Friday, February 28, 2014

Inmate Dies While Officer Stands By

Buckingham Correctional Center
Two prisoners wrote me recently about the untimely death of their friend Ed Stewart, an inmate at the Buckingham Correctional Center near Dillwyn. Mr. Stewart died February 18 of an apparent heart attack while working at the facility's metal shop.

One of the prison guards called for medical help, but did nothing to offer emergency first aid to the victim, in spite of having been trained in CPR, something mandated for all officers every year. There is apparently no policy regarding security officers being required to apply the life-saving procedure, only that they know how to do so.

Meanwhile, dozens of other inmates and staff members also stood helplessly by until the medical team arrived. But by then it was too late.

Sadly, Mr. Stewart is just one of many incarcerated citizens who will sooner or later die in prison.

One of the persons who described Ed's death also wrote this:

I was 17 when I was jailed on a breaking and entering and theft charge. My public defender told me if I would accept an Alford Plea I would just have to go to prison, take all the classes and treatment offered and that I would then earn first parole. I have been a model prisoner since January 24, 1993, and have yet to be granted parole. Why do they have us take educational and vocational classes and programs if they are going to punish us until we die? 

I do not understand why churches are not trying to help us. I grew up in a Nazarene church. I know I will never commit a crime again. Many of us are praying that we can be released on parole while we are still able to get a job and take care of ourselves, while Virginia is just waiting for us to die.

Click here for more posts on criminal justice.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A House Full Of Angels

Parable of the Banquet
“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed."
 - Luke 14:13
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”                  
- Hebrews 13:2 (NRSV)

In Reta Halteman Finger's book, “Of Widows and Meals,” she writes about the Witmer Heights Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which has a designated member of the congregation invite visitors and other guests to a meal in their home each Sunday. When it is member Miriam Eberly's turn, she always sets a table for twelve and tries her best to fill it.

One Sunday Eberly’s guests included the following: the visiting pastor and her husband, a Seventh Day Adventist neighbor, a couple and their daughter who recently went through a house fire, a member of a home for mentally challenged adults, two government employees from Washington, and the son of a local Presbyterian minister. Since there was still room for one more, Miriam invited a young, disabled African-American from her church as well.

When they sat down to eat, she had a moment of anxiety about how a group this diverse would find things to talk about, so after the blessing and before the food was passed she had each person tell their name and say something interesting about themselves. From then on, everything went just fine. The conversing around the table completely took care of itself.

Halteman Finger's point in her book is that there is a kind of sacred, barrier-breaking quality in sharing our food around a common table, one that is too easily lost in a day of fast-food-to-go at the nearby McBurgers. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Sunday Of Sacred Rituals

Mt. Olive Church of the Brethren
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. 
- I Corinthians 10:16-17 (NIV)

Yesterday I felt blessed by observing four sacred church practices, each reminding me of the importance of traditions and rituals in our faith.

Birthing Rituals

The first was at the 9 am service of the Mt. Olive Church of the Brethren in Pineville. I attended there at the invitation of my long time friend Curtis Herring, who told me five persons were to be baptized there that day. Pastor Fred Miller immersed them each in the baptismal pool in the front of the church as good Brethren have always done, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and as a sign of new believers committing themselves to follow Jesus together with fellow members.

O sinners, let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O sinners, let's go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the robe and crown?
Good Lord show me the way  

Bonding Rituals

On my way from there to attend an ordination at the Harrisonburg Eastside Church I listened to a part of the worship service at the Park View Mennonite Church being aired on WEMC. A number of people were transferring their membership to that congregation that morning, another ritual of welcome and belonging. Pastor Phil Kniss spoke of the miracle of having diverse, unrelated people united together to form a living incarnation of the loving and living presence of God in the world, a miracle the congregation was preparing to celebrate through a celebration of the Lord's Supper.

And we accept bread at his table,
Broken and shared, a living sign.
Here in this world, dying and living,
We are each other’s bread and wine.
This is the place where we can receive
What we need to increase:
God's justice and God’s peace.
- traditional Dutch Anabaptist hymn 

A Blessing Ritual

Arriving at Eastside, a recent church plant that meets at the Smithland Middle School, I joined some 3-400 mostly younger people, many of them JMU students, singing and celebrating their oneness as believers. Even they, casual and with few of the formalities of traditional worship services, have their own forms of ritual and order.

Yesterday one of their pastors, Matt Swartz, was ordained, a ritual that has its roots in the concept of "ordering", acknowledging that some form of designated leadership is necessary for a stable community. District overseer Roy Hange led that part of the service, emphasizing the need for serving humbly and from the position of a servant of the people. In Hange's ordination blessing he was passing on to a leader of the next generation the responsibility of carrying on the church's best traditions and supporting its continuity.

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—
not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be;  
not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve;  
not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.  
 All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.”

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, 
that he may lift you up in due time.
- from I Peter 5 (NIV)

Belonging Rituals

Then at 4 pm yesterday our Family of Hope house church congregation met at Susan Campbell's home for our weekly worship and Bible study, with our traditional shared meal at six. We take turns hosting and teaching, and this Sunday Elly Neal led us in an inspiring study of the lectionary texts for the week. This result is always more like a spiritual "carry-in" than having professionally prepared and catered fare, but the result is invariably nurturing and satisfying.

What a great culmination to a day of being blessed by a variety of church traditions and nourishing rituals--including, as always, good food and table fellowship together.

When you come together, each of you has a hymn, 
or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. 
Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
- I Corinthians 14:16 (NIV)

(A house church paraphrase: "When you come together, each of you should also bring a salad, a casserole, a fruit or vegetable dish or a dessert to share!")

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Reflections On Two Funerals

Beth-El, Harrisonburg
Yesterday at 11 am I attended the funeral and burial of Milton Perlman, a long time member of the Beth-El congregation in Harrisonburg. At 1:30 I was at a similar service for Irvin Koogler, a lifelong member at the Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite Church near Dayton.

One would expect a Reformed Jewish memorial service and that of a very conservative Mennonite congregation to be a study in contrast. But I found surprising similarities.

An Old Order graveside service
While the Older Order service was attended by hundreds rather than dozens of people, both involved many fellow members of the congregation and community who were not blood relatives. There was a sense of group identity and a shared faith that each of these minority groups celebrated, one that went far beyond family ties. There was also a community meal provided afterwards for mourners in each of the congregations. 

Both services were solemn and traditional in their own ways, and each included praise as well as lament, hopefulness as well as grieving. But the most notable similarities had to do with their burial rituals.

In each case the casket was of very plain wooden design. At the Beth-El cemetery, the coffin was laid in the grave without any protective vault, and as the rabbi read and sang words from the Hebrew Bible, friends and family members, by turn, each took a spade full of raw earth to cover the remains of their loved one. There was no attempt to shield mourners from the reality of physical decay, of dust returning to dust, earth to earth.

The Mennonites did use a simple wooden vault, also very subject to decay, and members likewise took turns covering the grave, surrounded by several hundred attenders singing songs of hope and resurrection--in four-part harmony--as they did so.

Needless to say, I was moved by these expressions of faith, hope and love. Though it may seem that the two faith traditions are worlds apart, and the deceased very different from each other--one a JMU professor and the other a poultry and dairy farmer--in death we are all laid to rest in common ground.

May the earth be soft under you when you rest upon it,
tired at the end of the day.

May the earth rest easy over you when at the last you lie under it.

May the earth rest so lightly over you
that your spirit may be out from under it quickly,
and up, and off, and on its way to God.

from An Irish Blessing, a Photographic Interpretation, by Cyil A. and Renee Travis Reilly

Thursday, February 20, 2014

An Appeal From Buckingham Prison

Buckingham Correctional Center
This is a part of a statement I received recently from Charles E. Zellers, Sr., currently at the Buckingham Correctional Center. He is among those who were incarcerated before parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995:

Virginia still houses prisoners who are parole eligible who have been repeatedly turned down for parole for from twenty to fifty years. As of this writing all parole eligible inmates have been away from their loved ones for at least nineteen years.

Virginia's Department of Corrections is holding about 4000 men and women in prison simply because the Parole Board will not give these prisoners a second chance, even though the only reason to hold them is to punish them and to keep the prison system at full capacity.
Many of those who are parole eligible are model prisoners and are first time offenders. The Board is keeping prisoners who are suffering mental and physical conditions deteriorating their lives and making it extremely hard for them to obtain gainful employment at an older age.

As prisoners grow older, the cost of their medical care increases dramatically. Virginia has a conditional release law for “geriatric” prisoners who are sixty years or older and have served at least ten years, or 65 or older and have served at least five years of their incarceration. Yet the Board is still not releasing prisoners unless they are near death. Virginia has the lowest parole grant rate in the entire nation!

Virginia also houses prisoners from foreign countries, mostly Hispanic and Asian, who are suitable for release and deportation, thus relieving the state of another monetary burden, yet all too often these, too, are systematically denied extradition.

Think of the money that could be saved and spent on schools and other projects if we stopped having the taxpayer pay for unnecessarily long prison stays. The total cost to incarcerate an average daily population of approximately 38,000 is $748.6 million, of which 4.8 % is from costs outside the corrections budget.

Please contact your lawmakers, the Governor’s office and news media to help correct the injustices created by the Parole Board and the current corrections system.

Charles E. Zellers, Sr., 1036758
Buckingham Correctional Center, B1-113-B
Box 430, 
Dillwyn, VA 23938

Monday, February 17, 2014

Every Cash Register is a Polling Booth

Harrisonburg Farmers Market
"Deciding we won't drive to that chain grocery store and buy that imported pineapple is a path to liberation. Deciding to walk to the farmers' market and buy fresh, local peas is like spitting in the eye of the industries that control us. Every act of refusal is also an act of assent. Every time we way no to consumer culture, we say yes to something more beautiful and sustaining. Life is not something we go through or that happens to us; it's something we create by our own decisions."
- Kathleen Dean Moore, If Your House Is On Fire

When it comes to making all of my purchases in light of my professed values, I still have a long way to go. Too often I am lured into simply buying what or where things are the least expensive. But I realize that every purchase is also a vote in favor of the kind of causes, people and policies I really want to support. Do I want to invest in more family-run enterprises or in Wall Street-related corporate ones? Do I want to support more locally produced (native) foods and other products or more of those imported from long distances (exotic ones)? Do I choose to support businesses that pay fair wages or those that exploit workers?

I wrote this little limerick some time ago:

Instead of our shopping at mall-marts,
and thus lend support to more sprawl-marts,
      Let's choose Red Front, local shops,
      The Little Grill and Friendly City Co-ops,
And shun box store chains like our Wal-marts.

As Justin Shull writes in a 1/14/14 Daily News-Record op-ed piece: 

"Our culture is focused on more for less. Most advertisements focus on providing the consumer with a greater quantity of a product for a lower price. There is, however, no mention of quality. Let’s say you spend $40 at a chain restaurant a week. A significant portion of that $40 is outsourced to major corporations from distant states (or countries) whose food is of a lower quality and whose employees may be severely under-compensated. The food and agriculture industries are a great example of the centralized power problem. By outsourcing our spending to large, distant corporations, we are personally dismantling our local economies.

"This may seem like a lofty ideal. It is well known that buying American-made products is more expensive. However, if we could withdraw our more-for-less attitudes and redirect even a portion of our spending into our struggling local economies, the politicians and their corporate counterparts would listen. Shifting these attitudes could lead to an economic Renaissance. Also, we could avoid the malignancies of our current super-capitalist system: unhealthy people and communities. It is time to regain control of our political system through our collective purchasing power."  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

"Strawberries were too delicate to be picked by machine. The perfectly ripe ones bruised at even too heavy a human touch. It hit her then that every strawberry she had ever eaten--every piece of fruit--had been picked by calloused human hands. Every piece of toast with jelly represented someone's knees, someones aching back and hips, someone with a bandana on her wrist to wipe away the seat. Why had no one told her that before?"
- Alison Lauterman, What We Came For

Saturday, February 15, 2014

CCT Issues Historic Statement Against Mass Incarceration

from CCT website
The following is a part of a 2/7/14 statement by Christian Churches Together, a broad coalition of Christian leaders in the United States, including historic Protestant, Evangelical/Pentecostal, Catholic, Orthodox, and historic Black Churches. This was released after their February 4-7, 2014, meeting at Newark, New Jersey.

For the past six years, CCT has educated itself and taken action on issues of poverty, racial justice, and immigration reform. This year, the group furthered its commitment to these issues by engaging the issue of mass incarceration in the U.S.

The message was clear from speakers that included formerly incarcerated faith leaders, a federal judge, a former prosecutor, a director of state corrections and a social worker, as well as the deliberation among CCT participants: Mass Incarceration is not just an issue. It is first and foremost about people created in God’s image with lives, families, hopes, and dreams ensnared within a web of personal struggles and choices exacerbated by social conditions, laws, structures, and historic dehumanization of people of color.

Mass incarceration is a destructive system of human control where certain ethnic minorities experience inequitable interaction with the nation’s penal system. Current realities include:

• With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S has 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned people. (The Sentencing Project)

• Incarceration rates have increased from 500,000 inmates in jail and prison in 1980 to more than 2.2 million in 2010. (The Sentencing Project)

• For-profit prison companies commonly demand 90 percent occupancy from the states that contract with them. (6 Shocking Revelations about how private prisons make money, by April M. Short on

• CCA and Geo Group, the nation’s two major private prison companies, “have had a hand in shaping and pushing for criminal justice policies such as mandatory minimum sentences that favor increased incarceration.” (In the Public Interest Report, September 2013)

• The “War on Drugs” dramatically increased the U.S. prison population from 41,000 drug offenders in 1980 to half a million in 2010. (The Sentencing Project)

• African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and use drugs at the same rates as people of other races, but represent 45 percent of those imprisoned for drug violations. (Drug Policy Alliance Report)

• Criminal prosecutions of immigration suspects in federal court districts along the U.S. southern border have increased by 1,475 percent over the last 20 years resulting in increased demand for prisons and detention centers to hold inmates (War on Undocumented Immigrants Threatens to Swell U.S. Prison Population, by Chris Kirkham on Huffington Post and TRAC Reports)

• 1 in 3 Black men and 1 in 6 Latino men are likely to be imprisoned in their lifetime. Only 1 in 17 white men will experience the inside of a jail or prison in his lifetime. (The Sentencing Project)

In light of these facts and others corroborated by the personal testimonies of several speakers, agreement among CCT’s leaders was palpable. The group declared: The church in the United States has a moral and ethical imperative to protect human dignity and must address the problem of mass incarceration in our nation.

First, we recognize that the legacy of the dehumanization of people of color has borne lasting effects in current-day society. These effects are perhaps most acutely experienced by our African-American brothers and sisters who were deemed non-human, “chattel,” by law in the days of antebellum slavery and whose human equality was challenged by the Jim Crow system of subjugation until passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 attempted to right it. We see the vestiges of these systems of human control in America’s current system of mass incarceration.

Second, we recognize that these systems are not only affecting African-Americans. They are now impacting all people of color, the poor, the marginalized, and the immigrant in the United States. Latinos and other immigrants, in particular, are experiencing the brunt of increased detention rates in the midst of their struggle for immigration reform.

Third, while there is a role for prisons to address violent offenses, we recognize that our nation’s justice system has lost the hope embodied by its historic vision to “correct” and restore broken people back to society. As followers of Jesus Christ, we believe in the redemption and reconciliation of all things, rather than retribution. This includes the prisoner and broken systems. This is the essence of the gospel.

As Christian leaders, CCT declared: “Mass incarceration must stop. We are challenging ourselves together with government and the nation to seize this moment when multiple forces are aligning toward positive action to correct the injustices within our ‘justice’ system.”

CCT in the U.S.A. is encouraging its member denominations and organizations to increase awareness, educate, and take action to oppose mass incarceration in the public square. CCT also committed to developing guiding principles for the Church in its efforts.

Click here for more posts on prison and criminal justice issues.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Everyone Is Beautiful and Lovable

photo by branka.kurz
I remember seeing an old dining room table at an auction sale years ago that had been used for years as a workbench in our neighbor’s shop. As a result it had become scratched and scarred, stained with paint and old glue and reflected some very hard wear. I thought the table might go for a couple of dollars at best.

But there were some antique dealers there who viewed this aged piece of furniture in a completely different way. They saw it as a classic, solid oak table they wanted badly, and for which they were willing to bid what I thought was an outrageous amount. And this was not because they felt any pity for the table, or for its owner, but because of their sense of its actual value.

I grew up being told that agape love, or God’s love, is about being able to love the “unlovely and unlovable.” In other words, God (and God’s people) practice an “in-spite-of” kind of love, which means trying to be nice to people we would otherwise not want to be associated with.

I no longer see it that way. For one thing, that kind of “loving”, if it can be called that, is patronizing and arrogant. I believe our Creator is really quite fond of us, like parents are of their children, and not unlike the way the antique dealers were of the oak table. In other words, God doesn’t see us as worthless at all, but as beings who bear all the trademarks of “created in God’s image,” and therefore are incomparably precious--and in fact priceless.

This is not to say that God likes all of our behaviors--and certainly not our self-righteous ones. And like the table, we too may have become marred and scarred, each of us, to the point of sometimes being almost unrecognizable as a part of a “very good” creation.

But God sees great potential in each of us as works of great worth.

That’s the way I want to see every other human being in the world, able to love them with a gleam-in-the-eye delight rather than as an unwelcome obligation.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Letter to The Mennonite, February 2014

Eastern Mennonite University, USA
Dear Editor,

I read with interest the January 2014 issue of the Mennonite featuring Mennonite Church USA educational institutions. I found it concerning, however, that there was no mention of any of our sister schools anywhere else in the world. I know the magazine is largely for and about U.S. members, but even this issue, like most, included numerous articles with an international flavor, including one on how cross-cultural experiences benefit our college students and another on how our high schools benefit from having students from other countries.

MCUSA has five colleges and two seminaries with a total enrollment of over 5000, while our rapidly growing sister church in Ethiopia, for example, with more than twice the number of members as MCUSA, can barely afford one college, with a capacity enrollment of under 200.

Our institutions have well-financed development departments working year round to raise budgets of millions, plus having expanding (and expensive) Admissions Departments competing to recruit students to reach enrollment needs. Ethiopia's Meserete Kristos College has no problem attracting students, but struggles to meet its annual operating budget of $325,000, likely less than our Mennonite schools and colleges spend each year for lawn care.


Harvey Yoder

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Do Old Order Groups Follow Culture Rather Than Christ?

For background reading
The following is a paraphrase of a parable Jesus might address to present day Mennonites:

“Two believers went to church to pray, one a modern Mennonite evangelical and the other a member of an Old Order group. The progressive Menno stood by himself and prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am a saved, born again, liberated believer who lives only by the Bible, the whole Bible and nothing but the Bible. Furthermore, that I'm being led only by the Holy Spirit, without any influence from mere human traditions or a set of rules imposed on me my by others. I especially thank you that I am not like those Old Orders who base their salvation on good works and on doing everything according to man made church traditions.'

 “But the Old Order, standing at a distance, would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, be merciful to me, an unworthy sinner.'"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
The point of this post is that none of us, Mennonite or otherwise, is free of cultural influences that affect how we live out our faith. By definition, culture represents a community's norms and way of life, good or bad, based on existing patterns or traditions. None of us is culture-less, and all of us do well to try to understand, in the case of our church life, which ones we're primarily influenced by.

I see three different church cultures with which we Mennonites might identify:

1. Prevailing Protestant Church Culture

Here the focus tends to be on one's personal relationship with God, with a minimum of accountability to other church members in matters of lifestyle choices. When it comes to church life, the primary attention is given to what happens within the walls of specially constructed and dedicated buildings with features like steeples, stained glass windows, and sanctuaries with elevated pulpits and neatly arranged pews. Church worship services are mostly led by members of a specially chosen and trained clergy who are separate from the laity, the ordinary members. The order of service includes a prescribed pattern of invocation, hymns, offertory prayer, pastoral prayer, 20-minute sermon, more hymns and a benediction, all at a set time on a Sunday morning. An additional hour is usually spent in Sunday School groups with grade levels patterned after those of public schools, and which meet in classrooms constructed solely for use for this 1% of their member's weekly waking hours. Christian Education and Youth Ministry staff are often hired for purposes of facilitating the teaching of faith to children and youth. Church business meetings follow Roberts Rules of Order.

Each of the above norms is culturally rather than Biblically determined. This doesn't mean that they are necessarily bad, but they illustrate how we are all affected by certain assumptions and practices from which we seldom deviate.

2. Old Order (Mennonite and Amish) Culture

Here the identity and accountability of members are strongly associated with their faith community, which sets strong boundaries and provides clear direction for lifestyle choices--and also offers a high level of hospitality, security and support for its members. Such groups often meet in homes for worship, or in simple and plain meetinghouses, but also have a strong sense of commitment to working and fellowshiping with, fellow members throughout the week. Its leaders are normally nominated from within the group and then chosen by lot, thus their deacons, ministers and bishops are always from, by and for the people, the "laos" (the New Testament word from which the word laity is derived). Weekly Sunday morning worship services also follow well-rehearsed and predictable patterns that have roots in their sixteenth century origins. The teaching of faith to children is seen as the primary responsibility of parents, and youth activities include softball or volleyball, service projects and Sunday evening hymn singings in member homes. Church decisions are made by their leaders, based on their hearing the concerns of their fellow members and reinforcing or modifying the congregation's rules and discipline as they see fit. Sometimes, of course, the power invested in their ordained leaders can be abused.

3. An Idealized First Century Church Culture 

Here the focus is on members trying to apply what they believe represents the early church's way of living and worshiping to contemporary church life, recognizing that believers today face many questions and problems not even imagined 1900 years ago. Such groups may choose not to own or maintain any church real estate, but encourage their members (the laos) to gather in each other's homes for worship and fellowship. They are led by elders who see all members as equally called to exercise their gifts in the work of caring for one another and serving others throughout the week. Services may be early in the morning or later in the evening on Sundays or, to accommodate people's schedules, at some other time (Sunday, the Lord's Day, having been an ordinary work day in the first century). While elders often admonish, teach and exhort others in their services, every member is to be prepared to bring "a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation of a tongue" to encourage and instruct others. Decisions are made through Spirit-driven consensus, taking every member's input into account. Such churches may stress "home schooling" in matters of faith rather than having a structured curriculum for their young, along with having adult mentors assigned to provide spiritual nurture for children, youth and for new members.

Which of these models is most affected by cultural factors rather than being purely based on the Bible? Again, we are all are subject to cultural influences, but probably none so much as those operating from prevailing Protestant (and/or Catholic) church norms.

So while a partial answer to the question posed in today's post may in reality be "Yes", but I've never met a member of an Old Order group who believes that anyone other than God can grant them salvation.

Click here for other posts on church themes.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Two Contrasting Models of Church

The Church of Pentecost (from the Acts of the Apostles)

“The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because  many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

The Church of Plenty-Cost (from the Acts of the Apostate)

“The believers, when not on vacation or having more important things to do, devoted themselves to their congregation’s Sunday morning services and to participating in occasional potluck meals. Apathy came upon everyone as they were being urged to give generously to pay for and maintain their well furnished building and to support the growing number of professional staff on the church payroll. Meanwhile, lay members were scattered everywhere, each trying to make ends meet and to keep up with their Visa payments, along with saving all they could for their children’s college and for their future retirement. Night after night they spent time around their home entertainment centers, enjoying all manner of good food and savoring all of the benefits of the good life. And day by day the Lord pondered over how the church could be renewed and saved.”

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

California Drought, Poisoning Of Kentucky Water Supplies: Signs of Apocalypse?

The first angel blew his trumpet. Hail and fire, mixed with blood, came pouring down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees, and every blade of green grass.

Then the second angel blew his trumpet. Something that looked like a huge mountain on fire was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea was turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

Then the third angel blew his trumpet. A large star, burning like a torch, dropped from the sky and fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. (The name of the star is “Bitterness.”) A third of the water turned bitter, and many people died from drinking the water, because it had turned bitter.

Then the fourth angel blew his trumpet. A third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that their light lost a third of its brightness; there was no light during a third of the day and a third of the night also. 
- Revelation 8:7-12 (NIV)

In this Bible passage the ominous warning trumpets appear to accompany the environmental disasters described rather than triggering them. Could it be that human beings, commissioned to care for the earth, are the actual causes of these kinds of potential disasters?

It isn't hard to see a connection between the environmental exploitation by coal and chemical industries and the near disastrous consequences Kentucky residents are suffering. But is there also an apocalyptic link between our excessive use of oil and coal for power, accompanied by the release of volcanic tons of carbon into the atmosphere, that is contributing to the extreme drought much of California is experiencing?

We do know that an unprecedented warming of the Pacific Ocean is creating a large area of high pressure that is blocking Pacific storms from delivering their usual rain to the state. With only a fraction of the normal snow and rainfall California usually relies on for its crops and for human use, some reservoirs supplying water for major cities are already within months of being depleted, and farmers and ranchers are unable to produce the quantity of food many of us rely on.

Regardless of how we may feel about the causes and effects of this global warming, what is happening should be seen as trumpeting a global warning that we all need to heed.

Radical repentance should result in our reducing our levels of consumption and changing the ways we care for our precious planet.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

DNR Op-Ed: 'Let's Not Go Back To The Chair'

My most recent op-ed piece (below) appeared in yesterday's Daily News-Record, on the same page as a lead editorial presenting a pro-capital punishment point of view.

In 1890, William Kemmler became the first person executed by means of a unique U.S. invention, the electric chair. After 17 seconds of 2000-volt current, Kemmler convulsed violently, turned bright red, and appeared to have died. When he instead began to revive and struggle for breath, officials rushed to restart their generator and repeat the charge for an entire minute, resulting in a death accompanied by the smell of burning flesh and smoke coming from Kemmler’s head.

Despite this gruesome start, some variation of this killing experiment became the norm for most executions in the United States through most of the 20th century, largely replacing hanging and the gas chamber. In 1979, a series of more botched electrocutions led to states switching to lethal injections, Virginia being among them.

On Jan. 20, our Virginia House of Delegates, in one of its first actions, voted overwhelmingly to return to using the chair if pentobarbital is unavailable due to manufacturers refusing to sell the drug for use in executions. A Senate version of the same bill remains in committee.

Because of the shortage of this preferred drug, authorities in Ohio recently used an experimental combination of the sedative midazolam and a painkiller, hydromorphon, in the execution of 58-year-old Dennis McGuire, who gasped repeatedly and took nearly an agonizing half hour to die. McGuire’s lawyers argued that he experienced the kind of “air hunger” that caused him extreme suffering while struggling to get his breath.

Of course, many will argue that McGuire deserved all of this and more for the cruel stabbing death of a pregnant newlywed. I fully understand that, but if reverting to the practice of torture is our goal, legislators need to empower judges to sentence accordingly. Civilized societies have come to believe they are better than that, and our own U.S. Constitution rules out “cruel and unusual” punishment, no matter how heinous the crime.

Today the United States lags behind most industrialized nations that have abolished executions entirely — though 18 states and the District of Columbia have done so. Among the 32 states that still apply the death penalty, there is no evidence that Texas, which has executed more than  500 offenders since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, is any safer than, say, New York, which has executed none. Virginia, by the way, is second in its number of executions.

Countries without capital punishment actually have lower crime rates than the United States and their prison sentences are seldom as long as ours. So in what direction do we really want our commonwealth to go? Toward using ever more violence as a means of deterring violence? Or to move toward life sentences as an alternative in extreme cases, with the possibility of parole if offenders show signs of significant change and rehabilitation?

Only 400 years ago, 70-year-old Hans Landis, one of my wife’s direct ancestors, was publicly beheaded for the crime of holding illegal church meetings in the canton of Zurich, Switzerland, something forbidden by the official reformed state church. One of his sons later died in prison in 1642 as a result of inhumane treatment, as did his daughter, Verena, a year later. Such forms of cruelty were commonplace.

From that perspective, we have come a long way from the kind of torturing, beheading, burning at the stake, hanging, drowning, or condemning people to becoming galley slaves that were the norm at that time. Surely we applaud any progression from such horrific sentences to more humane ones. But any execution of a reasonably healthy adult requires an extremely violent intervention. Human bodies are not designed to give up life easily, whether from poisonous gas, toxic drugs or extreme electric shock.

On both moral and religious grounds, being pro-life means treating all human beings as we would want ourselves or our loved ones treated.