Category Archives: Politics

Buy a Twinkie Lately?

E at 5

Is that a Twinkie in my hand? Hard to tell in a 50-year-old picture, but it could have been. When I was five, my mom helped keep Hostess in business. She frequently brought those little cakes home as treats when she could afford to buy them on my father’s salary as a coal miner, and I would find one in my rectangular tin lunch box with the metal clasp—a product that went the way of Twinkies long ago.

When the maker of Twinkies announced it was closing last week, my Facebook newsfeed filled up with nostalgic messages from people of a certain age. Friends mourned the loss of those cream-filled vanilla cakes and speculated about how state fairs would replace the ultimate invitation to a heart attack—the deep-fried Twinkie. I smiled and scrolled on down the page, thinking that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d bought a Twinkie or a Sno-Ball or a Ding Dong.

And although the CDC reports that 37.5% of U.S. adults are obese, I suspect I’m not the only consumer who hasn’t bought a Twinkie in a while. If I want to splurge on calories, I can think of many more interesting ways to seduce my taste buds, especially as the holiday season approaches. Ever have Trader Joe’s or Williams Sonoma’s peppermint bark, for instance? Or I could make my famous Chocolate Ganache Torte, a dessert with a crust made of butter, sugar and pecans; filled with ganache made from a pound of chocolate and two cups of heavy cream; and drizzled with a homemade caramel sauce that calls for even more butter, sugar, and cream. So if I can’t stick to a sensible diet that limits carbs, red meat, and fats, I’d be a Ding Dong if I wasted my binges on Twinkies.

But some things never change. News outlets latched onto a story that temporarily filled the post-election void when Hostess blamed the employees’ union strike and their refusal to accept lower wages and benefits. Conservatives were quick to denounce the union and to say that it was proof the government’s policies were destroying businesses. Liberals were quick to point out that the union had twice helped the company recover from declarations of bankruptcy by accepting company demands. In that same period, the Wall Street Journal reported that the CEO’s pay was raised from $750,000 to $2.5 million so that when his pay was cut during bankruptcy, he would get larger compensation.

And, as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, though my coal miner father would rail at me from his grave for saying such a thing. Strikes did indeed contribute to the decline of the coal industry. But my father worked in dangerous conditions that most coal companies only addressed when the miners went out on strike. One of those strikes helped my father keep health benefits that would cover the care he required when a mine roof collapse crushed his foot and later, when he died a slow death from black lung caused by coal dust.

When I began teaching in Maryland, school system employees were given the choice to join the union or to pay a representation fee that was almost as much as the union dues but provided none of the legal protections that union members received. When I hesitated, my father said, “You join that union, girl. If there’s a union, there must be a need for it.” So I did. And at the end of my fourth year, when the school’s enrollment declined, union rules demanded that the teacher with the least tenure be given another placement.  I was forced to interview at other schools, and though I was quickly offered positions at three schools, I left the school bitter that a teacher who was widely acknowledged as incompetent kept her position because she had 25 years in the system.

Unions need to find ways to advocate for workers’ rights without giving protection to workers who are lazy and incompetent. But in order to do that, they need to be able to trust that companies care as much about employees as they care about getting rich. And until that can happen, neither side will keep for long what it fights so hard to gain.

That is the lesson that Hostess serves us as it closes its doors. Because if we do as my sixth grade teacher said and use our heads for something besides hat racks, only a Ding Dong would fail to see where that path leads.

So what’s your modern-day Twinkie indulgence? It will be interesting to see if it’s still around in five years.

How Did Your Pastors Vote?

How did my pastors vote? I think I know, but I’m not sure. Neither of them ever stood in the pulpit and named a candidate. Nor did they talk about the hot-button issues to make it abundantly clear which candidate would get their votes. But they did encourage us to vote—to vote our conscience. They did not expect us to follow their lead blindly, and they did not make us feel that we were less Christian if we voted a certain way. Instead, they urged us to look through the lens of our faith and think carefully about how to cast our vote.

So this morning, the co-pastor who delivered the sermon began by describing her experience at the polls, painting a vivid picture of the pleasure she took in reviewing the sample ballot one last time at breakfast, waiting in line for a voting machine, choosing each candidate and issue, and carrying the little plastic card to the official. Though she talked about the exhaustion of being bombarded with mailings from both sides, she was full of joy as she talked about the privilege of living in a country where our votes really do count, even when the candidate we want doesn’t win.

Her story was a beautiful introduction to the biblical text for today—not one she chose but one that was chosen by several denominations as a Common Lectionary years in advance. But Psalm 146 was the perfect song for a less than perfect election season, especially verses 3-4: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day, their plans perish.” She reminded us that the God we serve is bigger than “the princes of Congress,” bigger than party, bigger than anything we can imagine for ourselves.

Choosing pastors like her and her husband, the co-pastor, is not the path this church has always chosen. Before the congregation called these pastors (and before I moved to the area), the church fought hard and bitterly about the very issues our country debated in this election, as did many churches in the denomination. But this church split down the middle, and the former pastor left, taking many life-long members with him. The results were disastrous for both sides. I had a friend who left with the pastor, and that church dissolved after only a year, leaving the members to find other churches or to reject organized religion altogether. The congregation that remained fared better, but the wounds took years to heal and, for a while, God’s mission was slowed down by the limping, bleeding congregants who held on for the lengthy process of finding new pastors willing to take on the challenge of bringing people back together for God’s common good.

So these two pastors know more than most what happens when two sides become bitter and unable to hear each other. And as I sat in the presence of this very inspiring minister this morning, I looked around at the faces in the congregation and hoped that somehow our president and the princes of Congress can find it in them to do what our co-pastors have done—to bring us together for a noble cause that is bigger than princes, bigger than party, bigger than liberals or conservatives—a country that still strives to be one nation indivisible in spite of our differences.

And what about me? I’m not a prince, nor a senator, nor a congressman, nor would I want to be. But I am a citizen, and I owe it to my country not to gloat that the candidate I wanted has won this time, as I’ve heard so many liberal pundits do in the last few days. I don’t have to give up my principles. But I do have to understand that I don’t have all the answers and that my side hasn’t been able to solve our nation’s problems any more than my opponents’ side did in the eight years before President Obama was elected. And that isn’t just because of the opposition. The problems we face wouldn’t loom large if there were obvious and simple solutions.

But I can’t expect our leaders to do what I am unwilling to try to do myself. I am a citizen. And more than that, I am a child of God. And so are we all.

What Is Friendship?

Jefferson

Illustration by Charis Tsevis
Weincek, Henry. “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson.” Smithsonian Magazine. October 2012.
 
“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” Thomas Jefferson is said to have pronounced. This quotation has been widely circulated online this election season where some of us try never to reveal our opinions while others of us try futilely to change the minds of our friends who disagree with us.
 
Neither of these extremes seems to work very well. I really want a world where we can talk about our religion and politics and philosophy and learn from one another–a world where we find a third way–a middle place where we honor what’s best in the opposition and put it to work in a world much in need of compromise and collaboration. I like to think that I try to do that most of the time. But my daughter is quick to disabuse me of that notion and to remind me that while I listen to what people say, I still try to convince them that I’m right.
 
So how do we hold on to our best principles and yet hear that the opposition also has some best principles? What’s the difference between learning from one another and letting go of what we believe is right?
 
This isn’t a new question in a country that is founded on democracy–a philosophy that is often hard to live by as it’s played out in the real world. As Henry Weincek’s fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine points out, Thomas Jefferson–the man we hold up as the standard bearer for freedom and democracy–somewhere along the way gave up his principles. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he denounced slavery as “a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” But South Carolina and Georgia refused to sign such a document, so it was revised. And as we know now, by 1790 Jefferson had given up his efforts entirely and not only owned slaves but tolerated brutality against them.
 
As Weincek points out in this article, “It is curious that we accept Jefferson as the moral standard of the founders’ era, not Washington. Perhaps it is because the Father of his Country left a somewhat troubling legacy: His emancipation of his slaves stands as not a tribute but a rebuke to his era, and to the prevaricators and profiteers of the future, and declares that if you claim to have principles, you must live by them.”
 
Had Jefferson lived by his principles instead of giving them up, how different might our nation have been? Would we be living a very different legacy of race in this country? Or would we even have continued to be the “United” States of America?
 
And so it is that we allow ourselves to expect more of our leaders than we are sometimes capable of ourselves. We want to keep our friends. We can’t figure out how to hear each other, so we keep silent, speak so loudly that our friends walk away and ignore us until the battle of the political season is over, or give up on what we truly believe.
 
We want our leaders to have principles and live by them. We want our leaders to compromise and collaborate. How can they possibly do both?
 
One thing is certain, no matter who wins the election today: our President has a monumental task before him. Find a way to hold on to your principles, find a way to hear what’s best in your opponents’ principles, find a third way that is better than either way alone.
 
And so, Mr. President, whoever you are at the end of this day, my friend, I pray that you’ll find a way to do better what we’ve been trying so valiantly to do for over 200 years.

What Do Disasters Tell Me?

What do disasters tell us?  I woke up wondering about that this morning as I sat in my comfortable home where the electricity flickered but never stayed off for more than a couple of minutes.  Then I watched news video of the fire in Queens and the devastation all around me and gave thanks that most of us have made it through this latest disaster alive.

 
And then I read the news reports and the editorials where both liberal and conservative journalists began the blame game while the two presidential candidates tried to look like the leaders they both so desperately want to be.
 
And I realized I was asking the wrong question.  I started to wrestle with the gnawing realization that’s been trying to creep into my brain for weeks now as I’ve been thinking over the elections of my lifetime, where I’ve occasionally voted against party lines and have never felt the excitement that some Boomers older than I felt when they voted for the Kennedys.
 
When George W. Bush took office, I refused for months to address him asPresident Bush.  Like millions of Americans, I didn’t think he’d been elected.  And after the Supreme Court sided with him, I was indignant.  I wanted him to fail.
 
Then came 9/11.  And while there would later be plenty of blame to go around, for the most part, the nation came together, and our devastating loss brought out the best in us.  Though I still didn’t agree with his decisions, I finally began to pray for him and to speak the phrase President Bush, but I also prayed for a successor who would care for the poor and bring out the best in us.
 
Eight years later I watched as much of the nation felt the same about President Obama as I had felt about his predecessor.  From the day he took office, people questioned the legitimacy of his presidency, too, and shortly into his first term, Mitch McConnell, then minority leader of the Senate, said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president….I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.”
 
So I woke up this morning and finally acknowledged that I seldom pray for wisdom for the president I don’t support, except in times of crisis.  I suspect I’m not the only one who prays instead for God to deliver us and send us a leader who will bring out the best in us four years down the road.
 
As I listen to the pundits and the speeches and the spin Sandy has left in her wake, I’ve finally admitted to myself this morning my fear that we’re getting exactly what we’ve prayed for–a leader who can do little except try to survive the opposition well enough to get a second term.  Because as long as we’re just lining up on opposite sides and praying for the other person to lose, we’re going to get exactly that answer to our prayers.  And it won’t matter which man wins next week.
 
And so I realize, yet again, why Jesus commanded us to love and pray for our enemies–and, of course, he didn’t just mean that we should pray for their defeat.  As he said with a wisdom that has caused his words to ring true 2000 years after he spoke, it’s easy to pray for someone you love.  Anyone can do that.  But to pray for the one you want to lose…not so much.
 
This won’t be easy for me, but now that I’ve had this insight into myself, I’m going to try to pray for wisdom for our leaders–by name–even for those I detest.
 
So what does this latest disaster have to say to you?

Who Deserves This Rite?

Matt Estelene in Hawaii

Serena loved to drive, and her father bought her a green Toyota Celica the year it made its entrance into the American market, an incredible luxury in a coal mining town where most families owned only one car and where my family owned none. I was 21, and I wouldn’t get my license until the following summer when I was forced to learn to drive because I got a teaching job in a town an hour away. My younger brothers would take me to the dirt track on the outskirts of town, a small circle in a field where almost every 16-year-old in town learned the basics of driving, and I would get my license and have two accidents in the West Virginia mountains before I’d had a license for six months.

But Serena got behind the wheel of that sporty green Celica at every opportunity, so she quickly agreed to drive me six hours to Alexandria, Virginia to see my boyfriend, whom I hadn’t seen all summer. She had a friend in the DC suburbs, so she cheerfully agreed to drop me at Adam’s house and then pick me up at the end of the weekend. Just after we crossed the border into Virginia, we heard the sound of a siren and saw flashing red lights behind us. Serena pulled over and opened the window to see a burly policeman, red-faced and incensed.

“Young woman, you must be in a real hurry to get somewhere!”

Serena did her best to appear contrite as the policeman told her she had been going 80 mph in a 50 mph zone. He told her that the fine was $150, an enormous amount of money for a college student in the 1970s, and he ordered us to drive into town and pay the fine immediately unless she wanted to spend the night in jail. She complied, as I frantically opened our purses to see how much money we had between us. After we paid the fine, we had $13 left over. But we continued the trip to see the people we loved.

Though we’ve sometimes lost touch for years, our friendship is true and lasting.  I broke up with that boyfriend a year after that trip. I married and divorced and married again before I found the love of my life. Serena, a devout Christian who reads the Bible every day, is still with Marianne, the friend she went to see that weekend, after nearly 40 years.

And then there’s Dave, my cousin. He married and had children before he was able to admit to himself that he was gay. He divorced and later found a partner with whom he shares his life. Dave, too, is a devout Christian. He posts inspirational quotations on his Facebook page that encourage all of us who are privileged to be his friends. He loves to garden and grows flowers and vegetables that he shares with everyone who lives in his neighborhood. But his choice to acknowledge who he really is has come at a cost.  Of his three siblings, only one will speak to him or be a part of his life.

And in 2003 when I lay on an operating table for a surgery that would take nine hours to excise the cancer from my body, the youth pastor of my church would come to the hospital, pray with my family, and sit with my daughter and my husband until he was sure they were okay. A year later, when my daughter had tired of being stronger and more mature than any 17-year-old should have to be, this pastor was the one who talked to her when she crashed and finally allowed herself to question what kind of God would let her mom have cancer.

In one of the few denominations that allows a debate about ordination of gays and lesbians, this man of incredible compassion and passionate eloquence was unable for years to get a call to be a senior pastor because of his sexual orientation. Even in our church, a liberal congregation that shared sacred space with a Jewish congregation, this pastor never brought his partner to church events out of respect to those in the congregation who might be offended by his choice of partners.  And yet I don’t know of a single heterosexual minister who has ever been expected to do the same for a spouse of whom the congregation might not approve.

These three people have enriched my life. And though I read the Bible every day, I cannot understand why people obsess over six verses that condemn their sexual orientation in chapters that also forbid behaviors that heterosexual couples engage in every day without similar condemnation. How is it possible that these six verses—on a topic that is never mentioned in any of the four Gospels—can outweigh story after story of Jesus’ compassion and love?

So, yes, last weekend I stood in line for an hour and fifteen minutes to vote in Maryland. And of the page after page of choices I had to make, on none of them was I more sure I was in the right than when I cast my vote to allow these three people to have the same rights I have to marry the love of my life.

NOTE: The names have been changed to protect the privacy of those whose stories I’ve told.

How Do I Answer Her Tough Questions?

Ash and Me

When my daughter was three years old, we commuted together on one of the busiest interstates in the country to my job as a teacher and to the daycare center where she spent more waking hours with care providers than she spent with me.  Despite the stress of having my precious cargo in a hellish commute with me, I loved sharing that time with her.  She chattered away and asked a million questions, even though we left home while the sky was still dark.  I knew that I needed to prepare myself for a lifetime of tough questions when she asked me, “Momma, how did God get all those stars up in the sky?”

That night, I read to her from James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation”:

Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,

And God rolled the light around in His hands

Until He made the sun;

And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.

And the light that was left from making the sun

God gathered it up in a shining ball

And flung it against the darkness,

Spangling the night with the moon and stars.

Then down between

The darkness and the light

He hurled the world;

And God said, “That’s good!”

I remember being happy that she had asked me that question and not the daycare providers.  I remember feeling guilty that I couldn’t be a stay-at-home mom.  But now, she can’t remember the names of the people who cared for her, and I’m sure that she thinks more about all the things I’ve taught her than she thinks about anything that any of them said to her.

That doesn’t mean that she always agrees with me.  She views the world through the lens of her own experiences and ideas. And when she does, she isn’t shy about telling me that she doesn’t agree with me or share my view of the world.

And so today, she sometimes openly challenges my thinking in ways that I never challenged my own parents.  My father was a Republican who only once voted anything other than a straight ticket.  He was a child of evangelicals who never in my lifetime stepped foot into a church except for the funeral of a close friend.  My mother registered as a Republican and gave Dad a second vote in every election until he died, when she changed parties and cast the last vote of her life for Barack Obama.  She was a devout Christian who never worshipped in a church and who worried she might be going to hell because she didn’t accept the faith of her parents and in-laws.

I never considered registering as anything other than a Democrat.  I became eligible to vote in March 1974, a few months after Nixon had declared that he was not a crook.  But I never told my dad that I didn’t register for his party.  I never once discussed religion with my father either.  And after being a practicing evangelical for all of my teenage years and young adulthood, I chose a denomination that messily debates every social issue of the day. And I eventually chose a church that shared space with a Jewish congregation and ordained a gay minister.

Like many 20-somethings, my daughter doesn’t go to church as often as I do.  And she is far more accepting than I am of friends who have political views that differ from her own.  On many matters of politics and religion and life, she shares my views.  But she is much more quick to challenge people at the two extremes than I am and much more quick to offer her friendship to people whose views diverge from her own.

And maybe that’s a good thing in a world where we could use more people who can listen and really hear people who disagree.  The danger of teaching our children to think for themselves…is that they will.  But perhaps it’s our hope for the future, too.

For Whom Do You Think I Should Vote?

Wrong question. My former teacher would say that’s a hatrack question. I know who’s getting my vote, and I’ve tried to use my head for something besides a hatrack in making it. I’ve ignored the ads that assault me every time I turn on the television. I’ve read articles and opinions in both liberal and conservative newspapers, though I avoid the media outlets at the two extremes, who are not credible to anyone except the people who share their point of view. I’ve looked at the candidates’ records and at which candidate has the most potential to lead, to be honest, to care about the least among us, to put the good of the country above his desire to be elected.

 
But, hey, I’m the girl who boarded the Two Americas bus and emailed all my friends to tell them that I believed that John Edwards was the answer. My endorsement has absolutely no credibility. And my friends frequently remind me that they think of me every time they see his face in the media. So I’m convinced that the best we can do is try to use our heads to look beyond the clamor of the two extremes and hope that we’re electing the best our country has to offer.
 
So tell me…what are you doing to ensure that you’re making the most informed decision you can make? How are you making your political head something more than a rack for a politician’s top hat?
 
Please tell me HOW you’re making the decision, not the person for whom you’re voting. Any endorsements for particular candidates or rants about the opposition will be deleted.