Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Bible's First, Final and Foremost Focus

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

After a lifetime of reflecting on the narrative of scripture, I've concluded that its main theme is that of God's love for enemies. In other words, God's ultimate purpose, hinted at in the Bible's beginning but becoming abundantly clear in its conclusion, is that of restoring what is broken in creation and reconciling all that has become divided and alienated.

God's story begins with the shalom we call Eden, centers on the cross-based, enemy-loving life and resurrection of Jesus, and ends with a new heavens and a restored earth. In Christ, God comes to bring an end to all of the enmity that exists between us and our Creator and between us and our fellow creatures. All alienation is over.

I used to wonder about the meaning of the phrase in Psalm 23, "You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies". Why not in the presence of my friends? Does God simply invite our enemies so they can look on with envy as we good people enjoy a table spread with abundance?

No, God is inviting us to a Eucharist in which former enemies are being transformed into friends of God and friends with one another.

Here's one of my favorite examples of this main theme, found in Paul's letter to the Ephesians (3:14-18), in which he addresses the foremost enmity of his time:  

For Christ is our living peace. He has made a unity of the conflicting elements of Jew and Gentile by breaking down the barrier which lay between us. By his sacrifice he removed the hostility of the Law, with all its commandments and rules, and made in himself out of the two, Jew and Gentile, one new humanity, thus producing peace. For he reconciled both to God by the sacrifice of one body on the cross, and by this act made utterly irrelevant the antagonism between them. Then he came and told both you who were far from God and us who were near that the war was over. And it is through him that both of us now can approach the Father in the one Spirit.  
 - J.B. Phillips translation

This is God's dream. I want to make it mine, and pray that every congregation of believers becomes a living demonstration of divided, broken and alienated human beings becoming one, truly a foretaste of great things to come.

Friday, September 27, 2013

My Latest Civics Experiment: 8 Simple Questions, 6 Statewide Candidates, 3 Honest Tries = Zero Acknowledgments or Responses

Sic Semper Captivis?
As a long time advocate for prisoners in the Commonwealth, I decided I'd try emailing the following questions to candidates for Governor, Lt. Governor and Commonwealths Attorney. I realize the list might have been overly long, and that I should have probably limited my inquiry to two or three items, but here's what I sent out August 11, expecting a lot of simple Yes answers:

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

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

• 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?

• 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 who could work to support their families and pay their court costs and fines?

• Do you support recent proposals to restore voting rights to rehabilitated offenders?

• Do you support greater utilization of Virginia’s Geriatric Parole Statute (Code § 53.1-40.01) as a way of reducing the growing cost of health care for aging inmates who no longer pose any danger to society?

• Do you favor reinstating parole in Virginia and offering reduced time for inmates who utilize every opportunity to rehabilitate themselves in prison and prepare for effective reentry?

• Would you support all inmates being supplied with the ID they need to be able to apply for jobs, driver's licenses, etc., upon release?

Here are the responses so far to that original email:

Candidates for Governor
Ken Cuccinelli   0 
Terry McAuliffe  0

Candidates for Lieutenant Governor
Bishop E.W. Jackson, Sr.  0 
Ralph Northam  0

Candidates for Attorney General
Mark Obenshain  0

Mark R. Herring  0

After two weeks, I followed up with a first-class letter with the same questions, dated August 28, and with the following responses:

Ken Cuccinelli   0 
Terry McAuliffe   0

Bishop E.W. Jackson, Sr.  0 
Ralph Northam   0

Mark Obenshain   0

Mark R. Herring   0

After two more weeks (August 13), I decided to try a phone call. Since the Democratic candidates listed no phone number on their websites, I followed up with them with another email contact, resulting in the following responses:

Ken Cuccinelli:  Staffer who answered the phone apologized and said they would check this out, but I have yet to hear anything.
Terry McAuliffe:  0  

Bishop E.W. Jackson, Sr.:  Staff member asked me to resend the email, and sincerely promised to give this top priority. Still no response so far.
Ralph Northam  0

Mark Obenshain:  Staff member said they don't have time to respond to "surveys" but would get back to me with some kind of response soon. Have yet to hear anything.

Mark R. Herring  0

Again, in all fairness, I should have limited the number of questions I asked. And apparently I should have realized that each of these candidates (and their campaign staffs) have more urgent priorities--like trying to persuade citizens like me to vote for them.

Or should I just consider this a case of "three strikes and you're out"?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Greater Inequality Than in Mexico?

"Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 
The Apostle Paul, II Corinthians 8:13
According to the Huffington Post, economic disparity in the U.S. now exceeds that of many of our Central and South American neighbors.

Economist Tyler Cowen, in his new book, Average Is Over, predicts we'll be facing more of the same--or worse, with an ever increasing number of the very wealthy exerting ever more political and economic power in America while an even larger percentage will be living at or near the poverty level. An increasingly global, technological society, he says, favors those with bright ideas and superior computer skills, folks who will inevitably rise to the top while the rest of us will have to get used to living on less, no matter how hard we work.

This represents a major shift from even 40 or 50 years ago, one he predicts will result in present retirees mostly holding on to their benefits but young people benefiting from a smaller and smaller share of the nation's wealth. A current example is that of many inner city schools (like Philadelphia) opening up this fall without guidance counselors, athletic programs or music or art classes, in spite of an economy that is producing more wealth than ever.

Is this something we must accept as inevitable? I hope not, although it wasn't encouraging to have Congress vote last week to cut $40 million from the Food Stamp Program while leaving intact many of the generous farm subsidies that often benefit corporate farmers--when the two have normally been a part of the same legislative package. At the same time, no one is seeing any cuts in Congressional pay, in spite of the sequester.

Some politicians who identify themselves as Christians claim the only way the poor should be helped is by voluntary contributions. To use tax dollars to help them is “theft” and “using other people’s money,” they argue. Oddly, they don’t seem to think that using tax dollars for crop subsidies, energy subsidies, surveillance apparatus or weapons systems constitute theft. The hypocrisy is clear. - See more at:
Some politicians who identify themselves as Christians claim the only way the poor should be helped is by voluntary contributions. To use tax dollars to help them is “theft” and “using other people’s money,” they argue. Oddly, they don’t seem to think that using tax dollars for crop subsidies, energy subsidies, surveillance apparatus or weapons systems constitute theft. The hypocrisy is clear. - See more at:
Some politicians who identify themselves as Christians claim the only way the poor should be helped is by voluntary contributions. To use tax dollars to help them is “theft” and “using other people’s money,” they argue. Yet they seem to have no problem with using tax dollars for crop subsidies, energy subsidies or weapons systems.

Meanwhile, according  to the Tax Policy Center, nearly 1.2 million taxpayers in the top 1% of the wealthiest people in the U.S. will owe no income tax at all in 2013, thanks in large part to tax breaks that help them reduce their tax liability to zero.

Here are two of their key findings:
  • Corporate tax breaks will total $108 billion in FY2013 – more than 1.5 times what the U.S. government spends on education funding. Between 2007 and 2013, the revenue lost from U.S. corporations deferring taxes on income earned abroad rose 200%, going from $14 billion to $42 billion.
  • All tax breaks for individuals will exceed $1 trillion this year, with about 17% of the biggest individual tax breaks going to the top 1% of earners. In fact, many individual tax breaks disproportionately benefit wealthy households.
Is there something wrong with this picture?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

We're All Conservatives (We're Also All Liberals)

We're all guilty of applying, and misapplying, labels that add to the polarization and mistrust that are so pervasive these days.

Take the labels "conservative" and "liberal". They can have such diverse meanings depending on the contexts and persons applying them.

Truth is, I have yet to meet "liberals" who are not decidedly conservative in some ways and around some issues. We're all "old order" when it comes to certain changes creeping into our congregations or communities. There are so many things we'd much rather keep just the way they are, thank you.

And that's not bad. Every family, every faith community, every nation needs people invested in preserving the best of their traditions, who insist that not everything new is necessarily better.

On the other hand, those same "conservatives", around some issues, see themselves as innovators and as progressives--"liberals" if you please. Ask your parents and other people you grew up with if you have preserved and prized everything you were ever taught.

Not that this is all bad, of course. Without some change, societies and organizations, including religious ones, would become stagnant and stale.

But none of us is totally one or the other extreme on all issues. The line between liberal/conservative polarities goes right through each one of us.

Which is as it should be. So why not stop making generalizations and creating caricatures of each other? We are all far more complex and more interesting than that.

As an example, just as the stereotype of political liberalism (above) is irrational, it would be equally unfair to describe political conservatives as "the miserly who elect the heartless to refuse help to the truly needy."

Meanwhile, just call me a conservative liberal, or a liberal conservative. Much like you, I'm a blend of both.

Or better yet, just call me Harvey. And let's take time to listen to each other.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Radio Interview on Mental Health Services for Inmates

Virginia Public Radio website
The following is from a five part series on "Crisis in Correctional Care" by Sandy Hausman, reporter for WVTF, Radio IQ and a group of stations known as Virginia Public Radio. The segment for which she interviewed me is on mental health services, but the series also addresses the aging of our inmate population, the practice of contracting with private companies for medical services and other concerns.

Thirty-one-year-old James Harvey was recently released from the Coffeewood Correctional Center near Culpeper:

“ Y’know I’ve seen guys that went in there and couldn’t handle the stress of being locked up.  They’ve put in a sick call to see a psychiatrist or something like that, and it takes them 30-45 days, and the next thing you know they’re hanging themselves in a cell.  I had two friends – one when he first came in, he told them that he was depressed and he’s had thoughts of suicide before and they put him in the holding area, and then they come back a couple of hours later, and he’s hung himself.  And then one guy that asked to see the psychiatrist – he thought he needed medication, and they put it off for 30-45 days, and they ended up finding him in his cell.”

Other troubled inmates end up in what some describe as solitary confinement. The state of Virginia prefers the term segregation, since inmates are allowed to speak with visitors, but State Delegate Patrick Hope, who recently toured Virginia’s Supermax prison Red Onion, says that’s a small distinction.

“They can speak to visitors in segregation, but the fact is very few people can take the time to visit Red Onion.  It’s the southwest corner of the state.  It’s a six hour drive to Richmond, a seven hour drive from Arlington, and nine hours from Virginia Beach.”

The state also points out that prisoners in segregation usually get one hour a day in a small, outdoor cage for so-called recreation.  But ACLU attorney Hope Amezquita says that, too, is solitary.

“You have no physical contact with anybody. We often hear from prisoners who write to us who say the only physical contact with another person is when they’re being shackled to be brought to the shower.  In Virginia they’re permitted to have three showers a week, five hours of rec time a week, and that’s it. “

Inmates can get out of segregation by taking part in special programs and consistently demonstrating pro-social skills, but Amezquita says people with mental illness can’t always do that.

And in county or city jails, the situation may be even worse.  Harvey Yoder is a Mennonite minister and family counselor who often visits the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail.  There, suicidally depressed inmates may be placed in an isolated padded cell.

“A person is stripped of their clothing, given only a paper gown to wear, and the cell itself has nothing in it whatsoever.  No mattress or anything.  It’s void of any kind of visual stimulation, any kind of human contact, and your food is just given through a slot in the door, without any utensils to eat it with, and  there’s a grate in the floor that has to be used for a commode.  It’s just abominable.”

And, he says, those who pose a physical threat to themselves or others can be put in a restraining chair – their arms, legs and torsos strapped down for hours.  Often the chair is used to control prisoners deemed to be at risk for suicide.

“The jail is operated by a sheriff who is elected, of course, as all sheriffs are in Virginia, and one bad case of something terrible happening – someone hanging themselves, killing themselves in jail – just really tarnishes the image of the jail, so they take all kinds of precautions .”

Yoder and other mental health professionals have offered to counsel inmates at no charge if the local sheriff agrees to stop using these methods, and Delegate Hope says the state has been providing more programs to help prisoners cope with mental illness and anger.

"They’ve maybe committed an assault on a correctional officer, and a lot of those assaults have been because of a mental illness.  Maybe they’re bi-polar or schizophrenic, and so if you start to treat the underlying problem, then you can solve a lot of these behavior problems.  States like Mississippi and Maine have lowered their  inmates in segregation by 70 and 80%.”

He says some inmates are so violent that short-term solitary confinement is the only way to assure safety for staff and other prisoners, but for the future protection of Virginia citizens, Hope thinks we need to find better long-term approaches, because isolation is damaging to mental health and could make people more dangerous.  

“About 90% of all the prisoners in Virginia will one day get free, and so I think how we treat them in our jails is very important for when they get out into the community on the outside, and when you put someone in segregation, someone in isolation for long periods of time, they become seriously mentally, and I worry about their next victim, I worry about their next crime.  That’s why the public should be outraged about the way we’ve been treating people in segregation to this point.”

He believes the use of solitary confinement is a violation of the nation’s 8th Constitutional Amendment, prohibiting the use of cruel and unusual punishment, so courts could – eventually – put an end to this practice.  In our next report, we’ll look at the fastest growing segment of Virginia’s prison population – people over 60.  Their healthcare costs are far higher than the average, and the courts have required prisons to provide adequate care.  That reality could force Virginia to consider granting parole to elderly inmates, but many of them have no place to go.

I’m Sandy Hausman.

Check this link for audio and print versions of the series, and this for more of my posts on criminal justice issues.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Guestpoet: A Thrown Stone is a Drone

Huffington Post photo
The following was presented by Mark Johnson, outgoing executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, at a protest at the Hancock Air Force Drone Training and Operational Base at Syracuse in April. I post it here with his blessing:

The stone is a drone
The sling launcher taking aim
David demonstrates to Goliath
The advantage of nimbleness
The leverage of trajectory
The advantage of resistance.

But David’s triumph is a lesson,
Not a victory; his new power
Will corrupt and abuse,
Uriah sent to battle, lust’s ruse,
His psalms will be Lamentations.

The arrow is a drone
Pulled first to launch with a bow
Of bent ash and strung gut,
Then cocked into multiples of force
The cross bow and its bolt
Metal piercing jackets
Armor no more
The silent slicing of death
Slips into the innocent as smoothly
As into the shielded soldier’s
One unprotected gore.

Every thing won with war
Must be repurchased with labor
That turns swords into plow shares
That harnesses gun powder and gasoline
To the horses of production
Of health and hearth at home.

The bullet is a drone
Everything won by war is lost.

The rocket is a drone
The only thing won by war is enmity.

This truth is a drone
Everything won by war
Must be repurchased by humility.

All the psalms of all the kings
The prophecies of vengeance
Warn us again and again
There is no hiding from truth.
The fruits of the battle will be blood
But the end of the struggle will be justice
And when it comes it will not be death
It will be life and will be sung
As love finding its way
At last to the heart
Fists opened and
Raised in welcome.

The simple truth is this
We have to want the change we see
And we have to work at it every day
When the sun rises we must start running.
We are exactly where we need to be
Doing exactly what we need to do.
This is important and this is right
To be here to say no to drones
No to war. There is no way to peace
Peace is the way and that is love.

Dismantle the instruments of war
Destroy the bombs and their deliveries
Walk with the enemy, the stranger, another mile
Until he, until she, is a stranger no more,
Until we understand that we are one
At sea in the sun boat, aboard spaceship earth
Willing to give everything we have
To secure its beauty, live into its worth.

We will not be reapers of vengeance
Or we will know the wrath of that evil;
We will not be predators of innocents
Or we will be rendered without limbs or hope.

Hear our voices, feel our feet
Fill the air, shake the street,
No to drones, no to war
We are where we belong
This is our song.

Mark C. Johnson
April 28, 2013

Mark's blog can be found at this link.

Here's one of Doug Hendren's recent anti-war songs.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Seven Habits of Effective Conflict-Managing Congregations

Williamsburg Retreat Center
I was blessed with the opportunity to lead a congregational retreat with members of Richmond's First Mennonite Church this past weekend on the theme of "Unity and Spirituality." Together we reflected on  some of the following good "habits" of congregations that are able to embrace conflict as normal and as actually offering potential for growth:

1. They Celebrate a Healthy Sense of Personal and Congregational Empowerment (I Corinthians 1:1-9, 18-31, 2:1-16)
Each member is encouraged to grow in personal power and gifting. 
How do we effectively experience and use "power" in our church?

2. They Recognize Differences as Normal, but Rule Out Divisiveness as Unacceptable (I Corinthians 1:10-17, 3:1-20)
Unity in diversity is seen as both possible and desirable.   
What makes church families such fertile settings for divisions and conflicts?

3. They Celebrate a Sense of Spiritual and Emotional Abundance Rather Than Scarcity (I Corinthians 3:21-4:1-21)
Members receive plenty of recognition, validation and respect (feel valued), and feel able to influence outcomes (feel they have a say). Thus there is less need for getting back or for retaliating in anger and frustration--or for withdrawing, giving up or retreating in hurt and helplessness.
What happens when people feel their basic needs for love and influence aren’t being met?

4. They Are Capable of Repairing Relationships With Troubled Members (I Corinthians 5-6)

Problems are seen as normal and as opportunities for the congregation to responsibly and redemptively engage each other when they occur.
How can we learn to more effectively address our problems rather than either attacking (or simply avoiding) each other?

5. They Balance Concerns for Individual Freedom With Support for the Community’s Basic Values and Beliefs (I Corinthians 7-12)

Those with a more robust conscience on disputable matters show respect and regard for those with more sensitive consciences.
What are some of the debatable matters facing our congregation?
6. They Demonstrate A High Level of Respect, Patience and Care for Each Other Other (I Corinthians 13)

Believers demonstrate a commitment to carrying out God’s will, but always in God’s way, in the spirit of Christ-like, agape love. They keep their respect for others high, their expectations moderate, and their anxiety low.
How can we foster growth toward this level of maturity?

7. They Practice Orderliness and Respectful Listening in Their Church Gatherings (I Corinthians 14?)

They don’t come to church meetings with closed minds, but with the commitment to carefully listen and learn from others, encouraging the free expression of everyone’s gifts and insights. After listening well, they discuss and discern the Spirit’s leading in reaching needed consensus, persevering at this for as long as it takes.
Is following “Robert’s Rules of Order” always the best way to do church business?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Check this link for more posts on church unity, including the September 12, 2012, piece on 1) why "conservatives" and "liberals" need each other, 2) how congregations can benefit by hearing from both, and 3) how each of us is decidedly "liberal" on some issues and definitely "conservative" on others.

Friday, September 13, 2013

"It will not always be as it is now"

7/18/13 aerial view of Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan (REUTERS/Mandel Ngan)
In his meditation in the July-August, 2013, issue of "Beside the Still Waters", James Baer tells about a Russian family he visited that had the words "It will not always be as it is now" written in large print on a placard on their dining room wall.

It turns out that many years before the father had spent years in a Soviet prison for refusing to enlist in the army because of what he believed Jesus taught about violence. It was then that the mother had written these words and posted them as a sign of hope for herself and for her children, trusting that one day their father would return and things would be better.

When the father was finally released and life greatly improved, some friends asked why she had not removed those words. Her reply was simply, "Because it's still true that 'It will not always be as it is now'."

Just as people in distress need hope, those of us who are doing well need to learn from history that all nations, economies and cultures rise and fall. We could all face hardships in our lifetimes like those of people in Syria today and in many other trouble spots in the world, past and present.

Or as with the following:

• A major collapse of the worldwide economic system
• Destruction of computer systems on which we have all become extremely dependent
• Major droughts and other weather events associated with climate change that could result in severe shortages of water and food
• Massive assaults by terrorists or by nations with atomic and other weapons

Meanwhile, we need to have a heart that suffers with those already experiencing devastation and do everything possible to help them, just as we would have others do to us if we were in similar straits.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Wise and Foolish": A Chapel Talk at EMS

As a former part-time teacher at Eastern Mennonite High School from 1964-1987, I had the opportunity to speak to middle and high school students at an EMS chapel service today on the subject of "Living Wisely". I introduced it with a condensed version of something I posted on an earlier blog about an auto wreck I had, then proceeded with the following:

I've come up with my own simple definitions for "wise" and "foolish". Wise is what you do that we’ll feel the least possible regret about--and for which we’ll experience the greatest possible satisfaction. And foolish is what we’ll feel the greatest possible remorse over, where we’re most likely to say afterwards, “What was I thinking?”

I wrote a piece some time ago about all of the education I got in the school of experience outside the classrooms I’ve attended. And one of the things I’ve learned the hard way is that I don’t want to learn everything the hard way.

Believe me, I’ve made plenty of dumb mistakes that God has used to teach me things I was too foolish to learn the easy way. Those mistakes didn’t entirely go to waste, of course, since all mistakes are to learn from, but I’ve tried to live by the simple truth that “An ounce of prevention is worth pound of cure--and is so much better than ending up with a ton of regret.” So a head and a heart full of good wisdom can be our best friend, as in the stuff you learn from the experiences of other good people, along with the good rules for good living taught by Jesus and the prophets, and handed down from Mount Sinai many years ago. Like, “Listen to your mom and dad.” “Don’t steal.” “Don’t lie.” “Don’t commit adultery.” These aren’t just good suggestion, but wise commands handed down from the greatest source of wisdom ever, our Creator.

When I was teaching here at EMHS, one of the questions I was often asked by students was “Is this going to be on the test?” or “What’s going to be on the final exam?” That used to bother me a little, because I wanted my students to learn everything I taught, but they were being smart. They knew that tests were something you want to be well prepared for ahead of time for. Learning only by experience means we’re taking a lot of tests we’re not prepared for, that we haven’t thought through. So we're left to learn too many things after the teacher hands the exam back to us covered with a lot of red ink, reminding us all the of things we should have learned before we took it.

In a Dear Abby column about a year ago, a 29-year-old who signed herself “DEPRIVED OF MY YOUTH” laments the loss of the boy friend with whom she had lived since she was 16 years old, but they had never married. And then for some reason he abruptly breaks off the relationship, leaving her with their child and the memories of 13 years of loving and living together.

She writes,

“It has been over nine months and it seems like my heartache is getting worse. It feels like my heart has been ripped out of my chest and stepped on. It hurts even more because he started dating someone else immediately after the breakup.... I cry every day.”

I not only felt incredibly sad for this young woman, but lamented the fact that so little is being said these days to discourage young people like her from becoming prematurely, emotionally "married” and then premaritally and emotionally "divorced".

One more example of how applying good wisdom can make such a big, big difference.

I know many parents and even some preachers have pretty much given up on young people these days staying celibate into their 20’s and 30’s. There’s nothing we can do to keep them from going to bed with each other, they say, and ultimately it's their decision as to whether they will wait until they’re married. And that's true. But the price people often pay for their hookups and breakups, and sometimes with premature pregnancies--in what I call premarital “marriage”--can be huge.

On this same topic, I posted a blog last December called “Why Wait Until Christmas?” in which I noted a rule we pretty much all agree on about waiting until December 25 to open our Christmas gifts. It’s a tradition that isn’t just about drawing an arbitrary red line somewhere, but our wisdom tells us that it’s just a lot more pleasurable to prepare well and then enjoy fully.

I believe that’s even more true when it comes to God’s gift of physical intimacy, in spite of the fact that in our culture many are as likely to “go all the way” on their first date as on their wedding date. They may not realize that by unwrapping their priceless “presents” prematurely they are are in fact already experiencing an unforgettable form of “wed-ing.” What they risk in not having the once customary real wedding come first is some of the blessing of all their friends and family, and all of the once-in-a-lifetime first-time ecstasy they've always dreamed of.

I know a lot of people believe that if they just put off having a legal, documented marriage and just go ahead and live together without it, that they can avoid all the pain of a later separation. But the fact is that they risk going through the very same kinds of gut-wrenching "emotional divorces" (or worse) as their married counterparts do if and when they break up.

I know contraceptives can keep us from getting pregnant, but no one has yet invented something to keep us from experiencing a powerful kind of bonding when we with another in this most vulnerable and passionate way possible. We conceive something new, give birth to an emotional union we can’t just walk away from without experiencing some kind of tearing. And often a lot of tear-ing. Over and over again I have people coming to my counseling office people who would give almost anything to be able to hit some kind of reboot or rewind button and be able to go back and make some different decisions they can now never undo.

Is there forgiveness for our indiscretions and foolish mistakes? Of course, as with any other kind of regrettable choices. But God, like a good parent, wants us to have the best life and the best “Christmases” possible. That’s why we’re given such simple rules as “Wait until you’re wed--then celebrate for a lifetime.”

Sure, some people may call us prudes, but you know what? That word comes from the word prudent, which means careful and smart, wise instead of foolish. There’s just no down side to going with wise.

And there are so many other wise rules for good living your parents and teachers and the good people in your congregations are trying to teach you. It just pays to think carefully and prayerfully about the best possible ways to “happily ever after”, about what’s really in our own best interests.

For example, Jesus also had a lot to say about the wisdom of investing our money in ways that will do lasting good--to enrich and bless the lives of people in need--rather than in short-sighted investments in more stuff that will eventually end up in the landfill. So when he tells the story of a man who  tore down his barns and built new ones to store up enough for a luxurious  retirement, he didn’t call the man greedy, or selfish. He called him foolish. He was making unwise financial choices. We still call him “the rich fool.”

And at the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, containing some of the greatest wisdom you can find anywhere--on money management, relationships, dealing with our enemies, and other important things--the Master Teacher concludes by saying, “Whoever hears these sayings of mine and lives by them will be like a wise builder who builds on a solid rock foundation. When hard, hurricane winds come along, that house will stand and everyone will be safe. Whoever ignores this wisdom from God will be like a foolish builder who builds on sand, and that same storm will demolish the house and everything comes to ruin. A tragedy. What was I thinking?

I then gave a condensed version of a blog post about a former neighbor who died recently and demonstrated her wisdom in simple but profound ways.

I close with some words from Proverbs 3:

Blessed are those who become wise—who come to have understanding...16 Wisdom offers you long life, as well as abundance and honor. 17 Wisdom can make your life pleasant and lead you safely through it...(so) hold on to your wisdom and insight.... They will provide you with life—a pleasant and happy life. 23 You can go safely on your way and never stumble. 24 You will not be afraid when you go to bed, and you will sleep soundly through the night. 25 You will not have to worry about sudden disasters... The Lord will keep you safe.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Capital Wealth and Consumer Wealth

Dave Ramsey's Tennessee home, appraised at $4,909,200
I've sometimes been accused of being too hard on the rich, even though I usually include myself and most other middle class Americans in this overly well-to-do category.

As a case in point, in my December, 2012, article in the MENNONITE on "Christmas Economics", I devoted a paragraph or two questioning whether Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey practiced a justice-based stewardship in investing in his latest home in a gated community near Nashville.

The rest of the article was about an understanding of Biblical stewardship that not only encourages generous giving (which Ramsey certainly does), but with periodically and systematically redistributing and reinvesting wealth in ways that give a hand up to the underclass (which he doesn't). I noted that the Pentateuch commands the latter as well as the former, and that the church of Pentecost and of the apostle Paul clearly promote such "Christmas-like" giving. 

While I'm neither an economist nor a theologian, I do believe that when we discuss whether Christians should be wealthy that we need to clarify what kind of wealth we're talking about, capital wealth or consumer wealth.

It's often assumed the two are inseparable. "Let's not be too hard on the rich for having bigger homes or better cars," I hear people say, "because they are, after all, the job creators who make the economy work for the rest of us." Or, "We're highly dependent on the wealthy to support our church institutions, mission and relief programs and other charitable causes." In other words, it would be wrong to criticize such folks for living more lavishly than the rest of us.

But what if we clearly differentiated between people's capital wealth (their means of production) and their consumer wealth (their level of consumption)?

It would clearly be possible for an individual or a group to own and manage huge enterprises that generate large amounts of goods or services (at a fair and reasonable profit), but to still see themselves as simply managers of that wealth, wouldn't it? The whole concept of Christian stewardship, after all, is based on the concept that God really "owns" everything we may happen to hold title to and use on God's behalf.

So should stewards of large amounts of capital investment assume the right to siphon off a larger than needed portion of that wealth for their personal consumption? I don't think so. If we were really serious about God being the sole owner and we being only the caretakers, we might even consider that a form of embezzlement.

Having said that, I wish I could come up with more examples of Christians who were CEO's of successful companies, for example, but who made lifestyle choices like using public transportation when possible, living in modest homes, and vacationing pretty much like most of their workers. Or of well paid heads of Christian-based institution who chose  to live in places like Harrisonburg's Northeast community instead of in a wealthier part of town.

I was impressed, however, when someone giving a stewardship sermon at a local church recently made the statement, "We've chosen to live in a simple house on Stuart Street that is small and doesn't even have a basement, but it's comfortable and meets the needs of the two of us very well." While there is obviously no one right size for a suitable house, and certainly nothing wrong with having a basement, I thought that statement might have been the most powerful one in the entire message.

I also think of a retired couple in our church that gives generously, drives a modest used car and lives in a small duplex, in spite of their being blessed with some considerable family assets--and do all this joyfully and generously.

We need more good models of people who avoid feeling entitled to more and more consumer wealth, or to laying up more perishable stuff for themselves, while at the same time managing significant capital wealth in growing good food, manufacturing useful products and providing needed services--all at a level of profit they celebrate and share as a gift.

What do you think?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

"You have heard it said, 'A WMD for a WMD,' but I say..."

New York Daily News photo
"Who came up with the logic that cruise missiles are more 'moral' than sarin gas, and that the perpetrators of one deserve regime change and the others medals of honor?"

-David Kreider, facebook

What's happening in Syria is horrifying beyond belief. An untold number of innocent men, women and children have been brutally killed by bombs, bullets and more recently by poisonous gas. The world is desperate to see something done.

But is punishing the Assad regime for its use of WMD's (in the form of canisters of sarin gas) by retaliating with the use of our own weapons of massive destruction (in the form bomb-laden missiles) really a viable and moral solution? In either case, the death and destruction are unimaginably hellish and horrific.

Can't we come up with a better response?

What if whole nations, along with religious groups and health and relief agencies around the world, were to rise up say, "Stop this barbaric bloodshed. Now. And wherever and whenever you implement a cease fire, we will respond with massive and immediate aid to rebuild your cities, provide aid for your wounded, and bring back refugees to their homeland. We will provide gainful employment for your people as you assist in this massive rebuilding effort. And we will support an all-out diplomatic effort to find a way to provide for the security and stability necessary to transition to a fairly elected government in which all Syrians can be a part."

In short, instead of bringing more destroyers and aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean, we could send cargo ships laden with food and building supplies to the region. On one condition. That all sides lay down their arms and stop their senseless slaughter now.

I can already hear people reacting to anything like the above as pitifully naive. But any attempt to throw more mortar at this problem is doomed to fail, and will make an already desperate crisis even worse. So if all else fails, which it already has, why not apply some of Jesus' wisdom about being Good Samaritans to our enemies rather than inflicting ever more punishment on them?

My friend Daryl Byler, newly appointed director of EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and recently returned from six years in Jordan as regional director for Mennonite Central Committee, told me this morning that he had an op-ed piece published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today on this subject today. It's well worth reading.

And here's a link to an interesting blog piece on "What Would Elisha Do? #MennoNerds on Syria"

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Four Generations in 105--A Sacred Circle of Life

Baby Tirza with new mother Susan, great-aunt Missy and great-grandmother Esther

In a house which becomes a home,
one hands down and another takes up
the heritage of mind and heart,
laughter and tears, musings and deeds.
Love, like a carefully loaded ship,
crosses the gulf between the generations.
Therefore, we do not neglect the ceremonies
of our passage: when we wed, when we die,
and when we are blessed with a child;
When we depart and when we return;
When we plant and when we harvest.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Guestpost: Standing up at a Beatdown II Event

Kirk Vredevelt protests extreme mixed martial arts event
My wife's niece's husband, Kirk Vredevelt, a social studies teacher at Forest Hills Northern High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, posted the following to members of the family's Google group. I use it here with his permission:

I protested the first Iraq war in Grand Rapids in front of the Federal Building with a few hundred others. Since then our city has named a park for Michigan resident Rosa Parks. We sat on the bus where she refused to move, which is in Detroit's Henry Ford Museum. If Rosa could start a revolution with one simple conscientious act, I felt I should be willing to go it alone too.

Last Saturday while paying for gas at the local mini mart I came across a Beatdown II fighting man advertisement

I first saw this on pay per view in 1994 while visiting my cousin in LA. I was horrified as two "unbeaten" fighters fought and kicked it out. For 30 minutes the one laid on top of the other trying to avoid being strangled while he was kicking the man on top with his heel to injure his kidney. My cousin said this was illegal in most states, including Michigan. I saw this as the beginning of the end of our civilization. So when I saw it was happening in my own back yard I felt I had to take a stand.

I had only a week to solicit any like minded men. I called three churches and three men I knew. In the end I was the lone ranger. There was no outrage. No one wants to tell anyone else that what they are doing for fun is morally repugnant. We Christians are a weak kneed group. 

The event started at 6 pm. When I got there at 5:20, there were already 40 cars in the parking lot which was visibly far down the drive from where I stood at one of the entrances. I had about 50 cars go by me, fancy Cadillacs, big red trucks and some vans with families. A couple of the advertised fighters were Hispanic so this was a big draw for this community. People driving home from shopping also slowed down to see the lone protester.

I held my sign with dignity and did not try to provoke anyone, simply tried to appeal to moral rightness.

My sign's said "Fighting is not a sport" and "Do not degrade yourself". I wore my optic yellow shirt for visibility and clothes without any markings.

One Oldsmobile Bravada with two blondes in their 20's went by two or three times yelling "sissy" and giving me the finger.

One car came around for a second look and took my photo with their smart phone.

Most slowed down and read my sign.

The Hispanics were the most polite as I suspected they were trying to lay low.

I got four clinched fists, four birds and one thumbs up.

One guy slowed down and said, "We didn't become a free country by just talking."

photo and text by Kirk Vredevelt