Friday, August 11, 2023

"Sir Francis" of Two Rivers, a Waterloo Veteran

My wife's Irish ancestors came to the province of New Brunswick, Canada, before eventually moving to Bangor, Maine. The surnames involved are Wright, Mackey, McClay, and Flynn.

The earliest known Wright ancestor is Francis M. Wright (Laurie's 3rd great grandfather), born in 1777 in Ireland. He and his wife, Frances "Fanny" Bowman immigrated to Miramichi, New Brunswick, in 1819 (according to his obituary). Miramichi was a lumber town, although the lumber economy began to decline after 1825 (says Wikipedia). 

He entered the U.S. in 1848 at Buffalo, according to his naturalization record  (although his obituary gives 1847). In the 1850 census Francis and Fanny are living in Milwaukee.  He gained citizenship in 1854. In 1860 they are in Two Rivers (about 90 miles north of Milwaukee on the western shore of Lake Michigan).

Francis and Fanny may have had as many as 14 children along the way, but the one in Laurie's direct line would be Francis "Frank" B. Wright. Although there is some uncertainty here, he was born around 1811 (but possibly later) in either Ireland or New Brunswick (my money's on Ireland). This kind of inconsistency is not uncommon in these matters, but what we do know is that young Frank married Mary Ann Mackey in 1840 in Miramichi. 

But Frank and Mary Ann did not enter the U.S. along with Frank's parents in Buffalo. They, like the rest of my wife's Irish ancestors, stayed on a little longer in Miramichi and eventually traveled down to Bangor, Maine.

Now, Frank and Mary Ann would have a daughter, Catherine, my wife's great grandmother. She was born in 1844 in New Brunswick, and her death cert would report her coming to the U.S. in 1855, presumably along with her mother and father.

So here's the timeline of relevant dates so far:

  • 1877 Francis M. Wright is born in Ireland.
  • 1811 Birth of his son Frank B. Wright.
  • 1815 Takes part in the Battle of Waterloo.
  • 1819 Immigrates to New Brunswick (though this might have happened earlier)
  • 1840 Son Frank marries Mary Ann Mackey in Miramichi, New Brunswick.
  • 1844 Frank and Mary Ann's daughter, Catherine, is born in Miramechi.
  • 1847 Francis moves to Wisconsin (according to obituary).
  • 1850 Francis and Fanny are living in Milwaukee
  • 1854 Francis' naturalization
  • 1855 Frank and family come to Bangor, Maine, from Miramichi.
  • 1860 Francis and Fanny are living at Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
When Francis M. Wright came to Wisconsin 1847 he was already about 70 years old. When he became a naturalized citizen he was 76. He was known as "Sir Francis" to his neighbors and friends and there is some reason to believe, according to family lore, that he self-reported as English, not Irish. He would live to the ripe old age of 95, telling stories about Waterloo to all who would listen. The closing line of his obituary is worth noting.
He retained all the powers of a vigorous mind to the last days, particularly the scenes at Waterloo on the 18th of June, 1815, in which he took part under Wellington.



Monday, July 31, 2023

We live in a dangerous times

 Beware the despotic.

Beware the crass and the brutal, the anger-driven, the scoffer.

Beware above all the absence of grace, replaced by name-calling and hate-mongering.

Have fear for your nation when these traits begin to blossom into movements with leaders and followers. Leaders who can do no wrong, followers who hear no evil.

Beware reviling speech, shouted from dais or pulpit, and beware the crowd that cheers it on.

Beware lies, and especially their thoughtless repetition.

Have nothing to do with unreasoning spite, with paranoid fantasies, or with power-seeking ranters who use these things to groom a loyal, unquestioning mob.

Beware the mob. Beware when its self-serving leader stoke it to a dangerous frenzy.

Stay clear. Instead, look always for the gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. And if you see a loved once treading the broad and lethal way of the mob, try to draw them back with love and tenderness.

For we live in dangerous times.

Friday, July 28, 2023

How then shall I live (my retirement)?

 I didn't retire early--more like right on time--but sometimes people say I don't look old enough to retire (I'm 66). I've heard it said that Americans often don't retire until they absolutely have to (as their ability to do their jobs begins to deteriorate). There's a great reluctance to do so, partly because people worry about the future and want to secure the best possible financial footing before retiring.

I get that. But I also believe there is something to be said for retiring while you're still in good health and can enjoy your post-work life to the fullest. In my case, I asked the people who manage our retirement account if it was safe to retire, and they answered in the affirmative. So my idea was, take it while you're still hale and hardy. Retirement is post-work but it is not post-purpose.

I'm only two months in, and I've spent that time doing what I pretty much said I was going to do, cycling around the countryside and reading books. I feel about as "hale and hardy" as I have in years. So that's how my retirement's going.

My plan was to relax through the summer, but be thinking about how best to be fruitful in my retirement. I've come to no conclusions yet. People suggest charity volunteering, then there's the possibility of getting involved with a church ministry of some sort, and of course there's always that shadowy writing project idea.

What does the future hold? I haven't been at the doorstep of so much mystery since I got out of high school? Retirement so far has been fun, but it has also been a kind of quiet quandary. I don't really want it to be all about self-indulgence and fun-seeking. I want it ultimately to be other-oriented and God-pleasing, and joy producing. The question before me, before all of us, always and ever, is how then shall we live?

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

What the Bible means by "world"

 I was talking about the love of the world yesterday. Running the risk of seeming to oppose the Apostle John, I took the stance that we must love the world, that it is natural and healthy for us to do so.

But I never really addressed the question, what is the world? Or, more precisely, what do the Bible authors mean by "the world" in various parts of Scripture?

I asked Google to show me, and the this was at the top of the list. It comes from Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Let me summarize:

  • "The world" often means the sphere we call earth or perhaps even the whole created universe. So that moss-covered stump I was admiring yesterday on my traipse through the local nature preserve, that was a thing of the world in this common sense. I don't think anyone, not even John, will have a problem with loving such things.
  • Or "the world" refers to the human world, perhaps we might call this "culture." We're talking here about people and what they have made. Some of it is very evil, but some very good and beautiful. Discernment is recognizing when something is a reflection of that image of God which all men and women are capable of reflecting, or of that which is fallen, that which is selfish, in rebellion against the Creator. Both of these things exist, and all human things are compromised, yes, or as Lewis would say "bent," but the beauty of our origin is still present in us and in the things we create.
  • Sometimes "the world" refers to a subclass of people that are "indifferent or hostile to God." When John says the world hated Jesus he is using "world" in this sense, for there were some who clearly loved Jesus, and many who'd never heard of him. John cannot mean here all people "the world over."
  • And sometimes "the world" refers to the present age in which the kingdoms of this world hold sway, as opposed to the coming age, where Jesus is king forever.
I think what John had in mind in 1 John 2:15-17 is something akin to the third and fourth category above. Elsewhere the Bible authors use terms like: "this present age," "the kingdoms of this world," "the powers of this dark world." 

In the world we walk through (a world made by God for people), we see everywhere the evidences of the Creator's glory, which we despise at our peril, and also the clear evidences of sin's marring effect, deadly and grim. So my conclusion: be discerning. There is much to love in this fallen world that God is redeeming. And there is much to hate that reflect more of the "powers of this dark world" than they do the glory of God. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The Love of the World... it may not be so bad

 What's really wrong with the world? Or, what's wrong with loving the world?

It's Biblical, right? "Do not love the world or anything in the world." 1 John 2:15

So it's bad to love stuff that's "of the world." An old guy in church told me in casual conversation how much he loves Johnny Cash. Then he quickly caught himself: "Well, I don't love him. Let's just say I like him a lot."

I've run into this phenomenon other times as well. I told someone I love the Red Sox, and he responded, "Love? Don't you know you're not supposed to love the things of the world?"

So you better watch out about what you say you love. Don't want anyone to think you're worldly!

Of course Christians have been making this distinction between the things of God and the things of the world, spiritual things and fleshly things, Kingdom of God things and the kingdoms of this fallen world, since time immemorial.

And yet . . .

One cannot get through this world without loving it. I love sunrises and sunsets, flowers, lightning bugs, a good cinnamon pastry, just about any pasture or field, a well-turned double play, Doc Watson's guitar playing, dogs, that breeze blowing through the window right now, and yes, a good Johnny Cash song. Oh, I could go on. I could go on a long, long time. I love so many things.

And so do you, I'm sure.

You see we were meant to love, we were built for it. Maybe you love a Monsted landscape (so do I).

What are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to be ashamed of yourself for loving a thing of this world?

Maybe we should ask ourselves what John meant by this remark. Look no further than the the following verses. "The desires of the flesh, the desires of the eye, and the pride of life." An ESV footnote says that last part, the pride of life, can be translated, pride in possessions.

Also to note: that word translated "desire" by the ESV is often "lust" in other translations. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye. Oh, we all know what that is, don't we, and it really has nothing to do with loving a summer breeze, a Beethoven sonata, or an exquisite rose, a well-made table.

In fact, if you were to go through life determined not to love the "things of the world," you would not only be a very unhappy person, surrounded as you are by those things, but all the people around you would be unhappy too. You might even be one of those people who thinks heaven is a purely spiritual place, and someday we will shuffle off this fleshly sin-soaked body and be nothing but pure spirit. Your determination to live by 1 John 2:15 would have led you in an old and infamous heresy.

I asked a pastor about all tihs once, and he said, "As long as you don't love them [the things of the world] more than God." That sounded right, but then it gets me into this mode of measuring my love. Is my love for a summer breeze surpassing my love for God? Should I be worried? Now I'm mired in uncertainty. Am I loving this campfire-toasted marshmallow a little too much?

Of course this is nonsense. It saps the pleasure from things. There is much to say about "the world," and how it can draw us away from following Jesus. Think of Demas, who loved "this present age" and deserted Paul in his time of need (2 Tim 4:10), but I'm pretty sure my friend at church can go ahead and love Johnny Cash. His sanctification does not hang in the balance!

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Saturday 3 things

 1. Alan Jacobs speaks of the Christian Renaissance in the 20th century. I was looking into Lippman's A Preface to Morals the other day and was amused by his presumption that Christianity and thus Christian ethics was in demise.

2. Augustine and the Order of Love: Debunking a Dumb Christian Nationalist Argument

3. R.I.P. Tony Bennett. "Sing, You Sinners"

Footnote to #3: In The Screwtape Letters Wormwood says that in heaven there are two sounds that are both detested by the demons: singing, and silence. In Hell there shall be neither, but only cacophony.

The song agrees: "Whenever there's music, the Devil kicks / he don't allow music by the river Styx."

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Screwtape on Christian Nationalism?

 I've been rereading The Screwtape Letters (for maybe the third time, I guess), and there's a passage in chapter 7 that seems incredibly relevant to the moment. Screwtape is instructing Wormwood on how to tempt his "patient" with regard to the outbreak of war. As is often the case, Screwtape brings up two opposing and yet equally effective temptations. One would be to make his subject a pacifist, and the opposing tactic would be to make him a patriot.

I'm focusing on what he says about patriots here. You may recall, if you've read the book, that Screwtape is advising a younger devil, Wormwood, on how best to tempt his subject away from faith, or if possible to twist his faith into something else altogether, though he still may think of himself as "faithful."

This is Screwtape on the subject of the temptation to Patriotism or Pacifism for Christians:

Whichever he adopts [Pacifism or Patriotism] your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him onto the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the "Cause," in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favor of the British war effort or of pacifism.... Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours--and the more "religious" (on those terms), the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here.

As I said, what interests me here is how this applies to "patriotism," or in our current setting, Christian Nationalism. I think every point Lewis is making here applies to pacifism as well (or environmentalism or any other good cause), but it is the form of patriotism known as Christian Nationalism which seems to be swamping the church these days.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Notes on Lewis

I've volunteered to give a talk to our men's group about C. S. Lewis, the next in a series of talks featuring exemplary Christians from the past. We've had a few athletes (it's a men's group, after all), a little known Scottish evangelist, a founding father, and, in my one previous talk, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

When I was asked to do the next talk, my mind immediately went to Lewis, one of my own heroes, and so I've started reacquainting myself with some of his work. I'll soon have reread Mere Christianity and will go on to The Screwtape Letters next. I'll reacquaint myself with his biography via Wikipedia, and look for summaries of some of his other important works (the sci-fi trilogy, The Abolition of Man, etc.).

That's the plan anyway. I've only got a few weeks to get this done, so I can't go back and read everything. But here's what I'm wondering about? How to make the life of this intellectual Irish-English academic a compelling and inspiring story of a bunch of guys that probably only know him for the Narnia series, if at all.

Lewis has a great influence on my thinking even before I came to faith. His brand of apologetics was helpful to me, and when I wanted to know what Christianity was all about I naturally gravitated toward Mere Christianity, based on his series of radio talks in the 1940s. Rereading it now after many years, I still admire his careful avoidance of theological language (theolingo?) and his refusal to plump for the Church of England or any other denomination, or to take sides in Christianity's contentious issues. 

But I'm worried that this will all seem rather dull to my audience. What is it about Lewis that might make him compelling to an audience of men used to heroizing sports figures and warriors?

What are the basic details of Lewis' life? He was born in Belfast in 1898. He served in WWI and saw action at the Somme, where he was wounded by an enemy shell that killed two other men. 

Raised in the church, he became an atheist at the age of 15. He went on to become a scholar at Oxford University, specializing in Renaissance Literature. He was brilliant, well-read, a lover of poetry and fairy tales. The rebirth of Lewis' faith came gradually in the post-war years, influenced by writers like George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton, and then crucially by his Oxford friend, J.R.R. Tolkien.

As he wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen [College, Oxford], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

What about Lewis as a writer? After his return to the faith he pursued what he saw as his calling as a Christian apologist. Christian Apologetics is a reasoned defense of the faith, taking on the arguments of atheism and materialism, etc. Lewis is probably the foremost popularizer of Christian apologetics in the 20th century, and has been rightfully called "the apostle to the skeptics."

In addition to that, like Tolkien Lewis was a Christian fantasist. By that meaning he was a creator of modern fairy tales and fantasy literature that prominently featured, like most fantasy, magic, strange creatures, and cataclysmic battles between good and evil, all with a clearly Christian sense of spiritual realities lying behind the material and strictly sensory aspect of the world. These fantasies include his most famous work, the 7-volume Chronicles of Narnia, and the under-appreciated science-fiction triliogy.

Now, what does C.S. Lewis mean to me and why did I choose him for my presentation this morning? Skeptics always believe themselves to be the most rational persons in whatever room they're in, and Lewis showed me, a skeptic myself, that rationality--thinking--and faith were not necessarily mutually exclusive. He taught me to be skeptical about my skepticism, to question it with at least the same incisiveness that fancied I brought to my questioning of Christianity. Lewis didn't make me a believer--God did that--but Lewis cleared a lot of the ground, removing some of the intellectual roadblocks that prevented me from treating the case for Christianity with and open mind.

So I honor Lewis for the role he played in my own coming to faith, but I honor him also as a great wordsmith and composer of elegant and effective prose. His Chronicles will enrapture you, his space trilogy will startle you, his apologetic writing will stimulate as well as amuse you (for Lewis was at times a very amusing writer), his imagination will inspire you.

Takeaways: I've noticed in the previous presentations in this series people tend to have three takeaways that we can draw from the life of the subject, 3 pieces of advice or words of encouragement. As a man whose heroes are all writers, my main takeaway is, READ! Much of today's popular culture conditions us--and it does this intentionally, I might add--to shortened attention-spans and superficial thinking. My advice is, be a rebel and encourage in yourself a disciplines sustained program of reading. We are, after all, a people of the Book. We are meant to be readers!

In today's world this will make you just a little strange, but as Christians we should be accustomed to that. And as with any discipline, you will have to start where you're at and seek to make progress by increments. Just as we often advise young Christians to read the gospel of Mark first because it is short and sweet (whereas, say, John's Gospel can seem more challenging), you might need to start with Narnia before moving on to Lewis' deeper water. 

Another piece of advice: don't look down your nose at fiction. The Spirit's sanctifying work is done at all levels of the mind and heart. Humans have always been a story-telling kind, because stories can embody deep truths and get them across in powerful ways.