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.

Stuff I’m Thinking About, Part 1

I have this small stack of paper scraps that are the beginning fragments of blog posts. I think a lot about what’s going on in the world, both far away and closer to home, and I often feel like I want or need to say or do something. One way I cope is by grabbing the nearest scrap of paper and jotting down my thoughts, trying to make some sense of what often feels like it makes no sense. Here are three of those fragments (more to come another time):

The greater good, or “to vote or not to vote,” revisited:

Not long before our April 26 primary election here in Pennsylvania, I wrote that I am tempted not to vote this year, but I don’t want to wake up the day after the election, not having voted, only to find that someone I believe could do great harm to the country and the values for which it stands has been elected president. I still feel the same way, but the moral quandaries continue.

What do you do when faced with choices you don’t like, or with the knowledge that any vote will be a compromise of one value or another? Both major party candidates are flawed – one of them way out of proportion to the other, in my opinion. One of them will be elected in November, no matter what third party candidates optimistically want us to believe. None of those third party candidates excites me anyway, and I don’t want to run the risk of helping to elect the worst of the two major party candidates by voting third party. Not voting at all runs the same risk. Perhaps not voting washes my hands of responsibility for the outcome (“don’t blame me, I didn’t vote”), but it doesn’t feel like “cleanliness” is an option this time.

One of the third party candidates suggests, “Don’t vote for the lesser of two evils [meaning Trump or Clinton]; vote for the greater good [meaning herself and the values and policies she espouses].” Putting aside my discomfort with calling people “evil,” it’s not clear to me what the greater good is this year. Is the greater good not participating, not voting, but rather focusing on living the right way, practicing my values and my faith, regardless of who is elected president? There’s certainly integrity in that. Or might it be voting against a candidate I consider dangerous by voting for the other candidate who I don’t fully support but whose flaws are much less egregious and who I actually like in many ways? I honestly don’t know the answer. I understand why one’s conscience could lead to not voting at all, coming as I do from a faith tradition that historically shunned voting because of the compromises it entails and the knowledge that the coming of God’s kingdom does not depend on who is or isn’t elected president of the United States. What feels right for me at this moment, however, is to vote against the candidate I consider unfit and dangerous by voting for the other.

Agreeing to disagree:

After a disagreement between two of my Facebook friends ended with one of them saying, “we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” I started thinking about what that means. On the one hand, agreeing to disagree is often crucial to maintaining relationships, and helps to avoid tension and focus on what unites us rather than divides. This is particularly important within families. Agreeing to disagree is also a fundamental recognition of our common humanity, and helps us recognize the essential worth and dignity of people regardless of whether or not we agree on everything. We are all in this life together and trying to do what we believe is right. Diversity of thought is good, enriches our understanding of the world, and helps us clarify our own thinking.

On the other hand, sometimes it feels like agreeing to disagree cuts off the conversation and stops the ongoing exploration of why we believe what we believe. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” This is particularly frustrating when one party in the disagreement believes the subject is vitally important and the conversation should not end.  Agreeing to disagree also doesn’t always help us understand why the person thinks as he or she does, or what experiences shaped his or her views.

Words matter:

I’ve written before about how words do hurt, despite the old ditty. I shared personal anecdotes of when words did hurt me. And I’ve written a defense of political correctness in which I concluded: “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.”

Reading through the comments on Facebook or on online newspapers can be really discouraging, to put it mildly. I am regularly almost brought to tears by the cruelty and hatred of those who obviously don’t think of the real people on the other end of their comments, or don’t care. The phenomenon of “internet trolls” is something I simply can’t understand (see Time‘s recent article, “How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet”). I regularly ask myself, “What is wrong with people? Have they never heard of the golden rule? How would they feel if they or someone they loved were on the receiving end of such verbal bullying? What is there about our culture that encourages and rewards this kind of behavior?”

I am reminded of Bible verses I learned a long time ago:

  • “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles” (Matthew 15:18).
  • “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). (The context here is “each tree is known by its fruit.”)
  • “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,..so that your words may give grace to all who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

Of course, this last verse is preceded in the same paragraph with these words: “Putting away falsehoods, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.” 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 (see “My Internal Political Struggle” for more on this). Words matter.

 

A Thought Experiment: What If We Had Responded Differently?

Fifteen years ago, the Fall 2001 edition of Shalom!, a publication on peace and justice issues I edit for the Brethren in Christ Church, was on “Restorative Justice.” As I said in my introductory editorial, I had originally planned to apply the concept to the criminal justice system, prison and offender ministries, situations of abuse, and so on. But in the middle of my planning, September 11 happened and almost immediately, I also began to think about what a restorative justice response to the terrorist attack might look like.

To define restorative justice, I quoted Howard Zehr, an expert in restorative justice theory and practice: “A restorative approach to justice would understand that the essence of crime is a violation of people and of harmonious relations between them. Instead of asking first of all, ‘Who done it? What should they get?’ (and rarely going beyond this), a restorative approach to justice would ask, ‘Who has been hurt? What can be done to make things right, and whose responsibility is it?’ True justice would have as its goals restoration, reconciliation, and responsibility rather than retribution.”

In my editorial, I went on: “So how might we apply these ideas to September 11? Clearly, the attacks were crimes that violated people and their relationships. But what is justice in this situation? How might we identify the needs of the victims and the obligations of the offenders (terrorists) so that things can be made right? How might it be possible to create a process that would achieve more justice?

“My understanding of justice involves more than judgment and meting out punishing that may be deserved. Justice includes making things right; in fact, in the Bible the same word is often used for both justice and righteousness. In the Old Testament, the call to justice (or righteousness) is often in the same context as calls to goodness, love, kindness, mercy, and peace (Micah 6:8 is just one example). To what extent is the response to September 11 motivated not only by the desire for some kind of justice in the sense of appropriate consequences for behavior, but also for what will make things right over the long-term, that will consider the needs and obligations of everyone involved, that will restore relationships rather than further fracture them?

“Admittedly, these are difficult questions with no easy answers. I’m well aware that this situation feels different than many others for various reasons. However, I still yearn for more thoughtful consideration of how things could be better if we worked harder to apply restorative rather than retributive justice principles to the situation.”

Fast-forward 15 years, and I’m still wondering what it would have looked like if we had responded differently to the September 11 attacks, and done a better job of taking into consideration the principles of restorative justice. One of the questions that was frequently asked in the aftermath of the attacks was “Why do they [terrorists] hate us so much?” and it’s a question that continues to be asked. When I googled the question while I was writing this post, I found lots of responses from 2001 all the way up to 2016. In the aftermath of 9/11 before wars were launched, many countries around the world supported the U.S. as we sought to recover from the devastation and loss of life, and we had the opportunity to think creatively together about how we might address the underlying causes for people hating us so much that they would plan and execute such an horrific attack. Instead, the U.S. government launched first the war in Afghanistan to go after Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, and then manufactured reasons to invade Iraq as well.

In that same Fall 2001 edition of Shalom!, I reprinted a talk that Terry Brensinger, my pastor at the time, gave at a peace rally in Harrisburg called, “Sowing the Seeds for Peace: Prayers and Petitions for Nonviolent Action.” He offered three possible nonviolent seeds for peace in the aftermath of 9/11:

  1. Develop meaningful channels of communication with all members of the Arab League and Muslim countries through which we can begin to understand the obvious hostilities toward the U.S. and its policies in those regions of the world.
  2. Aggressively pursue a viable and long-lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Although this conflict seemingly centers on a relatively small piece of land and directly involves but a few million people, it serves as an arena in which American foreign policy is widely displayed. In the eyes of many observers, our involvements here in the past have served to worsen relationships with much of the Muslim world.
  3. Use our multiplicity of resources – financial, educational, and social – to assist the struggling and underdeveloped countries in the Middle East and Asia. Rather than answering violence with greater military force, the U.S. has the opportunity to respond with a wide range of creative initiatives in the region. In so doing, we might begin to undermine the very conceptions that breed terrorism.

Terry concluded: “In short, America faces a strategic moment in its history. This world of ours has for so long lived with…violence that we now consider [it] normal. We have this opportunity to break the cycle. We can begin converting enemies into friends.” (You can read Terry’s whole speech, as well as the rest of the issue of Shalom!)

Here’s the thought experiment: What if we had responded differently, more along the lines of what Terry suggested and in keeping with the principles of restorative justice rather than retribution? What if we had not gone to war in Afghanistan and then invaded Iraq under false pretenses? What if we had not spent trillions of dollars on endless war, putting the U.S. more deeply in debt? How might things be different now? Is it possible that we might have prevented future terrorist attacks and not helped create the conditions for entities like the Islamic State to take root? Could a different approach in 2001 have changed the mood of the U.S. so that we wouldn’t currently be facing what feels like increased levels of hatred toward the other, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, racism, and generalized anger?

Obviously, I can’t answer those questions, and I have no way of knowing how a different response would have worked. But when I think about what has happened in the intervening years – endless wars, the loss of tens of thousands of lives (American, Afghani, Iraqi, and others), ongoing political instability in the Middle East, more acts of terrorism, brutality on a massive scale, repeating cycles of violence, and so on – I wish we had made the effort to see how creative nonviolence might have changed the trajectory.

A few closing caveats:

  • I have not been directly affected by terrorism nor am I personally connected to any of those who died, were injured, or lost family members on 9/11, so I know my musings may ring hollow. I really don’t want to demean their experience and their ongoing pain and feelings of loss.
  • I also don’t want to minimize the sacrifices many people have made doing what they believed was right to fight terrorism and try to make the world safer. Many have lost family members in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many veterans continue to live with debilitating injuries and significant mental health issues.
  • “What ifs” can seem a little like armchair quarterbacking and a luxury not available to everyone. But I also believe that thinking about the “what ifs” is sometimes a useful way to help us imagine more creative alternatives.

So what if we had responded differently 15 years ago? What might that response have looked like? What can we learn now from asking these questions that will help us respond differently in the future?

My Internal Political Struggle

I struggle daily with the tension between being vehemently opposed to and repulsed by pretty much everything Donald Trump is and stands for, and knowing that he is a human being made in the image of God and therefore worthy of respect and care. Almost every day, it seems like there is some new statement or action by him (or his surrogates) to horrify and worry me, and confirm that he should not be president and in fact could be dangerous for the country and the world. To me he is the personification of the emperor with new clothesa textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder, and he lacks the thoughtfulness, humility, compassion, and temperate personality that I look for in a president.

The list of things he’s done and said that offend everything I believe in is long: derogatory comments about women, Muslims, Mexicans, people with disabilities, and others; a penchant for schoolyard bullying tactics and personal insults; stoking the flames of conspiracy theories (e.g., that President Obama was not born in the U.S.); inciting, condoning, and not condemning violence at his rallies; shameless lying, even after repeated fact-checkers have proven statements to be pants-on-fire false; shameless pandering to various groups (e.g., to evangelical Christians) to get votes; support for torture that is morally wrong not to mention illegal; promises to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; suggestions that he might ban Muslims from entering the U.S. or require U.S. Muslims to register; support for white supremacists and authoritarian (dictator) leaders; playing to our worst fears, especially of “the other.” This list doesn’t even include his well-documented questionable business practices and multiple affairs.

I keep thinking I can’t be surprised or shocked by anything else Trump will say or do, but then there he goes again, with some new thing to outrage me. Or, he gives a speech that is completely incoherent (with sentences that defy any kind of grammatical structure that could actually be diagrammed!), all about himself, and devoid of any actual policy content. Journalists repeatedly ask him to explain how he would actually implement something, and he deflects their questions with some version of “believe me, I’ll do it, and it will be the greatest” but he gives no details.

Part of me understands Trump’s appeal, because I can understand the frustration, fear, and anger of people who feel they have been left behind in the new global economy or feel like the world they felt comfortable in is slipping away. I also understand frustration with “politics as usual” and the inability of Congress to work together to get anything done, and the hope that someone from outside the political system can make a difference. But a large part of me continues to be genuinely flummoxed by his appeal. Surely we are better than this, I think. Surely the American people don’t want someone representing our country on the world stage, or making decisions with potentially devastating consequences, with his temperament, unchecked narcissism, tendency to lash back at anyone with petty insults and name-calling, and repeated habit of saying whatever comes to mind without regard for how it might inflame a situation.

I also suffer from a significant case of cognitive dissonance when I hear many evangelical Christians unreservedly support him. I’m not so much bothered that he might not be one himself or that he can’t speak religious language that sounds convincing to those of us who have grown up in the church. After all, there is no constitutional requirement that the president be a Christian. Rather, I am bothered that many Christians seem to overlook (and in some cases even condone implicitly if not explicitly) so much of what he says and how he acts that is antithetical to many of the values we hold. I am deeply saddened by the undertones of racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and mean-spiritedness that have come out in the open and threaten the monumental efforts the United States has made to welcome and embrace everyone. Think Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Not being politically correct has come to mean it’s now okay to express out loud the worst that’s in us. (See my earlier post, “A Defense of Political Correctness.”)

BUT: 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. As members of his family have demonstrated in their speeches at the Republican National Convention this week, there are people who know a different side of him than what he has shown to the public before and during this campaign and who seem to genuinely respect, care for, and love him. He feels like an enemy to so much of what I believe is right, but Jesus said I am to love my enemies.

What do I do with my daily struggle? How do I reconcile the need to show respect and care for Donald Trump the human being who has faults just like the rest of us with the importance of speaking out against the no-holds-barred campaign he has run, the nasty way he has behaved toward others, the policies he has proposed that I believe are wrong and/or immoral, and the kind of president I fear he would be if he stays true to form? How do I deal with the internal struggle of knowing that as a Christian I am obligated to love a person I really really dislike and who I believe is wrong on so many levels?

I recently wrote an article for our denominational publication called “Heart Check,” in which I analyzed one of my favorite Bible verses: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). In that article, I noted, “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 went on, “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?”

I don’t think it’s possible for me to over-state my opposition to Donald Trump’s candidacy for the president, but I hope it is possible for me to do so without de-valuing him as a person.

 

The Woman Card

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Me among supporters of women’s suffrage at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY; October 2010.

Yesterday, May 15, 2016, was the anniversary of the day Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. The first Women’s Rights Convention had been held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY. In 1869, as the United States was considering the 15th amendment to the Constitution giving African American men the right to vote, Stanton and Anthony believed that once that happened, there would be no further interest in working for the right of women to vote as well. Whether they were right in their assessment is beside the point for what interests me at the moment, which are the dates.

In 1848, only 100 years before I was born, the first women’s rights convention was held, and more than 20 years later, in 1869, the women’s suffrage association was formed. It took 51 more years before the 19th amendment was ratified, finally giving women the right to vote. My maternal grandmother, who was born in 1888, wouldn’t have been allowed to vote until the 1920 presidential election, even though she was married and had five children with a sixth on the way. My own mother was born almost nine years before women were allowed to vote. Women were given the right to vote only 28 years before I was born. It took 132 years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified for the men in charge at the time to FINALLY allow half the population of the United States to have a say in the election of their leaders. Less than 100 years ago, women couldn’t vote. Every time I think about all that, I have to just say, “Wow!”

We are not all that far removed from denying women (who, according to an old Chinese proverb, “hold up half the sky”) the ability to participate in choosing their leaders. So when one presidential candidate in 2016 accuses another of playing “the woman card,” saying that the only reason people vote for her is because she’s a woman and if she were a man only five percent would do so, the comment is personally offensive to me as a woman who less than 100 years ago wouldn’t have been able to vote at all, much less for a woman. I’ll admit that my reaction is at least somewhat influenced by my negative opinions about the person who made the accusation, but it goes beyond that to the visceral feelings such comments stir up in me.

The charge of “playing the woman card” puts women in an impossible bind. First, it suggests that nothing the woman has done in her life is important besides being a woman. A long resume of accomplishments doesn’t count. The charge confirms what many women have often felt: they have to work much harder and be much better than their male counterparts to be considered equally competent and skilled, and they are held to higher standards than men.

Second, it is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations. If you do play the card – that is, use the fact of being a woman to your advantage, perhaps by acknowledging with some pride that you’ll be the first female senator or governor or president or chair of a board or pastor or bishop – you’re called out for doing so. You’re seen as being qualified only because you are a woman and not because you have relevant credentials and experience; you’re accused of pandering; you’re said to be acting like a victim. On the other hand, if you don’t play the card, you’re seen as running from what could clearly be an advantage in some circumstances. After all, women can offer helpful and unique perspectives on the issues, simply by virtue of being women. Or you’re seen as betraying other women (and young girls) who look to you as a role model for their own aspirations. Or, you’re accused of “acting like a man,” whatever that means, and denying one of the most fundamental parts of your identity.

I believe that calling someone out for playing the woman card is evidence of the ongoing presence of sexism (defined as prejudice and discrimination against women simply because they are women) in American life. Of course, I can’t prove it and many people won’t admit it, but that’s certainly what it feels like when a woman with relevant qualifications and experience is accused of playing the woman card. Is there a “man card” and who’s playing that?

Thank goodness I have the right to vote. If this were 1916 instead of 2016, I wouldn’t be able to!

 

 

 

 

Three Birthday Wishes

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One of the earliest photos I have of myself – another treasure from that vintage suitcase. Circa 1948, Matopo Mission, Southern Rhodesia.

As I celebrate my birthday on primary election day in Pennsylvania, in the middle of one of the oddest and most frustrating presidential campaigns ever (in my memory, at least), there are many things I could wish for, but I’ve limited myself to three wishes. One relates directly to presidential politics, one looks beyond this year’s election to the future, and one is more personal as I edge ever closer to my seventh decade.

I wish for a U. S. political system that is fair and based more closely on the concept of one-person, one-vote. An upside of this crazy political season has been the exposure of a system that doesn’t really operate that way. Instead, it relies heavily on arcane and complicated rules and the behind-the-scenes machinations of Republican and Democratic Party officials; during the primaries, it disenfranchises many voters who choose not to register as Republicans or Democrats; it allows states to enact new laws and procedures that in effect make it more difficult rather than easier for many people to vote; it feels like wealthy individuals have undue influence on the outcome; it rewards gerrymandering by both parties. While I understand how difficult it would be, both logistically and politically, to change the system, I believe democracy would be so much better served if we could. Perhaps one positive result of the 2016 presidential election cycle will be some steps in that direction. I wish….

I wish for a world in which my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren can survive and thrive. That kind of world is in many ways summed up in the “fruit of the Spirit,” as enumerated in Galatians 5 – a world where love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control abound. Just writing those words makes me feel like my wish is a pipe dream, completely unattainable, and the stuff of unrealistic idealism that doesn’t recognize the realities of evil in the world. But, what if everyone truly tried to embody those characteristics? Or as a start, what if everyone who claims to be Christian did?

In the world I wish for, my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren will:

  • Live with hope and optimism that they can make a positive difference in the world, rather than be ruled by fear and apocalyptic pessimism
  • Be part of systems that are generous and compassionate toward the dispossessed and marginalized
  • Have plenty of clean air and clean water, along with beautiful natural spaces to explore and enjoy
  • Live in safe neighborhoods, not threatened by random gun violence or other threats to their well-being
  • Be able to get an excellent education and quality healthcare without saddling themselves with huge debt
  • Have equal opportunities and not be discriminated against, regardless of their gender, race, or ethnicity
  • Learn how to be peacemakers and resolve conflicts in ways that don’t depend on violence and hateful rhetoric
  • Be willing to forgive and show mercy to those who might not deserve it
  • Recognize that their own freedom should not come at the expense of others
  • Treat others the way they wish to be treated

I wish to be able to age well. When I think about what my parents were like at the age I am today (68), I remember them as already seeming old, even though they lived to be really old (91 and 93, respectively). When I think of myself, I don’t feel old; in fact, except for those periodic aches and pains (like the “crick” I’ve had in my shoulder for the last few days), I feel like I’m still in my 40s. But I have one child who is in her 40s, and another who is approaching that milestone, so clearly I’m not. I might not be old yet, but I’m certainly well on my way!

At my annual wellness exam in February, the nurse checked my mental status – something I assume is a standard part of wellness exams for those of Medicare age. She gave me three words to remember while she conducted some other tests, and then instructed me to repeat the three words. This test always panics me a bit: what if I can’t remember the words? But I had no trouble, and in fact still remember the three words: apple, table, penny. If I remember the words all the way to next year’s exam, will that prove that there is no cognitive decline?

If I had my wish, good aging would include the continued pleasure of good and loving relationships with family and friends, interesting hobbies, travel, meaningful activities, and being able to contribute to a better and more peaceful world. It would be free of excessive pain and devastating disease, and it would not include cognitive decline. But I know that what I wish for may not happen. I have some control – for example, I knit, read, play word games, and write, which are all activities that are supposed to keep one’s brain active – but there are many things I can’t control. When the inevitable aging process begins to take its toll in significant ways, I wish for the patience and grace to accept it and not become a difficult person, filled with anger, bitterness, depression, and regrets. I may not want to “go gentle into that good night,” but I also don’t want to resist it so much that I make myself and everyone else miserable! I want to age well, and then to die well.

Three wishes for my birthday. Which ones will come true?

 

The Grandmother I Never Knew

IMG_0645Among the old family photographs in the vintage suitcase was a letter from my grandmother, Alice Steckley Sider, who lived in Ontario, Canada, to her sister Ella in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I never knew my grandmother, from whom I got my middle name, because she passed away during a flu epidemic in 1920, just three days after giving birth to her fifth child who died the same day she was born. My dad was only eight years old when his mother died. The letter is dated February 18, 1919, a little more than a year before she died on February 29, 1920, exactly two months shy of her 32nd birthday.

When my father left home in 1930 and came to Pennsylvania, he lived in Carlisle in the home of another of his mother’s sisters who was married to Ella’s husband’s brother. He worked on the Lehman farm until he began attending Messiah Academy to finish high school. I remember my great Aunt Ella. Because Carlisle is not far from where we lived in Grantham and because of my father’s connection to the Lehmans from those years of working on their farm, we visited periodically. And today, one of my dearest friends is Aunt Ella’s granddaughter and my second cousin, Wanda Lehman Heise.

Ella and Alice

Ella Steckley Lehman and Alice Steckley Sider. I think my daughter Dana looks like her great-great aunt Ella!

Also in the suitcase was a photo of my grandmother and Ella. It’s one of very few I have seen of Alice. She was the fourth of 14 children; Ella was the third oldest, born in 1887, and Alice was born the next year in 1888. They had two older brothers and two more brothers immediately after them, so they likely were close as the first girls in the family and because they were only about a year apart. Perhaps that explains the photograph of just the two of them.

I have no idea how this particular letter ended up in my parents’ possession. Perhaps Aunt Ella gave it to my dad on one of his visits, knowing that he would value something tangible from the mother he lost when he was so young. For me it is a small window into the life of someone I obviously never knew but wish I had. Like her husband and my grandfather in his letters in later years to my father, Alice writes a lot about special evangelistic meetings at church and about her desire to be faithful to the message being preached by various ministers well-known throughout the Brethren in Christ Church at the time. Maddeningly for me almost 100 years later, she doesn’t write much about family life, although my dad is singled out for his scholastic achievements, which doesn’t surprise me because he always did well academically. I just wish she had said more!

Here’s the letter, slightly annotated [in bracketed italics] and edited to make it easier to read. Originally, it was one long paragraph. I retained most of the non-standard grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

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Marshville, Ont., Feb. 18th, 1919

Dear Sister Ella,

Your kind letter came to hand a couple of weeks ago, also read a letter from Mary [next younger sister, born in 1892, also living in Carlisle] last Monday so thot I would answer your letter now, and then I will write to Mary later perhaps when the meetings are over as it is hard to get at writing while the revival is on.

Well, our Bible Con[ference] is now in the past, but not forgotten. We surely had a refreshing time from the presence of the Lord. He gave us such beautiful weather and good roads for the three days and we had a lot of visitors. There was a lot up from Bertie [another Brethren in Christ Church some miles away] every day. A number of them came up with their cars, and they would go back and forth, some of them every day. Bro. Shoals came home and Bro. Ed Engle with him. My, he is a lively little man and full of the Holy Spirit and fire, and Bro. J. N. Hoover was here too. He had been holding meetings at Pelham for two weeks or more previous to the Bible Con, so he consented to stay and take in the Conference. Tommy Doner couldn’t be here to talk on his subject so they got J. N. Hoover to take his place. We had a glorious time together. It was time well spent and we felt richly paid for all our trouble. The altar was full of seekers on Monday night before the Bible Con. I wasn’t there but I thot something must have happened because Jesse [her husband, my grandfather] didn’t get home till 12 o’clock. Father and Mother came home with him. Jesse went to Fenwick on Monday P.M. after them. They brot Rhoda and Mary Brillinger [cousins] along with them.

Tuesday was our day to take lunch to the church, so I was glad to have Mother here to help me on Tuesday morning. They had it divided into three parts. There was 27 families to provide lunch for the Con. so that made 9 families for each day. Each family was to take 45 sandwiches either salmon meat or cheese and 35 cookies, 1 large loaf cake, 4 pies and 1 qt of pickles, but a number of us took more sandwiches than that. We was afraid there wold ‘t [wouldn’t] be enough. We had company every evening for supper and every night over night. I didn’t go nights while the Con was going on, as it was too much for the children to be there all day and at night too. My if we could only remember all the good things we heard. I guess there will be an account of it in the Visitor [Brethren in Christ periodical] after while. The Spirit of the Lord is working among the people. I think there has been seekers at the altar every night except two nights since last Monday. Bro. Shoals and Bro. Engle left again last evening for Ohio and Bro. J. N. Hoover left last Friday night on the midnight train from Welland for Merrill, Mich.

We had quite a snowfall yesterday and last night but hardly enough for good sleighing. It is thawing [or snowing, word is not clear] again today.

[shifting abruptly from the snowstorm back to the revival meetings] A number of the members have been digging thro[ugh] and got into the liberty but there are still a number who are all bound up and have no testimony. My prayer is that every one of them may get to realize their condition and plunge into the fountain and be made whole. I’m so glad that I ever went thro[ugh] with God until the fire fell on my soul. [This language about plunging into the fountain and fire falling on one’s soul was typical of the revivalist/holiness movements of the time.] It is so precious to know that we are right with God and that we are just filling the place he would have us fill.

I hope you are having good meetings in Carlisle. Norman Wingers were up to the Con. on Thursday. You know she was Margaret Shoffner, one of the orphanage girls. My, they have a fat baby. They call him Murray, and she is getting so stout herself. Well it is nice that you can leave your baby with Grandma when you go away. It isn’t so tiresome for you. My baby is so afraid of everybody [probably a reference to her youngest child Elmer, about 14 months old at the time). If any stranger takes him he will just cry as hard as he can. I wish he wasn’t so afraid. Lewis [my dad, her oldest child, who was then seven years old] likes going to school. He is learning fast. The teacher talks about putting him in the 1st book. You know they have different books than they had when we went to school. They have the Primer first and then the 1st book comes next. He can read pretty good already.

Next time you write, let me know what the Roseoline [some kind of medication, ointment?] cost you – that is the charges and all – and I will send you the money. It was nice for you and Abram’s [Lehman, Mary’s husband] to take in the Philadelphia L. F. [can’t read the initials for sure and don’t know what she’s referring to]. I suppose Mary enjoyed it. Well I must close and get to work.

Lovingly your sister Alice and family

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