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.”

 

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Reflections Upon Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s some of what I wondered:

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

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

And then I got more personal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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View of Passau, Germany from the Veste Oberhaus Castle grounds

This post was originally written in September 2016, before the election. It seems even more relevant now in August 2017, given the increasing influence of neo-Nazism and white supremacy and the inability of the person who is now the President to adequately and convincingly denounce racism in all its ugly forms.  

In May 2016, 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 lived 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 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. August 2017 update: Recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia prove that neo-Nazis and white supremacists have in fact felt emboldened by President Trump. They specifically said so. 

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, 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.

August 2017 update: Right now, what I wrote last year feels fairly mild and not at all hyperbolic. I am beyond appalled and outraged, and I am sad and grieved at the racism both blatant and subtle that is on such full display, all the way up to the President of the United States. This is not acceptable. This is not right. This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Knowing full well that my efforts are not always perfect and I will sometimes fail, I want to stand against racism in all its ugly forms. 

Cuba Revisited

Count me among those who are applauding President Obama’s recent action to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and further relax restrictions on travel, etc. More than 16 years ago, I visited Cuba as part of a delegation from the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Our purpose was to learn about the reality of life in Cuba with a further goal of advocating for an end to the U.S. embargo. While the President’s recent action does not end the embargo, I believe it is a step in the right direction, based in part on what I observed all those years ago. I wrote a journal while I was in Cuba and when I returned, I did a presentation for the board in which I reflected on our experiences. As I read back over those reflections 16 years later, I am impressed with how what I heard and observed then is relevant in the current environment. Here are some slightly edited excerpts from my reflections on September 18, 1998.

On needing enemies

During our discussion with the head of the Cuban council of churches, he noted that “United States ideology needs an enemy” – and he went on from there to say that Cuba was a necessary enemy right now [1998]. Of course, needing an enemy isn’t peculiar to the U. S. We also heard that the Cuban government uses the embargo to oppress the people. In other words, the government can withhold food or other goods deliberately, but then blame it on the U.S. embargo. Having enemies seems to go both ways. Both the U.S. and Cuba seem to benefit from the perpetuation of enemy status.

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Political slogans were all over the place – on billboards, painted on walls, and even on a bus!

When we visited the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, an official said he has to “psychologically divorce himself from the Cuban people’s lives.” We assumed he meant that it would be difficult for him to do his job (maintain enemy relations, perhaps?) if he learned to know the Cubans as individual people or as friends. And yet, a Cuban government official claimed that Cuba is open to dialogue and negotiation with the U.S. The only condition, he said, is that there be no conditions, but that Cubans be able to speak as equals. Maybe this was propaganda, but maybe we ought to call their bluff. Maybe, like Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having once said, we could defeat the enemy by making them a friend. Maybe that’s what it would mean to overcome evil with good or heap coals of fire on their heads (see Romans 12:14-21).

The meaning of truth

On our last morning in Havana, we visited with two officials of the National Assembly of Popular Power. While we were there, we were served beverages placed on coasters with the words “Siempre Libres” on them – “always free.” As I thought about those words and what they mean in the Cuban context – a communist country the average American thinks is quite the opposite of free – I couldn’t help thinking of Jesus’ words, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Obviously, Jesus’ words can’t be literally applied to Cuba, but they did create an interesting set of questions for me:

1. What does Cuba mean when they say they are “always free”?

2. What is the truth about Cuba?

3. What truth(s) did we learn while we were there?

4. Whose truth did we learn?

5. Is there ever only one truth about a given thing, or idea, or circumstance?

I’ve always known that each of us sees things through our own lenses, and those lenses are affected by our genes, race, geography, economic status, religious beliefs, political opinions, life experiences, etc. The “truth” of this phenomenon seemed to be dramatically illustrated through our experiences during one week in Cuba. We heard different versions of the same situation or event or circumstance. When we went to Washington after returning, we heard the official U.S. version of the truth given us by the National Security Council. I feel like I have not yet discovered the full truth about Cuba.

All of this reinforced the importance of listening and not drawing conclusions too quickly, because there may be another side, another reality, another truth. I became convinced that there isn’t just one truth about Cuba. It is important to be careful not to generalize about Cuba based on limited experience and observation, but at the same time to be willing to speak the truth as I felt it while I was there.

Finally, a few lingering images and impressions of Cuba

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    One of the vintage cars that provided some of our transportation. Left to right: Kay Bontrager-Singer, another MCC U.S. board member; the owner and driver of the car; yours truly

    Wonderful people so willing and eager to talk about their lives and share whatever was in their hearts – people whose Christian faith had sustained them through many years and difficult circumstances. [We visited the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba, as well as a Mennonite house group that wasn’t officially registered with the government but at the time operated under the registration of the Brethren in Christ.]

  • Ongoing wonderment regarding the truth about Cuba; e.g., would it be good for the embargo to end [my personal view in 1998 and still in 2014], or would it upset the balance of things and make life worse?
  • Old 40s and 50s vintage American cars still running, albeit often beat-up and spewing toxic fumes.
  • A variety of modes of transportation – old cars of course, plus bicycles (some with two or three people riding them), motorcycles, side cars, multiple versions of buses. I saw no accidents or traffic jams – there seemed to be general courtesy in the streets; even car horns, though common, were polite little beeps.
  • Revolutionary slogans all over the place, but no advertising billboards.
  • Mangos, guava juice, papaya – bringing back memories of an African childhood.

 

 

Alaska Reflections

The phrase “once in a lifetime” is sometimes thrown around carelessly, when the experience it is being used to describe is probably not really once-in-a-lifetime. However, I think I can fairly safely say that our recent trip to Alaska was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This was my first time in Alaska, and I’m pretty sure it will be the last. It’s not that I wouldn’t enjoy going back, either to revisit some of the same places or, more likely, to see another part of this vast state, but with so many other places in the world I’d also like to see while we’re still able, I doubt whether we’ll ever go back to Alaska. During the short time we were there (11 days), we saw only a small part of the state, but that small part left me with some strong impressions.

IMG_0248The vastness of the land: Various guides tried to help us put the size of Alaska in perspective. One stat is that Alaska is bigger than California, Montana and Texas combined, or to bring it closer to home, Pennsylvania could fit into Alaska 14 times. (Here’s a handy little tool to compare your state to Alaska.)

If you look at a road map of Alaska, you’ll see that almost all the roads are concentrated in the southeast part of the state where most of the population is located. Once you get to Fairbanks, there aren’t many roads that go farther north. (On the other hand, Alaska has 102 seaplane bases – more than any other state!) Anchorage is the largest city at less than 300,000, which is 40 percent of the entire population of Alaska. As we cruised up the Inside Passage from Vancouver, British Columbia to Skagway, and then across the Gulf of Alaska to Seward, I couldn’t help wondering how the borders between Alaska (and therefore the U.S.) and Canada were established. What kind of negotiations or arm-twisting gave that entire southeastern coastline of Alaska to the U.S. instead of Canada? (If I had time and were in the right mood, I’m sure I could probably research the answer to that question!) The shape of Alaska, from that southeastern coastline to the Aleutian Islands which stretch farther west than our other outlier state of Hawaii, is proof that borders and boundaries are funny (as in peculiar), often arbitrary things.

The tourist view: Obviously, we saw Alaska as tourists, and therefore undoubtedly have a somewhat warped or unrealistic view of the whole state. But the tourist view is interesting in and of itself. In a small effort to justify indulging ourselves in this trip, Dale and I often noted that we were supporting Alaska’s tourism industry and helping to provide jobs. So we were surprised to learn that many tourism jobs don’t necessarily go to Alaskans but either to folks who head north from the lower 48 for the tourist season, such as college students and retirees, or to people the cruise lines bring in. The cruise ships themselves are staffed in large part by people from the Philippines and Indonesia who are separated from their families for large portions of the year.

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Ketchikan

There is sort of a fake aspect to the downtown areas of towns along the southeastern coast like Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. Many of the shops in the areas of these towns catering to cruise ships almost seem like movie sets that become ghost towns when the tourist season ends and the workers the cruise lines ship in to run all the T-shirt and jewelry stories leave town. We couldn’t help wondering why some of the young people we saw aimlessly hanging out in the town square in Anchorage can’t get jobs in the tourism industry. I’m sure it’s complicated, but it’s a question we asked ourselves. We were glad when the tours we took supported local businesses that employ individuals born and raised in Alaska as guides. Then we felt like we were getting a more authentic experience, even though it was still definitely catering to tourists.

IMG_1464Environmental observations: I am so unqualified to get into the debate about climate change and global warming, but it was something I thought about as we saw glaciers and heard our guides talk about how they have receded in recent years. For example, the Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound has retreated about ten miles since 1982. What will happen to the environment as this glacier and others continue to recede?

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The mission of the National Park Service as displayed at Zion National Park in Utah

As Dale and I have traveled in the U. S., visiting national parks like Zion and Bryce in Utah, Yellowstone in Wyoming, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Everglades in Florida, the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and now Denali in Alaska (not to mention various national forests and monuments in these and other states), we have been grateful every time for the foresight of U. S. presidents and legislators of the past to set aside and protect these wonderful lands for the future. In Alaska, we heard several times about how certain things like fishing and logging have been restricted or prohibited since areas were designated national forests. Sometimes the comments sounded like laments (perhaps even criticism of the federal government – imagine that!), but Dale and I are always  happy that the land has been protected from development and destruction and preserved for the amazing variety of wildlife that inhabits the land and for future generations to enjoy. We believe this is an example of the federal government at its best.

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Misty Fiords National Monument, Tsongass National Forest (near Ketchikan)

Alaska is billed as the “last frontier” and it truly is in so many ways. We flew by seaplane over the Tsongass National Forest and the Misty Fiords National Monument outside of Ketchikan, and over Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound and the glaciers near Anchorage. Those flights, along with our bus ride into the “tundra wilderness” in Denali, exposed us to real wilderness in a way we haven’t experienced it before. We hope it stays that way for many generations to come!