Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Wheel, Way Down In The Middle Of Despair

We descend as we grieve.
ascend as we grow,
then repeat
And repeat. 
This rhythm, this repetition,
propels us forward.
"I had my own notion of grief.
I thought it was the sad time
that followed the death of 
someone you love.
And you had to push through it
To get to the other side.
But I'm learning there is no other side.
There is no pushing through.
But rather, 
There is absorption.
And grief is not something you complete,
But rather, you endure.
Grief is not a task you finish and move on.
But an element of yourself,
An alteration of your being.
A new way of seeing,
A new definition of self."

- source unknown (please let me know if you can identify the author)

As I experience my own times of profound loss and grieving, and as I witness such grieving by others, I'm aware of two kinds of responses.

One is to feel overwhelmed and overcome, to experience grief as a kind of free fall into what seems like a bottomless pit. In this mode, all we can feel is darkness and despair, and our primary impulse is to cry out in lament, much as the Biblical psalmists often do.

Another response is to try to put things into perspective, to apply whatever wisdom we can in figuring out what we can do next. We might say things to ourselves like "No experience has to go to waste in God's economy." Or, "What looks and feels terrible may also have potential for growth and renewed strength over time." In this mode we might repeat some of the wisdom of prophets, poets and preachers in scripture and elsewhere.

Which is the better way to get through our "valley of the shadow of death"? Do we choose the "up" elevator button or the one marked "down"?

Good grieving, by turn, requires times of both.

In much of the grief journey we need to be in descent, seeking to find some kind of bottom. But we can't remain stuck in that kind of Slough of Despond forever. Life has to somehow go on, go forward, move upward.

Therefore at other times we need to focus on trying to take stock, to determine what to do next, how to put one foot in front of the other and to get through yet another "one-day-at-a-time". In this mode, some kind of "next best thing" can finally emerge, hard as that may be to grasp at first.

But we shouldn't remain stuck in the crest of that ascent, either. Rather, good grief involves a repetition, a rhythm, a rotation that is much like that of a wheel. We turn, turn, turn, with seasons of descent and times of ascent. This happens over and over as life propels us forward, in spite of our initial feeling of life having just come to an abrupt end.

And when we are in the presence of another who is experiencing the trauma of loss, we need to be sensitive as to which side of that rotation they are on. If they are in descent, we need to simply provide empathy and support, and descend with them into their darkness. Only later, as they are in an an ascending mode, should we be adding words and gestures of encouragement in moving upward and forward.

When we are out of sync with others going through that cycle, we inhibit rather than help their process.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Everence Promotes "Week of Generosity"

This wonderful week coincides with a project our local Everence staff is providing volunteers for, an SOS (Sharing Our Surplus) 'giving table' where cash, check or credit card donations for MCC can be made at the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale this Friday evening and Saturday, September 29-30. Or donate here to help make this a great Week of Generosity!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Op Ed Piece In Today's Daily News-Record

While we were all shocked by the terrible effects of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, they represent only a fraction of the ongoing suffering experienced by millions in northern Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.

More than 60 million people worldwide have been displaced and 2.5 million are refugees following a decade of famines, floods and wars that threaten the lives and future of whole generations. At least 15 wars have erupted or reignited in just the past five years, forcing millions to flee for their lives.

The refugees affected include not only the elderly, children and the disabled, but resourceful professionals and entrepreneurs rendered homeless by events beyond their control. And the average stay in today’s ‘temporary’ refugee tents or other makeshift dwellings is an appalling ten years.

David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, writes, “I believe the biggest question in the 21st century concerns our duty to strangers. The world is more connected than ever before, yet the great danger is we’re consumed by our divisions — and there’s no better test of that than how we treat refugees.” (4/26/17 Washington Post)

One of the local efforts at raising funds to help this cause is the annual Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale to be held this year at the Rockingham Fairgrounds September 29-30. Last year nearly a third of a million dollars was raised for Mennonite Central Committee’s efforts to help relieve worldwide suffering.

This year a special S.O.S (Sharing Our Surplus) campaign by the Relief Sale Board solicits generous cash, check and credit card contributions in addition to funds raised by the auction and from food and other sales (giving can also be done online at This is being offered in light of the fact that only around 10% of the estimated 10,000 people who attend the event each year actually take part in the auction itself.

When MCC was founded in 1920 in response to suffering caused by famine and war in the Ukraine, over $1.2 million was raised over a three year period. In today’s dollars that would be some $16.7 million, a significant accomplishment.

In the spirit of Jubilee, our giving today should likewise be over and above our regular charitable contributions, without resulting in decreased giving elsewhere. This should mean our willingly becoming poorer for others’ sake, rather than assuming the right to accumulate ever more personal wealth each year regardless of world need. 

Some modest “sacrifices” on our part could include:

• Giving a tithe (or more) of whatever is in our savings accounts

• Matching what we spend annually eating out

• Keeping an aging vehicle an additional year, etc.

In response to a first century famine in far off Judea, the apostle Paul, in his second letter to believers at Corinth, wrote: "Right now you have plenty and can help them; then at some other time they can share with you when you need it.”

Which is exactly what Jesus and the Biblical prophets would urge us all to do.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Church That Survived Only Four Decades Nevertheless Left A Lasting Legacy

This 1950's photo is from historian Harry Brunk's collection.
This past weekend several hundred people met to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Stuarts Draft Amish Mennonite Church, which closed its doors in 1986, 44 years after its founding.

This congregation, which my parents joined when we moved to Virginia from Kansas in 1946 (when I was six), and in which I was baptized in 1954, made a huge impact on my life and on the lives of literally thousands of people who claim it as their "alma mater" (nurturing mother).

The congregation was founded in 1942 by some former members of the Kempsville (Virginia) Amish Mennonite Church when that Tidewater congregation chose to affiliate with the "Beachy Amish" group. Beachy-affiliated churches, originating in 1920 under Bishop Moses Beachy in the Somerset County (Pennsylvania) area, allow their members to own motor vehicles, which were seen by many in the Norfolk area as necessary, since traffic during the WW II boom became increasingly congested and less safe for horse drawn carriages.

Dissenting ministers Eli M. Yoder (not our relative) and Simon A. Schrock, who did not support the move to join the Beachy Amish group, were the first to move to Augusta County with their families, but soon many others joined them. Some came from Kempsville, but dozens of other families moved in from Amish communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware and as far away as Kansas and Oklahoma.

Preacher's table and bench from the original church on display
at the anniversary celebration.
Thus the congregation grew rapidly in its first decade and became an important anchor in my early life as my spiritual extended family. This was a caring faith community that helped each other in times of harvest, invited other members into their homes on a regular basis, and readily came to each others' aid in times of need. I felt very loved and secure there as I was growing up among these good people.

Unfortunately, in 1954, just months after my baptism, history repeated itself as a group of Stuarts Draft members, including my parents, chose to become a Beachy Amish congregation just as the Kempsville community had done over a decade before. While there was remarkably little animosity shown by members involved on both sides, this resulted in a decline in membership in the original church as more and more people joined the newly formed Mt. Zion Amish Mennonite (Beachy) congregation.

Another factor in the decline was a number of the more conservative Amish in the community moving away to establish new Amish churches in Kentucky, Tennessee and elsewhere. New congregations were also formed as members began to leave the Mt. Zion church and establish more progressive and evangelistic-minded Beachy Amish groups in Madison and Cumberland Counties and in other locations in adjoining states.

In all, there are now more than 30 existing Anabaptist-related congregations who claim a direct link to this mother church in Stuarts Draft. Many of the 26 couples who were married there (including five of my older siblings) and many of the individuals who were baptized at the church, were present.

For me it was a most memorable and bittersweet time of reflecting and celebrating.

Monday, September 18, 2017

How I Became Dependent on Welfare

Years ago I came to a startling realization. It happened one Sunday morning as I led the offertory prayer at Zion Mennonite Church, in my half-time position there as the church's first salaried pastor.

As folks were putting their gifts into the offering plate it struck me that a significant percentage of those funds would be disbursed directly to me as their minister. In other words, I was at the receiving end of the church’s charity, a direct recipient of God’s offering money.

That troubled me at first. But, I rationalized, I did earn the other half of our family's income like everyone else in the congregation, by being employed as a half time teacher at Eastern Mennonite High School.

However, as I reviewed our church's budget, I realized that my half-time EMHS income matched almost exactly what our congregation was contributing to the high school through its budget for student tuition other financial assistance. That made me feel even more like I was just some kind of working welfare recipient.

Then a further epiphany. Maybe at some level we’re all pretty much in the same boat, in that we are all gift receivers more than we are earners or givers. What my fellow church members were giving to the church was also in some way first a gift to them. 

So could it be that all of humanity is on God’s welfare roll, and have been since the beginning of time?

For a start, none of us has ever earned the priceless gift of life itself. And the privilege of being born to parents who loved us and took good care of us (at no charge), and of being born in a land of abundance instead of in some poverty-ridden country, were also things we could have never negotiated, bought or paid for. Besides, many of us received a free public school education, one paid for by others' involuntary gifts--in the form of taxes. 
Later some of us got to enroll in institutions of higher learning we could have never been able to create or ever afford to attend without the generous gifts of hundreds of unnamed donors. Add to that the gift of our good health, our relatively sound minds, and whatever talents or gifts we've inherited--all of which helped us get whatever positions we’ve had, and are all examples of amazing, unmerited grace. 

When I was six, my parents were able to buy a farm with the help of a generous uncle who helped us with the financing. Here we grew and produced food for a living, but we could have never done that without the unearned blessings of God’s soil, sunshine and all of the other natural resources that makes a farm productive. In return for whatever we invested in money and labor for the harvests on our farm, we usually got sufficient payment to cover our costs, with some extra in the form of a gift known as profit. In the same way, whenever any of us buys or sells anything, this kind of gift-swapping takes place, grace for grace, blessing for blessing. 

So that’s how I’ve come to believe that all of life is just one big gift exchange, a re-gifting, and that we are all major welfare recipients.

Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s a good thing. We gratefully celebrate our dependence on others, and our interdependence with all creation.

I’ll never forget one of our sons, at around 9 or so, deciding to take his entire piggy bank full of gift money he’d accumulated to give as a Bible School offering one summer for Heifer International. We didn’t realize how much he had gotten caught up in the enthusiasm to help raise as much as possible to send a heifer or some goats, rabbits, or other animals to some needy families abroad.
What he was doing wasn’t motivated by guilt. He saw it as an investment, a re-gifting for something he really believed in. He did it because it made him happy.
Once we realize how much we’ve been given, it no longer seems like a burden to freely pass on what are, after all, undeserved gifts. 

I once read the story of a medieval landowner who came across a vagabond wandering across his estate. 

 “Get off my property,” he ordered. 

“What right do you have to keep me off this part of God’s good earth?” the man asked. 

“I own the land. It’s as simple as that,” the landowner replied.

“And how did you come to own it?” he asked.

“I inherited it from my father.”

“And how did he get it?”
“He inherited it from his father, a general in the king’s army. He fought for it, and was given the estate as a reward.”
“Then let’s you and I fight for it,” the man replied, “and whoever wins will own the land.”
Point of the story? If you look back far enough and hard enough, you realize that everything is first a gift. We welfare recipients need to acknowledge that amazing grace with humble gratitude.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Please Support the 2017 Mennonite Relief Sale!

Some 10,000 people gather each year at the Rockingham Fairgrounds for this amazing event. Hope you and your friends can be among them this year.

Here's the link to learn all the ways you can help:

And here's a link about the new SOS campaign being launched this year:

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Whitewashing The Darkness At Charlottesville

On August 11, Charlottesville experienced an invasion of
torch carrying anti-Semitic neo-Nazis and white supremacists,
mostly from surrounding states, here protesting the proposed
removal of at a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee
In the aftermath of the recent violence on Charlottesville's streets there have been many attempts to fix equal blame on "both sides". 

But in light of the blatant fascist ideology in evidence on that tragic weekend, should there be any talk of changing the subject to "another side"?

I deplore and denounce violence of any kind, by any group and for any reason. But I am equally distressed by any attempt at downplaying the seriousness of increasing anti-semitic and racist influences in our nation.

Here are five ways I see such evils being rationalized and minimized in some peoples's responses to what happened August 12:

1. By comparing the core ideology and behaviors represented by the (invading) protestors to the violent behaviors and ideology of a fringe minority of counter protestors. 
The initial organizers of the resistance to armed hate groups coming to demonstrate in Charlottesville were not members of Black Lives Matter, antifah or of alleged Marxists groups, but members of faith communities in the city and surrounding areas who prayed for, and consistently advocated for, a peaceful and non-violent response. These good folks far, far outnumbered any other single protesting group, yet have gotten little notice from the press compared to those who acted inappropriately.

2. By focusing primarily on the question of who committed the first act of violence.  
While there is legitimate debate over who actually started the first fight on the street, there can be no debate over which group initiated the actual hate filled, anti-semitic and racist event itself. Without these armed groups there would have been no violence and no tragic loss of life on that weekend.

3. By labeling all of the event's counter protestors as "leftists".
There was no collaboration or coordination between the majority of peaceful and faith-based counter protestors and their violent counterparts. The former in fact have completely and consistently disavowed the latter, but were nevertheless lumped together, without differentiation, as discredited members of a despised "left".

4. By not differentiating members of the so-called "left" from each other. 
Not nearly all members of "Black Lives Matter", for example, are prone to violence, and by far the majority of those (BLM) folks would also champion the cause of "Jewish Lives Matter" if their lives and their dignity were perceived as being under similar threat.

5. By overlooking the tragic lessons of anti-semitic history. 
I am distressed by the lack of outrage over the coordinated and intentional racism and anti-semitism represented by the invading outsiders, by their shouting in unison things like "Jews will not replace us" and the Nazi slogan "Blood and Soil".  Too many seem to forget how much blood was shed on European soil just a generation ago due to this intolerable ideology, a threat judged as being so severe that the US was willing to even collaborate with Marxists to defeat it.

In short, I reject the charge made by some that the hundreds of good people who met to pray and prepare prior to the demonstrations were largely un-American "leftists". Nothing should be seen as more urgent, more patriotic, or even more Christian, than to counter Nazism, racism and anti-semitism in any form, wherever and whenever it manifests itself.

And yes, to always do so non-violently.