The multiple gifts of Christmas

This is the season of giving. Nothing except the birth of the Savior (itself a gift) is more distinctive about Christmas than this. Besides fanning out through multiple department stories over many days and hours in search of something wonderful to present family or friends for this unique holiday, we give the gift of ourselves in love and affection. These are truly wonderful things which brighten up the human condition for a few weeks at least each year, but there are still more wonderful gifts for which we do not deserve any credit although we are responsible for their proper use. I mean the gift of life and of all the real potential for good in our lives.

We live in a scientific age in which many of our greatest intellects are convinced that life and everything that is a part of it can be engineered, not to mention ended if a power or authority decides that some persons’ lives are not worth living.

As in ancient times, it is today an act of moral and spiritual boldness to cherish life, the condition for all good things. Whereas the Israelites were surrounded with peoples for whom child sacrifice was a thoroughly established tradition, God’s chosen people (as they understood themselves) regarded human life as a precious gift from God not lightly to be squandered. Indeed, nothing illustrates the value of life more than the grief we feel when our loved ones die.

When sensible people speak of duty and gratitude, two virtues not much in favor these days, they rank life as the greatest of all gifts to uphold and appreciate. That’s why the framers of the U.S. Constitution included among that document’s greatest purposes security of liberty for our posterity, as well as for the living generations.

The patriotic citizen, then, no less than the pious man, understands that life is the most fundamental of all gifts and therefore the cause of our greatest obligations. We must preserve, protect and defend it as much as we do the charter of liberty that aims to secure it.

Human life is not mere biological existence but the whole panoply of human possibilities. We well know that our mind, spirit or body can be devoted to bad and even evil purposes no less than to good ones, so everything depends on knowing what are our fundamental duties and rights. We have duties to ourselves and to others to promote human happiness, including justice. We have rights to remind ourselves that we must restrain the exercise of our powers.

The philosopher Leo Strauss once wrote that "the genius of Shakespeare is not the work of Shakespeare." He meant in no way to denigrate the achievements of that greatest of all English poets (or any other talented human beings) but to point to the fact that their potential for greatness was the necessary condition and that was due to powers beyond themselves.

Our lives are enriched because of these and other divine gifts. Whence comes our capacity for kindness, gentleness, compassion and sympathy which so uniquely marked the life and the eternal legacy of the God made into man whose nativity will be celebrated in churches all over the world this Christmas? Surely it is our choice to practice these virtues but our capacity for doing so is not our doing.

Consider too, the classical virtues of courage, prudence, wisdom and moderation. Marveling at the sacrifices young Americans have made and continue to make in the armed forces in defense of their country, President Reagan once asked, "Where do we get such men?" He was not in doubt as to the answer, this God-fearing man, and he exhibited the respect which the qualities of God’s children deserve.

Common sense has long distinguished between potential and actual achievement. We know that there are people with great gifts who never use them, or not to the degree to which they are capable. For example, the Greek philosopher Aristotle never confused potential intelligence with actual intelligence, reserving the name of this virtue for the actual use of it. The same can be said for all the other virtues.

The many failures of human potential–and worse, think of the Caesars, Napoleons, Hitlers and Stalins of the world–give us all the more reason to appreciate the gifts that we receive from our Creator and to develop them to the fullest, for even the greatest gifts can be abused. We show our appreciation for these divine treasures by treating each other with the greatest respect and glorifying the Author of all these things.

For kids' gifts, try Lynne Cheney books

Looking for last minute gifts for children on your Christmas list? Consider the timeless gift of a book. In a world of video games and computerized toys, it can be hard to sell the notion of finding a quietspot on a winter afternoon to read during the school break, but we should at least try!

You may need to go online to find some of these books. During a recent shopping trip to both Borders and Barnes and Noble, I was unable to find many of them. (Of note, for those in search of children's books on Barack Obama, Borders has a hefty selection in the Children's History section.)

Later in the day I stopped at the public library branch near my home to check out some books about Christmas--Christmas as in 'Christ', not Santa. I couldn't find hardly a one, so I asked for assistance. I was told there was a big display of 'holiday' and Kwanza books on a table, but that the few Christian-type Christmas books would be located in the Children's Mythology Section.

Possible selections for your consideration include any of the children's books written by Lynne Cheney. "When Washington Crossed the Delaware", "We the People", "A Time for Freedom: What Happened When in America", "America: A Patriotic Primer", and "A is for Abigail" are remarkable, both from a literary standpoint as well as in illustration. Her books are beautiful and the proceeds benefit charity.

There is also "Lessons on Liberty: A Primer for Young Patriots" by Peter Lillback and Judy Mitchell. Again, the chances of finding some of these books may be limited but if you are diligent, you may be able to uncover other treasures such as, "Discover Nature in Winter" by Elizabeth Lawlor and "The Adventurous Boy's Handbook" by Tim and Stephen Brennan. "Everyday Graces: A Child's Book of Good Manners", written by Karen Santorum (Rick's wife) is wonderful, as is "The National Review Treasury of Classic Children's Literature" by the late William F. Buckley, Jr. "The Miracle of St. Nicholas" by Gloria Whelan is a delightful story for this time of year.

Merry Christmas to you and yours and may a special child in your life find a wonderful book under the tree this year.

How about a Christmas truce?

What did 2008 mean for conservatives, and what will 2009 demand of us? Those are the questions our show has been exploring throughout November and December. This Sunday I'll discuss them with Claremont political scientist Charles Kesler... economist Larry Reed... civil rights leader Ward Connerly... former state Sen. Mark Hillman... and Federalist Society attorney Allyson Ho. The show is a "Best of Backbone" broadcast, recorded earlier to allow the Andrews clan some additional time together as Christmas approaches. I hope you'll be able to listen.

Speaking of Christmas, three things... we wish you a very merry one... we note my special column for the holidays, Why Christmas Matters (see item above this one on home page)...

and we conclude with a couple of favorite poems from the great G. K. Chesterton.

"The Truce of Christmas" was occasioned by a spontaneous ceasefire in the WWI trenches on Dec. 25, 1914, but I like its deeper message about the world's ingratitude to Jesus and his followers. Solution: keep faith with love and truth regardless.

"The Wise Men" warns of the barriers our own cleverness and self-sufficiency may put in the way of following the star and finding the manger. That's why the child's heart at this season will often see what the adult's brain tends to miss, as I said in my column.

Warmest wishes of the season to you and yours from all of us at Backbone Radio, John... Matt... Kathleen... Krista... Joshua... Karen... Matt again... and Joan



The Truce of Christmas By G.K. Chesterton

Passionate peace is in the sky — And in the snow in silver sealed The beasts are perfect in the field, And men seem men so suddenly — (But take ten swords and ten times ten And blow the bugle in praising men; For we are for all men under the sun; And they are against us every one; And misers haggle and madmen clutch, And there is peril in praising much, And we have the terrible tongues uncurled That praise the world to the sons of the world.)

The idle humble hill and wood Are bowed upon the sacred birth, And for one little hour the earth Is lazy with the love of good— (But ready are you, and ready am I, If the battle blow and the guns go by; For we are for all men under the sun, And they are against us every one; And the men that hate herd all together, To pride and gold, and the great white feather, And the thing is graven in star and stone That the men who love are all alone.)

Hunger is hard and time is tough, But bless the beggars and kiss the kings; For hope has broken the heart of things, And nothing was ever praised enough. (But hold the shield for a sudden swing And point the sword when you praise a thing, For we are for all men under the sun, And they are against us every one; And mime and merchant, thane and thrall Hate us because we love them all; Only till Christmastide go by Passionate peace is in the sky.)


The Wise Men By G. K. Chesterton

Step softly, under snow or rain, To find the place where men can pray; The way is all so very plain That we may lose the way.

Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore On tortured puzzles from our youth, We know all the labyrinthine lore, We are the three wise men of yore, And we know all things but truth.

We have gone round and round the hill And lost the wood among the trees, And learnt long names for every ill, And serve the made gods, naming still The furies the Eumenides.

The gods of violence took the veil Of vision and philosophy, The Serpent that brought all men bale, He bites his own accursed tail, And calls himself Eternity.

Go humbly ... it has hailed and snowed... With voices low and lanterns lit; So very simple is the road, That we may stray from it.

The world grows terrible and white, And blinding white the breaking day; We walk bewildered in the light, For something is too large for sight, And something much too plain to say.

The Child that was ere worlds begun (... We need but walk a little way, We need but see a latch undone...) The Child that played with moon and sun Is playing with a little hay.

The house from which the heavens are fed, The old strange house that is our own, Where trick of words are never said, And Mercy is as plain as bread, And Honour is as hard as stone.

Go humbly, humble are the skies, And low and large and fierce the Star; So very near the Manger lies That we may travel far.

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes To roar to the resounding plain. And the whole heaven shouts and shakes, For God Himself is born again, And we are little children walking Through the snow and rain.

===================================== Other wonderful Christmas poems by Chesterton, easily found with a Google search, include...

A Child of the Snows The House of Christmas The Nativity A Song of Gifts to God Christmas Song for Three Guilds A Word

Why Christmas matters

(Denver Post, Dec. 21) Good news. Death is on defense this week. That’s a big reason for the excitement about Christmas and Hanukkah. It should make these holidays welcome even among people who don’t share the biblical beliefs they represent. And it should humble the believers themselves. Civil harmony would benefit. “Merry Christmas” and “Peace on Earth” are still annually proclaimed in lights on the City and County Building, after Denver’s mayor decided against substituting something generic a few years ago. Following a similar bout of hesitation, Golden has its menorah display. We all ought to cheer if we love life. The Christian faith, along with the Jewish tradition from which it grew, has enlivened our civilization through the centuries with a message of unshakable hope for the human future. The Old and New Testaments argue for an eternal reality in which the grave is not the last word. America as we know it is more humane, dynamic, and purposeful as a result. That’s well worth a celebration every December.

Long before Jesus or Moses, of course, rituals of rebirth were observed at this time of year as the life-giving sun starts its comeback and the days lengthen. So if you prefer a winter solstice festival, fine. Solar cycles will always be with us. But they don’t put death on defense as Christmas and Hanukkah do.

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” says the fatalism that believes bodily existence is all there is. Scripture contradicts it. Economic guru John Maynard Keynes gave the modernist version when he shrugged, “In the long run, we’re all dead." Don’t be so sure, say the faithful.

Hope of immortality through their descendants was already a given for the Jews among whom Jesus was born. Many also believed in a bodily resurrection. Christ’s followers were sure of it. Correct or not, that meant conducting themselves in this world so as to be worthy of the next. Moral seriousness grew. All of society felt the gentling effect.

If death cancels life, period, why shouldn’t might make right? Why shouldn’t ethics begin and end with “if it feels good, do it”? It’s different if eternal punishment awaits brutality and tyranny. New incentives come with expecting we’ll have to live forever with the consequences of how we treat each other. This was the awesome force of good that arrived with the baby in the manger.

The Romans who ruled Bethlehem, like the Magi who brought gifts, idealized justice but never knew its author. Knowledge of “the Supreme Judge of the World,” as the Declaration of Independence calls him, is uniquely the Judeo-Christian contribution to history. The result was a vast increase in motivation for achieving peace on earth through goodwill to men.

Peace and justice are far from realized, as today’s paper attests. But infanticide, genocide, slavery, and the subjugation of women, once accepted, are now condemned. Freedom and democracy, once rare, are spreading. Heartless death-dealing and all kinds of living death are lessening in our world because of the Hebrew girl’s son who was “born that man no more may die.”

Think about it. Every news story about economic relief or homeless shelters or animal rescue bespeaks a life-affirming ethos that is the very opposite of Lord Keynes’s “dead in the long run” callousness. We’re that way partly because of a faith tradition that sees past death.

As for the so-called Christmas wars, isn’t government or commercial sanction of Jesus’ birthday a false issue? He asked for nothing of the kind. He did ask us who follow him to be more childlike, less demanding. Faithful and unfaithful alike need to lighten up. After all, many believe the light of the world is here – and they don’t just mean the solstice.

Prairie family memories for Christmas

Americans typically are very thoughtful this time of year. We have retrospective thoughts about the past year and we ponder the future as to what the coming months will bring. We wish each other blessings at the celebration of the Christ Child, and glad tidings for the New Year. Our wishes include good health, happiness and prosperity. With prominent people from Illinois taking up a lot of the air time these days, my thoughts revert back in time to the folks in the Land of Lincoln that shaped my life and gave me the tools necessary to be a productive, law-abiding citizen. This year, prosperity and the lack thereof, are foremost in our minds. Yet, when I remember my parents and grandparents that weathered the Great Depression, I know our current economic climate is still a better place to be than where they were a few days before Christmas during the early 1930's. By example, they taught me what courage, sacrifice, and hard work are really about. There was a humbleness to those generations. There was no giving up; there was no thought of throwing in the towel and sitting on a street corner with tin cup in hand. They knew by instinct that within themselves they had the tools necessary to survive and make a better future for their families. Hard times had befallen them, but better days were within their power. It was their responsibility to make it happen. When stock markets crashed and torrid heat and relentless wind sucked the life and productivity from farm land, basically everything besides their faith and trust in God, the roof over their heads and their determination were taken from them. From scratch, they started over again. There was no time to complain or bemoan their fate. There was work to be done. Maybe there was a temporary WPA job to help keep the family fed, and some fortunate souls had a family member with a little more excess than average and that person shared a little to help sustain life.

It is important to remember that few families did not come back out of those hard times. It took varying amounts of time, but my ancestors--hard-working, frugal Germans--got busy and made good things happen in their lives. Some gave up along the way and some fell prey to illness and lack of food and medical care. Many infants and young children did not survive the Great Depression, but the will of most people could not be destroyed. Today, no matter how poor any of us are, we still have the blessing of being able to walk into any hospital in this country and receive emergency medical care, regardless of ability to pay.

My parents, born in 1927 and 1928, grew up in large families. They slept, 4 and 5 to a bed in unheated upstairs bedrooms of old farmhouses. Wood and coal stoves worked 24/7 to try and heat non-insulated wood frame structures. My grandmothers used every scrap of cloth they could find, including feed and grain sacks, to sew quilts and clothing for their many children. Not a scrap of food was wasted and had both of my grandfathers not known how to hunt, their families would have surely starved. Back then, gun control and gun rights were unheard of social issues. A loaded gun hanging on wooden pegs on the back porch meant the difference between having some form of protein to put into your children's stomachs and watching them try to survive on boiled potatoes. At age 5, my father was given the responsibility of keeping wood cut and chopped to fit the kitchen stove. He apparently was so accomplished at it that he was given the same job at the one-room country school were he received his entire formal education---8 years.

As did other young farm boys of his generation, he knew that his life's work was already determined. After volunteering to serve his country during WWII, he returned to the black loamy soil where he would live his entire life to embark on his career. He would be a servant and steward of God's fertile Illinois farmland until his death. He accepted his pre-ordained calling with pride and enthusiasm. He never failed at his work. He endured drought, flood, crop failures caused by insects and blight, and yet, many years he watched in renewed awe as bumper crops of golden grain flowed from the combine auger. During profitable years, break-even years, and years of loss, he always kept his eyes focused on the Heavens above, from which he knew all his blessings flowed and from whence his help came. His work was never done and the tremendous productivity of just his pair of hands always amazed me. He fed untold numbers of people throughout his career which ended at age 65. Thousands of head of cattle and hogs were raised and sent to market as a result of his efforts. He worked tirelessly, starting every morning at 4:00 a.m. Baby pigs came during the coldest months, Dec-Feb. He and my mother sat up many a night in a bitter cold farrowing house assisting little pigs into the world and getting them quickly under the heat lamp. When calves came in the Spring, he endured biting winds and sleet, walking the pastures to check to see if any of his herd needed shelter, a shot of penicillin or other attention. His calloused hands broke up ice in livestock watering tanks with the claw end of hammer several times during sub-zero nights. I remember those very coldest nights, he couldn't sleep because he worried about the livestock and would bundle up several times and go out to check on all of them.

The person that designed those heavy denim bib overalls had a man like my father in mind. Every little pocket and loop was re-loaded each morning with the tools of his trade--pliers, nuts, bolts, nails, a little spool of electric fencing wire, a little baling twine, electrical tape, a small livestock syringe and bottle of some type of medication, tape measure, book of matches, carpenter's pencil and more items I cannot remember now. He could predict the weather by the look of the moon or the sunrise or sunset, knew when a cow was about to calf, for the most part, could repair all his farm machinery himself, had a brilliant mathematical mind, being good at predicting the markets and knowing when was the right time to sell grain. He was a man of many talents, gaining all his training from hands-on experience. He was a woodsmen, chemist, vet, hunter, teacher, patriot, devoted grandfather, and a father I will always admire. He was a loyal neighbor, always willing to put his own work aside when a friend needed a helping hand. He could be counted upon, no matter what. He was shrewd and practical and frugal, but his heart was as generous and giving as the wide open spaces he dearly loved. He taught me to count the rings in a fallen tree stump to determine the tree's age. Riding shotgun with him in the pickup to go pick up feed in town or taking a ride to check all the rain gauges he had installed on fence posts at intervals around his fields after a shower, he'd point out wildlife and where to always look for them. He was smart, he was tough and he was a survivor. From my parents and grandparents in east-central Illinois, I never saw corruption and I never saw success taint a person's future. Instead, success was the result of hard work and a kindly nod from God above and certainly nothing to brag about, but rather, count your blessings and be grateful because hard times will come again.

Our country is seeing some hard times now. Sometimes I can't decipher between what is really horrific and what is media hype. My world, and that of my immediate family is secure for now. For that, I am humbly and greatly appreciative. I know there are struggles this Christmas for some families, but I know that is the case each year. Whether a lot of people are hurting or a few, the fact remains suffering and want never go away. That is the result of an imperfect world. Those that came before us knew the true definition of worry about tomorrow. They knew what it was like to put sick children to bed that needed a doctor but there was no money for that luxury. They used gasoline sparingly, and for many children of those generations, a truly wonderful Christmas would be the gift of a new pair of socks or maybe an apple or an orange. I was born in the 1950's when prosperity was abundant. In my lifetime, I've taken for granted much that my parents and grandparents would have considered absolute luxury. Some among us are giving things up now and it is painful. We aren't accustomed to a feeling of want, and we should be grateful to our ancestors for the bounty we enjoy. We should also look to ourselves to make straight our individual courses and make better choices if we have failed to do so.

There's a lot of talk right now about corruption in Illinois, and other places, for that matter. Power and prestige does that to people. A young governor from my home state comes to mind, along with John Edwards, a man that admitted to not having the fortitude to keep his personal life in check. He was lured into bad behavior as a result of a cult following that made him believe he was special and invincible. We have a new president coming in that is someone that has seen unprecedented laud and honor and glory showered upon him. Before even taking the Oath of Office, expectations run high that he will cure every ill around the world. Every problem that inflicts pain upon Mankind will somehow be reduced or eliminated. Two thousand and some years ago, a Child was born that filled the world with hope and the promise of change. To be lumped into that category must be very frightening.

Whatever 2009 brings to us as a nation, it is my hope for the coming year that our readers here, and Americans across this great land, stop once in awhile and think about how we got here and who in our lives allowed us to stand on their shoulders in order that we may prosper and thrive. In every life, someone came before that sacrificed and did without so that this nation would go forward by the grace of God, yet another year. Whatever challenges come, and come they will, as a united people, we will weather the storms of change and with God's help, the hopes of our Founding Fathers and the remarkable documents they authored with which we govern ourselves will prevail. God bless each of you at this Merry Christmas time, and may your prayers unite with mine that God will continue to bless these United States in the New Year.