from A Year of Morning Thanks
Way back in high school, I had to memorize "The Gettysburg Address," a task that was just about over my head. Some people actually do have minds like steel traps--not me. Memorization was always a test of patience and endurance, my own private war.
The exact wording of the Address long ago left the upstairs of this memory, but my inability to recite it forty years later doesn't mean that I didn't learn it "by heart," as they say. Several years ago, I stood beneath those towering trees where Lincoln stood when he delivered it, and it came back to me in streaming audio, not word for word, but in all its incredible beauty, less than two minutes of the most precious speech in American history. There he stood, reading it himself, people say, even though the old yarn about his scratching it out on the back of an envelope is myth. I'll never forget standing there, just as I'll never really forget the gist of what he said, even if I don't remember the exact words. But then, even Abraham Lincoln didn't memorize "The Gettysburg Address."
In American history, Lincoln is a towering figure--as he was physically. The words of his Second Inaugeral ring out in my mind just as clearly the Address itself, even though I never had to recite them: "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."
But the truth is, I never really understood Lincoln’s audacious faith or the profoundly radical spiritual challege he offered a war-ravaged country until I read an essay in the Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell, an essay that helped me understand. What she said, in her incredibly droll, comic voice, made those words live. She said he was speaking to the American people in 1864, with 600,000 American dead on the battlefields; she said that for him to say as he did, “with malice toward none, with charity for all” was just crazy, just nuts.
How could Americans possible feel “charity for all” after so much killing? The answer is clear: only by way of true and full forgiveness. Forgiveness is what President Abraham Lincoln was asking for, from North and South; he was telling us all to forgive. And true forgiveness, really, is just plain nuts.
This morning, on President's Day, I’m thankful for the soaring Christian witness of President Abraham Lincoln and the incredible spiritual challenge he laid, years ago, on all of us.
We still need it. We still need to forgive. We always will.