Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bright Hope in the Bronx

Jonathan Kozol's book, "Amazing Grace," is about his interviews with children living in the worst areas of the Bronx in New York City.

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.

Tragically, Anthony Green was shot and killed three years later on Beekman Avenue, in the worst part of the Bronx.

There’s just got to be a city with safe streets of solid gold for people like him.

Monday, December 26, 2011

When the Work of Christmas Begins

Writer Esther Gillette eloquently describes Christmas as 

with haloed ray
quietly giving 
 itself away

Christmas is, indeed, a light that keeps on shining, a gift that keeps on giving, as Howard Thurman has written:

When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins;
To find the lost,
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among people everywhere.

May the good work of Christmas begin in each of us.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Eve reflection

Growing up on a farm I can especially identify with the following piece by one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry. His reference to "April morning's light" suggests the kind of spring-like warmth that breaks into this otherwise wintery scene.

This is from his book "The Timbered Choir" (Counterpoint, 1998):

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own white frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

We wish you and yours the very best this Christmas season,

Harvey and Alma Jean

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Mere $110,000 a Day in Spending Money

He'll judge the needy by what is right,
render decisions on earth's poor with justice.
              (Isaiah 11:4a the Message)

Blessed are you who are poor, 
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be satisfied.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
             (Luke 6:20, 21, 24, 25 NIV)

According to Forbes magazine, there now are well over 400 billionaires in the U.S., and 3.1 million millionaires. And their numbers--along with their assets--are on the rise, even as millions of the rest of their fellow citizens are losing jobs, homes and health benefits.

In an article entitled “Breaking the Spell of Money” in the July/August 2011 issue of Orion magazine, Scott Russell Sanders has us imagine what a billionaire (and many of these actually own multiple billions) could do with his or her wealth:

Suppose you keep a billion dollars under your mattress, where it will earn no income, and you set out to spend it; in order to burn through it all within an adult lifetime of, say, fifty years, you would have to spend $1.7 million per month, or $55,000 per day. If you took your billion dollars out from under the mattress and invested it in long-term U.S. Treasury bonds at current rates, you could spend $40 million per year, or $110,000 per day, forever, without touching your capital. It so happens that $110,000 is a bit more than twice the median household income in the United States. If you do the math, you will find that the twenty-five hedge fund managers who pulled in $26 billion last year claimed an income equivalent to roughly 500,000 households, or some 2 million people.  

But these persons, we’re being told by some, are the nation’s “job creators,” therefore we dare not burden them with even slight increases in taxes or government regulations, lest we inhibit growth and further endanger our economy.

Dare not what?

Try telling something like that to Amos, Micah or any of the Hebrew prophets. Or run that by Jesus, or try convincing his young mother Mary, who in her “Magnificat” boldly announces:

He casts the mighty from their thrones
and raises the lowly.

He fills the starving with good things,
and sends the rich away empty.

For a real mind boggler, a Libertarian candidate for Congress in our area sent me a link to a YouTube piece regarding a “$100 million dollar penny,” which helps us see how obscene--and insane--hoarding this kind of wealth really is (Note: You may or may not be interested in the controversial points made at the end of the clip on how some of the wealth of our nation is being managed, a subject I'll not weigh in on here).

Having said all of the above, to our world neighbors who are actually starving, many of us could be seen as the world's 1% who are way beyond blessed. At Christmas, we must gift with that in mind.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

In Barbara Robinson’s "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," six members of the Herdman family, "absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world," somehow finagle their way into getting lead parts in the Second Presbyterian Church’s annual Christmas play, one that hadn’t seen any changes for as long as anyone could remember.

But to these uninhibited, stringy-haired newcomers to the church, everything in the story was new, and represented high drama. Pint-sized Gladys, who got the part of the "Angel of the Lord,’" bellows out, "Hey, Unto you a child is born!" as though it was indeed the most urgent news in the world. Leroy, one of the Wise Men, brings in the Herdman’s food-basket ham as his gift for the Christ child (instead of the fake gold, frankincense and myrrh he considered an unworthy offering). And terrible Imogene, as Mary, protested in practice, "You mean they tie him up and put him in a feedbag? Where was the Child Welfare?" (the Herdman’s knew all about Child Welfare).

But on the night of the play--one everyone thought would be ruined by the Herdmans--scraggly little Imogene Herdman was awestruck.

"In the candlelight her face was all shiny with tears and she didn’t even bother to wipe them away. She just sat there--awful old Imogene--in her crookedy veil, crying... as if she had just caught onto the idea of God, and the wonder of Christmas."

Maybe we all, like the Herdman’s, need to start over, hear and experience the story afresh.

P.S. Here are links to two recent provocative posts on the "Our World Together" blog, plus one to access Pastor Phil Kniss's 12/18/11 sermon at Park View Mennonite on "Occupy Bethlehem":

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Invented, United People

Once you were not a people,
but now you are the people of God.
- 1 Peter 2:10 a

For he himself is our peace,
who has made the two (Jews and Gentiles) one,
and has destroyed the barrier,
the dividing wall of hostility.
                                  Ephesians 2:14

There before me was a great multitude that no one could count,
from every nation, tribe, people and language,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
                                   Revelation 7:9-11

In the Christian tradition, Christmas becomes a part of the fulfillment of the dream of the Hebrew prophets, a quiet proclamation of a vision of nations beating their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, an announcement of "peace on earth and good will toward all." It is an expression of God's plan for all people to become united as children of one Creator, not through the force of God as warrior, but the love of God as Lamb.

On a more mundane level, I submitted the following thoughts in a letter to the Daily News-Record yesterday:

Editor, DNR:

Like many others, I was struck by candidate Newt Gingrich's recent reference to Palestinians as "an invented people." While he is not alone in opposing the two-state solution (actually favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many of his fellow Israelis), I'm wondering how he defends our own country's founders who, in the name of "we, the people," insisted on being recognized as a sovereign nation in spite of not being of one culture, language or national origin.

I've always thought it was a good thing that the original colonists represented a mix of Germans, Irish, English, Swiss, Scotch, Dutch, French and other people of all social classes. And that among them were Dunkards, Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Mennonites, Baptists, Congregationalists, Anglicans, Amish, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Freemasons, Deists and yes, even a group of Muslims from Morocco (down in Charleston, I'm told). Yet many of these diverse folks came together to "form a more perfect union," a great "invention," if you please.

If I understand Gingrich correctly, only native Americans should have had the right to form a sovereign state on this soil. Tragically, they were excluded and decimated. And African-Americans, sadly, were subjugated and denied any right to citizenship for decades.

When will we learn to truly proclaim liberty and justice for all?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Celebrating the Real St. Nicholas

Some years ago I read about Mike Sherer, a Lutheran minister, who with his wife Kathe, a registered nurse, decided to celebrate Christmas without Santa Claus when their first child was three years old. They had come to see Santa as little more than a prop for the great North American Christmas Marketing Machine, and so decided to focus instead on his venerable ancestor, the real life St. Nicholas.

This third century bishop of Myra, who lived on the southern coast of what is now Turkey, became legendary for his generosity in helping the poor and needy in his parish, according to stories about him passed down through the generations.

Because this real saint seemed to be a good alternative to the jolly old elf of recent invention, the Sherers have begun celebrating the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, which is on December 6, as an early part of their family’s Advent, and each year designate 5% of their December income to give anonymous help to a needy individual or family in their community, in the spirit of the good bishop of Myra.

They do put up a tree, but cover the floor all around it with good books about Christmas instead of the many other gifts for themselves that used to accumulate there. The books they then put away each year with the tree decorations, to give them a rest and to make them “new” each Advent.

The Sherers report that their giving up a fake Santa for a real saint they feel embodies the true spirit of Christmas has been a richly satisfying change, one they would recommend to everyone

The above is adapted from one of my 90-second radio spots aired on the following stations: 
WEMC 91.7 FM 11:58 am (M-F) Sun 7:58
WBTX 1470 AM 9:20 am 4:20 pm (M-F)
WNLR 1150 AM 11:28 am (M,W,F)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Wise Brain and the Wild Brain

we’re all born with ancient brains from back when we hunted on the plains,

and though an awful lot has changed, we still chase the things we chase:

salt, sugar, sex, starch, fat and love—we crave all of the above,

and it feels right when we find them, but we can never get enough...

                                                                  Brad Yoder, 2011, all rights reserved

Sometimes I show the above diagram to a client to illustrate how we humans tend to make decisions, wise and otherwise.

The lower part of the brain, the subcortex, I point out, is the part of our complex nervous system that is much like that of the rest of God’s creatures. It is the primitive, reactive part of the brain designed to help us survive, the part that generates the arousal needed for our “fight or flight” responses to perceived threats. It’s an important asset when there is a fire, an accident or any other immediate or possible danger, and is also the part of us that regulates body functions and urges us to satisfy our cravings for food, drink and sex. 

The higher brain, the neocortex, represents our amazing capacity for reflection, reasoning and creative problem-solving, and in my opinion is the part of us that most represents the image of God. It is here that we can make wise and thoughtful decisions, "wise" representing the kinds of actions we will later feel the least remorse about, and "foolish" being the kinds of impulse-based behaviors about which we are most likely to have profound regrets.

It is of course possible for this higher brain to come up with all kinds of nefarious and unwise schemes as well, depending on the moral values of the individual.

At any rate, when the lower part of our brain is highly activated, is in that impulsive mode in which strong feelings of fear, anger, or desire are escalating, the upper brain is half shut down, is more likely to just be ignored or bypassed. Which may be called for, even lifesaving, in case of a real emergency requiring immediate and drastic action, but catastrophic in life situations that call for careful choice-making.

All too often we humans tend to overreact to situations, perceiving them as crises when they simply represent normal problems. As a result we find ourselves behaving inappropriately, from the reactive rather than the reflective cortex of our brain.

All of the above is vastly oversimplified, of course, in that our brains are far more complex than I’ve described, but I still see this as a helpful picture to keep in mind. We’re surely better off being mindful of which part of our brain is calling the shots, and to make sure we are making wise, life-enhancing choices we’ll feel best about--and blessed by--one, ten or fifty years from now.

So much depends on whether the wise brain or the wild brain is in charge.

Friday, December 2, 2011

An Amish Christmas

I still remember how magical the number 25 seemed on the December calendar in the living room of my childhood home. Our farm family, consisting of two hard-working parents and nine children, was dirt poor, but we celebrated Christmas in a way that could have warmed the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge himself.

Yet by today’s standards it was bare beyond belief.

So why did we experience such breath-stopping, adrenaline-rushing, sleep-
robbing anticipation of Christmas day?

Like other Amish families in our community, we had no Christmas tree, hung no holiday wreaths, displayed no Christmas lights. There were some pine cones and evergreen branches decorating our mantles and window sills, but that was about it.

The carefully wrapped presents we had made or bought from our meager means were kept in hiding until Christmas morning. We each knew better than to look for such treasures in the weeks prior to the 25th. Snooping would have spoiled the fun, diminished the pleasure, of our eager waiting, wondering and guessing.

The one gift from our parents we could always count on was a plate loaded with hard candy, nuts and an orange for each of us children. What made it priceless was that it was entirely our own, to be savored at leisure or consumed that very day if we wished. Other gifts from our parents were always a surprise, and especially in earlier years, were often homemade.

For example, my older siblings remember that once during the Depression (before my time) my mother made each child a pair of mittens from some reused flannel material. That was their main present. At other times there were homemade rag dolls or doll clothes, or hand made toy tractors or blocks. And it was not unusual to receive practical gifts like socks, scarves or gloves as well.
In later years there might be jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, or a set of Tinkertoys or other inexpensive playthings to be shared. Once, wonder of wonders, my Dad splurged on a small train set for the whole family to enjoy--including himself, of course, a train lover and still a child at heart.

Since our trips to town were few and our allowances non-existent, we siblings often made things for each other, like a scrapbook of pictures, an embroidered handkerchief, or a wooden knickknack of some kind, carefully sanded and varnished. Or we gathered up our meager savings and shopped at one the of 5 & 10 cent stores in Waynesboro or Staunton. We knew that each small gift would be cause for great celebration.

Family devotions on Christmas morning always included the reading of a nativity text, the timeless tale of poor folks like ourselves who were caught up in an event that still heralded “good tidings of great joy” 2000 years later. And like every other morning of the year, we knelt together in our living room as my father led in a prayer of blessing.

Today, when I compare these memories with our current Christmases, involving grandchildren surrounded by mounds of wrapping paper and boxes after having opened an abundance of purchased items, I can’t help wonder, “Who really had the most fun?”

With fewer possessions, it takes very little to give us a bundle of pleasure. Each gift is priceless. Add a few more, and the result is even more delight.  But at some point, I fear, the pleasure curve peaks, levels, and may actually decline. In our efforts to give our children and grandchildren everything we didn’t have, we may fail to give them some of the good things we did have, like experiencing great blessing in receiving small gifts. 

And like a greater capacity for joy itself.

This is the column I wrote for the Winter, 2011, issue of LIVING magazine.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Is it Time to "De-Occupy" Wall Street?

Regardless of our feelings about the “Occupy Wall Street” Movement, most of us are deeply invested in Wall Street traded companies. We have all become increasingly attached to an economic system heavily dependent on promoting self-indulgence and on amassing wealth through producing lots of products we don’t need and are often better off without. The level of consumption required to keep this kind of economy going is simply unsustainable for our planet.

The majority of Americans also do most of their investing for retirement in this Mammon-driven system.

In recent years Alma Jean and I have felt led to move more and more of our modest retirement funds out of Wall Street traded corporations and into microlending programs that benefit people in need by offering them a hand up rather than simply a handout. Glen Kauffman, financial consultant with Everence here in Harrisonburg, helped us do this.

Here are several of our reasons:

1) We believe such investments are more profitable. Even though the actual interest earned is a mere 1-3% (one can choose the rate), investments in microlending seem far more productive in terms of faith-based values. Since Alma Jean and I want our money to really “work for us” in ways that reflect Jesus’ priorities, we are no longer satisfied with just “socially responsible” investments (no alcohol, tobacco or military industries) that still largely subsidize and promote consumerism rather than being about meeting basic needs. We may not be able to be perfectly “pure” in our investment choices, but since we actually have a choice between becoming stakeholders in, say, some water bottling company somewhere versus in a food production coop that can help lift the poor out of poverty, the latter is our obvious preference.

2) Trading in stocks represents a form of speculation not unlike a legal form of gambling. Of course the odds are generally better, and we agree that all business investments involve risk, but business profits are normally made by at least producing actual goods or services. Trading in market holdings represents an attempt to create “wealth without work,” something Ghandi referred to as one of “seven deadly social sins,” in that no products or services are created in such trades, and no actual value is added. I can understand the concept of being paid a reasonable "rent" for capital used to grow businesses, and I realize there are shades of gray between simply being fellow investors (and sharing risk), on the one hand, and the other extreme of people engaging in speculative on-line or other trading that does seem like gambling to me (only with better odds--the house doesn't always win), and/or who are constantly checking their portfolios in hopes of fate or good fortune earning them record-breaking returns. And let's be honest, most of us haven't the slightest sense of actually being a stakeholder in the many companies that are using our retirement money, nor any real interest in affecting their policies. We primarily want one thing, optimal returns for our investment, as long as no obvious harm is being done.

3) We believe microlending programs are actually safer investments. When the economy tanked in 2008, none of our microlending investments were affected. While no investments are 100% safe, the default rate on these loans has been proven to be very low, while we see ominous signs of worsening national and international debt crises that threaten the security of our entire financial system. And when this Babylon falls, most current plans for retirement will collapse with it.

So we are left with the question of whether we will trust our fortunes with the already rich who are bent on becoming ever richer (and who are consistently condemned by Jesus and the prophets) or with the poor who are working hard to support themselves and their families.

For followers of Jesus, the answer should not be that hard to come by.

I welcome your comments.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Living From the Grateful Side of the Ledger

Thanksgiving Day somehow brings to mind one of one of my late uncles, Moses Nisly.

Mose, one of my mom's older brothers, lived at our house for an extended period of time as I was growing up. Never married, he spent most of his life in the homes of various of his siblings, and when he could no longer support himself, some of his ten living brothers and sisters took turns taking him in and taking care of him.

Uncle Mose was somewhat mentally challenged, the result of a high fever he experienced with a case of meningitis in his childhood, we were told. Actually, no one talked much about his childhood in our family, but there were numerous stories told about his eccentric traits as an adult.

For instance, Mose was incredibly tight with his money. He even resisted having his everyday work clothes washed regularly, fearing they would wear out sooner as a result. Then there was the story about how he lamented the cost of shipping his favorite rocking chair by rail from Iowa to Virginia when he came to live with us. He was outraged by the railroad company charging him what they did since, as he reasoned, “the train was making the trip here anyway!”

Another of Moses’ traits was absentmindedness. He was constantly forgetting where he had put things, then blaming others for having misplaced or taken them. All of this added to his generally unhappy and negative outlook on life, and to seeing himself as a victim.

In spite of his general forgetfulness, though, there was one category of memories Mose could recall in the greatest of detail. He could cite with ease example after example of people who had mistreated him throughout his life. When I heard Garrison Keillor once describing some people as having “Irish Alzheimer's,” a condition that results in people “forgetting everything but their grievances,” I immediately thought of my uncle.

But we can learn from people like that, realize how important it is to wrap lots of gratitude around us every day of our lives. Unlike Mose, we can practice living from the assets side of our memory ledger rather than the debit side.

To a great extent, our emotional and spiritual health depends on how we do our mental bookkeeping, whether we make generous deposits in our inner savings account, and whether we then live out of a sense of abundance rather than in a constant state of victimhood and scarcity.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Truth Never Changes

A week ago I attended a breakfast meeting in which an 85-year-old Mennonite bishop, Martin Lehman, shared some of his experiences as a lifelong servant of the church. One comment he made especially grabbed my attention: "Truth never changes. Our understanding of truth may certainly change, but not the truth itself."

I know this flies in the face of postmodern doubts about whether any such thing as truth actually exists, but I've been reflecting a lot on what Lehman went on to say, that our search for truth is something like journeying toward a distant mountain. We first see our destination from afar, and from what appears to be a simple, one-dimensional perspective. As we get closer, it not only appears larger but also more intricate and intriguing. We see so many nuances and details we could only imagine from farther away.

Maybe this is the way it is as we pursue truth about God and about ultimate reality. We can at first only "see through a glass, dimly," as from a distance. Only at some later day can we hope to see more of ultimate truth "face to face," up close and personal.

That resonates with me. At least for myself, the nearer I get to the end of my journey, at 72, the more I realize how limited my perspective is, and how much more there is to know. As someone has observed, the larger our island of knowledge, the longer our shoreline of wonder.

And not only does the mystery of the divine seem ever greater to me, so does my sense of God's mercy. I see myself with ever more of my fragile and broken fellow human beings as in the welcoming embrace of God's grace, as in the words of Frederick William Faber:

There's a wideness in God's mercy

Like the wideness of the sea;
There's a kindness in his justice
Which is more than liberty.

While we will never fully understand all truth, I believe truth itself is a trusted friend we can follow safely wherever it takes us. Truth, along with amazing grace, has the power to set us free.

And that's the truth.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Of Marriages and Weddings

Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio, an Episcopal priest and certified life coach, in commenting on recent headlines over the infamously expensive and short-lived marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, observes that even most non-celebrity couples invest a lot more in flowers and entertainment for the reception than they do in careful plans for how to make their marriage last.

The wedding day should be about the marriage, she says, not the marriage about the wedding.

The cost of weddings, Tumminio observes, has dramatically increased over the past decades, largely because we Americans are so much in love with the romanticism and the magic of the day. Having some 5 million people tune in to see the Kardashian-Humphries wedding on television also says a lot about our fascination with fairy tale fantasies that have almost nothing to do with contributing to happily ever after.  

Perhaps, the really big party should be celebrated at a 25th anniversary, she notes, rather than at the moment of commitment. So with tongue in cheek, she proposes that couples receive wedding gifts only after they have earned them by enduring tough problems over time. So no gifts at the wedding, some small ones for a first year anniversary, then more substantial ones after the fifth-year or so.

We're tempted to scoff at Kris and Kim’s downfall, but the reality is that their marriage failed at least in part because of our society’s views of nuptial bliss, Tumminio believes. We should all feel responsible to do a better job of loving our neighbors not just on their wedding day but on all the days that follow.

(Here's the link to check out my book on the subject:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Remembering Dad

My father died on this day in 1985, after a long bout with emphysema and bronchiactis. I had spent my last memorable twelve hours with him two nights earlier, taking my turn being by his bed at the Waynesboro, Virginia, hospital.

At age 80, dad was down to a fraction of his normal weight and strength. Sometimes disoriented, he couldn’t understand why I had to restrain him from getting out of bed or removing his oxygen tubes. In a strange reversal of roles, I was now the parent wishing I could somehow hold and comfort him in his pain and distress.

I don’t cry easily, but I couldn’t help losing it during my 45-minute ride home. Not only was I grieving the loss of my one and only dad--gentle, hospitable and generous to a fault--I was also mourning the father with whom I had never fully connected as I wished.

Financial struggles as I was growing up limited my father’s energy and time for us nine children, especially us younger ones. I realized in a new way on that long ride home how much I ached for more memories of fishing, playing ball or going for walks with my dad. I also wished I had been able to share with him more of my feelings, struggles and dreams as I was growing up. I also realized that any lack of closeness between us as adults was as much my fault as his.

Yet I was very much aware that he had given me much more as a parent than he had ever received from his own father. That truth had come to me in a new way a year earlier, when he and I had a 1 1/2 hour conversation in which I recorded many of his childhood memories. While I already knew much of the story, to have a recording of it in his own words was priceless. 

A defining point in my father’s life was his losing his mother when he was three. And this was my grandfather Dan’s third time of becoming a widower. His first wife Lucy had died of measles at 23 after only four years of marriage, leaving him with a two-year-old son and nine-month-old daughter. On the day of Lucy’s funeral, daughter Anna also died of measles.

A decade later Dan’s second wife Rebecca died of tuberculosis at age 30, leaving him with five more children. Later that year their youngest daughter Mary died of the same disease, also at nine months of age. 

Two years later Dan married Elizabeth, my grandmother, and had three more children, the youngest being my father, Ben. Then at 35 Elizabeth died of complications from her fourth pregnancy, leaving Dan, at 44, with nine living children.

My father has few memories of his next five years except of sometimes crying at night wishing he had a mother like other children he knew. He also wished for a warmer, more nurturing father instead of one he aptly described as a “man of sorrows.”  Surely he was "acquainted with grief."

As if this weren’t enough family drama, five years later Dan married Miriam, a widow with nine children of her own. While eight-year-old Ben was glad to have a real mother again (and some new siblings) their blended family didn’t blend well, and the rest of my father’s childhood was marked by constant family tension and friction. 

I’ve sometimes wondered what kind of dad should have come out of this troubled story, this mysfunctional family. But instead of his becoming a highly depressed or bitter man, Ben became one of the kindest and most gracious people I’ve ever known--even though he had never learned how to hug us as children or to lavish us with praise (we did teach him to hug in his later years!).

On his deathbed he breathed the words of his favorite song, “Blessed Assurance,” the title of which appears on his tombstone, set right next to my mother’s, who had died of cancer fourteen years earlier. With her he had learned to live a new life, celebrate a new lyric, as in, “This is my story, This is my song, praising my Savior  all the day long.”

He left no estate to divide among us, and barely enough savings to pay for his funeral. But we all received a much more valuable legacy, that of a sturdy faith and a graciously lived life.

Today I wish I could tell my father one more time how grateful I am for the way he turned his grief into an amazing grace. As I reflect on his life story, I am better able to embrace my own.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Near the end of a recent eight-hour return trip to their Rochester, NY, home, our daughter had the following conversation with their six-year-old son about his younger twin siblings. At four months of age, they were doing their usual "talking" and making baby sounds to each other.

“What do you think they're saying?” daughter asked.

“Let me listen,” the first grader offered. After taking some time to do this, he reported, “Mom, they’re saying they’re really tired of being in their car seats and want to be held.”

“Well, tell them we’re almost home, and we'll have them out of their seats real soon.”

“But, Mom, there’s a problem. I understand their language, but I can't speak it!”

A little later, though, John did try to address them in their "twinspeak" language. At which point they became completely silent, as if to say, “How dare you break into our private conversation?”

So much of what infants know and feel remains a mystery, but all of us wish we could understand more of what’s going on in their rapidly developing minds. I’m sure they are absorbing far more from us than we realize.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Christmas Economics--How Both Pentateuch and Pentecost Promote Wealth Redistribution

 “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee to you; each of you is to return to his family property... It (accumulated property) will be returned in the Jubilee.” Leviticus 25:10, 28b

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel your debts...there should be no poor among openhanded toward your brothers (and sisters) and toward the poor and needy in your land.” Deuteronomy 15: 1, 4a, 11b

“There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them and brought the money from the sales...and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” Acts 4:34-35

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply your need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: ‘He that gathered much did not have too much, and he that gathered little did not have too little.’” II Corinthians 8:13-15

     From Thanksgiving to the end-of-year deadline for charitable deductions, many North Americans become extra generous in their giving. Christmas gift giving alone provides the kind of boost to the economy that many retailers depend on for their survival. So like the Leviticus 25 Jubilee, the season moves us well beyond our usual charity.

How could this Jubilee-like mindset, this holiday season thinking, transform our stewardship?

At a recent session of our Virginia Conference assembly we had an extended discussion of a plan to provide affordable health insurance for needy pastors. Delegates voiced their approval, but in light of leaner economic times, wondered whether the required number of congregations could afford to fund it, especially in light of growing concerns about meeting existing mission and conference budgets.

But I couldn’t help wondering why a church as well-to-do as ours should ever have even one needy pastor among us, or have a single outreach programs that is underfunded? And why should our church agencies have to increasingly depend on salaried fund raisers to help them meet their annual budgets?

One answer may be that we have been focusing on only half of what the Bible teaches about stewardship. We have taught well the half that has to do with contributing generously of our tithes and offerings, but have said or done little about the other Biblical mandate, that of radically and regularly redistributing our wealth in the spirit of Christmas and in celebration of a Jesus-inspired Jubilee.

Unfortunately, far from regularly redistributing our wealth, most us aren’t very generous in even contributing from it, according to sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson and Patricia Snell, authors of a book called "Passing the Plate, Why Christians Don’t Give Away More of Their Money" (Oxford University Press, 2008). Their study finds that one in four US Protestants doesn’t give at all, and that the median rate of annual giving for that group is only $200, or less than half a percent of their taxable income. According to a 2005 study commissioned by MCUSA, the “typical” Mennonite member gives just less than 10 percent of income to some kind of charity.

According to the Passing the Plate authors, what makes churchgoing US Christians look especially miserly is that together they earn a staggering $2.5 trillion dollars a year. That would be enough wealth, they claim, to qualify for membership in the G7, a group representing the world’s seven largest economies. A modest ten percent of that sum, they point out, could do wonders to alleviate poverty and promote missions around the world.

Few of us would expect the unemployed and financially destitute to tithe. But the rest of us who live in one of the wealthiest economies in the world should be able to give far more. Regular giving, after all, is like paying rent for the privilege of enjoying life on a truly great planet.

But can simply giving from our surplus, without any regular redistribution of wealth that narrows the gap between rich and poor, be seen as an adequate expression of Biblical economics?

Ched Myers, author of "The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics," doesn’t think so. He argues that both the teachings of Jesus and the practices of the early church support a more radical stewardship, one grounded in Old Testament practices meant to periodically reboot and re-level the economic playing field.

Myers points out that in Jesus’s first recorded message (Luke 4:16-30), he highlights the prophet Isaiah’s announcement of good news to the poor and the release of prisoners, and reminds us that prisoners in those days were usually impoverished people who were unable to repay money they borrowed in bad years to keep their families alive. The Isaiah 61 text that Jesus uses appears to be linked to two passages in the Pentateuch, the Deuteronomy 15 teaching on canceling debts every seven years, and the Leviticus 25 Jubilee text, one that mandates that no profit be made from the land every seventh year, and that repossessed land be restored to the original owners every 50th year, a "year of the Lord’s favor.”

Today we hear almost nothing about regularly forgiving others their monetary debts or about restoring property taken in foreclosure. But Jesus promises salvation to Zaccheus when he commits himself to redistributing his wealth, and later asks the so-called “rich young ruler” to do the same. And in each of the first three gospels, the latter story is accompanied by Jesus teaching us to become like owner-less children in order to become a part of the Jubilee-based God-Movement.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the Spirit-led early church went well beyond simply sharing contributions from their surplus. The book of Acts describes how believers joyfully practiced Jesus’s form of Jubilee justice by selling property and distributing the proceeds among those in need.

 In the same spirit, the apostle Paul appealed to the church at Corinth to practice a Jubilee-style sharing of their wealth with needy believers abroad. And the apostle had harsh words for those who ate and drank to excess at their community agape meals while refusing to share their abundance with poorer members of the congregation.

All of this makes it clear that followers of Jesus are not to gain ever more wealth for themselves while the Lazarus-like poor in the world become ever more destitute. In order for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” periodic redistribution is called for. Regarding the Lord's Prayer, John Howard Yoder, in "The Politics of Jesus" writes, “Jesus... tells us purely and simply to erase the debts of those who owe us money; which is to say, practice the jubilee.”

Claude Rosenberg and Tim Stone, in a December, 2006, article in the International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, make the case for giving based on our assets, and not simply on our incomes, a principle they believe is clearly taught in the Torah and amplified in the New Testament. Our common practice of a tithe- and offering- based stewardship, they say, provides false justification for believers becoming as wealthy as they can as long as they give regularly and generously from their surplus.

A current illustration of this is the case of Dave Ramsey, considered one of the nation’s leading advisers on Christian money management. Over a million people in 5,600 churches recently tuned in to his 90-minute televised infomercial-style “Town Hall for Hope” broadcast. His DVD-based “Financial Peace University” courses are offered in churches everywhere, including Mennonite congregations. Profits from his book and DVD sales and from his many seminars have made Ramsey a multimillionaire, and he has just built a lavish home on a $1 million lot in a gated community overlooking Tennessee's richest county.

One of our problems is that we find it hard to make the case that this is even a problem. After all, Ramsey earned his money legally, saved it carefully, and no doubt has given much of it generously, just as we are all taught to do.
What is missing is a theology of stewardship that deals with the other half of the Biblical teaching on wealth, that of periodically and systematically redistributing and reinvesting it in ways that give a hand up to the underclass. We have overlooked the fact that the Pentateuch actually commands this, and that the church of Pentecost and of the apostle Paul clearly promotes it.
Here are some modest examples of how congregations and individuals might celebrate seasons of Jubilee:

1. Create a congregational Jubilee Fund to support an urgent local or international need, and invite members to sell something of significant value to them--or to draw substantially from their savings or investment accounts--to invest generously in such a fund.

2. Freeze or reduce congregational and conference staff salaries and benefits for a chosen year and contribute the savings to a Jubilee Fund, and urge each member to make similar investments.

3. Place a moratorium on church building or remodeling projects for a year (or longer), focusing instead on meeting direct people needs in the community and abroad.

4. Adopt a third world, inner city, or other needy congregation or community with whom to exchange information and/or work and study teams.

5. Promote members making gifts of some of their current IRA holdings and other investments and/or to transfer them to interest-free or low interest micro-loan funds.

6. Engage in serious Bible study and worship on the theme of redistribution stewardship.

7. Match our spending for Christmas and other gift giving each year with equal investments in missions, relief and other means of outreach, and on every seventh year, dispense with Christmas and other gift giving to the non-needy altogether, then double what we redistribute to the poor.

8. Invite members of third world congregations to become honorary members of the governing boards of our congregations and church institutions, regularly consulting with them by phone or e-mail about our spending and investment decisions.

9. Rewrite our wills so that they represent a more just form of Jubilee redistribution of our accumulated assets.

In order to be faithful to Jesus, we need to think and act in the spirit of Christmas rather than of capitalism, investing less in our own comfort and security and more in what delights the heart of God.

In this way we will joyfully trumpet liberty throughout the earth.

(this was first published in the December, 2009, issue of The Mennonite)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Rachel at 86

To celebrate her 86th birthday, Rachel Stolzfus, the oldest member of our house church, invited some of us to her house last night for a simple meal prepared by her daughter and one of her granddaughters.

She had insisted there be no cards or gifts. “I have way too many things already,” she said. All she wanted was to have family and friends around her table, followed by a time of singing together. Yes, singing some of her favorite hymns, with no accompaniment and in simple four-part harmony. Some of the songs brought tears to her eyes, eliciting memories of how they have impacted her faith and shaped her gracious and impactful life.

Rachel and her husband Robert spent many years as missionaries in the hills and hollows of Kentucky, where they had learned to live contentedly and simply among their Appalachian neighbors. When they moved to Harrisonburg in the 70’s, they made a ministry of offering hospitality to international students at EMU, and after her Robert died and their two children were grown, Rachel usually had one or more of them live with her for an incredibly meager sum. She still has friends from around the world who stay in touch with her and love her like a mother.

A modest, pint-size woman who always managed to be both very frugal and very generous, she is, in my estimation, a true candidate for sainthood. In her quiet and unimposing way, she is all about what it means to be a child of God and a follower of Jesus. When you remind her of any her good deeds, she typically raises her hand toward heaven and says, "I just give God all the credit."

I wish I could be more like that.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Wealthy 1% and 5%

What's the first thing you do after buying a $43.5 million, 6,000-square-foot oceanfront estate on 6.5 acres in Sagaponack, Long Island, the country's most expensive zip code?

According to a June 2, 2010 post on the AOL homepage, if you're hedge fund billionaire David Tepper, you tear it down -- along with its guesthouse, swimming pool and tennis court -- to build an even bigger mega-mansion.

According to the Southampton Patch, Tepper bought the home in 2009 from ex-wife of former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, in the area's most expensive transaction of 2010. In April, he got a permit for the demolition, and two months later the site was completely cleared.

The new house is about twice the size of the original, with ocean views from every room, "a sunken tennis court, a three-car garage, a widow's walk, second-floor decks, including one with a Jacuzzi, and a covered porch," according to the minutes of a recent town board meeting at which the construction was reviewed.

From Wikkipedia, we learn that in 2009, Tepper's hedge-fund firm earned about $7 billion by buying distressed financial stocks (including acquiring Bank of America common stock at $3 per share) in February and March of that year, then profiting from recovery of those stocks. $4 billion of these profits added to Tepper's personal wealth, and in March 2010, the New York Times reported that Tepper's success made him the top-earning hedge fund manager in the world in 2009. In 2010 he was ranked by Forbes as the 258th richest person in the world, clearly in the top 1% of America's privileged.

Before we point our fingers at others, though, we middle-class Americans should realize that we are all in the top 5% of the world's wealthiest people.

So we all need to reflect on the story Jesus once told of a well-to-do farmer who had an exceptionally good harvest one year, then said to himself, “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink and be merry.’”

God labeled him a fool, one whose life was about to come to an abrupt end.

And as with all of us, he left it all behind. Every bit of it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Combining Caution and Compassion--A Pastoral Perspective on Sexuality

Should Christian congregations and institutions affirm and support gays and lesbians in intimate relationships?

This simple question, affecting the lives of real people among us we should all love and care about, is threatening to tear us apart.

But the issue isn’t simple. Rather than it dividing us into just two opposing camps, I note at least seven different positions people are taking, on the following continuum:

1.  Condemn and ostracize all lesbians and gays, keep them “in the closet”.

2.  Advocate acceptance of gays and lesbians but expect them to undergo a change of orientation (“healing”), with heterosexual marriage or a life of celibacy as their only options.

3. Openly welcome and accept all believers into membership without making sexual orientation a barrier, but support sexual relationships for only one man and one woman in marriage.

4.  Support the above approach as the church’s official position, but make pastoral exceptions for faithful same-sex relationships where no other option seems viable (similar to Paul’s “better to marry than to burn with passion” counsel, an approach many churches have applied to divorced persons seeking to remarry).

5.  Celebrate and affirm all monogamous and faithful relationship equally--heterosexual or homosexual.

6.  Encourage monogamous relationships, but make questions of exclusivity and fidelity matters of personal conscience.

7.  Leave all questions about sexual behaviors up to the individual.

Advocates of positions 4, 5 or 6 sometimes stereotype those who disagree with them (e.g., who take positions 2 or 3) as reactionary and without compassion, and judge churches who are unwilling to change as having legalistic church leaders concerned only with maintaining the status quo. But the fact is, the majority of lay members of most of our congregations are probably even more conservative on this issue than are their leaders. And most church assemblies, for better or for worse, are careful to follow democratic procedures in making church decisions.

Having said that, it may also be unfair for those who hold to the Genesis-old position of “one man and one woman for life” as reaffirmed by Jesus, to write off everyone else with differing opinions (for example, as in #4) as totally lacking in Biblical or moral values.

So along with the need for gaining some badly needed compassion, doesn't wisdom also call for a good dose of prudence and caution here? After all, churches are being asked to consider changing a position (#3) that has millenia of Christian tradition and the majority of Christian believers worldwide behind it, and that should never be done lightly.

My biggest concern, however, is not about the current homosexual debate, per se, but how the increased acceptance of positions 6 and 7 may affect the moral thinking and behavior of all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation. We might ask what happens to our ability to maintain some kind of community stability and accountability in the sexual arena when only the rights and wishes of individuals are considered? What happens when our sexual needs, regardless of gender orientation,  are seen as having somewhere near the same urgency as our need for oxygen, or when the idea of celibacy is dismissed as a near impossibility for anyone--of any age, life stage or sexual orientation?

I’m raising a broader and deeper question here, whether we are already on a slippery slope that may result in our losing our sense of shared community mores and values in this very important area of our lives. Are we being influenced by an individualistic mindset that has resulted in a social experiment in which everyone is pretty much on his or her own?

In the heterosexual arena, the results of that kind of thinking are sobering:

1. A growing number of kids, as young as elementary and middle school age, are engaging in oral sex (usually unprotected). Young girls wanting to gain popularity with guys are especially vulnerable.

2. According to an article in “O” magazine, less well supervised “morps” (“proms” spelled backwards), are becoming more popular among teens, with some of them featuring “freaking” (dances simulating sexual intercourse).

3. Bi-sexual sex is “in” among heterosexual teen and young adult women, according to popular magazines like Cosmopolitan, read by millions as the Bible of Cool.

4. A majority of teenage boys now admit to accessing internet porn on a regular basis, and many are becoming addicted to it at a time when both their brains and their personal values are still very much in formation. What kind of faithful fathers and lifelong lovers will they be?

5. Randomly “hooking up” at bars and weekend parties is increasingly accepted as a norm on university campuses, often seen as risking less commitment than actually asking someone out for dinner and a movie.

6. Cohabitation, a form of “premarital marriage,” is replacing dating and engagement as the normal step toward formal or legal “marriage,” in spite of cohabiters being at greater risk for divorce when they do marry.

7. Divorcing and remarrying, hooking up and breaking up, are becoming more and more common among adults, resulting in serial polygamy with numerous partners and untold and unforeseen long term consequences that are potentially destructive to adults and children alike. True, actual divorce rates are not increasing, but that is largely because marriage rates are declining.

So while the church is busy guarding the back door against allowing gays and lesbians (perhaps 3-5% of our members at most) to have sex with whomever and whenever their conscience allows, we’d all better be watching the front door and dealing with the hard question of where some of our own underlying assumptions about individualism and moral relativism are already taking us.

For me, this is not a simple matter of "us" versus "them," or of gay versus straight. We all have a stake in the well being of future generations, and we all need to talk--together.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Contemplative Action

Some time ago my good wife asked me to make a list of all of the extracurricular things I’ve gotten involved in in our community, one I admit turned out to be even longer than I thought.

Which caused me to think more seriously about creating a healthier balance in my life between work, community and church involvement and my personal, spiritual and family life. Have I become a workaholic, an all-too busy human doing instead of a healthy and balanced human being?

I’ve been benefiting from reading a book my daughter gave me on “The Active Life--A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring,” by Quaker author Parker J. Palmer. He suggests that instead of separating the contemplative and the action parts of our lives, or simply alternating between the two--with contemplation being primarily about becoming revived and renewed to go back to more action--that we do more of integrating the two, practicing contemplative action and active contemplation.

Palmer goes on to stress the value of work as an important and life giving part of who we are and how we contribute to our communities, rather than just being our way of earning a living. He also stresses the need to place high value on creativity, whether that be in gardening, raising and nurturing a family, or writing a poem or essay.

Another important element we want to integrate into our everyday lives, he says, is caring--visiting a sick or elderly neighbor, expressing love and support to a spouse or family member, or promoting projects that improve the well-being of the community and the world.

Can all of these be done in a way that reflects a healthy balance?

I hope so.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why I’m Still Loving Jesus

    Jesus hung with hookers, hung with hustlers, not with cops
    and he made wine from water, so the party wouldn’t stop,
    and Jesus, he loved everyone, just like his Mom and Dad
    ‘cause Jesus knew the difference between broken and plain bad...

    Jesus on the hillside had a message for the crowd
    he said, “blessed are the brokenhearted, but woe unto the proud,”
    and when they all got hungry, he took a couple loaves of bread
    and he passed himself around till everybody had been fed...

    Jesus in the temple yard trashed every loan shark’s booth,
    but Jesus said to Judas, “let those little children through,
    ‘cause Jesus hung with losers and with posers and with narcs,
    and he got what was coming to him somewhere in the dark…

                    - from Brad Yoder’s WWJD? 1998 all rights reserved 

In case anyone wonders why I remain passionate about following Jesus, here are just a few of my reasons:

1. Jesus never hated people or committed acts of violence against them. Rather, he taught his followers to practice prayer and good deeds toward enemies, not harm or kill them.

2. Jesus demonstrated a life of simplicity and generosity. He never advocated amassing wealth or becoming financially well to do. He not only stressed compassion for the poor, but chose to become one of them.

3. Jesus consistently preached and practiced care for the marginalized and disenfranchised. Even in a strictly patriarchal society he had women as close followers, and regularly enjoyed meals with people regarded as outcasts and misfits. He makes a hated and heretical Samaritan the hero in one of his best known parables, a story he uses as part of his answer to the question, “How does one gain eternal life?”

4. Jesus avoided dogmatic sermonizing and theologizing in favor of telling simple stories and teaching easy-to-understand (but hard to practice) truths like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “Do not hoard/store up treasures on earth,” and “Let your ‘yes’ be a simple ‘yes,’ and your ‘no,’ a ‘no.’

5. Jesus rejected expressions of worship that require elaborate temples, complex liturgies, and professional clergy. Private prayer is encouraged, and “two or three” are sufficient when it comes to communal prayer and worship.

6. Jesus demonstrates that God loves everyone, and that his “Father,” far from condemning the world, is heaven-bent on saving it.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means:
‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

                                                                                          - Matthew 9:9-13 (NIV)

Friday, October 21, 2011

All We Have is Love

 We just returned last night from being at our brother-in-law Vernon Zehr's memorial service at the Greenwood (Delaware) Mennonite Church, a bittersweet time of remembering, celebrating and mourning. It was one of the most moving funerals I have ever attended.

On the return trip, emotions still fresh and raw, I kept thinking about a piece our singer/songwriter son Brad wrote in 2005, and which is recorded on his latest album. He had just been with us for a weekend, and on his way home reflected on what he felt for members of his family, no matter how challenging relationships with loved ones can be:


           love is all I have for you,
           it will have to do,
           if you were looking for a miracle,

           the fact that we’re still here, 

           well that’s miraculous as anything
           that I have seen magicians pull,

           but I forgot the tricks I knew,

           love is all I have for you..

love is all I have for you,
love is all that’s left after the wind has blown the chaff away,
I laugh at what I tried to save,
and disappointment’s just a lens to magnify what might have been,
but none of that was ever true,
love is all I have for you,

I close my eyes, I’m a child by the water,
casting stones so circles spread,
then blink twice, and we’re old on a park bench,
watching birds eat scattered bread,
in between we lost track of time,
but she is kind enough to remind us..
the little space between goodbyes is really only pocket-sized,
I carry you around with me in case I need some sympathy,
this fear that we’re not good enough will disappear when morning comes,
‘cause none of that was ever true,
love is all I have for you..
miraculous as anything that I have seen magicians do,
but I forgot the tricks I knew,
love is all I have for you…
In the end, love is what endures. More than even faith or hope, love never dies. It's what we have left after everyone and everything else is gone.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Vernon Zehr 1934-2011

Our brother-in-law Vernon Zehr died Sunday at age 77 in Greenwood, Delaware. His obituary appears in today's Daily News-Record.

One of the many blessings of being married to Alma Jean has been inheriting 14 (yes, fourteen) wonderful in-laws, and Vernon, married to my wife’s next older sister Freda, was one of our favorites. They spent most of their adult lives in Wilmington, Delaware, where Vernon served in a dual role as a pastor and a special education teacher (and later principal).

As my wife commented to me this morning, there was so much of Jesus in this man. He loved everybody, reached out to the under served and ignored, saw every human being as special, wasn't afraid to question the religious establishment, and was as friendly, open minded and open hearted a man as one could find anywhere.

One of his nieces, Mary Ann Yutzy, daughter of another of my wife’s sisters, posted this on her blog Sunday in memory of her beloved uncle. I asked her permission to share this excerpt, which captures so well the kind of person he was:

I remember one time when Uncle Vernon and Aunt Freda come to visit us, and I was in the throes of young adolescence ('Addled Essence" would be more accurate, to be sure!).  My hair was a mess, and my dress was dirty.  I had been trying to clean up the kitchen, and I was talking to Uncle Vernon.  We stored the frying pan in the oven at our house (Still do in my house, to this day!)  But I had put a cake in to bake just a little before, and it was almost done.  I was talking animatedly to Uncle Vernon, who always engaged me in conversation, and without thinking, I grabbed the frying pan and put it into the oven without looking, right on top of that almost baked cake.  I felt an unfamiliar thud and then I looked in disbelief at the flattened and scrunched cake.

My Sweet Mama was not happy with me for ruining the cake.  We had plans to use it for a dessert the next day that is similar to Cherry Delight.  The only difference is that you use the baked cake as the bottom layer instead of a graham cracker crust.  It was all the rage back then, and I am pretty sure that Mama was expecting company for lunch the next day.  I don't know what she must have thought, but it WAS a result of not paying attention.  (Something I was, unfortunately, quite famous for.  Still am.)  Uncle Vernon and Aunt Freda were the current company, though and so she didn't scold me too hard.  But I felt awful, and I cried.  We tried hard to repair and salvage, but it was still rather sorry looking.

Later, I was back in the kitchen, and Uncle Vernon came up to me and said, "Mary Ann.  Come here."  He took me to where our living room and dining room met, where there was a large, full length mirror, and positioned me in front of it.  "Take a good look," he said.  I did.  Didn't particularly like what I saw, either.  "What do you see?" he asked.

It really wasn't much to look at.  My hair was stringy, falling down over my face.  I reached up and tried to tuck it behind my ear.  My dress, made of the shirtwaist pattern of the day, was an aqua gingham, rumpled and dirty.  I was dreadfully self conscious.  "Um, I don't know.  Me?"

"Now, Mary Ann," he instructed kindly, "I want you to straighten your shoulders.  Don't slump.  And I want you to smile.  You can smile."  He took my hands gently in his and crossed them over my tummy.  "Hold your hands just so.  Like that.  Now look at you.  I see a beautiful young lady," he said with energy, confidence and enthusiasm.  "Look at you!  You really are a wonderful young lady.  You are intelligent and you will go far."

I looked in the mirror.  I smiled at the girl in the mirror and she smiled back.  I felt a surge of confidence like I had never known before.  I didn't feel beautiful, but I felt capable.  I knew I wasn't gorgeous.  I certainly didn't have a reason to be vain, but I really did feel like I could meet the challenges of life, and that I had something to offer this old world, and it felt really, really good.

I have always blessed him for that day.  It was pivotal in my life.  It was many, many years before I understood how "Uncle Vernon" that was.  He lived and breathed encouragement.  He looked for something to praise, something to give hope, something to affirm. 

I pray that part of Vernon Zehr can live on in each of us.

May he rest in peace.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Small Child, Big Heart

Our oldest grandson, at the age of six, became big brother to a set of twins this June, a little boy (he had his heart set on a younger brother) and a baby girl. He has taken a great interest in them and has done a great job helping care for them where he can.

Recently, when they were about 3 1/2 months old, he came to his mother, our youngest, and said, in all seriousness, “Mommy, if we ever get so poor that any of us have to live in an orphanage, let me go. The twins are way too small to have to be away from their mommy and daddy, but I could take care of myself better.”

Needless to say, she was startled by his offer, and they are still wondering where he learned that poor people sometimes have to have their children raised in an orphanage, or why he feared his own family might become that impoverished. His dad, after all, is a neurologist and his mom, until recently, a college teacher. But all of us felt profoundly moved by his unselfish offer.

For me, one of the better evidences for the existence of a good God is that in spite of evil and suffering everywhere in creation, there is also in all of us the capacity to rise above that, and to behave in truly altruistic ways.

Where does that come from? Is there a gene for that? Can it be taught? Or caught?

I hope so. Certainly the world could use a more people with a lot more concern for the common good even when it may not seem to be in their short term self interest.

Out of the mouth of babes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ten Terrible Years of a War on Terror

The following is a condensation of material put together from a variety of sources by Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard, Peace Committee Co-chair of Virginia Mennonite Conference, posted here with his permission:

Friday, October 7, 2011, marked 10 years since the United States invaded Afghanistan in the name of the “War on Terror”—our response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks—the longest war in US history.

First, let me name a few sorrowful realities:

  • The human cost is vast, with seven Afghan civilians killed every day in 2010.
  • Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001, including women and children (Afghanistan is considered to be one of the worst places to be a child or a female).
  • 2,754 US and coalition troops have been killed since our invasion (, plus tens of thousands suffering from post-traumatic stress and other psychological disorders, with shocking numbers committing suicide.
  • One in three recent US military veterans believes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting (the disapproval is nearly fifty percent among wounded vets).
  • Americans have chosen  to respond in fear and xenophobia (especially of Muslims) instead of unity within our own country and neighborhoods.
  • The wars in Afghanistan & Iraq now cost more than $100 billion per year.
  • Over $1 trillion dollars have already been spent in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars together and will approach $4 trillion dollars when all costs are considered – such as interest on the debt incurred and the lifetime care of wounded veterans.
  • Almost no money went to addressing true human need and development or diplomacy approaches to human security in Afghanistan.
  • “[A]fter a decade, Afghanistan still remains the most uncivil, most corrupt, and most war torn country in the world. The consequences of the so-called war on terror has only been more bloodshed, crimes, barbarism, human rights, and women’s rights violations, which has doubled the miseries and sorrows of our people.” - Malalai Joya, former Afghan parliamentarian and female-rights activist
  • President Obama recently announced US military presence will continue in Afghanistan until 2014 (with talks of thousands of special troops and aircraft staying until 2024!), and Congress has agreed to follow his lead. Many analysts believe the American military is trying to retain a based-presence close to Pakistan, Iran and China.
So what are peaceful Jesus-followers to do after an anniversary like this where one in four (75%) of Americans no longer follow what’s happening in our wars (especially when we, too, are tired after 10 years and overwhelmed by the needs)?

(1) First, let us remember our primary calling to be Christian communities of God’s peace. Let us worship together with lamentation, confession and prayer. In the next Sundays, I encourage you to share from the sad realities above and offer prayers, confessions and song in your congregations:

Prayers  ( from Words for Worship 2, by Diane Zaerr Brenneman)
Disarm our hearts
God of mercy and grace:
We mourn the lives of those around the world
                who are daily affected by terrorism and violence
We acknowledge that violence is a web that traps us all.
We confess our own complicity
                when our government feeds terrorism and violence
                to protect our interests and lifestyles.
Forgive us our thoughts and acts
that dehumanize those we consider enemies
We look into our own hearts and confess our own desires
                for vengeance and retaliation against those who have harmed us
Forgives us our violence
                as we forgive those who commit violence against us.
Disarm our hearts as well as our hands
                through the transforming power of the Spirit of Jesus. Amen

Bless our enemies
God of all people and nations,
                we don’t know how to act when what we love is threatened
                when our beautiful, fragile, diverse world is endangered
by terrorism, by wars, by wars on terror
We want Justice! We want it now!
We wish you would forget mercy for awhile, God,
                until you help us get this mess cleaned up.
But then we realize that we too are complicit
in things that harm your hopes for us—
                and mercy suddenly looks better.
Help us realize that in your cosmic economy
there is no “other” at all, no “them,”
                there is only “us.”
Bless our enemies; 
                bless those who terrorize us and those terrorized in our name
in their genuine well-being we all find well-being.
In Jesus’ name may it be so. Amen

A sample worship service, sermon and children’s story ideas, and other seeds of inspiration are all available online at use MCC's resources

(2) Secondly, let us recommit to solidarity with those who suffer. We have much to learn from and about those in Afghanistan (not to mention our Muslim neighbors in our own towns). Start by getting to know the refugees, immigrants, or Islamic community in your neighborhood.
 "He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore."
  • Tune into PBS’s October series on Women, War & Peace: ( On five consecutive Tuesdays beginning October 11, PBS will air nationwide Women, War & Peace (WWP), a five-part investigation of the effects of war on women and the power of women to broker peace in areas in conflict. The series, produced by Abigail E. Disney, Pamela Hogan, and Gini Reticker, comprises five films about the experience of women in the war-torn countries of Afghanistan, Bosnia, Colombia, and Liberia, as well as an overview contextualizing the series as a whole. The award-winning film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, focusing on the extraordinary story of women activists in Liberia who brought an end to that nation's bloody civil war and the despotic presidency of Charles Taylor, will receive its U.S. broadcast premiere as the episode of Women, War & Peace devoted to Liberia.
(3) Continue to call on democratically elected representatives to craft a national budget prioritizing international and domestic human need over military business (see the attached 2012 budget pie chart)
  •  Call in to the Subercommittee on the budget: “The Friends Committee on National Legislation has set up a toll-free number for us to call Congress: 1-877-429-0678. A Congressional ‘Supercommittee’ is charged with coming up with $1.5 trillion in reduced debt over ten years, and the wars and the bloated Pentagon budget dangle before the Supercommittee like overripe fruit.”
  • Use some suggested legislative responses from American Friends Service Committee AFSC (
Just as peace is more than the absence of war, national security is more than planes and bombs; it includes jobs, schools, housing, and healthcare.
American Friends Service Committee is calling for:
·         Deep cuts in the Pentagon budget
·         Raising revenues through taxes on the wealthy and corporations
·         Continuing protection for programs that aid the most vulnerable
·         Short-run investments to stimulate job creation
Use this toolkit to help support our call and help keep these resources in your community.
This is an quick, incomplete list of responses, so I encourage you to pass along ideas for lamenting and seeking an end to the suffering in Afghanistan and the US.

Peace be with you,
Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard
Peace Committee co-chair
in Virginia Mennonite Conference

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War Resisters 2012 money pie chart.pdfWar Resisters 2012 money pie chart.pdf
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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ain't Got Time to Fix The... Shingles?

For a bit of a health update (am I getting old or what?) here's part of the weekly e-blessing I sent to my adult children today:

The older I get, the more I'm grateful for how blessed I've been. Life that has been good way beyond deserving, with my wonderfully loving family and church family, good health, meaningful work and wonderful opportunities to grow and serve.

All this became even more vivid in my mind when I noticed some strange, ugly looking sores on my chest and my back last Tuesday. I had been experiencing some itchiness in those areas for about a week but had never seen anything like this. I first thought I might be experiencing a recurrence of my one and only diagnosis of "cancer" twenty-plus years ago, involving a small spot on my thigh that turned out to be an easily removed case of basal cell carcinoma. But this looked far worse, and I was thinking something far more serious, like melanoma (!). Strangely enough, I found myself not only feeling the dread of a big "What if...", but a sense of peace in having enjoyed a long and truly satisfying life and feeling quite ready to go if that were my lot.

My good skin specialist, Dr. Carolyn Miller, whom I got to see Thursday, took one good look and immediately said, "Oh, you've got a case of shingles." Much as I hated to hear that (having heard all kinds of horror stories about the condition) I felt a great sense of relief as well. I hadn't expected this diagnosis, since I had gotten a shingles shot over two years before, but was told that would at least help me experience fewer and less prolonged symptoms, and was prescribed a medication that seems to be helping.

I guess it's all a part of growing older. It's life. There is spring and there is autumn, the season I'm in now.

Here's a quote by Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer I've come to appreciate. It's from his book, "Courage To Lead":

"This hopeful notion that living is hidden within dying is surely enhanced by the visual glories of autumn. What artist would ever have painted a season of dying with such a vivid palette if nature had not done it first? Does death possess a beauty that we - who fear death, who find it ugly and obscene-cannot see? How shall we understand autumn's testimony that death and elegance go hand in hand?

For me, the words that come closest to answering those questions are the words of Thomas Merton: There is in all visible things ... a hidden wholeness. In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of the hidden wholeness."  

Love and blessings,