Re-Reading Obama

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I first read Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, after he entered the national consciousness following his memorable speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention but before he became a candidate for president. The book was originally published in 1995, and then reissued in 2004.

At the time I read the book, speculation was beginning that Obama might run for president, and he had just been elected to the U.S. Senate. Clearly, one of the reasons the book was reissued in 2004, with a new foreword by the author, was because he had become a national figure.

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Watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama with colleagues on January 20, 2009, State College, Pennsylvania

In April 2008, before the Pennsylvania primary, Dale and I went to an Obama presidential campaign rally in Harrisburg, and we both volunteered in very small ways with the Obama campaign in the fall of 2008. And on January 20, 2009, I watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama on a laptop in State College with some of my early childhood mental health colleagues. We paused during our quarterly meeting to take in this historic occasion of the first African American becoming president of the United States (see photo at right). It was an emotional moment for all of us.

Over the past 10 years of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate and then president, when false conspiracy theories about his birthplace and religious faith persisted, and criticism and obstruction of practically every single thing he ever tried to do increased, I often thought of Dreams of My Father and my observations about the book at the time I read it – before any of the craziness. So this week as the nation counted down the days until the end of the Obama presidency, I reread parts of the book. I was curious about whether my observations held up. and about what insights reading the book now might provide into the man we came to know as our president.

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Me doing a thumbs-up with a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama during a trip to Washington, DC in 2010.

I remember thinking and even commenting during a book club discussion in 2006 or 2007 that I appreciated reading something written by a politician before the person became famous, entered politics, or thought he needed to measure his words and omit inconvenient details. While I think now that a career in politics may have been in his mind while he was writing the book, I honestly don’t think it greatly affected the way he told his story.

Two things in particular stood out to me when I first read the book:

  1. He does not always paint a particularly flattering picture of himself, and is very honest about his struggle to find his identity as a black man with a white mother, an absent black father, and two white grandparents who helped raise him.
  2. He describes the development of his Christian faith and the moment of his “conversion” with authenticity and conviction.

As I reread the book this week, I looked for re-affirmation of those two observations. The first – the unflattering picture of himself and his struggle to find his identity – still rings true. He writes honestly of his partying and drug and alcohol use during adolescence and college, his cockiness in certain situations (perhaps a harbinger of the self-confident way he has carried himself throughout his presidency), his lack of seriousness about his studies, the conflicts in his family, his ambivalence toward his father. He tells about reading a story in Life magazine when he was about nine years old and living in Indonesia that greatly affected his view of himself. The story was about a black man who had undergone treatment to lighten his skin. That was the first time he came face to face with what it meant to be a black man, and he noted that his “vision had been permanently altered.” He began to notice things like there being nobody in the Sears Christmas catalog that looked like him.

The struggle for his identity as a black man continued into adolescence and young adulthood. Two quotes illustrate this:

  • At around age 15: “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant” (p. 76).
  • On trying to navigate between his family of “white folks” (his mother and grandparents) and his black friends: “I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two would would eventually cohere” (p. 82).

Today, Obama seems comfortable in his own skin, and has resolved the identity issues that plagued him as a young man. But you could hear echoes of those struggles in his responses to racial issues, especially when unarmed black teenagers were killed. His comment that “Trayvon Martin could have been me” is almost literally true; in the book, he writes about how he was well on his way to becoming a “young black man” statistic, and so I can imagine that every time a young black man is gunned down, he thinks about how his life could easily have turned out if he had made different choices.

My second observation about the development of his Christian faith still rings true as well. Whenever I have heard people deny his Christian commitment or claim that he is a secret Muslim, my mind goes back to this book. Obama writes about his grandparents and mother not having much religious faith and he mentions his father’s Muslim faith, but he claims no belief for himself until something changed during the years he was a community organizer in Chicago before he went to law school. He wasn’t making much progress in his efforts in the community until he hooked up with local churches. There he learned to know people whose Christian faith motivated them to work on behalf of justice and whose hope was found in Jesus. He writes of a Sunday morning service not long before he left for law school at Harvard. The title of the sermon was “The Audacity of Hope,” and the preacher spoke eloquently of how even in the midst of adversity, his grandmother would be singing, “Thank you Jesus,” and “thanking [God] in advance for all that they dared to hope for in me! Oh, I thank you, Jesus, for not letting go of me when I let go of you!”

Obama then writes that while the choir was singing and people were walking to the altar in response to the sermon, he found himself with tears running down his cheeks. Beside him, he heard a woman whisper softly, “Oh, Jesus. Thank you for carrying us this far.” That section of the book ends there, but the clear implication is that something profound happened to Obama at that moment, the culmination of spending time daily with people of faith. I choose to believe he came to personal faith that day and has been a Christian in the real sense of the word ever since.

At the first National Prayer Breakfast after his inauguration in February 2009, he told a version of this story. After noting that he wasn’t raised in a religious household, he continued: “I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck — no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose — His purpose.” His words rang true then and they still do.

Significantly, the preacher’s sermon title, “The Audacity of Hope,” became the title of Obama’s next book, published after he became a U.S. Senator, and hope was one of the major themes of his first presidential campaign. The theme was echoed in his farewell address last week: “I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.” And it was echoed this week in the answer to the final question at his final press conference: “We’ve tried to teach them [his daughters] hope and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world…. I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad. I believe tragic things happen. I think there’s evil in the world, but I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time. That’s what this presidency has tried to be about.”

I have not always agreed with President Obama; I’ve wished he had done some things differently or not at all. For example, he does not seem to be as committed as I would like to the kind of peacemaking that does not see violent responses to evil as justified, and at times he was infuriatingly passive when it felt like he needed to be far more active. But I’ve also supported many of his accomplishments: the Affordable Care Act, actions to reverse climate change and protect the environment, normalized relations with Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and criminal justice reform, to name a few. Apart from his policies, I have always felt like I could respect him as a person, a husband, and a father, and I have deeply appreciated the dignity, grace, and civility with which he has conducted himself amidst a never-ending barrage of ugliness and negativity. The fact that he is being succeeded by someone who is the polar opposite and who has made promises to undo much if not most of what he has accomplished is hard to take, to say the least.

As President Obama leaves office, I need a dose of his optimism and his reminder that “the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.” I began to understand some of what makes him tick when I first read Dreams from My Father, and it’s been encouraging to discover upon re-reading the book that his presidency was built in positive ways on what he learned and experienced as a child, teenager, and young adult. The person I met in those pages is consistent with the president I admired and respected. I will miss him!

Truth Matters

Regular readers of my blog know that I have used this forum to tell stories from my childhood, to write down for posterity memories of my early life. As I have done so, I have been keenly aware that there are many details about my childhood I don’t remember but really wish I could. On occasion I’ve discovered that my memory of a certain event was not entirely accurate. Along the way, some people have generously encouraged me to write a book, but I have always resisted in part because I compare what I could write to other memoirs I’ve read and I can’t begin to match the detail that others seem to recall about their lives. How is it possible, I ask, for memoirists to write in such detail about something that happened when they were three years old, when my memories of my three-year-old self are sketchy at best and mostly nonexistent? Do they just make up stuff? Did their parents and others write down everything down that happened, and now they’re using that information to tell their story? Do they “enhance” their sketchy memories and other contemporaneous recollections to paint a scene that is plausible but probably didn’t happen exactly that way?

If I were to write a memoir, it would be important to me not to make up facts or incidents, and not to ascribe to others things they didn’t do or say. Or, if I used my imagination to fill in the missing details in sketchy memories, I would be honest and admit what I was doing and suggest that even though everything didn’t happen exactly as I’ve described it, the intent was to convey the reality of my life as I experienced it. I would call it something like a “fictionalized memoir.” Truth matters to me!

In my career as an editor and a writer, it has always been important to me to be sure that what I am writing and publishing is true and does not deliberately distort the facts. I am not a journalist by training, nor am I an academic researcher, but I value the ethical commitment in both disciplines to go where the facts lead and not make claims that are not supported by the facts. Much of my writing and editorial work over the years has been of the opinion, commentary, or memoir variety, driven more by individual perspectives, interpretations, convictions, or memories than painstaking research. However, I have always been careful not to be inflammatory in my opinions, even when I have expressed them strongly and without apology. And I have always tried to acknowledge that the facts might lead others to different opinions.

Since I was appointed editor for the Brethren in Christ Historical Society four and a half years ago, I have developed an even greater appreciation for those who research the past and write history, whether family or church history. Of course, historical research and writing often reflect the particular perspectives and biases of the researcher/author. Those unique perspectives and biases sometimes offer an alternative view of history that is important to consider (as in the case of American history as written from an African American rather than a white perspective). But, to be effective in helping us understand history, they also have to match the dictionary definition of truth: the information they impart has to be part of the “the body of real things, events, and facts.”

In today’s environment, however, there is so much that doesn’t pass that simple test. Truth doesn’t seem to matter anymore, and we don’t even seem to be able to agree on what a fact is. It’s apparently okay to just make stuff up or claim that something did or didn’t happen when there is what we used to consider irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

Many things upset me about the 2016 presidential campaign and outcome, but one of the most upsetting is what seems to have happened to truth, and what some have called the “gas-lighting” of America – that is, a form of psychological abuse where we are being manipulated into doubting our own memories, perception, and sanity. I feel like I can’t function in a world where facts aren’t facts, where you can just make up stuff and present it as true and real, dismiss a story based on facts that don’t suit your particular bias by calling it “fake news,” or demean and dismiss journalists and newspapers that have dedicated themselves for decades to telling the truth. The promotion and perpetuation of misinformation and falsehoods (okay, let’s be real and call them lies) destroys order and upsets our sense of equilibrium. The constant drumbeat of criticism of the press and journalists who are investigating the truth and correcting misinformation is a serious threat to the First Amendment and democracy itself. The dismissal of factual and well-researched stories as fake news not to be trusted or believed leaves everything up for grabs. Some days it feels like we can’t even trust that grass is green and not orange, or the sun comes up in the east and goes down in the west, or that up is in fact up and not down. If nothing is really true anymore, if there are no such things as facts (as some political operatives have actually claimed recently), how can we have any sense of being one nation?

Functioning in this crazy-making “post-truth” world where even our highest elected official lies and engages in gas-lighting on a regular basis is difficult, but I’m trying to adopt a few strategies:

  1. Continue to trust that there are journalists who are committed to facts and who are doing their best to tell the truth. I choose to believe the news sources I have trusted for many years that have tried to be fair and have shown themselves willing to investigate the truth. These include NPR and Time magazine, both of which I’ve been listening to and reading for decades. I’ve also added Reuters and BBC News to my Facebook feed as sources that provide a less U.S.-centric view. I do so knowing that even these reputable sources have their biases, but also trusting that their journalists and reporters subscribe to a basic code of ethics.
  2. Be skeptical of stories that don’t make sense and sound unbelievable. And then, refuse to spread questionable information unless I have verified it through other sources, including the fact-checkers (my favorites are FactCheck.org and Politifact, and sometimes Snopes.com).
  3. Recognize bias and account for it, and make deliberate efforts to sort out the facts of the story from the interpretation. In web-based articles, there are often links to the primary source material from which the author drew his or her conclusion or interpretation. I often check out those primary sources to decide for myself whether the author’s interpretation is fair.
  4. Relatedly, look for the full context. Yes, the Bible says, “There is no God,” but if you check the context in Psalm 14:1, what it actually says is, “Fools say, ‘There is no God.'” Big difference!
  5. Call out lies.
  6. Be willing to change my view if the facts lead there.
  7. Always tell the truth myself.

I don’t expect that these strategies will always keep me calm and sane, but I hope they’ll help. I have to do something to protect myself from what feels almost like an existential threat, not only to my personal sense of well-being but also to the nation and world in which I live. Truth matters!

Reflections Upon Reflections

In October 2016, Dale and I spent a week in southeastern Utah. We had fallen in love with the area when we were in southwestern Utah four years ago and decided to go back to enjoy more of the stunning landscapes and endless varieties of red rock formations. One late afternoon in Arches National Park, we hiked the Park Avenue Trail, so named because it is like a New York City street bounded on both sides by tall skyscrapers (rock formations).

The hiking was slow because we stopped frequently to take pictures. Over the years of vacationing with a husband with a photography hobby, I’ve learned to entertain myself while he experiments with different camera settings and angles. Often my self-entertainment consists of taking a lot of my own pictures (or pictures of Dale taking pictures) on my little point-and-shoot camera.

As I wandered around waiting for Dale, I noticed that in the late afternoon sun, the towering rock formations were reflected in the pools of rain water that had collected in the depressions in the rock floor of the canyon. These reflections fascinated me, and as we continuing walking I made a point of checking out the different reflections in each new pool we approached. I took pictures, and soon Dale also caught on to the photographic opportunity these reflections presented.

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The pools of water created interesting effects. The reflections were upside-down, and they were usually incomplete because the pools weren’t large enough or positioned well enough to capture the entire rock. The same pool could reflect different rocks, depending on the angle from which you looked into it. Sometimes there were no rock reflections, just muddy pools. In fact, most of the other people on the trail seemed to completely miss the reflections, but just saw pools of muddy water that needed to be avoided. Most of the time, however, you just needed to change your angle, move to a different spot, to see a reflection and not just a muddy pool.

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A few days earlier, we drove up into the nearby La Sal Mountains and took a side trip off the main road to Oowah Lake. There we also saw reflections. The lake was small, surrounded by tall evergreen trees. But even though the lake not large, it was a lot bigger than those pools on the Park Avenue Trail; consequently, the reflections were much bigger, providing almost a complete mirror image of the surrounding trees reflected in the lake. The most interesting thing about these reflections, however, was that the color seemed more intense/richer than the original – or at least that’s the way it looked in the photographs.

Paying attention to all of these reflections got me thinking. As I usually do when my mind starts down one of these rabbit trails, I wonder about the meaning of words and I head to the dictionary. The verb “reflect” has three main meanings: 1) to think about, to consider; 2) to look like, as in looking or acting a lot like your parent; and 3) to be a mirror image, as in seeing your face reflected in a mirror. So I’m reflecting (thinking, considering) on a certain kind of image – a reflection.

Here’s some of what I wondered:

  1. What was I seeing in those reflections?
  2. What is real and what is just a (possibly poor) reflection of reality?
  3. How do reflections help us see the real thing in a different way?

Both at the lake and on the Park Avenue trail, I saw the real thing (the evergreen trees and the rock formations) and their reflections, so I could compare the real with the reflection, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes we have to rely entirely on the reflection, so it better be a good one. While the trees and the rocks were beautiful on their own, seeing their reflections in the water gave me a new perspective on their beauty, sort of literally doubling the pleasure.

And then I got more personal:

  1. What do I reflect? What do others see when they look at me, or read what I write, or listen to what I say?
  2. When I look in the mirror, what do I see – the real me, or just a poor reflection? Do I see what/who I want to see and not the real me? Or, when I’m being particularly self-critical, do I see someone much worse than who I really am?

As this new year begins – a year that I expect will be challenging in a variety of ways, given the political turmoil and the potential assault on certain values I hold dear – I hope the attitudes and attributes I reflect in my actions and words are something like the pools on the Park Avenue Trail that enhanced the surrounding beauty and provided new, different, and helpful perspectives. I wonder what other lessons I can learn from these reflections – both the thoughts and the images.

Bonus feature from Arches National Park, for this tenth day of Christmas:

One of the rock formations in Arches is called The Three Wise Men. You can see why:

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Another rock formation, visible along the afore-mentioned Park Avenue Trail, has no formal name, but we thought it looked like Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus on a donkey (or perhaps it’s an elephant). What do you think?

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What Mary Knew

One of my favorite Christmas carols of the past couple years has been “Mary, Did You Know?” especially as sung by the group Pentatonix. Then this year, I saw someone question the whole premise of the song, “Of course, Mary knew. The angel told her!” This got me thinking about what the angel actually told Mary and how Mary responded in her song, known today as the Magnificat. The next time I listened to the carol, I paid more attention to the lyrics:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water? (Mary probably didn’t know this)
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters? (Yes, she probably knew this)
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new? (Yes, probably)
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you (Yes)

Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man? (No)
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand? (No)
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? (Maybe)
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God (Yes) ….

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation? (Probably)
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations? (Yes)
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb? (Maybe)
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am (Maybe)

madonna-and-child-giovanni-sassoferratoMy point is not so much to quibble with the comment but rather to think about what Mary knew and how she responded. When the angel told her she would conceive a child named Jesus, he went on: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). That’s all Mary knew, which didn’t give her a lot of details. Later, in her song of praise, Mary said that God had done great things for her and described some of what she thought it meant: God scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:49-53). And then after Jesus’ birth, Mary “treasured all these words [of the shepherds?] and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). While I suspect Mary had lots of questions to ponder about her baby Jesus, her song tells us that she did understand some of what God would do through her child.

I find it helpful to focus on Mary’s song in light of current events. The proud, the powerful, and the rich are put down, while the lowly and hungry are lifted up. These are the priorities Mary identifies out of the little bit of information the angel gives her about the child she will conceive and bear. Mary sang her song in the context of a powerful Roman occupation that was often cruel and a king (Herod) who would later try to kill her son. The idea that God would one day lift up lowly people like herself was indeed good news – and it’s still good news today.

Mary specifically identifies the lowly and the hungry as people God will lift up, and to them can be added the poor, captives, blind, and oppressed Jesus refers to in his opening message in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18), and the hungry (again), thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and prisoners he names in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) as people we should be caring for as if they were Jesus himself.

Today, when the interests of the powerful and the rich seem poised to assume even greater importance than the needs of the lowly, it is good to be reminded of the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus’ birth represents. And it feels important to commit myself yet again to speaking out and acting on their behalf even when it might be difficult and costly.

Post-Election Angst

I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts and get out from under the oppressive cloud of disillusionment, sadness, anger, and grief that has been hanging over me ever since the night Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. I admire those who were able to eloquently write and speak words of wisdom almost immediately, but I haven’t been able to do so myself, and I’m not sure that what I’m writing now is particularly wise. Perhaps it’s more of a cathartic exercise and a personal reminder of what I want my priorities to be.

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Me after voting in honor of my mother, who was born before women were allowed to vote. I wore a white sweater she knit for herself many years and which I inherited.

On Election Day, I proudly cast my vote for Hillary Clinton, feeling optimistic that after 240 years, we would finally elect our first female president. That was not by any means my only reason for voting for Hillary, but it was an especially meaningful one. As I said in my pre-election post, it was not a perfect vote (it never is), but I generally felt good about voting for Hillary and very good about voting against a man who I believe is unqualified and unfit for the presidency. He is the antithesis of pretty much everything I stand for, with his vengeful, bellicose, torture-promoting, dishonest, fear-mongering, demeaning, insulting, bullying, sexist, misogynist, racist, and xenophobic behavior and/or speech both before and during the campaign. But today, that man is the president-elect, and how do I respond? Everything in me wants to rant and say I will never be able to support him, but that isn’t either right or productive.

Mental health therapists I have known would say that it’s important to allow oneself to feel what one feels – no matter how negative and unpleasant the feelings. I’ve been surprised at how deeply disappointed I am that so many Americans chose Donald Trump as their president. For the first 24 hours after the results came in, I felt almost physically ill and like I was sinking into another pit of depression and anxiety. I’m better now, but I’m still sitting with my feelings of anger, sadness, disillusionment, and grief.

  • I grieve over the racism directed at President Obama from the beginning and perpetuated by the president-elect, crystallized in the absurd and patently untrue conspiracy theory that he was not born in the United States and thus was not really our president. It feels wrong on so many levels that the same person who deliberately and repeatedly delegitimized the first African American president should now be the one to take over from him.
  • I grieve for the many immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, and other marginalized people who are afraid of what is going to happen to them. I grieve for all the expressions of hatred toward these people already in the wake of the election. I grieve for my granddaughter’s friend who is worried that his Mexican father is going to be taken away.
  • I grieve that someone who openly brags about committing sexual assault can be elected president.
  • I grieve because whether he intended it or not, whether he denounces it or not, Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists like the KKK and given renewed permission to some white people to express their racism openly and proudly. This is so not okay!

I could go on, but I have to get past all this anger. I won’t be participating in any “not my president” protests. Instead, I have to figure out how to channel my disappointment, anger, sadness, disillusionment, and grief into positive action. I have to find hope in things like the graciousness with which Hillary conceded defeat and President Obama welcomed the president-elect to the White House to begin a peaceful transition of power, and the more conciliatory tone Trump seems to be striking at the moment. I have to remind myself what I have written over the past year as I’ve been trying to process this most difficult election campaign:

From December 9, 2015, commenting on the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”: I really need the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem during this particular Advent and Christmas season, which does not leave us in despair but resoundingly reminds us of the long view of history and of our faith that somehow, the wrong will fail, the right will prevail, and there will be peace on earth:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

I realize that my own attitude toward those who are espousing ideas, beliefs, and practices that are antithetical to what I believe is right and good is not always as loving and kind as it should be. I don’t think that means I should not speak out and confront that which is so wrong, hateful and unChristian, but it does mean I always need to do so in a way that reflects this core value of my faith and my church: “We value all human life, and promote understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.”

From February 15, 2016: At its best, political correctness reminds us of the real people who are at the other end of our words. It makes us think before we speak. It helps keep our discourse, whether spoken or written, less inflammatory and more civil. It includes rather than excludes, and it should make us think about how we might be using our personal power and privilege to demean and minimize the feelings of others.

From April 26, 2016: I will work at overcoming my fear of speaking out and not be silent in the face of great wrong, and I will remind myself repeatedly that this election will not usher in either the end of the world or the kingdom of God!

From July 20, 2016: Donald Trump is a human being; he is made in the image of God, just as I am. He is someone’s son, husband, brother, father, grandfather, and friend…. He feels like an enemy to so much of what I believe is right, but Jesus said I am to love my enemies….

One of favorite Bible verses is “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18)…. Simultaneously comforting and convicting, the verse challenges me to pursue peace when it feels difficult or even impossible. With such extreme division, polarization, violence, and hateful speech these days, the challenge to live at peace with everyone feels greater than ever. I constantly ask myself: do I truly value all human life? Am I choosing to value those who seem unlovable, who commit unspeakably cruel and evil acts, who don’t value life themselves? What difference might it make if I do?”

From September 20, 2016:  I long for political discourse that is honest, that doesn’t throw truth to the wind and repeat lies upon lies upon lies. I don’t want to live in a post-truth world. I also believe that speaking the truth is important when we believe that great wrong is being done. And that’s where I am frequently confronted with the tension between forthrightly denouncing unacceptable and despicable attitudes and behaviors (speaking the truth) and still affirming the essential worth and dignity of the person. Words matter.

From November 7, 2016: One good thing that might come out of this election is some soul-searching and thoughtful re-examination of what “being a Christian in a post-Christian world” (the subtitle of my pastor’s excellent current sermon series) should mean. Perhaps many Christians will come to a renewed understanding that the kingdom of God does not depend on who is elected president of the United States, and acknowledge that perhaps we’ve expected the government to help us be like Jesus and too closely married our faith with our politics.

I have a magnet in my kitchen that says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” To do that, I have to help heal the wounds and be a reconciling force in the world; I have to be kind, empathetic, compassionate, generous, civil, understanding, forgiving; I have to listen to those who disagree with me and see things very differently. I want to echo Hillary’s scriptural admonition to her supporters in her concession speech: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). I’m not completely there yet, but I want to get there.

 

 

Seeking Relief for Election Stress Disorder

“Election stress disorder” is a real thing – almost a diagnosable mental health condition! Last month, a Harris Poll, conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association, showed that more than half of Americans say that the 2016 election campaign is a very or somewhat significant source of stress in their lives. I didn’t participate in the poll, but if I had, I would have been counted among those who have experienced some significant stress this election season.

Where does my stress come from? Let me count the sources!

  • The polarization feels worse than anything I’ve ever experienced, and is reflected every day on my Facebook feed. I feel almost schizophrenic sometimes, with dualing posts from friends on both sides of the political spectrum. I experience ongoing bafflement that intelligent and nice people can look at the same situations and interpret them so differently.
  • There has been so much that is sordid about this campaign (“sordid” defined as “arousing moral distaste and contempt,” with such synonyms as “sleazy, dirty, seedy, seamy, unsavory, tawdry, cheap, debased, degenerate, dishonorable, disreputable, discreditable, contemptible, ignominious, shameful, abhorrent” – all of which seem to fit!). But it’s like a train wreck or car accident that you can’t look away from. Every time I think I can’t watch another news program, listen to another radio broadcast, or read another online article, I get sucked into trying to learn more about some new revelation or change in poll numbers.
  • The rhetoric of “you can’t be a Christian and vote for ___” or “you can’t be a Christian and vote at all” frustrates me. Christians on both sides have written thoughtful analyses and made cases I can respect, even if I don’t always agree. But Christians have also engaged in fear-mongering in apocalyptic language, along with guilt-tripping and downright nastiness toward other Christians who come to the issues with different suppositions and assumptions.
  • It feels like we’re living in a post-truth era, where it’s okay to spread conspiracy theories and falsehoods that have been repeatedly debunked. I hate living in a world where facts don’t seem to matter, pants-on-fire lies are told every five minutes, and people seem to get away with it!
  • Unlike some people I know and like, I am not a single-issue voter, and prefer a more holistic approach. I don’t like the judgment I feel from those who think that one issue is more important than all the others combined. Issues are complex, intertwined, and rarely black-and-white, and a single-issue approach seems like it fails to recognize that complexity and ambiguity.
  • I often wonder how we got to this place. Where are the candidates I can embrace wholeheartedly, whose personal and public lives have been above reproach, and who will inspire the nation to live up to its highest ideals? Why does it have to take TWO WHOLE YEARS to elect a president? After the election is over, can the news media PLEASE take a break and not immediately start speculating on the 2020 election? And after the election can every elected official PLEASE make a pact to “play nicely with others” and not continue to obstruct?

Finally, and perhaps most personal for me is the stress I have felt over my own response. The phrase “vote your conscience” has been invoked a lot, with good reason, but I wonder what that really means: should I not vote at all, register a protest vote (for a third party candidate or a write-in who has no chance of winning), vote against the person I consider a threat to all that is right and decent and honorable, or vote for the one I “like” the most? What is the “conscience vote” that will have the most integrity for me? In some ways, it has been an easy choice, but I’m well aware of the compromises my choice entails. I also sometimes feel like I have become too caught up in the drama of this election, too worried about the outcome, and have lost perspective and made too much of one presidential election.

One good thing that might come out of this election is some soul-searching and thoughtful re-examination of what “being a Christian in a post-Christian world” (the subtitle of my pastor’s excellent current sermon series) should mean. Perhaps many Christians will come to a renewed understanding that the kingdom of God does not depend on who is elected president of the United States, acknowledge that perhaps we’ve expected the government to help us be like Jesus and too closely married our faith with our politics.

My vote on Election Day will not be the perfect vote. It will involve compromise and will not be cast with the belief that if the person I vote for wins, all will be well. I’m not that naive, nor do I think it’s wise put that much trust in a single person. The values that affect my choice include a desire for justice and fairness, compassion, generosity of spirit, care for the marginalized (all the “least of these,” in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25), respect for the essential worth and dignity of every human being wherever they live, a desire for all people to flourish. I believe that one candidate more closely embodies these values in actions and attitudes, but I am under no illusion that this person will always govern accordingly.

14650062_1293456324006921_4994076222190052526_nTo remind myself that I am first of all a citizen of God’s kingdom, and that God is in control and God’s kingdom is not threatened by the outcome of a U.S. presidential election, I’ll be attending Election Day Communion tomorrow evening at my church (Grantham Brethren in Christ Church, Mechanicsburg, PA). Participating in this ritual with my sisters and brothers in the church will be a good stress reliever and a soul- and mind-cleansing time at the end of this difficult election season.

 

Stuff I’m Thinking About, Part 2: Lessons from Germany

Two more of my blog post fragments combined into a single piece.

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View of Passau, Germany from the Veste Oberhaus Castle grounds

This past May, Dale and I traveled to Europe with four other couples to celebrate our 45th wedding anniversaries. We took a “Romantic Danube” Viking River Cruise from Nuremburg, Germany to Budapest, Hungary, with stops in Regensburg and Passau, Germany, and Vienna, Austria.

I’ve written before about my thoroughly German heritage, and I married into another thoroughly Swiss-German family, so a trip to Germany was kind of like going home to the motherland. I hadn’t really thought about that until I began recognizing certain personality traits in the way the local German guides not only talked about their country but also how they themselves behaved. The guides described Germans as being obsessed with rules, orderly, punctual, and unemotional (that is, not showing their feelings outwardly), and we saw some of these traits in action as we followed them around. For example, German buses have seat belts, and the guides were very insistent that we use those belts at all times. When we came upon a minor altercation between a motorcyclist and a pedestrian in a narrow street in Regensburg, our guide pointed out that actually the cyclist was in violation of the rules because he wasn’t wearing a helmet. She also pointed out, apropos of nothing, that some bicycles weren’t parked correctly. I was amused as I recognized some of my own obsessions and personality traits.

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One of many quaint side streets in Passau

One of our stops was in Passau, a relatively small town along the Danube. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Passau before this trip, but it will remain in my memory for a long time for several reasons. First, we were treated to an organ recital in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Literal chills ran up and down my spine as I sat in the cathedral and listened to this glorious instrument featuring almost 18,000 pipes completely fill the space with beautiful music. Second, this is a town with lots of narrow and quaint little streets, great for a walking tour. You never knew what lovely view was going to present itself around the next corner. Third, during some free time in the afternoon, we climbed a hill on the other side of the river to the base of the Veste Oberhaus Castle from which there was a beautiful view of the town of Passau (see photo above). I did not know but learned later that early Anabaptists, my spiritual ancestors, were imprisoned in the dungeons of the castle, having been persecuted for their beliefs back in the 16th century.

dsc03090Also in Passau during our walking tour, our guide pointed across the river to an ordinary red row house and noted that Adolf Hitler was born there. She added, however, that there are no markings on the house to commemorate that fact, nothing to draw attention to this having been the home of Germany’s most notorious leader. If I’m remembering correctly, she also commented that the average resident of Passau doesn’t even know that Hitler used to live there.

Which brings me to another common theme from our time in Germany and some thoughts about its relevance for what’s happening here in the U.S. Obviously, it is difficult to go to German cities like Nuremburg and not be reminded of World War II and the holocaust. I was impressed by how the war, even 70 years later after most people from that time are no longer alive, is still so much a part of the national consciousness, and perhaps still a source of national shame. Several guides talked about how difficult it was for many years for Germans to talk openly about what happened, but now there are intentional efforts to teach their children the whole history of that time.

During the course of this interminable election season here in the U.S., I have read numerous articles warning about the fascist and demagogic characteristics of particularly the candidacy of Donald Trump and making comparisons to the rise of Hitler in Germany. I really dislike Hitler comparisons – they are too easily tossed around as weapons and to promote fear. But it’s hard not to notice the similarities between the focused campaign in the 1930s and 40s in Germany to ostracize, demonize, discriminate against, deport, and ultimately to kill Jews simply because they were Jews and the current rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and racially-charged rhetoric and actions here in the United States, all encouraged either directly or indirectly by Donald Trump.

Trump’s promotion of the “birther controversy” illustrates this. In his recent declaration, finally, that President Obama was indeed born in the U.S. (“Period.”), he lied by placing the blame on Hillary Clinton for starting it in the first place and further lied when he said he had finished it. The issue was actually finished a long time ago, should never have been an issue in the first place, and was probably an issue at all only because the president is a black man and was/is viewed by some as “not one of us,” “the other,” “not really American.”

This delegitimizing of the first African American president is one of the most vile, egregious, odious, reprehensible, and yes, deplorable aspects of Trump’s candidacy. Not only did he insult a twice duly-elected president, but he takes credit for having “forced” him to “show his papers,” like former slaves had to do to be able to move about freely, or many blacks had to do before being allowed to vote. There are undeniable racist overtones to “birtherism” that go beyond undermining the first black president, and Trump doesn’t get himself off the hook by making a 30-second statement that never apologizes to the president and all black people for the lie and the harm it has done. While Trump says he disavows white supremacists, the evidence shows that his crusade against the president (and by extension all African Americans), his vow to deport undocumented immigrants, and his threat to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. (even innocent refugees fleeing unimaginable horror) have encouraged them and given them reason to hope that their cause is gaining ground rather than fading into the dust heap of history where it belongs.

And that is a scary thought, and way more reminiscent of 1930s and 40s Germany than is comfortable for me, and the reason it feels vitally important to speak up and not be silent. Seventy years from now, I don’t want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be ashamed of what happened in 2016. I don’t want the birthplace of a former president of the United States to be like that red house in Passau, Germany – deliberately left unnamed so as not to draw attention to one of the darkest times in the history of the country. That might sound a little hyperbolic; I hope it is, but I’m not sure it is. Perhaps it even sounds inflammatory, and if so, I apologize. Again, as I said in my previous post, it’s an ongoing challenge for me to forthrightly denounce unacceptable and despicable attitudes and behaviors in someone and still affirm the essential worth and dignity of the person.