruction period" which of course hardly anyone took.
(Editorial aside: if you had this happen to you, and it did, go to the library or your favorite on-line book source and read Eric Foner’s magnificent new book, or his still awesome older one on what went down 1865 to 1877 in our land. Then read Taylor Branch’s final volume in his civil rights trilogy "At Canaan’s Edge." You’ll listen to yourself going "ohhhh, ah ha, now I see. . .ouch" and other deep historical insights.)
But the bottom line is that history classes will never cover it all, choices will be made, and reasonable people can disagree over which choices they would have made. Now we have conservative groups crying foul over the fact that there is less or no Winston Churchill, but much of the contents of Mrs. McGillicuddy’s sewing bag in the tenements of Boston. Liberal groups protest the "exclusion" of gay Basque sheepherders when three pages are "wasted" on that noted reactionary Harry Truman. Thanks to all for playing!
There is no end to that particular game. What we need is an understanding and commitment to life long learning in American culture; that we will read and visit and listen and talk about all the interesting details, often near at hand, of the story sketched out in the classroom.
No one taught me in any classroom about the Sepoy Mutiny in British India 1857, but knowing about the rebellion of Muslim troops beginning with a rumor than their musket cartridges were smeared with pig fat, culminating in the infamous "Black Hole of Calcutta" gives me a useful perspective as riots in the Arab world result from some cartoons in a Danish magazine. I was curious about where the term "Black Hole of Calcutta" came from, and spent precisely zero time wondering why "they" didn’t tell me; I went looking for the answer, using the skills "they" did teach me.
I’ll bet math and literature and science teachers wouldn’t mind if we all took that principal to heart for their fields. They are giving us a launch pad, not a gated enclosure for knowledge. Start the countdown!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; point out an area worth learning more about to disciple@voyager.net.