Monday, December 31, 2012

For 2013: Living by the Values of the Future

 One of the responses to the recent rash of mass killings in this country has been to advocate for even more civilians being armed as a way to help prevent such tragedies. But to me that represents another step backwards to a less civilized and more violent era of human history. Aren't we supposed to be maturing to becoming better and wiser than that?

I once heard George Brunk III, former dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, say, “Our faith is not so much about preserving values from the past as it is about living by the values of the future.”

In other words, we’re not just about resisting change and holding on to our good heritage, but are called to radically demonstrate a way of life now that has never yet really been, except maybe in the Garden of Eden. Thus as a people of God we are to be an advertisement about what the future will be like, when the Prince of Peace is fully sovereign, when God’s will will be done on earth as it already is in heaven.

And God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; 
and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, 
neither shall there be any more pain: 
for the former things have passed away.

That’s what the future will look like, and that's what fashions the lives of a people who are already living by the rules of the future, when people everywhere will model the prophet Isaiah’s vision of  refashioning “swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks,” and will “study war no more.” Like Jesus, we will already live as though the wolf were lying down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid,  and with a little child leading them. Thus it can be said of us, “(T)hey will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”

That’s the tomorrow we’re being enlisted to join and rehearse for today, to truly become a showcase, a demonstration site, a foretaste, an Exhibit A, of what God’s forever world will inevitably be like. God’s people, inspired by God-with-us, simply can’t wait for the next life to begin living that way.

This is the good news, that wherever on earth God reigns, the peaceful rule of Messiah has already begun.

So for the New Year and forever, "Shalom, Peace, Salem to all"      

Friday, December 28, 2012

What Weapon Would Jesus Approve?

Ancient sword

1795 Springfield rifle

Modern Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle
"Put away your sword, 
for those who take up the sword 
will perish by the sword."        
(Matthew 26:52)

"The fairest weapon in the land
 is the plow in the farmer's hand."  
(old Anabaptist saying)

One tongue-in-cheek proposal I ran across recently to help curb the growing epidemic of gun violence is to allow ownership of only the kinds of weapons the founders had in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment. This should please those who favor the strictest possible interpretation of the Constitution as well as help satisfy those who want guns for hunting and self defense.

Seriously, it is doubtful that the founding fathers ever meant for ordinary citizens to bear semi-automatic Bushmasters with clips containing 100 rounds of ammunition. There just is no way they could have anticipated today’s super efficient killing machines, nor could they have imagined the nation ever earning the distinction of having the highest murder rate of any industrialized (not to be confused with civilized) nation in the world.

 As it turns out, the US also has the highest total number of guns of any nation, a total of 310 million, which represents half the total number of guns in existence, owned by just 5% of the world’s population. This is more than enough to arm every able bodied American from fledgling first graders to aging grandmothers.

Meanwhile, while US crime rates have gone down, crimes committed with guns have increased, resulting in 32,000 deaths and 100,000 gun-related injuries a year (including suicides). If this trend continues there will more deaths from gun shots by the year 2015 than from automobile accidents. And there would be far more fatalities yet if it weren’t for the fact that medical professionals have become ever better at treating the wounded.

ABC News website
According to data compiled by the United Nations, the United States has four times as many gun-related homicides per capita as do Turkey and Switzerland, which are tied for third. And the U.S. gun murder rate is about 20 times the average of the other G-8 countries on the chart above. That means that Americans are 20 times as likely to be killed by a gun than in these other developed countries.

In spite of this, just a week ago the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre issued the organization’s first public statement since the Newtown shooting, railing against schools being designated as gun-free zones, and insisting that having even more guns, including in schools, is the answer.

While LaPierre was speaking, and while still more residents of Newtown were burying their dead, there was another multiple shooting going on in Blair County, Pennsylvania. That tragedy involved a handgun shooting of two men and a woman (the latter in a church). The shooter then injured three patrol officers before turning the gun on himself.

When it comes to reducing such tragedies, I know there are numerous problems that need to be addressed besides regulating guns, but all too easy access to all too many firearms loaded with far too much ammunition is surely a major part of the problem.

As to armed civilians helping stop armed killers, according to Mother Jones Magazine, in the 62 mass-murder cases over the past 30 years, not one was stopped by an armed civilian. A sheriff’s deputy at Columbine High School in 1999 fired at one of the two killers while 11 of their 13 victims were still alive. He missed four times.

There are no easy answers, but we must do something to stem our epidemic of gun violence.

See also,
and local musician Doug Hendron's latest song, "Too Many Guns"

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

For Saint Stephen's Day

In this early Rembrandt painting, the artist's head appears directly behind Stephen's.

Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was one of seven leaders chosen by the early church to help minister to the needs of his fellow Greek-speaking believers, according to Acts 6 and 7.

Not a controversial assignment, so why does this young deacon provoke such outrage on the part of Jerusalem’s religious establishment? And why is his public defense, so laced with familiar stories from their Bible, so controversial?

Blasphemy is the original charge brought against him. Stephen was accused of disrespecting two sacred Jewish symbols, the temple and the Torah (Law). To even question the need for a temple, for example, seemed unthinkable to those who had only recently acquired their new house of worship (courtesy of King Herod) and who controlled the finances and clergy required to operate it.

Under Roman rule, established religion at this time was flourishing, at least from the perspective of the local clerics and court lawyers. Their one remaining dream was to have Messiah come to bring a full restoration of their national sovereignty. But Stephen claimed that God needed neither of these, and chose the following examples from history to make his point:

1. God favors the landless and dispossessed

Stephen reminded his listeners that Abraham and Sarah, the ancestral heroes of their faith, were landless immigrants. While God called them to a new land, they “never owned even a foot of it,”  he said. Stephen didn’t mention the one field Abraham did purchase--a burial site--his point being that God sides with sojourners moving about with tents rather than with people settled in fortified palaces. 

This is good news to newly baptized followers of the Way, largely members of Jerusalem’s landless underclass.

2. God works through ostracized and unconventional leaders

Stephen’s next point is that the leaders God calls are seldom people who would win a popular election, citing Joseph as a prime example. His brothers hated him and sold him to Egyptian slave traders, but God chose this rejected son of Israel as their deliverer.

The same was true of Moses. In Stephen’s time, he was the most revered of all Jewish leaders, but he too was originally a mistrusted member of the oppressor Pharoah’s administration.

God’s choice of outsiders represented good news to a maverick community of believers led by twelve unschooled apostles and their seven immigrant helpers. It was just like God, Stephen insisted, to raise up prophets and servant-leaders rejected by their peers but confirmed by God and by later history. Jesus himself, he says, the keystone that the “builders” of his time rejected, became the chief cornerstone in God’s new architecture, and “You cruelly persecuted and killed him, just as you did all the other prophets of God.”

3. God prefers buildings not made by human hands

Stephen's stoning took place near the site of Herod’s Temple, the sacred center of Jewish worship that Jesus once predicted would be demolished. To question God’s link to this symbol of their faith was shocking. But Stephan pointed out that God lived without such a shrine for most of history. The only house of worship God designed, he reminded them, was a mobile tent, the tabernacle God’s people carried from place to place during Israel’s wilderness journey and early years in Canaan. Yes, King David later asked God’s permission to build a more permanent house for God, but that permission was granted (reluctantly?) only to his son Solomon.
Stephen then declares, “The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” Then quoting from Isaiah 66, he adds, “‘Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool, so what kind of house will you build for me?’ says the Lord?”
To members of a grassroots house church movement, this too was good news. God’s presence was truly among them as they met in each other's homes to worship and break bread together. The gathered believers themselves made up God’s new temple.

Concluding Questions For St. Stephen’s Day

Is God still inclined to vacate existing religious institutions in favor of leaner movements empowered by fresh winds of the Spirit and led by members of the underclass? 

Does God remain as uninterested in our multi-million dollar budgets for temple and institution building today as was the case 2000 years ago?

Stephen’s message suggests some disturbing--and liberating--answers.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas, a Promise of Permanent Peace

Sadly, peace came too late for these 58,272 warriors and their loved ones.

Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire. 

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.

Isaiah 9:5-7 NIV 

Above photo of Vietnam War Memorial by

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Advent Anticipation: The Eve of Christmas Eve

Stone painting by Lin Wellford
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend on us, we pray

This is the season to focus on the advent of that One and Only Child in whom God descends to earth naked and disarmed--a defenseless Lover and Lamb unwelcomed in the town of his ancestry. "He came to his own, and his own received him not."

Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today

In a world of inequity and injustice, the Bethlehem baby comes needy and hungry, utterly dependent on the care of a first-time teen mother and her ordinary working-class husband. Yet this is the wonder of Christmas, the focus of our songs and of our celebrations in this holy season.

We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell

This is truly a time when God tugs hard at our hearts and calls us to care deeply and provide generously for all the newborn of the world, red, brown, yellow, black and white, for all of the Afghans, Hondurans, Haitians, Congolese, Palestinians, Syrians and others for whom there is no room except in stable-like shelters, tents and tenements. "As you have done to the least of these, you have done it unto me."

O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord, Immanuel

May we all love as God loved, live as Christ lived, so Christmas will not have come in vain, so all will will be blessed, and there may yet come "peace on earth, goodwill to all."

From all of us, our family and our house church family--our love, prayers and blessings.

Friday, December 21, 2012

All I Want For Christmas

I found the following piece in a Dear Abby column a couple of years ago, written by a set of unnamed parents for their children and grandchildren:

So many of you have asked (since Yuletide’s drawing near)
‘What do you want for Christmas? What can we give you this year?’
If we say, ‘We want nothing!’ you buy something anyway,
So here’s a list of what we’d like; believe now what we say:

Pajamas for a little child, food to feed the poor,
Blankets for a shelter, and we ask but little more.
Perform good deeds and let us know, or volunteer your time.
These last are worth a fortune, and they needn’t cost a dime.

We have too many things now, vases, candles, tapes and clocks.
We have our fill of garments, ties, underwear and socks.
Candy is too fattening, crossword books we’ve more than twenty.
We don’t need trays or plates or cups, and knickknacks we have plenty.

We’ve no walls to hang more pictures; we have books we’ve not yet read;
So please take what you’d spend on us, and help the poor instead!
Just send a Christmas card to us and tell us what you’ve done;
And we’ll open them on Christmas Eve and read them one by one.

It won’t cost as much for postage as a package sent would do,
You’ll need no wrapping paper, ribbons, ink or glue.
And we’ll thank God you listened to what we had to say,
So we could be the instruments to help someone this way.

Our sentiments exactly. Have a blessed Christmas!

Here's the link to the YouTube on The Story of Stuff.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Has God Forsaken Our Public Schools?

Photo by
Just hours after the massacre of innocent children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Mike Huckabee, one of the few Fox News commentators I sometimes listen to, stated, “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be surprised that schools become a place of carnage?"

I wanted to ask how he explained the tragic murders of devout and innocent Amish children in the 2006 Nickles Mine School shooting. Had they removed God from their school? I don't think so. At any rate, unlike some of Huckabee’s faith-related observations, I reject the above on many grounds:

1. A compassionate God who observes each sparrow’s fall--and who is outraged by innocent people suffering for any reason--will never allow himself to be removed from any place on the planet.

2. God is certainly present wherever there are loving parents who daily send their children to school with their prayers and blessings. But God also inhabits shopping malls, parks, hospitals, work places, and even places of worship ;-), regardless of what religious activities may (or may not) be going on there.

3. My experience with the bland prayers and readings I was exposed to in public school (where virtually all students were from Protestant Christian homes) was extremely minimal compared to the influence of my family and congregational family, along with some of the good role models I had in many of my elementary teachers.

4. One doesn't have to be smarter than a fifth-grader to realize that public schools today represent a much more religiously diverse population than when I attended, and that it would be almost impossible today to devise prayers for all that would not be offensive to some, including myself.

5. While we would love to have our grandchildren be able to attend one of the good Christian schools in our area, our two local grandstudents have been blessed with exceptionally dedicated (some Mennonite) teachers in the dual Spanish/English program they are enrolled in at the Smithland Elementary School. God is obviously present in many of these teachers' lives, and we pray for them and for our grandchildren every day.

Meanwhile, our fervent prayer is that we all utilize every possible moral, spiritual, medical and/or legislative way possible to stop this kind of carnage. If we don’t, deaths in the US resulting from gun violence will begin to surpass those caused by automobile accidents.

We can't afford to let that trend continue.

See also

Monday, December 17, 2012

Six Insights Into Human Suffering

Sculptor Esther Augsburger's "Job"
Even our faith offers no easy answer to the question of why unspeakably terrible things happen to people like those whose loved ones were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. We are only left with the assurance that God remains ever present, loves us deeply and suffers our pain with us.

Here is one of my favorite texts on this theme, from chapter 8 of Paul's letter to the Romans, to which I have added only the six headings below:

Suffering is a sign of our adoption into God’s suffering family

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.  When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ--if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Suffering is a sign of our identification with a suffering creation

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subject to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 

Suffering represents the labor pains of the new creation about to be born

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Our suffering moves God’s Spirit to intercede powerfully on our behalf

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart,  knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

In the experience of suffering God transforms our grief into growth

We know that in all things God works for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

No suffering can ever separate us from God’s love and grace

What then shall we say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?  It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written; For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
                                                        - Romans 8:14-39 NRSV

For a perspective on a similar tragedy see

To view more of Esther Augsburger's work see

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Triumvirate of Evil

Rachel weeping
"A cry was heard in Ramah--weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead."

Matthew 2:18 (New Living translation)

This anguished lament came to mind as news broke of the senseless murders of 27 innocent people, mostly children, at the Newtown Elementary School yesterday. The words are from the prophet Jeremiah, quoted in Matthew’s gospel to describe of the grief parents felt at King Herod’s massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem, but they represent the cry of every mother and father whose children are torn from them by brutal violence.

Innocent children should never have to die that way. Yet the slaughter continues--with distressing regularity and in ever greater numbers--not just at the hands of crazed individuals but as a result of whole systems bent on wielding power and dominance.

Thus thousands of children all over the world die every day of preventable diseases, from hunger and starvation, from lack of basic shelter and warmth, from famine and other effects of climate change, from drone and terrorist attacks and bomb strikes, and from abortions resulting from an immoral disregard for human life.

In the case of King Herod, he simply acted as tyrants do, to prevent any possible threat to his throne. Political stability and continuity must be preserved at all costs. If the innocent die in the process, so be it. It's just collateral damage.

In any case, far, far more violence is perpetrated by evil systems than by individual psycho-terrorists, as unimaginably horrible and devastating as their actions are.

I became especially aware of this as I was introduced to the following symbols of a trinity of evil systems in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation, which pictures each of these three evil forces as dominated by the epitome of all evil, Satan.

                                               The Great Harlot
                                             (massive addiction to
                                      a greed-based economic system)

                                     THE GREAT RED DRAGON

        THE FIRST BEAST                                      THE SECOND BEAST
    A Many-Headed Monster                                   A Lamb-like False Prophet
  (massive oppression through                             (massive persuasion through
an evil political system)                                               a deceptive belief system)

Regardless of how one feels about the mystifying collage of images and metaphors found in the Apocalypse (means "unveiling"), I find this symbolic portrayal of the nature of evil profound and insightful.

I grew up thinking that all sin and wrongdoing resulted from individuals yielding to personal temptations presented by a personal Satan, the devil.

The Revelation doesn’t refute that view, but presents us with a much more comprehensive picture of evil as a force that controls the very systems that tend to hold all of us in their grip.

First century believers, who lived under the most advanced and most oppressive empire of their time, understood this. They realized how much evil comes from simply going along with whatever have become the political, economic and religious norms of the day. In other words, we sin by simply doing what we are all expected to do, go along with the seemingly normal and acceptable status quo.

In this way, the Evil One, the Dragon, the Ruler of Darkness becomes much more efficient at perpetrating violence and other forms of evil, by infusing the world’s very systems and institutions with it, as follows:

This is a symbol of political power become cruel and heartless. In the cartoon-like portrayal of this creature in Revelation 13, we see evil in the form of a fearful looking creature with many heads and many horns. While the original readers of the Apocalypse would have clearly associated this with Rome, this “beast” is still at work wherever governments, ordained by God to preserve order and do justice, instead become agents of destruction, intimidation and oppression. This beastliness is everywhere, exists under many flags and is a part of many (if not all) forms of human government.

By contrast, this creature appears benign and harmless, and is portrayed as a lamb with two innocent looking horns. “Lamb” is, of course, the metaphor used most often for the slain but triumphant Christ in the Revelation, but this false imitation has “a voice like the Dragon” (Satan). In other words, it is like a devil in lamb’s clothing, and its primary purpose is to persuade the masses to give their full allegiance to the First Beast (above).

In the first century, this would have involved an actual cult of emperor worship, but in every age and in every place, oppressive regimes rely on the support of various forms of false religious or secular belief systems. These may include, in our time, the nationalistic cult of civil religion, based on the myth of American exceptionalism and of our being a superior and indestructible nation. All “God and country” based religion extols patriotism as one of its highest virtue, as do secular belief systems like socialism, fascism, or communism.  All serve one and the same purpose, to convince people that by serving the First Beast they are serving God or some other form of supreme good.

BABYLON (THE GREAT HARLOT) (Revelation 14-19)
This seductive woman sits royally astride the First Beast, the one with seven heads and ten horns. She is the antithesis of the Radiant Woman in Revelation 12 who represents the holy people of God, and is dressed in purple and scarlet and bedecked with gold and expensive jewelry of all kinds. She holds a seductively beautiful gold cup in her hands but one that is filled with filth. All the kings of the earth commit adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth weep and wail when she finally collapses in ruin.

Babylon is the symbol of a greedy and self indulgent global economic system that is in bed with all of the political powers that be.  So great is her grip on the wealthy and her ability to oppress the world’s poor and add to their misery that all heaven breaks loose with a chorus of praise when she collapses (Interestingly, the words of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in his “Messiah” oratorio are from this section of the Apocalypse).

This three-fold combination of the oppressive political power of world's empires, the persuasive power of  false belief systems that support such powers, and the seductive power of greed and wealth that is wedded to them, all result in evil being deeply entrenched in the institutions that govern our world.

Only the kind of alternative power available to the followers of the slain Lamb can keep us from being controlled by this triumvirate of evil.

"Ours is not a conflict with mere flesh and blood, but with the despotisms, the empires, the forces that control and govern this dark world--the spiritual hosts of evil arrayed against us..."
  Ephesians 6:12 (Weymouth translation)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Unilateral Disarmament

"In Jesus Christ, God disarmed himself. God surrendered himself without protection and without arms to those who keep crying for more and more protection and arms. In Jesus Christ, God renounced violence. And of course, he did this unilaterally, without waiting for us to lay down our weapons first."                                                                                                                - Dorothy Solle

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hard Times in the Land of Bethlehem

“Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.”
Isaiah 5:8 NIV

Multitudes rejoiced when Jews who suffered unspeakable horrors during the Holocaust were able to find a place of safety and security in a newly formed state of Israel. Many, including myself, have seen this as a sign of God’s rescue and blessing, and many celebrate it as a fulfillment of the Biblical promise of an eventual restoration of the glory of the ancient monarchy of King David.

But a people who are saved from injustice have a special obligation to extend justice to others, in the spirit of the current eight-day celebration of Hanukkah.

According to the website Mondoweiss, while recent news stories from Israel/Palestine have focused on Gaza, the UN recognition of Palestine, and on the increase of Jerusalem-area settlements, Israeli military maneuvers in the West Bank have been pushing more Palestinians off their land.

In an apparent response to the recent bid to the UN for Palestinian statehood, the Israeli government is moving forward with plans to rezone a large West Bank area known as E1 east of Jerusalem (in orange in the above map) as a site for this exceptional addition to already existing Jewish settlements in the region (in gray). The project would link annexed East Jerusalem with the already large Ma’aleh Adumin community, and would virtually cut the remaining Palestinian territory in two.

Christians in the Bethlehem District, along with their Muslim neighbors, have already suffered the disastrous consequence of the new security wall that now surrounds it (red line in above map), which is crippling the tourist trade and further blocks free access to other parts of the region. As a result of economic and political pressures, the number of Arab Christians in the area has been decimated, caught in the ongoing tension between Israel and their fellow Palestinian neighbors.

Sadly, if present trends continue, there may soon be virtually no room in the inn for the followers of Jesus who have long lived in the area of Christ’s birth. As someone who believes God loves the people of Israel but also cares compassionately for the welfare of all people everywhere, this makes me sad indeed.

The above map is from the Churches for Middle East Peace website

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Wild Man’s Advent Warning

El Greco's John the Baptist

"Wildman John leaps into Advent’s second Sunday, taking my breath away with his matted black dreadlocks, that camel skin he wraps around his bony body, gnarled bare feet sticking out below.  His eyes seize me the way his rough hands seize the locusts he eats, the honey he snatches from wild bees.   He roars warnings: dire times, dereliction of duty, the brink of doom.  Advent seems too small a stage to hold him."
- Nancy Rockwell blog

John the Baptist is the consummate prophet, not the conventional priest his parents, descendants of generations of priests, would have likely dreamed that their son become. And as a sign of this, according to Luke’s gospel, they were to call him “John” rather than name him after his father Zechariah. John was not a “Bible name,” but was of Greek origin, and the name of the father of one of the heroes of Judah’s brief period of independence over a century earlier, the revolutionary Mattathias Maccabees.

John’s coming was a warning sign of a God about to break in to make things right. "Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" asks the prophet Malachi in another of the lectionary readings for this Sunday, "For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap."

Both of these images are a little disturbing, notes Presbyterian Pastor Scott Black Johnston, on another blog: “A refiner's fire is the forced-air, white-hot blaze that melts metallic ores and brings their impurities to the surface. Fullers' soap is the strong, lye-based soap used to bleach the impurities from cloth. ... He (i.e., God, through the Prophet John) comes to boil off the impurities in our souls and to apply a coarse scrub brush to our spirits.”

None of us wants to hear that. We’d rather tune out wild prophets and get on with celebrating a nice Christmas in the company of some nice priests or pastors. Who wants to be told that, in preparation for God, we need to be cleansed of our surplus as well as of our sins, as in, “If you have two tunics, give one to someone who has none”?

Yet that’s a part of John’s message of repentance, that before we get to welcome the Bethlehem infant into our arms, we must first apply some disinfecting soap.

To get the stains of sin and of injustice off our hands.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Celebrating The Feast of Saint Nicholas

St. Nicholas secretly bringing gifts
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 Saint Nicholas.

This third century bishop of Myra, who lived on the southern coast of what is now Turkey, is legendary for his generosity in helping the poor and needy in his parish, according to stories about him passed down through the generations. He was especially well known as an advocate and protector of children, and as someone who preferred doing his good deeds in secret so as to avoid notice.

Because this real saint seemed to be a good alternative to the jolly old elf of recent invention, the Sherers began celebrating the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, which is on December 6 (today), as an early part of their family’s Advent, and each year designated 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 did put up a tree, but covered the floor 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 reported that their giving up a fake Santa for a real saint who  embodies the true spirit of Christmas was a richly satisfying change, one they recommend to everyone.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Gemeinschaft "Gift Card" and Reminder

 Your Invitation to: Gemeinschaft Christmas Open House

Sun, December 9, 1 PM – 4 PM
1423 Mt. Clinton Pike, Harrisonburg, Virginia 22802
From Whom:
Harvey Yoderer, Gemeinschaft Board Member

Please drop by any time after 1 pm this Sunday for a guided tour and for Christmas treats from the Gemeinschaft kitchen. There will be brief presentations and a Q & A session at the Bender Building at 2 pm and 3 pm which will include a power point presentation of our resident evaluations which have greatly improved over the past 2 years. Exciting!

You may also make a generous and much appreciated gift to support the work of the Home. If you cannot join us; please make a contribution on our website,, or send your check (and a copy of the card like the one above you may have received by mail to help decorate our Christmas tree!) to: 

Gemeinschaft Home,
1423 Mt Clinton Pike,
Harrisonburg, VA 22802.

For more details see and/or

Monday, December 3, 2012

Why Wait Till Christmas?

There’s one rule most of us never break: Don’t open your presents before Christmas.

Why? Because we know that the anticipation of waiting until all is ready doubles the pleasure of gift giving and receiving.

That’s even wiser when it comes to the full enjoyment of one of God’s most special gifts, our sexuality. Wise love waits for the wedding night not just because it’s a rule, but because experiencing love that way is such a wonderful beginning for a lifelong, exclusive relationship. The waiting allows couples to become better prepared, to become more settled about their choice, and then to celebrate with joy and abandonment.

Our society tells us to skip the waiting.  Instant intimacy has become the norm in nearly every Hollywood love story, just as instant gratification in general is encouraged by countless ads urging us to buy and indulge with no thought for tomorrow.

Christopher Decker, in an article “Selling Desire, Why Chastity is Bad for Business,” notes that a market driven society has to rid itself of such values as thrift, durability and the idea of carefully saving and planning for the future. The notion of chastity has to go, he says, because it goes directly against the grain of today’s throw away, buy-now-and-pay-later mentality.

Sadly, the results of people living by their impulses range from disappointment to downright despair. “Make love in haste, repent at leisure” is true of all too many couples who will never know the joy of having waited until they’ve publicly pledged their vows and have been officially blessed by their families and congregations. Instead of their unforgettable “first time” being in a relaxed honeymoon atmosphere, it is more likely to have been in a setting where one or both failed to fully enjoy it, where they’ve had extra worries about getting caught or getting pregnant, and when they experienced an almost inevitable painful "divorce" afterwards.

When Scripture directs us to first “leave father and mother” and “cleave (commit) to our spouse” before “becoming one flesh,” it isn’t a matter of our Creator setting up some arbitrary rule. It’s just a formula that puts first things first. And according to an extensive survey done by the University of Chicago, faithful monogamous couples report being much more satisfied with the sexual aspect of their lives than those in uncommitted relationships. The plan works.

Engaging in sexual intimacy without the safeguard of marriage might be compared to starting a fire in one’s living room without having first built a fireplace and a good chimney. Fire can provide wonderful warmth and enjoyment, but without a sound structure to contain it, it can also cause untold harm and heartbreak.

Is there forgiveness for sexual indiscretion? Of course, as there is for any other bad choice. But God, like a good parent, doesn’t want our marital “Christmas” spoiled.

That’s why we’re given this simple rule: Wait until you’re wed.

Then celebrate for a lifetime.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Thanks, Good Friends and Followers!

I posted my first Harvspot blog on November 25, 2010 (not 2009 as the above indicates).

So at just over two years, 248 blog entries and 34,683 page visits later, it's time to thank all of you who have helped make this a rewarding experience. Harvspot will never be an internet sensation, but I feel abundantly blessed by your encouragement and support.

A number of you have told me you were unable to post a comment. Apparently you need to signed on to a Google account in order to do so. Meanwhile, if you want me to post something for you, just email me at

My special, special thanks to all of you who have...
1. Signed on as a "follower" or "friend".
2. Left a comment on a post (or emailed me to post for you).
3. Told your friends about the site or posted a link to it on Facebook.
4. Felt free to offer your feedback or suggestions.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Generous Welfare for the Wealthy

Pray for Lloyd Blankfein
God will bless you
 who are poor.
His kingdom belongs to you!

But you rich people
are in for trouble.

You have already had
an easy life!

     --Jesus, Luke 6: 20, 24 (CEV)

Lloyd Blankfein, a CEO at Goldman Sachs who earns a mere $16.1 million a year, descended on Washington last week to advocate for cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. His message was that we need to “lower people’s expectations” about their retirement and health care.

Blankfein has every right to do this, of course, but it does seem a little unseemly in light of the fact that during the 2008 financial crisis the Federal Reserve loaned his company $814 billion at virtually no interest, plus awarded it a generous $10 billion bailout from the U.S. Treasury.  Then to top it off, Goldman Sachs got a $278 million IRS refund that year, even though it earned a profit of $2.3 billion, according to a group called National People’s Action.

Not unlike Jesus and the prophets, Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, is irate. “Think about the arrogance of these guys on Wall Street who were bailed out by the middle class of this country when their greed and recklessness nearly destroyed the financial system, and now they come to Capitol Hill to lecture Congress and the American people about the need to cut programs for working families. This is what class warfare is all about.”

Of course, to hear them tell it, they’ve earned every bit of what they have by working harder and smarter than the rest of us, and by observing their own version of the Golden Rule, “Them that’s got the gold, gets to rule.”

Is this a great country or what?

For some other posts on wealth check .

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Hate and Slander are not Christian Values

“I hope someone will take President Obama out. I hate that man.”

“Vice-president Joe Biden arranged to have his first wife killed in a car crash so he could marry Jill.”

“Obama won the election because his party bribed Mexicans (presumably illegal ones) to vote for him.”

“Obama hates America and is bent on bringing it down in whatever way he can.”

“I’m convinced that Obama is the anti-Christ prophesied in the Bible.”

These are just a few of the examples of ill informed and hate-laced rhetoric my wife and I have heard since the November election. What is disturbing is that each of the above came from people in our area who are Bible-reading, church-going Christians.

As a member of the worldwide “Kingdom of God” Party, I'm neither a registered Democrat nor a Republican, and have no illusions about this or any other administration ever ushering in either a Grand Utopia or the Great Tribulation. But the above malicious statements about  a US president exceed anything I've witnessed in all of my 73 years.

Such toxic attitudes sometimes make me fear Obama may not live to finish his second term. When out of ignorance and/or malice large numbers of people become convinced the president is a militant Muslim, a Hitler-style Fascist, a dyed in the wool Socialist, and/or a rabid Communist who hates America, we have created a mindset in which some mentally disturbed psychopath will feel he or she is saving the country and acting as a true hero by taking him out.

I hope and pray I'm wrong, and that our Valley neighbors--and people of faith and goodwill everywhere--will take the time to get actual facts before they embrace every conspiracy theory they hear over the internet or via the grapevine. If first century Christians could love their enemies and pray for pagan and despotic rulers like Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus, surely believers today shouldn't fear living in a constitutional democracy led by a Republican Congress, a relatively conservative Supreme Court and a Democratic president.

Ironically, Obama, no matter how one judges the authenticity of his Christian faith, is at least a bona fide member of a mainline Christian denomination, something not true of his chief rival. Having said that, religion should have no bearing whatever on anyone’s suitability for office, since Article VI, paragraph 3, of the Constitution clearly states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

The apostle Paul had the following to say to those living under Roman oppression and persecution:
"I exhort therefore, that first of all supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty."    -- I Timothy 2:1-2 Webster’s Bible translation

Note that “godliness, honesty and the giving of thanks” were to be the rule, even in times of terrible hardships. Compared to many of our spiritual ancestors, we should feel blessed beyond measure, and should be loving and praying for even our worst political “enemies” in these difficult times.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Love and Tears at Leburn, Kentucky

Irene and Alvin (1942-2012) Yoder
A seven-hour trip on Friday with my brother to eastern Kentucky’s coal country transported me into another world.

The occasion was my 70-year-old cousin Alvin Yoder’s funeral. Alvin, with his beloved wife Irene, their six children and 40 grandchildren, was a devoted part of his conservative Valley View Mennonite church located along Ball Fork Hollow, an active congregation with a regular attendance of some 140.  Their modest home in this region of all hills and hollows is just down the winding road from the church .

At Saturday's memorial service at Hindman’s Funeral Services the family was joined by some 500 friends from Alvin’s mountain community, his extended family, and from his family of faith, some from hours away. On the Thursday and Friday evenings before, hundreds of other people from the community and elsewhere had waited patiently in long lines to pay their respects and offer their love and support to Irene and the family, people whose lives Alvin had touched as a caring neighbor and through his heating and cooling business.

Sitting in the packed auditorium at the memorial service I found myself a part of a mass choir in which all of us were expressing praise and affirming faith in heartfelt four-part harmony. The majority of women present wore plain modest dresses and white prayer coverings, and their men dark suits with distinctive clerical-style collars, giving the appearance of a gathering of a monastic community. The disciplined practice of their faith, one that affects every part of their lives, does in fact resemble that of a religious Order. They are clearly a counter-cultural community of sturdy families making a statement about how God impacts every part of their lives every day, from morning to night, from life until death.

Such communities offer food and comfort to each other as well as to their neighbors when someone dies, bringing with them empathy, love and lots of tears.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks For All That Really Matters

"Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb.
and as he comes, so he departs.
He takes nothing from his labor
that he can carry in his hand."

                    Ecclesiastes 5:15

My cousin Alvin Yoder, a much loved father, church planter and business man from Leburn, Kentucky, died early Monday morning after a difficult bout with cancer. While Alvin grew up in Kalona, Iowa, and I in the Stuarts Draft area, we were both born in Nowata County, Oklahoma, and lived near each other briefly when we were too young to remember.

We were related in numerous ways. Our fathers were cousins, our mothers sisters. And in 1972, my father married Alvin’s widowed mother after my mother died of cancer at 67, so we became step brothers as well. My older brother Eli and I plan to attend his funeral this Saturday.

Alvin being two years younger than I, his passing reminds me of how short our sojourn here can be, and of how grateful I need to be for every day I have here on earth. One good thing death does is help us focus on what really matters--like our faith in a loving God, our hope for a better world, and our love for our family and friends everywhere.

Brad, our singer-song writer son who lives in Pittsburgh (but is here this weekend!), recently wrote the following based on his reflections on Ecclesiastes:

how little that matters  --

all the prizes we once sought,
possessions that we sold & bought
are lost or broken, tossed or boxed away,
with the status we enjoyed,
the tools and power we employed
all join the list of things that never stay..
   now it’s clear, how little that matters,
   how little that means at the end of the day,
   while we’re here, let’s throw on our tatters,
   we’ll shake off our cares & waltz on our way,
      how little that matters..

in my hometown on tall brick walls
stand faded signs from stores that closed,
still selling stuff that’s long since disappeared,
while fliers taped to street lamp poles
sing muffled songs of long past shows,
I knew that band, they haven’t played in years..
   now it’s clear, how little that matters,
   how little that means at the end of the day,
   so my dear, we’ll throw on our tatters,
   shake off our cares & waltz on our way..
      open as a baby’s cry,
      waving as they all fly by,
      the few we mark, how many we let slide..

I know a man who I’d call wise,
he dedicated his whole life
to mastering the instrument he plays,
but he believes, for all his skill,
a single broken note is still
enough to shake our sleeping hearts awake,
   all our fears, how little they matter,
   how slight they appear in the light of the day,
   while we’re here, let’s throw on our tatters,
   we’ll shake off our cares & waltz on our way,
   how little that matters…

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Numbed By The Numbers: Some Reflections on Monday’s Forum

9,000,000   Current number of prisoners worldwide

39%           Number of those prisoners housed in the US

4.5%          US percentage of the world’s population

Some fifty interested local citizens met at the Massanutten Regional Library Monday to hear three panelists discuss ways GPS monitoring of non-violent offenders could provide alternatives to jail for some non-violent offenders. Read more in today’s DNR article on the event.

Judge Brian Shipwash of Davidson County, North Carolina, explained how his community was able reduce its jail population from 379 to 243 and avoid having to build a proposed new $50 million jail. With the money they saved, they were able to finance a new middle school instead. Much of this saving was the result of changes in bond requirements for, and better monitoring of, persons awaiting trial.

Local pastor Mike Donovan described how his non-profit Nexus Programs, which provides both monitoring and mentoring services for offenders, is saving money and saving lives in communities across Virginia and parts of North Carolina. In an area map projected on a screen, he showed how their GPS monitoring system tracked every move of local volunteer Earl Martin during the past week while he wore one of their bracelets.

William Wiesband a bondsman from Fredericksburg who is also passionate about finding more alternatives to incarceration, heads up a program called Private Pretrial Reports. Wiesband lamented the fact that in the United States there were 139 persons in the US incarcerated per 100,000 population, in 2008, that number exceeded 500 per 100,000.

Here are some contacts you can make to express your concerns about criminal justice and jail related issues:

1. Actively promote recommendations of Governor McDonnell’s task force on alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders:

State Senator Mark Obenshain
Assembly Delegate Tony Wilt
Assembly Delegate Robb Bell
Commonwealth Attorney Marsha Garst
Editor, Daily News-Record

2.  Appeal to the Sheriff and to Community Services Board (the mental health providers at our local jail) to provide alternatives to the use of the restraint chair and the isolated padded cell for mentally ill and suicidally depressed inmates:

Bryan Hutcheson
Lacy Whitmore

Friday, November 16, 2012

Distinguished Panel To Present At Monday's Forum

I'm excited about the panelists who will present at our noon to 1:30 community forum this Monday, November 19, at the Massanutten Regional Library on the use of GPS monitoring technology. The focus will be on ways of reducing jail overcrowding and providing pretrial and post trial monitoring for non-violent offenders who can thus continue to support their families, pay their court costs and fines, and function under appropriate supervision and pay their debt to society (see November 12  blog).

Invite your friends to join you to hear the following persons speak and answer questions. Local citizen Earl Martin may also give a brief report of his experience of volunteering to wear a monitoring bracelet over the past week.

The Honorable Brian L. Shipwash is a leading national expert on pretrial release policies, bail bonding, and related issues of jail overcrowding. Mr. Shipwash has worked on these issues in North Carolina, Virginia, and states across the country. Mr. Shipwash believes that jail overcrowding can be significantly reduced by streamlining the judicial process. He also aggressively supports the use of GPS technology coupled with secured conditions that can ensure that the defendant will appear for trial. Mr. Shipwash is the elected Clerk of Superior Court in Davidson County, North Carolina. The Superior Court is similar to Circuit Courts in Virginia. Mr. Shipwash also serves as a Judge of Probate in North Carolina.

Rev. Micheal Donovan is the founder of Nexus Programs, a religious based organization that provides pretrial diversion and GPS tracking services for defendants in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. Nexus works to reduce jail overcrowding by providing resources to Courts, Prosecutors, and Judges to mitigate the risk of flight and danger to the public in releasing defendants on bond prior to trial. Nexus also works to provide diversion programming designed to reduce offender recidivism and stop the revolving door in our criminal justice system. Rev. Donovan served as Executive Director of Nexus Programs until August of 2012. He now is a full time law student and continues to serve on the board of Nexus Programs and works in an advisory role with the organization. Rev. Donovan is also associate pastor of the River Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

William Wiesband is a licensed bail agent and owner of Private Pretrial Reports in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Mr. Weisband provides GPS tracking to bail bond clients and assists in evaluating criminal defendants for the Courts prior to their trials. Mr. Weisband has worked as a bail bondsman for nearly ten years, and has years of experience as a licensed insurance agent. Mr. Weisband has been a vocal proponent of the commercial bail bond industry and of well regulated GPS tracking technology. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Pens Mightier Than Swords

Malala Yousafzai
 “If this new generation is not given pens, they will be given guns by terrorists.”     - Malala Yousafzai

While a majority of teenage girls in the US seem preoccupied with boy friends, the latest fads and facebook, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan has been crusading to help girls in her country get an education.

Already at 11, she was an anonymous blogger for the BBC, writing about what it was like to live in her Taliban-ruled area. Just a month ago, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman because of her efforts, and is still recuperating in a hospital in the UK.

It makes me wonder how we could instill in our own children and grandchildren more of the kind of priorities stated by Malala before the tragedy that nearly took her life, “I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is an education. I am afraid of no one.”

Hers is the kind of story we want to be telling our sons and daughters, along with those about the heroes and martyrs of our own faith, inspired by none other than Jesus himself.

Meanwhile, Bonnie Lloyd, a professor of sociology in Rochester, New York, has started a petition to nominate Malala for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Guest Post: How GPS Tracking Technology Could Help Reform Offenders

This piece by Mike Donovan, founder and executive director of Nexus Programs, should appear as an op-ed in the Daily News-Record later this week. A community forum on this topic is set for noon Monday, November 19, at the Massanutten Regional Library. Please come!

ReliAlert XC
Jail overcrowding is a serious issue here in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Our local jail is rated to hold 208 inmates, but the actual number of inmates reaches nearly double that number at times. In our quest to reduce crime, we have not properly balanced our community’s need to maintain public safety with that of developing ways to lower recidivism and reenter offenders effectively into our community. The result is more warehousing of offenders, with each of us taxpayers footing the bill.

There are many strategies that can be implemented to reduce jail overcrowding. One such strategy is to use technological advances to mitigate risks associated with releasing offenders back into the community. We’ve all seen the type of GPS technology worn by celebrity offenders like Lindsay Lohan on national news programs, but this technology is also available in our community. Instead of spending upwards of $70 a day to house each inmate in our local jail, we could force some of these offenders to pay their own costs of monitoring and become contributing members of society. Even a modest number of 100 fewer inmates in our jail would save taxpayers $7,000 A DAY! That is over $2.5 million a year. Do I have your attention yet?

It is sometimes necessary to incarcerate offenders in order to protect the public and hold offenders accountable. Punishment through incarceration is real, tangible, and dramatic, something we can point to in order to help crime victims feel a sense of justice, and it fosters a real and specific deterrent. There is little mystery as to why we utilize incarceration so much. As a Judge who handles criminal trials told me a few years ago, the system certainly isn’t perfect, but it is what we have.

But while our crime rates remain steady or are actually decreasing, our prisons are bursting at the seams, and we observe a depressingly high recidivism rate. At some point we must stop repeating the same policies of the past and honestly assess how well our current strategy is working. Might many of the offenders we are warehousing be simply learning to become better criminals? Left with nothing to do but play cards and watch television, inmates share their stories and learn from each others’ “mistakes,” thus turning our jails into schools of criminal behavior that graduate students at an ever increasing rate.

There are other options we might employ to more effectively manage our pre-trial and post sentencing offender populations. Organizations like the one I represent, Nexus Programs, are examples of such options. At Nexus, we use GPS satellite tracking technology to monitor criminal defendants both before their trials and after they are sentenced. Judges order whatever conditions they see fit, from total house arrest to general monitoring. We can even set geographic boundaries around specific areas that the offender is not allowed to visit. Defendants are tracked in real time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The best thing about monitoring through our program is that the services are completely offender funded. That’s right, no taxpayer funds go to monitoring these defendants. Remember that $7,000 a day, or $2.5 million a year? Can you think of better ways we might spend that money?

Our organization is taking part in an upcoming community forum on this issue sponsored by the local Fellowship of Reconciliation, the fourth in a series on criminal justice issues held there over the past two years. Invited panelists include myself, a representative from the bail bond industry that offers similar technology, and a Clerk of Court and national expert on these issues from our neighboring state of North Carolina. 

Please join us Monday, November 19, from 12-1:30 pm at the Massanutten Regional Library in Harrisonburg for a community conversation on how we can better manage the correctional issues our community faces and put some of that $7,000 a day, or $2.5 million a year, back in the pockets of taxpayers like you and me.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Better Mental Health Services For Local Inmates?

restraint chair
Daniel Robayo, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, and I had a productive meeting with Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson and Lieutenant Steven Shortell on Monday to discuss the following:

1) How can our community support an increase in the number of hours and personnel available to provide much needed mental health services to jail inmates, including enlisting professional mental health volunteers if necessary?

2) How could an expanded staff help provide alternatives to the use of the restraint chair and the isolated padded cell when dealing with mentally ill and suicidally depressed persons?

3) How could the jail and/or the Community Services Board better respond to numerous concerns expressed by inmates who reporting problems accessing medications as prescribed?

Uses of Restraint Chair and Isolated Padded Cell (January 1 through June 30, 2012)

Unlike the above photo, our local jail does not strip inmates who are confined to their restraint chair, but when suicidally depressed or incorrigible inmates are placed in the isolated padded cell for similar safety or medical (suicidal) reasons they are stripped of their clothing and given only a paper gown to wear. While there they have no access to reading material, mattress, pillow, blanket, or eating utensils. A hole in the floor serves as a commode.

We can understand the occasional need for such restraint or confinement for incorrigible inmates, but the primary purpose of Monday’s meeting was to discuss more humane ways to treat mentally ill and suicidal detainees.

We had recently asked for, and kindly received, documentation from Sheriff Hutcheson’s office about all uses of the jail’s restraint chair and padded isolation cell from January 1 to June 30, 2012.
 Their report showed there were 19 cases of mentally ill persons (usually suicidal) being confined to the restraint chair during that time, an average of three per month. In restraint, belts and cuffs have the prisoner's legs, arms, and torso immobilized.

In an additional 8 cases inmates were in restraint for things like “were intoxicated,” “wouldn’t listen,” “were bouncing off the walls,” or who were otherwise seen as possibly harming themselves. The average time spent in the chair for these 27 persons (for medical and these other reasons) was four hours, with the shortest time being two hours and the longest ten hours.      

In addition, there were 22 other reported cases of the chair being used for inmates demonstrating violent behavior and who were considered potentially harmful to others. Some of that number may also have been suicidal, but this was difficult to determine because many were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. The average time spent in the chair in these cases was six hours, with two hours being the shortest time and 24 hours being the longest.

As to the isolated padded cell (the “rubber room”), there were 7 cases of it being used for medical reasons (inmates deemed suicidal) during this six-month period. In an additional 13 instances an ordinary segregated cell was used and a guard assigned to regularly check to make sure the prisoner did no harm to him or herself. Here the inmate does have access to a Bible, mattress, blanket and a commode.

Segregation cells are used routinely for disciplinary purposes in jails and prisons, and sometimes for the protection of an inmate who is in danger of being harmed by his or her cell mates. Such sentences to the “hole,” for either the prisoner’s protection or for in-jail violations, may be for weeks at a time.

In all fairness, extreme overcrowding at our local jail, along with challenges of limited budget and personnel have Sheriff Hutcheson and his staff stretched to their limit. Our jail, built for 208, is double bunked and typically houses from 325-375 inmates, some having to sleep on the floor. As a result, jail staff feels they have few choices at times but to resort to the use of the restraint chair, segregated cells, and even to the dreaded isolated padded cell. They do report, however, a definite trend toward fewer uses of such measures.

Current Medical and Mental Health Resources

Our local jail has a contract with Southern Health to provide one or more nurses on site around the clock to meet the medical needs of inmates. In addition, a retired MD from Staunton is available on a very part-time basis.

For mental health needs, the jail contracts with our local Community Services Board to provide a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner for 2 1/2 hours once a week and two professional mental health counselors for a part of two days per week and to be on call for emergencies.

Two very part time volunteer chaplains are also available for male inmates and one for female detainees.

Ongoing Challenges

Over the past year a number of concerned citizens in our community have been meeting to explore alternative sentencing options and other ways of reducing jail overcrowding, as well as brainstorming better ways of dealing with mentally ill and suicidally depressed inmates. 

One idea is to assign such persons to regular segregated cells with trained volunteer mental health providers or interns taking turns being next to the cell and relating to that person until he or she is able to be returned to general population. Such volunteers, coordinated by the CSB, could also be useful in the booking area, where persons may be kept for as long as 24 hours (occasionally longer) until they are sober and can be appropriately assigned to regular population.

In this holding area, inmates are normally not allowed a mattress, pillow or blanket for fear they may attempt to harm themselves, and are typically denied their medications during that time, especially if they are intoxicated.

I believe a community like ours can work together to provide more effective and humane treatment of our incarcerated citizens. Monday’s meeting gave us new hope that together we might be able to make that happen, with Sheriff Hutcheson suggesting in his last email that “the CSB is a primary factor in this matter of discussion”. 

Check out the following links for more background information:

P. S. SAVE THIS DATE: A community forum is being planned for the Massanutten Regional Library from 12-1:30 pm Monday, November 19, to discuss the expanded use of GPS bracelet monitoring technology for pre-trial and post-trial non-violent offenders. The program features a panel of speakers that includes the founder of Nexus Programs (a non-profit agency that provides such monitoring), a representative from the bail bond industry that offers similar technology, and a Clerk of Court and national expert on these issues from North Carolina. Their input will be followed by a Q & A time with participants. The event is free and open to the public.