Monday, November 19, 2012

What They Gave

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On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave a short speech in a new cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We know it today as The Gettysburg Address. One of the phrases that jump out at me as especially meaningful is this one:

…from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion….

From the War of Independence to the current War on Terror – American men and women have given their last full measure of devotion for the cause of liberty and freedom.

They gave their all. They gave everything.

I'm asking my self today, what will I give?

When I dance, I don't dance with one finger. I put my whole body into it. I don't sing by simply moving my lips. The sound has to begin from deep within. I don't worship by reciting or hearing a few words. I open up my whole self to the Spirit of God. I give to this moment in God's presence - everything I  am. I am not talking about what amount of money I give to the church. I am talking about how much of myself I am called to give in living relationship with God and all creation. I am called to give - everything. And who is it who calls us to give everything?

I have to consider what my financial responsibilities are to the various communities in which I participate. But financial considerations and all considerations need to come from a total commitment to living with faith in God's creation. In the parable of the Widow’s Mite (Mark 12:41-44), the widow's two coins are not just money. They symbolize something. What do they symbolize? Everything. She gives her everything, her all. Parents sometimes ask me what the fee is for baptizing their children. There is no fee. The cost, however, is everything. The one who paid the cost calls us to follow him, to live and love with abandon, to give to life and all that participates in life, not a part of ourselves, but all of ourselves, everything.

The men and women who gave the last full measure of their devotion defending our liberties and freedoms – and those who survived their deaths – know this full well.

There is the story of George Adkins who fought in World War I. George joined up in 1915 at the age of 26. His brother, Marty, was killed in June 1916, and his brother, Bill, shortly after that. George alone, survived. After the war George married and resumed farming until his death in 1950.

A letter was written to George by a comrade a decade after the war.

The letter dated August 27th, 1928 was written by an I. W. Anderson. The most powerful part concerns the death of George's elder brother, Marty, or Mart, for short.

"You will remember after the June 3rd scrap, I was corralled for the Orderly room because of Sergeant Sharpe (the Orderly Room Sergeant) having been wounded. Well, if I remember rightly, Mart was killed the next trip into that hell-hole, which would be about the 18th of June, 1916, at a point, judging from where his body was found some 500 feet east of Maple Copse. I remember when his personal effects were taken from his body, we found a note - a note which left so deep an impression on me that I have never forgotten it and never will, for I consider it one of the sublimest (sic) acts of heroism of which I have ever heard, of which one seldom hears except in the pages of romantic fiction. The words were written after he was wounded and in the brief period before he died:

                         On the Battlefields of Flanders, Good bye Mother, good bye all.

What do you make of a young man who with his last bit of strength writes a goodbye note to his mom, and then says good bye to all and signs his name. He sounds to me like someone who loved life and loved people.

The battles of the First World War were indeed hell, but here a man gives this overpowering expression of his humanity. Mart Adkins gave everything, not just his breath and his blood, but his soul. His brief words point to the absurdity of war. On the battlefields of Flanders, goodbye. Why should a young man from the other side of the world be mortally wounded on the battlefields of Flanders? He should be plowing and seeding and harvesting those fertile fields around his home. But a crisis much larger than himself called Mart Adkins, and he gave everything he had to its resolution. What blows me away is that he tries to communicate something before he dies. In saying goodbye to the living, he gives everything to life. In a dehumanized situation Mart Adkins says in this brief note, "I am a human being, born of a mother, and related to many others by blood and friendship. While I have this breath of life, my last thought is for my loved ones."

George, Marty and Bill Adkins gave everything. Marty and Bill gave everything and died in Europe. Bill gave everything and had to bear the burden of living with those memories and that grief. And yet living is a beautiful as well as a terrifying burden: missing loved ones, remembering their sacrifice, encouraging ourselves and others to be hopeful, and trying in our own lives to justify the many gifts to us and the many sacrifices made for us. It is wonderful that a decade after the war Mr. Anderson could write George Adkins and talk about both sides of their experience, the genuine bonds of friendship, and the terrible losses. 

Some might think that Mr. Anderson should have left it alone, and that the best thing for George Adkins would be to put the horror in a box and forget it ever happened.

But when we do that, when we deny what we have experienced, then we are only partly living. When we forget the special days set aside to remember and give thanks by making them just a day we get off work and school, by making them just  days to eat and have fun with family and friends, we ignore our collective historical experience, and is so doing we are only partly living.

But we are called to much more. These three brothers and all who served in our nation’s conflicts and who kept their humanity in an inhumane situation, they call us to live fully. By the example of their lives, they call you and I - to give everything.

I am struck by Jesus' words concerning the poor widow who put her two copper coins into the temple treasury. "She out of her poverty has put in everything she has." If we were thinking about giving a part of ourselves, wouldn't we look to our riches and our strengths? If I win the lottery, then of course I will have a few bucks to spare for some good causes. If I had a lot of teaching ability then I could give some of that teaching to others. If I had many lives to live, like one of the immortals on the Highlander movie and TV series, then I could be a soldier and risk one of those lives on the field of battle. But all I have is me, with all my limitations.

When I give from my riches, I am not risking too much. I still have plenty for my own security. Indeed I expect something in return for my giving so that I can add to my security. This is the transaction against which Martin Luther spoke with such passion - the notion that our good works secure us some measure of grace from God. But that isn’t true! God gives everything freely of His grace. That’s the message of the cross! And will we give a measured amount from our riches and expect a profit in return for our investment? George, Mart and Bill Adkins gave the life, the courage and the commitment they had. Their cause was something much greater than self-preservation.

When we have much and give little, then there is little meaning in our giving. The message of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is that many gave so much – they gave everything! It wasn't a photo opportunity. Horrific circumstances forced them to put their lives on the line. Thanks to their sacrifice we now live. The men and women he remembered this day in 1863 call us to do more, to live a passionately in our time as they lived in theirs, to give as they gave, which means giving everything.

The most powerful thing we can give is when we give from our weakness, when a person who is nervous comes to the microphone to share her prayer, when a person who is not out-going opens up and smiles, when a rigid person connects with teenagers, when a person who never hugs opens his arms to someone in need. Mart Adkins was a soldier with a rifle, trained to kill, but he showed us that he was a human being connected with family and friends. The poor widow had two copper coins which together made one penny. She gave them both, because what she was really giving was herself. Take this to heart. For this is exactly what Jesus did – He gave His all: His very life on the cross for you. Where do you see people giving their all? I am glad that men like Stephen and Hugh Ambrose (Band of Brothers, The Pacific) gather the stories of the soldiers who fought in the wars. We need to hear their stories.

But I think we can also look at the persons around us in the pews. They have powerful stories. Perhaps they don't see them as powerful. Perhaps the power is something that God wants us to see, as we open our hearts, as we listen to each other, as we find the courage to live more fully. God help us all to share our strengths and weaknesses, to live with intelligence but not limited by fear, to live with passion, but the kind that builds rather than tears down. May the Spirit empower us to give to the Giver of life, not a pittance, nor a portion nor a part, but everything.

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