Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What determines history? Lincoln, JFK, and Us

   The passage of even a few decades makes such a difference in history. I remember hearing, some years back, that the letters first included in the New Testament were not originally written with a thought that they would become sacred Scripture. At the time they were written, they served a more narrow focus: to instruct and encourage specific, local house churches. However, the passage of time changes how things are remembered.
   The Gospel writers, just three or four decades after Paul was writing those first letters, seemed to have a grasp that they were collecting and compiling the good news of Jesus in a way that would be kept. Luke opens with, "I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you...so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed." See Luke 1. John's Gospel closes with a note reminding readers that not all of the stories of Jesus were included, because there were too many to include. 
   Seven score and ten years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln scribbled notes onto a page in order that he might deliver a minor speech at the dedication of the cemetery where soldiers had been laid to rest in Gettysburg. On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln spoke for only a few minutes and, with a "few appropriate remarks", he was able to summarize the war in just ten sentences. From what I've read, he did not intend to make history. He even says, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." Yet, those very words are still committed to memory and cherished as one of the great intersections of l literature and history in our nation's annals. 
   Tragically, one century would pass and another moment of history would be marked within days. This time, the actions were certainly intended to be noticed and to be remembered. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963 was a national tragedy, though not everyone immediately perceived it as such. My mother shared with me that she remembers students in the segregated school cafeteria in Tifton, Georgia cheering when the announcement was made on that Friday afternoon. Apparently his Catholic faith was not embraced, nor was the fact that he became the first president to call on all Americans to denounce racism as morally wrong in an address earlier that year. I have to believe the kids in that lunchroom only heralded the blind stupidity of their parents and culture. 
   The passing of these historic anniversaries in the same week gives me reason to pause and consider the words I speak and the actions I take. We rarely, if ever, act with history in mind. Both of the events marked this week started on otherwise ordinary days. Yet, the trajectory of our country has been altered. We have this same power. It is most often exercised on ordinary days. We can change the trajectories of lives with words and actions. In our own, small way, we help determine history with our lives. May we choose wisely and with grace. 

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