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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.

Be the Change #45: My Night With the Homeless

Posted by on Mar 12th, 2018 in Blog | 2 comments

Don’t worry, I wasn’t sleeping on a grate or under one of Pittsburgh’s 446 bridges.  I spent last Friday night in a comfortable home – and so did many others, thanks to the Family Promise program. 

My friend Patty’s parish, Saints Simon & Jude, is one of 16 churches in Allegheny and Washington Counties who serve as hosts for homeless families on a rotating basis.  When she told me about it the last time they hosted in December, I was so intrigued by this hands-on ministry that I asked if I could help out next time. 

I had it easy:  we had only one guest the evening I stayed overnight in the parish house.  I will call her Kelly.  A pretty, talkative young woman with an explosion of curly black hair, Kelly is the single mother of 4 children. Three of them stay with their grandmother.  The oldest is staying with her in the Family Promise host houses.  Kelly juggles two part-time jobs and is working hard to find permanent housing and bring her family back together. 

Before she connected with Family Promise, Kelly and her kids were “couch-surfing” with various friends and relatives. Most often, the 5 of them could not be accommodated together.  The program is providing her with a place to stay every night until she gets back on her feet, along with with housing referrals and budgeting assistance. They hold her accountable for managing her income so that she can save up enough for a security deposit.  She is also encouraged to build a little nest egg for emergencies.  The hope is that she won’t find herself homeless again the first time she faces an unexpected expense. 

Family Promise is a nationwide organization with 180 affiliates, 6000 participating congregations and over 135,000 volunteers. The Pittsburgh area has two Day Houses where the families can stay during the day when they are not at school or work.  They then spend that night at whichever local church is the host parish for that week.  Volunteers from the host parish drive the van that transports the families between the Day House and the nighttime host home.  Host parishes provide dinner, a small suite in the host house where families can spend the night together, and breakfast in the morning.  Most host houses can hold up to 4 families.

Did you know that 40% of the homeless are families?  And that 25% of the homeless are children?  Did you know that many programs will not accept single dads, or even fathers in 2-parent families?  In many programs, mom and children are welcome, but dad has to fend for himself.  Family Promise is one of the few programs that accept 2-parent families, single dads with children and families with teenage children.  They do not accept anyone with a criminal background that includes child abuse or violence of any kind.  They also do they accept current drug users, clients with untreated mental illness or families with a current domestic violence situation. 

If you’re looking for a volunteer opportunity, or your church is seeking an outreach ministry, I’d encourage you to check out FAMILY PROMISE.  And I’m not just saying that because I had an easy night and breakfasted the next morning on delicious cinnamon rolls home-baked by some awesome Saints Simon & Jude parishioner! 

Be the Change #44: Keep a Sabbath

Posted by on Feb 11th, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

My mother and father-in-law were old fashioned people.  Raised on farms, they each lost a parent early in life.  Pop-pop was raised by his grandparents, who had been born in themid-19th century.  Muni remembered attending religious-revival camp meetings during her childhood in the 1920s.  Their manners were old-fashioned, their morals were old-fashioned, and, oh my, did they have a 19th-century work ethic.

Pop-pop worked as a contractor and then building inspector until his early 70s.  Then he volunteered teaching woodworking at a retirement home until he was past 80.  Muni had scaled back a bit on the home front by the time I knew her, because she had a full-time job outside the home by then. But during my husband’s childhood, she maintained a large garden and a small orchard, from which she canned hundreds of jars of fruits and vegetables every summer.  She home-sewed her children’s clothes were home-made and made ice-cream in a hand-cranked wooden ice-cream freezer (which Al and I still own but don’t use). 

Staunch Lutherans, they never missed Sunday church.  And when church was done, they continued to keep a Sabbath by doing…nothing.  The occasional Sunday family dinners were raucous affairs with a dozen or so children and grandchildren elbow-to-elbow around the dining-room table, all talking at once.  But most of their Sundays were very quiet.  Muni cooked meals, but they otherwise did no work and rarely left the house after they got home from church.  In the summer, cool breezes drifted the white sheers in billows through the open windows.  In winter, a fire burned in the fireplace.  They read the newspaper or the Bible, and chatted quietly about some newspaper article or the day’s sermon or news of friends from church. Pop-pop usually dozed off for a while to the soothing ticking of the 19th-century clocks they had inherited from ancestors (Al and I have one of those, too, and sometimes if he is patient and fussy enough, he can get it to run for a few days). 

What is most touching to me is that they could always be counted on to be THERE.  If we happened to be out their way and decided to stop, we could be sure they’d be home – and invite us to stay to dinner.  Their friends and neighbors knew it, too, and so they often had unexpected – and very welcome – visitors.  Because they had no plans for the afternoon, unexpected company was no trouble to them.  They were happy to see you and have you spend as much time sitting with them as you wanted.  Imagine that in one of our busy homes today, where mom has to get the kids to hockey practice and dad is catching up on email from work.  An unexpected guest would be an intrusion.  You wouldn’t dream of just dropping in on someone in this century. 

And I think that’s too bad.  There’s a lot to be said for living at a slow-enough pace that an unexpected visitor is a delight.  And there is a lot to be said for rest.  Muni and Pop-pop worked hard for most of their lives, but they rested on Sundays – and they both lived into their 90s.  Lately, I’ve been trying to keep our Sundays free of commitments.  We don’t always stay home all day.  Sometimes we plan a hike, or a trip to a museum.  But mostly, especially this winter, we just stay home.  After church, we make soup or stew, put some music on, and settle down on the couch with the newspaper – while, when it’s in the mood, that old clock ticks with its quiet 19th-century dignity.

Wendell Berry wrote:

“The mind that comes  to rest is tended

In ways that it cannot intend:

Is borne, preserved and comprehended

By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps  us by

Your will, not ours.  And it is fit

Our only choice should be to die

Into that rest, or out of it.” 

This week, take a day off.  Give yourself the gift of a Sabbath.

Be the Change #43: Grace

Posted by on Feb 3rd, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

I just finished reading a wonderful book, Grace by Paul Lynch.  It’s about the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, but, more deeply, it’s the story of everybody’s life.

14-year-old Grace is wakened by her mother in the wee hours one morning.  Mam cuts off Grace’s hair, dresses her in boy’s clothes and sends her out on the road to fend for herself.  She can no longer manager to feed all of her children, and she doesn’t like the way Grace’s step-father has started looking at her.

The horrors that Grace endures, and her stubborn spirit, make for a story that is hard to put down.  Just as the fields have been corrupted by the potato rot, Grace is corrupted by her experiences.  The Irish people as a community are corrupted, as the veneer of civilized behavior is worn away by privation and an every-man-for-himself ethos prevails. 

Grace’s salvation comes at the hands of a very flawed group of human beings.  Giving a clever double meaning to the book’s title, Grace is the beneficiary of grace, in an unexpected way. 

It occurred to me, as I neared the end of the book, that Grace’s basic story is everybody’s life story. 

Everyone is ruined in some way.  This life is a beautiful miracle, but it can also be brutal in big, tragic ways or  in slow, small ways that accumulate like a weight on your back.  Some of us had addicted parents or other traumatic childhood experiences.  Your heart is broken by someone you loved.  A career setback proves to be unrecoverable.  Someone you love dies far too young.  You are disabled, or stricken with a chronic illness, raped or mugged or your house burns down.  And then there are the everyday insults of having to make a living:  tedious work for 40 years, unkind bosses and co-workers,  long, miserable commutes, the sheer weariness of getting up at 6 a.m. day after day after day.  “Life has a way of breaking everyone,” Hemingway said.  We are all broken.   Most of us are more tired than we like to admit.

And, like Grace, we are saved by other imperfect human beings.  I’m a Christian, so I believe that our salvation is in Jesus – ultimately.  But, day by living, breathing day, our salvation is in each other.  You are ill or disabled, but your spouse sticks around and takes care of you.  Your work is tedious, but your co-workers make you laugh.  You are hungry and think you are alone, and a local church group delivers food to your door.  A friend betrays  you, and the next day a neighbor you barely know shovels your walk for you and you invite him in for coffee.  This is what happens to my main character, Leona, in The Saint’s Mistress.  She suffers an unbearable loss, and is only healed when an old friend re-enters her life and gives her a glimpse of God’s grace and a reason to go on.    In a hard world, God grants us the grace of each other.

Every single person you meet is broken in some way.  This week, be the grace in someone’s life.

Copyright 2014 Kathryn Bashaar | Design by | Adapted from PureType