In the early 1990’s I taught history part time at a junior college. In the post Civil War time frame the book listed some of the outstanding achievements occurring in America at that time. The transcontinental railroad, the telephone, light bulb, oil technology and so forth. It also listed notable art and literary works. I was pleasantly surprised the history book the college chose for me to teach out of discussed one of my favorite stories: the book, Ben Hur. I have tried to read the book but did not finish it. It’s a difficult read and I’m not an avid reader. However, I love the story and the movie. The book was written by Lew Wallace in the late 19th century to illustrate how God works in individuals’ lives. I absolutely loved sharing with my classes what this story was about.
Lew Wallace had fought in the Civil War as a general, but disliked all the horrors he witnessed. Shortly before the war in 1854, Charles Darwin had published The Origin of the Species. There were many campfire discussions about the nature of God; did He exist and if so, just how active is He in one’s life. Did he create the world as we know it, set things in motion and then watch from a distance? Benjamin Franklin is known to have believed in a Supreme Being, but he is also known to have believed it is presumptuous to think the God of the universe would take much interest in our small existence within the vastness of the universe. In the difficulties and struggles of war many ask such soul searching questions. A number reached the conclusion that there may indeed be a God, but it was difficult for them to believe the Creator would actually care for them on an individual basis.
General Wallace was not a Christian while he served in uniform. It was after the war that he became a believer. He was an avid reader and chose to write a novel as a response to the question and debate about the extent of God’s intervention in our individual lives. It took him years to pen the famous novel Ben Hur. After the war, Lew Wallace served as Governor of New Mexico, where he was respected as a devout Christian. He soon thereafter served as an American ambassador in the Middle East and lived among Turks, Arabians, Eastern Orthodox believers, followers of Mohammed, and Jews. His travels helped give a good understanding of life in the Middle East and weave it into a story of adventure with a strong message.
In the novel, Ben Hur is a devout Jew who finds he and his family falsely accused of a crime and all are harshly treated thereafter. He is condemned to die in the galleys, yet, he never gives up on the hope that God has a purpose for his life. Most reading this have seen the movie. If you have not, I have not given away anything to diminish your enjoyment of watching it. I encourage you to watch it. The 1959 version of the movie won 11 academy awards and I believe deservedly so.
This year I read a biography by Ray Boomhower called The Sword and the Pen, A Life of Lew Wallace. I enjoyed every minute of reading the book. I’m not much into hero worship, but General Wallace in my mind led an exceptional life that has gone on to bless many others including the Union he fought to preserve. It was not until I read the book that I now know he was the Union General that helped keep the Confederate forces under Jubal Early from capturing Washington D.C. in the summer of 1864. The rebel forces had made a quick end around through the Shenandoah Valley in the hopes of relieving the pressure of Grant’s forces on Richmond. The rebels came closer than many realize, and although the war was winding down, losing the Union capital may have encouraged England or France to intervene with the South. I think the North still would have won the war no matter who intervened. Anyone who has the courage to serve in uniform as Lew Wallace did and then go on to write such an exceptional literary work gains my highest respect. It took decades for Wallace to write Ben Hur and it was not very well received at first. Eventually after about ten years the public began to buy the book in volume.
Ben Hur offers a message of hope. A message that says there is a God that does know your suffering and can be active in your life. Not a distant God that created the universe, set parameters in motion, and then watches the outcome. On the contraty, the message of Ben Hur is that God can be involved in people’s lives in personal and intimate ways. It is the same encouragement you and I receive when we reflect on the story of Easter.
The movie The Ten Commandments is shown every Easter. It is not one of my favorite movies and I have only seen it about three times. On the other hand, my favorite movie, and one that I choose to watch every Easter is Ben Hur. It has become a family tradition with my kids. They are adults now but expect the movie to be shown at our house sometime over the Easter weekend.
I first saw the film shortly after its release in 1959. I was six years old. After church we went out to eat, which was a treat for a large family in those days. Then the six of us took in an afternoon movie. The theaters were huge back then. Sometimes I would sit in the balcony with my older brothers while my younger brother sat with mom and dad. I thought that it was an adventure to sit in the balcony. It seemed like a very long movie, and I mostly remember the chariot race. I think I may have gotten a “slow poke” (thick caramel on a stick) to eat. They take forever to finish, as you know. My lousy teeth are testament to the amount of candy I ate as a kid.
I saw the movie again in 1964 and this time I remember the ship battle. The third time I saw it at the theater was about 1970. They used to recycle the classic movies in those days. I had just gotten my driver’s license and my younger brother was with me. After four difficult, unrewarding, harsh years of playing Texas football, the scene of the sweaty souls forced to row in the galley stuck in my mind. My football experience was miserable in the 1960’s. In those days very little water was given to drink, and the way coaches trained you was to taunt you. To this day when I find myself in stressful situations I often think of the galley scene in Ben Hur. When the Roman commander whips Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, for no apparent reason. The Roman commander then says,
“You have the will to strike back, but the good sense not to. That’s good. There is hate in your eyes. Hate keeps a man alive. We keep you alive to row this ship, so row well, and live Judah Ben Hur.”
That scene has haunted me my entire life. I have very few good remembrances of coaches. I’m also sure they would not recall a small, second string, expendable commodity like me. I think a lot of coaches have a positive influence on young people’s lives, it’s just that that was not my experience. Atheletics for me was all work and very little fun for years, especially four years of miserable Texas football.
My parents were also domineering, offering little affirmation but lots of criticism. This was followed by a number of hard to please commanders during my years in uniform with the military. Whatever your circumstances, if you have not experienced what you perceive to be injustice, or for that matter gone through periods of unanswered prayer in your life, then I envy you. Perhaps you have wrestled with why your child or loved one has a certain disability or illness. Maybe you have experienced a deep sense of loneliness, wondering why you don’t have a spouse. For me, in these times of questioning, it is almost as if Satan taunts me and says “row well and live.”
You would think over forty years later it would all be forgotten. I also realize many others in life have experienced things that would make any of my life’s struggles seem minor. Yet, admittedly, these experiences either haunt me or seem important in my mind. On the other hand, my sweet wife of 35 years and the graciousness of the gospel of Christ have reminded me there is still love in the world, and during those recurring times in life when I feel abandoned to the galleys, a voice whispers in my ear,
“I have not forgotten you, nor will I forsake you. The circumstances may seem hopeless but I will bring you out of the galleys even when it is difficult for you to imagine how.”
The following passages are encouraging to me:
Isaiah chapter43, verse 2:
“When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown.”
Hebrews chapter 13 verse 5:
For God has said, “I will never fail you,I will never forsake you.” That is why we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will not be afraid, what can mere mortals do to me.”
I’m in middle life now and the difficulties just keep on coming. I still have many, many unanswered prayers. Perhaps that is why I will always like what I percieve to be the underlying theme of Ben Hur, a message of hope. I also believe that is the message of Easter: hope. That is also the renewed feeling I get each year when I watch Ben Hur.
I have many good Easter remembrances that are treasured memories for me. Too many stories to relate in the context of one article but I would like to share one that I experienced as a child that I will never forget.
I was eight years old in 1962 and in a playful mood when I got off the school bus. At the other end of the yard I noticed my oldest brother looking into our abandoned rabbit cage. The rabbit had died some time back so I was curious. Suddenly, I was mesmerized and quite focused as I looked in amazement at four pretty little chickens. One was green, one pinkish red, one blue, and one was purple. I had not heard we were going to get these for Easter but I was sure pleased. I just stood looking into the cage with wonderment. My next oldest brother and my younger brother soon joined us in gawking at the baby chicks. I think I was the happiest kid on the planet.
In the 50’s and 60’s when I got something cool it was usually for Christmas, my birthday, or when dad brought home something in the suitcase when he returned from TDY. Seems funny now that I think about it that I never knew what TDY meant. I just knew it meant dad would be gone for a while and we had to help mom more. It would not be until years later when I was in the service I would learn what TDY (temporary duty) meant. Wow, to get something neat like these baby chicks for Easter, well, that was unusual. It was special. It was great.
“Mom says we each get to pick a color,” my oldest brother said with a smile on his face. He was five years older but that seemed like a lot at the time. Then he added, “The youngest gets to go first,” and “I’ll be last.” This was one time I did not want to be last as my eye was leaning toward the purple chick. I have always liked blues and purples but that day I leaned toward the purple. I anxiously waited for my younger brother to choose. I didn’t say a word as I suspected he might choose the one I liked. I had learned that lesson when dad had brought back some matchbox racecars from Germany one year and I let slip the one I wanted. I heard my next oldest brother exclaim, “I like the red one.”
“Are you ready to choose?” my older brother asked and added, “no changing.” Back then rules were to be honored and if nothing else enforced. “I want the red one,” my younger brother said with a sense of victory in his voice. I paused for a moment with my time in the driver’s seat while my next oldest brother glared at me. He had lost out on the red chick so I suspect his happy mood from a moment earlier was diminished. I pointed to the purple and said, “I want that one.” The older brothers selected accordingly. We shooed away the cats and let the chicks walk in the yard while we occasionally held them in our hands giggling if they relieved themselves while being our hostages.
Several days went by. They began to eat more, get louder and were getting faster. Once out of the cage they learned to evade us better, and they improved at doing so daily. I didn’t blame them. Each day as I exited the bus I would dash to see the chicks. And then came the dreadful moment.
One day as I approached the cage I noticed one of the chicks was lying down. I then realized he wasn’t moving. He was the purple one. My purple baby chick was dead. I was stunned. I was also speechless and motionless. I did not want to cry as you know boys didn’t cry in those days, especially with three brothers. My next older brother arrive to yell “your chick is dead,” as he giggled at me with some reservation. I just stared in unbelief. My younger brother who was five at the time arrived with a puzzled look perhaps not realizing these chicks could actually die. I know I had not thought it would happen so soon. I still get a little teary eyed to this day when I think about it. I wanted my special baby chick to move, but he wouldn’t. He couldn’t, he was after all, dead. My glorious days of wonderment had come to an end so soon.
My oldest brother arrived and placed his hand on my shoulder. “I think that is my chick that died,” he said. “No, it is not,” another brother added, “yours was blue and the dead one is purple.” My oldest went on to say, “the blue and purple looked a lot alike to begin with and after a few days I could not tell them much apart, except that the dead one is mine.” I just stood there trying to hold back from crying. I could not bring myself to say anything, but I knew it was not his chick. So did everyone else. We buried the chick as we did all of our lost pets. My enjoyment was never quite the same and I can’t recall how much longer the others lasted. I don’t think any of them lived very long.
I’m not sure colored baby chicks are sold much anymore. I had heard that exposing the chicks to colored dyes was not good for them. At Easter for my own kids we did bunnies. All but one ended up living a good number of years. We also did ducks for my wife one year which was fun.
We hopefully all have some good remembrances at Easter that we cherish. The gracious kindness of my older brother who was only twelve years of age at the time was remarkable. Most of us do not learn to put others ahead of ourselves until we are adults. Of course some people never learn to be sensitive to others. I will never forget his example on that day, sometime around Easter many years ago.
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