Monthly Archives: May 2018

A Letter to Sarah

He’d come a long way in a short time – this son of New England.

Born in Smithfield, Rhode Island and educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he had committed his life to public service. He attended Brown University in Providence and the National Law School in Ballston, New York.

He was admitted to the Rhode Island Bar in 1853 and elected to the state legislature. The next year was elected clerk of the state House of Representatives. Soon he was chosen its speaker.

A teacher of rhetoric and oratory, Sullivan Ballou was a bright and gifted leader with a promising future.

He married Sarah Hart Shumway in 1855. They had two sons, Edgar and William.

Then the war came.

A strong opponent of slavery, Ballou immediately volunteered to fight for the Union cause. His friendship with Rhode Island’s governor got him commissioned as a major in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry and judge advocate of the state militia.

The Rhode Island 2nd was soon moved to Washington and joined up with the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia.

Surrounded by the hectic preparations for imminent battle, Major Ballou somehow found time to write his wife a letter. Whether driven by a premonition or simply an acute awareness of the uncertainty of his situation, Ballou penned his true heart to the woman he loved.

Filled with heartbreaking pathos and uncommon eloquence, this young soldier’s words elegantly express the shared feelings of devotion, fear, sacrifice, courage, loyalty and love that have been felt by every man and every woman who has ever gone to war for his or her country.

Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife Sarah has entered the pantheon of American history and literature as arguably the most famous and certainly the most beautiful letter ever written home by a soldier.

Major Ballou begins with direct candor:

“July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah,

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more …”

The gallant major shares his devotion to his country and places it in the larger context of America’s unique history.

“I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution.

And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt …”

Then comes the angst of every soldier who faces battle – the competing love of family and country. The inner struggle of heart and soul; of gain and loss.

“Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.”

Ballou writes to Sarah of “the memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you … and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us.”

Like any soldier, Major Ballou hopes and prays he’ll make it home alive – knowing, as anyone ever in a fox hole has known, that his survival is in God’s hands.

“I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed.”

The major concludes his extraordinarily beautiful letter with a poignant affirmation of his endless love – and an appeal to the comforting wonder and mystery of an unseen eternity.

“If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness …

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights … always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again …”

Major Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the First Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861.

He was 32 years old.

Sarah was 24.

Sarah lived on until 1917 and died at the age of 80.

She never remarried.

Sullivan and Sarah are buried side by side at the Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

“ Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
John 15:13

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The Way

It nearly cost Edward Rosenthal his life.

Rosenthal, 64, was hiking in Joshua National Park in southeastern California when he simply took the wrong turn.

It’s easy enough to do. Who among us hasn’t done it?

We all get lost sometimes.

In Mr. Rosenthal’s case, it was a near-fatal mistake. He hiked 13 miles in the wrong direction. When he finally stopped and realized his error, Rosenthal was alone and lost, with no way out and no one to hear his cries for help.

After six hopeless days, he was finally found by rescue workers, weak and dehydrated.

When Edward Rosenthal made that fateful wrong turn along the hiking trail, he was probably pretty confident it would lead him out to the right place. It seemed the right way to go at the time.

No one intentionally tries to get lost, especially if they’re in the wilderness hiking.

Getting lost is an accident.

Despite our best intuition and judgment – our best logic and reasoning – we still can make the wrong choice and we can go in the wrong direction. For Mr. Rosenthal, as in some of life’s critical decisions, the stakes were high.

There are plenty of times in our lives – especially at those crucial junctures – when simply relying on our own intuition isn’t good enough.

“There is a way that seems right to a man,” the Bible tells us, “but it ends in death.” (Proverbs 14:12, emphasis added).

The prophet Jeremiah prayed “I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own. We are not able to plan our own course.” (Jeremiah 10:23).

When we try we find it is not within our power.

“I claim not to have controlled events,” Lincoln confided to a friend in the dark days of the Civil War, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” One of the president’s favorite quotes was from Shakespeare:

“There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.”

That “divinity” is our Sovereign God.

The Book of Proverbs offers wise counsel when it comes to finding our way and choosing the right road.

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart,” we’re told, “and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).

Godly decision-making starts with godly trust. It begins with a confidence that God loves us and will lead us. This is what he has promised to do. It is up to us to believe it. We’re not to be indecisive on this matter or half-hearted. We must trust God with all our heart – fully and without reservation.

No matter what the circumstances or our own feelings.

No matter where we are or what we’re facing.

If we won’t trust God with our lives, we don’t trust him at all.

Faith begins with everything.

If we fully trust him we shall find him fully true. “In all thy ways acknowledge him” – not in some things – God rules out compartmentalization – but in everything. Here is the promise:

“and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:6).

It doesn’t say God could or that he might; it says God shall direct us.

The writer goes on and warns us:

“Be not wise in thine own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7). This is the ultimate conceit and life’s greatest self-deception. The “best and brightest”, independent of divine guidance, stumble into ruin. The greatest tragedy of the human race has been man’s rebellion against God’s way.

God never ceases to be merciful.

Even if we take the wrong turn, when we come to that realization, God will still show us the way back. Did not the Good Shepherd leave the 99 sheep safely in the fold so that he might seek that one lost sheep that had wandered away? He didn’t stop looking until he found it.

God does the same with us. Because he loves us, he seeks us. Because he cares, he leads us back.

Isaiah promised the people of Israel that “The Lord is a faithful God…He will be gracious if you ask for help. He will surely respond to the sound of your cries…he will still be with you to teach you.” (Isaiah 30: 18 -20)

God will guide us. We must ask for his help.

“Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, ‘This is the way you should go,’ whether to the right or the left.” (Isaiah 30: 21).

God is not some remote-control cosmic “watchmaker” who started the world and left us on our own. He’s right beside each of us.

This world is not the easiest place in which to make our way. It’s filled with some surprising and often intimidating twists and turns – and critical intersections. Our lives are confronted daily with temptations, sincere advice, and popular appeals that “seem right”.

It can be confusing at times.

If you and I will place our trust in God and in his love for us; if we will seek his direction in prayer and through his Word, he has promised never to leave us.

He will show us the right turn to take.

Even when we make a wrong turn, he will rescue us and show us the road back.

He loves us that much.

“For this God is our God forever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death” (Psalm 48:14).

He’s there – always.

He will show us the way.

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