Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Conflict Management Class

I will be leading a four-session class on Creative Conflict Management at the Family Life Resource Center (where I work) at 7-8:30 each Wednesday evening starting March 7. If you or others you know may be interested, the cost is $50 (or $40 each for a couple or a group), and you may contact me at or call 434-8450 to register.

The course is designed to help couples, congregational leaders, parents, co-workers and others better use some of the following mediation-based principles of conflict management:

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Peacemakers

Habit One. They accept conflict as inevitable, but combat as optional (and a sign of fear and weakness rather than strength). 
Conflicts are seen as a normal part of all human relationships, experiences that can result in positive learning and growth. 

Habit Two. They celebrate differences as potentially helpful and useful.
The opinions of both change promoters and change resisters in families, work places and communities are heard, respected, and welcomed. 

Habit Three. They seek to equalize power in relationships, and to empower (rather than to dis-empower) others with whom they differ.
They realize that any perceived imbalances of power in relationships increases the likelihood of instability and hostility, and recognize that power and privilege are better used to help others gain a more equal sense of stature and influence rather than simply seek to gain dominance over them. 

Habit Four. They observe the rule: Listen first, discuss second, decide last.
They don’t come to a negotiating process with their minds already made up and intent only on arguing for their position, but begin by carefully and non-defensively listening to others' interests and concerns, and when it is their turn, respectfully expressing their own. They actively encourage as many ideas being brought to the table as possible. Then (as a separate part of the process) they work collaboratively to work out a win-win solution based on the best ideas they’ve been able to come up with. 

Habit Five. They show a high level of respect both for other people and for their opinions.
They remember to keep their respect for others high, their expectations of others medium or moderate, and their anxiety low. They recognize that anxiety is usually the emotion that contributes to escalating anger and defensiveness.

Habit Six. They seek to recognize and address underlying needs and interests in conflictual relationships.
Examples of such needs are:
      1. Need for recognition, acceptance, respect (the love need)
      2. Need for influence, power, a “say” in the relationship
      3. Need for getting even, for ventilating anger and frustration      (especially if first two needs are seen as not being met)
      4. Need to withdraw, give up, retreat in hurt and helplessness (if  nothing seems to be working)
      5. Need for change, challenge, shakeup of status quo 

Habit Seven. They acknowledge and maximize their own faults rather than being highly focused on the wrongs of others.
They don’t ignore problems in a relationship, but pay primary attention to their own part in those problems, then respectfully work at reconciliation and negotiation with others. They also invest time and energy in the positive, “no-problem” area (with relationship problems temporarily set aside), in order to build up a reservoir of goodwill that helps facilitate good problem solving.

Friday, February 24, 2012

We're All Being Robbed

Just two weeks ago, on an otherwise uneventful Saturday afternoon, the Medicap Pharmacy across the highway from our little suburb was robbed by two armed men. They came not for cash but for pain killers like Dilaudid and oxycodone, and left with over a $1000 worth of them. Pharmacist Mel Anderson and one of his employees were bound and forced into a back room where they were able to get the license number and description of the men’s vehicle, and the two perpetrators were jailed two days later.

Addiction to prescription drugs has reached epidemic proportions in this country, a problem made worse by prescription medications being marketed constantly on TV and in other media. These ads, paid for by drug companies who are making huge profits from increased sales, promise a sure fix for depression, anxiety, erectile dysfunction and for whatever ails us, adding to the mindset that there is a pill for every problem.

People who get hooked on the effects of opiates like those contained in products like Percocet and OxyContin will do almost anything to satisfy their addictions. Aside from stealing them, some go to hospital emergency rooms on weekends or evenings after hours and complain of a severe tooth ache, kidney stones, or other conditions, and leave with a prescription they either use themselves or sell on the streets for a profit. And some physicians are all too willing to prescribe such drugs for people who seek help for real or faked chronic pain.

In 2009, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 16 million Americans age 12 and older had taken a prescription pain reliever, tranquilizer, stimulant, or sedative for nonmedical purposes at least once in the year prior to being surveyed. A NIDA-funded 2010 Monitoring the Future study in 2010 showed that 2.7% of 8th graders, 7.7% of 10th graders, and 8.0% of 12th graders had abused Vicodin and 2.1% of 8th graders, 4.6% of 10th graders, and 5.1% of 12th graders had abused OxyContin for nonmedical purposes at least once in the year prior to being surveyed.

Here are some ways we all might help address the problem:

1. Limit our personal use of pills to a bare minimum, and focus on preventive medicine and more healthy lifestyles as our preferred ways of feeling better.

2. Teach our children by word and example that happiness can’t be found in a bottle, and that there are no quick fixes or easy solutions for everyday life problems.

3. Insist on legislators banning all media advertising of prescription drugs, already the case in most countries.  Our  lawmakers are subject to intense lobbying by drug companies to maintain the status quo.

4. Promote having a special Drug Court in every jurisdiction to respond to crimes involving misuse of both prescription and illegal drugs. Such courts are already in place in many urban areas.

 5. Provide drug treatment programs for non-violent offenders instead of overcrowding our prisons with more and more our addicted population at a cost to us taxpayers of over $26,000 a year per inmate (in Virginia), enough to pay for a year of college.

Our present approach to drug problems isn’t working. And it’s robbing all of us.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Would Jesus Spank?

Since Jesus had no biological children, we seldom think of him as a model for parenting. But he did effectively mentor twelve young followers with the kind of assertive toughness and tenderness we could all learn from, and shows a great deal of concern for the wellbeing of the young, as follows:

1) Jesus gives high priority to children and condemns in the strongest possible terms anyone causing harm to an innocent child.

2) Jesus affirms the teachableness, defenselessness and dependency of children as models adults need to emulate. 

3) Jesus teaches by example, explains things by using simple illustrations, meets his followers' needs, shows them honor and respect, prays for them, answers their questions, engages them in ongoing conversations and is assertive in confronting them as needed.

4) Jesus corrects by word and by reproof, not with any form of physical force. He nowhere advocates the use of a rod or any form of physical beating for anyone of any age.

5) Jesus’s teaching about dealing with someone who commits a wrong (Matthew 18:15-17) can serve as a model for correcting behavior at all ages:

     a) Appeal to the offending person respectfully and in private.
     b) Address the issue (the fault) rather than attack or put down the person.
     c) Appeal for change rather than simply administer punishment.
     d) Take another with you if necessary to appeal for a change of heart and behavior.
     e) As the ultimate sanction, remove the offender from fellowship with the rest of the family or faith community (a form of time out!) until the misbehavior is acknowledged and corrected.

So how do you think Jesus would parent?

Friday, February 17, 2012

"We Try To Lose Ourselves"

                 Amish ploughing
We live by mercy if we live.
To that we have no fit reply
But working well and giving thanks,
Loving God, loving one another,
To keep Creation's neighborhood.

.... my friend David Kline told me,
"It falls strangely on Amish ears,

This talk of how you find yourself.
We Amish, after all, don't try
To find ourselves. We try to lose
Ourselves"--and thus are lost within
The found world of sunlight and rain
Where fields are green and then are ripe,
And the people eat together by
The charity of God, who is kind
Even to those who give no thanks.
The above is a part of one of  Wendell Berry’s poems, “Amish Economy,” published in his 1995 collection “The Timbered Choir” and included in the introduction to Amish farmer David Kline’s book, “Letters from Larksong.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Amish/Anabaptist focus on choosing to lose one’s life, to give it away, as taught by Jesus, rather than spending all of our energies trying to preserve as much of it as we can. The Amish seek to live a life of “Gelassenheit,” a German word describing a spirit of yieldedness that results in investing ones life in humble service to others rather than engaging in a lifetime pursuit of domination and accumulation. They would be the first to acknowledge their humanity, though, and that they are far from perfect.

My Amish parents, known throughout our rural community as “Aunt Mary” and "Uncle Ben," were good examples of a well spent life. It wasn’t uncommon for my mother to go help a sick neighbor, a new mother or a needy friend at a moment’s notice, or for them to provide hospitality around our dining room table for all kinds of guests, even from our meager means. And my father, generous to a fault, was faithful in helping his neighbors and in tithing his modest farm income even when times were hard for our family.

Maybe life really is meant to be a gift to be given away. In the end, we have to lose it all anyway, whether we choose to or not. So why not be intentional about it, experience joy in giving away our gifts and assets to make the world a happier and better place? And maybe just die penniless and happy?   
But now, in summer dusk, a man
Whose hair and beard curl like spring ferns
Sits under the yard trees, at rest,
His smallest daughter on his lap.
This is because he rose at dawn,
Cared for his own, helped his neighbors,
Worked much, spent little, kept his peace.
Wendell Berry. 1995.IV in A timbered choir: the Sabbath poems 1979-1997. New York, Counterpoint, 1992, pp. 190-191.

(photo from the not too much web page by Brian McKinlay)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Thousand Broken Hearts

“Every divorce is the death of a small civilization.”
        - novelist Pat Conroy

Each January since 1996 I’ve asked the clerk of the District Circuit Court for the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County marriage and divorce statistics for the previous year.

Fifteen years ago there were 873 marriage licenses issued and 387 divorces granted. Surprisingly, those numbers haven’t changed much. Last year, in spite of a huge population increase in the past decade and a half, the numbers were 933 and 433. In the prior year, 2010, they were only 879 and 358.

At first glance, that may seem like good news. The divorce numbers have remained stable, and the ratio of marriage to divorce numbers hasn’t worsened.  One could even conclude that (only?) around 45% of marriages in our area fail, consistent with national marriage statistics. And some of these divorces, of course, are by people who are experiencing their second, third, or fourth breakups, so it doesn't mean that every couple's first marriage faces the same dismal odds.

But as I point out in an earlier blog, this doesn’t take into account the increasing numbers of couples who hook up and break up each year who are not legally married. Many of these cohabiting couples are in exclusive relationships that are just as psychologically bonded as the wedded ones, and which result in equally painful "emotional divorces" when they break up--which they do in even larger numbers than their legally married counterparts.

But let’s just consider the heartbreak involved in the 433 cases of officially recorded divorces last year.  That means heartbreak for each of the 866 spouses directly involved, and if these couples had an average of one child or step child each (a conservative estimate), that would mean the lives of 1199 people have been forever altered by the “deaths” of their small civilizations, and that doesn’t include the siblings, grandparents. and other close friends and extended family members who are impacted.

I find that heartbreaking. And in bringing this up on Valentines Day, I don’t intend any of this to be condemning or judgmental. Sometimes divorces may be the only sane way to deal with patterns of behaviors like adultery, abuse or addictions in a relationship. But I feel a sense of heartache and grief nevertheless, one that makes me grateful for my having the good fortune of being in a marriage that, while not without its problems, has been a steady source of so much support and blessing.

This morning I included a copy of the following words by Winnie the Pooh, no less, in a Valentine card I gave my beloved:

If you live to be a hundred,
I want to live to be a hundred minus one day,
so I will never have to live a day without you.

Thanks, Alma Jean, for staying married to me for 47 years.

Here are the actual numbers of marriage licenses issued and divorces granted in Harrisonburg/Rockingham County from 1996 -2011. You'll note that the marriage numbers peaked ten years ago, as did the divorce numbers:
96  873   387
97  950   405
98  964   396
99  932   405
00  947   365
01 1003  438
02  976   421
03  961   399
04  959   437
05  889   381
06  929   389
07  925   434
08  950   405
09  903   347
10   879   358
11   933   433

Sunday, February 12, 2012

An Evening With An Amish Sage

I’ll long remember hearing David Kline, Holmes County, Ohio, Amish bishop and naturalist, speak at Eastern Mennonite University last week.

In response to a question about the Amish not sending their children to school beyond the eighth grade, he explained that he and his fellow Amish see education as a lifelong endeavor that really just begins after elementary school. As evidence of this, he said that the bookmobile that serves his community, dubbed “The Traveling Book Shelf,” has the largest circulation of any in the United States, in the part of Ohio that now has the largest concentration of Amish in the world.

Kline himself is an example of a truly self-educated man, a naturalist and author of three books that portray some of the simple everyday pleasures of living on their 120-acre organic farm. In his book “Scratching the Woodchuck, Nature on an Amish Farm,” he describes the many birds and other creatures he finds so fascinating, including  how he once discovered a sleeping woodchuck on a warm summer day which he carefully scratched with his walking stick, and how the dozing animal responded by arching its back with pleasure at the attention.

In "Great Possessions, An Amish Farmer's Journal," he describes how his entire family works together to grow and market food and take care of the land and the animals that are so vital to their way of life. Without the distractions of radio, television, computers, e-mail, or cell phones, something as ordinary as cleaning out their horse barn becomes an opportunity for Kline and his teenage son to experience healthy exercise while engaging in an extended man-to-man conversation, something that happens all too seldom between most fathers and sons in our faster paced urban society.

Hearing from this gentle saint helped me appreciate even more my own Amish upbringing and added to my desire to pass on the best of that legacy to my children and grandchildren.

P. S. Here's a link to my post "Going on the Amish Diet."

Friday, February 10, 2012

Some Responses to the Superbowl Post

I got more than the usual number of page visits to my "Superbowl Insanity" piece, which was also posted on the Mennonite Weekly Review blog "Our World Together." Here are two of the responses generated there:

Harv- if you are so repulsed by the "SuperBowl", why don't you just turn the channel, or not watch at sound truly miserable- miserable enough that it must pain you to be out in public and see an advertisement or a billboard even. Have you ever thought to relax a few sphincter muscles, and not let yourself get so worked up. Even "knitting" might be too much excitement for you Harv. I see a stroke or a heart attack just around the corner for you...


Of course I hadn't actually watched the event, but I found his concerns about my health pretty funny.

Some comments were more positive, like this one:

Well said. The commercialization is the big one to me. The stat I saw was something like $65 per American (not even just per American who watched) spent on food and drinks for this one day. Imagine if every single American even just cut that in half and gave the rest to somebody to need? Oh, how far we'd go in solving some of the world's inequalities.

Nationalism also definitely stands out. Flags everywhere. One of the most popular commercial was Clint Eastwood's about it being halftime for America. And so on. There's no doubt that football serves a similar function to America that the gladiatorial games did for Rome.

About the only thing I'd disagree on is Madonna. She hasn't been sexy for a long time. Aside from the M.I.A. incident, she continued the trend of "safe" performances that they've been going after ever since the "wardrobe malfunction."   -

On Ryan's last point, I'm afraid Madonna, now at 50-something, would be devastated at the thought of  losing her image as America's sex goddess, one she's worked so hard to project throughout her career, and one that is the very antithesis of her namesake, the Blessed Virgin.

I also found it interesting that on a YouTube clip I saw later of her half time show, there was a contingent of battle-ready "Roman soldiers" parading around Madonna as she performed, adding to an impression of this being like a first century gladiatorial contest.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Why I'm Sick of Superbowl Insanity

At the risk of offending almost everyone, allow me to be blunt. I’m fed up with all of the hype associated with Superbowl Sunday. It’s become a marriage of some of the worst of our national idolatries, a national holiday ritual that feels increasingly insane and obscene.

In the case of Roman gladiatorial contests, images of the gods were always paraded into the arena. In today’s annual nationalistic religious observance, we likewise pay homage to our favorite deities, such as those devoted to nationalism, self-indulgence and the glorification of violence.

Chief among these is the money god Mammon. With over 100 million viewers worldwide, and with Superbowl parties everywhere--celebrated with multiple cases of beer and the consumption of more food than on any US holiday except Thanksgiving--it represents an orgy of American consumerism. Sales of large, flat screen TV’s for home viewers prior to the event have always been been phenomenal. And for those obsessed enough to actually attend the game, the average price for this year’s tickets is just under $4000, and increases every year.

According to Allen St. John, author of the best seller “The Billion Dollar Game: Behind the Scenes at the Biggest Day in American Sport, Super Bowl Sunday,” somewhere between 250 and 400 million dollars is pumped into the local economy, and “in total, the big game’s economic footprint is estimated to be larger than the GDP of 25 nations.”

The game itself is designed to provide for an optimal number of commercials, some 45 minutes worth in all, and for which sponsors will dole out over $100,000 per second of air time. Yes, that’s per second, with each half-minute spot going for a cool $3.5 million.

All of this massive investment of energy, time and resources is, in my opinion, an exorbitant waste, and for what? Football, which should be just a game engaged in for fun, has evolved into an organized way of having grown men brutalize each other for the sake of obscene profits. In the process, far too many of these overpaid but under-protected players, not totally unlike gladiators of old, end up paying a terrible toll in brain injuries and other health related costs, and even in premature deaths.

Not that play is a bad thing, of course, and spending some time watching skilled athletes perform can be legitimate entertainment. But this is far too grim an exercise to be considered recreational, and we’d be far better off actually participating in some athletic activities ourselves rather than just watching commercialized entertainment while munching on potato chips and guacamole.

Having aired my complaints, I must confess that I have enough obsessions and vices of my own that should keep me from pointing even one self-righteous finger in anyone else's direction, but I did feel the need to just get this off my chest.

There. I feel better already.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Jesus and the Seventh Story

Brian McLaren, in an address at Eastern Mennonite University several years ago, spoke of seven major narrativies that shape people’s thinking and behaviors.

First there is the Domination Story, promoting an “us over them” mindset, one inevitably followed by the Revolution Story, one that is about seeking the violent overthrow of an oppressive empire--as in “us versus them.” 

Then comes the Purification Story, in which in order to gain or maintain power we seek to blame, shame and exclude a perceived dangerous minority, “us versus those.” This in turn gives rise to the Victimization Story, “us in spite of them,” in which an oppressed minority's identity is maintained through memories of past injustices.

There is also the Isolation Story, he says, “us away from them,” one in which communities define themselves by their withdrawing from what is seen as a corrupt and doomed majority.

Then, of course, there is the ever familiar Accumulation Story, in which we perceive happiness and security resulting from gaining ever more possessions in a competitive, greed-based economy, "us with more than them."

People tend to wrap their life and their faith around these all too familiar narratives, says McLaren, and then to co-opt Jesus, Allah or Jehovah as justification for their claim to empire and domination, for example, or to make God all about revolution, or about purification (pointing the finger at undesirables), or to describe God primarily as identifying with victims, or as an isolationist, and even to make God the champion of accumulation and all about blessing the wealthy.

In contrast to all of these, he concludes, is the Reconciliation Story, "us and them as one," one in which a loving and just Creator calls all people to live and work together to turn the world into a shalom of peace.

It is that seventh story I want to celebrate and pass on to my children and everyone else I can get to listen.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Amazing Grace and Sugar Snap Peas

With the weather being so April-like the past few days, and with the forecast calling for showers tonight and still more balmy weather this week, I couldn't resist planting a row of sugar snap peas early this morning.

OK, when it comes to gardening, I can get a little carried away. Not that I haven’t had success planting peas in February before, I’ve just never done it quite this early in the month. But then, whether as a result of climate change or just an unusual weather pattern, it's not been this balmy this early in the year that I can remember. And seeing crocuses about to bloom just creates the urge in a farm boy like myself, even in February.

With gardeners, hope springs eternal. Each new year is seen as the one that will finally break all records, for the tallest and most outstanding yellow sweet corn, the most productive harvest of green beans, the earliest and tastiest red tomatoes ever.

And getting my hands in the mellow topsoil along the sugar snap and pole bean trellises this morning reminded me again of how therapeutic gardening is. The dark brown earth required no tilling, this having been done when the garden was put to bed last fall. I was able to make a furrow with my bare fingers, the humus-rich soil feeling something like it must feel having your hands in a sand tray in some psychotherapist's office (not mine). I was taking part in what has become for me an annual healing ritual, prayerfully pouring in seeds and covering them with a benediction of soil and some life-giving compost.

And then to wait.

I see a vegetable garden is a metaphor for a productive life, made possible by a combination of miracle and muscle. Without the miracle of seed germination and plant growth and the amazing gifts of earth, sunshine and rain, nothing would grow, no matter what kind of effort we invest.

On the other hand, without a gardener to prepare the soil, plant some seeds, mulch or otherwise keep weeds from taking over, and sometimes providing some lifegiving extra blessing of water in the heat of summer, little of anything edible will result. It takes the combined work of both a great Creator and a dedicated caregiver to make this annual wonder happen.

So it is with living a productive and fruitful life, always a collaborative effort involving both unmerited grace and daily, down to earth discipline.

P. S. I was delighted to see that the Valley Conservation Council has invited Ohio Amish farmer David Kline to speak at a meeting in Montezuma next Wednesday, February 8. I've not yet met him, but have enjoyed reading two of his books and cite him in one of my blog posts "Going on the Amish Diet".

Note: Kline will also speak from 8:30 - 10 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 9 at EMU's Common Grounds Coffeehouse in University Commons and at the chapel service in Lehman Auditorium from 10-10:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 10. Admission is free for both events. For more information contact Jim Yoder at 540-432- or email