Sunday, April 15, 2012

A day for us of little faith

The second Sunday of Easter has been a special day for me since my conversion to Christianity more than thirty years ago. And it isn't just because of the beautiful hymn, “O Sons and Daughters Let Us Sing,” though that certainly adds to the experience. But for me, who came to the faith after years of questioning and doubt, St. Thomas's Sunday is something to look forward to. It's called that because the Gospel reading for Roman Catholic, Anglican,and most mainline Protestant churches is John 20:24-29:

24But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, [the Twin] was not with them when Jesus came.
25The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
26And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
27Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
28And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.
29Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. (KJV)

Too often, Thomas gets a bad rap from preachers because of his unwillingness to believe instantly in the resurrected Jesus. Thomas had not been present when Jesus first appeared to the rest of the disciples in the upper room, where Jesus showed them his pierced hands and wounded side. They had the advantage Thomas lacked. Had one of the others been in the same situation as Thomas, he might have done the same thing. His honesty in not believing blindly has always impressed me. He is the patron saint of those of us who don't always have the mustard seed's worth of faith that Jesus asks of his followers.

But lately I've wondered whether we “of little faith” have had ours strengthened by the fashionable trend of atheism. I'm not talking about people whose atheism comes from honest inquiry, but those who have declared themselves atheists because it's now the popular thing to do.

I first recognized the new reality four years ago, when I was in Chicago for Amtrak block training. It's a two-day training session, so as an out-of-towner, I had a hotel room at the Holiday Inn for two nights. And since I don't have cable TV at home, I was watching MSNBC. Bill Maher's show came on, and I was interested in one of the guests: Reza Azlan, a brilliant Iranian-American writer who has done so much for our understanding of Islam and the Middle East. But first I had to sit through Maher's conversation with the two men behind the cartoon South Park. As usual, I was impressed with Azlan.

It was an intelligent discussion until Maher brought up his atheism. The two South Park guys chimed in that they were atheists, too, and Maher said to Azlan something to the effect of “But you're not an atheist. You're a Muslim.”

Azlan asserted that he was.

And Maher asked him why he didn't join the atheists. I don't remember the exact words, but it had an “everybody's doing it” sound to it.

I realized I had more in common with the Muslim Azlan, a man of faith, than with Maher or the two South Park guys. I do not know how any of the three men arrived at their atheism, but they did not try to persuade Azlan with logic or reason, but with fashion. I do know that Azlan's God is the same compassionate God most Christians and Jews worship. The details—the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, etc.--are far less important than the compassion.

Something is not necessarily wrong because it's fashionable. But it's always best to question anything in the current vogue. And I fear that too many people are embracing atheism without a great deal of thought or introspection.

As for us of little faith, we have the example of Thomas, who had the courage to declare his doubt among an audience of believers. I pray to have the courage to maintain my faith in a popular culture of unbelief.

Friday, April 06, 2012

My ancestors at Shiloh

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburg Landing, as it was known in the North. Two of my ancestors, James Robert Melton Wylder, my great-great grandfather (pictured), and his father-in-law, John H. Reddish, (add another 'great" there), were officers in the 61st Illinois Regiment. Leander Stillwell, in his classic work The Story of a Common Soldier, includes vignettes about both of them. Reddish had fought in the Black Hawk War, which explains his comments.

Not everyone can say his ancestor was jumping up and down "like a hen on a hot griddle, as Stillwell describes Lieutenenant Wylder:

"Stillwell! shoot! shoot! Why don’t you shoot?" I looked around and saw that this command was being given by Bob Wylder, our second lieutenant, who was in his place, just a few steps to the rear. He was a young man, about twenty-five years old, and was fairly wild with excitement, jumping up and down "like a hen on a hot griddle." "Why, lieutenant," said I, "I can’t see anything to shoot at." "Shoot, shoot, anyhow!" "All right," I responded, "if you say shoot. shoot it is;" and bringing my gun to my shoulder, I aimed low in the direction of the enemy, and blazed away through the smoke. I have always doubted if this, my first shot. did any execution --- but there’s no telling. However, the lieutenant was clearly right Our adversaries were in our front, in easy range, and it was our duty to aim low, fire in their general direction, and let fate do the rest.

And here's Stillwell's account of Captain Reddish:

When we "went in" on the above mentioned position old Capt. Reddish took his place in the ranks, and fought like a common soldier. He had picked up the musket of some dead or wounded man, and filled his pockets with cartridges and gun caps, and so was well provided with ammunition. He unbuckled his sword from the belt, and laid it in the scabbard at his feet, and proceeded to give his undivided attention to the enemy. I can now see the old man in my mind’s eye, as he stood in ranks, loading and firing, his blue-gray eyes flashing, and his face lighted up with the flame of battle. Col. Fry happened to be near us at one time, and I heard old Capt. John yell at him: "Injun fightin,’ Colonel! Jest like Injun fightin’!" When we finally retired, the Captain shouldered his musket and trotted off with the rest of us, oblivious of his "cheese-knife," as he called it, left it lying on the ground, and never saw it again.

Stillwell's book is in the public domain, and is available through Project Gutenberg.