Thursday, May 25, 2006
A Eulogy for Memorial Day 2006
Carl Sandburg may have been a fine historian, but he was first and foremost a poet from the Midwest. There was no finer craftsman of prose to so properly render tribute to this American.
I thought about Lincoln and his words a lot in Iraq. I started my journey to Iraq with, among other works, and after my Bible of course, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson, The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky. Mrs. Dadmanly soon sent me Os Guinness’ The Great Experiment: Faith and Freedom in America. I was delighted when she also passed along a request for Sandberg’s Lincoln, which one of our church friends sent me shortly thereafter.
God knows, Lincoln spoke to my soul.
I love to wander in the long abandoned byways of the Erie Canal near where I live. We are fortunate to have preserved a stretch of the Erie, coincident with and often overlapping the Mohawk River, in a very old community known as Vischers Ferry. We have many other remnants of the multiple iterations of the Erie nearby (four major series of construction), old locks long abandoned, many isolated strands of canal and towpath, and the train tracks, when they were put in, often running along or on top of the towpaths of the earlier vestiges of the canals.
Lincoln’s funeral procession traveled along the very train tracks Mrs. Dadmanly, Little Manly and I love so dearly.
I read that in 1865, Lincoln in repose traveled back home along that route, stopped for a viewing in Albany, rode slowly up the route of the old Erie Canal, the Canal still in business in those days, too, but under competition from the train Lincoln rode. At every town and whistle stop, black bunting and sashes, flags and hushed mourners lined the route. Sandberg describes that, “The endless multitudinous effect became colossal.” Young women in white gowns and black shoulder scarves and U.S. Flags, in town after town, “they took on a ritualist solemnity smoldering and portentous.”
I imagine standing beside the tracks, within a small settlement now completely disappeared from history, save for a few foundations, an open cistern, and a weedy dry dock. A simple but industrious people, no doubt bereft and grieving not just this President who was one of them, but in all likelihood family or friends or neighbors who would never be coming home, unless likewise by train in a wooden coffin.
What would it have been like to have a struggle so long and bloody, so drawn out and costly, and have that struggle at its end, only to have the one man as responsible as anyone alive for right, in the end victorious, now struck down and taken, never to be heard except in the many tributes and remembrances of, who once was a Great Man.
As I wrote this, 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.
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.
On 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.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?
And the night came with great quiet.
And there was rest.
The prairie years, the war years, were over.
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.
As I reflect on words written many years ago now, by Carl Sandburg and others, about Abraham Lincoln and the bitter losses from the Civil War, I think about Memorial Day, and about the sacrifices many are called to make, in the name of Freedom.
Lincoln and the words spoken about his sacrifice, about his commitment to the Union, apply as much for the men and women who have served this nation in times of war and threat. Many perished in their duty. Many more suffered, not just from separation from their loved ones, but with injury, illness, debilitation, and foreshortening of young lives.
On this Memorial Day, we reflect on an eternal chain of service and sacrifice, and humbly offer up our gratitude. May we also offer up our own measures of devotion, and may we measure with the full and truthful measure that Providence has used, to bestow blessings and favor on us.
Linked at: Milblogs
(Originally posted in two parts, A Eulogy for Lincoln (Part One) and A Eulogy for Lincoln (Part Two))
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