Mr. Baad shared this homily in middle and upper school chapels this week.
He was born into poverty. Because of legal problems, his family was forced to move from state to state during his youth. When he was just nine, his mother passed away, leaving his eleven-year-old sister to become his primary caregiver. They grew close as a result, but devastation hit him again when she tragically died just 10 years later while giving birth. He was overwhelmed with grief.
His modest circumstances required that he find work wherever he could. He spent his teen years engaging in backbreaking manual labor to help his father and siblings survive. He hated the work, though, and that motivated him to read, to read, and read some more whenever he had a free moment. He was determined to find a way to lead a life different than his father’s. He needed to find a purpose outside of just barely surviving.
Those of you who are perhaps familiar with his life story recognize that I have just described the childhood of Abraham Lincoln, one of the iconic figures in the history of the United States. Our study of Lincoln tends to focus on his great accomplishments as President - the Emancipation Proclamation and the saving of the Union during the Civil War. What we talk about less, though, are his failures, his disappointments. These were many and encompassed various aspects of his life.
His personal calamities stretched even into adulthood. Lincoln fell in love for the first time at the age of twenty-four. Shortly before becoming engaged, his soon-to-be fiancée died of typhoid fever. His second love interest did become his fiancée, but alas, she backed out of the wedding, never bothering to reply to a letter he sent trying to clarify the status of their relationship. Ouch! Lincoln finally did marry, and together with his wife Mary, had four sons. Unbelievably, only one of them made it to adulthood. Lincoln watched his two oldest sons die both of disease, one at the age of four, the other at twelve.
In politics, Lincoln’s record was also filled with failure. He lost his initial runs at both the Illinois state legislature in 1832 and his first try at becoming a United States Congressman from Illinois in 1844. After eventually trying again for both offices and succeeding, he became a supporter of General Zachary Taylor’s run for President in 1848. In victory, however, Taylor overlooked Lincoln, offering him the very undesirable position of Governor of the Oregon territory - just a wilderness at the time. Lincoln left politics to resume his law practice. He resumed his political career as the national debate about slavery began to heat up. He ran for US Senate in 1855 and 1858 and lost… again…. both times. Sandwiched in between was an unsuccessful bid to gain the Republican nomination for Vice President.
By now, I hope you get the point. Abraham Lincoln’s life presented him many challenges, many instances where giving up, perhaps accepting life’s judgment that he was simply cursed, the cards stacked against him. Or maybe even worse, the judgment that he just didn’t “have it”. He wasn’t talented enough, charismatic enough to succeed. There were many times that because of either personal or professional setbacks, Lincoln could have sunk into history’s background, never to be heard from again.
Yet, his face in Mount Rushmore. We see his picture on the $5 bill. Our country has dedicated one of its more cherished memorial spaces on our National Mall to his memory. We celebrate a holiday this month, partially in his honor. In our national story, we revere him. How did this happen?
Our virtue this month is determination. Often we imagine determination as being an attribute associated with grit, with an internal strength that allows us to continue even in the face of great hardship … and it is. However, today let’s focus together on the root of the word - “determine”. What role might determining play in giving us the strength to keep going when life disappoints?
I think if Lincoln were here today, he might answer by saying that through his reading as a youth, he understood that what he needed to determine was his foundational principles. Lincoln’s writings, his speeches are suffused with a rock hard moral goodness and humility that come from his self-education.
Lincoln reportedly was quite sensitive about the fact that he grew up in an educationally disadvantaged environment. He had the opportunity for just one year of formal schooling, yet he knew that if he wanted to succeed at something that did not require backbreaking manual labor, he would need to measure himself against men with much more renowned academic backgrounds than he. His sensitivity drove him to read and absorb as much as he could, reading and re-reading the same few books he had at his disposal in his modest surroundings. These include the Bible, of course, but also Aesop’s Fables and Pilgrim’s Progress - two works you may never have heard of, but ones I hope at some point in your life you read.
Lincoln once said,
“Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.”
He read these selections over and over again, cementing in his conscience a way of living, a way of being. You see humility in this quote about what books teach you - that perhaps you may not be the most original thinker. Lincoln had a great religious faith whose strength was tempered by an understanding that he did not have it all figured out. This feeling perhaps best is summed up in his quote about the North’s war effort in the Civil War:
“Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
Like so many great figures in history, Lincoln embodies a bit of a contradiction. He was a man of conviction, of determination. He had a set of values from which he did not waver. Yet, one of those values was to search constantly for what he thought God’s will might be. His brilliance perhaps was that despite having his own firm values, he knew determining what was right was not clear cut, not obvious, not black and white. He knew that humans had to sometimes be comfortable in the gray. See both sides. Compromise. Forgive.
This is our call from Paul today in his letter to the Colossians. He asks us to have “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another, forgiving each other.” And I would add to listen to one another, assuming goodwill from our fellow community members.
One of the major transformations that children make in their thinking as they progress through middle and high school - if they are receiving the type of education I hope we are giving you - is to learn how to be comfortable in the gray, in that area of intellectual uncertainty. Our determination here at ESD should be that while we hold onto those values that are embodied in our mission and Episcopal Identity, informed by our own personal faith tradition, we also make room in our hearts and minds to listen and empathize, to see the good in a mindset with which we disagree, to realize that perhaps we do not have it all figured out.
I close with this prayer:
“O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rise up in darkness: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us all from false choices, and that in your light, we may see light, and your straight path we may not stumble.”