Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Boy with the Paper Beard

It was a beautiful spring day in New England.

It was perfect weather for an outdoor ceremony.

Most boys would be excited about going fishing, running through the woods, playing ball or just goofing off.

Not me. Not today.

I was on a mission – a serious mission. And I dare not fail.

It all started a few weeks before when I was cast for the part in a school presentation. I was one of the tallest, skinniest, most serious – and shyest – kids in the class. So of course when the roles for this patriotic ensemble were assigned, I was given Abraham Lincoln. My job was to recite -from memory – the Gettysburg address.

My mom – with a pride only mothers possess – helped me locate a black top hat and matching long-tailed coat.

And then she rigged up a brown paper beard.

I got through the school recitation without skipping a beat – though one side of the beard began to sag a bit by the time I got to “we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground”.

The oration was met with robust applause by teachers and students.

Some of the kids started calling me Abe. I rather liked it but remained in my shell.

And then Mrs. Tobiasson, an older lady who took a liking to me in her English class, asked me if I’d like to reprise my role as the Great Emancipator – at the upcoming community Memorial Day ceremony.

I was scared but said yes.

Mom was now an expert make-up artist and made sure my paper beard was securely attached (we decided against glue).

Then she captured the moment for my descendants by taking my picture. I stood up straight, put one hand inside my coat and stared into the camera with the same serene confidence that Abe had for Alexander Gardner at his D.C. studio on Sunday, November 9, 1863 – 11 days before his speech – and a little over a century before my portrait.

Tolland, Connecticut was a small but proud picturesque town with well-kept shingled homes, stately public buildings and a town green. The Memorial Day ceremony was held on the steps of the new brick library.

It was a large crowd. All the local luminaries were there. So was the school band.

The cloudless sky was a vibrant blue.

When my turn came, I stood and calmly and clearly spoke the words I now knew well.

It was my first public oration. I was 12.

The speech is short – especially when compared to the two hour eloquent pontification delivered by the noted Edward Everett just before the President spoke. Fortunately for me, that’s not the speech we remember and school children recite. It passed immediately into deserved anonymity.

“…our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation …”

Lincoln began his “few appropriate remarks” by placing the Civil War in a historical context – not the Constitution but the earlier Declaration of Independence, which he revered and based his principles on.

The stakes were high.

“…whether that nation … can long endure …”

The war was a test he said – we’ve had many since – of the strength and resilience of the American experiment in self-government. Would we – could we – survive?

“… those who here gave their lives that that nation might live …”

Freedom is never free. Every soldier’s gravesite is an eternal testament to the high cost of our liberty. Those graves were there on that raw November Thursday. Today they surround the globe. Lincoln honored their sacrifice -and explained it – by recognizing it as freedom’s price and well worth paying.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

Lincoln was wrong about his two-minute speech but right about Everett’s long oration. He was also surely right that deeds matter more than words and no deed mattered more than to lay down one’s life for one’s country and for the noble cause of freedom.

That sacrifice must never be forgotten.

“It is for us the living …”

The dead can do no more. They’ve given their “last full measure of devotion”. Those of us who remain and follow must honor the dead by bravely pursuing the “unfinished work” and “the great task remaining before us.”

Being an American isn’t just a lucky break – it’s an unresolved responsibility.

In a free republic there must be no place for cynicism or apathy. Only when we determine to do our duty as a united and free people can we insure “that these dead shall not have died in vain”.

After Joshua had commanded one man from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to take a stone from the Jordan River and build a memorial, he told them to “let this sign be among you, so that when your children ask later saying ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ you can tell them, ‘they remind us’ …” (Joshua 4:6-7).

As I removed my paper beard that afternoon, I knew I’d fallen in love with Lincoln, with his speech and what it meant, and with my country.

I knew I’d never forget.

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The Odometer

It was illegal but still done.

You wanted to find a good used car at a reasonable price.

You asked the owner if those incredibly low miles were original.

“Yes, as far as I know”, was the reply.

If a car looked like a low-mileage vehicle, it was fairly easy to make the mileage match the appearance. The odometer could simply be turned back. Thousands of recorded miles would vanish in as much time as it took to say “crooked”.

The automobile – more worn than the unsuspecting buyer would ever know – had suddenly been given a new lease on life by a dishonest dealer.

It might be nice if the years of our lives were like the odometer on a used car.

They’re not.

Time can never be set back to something more preferable and enjoyable – more in keeping with the age we feel and want to be. Regardless of how we feel – or look – time only marches forward. To strive to appear younger than we really are – and billions are spent on that every year – makes us feel better about ourselves and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look more attractive. And since God gave us our bodies as precious gifts – and the temple of his Holy Spirit – we are responsible to God to take care of our health.

There are products which give us energy and soothe our aches and pains; others take away the gray hair and the wrinkles. But regardless of what we spend or do, the mistake would be in deceiving ourselves.

There’s no turning back the years.

My own odometer rolled over last week. I’m another year older.

When I see the doctor for my physical he won’t give me a pill or injection that will miraculously make me forty again. Medicine’s come a long way – it will never go that far. When I leave that office my aging body will go with me.

And speaking of self-deception, I must stop thinking of myself as middle-aged; people don’t live to be 130.

I got a nice birthday card from my dear Aunt Bunny. She still lives on beautiful Deer Isle, Maine, where my mother was born and my ancestors are buried. Aunt Bunny is 83. She penned a note in the card about the day I was born:

“I’ll always remember May 15th! I was grocery shopping with your mother. She left me to finish shopping, because she was in labor. Stan [a dear family friend in whose honor I bear my middle name] came back to get me. The years sure do go by fast, don’t they?”

Yes, Aunt Bunny they sure do.

And once they’re gone, they never come back.

My mother, who now remembers nothing about that day – or me – once told me that she was nervous the night Dr. Gibson came in to deliver me. He was upset about the outcome of the world heavyweight boxing championship and she feared he might be distracted.

Rocky Marciano, in a Chicago rematch, had just knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott in the first round. Not much of a fight and Dr. Gibson felt cheated. But I came out just fine.

Dwight Eisenhower was a mere four months into his presidency.

“The years sure do go by fast, don’t they?”

Yes, “swifter than a weaver’s shuttle” Job tells us (Job 7:6).

When it comes to our time on this earth, the transcendent, recurring themes in the Bible are brevity and uncertainty. The metaphors are fleeting: a shadow, a mist, a tale that is told, the morning grass, clouds, spilt water on the ground, sailing ships and eagles in the sky, flowers of the field and a handbreadth.

Dust and clay.

“We all do fade as a leaf” (Isaiah 64:6, KJV).

God wants to make sure we get that – in all of its implications for how we choose to live our brief intervals between the massive eternities of the past and the future.

“Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.”

But wait!

As great a hymn as it is, the Apostle Paul refuses to let Isaac Watts have the final word.

There is, Paul asserts in his second letter to the Corinthians, the rest of the story.

And it makes all the difference in how we see our own mortality.

“That is why we never give up,” Paul writes. “Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day” (II Corinthians 4:16, NLT).

You and I will age and “perish” (KJV) physically, every one of us, but the most important part of us – our very souls – are, through the power of Jesus Christ, basking in eternal youth.

“For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down – when we die and leave these bodies – we will have a home in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands” (II Corinthians 5:1, NLT).

Mortality and eternity have struggled.

Eternity’s won.

Forget the odometer.

Someday you are I will be in brand new showroom condition.

Forever.

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What Was He Doing?

The sky had been blue, the lake calm.

These men knew the water, loved it, and had made their living from it since childhood.

Now, as the sun began to set across the beautiful azure sea, he said to the men, “Let’s cross to the other side.”

The crowds had been large and attentive but his relentless teaching had taken its toll.

Jesus was tired.

When he told the disciples to come with him into the boat to cross over, they understood and obeyed. It wasn’t long after they launched that Jesus took a pillow, climbed to the stern and fell asleep.

Mark tells us in his account of this incident that very suddenly and without warning a fierce storm swept down across the Sea of Galilee. The sea is small – more like a lake. It is surrounded by hills, especially to the east, that rise in some places 2,000 feet. These mountains are the source of dry, cool air. In contrast, the climate around the sea itself is almost tropical; warm and moist.

This can create strong winds that quickly descend upon the water to the center of the lake like a giant funnel. The result is a violent and dangerous storm.

In a small boat is not where you want to be.

The disciples were seasoned fishermen but this storm had taken them by surprise and was threatening their lives. The huge squall sent high waves crashing over the boat. The ferocious winds lashed the rain hard across their faces until they were nearly blinded by it.

The boat was taking in water – a lot of it. Their hearts pounded with fear. And where was Jesus? Awake? Worried?

No.

Mark says he was in the back of the boat, “asleep on a pillow” (Mark 4:38, KJV). In the midst of this storm, surrounded by the violence of the natural world and men scared out of their wits, the Savior of the world was … sleeping!

Some folks can sleep through anything. Jesus apparently was one of them.

These men were in this desperate situation because the man now sleeping had told them to get into this boat. They had obeyed their Lord’s command and done his will.

And now here they were – and here he was.

Christians may be tempted to think that as long as they are living good lives in accordance with God’s word and purpose, he will protect them from all danger and difficulty. This is not so. As quickly as these men found themselves in the midst of a severe storm, our lives can turn from peace to trouble without a moment’s notice.

If you’ve been a Christian for very long then you know this is true.

The disciples obeyed but they were still in trouble – “in this world.” If our best life is now then we are, as Paul told the Corinthians, most to be pitied.

In their desperation, powerless to change circumstances beyond their control, these men turned to Jesus.

Hundreds of years ago, when believers faced cultural and religion storms that buffeted their new faith, the future martyr Savonarola preached in the great Cathedral of Florence.

“Sirs,” he told his congregation, “the light of faith is being extinguished; the soul of the Church is perishing. The ark of the Lord is going under. The billows of unbelief are going over her. The waves of trouble are swamping her … Sirs,” he cried, “what are we do to do? What can we do?”

Then in a thunderous chorus that shook the stately edifice and signaled the coming Reformation, the crowd shouted, “Wake Christ! Wake Christ!”

And so the disciples did. They roused the Savior from his slumber with a question:

“Teacher, don’t you even care that we are all about to drown?” (Mark 4:38, NLT).

“Master, carest thou not that we perish?” (KJV).

“Carest thou not?”

This was the first concern these terrified men had.

Is it not ours? In our despondency, discouragement and fear, the devil whispers to our heart that God doesn’t care.

Our nation and the world are in great crisis.

“Carest thou not?”

You don’t know when or from where your next job is coming.

“Carest thou not?”

You’ve prayed for years for your unsaved family to believe in Christ.

“Carest thou not?”

You’ve struggled with illness; perhaps you son or daughter is in the grip of drug addiction; maybe your marriage is on the rocks.

“Carest thou not that we perish?”

Jesus stood up and “rebuked the wind and said unto the sea, ‘Peace, be still’” (verse 39, KJV).

And suddenly there was a great calm.

“Why are you so fearful?” Jesus asked them. “How is it that you have no faith?” (verse 40, NKJV).

Oh yes, he cares. Do you believe that he does?

Is it not enough that Jesus was in the boat with his disciples? That he was present in their storm? Would this boat – or any boat – sink with Jesus in it?

We shall not perish in the presence of Christ – no matter the fierceness of our storm.

What was Jesus doing? Strengthening the disciples’ faith with his power and comforting their fear with his presence.

He did that in their storm.

He does the same in ours.

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