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Genetic Testing

Posted by on Jan 21st, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

My husband is adopted and has never had an interest in finding any member of his birth family.  But, when genetic testing became widely available, he did develop an interest in knowing his genetic heritage.  So, we recently completed one of those mail-in DNA kits.

I wasn’t surprised by what I was: mostly German & French.  I was definitely surprised by what I wasn’t.  My maternal grandmother always said her family was Irish.  Nope.  I have not a single strand of Irish DNA.  We are ENGLISH, interlopers who probably spent a couple of generations in Ireland – and obviously became so culturally assimilated that they thought they were Irish – before moving on to the U.S. 

I also assumed that we must be part Jewish somewhere way back. We have an unusual genetic mutation that is most common in Ashkenazi Jews, and my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Marx.  Also nope.  No trace of Middle Eastern DNA. 

With my DNA results in front of me in black-and-white, I feel a bond with my ancestors from the German forests, French farmsteads and English villages.  One thing every living person knows:  we are the descendants of people who knew how to survive.  People who worked and fought, and hugged their children or slapped them. Women along the French and English coasts who survived rape by Vikings.   Who knew how to use every single atom of a wooly mammoth carcass, make tools from iron, coax barley and peas and apple trees from the soil.  People with the self-discipline to keep a fire going on the windiest winter night and set aside some of their food for damp, starving February.   They protected their communities from armies, floods, wolves.  They killed other humans when they had to, and eventually had the courage to set forth for an unknown continent.  From them, I got my sturdy thighs, my delicate ankles, my large nose, my Cupid’s-bow upper lip. 

The mother struggling to keep her baby warm in a hut in a German forest some long-ago January had no idea that she was making my life, too, a life where I sleep on a pillow-top mattress in a house warmed by a forced-air furance.  She couldn’t imagine me, and couldn’t have fathomed central heating.  She was just keeping her baby alive.  But I’m alive today because of her.  We are all alive because of someone like her.

This business is being human is less brutal than it used to be, but it is still hard, and nobody gets out of it alive.  And yet we survive.  And sometimes we thrive.  I think of my ancestors drinking their beer and singing hymns in their Lutheran churches, failing in love, cuddling their babies, dancing in the May sun when new leaves unfurled in the Rhineland.  Their lives were hard, but they were surely good, too.  I think of a quote from Marilynn Robinson’s wonderful novel Lila.  She was describing a group of migrants that Lila lived among as a young woman, but it could apply to humanity as a whole. “Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself within us.”

Enough

Posted by on Jan 12th, 2019 in Blog | 1 comment

We keep hearing that middle class people are struggling.  Statistics show that wages have risen almost not at all for middle-income people in the past 40 years.  Our children may be the first generation to have a standard of living lower than their parents’.

But, I look around and see what looks to me like over-abundance.  Some of my friends 3000-square-foot houses with granite countertops and built-in swimming pools.  Half the people you see walking down the street are clutching $7 coffee drinks and $1000 phones. 

I hear about co-workers’ vacations to Punta Cana and Cancun. My husband and I take for granted that we will travel to Europe at least every other year.  SUVs clog the roads, $15-a-pound cheese clogs our arteries, and advertisements for jewelry and other luxury goods clog our virtual and physical mailboxes. 

A work friend complained to me how hard it was to save money for her children’s college educations – a month after she had traded up from a $300,000 house to a $450,000 house. 

When will we have enough?  Will we ever have enough?    

Could we maybe reconsider what it means to have a rising standard of living?

What do you really want for your children?  Is it just for them to have a bigger house and bigger cars than you have?  If you grew up in a little 5-room ranch and now have a 9-room McMansion, is it even necessary for your children to have 12 rooms?

I think most of us want other things for our children, even more than we want them to have nice material things.  We want them to have happy marriages and to be good parents.  We want them to have work that they enjoy.  We want them to have some financial security.  We want them to have time to spend with loved ones, or to grow a garden, or to just sit in the yard and read a book.  We want them to be healthy, to have good friends and to live in thriving communities.  We want them to contribute to those communities.  We want them to have lives of quality, not just quantity.

The desire for more stuff drives people to work long hours, compromise their ethics and be in constant, frantic motion. 

The energy that it takes to create and transport our luxury goods is making the planet uninhabitable for our grandchildren.  Some of us don’t believe that because it is inconvenient to believe it.  To believe it would require a choice:  between our luxuries today and our grandchildren’s lives 75 years from now.  I think some of us are afraid that we aren’t strong enough to make the right choice.

Could it be possible to measure our well-being by something other than whether we have more and bigger material things than our parents had? 

I know it’s possible to be perfectly content with a modest lifestyle, because my husband and I have always lived beneath our means.  We’ve stayed in the little 3-bedroom house we bought when we were first married.  For the most part, we still have the same furniture we bought in the 1980s, too.   Other than about 10 years with a minivan when our kids were in school, we have always bought small sedans and driven them until they had to be towed away.  Not only are we pretty happy with our lifestyle, we have always had a savings account and are now in a position to retire very comfortably. 

Think about changing your definition of “standard of living.”  You might find yourself happier.  And you will be doing your part to protect the planet for your grandchildren.

I leave you with this description of the good life from William Henry Channing:  ” To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable; and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly…to listen to stars and buds, to babes and sages, with open heart; await occasions, hurry never…this is my symphony.”

 

Radical Love in the Hague

Posted by on Dec 22nd, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

After our trip to Amsterdam in September, I’m a great admirer of the Dutch.  I love how neat and pretty they keep their country.  I like that they deeply respect work. The stained glass windows in their Rijksmuseum don’t just honor saints and kings; they honor professions:  everything from philosopher to bricklayer.  They have been literally building up their country for centuries by draining marshlands into tidy canals.  And they are determined to survive climate change.  They have intensified their efforts to keep the sea at bay. Electric cars and charging stations line the streets of their cities, and our train ride into Germany took us past miles and miles of windmills and solar farms.  But they are fun-loving, too; all you have to do is walk down the street and take a whiff!  And they are kind and polite:  Holland and Germany are the only non-US countries we’ve travelled in where people offered us seats on public transportation because of our age. 

I recently read of another reason to admire the Dutch:  Pastors from all over the country are taking turns conducting services in a Protestant church in the Hague as a way of protecting a refugee family who have taken shelter there.  The Tamrazyan family – parents and three children –  fled Armenia for political reasons in 2010.  After a 6-year legal process, the family was denied refugee status by the Dutch government.  They sought refuge first in another church and more recently at Bethel Church in the Hague. 

Under an obscure Dutch law, an arrest cannot be made in a church as long as a service is being conducted.  So 550 pastors from 20 denominations have been conducting services in a relay for the past 7 weeks. 

I don’t know the particulars of the Tamrazyans’ case.  And I understand that Holland, like the U.S., is a country that lives by rule of law.  I also understand that no country can open their doors wide and expect to survive.  There have to be limits and there have to be rules.  And the rules have to be enforced.  Intellectually, I understand and agree with all of that.

But, here’s what my heart says.  My heart is deeply touched by a group of Christian pastors who are undergoing considerable inconvenience to protect a family whose lives may be in danger if they are forced to return to their home land.  I am moved to tears by this brave attempt to live out Christ’s injunction to welcome the stranger and the oppressed.  I remember that this season is about celebrating a time when Our Lord was a baby and his parents homeless refugees. 

My fellow Christians, this is how we win.  This is how we bring the world closer to heaven.  Not by preaching and judging and gathering in our holy huddles.  Not by waiting inertly for the Second Coming.  We win by being Christ and by seeing His face in our fellow men and women.  May we be filled with all the blessings of this Christmas season and may 2019 be a year when we live in radical, Christ-like love. 

Read more about the pastors’ actions HERE.  Photo credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times.

Sheep and Goats

Posted by on Nov 18th, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

Jesus said that at the end of the world “All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” (Matthew 25, verse 32, NRSV)

But in Luke 3:6, John the Baptist says “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

And Saint Augustine said, “The line between good and evil is drawn straight through the human heart.”  We all intuitively know that this is so.  Even the most self-righteous among us know deep in our hearts that we fall far short of sinlessness.  And science provides support for this.  Richard Dawkins famously wrote about the “the selfish gene,” the drive to survive at all costs that is inherent in human beings.  But, as far back as Darwin, evolutionary scientists theorized that humans could not have survived without cooperation, and therefore evolution also selects for compassion and altruism.  And some recent evolutionary science supports the theory of inherent altruism (see this excellent article from Psychology Today). God built goodness into our very genetic code. 

I’m a good Lutheran and completely understand that I will never win salvation via good works.  We Lutherans are all about justification by faith.  But…if none of my good works could ever earn me a place in heaven, how could any level of faith get me to heaven?  Relying on your own faith feels to me every bit as mistakenly pious as relying on your own good works. 

What can save us then?  Grace alone.  

If none of us is good enough or faithful enough to be saved or our own merit, the logical conclusion is that we will all ultimately be saved. Or damned, take your pick, but I’m counting on saved. Otherwise what was Christ’s sacrifice for?  Augustine would definitely disagree with me. And the universalist position does raise very serious questions about justice.   I’m not a theologian, just a layperson who likes thinking about these things. I admit that I have no idea how universal salvation would work.

But, in this lovely defense of universalism from the journal First Things, Russell Saltzman puts it beautifully.  “If it was God’s purpose to reconcile the world through Christ, I’ve never felt comfortable saying God can’t have what he wants.”

None of us knows the “day or the hour.” But I hope that what happens at the end of the world is that Christ erases that line through our hearts by separating each and every one of us from our sins.  That feels like a Christ-like thing to do.  Separating people into categories?  Suspiciously human.  

Be the Change #51: Patriotism part two

Posted by on Jul 4th, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

Be the Change #51: Patriotism part two

I ended my last blog post with the two questions:

Why do I still love my country?

And

What IS a country anyway?

A country is a set of laws that apply within a geographical boundary.  It is a culture, usually containing many sub-cultures.  It is a group of people who accept that by law, culture and geography, they are a nation. 

So, when we love America, we love those things. We love the land within our nation’s boundaries, from the Alaskan wilderness, to the frantic energy of the big cities, to the ocean of grain ripening under the midwestern sun.  We might not love every single law, but we love the Constitution and our heritage of democracy and freedom.  We love the bold, independent can-do spirit that is at the heart of our nation’s culture, and we love the sub-cultures that immigrants from all over the world have brought with them, from tacos to Christmas trees to square dancing.

But, above all, we love each other.  Above all, a nation is its people. 

Think of the young men and women who selflessly serve in our military, and our police forces and fire departments.  They are defending us, all the 250 million Americans in our swell hilltop mansions, our little brick cottages in trolley suburbs, our farmhouses and, yes, even our tents under bridges. 

Think of your community:  your family, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, the members of your church.  You care of them, feel concerned for their welfare, want them to be treated fairly.  You would defend them if they needed defending. 

Your country is your larger community.  A community defends itself.  People in a community treat each other with respect and kindness.  They take care of each other. 

When you love America, it’s because you love the people who live here with you.  People in a community can disagree, but they don’t give up on each other

If you can’t love your fellow Americans just because they disagree with you politically, that’s not patriotic.  When you throw around terms like “racist” or “libtard” because someone voted for a candidate you don’t like, or their views are different from yours, that’s not patriotic. 

Why DO I still love my country?  I have been disheartened by many things that have happened in recent years. Endless wars all over the world.  Mass incarceration. Children separated from their parents at our border.  Most of all, I am saddened by the atmosphere of partisanship and acrimony.   Honestly, right now, I still love America as an act of will and as an act of loyalty to the ideals that I was taught as a child.  I won’t give up on my country any more than I would give up on one of my children or one of my friends who was in trouble.  I love my country as an act of hope that we will find our way again, as we have in the past.  But, first, I think we need to find our way back to each other.

Here’s a challenge for you:  If you really consider yourself to be patriotic, refrain from political insults for the whole month of July.  Criticize our government all you want; that’s so patriotic that your right to do it is enshrined in the very first amendment to our Constitution.  But, don’t throw blame and insults at your fellow Americans on the other side of the political divide.  Just for the month of July, as a birthday present to our nation, love your fellow citizens. Shut off whatever voice in your head (or from TV or the internet) is telling you that everyone who disagrees with you is evil, stupid and your enemy. 

 

Be the Change #50: Patriotism part one

Posted by on Jun 2nd, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

Most children are afraid of ghosts, or big dogs, or the monster under the bed.  Not I.  When I was a little girl, I was afraid of Communists. 

Growing up in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, I don’t think I knew about nuclear weapons.  I wasn’t exactly sure what Communists were, and I wasn’t clear on what they might do to me.  But, I must have known something about the Holocaust, because I vaguely remember thinking they would take me out of my home, take my clothes and make me march to a horrible camp where I would be beaten, starved and killed.

Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night with these fears.  My dad would be sitting on his scratchy red chair drinking a last beer before bed, just home from a church softball game or an Elks meeting.  He took me onto his bony lap, listened to my fears, and reassured me that he and my mother would always take care of me.  And reminded me that my country would protect me.  America was the richest, strongest country in the world, always on the side of what was right.

School reinforced that message. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance daily, hands over hearts.  In Social Studies class, we learned about our wise Founding Fathers and the Constitution they wrote.  We were taught that America was the land of opportunity, where people from other places could come to find freedom and better lives.  In Music Class, we sang “God Bless America” and “This is My Country” and “America the Beautiful” in our piping voices, accompanied by grim-faced Mrs. Riffle banging on the piano. 

But a woman in late middle-age knows things that a little girl is rightly protected from. I now know that we stole this land from the natives who were living here before Columbus “discovered” the New World.  I know that our brawny economy was built partly on the whip-driven backs of slave laborers, and that the descendants of those slaves still can’t get a fair shake in our justice system.  I know that we have meddled in other countries’ elections to install leaders who were sympathetic to us and often brutal to their own people.  I know that our foreign policy has sometimes been driven less by idealism than by avarice. 

And yet I still love America.  We’ve been hanging our flag less lately, but we used to hang it every sunny day from April through November.  I vote in every election.  I tear up at the words to “America the Beautiful” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  I’m proud of the innovation and prosperity that the U.S. brought to the world, of the sacrifices that my parents’ generation made to rid the world of Nazis and hold out against Communism in the Cold War.  I’m proud that our Constitution is a model for the world, and that people want to come here from every corner of the globe – even now, when the Trump presidency has me pondering what it even means to be patriotic.

And so I ask myself: Why, with all that I know now, do I still love my country?

I’ve been struggling with that since November 8, 2016, and the answer starts with another question:  What IS a country anyway?

To be continued in my next post…

Be the Change #49: Schwarzenegger on Gerrymandering

Posted by on May 20th, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

If you don’t believe me on gerrymandering, listen to what The Terminator has to say about it.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has released a series of videos on this topic.  The videos ate both informative and entertaining, Some include humor such as when he says that Congres is less popular than hemorrhoids, herpes, cockroaches and Nickelback.

As governor, Schwarzenegger helped push through Proposition 11.  Prop 11 gave California a Citizens Redistricting Commissions, similar to what Fair Districts PA is promoting for Pennsylvania.  Only 5 other state use independent commissions to set district boundaries.  An independent commission should be the standard.  No individual drawing district lines should be a legislator or public official.

But don’t just take my word for it.  Watch what Ah-nold has to say about it….

90-second summary (this is the best one, the one where he says Congress is less popular than herpes):

2-minute summary (this one is a little more serious, but with touches of humor; it explains how gerrymandering drives gridlock in congress)

5-minute detail (includes a clip of President Reagan objecting to gerrymandering way back in the 80s.  also includes an explanation of how gerrymandering works)

Be the Change #48: Gerrymandering Again

Posted by on May 12th, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

Are you sick of partisan politics and political gridlock?  Do you wish the Pennsylvania state legislature could ever pass a budget without a last-minute fire drill?  Then you should care a lot about gerrymandering. 

For those of you who have forgotten 9th-grade Civics, gerrymandering in the practice of drawing district lines for state and federal legislatures such that incumbents and protected and/or that one party or another is heavily favored in each district. 

Click HERE for an example of what a congressional district looks like when the state legislature is allowed to run amok designing districts to protect the party currently in power.  Does that look fair to you?  Does it even look logical? 

Gerrymandered districts are designed to be “safe” for either a Democrat or a Republican.  This practice drives partisanship because the incumbent almost never has to worry about a challenge in the general election.  They only have to worry about a primary challenge.  In the primaries, the challenger in a safe Republican district will almost always be to the right of the incumbent.  In a safe Democratic district, the challenger will almost always be the left.  To protect themselves against extremist primary challenges, the incumbents move towards the extremes themselves.  It can be political death to reach across the aisle and cooperate with the other party. 

Result:  gridlock, including constant threats of governments shutdowns at both the state and federal levels. 

Further result:  Communities who used to have a representative who had their best interests are heart are now split, so that nobody in Harrisburg is really looking out for them.  Do you live in Ross Township, PA?  You used to have a legislator in the State House who represented the interests of your community.  Now Ross is divided among 4 different legislative districts.  Do you think that was done in your best interests?

“Your” representatives in gerrymandered districts actually have no incentive at all to serve you.  Their seats are safe as long as they please the party leadership and the big donors. 

Result:  government by power elites, not by the people.

Further result:  trust in our form of government erodes. 

71% of Americans – across the political spectrum – agree that gerrymandering should be against the law.  And the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agrees.  Early this year, they threw out the 2011 map and put a new, fairer one in place.  But guess what?  Without reform, in 2021 the legislators will be free to gerrymander again.  And there will be another lawsuit. 

Result:  Your tax dollars and mine are spent defending against lawsuits that should never have to be filed in the first place. 

Fair Districts PA is working to change Pennsylvania from one of the worst gerrymandered states to a model of fairness.   Today state and federal districts are designed by the party in power in Harrisburg.  Even the minority party isn’t blameless.  They usually go along with the map designed by the majority party as long as it also protects a few of their favored incumbents.  Fair Districts PA is working to replace that self-serving system with a citizens’ commission. 

Please write to your state representative and senator NOW and demand that fair districting bills be brought to the floor for a vote.  Find the name of your representative and your senator HERE.   And write a letter to the editor.  Fair Districts PA provides resources for letter-writing, more information about the proposed citizens commission, and other information on their website.

If you care about democracy, you should care about gerrymandering.  Join our fight now!

Be the Change #47: Have a funeral like Mark’s

Posted by on Apr 28th, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

Be honest:  you hope your funeral will be well-attended.  You want people to have to drive around the funeral-home parking lot searching for a space, while inside at least 100 friends and relatives speak in low voices about what a wonderful person you were, what great memories they have of you.

That’s the kind of funeral my cousin Mark Walsh had. 

Mark died on April 14 of lung cancer.  He was a lifelong smoker, but I don’t want to focus here on that tragic mistake.  I want to explore what Mark did right.   I want to explore why you couldn’t find a parking space for his funeral. 

Mark was an example of Pope Francis calls “artisans of the common good.” (See this LINK to an earlier blog post)  He was a devoted husband of 43 years to his wife Kathy.  Together, they raised four fine sons in a deteriorating neighborhood where the odds were against them.  They were rewarded with 7 grandchildren.  He was a loving son and brother.  Mark and his brothers don’t always agree on everything, but they grew up hard and had a rock-solid devotion to each other and to their mother. 

My cousin never went to college.  He worked as a laborer.  Staying employed was a struggle, but Mark never succumbed to the “white working-class despair” that we’re suddenly hearing so much about.  He was often unemployed, but never for very long.  He always managed to find work, to support his wife and children. 

Mark did something else that is unusual in our modern era:  he lived his whole life in one community.  He was born in McKees Rocks, grew up in McKees Rocks, raised his own family there, and died there.  He coached Little League in the Rocks for 30 years. 

My cousin never did anything big and splashy.  He didn’t attend black-tie fundraisers, never played Major League baseball, never travelled much outside Western Pennsylvania.  Mark was just a good and simple man who was loyal to his family, his friends and his struggling community.  You could do worse, if you want a well-attended funeral.

NOTE:  The picture is of me and Mark as babies.  We were born 4 weeks apart, and he and his brothers were among the most treasured playmates of my childhood. 

Be the Change #46: Working the Polls

Posted by on Apr 7th, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

If you live in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, I was one of the people who WOULDN’T STOP BOTHERING YOU.  My husband and I worked the phones and knocked on doors on behalf of Conor Lamb in the weeks leading up to the March 13 special election. 

But we were working the polls on election day on behalf of something even more important to us: the anti-gerrymandering effort.  We were outside a polling place trying to get signatures on a petition to change the way state and federal congressional district lines are drawn in Pennsylvania (see details HERE). 

You will be happy to hear that  I was punished for annoying you with phone calls all winter.  That day was really, really cold, and we had to stand outside the polling place, not inside where it was nice and warm and people had donuts.  We were well-prepared.  We wore gloves, hats, thick socks, and heavy coats over heavy sweaters.  And the nice people from Fair Districts had provided us with hand and foot warmers in addition to petitions and pens.  But it was still cold, and we were out there from the minute the polls opened until about noon, when our relief arrived .  Our faces were numb, our fingers  were popsicles and our feet were blocks of ice.

But it was SO worth it – and not just because we got 144 signatures on our Fair Districts petition.  144 signatures was a fantastic result:  more than 1/3 of the voters that morning signed.  But, the best part of that frigid morning was that we were reminded that Americans are more than the angry, divided, partisans portrayed on the news and in social media.  We are definitely divided, and definitely partisan.  And many of us are angry. 

But, at the personal level, we are also really, really nice.  Not a single person was rude to us, even the ones who made it clear that they disagreed with our cause.  Most disagreements were expressed like this: “No, thank you, I like things the way they are.”  One young guy even got into a jokey argument with us.  “Come on,” he said, “I’m a Republican. We have it set up so we always win.  Why would I want to change that?” 

Almost everyone expressed concern about how cold we must be.  One person offered to bring us coffee.  Many people stopped to talk to us, either to learn more about Fair Districts, or to share their concerns about the direction the country is heading.  For the first two hours, a local councilman stood outside with us, just to greet his constituents.  He knew almost everyone who came to vote, asking questions, listening, sharing personal anecdotes.  When he left us, he was on his way to another polling place in the community he represents.  This young guy, has a job and a family, but he had taken on the relatively thankless job of being on a community’s council, and he took the responsibility very seriously.

That councilman, and all the people who were worried about how cold Al and I must be, are the real America.  We could hear them, if we could only stop yelling at each other.

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