Friday, November 28, 2008

Counting My Blessings

Having arisen from my food coma, I make this belated post. This Thanksgiving week, I am thankful:

That wonderful people from church took me in for the holiday.

That the end of this hectic term is less than two weeks away.

For friends like Daniel, Ellie, Amber, Jake, Nic, Jon, Adam, my wonderful roommates and the Navs, everyone at the Edge, Logan, Erin, Savannah, Katie, Oliver, Josi, Logan, Jordan, and Anna, who I will finally get to see next month for the first since God knows when. And everyone else who I wasn’t able to type before I decided to move on to the next item on the list. :(

For regular readers-and-commenters-slash-wonderful bloggers like James, Cany, Leondaro, Fran, and anyone I am forgetting :(.

For loving parents who took me in and gave me my home when I had none, loving birth families who knew their limitations but want me in their lives anyway, gracious and warm family from Arizona to Virginia to New York, and a brother, 18.

That I am privileged enough to be learning at a place as dignified as Dartmouth – and that I am usually able to do so with what I hope are generally open eyes.

That I can finally start playing Ave Maria and Adeste Fideles again.

For Dave Oliveria and the gang at Huckelberries Online, keeping me in the North Idaho loop so far from home.

For fall in New England.

For an intellectual President, a Democratic Congress, and a balanced government (remember the conservative court).

And above all, I am thankful that my dad is healthy for the first time since before I could walk.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ann Coulter's jaw wired shut! No, seriously, for real!

I know what I'm grateful for this year!!! (/squeals in glee)

It looks like one of the conservative right's loudest mouthpieces might be silenced for awhile.

A number of media outlets, including MSNBC, Huffington Post and the New York Post, are reporting that Ann Coulter has broken her jaw and had it wired shut.

The injury could keep Coulter from hocking her new book on talk shows. The New Ann Coulter is scheduled to be released on Dec. 30.

Picture credit

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Random Thought

Why is it we also say we don't feel human until we have our shower and coffee or put on our makeup, when in truth, the unwashed, uncaffeinated, makeup-less face is about as close to our created natural state as we ever actually come? When you think about it, don't factory-made products like soaps and chemicals make us LESS human?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Checking my predictions

I posted my White House and Senate predictions on Nov. 1, three days before the election. Now that we’re three weeks post and Missouri and Omaha’s electoral votes have finally been called, I figure it’s as good a time as any to look back on those predictions and see how I did. True, the Georgia and Minnesota Senate races are both as-of-yet undecided, but we won’t know GA until Dec. 2 or MN until mid-December, and I don’t want to wait that long to grade myself.

At the presidential level, I said Barack Obama with 364 EVs. The true result was Obama with 365. I was correct in 47.8 of my state predictions – I thought McCain would win Indiana and Obama would take Missouri, but the two flipped. Both states have 11 EVs, so it didn’t affect my overall total. I also failed to predict Obama would win an EV in Nebraska, one of only two states (along with Maine) that provides for the splitting of its EVs, something that had never happened before. So, 11 balances 11, but Omaha adds one.

At the Senate level, so far so good. I predicted the Democrats would flip seats in Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, and Virginia. It took quite some time to sort out the Alaska race, but now that it’s been sorted out, I’m 7-7. I also predicted Coleman would beat Franken in Minnesota and Chambliss would beat Martin in Mississippi; those outcomes are still to be determined. At this point I would predict Chambliss in GA, but actually Franken in MN. We shall see.

All in all, though, I’m still perfect in the Senate, near perfect in the Electoral College, and darn good in the state-by-state count. Forgive the self-call, but if I do say so myself, that’s not that bad.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Local NH politics, meet the Millenial Generation

Thesis work and other such things have kept me away from blogging for about the past week, so I've missed out on some pretty big stories. There is one, however, that I'd like to double back and comment upon, no matter how untimely it may be.

You may have heard something about Vanessa Sievers, the 20-year-old college student from Montana who was elected a county treasurer in New Hampshire. Vanessa is a former treasurer of the Dartmouth College Democrats, her family’s bookkeeper, and a NH Democratic campaign staffer. None of this, however, stopped the three-term incumbent she beat, Carol Elliott, from angrily telling the local paper (a full week after the election) that Vanessa is an unqualified "teenybopper" elected by "brainwashed" college kids who aren't "real people." The story became national news when the AP and the New York Times both picked up on Elliott’s comments. You can read the original story from last Wednesday’s original NH/VT Valley News here, the NYT story here, and the AP coverage here.

Why am I mentioning this now? Because for me, this is not a national story but one I read in the local paper well before it hit the wires. Like Vanessa, I am a Dartmouth student and a member of the College Democrats. While I did not vote for her, as you can see on this picture of my ballot, I have known her for about two years and am confident that she will do a good job for us here in Grafton County. Elliott may view me and other college kid as illegal immigrants rather than “real people” (remind you of anyone?), but I think of myself as a firmly entrenched member of the local community. By the time the NYT and AP had picked up on the story, I had already fired off this letter to the editor, which ran in Sunday’s Valley News.

To the Editor,

As a Dartmouth student and active Upper Valley resident, I was deeply offended by outgoing Grafton County Treasurer Carol Elliott's remarks on the front-page of Wednesday's Valley News. Elliot's comment that only "brainwashed" people would dare vote against her is perhaps the most bitter and undemocratic thing she should could have said.

I have known our new treasurer, Vanessa Sievers, for two years. Although I did not vote for her, I have never doubted that she is an intelligent and hard-charging young woman who will do an outstanding job. It was a tough ballot to cast, and I did not make up my mind until I reached the voting booth; but I ultimately decided on the three-term incumbent rather than the Montana transplant. Because of Elliot's sore loser remarks, I now deeply regret that vote. Vanessa is no "teenybopper," and unless Elliot would like to be called a geezer, she should stop making similarly uninformed slurs about younger generations.

Congratulations, Vanessa! I apologize for not voting for you. It was a big mistake, and I know you will to do a wonderful job for our county. And it is indeed "our" county. While Elliott may not believe students are "real people," the truth is that Grafton County is very much my home. I gave up my Idaho driver's license for a New Hampshire license, and my car, before its untimely demise, had New Hampshire plates. I pay New Hampshire meal taxes and New Hampshire property taxes affect my rent. I have a Howe library card, read the Valley News, and am a member of both New Hampshire Public Radio and the Hanover Co-op. If I am ever in trouble, it is the Hanover Police and the staff of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center who will come to my aid.

There are many more students like me, both here and in Plymouth. Our schools do much to benefit their surrounding communities, and so our voices should be welcomed by those communities. For Elliott to suggest otherwise is arrogant, bitter, and unbecoming of a good citizen.

Nathan Empsall

As for Elliott's remarks about our country registrar of deeds… no comment.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Opposing the auto industry bailout

I just sent this brief letter to my congressman, Paul Hodes. The last thing this country needs right now is an even bigger deficit to pass on to the next generation (namely, mine.)

Dear Rep. Hodes (or the LC who reads this letter),

Congratulations on your re-election. I was proud to vote for you a second time.

The last time I wrote your office, it was in anger over your opposition to the $700 billion bailout plan. While I still disagree with you over that particular bailout, I hope you will show the same fiscal restraint if all this talk about a bailout of Detroit ever comes to an actual vote in the House. To rescue an entire industry is one thing, particularly if that industry has such deep ramifications for middle America (student loans, credit cards, etc.), but to bail out individual companies that have been bailed out before is a horse of an entirely different color. As David Brooks wrote in yesterday's New York Times,

"It is not about saving a system; there will still be cars made and sold in America. It is about saving politically powerful corporations... If Detroit gets money, then everyone would have a case. After all, are the employees of Circuit City or the newspaper industry inferior to the employees of Chrysler?... If ever the market has rendered a just verdict, it is the one rendered on G.M. and Chrysler. These companies are not innocent victims of this crisis. To read the expert literature on these companies is to read a long litany of miscalculation. Some experts mention the management blunders, some the union contracts and the legacy costs, some the years of poor car design and some the entrenched corporate cultures."

Thanks for all your hard work representing us in New Hampshire's 2nd District - both "you," Congressman, and especially you the staffer who reads this!

Nathan Empsall

Friday, November 14, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

My favorite Obama picture

Just found this in a Yahoo! News slideshow of presidential kids. A lot of the photos of the Obamas made him look like a relaxed, happy dad even more in his element with his kids than he is with a stage and a microphone. The caption for this particular photo reads, "Democratic Presidential Candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) drives a bumper car with his daughter Sasha at the Iowa State Fair in this August 16, 2007 photo, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)"

Like I said, it's a light week.

Monday, November 10, 2008

This week

I've got a lot to do this week, mostly academic stuff, so the blog load will be light. Hopefully I should roar back into action on Monday once the first chapter of my thesis is finished. Maybe I'll put up videos and articles between now and then. Y'know, like this one, which I fondly remember from my childhood:

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Jesus and Puppies

I just read this beautiful reflection from a woman at my church in Idaho, St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Coeur d'Alene. Jamie and her husband are among my parents' closest friends and are truly amazing people, but until reading this reflection I didn't know just how amazing they are. This really shows the light of Christ, and I hope you find it as touching as I did. (Plus, there's an NPR reference, and who doesn't love that?)

I love St. Bernard's. Love 'em, love 'em, love 'em. My husband, Dave, and I have two. I love them so much that I tend to see them before I see the owner.

Eight months ago, in the middle of one of the biggest snow storms of our record-breaking winter, I saw a St. Bernard walking along the side of the road. This puppy was pushing against a strong wind from the north. Her ears were pushed back by the driving snow falling at 3 inches per hour. As we drove closer, it was hard to tell where the sticky snow on her fur ended and the blowing snow began.

The weatherman on the radio just told all dog owners to take their animals in for the night. The temperature on dashboard read 22. And, here was a puppy, fighting against the elements.

We pulled over to see if the puppy needed help. I didn't notice the owner until we stopped.

After petting the puppy, we talked with the owner, "Dan". I jokingly asked where he was going, making light of the fact that he was going on a walk during such a horrible, life-threatening, storm. Dan said he was looking for shelter for the night. He was cold and scared and didn't know if his puppy would make it.

I found myself, for the first time in my life, talking to a homeless man. With a St. Bernard puppy.

Dan was living in a make-shift lean-to next to a river. He had been shoveling snow all day to earn enough money to buy beans, an onion, and a few carrots. Dan was shivering and his socks were wet from the snow.

As we talked, labels and judgments fell away and Dan's humanity became real. I realized I was talking, not to a "homeless man", but to a man who had no home.

My heart opened and I realized that Dan needed three things, to eat, to be warm, and to know the compassion of Christ.

Which is harder, to feed the hungry and give the homeless a place to sleep? Or, for the eyes of our hearts to open to their existence and their needs?

I found that by seeing a puppy, my eyes opened to the existence of the homeless. By listening, my heart opened. By giving, the compassion of Christ was made known - to both of us.

Our lives became known to each other for a few weeks. During that time, Dan found employment, purchased a car, and lives in a place just big enough for him and his puppy, Heather.

Despite the fresh start that we gave Dan, I believe that I received more from our relationship.

Through my encounter with this man-without-a-home, I learned that every person, regardless of his or her story, needs a warm meal, dry bed, and chance to start over. Every person needs Christ's love and His compassion. I know that God's miracles come in all forms - even in the form of a St. Bernard. And, I have discovered that to love our neighbor as ourselves means to love ALL of our neighbors without judgment.

That love includes our neighbors who live in make-shift lean-tos by the river. Our neighbors who are struggling to overcome their addiction to drugs. Our neighbors who have found it is safer to live on the street than in an abusive relationship. Our neighbors who are living with HIV/AIDS. Our neighbors who suffer from mental illness. And, our neighbors who have consistently made bad financial and employment decisions over the course of their lives, but still need a fresh start.

When we help those in need, making Christ known, we will also know Christ.

This, I believe,

Jamie Z.

Dartmouth wasn't the only one

Celebrations erupted in streets around the country and the world last night. I wish I could join another tonight. Here's Washington DC's U Street:

From Eve Fairbanks at The New Republic:

In Washington tonight, a huge, spontaneous street party busted out where I live on U Street, the historic corridor once known as the "black Broadway" until it was destroyed in the '60s riots. As the acquiescent police stood by, three blocks got shut down to make way for dancers and spur-of-the-moment fireworks displays. Walking down the street, I got more random big hugs from African-Americans than from whites.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Video of the Dartmouth celebration

A friend just sent this my way; I love it!!! It's video of the students rushing through the library, and then photos of the crowd outside President Wright's house, where I joined in. My biggest regret about this election is that I didn't know about the crowd early enough to be there for the library parade! The video starts dark, but gets better. It was such an amazing watch for me.

Dartmouth celebrates

One day I will be an old man sitting in a rocking chair yelling at those damn kids to get off my lawn. When that day comes and I look back and reminisce on my college years, the memory of last night’s celebration will without a doubt be my strongest, fondest, and all around best.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I spent the evening with 75 or so other College Democrats and Obama volunteers at the nation’s only Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity (founded a few decades before one Nathan Bedford Forrest founded another similarly named organization). And as a I noted in that post, there was a certain beautiful irony in celebrating the election of the nation’s first black president in a frat called KKK.

We hooted, we hollered, we drank, we cried, we screamed, and we cried some more. There was screaming for Jeanne Shaheen. There was cheering for Paul Hodes. There were tears for Ohio. I, who had never smoked so much as a cigarette in my life, had my first cigar. Several of us, myself included, made brief speeches in between candidate speeches and state projections. I spoke to the importance of respecting our opponents, McCain included, over the next few months and years, and will make a similar post on this blog soon. But the real joy is what came next.

Around midnight, not too long after Obama’s victory speech, someone said, “Hey! Let’s go join the crowd on the Green!” Although I was unaware of it, apparently a spontaneous celebration had started on the College Green, where hundreds of students had gathered to sing patriotic songs. We left the frat and ran right into them – forget going to the Green; the Green had already come to us! The crowd had left the commons to parade through the library and down Frat Row (or Webster Avenue, as the maps call it), where we poured out to greet them, dancing, screaming, exchanging high fives. 400-500 strong, we all marched further down Frat Row to the gates of the college president’s house. I hopped up on his wrought iron fence to get a good view of everything; my cell phone camera did an insufficient job but and had some great photos I’ve reproduced here.

The 500 of us cheered and continued to sing songs like “America the Beautiful,” and began to chant the college president’s name, James Wright. After a few minutes he came outside and slowly crossed the enormous lawn to greet us. We all chanted, “Speech! Speech! Speech!” I looked around at the crowd and said, wow, there probably hasn’t been a spontaneous mob this big yelling at the college president since they took over the administration building 40 years ago, and the tone of that event was more than a little different.

Surrounded by several Safety and Security officers with town police arriving every minute, President Wright repeatedly told us how much we inspire him and that this is our century. Afterwards he shook hands with dozens of students. I probably shouldn’t say this online, but what the heck, I’m a legal 21 and my generation has never known a celebration like this. Joe Scarborough compared it this morning to Armstrong walking on the moon, so I’ll just go ahead and post it – I had had more than one drink. A lot more. And instead of just shaking the college president’s hand, I gave him a big bear hug.

[8:05pm update: Oh, I almost forgot! There were also (illegal) fireworks! And not just small dinky ones, but a really big blue one!)

My generation showed up. Over 2000 Dartmouth students voted in Hanover - over half the student body - with countless more sending their absentee ballots home. Nation-wide, in 2004 56.6% of eligible 18-29 year olds voted, and while I don't have a percentage yet for 2008, 2.4 million MORE young voters showed up than in 2004. And we didn't just vote - we read, blogged, canvassed, phone banked, wore political clothing, and drove other voters to the polls.

What a night. And what a victory. The New York Times recap of global reaction is a stirring read, to say the least. My word, what a beautiful thing. I didn’t think we’d elect a black person president for another 20, 30 years. Sometimes it’s good to be wrong.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


With Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire all called, I'd like to be one of the first, if not the first, to say:


Aaaand back to the celebratory beverages.

I did a very special thing today

I did something today that very few people in the world, and even the history of the world, get to do: I had an equal say in who will run my government.

I voted. And isn’t that a beautiful thing?

As the election official checked my name off the rolls and handed me a ballot, I said, “Isn’t this a privilege?” She and the others at her table all lit up and beamed. “Yes, it is!” she said, “and I’m so thrilled you recognize that! You’re the first young man today to say such a thing.”

So I took my ballot into the booth and happily checked the names of my favorite politician, Joe Biden, and of the first African-American major party nominee, Barack Obama. I also voted for several Republicans in local races (these were informed votes, not desperate attempts to seem bipartisan) and wrote in various professors’ names for some of the unchallenged local races.

For the entire ten-minute walk to the polling place, Hanover High School, I was sang to myself, “I get to vote, I get to vote! I’m going to get to vote, I get to vote!” Not, mind you, I’m going to vote, but I *get* to vote. For all America’s problems and for all its sins, most of us still get to vote, and that is still such a beautiful and amazing thing.

If Obama wins, I’ll make a post about why he’s not a socialist. If McCain wins, I’ll make a post about why I’m not disheartened, and write about some of his good qualities and some of my hopes. No matter who wins, I’ll be making yet another post on the importance of civility and respect for one another. But right now, I’m just going to revel in the beauty of democracy. And tonight, I’m going to try to find the campus election returns watch party with the best combination of friends, Democrats, and celebratory beverages. I'll leave you with an interesting though: the College Dems watch party tonight is at a frat called Kappa Kappa Kappa, or Trikap, a Greek house founded back before the Civil War. Isn't that such a delicious irony? When Obama wins, knock on wood, the celebration of our first black president's election will be held in a frat called KKK.

My ballot, courtesy of my cell phone:

Election Day Prayers

As we vote today and watch election returns tonight, here are some civic-themed prayers from the Book of Common Prayers to help us keep in mind what really matters.

24. For an Election

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States (or of this community) in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

22. For Sound Government

O Lord our Governor, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth.
Lord, keep this nation under your care.

To the President and members of the Cabinet, to Governors of States, Mayors of Cities, and to all in administrative authority, grant wisdom and grace in the exercise of their
Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

To Senators and Representatives, and those who make our laws in States, Cities, and Towns, give courage, wisdom, and foresight to provide for the needs of all our people, and to fulfill our obligations in the community of nations.
Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

To the Judges and officers of our Courts give understanding and integrity, that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served.
Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

And finally, teach our people to rely on your strength and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society; that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name.
For yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Amen.

H/T to Grandmere Mimi at The Wounded Bird.

Monday, November 03, 2008

If the candidates were trains

My parting shot before Election Day:

H/T Fr. Scott Gunn at Seven Whole Days

Amazing Grace, or why all Christians should vote

This past Thursday night, I was fortunate enough to preach at the Dartmouth Navigators Christian Fellowship's weekly meeting. The first half of my sermon told the story of the Rev. John Newton and the hymn Amazing Grace; the second half explored the theology of grace and linked it to why I believe all Christians, whether liberal or conservative, have a special obligation to vote on Tuesday. Where italicized, the lyrics to Amazing Grace were sung.


May I speak in the name of God, who is creator, liberator, and sanctifier.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Good evening. My name is Nathan Empsall. I don’t know how many folks on campus know my name, but a lot of folks, upperclassmen anyway, know me as that dude with the cowboy hat.

I want to speak at length tonight about grace, and about why I think it’s incredibly important for all American Christians to vote on Tuesday. In all fairness, I should admit my own biases – I’m an actively involved Democrat who supports the occasional Republican – but tonight’s talk has nothing to do with that. I pray that my message is the message of the Gospel, and one that will apply to libertarians and communists as much as it does Republicans and Democrats.

Some of you may already know the story of Father John Newton. Newton is remembered for three things – for his many journals and diaries, which provide most of what we know about the slave trade; for the moving hymns he wrote later in life; and for his influence on one William Wilberforce.

Newton was born in London in July of 1725. His mother died when he was seven, and even as a young child he grew bitter and angry with God over that death, and gave up on faith. His religious confusion and lack of a moral center led to an angry childhood; he was a rather rebellious sort. He was drafted into the Navy at the age of 19.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

After a few years in the navy, Newton became a slave trader, kidnapping people in Sierra Leone, beating and gagging them, and stuffing them into holds like sardines, leaving them to wallow in their own feces while transporting them to America where they would be purchased like livestock by the God-fearing, patriotic colonists.

I think it’s important for all of us to keep in mind the severe injustice of British and American slavery. The American brand, ours, was not the slavery of the Bible, which usually involved prisoners of war or voluntarily indentured servants. The slavery of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was a very different form of brutality and tyranny, based instead on kidnapping and on the stripping away of all dignity and humanity.

Newton’s crimes as a slave trader were even more cruel and shameful than most because he himself knew the pain of losing one’s freedom and dignity. As a young sailor, he had attempted to desert the Navy, and was humiliated in front of almost 400 other sailors when the captain locked him in irons, stripped him, tied him to the ship’s mast, flogged him with nearly 100 lashes, and demoted him. Once he finally did get out of the Navy, he got a job as a servant to the captain of a slave ship. Yet this captain also beat him routinely, and to be a beaten servant in the middle of the ocean isn’t much better than being an actual slave yourself. Newton later described his position aboard that ship as “an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa.” And yet, knowing full well just what it was he was doing, he became a slave trader himself, continuing to pass that pain along to others.

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

But in 1848, he began a long conversion back to God, and to justice. Newton was sailing a slave-ship home to England when an enormous storm struck, lasting for hours. The ship began to fill with water, and sailors tied themselves to the masts to keep from being blown overboard. Newton remained at the helm, struggling with the rudder and fighting the storm every inch of the way. For the first time in years, he reached deep inside himself to pray and pray.

The storm blew over, the ship didn’t sink, and Newton picked up his Bible. By the time the ship arrived home, he was once again a Christian, and began to live at least the basics of a Christian life. He ordered his crews to begin treating the slaves humanely, but it wasn’t until 1755 that he finally gave up slave trading all together.

As Newton immersed himself deeper and deeper into his newfound Christian studies, he realized God was calling him to ministry, and in 1764 he was ordained an Anglican priest. On an interesting sidenote, he was ordained by the Bishop of Chester, who first heard of him when he was recommended by none other than William Legge, the second Earl of Dartmouth, just five years before Lord Legge would donate a large sum of money to have a little school named after him in the north woods of New England’s New Hampshire.

Word of Father Newton’s sermons spread, and his church in Olney, Buckinghamshire had to be rebuilt to fit the enormous crowds. In 1779, Newton moved to London to lead a parish there, and published his first volume of hymns. It is these hymns that the former slave-trader is most known for. At least three of them are still frequently sung today: “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and as you’ve probably guessed by now, “Amazing Grace” – a hymn sung today by hundreds of different artists and thousands of different congregations, to scores of different tunes.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Amazing Grace is the story of Newton’s conversion. It describes Newton’s pain at losing his mother; the rebellion in which he lived out his adolescence, the storm that almost took his life, and above all, the grace of God that delivered him through it all.

Backtracking a back, one of Newton’s parishioners was a man by the name of William Wilberforce. Some of you may already know Wilberforce’s story, particularly if you’ve seen the movie Amazing Grace, which for all its creative licenses is still one of my favorites. Like Newton, Wilberforce largely abandoned his faith as a young man. But, after becoming a Member of Parliament, he found it again, and became an intensely devote evangelical Anglican.

Wilberforce’s faith gave him a newfound zeal for justice; he wanted to spread Christian ethics in both private and public life. Although he worked tirelessly on any number of issues, including education reform, poverty, and animal rights, he was most known for his opposition to the slave trade. Wondering what the best path for him was, in the mid-1780s Wilberforce came to Newton and asked for advice about joining the priesthood. Fr. Newton counseled him to remain in politics, and became a staunch ally in Wilberforce’s campaign to ban the slave trade. After two decades of intense work, as chronicled by that movie Amazing Grace, Wilberforce and Newton were finally successful. The slave trade was abolished in 1806, and Newton died in 1807, his life completely reversed by, and in, God.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Grace is one of the most beautiful things about God, the Bible, and Christianity. We know it above all for its saving power: the grace of the cross that delivers us from our sins. But that is not the only grace God gives us. I have often likened grace to butter. Maybe you’ve gained weight and just can’t take off that class ring, or you tried on a ring size too small at the jeweler’s, and the sizer just won’t come off. Along comes butter. Grease on a little off that yellow stuff and the ring should slide ride off.

n life, we are the ring, we just can’t budge on our own, and grace is the butter that makes things possible. Maybe there’s a situation you just can’t get through, it’s beyond your reach, past your limitations. But through God’s love and grace, you get to where you need to be. And every time we say, “Oh, it’s such a God thing, the Lord is providing for us tonight!” that’s grace! My adoption, that which gave me two loving parents instead of life in poverty with a single teenage mother, that which kept me from being just another number trapped in the foster care system – that was God’s grace. Sometimes, this grace is the only thing keeping even the most responsible woman, the hardest working man, from financial collapse or ruin – as we say, there but for the grace of God go I. This was the type of grace Newton sang about – the grace that got him through that awful storm.

Above all, grace is undeserved. If life were fair, there would be a lot more pain and suffering even than there already is; we wretches would be left to our own pride and sin. There’s an old quote, I don’t know who said it, but: “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God's grace. And your best days are never so good that you're beyond the need of God's grace.”

That’s the grace we all know, the grace we sing about, the grace upon which we reflect. There is, however, a second side to grace, and while it may not be as important as the first, it should not be overlooked. And it is another form of grace showcased by Newton’s life and hymn, a hymn was originally titled not “Amazing Grace,” but rather, “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”

“Faith’s Review and Expectation.”

You see, it wasn’t good enough for Newton to accept God’s grace and then spend the rest of his life in prayerful piety. Faith brought along with it an expectation. Worship and personal purity, for all their importance, just aren’t enough. We as Christians have to pass that grace along, we have to interact with our community the way Christ did, and the way Newton worked to do by aiding Wilberforce in his campaign to abolish the slave trade. It’s my belief that one way we can do this is through political participation.

While St. Paul generally tells us how to live, Christ shows us how to give. The Gospels are about community, and call us to do many things in the world rather than just in our homes. One common theme, for instance, is helping the poor. There are hundreds of verses throughout the Bible to that effect, some say over 3000, none more famous than Matthew 25: 37-40. “Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” You did to me.

In fact, this passage is so important, that it’s not just a parable or even a commandment. It’s a judgment. It is the only judgment Christ Himself, albeit not the Bible, specifically labels as such.

But acting upon the compassion of Christ, and respecting one another as equal children of God, is not the only action we are called to do. Some Christians say that we are also called to fight the influence of homosexuality, pointing to various passages in Leviticus and the Epistles, particularly Romans 1. We are certainly called to reaffirm the strength of the family and to make sure that every child is loved, and to encourage responsibility wherever we can – that good old Protestant work ethic. We are also tasked with resisting oppressive governments – as Mother Mary sang in Luke 1, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Well, if we’re going to act Christlike, then we too will need to lift up the lowly, and cast down the powerful when they abuse that power.

It is important, I believe, that we use the best tools at our disposal to accomplish these goals. One such tool is voting, because it cannot be denied that government has an effect on poverty; it has an effect on abortion; it plays a role in health care and the combating of disease; every child that dies in war dies at the hands of a governmental declaration. Government itself is not part of our faith system; it is not necessarily one of the issues we need to address. But it is a tool with which we can address those issues, and how can we truly claim to be fixing a problem if we are ignoring the biggest tools in our toolbox?

I’m not pushing any particular view of government, I’m merely pointing out that government always plays a role. We can certainly disagree on what that role is, but I think at the end of the day, we still have a Christian obligation and expectation to be politically active, which means, at the very least, to vote. Let me give an example.

Take poverty. If you’re liberal, if you believe the government programs work and that things like food stamps and a progressive income tax help raise up the poor, if you think foreign aid makes a difference, then you should vote for Obama or Nader. If you’re conservative, and you think government programs are ineffective and waste money that could do more for the poor by staying in the private sector, if you believe government just gets in the way and perhaps even increases poverty, then vote for McCain or Barr. But to stand back and do nothing, to say yes, I’m a Christian and I am obligated to help the poor, but I’m only going to do so through soup kitchens and donations and ignore the government’s effect, whatever it may be, is unconscionable. The liberal Christian who doesn’t vote for a liberal politician is ignoring an important tool for doing what Christ told him to do, to fight poverty. And the conservative Christian who doesn’t vote for the politician who promises to cut regulations is choosing to leave what he believes are roadblocks in the way of the poor, despite Christ’s instructions to remove those roadblocks as best we can. You’ve got, at the very least, to vote. Obviously our obligations don’t end there, but given the monumental weight of what’s happening in just five days, it’s sure a good place to start.

When we as Christians vote, when we pass along the grace using every tool at our disposal, great things can happen. We all know this is true in our daily lives, but it’s also true of government. Wilberforce’s faith and political ambitions combined to end the British slave trade. Christians acting as Christians also played a role in the United States’ abolitionist movement, and in the Civil Rights Movement – the REV. Martin Luther King; the REV. Ralph Abernathy. Yes, Jesus’ grace included a lot more than engaging the Roman government and challenging Caesar’s title as the son of God, and it included a lot more than exposing the hypocrisy of local religious leaders in bed with Roman imperialism. We’ll need to do a lot more, too – but again, it’ll be a good place for us to start.

So pay attention, and remember the Christian importance of every issue in the papers. I doubt Jesus cares how you vote; just vote, and consider the Christian issues, all of them, from genocide to abortion, when you do. Don’t hog the grace – pass it along.

I would add more one thing. Voting is not the only way we can show grace to one another during this election season. It is also important that we respect one another; that we recognize that we can disagree on the proper role of government and still come together in worship and unite around the underlying values. The division that plagues this red and blue nation and the hate that has come from supporters of both candidates over the past few months are not the things we Christians can stand for. I’d like to share two quotes to that affect, the first one from Republican John Danforth, an Episcopal priest and retired Senator and U.N. Ambassador. Danforth writes,

“If we are convinced that our opinions on social and political questions are the law of God, then people who oppose our opinions become opponents of God. If, in contrast, we recognize the limits of our own understanding of God’s truth, while acknowledging that our opponents are trying, as we are, to do God’s will, we are able to be ambassadors of reconciliation. In that case, our faithfulness in politics depends less on the content of our ideology than on how we view ourselves and treat each other. “Faith in politics has more to do with the way faithful people approach politics than with the substance of our positions.

And even more powerfully than Senator Danforth, St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

“Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

So, let us act in both diversity and unity because we have been given both diversity and unity; let us show grace because we have been shown grace. Vote, whether it’s next week in America or some other time in some other time in another home country. Do the Christian thing and pass the grace along; get Pentecostal; get active in every way you can.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

McCain on Saturday Night Live

There's been a lot of talk the last few months about how John McCain just isn't who he used to be. I agree, but at least there's one exception: his sense of humor. I've long admired McCain's ability to make fun of himself and just about everyone else around him. His cameo on Saturday Night Live last night - I think this was his third appearance on the show? - was hilarious. "I'm a true maverick: a Republican without money!" This has got to be one of SNL's all-time best political sketches, right up there with the first Gore-Bush debate, Bill Clinton at McDonald's, and Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis.

And for old time's sake, here is an excerpt from that Clinton McDonald's sketch, as well. The "warlords" part is hilarious!

All Saint's Day

On this All Saints Day (observed), I remember my grandfather, Robert Empsall, who passed away in May at the age of 99 years, 11 months, and 2 weeks.

The best thing about All Saint's Day is that we get to sing my favorite hymn, "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God," as well as another wonderful classic that'll lift your spirits every time, "For All the Saints." This is the only version I could find of the former on YouTube, and alas, it has no words:

Also, James at The Three Legged Stool has posted beautiful video of the hymn "For All the Saints" from President Gerald Ford's funeral at the National Cathedral.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

My 2008 White House and Senate Predictions

With less than 72 hours until polls all over this country finally close on the 2008 presidential election, I thought I would make my White House and Senate predications. I believe that Barack Obama will win the White House with 364 electoral votes and that the Democrats will pick up 7 Senate seats, giving them 57 (58, but I expect Lieberman to fly the coop). These predictions are based on polls from RealClearPolitics, statistical analysis from FiveThirtyEight, and my own understanding of history, geography, and culture.

White House – I predict Barack Obama will win with 364 electoral votes. By comparison, Larry Sabato also has him at 364, and RCP at 353. Neither Charlie Cook nor 538 have made predictions. But the basic fact is this: Obama’s win is everything but a done deal. If Obama flips, as expected, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Iowa, he can lose Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida and STILL WIN exactly 270 electoral votes! Yet he’s still likely to win Ohio and Florida, and despite what the McCain camp says, I see absolutely no way he can lose Pennsylvania or New Hampshire. With those 8 swing states, Obama has 338 electoral votes. I think McCain will hold Montana, North Dakota, Georgia, West Virginia, and Arizona, but that we’re talking about them at all is absolutely stunning and speaks to the depth of Obama’s victory. Missouri, Indiana, and North Carolina are all a little trickier, but I expect black turnout and the Hagan-Dole backlash in NC to lift up Obama there. I think McCain will win EITHER Missouri or Indiana, I’m going to guess Indiana and give Missouri to Obama, just sort of a gut feeling. Finally, neither Nebraska nor Maine will split their electoral votes. If I’m wrong about any states, I think MO, IN, ND, and MT are the most likely.

As for the popular vote, my best guess is something around Obama 52, McCain 46. I'm ignoring all the buzz about the polls tightening because the only poll that's really any different than it was before is Zogby's tracking poll, and Zogby's weight sample assumes that turnout will be exactly the same as it was in 2004, giving Republicans an unrealistic boost. The poll I trust the most, Gallup Tracking Expanded, currently shows Obama 52 McCain 42.

On to the Senate. In order of certitude:

Virginia – DEMOCRATIC GAIN. All but a done deal; no analysis needed. 538 gives former Governor and Democrat Mark Warner a 100% chance of winning. Warner, I believe, is the future of the post-Obama Democratic Party.

New Mexico – DEMOCRATIC GAIN. All but a done deal; no analysis needed. 538 gives Rep. Tom Udall (D) a 100% chance of victory. I’m looking forward to Mo Udall’s nephew serving in the Senate.

Colorado – DEMOCRATIC GAIN. All but a done deal; no analysis needed. 538 gives Rep. Mark Udall (D) a 100% chance of victory. I’m looking forward to Mo Udall’s son serving in the Senate.

Alaska – DEMOCRATIC GAIN. I expected Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) to win even before incumbent Ted Stevens (R) was indicted; the wiff of scandal around Stevens and the entire Alaska GOP was just too strong. Stevens’ indictment seals the deal, even with Governor Sarah Palin on the top of the ballot. This has gone from a toss-up to, according to 538, a 100% lock for the Democrats.

New Hampshire – DEMOCRATIC GAIN. This state turned a very deep shade of blue in 2006, when NH Democrats (like me!) took back the state house, state senate, Executive Council, and both House races, and the Governor won re-election by a record margin. Folks are generally unimpressed with Senator John Sununu, who’s not much of a campaigner in the first place. His only real hope was John McCain’s coattails, but with McCain down by double digits even here in his second political home, put a fork in Sununu. True, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) was really unimpressive in the Senate debate. I had to turn it off, but seriously, how many people do you really think were watching in the first place?

Minnesota – REPUBLICANS HOLD. Even though 538 gives Democrat Al Franken a 53% chance of flipping this seat to the Democrats, I predict incumbent Republican Norm Coleman will pull through. Three of the four current polls show Coleman ahead, and the scandals that have plagued him just aren’t as odious as the ones that have hit at Franken. I like Al Franken and think he’d make a great Senator; he’s been more of a funny politico the last few years than he has been a political comedian. His problem is that he’s an atypical candidate running a typical campaign. If Minnesota Democrats wanted a traditional race, they should have nominated the lawyer who ran against Franken in the primaries. Franken should have embraced who he is and run a Franken campaign rather than a Senate campaign; as a result, I expect him to pay the price on Tuesday. But, if I’m wrong about just one Republican win, this is likely to be it.

Oregon – DEMOCRATIC GAIN. I actually originally expected Republican Gordon Smith (yet another Udall) to win re-election, but the winds have shifted and Democrat Jeff Merkley leads in all four current polls for an average lead of 5.3 points. 538 gives him an 88% chance of unseating Smith.

North Carolina – DEMOCRATIC GAIN. This has to be one of the dirtiest Senate races in the history of modern campaigns. State Sen. Kay Hagan (D) has been leading incumbent Elizabeth Dole (R) for the last couple weeks, so Dole went as negative as is possible, releasing an ad implying that the Presbyterian Sunday School teacher Hagan is an atheist. When the ad was criticized, Dole released another defending the first. Elizabeth Dole has gone from a respectable Republican to perhaps the most undeserving candidate out there this cycle. The ad even prompted me to donate a small amount to the DSCC. The question about this race is this: even if Hagan’s fierce reply has gotten out, has Dole’s ad created doubt in voters’ minds about Hagan, or is it just too disgusting and will create a severe backlash, sealing the deal for Hagan? I think so, particularly when coupled with strong African-American turnout for Obama. 538 agrees, giving Hagan a 78% chance.

Mississippi – REPUBLICANS HOLD. This, along with Oregon, is the one race I’ve changed my mind about in the last few weeks. I initially though that former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) would unseat incumbent Roger Wicker (R) given black turnout for Obama and the fact that it’s a special election with no party affiliation printed on the ballot. However, Musgrove has run a bit of a lackluster campaign, and the first polls out in weeks all show Wicker slightly ahead. 538 gives Wicker a 93% chance, which seems high to me, but I still think he’ll win.

Georgia – REPUBLICAN HOLD. This one is surprisingly close. 538 says it’s more likely to switch than Mississippi, giving incumbent Saxby Chambliss (R) an 43% chance. His average lead, according to RCP, in the last three polls is just 2.7%. Still, he’s pretty close to that 50% marker. No one expected this race to be a barnburner, and black turnout or no, it’s still Georgia.

Kentucky – REPUBLICANS HOLD. Democrats have been organized here for a long time, and some polls are almost tied, but KY won’t have the black of vote GA and MS and only one sitting Senate party leader has lost his bid for re-election in the last 50+ years. Mitch McConnell (R)’s average RCP lead is seven points, and 538 gives him an 84% chance. I think McConnell will hold on, but this may not be much more than a toss-up if Obama’s wave is large enough.

Louisiana – DEMOCRATS HOLD. 538 has moved the Republicans’ lone pickup opportunity to 100% safe for the incumbent Democrat, Mary Landrieu. I never figured she was in much danger anyway – if she could win reelection in the overwhelmingly Republican year of 2002, the overwhelmingly Democratic year of 2008 shouldn’t have been a problem for her, changing Louisiana demographics or not.

Texas – REPUBLICANS HOLD. – No one actually expects the Democratic challenger, Lt. Col. and State Sen. Rick Noriega, to win. I just include it on my list because I think it’s a missed opportunity, like Nevada in 2006. Had the national Democrats invested (they said TX is too expensive; the same amount of money was able to fully fund NC, GA, and KY instead) and had Noriega gotten his act together earlier, this could have been plum pickin’ for Democrats. Incumbent John Cornyn (R) has low name recognition and low favorability ratings, but will cruise to victory anyway. 538 gives him a 99% chance.

The open Republican seats in Idaho and Nebraska are also safe in Republican hands, and I always expected Maine's Susan Collins (R) to cruise to re-election, although perhaps not by this large a margin.

Daughter of slave votes for Obama

This story from the Austin (TX) Statesman has to be the single most amazing thing about this election. It speaks volumes.

Daughter of slave votes for Obama: 109-year-old Bastrop woman casts her vote by mail

Amanda Jones, 109, the daughter of a man born into slavery, has lived a life long enough to touch three centuries. And after voting consistently as a Democrat for 70 years, she has voted early for the country's first black presidential nominee.

The middle child of 13, Jones, who is African American, is part of a family that has lived in Bastrop County for five generations. The family has remained a fixture in Cedar Creek and other parts of the county, even when its members had to eat at segregated barbecue dives and walk through the back door while white customers walked through the front, said Amanda Jones' 68-year-old daughter, Joyce Jones...

Amanda Jones says she cast her first presidential vote for Franklin Roosevelt, but she doesn't recall which of his four terms that was. When she did vote, she paid a poll tax, her daughters said. That she is able, for the first time, to vote for a black presidential nominee for free fills her with joy, Jones said.

H/T to my friend Brice.