Friday, May 30, 2014

I'm Weary Of Blessing Same-Faith 'Church Divorces'

...You are God’s building. Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation... Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ... Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?  
God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
- from I Corinthians 3 (New Living Bible)

Since becoming a part of Virginia Mennonite Conference nearly fifty years ago I've lost track of the number of times I've been through the grief of church divorces, where God's "people temple" (see above) is structurally damaged. 

Last evening at our quarterly Harrisonburg District delegate meeting we were again asked to approve a motion granting a release to a local congregation breaking ties with us--separating themselves from our district, from the Virginia Conference and from Mennonite Church USA.

Heartsick, I abstained. I just wasn't prepared to vote either yes or no. How could I, with many of the members of this congregation being my friends, and all of them brothers and sisters in my faith family?

A part of me understands where these family members are coming from. Like others before them, they see leaving as a necessary part of being faithful to the Bible, believing the mother church is on a wrong course. I went through similar distress when Virginia Conference agreed to accept as members, in some cases, people who were already a part of the military. To me this meant violating the clear teachings of Jesus and the practice of the early church, as well as being contrary to our church's Confession of Faith.

The current issue, of course, is over same-sex marriage, even though currently we have no openly gay couples as members of any of our congregations. But at least one church has stated it would be open to receive such, and Eastern Mennonite University, a part of MCUSA, is currently debating the question. 

Of course, at worst, no more than 3-5% of our members (estimated percentage of people who are gay or lesbian) would ever even think of choosing such a partnership. 

Nevertheless, these are the kinds of concerns the church must take seriously. But must we walk away from each other as soon as we even talk about controversial issues--like accepting divorced persons who have "married another", or blessing members choosing to "fare sumptuously every day" while billions are in want, or baptizing people who believe killing as a part of military service is OK?

Or should we stay with each other, meanwhile encouraging congregations, as they feel led, to discipline individual members who refuse counsel or correction from the church, but not separate ourselves from whole congregations or districts? And meanwhile, shouldn't we at least allow for time to discern and pray with each other, to confront and engage each other, and love and weep with each other as members of fellow congregations or districts? Even no-fault divorces of married couples in Virgina require a year of waiting before formally severing ties.

Our Swiss Anabaptist forbears didn't seek to see the church divided, but appealed to their entire church in Zurich to follow Jesus' call to voluntary discipleship and a renunciation of violence. They were forced out, were persecuted, tortured and exiled for preaching a baptism of the willing rather than having everyone forced into membership in the state church.

I know there is much about today's churches and congregations that is broken. We are a mix of flawed, imperfect people, to say the least, as have been members of churches ever since their first century founding.

But dare we just ignore Jesus' fervent prayer for unity, "that we might all be one"? Are we assuming there is more than one Lord, faith, or baptism? Are we not to become one beloved bride of Christ rather than resembling a fragmented harem? Do we believe that in our Father's house there are separate rooms reserved for each of our kind, or that only those who agree with us can even find a home there?

Or can we affirm there is "a wideness in God's mercy" that is beyond our imagination?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Celebrating One As A Whole Number

Debra Farrington, author of “One Like Jesus, Conversations on the Single Life,” writes, “Churches have unconsciously bought into the belief that being single is being miserable. They might pat singles’ heads and say it’s okay, but they don’t really believe that.”

Farrington notes, for example, that some churches call their 20s and 30s groups “pairs and spares,” as if people who weren’t married were left overs.

I’ve long held the belief that the best preparation for married life is to first learn to live joyfully and well without being married. In other words, to first become “One like Jesus”, or like a St. Francis or a Mother Teresa.

That may sound idealistic, even impossible, but isn’t there something wrong if we can’t be a happy or whole person without being married, as good a state as that may be for most?

I suggest we encourage our young to make their decisions about who, when or even whether they choose someone as their “soul-mate-for-life” from a position of already having a bucketful of happiness. That way they won't be bringing their half-empty buckets to a relationship hoping someone else can fill it. And then resenting them for failing to fully do so.

Not that any of us can go it alone. Each of us, married or single, need a strong and nurturing network of support, good people in nurturing congregations with whom we can share good times and bad, whether single or married.

Sister Fannie Mae, with my father, Ben, after my mother's death
One of my older sisters, Fannie Mae, who was never married, became a volunteer registered nurse and midwife who operated a clinic in Belize for ten years and later one in Paraguay for another decade. In both places she made a positive difference in  the lives of hundreds of families in underserved areas. She will always be one of my admired heroes, in many ways having accomplishing more than any of us.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Whitewashing The World's Ultimate Travesty

The front page of Saturday's Daily News-Record featured a depressingly long list of area men killed in US wars over the past hundred years. There were over 250 men included in this horrific roster, one with the headline "The Ultimate Sacrifice".

No one with a heart should ever simply glance at these names or note these numbers and remain unmoved. These are real people, and their tragic stories represent an unimaginable trauma not only for them, but for the 250 or more families directly involved, for the untold numbers of sweethearts, spouses, siblings, parents, children, coworkers, neighbors and friends of the dead whose lives were forever altered by these deaths.

Today I grieve for each one of them, and pray for healing for worldwide wounds inflicted by war.

The only way any of us could ever begin to support such utterly cruel and preventable killing is through the use of euphemistic language in lauding armed conflict as a noble and selfless sacrifice. We avoid naming armed conflict for what it really is, a form of organized mayhem and inhumane brutality.

The editorial page of the same issue of the DNR features the text of an eloquent speech by General Douglas MacArthur delivered to cadets at West Point on May 12, 1962.

His remarks begin with, "Duty, Honor, Country. These three hallowed words reverently dictate what you want to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point to build courage where courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn...The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan... But...They build your basic character...They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success..."

Note the religious language in such speeches, with words like "hallowed", "reverently", "faith", "hope", "(un)believers", "character", "humble" and "gentle". Who could oppose an enterprise so laced with piety?

I do not fault the average foot soldier for embracing such embellishments in support of killing, or for becoming brainwashed into engaging in it out of love for God and country. But while many soldiers display extraordinary and laudable courage, I find it hard not to see them at the same time as being expendable pawns of the powers that control them.

What would happen to our addiction to killing, for whatever cause, if instead of describing our dead as merely haven "fallen", or having made "the ultimate sacrifice", we would honor their lives and their tragic deaths by being candid in how we describe it? In reality, killing in battle typically means having fragments of human flesh, bones, blood, brains, intestines, and other body parts splattered and scattered beyond recognition, accompanied by the desperate and God-forsaken cries of the wounded and dying. And that doesn't even begin to describe all of the horror of what really happens when we aim heavy artillery fire at other human beings, whether soldiers or civilians.

So the best way to honor those around the world who have been killed or permanently injured as a result of having been persuaded (or coerced) into defending freedom, honor, and/or their homeland, would be to announce that the barbaric business of war is over, and we are pledged to forever putting an end to it.

So listen Syria. Pay attention, Sudan, Russia, Kenya, the U.S. Listen to the cries of the suffering and the laments of the grieving. For God's sake, for Allah's sake, for Jesus' sake, let's work and pray together to find a better way to peace on earth.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Could This Growing Threat Divide Our Church?

Greed: wanting more than is needed
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but did not help the poor and needy.
- Ezekiel 16:49 (NASB) 

While the Mennonite church is in the midst of multiple conflicts and deep divisions over what to do with gay and lesbian members who want to be in committed relationships, there's another equally sobering issue we need to address.

I refer to the question of how we respond to greed-oriented persons who seek to become members of our fellowship.

I'm aware of a growing number of Mennonites who have quietly come out as multi-millionaires, and have begun to live accordingly. They may represent fewer than 3-5% of us, but that's still a lot of people. In addition, an untold number of members, while not yet living an openly multi-millionaire lifestyle, nevertheless have a strongly greed-based and consumer-driven orientation. All of us face the danger of becoming far too attached to money and the abundance of things money can buy.

Not everyone who stewards large sums of money or manages enterprises that produce large amounts of wealth is necessarily greed-driven.  I know business men and women who operate with integrity, provide decent jobs at fair wages and don’t assume that managing more capital wealth entitles them to a greater share of consumer wealth. In other words, they continue to live simply and frugally and share sacrificially with those in need.

But Jesus repeatedly warns us of the danger of greed and of pursuing wealth for selfish ends rather than solely for the good of others. And what should make this a grave concern is that if one takes scripture seriously it is clear that no greedy person can be considered a part of the rule of Christ. Note:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.
- I Corinthians 6:9-10 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
So what do you think? Should the church begin to do some major house cleaning based on this growing concern about the love of Mammon, one to which Jesus gives more attention than to any of his other teachings?

Clarifying note: The Merriam-Webster definition of greed is "a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed."

An Appeal To Members Of Virginia's New Parole Board

Virginia Parole Board
6900 Atmore Drive
Richmond, VA 23225
(804) 674-3081 

Current members:
- Ms. Karen Brown, chair
- Mr. Algie T. Howell, Jr., vice-chair
- The Reverend Doctor A. Lincoln James (pastor of Trinity Church in Richmond)
- Mr. Sherman R. Lea (Roanoke City Council member, former VDOC head, Western District)
- Mr. Minor F. Stone (25 years in law enforcement)

Dear Parole Board member:

Congratulations on your recent appointment to the current Parole Board.

According to the Parole Board website,  "The Virginia Parole Board... continues to be empowered by Virginia Code Section 53.1-136 to make the following decisions:
  • to conditionally release inmates who are parole eligible,
  • to revoke parole and post release supervision of those under supervision found to be in violation of the terms of their release, and
  • to investigate, prepare reports and advise the Governor, when requested, on Executive Clemencies.
The Board has the legal responsibility to act on geriatric requests for conditional release under Virginia Code Section 53.1 - 40.01."

I hope you will increase the numbers of prisoners who have been behind bars for many years and who could be safely released to their families and communities. A number of men with whom I have been in correspondence were incarcerated on the basis of plea agreements in which they were told that if they served some of their time and exhibited good behavior they would be eligible for parole in a reasonably short time.

Such promises were never kept for countless numbers of persons who, in spite of their best efforts, have been refused parole year after year because of "the severity of their crimes", something they are of course powerless to change. Many of these parole eligible inmates are over fifty, having passed the age where their being at risk for re-offending is dramatically reduced. Many of them would in fact qualify for geriatric release.

I offer the following names only as examples of good people I believe deserve to be given their second chance. As a taxpaying citizen, I fail to see the merits of detaining persons long after they have demonstrated that they have learned their lesson and are ready to become contributing members of society:

Mr. James E. Bender #1010837 (excellent prison record, seeks parole after spending years in prison under old law)
Greensville Correctional Center
901 Corrections Way
Jarratt, VA 23870-6914

Mr. Stephano Colosi #1037581 (excellent prison record, is an active advocate for geriatric release for aging prisoners)
Buckingham Correctional Center
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936-0430

M. Steven W. Goodman #1028377 (excellent prison record, active in doing legal research on restoration of parole)
Buckingham Correctional Center
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936-0430

Mr. Danny Haskin 1005852 (excellent prison record and has taken every educational opportunity available to him)
Greensville Correctional Center
901 Corrections Way
Jarratt, VA 23870

Mr. A. Jefferson Grissette #1143033 (wrongfully sentenced based on plea bargain and photo line-up, excellent prison record)
St. Brides Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 16482
Chesapeake, VA 23328

Mr. Nat Painter 1009725 (age 72, incarcerated 19 years, denied parole in spite of excellent prison record)
Coffeewood Correctional Center
12352 Coffeewood Drive
Mitchells, VA 22792

Mr. Jens Soering #1161655 (47-year-old who seeks return to his native Germany, has authored six books on prison life and prison reform since 1986, when he was incarcerated for a wrongful confession)
Buckingham Correctional Center
P.O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936-0430

Mr. Jonathan D. White #1161021 (has exceptional prison and education record and has worked hard to earn parole)
Powhatan Correctional Center
3600 Woods Way
State Farm, VA 23160

Mr. Charles E. Zellers, Sr. #1036758 (excellent prison record, active in prison reform efforts)
Buckingham Correctional Center Bl-113-B
P.O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936


Harvey Yoder, LPC
11345 Hamlet Drive
Harrisonburg, VA 22802

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

If Christians Had Only Listened To Jesus, They May Have Saved The Planet

Sell what you have and give to those in need. This will greatly multiply your stock in the company of heaven. And your portfolio is absolutely safe from any downturn in the market. Your treasures will never disappear; no thief can steal them; no moth can destroy them.
Luke 12:33 (paraphrase)

We tend to dismiss these words as among those impractical sayings of Jesus that no reasonable person could ever put into practice in real life. But what if Jesus intended them to be wise counsel about the kinds of investments that bring about optimal returns?

When we invest in the needs of our fellow human beings rather than in ever more consumer goods, he insists, we are putting our money where it really produces lasting results and brings the greatest possible satisfaction.

Had Christians heeded this kind of advice, the planet might have averted disaster.

Unfortunately, most so-called Christians, especially those of western Europe and the new world, have become known as the most ravenous and reckless consumers of all time, promoting a way of life that is wrecking the planet, exhausting its resources and poisoning its atmosphere. And regrettably, most other developing nations have been all too eager to follow our lead.

What would have happened if those who profess to follow Jesus would have from the beginning taken him far more seriously when it came to sharing wealth with those in need rather than storing up more and more earthly treasure for our own comfort, convenience or self-indulgence? There would have been far more peace on earth, and trillions could have been saved through investing in plowshares instead of swords and through spending on human need rather than on human greed. Hunger, malnutrition, homelessness and many diseases could have been virtually eliminated if the rate of consumption had been reduced and wealth more equitably shared.

We may all realize, too late, that Jesus was not simply giving humanity some good sounding but optional financial advice in the gospels, but a mandate that could prove to be the only way we could all survive.

But alas, professed Christians, on the whole, have been no more Christ-like when it comes to their rate of consumption than unbelievers in general.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Location, Dislocation, Relocation.

I was six years old when my mother, with my two older brothers and five older sisters, completed a 1400 mile journey from eastern Kansas to the little village of Stuarts Draft in Augusta County. We arrived early on a Norfolk and Western passenger train on the morning of March 5, 1946, then walked nearly a mile to where our dad was staying, surprising him with our early arrival.

My father had just made the same trek in a freight car designed for cross country moves, one that held livestock in one end, farm machinery in the middle and our furniture at the other end. It was a huge undertaking for my 40-year-old parents to make this move to a new community with their brood of eight. They also faced the challenge of making a living on the rocky and hilly 120 acre farm my uncle financed for us, quite in contrast to the 160 acres of relatively flat land we had come from.

Why did they do it? Not for financial gain or for a better farm, but for the benefit of us children, believing that the families and young people in the little Amish congregation at Stuarts Draft would provide a better environment for us to grow up in. Many of the young people in their Kansas church youth group were into things like drinking and smoking and some engaged in courtship practices they were afraid we would be negatively influenced by.

I will always be grateful to them for making the decision to relocate. And it turned out pretty well as far as our passing on their faith and values to families of our own. I've often wondered what might have happened to us if they had chosen otherwise.

I shared that story at our house church gathering yesterday, where our lectionary texts reminded us that following Jesus is sure to involve some major relocation, certainly a decisive dislocation of our perspective and direction if not an actual geographical move.

In the Acts 7 passage for this Sunday, Stephen, a passionate member of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, is brutally stoned by angry members of the Jewish establishment. This young firebrand, not a Judean native, outraged the Judean powers by promoting two controversial positions regarding religion and location. First, he insisted that God doesn't identify primarily with a certain land (the whole earth is the Lord's), and secondly, that God does not dwell in temples made by human hands (but inhabits the hearts and lives of faithful people everywhere).

So in his speech, instead of appealing to conqueror Joshua, military King David or empire builder Solomon, Stephen elevated landless nomads like Abraham and Sarah, who had answered God’s call to leave their roots and their homeland and to relocate in Palestine, even though, as Stephen reminded them, they never owned a foot of land in the new world--except for their burial plots. He insisted that what really holds people together is not so much their land, but their Lord, their Abba. The kingdom of God is wherever God rules, in the hearts and lives of followers of Messiah.

That didn’t go down well with the ruling party, who saw God as providing a promised land they could call their own, with secure borders that would forever exclude outsiders--along with a temple in their midst which would be God's exclusive dwelling.

But Stephen, quoting key Hebrew texts, insisted that God had no need for either a particular plot of real estate or for a dwelling made with human hands, something very hard for them to hear, especially since they had just been given the gift (by King Herod) of a glorious new temple on Mt. Zion, which they believed pointed to a restored theocracy and a land free of all foreign enemies. The idea that God’s new kingdom, led by Messiah, would welcome everyone, that it was to be an international movement that included all believers of all kinds from every tribe and nation, and not Jews only, was in their minds a rank heresy.

So the relocation Stephen calls for takes us into Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Jesus territory--all of them being resident aliens in their time--and into temples not made with human hands.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

How One EMU Professor Helped Save 300 County Homes

from EMU archives
In my early years as pastor of a church near near Broadway, the late Ernest Gehman, a German professor at Eastern Mennonite College and pastor of a neighboring church, Morning View Mennonite, was a member of our Northern District Ministerial Council. I remember admiring his untiring efforts to promote an alternative the the Army Corps of Engineers plan to build a 4000 acre dam at Brocks Gap. The editors of EMU's Alumni paper, Crossroads, kindly gave me permission to post a slightly  abbreviated version of a  recent article by Andrew Jenner on this story, as follows:

In 1963, the United State Army Corps of Engineers published plans to build 16 large dams along the Potomac River and its tributaries, including one at Brocks Gap on the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, about 15 miles north of Harrisonburg. The Army Corps’ goals were noble enough: to spare Washington D.C. from the destructive flooding that had periodically drowned the National Mall, secure the city’s water supply for decades to come, and create 16 new lakes’ worth of recreational opportunity for the American public.

Of course, there were some pesky details to all of this. The 150-foot dam proposed at Brocks Gap would have buried the community of Fulks Run beneath 122,000 acre-feet of water, displacing more than 300 families and inundating, among other things, nearly 4,000 acres of productive farmland, a brand-new elementary school and at least 17 places of businesses.

EG Gehman2_opt
Ernest Gehman

“He knew a lot of people who would have been affected by the flooding of the valley,” said James Metzler, Gehman’s son-in-law. “He was concerned for the livelihoods, the disruption of congregations, as I recall.”

Gehman made his feelings on the matter plain in a May 1963 letter he wrote to Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record (using language remarkably similar to certain strains of contemporary political discourse): “It is the sort of trampling on human rights that one might expect to find in atheistic Russia, but hardly in our so-called free and so-called Christian America.”

The situation in Fulks Run felt dire, recalls Garnett Turner, the owner of a then-threatened country store famous for its sugar-cured Turner hams. Turner recalls the officer leading the Army Corps’ plans as being “right emphatic that it was going to happen” – the security of the nation’s capital was said to be at stake.

Gehman knew the best way to block the Army Corps’ plan was to suggest an alternative; his counter-proposal involved the construction of smaller dams along the entire length of the Shenandoah River. Built every five to 10 miles within the channel of the river (and thus known as “channel dams”), these were to have kept the water no higher than flood stage, essentially turning the Shenandoah into a series of long, narrow lakes.

The idea was inspired by channel dams that Gehman had seen in the late ’40s in Germany while completing his doctorate at the University of Heidelberg, and a decade later during a year he spent teaching in Austria under the Fulbright exchange program. The Neckar River, which flows past Heidelberg, was a particular inspiration.

Gehman argued that the channel dams would serve the Army Corps’ water supply and flood control goals without destroying the community behind Brocks Gap. He also played up the economic development angle, as the addition of locks at each dam could open the Shenandoah River to commercial navigation.

Like most conservative Mennonites of his era, Gehman frowned on participation in politics and never voted in his life, according to his son John Gehman. That didn’t stop him, though, from diving into the bureaucratic and political fray surrounding the Army Corps’ scheme.

“He was bold,” recalls John, who was in medical school in Richmond while his father took on the Army Corps of Engineers. “He didn’t hesitate to speak up about his thoughts and feelings.”
In September 1963, Gehman went to Washington to present a rationale for his channel dam proposal at a public hearing held by the Army’s Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors. (Also there that day was Garnett Turner and nearly 200 others who’d come from Fulks Run in five chartered Greyhound buses to make their displeasure known.)

He began writing to the newspapers, local officials, state legislators and Virginia’s Congressional delegation. Responses, ranging from tepid to fairly enthusiastic, came back from Virginia’s two senators at the time – Harry F. Byrd Sr. and Willis Robertson – as well as Governor Albertis Harrison and West Virginia Governor William Barron. Gehman’s greatest ally in Washington, though, soon became Rep. John O. Marsh of Virginia’s 7th District.

In one of the many letters the two exchanged over a several-year period, Marsh wrote: “The time you have given to this problem is a most valuable contribution to the public interest.”

John Gehman, now a general practice physician who lives in Crewe, Va., remembers that his father “just kept drumming away at it,” despite a growing sense of frustration when the channel dam plan seemed to be going nowhere.

Gehman also struck up correspondence with the German Embassy in Washington, and in the spring of 1964, organized a meeting between high-ranking American officials and a German engineer named Gerhard Krause who was an expert on Germany’s channel dams.

With the help of Krause and other contacts in Germany, Gehman then compiled an 18-page brochure that examined the German channel dams in considerable detail and fleshed out his plans for similar dams on the Shenandoah River. In May 1965, the Broadway-Timberville Chamber of Commerce funded the printing of 2,000 copies, which Gehman and his allies began distributing widely. Later that summer, Marsh wrote to request more copies, as the brochure was “attracting considerable interest” in Washington DC. In June, it reached the hands of Lady Bird Johnson – the First Lady of the United States, who wrote in a letter to the Broadway-Timberville Chamber of Commerce:
Professor Gehman’s study of channel dams in the Potomac tributaries interests me very much, and I am sending it to Secretary [of the Interior Stewart] Udall so that he and his professional staff can give it full and immediate consideration in their plans.

In August, another 1,000 copies of the brochure came off the press, and by year’s end, Gehman had spoken about his idea to around two dozen civic groups in the Valley.

(The plan wasn’t without its drawbacks. A state game official wrote that construction of the channel dams would destroy the Shenandoah’s smallmouth bass fishery, considered one of the finest in the country. The Izaak Walton League, a private wildlife and habitat conservation organization, formally opposed the Gehman plan for the same reason.)

By mid-decade, though, significant resistance was mounting to the Army Corps’ original plan for Brocks Gap, which seems to have been quietly pigeonholed. The historical record (and the Army Corps’ own archives) is remarkably silent on the specifics of how, exactly, this transpired, and the details escape the memory even of people like Garnett Turner who fought to save his own home and business. The Army Corps plan was there, until suddenly it wasn’t.

Regardless, once plans for the Brocks Gap dam dissolved, Gehman also shelved his channel dam plan that had consumed an enormous amount of his time and energy of over a several-year period.

In 1973, Gehman officially retired from EMU, after teaching for 47 years. Over the next decade or so, he continued to teach a few German classes until his health began to fail him, and in the summer of 1988, he died at the age of 86.

The Turner Store is still in the family and still sells its fine Virginia hams. The Fulks Run Elementary School recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Fertile farmland still covers the valley west of Brocks Gap and surrounds the still-intact Hebron Mennonite Church. And Runions Creek still runs past Bethel Mennonite Church before reaching the North Fork of the Shenandoah, which then flows unencumbered through Brocks Gap and down the Valley towards Washington D.C., as it did since before Ernest Gehman and the Army Corps of Engineers devised competing plans for its future.

— Andrew Jenner ’04

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Grandfather Daniel J. Yoder, A Man Of Sorrows

In one of my last extended conversations with my dad, he talked at length about the intense life of grief his father Dan experienced, having lost three wives and two young children by the time he was 45.

Grandfather Dan, who died before I was born, grew up as the oldest of 11 children in the John and Anna Yoder family in northern Indiana. In his late teens he fell in love with sixteen-year-old Fannie Troyer, and after a rather brief period of dating, proposed to her. Young Fannie, instead of instantly agreeing as he had hoped, asked for some time to think this over before giving him an answer.

Theirs was something of a star crossed relationship in the first place in that Dan was Amish and Fannie a "church house Amish" a less conservative group that later became a part of the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference. In those days, before such inventions as cars, phones and TV's, the differences between the groups were not so obvious, but Dan's parents nevertheless frowned on the relationship.

Girls marrying in their mid teens was not uncommon in those days, but Fannie's less than enthusiastic response may have been one of Dan's first major setbacks, and rather than risk her rejection--and perhaps to please his parents--Dan never went back to Fannie to get her answer, something he felt badly about later.

Fannie, by the way, later moved to Kansas to do housekeeping for an Amish widower, Abraham Nisly, and ended up marrying one of his sons, Eli, who later became an Amish bishop. By a strange twist of fate, Eli and Fannie became my mother Mary's parents. So Fannie, instead of potentially becoming my paternal grandmother, became my maternal grandmother.

Meanwhile, Dan courted and married an Amish girl, Lucy Lehman, and the two moved to a newly forming Amish settlement in Mississippi.

Here is where Dan's troubles really begin.

At age 23, Lucy died of measles, leaving him a heartbroken widower with two very young children, John and Anna, dutifully named after his parents. On the day of Lucy's burial, little Anna also died of measles.

Soon thereafter, Dan married Rebecca Schrock, and the two had five more children together. Then  his beloved Rebecca died of tuberculosis, leaving him a widower with six young ones to care for. Then only months after Rebecca's death, his youngest daughter Mary likewise died of tuberculosis.

Dan then married Elizabeth Miller, and the two moved to Yoder, Kansas, and had three more children together, the youngest of whom was my father, Ben. Then when my father was only three years old, Elizabeth went into labor with what would have been their fourth child, and died of complications in childbirth.

"The next five years were like a blur to me," my father told me. "I would often cry myself to sleep wishing I had a mother like other children did. And my father, a 'man of sorrows', wasn't able to comfort us because he was going through so much grief himself."

When my dad was eight, Dan married again, this time to Miriam Mullet, a widow. Miriam's first marriage had been to a widower who already had nine children when his wife passed away, and the two of them then had four more.

Some of Dan and Miriam's older children had already grown and left home, but their large blended family failed to blend well, and Dan experienced additional grief trying to deal with all of the conflict and stress involved in trying to keep their tribe together and functioning. One of his teen age sons (who slept with the older boys in their farm's tenant house), ran away one night and got married in another state, adding to Dan's feelings of loss and depression that went all the way back to the loss of his first love, Fannie.

Much later in life Dan apologized, not to Fannie, but to her husband Eli, for the way he had treated her years before. Perhaps he felt God was somehow punishing him, in that his first three wives died young and Fannie enjoyed good health and lived to a ripe old age.

Needless to say, my father had anything but a happy childhood. But by some miracle, he became one of the kindest and compassionate persons I have ever known. I'm blessed as I reflect on how my forebears' faith in God and love of family eventually brought them through their most difficult and dark times.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Failure To Incarcerate Worked Better Than Prison

Cornelious "Mike" Anderson with his wife and daughter
At 23 Mike Anderson was sentenced to 13 years in prison for taking part in a robbery at a Missouri fast food restaurant. At that time he was told to simply wait for orders as to when and where he should report to prison.

Due to a clerical error, Mike was never picked up to serve his sentence. Only after the mistake was detected less than a year ago was he apprehended and placed behind bars.

Mike had never tried to hide from the law, and in the meantime turned his life around, started his own construction businesses, got married and had children, coached football for a youth league and was active in his local church.

Mississippi County Judge Terry Lynn Brown, in reviewing his case last week, took only ten minutes to announce his ruling. Mike would get credit for all of his years of being a model community citizen and for the nine months he spent after being arrested last year, and would not even need to be on supervisory parole.

His defense attorney said, "He has been able to accomplish for himself what the criminal justice system does not accomplish in many situations." The judge agreed, saying, "You've been a good father and husband. You've been a good taxpaying citizen of Missouri."

Is the moral of this story that more first time offenders should be given the chance to work at their rehabilitation in their communities rather than being sentenced to ever longer prison stays?

It's certainly worth thinking about.

Information from an AP article in the May 6, 2014, Daily News-Record.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Some Discouraging Local Divorce and Marriage Numbers

Rockingham County Court House
Every year since 1996 the clerk of the local Circuit Court has kindly provided me statistics of marriage licenses issued and divorces granted in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

Since our population has increased significantly during this time one would expect a steady rise in marriage numbers, but that's not the case. That doesn't mean fewer couples are pairing up, but we likely have ever more people living together in undocumented (common law) relationships.

With fewer legalized marriages we should also be able to expect fewer legalized divorces. But that isn't true, either. And we have no record of how many cohabiting couples break up, with equally distressing consequences as their married counterparts.

Here are the actual numbers:

Year           Marriages     Divorces
1996            873                 387
1997            950                 405
1998            964                 396
1999            932                 405
2000           947                 365
2001         1003                438     (most annual marriages
2002           976                 421
2003           961                 399
2004           959                 437
2005           889                 381
2006           929                 389
2007           925                 434
2008           950                 405
2009           903                 347     (fewest annual divorces)
2010           879                 358     (fewest annual marriages)
2011            933                 433
2012            995                 445
2013            924                 484     (most annual divorces)

Given the fact that every divorce, documented and otherwise, profoundly impacts not only the couple involved, but the lives of parents, siblings, friends and especially any children involved, the number of our neighbors scarred by dysfunctional marriages and destructive divorces each year is incalculable.

What do we make of these numbers? If we had a corresponding dropout rate in our local schools, wouldn't we be appointing some blue ribbon committees to see what could be done to help more students stick it out?

Click here for additional posts on divorce.

Here's the graph to the year 2012:
Here's our population growth:

Friday, May 9, 2014

May That Day Come Soon

Most of us dream of a world in which "the wolf and the lamb will lie down together", and when "nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain". The Biblical prophets were bold in declaring that this would be happening not just in some future far away heaven, but right here on planet earth.

The following are the words of a beautiful song, "Bright New World", I heard recently by a men's ensemble called "Voice of Praise" (includes some of my grand-nephews), from their album "Deliverance". I'm inspired by this vision, something we should all fervently pray for every day--that God's will be done on earth just as it is in heaven.

 Bright New World

Some day a bright new wave will break upon the shore
And there will be no sickness, no more crying, no more war
And little children never will grow hungry any more

Some day there'll be an end to unkind words and cruel
The man who said there is no God will know he is a fool
And peace will be the way of life with love the only rule

Some day, we know not when, when time on earth is done
And those redeemed from every land will all become as one
With voices of all ages praising God the three in one
- from the movie "The Cross and the Switchblade"

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Guestpost: How Many Years Will Satisfy Virginia's Citizens?

Buckingham Correctional Center
The following was sent to me recently by Charles Zellers, Sr., an inmate I correspond with at the Buckingham Correctional Center. Zellers was incarcerated over twenty-one years ago on the basis of an Alford plea he had agreed to with the understanding that he would soon be eligible for parole and released:

Over ten thousand of Virginia's parole eligible prisoners have been waiting to be released so they can be reunited with loved ones. These men and women have been incarcerated from nineteen to fifty years.

How many years is enough?

Many of these prisoners have been behind bars since they were in their teens and twenties. Now that many of them are elderly they are costing taxpayers more than ever.

Virginia's Parole Board continues to fail thousands of Virginians and their families. Virginia judges had sentenced offenders to sentences that would release men and women back into society if they completed the requirements designed by the General Assembly (COV 53.1-53.1-A) and implemented by the Virginia Department of Corrections Director.

This system was designed to evaluate prisoners received according to their background, aptitude, education and risk based on an assessment of needs, then determine program assignments which include vocational, career and technical education, work and academic activities, counseling, alcohol and substance abuse treatment to help them transition to free society and gainful employment. If the prisoner did not complete these assignment, he or she would receive disciplinary action that would take back good time the person had earned and push back the date of eligibility for discretionary parole release.

But the most recent parole boards, for the most part, have not done this. Governor Allen, who had parole revoked in Virginia for all offenders jailed after July 1, 1995, then created a list of parole decision factors that went beyond those approved by the Assembly. And prisoners are now only entitled to be seen by the parole interviewer only once a year, or every two or three years if the offender has ten or more years left to serve.

The parole board denies release of most prisoners because of "the seriousness of the crime", but this is not what the original law says, resulting in billions of dollars spent in keeping people behind bars who are no longer a risk to society. It is inhumane to keep model prisoners incarcerated until they die.

The basic principle behind the parole system is that while people must be punished for their wrongdoing, most are capable of growing, changing and rejoining society before the end of their discretionary sentence. The parole board should be looking at a prisoner's future and at their accomplishments while incarcerated, not at the past crime that put the offender in prison. For "old law" offenders (prior to 1995) release should be the default and the parole board should have to give a good reason to keep these offenders incarcerated. The millions used to house these offenders could be used for K-12 education, health care, affordable housing and other community services.

                                               * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The following is from the Parole Board website:

The Virginia Parole Board was established by law in 1942 and the Board continues to be empowered by Virginia Code Section 53.1-136 to make the following decisions:
  • to conditionally release inmates who are parole eligible,
  • to revoke parole and post release supervision of those under supervision found to be in violation of the terms of their release, and
  • to investigate, prepare reports and advise the Governor, when requested, on Executive Clemencies.
The Board has the legal responsibility to act on geriatric requests for conditional release under Virginia Code Section 53.1 - 40.01.

Current parole board members as recently appointed by Governor McAuliffe include:

Karen Brown, chair (former vice chair)
The Reverend Doctor A. Lincoln James (pastor of Trinity Church in Richmond)
Sherman R. Lea (Roanoke City Council member, former VDOC head, Western District)
Minor F. Stone (25 years in law enforcement)
(unable to find the name of the fifth member)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Ariel Joy, December 27, 2012 - April 25, 2014

Ariel Joy Yoder
Just over a week ago, Alma Jean's grand-nephew Jeremy Yoder and wife Cheryl buried their youngest child and only daughter, Ariel Joy, who died of SMA-Type 1 (Werdnig-Hoffman Disease). Her funeral service in Delaware was on the 58th birthday of her grandfather, Mark Yoder, Jr., Alma Jean's nephew.

While we never got to know this special child personally we kept up with news of her progress through her sixteen months of life, and kept her and her parents and two older brothers in our thoughts and prayers.

Pat Heatwole Hertzler of Powhatan, Virginia, wrote the following about little Ariel on her blog, Country Chatter, which I excerpt here with her permission:

In 16 months Ariel had shyly charmed her way into many hearts. She couldn’t speak except to utter a few noises but she could smile. Her huge brown eyes would connect with the person talking to her for a few seconds as she flashed a big, wide smile.

Then very quickly she would drop her gaze as she glanced to the side. It was sweet, demure, bashful and charming. If you wanted one of those precious smiles you had to drop to her level and look her in the eye.

 She left behind no wealth, no words of wisdom, and no achievements. She never said a bad word, fed herself, or learned to walk. She was never able to approach people, they had to come to her. She left her legacy: joy in the form of her smiles, lot of smiles, and the quiet presence of a life she struggled to live.

Ariel was loved. Her two brothers adored their little sister and her parents faithfully and without any complaint attended to her every need. Ariel went to church and she was told about Jesus and His love for her. She was prayed for by her family, extended family, church family, friends and friends of friends who fervently hoped and longed for a miracle of healing.

Ariel lost her fight to live on earth but she gained heaven’s victory. SMA is a cruel disease robbing the body of the ability to move and grow. At 16 months she weighed a mere 10-1/2 lbs.

The last weeks had become an increasing struggle for Ariel. Breathing and eating became more difficult and she had several choking episodes. She started running a fever and about 1:30 on Friday morning Cheryl got her and put her between them in bed. At six when they awoke she was gone.

We don’t know all that happens at death but God’s Word gives us nuggets of information, treasures that bring peace to our minds and understanding to our hearts....

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

Alma Jean's niece Mary Ann Yutzy, who also has a widely read blog, posted the following blessing for her brother Mark Yoder, Jr., and his wife Polly (Heatwole), and for Ariel's parents, Jeremy and Cheryl:

May the years to come mark this day with a surge of joy
as you remember a little girl who could light up a room with her smile.

May you be blessed to remember that God entrusted Ariel to your family
and that you did not fail her on a single count of love or care or faith or nurture.

May your heart be light as you remember that you rejoiced over her with singing.

And may this day be remembered by something other than a small grave in a Delaware cemetery
that holds only the chrysalis of a Heavenly Butterfly
that is more alive now than any of us are or ever will be in this life.

May the memories that you have made this weekend as a family
be the things you remember whenever these days come up in conversation,
by inference or in the quiet remembering of your own soul.

Although mighty forces have waged war against you and your family, do not worry.

You already have the victory.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Reaching Out To The Mentally Ill And Desperately Poor

Sam with Dr Ruiz, president of the World Psychiatric Association
My good friend Sam Nickels grew up with a brother who struggled with schizophrenia. As a result he became deeply committed to supporting individuals and families dealing with mental illness.

From 1995-2000 Sam worked with Mennonite Central Committee in El Salvador. While there he was moved by the terrible conditions of patients in that country's psychiatric hospital, and by the complete absence of community services. As a result, he partnered with a Salvadoran nonprofit, the Center for Health and Human Development, to begin a family education and support program in 2002 called Mental Health International.

Over the years the program added a psychosocial group and a program to help the mentally ill get out of their homes and to find employment, along with doing other advocacy and community education activities

Now his vision has expanded to starting similar self-help groups across Central America.

Mental Health International deserves our support. Please visit his website or Facebook page for more information.

And join me in making a generous donation.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Reports Of My Retirement Are Greatly Exaggerated

Mark Twain's original quote

Occasionally folks ask me about rumors they've heard that I was retiring.

This doesn't surprise me, since, Lord willing, I will turn 75 at the end of next month. And had you asked me my plans a decade ago I would have probably assured you I'd be fully retired by now.

But here I am, still not sure just when I will end my work at Family Life Resource Center, where I've served as a counselor since the fall of 1988. My present thinking is that as long as I enjoy good health and a plentiful supply of energy, I can't think of any way I'd rather spend my time than doing what I do--including serving as pastor of Family of Hope House Church and being involved in various community causes.

Needless to say, I feel incredibly blessed to being able to work at a place like FLRC. The word "family" in our name is what I experience on a regular basis with my co-workers. They are friends and colleagues who are truly great to work with.

And I totally love all of the clients I've learned so much from in my 25 years of working there. They are a gift that keeps on giving.

Having said that, I have cut back somewhat on my hours, giving myself Monday and Tuesday forenoons off and all or a part of every Friday. So I enjoy the best of both worlds, time for grandparenting, gardening, pastoring, blogging and for other things I care deeply about, plus time for doing what I've grown to love, meeting with individuals and couples going through times of stress.

God is good. How could I ask for more?

And now this message from all of us at FLRC:

Family Life Resource Center invites you to our fundraising banquet, Hand in Hand:  Partnering for Congregational Care, Saturday, May 17 at VMRC's Hartman Dining Hall, 6 pm.  Learn about the exciting plans of FLRC's renewed desire to partner with congregations and the community for care, support, and counseling. Entertainment by a cappella group, Good Company. RSVP to Marie at (540) 434-8450 or by Thursday, May 8th.