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Friday, February 25, 2011

More Local Divorces Than Meet The Eye



 Each January I contact the clerk of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Curcuit Court for the city and county divorce and marriage statistics for the prior year. As a pastor and a marital and family therapist, I am always interested in the direction these numbers are going.

On the face of it, the divorce trends may seem slightly encouraging, in that, like the rest of the country, the numbers have been mostly flat for the past number of years, and actually show a modest decline. But the marriage numbers are also dropping, in spite of a significant increase in our population over the past 15 years, as seen in the above graph.

A decrease in the number of marriage licenses issued, of course, doesn't mean that fewer people are in some kind of wedded relationship. If we were to define the essence of marriage as “leaving father and mother” (forming a separate partnership and household), “cleaving to each other” (becoming an exclusive couple) and “becoming one flesh” (forming an intimate sexual bond), we may find there are more people than ever who are "married." There are always those who engage in purely promiscuous, one night stands, of course, but there are many more couples who are simply in undocumented relationships we once referred to as “common law” marriages. We just don’t have a record of how many.

And when these unregistered couples break up, do they avoid all of the pain and heartache (and legal and other complications) we associate with the nearly 400 registered divorces that took place in our area last year?

I don’t think so. Ending an emotionally intimate “marriage” inevitably results in going through an emotionally painful “divorce.” So just cohabiting without the formality of a license or a ceremony doesn’t insulate people from the gutwrenching grief and betrayal they go through when they tear apart.

My uneducated guess is that we may have at least 25 percent more undocumented “marriages” happening each year than are indicated in the numbers above, and an equally large increase in the number of unregistered breakups.

So how is our community impacted by an estimated total of, say, 500 divorces, each of which, according to novelist Patrick Conroy, involves the “death of a small civilization”?

If there is an average of even only one child per divorce, that means we have 500 children in our community each year whose lives will never be the same. The impact of their parents breaking up is, for many, equal to the death of a loved one in the family. With lots of nurture and support, many children of divorce recover reasonably well from such a loss and go on to have a good life, but who would want to wish such a "death" on a child, or to be the cause of one?

And what about the 1000 divorcees involved in these numbers who, along with their parents, their siblings and their friends, also suffer the painful “loss of a loved one.” Physical deaths are usually due to an unavoidable tragedy (except for suicides), and those left behind savor the bittersweet memories of all of the good times they once enjoyed together. But divorce is more often experienced as a form of “wed-icide,” a preventable tragedy associated with raw feelings of anger, bitterness and betrayal.

In any case, closure is difficult. There are no funeral or memorial services, no burial rituals. Few friends or family members bring casseroles, send flowers or offer cards of condolence. The grief is palpable, and is much the same for documented and unregistered marriages alike.

If we had 500 school dropouts in our community each year for every 1000 students enrolled, we’d be forming blue ribbon panels to do something to help prevent this trend. Admittedly, in cases where partners are guilty of unrelenting abuse, addiction or adultery, a separation or divorce can be justified. And ironically, children may actually recover more easily in those cases than when their parents are equally loved and seen as good people who simply can't learn to get along (as they always insist on their children doing!).

The Harrisonburg/Rockingham Community Marriage Policy has been officially adopted by over 50 congregations in our area, and is one example of people trying to help prevent divorce and strengthen marriage, following the lead of over 250 other communities across the US with similar agreements:

Local clergy and congregations who support the CMP agree to the following:

a) for couples to be married:

 • To encourage a courtship of at least one year before marriage.

 • To guide engaged couples through an intensive marital preparation process involving individual or group educational sessions dealing with religious, financial, relational and intimacy issues and utilizing some form of premarital inventory. 

b) for all congregational members:

 • To promote premarital chastity and faithful marital relationships.

 • To encourage enrichment opportunities to strengthen existing marriages and provide intervention and support for marriages in distress.

 • To train mature married couples to serve as mentors to engaged couples, to newlyweds, and to those experiencing marital difficulties.

 • To cooperate with other congregations and agencies to share resources and to create a positive climate in which all marriages are helped to succeed.

Let's all see what we can do to strengthen marriages and spare adults and children alike the stresses associated with their demise.

Note: For a pastoral response to couples in undocumented marriages, you may want to check out the following: http://harvyoder.blogspot.com/2010/11/undocumented-marriages.html

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Mennonites in the Valley" XIV

Every spring I look forward to leading another JMU sponsored Lifelong Learning class called "Mennonites in the Valley," an up close and personal look at one of the area's more diverse religious groups. This one, scheduled for the Spring B session starting March 14, will be my fourteenth.

In case you're interested, here's this year's course outline, with some details still subject to change:

I.  Some Course Goals
    A.  To become better acquainted with members of a diverse religious group in our area.
    B.  To understand some of the similarities and differences among Mennonite subgroups.
    C.  To un-learn some common myths and stereotypes about Mennonites.
    D.  To increase participants’ appreciation of their own faith history and traditions.

II.  Course Outline  (classes meet from 9-11 am, except  9-11:45 on 3/28 and 9-12:45 on 4/4)

    A.  3/14 Introduction/Overview (Park View Mennonite Church Fellowship Hall, top floor)
        1.  Survey of Valley Mennonite roots and branches
        2.  Introductory slide show on Valley Mennonites

    B.  3/21 Virginia Conference Mennonites (at Eastern Mennonite High School, rear entrance)
        1. Meet in Choral room (Rm. 115, east end of new addition) at 9
        2.  EMHS Chamber Choir with Jay Hartzler 9:15-9:45 (Choral room)
        3. WVPT documentary on area Mennonites: “Silent Grace” 9:50-10:30
        4.  Menno Simons Historical Library with Lois Bowman (3rd floor, EMU Library)

    C.  3/28 Old Order Conference Mennonites (gather at Weavers Mennonite Church, west 33)
        1. Brief orientation at historic Weavers Mennonite
        2. Car pool to Mountain View Old Order School and/or the Burkholder Buggy Shop
            (up to eight persons may visit school during classses)
        3.  Pleasant View Old Order Church,11-11:30 am, meet with minister Lewis Martin

    D. 4/4  Southeastern Conference Mennonites (meet at the Bank Mennonite Church)
        1.  Historic Bank Church Cemetery
        2.  “Susanna Heatwole Brunk Ballad,” sung by great-granddaughter Ruth Stoltzfus Jost
        3.  Interview with Southeastern Conference minister Eldwin Campbell
        4.  Discussion of Augusta County’s Beachy Amish community (om which I grew up)
        5.  Home cooked noon meal (optional, at $20) with Old Order Mennonite Janet Shank

    E.  4/11  Crossroads Valley Brethren-Mennonite Heritage Center, 711 Garbers Church Rd. ($4?)
        1.  Report of church visits and other enrichment activities, writing thank you notes
        2.  Question/answer period, review and final “exam”

III.  Suggested Enrichment Activities

    A.  Attend a Mennonite worship service or tune in to Park View’s service at WEMC 91.7 FM.

    B.  Visit Southeastern Mennonite Conference’s Berea Christian School (432-0007).        

    C.  Tour Christian Light Publication and book store (Mt. Clinton Pike and Chicago Avenue).

    D. Visit other Mennonite-related enterprises at Shenandoah Heritage Farmers Market, Dayton         Farmers Market, Gift and Thrift Shop, Dry River Hay Auction (2nd, 4th and 5th Wed mornings         on Rushville Rd), Rocky Cedar Enterprises (2156 Country Store Lane), Shenandoah Valley         Produce Auction (Tue & Fri at 2839 Lumber Mill Rd), Riverside Plants (6377 W. Dry River Rd),     Onyx Hill Fruit & Plants (6918 Onyx Hill Rd), or Mistimorne Plants (723 Pike Church Rd).

    E.  Check out Mennonite Church USA website <www.thirdway.com>.

    F.  Visit EMU’s Menno Simons Historical Library and/or Campus Book Store.

    G.  Attend Harmonia Sacra Easter Hymn Sing at Harrisonburg Mennonite at 7 pm April 3.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Mandate to Pharaohs: “Let my people go”

February 11, 2011 will go down in history as the day ordinary Egyptian citizens successfully ousted a modern day Pharaoh, in a nonviolent revolution sparked by the recent successful uprising in Tunisia. It’s hard not to see this as a miraculous feat, given the kind of oppressive and dictatorial rule Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak successfully maintained in that country for over 30 years.

Which reminds me of the truly miraculous deliverance recorded in the Bible’s book of Exodus, one that took place in that same country over 3000 years before. The God of the universe, having heard the cries of the thousands of Hebrew slaves who labored there under brutal and harsh conditions, unleashed a series of disasters that finally led the Pharaoh to heed the words of God’s chosen liberator, Moses, “Let my people go!”

Since the beginning of time, the world’s Pharaohs, intent on maintaining power and adding to their lavish empires, have not given up their positions easily. But in the face of multitudes who manage to totally lose their fear and live only by their faith and hope, they can be rendered powerless. No amount of military might can stop them. God can either change the hearts of military leaders, as in the case of the 2/11 revolution, or can cause their chariots to mire down hopelessly as they pursue their subjects, as in the case of the 1290 BCE revolution.

What can we learn from this? Can we ask what might have happened to Iraq’s “Pharaoh” had we prayerfully partnered with the God of justice to bring him down, rather than through the violent means that have resulted in untold suffering and the loss of thousands of innocent lives? And dare we hope that the 2/11 event that happened recently in Egypt could set a precedent for similar liberations of a more peaceful kind?

I for one am not ready to underestimate the divine power of God-inspired justice that is in the DNA of every person on earth. Nor can I remain skeptical about what the intervention of God’s compassion can accomplish for today’s powerless and oppressed crying out for relief.

Biblical “salvation” is clearly about more than just being delivered from this present world and transported to another. Scripture is full of examples of God’s people being saved from disasters, from want, from injustices and oppression, and from their enemies, including their powerful Pharaohs and Caesars.

And all of that without the use of violence to combat violence, a strategy that ignores the life and example of Jesus and only compounds the problem it is meant to address.

Here are some related articles I found interesting:

"Egypt's Christians After Mubarak" by Cornelius Hulsman

"The Fallacy of the Clash of Civilizations" by Charles Kimball

And here's the text of a recent lecture on the Middle East by a friend of mine, Daryl Byler, serving with Mennonite Central committee in Lebanon:
Microsoft Word - Kennel-Charles Lecture.10January2011[1].pdfMicrosoft Word - Kennel-Charles Lecture.10January2011[1].pdf
68K   View   Download  

Monday, February 14, 2011

Red Roses for Dawn

One of our nephews, Dr. Jonathan Yoder, decided on impulse one day to have a half dozen red roses delivered to his wife Dawn’s door. It was January 26, 2009, and he wanted to express his love for her on the thirtieth anniversary of their engagement.

In his haste to get in his order in on one of his busy days at his Atmore, Alabama, practice, he mistakenly ordered six dozen roses instead, which meant 72 of these fragrant beauties were delivered to his awestruck wife instead of six. Dawn was way beyond simply surprised, of course, and Jon, though chagrined at what he had to pay for his extravagance, figured his beloved wife was worth every bit of that and more, so the two of them enjoyed a huge laugh over his mistake.

Neither of them could have imagined that on July 6, just over five months later, 50-year-old Dawn would be fatally struck by lightning just outside their home while taking out some household trash. When a friend from her church found her lying on the ground unconscious, she was rushed to a nearby hospital emergency room, then transferred to a medical center in Mobile where she lay in a coma and on life support for two agonizing days of waiting before being pronounced dead.

In an e-mail circulated among members of the extended family, Jon described his experience during that time,.. “My heart cries out... as I see my wife, and our children's mother lying helplessly, and I ask why?  But two things I know is that God is strong, and that he is loving.  Dawn remains essentially in a coma this morning with only the faintest response to pain, and minimal fluttering of the eyelids.  It is hard to see her like that, but we are praying for faith for a miracle...  There remains a huge knot in my abdomen where my stomach used to be, and the future looks uncertain...but one thing we know is who is in control....Continue to pray.... Your outpourings of love and support for us mean a lot more than you will ever know;  God is faithful...”

Dawn died on July 8, 2009, terribly missed as the wonderful mother of four young adult children, two sons and two daughters, and as the wife of Jonathan, with whom she lived and loved for 29 blessed years. She was a selfless and giving person who served her family, church family and community in countless ways, and who left a multitude of friends and family members in a prolonged state of grief and disbelief.

There is more to the story. Several years before Dawn had given her oldest daughter a rose bush to plant for her birthday, one of the unusually fragrant and rich red “Mr. Lincoln” variety. For years it bloomed faithfully every spring, but during the months following Dawn’s tragic death, it appeared to have died, resulting in Jonathan's deciding to simply mow over the remaining brown stems with his lawnmower.

To his surprise, however, a green shoot reappeared this past spring, bravely rising up from the mowed down plant. And as Jonathan lovingly watered and nourished the revived bush in memory of his one and only Dawn, it began to green and thrive.

Later last summer, on the July 17  morning of their oldest son Robert's wedding, Jon witnessed the resurrected plant’s first bloom of the season, an exceptionally beautiful dark red rose that reminded him powerfully of his precious Dawn.

It was as if she were saying, "I am still with you. Nothing we had together will ever be completely lost. Everything will bloom again forever. "

So we remember Dawn, surrounded by countless rich red roses.

To my one and only!

We aren't prone to lavish celebrations, but Alma Jean and I enjoyed a delicious pre-Valentine dinner together Saturday evening at the quiet little Calabria Italian restaurant nearby, after which I felt moved to write the following in a card I'd gotten for her:

Dearest Alma Jean,

It's hard to believe that on Valentine's Day 47 years ago we sent out the cards we had printed to officially announce our engagement, with the words:


two hearts
warmed by breath of God's own love
have met to melt into one

I don't know if we've accomplished the "melting into one" part (if that's even possible or desirable), but I believe we've managed to do something even better. Together we've created and maintained a partnership that has resulted in tons of precious memories, wonderful intimate moments, a stable and lasting marriage of over 46 years, three precious children, a great son- and great daughter-in-law, and soon to be six truly incredible grandchildren.

I chose this card because it said, in a few short words, exactly, exactly how I feel:


I love and adore you
   to no end--
My wonderful wife,
   my very best friend.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Virginia is for lovers... of immigrants?

I want to believe that our commonwealth and our fair city of Harisonburg are still friendly and welcoming places. But to immigrants, I'm afraid, not so much.

At last night’s Virginia Organizers meeting on immigration legislation, Walter Tejada, a member of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors, reminded us that in difficult economic times, recent immigrants, documented and otherwise, often become the focus of undue suspicion and hostility.

It’s one thing to support and enforce existing immigration laws, of which we already have more than sufficient. But it’s another to create a plethora of new ones that could make Virginia the most restrictive and punitive state in the Union in the way it deals with newly arrived workers and their families.

The effects of such bills as HB 1421, HB 1430 and HB 1934 would be to strain already limited law enforcement resources and to further discourage members of immigrant communities from reporting crimes and cooperating with law enforcement. Education bills like HB 1465, HB 1775 and HB 2332 would do things like deny some members of our community access to higher education and add to the burden of educational institutions having to investigate the legal status of all immigrants.

In the Biblical spirit of “welcoming the alien and stranger” I hope we can find a way to reform our laws to accommodate a reasonable number of workers that our economy has come to depend on (along the lines earlier considered by George W. Bush and John McCain) and for all of us to “do justice, show mercy and walk humbly” toward God and our immigrant neighbors.

This would be a good time to contact Senator Mark Obenshain (804-698-7526), a decent man and unapologetically pro-life and pro-family, to express your concerns.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Christians should welcome their Muslims neighbors

In spite of the words of welcome inscribed on our Statue of Liberty, we Americans have a sad history of showing inhospitality toward new people emigrating to our country. Irish and Italian Catholics, Chinese and other oriental groups, Hispanic immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and more recently, Muslims from the Middle East, have all experienced our suspicion and hostility.

     The following are good reasons I believe all of us, especially professed Christians, should reach out to befriend our new Muslim neighbors:

1. In spite of our differences, we can learn from the faith and devotion of people who regularly pray five times a day, fast daily during an entire month each year, and are taught to give generously to those in need.

2. The only way Muslims, or anyone else, will ever be drawn to our faith is if we offer them a warm hand of hospitality and welcome.

3. Muslims, like the Samaritans of Jesus’ day, share some of the same sacred history and scripture as Christians and Jews, and claim allegiance to the same Creator God.

4. Jesus goes out of his way to respectfully converse with “outsiders” such as the much maligned Samaritans of his time (John 4). At least twice he compliments them for their actions, as in the case of the leper who came back to Jesus to thank him for his healing (Luke 17:15-16), and the real “neighbor” who was the hero in the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10).

5. The Bible repeatedly urges us to reach out to the stranger and alien (Exodus 18:3, Deuteronomy 10:19), remembering that we were all once foreigners and aliens in need of such welcome.

6. The more we make friends of suspected Muslims extremists, and the more we form alliances with the vast majority of Muslims who do not support violence, the safer our world will be for ourselves and for future generations.

     My friend Steve Wingfield recently shared a conversation he had with his cab driver in Richmond. After learning the man was a recent Muslim immigrant, Steve said, “Welcome to our country. we’re glad you’re here.”

     His driver replied, “Wow, thank you. I’ve been in this country for six years, and you’re the first American who’s ever said that.”

     Is that a shame or what?