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Abraham Lincoln, Overcomer: Why Our 16th President Would Have Worn Nikes

Abraham Lincoln, Overcomer
Lincoln, at age 48. “The picture…is, I think, a very true one; though my wife, and many other do not.” Lincoln wrote. “My impression is that their objection arises from the disordered condition of the hair.” (Lincoln: A Photobiography, p. 40, R. Freedman)

On this day, 210 years ago, an overcomer was born. And, for the record, to be an overcomer, you’ve got to overcome. There’s no easier way.

Abraham Lincoln overcame.

By these three character traits our 16th President became more than a conqueror and overcame. It was not despite, but because of the constant barrage of criticism, confusion, and conflict that he did.

There are plenty more, but here are three traits that reveal how Lincoln overcame:

  1. Patience- Exhibit A: How he persevered and embraced marriage to a very trying Mary Todd Lincoln.
  2. Kindness- Exhibit B: How he looked hard for any excuse to pardon a deserter named Henry M. Luckett. 
  3. Humility- Exhibit C: How he wrote a letter admitting I was wrong, you were right to General U.S. Grant.

Patience, kindness and humility served Lincoln- and our united nation- well. Since I’ve already written about them, I thought I might forgo the Lincoln post this year.

Then I heard what Stanton said.

Gorilla Warfare

Edwin, “Mars,” Stanton was President Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Stanton was a sharp, biting critic of Lincoln early in the war.

He called Lincoln a “gorilla.”

Yes. He did.

Stanton publicly declared that it was foolish to go to Africa in search of a gorilla when “the original gorilla” could be found in Springfield, Illinois! Then, six months before he was appointed to the Lincoln’s Cabinet, Stanton wrote former President Buchanan:

“The dreadful disaster of Sunday [Battle of Bull Run] can scarcely be mentioned. The imbecility of this administration has culminated in that catastrophe, and irretrievable misfortune and national disgrace are to be added to the ruin of all peaceful pursuits and national bankruptcy as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.”

Scathing words, those.

But somehow Stanton transformed into a strong supporter of the President.

If Stanton Said I Was…

But Lincoln took this “gorilla warfare” all in stride, and, because he felt that Stanton was the most qualified for the office, and in 1862 appointed him Secretary of War.

This proves that overcomers aren’t enslaved by what others say about them and that they’re not above correction. Overcomers look long and hard for the kernel of truth in the criticism, even if it’s stuck on a cob of misunderstanding or lies. And once they find it, they don’t let pride prevent them from changing course and turning.

I just read about a little incident that perfectly, if crassly, reveals that part of overcoming. It also involves Stanton.

This exchange came after some “Western men,” led by Congressman Lovejoy, procured an order from Lincoln to switch out their soldiers for easter soldiers.

When Lovejoy explained the plan to Secretary of War Stanton, it was rejected.

‘But we have the President’s order sir,’ said Lovejoy.
‘Did Lincoln give you an order of that kind?’ said Stanton.
‘He did, sir.’
‘Then he is a d—d fool,’ said the irate Secretary.
“Do you mean to say the President is a d—d fool?’ asked Lovejoy, in amazement.
‘Yes, sir, if he gave you such an order as that.’
The bewildered Congressman from Illinois betook himself at once to the President, and related the result of his conference.
‘Did Stanton say I was a d–d fool?’ Asked Lincoln at the close of the recital.
‘He did, sir; and repeated it.’
After a moment’s pause, and looking up, the President said:
‘If Stanton said I was a d–d fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.’

And so our meek President did not retaliate. Instead he deferred to the same one who called his administration imbecilic and himself a gorilla.

Not Overcome By Evil 

Lincoln’s response to Lovejoy reminds me of 18th-century, British preacher George Whitefield. In response to a vicious, accusatory letter to him, Whitefield wrote,

I thank you heartily for your letter. As for what you and my other enemies are saying against me, I know worse things about myself than you will ever say about me.

With love in Christ,

George Whitefield

Lincoln could have penned those words just as well as Whitefield. It was Lincoln’s meekness and restraint in returning good for evil that proved too great a weapon for Stanton.

Do I not destroy my enemies, Lincoln asked, when I make them my friends?

Lincoln Would Have Worn Nikes

Had they been invented a hundred years earlier, he’d have worn them. Not because he was 6’4″ and headed for the court, but because Lincoln was an overcomer.

Turns out the Greek word translated “overcomer” is from the word nikao (níke) and it means to get the victory, overcome, conquer or subdue. Overcomers wear Nikes.

And they don’t return evil for evil. Any fool can do that. But to return good for evil is supernatural. Overcomers aren’t enslaved by others’ evil. They don’t take revenge. They have One Lord and Master and are, “disciples of him, who died for his enemies.”

George Washington Carver once said, “I will never let another man ruin my life by making me hate him.” Empowered by the Spirit, Carver would not allow evil to conquer him. Instead he lived out Romans 12:21, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

John Piper fleshes this out for us,

In the context, coming right after saying be good to your enemy, I think he means “Don’t let your enemy’s hostility produce hostility in you. But let your love triumph over his hostility.” Don’t be overcome by evil means, Don’t be overcome by his evil…

Don’t let another person’s evil provoke you to evil thoughts or evil attitudes or evil deeds. Don’t give them that kind of power. You don’t have to. Christ is your king. Christ is your leader, your champion, your treasure. Christ governs your life, not those who do evil.

Lincoln was not overcome by evil. He didn’t let the evil of his enemies control him. He returned good for evil and that makes friends of enemies.

Stanton was overcome by Lincoln’s good.

The Most Perfect Ruler Of Men

In fact, Stanton tried to keep Lincoln from going to the theater that fateful night by ordering one of his subordinates, Major Thomas Eckert, not to accompany the Lincolns.

It was Stanton who organized the response to Lincoln’s assassination, the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, and the prosecution of the assassination conspiracists. It was Stanton who wept bitter tears beside the bed as Lincoln breathed his last.

And it was Stanton who, according to eyewitnesses, announced: “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen. Now he belongs to the ages.

Lincoln’s secretary John Hay wrote this in a letter to Stanton shortly after Lincoln’s death.  “Not everyone knows, as I do, how close you stood to our lost leader, how he loved you and trusted you, and how vain were all efforts to shake that trust and confidence, not lightly given and never withdrawn.”

And as Lincoln to Stanton, even more our Lord Jesus to us.

His love for us will never be withdrawn. Through faith in Him we overcome.

Everyone born of God overcomes the world.

This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.

1 John 5:4

 

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Where Intelligence Is Irrelevant

In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your good pleasure.”  
Luke 10:21

I worshiped at an inner city, self-described “diverse, multi-ethnic church” the other week. I loved every second of it- of the different accents and rhythms and styles and shades.  Which bodes well, since worship times will get even more diverse.

The heavenly worship set will come from a multitude from every tribe, tongue and nation. Every. So bring on diversity.

Including the little girl with Down Syndrome who faced straight right, but sang front center in the children’s choir.

Big On Diversity

We’re big on diversity as we ought to be. But it’s even bigger to God.

I mean, he wants- he will have– a cross section to compose his Son’s Bride, the church. Male and female, Greek and Jew, slave and free- there is no difference. All are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Gender, religious affiliation, and employment status are no barriers to God. His call goes out.

But variety in the God’s Kingdom doesn’t end with those. Church diversity goes beyond sex, age and skin color. For now, at least. it extends even to IQ.

To the end that God has actually hidden his glory from some high IQ’d and worldly wise and revealed it to children. To babes. The Greek in Luke 10:21 is nēpios which, I read, means nursing babies.

Dependent, helpless babies. Little children.

IQ Won’t Bring You To God

This means that, at least when it comes to getting into the Kingdom of God, intelligence is overrated.

Rather than being a prerequisite to knowing God, high IQ might even be a barrier, or  handicap, in coming to Christ. Luke 10:21 (and Matthew 11:25-26 and 1 Cor. 1:26-31) means that no education, worldly wisdom or IQ can bring us to God.

And this truth pleased Jesus the Son because this pleased God the Father. It means that all the glory for our salvation goes to God.  Not a smidge goes to our intelligence. Nobody gets into the kingdom of heaven by reasoning and deducting and inferring his way in.

Little children know they can’t make it alone. Everybody in God’s family knows that they’re needy and helpless.

It’s like those lines from Rock of Ages,

Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace…

And Jesus rejoiced in this and said, I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your good pleasure.

No Matter If You’re Not Clever

Maybe this verse grabbed me so hard last week because I’ve been part of a few conversations lately about wits. About friends who feel pressure to keep up the smart front and match wits with the wise the feeling of inferiority that comes when we compare and feel not as smart.

But the most important wisdom in the world- the only saving knowledge in the wide world- does not come with being clever.

In a sermon on Luke 10:21, C.H. Spurgeon explains how this works:

One poor soul says, “I am not clever. I cannot be saved.” Why not? Why not, when God has chosen the foolish things of this world? I often hear a person say, “But I have not head enough for these things.” You do not need a head so much as you need a heart, for the grace of God works on the heart, first, and on the head, afterwards…If you love Christ and trust in Him, you have all the head that you need for eternal life.

“O,” says one, “but I am a person of such small capacity!” Never mind. “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners” whether they are of large capacity or small capacity. Have you a teachable spirit? Are you willing to believe what the Holy Spirit reveals? To sit at Jesus’ feet and learn of Him? Are you like the babe that…takes, unquestioningly, the nourishment she gives? If that is so, you are of the kind that God has chosen! Come at once to Him.

So what causes Jesus to rejoice greatly? At least in part, it was knowing that when it comes to knowing God, intelligence is irrelevant.

It was pleasing to you, Father, to hide these things from the wise. 

Intelligence Is Irrelevant

This doesn’t mean that thinking clearly and being wise is not important. It is. We are to love the Lord with all our minds. But, as John MacArthur explains,

It’s just that those on their own can’t get there.  A man may be as wise as Solomon. That’s not going to get him to God.  He may be as intelligent as Einstein. That’s not going to get him to God.  Intelligence is neither a way nor a barrier, it’s irrelevant.  Human wisdom is not a way or a barrier, it’s irrelevant.

You can’t know me, unless I reveal something of myself to you and you can’t know God unless he reveals himself to you (Luke 10:22). And thankfully,  he doesn’t reveal himself to us on the basis of our IQ. By wisdom, Paul wrote, the world knew not God.

The natural man does not understand the things of God. God has to open our eyes. He has to reveal himself. And we have to become like children to see. We don’t need high ACT scores or college degrees.

God has favor on those who are broken and contrite and tremble at his word. Revealing himself to these is his good pleasure.

In the Wisdom of God

I’m back in my little church now. And if you measure by variety in accents and skin tones, we’re not terribly diverse. But in other ways, we are.

A little sister in Christ who happens to have autism, worships in the aisle, criss-cross applesauce style. An older brother who loves to tell big-grinned one-liners about Smiles that go on for miles and Normal is just a setting on your dryer listens to the sermon. A middle-aged sister who has a hard time remembering things belts it out with her hands held high.

Here we all are, weak and foolish, not many of noble birth (1 Cor. 1: 26-31), high school drop-outs and college grads. I wouldn’t doubt the IQ spread here would span from 50-150, from profoundly behind to MENSA qualified.

And we’re all one in Christ. We’re united because it pleased God to reveal His Son to us and save us. IQ is irrelevant here.

And that is all wisdom.

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe…God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
1 Corinthians 1:21, 28-29
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Washington Modest, Washington Wise

George Washington was born on January 22, 1732.  He was God’s gift, the perfect fit- modest and wise- to govern our infant, rebel nation.

These 10 Washington quotes remind me why.

1. Nothing is a greater stranger to my breast, or a sin that my soul more abhors, than that black and detestable one, ingratitude.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter to Governor Dinwiddie, May 29, 1754

2. It is with pleasure I receive reproof, when reproof is due, because no person can be readier to accuse me, than I am to acknowledge an error, when I am guilty of one; nor more desirous of atoning for a crime, when I am sensible of having committed it.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter to Governor Dinwiddie, Aug. 27, 1757

3. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is the best policy.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, Farewell Address to the People of the United States

4.While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to him only in this case they are answerable.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter to Benedict Arnold, Sep. 14, 1775

5. The determinations of Providence are always wise, often inscrutable; and, though its decrees appear to bear hard upon us at times, is nevertheless meant for gracious purposes.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter to Bryan Fairfax, Mar. 1, 1778

6. Do not conceive that fine clothes make fine men any more than fine feathers make fine birds.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter to Bushrod Washington, Jan. 15, 1783

7. To contract new debts is not the way to pay old ones.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter to James Welch, Apr. 7, 1799

8. There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, First Inaugural Address, Apr. 30, 1789

9. The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, First Inaugural Address, Apr. 30, 1789

10. The views of men can only be known, or guessed at, by their words or actions.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter to Patrick Henry, Jan. 15, 1799

Those who knew Washington best never doubted his sincere Christian faith.  His mottos were, “Deeds, not Words”; and, “For God and my Country.”

Washington’s wisdom was uncommon. He knew what was in the heart of a man. George Washington also knew that, though at times inscrutable and painful, the purposes of Providence are gracious.

But President George Washington was also a modest man.  Like the best of leaders, his humility was great.

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.

Hebrews 13:7

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Abounding, Like Bolt

It’s not that much for someone who is poor and in a low condition to have his heart kept low, but for someone to have his heart low when his condition is high is much more difficult.

Jeremiah Burroughs, Contentment, Prosperity, and God’s Glory

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. I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.

Apostle Paul, Philippians 4:11-12 

Do you know how to abound? Did you watch the Olympics last night? Have you learned the secret to being content in plenty and fullness, not only in your need? Did you see Bolt bow the knee?

For all the mockery and misuse of #blessed, I think it’s a perfect expression of that noble, humble spirit. Blessed stands opposed to entitled. Blessed expresses gratitude. Blessed is against “I earned this.” Blessed testifies to God’s grace. #blessed.

Bolt included #blessed in his tweet after his three-peat in the 100m dash last night. I’m one of his peeps now. Here it is.

Thanks for all the support my peeps #blessed #TeamBolt #TeamJamaica #Rio2016

I know, I know, I know. There’s danger in lauding any earthly hero. Don’t put your trust in man. All men -even the fastest- are wildflowers and mist and grass. Every one will fade and fail. I know this.

But the Word also says, Blessed is the man who fears the LordAnd Paul urged that whatever good his peeps had seen and heard and learned from him- these put into practice

Usain’s not perfect. Google him and you might find a few foul words and spot him dancing with some risque Samba dancers at his Rio press conference last week. We all stumble in many ways.

But Usain St. Leo Bolt has got some big things right.

Humble Good Humor

A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.  

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Humility, you ask, incredulous? Haven’t you seen Usain’s breast-thumping, #1 boasts, you askAre you out of your up-too-late-watching-beach-volleyball-sleep-deprived mind?

Yes. Humility. And, no. At least I don’t think so it’s a hazy, sleep depraved mind.

Because we know this. That, Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less. And when any Olympic living-legend offers a prayer with a sign of the cross in front of a thousand cameras and then bows the knee within a minute of winning a race- I see humility.

Bolt is a century removed and a sea away from the Christian’s epic Olympic hero, Eric Liddell. I admit that Bolt’s lightening trajectory doesn’t look like it’ll lead to a mission field like Liddell’s. But then, one never knows.

Bolt does share more than fast feet with our Chariots of Fire hero. I was going to tie them together with that famous, God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure, quote. It fits them both. But it turns out that “quote” was written by Colin Welland as part of the Chariots of Fire script.

Liddell was known, Bolt is known, for their enthusiasm and good humor. And for this “Girl with the etched furrowed brow,” who takes herself far too seriously far too often, Bolt’s light-hearted, unpretentious exuberance is a breath of fresh air. (Yes, unpretentious. It means trying to impress others with greater talent than one actually possesses. Bolt is the world’s fastest man.)

Proud people tend to be too puffed-up with themselves to want to bless others with their levity and laughter. I dare you to watch Usain and not crack a smile. Eric Liddell had that same light heart. His friends and classmates recalled that,

No adulation, no fame, no flattery can ever affect this youth…He has got that great redeeming gift, the gift of humour. 

His infectious enthusiasm endeared him to the sporting public, and for the next four years he packed the terracing at every sports meeting he attended.

He had a characteristic, humorous resistance to bullying or posing masters, giving his answers stern and satirical emphasis ,’46 Sir’ and then following up with a disarming smile, whenever and wherever the atmosphere permitted it.

For all- or rather in all- Usain’s post-race antics (he hugged a huge stuffed animal on the track after the race last night), for all his smiles as he speeds on by, and his unpuffed-with-self poses that he freely gives “his peeps,” Usain Bolt displays a certain humility.

Honoring God

His pleasure is not in the strength of horse or his delight in the legs of a man, but the Lord delights in those who fear him and put their hope in his unfailing love. 

Psalm 147:10-11

God’s pleasure is (still) not in the (under 10 second for 100m ultra-fast) legs of a man. He delights in those who fear him.

A manifestation of fearing God is taking time to honor him. Usain doggedly honors God. Sure, it’s in his characteristically loose, Jamaican way. Critics might call Bolt’s God honoring ways, merely superstitious– signing the cross and sending prayers to heaven as the soles of his lightening-fast feet press hard on his starting blocks.

True. Only God knows our hearts.

But his #blessed tweets aren’t required by the Olympic Committee. In fact, they’re probably not preferred. They’d probably rather Bolt not be so visible about his faith in the Holy Trinity. Bolt’s going against the flow when he honors God this way.

If ever they did, “Christian” shout-outs do not earn brownie points in the wide world of sports anymore.  His tweets and signs and prayers may not be so bold as Eric Liddell refusing to race on a Sunday. But still. They look like signs of man who behind his big talk and bigger grins fears his God.

A prosperous state, wrote Jeremiah Burroughs, mightily endangers the grace of humility. He explains, that those who have learned to Paul’s secret show their noble, humble spirits when they are

[A]s careful to return proportionate respects to God as they are to receive any mercy from Him. Their nobility is further sown in this: they are thankful. A noble heart is a thankful heart that loves to acknowledge whenever it has received any mercy.

Did you see Bolt bow his knee and give thanks to God when his 100m race was done? After winning the 200m in the last Olympics, he tweeted: “I want to thank God for everything he has done for me. Nothing would be possible without him.” No one made him do that. A strong humble man knows who gives him strength.

A fast humble man knows -and fears- the One who gives him speed.

Sitting Loose

Sit loose to this world’s joy-the time is short. 

Robert Murray M’Cheyne 

Sit loose. That’s a motto for The Girl With The Furrowed Brow. It’s a shorter version of Paul’s Philippians 4 secret. Learn to be content, whatever situation you’re in. Because in Christ all things are yours, and you can do all things

Usain seems to take even his huge success lightly. Jason Gay in today’s Wall Street Journal wrote,

The most recognizable man at the Olympics is staying in the Olympic Village, for goodness’ sake, posing for selfies with mortals who will never make it out of a preliminary heat, pulling his own luggage, turning the same wobbly doorknobs like everybody else. He’s OK with that. He’s into it. 

And sitting loose means sharing the glory. As “the Cosmic Center” of these Olympic games, Bolt he knows that the really great go low. They’re able share others’ success and joy. Jason Gay describes it.

One of the finer moments Sunday night occurred when Bolt was doing post-race interviews near the track, and he noticed the South African runner Wayde van Niekirk, who earlier had shattered the world record for the 400 meters, running 43.03 seconds. Bolt turned to reporters, told them he’d be right back, and then leapt back up onto the track to embrace van Niekirk, clearly the new buzz of these Games. 

No one is better suited than Usain Bolt to make the case that winning isn’t everything, because even while he’s the world’s fastest man, he seems to know that all human glory fades away. No one can make this case better because no one can accuse Bolt of merely making and serving loser’s lemonade. 

I don’t know if Usain Bolt knows Jesus. I don’t know how closely he follows the Christ whose cross he traces before each race. But I know Bolt’s enjoy-life, fear-God, sit-loose ways are even more legendary than his 100m Olympic gold three-peat.

Usain Bolt lives Paul’s secret and teaches us how to abound. That’s the biggest lesson The World’s Fastest Man taught The Girl With The Furrowed Brow. That’s why Usain Bolt is a refreshing breath of rare Olympic air to a very amateur runner who tends to take herself and any modest achievement far too seriously far too often.

From all of us who cling to success and abundance too tight and proud and need to sit more loose and humble, Usain deserves praise.

Behold, what I have found to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 

Ecclesiastes 5:18