Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Locked up on Liberty Street

As we choose our candidate for County Sheriff this fall, we need to remember that one of their major responsibilities is the operation of the local Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail.

Located on 25 South Liberty Street, the HRRJ remains beyond overcrowded with some 300 men and women inmates, and is efficiently managed by a dedicated and overworked staff. But like most institutions of its kind, there are plenty of problems to be addressed. How can an experience behind bars best rehabilitate offenders?

In parenting classes I stress the importance of time-outs as a good consequence for misbehaving children. Perhaps incarceration can be thought of as a humane kind of “time out” for misbehaving adults, certainly preferable to public stocks, floggings and other past forms of torture and humiliation.

But as with any good consequences, a first word to keep in mind is Reasonable. The most effective punishment is not necessarily the longest or harshest. This is an issue for which courts are responsible rather than the sheriff, of course, but we should all be asking, If a three month sentence is good for a given offender, is a year in the same steel cage really four times more effective? The law of diminishing returns sets in at a point where the resentment an offender feels outweighs the learning value of the punishment.

I am not in favor of pampering prisoners, but one might also question the reasonableness of charging local inmates $1 an ounce for coffee, 75¢ for a styrofoam coffee cup, and 10¢ for a plastic stirring spoon. Maybe offenders should be glad for any coffee, period, no matter how expensive. But it’s usually innocent family members who have to pick up the tab. Our jail is among the few in the state that charges $1 a day for a room and board fee as permitted by Virginia law. Until at least half of that is paid in a given month, inmates can’t purchase a single canteen item, not even a pricey 11¢ packet of ketchup for a hamburger. This results in families either having to pay a $365 annual levy, plus cash for the steeply priced canteen items, or having their inmates doing without things as basic as deodorant. Is that reasonable?

A second word associated with good consequences is Respectful. To humiliate either a disobedient child or a lawbreaking adult is not a good way to get positive results. At our local jail, simple respect might mean not requiring inmates to be in handcuffs and wearing blaze orange prison suits when brought into the visitor booth--a small room with no escape exit and where inmates and guests are separated by a wall of solid concrete, steel and glass. Even state penitentiaries don’t impose this kind of indignity.

A third R of good consequences is Restorative. Any corrections facility should seek to rehabilitate and correct rather than simply punish, and should see to it that offenders make full restitution for their wrongs. This means more provisions being made for nonviolent prisoners to be under house arrest, in jail work-release programs, or on well supervised parole or probation (and regularly undergoing drug testing) while being required to work to support themselves and their families and otherwise pay off their debt to society. Otherwise it is you and I as taxpayers who get to pay for their crimes.

The latter, of course, is another matter over which a sheriff has little direct control, but his or her willingness to provide the necessary supervision for such programs is critical. But in the end, it is up to all of us citizens to help make our system of correction more reasonable, respectful and restorative.

Which, by the way, is an approach that could also save us taxpayers a bundle.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Beware of Sharia Mania

Calm down, America. Radical Islamists are not instituting Sharia law throughout our country. Nor is the president working with them to subvert our Constitution and take away our liberties.

Yet these are the kinds of claims some anti-Muslim groups, funded to the tune of over $42 million by seven foundations around the country, want us to believe, according to a recent report by The Center for American Progress entitled “Fear Inc.: The Roots Of the Islamophobia Network In America.”

This reminds me all too much of the anti-Semitic sentiment promoted by numerous writers, philosophers, politicians and even clergy in the 1920’s and 30’s. They sought to convince everyone that Jews were out to take over the media, infiltrate institutions of higher learning, gain control of the financial system and soon dominate the world.

We all know the historical results of this kind of paranoia. Adolph Hitler, who came to power in part by whipping up support for scapegoating all Jews, led a movement that annihilated some six million of them and launched a war that resulted in 50 million people dead worldwide and the near destruction of the very civilization he was purporting to save.

Also in my lifetime, some Americans prior to John F. Kennedy’s election became convinced that Roman Catholics were poised to impose canon law on the U.S. Some groups of evangelicals went to the polls in droves because they feared the Vatican would soon hold sway over the affairs of the nation.

Now the focus is on our Muslim neighbors, who make up approximately 0.8 percent of our population, and who have become the focus of our current fears and suspicions, as in recently published reports like “Sharia: The Threat to America.”

Evangelical writer John G. Stackhouse, a professor at Regent College in British Columbia, writes of this book, ”I sympathize with much of the report’s concern. After 9/11, no one doubts that there are Muslims of extreme beliefs and practices who act as enemies of the American state and of many American values” ...(but) “the report shows itself in some key ways to be not only anti-Islamic in far too sweeping a way, but anti-Christian, too.”
Jewish author Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, writes, “The threat of the infiltration of Sharia, or Islamic law, into the American court system is one of the more pernicious conspiracy theories to gain traction in our country in recent years... despite the complete absence of evidence of the unconstitutional application of foreign or religious law in our judicial system. “

Examples of specific issues being raised include legal provisions for Muslims to have alternatives to borrowing or loaning money with interest, since usury is banned in the Koran (as it is in parts of the Hebrew Bible and in Christian tradition). But such a provision is not a matter of imposing sharia law on anyone, rather an attempt to permit the free exercise of ones religion, not unlike Old Order Amish being allowed religious-based exemptions from taking part in the Social Security system or from being required to send their children to school beyond the 8th grade. It imposes nothing on anyone, and it can even be argued that it reflects what is best about our constitution. No one is submitting to Amish law here.

Above all, as we reflect on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, let's not make the mistake of attributing to the peaceful majority of our Muslim neighbors the motives of those on its radical fringe.

I welcome your comments on this topic and also on a February blog on the same subject.

Addendum: For another reasoned voice on this subject, check out Jewish writer Eliyahu Stern's 9/2/11 op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled, "Don't Fear Islam's Law in America."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Put Everything Back in the Box"

Some time ago I attended the memorial service of a long time friend and a former member of the  church where I served as pastor for many years. As a part of his funeral message, Dick Blackwell shared the story of a child who often played Monopoly with his mom. Most of the time she was the clear winner, with her son being the sad loser.

Finally one day, as he became more savvy at the game, he had the satisfaction of coming out on top, with the most hotels, a couple of railroads, the electric company, and other properties and cash.

Then his mother said, as she always did, “Now we have to put everything back in the box.”

The boy's response was, “But I don’t want to. I want to just keep everything I’ve gained on the board.”

But she insisted, “No, when the game is over, we have to put everything back in the box.”

As I was hearing the story I couldn’t keep my eyes off of my friend’s flower covered casket in the front of us. I thought to myself, that is literally where they will put all that's physically left of us when our short time here is over. There will be no U-Hauls carrying our possessions behind the hearse that takes us to cemetery. Everything will have to be boxed up and put away.

Bottom line: The only thing we can claim as being ours forever is what we’ve given away, invested in the lives of others in need who will be blessed by how we’ve shared with them.

And through whatever legacy of influence we leave with our children and others.

It's what Jesus referred to as “treasure in heaven.”

P.S. There is book by John Ortberg entitled "When the Game is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box," where this story can be found.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Spirituality or Religion?

I often hear people say that personal expressions of spirituality are all to the good, but religion? Not so much.

Recently my friend and blogger Martha Woodroof, one of my favorite commentators on WMRA radio, expressed that sentiment eloquently as follows (and which I share with her permission):

I am a person of faith who is not religious. By this I mean that while I live in partnership with God, the great Whatever, I claim no knowledge of God's relatives, nature and
modus operandi. I believe that everything about God beyond the simple fact of Its existence and availability is beyond my understanding and so beyond the scope of my words. I make no claim to wisdom of any kind about God, only to experience with God....

So . . . with all due respect, it seems to me desperately wasteful, arrogant and cowardly for us humans to argue so much about religion.... Missing from most of these battles is any recognition that if God is, God is also beyond our comprehension. ...

Arguing about God is, of course, much less troublesome and anxiety-provoking than taking on the demands and responsibilities of a partnership with the Almighty. Indeed, the challenges of any organized religion (or those other God-in-a-box concepts, atheism and agnosticism) begin to seem like effortless glides on greased grooves when compared to the challenges of living one's faith. Perhaps that's why there's been a great deal of public wrangling about the fine points of religion and very little useful public exploration of what it means to live and work together--in this world at this time--as persons of faith.

My response to her on the above focuses on what a “public exploration of what it means to live and work together--in this world at this time--as persons of faith,” might entail, as follows:

Martha, some kind of organized "religion" seems to me to be a necessary thing whenever people covenant together to explore and exercise their faith in difference-making and life-enhancing ways. In other words, one could think of “religion” being to a faith community much like skin is to any other living organism--not its primary essence, but something that serves as a defining boundary between that particular "body" or community of faith and those who choose not to espouse this faith or world view. But a group's skin can be seen as a living and flexible thing, not necessarily an arbitrary or rigid barrier.

I do see personal "faith" as she defines it being absolutely essential for the healthy spiritual life of an individual, of course, but if we want to help form, as I do, communities of compassion--spiritual kinfolks who look after each other's needs and reach out to the needs of others--we will of necessity have to define who we are and what our common vision and values are. That effort can certainly result in something that is stifling and limiting, but it can also represent an evolving consensus of a group that seeks to constantly stretch, learn and grow together. Certain skin cells die and are discarded while others grow in their place, but some kind of skin necessarily remains intact. So spirituality might be to religion what a wineskin is to the wine it contains, a metaphor Jesus himself once used.

In summary, there are faith communities that represent a kind of "bad religion" we both dislike, the kind that limit life, creativity and growth. Then there are those that are examples of "better religion" that promote and nurture the kinds of love and compassion so lacking in our warring and suffering world. In any case, better religion, as I idealize it in my own human Anabaptist/Mennonite/Christian tradition, never imposes itself on anyone, never inflicts harm on anyone and never seeks to dominate or coerce anyone.

The hoped for result, in the case of my own very imperfect denomination, would be to help its member churches learn better how to “... grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so  that God’s healing and hope may flow though us to the world.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Wise-Self/Worried-Self Journal

For any of us dealing with an overload of anxiety or depression, I suggest using a journal as a daily “Worry Book”  in which we do what I call “double-entry journaling.”

Here’s how it works:

On one side of an open journal page we write down our worst fears, worries, angers, griefs or negative beliefs. We record these in raw, unedited form, just as they are repeating themselves endlessly in our mind. This step can help us identify, externalize and vent the negative messages that are coming from our fear-based “worried self.” Putting these distressing, repetitive thoughts and beliefs on paper helps us examine them more objectively to see if they pass the truth, faith and reasonableness test.

Examples of negative, "worried self" statements:

“I’m always messing up. Nothing I do or say ever comes out right.”

“My boss has it in for me. Everybody else at work gets treated better than I do.”

“Everything is just so hopeless. Life is totally unfair, and there’s not any use even trying to make things better.”

When we’re finished getting these off our chest we turn to the opposite page and write responses to each of our expressions of distress or fear, this time speaking from our “wise self.” This doesn’t mean writing down a lot of Pollyannish platitudes simply to make us feel better. Rather, we respond in the same way we would if this worried or depressed person were some other valued friend or family member we really cared about.

Here are some examples of “wise self” responses to the above:

“I’m human, so I do mess up sometimes. But of course I say and do some things right, too, and when I goof up, I can always learn from my mistakes.”

“My boss is unreasonable sometimes, for sure, but that’s his/her problem. My problem is knowing how to either ignore her/him when s/he’s having a bad day, confront him/her about it, or find myself another job.”

“I guess not everything is hopeless, even though some things do seem unfair. With God’s help and with the support of other good people, I can at least do my best to make my life worthwhile.”

When we’re finished reflecting on all that is unreasonably negative (on the left page), and finished affirming alternatives that are reasonably positive (on the right page), we close our “Worry Book” and set it aside, having done as much as we feel we can for the time being. Then whenever we need to, if not on a daily basis, we return to the book, review what we’ve written on both sides of the ledger, add to each column whatever is current, and again close it and set it aside. And then go about living under the guidance of our wise, faith-based and fear-free self to the best of our ability.

Living from our more reasonable, faith- and truth-based side won’t rid us of all our problems, but it  can go a long way to reduce, if not always eliminate, the anxiety or distress we feel about them.

Bottom line: The truth is our friend, and will set us free. If it isn’t freeing us, it probably isn’t the truth.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Grouchiness or Gratitude?

In an episode on Sesame Street, Oscar the Grouch sings this lament,

“Grouches of the world unite! 
Stand up for your grouchly rights! 
Don't let the sunshine spoil the rain, 
Just stand up and complain (heheheh).

“Let this be the grouches' cause: 

Point out everybody's flaws! 
Something is wrong with everything
Except the way I sing!” 

This is followed by the Grouch Choir ooing in the background, then Oscar, in a speaking voice, saying,

“You know what's right with this world? Nuttin! You know what gets me hot under the collar? You name it! And the next time some goody-two-shoes smiles and tells you to have a nice day, just remember:

“Don't let the sunshine spoil the rain, 

Just stand up and complain! 
Just stand up and complain!”

Sometimes I've heard similar sentiments (expressed in ways that are far less humorous!) by people like ourselves, folks in the top 5% of the most well-to-do people in the world, relatively rich by almost any measure.

This not to say we should just paste on a smile when we are truly suffering or in need, nor that an honest venting of a good lament isn’t in order at times. In fact, a third of the psalms in our Hebrew Bible are at least in part laments, but they are mostly by people who are living in third world conditions, always only a step away from extreme want. Yet even these laments tend to evolve into some kind of affirmation of how good God is in spite of everything, and of how important it is to wrap ourselves in as much gratitude as possible.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Her Price is Far Above Rubies

We just got back from an overnight 47th anniversary getaway, marred only by my waking up this morning with a bad case of vertigo.

Of all days, I asked myself, why did I have to be plagued with this illness? Here we were at a nice Quality Inn and I have a recurrence of all of the unpleasant symptoms of my Meniere's Disease--not fatal but just extremely annoying--resulting in periodic cases of vertigo that result in severe nausea and the inability to stay on ones feet. The whole world spins around you and you have to lie flat on your bed or risk a nasty fall if you try to get up and walk around unattended.

There goes the rest of our mini-vacation, I thought, and in one way it did. But it also proved again how blessed I am to be married to a wonderfully caring wife. As always, Alma Jean rose, no soared, to the occasion, and did her usual superb job of taking care of me as in "in sickness and in health," and “for better or for worse.”

Just another proof of how wonderful it is to be in a good, stable marriage, I concluded, and a great example of why married men live longer than their single and/or separated counterparts. Even in simple economic terms, I would have had to pay hundreds of dollars to hire someone to look after my every need as Alma Jean did, and to drive me home this afternoon--and all without complaint, and without the expectation of anything in return but my sincere gratitude. On top of that, with the kind loving touch, prayers and empathy that are priceless, for sure.

I’ve long believed that in God’s economy nothing goes to waste. Our experience today is another example of that. I’m sorry things didn’t turn out to be the way she and I had planned, but something great happened just the same. Our love is stronger and our conviction deeper that what we began at the Lancaster Mennonite High School Chapel August 8, 1964, was truly meant to be. Until death do us part.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

The 258th Richest Person in the World

Let’s say you buy 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 BusinessWeek). What's the first thing you do? 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 the 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 and profiting from recovery of those stocks, with $4 billion of these profits going to Tepper's personal wealth. 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, and in 2010 he was ranked by Forbes as the 258th richest person in the world, all through engaging in what Ghandi, in his list of "seven deadly social sins," describes as the wrong of "wealth without work."

This reminds me of a story Jesus once told of a well-to-do farmer who had an exceptionally good harvest one year. Pleased with his newly acquired wealth, he decided, “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.’”

That may sound like a great plan for an early retirement, but what the poor man didn’t realize was that God labeled him as a fool for this kind of self-centered planning, a wealth-blinded mortal whose priorities were short-sighted and whose life was about to be terminated.

Unbeknownst to him, he was about to leave it all behind. Every bit of it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


I heard a story on NPR some time ago of a man using a table saw who accidentally cut off one of his fingers. The severed body part flew off into the corner of his shop among scraps of wood, sawdust and other debris. After he managed to stop the bleeding he and his family looked frantically for the missing finger, hoping they could take it with them to the hospital to reattach and save it.

Remembering is something like that. Sometimes an important part of us becomes lost, has for some reason become dis-membered. Maybe our parents or others have intentionally kept some troublesome parts of our family’s narrative from us. Or maybe we’ve just plain forgotten some things from lack of reviewing significant aspects of our story. Or we may have willfully cut off some painful part of our past we simply didn’t want to deal with, or some relationship we no longer wanted to be a part of.

But distancing ourselves from parts of our past can be like losing a part of ourselves, like a body part, or member. In remembering we are re-attaching, are re-connecting, so that healing and growth can take place.