Category Archives: historical perspective
Familiarity may easily blind us to the shining fact that lies at the heart of Christmastide.
What we are in fact celebrating is the awe-inspiring humility of God, and no amount of familiarity with the trappings of Christmas should ever blind us to its quiet but explosive significance. For Christians believe that so great is God’s love and concern for humanity that he himself became a man. Amid the sparkle and the color and music of the day’s celebration we do well to remember that God’s insertion of himself into human history was achieved with an almost frightening quietness and humility. There was no advertisement, no publicity, no special privilege; in fact the entry of God into his own world was almost heartbreakingly humble. In sober fact there is little romance or beauty in the thought of a young woman looking desperately for a place where she could give birth to her first baby. I do not think for a moment that Mary complained, but it is a bitter commentary upon the world that no one would give up a bed for the pregnant woman – and that the Son of God must be born in a stable.
This almost beggarly beginning has been romanticized by artists and poets throughout the centuries. Yet I believe that at least once a year we should look steadily at the historic fact, and not at any pretty picture. At the time of this astonishing event only a handful of people knew what had happened. And as far as we know, no one spoke openly about it for thirty years. Even when the baby was grown to be a man, only a few recognized him for who he really was. Two or three years of teaching and preaching and healing people, and his work was finished. He was betrayed and judicially murdered, deserted at the end by all his friends. By normal human standards this is a tragic little tale of failure, the rather squalid story of a promising young man from a humble home, put to death by the envy and malice of the professional men of religion. All this happened in an obscure, occupied province of the vast Roman Empire.
It is fifteen hundred years ago that this apparently invincible Empire utterly collapsed, and all that is left of it is ruins. Yet the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history. It is a solid rock of evidence that no agnostic can ever explain away.
That is why, behind all our fun and games at Christmastime, we should not try to escape a sense of awe, almost a sense of fright, at what God has done. We must never allow anything to blind us to the true significance of what happened at Bethlehem so long ago. Nothing can alter the fact that we live on a visited planet.
We shall be celebrating no beautiful myth, no lovely piece of traditional folklore, but a solemn fact. God has been here once historically, but, as millions will testify, he will come again with the same silence and the same devastating humility into any human heart ready to receive him. J. B. Phillips
This is an excerpt I took from an excerpt published In The Plough Quarterly and offered as an advent devotional by them on face book.
It describes so well my own personal experience of Jesus fifty years ago and the power of it for me.
Each year my Advent prayer is, “Come, Lord Jesus, come and be born in our hearts.”
You can learn a lot about a person from their favorite song. Here’s mine.
The Merry Minuet (Composed by Sheldon Harnick in 1958 and Popularized by the Kingston Trio)
They’re rioting in Africa.
They’re starving in Spain.
There’s hurricanes in Florida.
In Texas it’s rain.
The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
The French hate the Germans; the Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch.
And I don’t like anybody very much!
But we can be thankful and tranquil and proud
that Man’s been endowed with the mushroom shaped cloud.
And we know for certain that some lovely day
someone will set the spark off and we will all be blown away.
They’re rioting in Africa.
There’s strife in Iran.
What nature doesn’t do to us
will be done by our fellow man!
Americans are becoming emotional terrorists. We publish totally false information on social media without checking on it’s validity. That is slander. It’s immoral. We have degenerated from arguing logically on issues to name calling and ridiculous irrelevant criticism of any one remotely related to people we disagree with. We are shrinking to the level of moral gnats. And it not only accomplishes nothing positive, it alienates us from one another more deeply than ever before, since the civil war. We aren’t just targeting the politicians we disagree with, but one another. For me face book has been a wonderful source of information about friends and family, photos of grandchildren, connection to family living in other countries, and virtual travel to places I’ve never been. In the last two years I have been more home bound by both my own health issues and my husband’s than I have ever been in my life. The internet and face book have been a great blessing. But now, trying to wade through all the political posts, advertisements, and memes someone else chooses for me takes more time than I have to spend for finding the things I want to see or read. Perhaps we should set up our own face book pages as ones limited to one or more of the following: politics, or spirituality, or jokes, or cute animals or travel experiences, or mental health, or venting, or personal ones just relevant for family and friends. I really need to cut down on the vitriol I have to wade through on my face book page. At my stage of life, there are many serious personal challenges that I have to face each day. Some people may find an escape from personal struggles and our sense of the helplessness of individuals in our modern world through a vicious verbal war on politicians and the people who support them. I don’t. It just adds to my sense of helplessness and vulnerability. Discussions with accurate and comprehensive information are helpful. Writing our representatives to express and give logical support for our opinions on policy is a vital part of a democracy. Peaceful protests like those of Martin Luther King Jr. have been an effective part of the democratic process. But it’s beginning to look like we lost the patience, self control, and commitment needed for those some time ago.
An opulence of travel visions:
Paris, London, Lisbon, Prague,
beauty rampant with history and art.
Yet etched forever in my mind
the beaches and cross-crowned cliffs
above the shores of Normandy.
A cliff face sheering from the ocean,
Pointe du Hoc, where Army Rangers
climbed point blank into German guns.
Now, just empty bunkers on pitted earth
and beaches, wave washed innocent
below silent sentinels left behind.
Row on row of small white crosses
guarding fields of blood-rich ground,
Old Glory whipping, snapping in the wind.
My Letter to our National and State Congressmen and to the Editor of the Tennessean ( An Edited and Condensed Previous Blog Post )
1. Freedom for and from religion are the same thing. We need to protect that freedom.
2. Homosexuality is not a choice. My great-great aunt became a pediatrician and established a clinic for the poor in the early 1900’s. She lived with the same woman all her life. My brother has been in a twenty-five year monogamous relationship with another man. My son and his partner of seventeen years teach children born HIV positive in South East Asia. Legal recognition of same gender commitment relationships is crucial on many levels, from health insurance to the same degree of acceptance and safety from persecution that heterosexuals have. A return to legal reinforcement of prejudice could very well precipitate violence.
3. I want all people to experience the unconditional love of God expressed in Jesus, so He can become their Lord. History shows that making people pretend Christians by law, violence, judgment, or discrimination does not accomplish that. If we could make and enforce secular laws against making pleasure a God, many heterosexual people would be in legal trouble. The purpose of marriage is a committed relationship, not just pleasure. Let’s support that.
4. Married to the same man for fifty-eight years, I have come to believe marriage is designed not to just populate the world, but to challenge and enable us to really know and love another imperfect (not abusive) person. Let’s not limit anyone by law to deceit in order to experience that.
When you’ve lived as long as I have, you’re a walking history book of sorts. I’ve known six generations of my own family, been through five wars involving America, personally experienced both affluent times and scary times of scarcity, lived in big cities and in back woods’ ‘hollers,’ and traveled to fifteen foreign countries, some of them several times. My father’s family were very wealthy until the depression. Then they lost everything. There were nine children. The older ones experienced all the trimmings of affluence, summer homes and homes abroad. The older boys became Vice Presidents of their father’s company and the girls were debutantes. But, the younger ones had to make it on their own. Though as one of the younger ones, my father didn’t get to finish college, he eventually became an editor of a big city newspaper. This didn’t make us rich. I grew up living in apartments. And in my younger years I was frighteningly aware at times that we lived close to the precipice of poverty. But a newspaper editor has a certain amount of status and connections. One senator, who eventually ended up President, in his early political years asked my father to be his press secretary. Speaking and writing English properly were important in my family. My husband’s father on the other hand grew up seriously poor in a large family. His English was not always perfect. He worked from a very young age, put himself through college, and became a very successful lawyer. He knew several American Presidents, even had Jack and Jackie Kennedy to brunch at his home. My husband, as the youngest of five, grew up affluent in a house with twelve fire places, that later became a private school. We ourselves have experienced being reasonably affluent. But through a combination of circumstances and timing, we went through some financially challenging times. Those included an unforgettable night with our whole family out in the snow. My husband was cutting down a tree, while the rest of us passed logs in an assembly line for the wood burning stove, both to keep us warm and keep the pipes from freezing.
There are some things I have learned from the rich variety of my life experiences.
Ancestors do not define us.
Money doesn’t make us virtuous, but poverty doesn’t either.
Neither does knowledge make us wise.
Adversity can, but does not necessarily, strengthen us.
What we mean is more important than how we say it.
Ultimately, what’s inside us will matter much more than our circumstances.
There’s a difference between smart people and intelligent ones, but I need to learn from both. I delight in talented people and am actually most comfortable around people who march to a different drummer than the majority. I have grown to particularly appreciate people who have persevered and become compassionate through seriously hard times.
I am enriched by any kind of beauty whether in nature, art, music, people, or things, but don’t need to own them to experience joy from them.
I have enjoyed having money for extras in life.
However, I am most grateful for the enlightenment that comes from experiencing a taste of the limits and fears that go with poverty, but also discovering the possibilities in the wider world that come with affluence.
And now at this age, there are two characteristics that I value more than anything else: simple kindness and the humility to laugh at ourselves.
When my Mom was growing up in Jackson, Mississippi in the nineteen twenties, her public high school was next to the one Catholic Church and school. She believed that the nuns wore headdresses to cover their horns. Most of the Catholics in Jackson were immigrants from countries in Eastern Europe that she had never heard of. And their languages seemed strange and scary to her, as were any Blacks that she didn’t know. She ended up with a job in New Orleans and married to a Catholic newspaperman, who also happened to be a strong advocate for integration. She was a naturally kind person who cared about people, so she gradually adopted my Dad’s way of thinking. Though she remained Methodist, she was one of the most active mothers in my Catholic school and became great friends with the nun that taught me in first grade. But when my Dad went away in the army in the nineteen forties, Mom and I went to live with her parents back in Jackson. I went to a public grade school near by. As a new and very scared second grader, I experienced everyone in the school gathering in the gym and being separated into groups by religion. I have no idea why. But out of several hundred children, I was the only Catholic. Not a comfortable experience for an eight year old child.
In the mid-nineteen-fifties, my Dad, now a newspaper editor in Houston, Texas, endorsed the first black to run for a position on the school board. The schools were still separate, but the black schools had never had any representation. Late on the night of the election, the entry hall to our apartment was bombed. The bomb was primitive, but strong enough to make sharp pieces of slate and even the confetti packing all stick in the door and walls. Fortunately, I stopped on the way downstairs to answer the door when the bell rang. It was long after midnight and my dad wasn’t home from covering the election yet, so I stopped half way down just as the bomb went off.
In the sixties, now living in my husband’s home town of Nashville, Tennessee, one of my social friends proclaimed furiously and proudly that as a hospital volunteer, she had refused to carry a black baby out to the car that day. She had done this right in front of the parents. I was horrified that a Christian mother with a college degree would be so cruel. So, I decided to volunteer at a black grade school as a tutor for children having trouble reading . As I grew fond of these delightful small children, I began to consider how limited their future would be, even if they learned to read. So, I joined the NAACP and worked in their offices trying to find employment for blacks in the white community. I happened to be working there on the day the Poor People’s March on Washington came through Nashville. Young blacks, who were in the more extreme Black Protest movements, came through the office where I was working that day. They obviously hated whites and made sure I was very aware of that. I went home stricken by my experiences of the extremes of hatred between the races. How could we avoid a bloody race war? But God sent Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message of non-violent protest. Thanks to him and many other brave Christian Blacks, we live in a different world now and my grandchildren have friends of all colors.
In the early seventies, my husband and I and our five children moved to a very rural area of middle Tennessee. One day, as I came into the little neighborhood grocery that had chairs around a potbellied stove, I overheard one of the men sitting there say, “Yep, If someone hadn’t of killed those Kennedys, we’d have a Pope running our country now and those Catholics you think are your friends would be killin’ us in our beds.” No one argued the point.
Don’t assume that because you are a law abiding white middle class American, you will never experience prejudice.
In the eighties, I had to use a wheelchair because there was no medicine yet for a condition that made walking excruciatingly painful for my feet. About that time, one of our sons went to work for an airline that allowed him to take us abroad for only the tax on tickets. So, we began years of traveling with the challenge of me in a wheel chair. America had already become mostly handicapped accessible, so we were not really prepared for the differences in Europe. In many countries the only accessible bathrooms were in a McDonalds’. In the German speaking part of Switzerland, in Vienna, Austria, and in the Czech Republic we met with open hostility. And the hostility was not just from skin heads. In Prague, when trying to get across a road in the rain and onto an awning covered side walk, wide enough for a wheelchair and other people to walk, several middle-aged, middle class looking women standing together chatting, not only wouldn’t move even slightly to let us get out of the rain, but one scowling, turned and literally hissed at me. I cried that night. I considered myself a kind middle class woman of reasonably pleasant appearance. Why would someone hate me without even knowing me. We learned it wasn’t because we were Americans. Now that the communists were gone, the Czechs were welcoming westerners with open arms. But until that year those with any kind of handicap had been kept inside, sometimes in attics.The new President’s wife was just starting a campaign to help them become an accepted part of the society. Shortly after we returned to America, we read that a German family had sued a restaurant in Germany for allowing a handicapped person to be seated where they were visible to others. They claimed that having to see this person while they ate ruined their vacation. The saddest part is that the court agreed and they were awarded $20,000.
Don’t assume if you are a liberal Democrat, that you aren’t prejudiced.
My assumptions about my lack of prejudice were knocked silly when I was substitute teaching a seventh grade English class in my small rural town. I called on a young black man and just stood there speechless with my mouth hanging open when he answered in an upper class British accent using four and five syllable words, that I had actually never spoken, only read. I had been totally unaware of my preconceptions, because of my limited experience.
I realized that I had some prejudice against Germans from WWII and years of movies and books about the Holocaust. Though I knew not all Germans agreed or participated in persecuting the Jews, I had not read of many Germans that risked their own their lives for them, except the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of the book The Cost of Discipleship. At first, my experiences in Europe reinforced my prejudice. But, when reflecting back on the many experiences of kindness and generosity by Germans, Austrians, and Czech’s while in their countries, I realized I was focusing on a minority because of my long unchallenged prejudice.
We can and will survive our current fears and prejudices, if we commit to working toward a better America for all people, including both whites and blacks, who cannot afford college or have different gifts more suited to vocational education and also for immigrants seeking sanctuary for their children from wars not of their choosing.