Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Give "Please" a Chance

By Cynthia Edwards 
An essay in the book Creative Spirit Musings

On a recent visit to England I was struck by the polite tenor of many of the conversations I was party to. After a while I began to reflect on why I found it so noticeable. It's not that Americans are rude by nature. We are a nation of overgrown puppy dogs in a way; friendly and outgoing if rather brash. This was epitomized a few years ago by a wonderful lady in Washington, DC who gave Queen Elizabeth II a big hug while that royal personage was touring a local school. The Queen stiffened like a board at the untoward familiarity. I always recall this news item with impish pleasure. After all, some people can use having the stuffing squeezed out of them every now and then.

Going back to the issue of polite conversation, I think we Americans can profit from taking an inventory of our speech patterns. While we may not be intentionally rude, our standards have fallen far in the last few decades. The best of us sometimes suffer from an excess of casualness that borders on the flip. The worst of us, sadly, have dropped the concept of courtesy altogether, and converse in language that is not only disrespectful, but demeaning to boot.

Christians can lead the way in restoring civility to private conversation as well as public discourse. Treating others with deference, young and old alike, conveys esteem for their person, which results in their feeling good about themselves. This generates a positive cycle of influence. Polite behavior also has a way of bringing calm to a tense situation. Courtesy keeps its temper, so it can head off arguments before they begin, or at least mitigate them before they escalate.

Since children imitate their parents' patterns, the job of speaking respectfully begins at home. One of the trends in our culture that dismays me is the intensification of the verbal battle between the sexes. Male-bashing is so generally engaged in by American females that I wonder how any of them can attract good husbands and raise strong sons. There is no place in a Christian's vocabulary for disparaging comments directed against anyone based on gender, color, creed, appearance, political leanings, and so on. Is this how we love our neighbors? No; we love them by showing that we recognize their eternal value as God's creations and choosing words that are consistent with this point of view.

Uncommon courtesy

In England, standards of formality become more and more stringent the higher up the social scale one goes, which is why hugging the Queen is never really correct. In America, we have a much flatter, less hierarchical social system, but courtesy never goes amiss no matter who is addressing whom. For instance, when a waiter in a restaurant greets a table of customers with "what can I get you guys?" it betrays poor social judgment. Nobody over college age should ever be addressed in this manner. Keeping a genteel distance by adopting a slightly more formal approach ("Good evening, ladies. May I take your order?") has nothing to do with servility or class divisions and everything to do with good manners and respect.

"Miss," "Madam," and "Sir" are terms that might be dusted off and used more frequently. I applaud establishments like Tom Thumb [my local grocery store] that have taught their checkers to address customers as "Mr. Smith" or "Ms. Jones." I deplore doctors’ offices that allow their staff to address patients, even elderly ones, by their first names, as though they were children or pets. More people are offended by this usage than you might imagine. But no one is offended when they are treated with respect and kindness. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and graciousness must be showered in the same unconditional way.

Our national inclination towards informality has had grievous effects on our culture at large. Where there are no hard and fast standards, vulgarity has wormed its way out of the outhouse and into the living room. If you have a TV, you know this. Nothing is sacred. Without the boundaries drawn by consideration for others, personal privacy is at risk (ask any celebrity who's had their picture taken through a telephoto lens); modesty is derided; and important public issues are bandied about with a total lack of gravitas.

Let's try to raise our consciousness around this issue and see if we as Christians can't lead the way towards creating a more caring society, by speaking words of charity and respect.

Thank you.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

By Cynthia Edwards 
An essay in the book Creative Spirit Musings

There are people in my neighborhood who spend thousands of dollars every year turning their properties into Christmas wonderlands, both inside and out, and providing their near and dear ones with all the gifts their hearts desire.

They have kicked Christmas up a notch since the first one, two thousand years ago.

The original Christmas story tells us about the struggles of a man named Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife, Mary, who were obliged to travel from their home in Nazareth to the backwater village of Bethlehem.

They were participating in a census of Roman-controlled lands ordered by the Emperor Augustus. In those days, people had to travel to their father’s place of birth to be counted, and foot and mule travel were the only modes of transportation that would have been available to the average person.

Any woman who has been nine months pregnant will understand how physically difficult this journey must have been for Mary and her concerned, and probably much older, husband.

In the little town of Bethlehem, there was much confusion and congestion. So many other people were arriving at the same time, Joseph and Mary could not find an inn with a spare room. The best they could get was permission to bed down in a stable, situated in a cave, sheltering with beasts such as oxen and donkeys. Mary went into labor that night, perhaps brought on by the exertions of travel, and Jesus was born.

Having no crib, Mary placed her baby in a manger. In case you are not sure what a manger is, it is the trough where feed for livestock is placed. Imagine the muck. The reek. The danger from cattle kicking out petulantly. Imagine the parents’ desperate desire to protect their fragile newborn – and their own discomfort in the cave.

Meanwhile, in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, supernatural events were occurring. Shepherds saw visions of angels joyously proclaiming the birth of the Savior. Somewhere in the middle distance a camel caravan, carrying three wealthy and educated seekers with their retinues, was approaching Bethlehem in stately fashion, in search of this very obscure Baby. They were guided by a supernova that miraculously lingered in the skies above the stable.

The paradox of the story is amazing. So amazing, we lovingly recreate it every Christmas in our churches and homes, in living tableaux or in crèche scenes with figurines and scenery. The poverty of Christ’s birth is transfigured by our understanding of the eternal significance of the event.

In the year 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi became the first person to recreate the crèche scene to celebrate our Lord’s day of birth. Francis had seen the Cave of the Nativity in his travels to the Holy Land, and his theatrical imagination, coupled with his passionate love for Christ, inspired him to duplicate the scene in the steep hills above Greccio in central Italy. He intended to “set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of [Christ’s] infant needs, how he lay in the manger, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he lay upon the hay where he had been placed.”

All of the townspeople of Greccio were invited to celebrate Mass at this ‘new Bethlehem,’ but they were not told of what preparations were being made. A thousand people – shepherds and wise men among them – climbed the hills that Christmas eve, carrying lanterns and torches, lighting up the night. When they finally made their way to the clearing and beheld the scene, their hearts were as deeply touched as if God were actually made manifest before them. One can almost hear the angels singing joyfully, as of old.

The paradox continues on today. In poverty and humility of spirit we can find the finest riches of Heaven. This Christmas, amid the shopping, decorating, and celebrating, I hope we will all make time to contemplate the mystery and glory of Christ’s birth. The King of Heaven was born in a cave because there was no room in the inn. Let us not make the mistake of pushing Jesus out of our Christmas celebration because there is no room for Him in our hearts.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come 
Let earth receive her king 
Let every heart Prepare him room 
And heaven and nature sing! 
-- Isaac Watts, 1719 

© 2004 by Cynthia Edwards. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Evil Shouts While God Whispers

Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the human race?

Civilization has made so many astounding advances in technology, medicine, energy, architecture, the arts, food production, space exploration, and so on, that one could easily make the case that humanity is on a positive trajectory through time.

However, for every advancement in one area, there are whole populations that are disenfranchised; who have no technology, no food, no health care. And sometimes it seems there is a dark side to progress itself, with byproducts such as pollution, deforestation, or social alienation.

The story gets darker still when we turn on the news and see evidence of terror, large-scale persecution, epidemics, slavery, starvation, and massacres, to name but a few of the man-made horrors that still beset the world.

It seems that technological or cultural achievements are not enough to give us a wholly sanguine view of our common future. Because by themselves they cannot give us peace and lasting happiness, and how optimistic can one be without these blessings?

Pride, greed, envy, and their ugly sisters—the seven deadly sins—have been around since time immemorial (or since ‘time immoral’ as one wag put it). They are the rich soil in which the most extreme manifestations of evil that are traumatizing us all on the nightly news take root and flourish. But ironically, lately, the deadly sins are no longer taboo in our culture. We see them—in lesser forms, but the same sins—paraded in public, dressed up as entertainment ... even, God help us, protected as free speech. As a whole, our spiritually blind culture does not see the connection between a small sin and very big one. That is one reason we still have so little control over outbreaks of human catastrophes.

And we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to spreading the bad news. There is plenty of evil in the world today, but it makes a bigger impression than it would have in the days before microphones and wide-angle camera lenses. The powers of darkness use the same sort of pyrotechnics that made a mixed-up professor from Kansas appear as The Great and Powerful Oz, who terrified children and other innocents before he was revealed as a sham.

Yes, terrorists have traded rocks for rockets and the media project the effects of sin louder and farther on the world stage than has ever before been possible, whether on the news or in movies, TV, and video games. But that in itself is just another weapon in the arsenal of the “ruler of this world,” who lives to engage in spiritual and psychological warfare against God’s people. By causing us to focus selectively on the really bad stuff that’s going on in the world, and turning up the volume on discord and dissention, the media ought to consider whose plans they are helping.

So although the noise levels have increased, my own sense is one of tempered optimism. Evil is no worse than it ever was, and we must remember that its effects have been greatly mitigated by the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit active in the world since the death and resurrection of Christ. This is the foundation for true optimism.

The Bible tells us that God is found in the secret places, and speaks in a whisper. As Christians, we need to work extra hard to tune in to God and tune out the mad shout of evil that echoes all around us. For when we listen to God’s voice, we find the peace and power that enable us to change our hearts. And that is the only way to change the world for the better.

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

(I Kings 19:11-12)