Friday, January 31, 2014

Guest Post Of A Funeral Message To Ponder and Remember

Pastor Phil Kniss
For those of you unable to attend the memorable funeral service held at the Park View Mennonite Church Monday, Pastor Phil Kniss gave me his kind permission to post his meditation here. I experienced his words as profound and powerful.

Romans 8:35, 37-39; Philippians 4:4-9; Matthew 11:28-30

Let’s be honest.
    This room is packed to overflowing.
    And there is not a one of us who wants to be here.
        This is the last place we want to be,
            and the last thing we want to be doing.
        I believe we all would have given our right arms, literally,
            if it would have prevented the tragedy
            that brings us here together today.

Chris had once
    been so full of life and love and creativity and energy,
        had accomplished so much good,
        had built friendships that changed people
            and launched institutions,
        had quietly and persistently tried to do his part
            to live out the values of the kingdom of God.
His tragic death has ended all that doing good,
    and the future good he still wanted to do.

But even more,
    his death has plunged a whole community,
    and especially those he loved the most,
        into the deep waters of agony and grief and brokenness,
        where no one should ever have to go. Ever.

At times like this,
    when our own feeble words fail us,
    we people of faith flee to the words of scripture.
We go to the Bible,
    and we look for comfort for our anguish,
    we look for answers to our questions,
    we look for words to make sense of the confusion,
    we look for light to penetrate where it’s too dark to see.

But if we dip into the well of scripture,
    expecting to draw up words explaining this tragedy to our satisfaction
    we will come up dry.
If we go to scripture,
    looking for an answer as to why this happened,
    we won’t find it.
If we go to scripture,
    asking for words to make sense of this for us,
    we will be disappointed.

There will be those who try to do that.
    Who try to quote scripture in a way that makes it sound
        that God had some mysterious reason for this,
        that God directly or indirectly had his fingers
            in these horrible events.
    Family—Lynette and children especially—
        if, and when, well-meaning Christians come to you,
        trying to comfort you by implying that this was somehow
            part of God’s master plan,
            don’t pay them mind.
        You can pity them, you can love them, but don’t pay them mind.
    That is not the kind of God we worship.
    That is not the kind of God that Chris loved,
        and devoted his life to.

There are, and will remain, deep questions on our minds
    that we might wish words of scripture
    could answer clearly, definitively, finally.

But the Bible is not that sort of answer-book.
    It doesn’t so much reveal everything we wish to know.
    It reveals what we need to know.

Life is sometimes a deep and profound mystery.
There is so much we don’t know.
    So much that remains hidden.
And apparently, God is comfortable leaving it that way.
    God does not expect or need us to learn all the intricate answers.
    God seems most interested in knowing
        whether we are willing to receive and return his love.

So these questions are left hovering there without answers.
    Why does such deep human suffering go on and on,
        without God intervening to stop it?
    How is it that a good man’s body, and mind, and spirit,
        can so deeply desire to be whole,
        yet remain so fragile, diminished, and disordered?

There is so much we don’t know today.
    We don’t know exactly how this devastating disease of amyloidosis
        was affecting his body and brain and spirit.
    We do know it changed him, radically,
        sapped his energy,
        robbed him of his creative, life-loving self,
        caused him to disengage and withdraw,
        altered his ways of thinking and being with people,
            even with his own family.
    We wish we knew more,
        because, we reason,
        knowing more might have helped us save his life.
    But we don’t know.
        And our questions may remain unanswered
            for the rest of our days.

    There are many other people in this world
        living with the same sort of questions, day after day.
    There is so much pain and suffering and evil in this world,
        that simply goes unexplained,
        cannot be given meaning or purpose.

But I do not wish to dwell on what we don’t know.
    I am here to remind us of what we do know.
    I am here to proclaim the Gospel.
        The Good News of God’s character and God’s work.

One thing we do know from scripture,
    is that disease and devastation,
        and anything that diminishes or destroys life,
        is neither God’s will, nor God’s doing.
    God is the creator and sustainer of all life.

Another thing we know about God’s character,
    is that God is love.
    That is the core component of God’s character and agenda.
        To love people to himself.
        That love is constant, and persistent.

So I turn to scripture to remind us of what we know.

First of all, I want us all to hear, and remember,
    that God is near to those who suffer.
Psalm 34 says,
    “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
        and saves the crushed in spirit.”
    We worship a God who is not removed from suffering,
        who is not dispassionate, or unfeeling.
        No! When there is suffering, our God moves closer!
        Chris was close to the heart of God.
            Of that we can be certain.
        Right in the middle of his mysterious brokenness,
            when no one else could reach him,
            God moved in.
            God was near, when no one else could be.
        So up to his last moment, Chris remained,
            and ever will be, close to the heart of God.

    The psalmist also proclaims in faith,
        “The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
            none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”
        Chris did take refuge in God.
        Chris was not, and is not, condemned.
        Let no one suggest otherwise.
            No, it was not God’s will for Chris to take his own life.
            But neither is it in God’s will or God’s character,
                to turn his back on anyone who takes refuge in him,
                even when disease and disordered thinking take over
                    and lead someone to terribly wrong
                    life-ending decisions.
        The Lord redeems the life of his servants.
            Chris was a servant of God.
            And today, friends and family,
                Chris’ life is redeemed.
                That is, his life is returned to God, at full value.
                    Redeemed. At full value.

And then there is Romans 8,
    a text that Michaela wanted to be sure that we read today.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
    Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness,
        or peril, or sword?”
    “No! Of course not!” Paul declares.
    “In all these things we are more than conquerors
        through him who loved us.
    For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,
        nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,
        nor height, nor depth . . .
            nor amyloidosis, nor depression,
            nor disordered thinking, nor suicide . . .
        nor anything else in all creation,
            will be able to separate us from the love of God
                in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is one scripture that we are allowed to add words to.
    We have permission, right there in the text,
        to add our own words.
    Because Paul assures us that in this list of things
        that will not separate us from God,
        is “anything else in all creation.”
    Nothing can separate us from God’s constant and persistent love.
        Nothing. But nothing.

Then there are Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 11.
    A text that Isaac mentioned yesterday,
        that gave him comfort.
    So we read them this afternoon.

    “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
        and I will give you rest.
        Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
            for I am gentle and humble in heart,
            and you will find rest for your souls.”
    Chris was carrying a very heavy burden.
        Only he knows how heavy.
        Now, because of his death,
            we must carry this heavy burden.
        Lynette and the children more than anyone,
            but it’s a burden we all share.

    But the invitation from our loving God is,
        “Come to me, weary ones.
            Come to me with your heavy burdens.
            Take my yoke, instead.
                It is bearable.
                For I am gentle.
                You can carry my yoke, and still find rest for your souls.
                Because my yoke is carved from love.”

And there is the passage from Philippians 4,
    which Michaela named,
    because she included it once in a note to her father.
We also read it today, and I repeat, in part . . .
    “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything . . .
        And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
            will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus . . .
        Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
            whatever is just, whatever is pure . . .
            think about these things . . .
            and the God of peace will be with you.”

As I said, none of us want to be here today.
    And there is nothing good, nothing God-directed,
        about the horrific event that brought us here today.
    But there is Good News to be proclaimed.
        God’s love is constant.
        God’s love is persistent.
        God’s love cannot be removed from us.
        God’s heart of love is moved toward
            all who suffer,
            all who carry heavy burdens,
            all who need rest.
    Lynette, Michaela, Sylvia, and Isaac—
        may God’s love wash over you today,
            and tomorrow,
            and every day.
    And know that even if one day
        your heart is filled with God’s love,
        there is still more love to be had.
    For those days to come when your heart seems empty,
        God’s love is never-ending.
        There is more love somewhere.

—Phil Kniss, January 27, 2014

P.S.  Phil's meditation was followed by the song in Sing the Journey, "There is more love somewhere". The music in the service was beautiful beyond belief.

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Out Of Darkness, A Brand New Dawn

(From Chris's Millworks Lighting website)
I like this bit of rabbinic wisdom I ran across some time ago:

"Every one of us will die twice, once when we breathe our last and are buried, and once when people no longer speak our name."

If that is true, the life of a long time friend, age 47, whose funeral I attended at the Park View Mennonite Church yesterday, will continue for a long, long time--not only in the eternal realm, but among the hundreds who will always remember and speak his name.

Chris was a founding partner and owner of numerous enterprises, and was a widely respected businessman. He was also an avid outdoorsman, an accomplished craftsman and a talented musician.

Chris's greatest legacy, however, was in the love he invested in his family as a devoted father of Makaila, Sylvia and Isaac, and the loving husband of his high school sweetheart Lynette. He was also memorialized yesterday for the way he used his considerable entrepreneurial skills in the service of such causes as Our Community Farm, Habitat for Humanity, the Fuller Center, and Eastern Mennonite School, to name but a few.

Tragically, Chris fought a losing battle with amyloidosis in recent years, a rare and debilitating illness that sapped him of his energy and led to a level of despair that resulted in his ending his own life.

Pastor Phil Kniss addressed all of that head on in his powerful message that did not minimize the tragedy in the least. Addressing the crowd of hundreds who filled the auditorium and the adjacent fellowship hall, he began with, 
"Let’s be honest.
This room is packed to overflowing.
And there is not a one of us who wants to be here.
This is the last place we want to be,
and the last thing we want to be doing.
I believe we all would have given our right arms, literally, if it would have prevented the tragedy
that brings us here together today."

But Kniss went on to boldly affirm the good news (from the eighth chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans) that "neither life nor death... nor anything else in all creation--including tragedies like amyloidosis and suicide--can separate us from God's love".

Nothing. Ever.

What a gut wrenching day for all of us, but especially for Chris's family. Our heartfelt prayers go out to each of them and to all of his many friends who will miss him terribly.

As a postscript, my wife found the following poem in the 1984 Eastern Mennonite High School yearbook, the Ember, written by Chris and his friend Mike Bender when they were  seniors:

A Brand New Dawn

It's time to move on
Time to look toward a new day
It's a brand new dawn
Lord help me find my way

Looking over my shoulder
Looking over my yesterday
I know its not over
Even though I'm gone away

Because you gave us a melody
A reason to live
How it turned to harmony
When we learned to give

Leavin' so much behind
But there's so much yet to find

Sunday, January 26, 2014

When Death Feels Like An Untraveled Tunnel

Pennsylvania Turnpike's Allegheny Mountain Tunnel
I had the privilege of speaking at the memorial service yesterday of Tim Federowicz, age 50, who died of lung cancer at his home a week ago. I first learned to know Tim as a shy little kid growing up in a single parent home with his mother and four sisters, a part of a family our church helped from time to time.

Tim was a hard worker on a dairy farm most of his life, and never got to travel much, but his nephew Jonathan Smith asked him some time ago to go with him to Pittsburgh to pick up a truck he had bought. Tim had never been on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and when they approached their first tunnel, Tim expressed concern, wanting to know all about what this tunnel was like.

"How do we know it's safe?" Tim asked. "What if it would collapse while we're going through it?"

Jonathan tried to explain that thousands of people had gone through it safely without anything like that ever happening.

That little story seemed like a metaphor for the almost certain death Tim faced when he learned he had an advanced case of cancer. He was facing a dark and fearsome tunnel indeed, and of course one he had never traveled before.

It was a blessing that Tim, in the last decade of his life, had come to experience a faith that helped him deal with his fears, a realization that even though he, like all of us, must go through the dark "tunnel" of death, that he need "fear no evil". And that he didn't have to be on that journey alone, and that there was new light and a new land on the other side.

In spite of how hard this was, Tim experienced the touch of an unseen hand to shepherd him when things got especially dark, along with his having the love and support of good people like his nephew Jonathan.

Friday, January 24, 2014

State Sponsored Killings Have Come A Long Way

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the execution of Hans Landis, an Anabaptist martyr who happens to be one of my wife's direct ancestors. At age 70 he was publicly beheaded for the crime of holding illegal church meetings in the canton of Zurich, Switzerland, and for providing pastoral care to a growing group of so-called "re-baptizers" who refused to have their children baptized as members of the state-supported Reformed Church. His wife Margaretha Hochstrasser, age 60, witnessed the gruesome killing, and his son Felix later died in prison in 1642 as a result of inhumane treatment, as did his daughter Verena one year after that, in 1643.

In light of that history we have come a long way from a time when thousands of my spiritual ancestors were martyred for simply advocating that all adults should be able to freely choose whatever religion they wished, a freedom we now take for granted. And thankfully, we have come to rule out the more barbaric means of capital punishment used in cases of people indicted for crimes, such as burning them at the stake, drowning them to death, tearing them limb from limb on torture racks or condemning them to spend the rest of their lives as galley slaves.

That was, after all, four centuries ago, and most of us are glad to see a progression from these more horrific to less cruel forms of killing. But any execution of a relatively healthy adult requires some extreme violence. Human bodies are not designed to give up life easily.

The recent death by injection of killer Dennis McGuire carried out by the state of Ohio has added to the humanitarian concerns held by many opponents of the death penalty. Because of a shortage of the most commonly used drug pentobarbital in states like Ohio--due to major suppliers refusing to make it available for the purpose of killing people--authorities in the state used a combination of two other untried drugs, the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphon. The condemned man appeared to gasp several times and took an unusually long time to die, nearly 25 long minutes.

McGuire's lawyers have argued that he experienced the kind of "air hunger" that could cause him to suffer "agony and terror" while struggling to get his breath.

Of course many believe McGuire deserved all of this and more for his having cruelly stabbed to death an innocent pregnant newlywed. I fully understand that. His was a horrendous crime, and if reverting back to the practice of torture is our goal, our legislators need to empower our judges to sentence accordingly. But civilized societies have come to believe they are better than that, and our own U.S. constitution rules out “cruel” or “unusual” punishment, no matter how heinous the crime.

Today the U.S. is among the few industrialized nations that still executes criminals, and 18 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty entirely. Among the 32 states that still practice capital punishment, its  application is uneven and there is no evidence that Texas, which holds the record of having executed over 500 offenders (Virginia is second), is any safer than New York or California, which no longer executes any.

In a very recent development, members of Virginia’s House of Delegates, by an overwhelming majority, have voted to take a step backwards to again approve the use of the electric chair as a means of execution should the state experience a shortage of pentobarbital.

Is this really the direction we want our Commonwealth to go? If so, if we were faced with a power shortage, would we revert to hanging, or if a hemp shortage, beheading? In what direction do we really want to go as a society?

For me, on both moral and religious grounds, being pro-life means seeing all life at all stages as precious.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Model Prisoner Repeatedly Denied Parole

For some months I've been in correspondence with Jonathan D. White, a 54-year-old inmate at the Powhatan Correction Center who is now in his 33rd year in prison. Mr. White has been repeatedly denied parole in spite of having created an impressive resume since his incarceration in 1981. This is in part due to Parole Boards granting very few releases, especially in recent years. The last Board appointed by Governor McDonnell granted parole to only about 3% of cases reviewed, compared to a rate of nearly 40% during some previous administrations.

Here are some of Mr. White's educational accomplishments:

• Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology from Liberty University
• Associate in Arts and Science Degree in education from Paul D. Camp Community College
• Career Studies Degree in supervision from Paul D. Camp Community College
• Advance HVAC/R Technicians Certificate, Penn Foster Technical Training Program
• Climate Control HVAC/R Trade Completion Certificate, Commonwealth University
• Universal EPA HVAC Certifications 608, 609 and 410A , ESCO Training Services
• OSHA Construction Safety and Health Certifications
• National Association of Home Builders Basic Principles of Construction Certificate
• Blood Borne Pathogen Safety Training Certificate, Commonwealth of Virginia
• Cook - Journeyman Certification, Commonwealth of Virginia
• Custom Shoemaker - Journeyman Certification, Commonwealth of Virginia
• Industrial Sewing Machine Repair - Certification, Commonwealth of Virginia
• Wastewater Operations Training, Sacramento California Wastewater School
• Lithographic Computerized Digital Training, Commonwealth of Virginia

He has also taken an active part in the following:

• Alcoholics Anonymous
• Substance Abuse education
• Anger Management
• Advanced Anger Management
• Sex Offender Counseling and Therapy - SOPAC
• Breaking Barriers
• Life Skills
• Productive Citizenship
• Commitment to Change
• Christian Fellowship Services (leadership in worship and community services)
• Speaker for Steer Straight (teen and youth crime prevention service)

In addition, Mr. White has been infraction free throughout his incarceration, with no new convictions or crimes on his record, and has earned favorable recommendations for parole from the PCC staff and commendations for rendering helpful assistance to staff in critical situations. He has also received numerous recommendations from community supporters willing to assist him in the transition to reentry to the community and in maintaining conditions of parole.

In his own words:

"The Virginia Parole Board's responsibility is "to release on parole those persons who are considered suitable for release and who will not present a risk to the community". 

"I have met these criteria of suitability. My life is forever changed from the failures of my past youthful wrong decisions, and I have been sufficiently punished for the crimes for which I have been convicted and incarcerated.

"To everyone who has been affected by my past actions in life, victims, family, friends, associates and community, I humbly apologize to each of you. I am sorry for any hurt or pain and suffering I have caused to anyone as a result of my actions.

"Respectfully, I seek the privilege of parole at this time. I am deserving of a second chance in living my life as a responsible, productive, law-abiding citizen of the Commonwealth, and I fully acknowledge my responsibility to uphold this granted privilege.

"I want to be a success story of which you can be proud. Most people in my situation become very bitter here because of the injustices they have to endure.  Prison life is a major hardship, and when a person loses everything worth living for, such as mother, father, friends and status in society, it is hard to hold on to the sanity of doing right regardless of circumstances. But I thank God for redeeming my life when all others have abandoned me to these prison walls."

Jonathan Darryl White #1161021 - INM#128952
Augusta Correctional Center
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville, VA 24430

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Annual Celebration Promoting 'Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy'

"Retired National Football League players experience a shockingly high rate of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.... Former players ages 30 through 49 had memory-related diseases 19 times higher than the rate in the national population....  which also found that 6.1 percent of former NFL players 50 and over had been diagnosed with a form of dementia, a rate five times higher than the national average of 1.2 percent." 
- from a 2009 NFL-authorized study

I find it interesting that the U.S. is the only country in the world in which football is the number one spectator sport. Canada and Australia each have professional football leagues, and there are other nations with amateur teams, but in none of these countries has the sport gained the kind of avid following it has here. 

Can any of this be associated with our national culture being more violent in other ways, in our extraordinary investment in military might, our dreadfully high rates of murder and assault, and in our national obsession with firearms? Of course, when it comes to rigorous contact sports, wrestling, boxing, ice hockey and rugby are anything but benign, and even soccer, the most favorite national pastime in many countries, is not without its share of injuries.

American football, however, is known to exact an especially heavy toll on its players, many of whom suffer from a serious form of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Should this give us pause during Superbowl season?
I believe it should. What do you think?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Cantrell Avenue Officially Dedicated As...

Here is the text of a speech EMU's President Loren Swartzentruber gave at today's MLK Day dedication ceremony:

I am honored to share these comments on behalf of the faculty, staff, and students at Eastern Mennonite University.

April 4, 1968, is etched in my memory forever. Martin Luther King, Jr, was brutally gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis TN. His was a most articulate voice for non-violence, rooted in his faith as a follower of Jesus. A voice that was silenced at the young age of 39, silenced by a violent act committed by James Earl Ray. For reasons we can only imagine, Martin Luther King’s assassin was obsessed with racial prejudice and hatred.

Thirty years later, in 1998, Jules Witcover wrote a book entitled, The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America. Witcover walks us through the year 1968, month by month, a year in which every month seemed to embody the worst of our humanity. He began with January—the launching of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; in March President Johnson shocked the nation with his announcement that he would not seek re-election; in April the untimely death of Rev. Dr. King.

On the day before his death, in what would be his last sermon, Dr. King said, in eerily prophetic words,

"We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop...And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

In what would shortly become words filled with irony, Robert F. Kennedy, speaking in Indianapolis on the night of April 4, said this:

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

Exactly nine weeks later, on June 6, Kennedy was murdered after a campaign speech in Los Angeles.

1968 was the year that many historians have dubbed “the watershed year in American history.” Many books and papers have been written about that year—I’ve read some of them, and I’ve been disappointed that no author has yet noted that it was the year that my wife and I graduated high school. (Smile)

All of us who came of age in the tumultuous years of the 60s were profoundly impacted—of course, not all in the same ways. I can only speak for myself, as a white male of middle-class origins, born in a small community of southeast Iowa which was very homogenous racially, shaped by the jolting awareness in the 60s that all is not right with the world. (For the record we scandalized some of our elders by singing “We Shall Overcome” during our Commencement Service. We were absolutely naïve but we were committed to making our world a better place.)

I learned from Dr. King and others in my own theological tradition that one cannot separate one’s faith from the call to social justice for everyone in our world. As Menno Simons, for whom my church tradition is named, put it so succinctly,

"True evangelical faith clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry;
it comforts the sorrowful; 
it shelters the destitute;
it aids and consoles the sad;
it does good to those who do it harm;
it serves those that harm it;
it prays for those who persecute it.

Here we gather in a community demonstration of solidarity all too rare in our polarized and divided society. I am proud to lead the first (white) university in the Commonwealth of Virginia to enroll students of color. Martin Luther King would have been pleased that my predecessors stood up to the prevailing opposition of their time to such a move. In the context of our current divisions I take great courage from Dr. King and from others who dared to stand tall in the face of conflict.

But, we are painfully aware that our work is not yet done by any stretch of the imagination and it is abundantly clear from the historical record that Dr. King would have continued his prophetic witness for a more just society.

I understand why Whitcover’s book was entitled, The Year the Dream Died, but I pray that all of us can today co-author a living book more hopeful for the present and the future, The Year the Dream was Revived.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

My Wife's Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Grandfather Was An Anabaptist Martyr

Herald Press 1157 pages
In the opening chapter of the 1390-page book, "The Earth Is The Lord's" (an extensive history of Pennsylvania Mennonites), historian John Ruth writes about the execution of Anabaptist pastor Hans Landis, 1553-1614.

His crime? Holding illegal church meetings in his home and providing pastoral care to members of the free church movement in and around Zurich, Switzerland.

We have just learned that Landis, one of thousands of sixteenth and seventeenth century free church advocates in Europe who died for their faith--in jurisdictions controlled by Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic state churches alike-- is an ancestor of my wife, ten generations removed.  

Here is part of the story of his death as recorded in the Martyrs Mirror, pp. 1103-05 (discretion advised for use with children):

Hans Landis was a tall, stately person, with a long black and gray beard, and a manful voice. 

When he, cheerful and of good courage, was led out by a rope to the Wolfsstadt (being the place made ready for his execution), the executioner, Mr. Paull Volmar dropped the rope, and lifting up both of his hands to heaven, spoke these words: 

'O that God, to whom I make my complaint, might have compassion: that you, Hans, have come into my hands in this manner; forgive me, for God's sake, that which I must do to you.

Hans Landis comforted the executioner, saying that he had already forgiven him: God would forgive him, too; he well knew that he had to execute the order of the authorities; he should not be afraid and see that there was no hindrance in his way. Thereupon he was beheaded.  

After his head had been struck off, the executioner asked: 'Lord bailiff of the Empire, have I executed this man rightly according to imperial law and sentence?'   

Otherwise it was customary to say: 'This poor fellow,' etc. As though he believed that he died saved and rich. 

The people were of the opinion, that the executioner by dropping the rope meant to indicate to Hans that he should run away,  it was also generally said: that if he had run away, no one would have followed him to stop him. 

Needless to say, we were profoundly moved by the faith and courage of this man. Had Hans Landis made the easier choice of giving up his convictions, he and his family might have lived a long and good life among his Reformed neighbors in Zurich, and his later descendants would not likely have emigrated to the New World--or at least not to escape religious persecution. 

And our own history would have been completely altered.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Recalling A Silly Game Almost Made Me Cry

I recently made the mistake of telling our four-year-old grandson about a silly, made-up game his dad and his uncle (our sons Brent and Brad) and I loved to play when they were about four and six. We gave it the odd name of "Sweep up the Person!"

To play, I explained, I would pretend to be a giant vacuum cleaner. The child was to guess which "switch" would turn this powerful machine on, that being some body part like my nose, forehead, ear, elbow, knee, etc. When they pushed the right "button", I would rush to pursue the button pusher with a mighty roar and draw him fiercely close in a big squeeze (daughter Joanna, eight years younger, got in on this later).

Our four-year-old grandson loved it, just as my sons had, and nearly wore me out with repeated requests for "More"! "More!" "Again!"

The element of suspense, coupled with the fun of the chase and the joy of being swept up--and wrapped up--in a royally big hug kept us occupied for quite some time.

Which proves that the most entertaining and rewarding things in life often are mostly free, gifts for which we can only say "Thank you!" "Thank you!" "Thank you!"

Then cry later if we must with memories of a former era long gone by.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

East Hills Singers Sound Out Hope And Transformation

A new documentary film, Conducting Hope, featuring a men's singing group from Lansing Correctional Facility, premiered at the Kansas International Film Festival on October 5. Celebrating the East Hill Singers, it was shown for the
Documentary featuring East Hill Singers to premiere in Kansas City
Hear the East Hills Singers at this link
first time at a local theater, with the choir performing  immediately afterwards. Conducting Hope has since aired on numerous television stations across the nation.

The East Hill Singers was founded in 1994 by Elvera Voth, a retired Mennonite choral conductor, who then helped form the Kansas City-based non-profit organization Arts in Prison as a way of promoting "responsibility, accountability, and leadership", according to their website.

Hearing about such programs makes you wonder what kinds of resources our community could offer local citizens who are locked up in our jails and prisons. In Kansas, a collaboration of both community groups and prison personnel is making this extraordinary miracle happen. As one example, security officers volunteer their time to escort the choir members to their programs, and prison administrators support it as making a positive difference in the lives of their inmates.

Check this link for more posts on prison and jail reform.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Enviable Lunatic!

In Par Lagerkvist’s novel, The Dwarf, the author gives this description of an elderly craftsman, a stranger named Bernardo who comes to town to do a painting for the wall of a local Franciscan monastery:

“... (H)e is obviously fascinated by everything. I have seen him pick up a stone from the ground and examine it with the deepest interest, turn and twist it, and finally pocket it, as though it were a rarity. Anything and everything seems to fascinate him. 

"Is he a lunatic? An enviable lunatic! One for whom a pebble has value must be surrounded by treasures wherever he goes.”

Indeed. What if we could recapture all the childlike wonder and fascination we once knew, relive the sense of beauty and mystery in things that have become ordinary to us? What if we could imagine ourselves having been blind from birth, then having our full sight restored and seeing the wonderful world for the first time?

We might never be bored again. Ever.

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Business Meeting" Of A Very Small Church

This is us at our last Easter breakfast, also held at Vlasits' Lodge

Family of Hope House Church is likely the smallest congregation in Virginia Mennonite Conference, with an attendance of around 15, a living room size group. Yesterday 16 of us gathered for our usual 4 pm worship and meal and for our annual "business meeting". The setting was the home of members Guy and Margie Vlasits' Old Massanutten Lodge Bed and Breakfast, one of our frequent meeting places.

With an annual budget of only $18,000, our yearly business meetings are simple affairs, usually dealing with how to disperse money we have left over after meeting our fair share of support for denominational and conference agencies and other of our favorite charities. Here are the approximate percentages of where our 2013 giving went:

0%    salaries
0%    utilities, repairs and loan payments for church real estate
10%  printing, guest speakers, special congregational events
10%  mutual aid for our own members
40%  conference and denominational agencies (including $2000 for MCC world relief)
40%  other local and worldwide causes (People Helping People, Ethiopian Meserete Christos College, etc.)

This year we had enough "surplus" to designate, in the last category, an additional $2000 to help provide scholarship help for international students in EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, plus $500 for Open Doors (thermal shelter formerly known as HARTS).

The group decided to give the above $2000 scholarship gift in memory of Doyeon Ki, the 21-year-old from Korea who tragically lost her life January 1 just before enrolling at EMU.

I know the above dollar amounts are tiny in comparison to most congregational budgets. But I feel blessed by the portion of our giving that can go for other than our own expenses. After all, our real church business is not about what we do together on Sundays, but what we are about as followers of Jesus the rest of the week.

Here's a link to our church blog site and this one for a post in praise of keeping church simple.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Do We Need More Space To Lock Up More Of Our Citizens?

Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail
County Administrator Joe Paxton and Board of Supervisors Chair Pablo Cuevas recently met with our Fellowship of Reconciliation breakfast group for a conversation on the problem of overcrowding at our local jail. The present facility, opened in 1994, was built to house 208, but has been double bunked and provided with extra mattresses to hold as many as 400, although the numbers have recently been reduced by having 76 persons kept at the Middle River Regional Jail near Verona.

Mr. Paxton provided the following breakdown of numbers, representing a snapshot of a recent jail census:

114 inmates awaiting trial for wide range of offenses
  92 awaiting a probation trial hearing
  85 actually serving a sentence (if over six months, will be sent to a state prison)
  29 serving sentence for pending charges
  23 prisoners awaiting Federal trial
__3 Virginia Department of Corrections prisoners
346 Total

(An additional 76 are housed at Middle River Detention Center and 198 are out on bond and under Pretrial Supervision)

Paxton sees the City and County having to either add space to the existing facility, build an additional medium security one elsewhere or partner with Augusta County to use extra space at the Middle River facility.

Other options discussed at our meeting included mandatory house arrest (with use of GPS monitoring) which could allow persons to be employed and pay for things like fines, court costs, child support, etc. Another was to create a medium security facility with less expensive dormitory style housing and work release options for non-violent offenders. The latter appears to be favored by Mr. Cuevas, who presented some excellent ideas about helping offenders get their lives together rather than simply keeping them locked up for longer and longer periods of time.

I hope the City and County can generate a lot of good ideas from local citizens for alternatives to expensive incarceration options. For example, could we have more residential treatment and supervised employment programs like the Harrisonburg Diversion Center (formerly Camp 8) and Gemeinschaft Home (on Mt. Clinton Pike) for non-violent offenders?

People we have incarcerated are our neighbors. What ideas do you have for how to better help them live responsibly and keep our community safe?

Click here for more posts on criminal justice issues.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Wisdom About War: William Wilberforce 1803

William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament best known for his tireless work in abolishing the slave trade, wrote the following in opposition to England's participation in the Napoleonic Wars in a letter to a Captain Bedford in November 5, 1803:

"It is much to be regretted that, from pride and other similar passions, nations are always forward to rush into wars, though the bulk of a people soon begin to repent of them and to wish for the termination of hostilities. Ministers of state, on the contrary, are really less prone to get into wars; but when a country is once plunged into them, they are drawn forward by their own schemes; they flatter themselves that they shall by this measure and that, weaken the power of the enemy; and forgetting that the expenditure of blood and treasure is always going on, they seldom are disposed to leave off till they are forced to it. Often also they are afraid lest a less honorable peace than the sanguine expectations of men led them to hope might be obtained, should disgrace their character, and fix on them an imputation of pusillanimity or weakness. They should remember more than they do, that it is the bulk of the people who suffer the evils of war, but that they reap little advantage from its most successful prosecution."

from Wilberforce & Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, volume III, p. 140

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Friends From Afar

Christmas 2013 at Albion First United Methodist
I got a nice email last evening from Kim Pritt of Albion, New York, in which she expressed appreciation for having folks who had read this blog pray for their congregation as they vacate their historic building and find another place to worship.

Until yesterday the blog site she hosts for Albion First United Methodist Church had logged a total of 970 page visits. In just 24 hours that number went to 1027, thanks in part to some of you checking out more of their story.

Check out this link for her most recent post, "Prayers From Afar", in which she thanks you.

She also has her own Kim's Thoughts"blog you will find interesting, full of photos and personal reflections.

Small world, with lots of truly good people.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

WWJD? Albion First United Methodist Church Makes A Heart Wrenching Decision

Beautiful stained glass window in Albion, New York, First United Methodist Church
Kim Pruitt, a fifth generation member of First United Methodist Church in Albion, New York, asked permission to use my 1/5/14 Harvspot post in their church's newsletter in light of the difficult decision they've had to make regarding their future direction as a congregation. I in turn asked whether I could share their congregation's story, using excerpts from her church's blog. I urge your prayers for this and many other churches facing similar hard choices.

For the full story you can visit their blog posts for August 18 and 29. Here is my condensed version:

Over the past few years, the church Trustees and membership have been compiling, researching, and analyzing possible solutions to a problem caused by church members almost 100 years ago in 1914. At that time, the members added an addition to the church, reoriented it, and changed the flat ceiling in the sanctuary to a vaulted ceiling. To do that, they removed the bottom support beams for the trusses. Over the years, this has weakened the trusses and caused the walls to shift – the roof is too heavy for the walls to support it without the support beams on the trusses, therefore, we are finding that the structure is seriously at risk...

Engineers and architects have assessed the situation and advised alternative solutions, such as rebuilding the trusses from below and restoring the flat ceiling at a cost of nearly $2 million or removing the roof and repairing the trusses from above at a cost of $850,000

On August 21, 2013 at 6:30 pm, members of the Albion First United Methodist Church gathered in the sanctuary for what Pastor Jack has called one of the most important meetings the church has held in the past 100 years.

...It was decided that this decision was far too important for a simple majority... so, in a single round of voting that resulted in greater than a super-majority vote, 36 of the 47 members present voted to abandon the building – turn it over to the Upper New York Annual Conference – and to remain together as a congregation to worship at another location...

In the end, it was our desire to stay together and continue with our missions and ministries, no matter where we find to do that, that brought us to the path we have chosen. We determined that the best way to continue on as a congregation was to relieve ourselves of the burden that has been weighing heavily on our hearts and our pockets over the past several years and set our sights on the future.

While we know in our hearts that we made the right decision, it doesn’t lessen the emotions and sadness we feel about leaving our beautiful historic church behind. Many of us have long, happy memories tied to this building.... Many were baptized here, married here, raised their children here, mourned their loved ones here…….it is in our hearts and a part of our lives!

...We plan to continue worshiping in our current building for some months, but at some point, we do need to decide where we will move to and when that move will take place – we will likely need interim facilities while we search for and probably renovate a more permanent home. And, of course, if circumstances should change – for whatever reason – in the coming months, we also have the option to rethink the decisions made and chart a different path. Lots and lots of work and decisions ahead... with the weight of our current building situation off our shoulders, we can focus more on doing God’s work and our service to our congregation and community. We will find a new home – together – and we will continue to grow and serve and worship – together!

Check this link, and this one, for more pictures of their historic building.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Krendl Bread At Family Of Hope House Church

Russian Krendl bread
To celebrate the Twelfth (and last) Day of Christmas, our house church congregation observed an Orthodox ceremony I had read about that's associated with Twelfth Night (which marks the end of the Christmas season). In this little liturgy each congregant receives a piece of freshly baked Krendl bread with the words, "Jesus is born!". The participant then responds with "Let us adore him!", dips the bread in honey (lightly flavored with salt) and savors it as a form of Eucharist.

Traditionally, Twelfth Night has been a night of merry making, as in Shakespeare's play by that name. While we Mennonites are not known to be great at making merry, we did our best in belting out our favorite Christmas carols. Then after our prayers and Bible study, we enjoyed our weekly carry-in fellowship meal, always a part of our simple experience of church.

I told our little church that the Krendl was my personal Christmas present to each of them. With my good wife's indulgent permission, I braved using a recipe for for something I had never tried before. I must say I felt blessed going through the rather involved steps it called for as a kind of labor of love, an act of prayer.

Until next year, a Merry, Merry Christmas!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Prayer For The Eleventh Day Of Christmas: An Equitable Wage For The World's Workers

Bangladesh garment workers, paid $68 a month
"You have made a fine pile in these last days, haven’t you? But look, here is the pay of the reaper you hired and whom you cheated, and it is shouting against you! And the cries of the other laborers you swindled are heard by the Lord of Hosts himself. Yes, you have had a magnificent time on this earth, and have indulged yourselves to the full."
James 5:3-5 (J.B. Phillips translation)

We're hearing lots of talk about income inequality in the U.S. these days. There's a widening gap between rich and poor that's only getting worse.

The minimum wage working class in this country has benefits most of the world's poor would envy, of course, many of them enjoying amenities like air conditioning, flat screen TV's, I phones, and in some cases, subsidized housing, access to food stamps and other forms of public assistance. Thus poverty in this country means something different from that experienced by most of the world's poor, a point I make in a 2011 blog "Two Levels of Poverty".

But a God of justice calls for some reasonable form of equity and equality everywhere. Surely the Creator never intended some of his children to a enjoy a surplus of wealth while others barely survive and millions around the world are malnourished to the point of starvation.

On the home front, a young adult friend of mine was recently told he no longer had a job at a Walmart in Richmond, not because he wasn't an excellent employee, but because it was their policy to hire as many people as possible for only three months at a time so they would not have to provide health insurance. An older friend of mine, a department manager with Walmart for years, can barely make ends meet, and is seldom able to get any overtime pay because of their strict policies against it. Yet this corporation, said to be the most profitable in the world (and with the majority of its stock owned by members of the Walton family) threatened to not build another store in the D.C. area recently because the city was about to raise its minimum wage requirement.

It's OK for the well-to-do to raise questions about how we can best provide a safety net for the poor, but it's not acceptable to keep people in poverty because we're afraid we might have to pay a dime more for a hamburger if fast food workers got a fair raise in pay.

And let's not whine about government benefits for those below the poverty line while overlooking all of the ways the wealthy, with the help of well  paid lawyers and lobbyists, get their own forms of government welfare through tax loopholes large enough to drive their RV's through, generous federal subsidies for corporately owned farms, and having poorly paid workers subsidized with food stamps and other benefits so they can afford to work at or near minimum wage.

The solution to poverty is not more charity, but more opportunity for the able-bodied to earn a living wage, here and everywhere. The Bible says so.

Agree or not, here is a union perspective:

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Prayer For The Tenth Day Of Christmas: Hospitality Toward The Stranger And Alien

"Rest on the Flight into Egypt" Luc-Olivier Merson
"The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God."
Leviticus 19:34 (NIV)

The Bible is a story about immigrants. From his  beginning, Jesus and his family experienced homelessness, with no room for them in the inn and with their being forced to become refugees in Egypt. Their ancestors Abraham and Sarah were likewise wandering Aramaens, strangers and immigrants on earth, and their Abrahamic descendants were by turn exiles in Egypt, Assyria and Babylon.

Except for native Americans, we are all a nation of recent immigrants, and in the case of our local community, a wonderful mix of people representing dozens of different nationalities, languages and cultures.

My prayer on this Tenth Day of Christmas is that we become truly welcoming toward all of our neighbors, inviting them into our homes and into our friendships in the spirit of the text that says, "Do not neglect to show kindness to strangers; for in this way some, without knowing it, have had angels as their guests" (Hebrews 13:2 Weymouth).

I love this Celtic Blessing, referred to as the Irish Rune of Hospitality:

I saw a stranger yesterday;
I put food in the eating place,
drink in the drinking place,
music in the listening place,
and in the name of the Triune
he blessed myself and my house,
my cattle and my dear ones, and the lark said in her song
often, often, often,
goes the Christ in the stranger's guise,
often, often, often, 
goes the Christ in the stranger's guise. 

Here's a link to an earlier refection on "Christians Should Welcome Their Muslim Neighbors".

And here are some interesting numbers:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Prayer For The Ninth Day Of Christmas: That The Church Truly Love It's Gay Minority

“Come to me all of you who are tired from the heavy burden you have been forced to carry. I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you.  Learn from me. I am gentle and humble in spirit. And you will be able to get some rest. Yes, the teaching that I ask you to accept is easy. The load I give you to carry is light.”  
- Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30 (ERV)

You will note that this piece doesn’t address the divisive question of whether the church receives as members same-sex couples in committed relationships. That’s an important discussion, to be sure, but this post is about the church being truly pastoral in caring for its already committed members, that silent minority of gays and lesbians who wait to be welcomed as a vital part of the church’s conversation on this and all other issues.

On this ninth day of Christmas I am simply praying that our congregations become totally safe places for people to come out of any imposed isolation and fully walk in the light alongside the rest of us. It’s about our freely loving and fully embracing everyone, celebrating God’s image in each.

We all know cases of sons and daughters of our fellow members (including church leaders) who have either suffered in silence year after year under our "Don't-ask-Don't-tell-and-Don't-talk-about-it" policy or who have quietly left the church and entered into some kind of partnered relationships. By now most of us realize that differently oriented persons make up around 3-5% of our number, that they are not going away, and that they are who they are through no choice of their own. Yet they seldom feel free to tell us what it's like to be in their shoes.

The results have often been tragic, with good people struggling with feelings of intense isolation, self-doubt, spiritual turmoil, social estrangement and even suicide. Our present heterosexually dominant church communities are often experienced by these members as unfriendly, inhospitable and rejecting. Thus we have become guilty of inflicting deep hurt to those who are born different from us. I know many of them, some who have poured out their hearts to me in the privacy of my office. They are our sisters and brothers.

So please join me in praying that as a church we will finally pledge, loudly and clearly, that nothing anyone tells us about their private life or their secret longings will make it worse for them for having done so. Our love and acceptance, our willingness to walk and talk with each other and to lovingly encourage each other to faithfulness, will not be affected in any negative way.

We are, after all, all flawed and needy people, each of us. We need each other's help--and God's help--to work things out, no matter what it takes or how long it takes. We are dedicated to finding Jesus' way, and how we can together take on his well-fitting yoke.

Click here for something I posted on this subject over two years ago, and here for another more recent blog on how this issue is affecting the church.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Prayer For The Eighth Day Of Christmas: May Weapons Of War Be Abolished Forever

 "God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."
Isaiah 2:4 (NIV)

It's hard to imagine a world without weapons. But imagine it we must, if we are to survive on an earth with just enough resources for all, but not enough to waste on ever more efficient instruments of death.

Throughout history people and nations have tried to maintain peace through every means except to follow the example and teachings of the Prince of Peace. We have dismissed as naive his commands to "love our enemies, pray for them, and do good to them", especially when we realize that kind of response may result in suffering and even crucifixion. We have refused to believe that the only way to peace is through the costly practice of it.

People of faith envision a God-ruled world that will one day result in wolf and lamb lying down together, and have begun to eagerly demonstrate that new way now, just as Jesus and other prophets of peace did. 

I just read an example of that in the December, 2013, issue of Sojourner's magazine, in which a group of Mennonite blacksmiths in Colorado have formed a group called RAWtools, in which they do just that. Philadelphia preacher and peace activist Shaine Claiborne narrates a  short Swords to Plows clip about them, one you've just got to see!
Swords to Plows

So join me in praying on this Eighth Day of Christmas for a forever end to the insanity, horror and brutality of armed conflict. From God's perspective, war is over, a thing of the past. God's future is all about shalom, harmony and enduring peace.

We get to become living demonstrations of that reality. It begins wherever, whenever and in whomever God is sovereign.

This is the time. The world can wait no longer.

For more posts on this topic check this link.