The Almighty Has His Own Purposes

Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address 150 years ago today. I have long reflected on the section highlighted in the middle. The Almighty has His own purposes.


AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

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.

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Spinach and Sweet Potatoes 

The Department on Aging feeds hundreds of senior adults each day using volunteer drivers. One of the meals I delivered today went to Mohammed, and another to a home with a Buddha statue. When you drive, you get a free meal. I couldn’t eat the ham because of Lent, but the spinach and sweet potatoes were good. 

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Almsgiving, Prayer, Fasting 

Our week staffing a homeless shelter began Monday. Our congregation provides food, laundry services, and volunteers to spend an evening at the shelter or sleep overnight. Overnight volunteers stay in a separate room for them. Last night dinner was hot dogs and baked beans. There have been 20-25 residents each night. They watch TV till 10 p.m., and then the men and women go to sleep in separate rooms. I spent the night there last night with a woman from my church. 

It occurred to me in the night that volunteering at a homeless shelter counts as almsgiving. Add to this my regular daily prayers and a Lenten fast Linda and I are on (abstaining from meat, fish, eggs, and dairy), and this week I am engaging in all three spiritual practices mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 6 — almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These practices aren’t unique to Christianity; they are found in many religions. 

I wondered also in the night whether we should call almsgiving, prayer, and fasting spiritual practices. Does this label not put them in a special, esoteric category? Jesus saw these practices as natural and common, the ordinary equipment of any disciple. Almsgiving connects me to my neighbor in uncomfortable ways. Prayer connects me to God and allows God’s own breath to breathe in me. Fasting connects me to my embodied life and dampens its appetites. 

I will head back to the shelter this evening and open the door at 6:30. I will stay for a while and come back at 10 p.m. to lock up. The temperature tonight is supposed to be 9 degrees F, but Thursday and Friday night it will dip back below zero again. The shelter is aptly named Share the Warmth

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The Self Does Not Exist

Lately I am reading Doubt: A History, by Jennifer Hecht. It is becoming an unplanned Lenten practice. So far she has said Plato and Aristotle doubted stories of the gods and goddesses, and Qoheleth doubted the existence of the Hebrew God. This evening, while watching the Oscars, I have also learned that Buddha doubted the existence of the self. Letting go of a sense of self is a key part of our transformation.

We think we have a self, we assume it, it’s the thing reading this right now, mulling it all over. But spend some time seriously looking for that self and one’s internal experience starts to fragment into disparate flickers of thought and sensation…

The idea that the self does not exist becomes increasingly intuitive. We are each a composite of sensations and actions…

The Buddha said that happiness was available to us if only we could simply set down our unfounded conviction that the self exists and must be protected. It does not exist, there is nothing to protect, and we are living in a very different world than we had ever dreamed.

It reminded me of St Paul’s teaching that his self no longer existed — only the life of Christ existed in him. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. This life that I live now, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me.” (Galatians‬ ‭2‬:‭20‬ GNT)

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Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Oliver Sacks, after being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.

Detachment was a character trait cultivated by the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They also viewed life from an altitude, although it was a different sort of altitude than what Sacks speaks of. His altitude is linked to faith in humanity — theirs was an altitude born of faith in God.

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Memory Is Malleable

Memories don’t live as single, complete events in one spot in the brain. Instead they exist as fragments of information, stored in different parts of our mind. Over time, as the memories are retrieved, or we see news footage about the event or have conversations with others, the story can change as the mind recombines these bits of information and mistakenly stores them as memories. This process essentially creates a new version of the event that, to the storyteller, feels like the truth.

The article is here.

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Keeping Silence

The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.
(Habakkuk 2:20 NRSV)

I have been taking part in an online course on silence led by Brent Bill, a Quaker writer. He offers a wealth of good advice on the practice of keeping silence each day. I am also listening to Thich Nhat Hanh’s new book Silence. In the first chapter he speaks of inner silence and outer silence — silence of the mind as well as of the surroundings. As a result, I am resolved to attend less to social media and the news media, each of which creates interior noise in me.

Also, today I wrote on a piece of paper a pair of words: Silence and Words. Then I wrote down a series of word pairs that suggested themselves.

Silence — Words
Faith — Works
Eternal — Temporal
Spirit — Flesh
Breath — Noise
Christ — Religion
Light — Darkness
Gospel — Law
Forgiveness — Judgment
Grace — Gravity
Solitude — Mob
Wisdom — Ignorance

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