Saturday, June 18, 2005

Greatest American

I suppose this isn’t a God sighting per se, but it’s on my mind. The Discovery Channel has been running a series where they are counting down to the “Greatest American,” based mainly on viewers’ voting. Any countdown like this is going to have some suspect folks on the list—not because they’re great, but because they make it into a “greatest” list mostly for the reason that they’re in the news right now. Pat Tillman is one of these. I do not discount the man’s patriotism or his sacrifice, but I don’t think he’s on a par with Dr. King or Thomas Jefferson. John Edwards made the top 100, as did Barack Obama—perhaps in a few years or maybe even decades they might be considered among the greatest Americans, but right now they mainly have potential, rather than actual accomplishments that would make them great.

There are a few I would include in the list that are not on it. Thomas Jefferson made the top 25, and Alexander Hamilton made the top 100, but James Madison did not, in spite of having been the principal author of the Constitution and, with Hamilton and John Jay, one of the chief apologists for the federalist system of government. Because of my own political bent, I would not include Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, and I believe history may vindicate my belief about both these presidents.

When I cast my vote for the one person who stands out as the greatest American, it will be Abraham Lincoln. I will not boil it down to one simple phrase, as many do: “He freed the slaves.” Certainly he did do that, and he deserves to be recognized for it, although his own writings and those of others seem to indicate his motives were somewhat more expedient than altruistic. But the reason I believe he deserves the top spot has more to do with his having led this country through its worst crisis, bar none, in the Civil War. He made extremely difficult decisions that were necessary to preserve the United States of America.

What I have read and heard of Lincoln demonstrate that he was truly a man of prayer and a deep faith in God. It was not simply something he said in order to attract certain segments of the public, but something on which he leaned at every point in his life. He did not profess the certainty that God was on any one side in the conflicts of his day—as a matter of fact he didn’t seem entirely certain whether God approved or disapproved of the war. Rather, he suggested the more important issue was not whether God is on our side, but that we do our best to be on God’s side. Lincoln struggled with God’s will, and with humility and much prayer tried to do what was right.

Abraham Lincoln certainly deserves to be honored as the “Greatest American” under the definition this program and list are using. However, there are millions and millions of “greatest Americans” using a very different definition. These are the men and women of every age who have done their best, worked hard, raised their children well, stood up for freedom in large and small ways. They are the ones who built communities, wrote and spoke about the ideals our nation stands for—even, perhaps especially, at times when the leadership of our country failed to live up to those ideals, looked out for one another, and did all of this without even a thought that their names might one day end up on a list of the “greatest Americans.” But that is who they are. We are a country founded and governed as a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” in Mr. Lincoln’s words. While it is important to have heroes that stand above us, like Lincoln, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others, we must also remember that in a nation like ours, each one of us has the opportunity to be one of the “greatest Americans” through our actions every single day.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Me and My Shadow

It’s been a hard couple of days at our house. Yesterday morning I found one of our cats dead. I won’t go into the details of how it happened, except to say that it’s one of those times when you dwell on the things that, if you had done them differently, would have changed everything.

Shadow was Mike’s favorite of all our cats. He lived in this neighborhood before we did (Mike liked to tell people that “he came with the house”), but chose to come and live with us. He would come in the house in the winter when it was cold, but very rarely did he stay for more than a few hours. In the summer he didn’t come in at all, and no amount of coaxing would get him to change his mind. But he always would come out and greet us when we came home, even climbing into the car for a welcome-home rub. If he happened to be around in the mornings when I left for work, he would walk partway down the hill with me, every few steps throwing himself to the ground in front of me for a tummy rub.

When I found Shadow yesterday morning, I called Mike, who was in the process of getting ready for work. And I will never forget the sight of my big, barrel-chested, bass-voiced, mustache-wearing husband cradling Shadow, sobbing like a baby, and not caring who saw him doing it. He loves his cat-kids. I heard someone say once that “real men don’t kiss cats.” Don’t you believe it.

It’s much too early to try to draw meaning from what happened to Shadow. I won’t even try. But a few months ago, one of the children in my congregation came to me after church and asked, “Do dogs and cats go to heaven when they die?” And I told him that I trusted God to take care of even the tiniest critters—it says so in the Bible (see the end of the book of Jonah, for example, as well as Matthew 10:29). I firmly believe that, when God makes all things new on the last day, that means all things, including animals. And if there aren’t any cats in heaven, I’m not going.

We’ll get through this. It’s not the first time, after all, that either of us has lost a pet. We know that God is with us, and that Shadow is in the care of the God who can be trusted to watch over all of his creatures. That helps.