2017 is a year of big anniversaries. It has been 500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door in Wittenberg, Germany, intending to invite debate about indulgences – and quite unwittingly precipitating the several “Reformations” whose impact has shaped the modern cultural climate.
It has been 100 years since:
- The Russian revolutions took out the Czar and brought in the Communist party.
- Woodrow Wilson brought the Americans into World War I under the commitments of the 14 Points.
- The British declared their intentions for Palestine in the Balfour Declaration.
The 20th century surely would have been quite different without any of these!
We are all caught in this strange and always surprising historical process – shaped, as it is, by the mysterious intertwining of human intentionality and divine providence. This is not just something for historians to ponder. It affects each of us as we think about the meaning of our lives and the decisions we are called to make each day.
My somewhat random and accidental readings over Christmas all seemed in one way or another to feed into these reflections:
- Candace Millard’s recent biography of a young and impetuous Winston Churchill during the Boer War reminded me that I have no idea which of the young people I encounter each day on Houghton’s campus – or even that you encounter in your lives – is most likely to land on a larger stage and in a position to shape the destinies of nations.
- Robert Putnam’s American Grace challenged me to think about the growing theological and political divide in American society over the past 40 years and how we can better prepare Houghton graduates to play mediating and bridge-building roles that preserve the potential for ongoing civility and a vision of the “common good” even in these complicated times.
- Diarmaid MacCulloch’s All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy forced me to remember once again how complex the world is, and how the significance of any one person’s choices or the impact of any one event is never fully understood in the moment. It takes decades – even centuries – and unending study to come anywhere near a full understanding of what a human life might mean.
- Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures reminded me that many – perhaps the majority of human stories – simply get lost to history. If Margot Shetterly had not started asking lots of questions about the older women in her church over Christmas break in 2010, the world might never have learned of the remarkable role of the women “computers” as they were called, many of them African-American, who helped develop the mathematical calculations that undergirded American advancement in the aerospace industry between World War II and the end of the 1960’s. The story has recently been turned into a movie by the same name. I won’t spoil it for you but would highly recommend it. How many other human stories of dedicated sacrifice are never rescued for the future and remain known to God alone.
- Basil Mitchell’s Faith and Criticism energized my belief in Christian liberal arts and its distinct commitment to preparing individuals to contemplate God’s work in the world through the multiple ways that He has revealed Himself – through the Scriptures, history and the Church, nature, human reason, and our experiences – and then to be shaped for their roles in the world by that contemplation.
- Finally, I keep thinking about a paragraph in Readings Through the Year with Austin Farrer:“God does not give us explanations; he gives up a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: ‘Peace upon earth, good will to men . . . and this shall be a sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.’ A Son is better than an explanation. . .” (p. 28)
Who would have guessed that the Lord of the universe would appear in the midst of history in human form in the obscure town of Bethlehem? That same God continues to surprise us. We have no idea which of the ‘ordinary’ circumstances of our lives or the ‘ordinary’ people we encounter or the ‘ordinary’ decisions we made on an ‘ordinary’ day will turn out to have meaning for our own futures, let along the larger world.
Mercifully, we have no idea when God’s purposes are furthered because of us and when they are served in spite of us. We marvel, as Auster Farrer reminds us in his sermon, “The Potter’s Clay” (Leslie Houlden, Austin Farrer: The Essential Sermons), of God’s “infinite patience of improvisation” as he works in and through our fallen and frail (though well intentioned) purposes to accomplish his own. Our job is to be faithful; He does the rest.
May you be challenged and comforted by this mystery as you do the work to which you are called in this year of our Lord, 2017.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976