Thursday, January 31, 2013

Two More Years of "Structure" for #00186571

Twenty-seven more months behind bars. That was the verdict my friend, age 23, was given at his trial last Tuesday.

True, it could have been worse. He had, after all, served a year's sentence on a drug charge once before, and was back again, this time for a probation violation (failure to keep his appointment with his P.O.), plus being caught driving his girl friend's car without a license, then seeking to elude the police at a check point--because he panicked and tried to get away to avoid getting put back into jail.

Bad, bad mistake. He knows it, regrets every bit of it, and has been sitting in our local jail for the past nine months because of it.

His attorney appealed to the judge to release him after a year in jail, then having him required to do an additional 90-days at Gemeinschaft Home, a local re-entry and drug rehabilitation program and be given an additional two year suspended sentence. His client was doing well, he said, was benefiting from having weekly visits with me for pastoral care and counseling, and was determined to get his life back together. Besides, his mother, in declining health and confined to a wheel chair, badly needed her son's help and support.

The prosecutor representing the Commonwealth's Attorney, on the other hand, while agreeing my friend was doing better, argued that he had made an extremely poor choice and would benefit from the "structure" (her term) of two more years of prison time.

The judge agreed. My heart sank, but who am I to question his judgment? How would I know what is fair and just, given the system of justice the judge is working with? And I do agree that releasing my friend would not have been a risk-free option.

But two more years of incarceration isn't risk-free, either, given the fact that prisons, by their very nature, are still more about punishment than rehabilitation. And at some point the law of diminishing returns sets in. If a year behind bars has some remedial effect on an inmate, will two years do twice that amount of good? Will three years bring about three times the desired amount of change?

I don't think so. In fact, at some point the opposite may become true. In the end, the person may be even less able to get his act together and make it in the outside real world.

And the cost to us taxpayers is enormous. Two more years in prison, plus still going through the Gemeinschaft program at the end of that time, which the judge also ordered, will cost us all at least $60,000. Minimum.

On the other hand, going directly to the 90-day Gemeinschaft program would have cost us around $3600, and my friend could have gotten a job while there, begun to help his mother financially, and actually started paying taxes while doing so.

I may be all wrong, of course. None of us has a crystal ball. But for a completely non-violent offender like my friend, I'd rather be on the side of giving him and other inmates every reasonable opportunity to do the right thing.

And if that doesn't work, we can always give them two more years later if necessary.

Here's a poem my friend sent me this week, and said I could post with this piece:

For every day that comes
opportunity awaits
For every day that passes
is a day too late

For every person you love
peace comes to mind
For every person you hate
trouble comes to find

For every time you remember
is a time that lasts
For every time you forget
is a time in the past

For every sin you commit
darkness takes lead
For every blessing you share
God takes heed

For every time you fail
there opens a door
For every time you succeed
there opens two more

Bulue Berry, HRRJ, 25 South Liberty Street, Harrisonburg, VA 22801 

For some additional posts about our local jail see

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Local Forum on Reducing Gun Violence!

A public forum to address ways to reduce gun violence will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 6 at the Harrisonburg City Council Chambers  on 409 South Main Street. 
Tim Ruebke of the Fairfield Center will serve as moderator for the forum, which will be sponsored by the local chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation ( 

Panelists will include the following:
Former board member of Virginians Against Handgun Violence Ben Fordney summarizing national issues and President Obama’s proposals.
Marcia Garst or a representative from the Harrisonburg/Rockingham County Commonwealth Attorney’s office discussing local issues and public policy.
City Council member and attorney Richard Baugh addressing Constitutional and other legal concerns. 
Dwayne Martin, a former Harrisonburg Police Department officer and current Crossroads Counseling Center Mental Health Support Coordinator, relating experiences from both law enforcement and mental health perspectives.
Retired English professor Robin McNallie, examining myths and misperceptions on gun issues.

Admission is free to all, with audience comments and questions welcomed.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Finest Things This World Can Offer

photo from Kai Degner's website
In psychologist Larry Crabb's book, "Shattered Dreams: God's Unexpected Pathway to Joy," the author invites us to embrace suffering as a gift that enables the kind of growth that may not happen otherwise.

I certainly agree that suffering can be an aid to our growth, and I appreciate the fact that Dr. Crabb doesn't promote the popular notion that followers of Jesus can expect life to be a bed of roses. Also, like him, I don't believe God will necessarily grant believers special protection and abundant material blessings, but I do have a problem with the following statement: 

"The finest things the world can offer have no compelling appeal to a reborn spirit. They are nothing compared to the joy of living in His Presence."

I consider myself a "reborn spirit" who has been exceptionally fortunate in having had only minor experiences of suffering in my life. That could change at any time, and I want to be prepared for that as much as one can be.

But "the joy of living in God's presence", I believe,  isn't found only in times of solemn reflection on our suffering, but also in the savoring of God's blessings. When I experience with my grandchildren the excitement of finding a wealth of earthworms in our compost pile, or celebrate the warm embrace of my loving wife, or am in the loving presence of members of our house church congregation, or enjoy some sweet corn and tomatoes fresh from our garden, I am also being blessed with a much appreciated taste of God's presence.

It's interesting to me that salvation history begins with a garden lush with life and delicious food and ends in a renewed heaven and earth that is likewise a home to "trees bearing all manner of fruit", a place where there is an ongoing wedding banquet laden with all kinds of food, a whole new Eden full of "the finest things the world can offer."

Of course if Dr. Crabb simply meant to say that the world of Hollywood, Wall Street or Madison Avenue has "no compelling appeal to a reborn spirit", I would totally agree, but he is referring to our very existence in this present God-created world.

To me, the good news is that in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, God is ever present with the "beloved community" that is in a covenant relationship with their Creator and Redeemer.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Automobiles and Guns, Apples and Oranges

I repeatedly hear people argue that since automobiles are associated with more fatalities than those involving guns (although this may change by 2015 if trends continue), that it makes no sense to limit or regulate gun ownership. But that overlooks some obvious differences between cars and guns.

For starters, some form of transportation is seen by most of us as a necessity, whereas the majority of us would be as well off, if not better off, without a gun.

Secondly, if using a vehicle accomplishes what it is meant to (transport people and cargo safely from one location to another) there is zero harm involved, period. Theoretically, if manufacturers and drivers were fully responsible, and cars and car ownership properly regulated, fatalities would virtually be eliminated.

This could be true of guns as well, but if the use of a gun accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish, it always inflicts some kind of damage on a person, animal or object--even if that object, for example, is only a target on a shooting range. That's simply what guns are designed to do, damage or destroy, which makes them different from cars.

Of course, we could have far fewer human fatalities in this country if every gun owner were strictly moral, safety conscious and law abiding, it's just that the instrument itself is of an entirely different nature, therefore deserving of a different level of regulation.

Meanwhile, unlicensed drivers can't go to a car show, buy a vehicle, and simply drive wherever and however they wish. And even President Reagan, in 1989, said, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen (to have guns) for sporting, for hunting, and so forth, or for home defense. But I do believe that an AK-47 or a machine gun are not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home."

For a humorous take on the car/gun comparison read "The Right To Bear Cars" and

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Worship Services Should Never Be Boring

As a child I well remember being bored stiff in the insufferably long church services we attended every Sunday morning. My young mind traversed the globe thinking of ways to make the time go faster.

As an adult I still suffer from an occasional lack of joyful and rapt attention in a service, and find myself looking forward to the tasty carry-in meal that marks to conclusion of each of our weekly gatherings as a living-room-size house church congregation.

In spite of that, I believe worship gatherings can be occasions we consistently look forward to if we regularly experience the following:

1. Everyone is greeted with a warm, embracing welcome. This may or may not include the Biblical “holy kiss”, but certainly a greeting that is equally heartfelt and invitational.

2. We are free to “share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear.” This means none of us needs to ever leave our gatherings with the same weight of troubles we brought with us. We are extravagantly loved and fervently prayed for as needed.

3. We recognize that every scriptural passage, every Bible story, every hymn text, every responsive reading we use has had some kind of powerful impact on an individual or group of persons at some point in time, so much so that it merited inclusion as worship and learning material to be preserved and passed on. So we savor each as having the power to truly inspire and bless. If we are bored by any of it, it is only because we haven’t imaginatively immersed ourselves in the text.

4. Each of us regularly contributes encouragements, hymns, readings, and/or teachings to our weekly “carry-in” service, rather than just being passive consumers of fare other “professionals” have prepared. 

5. We have celebrative love feasts together on a regular basis, with every meal experienced as a form of Eucharist.

You can check out our house church blog site at .

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reducing Stress

In the Introduction to his best selling book, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (And It's All Small Stuff),” Richard Carlson writes about how he came up with the title.

A foreign publisher of one of his earlier books asked him to get an endorsement from another best-selling author, Dr. Wayne Dyer, who had provided one for an earlier publication of his. So Carlson sent the request to Dyer, but didn’t hear from him, so after waiting for awhile, he told the publisher to go ahead and print the work without the Dyer endorsement.

Six months later, when he got his first copy of the book he saw the identical Dyer quote printed on the front cover that had been used in the earlier  book.

Needless to say, Carlson was quite upset and called his literary agent, who demanded that the books be removed from the shelves. Meanwhile, Carlson wrote his friend Dyer an apology, worried about what his reaction would be.

Soon after, he got this gracious response: “Richard, There are two rules for living in harmony. #1 Don’t sweat the small stuff, and #2 It’s all small stuff. Let the quote stand. Love, Wayne.”

Carlson writes, “That was it. No lectures, no threats. No hard feelings and no confrontation. Despite the obvious unethical use of his very famous name, he responded with grace and humility; no feathers ruffles. His response demonstrated the important concept of ‘going with the flow,’ and of learning to respond to life gracefully and with ease.”

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Psalm for the Depressed

The first Bible I owned was a little New Testament with the Psalms in the back, so I grew up thinking of the Psalms as an extension of the New Testament.

I still kind of think of them that way. And one of my favorites is what I call "A Psalm for the Depressed," one of a nearly a third of the Psalms that are laments.

This one is just six verses, easily divided into three stanzas of two verses each, the first one expressing desperate despair, the next stanza about equally desperate prayer, and last one that's all about renewed hope and praise.


How much longer will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
How much longer will you hide yourself from me?

How long must I endure trouble?
How long will sorrow fill my heart day and night?
How long will my enemies triumph over me?
When we’re having one of our “dark nights of the soul” our misery feels endless. Time stands still. Nights seem forever. In the mode of this first stanza, we're full of unanswered questions. Every one of its five lines ends with a question mark. And every question is the same, it’s about How long? or How much longer?

Everything looks dark when we're depressed, and we feel alone. Even in a crowded room, or in a community with dozens of people living all around us, we tend to feel isolated, and like no one knows or understands. Not only our friends and family, but even God has forgotten about us and has gone into hiding.

I heard a story once of a man who drank so much so that he passed out one day with too much alcohol. Some of his friends decided to play a trick on him by rubbing some limburger cheese on his mustache, right under his nose. A little while later, when he came to, he said, “Man, something really stinks in here. What is it?” He looked around everywhere, and everywhere things seemed to smell just as bad, and just as strong. When he stepped outside the house to get some fresh air, he found that the smell was as bad as ever. So he exclaimed, in disgust, “The whole world stinks!”

Sometimes that’s just the way it feels with depression. Everything seems just too awful.

So what does this psalmist do after getting all this awfulness off his chest?


He prays. Desperately.

Look at me, O Lord my God, and answer me.
Restore my strength; don't let me die.

Don't let my enemies say, “We have defeated him.”
Don't let them gloat over my downfall.

In other words, if you don't do something now, God, it’s going to make you look bad. My enemies will have a field day, celebrating another one of your children going down in defeat.

God doesn’t seem to mind these desperate, in-your-face, demands. The prayer gets included right in the Holy Bible. God understands and honors it.

This then leads to the next step.


Some people think praise is where we should start. When we feel down, just go into a praise mode. It’ll make you feel better.

And that’s fine, of course, if we can pull that off. But if not, we may need to back up and do some desperate, raw, from-the-gut praying first. And if we can’t even pray, then we may need to back up to the first part of the psalm, and just yell out a string of laments. Take the liberty to bang on the door of heaven with our “Why?” and “How much longer?” questions, until we can pray, and then pray until we can praise.

And sure enough, that finally happens.

I rely on your constant love;
I will be glad, because you will rescue me.

I will sing to you, O Lord,
because you have been good to me.

The progression of this Psalm reminds me a little of a plane flight.

The lamenting part is sort of like taxiing on to the runway, getting the plane off dead center and getting it lined up for take off. Then prayer becomes like the jet-burst of energy that gets us accelerating to lift off. The praise part of the flight is finally becoming airborne. We gain the kind of altitude that gives us a whole new attitude, a new perspective on our troubles.

Our troubles haven’t necessarily gone away, we've just gained a way of seeing them from a completely different point of view, in light of the bigger picture,

More like the way things may look from God’s perspective.

(This is a condensed version of a message I gave to residents at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community this morning)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

What Makes a Joke Funny?

I got the following funny story from a recent post on Frank Viola's blog, one I recommend (and that usually has much more serious content :-):

An old Italian-American man wanted to plant his annual tomato garden, but it was very difficult work, as the ground was hard. His only son, Vincent, who used to help him, was in prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament:

Dear Vinnie,
I’m pretty upset. It looks like I won’t be able to plant my tomato garden this year. I’m just getting too old to be digging up a garden plot. The ground is just too hard. I know if you were here you would dig it for me. Oh well. Maybe in the future.

A few days later he received a letter from his son.

Dear Pop,
Don’t dig up that garden. That’s where the bodies are buried.

At 4 am the next morning, FBI agents and local police arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. That same day the old man received another letter from his son.

Dear Pop,
You should be able to plant the tomatoes now. That’s the best I could do under the circumstances.

I thought this was pretty funny, but not to spoil the fun by over-analyzing the reasons why, I'm always intrigued by what makes us laugh. You'd think it would be because something is just purely delightful, but I've come to think it may be closer to the same triggers that make us cry.

Think about it. Jokes and other humorous tales are seldom funny in the sense that they are about highly pleasurable experiences. That is, we seldom laugh hearing stories where everything is wonderful from beginning to end. Rather it may be from the sense of comic relief we feel over someone else's dilemma, embarrassment or dumb mistake in fact being someone else's rather than ours own.

In most respects, the above story is a sad tale. The father is old and lives alone. He loves to grow tomatoes in his garden, but the ground is too hard for him to dig the soil. He has only one son, and that son is in prison for something bad he must have done, and for who knows how long. And there are supposedly some unknown dead bodies buried in the back yard, surely not a good thing. Then the police show up at a dreadfully early hour, disrupting the old man's sleep and his normally peaceful day. So far, everything sounds depressing.

Then there are the elements of suspense and surprise. "That's where the bodies are buried" introduces an unexpected twist to the story. We want to hear more. The police and FBI showing up add to the drama. Then there is more surprise in that they find nothing. But the clincher, the totally unexpected, out-of-the-box surprise is learning that this was all a clever scheme by son Vinnie to get the garden dug up for his father. Here we get to the sense of comic relief, with everything turning out surprisingly well due to someone upstaging and completely outsmarting those who normally have all the power and control. We get the delicious satisfaction of seeing uppity, self-important or seemingly more powerful people stripped of some of their stature (which, by the way, may be why there are so many lawyer, clergy and mother-in-law jokes). David brings down Goliath.

All of this introduces another darker element in many laughter-evoking jokes. Why do we laugh at seeing someone being hurt, frustrated or brought down a notch or two? In this case, the police and FBI are outsmarted, and by completely devious means. Vinnie lies about the bodies and tricks the powers that be into exhausting themselves for hours digging up some really hard ground. We all know this is a big mistake, but we get to laugh, at others' expense, at behaviors that would otherwise violate our values. 

Again, I don't want to spoil all the fun we can have with a good humored and well told tale. At one level, it's just a joke, and most of us take life far too seriously. But it may not hurt to understand some of the reasons we laugh at what we do. Maybe comedy is just one of the healthier alternatives we have to crying about all the tragedies and absurdities in life.

I welcome your reflections.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Got Power?

pow·er  /ˈpouər/  a. ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something.


I grew up thinking of power as a bad thing, as a form of dominance or coercion exercised over others. In my upbringing, true humility involved experiencing a certain amount of weakness and helplessness.


Of course, any power in the form of intimidation, violence, force, manipulation or control can be harmful indeed. But power defined as the ability to achieve worthwhile ends is both noble and necessary--and powerlessness in the form of victimization and helplessness is anything but a virtue.


As pastor of a medium size congregation for twenty years I often marveled at the sense of powerlessness many people expressed. Those who were older lamented that younger people seemed to hold all the power, whereas older people seemed to believe it was the youth and young adults who had the most influence in the church. Those who had longstanding roots in the congregation felt the newcomers in the church were most listened to, whereas the newcomers tended to express feelings of being marginalized, of always being considered outsiders. All of which illustrates the fact that power in relationships is so often a matter of perception.


Sometimes I wanted to say to my fellow church members, "Get over it. All of you have plenty of assets. Each has an abundance of power, enough to accomplish whatever you're called to do. Just do it. Act!"


For most of us, this courage to speak and act doesn't come easily, perhaps because we carry over into adult life many of the normally powerless feelings we experience in the first formative 18 years of our lives. As children we are in a lesser, one down position, impatiently waiting for the day when we will finally be respected as full-fledged, card-carrying adults.


But when our 18th or our 21st birthday finally arrives we realize nothing magic happens. We still lack much of the adult stature and empowerment we so looked forward to. In fact, for some of us, becoming truly "psychologically of age" may not happen until we reach mid-life, if then. I was in my forties when it dawned on me that when I father was that age, I considered him not only ancient, but fearless, and more than capable of accomplishing whatever needed to be done. While here I was, forty-something and still excessively cautious and unsure of myself, especially around people who were older than I, though I managed to hide most of those feelings well, as I'm sure now that my father had done.


Good power comes in many forms. Some of the natural assets we may have are gifts like age, experience, education, personality, intelligence, our gifts and talents, as well as our financial assets. Gender, race or family background may also play a role. Then there are the supernatural assets we have access to, gifts from God like the ability to practice love, experience joy, be patient and persevering, exercise courage, and use whatever spiritual gifts we've been blessed with. 


These all represent forms of power, and we all have all we need, a diversity of assets but never a lack of them. With power aplenty, and to spare, we can go about blessing and empowering others, and making the world a much better place to live.


Here's text to ponder today:


God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.


Glory to God in the church!
Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus!
Glory down all the generations!
Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes!

Ephesians 3:20-21 (the Message) 

You may also be interested in the post "Too Soon Old, Too Late Grown Up"

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

For God so Loved... Corporations?

In the much debated 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court case,  the justices, in a 5-4 decision, held that the First Amendment allowed corporations and unions the freedom to spend money in political campaigns as they wished. In that sense it conferred the status of "persons" to corporate entities.

Numerous pundits have been poking fun at that idea, and some real "persons" have come up with some creative ways to contest the notion. One commuter, for example, carried documents of a corporation in which he is a shareholder on the passenger seat of his car, claiming it as the extra passenger he needed to give him the right to use the carpool lane on his way to and from work. He did this hoping he would be caught and thus be able to make his case in court. The judge dismissed his attempt as frivolous, of course, but he plans to appeal it anyway.

On a more serious note, former Harvard economist and author David C. Korten wrote a 1995 best selling book entitled, When Corporations Rule the World, in which he warned against the rising power of global corporations, now far exceeding that of many nations:

Needless to say, it hasn't been easy to create an economic system able to produce 358 billionaires while keeping another 1.3 billion people living in absolute deprivation. It took long and dedicated effort by legions of economists, lawyers, and politicians on the payrolls of monied interests to design and implement such a system. It required a radical altering of the dominant culture and the restructuring of many important institutions. It will take a similarly committed effort on the part of civil society to design and put in place an economic system supportive of economic justice and environmental sustainability. 

I also like Elizabeth Warren's recent statement:

"No, ... corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters. That matters because we don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people." 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Missing Half of the Gospel

"...the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments... are summed up in this word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law."
                                                                   Romans 13:8-10 (ESV)

Our daughter and husband are part of a congregation in Rochester, NY, which is home to numerous refugees from Rwanda and Burundi who endured terrible suffering in the brutal conflict between mostly Christian Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups.

American theologian Miroslav Volf, a native of Croatia, notes the similarity between that tragedy, where faithful church goers on both sides took up machetes against their neighbors, and the massacres that happened in the Balkans between Serbs and Croatians. He writes, “During the war in former Yugoslavia you could occasionally see a Serbian fighter sitting in a tank and flashing three fingers. And those three fingers represented, believe it or not, the Holy Trinity. Flashing that sign meant, ‘We Serbians know how to cross ourselves.’”

“It’s religiosity reduced to a single symbolic gesture," he writes. "And once you reduce religion to can then project everything you want onto that. So you believe in a God who ... is all powerful and is also for you. And suddenly you’ve got this immense servant to do all the dirty work that you need to be done and then... feel good that all that has happened.”

What a shame that Christianity ever got away from the clear teachings of its founder, who renounced all violence with both his life and his teaching. And then to have Christian missionaries setting out to convert people like the Hutus and Tutsis without this mandate of the Prince of Peace--to not only love God with all our heart, soul and might, but also to love our enemies and our neighbors as we do ourselves.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

If There Were no Sexual Assaults

Women of India demand justice, respect
The recent brutal gang rape and murder of a medical student in New Delhi reminds us of the horrific injustices women have experienced at the hands of heartless men for far, far too long.

Mila Litchfield, in a piece in EMU’s student paper, the Weather Vane, in December, 2011, writes, “Here are the things I would do if sexual assault did not exist: Hitchhike, go camping alone, take midnight walks, take morning walks... make eye contact with strangers, smile at people, walk down the street without being scared. It’s kind of a depressing little list.”

She goes on to say,  “But I live in a world where sexual assault is an unfortunate reality and ‘not being scared’ is just a luxury that I cannot afford. The risks are too high...  They say that one in four women are affected by sexual assault. The truth is that all women are affected...”

Powerful and sobering words, calling us all to strongly support Mila’s closing statement, “I can only hope that I will live in a world in which I can go hitchhiking. I can only hope that someday I will live in a world where I can walk down a street without having to be constantly alert to my surroundings. I can only hope that someday I will live in a world where I will feel comfortable smiling at strangers. But until that day, will you be there for me? Can we be there for each other?”

Yes, Mila, we can and we must, and for sexual assault victims everywhere.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Some Questions for Attorney General Candidates

This is a sample of questions I've sent to the two area Republican candidates for attorney general over a month ago. Since I have yet to receive a response, maybe they need to hear from more concerned citizens like yourself!

Feel free to copy and paste any or all of the following and email to:

Greetings (Senator Mark Obenshain, Delegate Rob Bell)

Here are some questions I'd appreciate your responses to as a candidate for the office of Attorney General:

1. Do you fully support initiatives like that of Governor McDonnell's Task Force on Alternative Sentencing for Nonviolent Offenders?

2. Do you support ongoing funding for re-entry and rehabilitation programs like the Harrisonburg Diversion Center, Gemeinschaft Home Harrisonburg) and Piedmont House (in Albemarle County)?

3. Would you support legislation banning the use of the restraint chair and the isolated padded cell for mentally ill and suicidally depressed inmates in our jails (such as at HRRJ)?

4. Would you support a continued moratorium on new prison construction in favor of alternatives to incarceration like GPS monitoring technology for appropriate pretrial and post trial cases involving nonviolent offenders with jobs (then mandating that they work to support their families and pay their court costs and fines)?

5. Are you open to considering legislation to help curb gun violence?

6. Do you support Governor McDonnel's recent proposal to restore voting rights to rehabilitated offenders?

I look forward to your reply.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

From 'Fear in a Hat' to Wisdom From the Heart

Gemeinschaft Home
I was quite impressed by a recovery group session with twelve ex-offenders I observed at Gemeinschaft Home yesterday. With some inspirational music playing in the background, program director Kirk Saunders had each participant write some of their biggest fears on a piece of paper, fold it, and then choose one from the "hat" what someone else had written. 

Each person was then to try to understand where that person was coming from and what they were going through. For most, this wasn't hard, as one by one admitted to feeling much the same way as the person whose list they had in their hand. 

A few of the fears were:
"I'm afraid I'll never gain the trust of children or other family members again."

"I'm afraid of dying and never achieving my goal of becoming a sober and responsible person."

"I'm afraid that when I get back to my old environment I'll fall back into my old self-destructive ways."

"I'm afraid of losing my loved ones and never being able to see them again."

What impressed me most was the wealth of wisdom the men expressed as they acknowledged the truth of what they had been learning together, that there is a low cost (and low benefit) way to go forward, and a high cost (and high benefit) path, and that wisdom means learning from mistakes and making sure those mistakes will not have been entirely in vain. 

Another theme I heard was that of recovery requiring constant maintenance to make sure they don't become "good starters but poor finishers." And that of realizing their need for a Power greater than themselves, as well as for the support of good peers with whom to develop accountable relationships in overcoming their addictions.

I was moved by how these ordinary twelve wise men were walking and talking together. It sounded a lot like a recipe for success, for relieving fears and living by faith and courage for the hard journey ahead.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Wisdom From #00186571 (guest post)

Bulue Berry is 23 years old and is currently at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail. He gave me permission to post some of his writing here.

He is glad to receive mail at c/o HRRJ, 25 South Liberty Street, Harrisonburg, VA 22801.

Here's one of his recent pieces:

Check Yourself

I have come to a realization of a reality
that of the inevitable chain reaction of a truth

When misery strikes
we live, lose and learn 

We make a mistake
that sometimes we learn from
and sometimes we relive
that same mistake
as if we refuse to learn
continually placing ourselves
in the same places
same situations
and around the same people,
that influence us in bad ways
causing us to be stuck in a moment of regret
or even a lifetime of regret
saying to ourselves

Never again will I ever put myself through this again

But as soon as the nightmare’s experience is lived
to be in the past
in due time
by natural order
that experience falls out of remembrance
as if forced from the mind

So just taking a little time
to understand our foolish ways
and lack of judgment
could be the key to not only
take us out of temptation
and the darkness of devastation
(like jail/prison)
but could also be the key
to open the door to the brighter side
which takes us
from the dark into the light
from misery and shame into love and happiness
where regret turns to certainty and
failure turns to success

Sunday, January 6, 2013

To Be, Then No Longer To Be?

Divorce erases a mom or dad from the family portrait

In a July 2012 article in Christianity Today entitled, “Why Divorce Calls Children’s Existence Into Question,” Andrew Root writes, “Just months before my own wedding, I sat with my mom in the living room of the home I had grown up in, as she explained that divorce was the next exit on the highway of our family's history.

"It had been several weeks since she had told me that her and my father's marriage was in serious trouble. Now, she told me more: They had gotten married way too young, noting that if she could do it all over again, she would have chosen another route for her life...

“I couldn't help feeling a shadow come over me,” he went on. “I looked at our family portrait hanging on the wall... and wondered if I might be disappearing... My parents' impending divorce made me feel thin, as if now that my parents' marriage was disappearing, ...and I too was disappearing.” “I existed only because my mother and father had become one, creating me out of the abundance of their covenant community,” he adds. “Now, standing amid the debris and shock of the collision that ended their marriage, all this felt up for grabs. If I was through their union, who could I be in their division? ... Could I be at all?”

Root's point is that divorce not only impacts children emotionally and economically, but ontologically--that is, it affects their very sense of being.

In the article he goes on to say that “every child is meant to be welcomed into the beauty of existence through the embrace of mother and father. Of course, when abuse and extreme neglect fester, the embrace is broken or becomes so contaminated that it wilts the humanity of everyone in it. Here, divorce may be a tragic necessity. But we should remember that such awful realities remain the minority among divorces in the US. Reportedly, about two-thirds of divorces end as low-conflict (i.e., no abuse or neglect) marriages, like that of my own parents.”

Such low conflict divorces, he believes, are especially devastating to the 40% of those under 21 today who are affected by it, in spite of all of the popular psychology today that says divorced and separated children will do just fine as long as they can be assured that none of this was their fault.

But all this ignores the fact that such children are unavoidably divided, Root adds, as in having one room at Mom's and another at Dad's, one schedule at Dad's and another at Mom's. “Their parents may be persuaded that they can undo the union they have created,” he writes, "but their children cannot undo themselves as persons who are inextricably connected with the once bonded pair that gave them birth."

What do you think?

For more of my reflections on divorce see

Friday, January 4, 2013

An Unspeakable Crime, A Crying Shame
 I attended a conference some years ago on childhood sexual abuse where one of the presenters, a seminary graduate who should have known better, stated with a straight face that the Bible has little to say about the value of children--about respecting their rights or protecting them from abuse, or about giving them much of a place in general.

I wanted to ask her what Bible she’d been reading, and whether she’d never read about Moses, the infant protected in the marshes of the Nile, watched over by God and jealously guarded by his sister and parents in defiance of Pharoah’s order. Or how about the Christmas story, in which we’ve almost overemphasized the infant Jesus in comparison to the attention most give the rest of his life? And how about the absolutely clear cases of Jesus making statements like, “Don’t ever dare offend or harm or abuse any child, or you will be judged and condemned by God Himself, who has each one under constant watch by special angel guards?”

To Jesus, the most disempowered, the least of these, the most defenseless, are his first priority. “Let the children come to me, before anything and everyone else,” he says. “And if any of you put a stumbling block in the way of one of these little ones, it would be better for that person if a great millstone were hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea.”  That is strong language indeed.

In my work as a counselor, I am often reminded of the long term effects childhood trauma can have. In several studies I’m aware of on sexual abuse in communities of faith, the abusers were less likely to be either strangers or parents or grandparents of children or teens, but reveal a disturbing number of cases of younger adolescents being abused by older teens or by other trusted church or family friends.

But no matter who the perpetrators are, it’s hard to overstate the damage this kind of abuse can inflict on victims, who may tend to blame themselves, live with a sense of profound shame over their experience, and have increased issues with trust and with self esteem. One middle age adult I worked with a number of years ago had extreme problems with displaced anger he frequently vented on everything and everyone around him, which he was later able to trace to his experience with an older man, a neighbor, who sexually abused him for years while he was of early elementary school age. For decades he had felt unable to tell anyone about what had happened.

It is also important to recognize that there are cases where parents and others have been falsely accused on the basis of so called “repressed memories”, so I have known victims on both sides of this issue, but my prayer is that we can create a climate in which children and teens, especially, are safe, and where any and all victims can feel free to share their abuse experiences with others who will stand by them and help them heal.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

It's a Real Hot Item

2003 Shenadoah

“Chop your own firewood and it will warm you twice.” 
- African Proverb

"I have no other task
than being at home, finally alone
with my woodburning stove
full of logs"

For some thirty years I’ve enjoyed cutting, hauling, and splitting wood every year to burn in one of numerous wood stoves we’ve owned. Our reward is to enjoy the warmth and comfort of a wood fire on freezing days and frosty nights.

As a country boy I grew up with wood stoves, and helped my father and brothers for hours on end each fall and winter harvesting and hauling firewood for our not-so-well insulated farm house. The Warm Morning stove in our living room contributed to a lot of family togetherness on cold winter evenings. 

But back then the work involved felt like a dreaded chore, and I often wished for an oil or coal furnace to provide a less work-intensive and more uniformly even heat source for our house. It wasn’t always fun to endure the chill of having to keep our woodbox filled and then to have to sleep in a cold upstairs bedroom far removed from it.

But as I grew older, I couldn’t resist the urge to once again invest in a toasty wood heater to be next to after being out in the stress and cold of a chilly day.

For the past number of years our Shenandoah has been warming not only our ground floor family room but the living area above it as well. The warm air naturally finds its way up the basement stairway and the cooler air descends to take its place, keeping the house comfortable except in the most extreme weather conditions. Then our furnace or heat pump provide extra backup as needed.

We bought this latest stove when Shenandoah Manufacturing was going out of business, and it has served us well. But just recently I got the kind permission of my good wife to have us invest in a newer, super efficient "Jotul" (Norwegian built and pronounced “Yodel”) sold at the local Acme Stove Company. In some ways I hate to part with a sturdy and faithful friend that has helped warm body and soul for so long, but I’ve always wanted to see how one of the newer models might consume even less wood and emit even less smoke up our chimney.

And since we’ve always been able find plenty of free sources of wood, we figure any wood stove will pay for itself in fuel savings in a winter or two.

So, with apologies to Garrison Keillor, we now have this real hot item available to the highest bidder.

Just make us an offer.