Judy and I have been enjoying the PBS series by Ken Burns entitled The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. It follows, for over a century, the lives and careers of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor, all members of one of America’s most prominent families. At least one of them occupied the White House for 8.4% (20 years) of the Nation’s history.
For me, the biggest surprise in the film series came from the early photos of Eleanor. I remember her in her later years (she died in 1960) as an imposing, even striking figure who exuded self-confidence and commanded respect. But in these younger photos she appears . . . well, not Miss-America-ish. And she was so aware of her “plainness” that she always seemed to hide from the camera. Also, her family life was full of sadness and tragedy, which meant that her growing-up years were pretty dismal, in spite of the affluence that surrounded her. She was sent to a “finishing school” in England, after which there still seemed to be something not-quite-finished about her.
However, two positive things resulted from the fact that Eleanor was never the “belle of the ball.” First, out of her social isolation, she focused on the development of her mind through constant reading of all sorts, together with the sharpening of her reasoning skills. Destined to be non-competitive as a looker, she did all she could to be a first-class thinker. Second, she became very sensitive to the feelings and needs of those who didn’t have the advantages of money, class, male gender or perfect health. This prepared her for her life’s work in advocating for the little people and the powerless, beginning with the Great Depression and lasting to the end of her life.
Franklin was Eleanor’s “fifth cousin, once removed,” whatever that means. They encountered each other occasionally at gatherings of the extended family from early childhood. When he was 22 and she was 19, he proposed to her. We can only imagine what he saw in her — certainly more her inner than her outer beauty. For his part, Franklin was a strapping, good-looking young man. He had an infectious smile and a charming, charismatic manner about him. They would spend forty years married together, twelve of them in the White House. Because of their differences in personality and interests, a good part of the time they were “together” they were, in fact, mostly apart.
A man with such natural personal gifts can easily be “full of himself,” and that seemed to be a tendency with Franklin. But in the prime of his manhood, at the age of 29, he was taken down by the polio virus. He nearly died, and his legs remained paralyzed for the rest of his life. He was humbled, but not humiliated by this disability, and his greatest accomplishments came during the years when he spent most of his waking hours in a wheelchair. It seemed that Roosevelt only became the person who could lead America through the Depression and World War II when he was cut down by physical limitations. As in Eleanor’s case, his strength emerged in spite of — can we say because of? — weakness.
Look in the mirror. What do you see? What do wish you could change?
Esther was a Jewish teenager when she caught the eye of the King of Persia. However, we remember her, not for her beauty, but for her courage, risking her own life to save her people (Esther 4:15-16). In fact, the Book of Proverbs has this warning for young women:
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. (Proverbs 31:30).
On the male side, when they were searching for Israel’s ideal King, God warned the prophet Samuel:
Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)
Then God led the prophet to an unlikely young man named David. David is described in this way:
He was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. (verse 12)
This sounds like a compliment, but the enemy giant Goliath later used this same language to disparage David as not manly enough. (See 1 Samuel 17:42.)
Look in the mirror again. Could it be that what you consider to be your greatest liability may really be the secret to your success, a gift from God to keep you from focusing on the superficial you, rather than the deeper, better you, the you he wants to use?
The Apostle Paul talks about a “thorn in the flesh” he has had to endure. Scholars think it may have been an eye ailment that was progressively destroying his vision. He writes to the Corinthian Church:
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)
— Pastor George Van Alstine