Three More Birthday Wishes

Last year, on primary election day in Pennsylvania, I listed three wishes for my 68th birthday: a fair electoral system, a world where my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren can survive and thrive, and the ability to age well. I won’t comment on the progress on those three wishes except to say that at least two of them appear to be “wishes deferred” for now. Today, on my 69th birthday, I’m adding three more birthday wishes.

I wish for more success in following the advice of the psalmist to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 10). In a topsy-turvy world that often feels unstable and unpredictable and where a lot of wrong seems to be prevailing (or, in the language of Psalm 46, a world where “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” and “nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter”), it’s difficult for me to be still. There is so much going on that disturbs me: consumer, environmental, and health protections being undone or in serious danger; ongoing assaults on the foundations of democracy, like a free press and voting rights; threats of draconian budget cuts to important programs that meet needs and contribute to quality of life; the normalization of unselfconscious and jaw-dropping hypocrisy and blatant dishonesty (several degrees worse than the kind of spin we’ve come to expect from most politicians ); the threat of potentially devastating military interventions rather than an unwavering commitment to peacebuilding and ever more serious diplomacy; lingering and serious questions about Russian connections and political conflicts of interest; and the list goes on.

With things happening almost every day that trouble me, I find it really hard to rest in the first words of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear….” My activist and impatient self wants to do something to make it all stop, to make a difference, to speak out and act on behalf of those who are most vulnerable right now. I have a difficult time taking the long view of history, trusting not only in God as my refuge, but also in the ability of the world’s oldest democracy to survive what feels like an existential threat. As I’ve said before, it’s not an either/or thing (that is, either I become politically active, or I serenely rest in God’s providence to work it all out while I plunge myself into local and family endeavors); it’s definitely both/and. But still the balance is difficult and my soul needs the rest that comes from “being still” and trusting in a God who cares about the world, individual people, and me.

A typical scene from my current life: Sophie the cat and a mug of tea sustaining me while I edit yet another article.

I wish for a continued (relatively) sharp mind so I can keep doing the things I enjoy and that give meaning to my life: editorial and writing projects, knitting, reading and writing, conversations with friends, travel with my husband, time with my children and grandchildren, volunteer work. Along with a sharp mind, I wish for good eyesight. I’m headed toward cataract surgery in the not-too-distant future, proof that the aging process moves inexorably forward. So much of what I enjoy doing requires not only a sharp mind but good eyesight as well.

Last year in my birthday post I mentioned my annual wellness visit and the three words I had to remember briefly to prove that my short-term memory is intact: apple, table, penny. At this year’s wellness visit, I pre-empted the test by repeating those same three words to the nurse before she had a chance to give them to me – proof, I thought, that my mind is still sharp! I don’t feel like my cognitive skills are slipping, but it’s hard not to have a moment of panic when I can’t remember something I think I should be able to remember (like someone’s name or a phone number I used to know really well or where I put something). Most of the time I tell myself that such memory lapses are normal for anyone who has filed away a lot of detail in her brain over 69 years – it’s not always easy to access the correct file of information from that brain! I also remember something my son said when he was six years old and half-listening to someone dispel some myths about aging. When he heard the speaker talk about “forgetfulness” as a stereotypical characteristic of old people and give the example of going upstairs and then not remembering why, Derek turned to me and said, “I do that sometimes.” Even six-year-olds can be forgetful, so I should give myself a break!

I wish for an attitude of gratitude for all the privileges, blessings, and opportunities that have come my way throughout my life. I don’t want to take anything for granted or assume any sense of entitlement, knowing that many people have not had access to the same privileges and opportunities. I want to be grateful and not bitter or envious about things I sometimes wish I had but don’t. I recognize the fragility of much of what I have and know it could easily be taken away. I also want to be grateful at some level even for the hard things that have been part of my life, not because I enjoyed them, didn’t wish them away at the time, or wouldn’t be just as happy if they had never happened, but because they have become part of who I am – part of my story – and have taught me valuable lessons. Many times, gratitude is not my first instinct, but I would like to be able to get there more quickly than I sometimes do.

The ability to “be still,” a sharp mind, and an attitude of gratitude: three more birthday wishes as I head into the final year of my 60s. Are they too much to ask?

Adventures in Advocacy

In January, I wrote about my “existential crisis,” and mused about several things causing that crisis, including the tension between choosing to speak out on public policy matters and choosing to “go about the ordinary routines of my life, committed even more to being kind and compassionate.” It’s a choice between two different kinds of advocacy: speaking truth to power and asking the powerful to act in ways that help rather than hurt people who are the most vulnerable, or acting in more personal and direct ways. In some ways, the more personal acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity are easier, more satisfying, and might produce quicker results, but the systemic nature of injustice (racism, inequality, sexism, etc.) seems to require something different to create structural and lasting change. I believe both kinds of advocacy are needed, and that it is important to act out my beliefs both personally and publicly.

At the beginning of a presidency that I find disturbing on many levels (no news to anyone who has been reading this blog for the past year and a half), I’ve been engaging in more public advocacy than has been my custom. This past week, that took three forms: I wrote letters/emails; I visited Scott Perry, my U. S. representative, in his local office; and I attended his town hall meeting.

The office visit: Dale and I went with four other people to meet with Scott Perry. We were scheduled for 30 minutes, and ended up having about 40 minutes with him. Our main goal was to introduce ourselves and hear a little about what he considered his legislative priorities, in the hope of beginning to establish a relationship with him for future meetings on more substantive issues. Time went went by VERY quickly, the conversation was congenial and nonconfrontational, and I hope we laid the foundation for future conversations.

The town hall: When Dale and I learned that Perry had scheduled a town hall meeting, we immediately registered, and took a friend with us. To get in to the meeting, we had to show our tickets and a photo ID to make sure that only residents of his district attended. At least 400 people came, but the venue was not full, even though all the tickets were reportedly gone in three hours and there was a wait-list of about 500. Apparently some who had registered were not able or chose not to come after all (there were some weather concerns). Neither Dale nor I had ever attended a town hall before, so this was a new experience, and probably not at all like town halls in the past when 20-40 people would show up, if that many. Clearly, there is a lot more energy for these things right now!

Some observations from the office visit and the town hall:

  • We’re glad we went, and we’ll probably go again.
  • I was very conscious once again of my “minority” status in our congressional district. Only about 33 percent voted as I did in the last election; Perry was re-elected in 2016 by a 2-1 margin. Given this reality, my question is: how can I know that my concerns are represented, or do I have to simply resign myself to the fact that I “lost,” shut up, and just get over it? (Online comments on the news report on the town hall said as much.)
  • Related to the town hall specifically:
    • Perry deserves much credit for holding the town hall – apparently he’s the first Pennsylvania congressman to hold one. While he got impatient occasionally, he handled himself well. He said the right things about this being part of what a representative democracy is about, and he promised to hold future town halls. I appreciate that!
    • A lot of the attendees were members of organized groups and had met to prepare ahead of time. We were simply concerned citizens attending on our own to observe and be counted.
    • The format was different than I expected. Instead of people being invited to a microphone to ask a question, everyone was invited to submit a written question, along with a name, mailing address, and email address. Then someone read the questions, one at a time, until time ran out. It seemed like the questions were read randomly, rather than pre-selected. Perry promised that his office would respond to every question, even if it was not featured at the town hall; it will be interesting to see whether he really addresses the question I asked or responds with one of his generic answers.
    • There were four major themes in most of the questions: 1) the president’s proposed budget and the draconian cuts to important programs that help address very real needs (like Meals on Wheels, low-income energy assistance, etc.); 2) opposition to the wall and the recent immigration raids (for example, one elementary school principal noted that immigrant parents are afraid to come to school for their citizen children’s PTO meetings; 3) the president’s behavior (lies, assaults on the free press, refusal to release tax returns, possible ties with Russia, etc.); and 4) the Affordable Care Act and its proposed replacement, the American Health Care Act, which according to the Congressional Budget Office will result in millions of people losing their health insurance.
    • We did not enter into the “raucousness” of the event. There was a lot of shouting and booing and interrupting, although not as much as I expected there might be given what I had seen on TV from town halls in other parts of the country. While I may have agreed with the reasons for the boos and interruptions, I am personally not comfortable participating in that kind of behavior. I applauded when I agreed, but kept mostly silent when I disagreed (well, except for muttering under my breath or to Dale or my friend!).
    • A town hall like this one is simply not a good forum for genuine dialogue, and I doubt whether anything different will happen as a result. Probably the most important thing is that it let Perry know that the 33 percent in his district who did not vote for him (and perhaps some who did but are now upset by what’s happening) would like to be heard and represented too. It also helped me see with my own eyes that we are not alone in many of our concerns, even though in our district we are in the minority.
    • The audience was very white, even though the district includes the cities of York and Harrisburg, both of which have significant African American populations. We thought about the importance of helping to ensure that those communities are better represented at future meetings. And we couldn’t help thinking about the effects of gerrymandering right here in our own backyard: the district includes much of York and Adams Counties, a little piece of Cumberland County (including us), and the city of Harrisburg, effectively negating the city’s influence.
    • Perry often did not answer questions directly, but went back to his talking points, obfuscated (in my opinion), or simply avoided the question entirely. Of course, he’s not the only politician who does that!

Ultimately, both the office visit and the town hall contributed to my feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. During the meeting in his office, Perry talked a lot about the strictures that are placed on House members and how they often have to tow the party line regardless of their own opinions and preferences. I couldn’t help wondering how, given the realities he described, constituents can ever feel like their concerns will be taken seriously. He kept mentioning that he has 720,000 people in his district, the clear implication being that the majority rules, and we were in the minority. He doesn’t really have to listen to people like me to be re-elected.

On the other hand, I think it’s important to continue speaking out. I’m reminded of that quote attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” There are obviously many ways to change the world – including practicing our values and beliefs (in my case Christian) in our everyday lives at home, in our neighborhoods, at work, in and through our churches, and elsewhere – but I believe that speaking out publicly as a “thoughtful, committed citizen” (which I hope I am) is one of them.

 

God Bless the Whole World, No Exceptions

worldFrom the moment of my birth, I have been inextricably linked to three nations – the United States, the land of my mother’s birth; Canada, where my father was born; and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where I was born. Even though I carry a U.S. passport and have now lived in the U.S. for more than 55 years, I’ve never forgotten my deep roots in and ties to Canada and Zimbabwe (and Zambia, where I also lived as a child). So there’s something in me that instinctively recoils when I hear the words, “America first.” It’s not the association of that phrase with the 1940s and anti-Semitism (disturbing as it is) that makes me recoil; rather, I dislike the idea because it seems to suggest that America is more important than other countries, that we should always be self-interested at the expense of other people in other places.

My own experience and understanding of Christian faith doesn’t fit well with the idea of “America first.” My missionary kid birth and upbringing conditioned me from the beginning to think about other countries besides the U.S. Even after returning to the States, my parents kept in touch with people in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and they were deeply interested in what happened in those countries. As former missionaries, they also maintained their connections with Brethren in Christ Missions in other countries, such as India, Japan, and Cuba.

Except for Canada, I didn’t travel outside the U. S. after we returned from Africa in 1961 until 30 years later in 1991. By then, I was an at-large member of the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. I served on the board for 19 years, including nine years as chair. While serving on the board of MCC, which works in approximately 50 countries, I had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, Zimbabwe , Zambia, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Indonesia. These visits always affirmed the fundamental value of individual people of all races and colors and creeds. I have wonderful memories of the people I met, and when I think of these countries, I often think of specific people, especially women, who worked hard and cared for their families just like I do, often under very difficult circumstances.

[Aside: I’ve written before about how my international travel taught me much: “Stories from Around the World, Part 1 and Part 2.” I’ve also written about “Books to Expand My World” highlighting books that remind me there is a world out there beyond the United States. Here’s Part 2 of the post about books.]

From a Christian point of view, caring more about one’s own country and its people seems to be at odds with the concept of being citizens of heaven and the kingdom of God, rather than earthly kingdoms. Jesus didn’t say, “God so loved the United States” (or Palestine, where he lived); he said “God so loved the world.” God created everyone in God’s image, not just Americans, and if we truly believe that, then we should care about the welfare of all people, not just those who live in the United States. John’s vision of a huge choir composed of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (a multi-ethnic and multi-national kingdom of God) points to a much less ethnocentric and nationalistic view of the world than what is currently being promoted in many places.

All of this is not to say that I’m not patriotic and don’t appreciate the kind of life I enjoy in the United States. I confess to feeling a fairly high degree of patriotism during the Olympics, as just one example, and I can’t help breathing a little sigh of relief when I set foot on familiar American soil again after traveling internationally. I also don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t integrity in taking care of our own people; there is a bit of hypocrisy in railing against poverty, inequality, oppression, and discrimination in other places when we aren’t working hard enough on those issues here at home. Self-interest is a good thing (as Jesus himself suggested when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself”), although not when it ends up always putting personal interests ahead of the needs of others, or hogging the lion’s share of resources when others are suffering.

As Christians, we are connected to a global fellowship, a worldwide church; we care about the welfare of everyone, regardless of where they live. But beyond that, as human beings,  we are all connected to people all over the world. The contemporary world is inextricably interconnected and interdependent, more so than at any time in history, given the relative ease of travel, increased technology, and the ubiquity of the Internet. What we do here affects people in other places, and what other people do affects us; this is especially true when it comes to the use of limited natural resources. Globalism seems to have become a dirty word, but that doesn’t make sense to me. The “America first” mentality seems to operate out of a zero-sum philosophy: we have to be first, which means that no one else can be first; we can’t contribute to the well-being of others in other places because that means we can’t take care of ourselves. Why does it have to be either-or; why can’t it be both-and?

The time-honored ending to every presidential speech is “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” I understand and respect that, knowing and appreciating that presidents speak as the chief representative and promoter of and advocate for one specific country. But sometimes I also can’t help wishing they would add, “And God bless the whole world, no exceptions.”

 

From Writing What I Didn’t Know to Reading to Know Better

In 1964, for my senior English class, I wrote a short story called “Created Equal.” More than 50 years later, I still have the original (slightly yellowed) handwritten copy, complete with an A grade and the comments “Excellent” and “Powerful theme.” The story is written in the third person omniscient point of view about an African-American family forced out of their home because of white protests and the family’s struggle to find another home.

By choosing that topic, I violated one of the fundamental principles of writing: write what you know (or research thoroughly so you learn to know). I didn’t have any personal experience with the topic, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t do any research. At the time, I was living in a lily-white neighborhood, attending a white school and church, did not personally know any African Americans, and just two years earlier had returned from living in racially segregated colonial Africa (albeit on mission stations surrounded by black people). What in the world motivated me to write such a story in the first place, and what made me think I could do it with any integrity?

To answer that, I think you have to put my story in context. We did not have a television in our home, but we did listen to the radio and my parents subscribed to Time magazine, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was the Man of the Year for 1963 and appeared on the cover on January 3, 1964. My social studies class during my senior year in high school was called “Problems of Democracy,” and while I don’t remember much of anything from that class, we probably discussed current events, and 1963 and 1964 were tumultuous years in the civil rights movement. For example: April 1963, King was arrested during protests in Birmingham and wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; June 1963, Medger Evers was murdered; August 1963, March on Washington; September 1963, four young black girls were killed when a church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. I’m thinking all that was in my mind when I chose the topic for my story.

I am impressed in retrospect that I cared enough about racial injustice when I was 16 to write about it, but I wish I had been able to write out of some base of knowledge gleaned from what people like Drew Hart call “those on the margins.” My church just finished a month-long series on racial reconciliation, using Drew’s book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, as a resource. (Drew is an African American assistant professor of theology at Messiah College.)  In the final chapter of the book, Drew lists seven “Jesus-shaped practices for the antiracist church.” The third item on his list is to “see the world from below,” which includes his suggestion “that Christians from dominant culture change their reading habits so that those on the margins become the main stage.”

When I was 16, “those on the margins” were definitely not the main stage of my reading habits. In the years since, my reading habits have broadened, and I have enjoyed reading books by non-white authors, including African Americans and writers from other countries, especially Africa. Two of those authors, whose memoirs I read recently, are John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia, and Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of writing at Columbia University.

march

John Lewis’ three-part graphic memoir of his leadership in the civil rights movement, March (co-written by Andrew Aydin, Lewis’ communications director, and illustrated by Nate Powell), taught me so much more about the events that must have inspired and shaped my short story than I ever knew at the time. I already had a great deal of respect for Lewis based on his current role as a congressman from Georgia; reading these books increased my esteem for him. He is often referred to as a “civil rights icon,” and his three-part memoir firmly establishes why that label is not an exaggeration.

He is the only surviving member of the “Big Six,” the heads of six prominent civil rights organizations who collaborated on many of the big events of the 1960s and fought for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (the other five were Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young). He writes honestly about the conflicts between the leaders and their organizations regarding the methodology and philosophy of the movement despite their common goals. Lewis participated in the Freedom Rides, marches, and numerous sit-ins and protests to desegregate restaurants and other establishments and to secure voting rights for African Americans in the south. He is the only surviving speaker from the August 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He was arrested more than 40 times, jailed repeatedly, and beaten viciously (fractured skull) by white police in Selma on Bloody Sunday in March 1965. Despite all that, he maintained an unwavering commitment to nonviolence as the instrument of change.

The three parts of March describe how and why Lewis joined the civil rights movement, and then cover his participation in and leadership of the movement until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Interspersed throughout the three books are flash-forwards to the inauguration of Barack Obama as president on January 20, 2009, a continual reminder of what a seminal event that was in black history in the United States. Near the end of Book 3, before the account of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Lewis describes meeting Obama after the inauguration and receiving an autographed copy of the inauguration program on which Obama wrote, “Because of you, John.” (Tears ran down my cheeks as I read that, by the way.)

Most people who came of age where and when I did remember the tumult of the 1960s – not just the civil rights movement but also the Vietnam War. I often characterize myself as a child of the 60s, explaining some of my current bent toward activism and social justice as having been honed during those years. The news was full of protests, and you had to have been living under a rock not to be at least somewhat aware of what was going on. I suspect, however, that a steady diet of news about civil rights protests ended up distorting my views of black America. While I commend myself for having lamented in my story that “[u]ntil things were better, Rosie and Caleb [the mother and father in the story] would have to live as two of the many that were ‘created equal,’ but not treated equal,” I also cringe at the stereotypes I perpetuated of poor desperate blacks who worried that all the protests were not going to help them (yes, I actually had Rosie expressing her frustration about how the protests were going to hurt more than they helped, words that were more likely to have emanated from all the white people I knew than from many African Americans).

negrolandThose stereotypes were again shattered by the second memoir I read recently – Negroland, by Margo Jefferson. Jefferson was born a year before me, and thus came of age during the same time I did, in the 1960s. Her story, however, is worlds away from mine, or that of John Lewis. She was born into an upper class black family in Chicago, and lived a life of relative privilege. Absent from her memoir is much mention at all of the marches and protests going on in the southern United States. Her struggles were different, although certainly very real, and she did not actively participate in the civil rights movement as we usually think of it, but her story nonetheless illustrates the racialized nature of American life. Consider this comment about the nature of privilege: “Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege….Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident but not obliging; dignified, not intrusive” (p. 91).

The book as a whole is an interesting exploration of the intersection of class, gender, and race, as Jefferson figures out how to negotiate the world as an upper class woman where race seems more important than either gender or class in determining one’s status in the U.S. And just as Lewis interspersed his civil rights memoir with scenes from the Obama inauguration, Jefferson intersperses her own story with some of the history of upper class and wealthy blacks, dating from before the Civil War. To my shame, I knew practically nothing of this history.

Who knows how that high school short story would have been different if I had written about what I knew. Perhaps it wouldn’t have tackled the issue of race at all, or maybe it would have been about a white teenager just beginning to learn about issues of race in the country she had been living in for only two years. I can’t go back and change the story (or stop cringing in embarrassment every time I reread it!), but I can continue to enlarge my reading habits so that I am better able to see the world from a point of view that is different from that of my dominant white culture.

 

Postscript: Other recommended books by African American authors I’ve read during the past year:

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson; about racial disparities and discrimination in the criminal justice system and Stevenson’s legal efforts with the Equal Justice Initiative

Between the World and Me, by Ta-nehisi Coates; a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, confronting race in America and how it has shaped American history

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones; a novel about a black slave-owner in Virginia before the Civil War

The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore; the true story of two black men by the same name who both grew up in Baltimore but ended up in very different places

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson; a memoir in poetry of her childhood in South Carolina and New York City

And of course, Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, parts of which I re-read recently.

 

 

An Existential Crisis

If you’ve read this blog over the last year, you know that I was deeply troubled by the presidential campaign and did not vote for or support the man who is now the president of the United States. As I’ve tried to process my feelings since the election, and come to terms with an outcome I don’t like but at least at some level must accept, I’ve experienced far more of an internal struggle than I expected or ever have before following an election that didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. I have been shaken to my core, and I don’t quite know how to deal with the ongoing existential crisis I feel. Maybe it’s a bit of hyperbole to call it an existential crisis, but let me explain.

On caring more about politics than I should as a Christian: In his inaugural address, Donald Trump said, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America.” That sentence really bothers me as a Christian and should bother everyone who calls themselves Christian. Total allegiance to my country, above all else? Really? And yet, in the depression and anxiety I have felt over the future of the United States under politicians whose positions seem in direct conflict with values I hold as a Christian, I recognize the possibility that my allegiance is more divided than I want it to be, that perhaps I am putting more faith in democracy and political systems than in God. I really do believe that the kingdom of God does not depend on who is or is not elected president or the policies we enact, but I also believe that some of the very foundations of our democracy are in danger right now. How do I navigate that tension without compromising my primary allegiance to God’s kingdom? And somewhat relatedly, how do I interact with fellow Christians who see things so differently than I do – some of them within my own church, family, and circle of friends?

On truth and facts: I feel like I am living in some kind of alternate crazy-making universe, where people speak in all seriousness about “alternative facts,” as though there is no such thing as objective truth. As I said a couple weeks ago, “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 “gas-lighting of America,” including the deliberate efforts to undermine reputable news organizations that have been doing credible reporting and investigative journalism for many years, is dangerous and smacks of authoritarianism, and it has continued into this first week since the inauguration. Truth matters!

On speaking out/protesting publicly vs. living and acting according to my values in my own little corner of the world: I do think this is a false dichotomy; both are needed, not one or the other. However, I feel this tension very personally. I am not a protester kind of person; I’ve never literally marched for or against anything, even though I have often agreed with the reason for the protests or marches. On the other hand, back in the 1980s, my husband and I resisted paying the portion of our federal income taxes used for military purposes because of our commitment to nonviolence. That was a form of protest. I have visited congressional offices (admittedly not often) to advocate for something I believe in, and I’ve written letters and made phone calls to my senators and representatives. Those are forms of speaking out. Right now, I think I could spend my whole day writing letters or making phone calls, joining one protest or another, signing this or that petition to speak out against or in favor of some action on issues I care deeply about. But is that how I should spend my time? Perhaps it is more important to go about the ordinary routines of my life, committed even more to being kind and compassionate, welcoming to people who are different than I am, generous, etc., and leave the speaking out and protesting to others for whom it might come more naturally?

One reason why this is not a simple choice is that systemic issues are at play that I’m not sure can be resolved by acts of kindness and generosity, important as those are. For example, how will my individual acts of treating everyone the way I want to be treated ensure that voting rights are respected and not restricted, or ensure that people who are in danger of losing their health insurance will be able to get the health care they need and deserve?

On practicing empathy when I don’t feel it: I believe it is important to put myself in the shoes of those who are pleased with the new president. While I’m convinced that some people voted for Donald Trump for not-very-noble reasons (his appeal among white supremacists being one notable example), I also know that many people genuinely believe that certain moral values were being lost and now hope they will be restored, or felt abandoned economically and now hope for recovery. I may not agree or be convinced that this presidency will solve those problems, but I understand that there are legitimate reasons why many people wanted a stark change in direction. I confess this is difficult for me because I am repulsed and offended by so many of the words, behaviors, and policy proposals of the new president, but I still must try to understand .

On choosing the right battles: Two articles I read recently have helped me begin to choose my battles. The articles suggested not spending too much time on issues that are “part of the normal ebb and flow of government and changes in party control,” but paying attention instead to issues and policy proposals that have moral (or theological) implications or are assaults on democracy itself. Admittedly, it’s not always easy to make this distinction, because they are often intertwined, but it could help me focus my attention and action on a few things when it feels like every day there is something new to address.

For example, I am opposed to the recent executive order suspending the Syrian refugee program and restricting immigration from certain mostly-Muslim countries; the Bible tells me not to be afraid, to welcome strangers as if they were Jesus himself and to care for the alien and the oppressed; plus there are the words on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”) articulating the traditional aspirations of this country. I am also concerned about the not-so-veiled threats against the press when it dares to report the truth or critique the president (see above item about truth and facts), and I am worried that discrimination on the basis of religion is being normalized. These are threats to American democracy.

On not wanting to be guilty of the same thing I hated during the Obama presidency: The day he was inaugurated, Republicans deliberately planned to obstruct anything President Obama proposed. Even though they didn’t succeed in preventing his re-election, and he left office more popular than many outgoing presidents (certainly than his predecessor, a Republican), the obstructionism generally worked and now we have undivided government. So the obvious temptation is for the opposition to respond to the new president the same way – to obstruct and resist everything. I have been told to “give the new president a chance,” which seems fair and certainly within the spirit of not returning evil for evil. But what am I to do when already what I consider immoral/unChristian actions are being taken, people have been nominated for positions for which they are not qualified or in which they could do great harm (to public education or the environment, for example), and untruths and blatant falsehoods are being perpetuated by the new administration? How do I “give him a chance” while also speaking out and resisting?

Other aspects of my existential crisis: 1) I have a hard time spiritualizing the election, taking comfort that God’s will is being done or God’s sovereignty is at work. I am especially put off by arguments that somehow God intervened to elect Donald Trump for some spiritual reason. I do take comfort from Psalm 46, “Be still, and know that I am God,” preferring to believe that God is still God no matter what happens and cares about and understands my feelings. 2) I want to love my enemies; speak the truth in love and not let “unwholesome” talk come out of my mouth (or pen or typing fingers); and bear evidence of the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). But it’s sure not coming easily these days! 3) I don’t want to live in a constant state of outrage. It’s not healthy, nor is it particularly productive. How do I channel my outrage into something more productive and less stress-producing?

I wish I had sure-fire strategies to ratchet down my levels of frustration and concern over what seems to be happening that is antithetical to so much of what I believe is right and just. I realize that there are many who don’t share my angst, either because they support the direction being charted by the new administration or because they’ve found strategies for coping that work for them. I suspect, however, that there are others like me who are struggling. Maybe articulating some of the sources of my current “existential crisis” will not only be therapeutic for me but also encourage others who are on this same journey.

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!