Of Nathan Hale, Bibles and Such
Diana had white gloves on. She was turning the pages, not knowing where to look. And not knowing where to find something in a Bible is a very daunting task. Especially when youre looking for a handwritten note in the margins, and not something you can look up in an index. She was carefully flipping page by page through Deuteronomy, and then Leviticus, and I couldnt help wondering what on earth Nathan might have been taking notes on in Leviticus. Though in his defense, I have notes in my Leviticus.
We were looking for Nathan Hales signature. In Nathan Hales Bible. While standing in (what is arguably) Nathan Hales house.
My heart was racing. I was bent over the book so close that if I were in a museum I would have been scolded. Except I was in a museum of sorts, and Diana was right there, nose in book with me. After we left, Mike said to me that he could actually feel my emotions as I bent over that old tome. Mikes an INFJ, in Meyers Briggs talk. In English, it means that hes one step away from having ESP. He said he could feel my emotions in that moment--he knew that I wanted to be the one flipping the pages, just to... touch it, with my own fingers. Mike said that as we were all bent over the Bible, praying silently that wed find the signature, he actually stepped back and thought, Our breath is permanently marking this thing. From here into forever, our breath has mixed with Nathan Hales.
When it comes to understanding the weight of that moment, my husband nailed it. Nathan Hale is one of my heroes. I spent my vacation in Virginia Beach two summers ago reading his muster rolls in my swimsuit on the sand while everyone else played in the waves. Whats it say? my mother teased, Musket balls, five pence? Army knife, ten shillings? I mumbled something along the lines of, Thats actually about right.
Ever since I found out about the Hale Homestead House, Ive wanted to go. Just to be in a place that had a real connection to Nathan Hale. I have spent so much time reading about him--in books, biographies, and even his own personal letters and diary--and thinking about him and trying to figure him out, that it was hard for me at times to even think of him as real. I mean, hes a character, in one of my stories. I uncovered him, and then I interpreted him, and now I just play with him. But the real guy, the real Nathan Hale, well... he doesnt belong to me.
Dont get me wrong, I love my quirky, overly-chatty charicature of him more than anything. And my hope of all hopes is that my version at least reflects (even if it exaggerates) the real man. But the real man... well, he was real, wasnt he? He had to be: Diana showed me his shoe buckles.
And here we were now, actually at the Homestead House, breathing on his Bible, and of everything belonging to him that we saw that day, nothing held the same emotion for me as that old book. Because a Bible, if you actually read it, is such a personal thing. Because, well, its alive. It teaches you, chastises you, encourages you, empowers you, it sets you free... it picks you up when youre at the absolute end... and breathes life back into all the dead places of your lost hopes and dreams and gives you better ones.
My Bible is so well used that it looks more like a notebook than a sacred reference material. My mother even put contact paper on the cover because it was so frayed and bent up that it wasnt going to last much longer. Now the contact paper is bubbled and wrinkled. Most every page has notes on it, the pages are bent, theres yellow and pink highlighter everywhere. I guess I should just get a new one. But Mike gave me this one on December 19th, 1999 when I was baptized. We werent even dating yet, but he drove the whole way from Canton, OH to Jeannette, PA just to see me get dunked. I dont have it in my heart to get a replacement. Sometimes I think about getting it rebound in leather, but that just sounds expensive. Like it would be cheaper just to get a new one. But the new one wouldnt have that note in the back, from when I lived in my first apartment. I dont remember the date, but I remember sitting at that little kitchen table, in downtown Columbus when I wrote it. It says, Grammy--> not an inconvenience, but a blessing that shes still here. It was only after my grandmother died that I could really feel the full weight of that statement.
I found it! shouted Diana. And she had. Right there in big, beautiful, inky letters was his name: Nathan Hale. I got teary eyed. Where is it? I asked excitedly. Meaning, What book are we in? Ive read in his biographies that Nathan made notes around the verse, In my fathers house, there are many rooms... I am going there to prepare a place for you. Thats haunting and chilling in a powerful way if you know Nathans story. But I couldnt remember where the verse was, so I didnt know where to look for it. But this wasnt that. Diana was over in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 15.
What does it say? I asked anxiously. Eighteenth-century script is so hard for me to read, even with Nathans beautiful, meticulous penmanship. Diana couldnt make out all of it, but it had a date, with notes about his grandparents funeral.
What... what verse is that? I leaned in. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? jumped off the page at me. We all sort of stood there a moment as I read the passage out loud. Its one of the most powerful proclamations of life after death in the New Testament. It discusses the fleetingness of the world around us... how its all in a constant state of decay. The world is perishing, we cant stop it--in anything around us, or in our own selves. And yet there is not finality to it, through the power and the victory of the risen Lord Jesus. In him all things are made imperishable. Everything weak is raised new in power. The dishonorable is given glory. All, in an instant, will be transformed in new, immortal virtue and glory that comes not from the dust of this world but from an act of the greatest mercy and grace imaginable.
We can see these things were on his mind, Diana points out. Meaning, he was contemplating life and death and life after death well before he went to the gallows.
Its January, 2006. There are forty of us from Columbus, Ohio. We used a weeks worth of vacation, took off work, (back then I had a job and those scarce, precious things called personal days) and we drove 17 hours in four vans to New Orleans, Louisiana. In theory, we all knew that it was going to be bad. We all saw the pictures on the news--the floods, the Superdome, the helicopters, the backed-up highways, the people trapped on their roofs, the corpses left out in the sun, covered by only a sheet or a blanket... And yet... There was nothing, absolutely nothing that could ever have prepared me for post-Katrina New Orleans...
It is dark when we arrive. Im anxious, and Im driving. My heart is pounding and I wind down the van window and even though its January, the air is warm and I smell mold. Everywhere. At the time I didnt know what I am smelling. Now, I can recognize that smell a mile away.
As we drive into the city, there are no lights. Ive never seen such a thing. Were driving through neighborhoods, but its completely dark--no house lights, no street lights, no car lights. No one is driving here, but us. No one is living here. It is one of the single most chilling events of my life. But over there--blocks and blocks away--one light glows in an upstairs window. Alone, on the horizon, and that frightens me even more.
Cut to two days later. I have no space here to describe that first trip down to the Big Easy to do relief work. But its only taken two days to make the entire team dead inside. The destruction goes on not for miles, but for hours, in every direction. You cannot escape it. People are living in houses that are not theirs, filled with the moldy, muddy, rat-infested belongings of a stranger. Every home is marked with a bright orange or yellow X--meaning it was searched, and the date, the search teams ID number and the number of bodies found inside are forevermore painted on the front of every single building in the city. Florescent beacons shouting out their stories to us as we drive down street after street, lost again and again because the storm and the flood washed all the street signs away and we have no idea where we are. We could stop and ask someone, but there are no someones around. And the someones who are around scare us more than the ones that are missing.
Why are we doing this? We ask ourselves with every shovel we carry to the wheelbarrow. The houses are not just moldy, theyre rotten. Could someone ever, ever live here again? The answer is a resounding No! but our job is not to make the verdict, just to empty the houses. The practical answer is that the house must be gutted for the insurance companies to inspect the damage and award the homeowner with a check. And were here because these people cannot afford the criminally high rates people are charging to gut the houses. But that answer doesnt satisfy the pit in our stomach. Can anything, anything make this well again? The horrors ripped through our team with a single slash that brought all of us to our knees at once. Were moving in slow motion because we dont just have to tell our limbs to move, we have to tell our hearts to move first.
On Wednesday we gut a house in the Lower 9th Ward that is so absolutely horrifying that it comes to be known to us simply as The Wednesday House. The water had been 26 feet high in this area--much higher than the single story shotgun house were working on, and all the ceilings had deteriorated and fallen down, caking the entire home with an inch of ceiling tile on top of the two inches of mud coating all the personal belongings that were whipped about the house like like towels in a washing machine. There were three refrigerators that smelled so bad that we didnt even enter the kitchen. And when Bill discovered the backed-up sewer line, he almost threw up, and Bill has no sense of smell...
The next day I was supposed to give a short, ten minute Bible devotional to the group over breakfast. But what on earth could I say? Despair hung over us like a dark cloud. Everything is meaningless, was about the only verse I could think of that made any sense to me in that moment. I went out into the church lobby after I had showered and eaten and cried for a good long time. What, Jesus, what? I asked, What on earth can I say to these people that will make any sense at all?
The answer came in the form of 1 Corinthians 15. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body... flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: we will be changed. For the imperishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the moral with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the moral with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?
I dont ever remember addressing a group in a moment that felt more sacred, more solemn, more holy, more visited by the living God. But... as I spoke over breakfast that next morning something touched all forty of us at once. New Orleans was no more perishing than Columbus, Ohio--we could just see it more pronounced here. Even if people did live in these houses again, they were all still perishing. This world is perishing, but there is an answer, and I believe in that answer with every fiber of my being because Ive looked him in the face and hes told me Im beautiful when I feel ugly, that Im valuable when I feel worthless, that Im honorable when I feel dirty, that Im powerful when I feel empty... and it was later that same year, when we actually moved to New Orleans in the summer of 2006 to do a longer stint of relief work that the staff had a meeting in a trailer at the camp. There was nothing special about that day except that I was particularly frustrated, bitter, depressed and mean when two friends simply asked this man Jesus to touch my spine, and in an instant an ailment that had frozen my body stiff for years lost its grip on me. Today, two years later, I can still bend down and touch my toes. Ill never forget the look on Mikes face in that trailer that night, the first time I bent over and put my hands flat on the ground. I used to bend over and my finger tips got about to my knees and stopped because my spine was frozen together.
A miracle. Its a taste now of what is promised later.
What else makes sense in the face of so much death? If we dont know what is on the other side of life everything on this side becomes meaningless. How do you face death without despair? How do you look post-Katrina New Orleans dead in the eye and say, I have hope for this place. New Orleans in 2006 was a giant, inescapable funeral service, taunting us that this is it. This is all there is.
But I didnt believe it.
It makes sense that Nathan Hale would have thought about these things. Because people do not die without fear unless they are utterly convinced that they know where they are going. It is the part of Nathan Hales story that makes him so enamoring to us. But weve turned him into a quaint, youthful patriot. A silly, young soldier with a big heart. He may have accomplished nothing but he died brave and for that we put up statues and plaster his face on postage stamps and hope all American soldiers grow up to be like him.
Except... young, patriotic boys die frightened in war. They get up to the finish line and realize this was not what they signed up for. But Nathan Hale did not. He died head held high, speaking words of hope and inspiration at a moment when hope seems impossible to imagine. A young, bright, 21 year-old officer, quickly moving up the ranks--it all ends here and now, and for what? Nathan Hale was an ambitious guy. He was never satisfied with where he was at. As soon as he accomplished one thing, he immediately began to wonder what was next. And now, with a noose around his neck, when his mission has failed, it was all over for him. No goodbyes. No reprieves. No friend to even walk him to the gallows. Ambitious young men do not like failing. And they do not like being remembered for those failures. And yet here he stands, forever remembered, for dying with dignity, grace, and fearlessness. When he stood there, at the end, looking toward everything he had hoped to accomplish, knowing none of it would come to pass, he surrendered it all. We dont do that, do we? When there is something we want and are longing for and hoping for and dreaming for... when that thing is denied to us, we cry and pout and get angry and disappear for awhile in shame. But we dont hold up our open hands and walk out our shortcomings with dignity out in the bright light where everyone can see us. But this man died empty handed, empty of dreams in a magnificent act of surrender full of dignity. With so much dignity and grace that hes held our national attention for over two hundred and thirty years.
1 Corinthians 15 were the words that got Nathan Hale through his grandparents funeral. I find it hard to believe they werent the words that got him through his own. And... theres something in that, in knowing that Jesus Christ had whispered in Nathan Hales ear the same words he whispered in mine that made me feel so connected to Nathan all at once.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
And that was the word that got our team through the end of our first week in New Orleans. Everything is not meaningless. Our labor is not in vain. Now in 2008, parts of New Orleans look like a real city again, real living communities, children going to school, stop lights that work, street signs, and gas stations that are opened. The chilling orange Xs have been cleaned off the houses, and life is starting over again. When I got there in May of this year, the first thing I did was roll down my windows on the freeway.
Try as I might, I did not smell mold.
Likewise, Nathan Hales sacrafice was not in vain. George Washington was able to reevaluate his espionage system and make changes where they needed to happen. And a generation that was pouring out all of its treasures to fight a war for freedoms and opportunities that we take for granted today was suddenly re-inspired by a young man with famous last words and a fire in his heart.
All of us are dying. None of us will escape it. Nathans death came sooner than anyone would hope for and yet in his greatest failure became a victory and legacy that few of us will ever know. I... know its silly. But I think about meeting him someday. I mean, if this whole life-after-death thing is for real then Im sure I can look him up in the heavens yellow pages. And Ill knock on his door and say, Mr. Hale, you dont know me but... and hopefully hell invite me in and I sure would love to just talk his ear off.
For a few millennia.