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Ministering to the Abraham Lincolns
of the World Today

Introduction

abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln dealt with a lot bad wounds and death in his life. He also struggled with his religious faith.Abraham Lincoln once told a story about a young soldier going off to war. His sweetheart made her beau a sash to wear into battle, bearing the brave motto “Liberty or Death.” The cautious soldier asked if it could be amended to read “Liberty or Badly Wounded.”1

Sadly, we see a lot of badly wounded people and far too much death—physical and spiritual—in our world today. As traumatic and tragic as the year 2020 has been, 2021 promises more of the same. Whether it be the coronavirus, cancer, heart disease, opioid addiction, murder hornets (really?), violence, or other natural causes, death haunts and hunts us all in this fallen world. Others may be physically alive but remain spiritually wounded or dead—gashed by emptiness, loneliness, identity confusion, family dissolution, the rejection of God’s Word, or skepticism that a loving, heavenly Father even exists or cares for them. Indeed, there is nothing more heartbreaking than having people pass away without knowing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Abraham Lincoln dealt with a lot bad wounds and death in his life. He also struggled with his religious faith. I recently published The Lincoln Way, the Truth, and Your Life: Reflections on Leadership and Faith (2020). This three-in-one book (part biography, biblical devotion, and self-reflection journal) not only examines the life of Lincoln, but also provides a case study and blueprint for educators and administrators in Lutheran schools as they minister to the Abraham Lincolns of today.

When people hear the name Abraham Lincoln, they think of his face on the penny, five-dollar bill, or on Mount Rushmore. Perhaps they know him as the Great Emancipator or Savior of the Union. They might recognize his stovepipe hat on actors portraying him in television commercials and in digital ads.

Yet Lincoln’s biography includes many different chapters of real life challenges and struggles, about which many Americans may not know. How many, for example, know…

Do these portraits of Lincoln sound like any student, colleague, or family member you know today?

The issues and faith struggles with which Lincoln grappled are the same for many people today. While you will have to read the book to discover the many ministry lessons you can learn from the life of Lincoln, here are three compelling considerations for you as you serve students and families in 2021.

Encourage and Inspire Those Suffering in Poverty

Log cabin at Lincoln's Boyhood Home National Park in IndianaThe longer you teach, the more you will be caring for students and families suffering from and enduring poverty. This societal problem will only get worse as our world decays. In the United States, the gap between the haves and have-nots widens each year. The middle class continues to shrink, and more students than ever before are eligible for federally assisted lunch programs. The breakdown and brokenness of the nuclear family and out-of-wedlock births continue to entrap more people in poverty’s vicious cycle.

More acutely than any material shortcoming, the condescending perceptions others held of him and his backwoods family,… were the deprivations that he felt most acutely. Lincoln wanted respect. He wanted to rise.The anecdotes of Lincoln’s destitution and hardship are heartbreaking. The interesting lesson to learn from Lincoln, however, is that the actual scarcity of material things was not what generally bothered him. More acutely than any material shortcoming, the condescending perceptions others held of him and his backwoods family, as well as the prospect that he could never escape his hardscrabble social status, were the deprivations that he felt most acutely. Lincoln wanted respect. He wanted to rise. He wanted to make an impact. He wanted others to see him as a person of significance. And, yes, ambitiously or selfishly, he wanted to make a name for himself, as he told some of his closest friends.

Young lincolnThese two features of poverty—the absence of material goods and the presence of hopeless inability to pursue one’s happiness—are important for Christian teachers to recognize today. Many people living in poverty feel trapped and unworthy. Therefore, your poverty-stricken students might not think that they could ever pursue their own happiness or live a life of purpose. They might suppress their dreams and aspirations or even give up on hope completely.

This is not to suggest that people living in poverty never live with joy, purpose, or impact. Far from it. Perhaps you have had the experience of going on a mission trip where you intended to bring joy, hope, and material goods to people suffering in poverty, only to be lifted up by their joy, their love for Jesus, and their true appreciation for even the most basic possessions. They ministered to you instead of the other way around!

Poverty can crush a soul and suffocate one’s desire to live a fruitful life. … They will need their Christian teachers to persistently inspire and ignite their hopes, dreams, and pursuits of happiness. Nevertheless, poverty can crush a soul and suffocate one’s desire to live a fruitful life. So when you engage students and families who are suffering from economic hardship, be prepared to lovingly focus on the mental and emotional anguish they endure every day. They are wounded and suffering—physically and psychologically. They will need special care, love, patience, and compassion to heal and feel whole again. They will need their Christian teachers to persistently inspire and ignite their hopes, dreams, and pursuits of happiness.

To reach and encourage your Lincolns, rely on the Holy Spirit to guide and equip you. Beyond addressing their physical needs, be sure to minister to your students’ emotional and spiritual wellness. Tell them and show them you love them. Remind them about “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV Then pray with your students these words of Scripture: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Romans 15:13 ESV Kids suffering in poverty—and all of us—need both bread and the Bread of Life.

Teach God’s Word Frequently and Unapologetically

Many of you have been Christians for most of your life. We must keep reminding one another, however, that we are living in biblically illiterate times. The days are long gone when we could assume that the general populace retains even rudimentary biblical knowledge or common language in regard to Christian beliefs. For far too many Americans, David and Goliath might as well be a touring rock band, Noah’s ark a waterpark, the rainbow a symbol of pride in alternative lifestyles, and the Bible a book that slave owners used to justify human bondage.

Another lesson from the life of Lincoln is the profound impact that words have on shaping the mind and touching the soul. Students, and adults for that matter, become what they consume. The writings and books Lincoln read throughout his life had a strong influence on his worldview and the state of his faith. In his young adult life, Lincoln read works of deists, agnostics, and atheists who espoused evolutionary and materialistic tendencies and mocked the Christian faith. A voracious reader, these seemingly well-reasoned, rational, scientific, worldly, sharp, anti-biblical sentiments greatly influenced Lincoln. Soon he began scoffing and mocking the purported inerrancy and revelation of Scripture as well as institutional Christianity. Their works and words fueled his already nascent skepticism and convinced him of the Bible’s inadequacies and outright deceptions. Their words and arguments moved him away from God. He became known as the village atheist of New Salem.  

Many Christian parents send their 18-year-old Christian son or daughter off to a secular university, or Christian-in-name-only university, only to have him or her return at the end of that first year doubting the religious teachings and upbringing they once held dear. And they actually pay tuition for this.

Teaching God’s Word should not only occur in confirmation or third-hour theology class, but also in an explicit, meaningful, and intentional way throughout an academic program.The lesson from Lincoln’s life for Christian educators is to use Christian curriculum and liberally share and integrate God’s Word in your daily lessons and instruction. Teaching God’s Word should not only occur in confirmation or third-hour theology class, but also in an explicit, meaningful, and intentional way throughout an academic program. Words matter, and God’s Word matters most.  

Lincoln reading to son TadThe good news is that while secular books and words moved Lincoln away from God and the Christian faith in his young adult years, the Holy Spirit used Christian apologetic writers, caring ministers, and God’s Word to bring him back to faith.

Apologetic writers and arguments, in particular, had a profound impact on Lincoln. A relentlessly curious man with a lawyer’s mind for logic and reason, Lincoln read literature by talented Christian theologians, who made sound arguments and effectively countered skeptics who had sowed the seeds of doubt early in his life. He meticulously scrutinized and compared the arguments made against the teachings of the Bible and those that supported biblical teachings as truth. Based on his analysis, as well as his life experiences, he found the writings of Christian apologetics to be more reasoned, rational, and reflective of real life.

Most importantly, even during his wilderness days, Lincoln never stopped reading the Bible—the book he called God’s greatest gift to man. He loved the Bible on multiple levels—as a piece of literature, for the rhymes and rhythms of the various writing styles, as a book of history, for the parables and stories it told, for the morals it taught, and, of course, as a source of inspiration and contentment, especially in his times of trial.

Almost everyone who knew Lincoln for long said he became much more religious toward the end of his life. We know, of course, that the Holy Spirit brings people to faith through the Word. To be sure, Lincoln’s life confirms the admonition from Scripture to “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6 ESV

To reach the Lincolns of today, we must teach God’s Word across the curriculum—boldly, relentlessly, and apologetically. People and books influenced Lincoln—his mindset and worldview. Your students, too, will become what they read, consume, and receive. So what words will they be reading and learning from you?

Minister to the Whole Family

There is no doubt that family tragedy brought Lincoln closer to God. He and his wife, Mary, lost two of their sons—Eddie and Willie—when the boys were very young. After each boy passed, Christians and clergy caringly and lovingly supported the Lincolns in their time of immense suffering. Many of these caretakers continued to check on the Lincolns regularly long after the boys had passed.

Sometimes simply showing up and being there for people during their time of greatest need is the most significant gateway moment to an agnostic or unbeliever’s heart.Certainly, Christians hope that people will attend church regularly and faithfully in all times of their lives. Yet we know from experience that many turn to pastors or people of faith only when things go bad. Christian teachers must be ready for these ministry moments when they come. Sometimes simply showing up and being there for people during their time of greatest need is the most significant gateway moment to an agnostic or unbeliever’s heart.

Too many students and families go weeks, even months, without experiencing a genuine act of kindness. As a Lutheran teacher, you lovingly fill that void. When students and families do experience kindness and compassionate attention, those acts truly touch their hearts and open them up to hearing God’s Word, much like the Parable of the Sower, in which seeds fall on good soil rather than rocky soil. Matthew 13:1-23 As the beloved faith song expresses: “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Especially when a crisis arises, when a traumatic event rocks a family, you can show your students and families grace, mercy, compassion, and love. Christian school teachers “bear one another’s burdens,” Galatians 6:2 because God is “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 ESV

Be a first responder to your students and their families who endure a sudden setback or tragedy. Then continue to be a spiritual caregiver for the long haul. Your kindness, compassion, and service will not go unnoticed. lincoln on Mount RushmoreChristian leaders emerge in a crisis. Jesus always calmed the storms wherever he went. He empowers you to do the same. So be a first responder to your students and their families who endure a sudden setback or tragedy. Then continue to be a spiritual caregiver for the long haul. Your kindness, compassion, and service will not go unnoticed. When you live and show Jesus’s love in service to others, people are more inclined to inquire about what makes you tick and discover why you live and serve as you do. You will have a wonderful opportunity to share His Word and love with your students and families, even as they endure, cope, and recover from trials and tragedies.

Abraham Lincoln had his own way of doing things. By God’s grace, your way and life testimony can make an eternal difference in the lives of your students and their families. You are, after all, an instrument of God’s divine hand and grace in this world. You may never earn a moniker like “Honest Abe,” “Father Abraham,” or the “Great Emancipator.” Nonetheless, you are a special child of God—a God who sent His one and only Son to die for you. While someone may not ever write a book about you or carve your face upon Mount Rushmore, you will leave your own legacy. What will it be?

Dr. James Pingel is dean of the School of Education and professor of education at Concordia University Wisconsin. He is the author/co-author of several books on Christian coaching, teaching, leadership, and George Washington. He also serves as the assistant director of the Association of Lutheran Secondary Schools.

1. Miller, William. Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 2002, pp.72-7.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons