Friday, December 31, 2010

Letter to my Daughter

Today is our only (and favorite!) daughter's birthday. The following is the text of a letter I wrote to her ten years ago, soon after she was engaged:

Dear Joanna,
    It was no surprise when your special friend Chad took your mother and me aside and asked if he could marry you. Not that he needed our permission. You’re both graduated, gainfully employed and on your own. But we loved it.
    And we love Chad. For one thing, we think he’s shown excellent taste in his choice of a mate. “I just wanted your blessing,” he told us. “I love her very much--she makes me so happy.”
    We understand. For 24 years you’ve been making all of us happy.
    I’ll never forget the moment you were born. Without voicing that immediate infant cry, you seemed to want to first size up the situation and decide what to do next. Needless to say, it was love at first sight for your parents and your two admiring brothers. Then in no time you found plenty to do, entertaining us in an animated, non-stop fashion that kept us in stitches. But you also relished being held, read to, cuddled. I sorely miss my baby girl.
    Not that you ever liked being considered the “baby” in the family. Even as a preschooler, you seldom admitted being afraid. When you heard creepy nighttime noises or saw strange shadows outside your window, you would quietly enter our bedroom and say, “I can’t sleep.” We knew what you meant. I still remember one warm night taking you out on our front steps, holding you, and talking with you about the bush that made scary shadows and about other things that ‘go bump in the night,’ trying to help you feel more secure and safe.
    And how well we remember your many drawings and dramas and stories. To us they seemed wonderful, like you. You made us happy, too, with your hard-won achievements in school, your eagerness to please us at home. If anything, I’m afraid you kept too much inside, may not have felt free enough to raise your questions or express your frustrations. 
    I especially recall the summer you were fourteen and looking for a way to earn some spending money. With a little encouragement (and trepidation) on our part you made granola and baked things--pies, cookies and homemade bread--to sell at the Farmers Market two mornings a week. You didn’t get rich, but gained some great experience.
    Then there was your anxious call when you had a driving accident at an intersection in town a few years later, one that totaled the family car. It wasn’t your fault, but you were worried sick over the damage to our vehicle. Believe me, all we could think was how grateful we were to have you alive and unharmed.
    The memories keep coming. Your summer mission trip to Chicago, your sophomore college year in Ecuador, your recent two years of voluntary service with BorderLinks, shuttling back and forth between Tucson, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. Today you’re putting your experiences to work as a migrant services worker in Rochester, New York, and preparing to marry your Chad, a first year resident at nearby Strong Memorial Hospital. 
    Joanna, your name means “Jehovah is gracious.” Your life has been a wonderful gift indeed, more than we ever deserved. Now, so soon, must we really give you away?
    With Tevya at the time of his daughter’s wedding to Motel (in “Fiddler on the Roof”) we muse,

    "Is this the little girl I carried?
    Is this the little boy at play?
    I don’t remember growing older. When did they?
    Sunrise, Sunset... swiftly fly the years...
    Laden with happiness and tears."

    With all our love (and a few tears),

    Dad c. 2000

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

An Epiphany in the Bronx

art by Mike Budai
Jonathan Kozol, author of the book , “Amazing Grace,” writes about his experiences with children in a poverty stricken area of the Bronx in New York City and records their stories and their dreams.
     Thirteen year old Anthony Green wrote him this description of a future heaven as he envisioned it:

     God will be there. He’ll be happy that we have arrived. People shall  come in hand in hand. It will be bright, not dim and glooming like here on earth. All friendly animals will be there, but no mean ones. As for television, forget it! If you want vision, you can use your eyes to see the people that you love...
     No one will look at you from the outside. People will see you from the inside. All the people from the street will be there. My uncle will be there and he will be healed. You won’t see him buying drugs, because there won’t be money. Mr. Mongo will be there too. You might see him happy for a change. The prophets will be there, and Adam and Eve, and all the disciples except Judas...
     No violence will there be in heaven. There will be no guns or drugs or IRS. You won’t have to pay taxes. You’ll recognize all the children who have died when they were little. Jesus will be good to them and play with them. At night he’ll come and visit at your house. God will be fond of you..
     How will you know that you are there? Something will tell you, ‘This is it! Eureka!’ If you still feel lonely in your heart, or bitterness, you’ll know that you’re not there.

     Anthony Green was shot and killed three years later on Beekman Avenue, in the worst part of the Bronx.
     Makes me believe there’s got to be a city somewhere with safe streets--and of solid gold--for people like him.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Darrell Price and the Peanut Brittle Project

[One of Darrell's pencil drawings]

I’ll remember Christmas, 2010, as the year of the peanut brittle project. 

     My older sister Fannie Mae had always made some of this delicacy every year for friends and members of her family, following the same hand-written recipe our Amish mother had always used. But in the fall of 2010, my sister learned she had an aggressive form of breast cancer, resulting in her having a mastectomy which, while successful and with encouraging results, left her unable to make our usual holiday treat. 

     About this same time, some of us on the board of Gemeinschaft Home, a residential recovery and re-entry program for ex-offenders, were looking at some possible enterprises that would help provide some work for unemployed or underemployed residents, always a challenge for persons with prison records. 

     So with candy on my mind, I began to think, what if we could have a resident or two at Gemeinschaft make some peanut brittle? Initially it was an idea my sister dismissed as unwise, given how difficult it is to make the product come out just right, like our mother would make it. But when I mentioned this to the program director he immediately suggested I talk with Darrell Price, an experienced cook who was currently in search of work.

     It turned out Darrell, also an accomplished artist, was willing to give it a try. After several failed attempts, he finally got the tricky process of peanut brittle manufacturing down to a science, and with some advertising over some of my email address lists--along with some word of mouth promotion--he was able to produce and market a total of 45 pounds of what we labeled “Fannie Mae Yoder's Peanut Brittle” (not to be confused with the Fanny May candy brand), packaged in half-pound Ziploc bags. Within a ten day period of time, he had made and sold a total of $270 worth, with an overhead of of just under $50. 

     It felt good, even to my sister, to see a project succeed that added a little extra holiday blessing to people, including myself, who got to sample some of the product from time to time.

    Strictly for purposes of quality control, of course.

P. S. As a strong believer in the mission of Gemeinschaft Home, I urge you to become a "Friend of Gemeinschaft" by writing a generous check of $50 or more and mailing it to Gemeinschaft Home, 1423 Mt. Clinton Pike, Harrisonburg, VA 22802. Or you can contribute online at to help recovering people get a new start.

Thanks for your help! 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Baby Power

In one of the most beloved stories of the Christian faith, God chooses to break into human history as a powerless infant rather than an omnipotent monarch.

     Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary professor Ted Koontz, in a piece entitled, “Why did God come to us as a baby?” makes the point that while we see newborns as helpless and weak, a baby in fact has significant power. For example, a baby can wake parents in the middle of the night from a deep sleep, a power many louder noises don’t have, and has the power to get them out of bed and respond to their needs when they would be willing to get up for few other reasons.

     Yet, he says, this cry of a baby represents a power to which we can respond or choose not to. It can profoundly move us, but at the same time it in no way forces us to do anything or robs us of our freedom. Some people might in fact be able to sleep on, oblivious to a baby’s cry. But there is something in our very natures that makes us want to respond. To refuse to do so would be to refuse to be who we know ourselves to be down deep.

     So, he says, is the divine call that comes to us in the form of “baby power,” a way God chooses to move us that can be absolutely compelling and yet absolutely non-coercive. It makes clear that God prefers the soft power of persuasion and transformation over than the hard power of violence and dominance.

     In response, millions have acknowledged the Holy Child as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” as one who rules from a lowly manger and a martyr's cross rather than from a royal throne.

     A strange but compelling power indeed.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Re-gifting at Christmas

I once read a Dear Abby letter in which a reader lamented, “How do I get a person to stop re-gifting me? Often it's her used clothes, used decor and knickknacks that she no longer wants. This person can afford nice things, which is why she thinks I would like her old stuff. I find it insulting when I get it in the form of a gift. It is always wrapped beautifully and presented as though I should be so grateful.  How do I get her to stop?”  Secondhand Rose

     Abby's response was, "Dear Rose: If I selected a gift for someone and she didn’t keep it--or exchanged it--I would give it one more try. If it happened again, from then on I would send a lovely card to mark the occasion, or a bouquet or plant. And if I was really ticked off, I would re-gift her gift back to her." 

     I'd like to offer a slightly different take on the concept of re-gifting in general, based on my belief that at some level everything we give, at Christmas or at any other times, is a form of recycled gift.
     I first came to that realization years ago after I had finished leading the offertory prayer at my congregation. As folks were putting their gifts into the offering plates it struck me that some of those very funds would be given back to me as their pastor. In other words, I was at the receiving end of the church’s charity, a direct recipient of God’s money. And so whatever I gave or spent was a re-gifting.
    My next thought was that we’re all pretty much the same in this respect, that we are each gift receivers more than we are earners or givers. What these church members had given to the church was also in some way first a gift to them. Which means that in a sense we've all been on God’s welfare since conception, and are, at best, working welfare recipients.
     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 learning we could have never been able to create (or afford to attend) without the generous gifts of hundreds of unnamed donors. Add to that our good health, our sound minds (most of the time), and whatever talents or gifts we've inherited--all helped us get whatever positions we’ve had, and are 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.
    Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s a good thing. I disagree with dour economists who say gift giving doesn’t make rational sense, in that whatever we choose to give seldom has the same value to the recipients as if they had been able to choose something for themselves, so things lose their value in the process. But that assumes that the benefit of being gift donors and gift recipients is based only on the market value of things, not on the serendipity that happens in the act of giving and receiving. I believe that in that exchange, value is added to value, and everyone is enriched. We are able to better realize 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. At Christmas, that’s a good thing to remember.
    You and I just get to exchange. So let's pass good things around and around. Let's re-gift with abandonment.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Startling Story of the Stolen Stihl

I gave myself the gift of a brand new chain saw a year and a half ago, a smooth running Stihl 250. Until then I had always gotten by with a used one for cutting our annual supply of firewood, first a faithful Homelite and later a secondhand Stihl aptly named “Farm Boss.”  When that one finally breathed its last, I heeded the advice of family members who urged me to get a new one.
    Just before Christmas last year we had one of the heaviest snow storms ever. Soon thereafter, on a cold day while I was at work, a friendly stranger came to our door and asked my wife if he could shovel out our lower drive--for a modest fee. Among other things, he explained, he had just been awarded visitation of his ten-year-old son and needed some extra cash to buy him some things for Christmas.
    While my kindhearted spouse had never met the man before, he seemed pleasant enough, and we did need more parking space cleared for holiday guests. So why not have him remove the snow, she thought, to surprise me and to do a needy person a favor? “Just return the shovel to the utility room when you’re finished,” she said, “and I’ll have your money waiting for you there in an envelope.”
    Meanwhile, she went about her work and only occasionally checked to see how he was doing. A phone call she received near the time he was finishing prevented her from actually seeing him leave, but when she checked everything out, found the shovel back in its place and the payment gone, she felt satisfied that all was well. And excused herself for the extra generous payment she had left for him. After all, it was Christmas.
    When I came home that evening and learned about my wife's surprise move, I assured her it was fine. Whether or not his story was entirely true, I figured, it's better to err on the side of generosity.
    It was not until the next morning that I discovered my new chain saw, stored in the aforementioned utility room and with the word "stihl" emblazoned on it in bold letters, was missing. Just plain gone, nowhere to be found.
    My wife was devastated, in spite of my assurances that a chain saw was quite replaceable, and that she needn’t be hard on herself. I also promised I would report the missing saw in case it showed up in a pawn shop somewhere and could be recovered. “Maybe I just loved my new toy a little too much,” I joked.
    Much to our surprise, the sheriff’s deputy assigned to the case showed up with the stolen Stihl the very next day, on Christmas Eve. “Here’s your saw,” he said, “Merry Christmas. And the gentleman who took it will be spending his holiday in jail.” Which seemed fair enough, though we couldn't help feeling sorry for anyone having to be behind bars at this special time of the year.
    But the story doesn’t end there. Since then, we have had a series of conversations and an exchange of letters with our unexpected friend. We learned he has earned the position of “trusty” in his jail pod and is scheduled to be released December 24, exactly a year after being locked up for stealing my Stihl.
    In a recent letter he wrote, “Yes, it's a blessing to be leaving here on Christmas Eve. It makes me feel special to know God has plans for me.”
    Among those plans is to spend his first months of freedom at Gemeinschaft Home, a local recovery and re-entry program for ex-offenders, subject to our being able to raise at least $500 toward his first month's stay.
    Our new friend, along with so many others who have ever been incarcerated, face the doubly daunting task of finding a job, a decent place to live and the kind of treatment and support network they need to remain free of their addictions.
    I say, "God bless them every one."

P. S. As a strong believer in the mission of Gemeinschaft Home and a member of its board, I urge you to become a "Friend of Gemeinschaft" by writing a check of $50 or more and mailing it to Gemeinschaft Home, 1423 Mt. Clinton Pike, Harrisonburg, VA 22802. Or you can contribute online at to help this and other persons get a new start.
     Note: Since our new friend will not be on parole when he is released, he is ineligible for state funding for his stay, but hopes to get a job and pay his own way as soon as possible.
     Thanks for your help!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Christmas Journey, Winter 1925

My parents, no longer living, were newlyweds when they made a 200 mile move from Thomas, Oklahoma, to Hutchinson, Kansas, with a young team of horses pulling a small canvas-covered wagon loaded with most of their belongings. It was December 22, 1925, the second day of winter, when my mom and dad, young and adventuresome (and in spite of their parents' grave misgivings), embarked on their seven-day journey, planning to sleep in their wagon each night.
     All went well until the day after Christmas, when the temperature dropped to 10 below zero on a Sunday morning as they headed north into a bitter prairie wind. My father closed the wagon to try to keep it warmer for his new bride, then got out and walked with the team to keep them moving against the driving wind and to try to stay warm. My mother’s feet and my Dad’s ears and fingers became frostbitten that day before they reached the farm house of some relatives who put them up for the night.
     To me, that experience of my parents, Ben and Mary, brings the reality of the first Christmas a little closer home, a story of a Joseph and Mary who endure a journey of also about a week’s length. Except they have no team and wagon, and may have even been traveling on foot.
     Christmas cards portray Mary as a mature, composed thirty-ish woman with a halo around her head and riding a donkey. In reality, she may have been a frightened young teenager, forced to go on a grueling journey in her last month of pregnancy. And then having to have her first child in, of all places, a barn.
     Such is the drama of Christmas, a story of poor and ordinary people with whom God journeys in extraordinary ways.

      I first wrote this as the script of one of my Centerpiece radio spots heard weekdays on WEMC-FM, WBTX-AM and WNLR-AM. This piece will also be aired as a part of a "Shaping Families" Christmas special that can be heard on WBTX (1470 AM) at 9:15 am Sunday, December 19.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Bragging on Brad

 OK, its time for Dad to shamelessly promote his oldest son's latest CD (just in time for a Christmas gift!). Just click on the link "my son's music site" or

Here’s some of the press his album “Excellent Trouble” has gotten so far, as noted on his website :
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — “... an album filled with beautifully recorded acoustic-based songs, united by (Yoder’s) honesty and vivid way with words.” (Scott Mervis)
Pitt News — “Pittsburgh native Brad Yoder is a songwriting virtuoso.” (Larissa Gula)
AcousticLive! in NYC — “This is a heavyweight album from a major talent.” (Richard Cuccaro)
Big Mama’s Blog—CD review interview — “... lyrics convey emotions in a really powerful manner.”
Pgh Tribune-Review
“Excellent Trouble.. exhibits a childlike zest for narrative and storytelling.” (Rege Behe)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Top Ten Ways to Bless a Blogger

Or how about five for a start?
5. Check out some of his/her links.
4. Sign on as a "follower" to be updated on new posts.
3. Leave an occasional comment with a post.
2. Tell your friends about the site.
1. Feel free to offer helpful feedback or suggestions.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Reflection on the Christmas Crèche

This picture was on an e-card our daughter Joanna and husband Chad from Rochester, NY, sent us last year. 
Their son John Mark is admiring the candle-lit crèche they set up for the season.

Years ago I read an article in the Valley LIVING magazine by Eddy Hall entitled “A Second Look at the Christmas Crèche.”  He used to be bothered by all of the historical inaccuracies portrayed in the typical Christmas manger scene, he said, the ones that have Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus surrounded by the shepherds, the angels, the wise men, along with assorted sheep, camels and donkeys, all gathered at the stable at the same time.
     If you pay attention to the texts, of course, the angels return to heaven immediately after announcing the birth of the Messiah, and the wise men in Matthew’s account are led by a star to a house where they bring Mary and Joseph their gifts, not to a manger, suggesting this was some time after the stable birth.
     “I’ve long assumed that it was just pure sloppiness,” Hall writes, “Caught up in the less than accurate traditions that surround Christmas, people just didn’t care how the story really happened.”
     But Hall has come to believe the Christmas crèche is meant to convey something deeper, that the main focus of this manger scene is to show how this promised Child brings us all together, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, insider and outsider, shepherds and scholars, not because of any appeal they have for each other, but because of their common reverence for Immanuel, God with us.
     This, he says, is the real Christmas story in a nutshell.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

J’ai vide mon coeur

Our oldest son Brad, a Pittsburgh based singer/songwriter, spent a summer in Vermont some time ago working with teens in an intensive French language camp program. While there he wrote the following lyrics in French for use with the group:
j’ai vidé mon cœur   pour avoir plus d’espace,
j’ai jeté mon malheur,   il prenait trop de place,
j’ai vidé mon cœur,   j’aurais dû l’faire avant,
pour apprendre un peu   à vivre comme un enfant

nous devenons courageux
chaque fois qu’on peut faire de son mieux,
chaque fois qu’on n’a pas peur..
j’ai vidé ma tête   de ces vieilles idées,
elles me rendaient trop bête,   j’ai dû les oublier,
j’ai vidé mon âme   des histoires du passé,
les blessures et les drames   ne m’ont jamais aidé,

nous devenons courageux
chaque fois qu’on peut faire de son mieux,
chaque fois qu’on n’a pas peur..
nous ne sommes que des rêveurs,
alors choisissons un rêve qui dure,
il faut pas avoir peur,
tu dois pas avoir peur,
j’ai vidé mon cœur   pour avoir plus d’espace,
j’ai jeté mon malheur,   il prenait trop de place…
  Here's my translation/adaptation of his piece:
    I emptied my heart to gain some more space,
    threw out my unhappiness, replaced it with grace,
    I emptied my heart, should have done it before,
    to become like a newborn child once more.

        we become fearless and bold
        when we live out our best,
        when we live by our courage in spite of our stress.

    I emptied my head of old useless thoughts,
    irrational 'shoulds,' too many 'oughts.'
    I emptied my soul of tired tales from the past,
    my old wounds and dramas now banished at last.

        we become fearless and bold
        when we live out our best,
        can face our hard stresses, can learn how to rest
        and dream a new dream
        of calm fearlessness.

    I emptied my heart to gain some more space,
    threw out my unhappiness, replaced it with grace.

     I know I’m biased about my son’s work, but I find his words compelling (undoubtedly they would be even more so in French). Isn’t life too short to remain stuck with a lot of negative baggage that keeps us from experiencing the joy and blessings that are our birthright?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Undocumented Marriages

When it comes to supporting stable, lasting, loving marriages, you can put me down as a compassionate conservative. Here's a letter I had published in the September, 2010, issue of the Mennonite which suggested a more positive approach to dealing with cohabiting couples:

Editor, the Mennonite:

    Thanks for publishing Sandra Fribley's timely article on "Love, Sex and Marriage."

    Without condoning cohabitation in any way, what if congregations respectfully confronted couples who are living together as having already entered into a marital bond, as follows:

    "Whenever you a) 'leave father and mother' (form a separate social unit and become publicly recognized partners), b) 'cleave to each other' (are an exclusive couple committed to fidelity), and c) 'become one flesh' (are sexually intimate), we will hold you to the same standard of lifelong faithfulness we expect of legally married couples. While we acknowledge that the Genesis 2:24 text quoted by both Jesus and Paul predates mandates like a marriage license or a ceremony, we nevertheless believe you should take the step of registering and solemnizing the de facto ('common law') marriage you have entered into.

    "We understand you might see this step as a mere formality involving 'just a piece of paper,' but we consider it at least as important as having a baptismal certificate, a passport, a vehicle registration, or a deed to a new house. But whether documented or not, we see your joining together in the manner described above as a profound and emotionally bonding form of 'marriage.' And were you to terminate your undocumented union, we would consider it a de facto divorce, as implied in the German word for infidelity: 'ehebruch,' or 'union-breaking'.

    "We pray you will choose to have your union blessed by God and by a caring community of believers, and so will be able to celebrate a truly joyful and faithful life until 'death do you part'."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Who Was The Neighbor?

I recently read what Herman Bernstein, the United States Ambassador to Albania, wrote in 1934, “There is no trace of any discrimination against Jews in Albania, because Albania happens to be one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist, even though Albanians themselves are divided into three faiths.”
     Albania, a small country on the southeast coast of the Balkan peninsula, then had a population of some 800,000. Of those only two hundred were Jews.
     After Hitler’s rise to power, as many as 1,800 Jews found temporary refuge in that country from Germany, Austria, Serbia, Greece and Yugoslavia, and when the Germans occupied the country in 1943, Albanians were for the most part united in their refusal to comply with orders to turn over lists of Jews within their borders. Official governmental agencies provided Jewish families with documentation that allowed them to identified as non-Jews and live safely among the rest of the population.
     This remarkable help given to persecuted Jews was grounded in the Muslim tradition of Besa, a strongly held code of honor in that country. Besa, means literally “to keep the promise.” Those who act according to Besa keep their word, and can be trusted with their very life. In that spirit, Albanians went out of their way to provide help to the strangers among them, resulting in their being more Jews in their country at the end of the war than at the beginning.
     This reminds me of the well known story Jesus once told of a beaten and robbed man left beside the road and ignored by good religious people who passed him by. In the story, given in answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" he chooses a Samaritan as the hero who actually tends to the injured man's wounds and provides for his hospitality and care.
     Prejudicial attitudes toward Samaritans in Jesus' day were much like those of many Americans toward Moslems today. We look down on them as belonging to a religion that shares some of the same scriptures as we, claims to worship the same God, but which we consider unorthodox in its beliefs and practices.
     Jesus is not commending the man's religion in the story, but pointing out that when all is said and done, its what's done that is even more important than what's said, and that our do-ology is even more important than our theology.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sabbaths for the soul

    “In the world to come each of us will be called into account for all the good things God put on earth which we refused to enjoy.”    - the Talmud
    When it comes to the enjoyment of God’s good gift of time, we tend to rush instead of rest, ruminate and worry instead of savoring each passing day, each priceless moment.
    As we take time to listen, we can hear a distinctive drumbeat of passing time marked by cycles of seasons, tides, mornings, evenings, days and nights. And if we pay attention, we note a regular rhythm inside us, our own amazing heart with its constant push and pause, our own steady pair of lungs that tense and relax, breathe out and breathe in with life-giving regularity. 
    Reflecting on this life pattern, one  that contributes to our soul's healing and renewal, poet Diana Zimmerman writes, “It’s not the rhythm humans make--planned and precise. Constancy is its rhythm, the repetition of crashing, sometimes fierce, sometimes gentle, and then retreating into the sea. It’s nature’s rhythm--the rhythm that we live: the in and out, the up and down, the high and low, the coming and going.  The perfection is not in its predictability, but in that it comes steadily, one after the other. Like days.”
    Along with nature’s drumbeat, there is the rhythm of holy time. The seven-day week, unlike the solar year or the lunar month, is divinely initiated. Six days we are to labor and do our work, but the seventh day is to be a holy “shabat” (rest), a time for recuperation and renewal for ourselves, our hired help, and even our work animals. It was to begin Friday evening with the entire family gathering to light the sabbath candle and to experience a time of quiet, a hallowed break in the routine of the week. 
    Some of us find it hard to experience regular sabbaths for the soul. Our good works and busy weeks prevent us from finding much time and space for God. “Wisdom does not in itself fill us,” someone has said, (but) “it creates an emptiness for God to fill.” Sabbaths represent this kind of invitation for the Holy to indwell us.
    We can also experience holy time in the rhythm of the Christian year, when we hear the drumbeat of God activity through annual reenactments of sacred events. We start with Advent, a time of expectant waiting and longing, followed by Christmas and Epiphany, celebrations of light and hope. Then comes Ash Wednesday, marking the start of forty days of soul searching leading to Holy Week, with its Maunday Thursday reminder of Christ’s last meal with his followers. This is followed by Good Friday, the darkest of all days, then by Easter, the brightest. 
    This healing rhythm reminds us of how God breaks into time, then ascends and leaves us to savor the Spirit’s renewing presence.
     And then returns all over again.

Friday, November 26, 2010

How Microlending Could Revolutionize How We Help The Poor

One important way to help those in need, especially those unable to earn for themselves, is through generous giving. Another way we can offer much needed help, especially to those able and eager to work, is by making generous loans available from our savings.

Through a variety of new microlending programs, it is now possible to assist enterprising individuals both at home and abroad while still having those investments available for our own needs in later years. Meanwhile, our money is helping others in ways that offers them dignity and opportunity rather than simply charity.

This should be celebrated as an astounding option, one that deserves to become the retirement plan of choice for all justice-minded people.

Far too many of us, for far too long, have been anxiously banking on our stock portfolios for our financial futures. By speculating in a largely consumer-driven financial system we have become dependent on the fortunes of Wall Street for our security. Even “socially responsible investing” (avoiding alcohol, tobacco and/or military related enterprises) still largely supports luxury and convenience related products and services that tend to benefit the well-to-do far more than those who lack the basic means of supporting themselves.

What if our focus shifted from investments that are merely “socially responsible” to those that offer a "hand up" to those who truly need it?

But wouldn't that be a risky strategy?

Surprisingly, the default rate on microloans has been extremely low, based on the experience of organizations like MEDA (Mennonite Economic Envelopment Association), Oikocredit, the Calvert Foundation and other microlenders. MEDA, for example, often makes loans to partner groups of small scale entraprenuers committed to seeing to it that no one defaults as a condition for everyone remaining eligible for future loans. This kind of accountability, along with the determination of these borrowers to succeed in order to survive, adds to MEDA’s confidence that such investments are as safe, if not safer, than those in the stock market.

But shouldn’t our retirement savings grow for us rather than providing a mere 1-3% rate of interest?

In a capitalist system we always face the risk of future inflation reducing the purchasing power of our monetary savings. But in light of Christ's teaching on not storing up anything for tomorrow, period, is it too much to expect that we should be content with modest interest rates--primarily to cover the costs of administering our retirement funds?

Since borrowing in Bible times was primarily done by people who were destitute because of famine or other disasters (rather than for capital investment in land or other means of production) any form of usury was frowned upon. In another tradition, Mahatma Ghandi condemned “wealth without work” as one of his “seven social sins.” How can followers of Jesus justify making easy profits by simply placing our bets on a gain-driven economic system, even if to “make our money work for us,’ or to “keep up with inflation”?

In our personal experience, when the economy took a nose-dive in 2008, the savings our employers had invested for us in mutual funds lost a ton of value. But what we had invested in IRA’s designated for microlending remained secure. Besides, we had already enjoyed the benefit of reducing our federal income tax liability through those investments. For us, that seemed good enough.

If many of us were to transfer the bulk of our investments into microfinancing, we could have an immediately positive and dramatic impact on thousands of people’s lives. And if all devout believers worldwide were to do so, plus give generously from their store of wealth, extreme poverty could be virtually eliminated.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

In the Home of the Jailed

It’s not often that we think of prisons as holy spaces, but I’m struck by the number of persons on the holier side of history who have spent years of their lives in chains or behind bars. In the Hebrew Bible there were people like Joseph, Jeremiah, Daniel and others, and in the New Testament, there were John the Baptist and many of Jesus’s disciples, most notably Paul, who wrote many of his letters from there. And throughout the centuries there have been countless numbers of people in prisons for their faith, like John Bunyan, John Huss, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and many others. All of which has led people of faith to take a special interest in all who are imprisoned. While many in our prisons and penitentiaries today are of course guilty of crimes of all kinds, their cells nevertheless become places of suffering, isolation and extreme emotional stress that should concern all of us.

What should be our response when in our land of the free we have an astonishing 2.3 million people behind bars, the largest number of people in prison of any country in the world, including China.

In the Hebrew Bible there is a model for a safe place for offenders known as cities of refuge. They were ordinary cities in every respect except in these cities people could find refuge who felt they were in danger of being lynched for a crime, as an act of revenge, if they believed they were innocent, or had unintentionally harmed or killed someone. There they were offered sanctuary in communities where they could live responsible and more or less normal lives. My dream would be to have every community, every congregation, become a kind of city of refuge, not for coddling wrongdoers, but for mentoring them, holding them accountable, and helping them to become responsible and productive fellow citizens.

We Americans are Great Givers

An open letter to our Third World neighbors:

    In spite of everything you may have heard to the contrary, we Americans do give very liberally. Many of us even outdo the poor widow in the Bible, the one Jesus commends for offering up her last penny. Indeed, we often give so far beyond our means that we have to borrow to our limit in order to keep up our rate of giving.
    Unfortunately, not much of that generosity benefits charities or our local churches. In that department, we Christians north of the Rio Grande contribute an average of only about 3% of our incomes. And of that money, usually well over one-half goes for things like air conditioning, heating, maintenance and mortgage costs for the buildings in which we worship and fellowship--up to two hours a week (unless we’re on one of our weekend vacations)--as well as to cover the salaries of those we hire to care for, lead and teach us, the members. So we hope this explains why so little of our charitable giving can actually go to meet the needs of the poor around us--or to the south of us--or to help propagate our faith. 
    To be honest, we admit that the bulk of our really cheerful giving is done at places like Wal-Mart, K-Mart and the nearby Quick-Mart. We do love to shop, and tend to give most generously for things like pet food, snack food, junk food, convenience food and for the array of fine foods available at our favorite delis and restaurants, much of it imported from countries like yours where labor is cheap. And we also contribute large sums to the automobile and oil industries, so that we now have more licensed vehicles to fuel and maintain than we have licensed drivers to drive them. In addition, we willingly give more and more of our incomes to banks and furniture outlet stores for ever larger and more comfortably furnished homes.
    You might wonder, Does all of this giving reflect our real values?
    Actually, yes. Each time any of us gives another offering at yet another cash register, we are saying that, at that moment at least, we consider that product or service worth exactly what we are investing in it. In the same way, when it comes to offering our gifts to God, as an expression of our love for our Creator and for our neighbors, we are also stating, quite specifically, the actual value that represents to us.
    Are we ever bothered by where all our money goes, and how quickly it is gone? Or that every year, in the US, most of us contribute far more to our nation’s military budget than we do to our church’s missionary budget?
    Yes, of course we're bothered, in light of our living in one of the wealthiest and most heavily armed countries in the world. And yet, for whatever reason, God, unlike our national government, doesn’t actually demand any tribute from us in return. God asks for our joyous and generous offerings, but so far hasn’t insisted on actually collecting all the rent we owe for living on this blessed part of the planet.
    So what would you do if you were in our shoes?

Something Amazing at Macy’s

On November 6, 2010, a group of some 650 singers from the Philadelphia Opera Company joined together in an unusual conspiracy. They arranged to be at Macy's in Center City Philadelphia at high noon,to mix in with the crowd of shoppers there and then, on cue from their director on a second floor balcony, sing the Halleluiah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. All of this was accompanied by someone on Macy’s giant organ in the large foyer area of the store.
     A video recording of the event became quite a hit on YouTube, as a rare musical feast that caught the startled shoppers completely off guard. Many were obviously amazed and moved by the unexpected performance, either because it brought back fond memories of it as a loved and familiar part if their past, or as a masterpiece they were hearing for the first time.
     Some of the listeners looked up and raised their hands in awe or held them over their hearts. Others were using their cell phones to take pictures of the musicians all around them and/or were calling others to have them listen in. Still others were excitedly talking to each other as they listened with wonderment.  And of course all joined in an extended and heartfelt round of applause after the last drawn out “Hal-le-lu-jah!” at the end of the piece.
     As a person of faith, I was deeply moved by the performance on YouTube, and it was certainly an experience aptly described by a sign one of the organizers of the group held up at the end, “You have just experienced a random act of culture by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.”
     Maybe we should all find ways of expressing some random, creative, and impactful kindnesses of our own this season, expressing our Hallelujahs and our confidence in who shall reign forever and ever.
     This could be in the form of a surprise visit to someone at a nursing home, an offer of some child care for a frazzled parent in need of a break, a note  of appreciation for a past teacher or pastor who has made a difference in our lives, or an invitation to dinner for a new immigrant family in the community. 
     May such Hallelujahs resound everywhere!