A Civil War soldier’s letter to his wife

I am going to make you cry.  To mark the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run, a.k.a. The Battle of Manassas, the Washington Post wrote a story about and reprinted the letter written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou to his wife a week before he was killed in that battle.  It shows a man highly devoted to his different and sometimes conflicting vocations as husband, father, soldier, citizen, and Christian:

July the 14th, 1861

Washington D.C.

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows—when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children—is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

Sullivan

From Wikipedia

For background details see Civil War soldier’s heartbreaking farewell letter was written before death at Bull Run – The Washington Post.

Families, faith, and the military vocation

David French is an Iraq war veteran and Nancy French is his wife. Together they have written Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War

‘Men were coming home on leave to find their wives gone from their houses,” David French writes about the strain of deployment on marriage. “Other men were getting the modern equivalent of the ‘Dear John’ letter via Facebook message or e-mail. Some guys discovered wives or girlfriends were pregnant, and still others were finding that their bank accounts had been looted by the very people they most trusted with their financial affairs. In fact, I would say that the ongoing betrayal of our men and women in uniform by their own family members is perhaps the most underreported scandal and toll of the war. It is an enduring symbol of the depravity of man and the fallen nature of our own culture.”

You should read the whole interview and maybe order the book.  The Frenches are honest and unsparing, and yet they come across as a truly strong and devoted couple, despite or perhaps because of all they have gone through.  What is striking to me is what they say about their faith, both in relation to their marriage and in relation to war and the military vocation:

LOPEZ: Could either of you have done this without faith? What has deployment taught you about faith?

NANCY: When David and I were having the “I want to join the Army” conversation when we lived in Philadelphia, he quoted Stonewall Jackson. He said something like this, “My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.” Of course, Stonewall died while recovering from wounds received in battle. “Duty is ours, consequences are God’s,” he is also known to have said. In other words, we threw ourselves on the mercy and sovereignty of God, and put one foot in front of the other until he came home.

DAVID: It’s easy to quote Calvinist generals from the safetyof your own home. It’s another thing entirely to trust God when you’re bumping down a dirt road in a Humvee or saluting at the third memorial in a month for a fallen trooper. My deployment taught me that I am utterly dependent on God for my next breath of life. But in many ways, that thought could be more terrifying than comforting. Men who were better than me in every way were falling to IEDs and ambushes. There is no formula for survival, and God’s ways are mysterious. But we’re not promised understanding, safety, or comfort.
LOPEZ: David, you write about Playboys and Maxims and things. Do men at war have the support they need to be good men, brave in all sorts of ways? Is there any way to help or change that?

DAVID: In the book I describe our armored cavalry squadron as a “rolling, violent fraternity.” In other words, we were a group of guys (guys only; this was a combat arms unit) from all walks of life bonded together by our shared mission and sacrifice. There were devout Christians in the group and guys who couldn’t wait to head to the closest strip club when they landed in America on leave. There were guys who bounced between those extremes. There’s quite a bit of spiritual support available to soldiers, but it’s up to them whether they use it. Mostly, soldiers support each other, and I don’t think that will ever change — nor should it.

 

HT:  Bruce Gee

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. . .

Some time ago on this blog, I sort of took issue with the “Common Table Prayer” commonly used by Lutherans, prayed in unison before a meal.   Remember that I did not grow up in this tradition, and I considered it more of a rhyming sing-song children’s prayer, favoring instead the prayer in the catechism with its use of the Psalm (“The eyes of all look to you, O Lord. . .”) or a spontaneous personal prayer.  How presumptuous I was in questioning a devotion hallowed by untold numbers of Christians for generations!

Since then I have come to appreciate and to use that prayer.  Above all, it is a prayer that focuses upon Christ’s presence–asking Him to come into our lives, into our vocations, into our family as everyone is seated around the table–and acknowledges Christ’s gifts, that the food we are about to eat comes from His hand and that ordinary life is the sphere of His blessings.

Along those lines and to go even deeper into the Biblical dimensions of this little prayer, you have got to read the piece by Dr. David Loy in the latest Lutheran Witness.  It deserves to become a classic.  You need to read the whole thing, but this is the summary:

“Come, Lord Jesus,” we cry with the Church, longing for our Lord to return in glory and set us and this entire sinful world right. “Be our guest,” we ask Him, knowing that the house that receives Jesus in faith receives His salvation. “Let Thy gifts to us be blessed,” we pray, trusting that the food on our tables will be sufficient to nourish us to do the work the Lord has given us in this world. It is such a simple prayer, and yet it gives voice to so many longings that our faith produces in us. We long for Jesus to come again, we long for the salvation He brings, and we long to be nourished to do the work He gives us.

via The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod – The Lutheran Witness.

Me on marriage

The latest issue of the Lutheran Witness includes an article that I wrote on marriage, addressing the question of whether or not it will become obsolete and what it means to understand marriage as vocation.  You can read it here:  The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod – The Lutheran Witness.

A conversation with one of my critics #3

In which we conclude the “battle of the books” between my  God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Focal Point) and  Ben Witherington’s  Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor and also get into some other issues:

WITHERINGTON: Why do both Jesus and Paul talk about rewards in heaven or in the Kingdom, and the lack thereof for those who are less profitable servants, shall we say? Do you think virtue is its own reward, and how does virtue relate to your notion of vocation or calling?

VEITH: Of course we are rewarded. God awards abundantly. And I have no problem with the notion that the great saints, the true heroes of the faith, will receive a greater reward than someone like me, though we are also told that the first will be last and the last first and that there will be lots of surprises in Heaven. (Some will put forward their “mighty works” only to have the Lord say, “I never knew you” [Matthew 7:22-23].)

Virtue is to do God’s will. We are to do God’s will in every part of our lives – in our families, in the workplace, in the church, and in our culture; that is, in our vocations.

The underlying question is, how do we become virtuous; that is, how do we do God’s will? We must know God in order to know His will–which means we must know and trust His Word–and to actually do His will, we need to be saved from our sinful condition through the life-changing work of Jesus Christ. Now  we are in the realm of faith.  To say that good works are the fruit of faith, which Matthew 7 also teaches in the passage immediately before the one cited above, is a very literal truth.  Knowing what Christ has done for us and personally trusting and depending on Him makes us want to do His will.

I totally agree with you when in your book you indicate that coercing someone to do something has no moral value.  And when we do something good just to be rewarded, that also compromises the work’s moral value.  The politician who shows up at a soup kitchen for 15 minutes while the cameras roll is not necessarily showing virtue, if he feeds the hungry only to boost his image and his polling numbers.  The woman who really feels compassion for the homeless and the hungry and so gives up Thanksgiving dinner with her family to serve at the soup kitchen, she is showing virtue and she will have her reward.  She is following God’s will and thus is co-operating with God in His love and care for His children.  He uses her as His hands and feet, as you say, and He honors that.  (Now He may also have used the politician to give food to the hungry during that 15 minutes, and perhaps beyond in drawing attention and building further support for the soup kitchen.  The politician himself didn’t do anything particularly virtuous, but God did something good with him anyway, though not by any kind of coercion into virtue.)

God wants us to serve Him and our neighbors because we want to (there is your free agency!) and out of love.  And love and good works grow out of faith.  “Without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6).  The key is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).  And this happens in vocation.

Continue reading.

A conversation with one of my critics #2

More of my debate with Ken Witherington, author of  Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, which takes issue with what I say about vocation in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Focal Point):

 WITHERINGTON: Let’s take one of these issues where we really do have a difference. While I am not going to suggest that human beings, Christians in particular, never are co-operating with God in some sense, I am going to insist on is that there are plenty of times where we have been graced and empowered to do things for God. We are the hands and feet of Jesus. Doubtless he could have done it without us, or by using others, but Gene, he’s decided to do it by empowering you and me, for example.

Now what this in turn means is that while I am happy to talk about God empowering or leading or guiding such activities, at the end of the day, they would not happen as my action, unless I decided to do it and acted on the decision. The matter was not fore-ordained, and so I am not merely going along with what God is doing, without God coercing me (and so ‘freely’ in the Edwardsian sense of not compelled to do it), I am actually acting as a free agent of God, and indeed God will hold me responsible for my behavior, accordingly. He will not be holding himself responsible. I bring this all up because it affects the way we look at the notion of vocation and the notion of calling, as we can discuss further in due course.

VEITH: Ben, I think I agree with your first paragraph.

I’m not sure I fully understand your second paragraph. (Do you mean “with God coercing me”?) Is it that you are bringing “free will” into the doctrine of vocation, as with the Arminian doctrine of salvation? As a Lutheran, I can actually agree with much of the former without agreeing with the latter. (Luther wrote “The Bondage of the Will,” but he also wrote “The Freedom of the Christian,” in which he develops his theology of vocation.)

I guess the main difference would be that we Lutherans might have a greater emphasis on sin in the human agency that we do have.

Say a man has the calling to work in a bank. He lends people money and takes care of other financial needs of the community, so that he is indeed loving and serving his neighbors. God is in what he does. But one day he decides to embezzle money. He is stealing from his neighbors. He is certainly free to do that, but God will indeed hold him responsible. Perhaps then he goes to church, hears a sermon from God’s Word, and is convicted of his sin. He repents and puts the money back before anyone notices. From that time on, he works as an honest employee. He has the agency to do that also, though we would say the credit for his repentance goes to the Holy Spirit working through God’s Law. Now that he is doing what he should, does he earn merit for that before God? Well, not really. He is now doing what he was supposed to do all  along.  “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10).   The man, however, assuming he is a Christian, is in the process of being sanctified.   The struggle with sin, finding forgiveness, and doing what is right made him grow in his faith, which bears fruit in good works, and so he has grown in sanctification.   (Vocation is where sanctification happens.  You make that point too, associating our work with our sanctification, but you seem to think Lutherans don’t believe that.  We do!)

WITHERINGTON: Interesting.   I don’t think a banker has a calling to be a banker in the Biblical sense of the term calling, but let’s leave that aside for a moment.  A big part of my objection to what you write about work is the Lutheran understanding of God’s involvement in human work, that He uses human beings as His instruments and is somehow “hidden” in vocation.

Continue reading.


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