Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln by Chris White

     Six weeks after 9/11, I found myself in Washington DC on a last-minute invitation from a friend who was visiting his daughter who was an intern at the White House.  With all the security concerns at the time, visiting the White House was impossible as was the Capitol and a great many other attractions in the city.  One place that was on my list and was open was the Ford’s Theatre and Peterson House, the respective sites of President Lincoln’s assassination and his death.  Having long respected Lincoln as the “second father” of our country, I truly enjoyed the interpretive museum that is at the theatre.  But across the street at Peterson House a greater experience awaited.  It was a very cold and rainy day and there were no visitors coming in and so it was that I was able to talk to the guide who was a virtual encyclopedia of “Lincolnalia” for a couple of hours straight.  He was utterly fascinating and definitely had his take on how and who might have been behind America’s first assassination of one of its presidents.

     Equally fascinating is Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln which, in my opinion, demonstrates that the commander-in-chief of the Union was the last official casualty in the Civil War.  That the assassination was in reality a conspiracy (as opposed to JFK’s which is merely supposed) and part of a coordinated effort to take out the VP and Secretary of State (those who would succeed Lincoln if he died in office) at the same time is well-documented and well-known.  What I had a hard time wrapping my mind around was how accessible the POTUS was prior to Lincoln’s assassination.  That people could just come into the White House without an appointment or sleep on the floor the night before so they might be able to get his attention in the morning when he passed down the hall is astounding.  But the expectation of the time was that the President be a man of the people, which in part meant actually accessible to the people.  That Abraham Lincoln’s body guard was in the tavern next to Ford’s theatre at the same time as John Wilkes Booth who had come in to drink while he waited for the right time in the play (Ten o’clock) is one of several ironic details that O’Reilly brings out in this book.  Many years ago I had read another book about the assassination that led me to conclude that Secretary of War Stanton was more than just a little involved, but the book never addressed it.  This one stops short of fully implicating Stanton as the man behind the plot, but certainly doesn’t hesitate to point out that he certainly seemed to have either inside information about the conspiracy or a preternatural intuition about who to look for and where to look.

     Another detail I found fascinating in Killing Lincoln was that the Lincolns chose to go see a comedy that night called Our American Cousin.  John Wilkes Booth actually attended the troupe’s mid-day rehearsal to find one of the best laugh lines in act two just to maximize the moment of distraction for him to carry out his “performance”.  Something else that is amazing is that Booth had always planned his getaway route to be via jumping from the Presidents box to the stage and that he had successfully done such feats on the stage from even greater heights.  But the new flag that was hung as bunting in front of the Presidential box was just slightly larger and that small difference caused Booth’s spur to catch and throw him off balance and thus break his leg when he landed.  He got away initially, but his injuries slowed down his escape which in turn led to his capture.

     The Lincoln assassination had reverberations for the entire nation.  Lincoln’s post-Civil War policy was reunion not retribution with the Confederacy.  Unfortunately, his successor Andrew Johnson moved in the direction of punishing the South which only caused the national wounds to further fester.  John Wilkes Booth, didn’t help matters either.  He thought killing Lincoln would be considered a heroic act of war, but instead found himself regarded as a merciless killer.  Most people are aware that Mrs. Lincoln suffered the effects of this trauma the rest of her life but so did Union officer Henry Rathbone and his fiancĂ© Clara Harris who attended the theatre that night with the Lincolns.  Rathbone over time became mentally unstable from the trauma and his perceived inability to protect Mr. Lincoln.  Eventually Major Rathbone went mad and killed his wife and children and ended up dying in an insane asylum.

  Following Lincoln, the POTUS has been slowly and inexorably accompanied with more and more bodily protection and less and less accessibility to the public.  While there is less danger of assassination, the creation of the "bubble" has become its own insoluble problem.  It is a sad reality, that Lincoln, who said “the ballot is stronger than the bullet”, was the first to prove with his own life that this is not always the case.  Sometimes bullets commit the evil of undoing our ballots  Get the book for a long weekend as once you start reading, you’ll be unable to put it down.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Back Story on the Real Christmas Pt. 2 by Chris White

Traditional Cave of Nativity in Bethlehem today

Was Jesus really born in a stable?  In the Holy Land, the Church of the Nativity is built over a small cave in Bethlehem where it is believed Jesus was born.  Again, there is good reason to believe this since people did use caves for their livestock and even sometimes as homes in this part of the world.  If this is the case, the wooden barn that is frequently depicted on Christmas cards or store bought crèches is entirely inaccurate.  It could also mean that Joseph and Mary’s shelter for the night of the nativity while modest was not terrible.  Caves, especially ones carved into the soft stone of Israel, can hold a temperature that is warmer than the outside air.  It is the wooden barns of our experience that can be quite chilly at night.  If this be the case, the stable Jesus was born in outside of Bethlehem looked more like a grotto than a barn.

There is also an alternative explanation for Jesus’ birthplace.  We are told in the story that there was ‘no room for Joseph and Mary at the inn’.  The word that is translated ‘inn’ is more commonly used for a guest room in a house.  Inns as we know them existed but were usually in towns on a major land route and were not usually used by Jews.  The Jews were a pilgrimage people traveling to Jerusalem for festivals and such and hospitality was a centerpiece of their culture.  People did not usually pay anything to stay in a person’s home because hospitality was a very reciprocal arrangement.

So, Bethlehem is swollen with people taking the census.  Joseph and Mary can’t find an open guest room, but they are given hospitality in the bottom floor of a wealthier person’s home where the animals are kept or in a single room of a poor person’s home where because of humble means they had to sleep with their animals.  This would also explain why in Matthew’s Gospel the wise men find them at a house perhaps they stayed there for a while.  Whether it was a shepherd’s cave or the bottom story of a house in Bethlehem, the main point is that the King of Kings came to earth in a humble way to identify with the human race he would eventually save through the cross.  He became like us, that we might become like Him.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Back Story on the Real Christmas Pt. 1 by Chris White

When you deal with a topic like the Christmas story, you are standing on holy ground.  First of all we are looking at sacred history.  This means that not only are most of the facts contained solely in the Holy Bible, but also that this event is so sublime and so mysterious that we must treat it with the greatest respect.  Though the world sees Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus lying in a manger, this is not the story of the humble beginnings of the world’s most famous moral instructor, it is the story of God becoming a man for the purpose of redeeming us; and like all men, he starts out as a baby.  Secondly, it is a very well-known and cherished story by millions.  Such stories must be treated with care and if a traditional aspect must be revised, it must be done with gently and with a sound explanation for the known facts.  The opposite of this is the journalistic approach so often employed today that loves to “debunk” everything in the name of truth, yet so often in that process ignores the fact that not all reason is free of personal agenda.  Of course I believe this story.  It’s my religion.  But even if you don’t share my religion I hope you will enjoy my treatment of this well-known story and maybe learn a thing or two you didn’t know before.

With that as prologue, let’s consider the issue of whether or not Jesus was born on the 25th of December.  I’ll bet you’ve already made up your mind that this was just an arbitrary date chosen by the church to replace a pagan festival and you very well could be right.  The Romans did celebrate a winter festival called Saturnalia which included gift giving, bonfires, and lots of overindulgence.  And it does stand to reason that when the Roman empire became Christianized that they would seek to retain a winter celebration while removing some of its baser elements.  However, if we stick to the concise information of the Gospels, there is no real reason why Jesus couldn’t have been born on December 25th.  There are no details in the story that would actually preclude this date.  Sacrificial lambs were kept outside in the winters near Bethlehem.  Shepherds did watch their flocks at night, there was still no room for Joseph and Mary, etc. etc.

The date of December 25th is also recognized very early in the Church’s history.  Some have thought Christmas was not recognized until after Constantine the Great became the first Christian ruler of the Roman empire in the 4rth century, but earlier writings of the Church indicate that this was a long established belief.  One of the early witnesses to the December birthday for Jesus was Tertullian who was a respected leader and theologian in North Africa. Tertullian lived at a time when none of the first Christians or apostles are still alive, but some of their first successors were.  He states that he has knowledge that in the city of Rome there is a birth record that explicitly states Jesus was born on December 25th.  Of course we don’t know that Tertullian saw this first hand or just heard about it or even if he did see it if it was some sort of well-meaning but still spurious document.

What troubles many with the December birth is that if Jesus was born on the 25th, then you would have Annunciation of Mary, the Conception of John, the Birth of John and the Birth of Jesus basically corresponding to the change of all 4 seasons.  This seems a bit overly tidy for real life and more in line with arranging things so as to have one large Church festival in each of the four seasons.  However, it is not unreasonable to think that God would orchestrate this as He was keen on Old Testament Israel observing festivals throughout the entire year.  God is not only the creator of time but of rhythm.

Luke’s Gospel does furnish us with the inaugural date of John the Baptist’s ministry which would fall in the winter months.  Assuming he started at the traditional age of 30 and that he was 6 months older than Jesus as the New Testament indicates, this would put the birth of Jesus in the late spring or early summer.  All the events of the nativity work just as well in a summer scenario as they do in winter.  But we must remember this is based on an assumed age for John the Baptist and an assumed year which may vary due to differences in the modern calendars and the ancients reckoning of time.

My point?  As with all ancient events, pinning down an exact date is often based evidence other than the date itself.  There is evidence for both a winter and summer birth of Jesus; both would fit the story.  But for me, the winter birthday is far more poignant because it is the time of year where darkness has overtaken the light.  But Jesus came into the world to overcome its darkness with His Light and that is a fitting reminder no matter what the season.

Friday, December 13, 2013

On Keeping Calm and Carrying On by Chris White

Recently my wife and me bought some humorous drinking glasses at a souvenir stand while on vacation.  What tickled our fancy about these is that there was a black line around the middle of the glass.  Above the line it said “optimist” and below the line it said “pessimist” playing on the old proverbial question about temperament “is your glass half-empty or half-full?”  These glasses answer the question in a straightforward way: it all depends on how much is still left in your drink.  Of course, if you were having something stronger than a soda in one of those glasses, it would seem more logical that the words “optimist” and “pessimist” would be reversed to reflect one’s sensations based on their consumption.  All kidding aside, it does strike me that whatever your disposition tends to be, your feelings and attitudes tend to follow closely.  If a similar turn of events happened to both a pessimist and an optimist, they might experience the same result in the end, but their experience of those events would be radically different.  An example that underscores this was a CNN news story I watched a couple of years ago about an entire town located in Oklahoma that was leveled in a matter of minutes by a tornado.  As you listened to the survivors tell of their experiences invariably there are two reactions: “we all survived and that’s what’s important” and “after thirty years in this home, we’ve lost everything”.  Both will be sleeping in the Red Cross shelter and eating government surplus MRE’s that night, but one will fall asleep that night with gratitude while the other experiences the disturbing sleep of desolation.
A friend of mine, himself a fellow blogger and a realistic optimist, reminded me of Viktor Frankl’s famous words  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way (from Man’s Search for Meaning).  As an accomplished psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl knew what he was talking about here was true and vital.  Our approach to life, our way of viewing our present circumstances, our way of thinking about our perceived future affects our destiny and sense of well-being.  The good news about all of this is that when life circumstances are beyond our control, we can with the help of God possess a “peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4:7).”  Let me pass on three principles from Scripture that point us in this positive direction.
Consider the words of Jesus about worrying over the most basic necessities of life:
“ Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (Matt. 6:31-34).”
I would suggest that the first principle is having a clarity that if the God of the entire universe concerns himself with your life (which he does), worry on your part should be downgraded to prayerful patience. When Jesus tells us to not be anxious, he is not describing an attitude of careless unconcern but rather forbidding us to worry ourselves sick about such matters.  To get into that state of mind usually leads us to an unnecessary panic that is quite faithless.  God does exist.  He does care about you.  Tell him in quiet or vocalized prayer what you are needing.  Convert the energy of worry into patient and persistent prayer.
The second principle comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.  Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me (4:10-13)”.
What Paul is describing here is a contented confidence that God will provide the strength you need for what you must do that day.  In the parlance of recovery literature, this is “one day at a time” on steroids.  I chuckle a bit at this because I have had many days that were so bad, I was more on the “one-minute at a time” plan.  But the point is made by me writing this to you right now: obviously I made it through each and every one of those past days.  I believe it was the great missionary to China Hudson Taylor who said where God guides, God provides.  If you are in a hard place today, dare to trust that God will give you all the strength you need for today as you need it.  And tomorrow? Ditto.
The third principle follows: have the perspective that God does permit problems and difficulties to come our way for specific training.  The apostle James wrote “ Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,  for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-3).” 
When Jesus taught what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” to his disciples, part of that prayer is that God “..will not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  What is in view here is not the temptations of the flesh per se, (although they can lead us into all sorts of trouble) but rather the “trials of various kinds” that James speaks of here.  We would be foolish to pray for trials and foolish not be pray to be delivered from them, but absolute fools to think we can live in the present world without our fair share of them.  Often what troubles folks the most is the haunting question “is this happening to me as a judgment because God is mad at me?”  If you think that way let allay your concern by stating the obvious: if God was mad at you, you would probably be dead and in hell right now.  But instead, you’re reading this article.  Thus, the alternative explanation that there are simply some things God wants to build into your life that cannot be done apart from the crucible of personal suffering.  God does not pain our lives gratuitously, but rather purposefully, and that purpose is for good, even if the intentions of those who cause your suffering are completely evil.
We are not taught to be grateful for the trials, but grateful for the certainty that they will build in us a spirit like tempered steel, strong under stress.  Having the perspective that you have more to gain from a hard thing than you’ll lose can and does make it bearable.  Knowing that it is part of God’s specific training program for your life should bring a certain peace that surpasses understanding even in the midst of scary or painful circumstances.
One of the current pop-culture icons is the British propaganda poster from World War II that says “Keep Calm and Carry On”.  Good advice even if the Nazis aren’t bombing your house today.  But the key to keeping calm is not whistling in the dark, but a grateful heart and a sure knowledge that God is in control and bigger than the insurmountable problem you face today.