Monday, October 29, 2012

An Open Letter to Franklin Graham

Dear Franklin,

As a lifelong admirer of your father,  I was interested in seeing him back in the news again after years of a well deserved sabbath. I’m referring to his recently agreeing to have full-page ads published (with a picture of a younger Billy Graham) that are designed to support Mitt Romney’s candidacy and are being paid for by unnamed friends.

While you may argue that neither of you is thereby endorsing any presidential candidate, I’m reminded of the dictum that “any difference that makes no difference is not a difference.” The ad constitutes an endorsement, pure and simple.

Having said that, I totally support your father’s right to do this, and I myself aim to be a Christ-following and compassionate conservative on issues like legalizing same sex marriage and abortion. I do question, however, how this lines up with many of your father’s previous statements, or whether, at nearly 94, he has actually changed some of his earlier positions.

In 1960 your father opposed the election of a Roman Catholic president even though that church’s support of marriage and opposition to divorce has been consistently stronger than that of most Protestant denominations. He later became much more tolerant of Catholics, a good thing in the eyes of many, and has blessed them and worked closely with them on many issues.

When it comes to Biblical marriage, of course, the Bible has sadly sometimes been used to support positions other than “one man and one woman for life,” as have statements in the Church of Latter Day Saints’s other inspired book, Doctrine and Covenants (132:61-62) which support polygamy.
Thankfully, though, most of us are now on the same page in our definition of heterosexual marriage, the kind that is relevant to well over 95% of us, just noticeably silent in dealing with the epidemic of broken homes and families all around us.

On the issue of making cause with the religious right, your father, as you know, declined to join Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in 1979,  saying: "I'm for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven't been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future."

On a related issue, you have been widely quoted as saying you believe Islam is “an evil religion.” I’m certainly no advocate of the Muslim faith, but that seems so unlike your father’s Christ-like spirit, which has always been warmly invitational toward people of all faiths, never hostile or adversarial.

I do note that you recently wrote a piece in which you explain why it is now OK to vote for a Mormon to be president, and I have also learned that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, under your leadership, has since removed its statement about cults from its website, as follows:

"A cult is any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith. It is very important that we recognize cults and avoid any involvement with them. Cults often teach some Christian truth mixed with error, which may be difficult to detect... Some of these groups are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spiritists, Scientologists, and others."

At one level, this could be welcomed by many as an expression of a new found tolerance on the part of the BGEA, but one might at least expect some consistency here. Is Scientology next on your list of approved faiths for evangelical believers?

But the real bottom line here is that elections are not to be about issues of faith. According to the US Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

On the other hand, each of us do need to apply a values test. Unfortunately, this and all elections pose impossibly difficult choices for believers who are pro-life, in that support of things like obscenely bloated military budgets, drone strikes, the proliferation of assault weapons and handguns designed primarily to kill people, capital punishment, and the crying needs of millions of hungry and truly needy human beings at home and abroad are all profound life and death issues.

In short, I find myself completely agreeing with your father when he said, “(M)orality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice.”

Friday, October 26, 2012

Mennonite Attire--Not As Strange As You Think

Whistler’s mother was certainly not a Mennonite, but notice how her outward appearance is much like that of plainly attired Old Order Mennonite or Amish women.

Interestingly, the painter of this well known piece, James McNeill Whistler, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, was an outspoken atheist, but I have not been able to determine what faith, if any, his parents practiced.

My point is that there is nothing original about the plain dress of certain Mennonite groups. In other words, there were never any Amish or Mennonite committee of elders who got together to create a dress code for their respective churches. Every distinctive aspect of their plain dress is a preservation or adaptation of a dress style that was once common in their cultures of origin.

The beards, hair styles and broad rimmed hats worn by Amish men make them a living demonstration of how peasant farmers along the Rhine River Valley looked in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And what has evolved into distinctive Mennonite or Amish attire for women is also simply a version of what all European peasant women wore in earlier times.

Even the now distinctive “head covering” is not a Mennonite invention, nor was it even associated with Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 11 in early Mennonite or Amish practice. It was simply what all ordinary women wore. Menno Simons' "Complete Works" makes no mention of the practice of women veiling their heads or of the Biblical text which supports it, though it could be argued that he didn't need to, since women wearing some kind of protective head covering was a part of standard dress for all women of all faiths--or of no faith--in the sixteenth century (see Rembrandt's paintings, for example, or that of Whistler's Mother, above, as late as the nineteenth century).

Julia Ward Howe, author of the
Battle Hymn of the Republic,
dressed like my mother, but
was far from a Mennonite.
It appears that a form of women’s headgear that began as something functional and practical for peasant and other women in the past became a standard part of western European and Mennonite culture. Later, for many Mennonites, it became a Christian symbol, an expression of Paul's teaching that women should have their heads modestly covered out of reverence to God and respect for their husbands and other men when engaged in prayer or worship, especially in public. But in general, the group’s emphasis was simply on dressing in a modest way that did not draw undue attention to themselves.

This is not to say that early Mennonites and Amish had nothing unique to say about appearance. Anabaptist men, being committed to non-violence, were not to carry the sabers that were a customary part of being dressed up when in public. Amish men were to wear coats with hooks and eyes rather than the newer and more fashionable trend of using fancy buttons. And women were not to spend money on ornate jewelry and elaborate hairdos, as taught in Scripture, but to dress as common people generally did in the day.

In short, Mennonites have traditionally stressed modesty, economy and simplicity in all things, including in their attire. And the plainer ones have stressed the additional value of their appearance being an expression of their identity. They have chosen to avoid trending with the times, to remain non-conformed to the ways of the culture around them, and to be immediately recognizable as a distinctive, God-fearing people.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Last Sermon, Part II: Praying and Doing

Here's the link to Part I of this "Last Sermon" I gave as a part of Zion Mennonite Church's 125th anniversary, a congregation where I had the privilege of serving as pastor for 20 years.

The key scripture I want to leave with you in this “last sermon” is one you all already know from memory, that’s how basic it is. It’s what we call the Lord’s Prayer, which should be our daily "pledge of allegiance" to God and to God’s rule, the prayer found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

"When you pray," he instructs his followers (and the you here is plural, like the Southern y’all), keep it focused on the main thing, on God’s business. It’s not about us, but its about “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.” It's addressed to one holy, loving God who is sovereign over every man, woman and child in the whole world.

The next main thing in this text follows from the first. Triple underline this: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Note its not just, “May your will be done in my personal life, or in my family, or my church, or my country, but on the whole earth.” It’s a big prayer, about what God wants for all creation.

And God wants three main things:

First, God wants everyone to have enough. “Give all of us, every day, enough bread to live on,” on earth as it is in heaven. Could we possibly imagine in God’s heaven, some of the saints and angels suffering from eating and having too much while another group is suffering every day from not having enough? Of course not. That would be unthinkable, could never, ever be God’s will. So we, created in God’s image and given dominion over God’s earth, need to pray and do the same things God would do if he were in charge and so many of God’s children were hungry.

The second thing God wants is to have everyone on earth live in peace, to get along. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It’s God’s will that the world be a place of healing, where we extend God’s love and forgiveness to all who wrong us and owe us, including those who owe us financially. In Bible times people got into debt because they were destitute and had to borrow in order to survive. In the Pentateuch, Jesus’ Bible, people were commanded to forgive others their debts on a regular basis, every seven years, to reboot the economic playing field and give everyone a fresh start.

Jesus took his Bible seriously and believed it taught freely forgiving debts, trespasses, and sins on earth as is true in heaven. Can you imagine God’s heaven being a place of wars and conflicts and church splits and miserable divorces and impossible burdens of debts the very poor owe to the very rich? 

Of course not. God wants everyone to experience a clean slate, to be forgiven their debts, just as ours are forgiven.

And finally, God wants everyone to make it to the finish.
“Lead us not into temptations (tests or trials) that are too hard to bear, but deliver us from all evil.” So in addition to praying that all may live (have enough food), and that all may forgive, (live in peace), we pray, as God wills, that all people everywhere to be able to survive hardships, tests, hurricanes, persecutions, depressions, earthquakes, and come to a successful end. This could be paraphrased, “Lead us not into devastation, but deliver us from all evil.”

Can you imagine in God’s heavenly kingdom, where God rules, that there would be some who are provided for, protected, helped to survive and others not? Of course not. God wants everyone to make it to the very end, pass every test, overcome every obstacle.

That's what God wants, and God wants us to want it so much, all of us, that we pray passionately for it every day. In the end, it will be all that matters.

Recently I was at a friend’s funeral service, a former parishioner at Zion. At his memorial one of the ministers shared the story of a child who often played Monopoly with his mom. Most of the time she was the clear winner, ended up with the most properties and cash and her son was the sad loser. Finally one day, as he became more savvy at the game, he had the satisfaction of coming out on top, with numerous hotels, a couple of railroads, the electric company, and lots of other properties and cash. But then his mother said, as usual, “Now we have to put everything back in the box.” And he said, “But I don’t want to. I want to just keep everything I’ve gained on the board.” But she said, “No, when the game is over, we have to put everything back in the box.”

I couldn’t help, as I was hearing the story, focusing on my friend’s flower-covered casket there in front of us. In a sense, that is literally where they will put all that is physically left of us when our short time here is over. There will be no U-Hauls carrying our stuff behind the hearse that takes us to cemetery. Everything will be boxed up and put away. The only thing we’ll benefit from in the next life is what we’ve given away--what we've invested in the lives of others who will be blessed forever by how we’ve shared God’s blessings with them--and through whatever legacy of influence we've left with our children and others. It's what Jesus calls “treasure in heaven.”

Daniel Berrigan once wrote these powerful words that I want to use as a closing prayer:

“Somewhere in your life, hope you might see one starved person, the look on her face when the bread finally arrives. Hope you might have baked it or bought it or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on her face, for your hands meeting hers across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot or suffer a lot, or die a little even.”

Let's all say Amen to that.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mennonites Should Be Able to Work Things Out

Today there are twelve different Mennonite subgroups in Rockingham County alone.

When I became a part of Virginia Mennonite Conference as a part time pastor in 1965 (at Zion Mennonite), there were only four, three of these being Old Order groups at variance with each other. The main Virginia Conference body had at that time experienced only one division since its beginning 130 years earlier.

Since then an increased number of additional groups have formed, mostly through some kind of church split. Here’s the list:

1835 Virginia Conference (formed from Lancaster {PA} Conference)

    1900 Old Order Mennonite Conference (known as Showalter group)

    1953 Wenger Old Order group

    1957 Mt. Pleasant Old Order Church (Horning group)

    1972 Southeastern Mennonite Conference

    1976 Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church

    1985 Timberville Mennonite Church

    1990 Calvary Mennonite Church

    2001 Cornerstone Churches (originally Mennonite)

    2002 Mountain Valley District churches
    2003 Broad Street Mennonite Church

    2005 Shalom Mennonite

    2007 Lloyd Wenger Old Order group

As a committed Anabaptist/Mennonite, and as teacher of a JMU Lifelong Learning Class on "Mennonites in the Valley" for the past 15 years I find this multiplicity of divisions beyond embarrassing. We are, after all, supposed to be a church that’s all about peace and reconciliation.

In the past, our church splits were often accompanied by rancorous debates and hard feelings. But those days seem to be largely behind us as we become ever more masterful at conflict evasion and less inclined to do conflict engagement. We tend to “divorce” amicably and continue to get along just fine, remaining exceedingly nice to each other in a way that seems quite OK on the surface.

What we lose as we politely "agree to disagree" and to go our separate ways, however, are the kinds of church family connections that enhance learning and create a sense of needed accountability with each other. More homogeneous but separated groups tend not to experience the kind of healthy growth and maturity they might if they did the hard work of respectfully listening to each other and trying to work things out (see "Knit together by Differences").

My modest proposal for our Conference would be that we agree to something like the following:

In light of Jesus' and the apostle's teachings on church unity, we are committed to steadfastly maintaining our “unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” and will seek to grow toward an ever stronger “unity of the faith” until death do us part. We will practice redemptive forms of discipline for erring individuals, but we will never again separate as whole church families from one another.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

From "Why Do You Always?" to "I Like It When..."

When we are having an unpleasant exchange with a friend or family member, we often take on an adversarial, "prosecuting attorney" role, with lots of “Why do you always?” and “Why can’t you ever?” kind of language. We really want something from the other person, but rather than making a polite request, we pile on blame.

Somewhere we've adopted the strange belief that the best way to get others to behave better is to make them feel worse.

What if we could take on the role of a "defense attorney" instead, in which we act as an advocate for the other person (and for the relationship)? In that mode, we can practice simply informing the other person as to what he or she could do that could really make things better. I other words, we offer information rather than accusation.

I always try to get couples in my office to switch to that kind of language when they find themselves engaging in escalating rounds of blame and conflicts. What a difference it makes if they can join hands, look at each other and express their wishes in the form of “I like it when...” statements, such as:

“I like it when you tell me you're really glad to see me when I get home, and don’t make some complaint the first thing I hear.”

“I really like it when you take time to listen to what I have to say and show me that you've really heard me, and not get defensive right away.”

“I love it when you take time to give me a warm, spontaneous hug like you did earlier today. It makes me feel really glad I married you.”

Why not try turning all of our complaints into respectful requests, or better yet, into warm expressions of “I like it when,” a guaranteed way of giving a relationship a much needed lift.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Got Power?

Oh the utter extravagance of God’s work in those who trust him--
endless energy, boundless strength! 
                                                          Ephesians 1:19 (The Message)

In my work as pastor, I am often struck by how powerless members see themselves.

For example, those who were new to a congregation may feel they aren't given the same respect as those with deep roots in the congregation's past. On the other hand, those who have been with a church all their lives may feel their views carry less weight than the newcomers they feel everyone pays more attention to. Likewise, younger people often see older members as having greater influence, whereas older persons may feel no one listens to them anymore, that everyone is more interested in what younger members have to say.

The fact is that all of us have much more power and influence than we realize, power being defined simply as the energy and the ability to accomplish necessary and important things--to achieve commendable and worthwhile goals. And, as Jesus demonstrates, the only legitimate use of power is to empower, not to disempower, others.

Too often we associate power with dominance (power over others), rather than thinking of power that is used collaboratively with others.

There are at least three forms of power readily available to each of us:

Unhealthy, negative power (always inappropriate): Intimidation, domination, threats, pulling rank, manipulation, coercion, seduction, violence, deception, etc.

Healthy, positive power (always appropriate): Love, kindness, appeal, negotiation, persuasion, prayer, positive influence, joyfulness, perseverance, gentle persuasion, good boundaries, etc.

Normal human power (may be used appropriately or inappropriately): Position, rank, age, IQ, education, race, gender, nationality, wealth, seniority, experience, charisma, etc.

In any case, power is often largely a matter of perception. Except in the case of physical force, there can be no effective power wielder without there being a power yielder. We often give others far too much power to control or intimidate us.

And speaking of good, Christ-like power, the more we have of it the more gently and effectively we can behave. It is when we feel under-empowered and anxious that we are most likely to act desperately and inappropriately.

My prayer? More power to you, lots and lots of it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Long Way From Living Water

They are like a 
  planted by a flowing stream,
which produces fruit every season,
   and its leaves never wither.

  Psalm 1:3

     We planted a river birch in our front yard soon after we moved here in 1988. It was recommended as an attractive tree that wouldn’t take forever to grow and would provide some great shade.

     We should have realized, though, that with a name like river birch (and the fact that this tree has only a modest root system) that it might prefer living beside a creek somewhere.

     Unfortunately, our location is about as far from a stream as one can get. Hamlet Drive is right at the elevation point just north of the city limits that marks a divide between the run off water that flows south into Blacks Run (and finally into the South Fork of the Shenandoah River at Port Republic) and the water that flows north from us that forms Linville Creek (which heads northward into the North Fork of the Shenandoah River at Timberville).

     As a result of its distance from a good water source, some of our birch’s leaves begin to turn brown and fall off when the tree becomes too stressed by summer heat and drought, requiring us to give it a good soaking every so often in a dry season.

     Naturally, as a preacher, I can hardly resist drawing parallels, like each of us thriving best when we are rooted near lots of water. The term “living water” in the Bible originally refers to running water, as by the kind of abundant stream described in the above psalm. Without an ample supply of life giving moisture, we all begin to wither.

     Interestingly, while trees often show stress by shedding some their leaves prematurely, flowers and other plants wilt and may become limp and lifeless. Well watered plants remain green and upright. With each of their cells filled with water, they are "turgid," a term one learns in plant biology.

     What a difference a good supply of living water makes.

     And not just to a tree.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Last Sermon, Part I

 "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."
- Stephen R. Covey

This post is Part I of a sermon I gave at the Zion Mennonite Church as a part of their 125th anniversary series of messages done by past pastors of the congregation.

I chose the title, “If This Were My Last Sermon,” after having read parts of Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.” Randy was a professor in Pittsburgh who died of pancreatic cancer at age 47, and who gave a much publicized “Last Lecture” that went all over the internet. 

In case you’re wondering, as far as I know I don’t have a terminal illness, but I do have a terminal condition known as aging. And I realize that no matter how much I work at staying healthy, the best I can do is to simply delay my death by a little. This means every day is a good day to ask, “What is really the most important thing for me to focus on, to put first?” In other words, to keep remembering that, in the words of Stephen Covey, "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

When I was teaching at Eastern Mennonite High School, my students often asked questions like, “Is this going to be on the test?” or “What’s included in the final exam?” 

As we face our finals, we all need to ask, “What does God consider the main thing?”

As we review the Book we expect to be judged by, we want to eagerly learn what God is most passionate about, and to keep our eyes open for clues like, “What does the Lord require of you...... but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” the words of the prophet Micah.

We want to underline things like that. As far as I know, that’s never stopped being the main thing, as Jesus announces in his very first sermon, where he reads his mission statement straight from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, to proclaim release for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s Jubilee.”

So we highlight that, as the kind of “main thing” Jesus would consider test material.

Jesus clearly megaphones the message of the prophets, folks that Bible scholar Abraham Heschel describes as “some of the most disturbing people who ever lived.” “Instead of dealing with the timeless issues” Heschel says,... “the prophets go and on about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and... in the market place,” and adds, “The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the world were a slum.”

In this spirit we need to be all ears and to take especially good notes when Jesus, elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, has a question put to him about how to inherit eternal life. We certainly want to get that one right!

In response, Jesus cites the first and greatest commandment, that of “loving the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your might, and with all your strength” and then he adds a second one as equally  important, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then explains what this means by telling a story about an enemy, a Samaritan, who to his hearers may have been a lot like a Muslim might be to us, a member of a related, but not quite orthodox, kind of faith.

But it’s this outsider who is the hero, the one we are to learn from in the story, this “Shiite” who looks after an unfortunate wounded enemy and helps him as if he were his closest neighbor.

And then the clincher (underline, double underline): Jesus says to his followers,  “Do likewise, and you will live.” Here’s something that’s sure to show up on the test, not just as words we want to know by heart or memorize in our head, but as something we practice in everyday life toward friend and strangers alike. 

Another passage we should certainly pay special attention to is an actual preview of the final exam as found in Matthew 25: “In the Judgment, God will divide people into two groups, some on his right and the others on his left, and then he’ll say to those on his right, 'Well done, good and faithful servants (who get the coveted passing grade) enter into my joyful forever,' because when I was hungry, you fed me, (not just gave to the Salvation Army so they could feed me) when I was thirsty, you gave me water, and when I was sick and in prison you personally visited me.”

Notice the real test questions aren’t about how many people we have witnessed to or invited to church, though both certainly have their place, but rather how many of the world’s suffering have we taken the time to love and care for. Like the Samaritan who may not have learned the perfect theology, we want to make sure we get an A in Be-ology and Do-ology.

In short, when all is said and done, God doesn’t grade so much on what’s said as what’s done--for people who are abused and neglected. Because that’s where God’s heart is, where God hangs out, not in our buildings or our institutions.

I’m not just making this up. This is simply what Jesus says.

The second part of this message, given in 2010, will focus on repentance and prayer as the means of living this kind of life.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A C-minus Report Card: Grading the Pesidential Campaign

Maybe it's because I was an education major in college (and taught part time for two decades), but something in me wants to assign grades to our current US presidential candidates, and I’m not sure I could give either of them really high marks.

Here, for whatever it’s worth, is my “report card,” along with some teacher-like comments:

C-   Mathematics
Whenever you use numbers in addressing problems, make sure you explain how you arrived at them. For example, don’t throw out the promise of 12,000,000 new private sector jobs without telling us what numbers you’ve added or multiplied to arrive at that optimistic figure. Or if you accuse your opponent of promoting a five trillion dollar tax cut, explain what numbers you’re using, where they come from, and how they actually add up to that total.

C-   Language Arts
Words need to be chosen carefully and used discreetly. They should always educate and inform, and never be used to manipulate, obfuscate or simply propagandize. Nor should you verbally attack another’s character. Always speak and write plainly, clearly and respectfully.

C-   Health
Keep in mind that improving people’s health can never be done by legislation alone, and that it remains the responsibility of each citizen to practice good habits like not abusing drugs and alcohol, exercising regularly, and eating nutritious, real food (rather than over packaged, over processed and over marketed food products with ingredients you can’t spell, define or pronounce). At the same time, we do need help to find a way to provide for the kind of highly specialized and prohibitively expensive medical procedures we now take for granted but that our parents and grandparents never dreamed of. Just admit that healthcare has become a dilemma for which there are no easy answers.
See also

C-   Science
If you question the validity of the multitude of studies that show that human activity is contributing to potentially disastrous climate change, explain what good research based evidence supports your contrary point of view. On the other hand, if you promote investing ever more tax dollars in renewable energy sources, show us the hard scientific evidence on which your position is based.

C-   Civics
Remember this nation is not choosing a monarch or a dictator, but a fellow citizen who is simply to head one of three branches of a democratic government. According to the US constitution, a president is to have limited power and in fact has little control over things like providing jobs, improving the economy or lowering gas prices. Stop pretending you can control those things.
See also

C-   History
While all nations think they are truly exceptional, will survive forever and have an ever brighter and more prosperous future, you should know that even the world’s greatest powers have always eventually come to an end, and often not by being destroyed from without but weakened from within. And anyone smarter than a fifth grader should know nations can’t endlessly borrow trillions to painlessly finance military campaigns that take a gigantic toll on its resources.

C-   Deportment (Yes, this used to appear on some report cards)
You can behave much better than you have been. For example, your mudslinging and misleading need to stop. And if you’re involved in an activity like a debate, follow the rules, don’t constantly interrupt, show some respect for your elders, and generally mind your manners.

For another post on elections click on

Friday, October 5, 2012

Guest post: Burning Bridges in Madison County

My sister-in-law Freda Zehr sent me the following opinion piece she had published after the movie "The Bridges of Madison County" premiered and was getting rave reviews.

I’ve never seen the film (and don’t plan to) but it is the story of a stable married couple in which the father takes their children to show their animals at a fair in another state, and the wife stays behind to take care of the farm.

While she is home alone one day, a man who is doing a documentary on covered bridges in their area stops by to ask directions. In the ensuing conversation she invites him to stay at her place instead of getting a motel, which results in a torrid week-long affair. It is yet another example of our society’s addiction to the romantic love myth, which could be the subject of another conversation.

Here’s Freda's piece, written in 1995 when she lived in Wilmington, Delaware:

I went to see “Bridges of Madison County” last night. I was prepared with my four handkerchiefs, (it was touted as a four handkerchief movie), but I did not cry.

I, who can weep at the slightest provocation, who could be hired as a professional mourner for my propensity for tears, could not squeeze out a single tear for these lovers.

I have been waiting for a reviewer,  a movie critic or even an armchair psychologist to speak to the audacity of two total strangers who meet and in an instant form a lasting bond of love. So much so, that many years later her children came across the instructions in her will to throw her ashes over the same bridge where her week-long lover's had been thrown.


As I listened to the sniffling around me in the theater, I felt like the little girl in the tale of the emperor’s new clothes.

A part of me wanted to believe, wanted to be pulled into this tale of hopeless love. A part of me wanted to experience the pain, the emotion, to be feeling what everyone else was feeling.

But as Robert and Francesca carried on their illicit affair, all I could see was her faithful and trusting husband away at the fair with the two children they had created together, probably in this same bed where she now romped with her lover.

A part of me may have even wanted to feel that what they were doing was somehow excusable and destined to be, but  my years of experience in life and love kept me from believing.


Love is not an amorous look into the eyes of a stranger over a candlelit table.

Love is not the brush of an unfamiliar hand against a knee, a one night tryst or a three day odyssey of lustful frenzy. Love is not in the selfish tears of lustful longing for that which cannot be.

I am not a prude, nor am I unaware of the attraction one may momentarily feel for someone other other than one’s spouse, but the ability to see that for the mirage it is and to cling to what we call fidelity.

Love has a past a present and a future. In my own experience, love was not just just a dream in the breathless vows spoken in that candlelit church by my 21-year-old self and my 22-year-old husband.

Real love is living out those vows, keeping the promise to have and to hold till death do us part.

Love is the blood and sweat and tears of building a life together, the simple joy of watching a meager savings account grow.

Love is the momentous, emotion-packed moment of holding a newborn child in your arms, and it is the tears in the eyes of my husband as he holds that child in his arms.

And love is the shared nights of worry over a sick child or walking the floor with a colicky baby or watching the clock together, waiting for  the sound of a car in the driveway announcing the safe return of a newly licensed teenager who had broken curfew.

Love is coming home to someone who loves and understands you when it feel as though no one else in the world does. Love is even in the  familiar disagreements and being free  enough to speak your mind and yet know that underneath it all is love, safe and abiding.                                             

Love is bonding with your spouses family and learning to love them as your own.

Love is in the mundane tasks of cleaning out the garage as well in the shared nights of making love with someone you know will be there for the morrow and all the tomorrows of your life, ---or for as long as you both shall live--to be there  for the pride of your children's accomplishments, the graduations, the weddings.

Love is standing together gazing at  a sleeping grandchild and wondering at the continuity of life as you see in him another little boy from years ago.  Love has a past, a present and a future.

As I left the theater last night, I wondered how many people will secretly yearn for that  rainbow in the sky and miss the beauty and wonder of the one they are already holding in their hands.

In reality, from my viewpoint, the closest the movie came to truth was in the words spoken by Francesca as they were pondering whether she should run away with him. “If I go”, she says, “our love will turn into something ugly”.

In my mind it was ugly from the start.

By Freda Zehr

Freda’s beloved husband Vernon Zehr died a year ago this month. Here’s a link to a post on this wonderful man we all loved.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Eli, Sanford, Me

"You don't choose your family. They are God's gift to you, 
as you are to them."
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu

It was a joy being at a family reunion Saturday that my brother Sanford and his wife Martha, who live in Costa Rica, were able to attend. In all there were some 150 people gathered, representing four generations of descendants and in-laws of our late parents, Ben and Mary Yoder. All eight of us remaining siblings were present, most with at least some of our offspring. An older sister, Lucy, who died in 2003, was represented by her husband and three of their daughters.

After our meal and some picture-taking we had an open mic time to share stories, reminiscences and appreciations, clearly one the best family reunion experiences I can remember. I was again impressed by what a loving, interesting clan I’m privileged to be a part of. I was especially moved at the sight of Ernest and oldest sister Lovina's family gathered for their picture. There must have been over fifty of their descendants with them, with Ernest, nearly blind, in an overstuffed chair beside Lovina, his petite bride of 65 years, surrounded by nothing but love and blessed ties that bind. A beautiful sight.

I was of course especially glad to see Sanford, he and brother Eli having been major positive influences on my life. Eli was the brother with whom I shared the most, he being the closest to my age (less than five years older) and considerably wiser than I, and the namesake of our grandfather Eli Nisly, a much loved Amish minister and bishop. My brother's one and only Ruth is a gem of a person, and she and Eli have an enviably happy marriage.

Sanford, nine years older than I, went through a time of open rebellion as a teenager that caused a lot of grief for my parents and for all of us. Then at age eighteen he experienced a dramatic conversion that led to his transformation into the minister and church planter he later became. He and his beloved Martha have been role models I’ve always looked up to.

Each of us three sons is an ordained minister, following in the footsteps of our grandfather Nisly. While we don’t see eye to eye on everything, and don’t get together as often as we’d like, there is still an inseparable bond between us.

When Sanford suffered a serious heart attack several months ago, Eli and I immediately made plans to go to Costa Rica to see him, hoping to spend time with him before his scheduled bypass surgery. Then a virtual miracle happened, one we have all celebrated as an answer to prayer. He improved so much that his doctor no longer recommended surgery, and gave them the go ahead to come to the States to see their four married children and families and the rest of us in the US.

Meanwhile, Eli and I, and possibly my second oldest sister Esther (now widowed), are now hoping to make the trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua to see Sanfords and their sons, daughters and families in early spring.

My Alma Jean, while choosing not to make the journey herself, is encouraging me to go on this family pilgrimage, similar to one Eli and I made to Central America soon after our mother died.

Ah, family. What would we be without it?

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Class of Seniors Reflects on "Living Losses"

On Sunday I got to speak to a delightful group of some sixty seniors who are a members of the Altruistic Sunday School class at the Bridgewater Church of the Brethren. Our theme was on dealing with the inevitable losses as well as the invaluable blessings associated with changes we go through at various life stages.

On one side of the marker board we noted some of the many stresses and adjustments we deal with in the autumn stage of our lives, like losses of health, energy, careers, and loved ones, to name a few. On the other side of the ledger we listed the cumulative assets and blessings we can celebrate, like more free time to pursue new interests and friendships, increased wisdom and experience, and more time for learning, solitude and for spiritual reflection and growth.

We then noted that the secret to emotional, mental and spiritual health--as opposed to feeling depleted and living in a state of constant grief--is to live with the sense of the "deposits" in our mental bank accounts always exceeding our withdrawals. There will always be plenty of these, we agreed, even with supposedly positive events, like finally reaching retirement, a state that brings both major benefits and unforeseen challenges.

We also discussed how our emotional and spiritual balance sheets can be affected by the kind of mental bookkeeping we do, whether we spend adequate time actually “counting our blessings” and depositing these to our mental account, or whether we focus more of our time on counting our grievances and losses. Both are necessary to name and grow from, but in truth, as children of God and members of a caring family of faith, there will always be more of the former (assets) than the latter (liabilities).

Chief among our assets, we concluded, was our faith in God and the love and support available to us in a wealth of friends, family, and congregational family. With these, we can avoid having overdrawn accounts, and can operate from a sense of spiritual and emotional abundance rather than of scarcity.

In the Psalms, many of which include some form of lament, we also have the richest litanies of praise. The two go together. We lament our losses, then celebrate our blessings.

And always realize that that when all is said and done, we’ll forever end up blessed and in the black.

Thou that hast given so much to me
give me one thing more, a grateful heart:
not thankful when it pleaseth me,
as if Thy blessings had spare days,
but such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.

― George Herbert