September 16, 2018

Pentecost: Ordinary Women: Clara Barton

Welcome back to our look at Ordinary Women, who were called by God to act bravely and make changes that impacted their world, and the lives of others for generations. We met Frances Perkins, who was instrumental in labor rights and Social Security. Last week, we visited the world of Esther, queen of Persia who stood up to racism and saved the Jewish people.

Today, we meet Clara Barton. From the very first time I learned about her, I have been fascinated by this woman who risked her life on the battlefield to help wounded men during the Civil War and who started the American Red Cross. I was probably in 4th or 5th grade when my grandmother sent me a biography of Barton. Her courage is inspiring. Early on, Barton realized, “we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) She followed the path God set before her, even through danger and opposition.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day 1821 in Oxford, MA as the youngest of 5 children. Her first experience with nursing was as a girl when she tended her older brother who had a head injury. At 15 years old, Clara became a teacher and in 1948 founded a free public school in New Jersey.

After that school board replaced her with a man, she moved to Washington DC, where she became a clerk for the U.S. Patent Office. Surprisingly, she was paid the same as the men in the office. She noted, “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.

Then came the Civil War. Barton was appalled by the conditions for battlefield hospitals. Starting in 1862, she traveled with the Union Army bringing surgical supplies, cooking, and tending the wounded. The tale is told of Barton holding an injured soldier when a bullet ripped through her sleeve and into the man, killing him. She later pondered, “I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?”

One essential service Clara performed was to record personal information of the soldiers. She wrote to family members of missing, wounded, or dead soldiers. Even after the War, she continued this task as Lincoln’s General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. She could not do this alone and formed the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States. With her team of 12 clerks, she researched the status of tens of thousands of soldiers. In 1869, her final report to Congress noted that although 22,000 missing soldiers had been identified, she thought there were at least 40,000 more.

Barton then traveled to Switzerland for rest. It was there that she learned of the International Red Cross. She helped this group in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Upon returning to the United States, she lobbied for the formation of an American branch, which happed when President Chester Arthur signed the Geneva Treaty in 1882. Originally the organization focused on disaster relief during the Johnstown, PA flood and after hurricanes in South Carolina and Texas.

Clara Barton had her own vision of what the Red Cross should be, which put her in conflict with others in the growing organization. In 1904 she resigned. She died 8 years later in Glen Echo, Maryland at 91. 
She supported equal rights and was willing to help anyone regardless of race, gender, or station. She lived out the Galatians 3:28 reminder, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Her tireless work brought aid and comfort to men on the battlefield, to families in disasters, and helped provide supplies for first responders during her life and beyond.

Clara Barton inspired me when I first read about her as a child. She did not let being a woman in the mid 1800’s prevent her from following her path. She persevered, trusting that “God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished…” (Philippians 1:6)

Have you read about someone whose work inspired you?

Is there someone who you would like to emulate?

Do you have a vision for helping in some way that you haven’t acted on?

Sources and further info:

September 9, 2018

Pentecost: Ordinary Women-Esther

As we delve into the lives of some Ordinary Women for the next few weeks, we’ll consider some Bible women and some saints, like Frances Perkins last week. This week, our focus is on one of the two Bible women who has a book in the Bible that bears her name.

Esther is an unusual book to be in the Bible because nowhere is God’s name specifically mentioned. Some commentators doubt that Esther was a real person. The same, of course, is said of other men and women in the Bible. There are some who categorize the Book of Esther as a comedy. Not a comedy that makes you laugh. Esther is a comedy of improbabilities, based on the characteristics of the Hebrew culture.

How could a young Jewish girl, who’s uncle is known to be Jewish have hidden her ethnicity? How did she gain the favor of the king to the extent that he raised her above all others in the harem? Why did the King ‘happen’ to look up and extend the royal scepter to give her entry to his presence? Why was Haman so obsessed with Mordecai that he hated all Jews?

Let’s think about all this for just a minute. If Esther wasn’t a real person, then perhaps this story is an elaborate parable or allegory about God and us? Maybe it’s about being " as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

Esther certainly was wise beyond her years. Rather than condemning Haman right from the start, she invites both the King and Haman to a banquet. Then she has a second party. Only then, after Haman is sufficiently prideful, does she throw herself on the King’s mercy.

So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, ‘What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’ Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’ Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’ Esther said, ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’ Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, ‘Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?’ As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.” (Esther 7:1-8)

Esther carefully choses her words. She states that if the Jews were only to be enslaved, she would not have spoken. It is only because their death was decreed by Haman’s racism that she asks for the King to intervene.

According to Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, “The idea of the serpent as symbolizing wisdom, seems to have entered into the early parables of most Eastern nations. We find it in Egyptian temples, in the twined serpents of the rod of Hermes…Here we learn that even the serpent's sinuous craft presents something which we may well learn to reproduce.” The priests of Pharaoh battled with Moses before the Exodus using snakes. Moses’ rod became a snake, devouring the Egyptian serpents.(Exodus 7:11-13) I would note that the serpent is also important in Meso-American cultures. Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent is prevalent as an embodiment of the sky and a helper presenting Maya kings with visions. Many other cultures as well have snake symbolism in their history.

In the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary we read, “Alone, the wisdom of the serpent is mere cunning, and the harmlessness of the dove little better than weakness: but in combination, the wisdom of the serpent would save them from unnecessary exposure to danger; the harmlessness of the dove, from sinful expedients to escape it. In the apostolic age of Christianity…there was a manly (sic) combination of unflinching zeal and calm discretion, before which nothing was able to stand.”

St. Paul, notes that he was shrewd, yet guileless, to win converts to Christ. “To those without the Law I became like one without the Law (though I am not outside the law of God but am under the law of Christ), to win those without the Law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some of them. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” (I Corinthians 9:22)

In learning to be ‘shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves’, we might do well to consider our battles before we act. Our actions are always to point toward God, yet sometimes we need to be circumspect about how we do that. Sometimes we need to ‘become weak, to win the weak’. Esther was not weak. Indeed, she showed great courage in being a whistle-blower about the great evil Haman planned. Esther had to confront her fears, and face the possibility of death at the worst, or just disbelief. She prepared for her test by prayer and fasting for three days, in concert with all the Jews in the city. (Esther 4:16)

Esther, the Jewish exile in a foreign court, pretended to offer a simple invitation to a feast. However, she was using wisdom from God to save her people. We may think we have to act immediately to confront an injustice. Perhaps, like Esther, we would be well served to pause and pray first. Then we can act wisely, yet with sincerity.

In the early church, the Philippians are urged to “become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.” (Philippians 2:15)

As we seek wisdom to deal with situations, we must look to God first. The first part of the Matthew 10:16 verse says, “I am sending you out [as sheep among wolves].” It is God who sets the course. It may seem to be dangerous, but we can trust that God is with us in and through it all, just as God worked through Esther’s courage to save the Jews in Persia.

Is there a current situation where you need to be both wise and circumspect?

How can you be a child “of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation”?