Tuesday, August 23, 2005

 

A Eulogy for Lincoln (Part Two)

When last I wrote, in my mind I was standing on the edge of a moment in history, sharing in the grief of mournful passing of the Lincoln sepulcher upon its rail-borne hearse. Thinking, rolling over in my mind the shock of the Great Man, taken so quickly, only days from a sudden sigh of peace.

I remember a few days after September 11th, several of our employees chose to gather for an observance, and in search of meaning, and the struggle to understand what we had lost, I reached for a an old Readings from Lincoln, by Alfred A. Wright of the Hartford Public High School, first published in 1927.

May I pause for a moment to reflect on this? My guess is, Mr. Wright was an amateur Historian, in the sense of not giving up his day job as a teacher, and his intent was to create a study for students at his school, and others like it. Can you imagine such an act of scholarship in a public school today? I know we still have required readings, but is it even remotely possible that a serious study of Lincoln would make the list? Jefferson, or the Federalist Papers? Not to take anything away from writers such as Maya Angelou or Joseph Heller or Philip Roth, but once upon a time we had an American Canon of works every good and serious student of history, nay, every diligent citizen was encouraged to learn. Lincoln, formerly, found preeminence in such a Canon.

In the days after 9/11, many of us would read the Gettysburg Address with a new appreciation, being some of us freshly acquainted with a punishing grief. For Lincoln, at Gettysburg, charges us, in generations to come, with a perpetual obligation:
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.
When Lincoln finally arrived in Springfield, Illinois, and his final rest, as had taken place at many of his earlier stops, mourners read his Second Inaugural Address aloud.

I have a close affection for Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.

When employees gathered for a remembrance of September 11th in 2002, I was led to reach for Lincoln again. In the quickening of the storm clouds of war, and rumors of war, I sought solace in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Back to 2002, I felt the certainty that the struggles we faced were only the beginning of a long and difficult clash of civilizations. The struggle may not be against Slavery, but it serves in the name of Freedom against forces of oppression.

Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address acknowledges that there is One whose judgments are true and righteous, and that further bloodshed and violence might yet be required. We have played a part in turning away from the kinds of tyranny and religious oppression that germinate, grow weed-like, and then choke entire civilizations as if sprung up fully-formed only in the latest spree of carnage. Lincoln knew, that as we share the common failings of mankind, self-interest and self-absorption, so we must be prepared to pay the price when payment for our negligence comes due:
Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether"
And yet, Lincoln offer hope as well, and places a specific charge that we might read today as “support our troops,” and the families who sacrifice so much in giving up their sons and daughter, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers for this war.
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 widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
As a people, we need to dwell for a time, and time again, upon the brutal milestones that are these phantom towers. Along the canals, along the railroads, mile markers were the reassurance of progress made in the days of sedate and time-abiding travel. These stones still stand, although the travellers of old have moved on to other modes of transport. They still stand, and they still measure true.

Mile markers along our journey as a Democracy. Gettysburg. The end of the Civil War. The Assassination of Lincoln. Normandy and D Day. VE Day and VJ Day. And all those hallowed white markers at Arlington.

In our long march of war – and war it is, whether we see it so or not – are many mile markers, most prominent are the two towers that once stood as One and Two World Trade Center.

Bishop Matthew Simpson spoke an oration as Lincoln was finally upon his final rest in Springfield:
“There are moments which involve in themselves eternities. There are instants which seem to contain germs which shall develop and bloom forever. Such a moment came in the tide of time to our land when a question must be settled, affecting all the powers of the earth. The contest was for human freedom. Not for this republic merely, not for the Union simply, but to decide whether the people, as a people, in their entire majesty, were destined to be the Governments, or whether they were to be subject to tyrants or aristocrats, or to class rule of any kind. This is the great question for which we have been fighting, and its decision is at hand, and the result of this contest will affect the ages to come. If successful, republics will spread in spite of monarchs all over this earth”
And Sandburg utters a final epitaph:
Evergreen carpeted the stone floor of the vault. On the coffin set in a receptacle of black walnut they arranged flowers carefully and precisely, they poured flowers as symbols, they lavished heaps of fresh flowers as though there could never be enough to tell either their hearts or his.
And the night came with great quiet.
And there was rest.
The prairie years, the war years, were over.
We here in our humble condition cannot hope to know even a sliver of the full purpose of God. Have we lived our lives for nothing? Have we thrived in the heart of liberty for our own comfort and security merely?

How, in the petty events of man as they unfold, can we fail to see the Hand of Providence in giving us such men as these?

Sometimes when I stood on the towpath, I have cried. There is so much that has been lost. When I finished Sandberg's Lincoln, and stood outside that tomb, I cried. Not for myself, but for all of God's creation.

He lavishes His love upon us with such abandon, with such Mercy and Generosity of His eternal Spirit. And how, so often, do we respond? With many a cry, not in humble gratitude, or with grumbles, whining, an inconsolable desire for more?

He lived for a time among us, and we knew him not.

A Eulogy for Lincoln (Part One)

Links: Mudville Gazette, Outside the Beltway, Basil's Blog



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