Friday, October 21, 2016

Every Life Decision Is A Love Decision

It's obvious, if you think about it, that whatever we choose to do, say, buy, or invest in is an expression of what we most value and esteem. All of our behaviors, without exception, accurately demonstrate what at the moment we love the most, and consider most important. 

By instinct we all tend to be ego-centered, which means we primarily love ourselves. We love what gives us pleasure, adds to our happiness, or makes us feel most special and worthwhile.

Acting out of an appropriate sense of what is in our own self-interest isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if our actions don't demonstrate an equal regard for our neighbor, and an ultimate love for God, they are in fact not in our own best interest. We are not better than, or superior to, others, and it is only wise to live with the good of the human community in mind and in light of the wisdom of our Creator and Lord of all.

Its hard to keep that focus when we are constantly bombarded with message after message, ad after ad, urging us to indulge in more and more things to enhance our personal sense of status and security. Over time we acquire a sense of entitlement, and see our self-indulgence as as our perfect right. 

Jesus, in the tradition of the Biblical prophets, shows us another way. "Blessed," "thoroughly happy," he says, are those who are poor, who are merciful, who love God with their whole being, and who love their needy neighbors as they love themselves--no more and no less. 

Yes, every life decision is love-based.

Here's an earlier post on "Every Cash Register is a Polling Booth".

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The 13th Amendment, Ratified To End Slavery, Actually Legalizes It For 1.5 Million Americans

Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified to end slavery, states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

In a nation that promises "liberty and justice for all", this exception clause needs to be reexamined.

I'm certainly not saying that having inmates engage in some kind of meaningful work is a bad thing. But if incarceration is to prepare people to re-enter society and as productive citizens, we need to have what happens inside our jails and prisons represent something of the way the real world works. And in the real world people are given reasonable compensation for their labor.

A typical Virginia inmate employed in food services may work long hours in a hot kitchen and be paid .27 to .45 cents an hour. The same pay rate applies to janitorial, laundry and other inhouse employment.

Inmates working in Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE) programs are paid slightly more, from .55 to .80 per hour, making things like license plates, furniture, prison garb and other goods or services for state and other governmental entities.

A smaller number of inmates get to work in programs known as "correctional industries", working for private manufacturing or service enterprises that use prison labor. They are paid minimum or prevailing wages, but since their wages are garnished to pay court costs, restitution, child support, and a portion of prison housing costs, their actual take home pay may be under 20% of what they are actually earning.

Most inmates are willing to work even for a pittance, however, as a relief from the boredom of being confined and to earn money they can use for overpriced canteen items, anything from snacks (to augment much complained about prison food) to underwear and personal hygiene items. And while commissary prices keep escalating, most prison wages have not been raised for years.

Locally our two jails, Rockingham/Harrisonburg Regional Jail and Middle River Regional Jail, have contrasting policies with regard to work. 

RHRJ has no work program at all, citing security and safety concerns. MRRJ, however, has numerous inmates involved in "work crews" which provide maintenance and other services for local governmental agencies, for which they receive no pay. Other trusted inmates hold down jobs in the community and pay the Jail $15 per day for the privilege.  Much of what they earn can be withheld for outstanding medical or other charges and for payment of court costs, fines or child support. This means low income earners may have little left to show for their efforts.

What if we could agree on the following?

1. It is in everyone's best interest to provide meaningful and well supervised work opportunities for as many inmates as possible. 

2. Wages should be in line with local standards, with a reasonable amount withheld for room and board and other costs, and with some money kept in reserve for the inmate's use upon release and/or used to help support his or her family. 

3. While the jail or prison should be able to recover some of the administrative and other costs of a work program, none should profit from cheap inmate labor.

4. All earnings should be subject to social security withholding, so that upon release, inmates and their families will not be without benefits.

5. For every day in which an inmate demonstrates respectful and responsible behavior he or she should be offered some reduced time behind bars.

6. Detainees who already have jobs should be granted work release and/or be under house arrest (with or without GPS monitors) in as many cases as possible--except when they are at work or at approved classes or medical appointments. 

If our criminal justice system is to help people establish responsible work habits and be productive citizens, meaningful and reasonably compensated work needs to be a significant part of the equation.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Blessed Beyond Belief At EMU's Homecoming

from EMU's spring issue of Crossroads, photo by Joaquin Sosa
When I enrolled at Eastern Mennonite College in the fall of 1960, I would have never dreamed of being chosen as an "Alumnus of the Year" a half-century later.

It still seems incredible to think of having been honored in this way as a part of this weekend's Alumni Homecoming events at Lehman Auditorium, along with wonderful people like Donna Beachy Burkhart and her husband Wayne Burkhart (Distinguished Service Award), and Grace Schrock-Hurst Praseyto (Outstanding Young Alumnus).

Here are my comments at this morning's worship service at Lehman, where I was asked to speak briefly on the first part of Micah 6:8, "to do justice".

Thanks for the opportunity to speak to a sometimes neglected aspect of “what God requires of us”, and to what Richard Stearns calls “the hole in our gospel”.

I can’t thank EMU enough for its part in being the kind of alma mater (“nurturing mother”) that’s addressed that issue of justice in a way that has made a huge difference in my life from the time I enrolled here 56 years ago. My experiences in my classes, in regular chapel services and special events held right here in this space, were transformative, along with the many friends I made who enlarged my world and helped impress the words of Micah and of the prophets and of Jesus even more indelibly on my life. 

And of course the most special of all of my Christ-following friends I met here, someone who took an active part in a little church all the way over in Mt. Jackson while she was a busy student here, became the love of my life, Alma Jean, my wonderful wife and companion and a great mom to our three children, and grandma to our six grandchildren (all reasons, by the way, to choose a good Christian college!).

I’m also indebted to God’s people in the congregational families I grew up in, and later pastored, folks who were my spiritual uncles and aunts and cousins and sisters and brothers who demonstrated Micah-like faithfulness, along with my having been blessed and nurtured by my biological family. 

My father, who passed away 31 years ago, left me his well worn Bible, in which he has today’s text from Micah heavily underlined. Without talking much about justice, he and my mother just lived it. On her tombstone are the words of a gospel song she liked, “I need no mansion here below.” As a testimony to that, in their retirement my parents lived in a modest mobile home, and throughout their lives everyone knew them as among the most hospitable people ever, not just toward their many friends, but toward strangers and people who were marginalized in our rural southern neighborhood. 

And my dad, in spite of his struggle to provide for us nine children, the youngest being one they adopted as a welfare child, gave a tithe of his milk check to Mennonite Central Committee or to some other charity every month, out of gratitude for feeling blessed with far more than others he saw as being less fortunate. And that wasn't just a tenth of the profit, but of the entire check. Now we did have other farm income as well, but that left a big impression on me when it came to loving God and loving your neighbor with a generous justice. Today I know his heart, and a tenth of his milk check, would still be for people like Syrian refugees and for hurricane victims in Haiti.

I’ve also been inspired by numerous inmates in our Virginia jails and prisons I’ve come to know, starting with when I went with other students every week to spend time at our local jail, an experience that began a lifelong interest in criminal injustice. One of my current inspirations is Charles Zellers, Sr., who writes volumes about justice from inside Buckingham Correctional Center, where he’s taken multiple college classes during his 22 years in prison. And in spite of being a trusted supervisor at one of the manufacturing enterprises at Buckingham, where he earns just over a dollar an hour, and in spite of having an aging and ill mother who desperately needs his help at home, he’s been denied parole a heartbreaking 8 times. Like many others, his underpaid court appointed attorney had persuaded him to take a plea deal with the assurance that if he stayed out of trouble in prison he would be released on parole within a few years. It’s never happened. 

I showed this picture of Mr. Williams (with the red cap)
Then there’s the passion for justice I feel for John Bennie Williams, an 83 year-old, blind African-American with an excellent record of behavior in prison, and who has for years been eligible for geriatric release because of his age, but has been turned down 22 times by a parole board with only a 3% annual release grant rate of the cases it reviews each year.

These are just a few of the things that have motivated me to keep putting off settling down in a Sarasota-like retirement somewhere, and to keep using whatever influence and means I have left to encourage everyone to love justice as God does, and to keep praying daily that God’s upside-down kingdom come, so that God’s will be truly be done right here on earth as it is in heaven.

Some years ago, 60-minutes commentator Andy Rooney suggested, tongue in cheek, the need for a new religion, one that would totally rule out war and other forms of violence and injustice and inequality. We know there already is such a religion, but one that simply lacks enough people committed to living it in such a way that “justice will roll down like a mighty torrent, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”, where what happens here in Harrisonburg and wherever we live is directly impacted by what is happening among our our global village neighbors. 

Wherever there are people who are suffering, in Haiti, in Honduras, in the Sudan or in Syrian refugee camps, those people, those places, should become for us, in the words of the late Elie Weisel, “the center of the universe”.

Among the closing words of the book of Hebrews are these I leave with you: 
“Remember those in prison as though you were their fellow prisoners, and this who are mistreated as though you yourselves were suffering.”

Friday, October 14, 2016


Have you ever wondered why scriptures so often urge us to worship, magnify and praise God? Does God need our adoration to satisfy some infinitely super-sized ego?

I don't think so. I have come to believe that worship is meant to help us focus on what is ultimately and eternally important, as an alternative to our becoming preoccupied with our own self-centeredness and self-seeking.

Worship is similar to the absolute attention a commander musters from his troops when preparing them for a mission. When the command "Attention" is given, all enlisted members in a unit line up in formation and face forward, awaiting orders. They then pledge their absolute allegiance and give their undivided attention to understanding and wholeheartedly responding--with all of their "heart, soul, mind and strength"--to the directiions they are given.

As called out members of God's enlisted people, our mission is to incarnate the life and carry on the work Christ came into the world to accomplish, an assignment no less challenging and dangerous as going into battle. And for God's kind of non-violent mission of waging God's peace and extending God's justice and grace we need all of the rallying and all of the inspiration and equipping possible.

Without that kind of worshipful, undivided attention, we can become aimless, self-absorbed and useless to the world around us, too earthly-minded to be of much earthly good.

I love this rendering of a part of Psalm 96 from Eugene Person's the Message:
7 Bravo, God, Bravo!
Everyone join in the great shout: Encore!
In awe before the beauty, in awe before the might.

8-9 Bring gifts and celebrate,
Bow before the beauty of God,
Then to your knees—everyone worship!

10 Get out the message—God Rules!
He put the world on a firm foundation;
He treats everyone fair and square.

11 Let’s hear it from Sky,
With Earth joining in,
And a huge round of applause from Sea.

12 Let Wilderness turn cartwheels,
Animals, come dance,
Put every tree of the forest in the choir—

13 An extravaganza before God as he comes,
As he comes to set everything right on earth,
Set everything right, treat everyone fair.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

There Ought To Be A Law

Virginia State Capitol (photo by Wilipedia)
One of my Virginia inmate friends came up with the following list of proposed bills he's like to see enacted by the Virginia General Assembly. Which of these do you feel deserve a hearing? 

1 - (EDUCATION) - Create and distribute annually to seventh thru twelfth graders in public schools a summary of state laws that can lead to criminal convictions, along with the maximum sentence for each.

2 - (EDUCATION) - Mandate Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) to ensure that every inmate is educated in basic math, reading and spelling until their GED has been successfully achieved, along with personal financial management, basic computer skills, job resumes and other work related skills, plus any treatment throughout their incarceration that would prepare inmates to successfully return to society.

3 - (HUMANE TREATMENT) - Mandate that all jails and prisons be humanely temperature controlled throughout the year.

4 - (HUMANE TREATMENT) - Mandate that every inmate is issued at least one free roll of toilet tissue and at least one bar of anti-bacterial soap weekly.

5 - (OFFENSES) - Require every sexual related crime or offense within a jail or prison to be reported to Virginia State Police within 24-hours of learning that such a crime has been committed.

6 - (OFFENSES) - Mandate a minimum 5-year sentence for every inmate found guilty of a felony while incarcerated, or arrange for such inmates to be housed in a step-down facility. 

7 - (PAROLE) - Grant immediate parole release to inmates sentenced under the parole laws prior to the Truth-in-Sentencing (TIS) in 1995 who were juveniles when incarcerated and who have been incarcerated for at least twenty years, subject to an evaluation to assure they are no longer a threat to society. 

8 - (PSYCHOLOGICAL) - Require a study to be completed on the long-term social and psychological effects of incarceration on inmates kept idle in jails and/or prisons for long periods of time.

9 - (REENTRY) - Make it a crime for a business owner found guilty of not hiring an individual solely because they are ex-inmates.

10 - (SENTENCING) - Abolish the death sentence in Virginia.

11 - (SENTENCING) - Abolish life sentences for juveniles.

12 - (SENTENCING) - Sentence individuals based on the current life expectancy of their race and gender.

13 - (SENTENCING) - Place a cap on sentences, and not allow a total combined sentence of over 40 years.

14 - (SENTENCING) - Mandate that every individual arrested for a felony be administered an IQ examination from an independent qualified mental health professional before allowing them to enter into a contract or plea bargain agreement, including but not limited to an Alford Plea.

15 - (SENTENCING) - Create an Independent Review Board with an investigator to review all statewide claims of innocence from incarcerated individuals.

16 - (TRANSPORTATION) - Require that when inmates are  transported to and from a destination that they be exposed to public view as little as possible, with proper safeguards to protect them from insult, curiosity and publicity in any form. The transportation of inmates in conveyances with inadequate ventilation or light, or in any way that would subject them to unnecessary physical hardship, should be prohibited. Enhancements made to security vehicles allowing inmates to be locked inside a full metal cage and again locked on the outside of the transport vehicle should be prohibited.

17 - (TREATMENT) - Ensure that all State responsible Inmates are relocated to Reception and Receiving Centers within 90 working days after the inmate's final sentencing order has been received by VDOC.

18 - (VCE) - Require that all state agencies purchase products and services offered by a Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE) whenever possible.

19 - (SENTENCING) - Restore the sixty-five percent Parole Eligibility (PE) Law and change the Truth-in-Sentencing (TIS) Law for all inmates.

20 - (WORK) - Provide compensation for inmate workers who that have been injured while working in a state correctional facility.

21 - (COMMISSARY) - Provide commissary items to inmates at affordable prices, and mandate that commissaries be operated by state employees with inmate workers rather than  by outside for-profit enterprises

22 - (CO-PAY) - Repeal laws that allow the DOC to withdraw money from inmate accounts as co-pay for dental and medical services that should be provided by the state.

23 - (RETIREMENT) - Provide retirement funds to be deducted from inmate pay or have a portion go into the Social Security system for the benefit of inmates and their families when they are no longer able to work.

24 - (INDUSTRIES) - Provide a long overdue increase in pay for inmate workers, to at least the following levels:
Skilled Lead Positions - $1.20 per hour
Skilled Assistant Lead Positions - $1.15
Skilled Workers - $1.00
Semi-skilled workers - $0.90
Unskilled workers - $0.80

25 - (SENIOR CITIZENS) - Suspend personal property taxes for all senior citizens.

Here's a link to contact Governor McAuliffe on any of the above concerns: 

Here are email addresses for our local state legislators:

Delegate Tony Wilt

Senator Mark Obenshain

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Another Pro-Trump Ad Aimed At The Amish

Recent AMISH PAC ad in Lancaster Farming magazine

The above is the latest attempt by a group calling itself the AmishPAC to get the normally non-political plain people of Lancaster County to vote for Donald Trump. Their spiritual ancestors, church leaders like Menno Simons and Jacob Amman, would surely have been appalled at this prospect.

While I'm not a fan of either party, I do object to the use of distortions and outright deceptions as found in this ad:

• Attacks on religious freedom would rise to a level never seen before in the U.S. 

• Taxes and regulation of farmers and business owners will continue to increase.

• More on demand abortion and more tiny babies will be sold for profit.

• The Supreme Court would gain three liberal judges, destroying the checks and balances that have protected our liberty.

The fact is that both liberal and conservative Supreme Court judges and legislators have been consistent supporters of religious liberty, issuing rulings that have directly protected the rights of minorities like the Amish--regarding education, social security and exemption from participating in Obamacare, for example. Also, as a matter of fact, the number of abortions has been steadily declining under both Republican and Democratic administrations over the past decades.

Here are two additional posts on the Amish Pac:

Friday, October 7, 2016

Some Down Sides Of My Early Singing Career

Rare photo of me at six, with my older brother Eli

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear,
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair.
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn't fuzzy, was he?

At the Northern Barber Shop,
Fuzzy Wuzzy lost his crop.
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn't fuzzy, was he?

I was six years old when I innocently offered to sing this little ditty at a talent sharing time in Miss Fauber's second grade class. That was some 70 years ago.

Big mistake. I had no idea how many problems it would create for me during my remaining five years at Stuarts Draft Elementary. From that point on, students from all over the school of some 400 kids would repeatedly pester me to sing "Fuzzy Wuzzy" for them--at recess, over the lunch hour, while waiting for the bus, and at any other unexpected times.

Not only was this annoying, it was embarrassing for a young Amish kid who didn't care much for that kind of attention. Even worse, I was nicknamed "Fuzzy Wuzzy" by some of my fellow students.

I've mostly gotten over any complex this may have created, and I have sometimes even sung this nursery rhyme piece to my younger grandchildren, who have themselves asked me for repeated encores, along with the story of how others begged me to sing it when I was in school. 

I recently learned that the term "fuzzy wuzzy" originated as a derogatory term for some tribes of nineteenth-century Sudanese warriors who gave British imperial forces no end of trouble. So I was probably being politically incorrect and insensitive during this entire part of my singing career.

Of course I was totally unaware of this, and in my defense, the little song some of my sisters had learned from some worldly friends of theirs no longer carried that meaning for most people. 

Maybe my childhood performing experience wasn't all in vain, in that it may have helped me overcome some of my shyness. Or who knows, maybe it contributed to my becoming a pastor and counselor--in part to help others overcome past childhood traumas. ;-)

Note: I have no idea where the second verse actually comes from, as I haven't been able to find those words in print anywhere. But not to worry, my grandkids and I will likely remember them forever.