Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Truly Royal Wedding

The Right Honourable bishop of London, the Rev. Richard Chartres, in his wedding homily for Prince William and Kate Middleton, stated, "In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding, with the bride and the groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future."

My wife and I will never forget a wedding we attended some time ago that was as impressive to us as  the lavish event millions all over the world witnessed yesterday in Westminster Abby.

The bride, a family friend, and her new groom personally welcomed each of the guests as they arrived at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary chapel. He wore a simple white shirt and ordinary dress pants, she a matching white blouse and a dark skirt. There was no formal processional, no elaborately decorated auditorium, not even the traditional bridesmaids and groomsmen. All of us were to be the wedding party and to join together in the festive atmosphere the couple and their families created for this once-in-a-lifetime celebration.

As we sat down, we noted a cloth covered table in the front of the chapel with a variety of white candles, a visual feast of light and warmth for the ceremony. Next to it was a live tree from a local nursery to be planted after the reception as a symbol of the couple’s new life together. Music was plentiful and wonderful, and included some congregational hymns everyone joined in singing as members of one grand choir. Several brief meditations were personally addressed to the young pair seated in the front row, and as they stood to pledge their vows to each other for life--and as various friends and family members spoke their personal blessings--many of us were moved to tears.

At the reception there was plenty of hot cider and two kinds of hot soup for all the guests, along with a generous slice of zucchini cake, all of which had been prepared by various friends of the bride and groom for the occasion. After the meal, a time of reminiscing and story telling helped us get better acquainted with the couple and to learn more about their after-honeymoon plans, she to take a volunteer service assignment in a church-run program for at-risk families and he to enter graduate school.

I don’t know how much this wedding cost, but with no pearl-studded gowns or rented tuxedos, no expensive caterers or lavish floral arrangements, no stretch limousines or impressive candelabras, I’m sure it was considerably less than the national average of over $16,000 for such productions. Yet there was something about the service that seemed just right. It was less a staged performance than a time of community togetherness, one in which we felt a connection with the couple as real people and with the God who seemed to smile a warm blessing on the whole affair.

It made me wonder whether we shouldn’t encourage investing more of our resources in helping young people prepare for their marriage, and less in exhaustive preparations for a display of wealth out of keeping with the rest of their lifestyle. 

This service represented a different kind of richness, a celebration many of us considered one of the most beautiful ever. An example of a different kind of royal wedding.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Church--Simple, Hospitable and Affordable

When I tell people that Alma Jean and I have been part of a house church congregation for the past 22 years, I often get a puzzled look. They can see cell groups meeting in people's living rooms, but how can you be a real church and not meet in a specially dedicated building for Sunday services that are led by professional clergy?

For the first centuries after Pentecost, nearly all Christians met in homes for worship and for their weekly Eucharist meals. Most of the New Testament letters are addressed to such home-based congregations scattered all over the Roman empire. With no pipe organs, pulpits, pews, or paid clergy, believers regularly gathered in the living rooms or courtyards of their members to share “a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation... for the building up of the church." *

Since “Sundays” back then were not holidays, Christians often met early in the morning or at the end of the work day for teaching, fellowship and the “breaking of bread.” An example of one such service in the Acts of the Apostles describes a group of believers meeting by lamplight in an upstairs room--on "the evening of the first day of the week.” **

By the second century AD some congregations had renovated houses or “basilicas” as special places to meet, and by the time the fourth century Emperor Constantine officially endorsed Christianity modest houses of worship had become common in some urban areas. Then Constantine himself launched a gigantic building campaign that resulted in elaborate and expensive edifices for Christian worship appearing all over the empire, an effort that earned him widespread acclaim.

The rest, as they say, is history.

I don’t oppose the idea of church buildings as such, nor do I believe that homes are the only proper settings for worship. But since there is an actual surplus of empty pews in our community, I’d at least like to see a moratorium on investing ever more money in church real estate in favor of other creative options for worship spaces, such as churches sharing facilities (meeting at different times of the day) and/or utilizing other existing meeting places in the community. Or to have more believers meet in each others homes.

And then to invest some of the millions of dollars saved in projects like building Habitat for Humanity homes for the poor or helping feed the hungry.

That might send a message even an agnostic could understand.

                                                          * I Corinthians 14:26      ** Acts 20:7-17

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Burst of Easter Light

photos by Margie Vlasits
For many years now members of our house church congregation and other guests met at the entrance of Massanutten Caverns for an 8 am Easter Sunrise service. Our excuse for not meeting earlier is that at that particular spot (at the base of Massanutten Peak) is that the sun usually can't be seen until about that time.

The cave entrance has been securely sealed and locked tight for decades now, and while we have never encountered any Roman guards on duty, there is a no-nonsense sign that reads, “This Cave is Protected by Virginia Law.” In other words, Stay away. Do not disturb.

If we were able to enter this cave go deep inside and under this mountain, we would experience something very rare for most of us, an absolute, total pitch darkness. So dark that we could not see a hand in front of our face. So dark that if we were to stay in that condition long enough, we would lose our ability to see normally, would be blinded by the dark.

We can also be blinded by light. In the resurrection story in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, there is a description of a blaze of light that is like lightning, a megawatt burst of light powerful enough to strike us blind. Christians believe that something just that powerful happened on that morning, as life burst forth from tomb, as God struck a lightning blow against the powers of darkness and death.

I understand there is an entire branch of science devoted to the study of properties of light. I’m not well versed in optic physics, but I know light waves can be precisely measured as to amplitude, frequency and velocity. We are awed by the power and sheer speed of light, fast enough to circle the globe ten times in a mere second.

But there is nothing in the science of physics about the properties of darkness. It has no properties, but simply represents the absence of light, just as death is the absence of life.

Christians recognize the same God at work here in resurrection as in creation. In the opening chapter of the Bible the earth is described as being without form and void, as utterly empty and lifeless, with pitch darkness covering everything. Imagine everywhere being as desolate and dark as the interior of a cave, without light and void of life. Then imagine hearing God’s first recorded words in Scripture, “Let there be light!”

In the Easter story we hear another thunderous voice, this time saying, “Let there be life,” followed by an awesome burst of pure life and accompanied by a messenger from God whose "appearance is like lightning."

Many of us know darkness. We know what it's like to go through a dark night of the soul, when we feel cut off from all light and stripped of all hope.  Sometimes the darkness is of our own doing, as when we choose it because we’re blinded by light and prefer to hide from it. Sometimes we experience a darkness that oppresses us from outside ourselves, as in some terrible loss or a debilitating depression, as when with Isaiah we “wait for light, but experience bleakness, and for brightness, but grope in darkness.”

Easter is telling us that we can now all rise and shine, for "our light has come," and “the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.” It is saying that because of the power of divine light--at creation, on resurrection day, and in the age to come--our life needs never be the same. That we have come to see a kind of glory and light that is so a-blazing and so amazing that in the age to come we will have no need of the sun, because God will forever be the light. And "he shall reign forever and ever."


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Two Levels of Poverty

When Jesus spoke of “the poor always being with you,” he was likely describing people who were reduced to begging for their survival. By that standard, few of us can claim to be poor as in actually destitute. But more and more Americans are becoming financially stressed to the point of being unable to make ends meet, resulting in increasing numbers of people foreclosing on mortgages, having to default on credit card and other debts, and/or filing for bankruptcy.

How do these two kinds of “poor” compare?

Third World Style Poverty              The Financially Stressed Poor

 - Few possessions, only bare             - Often have too much stuff,   
    necessities                                               storage can be a problem

 - Cars, cable TV, cell phones, etc.,    - Cars, computers, cell phones, TV,
    often out of the question                    etc., are seen as necessities

 - Medical and dental care are often   - Health care generally available
     unavailable                                           but not always affordable

 - In debt mostly for food and            - Often in debt for general
    necessities                                             consumer purchases

 - Frequently without food needed    - Weight control a frequent problem
    for good health and body weight      due to overuse of convenience and
                                                                     fast foods

 - Per capita income may be under     - US poverty line is $10,000 a year
    $1000 per year                                   for an individual, $20,000 for a family
                                                                   of four

     While most financially stressed Americans have much to be grateful for, and have more assets than they realize, harder economic times may mean we could all join the ranks of the truly destitute in the not so distant future. We need to think creatively and generously about how to best help each other, and others, in a way that offers a hand up and not simply a handout.

P. S. Check with your local church and other agencies about ways of alleviating poverty in your community. And here are some agencies through whom you can provide urgently needed help for people in drought-stricken and war ravaged parts of the rest of the world.

You might also check out my posts on "Welfare Waste Versus Warfare Waste,"
and "What You Can Do For Your Country."

Click here for another informative take on this topic.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rand, Ryan and the Rich Young Ruler

I just got off the phone with our oldest son, the singer/songwriter who lives in Pittsburgh. He and I got into one of our father-son discussions on some of the differences between Jesus' message on economics and that embedded in most of the current national budget debates. We both noted the fact that, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's website, politicians like Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, who wrote the Republican Party's budget proposal, are avid admirers of the late philosopher Ayn Rand. Ryan says she is "the reason he entered politics" and has asked his staff to read her amoral (and unashamedly godless) 1200-page novel, Atlas Shrugged. Many members of the Tea Party are also great fans of her writing.

I then emailed Brad a copy of a letter to the Daily News-Record I had submitted to the paper eleven days ago (and which as of yet had not been published):

Editor, DNR:

I commend you for doing an editorial critique on the renewed attention being given to the writings of Ayn Rand. 

Gary Moore, in an article in the September, 2010, issue of Christianity Today, quotes economist Milton Friedman, one of Rand's disciples, as supporting her kind of amoral philosophy that the "only social responsibility of a business is to make money." 

Moore also cites the following from the book "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right," by Jennifer Burns,  "Whereas traditional conservatism emphasized duties, responsibilities, and social interconnectedness, at the core of the right wing ideology Rand spearheaded was a rejection of moral obligations to others."  

Not surprisingly, according to Moore, by the time she died she had "alienated most of her friends and was deeply depressed."

Harvey Yoder

[4/18/11 P. S. In response to a call to the DNR, they said the above letter had mistakenly remained in their "unconfirmed" category and that they will print it this week, in a slightly revised version, at my request.]

Brad then emailed me the following lyrics of a song he'd written earlier this month:


a rich young man came to ask a question,
he didn’t get the answer he was expecting,
  so he went away sad, yeah, he went away sad..
he thought he knew what the law required,
but love was the law and a burning fire,
  he went away sad, yeah, he went away sad..
    you and me, we’re hanging on by a thread,
    there’s nothing that we can’t forget,
    we’re just trying to fill the hole,
    you and me, we’re waiting for our bird to sing,
    still acting like we pull the strings,
    as if we were in control..

I sought love, ‘cause I thought I’d earned it,
the one that I loved did not return it,
  so I went away sad, yeah, I went away sad..
love sought me, I was quick to dodge it,
the last thing I needed was another project,
  she went away sad, yeah, she went away sad..
    you and me, we’re waiting for our bird to sing,
    still acting like we pull the strings,
    as if we were in control..
    you and me, we’re hanging on by a thread,
    there’s nothing that we can’t forget,
    just trying to fill the hole..
      we take the bait so easily,
      the soft escape, the shiny scheme,
      as I live and as I breathe
      I need you to unsettle me..

I asked God for a rhyme or reason,
I fell to my knees and I tried to please him,
  but I went away sad, yeah, I went away sad..
I heard a quiet voice on a crowded corner,
but we all hurried past, trying to ignore her,
  we went away sad, I think we went away sad..
    you and me, there’s nothing that we can’t forget,
    we’re hanging on by a thread, just trying to fill the hole,
    you and me, we’re acting like we pull the strings,
    still waiting for our bird to sing,
     as if we were in control...
                                                                                                    -all rights reserved 

P. S. 2 Daryl Fries posted the following on dnronline April 20, 2011:

During her lifetime, Rand advocated “the virtue of selfishness,” declared altruism to be “evil,” opposed Medicare and all forms of government support for the middle-class and the poor, and condemned Christianity for advocating love and compassion for the less fortunate:    Rand also dismissed the feminist movement as a “false” and “phony” issue, said a female commander in chief would be “unspeakable,” characterized Arabs as “almost totally primitive savages,” and called government efforts to aid the handicapped and educate “subnormal children” an attempt to “bring everybody to the level of the handicapped.”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Gone With the Twins

We leave today to be with our six-year-old grandson and our daughter in Rochester, NY, who is expecting twins (a boy and a girl!) in June and whose husband is away presenting at a medical conference.

Here's an event I really hate to miss, due to our trip, but I want to urge all of you locals to attend. It will be a premiere performance of the brass band version of this new piece in the US, and a recent immigrant from the area will do the Muslim call to prayer that's included in it. Please help spread the word.

Shenandoah Valley Choral Society April 15 and 17

The Shenandoah Valley Choral Society will present  Karl Jenkins' "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace" with the Massenutten Brass Band at Bridgewater Church of the Brethren, Friday, April 15 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, April 17 at 3:00 pm. For more information or to buy tickets go to their web site at
Tickets are also available at Staunton at Blue Mountain Coffee. Bridgewater at Ruth's Books and Cards. and Harrisonburg at Family Christian Bookstore, Red Front Supermarket, and White Birch Communities, or from any Choral Society singer (and at the door).
Contact Linda Dove at <> if you would like more info.

P. S. Here's another cause I'd love to have you support:

Gemeinschaft Home Annual "Friend Raiser" Dinner
As a board member and long time supporter of Gemeinschaft Home, I invite all of you locals to attend our Annual Appreciation "Friend Raiser" Dinner on Friday, April 29th, 6:00pm, at Asbury United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg.  Lawrence Wilder, Jr., the Special Assistant for The Virginia Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-Entry Council (and son of former Governor Doug Wilder) will be the guest speaker. Special entertainment will be provided by Gemeinschaft residents and friends. 
This will be an informative and enjoyable evening for people like yourself who are interested in supporting the Gemeinschaft mission.  There is no charge for the dinner; however, your generous donations are needed and appreciated.  The dinner is being catered by the Rhodes sisters and will be a special treat of Mennonite home cooked food. 

RSVP by April 15 at  or 434-1690.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

New Life in Death Valley

"Dead man walking" is a slang term prison guards use, I’m told, when escorting a death row inmate to the execution chamber. It is also the name of a book (and later a movie) about the story of Sister Helen Prejean, and the close relationship she establishes with both Matthew Poncelet, a condemned murderer on death row in Louisiana, and with the families and loved ones of his two victims.

According to this Sunday’s lectionary texts (it was my turn to lead the study at our house church congregation today) we are all like dead men and women walking. Since our mortality rate is exactly 100%, we are each well on our way to becoming an obituary statistic. Death is inescapable. A pastor friend of mine recently reported that he’s had to conduct nine funerals so far this year alone in his aging congregation.

But there are other forms of death to which we are also subject, according to today’s scriptures. In the Ezekiel 37 reading the prophet is lamenting the death of his people as a nation. They have experienced a humiliating defeat and a forced “trail of tears” in which he and thousands of his people were forcibly escorted on an estimated 800-mile march to far off Babylon.

Likewise, Psalm 130 is about the death of hope (“Out of the depths I cry to you...”). The gospel reading in John 11 is about the mourned death (and resurrection) of a dearly loved friend and brother. The reading from Romans 8 is about deliverance from the devastation resulting from our addiction to sin, and follows the lament in the preceding chapter “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

In each of these cases, there is nevertheless hope for new life, even in Ezekiel’s grim vision of a valley strewn with the dried up bones of his conquered people. It appears there were simply too few battle survivors to bury their dead. But in each scripture it is also clear that just as God is the original author and creator of all life, so God’s Spirit (the Hebrew “ruach” is translated as spirit, wind or breath in the Ezekiel story) can breathe new life into all that lies in our dark valleys of death.

I think about that especially at this time of the year as we are finally emerging from what we refer to as “the dead of winter.” A lot of plants literally die in the fall. If it weren’t for their seeds, they would become extinct. Other plants and trees go through a form of hibernation in which their leaves drop off and they go dormant.

But there is an amazing resurrection that occurs each spring. Buds and leaves reappear in lavish abundance, representing a whole new start. Life not only reappears, it does so in miraculous multiplication. As someone has observed, we may be able to count the number of seeds in a single apple, but only God knows how many potential apples there are in each seed and in each bud that appears on the fruit trees in our back yard. Countless!

Of course we are powerless to make this kind of miracle happen. We can prepare soil and carefully plant our seeds and plants in it, we can prune and pull weeds and water the soil, but only the original creator can actually produce life or restore life out of death.

So can dried up bones ever live again?

When the Spirit of God enters Death Valley, anything can happen.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In Defense of Good Fences

We all agree children need rules. "Wait for your turn." "Don’t accept candy from strangers." "Eat your vegetables before dessert." "Always tell the truth."

But do grownups need similar Do’s and Don’ts in the area of maintaining faithful relationships?

Some believe we shouldn’t need to focus so much on boundaries as to learn to live from our inner center, our core values. Cultivate a healthy relationship with God--and with a mature dating or marriage partner--and you won’t find yourself straying. It’s a little like providing cattle with good water and pasture, they say, then not having to worry so much about maintaining strong fences.

There’s certainly some truth to that, but on our farm I remember livestock needing both good food and good fences. Even with lots of green grass on their side of the fence line, our herd would sometimes break into an adjoining field for a feast of even greener looking corn or clover. The results could be ruinous both to the health of the cattle and the condition of the crop.

Sadly, without good boundaries, even some of our church’s trusted teachers and pastors have had affairs with people in their trust. And more and more younger and older folks alike seem to be ignoring other time-honored fences, are hooking up and breaking up in increased numbers. Results of these crossed boundary lines often include not only severe heartbreaks, but career disasters, financial headaches, fractured families and emotionally distressed children.

Experience tells us an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure--or a ton of regret. Thus the Calvary Community Church, a large African-American congregation in Hampton, Virginia, has come up with “Ten Commitments to Righteousness” for its young people. These include unapologetic boundary markers like “You shall not be sexually active until marriage,” according to Glen Guyton, Calvary’s youth pastor.

But defining clear ethical standards like that these days has some folks seeing only legalism. In order to show their open mindedness, they are prone to not only want to move boundaries, but to simply remove them and leave all moral choices up to the individual.

To me, Genesis-old, congregationally supported fences around sex and marriage are at least as necessary as rules governing driving. Should I consider it a violation of my freedom when I’m bound by dozens of common sense traffic laws every day?

For example, I don’t arbitrarily choose which side of the road I drive on. I also obey the stop sign at the end of Hamlet Drive every time I enter the highway. As I head into town, I’m expected to slow my speed to 45 mph, then 35, for everyone’s protection. I’m required to wait at several traffic lights before crossing an intersection. And all the while I display a state license plate on my vehicle, and I carry a driver’s license in my wallet. Just a piece of paper, some say, but one that serves a legitimate and useful purpose.

Somehow I fail to find these rules restrictive. Good boundaries are not road blocks, but are like safeguards and guard rails that give help me get from point A to point B with less hassle--and a lot less risk of having a wreck.

I know a bad one of those could really rob me of my freedom.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Everyday Eucharist

In the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect we spoke at home (as well as in the High German from which it derives) there are two words for eating. “Esse” is for what humans engage in when they take in nourishment.  “Fresse” for what animals do when grazing or when devouring their food.

In the case of animals, "fresse" is a neutral term, but if used to describe a person eating, it suggests a serious lack of refinement and good manners. As children we were also reminded that "esse" is to be associated with gratitude, that you don’t just dive in and begin to gobble down what’s on your plate, but first take time to express thanks to your Creator, to ask God’s blessing on the meal.

There is something especially sacred about the act of eating when you think of the fact that every item on our plate has giving up its life for the sake of sustaining our life. This is true whether that be some form of animal life that has been sacrificed for our nourishment, a vegetable that’s been uprooted or otherwise harvested and prepared for our benefit, or an egg or a seed which will never live to reproduce itself because it has been offered up so that we have what we need to live.

In the Christian tradition, Jesus further blesses the common meal when at one of them he tells his followers that when they gather to break bread they should take time to remember the giving of his body on their behalf, and when they drink of the cup they are to recall the offering up of his very life for them all.

In my faith tradition that isn’t seen as a literal act of partaking of Christ's bodily flesh or blood, but as a sacred sign that we can be sustained only by ingesting the blessing of God’s good gifts, the greatest being that of God's very self. We take God in. Jesus becomes an integral part of us.

Since it is only through divine offerings that life and growth are possible, we should never partake of the Eucharist or of any meal without reflecting on what an amazing grace it represents.