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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 http://www.gemeinschafthome.com 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 http://www.gemeinschafthome.com 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 http://bradyoder.com.:

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.