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Genetic Testing

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

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

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

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

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. 

 


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