A Nativity Metaphor

One of the things that I love about Christmas time is the varied opportunities to set up nativity scenes with my Bug. He has loved them since he was less than a year old and with fascination would reach towards the animals until one was handed to him. At this point in my life I have three incomplete sets of nativity pieces that with much laughter and smiles are carefully set up next to each other. Every year, the different pieces end up moving around the room as Joseph may be dragged off by a cat or Bug's service dog may casually pick one up when we are not looking and chew it to bits... or they even move when we use the pieces to recreate stories. These stories can be the birth of Christ as told in the Gospel of Luke or can become as varied as the barn scene in "The Last Battle" by C.S. Lewis. Sometimes, we just play farm and feed and tend to the animals that come with these nativity sets- always cows and sheep, but sometimes donkeys, horses, and even camels. Over the years I have worked pretty hard to make sure that my son understands that the nativity story with the animals is a tradition and is fun, but is very much not what the scriptures describe the events of the birth of Christ to be. The nativity tradition, while beautiful and fun, is not scriptural and in some ways seems to take away from the importance and the struggle of the event itself that we Christians celebrate - the birth of our Savior.

This year after Thanksgiving, I happily brought out the nativity sets for setting up. As usual, Bug and I sat down and placed them in the places we wanted. We added real hay and shavings to one of the stables and it always feels wonderful to sit back and look at the different groups. The sets are quite easy to tell apart as one is a Fisher Price plastic set, a hand carved wood set and a paper mache set that was hand painted for me by the young women of my branch a few years ago. I noticed this year that as the pieces began to be moved and scattered around the house, my son clearly had a very different image in his mind as he put them back and by the time that Christmas Day arrived, I had a very different nativity scene to view. So at a terribly early hour of the morning, while everyone else opened presents, I found my eyes and my thoughts drawn back towards the nativity scene in front of me. What I saw was three small smiling babies in the center of a large group which was then surrounded by animals and then the people. In some ways it looked a bit like how I feel about the sun.... the edges are easily seen but looking at the center is too bright, too hard.... too much. After the required present opening and fun, I chatted with Bug about the nativity and some of the same things that I saw as I looked down were emotions and ideas that he had been trying in a small way to suggest. Here are our thoughts:

1. How people picture the Savior can vary greatly on their perspective. His race, skin color, culture, facial expressions, etc... are things that are developed created by each of us and our religious culture. While every single person may see the Savior, his life, and his commandments differently, for those who celebrate his birth and life, we tend to see him as the center of our heart- the nucleus of our living soul. This is where Jesus Christ should be - in our minds and hearts, our thoughts and hopes. In essence, he should be our center and our life should revolve around him and our relationship with him.

2. The animals were set around him as a protection. Animals are pure and live the lives that they have been set to lead on this earth. They are here to live, to teach us, to sometimes feed us and to help us to recognize the divine all around us. As such, most animals will likely recognize the Christ in the flesh before we human beings shall and as each creature recognizes its spiritual heart, they will surround him in joy and protect him from harm.

3. People are on the outside of the circle as we are frail, easily distracted and of skewed perspectives. When we look at pictures of Christ with his mother and images that celebrate his birth, for many the joy is in the rest of the image behind the holy child... the cow in the next stall, the sheep standing next to a shepherd, the donkey tied up nearby. When we perform the nativity story in plays, each of the actors in the nativity are likely to play their character to the hilt and in most traditional nativities, they are more animals than people. So the majority of the action comes from the animals as well as the majority of the space taken up. As I discovered to my cost last year, telling a friend that having animals in a Nativity scene isn't scriptural can seriously get you gossiped and talked about even when the comment was mentioned in a closed door, private meeting. I was really surprised at how offended someone could get over the idea that Christ wasn't surrounded from his first earthly breath with joyous, happy livestock crowding in toward the manger for a better look. As Bug told me, "We see what we want to see, animals see what is there."

I look back a week later on this experience and find myself pretty pleased and tearful. I am grateful for an amazing and thoughtful child who is kind and empathetic and good-hearted. I am grateful that even with some of his learning challenges, Bug is aware of how to live a good life and is able to understand many human frailties and stumbling blocks. He also seems to understand where the Savior should be in our lives... in our hearts, the focus.... the center of our being. This is a Christmas gift I will never forget and always be grateful for. Tomorrow, my son will be 14 years old. I look forward to celebrating his birthday with him and eating cake. I am thankful for the gifts he has given me... especially these thoughts. Love you Bug. :)


It's Time...

I have had a nice sabbatical over the last several months and I am ready to begin again. Writing is such a part of my head and my heart that I am thrilled at the idea f starting again. I have some outlines on topics for this year - history fans, etc... will have quite a few things that they will enjoy. As I head to sleep on this beautiful evening on the first evening of this year, may we all sleep well and tell someone that we love them and how much they mean to us today. Let start a great new year together! And if you have any specific requests for the year, please share in the comments. :)


Outline of a Shark : The Basic Facts

A bit ago, I was privileged to spent some time with these totally cute little girls that I tend to only see at church once a week. It was a wonderful time had by all I think and I have found I am growing to love these wee ones so much. While I sometimes wish that I had more children, I have managed to find some comfort in caring for other people’s children and trying to help them with their tasks. (I do enjoy going to bed when I want though ;) During our game playing and chatting, the six year old saw a statue (maybe curio is a better word) of a shark on my bookcase- one of my treasured possessions that my sister gave me after she was married. Grimacing, she then told me that she ‘hates’ all sharks because they are always hungry and always biting people. Nothing that I could say could shake that simple foundation of that knowledge. It felt a bit sad because that seems like such a extreme and also mainly unnecessary fear. So, I picked up a few of my books- those who know me tend to know that sharks are something that I enjoy and have been trying to instill that sense of joy and wonder in my son- and we started to read about several different kinds of sharks. She decided at the end of our conversation that we should study all of them- each and every species – so we can decide who is right. A fairly mature response for anyone that age… and a little more motivation than I think I have ;) But we decided to start on the basics. So after about twenty minutes, these is what we came up with. (I have added a few of her comments in bold and parenthesis.)

We started with studying and trying to observe through picture the basic physical design. Some of the characteristics common to all sharks are gill slits on the sides of their heads and a skeleton made of cartilage and connective tissue. Sharks live in all the oceans and seas on this planet and a few species can live in freshwater rivers, although they are in the minority. All sharks have long rows of teeth that are replaced several times over their lifetime- some estimates suggest that some species grow over 10,000 teeth in their lifetime. (WOW!) Almost all sharks have eight fins and no shark has the ability to directly ‘back up’- they can turn around and go back making a u-turn if you will….but it is impossible for them to stop and swim backwards. All have skin that is covered with dermal dentacles that make their skin feel smooth from head to tail, giving them smooth and fast movement through the water. However, if you rub your hands along the skin from the tail towards the head, the skin will feel rough, like sandpaper and can even break your skin open (probably not a great idea around a shark per se ;) Most sharks need to keep moving and are unable to sleep for large periods of time without sinking and drowning; some species have developed the ability to push water past their gills when they are not actually swimming allowing them to remain stationary of settle at the ocean floor. The majority of sharks are ‘cold-blooded’ with large stomachs and short intestines. Their ability to sense smell and follow it as well to sense electromagnetic fields make them pretty excellent predators in the water. Interestingly, sharks have eyes that have the ability to change the size of their pupils (just like us) so while scientists do not understand much about their vision, that is an interesting starting point for speculation. (SO SEE, THEY CAN SEE IT’S A PERSON AND THEY DO IT ON PURPOSE!) They are also colorblind (WELL, I STILL THINK WE DON’T LOOK LIKE A SEAL) and have an average life expectancy of 20-30 years. Like us, they also take a long time to grow and mature enough to have children and they may migrate thousands of miles every year. They are thought to be quite intelligent and have been observed showing curiosity and play like behavior… which reminded me a little of dolphins. (vigorous head shaking!) Only four species have been involved in a significant number of fatal unprovoked attacks on human beings; the (in)famous great white, the oceanic white tip, the tiger, and the bull shark. Ironically, humans as a species kill on average over 100 million sharks a year for both commercial and recreation purposes. As many as one forth of known shark species are threatened with extinction and twenty five species are listed as critically endangered.

Sharks have been living in our oceans since near the beginning of creation – some estimates suggest they existed at least 400 million years ago and in many ways, they still be have and live the way they did back then. The first sharks showed great physical diversity- more than we tend to see in shark species today- and new ‘ancient’ sharks are still being discovered today as paleontologist comb through rocks and ground for fossils. With over 470 species of modern sharks in several classifications, I suspect that we will not manage to study or write about all of them. I think that’s probably reasonable and in the end I am hopeful that her fear and hatred will feel less strong towards them. But we’ll give it a good start and see where we will go from there! Any particular one that you suggest we study first? :)

pictures from: http://oceana.org/en/explore/marine-wildlife/whale-shark, http://www.aquariumofpacific.org/onlinelearningcenter/species/zebra_shark, http://www.mediabistro.com/prnewser/animal-rights-groups-help-inspire-hong-kong-shark-fin-ban_b72810


The 'Wicked Witch' in the Sixteenth Century... and Today

The word ‘witchcraft’ brings to the mind visual images and emotional reactions for many people. So it has from the creation of the idea of magic, witchcraft, etc… but even in our civilized and enlightened society today. The origins of magic and its practitioners or ‘witches’ are unclear; there are various references to both in the King James Version of the Holy Bible, in the Jewish holy scripture book called the Torah, in laws and court hearings in both Ancient Greece and Rome as well as references and myths written by the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Early Egyptians and the Persians. Depending on the time frame and the culture in which you live, the images and emotions provoked are very different. Today as I get ready for the Halloween traditions in my culture, I expect to see costume- clad children knocking on my door and I will ‘ohh and aww’ over their choices while I pass out goodies and smiles. It was not always this way and the ideas of witchcraft and magic, or ‘unnatural acts’, have provoked much less benign and more violent reactions from those who feel threatened.

So what is witchcraft… and who are those who practice it? Again, that definition can change based on time, place and culture, but the generic definition of witchcraft can read as follows: the practice of magic, especially black magic; the use of spells and the invocation of spirits… the art or practices of a witch. Those who practice the craft are thought to be individuals with three specific qualities; use of malevolent power, a depraved heretic towards the majority religion and/or power structure, and also the acts of sexual deviancy. It was thought that both men and women could practice the art of magic and in some cases that magic could be ‘white’ (good) or ‘black’ (bad). During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the idea of witchcraft and its practitioners changed in the minds of many and how it was dealt with became a larger and more significant issue then it had been in other times during human history. Many aspects of culture at this time can be analyzed to understand and recognize how situations like witch-hunts happen, how the targeted individuals are picked and why, and what forces are in play to cause the volatile fearful situations. I wish to look at the political, education, social, and religious constructs of early modern Germany as well as the continent of Europe as a whole to try and understand how all the violence came to be and who it was against. It is hopeful by understanding it, we can work to not perpetuate it in our own lives and cultures.

This time period was a time of great change and many of these transitions help explain some of the fear and escalation in these communities. This was the time in history that we also call the Reformation when the Christian religion was going through a significant change as the Catholic Church no longer had a complete monopoly on Christ and Christian thought. Individuals such as Martin Luther and John Calvin wrote about their ideas/ thoughts on their concerns in the Catholic Church and its teachings following with suggestions for change and needed reform. These men and others created new communities or groups that came to be known as Protestants and which vied with the Catholic Church for converts. Rulers, kings and other political elite found that the doctrinal instability in the religions and communities correlated into political instability. One side benefit - rulers who converted to a Protestant religion could stop paying the Roman church high taxes and could also seize Catholic funds and assets in their own lands providing themselves with a new source of revenue. During this time there were also times of sickness and famine as the ‘Little Ice Age’ passed through which caused a lot of hardship and death for all. Protestant thought at this time also stressed that Satan was a physical being and Luther himself described himself as having many encounters with Satan who attempted to keep him from reforming the church. So it is into this time of insecurity- both of doctrine, politics and the beginnings of the questioning of sexual relationships, power that we start our journey into sixteenth Germany.

Before the sixteenth century, the idea of witches and their ‘craft’ were fading from the public sphere across Europe and magic was thought to be a superstitious practice with very little real power. In the early Catholic church, the ideas of witchcraft were thought to consist more of idolatry and illusion- sins to be sure, but not the cause of direct harm to others and, in an anonymous text titled Canon Episcopi from the ninth century which is part of canon law, it states that ‘there was no such thing as an actual witch’. During the development of early modern Germany and other states, misogynist writings and men in power worked to change the viewpoint of the whole society towards witches, magic and its practitioners. Books such as the “Malleus Maleficarum” helped to define and spread the new image of witches; they were real, they were women, and the source of all societal degradation. Add to those ideas the concerns of Catholics at a rapidly changing religious landscape, the changing power structure, and the tensions between the differing factions began to stretch and break. Some women joined one of the differing groups of Protestants and found they had more opportunities and influence than they had when participating in the Catholic Church. The obvious threats to the power structure of the church caused the religious male hierarchy to go on the offensive. Under the belief that the female sex is more susceptible to evil influences and is the inferior of both genders, any woman who did not strongly conform to the local religious and cultural expectations was easily accused of being a witch. (Some historians show evidence that the witch hunts were strongest and encompassed the most victims in territory that was 'Protestant controlled' but that is not definitive- Sociologist Nachman ben-Yehuda states, “Only the most rapidly developing countries where the Catholic Church was weakest, experienced a virulent witch craze.”) It is quite evident that both religions and their leaders used the supposition of witchcraft as a way to try and regain their lost power and hierarchy in areas where they were at risk. In some cases, there is evidence that men who were not seen as being vigilant enough in finding and persecuting witches were disparaged as men who were weak, womanly, etc... What is clear is that the idea of witches/witchcraft was no longer a subtle idea or existed only in the realm of thought- these ideas were now useful as a confrontational and aggressive way to deal with ‘enemies’ or other undesirables in the community.

In essence, any woman who (or was thought to be) engaged in behavior that felt threatening or was unconventional in behavior or appearance was at serious risk for problems. Many women could be accused and found guilty and executed on little to no evidence of significant wrong doing. The most common way was to accuse a 'witch' and charge her with heresy. As the definition of heresy was defined by the specific religion but usually enforced not only religious orders and leaders but also enforced by the secular legal power structure. In that light, a heresy charge was a pretty significant and threatening event in someone’s life as well as a charge that didn’t depend on physical proof for convictions- circumstantial evidence, hearsay and confessions under torture were sufficient. Due to women’s influence in their homes and as the transmitter of the culture to their young children, they were in the position to spread unconventional information to their children. As this could potential force changes in the hierarchy and its power, men were encouraged to be actively engaged in keeping the women in their family / household under their control. Single women, whether due to a lack of marriage or from being widowed, were also likely to be accused and condemned for a few reasons. Due to their single status, they had no male protectors and were easier to accuse than married females. In that same sense, they had no men to ‘control’ and keep tabs on them and their behavior and if they were self-sufficient or financially independent, any woman who could be seen as too prominent in society for any reason was in a dangerous situation. Also, by being single and taking assents, these women could and did stand in the way of the orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another.

The ways that ‘witches’ were caught and were mostly women make sense in the power structure at that time. Midwives who practiced medicine could be targeted for that by their male rivals. A midwife or healer could be accused if a birth didn’t end perfectly or a child died- even one accusation could easily multiply as other individuals looked back at past experiences and reinterpreted them with the accusation in mind. In some ways, midwives, and medical women were seen to have power over life and death. Over centuries, the Catholic Church taught that the suffering and illness of this world were only temporary and fleeting. It was thought that God was no longer involved in the physical world so anyone who was able to divine or understand natural knowledge was seen as using supernatural power… or power from the devil. As the concept of medicine and medical care developed and gained a following, the church put its backing behind the upper class men who studied and practiced it and supported medical care for the few who could afford it. To control medical knowledge, it was taught in the first universities (in which women were not allowed to study) so any woman who practiced medicine was self or informally taught – a method described as “If a women dares to cure without having studied than she is a witch and must die.” Add to those thoughts that women were thought to be more likely to be able to weld unnatural, malevolent power and even bad weather and environmental conditions were blamed on local women. Whether being accused of calling up a storm to try and drown a King in his ship at sea, a papal bull stating “…have blasted the produce of the earth, the grapes of the vine….” or the entire chapter written on the subject in the Malleus Maleficarum titled “How they Raise and Stir up Hailstorms and Tempests, and Cause Lightening to Blast both Men and Beasts” ending with the sentence “Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that, just as easily as they raise hailstorms, so can they cause lightning and storms at sea; and so no doubt at all remains on these points.”

The other thing that made women more likely to be accused and punished of witch craft was if they could be suspected of sexual deviancy. Many women were prosecuted based on charges relating to their own motherhood and role in the home. Sexual orgies, having sexual relations with the devil and the normal sexual misbehavior or fornication and adultery were all reasons that could be used in accusations of witchcraft. Any kind of male sexual dysfunction- from impotence to premature ejaculation to complete disappearance of the penis and other sexual organs was also blamed on the power and perversion of witches. To counter this problem, men used trials to assert their dominance over women and their bodies with public strip searches, torture, etc… giving themselves permission to sexual assault women and remind everyone of their place.

There seems little doubt that religion and gender played a huge role in the witch-hunts in early modern Germany. Whether the ‘witch’ was burned, hanged, strangled, or beheaded, it is clear that most of the accused were female and were chosen because they were perceived to be a threat to the male hierarchy. By criminalizing women’s attempts to share power as well as the anxiety that was felt by the male hierarchy over women’s societal roles and the influence and power in them, a women’s perceived sexual prowess, and the general weakness of women to resist and therefore were more susceptible to witchcraft, those in power had a lot of leverage to control women’s behavior, place in society and to remove them if necessary. We still struggle with these same issues today. While we no longer call women we fear witch (very often) and as a civilized society unnecessary violence is abhorred, the fears, confusion and anger over women and their choices spills out into the communities in more subtle and acceptable forms in our patriarchal society- negative labels, harassment or assault both physical and sexual, as well as cultural expectations that indirectly (and directly) place limits on the behavior of women. Politicians and those individuals on all sides of the political spectrum use their beliefs, desires, value systems and power in society to 'create' and name our new 'witches'- single mothers, poor and elderly women, feminists, working women, women in power, minorities, etc... Some religions also continue to set limits and rules on women's expectations and behavior that are not applicable to men and women who speak out against injustices in their faith communities can be removed or kicked out- many by male only courts. It is important to recognize that, while the concentrated and active witch trials of the sixteenth century are in the past and we no longer 'burn' witches, the feelings, anger, and power struggles of that era have not been resolved and are still alive in us and our society today. That different methods are used to cause fear, oppression, or motivation to keep the status quo of power in the hands of the few, the rich, and the male doesn't suggest anything other than a recognition of the gender power struggle itself will not bring about peace between genders and stability in society. Only time, a willingness to share power and humility will bring the possibility of that….

pictures from: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/dominicselwood/100252072/the-dark-deep-roots-of-britains-fascination-with-witchcraft/, http://www.damnedct.com/connecticut-witchcraft-trials, http://www.biography.com/people/john-calvin-9235788, http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/shop/the-malleus-maleficarum-in-latin-pdf/, http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/shop/the-malleus-maleficarum-in-latin-pdf/, http://witchnest.blogspot.com/2010/07/killing-witches-as-best-way-to-kill.html, http://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&ved=0CAMQjxw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fen.academic.ru%2Fdic.nsf%2Fenwiki%2F11823268&ei=cKPjVPK9L-OxsASR94DIDw&psig=AFQjCNGjAAFlzXs6eji2QEbpsIhDxcZ0Pg&ust=1424291020320634, http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/11823268,


Introduction to This Month’s Topic: The History of Women in Western Civilization

This was a class I wanted to take for a few reasons. One reason is that I love history and it feels like I have studied it all my life. I grew up with a thirst for it and devoured every book I could find that I could understand. I think that this passion for learning and history has served me well in my life and has been very enjoyable for me. However, I found that I felt over time that my knowledge was really very limited and as I looked at it from an education and a religious standpoint, I realized that I pretty much can give the basics on many of the individuals that have made history, but the majority are men. The exceptions in my mind can be classified as wealthy, white, powerful women such as Catherine the Great of Russia and Queen Elizabeth I of England... which were rare. Over the last year or so, I have tried to change that and have actively tried to look at the flip side of the coin so to speak. I have found the information a lot more challenging to come by and having anyone to discuss the information I do find with is difficult because the history of anyone besides men isn't taught in most standard classes so the discussion becomes a bit of a lecture or monologue.... which is no fun at all. So I saw this particular class as a lot of fun and a great resource towards gaining more knowledge, but also more guidance towards more resources for future study. I was hopeful that I can learn more not only about women and their struggles in culture, families and in creating a human history of their own, but also that I can develop a better understanding of the struggle for gender equality that is going on in my own lifetime. I also wanted to have a better understanding of how power and entitlement work between gender, class and race and how people are working towards changing the cultural biases that affect the under-privileged majority of people.

I found myself really interested in learning about how women's history is being compiled by historians and feminists today and how, as history is complied, what forces or parts of culture tend to decide which history is most important for the average student to learn about. I recognize that politics enters that equation as well so I understand that question must needs be open ended without a full solution to be had.

I think that anyone who approaches any of this information differently on a few levels. As our gender is intertwined in our mind and our thoughts without it being consciously there, each individual will have no choice but to either ignore or recognize that you will look at in the material based on your gender. However, I think that we are each much more likely to approach the material from a just as personal and unapproachable bias.... the bias of our own life experiences as well as current life circumstances. Our experiences, culture, family and our choices over time have helped each of us develop into a unique and amazing person and we cannot help but approach any topic with those biases in place and work to try and set them aside as we study and try to look at the topics addressed. I do not think that it is possible for any of us to do that completely- part of me at least has a hard time recognizing biases in myself and I assume others may have the same difficulty in self reflection and introspection. So I suspect that even when many of us appear to see the topic in the same 'light' and have the same viewpoint, we are getting there from very different paths and thoughts.

I recognize that the topics that I will address in the next several posts may be unknown to most and may also be on topics that are sensitive or cause negative emotions in yourself and others. I am not sharing them to cause any harm or anger; rather, I am sharing because I believe that the only way to change culture is to talk about it. From my writings, you will find that some of these topics were challenging for me and my emotions will hang off of some of my sentences and paragraphs. I hope that as readers, we can share our thoughts freely and discuss our feelings and concerns on the history and the topics that are discussed… many of which are still relevant to ourselves and women around the world today.

pictures from: http://www.citelighter.com/film-media/fashion/knowledgecards/womens-fashions-of-the-medieval-era, https://oregonheritage.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/oregon-womens-history-project/, https://oregonheritage.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/oregon-womens-history-project/, http://www.ora.tv/offthegrid/article/grid-history-women-history