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"Now He Belongs to the Ages!"

So famously declared Secretary of State Edwin Stanton after our martyred sixteenth President, Abraham Lincoln, breathed his last.

Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and CourageI have studied and researched Lincoln all my life, but it was not until recent years that I had the audacity to write a book on his life and legacy: Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage (Howard/Simon & Schuster, 2008). Before writing a single word, I studied 60 more books on Lincoln (many penned by those who actually knew him personally).

I had certain specific objectives:

• I wanted, in the process, to discover for myself whether or not Lincoln was all I had idealized him to be over the years. Since we all have feet of clay (human frailties, if you will), I was more than a little apprehensive about what I might find when I dug deep into his life.

• I wanted readers of the book to consider it a spiritual experience. To that effect, I daily prayed the Prayer of Solomon, asking God to grant me divine wisdom that day, that the words would be His, rather than mine.

• I wanted to write a book, not just for scholars (there are untold thousands of Lincoln books out there), but for the average person who takes one look at the blur of books about Lincoln on bookstore shelves, and sighs, “Never in a lifetime could I fully digest all that—I want to really get to know the man—in just one book.” I wanted my book to be that book.

• I wanted the book to be as unputdownable as I could make it.

• I wanted it to be that rarity among any author’s books: the one brainchild you love so much you go back to it again and again, never tiring of it.

• I wanted the reader to feel, at the end of it, that s/he now really understands the complex but fascinating world Lincoln lived in.

• I wanted history to really come alive.

• I wanted to feature one of the greatest ever compendiums of Lincoln quotations.

• I wanted to include some of the most moving stories about Lincoln.

• I wanted there to be plenty of Ah-hah’s, even among Lincoln scholars: I didn’t know that! You know, I’d never even thought of that before. Wait until I share this with ____!

• I wanted all age groups to love it.

• I wanted readers to return to it again and again.

• I wanted the book to meet such a special need in the hearts, minds, and souls of readers, that no one would want to see it die (go out of print).

• And I wanted to be able to honestly say, looking back at it later, “It was worth having lived—just to have written that one book.”

The responses so far have been —– oh, to tell you the truth, I’d far rather hear your responses.

“Washington was a typical American, Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country – bigger than all the presidents together.

We are still too near his greatness, but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.”
                                        – Leo Tolstoy

 

Please visit our web site for more details on the book, Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage.

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That Love is All There Is

“That love is all there is
             Is all we know of love.”
                          – Emily Dickinson

             Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, so let’s think about love for a few moments.  Love – I never cease to be fascinated by it.  No matter where we travel around the world, we see it evidenced everywhere.

            Especially am I moved by “that look” – that glow that comes but once in life on a woman’s face and in her eyes.  That first-time awareness that she is loved totally, that she is his all in all, can be blinding.  I saw it once in church.  The bride was beautiful in her long white dress – but far more beautiful yet was that glow, that radiance, and the look of utter adoration in her eyes as she saw him waiting there at the altar for her – indeed, it was so intense, I almost felt it a sacrilege to have seen it.

            As a long-time professor, I’ve seen it come in so many ways.  In fact, once I attempted to capture some of them in a poem:

                        “Love comes not the same for all;
                        Circuitous can be its approach. 
                        For some it comes on soft Indian moccasins
                        So gently not a whisper of moving grass is heard.
                        Till suddenly you turn – and lo, it is too late.

                        For some it begins merely as a shared journey,
                                    two among many;
                        The years pass and they sit side by side
                                    in the carriage,
                        Together yet alone,
                        Till one day they discover that the wheel tracks
                        Have etched their grooves in stone
                        And no further exits can there be.

                        For some it dances tantalizing choreography –
                        Now breathtakingly close, now far away in the mist –
                        On gossamer wings it flits its erratic way
                        Till it is captured by the marriage net
                        There to wither in the noon-day sun. 

                        For some it is born in beauty
                        So glorious that you cry;
                        So tender your heart breaks – just to see 
                        Their vain attempts to wall out the world. 

                        For some it is born in hurricane winds
                        When torrents drown the sun
                        And lightning spears the sky;
                        Their Heathcliffian passion inundates and annihilates
                                   whatever bars the way.

                         No tape or container can measure it;
                        It cannot be understood or analyzed.
                        Love can only be
                                    — Or it can cease to be.” 

                                                –“Love Comes Not the Same”
                                                            –Joseph Leininger Wheeler

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Toyota Whodunit: Might It Be Malevolence?

First of all, my family will tell you I have one of the world’s most unmechanical brains – nevertheless, I’m fairly adequate in reasoning from cause to effect.

Something about this unprecedented shut-down of the world’s largest auto-maker rouses my suspicious mind.  In short, I smell a rat.  I’ll be very surprised if when Toyota finally does find the root problem; and fixes it (most likely a rogue computer chip), that will be but the beginning.  Then they’ll call in someone like Agatha Christie in order to track down the perpetrator. 

Furthermore, my gut instinct tells me that the “new and improved” gas pedal and brake pedal override will fail to address the root problem: the mysterious and inexplicable speed-surges.

It used to be that when our car misbehaved I would take it to the corner mechanic, and he’d tinker until he found the problem.  Not any more – today it takes someone armed with inside data on computerized software.

Now, granted I am just speculating, but let’s say that some insidious bundle of malevolence (a twisted acid-filled combination of Svengali and Uriah Heep) with an agenda, decides to deliberately pull off the crime of the century, a crime that could be valued in the trillions – wouldn’t this be it?  I don’t know much about how computer chips work – I only know that when I’m stupid enough to go into a casino, I do so knowing full well that casino management has already foredoomed me by programming the slot machines to randomly excite me with many jackpot double-sevens but almost never three of them at once.

Well – why couldn’t a malevolent mastermind do the same?  It could be anyone: an acid-filled hacker living anywhere in the world, a terrorist, a disgruntled employee, a star-crossed lover seeking revenge, a member of a competing corporation teetering on the edge of bankruptcy – oh, it could be anyone!  All s/he would have to do would be to gain access to the inner-workings of a certain core computer chip and program it to insert an extremely infrequent random surge, one that would occur so rarely that most testing wouldn’t pick it up, and voila!  A recipe for disaster on a global scale!  And how could such a fiend ever be tracked down?

Furthermore, might not strapped-for-cash auto corporations be a bit lax in protecting such things as lowly computer-chips?  Who would even imagine someone doing such a thing? 

Well . . . forgive me, but I’m imagining it..

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WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT TOUGH TIMES?

This is the title of one of my books (WaterBrook/Random House, 2001).   Though it has been out of print for some time, at book-signing tables, people will pay almost any price we ask for one. 

Today, we are facing what pundits tell us is the toughest time Americans have faced since the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  No one, it seems, can stanch the hemorrhaging – not the President, not Congress, not Wall Street, not the so-called financial wizards – not anybody.  There appear to be no easy answers, no generally accepted exit strategy out of the morass.  Just as was true during the 1930s, we are in uncharted waters – no GPS instrument yet invented can show us the way out.

We have two alternatives: wallow in self-pity and cower before each day’s financial analysis – or, with God’s help, find courage and strength we didn’t know was in us.

It may seem preposterous, but there’s a lot of truth in the contention that good times are bad and bad times are good, for the fact is that we rarely grow much during good times; and the flip-side is that we grow most during trauma.

If we study the lives of men and women we consider great, invariably tough times play a major role in their life stories.  Indeed, the qualities a nation seeks in its leaders vary according to conditions: In good times we’ll elect a Chamberlain, in tough times a Churchill.  Why is Lincoln our most beloved president – by far! – with FDR and Washington the only near seconds?  Perhaps because all three were seasoned in the crucible of anguish, and emerged with such evidence of greatness that when the nation experienced three of its darkest periods (the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and from the Depression through World War II), it turned to men who had the qualities to guide it through.  All three appealed to the finest in human nature, and all three achieved the near impossible because they did not even consider failure to be a possibility.

We treat differently those who have been through hell and survived.  I am reminded of students of mine who waited many hours to see Mandela [of Invictus, now playing in theaters], who had been imprisoned for 26 years and yet emerged without vindictiveness.  When I later asked my students what the experience was like, they could come up with no adequate answer – the closest being “I was so awed by the man that I just stood there, looking at him.”  Much of our admiration for Senator John McCain of Arizona stems from his having endured so many years of terrible treatment as a prisoner of war – we can’t separate the man from what he endured.  F. C. Budlong put it best:

“Look into the face of the person who has fought no great temptation and endured no supreme sorrow, and you’ll find little there to arouse your admiration.  Look upon one who has weathered a great grief, like a mighty ocean liner ploughing through a tempest, and you’ll observe strength and grace in ever lineament. . . .  The expression in your eye, the lines in your face, the quality of your smile, the tone of your voice, tell the story, without your being conscious of it, whether your soul has faced its Gethsemane with courage, or with shaming compromise and cowardly surrender.”

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THE SILENCE OF THE BELLS

Eight years of our family memories have to do with the island of Hispanola in the Caribbean.  Whenever we’d fly to or from the Dominican Republic, invariably we’d stop in Port-au- Prince, Haiti en route.  This is why the sight of the blindingly white iconic National Palace and its ancient cathedral in ruins shakes the very core of my being.

Haiti was overpopulated for its eco-system when I was a child; with over twice that number today, it is an ecological nightmare.  For a tree has no chance of survival when one’s child is starving to death.

Yet somehow, in spite of a long series of ineffective, unscrupulous, or sadistic leaders, the nation has somehow survived.  A failed state that somehow defies that designation through the bullheaded determination of its unbelievably resilient people.  A nation that, of all people in the Americas, ought to be the most depressed, the most beaten-down, instead stuns visitors by its vitality and joie du vivre. 

So Haiti will rise again.  The bells will ring once again.  But so utterly is its infrastructure shattered this time that it will take many years for it to climb back even to pre-quake levels.  This time, so desperate are the stakes that we turn the other way at our own national peril.

It might even turn out to be good for us in the United States.  For so long have we been wallowing in recessionary poor-me-ism that we have failed to realize that by the standards of most of the world, we are all rich.  These images of an imploding nation beamed into our homes by television ought to shock us into (1) an urgent determination to make each of us committees of one in making a difference, and (2) result in a deep sense of gratitude for all we have left in spite of the recession.

For paradoxically, affluence does not loosen up our pocketbooks – hard times do, for we then realize how on target John Donne was when he reminded us that: 

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. . . .  Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

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The Up-Side of Being Fired, Part Three

So what happens when we lose a job?  For starters, we come alive again.  It is no hyperbole to declare that it can be like coming out of a dark tunnel into blinding sunlight.  Once again we feel a part of the entire world – not just the claustrophobic four walls that had been our world previously.

Strangely enough, it can be exhilarating to get fired.  As painful as it is, job termination brings with it a species of euphoria: Wow!  At last I’m in charge – not someone else!  At last, I’m free to do anything I choose to do.  I can go wherever I want to go.

If another job does not follow in quick succession, it’s likely that thoughts such as these arise: You know, if I’m unemployed anyway, what do I have to lose if I finally follow that dream I’ve long felt could never be?  I wonder if I have it in me to really make it work?  So . . . if I really bend my mind to it, is it really possible I could pull off such a miracle?

Time after time, in history, it has been failure that has booted people out of their career ruts into pathways of their own making.

Belatedly, I’ve discovered in life that eventually God has a way of utilizing everything that has ever happened to us.  Every success, yes; but more significantly, every failure, every rabbit trail, every dead-end, every box-canyon, every detour, every crack-up, every disappointment, every infliction, every disillusion, every heartbreak – every last bit of it God mixes into the mortar with which we construct our lives.  At the end, we discover that God, behind the scenes, much like an elephant-keeper, has followed along behind us, scooping up the messes we leave behind, doing damage control, making the most of our mistakes, and gently herding us toward the light.

In my case, had it not been for my two firings, it’s extremely unlikely the ministry of our books – 71 and counting – would ever have been.  And it was only through the resulting anguish that I finally could really empathize with the suffering of others:

“It is only through our own sorrow that we come to understand the sorrow of others, only through our own weakness that we learn to pity the weaknesses of others, and only through our love and forgiveness that we can ever comprehend the infinite love and forgiveness of God.”

– Myrtle Reed, from A Spinner in the Sun