Saturday, November 28, 2020

What Christmas Giving Would Jesus Encourage?


With a 20% discount, this silk
Christmas tie is a mere $19.95.
When we received our 84-page gift catalogue from last week I looked forward to checking out some good reading material from this distributer, one that typically offers some great prices on current faith-related titles.

Only to discover that this was their Christmas "Gifts & Home Accents" edition, one that included no books or other reading material whatever. Instead, there were pages after pages of "Stoneware Word Mugs" with Bible texts, tote bags with words like "The Lord will guide you always," tee shirts and sweat shirts emblazoned with Christmas themes, "FBI" (Firm Believer in Jesus) and multiple other adjustable caps, and all manner of Christmas cards, candles, calendars, creches, jewelry, and tree ornaments.

OK, I don't want to be labeled a Grinch here, and I could see having a couple of pages of holiday-themed trinkets for sale, but is there any way Jesus could be honored by having his birth celebrated with 84-pages of religious trivia?

I'm thinking Jesus might actually weep at the direction many of his followers appear to be taking here, and strongly recommend alternatives like some generous gifts to help homeless or refugee families during this Advent season, or a handwritten note of encouragement (if a visit isn't possible) to some lonely folks in the community. 

After all, whose birthday is it, anyway?

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Update: Jail Policies Regarding Wearing Masks

MRRJ is having a COVID-19 outbreak, according to a WHSV-TV report.

In a press release issued yesterday, the Middle River Regional Jail reported that 25 staff members and 4 nurses at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19, and that 15 inmates are also infected. That number is almost sure to increase today when testing of all inmates and staff is being carried out.

There is no mention of any of this in today's Daily News-Record, even though Middle River houses many of the incarcerated men and all of the women from our area who are sentenced to time behind bars or who are awaiting trial.

Already three months ago, Tracy Stover, whose son was then an inmate at Middle River, launched a crusade to get MRRJ to fully comply with the Governor Northam’s orders requiring the consistent wearing of masks in all public facilities, including jails.

In a petition Stover circulated in early September, one that got over 500 signatures, she cited multiple documented cases of staff at the jail either not wearing masks or wearing them improperly. Her persistence resulted in what she believed was a retaliatory action by MRRJ which involved having her son moved to the Rockingham/Harrisonburg Regional Jail. There, incidentally, none of the staff members are required to wear masks, based on their attorney advising them they are exempt from the Governor’s order since the jail is the “residence” of the inmates and because their staff members are engaged in law enforcement, an activity for which masks are not mandated.

Meanwhile, Ms. Stover has been untiring in her efforts to see that her son and other inmates are protected from staff members who may expose inmates to the virus. Among her efforts have been to submit both letters to the editor and an Open Forum piece to the Daily News-Record, but to date none of these have been published, and her personal contacts with the sheriff, who is in charge of the local jail, and with the administration at Middle River Jail, have also yielded less than positive results.

But the current number of infections may represent a word to the wise: Sometimes a mother really does know best.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Plenty Of Free Food, Flowers And Foliage

"Jerusalem artichokes" formed a colorful border along our driveway.
Mike Cooley, an agroforestry and permaculture consultant and an elder in a neighboring house church near Woodstock, introduced me to "Jerusalem artichokes" a couple of years ago.

No one seems to know how these plants got their name, since they are neither artichokes nor are they native to Jerusalem, but are a part of the sunflower family. I was warned not to plant them in my garden or a flower bed since they tend to be a somewhat invasive species. 

One of the plant's benefits is edible tubers that can be roasted or boiled and enjoyed as a side dish or made into a tasty soup. Native Americans are said to have planted them along trails where they could be available to hungry travelers. They are a great source of iron, copper and Vitamin C, and are said to be good for maintaining hair health (something I could benefit from!).

Tubers for planting can be ordered from home and garden supply stores.
About the size of ordinary potatoes, these tubers all came from one stalk. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I A Woman?" Speech

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) spoke at a Women's Rights Convention held at the Old Stone Church in Akron, Ohio, in November of 1851. This is a part of one person's reconstruction.

...That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

...Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Twelve Gross Falsehoods Held As Gospel Truth

History is full of examples of widely held falsehoods and mass delusions that have led to disastrous consequences. 

Too many of us would rather not be confused with facts, having already made up our minds.

1. Christians were falsely blamed by Nero for the burning of Rome in 64 AD, setting off a wave of brutal persecutions carried out over a period of 250 years. 

2. In the Middle Ages and following, Muslims were seen as a threat that could only be eradicated by force, resulting in organized military Crusades that have forever stained the reputation of the Christian movement and contributed to perpetual hostility between Christians and Muslims, and even to the rise of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS today. 

3. Jews throughout Europe and elsewhere have been portrayed by Protestants and Catholics alike as evil Christ-killers and as a danger to Christian civilizations and institutions. The resulting plague of anti-semitism has led to inquisitions, banishments and eventually the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. 

4. Thousands of sixteenth-century Anabaptists were tortured, exiled, drowned and burned at the stake for advocating the kind of religious freedom we take for granted today, the right to choose as adults what faith, if any, one chooses. State church officials, Protestant and Catholic alike, believed free-church advocates to be "damnable heretics" and a threat to Christian institutions and governments. 

5. Many early American ministers perpetuated the belief that African slaves were part of an inferior race, the descendants of Hamites destined to live in subjection. This belief contributed to untold suffering by African-American slaves, a horrific civil war, and years of Jim Crow-era segregation, oppression, lynchings and the kind of racism that persists today. 

6. Anti-Catholic intolerance was rampant in the 19th and 20th century, with many sermons and published books warning of a plot by the papacy to take over US democracy, beliefs that were widely circulated during the candidacy of John F. Kennedy for the presidency. Christian leaders like Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale even had a secret meeting in Switzerland working at ways of preventing Kennedy's election (an effort Graham later publicly regretted). regret.

7. The Joe McCarthy hearings of the 1950's perpetrated the belief that Communists bent on destroying America were infiltrating every US institution, including the Congress and the State Department, and that entire education and entertainment establishments were a part of a dark plot to turn the country into a communist regime. 

8. More recently, Central American immigrants and refugees from other nations have been demonized as criminal drug dealers, gang members and worse, and as threatening our very existence and identity as a nation. 

9. Barak Obama was believed by millions to have been born in Kenya rather than Hawaii and thus not being eligible to be president, and as being a Muslim who hated this country and was secretly plotting to bring about its demise. 

10. Many today believe hospitals everywhere are routinely over-reporting COVID-19 deaths for profit, and embrace widespread rumors like Dr. Fauci conspiring with Bill Gates to deliberately spread the coronavirus infection for nefarious reasons. 

11. The majority of supporters of the President today believe that the entire voting system this year has been corrupted by a dark conspiracy of bad actors, in spite of it having served the republic well for over 200 years, and in spite of the process being closely monitored and verified by poll workers and secretaries of state of both parties, in blue and red states alike. 

12. Millions of Americans have bought into a "QAnon" deep state conspiracy theory that claims the Trump administration is waging a secret war against Satan worshipping pedophiles that include high ranking Hollywood actors and Democratic politicians. 

Consider these words from the apostle Pau, a first century Christian missionary: "For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths." II Timothy 4:3-4 (NLT)

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Confronting A Pandemic of "Myth-Information"

In our grasp for certainty we are prone to embrace myth.  
The late Don Jacobs, a church leader who spent much of his adult life in Africa, told the story of some missionaries trying to enlighten people who believed fatal diseases like malaria were caused by evil spirits. 

Their approach was simple. Just convince people it was actually mosquitos that transmitted malaria, and that there were concrete ways people could reduce the mosquito population and their risk of infection. Thus they believed people would no longer rely on magical rituals prescribed by their village healers, their so-called "witch doctors." 

Many of their listeners were impressed by this basic lesson in science. But a persistent question remained. "Which evil spirits are responsible for determining why mosquitos attack some people and not others?" They were not convinced that this was entirely a matter of chance, but believed there had to be some kind of deeper reasons, some darker explanations, that scientific facts alone could not provide.

That's where myth comes in, beliefs based on longstanding ancestral wisdom and legendary history that serve to reinforce the world view of a community of people, and to explain the practices and beliefs embedded in their culture. Every ethnic or racial group, every nation, and every tribe has such fundamental, underlying and seemingly irrefutable kinds of deeply held beliefs. We may all be incurably "spiritual," even cult-like, in this sense.

This certainly includes members of religious communities, of course. World views and ways of life are profoundly shaped by the stories and accumulated wisdom in our scriptures and our age-old stories and faith convictions, all of which have a profound impact on the ways we live, believe and behave. In that way, myth and faith are cousins, two expressions of a common need to make sense of dimensions of life that cannot be readily known or proven by direct observation or by scientific study.

My own faith convictions lead me to a belief in a universe ultimately brought into being by a gracious God too vast to be ever be fully comprehended by mortals like ourselves. My faith grounds me in the belief that the world is full of wonder and mystery, but not devoid of meaning or purpose. My faith informs me that a Supreme Being wills an ultimate restoration of wholeness and harmony and justice for all, and that people everywhere are called to a life of redemption and shalom, in which nothing is marred and nothing is missing. My faith motivates me to pledge allegiance to Jesus as the crucified and resurrected healer and redeemer of a lost and deluded humanity and to acknowledge my own capacity for delusion. And my faith is enriched by the insights of a multitude of prophets, apostles and fellow believers, including reformers like Menno Simons, who wrote the following summation of his scripture-based beliefs:

“True evangelical faith is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love; it dies to flesh and blood; it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires; it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul; it clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful;  it shelters the destitute; it aids and consoles the sad; it does good to those who do it harm; it serves those that harm it; it prays for those who persecute it; it teaches, admonishes and judges us with the Word of the Lord; it seeks those who are lost; it binds up what is wounded; it heals the sick; it saves what is strong (sound); it becomes all things to all people. The persecution, suffering and anguish that come to it for the sake of the Lord’s truth have become a glorious joy and comfort to it.”

While I want to be humble enough to recognize my own vulnerability to "myth-information," I am nevertheless committed to living by a set of beliefs I find compelling and are about a level of truth that goes beyond anything for which science or reason alone can provide answers.

And when it comes to countering the barrage of misinformation and propaganda to which we are subjected, I'm aware that simply offering people more rational arguments or more accurate information alone may not be effective. The fact is that individuals who are loyal supporters of a given nation, charismatic leader, party or people group tend to be committed believers, religiously and "spiritually" motivated to live by and to defend their deeply imbedded beliefs at all costs.

We may label them "myth-guided" or "myth-informed" (as we may all be to some degree), but to assume we can change others' minds through reasoning alone will likely prove futile. 

I remember a professor in one of my counseling classes saying, "Information is the solution only to the extent that ignorance is the problem." In other words, core beliefs and behaviors are not easily changed by even the most logical arguments, because they are deeply embedded in the heart, not simply in the rational mind.

To reach the heart, we need to demonstrate a quality of genuine care and respect for those with whom we disagree. We need to value, and learn to listen to, our fellow human beings and not just try to prove we are "right." In other words, to not simply defend what we believe to be God's "will," but demonstrate with our love and with our life God's "way."

As in the words of a favorite text (emphases mine):

I will show you a still more excellent way.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.  (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13, NRSV)

For me, these inspired words embody a faith-informed rather than merely a "myth-informed" set of truths.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Let Them Eat Their Sacred Cows

Indian cow and calf, late 7th century
I used to think that an obvious solution to India's food problem would be to have them stop pampering their cows and start butchering them.

Never mind the fact that, as sacred cows go, theirs are often quite useful. Many feed along roadsides and waste areas and help earn their keep as work animals. They are also a source of milk and produce dung used for fuel and fertilizer.

So I suggest we begin asking ourselves what golden calves or sacred cows we should be sacrificing in order to help feed the hungry.

In contrast to Hindus, we have become addicted to having an inordinate amount of our food production involve the fattening, slaughtering and importing of beef and other flesh, a system that requires the inefficient use of far more protein than is consumed by all of India, with a much larger population. So it is we who have too many mouths to feed, including too many beef cattle, chickens and other animals that require megatons of a protein-rich diet to prepare them for market.

And while I am not against having pets, we have a pet industry in which we invest $72 billion a year. It goes without saying we would never, ever consider eating any of our beloved animals, which should help us understand our Indian friends who feel the same way about their cows.

Another near sacred industry thrives on our love affair with motor vehicles. There are more licensed sedans, SUV's, pickups, vans, RV's, trucks, motorcycles and other means of transportation in the US than there are licensed drivers. These all guzzle greedily from the world's limited supply of energy, all the while contributing to an alarming acceleration of climate change.

But by far the most ravenous and destructive of sacred cows is the sacred bull of the military-industrial complex. The US alone spends more for military purposes each day than the entire annual budget of the U.N. Food Program. Yet to even question this wanton use of the world's limited resources is to risk being labeled unpatriotic and un-American.

We could add the names of many more sacred idols, our obsession with sports, our appetite for wall-to-wall entertainment and our slavery to the fashion industry, to mention only a few. 

Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.