Monday, June 30, 2014

At 75, Entering My Fourth Quarter

Today on my 75th birthday I reflect on the four 25-year seasons of my life:

Spring Planting--years 0-24
child number eight
conceived in Amish love
nourished by family and faith
deeply rooted in Oklahoma soil
transplanted at three to eastern Kansas
emigrating by cross-country train at six
to the garden that is the Shenandoah Valley
and then at 21 off to Eastern Mennonite College
1950's photo from Harry A. Brunk collection, Mennonite Archives of Virginia

Summer Growth--years 25-49
from deepening roots come shoots
of new life and new love
a growing love of learning at EMU, JMU, AMBS
a love of camping as director at Highland Retreat
a love of teaching at EMHS and Western Mennonite
along with the love of loving the love of my life
my Alma Jean having been wedded to me at 25 and
our bearing family fruit in sons Brad and Brent and
daughter Joanna while also serving
at Zion Mennonite for two soul-stretching decades

Fall Harvest--years 50-74
counseling at Family Life Resource Center
blessed to be an nonsalaried but well rewarded
house church pastor while trying to slow life down
enough to gather ripening insights to put in small baskets
of radio spots and blog posts and other publishings
in hopes they might nourish others as they have nurtured me
meanwhile seeing our offspring launch and grow families of their own
passing on their own lives in life enhancing ways
and oh grandchildren
Christmas 2012

Winter Reflection--years 75-??
can an old man continue to see visions and dream dreams
will his God-blessed health allow him to pursue
everything that still waits in bucket
wish lists of all he would love to see
happen in his community and family
and in beloved church families

and finally
will he be able to lay himself down to sleep
well content when his time comes
feeling finished and fulfilled
at winter's end and eager to
welcome eternal spring

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The War That Spawned Ever Worse Wars

French 87th regiment near Verdun, 1916
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, once referred to as "the war to end all wars".

Sadly, the effect of this senseless conflict proved to be the opposite.

According to the backers of the Great War Project, it "devastated much of Europe, killed some 10 million people, ended empires, gave birth to new nations, sparked conflicts from France to Persia and from Russia to the Pacific islands, created the conditions leading to World War II a generation later, and helped make the United States the preeminent global power. Yet it settled nothing, and many of the conflicts from Europe to the Middle East and beyond still simmer to this day."

What I find even more tragic is that supposedly Christian leaders on both sides urged their congregants to offer their lives in this crusade to preserve civilization and to avoid being subjugated by a vicious and evil enemy.

An extreme example was that of Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the bishop of London, who preached, "Everyone that loves freedom and honour … are banded in a great crusade – we cannot deny it – to kill Germans; to kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends who... superintended the Armenian massacres, who sank the Lusitania, and who turned the machine-guns on the civilians of Aerschott and Louvain – and to kill them lest the civilisation of the world itself be killed... I look upon it as a war for purity, and everyone who dies in it as a martyr."

One horrific result of this kind of call to human slaughter was the infamous Battle of the Somme. Five months of fighting there left 622,221 British and French troops killed, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner — all for the sake of a gain of six miles of territory. An estimated 465,000 German troops died, making a total of over a million casualties in that battle alone.

Are we humans capable of learning that wars, rather than settling conflicts, most often contain the seeds of future ones, each potentially becoming ever more brutal and inhumane?

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Racial Divide--Have We Come A Long Way Or Not?

This week marks the 50th anniversary of James E. Cheney's murder (an African American married to a white woman) along with two other white civil rights workers. I ran across the following letters to the editor of Eternity magazine on interracial marriage that I had filed a long time ago. There's no date on the page I saved, but it would have been sometime around 40 years ago. I'm using only the initials of the writers, but I have not otherwise edited any of the content:

Dear editor:

I did not like the article "What's Behind Our Interracial Marriage Taboos?". I do not and never will believe in mixed marriages. If this trend continues, there will eventually be no white or black people. I don't see why the black people can't be treated equally as to job opportunities, etc., but why endorse interracial marriage?
Articles like these and your magazine are just trying to "brainwash" our people into thinking it is the right thing to do. Discontinue my subscription.
H. P.
Lexington, Ky.

Lowell Noble's interpretation of the Bible and sociological studies are not true, judging by the nations that have fallen because of interracial marriage. Therefore please cancel my subscription.
Mrs. J. L.
Albany, Ga.

I am a Christian and love every child of God regardless of race or color. I have a niece and nephew who are in Africa who are missionaries.
But when it comes to interracial marriage I am very much against it. We should notice it is seldom that a white man marries a black woman. Usually a black man marries a white woman; it's nothing but lust and sensual desires.
Of course your modern churches, liberals, communists and civil rights forces are in favor of it. Take my name off your mailing list.
W. D.
Grand Rapids, Mich.

Lowell Nobel's article is a brilliant and perceptive one. It's way past time for such an article to be published.
A. J. B
State Line, Pa.

Now that you have so readily removed all barriers to the marriage of blacks and whites, perhaps you can give us another article in the near future proving to us that the cohabitation of humans and beasts is also permissible. Or what about one endorsing homosexuality and lesbians? Surely there are just as many good arguments for these things as for interracial marriages.
B. T. R.
Pasadena, Tex.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jesus: "I Was Hungry, And You Did WHAT?"

I know I can't actually speak for Jesus, but here's some of what I imagine he might say to his U.S. followers today:

- I was hungry and you spent $61 billion on the feeding and care of your pets last year. God loves all creatures, but to pamper your animals while turning a blind eye to the world's poor is just plain wrong.

- I was thirsty and you spent $11.8 billion on bottled water in 2013, which costs you 2000 times more that tap water. Can't you be satisfied with the luxury of having good, safe water piped right into your homes that is of far better quality than most of the world's people enjoy?
And don't even get me started on all of the billions you're pouring into soft drinks and alcoholic beverages each year.

- I was an immigrant stranger and you keep investing ever more billions erecting fences and maintaining border patrol agents to keep me out instead of helping alleviate the desperate poverty that motivates people to take such great risks to find U.S. jobs in the first place. And too many of you have responded with more hatefulness than hospitality even to the children I'm sending your way to keep them from being killed or coerced into working for drug cartels in places like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

- I was in need of clothes and you just keep buying more and more outfits to stash away in your already bloated walk-in closets. For some inexplicable reason you've chosen to celebrate my resurrection by buying even more new clothes. What's with that? And for St. Valentine's Day you spend over $13 billion annually on Valentine cards, jewelry and flowers.

- I was sick and in prison and you keep turning a blind eye to people who lack health care, while at the same time supporting building ever more prison cages to warehouse offenders. Meanwhile the luxury  homes you build for yourselves, often after your children are grown and gone, are ever more spacious and more elaborate.                                                  - Jesus

" I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.
- from Matthew 25

Monday, June 23, 2014

Church Unity--All About A Common Table, Not A Common Label

Someone asked me recently, "Why are you so worried about churches maintaining organizational unity?"

True, I strongly favor good, faith-based organizations staying together, but I'm far more concerned about how our church splits are affecting our being able to share in the Lord's Supper together.

When I ask members of groups who are leaving MCUSA or Virginia Mennonite Conference whether I and other former fellow-members can still join them for their communion services, most quite willingly say, "Of course". After all, we are still fellow believers and in many cases long time friends.

But as a practical matter, we hardly ever get together for  communion after a church division. We are far more likely to remain "excommunicated" indefinitely.

If by chance we did show up at a departing church's worship service when the bread and cup of the Eucharist were being served, wouldn't it be more consistent for them to actually turn us away?

After all, if we can't be seen as worthy enough to do church business together, to engage in mission together, or to meet for regular sessions at a common table of discernment (such as at Conference Assemblies) how could we be considered worthy to partake at the Lord's holy table?

Or are our dissident friends saying that while they believe Jesus accepts us all in the most sacred act of partaking of his broken body and life blood, that they still can't unite with us for other far less important aspects of church life? How does that make sense?

So here are my basic questions:

Whose church is it, anyway? 

Who would Jesus welcome to intimate communion fellowship? 

Who will Jesus invite home to his forever banquet table?

I know Jesus says that the road to life is narrow, and only a relative few will find it. But the Bible also promises that in the end there will be "a great multitude that no one can count, from every tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb... wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands."

Maybe the Lord's table is ultimately much larger and more welcoming than we have imagined.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

"Bella Bimba"--In Memory Of Valerie Brunk Hertzler 1969-2014

As a family friend and as one of her former teachers at Eastern Mennonite High School, I attended Valerie Brunk Hertzler's memorial service at the Lindale Mennonite Church this past Thursday. We were all moved by the service and by the tributes given by her older brother Douglas Brunk and by her lifelong friend, Wanda Bowman Harder, which I post here with their kind permission. Valerie's mother Erma Hess Brunk, had died of cancer exactly 12 years prior to Valerie's premature and tragic death. Needless to say, this has been traumatic for all of her many, many friends and loved ones.

The following is now posted on Douglas Brunk's blog:

From the day my dear sister was born in Palermo, Sicily, I have loved her and felt very protective, perhaps on occasion overly so. I would get VERY upset if anyone other than my parents would even touch her or for that matter even look at her. My parents tell stories of my incessant questioning (I know that is hard for many of you to believe) which eventually included, “Can I marry Valerie when we grow up?“

I assume it was early on my Dad coined her family nickname that would stick to this day — Bella Bimba (Beautiful Girl). It comes from an Italian song that I won’t even try to sing for you. Dad with his fatherly eyes captured her essence. Didn’t he? If you see early pictures of her absolute cuteness you can’t help but call her Bella Bimba.

We Mennonites can be a bit suspicious of this word ‘beautiful.’ We are concerned about putting on airs and ostentatious displays. But beautiful is what she was – to her core.

I have looked over the pictures over the last couple of days I have been struck dumb by her physical beauty. She was so cute in childhood. She developed into a beauty as a girl. As a woman, she bore herself with her own unique Valerie-version of our mother’s poise and stature. She had a timeless quality and carried it easily. I can only imagine how much she would detest my talking about her in front of a room full of people — much less discussing her beauty.

We all know that physical beauty, however, has its limits. Our Bella Bimba radiated beauty as a devoted wife and mother. She loved her family with a deep and abiding love and in simple and creative ways helped build a beautiful life for her family. This love reached to her extended family and encompassed MANY unexpected changes in our family life and structure. Some of those changes were not easy but she did not run, even though they could be very scary.

Our Bella Bimba radiated beauty through her passionate desire to be of service to others and her devotion to God. Through the work she chose to devote herself to on a daily basis through social work, through her work with this congregation, and through the work in Haiti that Andre and Val chose to devote their precious time.

Our Bella Bimba radiated beauty through silence. Valerie was a quiet and reserved person. She left the public limelight to those of us who craved it more. She worked and participated from the background. She made things happen. When she choose to speak she would communicate through few and carefully chosen words.

Lest you create an image in your mind of a quiet, unassuming, angelic, push over — I feel like I should correct that right now. Under that exterior, lay a woman of strong conviction with some, but not unlimited, patience with less than wise decisions or behavior in others. I say this as her older brother who, of course, would only occasionally be on the receiving end of that “correction.” On occasion I would hear stories or witness her corrective action towards others. I could not help but wonder, “Who are you and what have you done with my sister?”

Our Bella Bimba radiated beauty … but as my partner, Lloyd, put it recently, that radiance was sometimes dimmed. It was not always easy for my dear sister because she suffered from anxiety, sometimes mild, sometime overwhelming. It frustrated her ability to be everything she wanted to be for her family and friends.

At the end, dear sister, we have been left with a mystery. There are some things we will never know and questions for which there will be no answers in this life. There are times we will be angry. There are times we will be frustrated. There are times we will feel overwhelmed by sadness. In all these times, hopefully, we can turn to Our Source and one another to be loved and reminded of how much you loved us.

So now dear Dolce Bella Bimba we must take the mystery you left us with and enter into an even larger Mystery. We must place you (though so unwillingly) with gentleness, oh so much gentleness, into the loving, strong arms of the Creator. In my mind, I can see standing there at the Eternal Right Hand, regal, loving, and comforting as ever, our dear mother waiting to enfold you in her arms.
Peace be with you Valerie and God’s peace be with us all.

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

To my precious Valerie, by Wanda Harder

We’ve been friends ever since you moved in across the road in 1975, and I’ve always called you my sister.  It’s so hard to put into words who you were to me and how much I will miss you.  I’ve spent the past few days going through old photos and replaying thousands of memories.  Memories of:

​- picnics
​- climbing trees on the hill
​- endless craft projects
​- wandering all over Park View
​- crazy costumes
​- baking experiments
​- setting up hilarious obstacle courses with Doug in your basement, like putting on your dad’s waders and timing each other as ​we ran around completing a series of tasks
​- hiking with my family
​- just talking
​- listening to my Larry Norman albums
​- letters across the miles when we weren’t in the same country
​- laughing—a LOT
​- being in each other’s weddings
​- being pregnant at the same time
​- playdates when Casey & Joseph were little
​- walking with each other through the loss of a parent
​- lunches at Dave’s Taverna and Blue Nile
​- shopping – You helped me pick out this dress last winter fora wedding.  It certainly was NOT intended for this ​occasion.

For all the time we spent together, I can’t believe that there are so few photos of the two of us.  (Don’t worry—that photo of us in our Wonder Woman costumes will never become public.)  We just weren’t into photos.  We were into being friends and spending time together. 

You were always content to stay in the background, but you possessed such grace and wisdom.  You cared deeply about people, and you were such a wonderful listener.  As we’ve shared the ups and downs of life and wrestled with issues of faith and parenting together, I’ve so appreciated your thoughtful insights, your integrity, and your prayers.  You forgave me for the many times I was a too-bossy big sister. You always laughed at my jokes. Thank you for blessing my life with your sweetness.  I will miss you.  You will always be my sister.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

When To Bury, When To Carry--The 7 x 70 Question

Turn the book over; its second title is "Caring Enough NOT to Forgive"
When do you completely stop talking about, or dealing with, something that has been troubling you for a long time?

Some are inclined to say we should never bury things, period. Stuffing things down, they say, can only make your problems worse, and they're sure to come back to trouble you later.

Others are prone to say, Let go of your past hurts and grievances in your life and in your relationships quickly, along with any angers or resentments eating at you. You can't afford to keep obsessing about things that will only make your life miserable.

When this question came up in a recent counseling session I had one of those light bulb moments that occasionally come to me when I am seeking insight and help with my clients. That maybe the answer is very simple: Bury whatever is truly dead, but keep working at whatever is still alive and needing to be healed or resolved.

In relationships, this means that whenever we ask for, and grant, real forgiveness, that both parties must agree to never bring that matter up again. In other words, bury it deeply, just as God does when we are granted amazing grace and true pardon. If the same offense reoccurs, of course, that may need to be dealt with that in a decisive way, but we don't connect it to what has already been buried.

When it comes to our negative emotion, we need to address those with the kind of truths that set us free. If we can, by faith, affirm our own worth in God's sight, we declare negative feelings of self-deprecation to be over. They are now dead. Or if we choose to let go of negative feelings of hurt and/or resentments over other people or situations over which we have no control--and do so from a position of strength--we can declare that by faith those hurtful emotions and impulses are behind us. We're done with them.  They too are dead.

So we continue to deal with our internal distresses as long as they are still alive, transforming them, with God's help and the help of others, into something alive and positive, or choosing to let them go, no longer allowing them the opportunity to make us miserable. In other words, we let them die.

Simple rule: Never bury anything alive, but never fail to bury things that are dead and gone.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Remembering My Amish Baptism--Sixty Years Later

1950's photo from Harry A. Brunk collection, Mennonite Archives of Virginia
I was baptized at the above Stuarts Draft Amish meetinghouse on a warm Sunday morning, September 12, 1954, sixty years ago. I was the youngest member of a baptismal class of nine teens* who gave a public witness to their faith and joined the church that day. It was a memorable experience for a 15-year-old who had always experienced church as a central part of his life and who was now received as a full-fledged fellow member of it.

I'll never forget kneeling at the front of the congregation and having our good Bishop Simon Yoder cup water in his hands from a bowl and gently pour this sacramental sign of cleansing and commissioning on my head--"im Namen des Vaters and des Sohnes und des heiligen Geistes"--and then taking me by the hand and having me stand as a new born and newly welcomed adult member of God's family.

Seven months prior I had experienced my own personal conversion alone in my bedroom one night. I had been too shy to talk to anyone about all of the guilt and fear of judgment I felt as a young teen, and about my desire to know for sure that God did indeed love and forgive me. Mine was not a dramatic Damascus road encounter, but a quiet reaching out and an acceptance of truly amazing grace.

I have had many ups and downs in my relationship with God, and have many a lover's quarrel with the church, but I have never doubted that I have been embraced and loved by both.

Unfortunately, only months later, my parents and the rest of my family became a part of a newly forming "Beachy", or Amish Mennonite Church at Stuarts Draft. Reasons given for the division were varied, but the one most persuasive for my parents (and I) were that the church should be more open to reaching out to our non-Amish neighbors who were unbelievers.

Of course, the fact that joining this newly emerging group also meant we could own cars (black ones) and not have to rely on horse and buggy transportation, and that we could have telephones instead of going to our neighbors when we had to make a call, may have also played a part. However, those factors weren't much talked about. We believed we were striving to be more evangelistic, if not more spiritual, than the group we left behind.

I still feel sad about my church breaking up so soon after my joining it (not that there was any cause and effect relationships between these two events ;-). At any rate, it was only after my leaving home at 21 to attend Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU), marrying a good Mennonite wife, and being asked to serve as a part-time assistant pastor at Zion Mennonite near Broadway in 1965 that I officially transferred my membership to a Mennonite Church and to Virginia Mennonite Conference.

A part of me will always be Amish, the part aiming to live a frugal and unpretentious lifestyle, maintaining strong family commitments, valuing close ties with others in caring communities, as well as about keeping church simple and more about relationships than about expensive real estate and salaried staff.

Just today I found myself moved by these words by poet Wendell Berry, from a piece called "A Country Funeral":

What we owe the future
is not a new start, for we can only begin
with what has happened. We owe the future 
the past, the long knowledge
that is the potency of time to come.
That makes a man's grave a rich furrow.
The community of knowing in common is the seed
of our life in this place...
And so as the old die and the young
depart, where shall a man go who keeps
the memories of the dead, except home
- "The Country of Marriage"

* Other members of the baptismal class were Sylvia Byler, Herman Kinsinger, Verna Miller, Willis Miller, Mary Schrock, Barbara Yoder, Sara Yoder and Henry Zook.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

All Fathers Need Equal Time And Equal Influence With Their Children

Over my years of counseling married couples as well working with individuals going through divorce, I've often been subpoenaed as a witness in child custody and visitation cases.

In court, fathers are all too often made to feel they need to somehow deserve the privilege of having their fair share of time with their children, while mothers are more likely to be seen as having the inherent right to be the primary parent and caregiver.

My belief is that unless one or the other partner has a history of irresponsibility, abuse or neglect, that each parent should, as much as possible, have equal time and equal say in their children's lives, whether living together or living apart. Equal may not mean identical, of course, given work schedules and other factors, but each should be fully engaged in bringing up their young.

Parenting, after all, isn't just some privilege, but a solemn and ongoing responsibility. Children need and deserve as much good fathering and mothering as possible.

Even with the best of 50-50 arrangements, divorced children are already deprived of far too much time with their parents, since when they are with mom, they don't have their dad around, and vice versa.

So in honor of Fathers Day, let's not speak of decent dads just being "allowed" an allotted amount of time with their children, since being your kid's dad is not just right, it's an obligation.

And while I'm at it, when it comes to having a child move from one house to another every week, what if it were the children who could stay put and the parents take equal turns moving in with them?

I welcome your feedback.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Repost: "Top Ten Groups Opposing An Invasion Of Iraq" (written 3/8/03)

I wrote the following letter that appeared in the March 8, 2003, Daily News-Record, twelve days before the US invaded Iraq. I'm posting it here, eleven years later, in light of the current fiasco in that war torn land:
Editor, DNR:

Here is my list of the top ten groups opposed to the use of bombs and missiles (weapons of massive destruction) to depose Saddam Hussein:

10. Fiscal conservatives: It’s irresponsible to spend $100 billion we don’t have on this kind of blitzkrieg--and that is if all goes as planned. It may cost untold billions more to win this war and to keep the peace. (Update: According to a March 12, 2013, Reuters news report, it has cost the US nearly $2 trillion, with much more to come for veterans care, etc.)

9. Die-hard pessimists: Nothing will go as planned, and we could be getting ourselves into another Vietnam.

8. Eternal optimists: Saddam, like our former archenemy Fidel, is advancing in years and won’t be around forever. And there are far less costly ways of containing him.

7. Internationalists: Moving forward without stronger support from the UN and other allies will only weaken our much needed influence around the world.

6. Isolationists: We’ve got enough problems at home, and shouldn’t use our defense forces to stir up a hornet’s nest half a world away.

5. Environmentalists: The planet can’t afford this kind of devastation and misuse of its resources.

4. Pro-Israel advocates: Further turmoil in the region could further threaten Israel’s survival.

3. Pro-life advocates: Countless numbers of unborn children will be murdered, and even more of those already born will suffer and die.

2. Pro-peace advocates: Let’s stop resorting to unspeakably barbaric ways of dealing with human conflicts.

1. Followers of Jesus: There are many fellow-believers in Iraq who are our friends. As to our enemies, we are under orders to love them, not kill them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"For My Foolishness At 18, I May Have To Spend The Rest Of My Life In Prison"

"We look at the examiner's as well as Department of Corrections data on the original offense and how he has acted since he was incarcerated. After that the decision is basically done by the computer."
- Mr. William Muse, former chair of the Virginia Parole Board

When an inmate at one of our state prisons read the above quote in an op-ed piece I had written for the Daily News-Record last year, he wondered if that might help explain the content of some of the varied rejection notices he's gotten from the Parole Board over the past four years.

The Board is to cite every factor considered in each case, but the following are the varied reasons given in this person's rejection, after the Board "reviewed all available information":

- Serious nature and circumstances of the offense
- Crimes committed

- History of drug and/or alcohol use
- History of violence--indicates serious risk to the community
- Serious nature and circumstances of the offense
- Serious disregard for property rights
- Considering all of the offender's records, the Board concludes that the offender should serve more of the sentence prior to release on parole

- Serious disregard for property rights
- Risk to the community
- Serious nature and circumstances of the offense

- Serious nature and circumstances of the offense
- You need to show a longer time of stable adjustment
- Release at this time would diminish seriousness of the crime

Several things should be noted here:

1. All but one of the above items have to do with events that happened prior to incarceration, and are things neither he nor any other inmate can possibly do anything about.

2. If the two reasons given after the first hearing are the definitive ones, one wonders why more are added later, since there was no new information available after 2011 except for his behavior in prison and the extraordinary number of educational and work opportunities he had availed himself of, none of which are even mentioned.

3. There is no "history" of violence in this case, only the threat of violence involved when he brandished a knife and threatened a female sales clerk while robbing a convenience store of $31 and four packs of cigarettes at 18 while high on drugs. He had robbed the same store of $300 while sober several weeks prior and had not been caught, which added to his sentence.

4. As to the longer time needed for a "stable adjustment", this inmate, after an initial year of some defiance when first incarcerated, has demonstrated consistently exemplary behavior in prison for well over two decades.

5. It seems especially odd that "considering all of the evidence" includes no mention of this person having completed his GED and every educational course available in the system, plus having earned 39 credits by correspondence toward an associates degree (which he was unable to complete because of Pell grants no longer being available to prisoners) and is now a computer drafter who designs furniture produced at his facility.

In spite of all of his accomplishments, because of the crimes he committed when 18--for which he takes full responsibility--he has a 260 year sentence.

He writes:

"I've gotten good reviews from every prison guard, teacher, employer, counselor and supervisor I've had contact with over the past 22 years. I have worked very hard to transform the 18-year-old immature, irresponsible person with no future into the person I am now... I only wish that when I was 18 I had the clarity of vision I have now at 42...

"...It was always my hope that the Parole Board would see in my efforts that I was changed person and that my future was worth saving. I was wrong in my hope. The Parole Board continues to see only the crimes committed, to only see the person I was 24 years ago.

"Meanwhile, the very support base I've built over the years is slowly eroding beneath my feet. The first time I went up for parole I had multiple places where I could live, jobs I could work at.. and anything else I would need to live in society. Now there are no jobs lined up for me, and one place where I could live... I've had family and non-family supporters  die, retire, and move to another state, and with them went many opportunities. As the years go by, my chances of making it in society are only decreasing... I may have to spend the rest of my life in prison."

Meanwhile, I am hearing encouraging news of some recent releases by the newly appointed Board of prisoners who have good records of behavior in prison.

Monday, June 9, 2014

"If I Can't Get Along Here, I Can't Get Along Anywhere"

East Fairview Mennonite Church, July 1948
My friend and former student Debra Bender of Cape Coral, Florida, recently responded to my May 30 blog post entitled, "I'm Weary of Blessing Same-Faith Divorces". In that piece (which she read in the Mennonite World Review online site, "The World Together") I lamented the growing number of Mennonite church splits that have occurred in my short lifetime. 

I loved the following story she shared about her maternal grandfather William Kremer, whose family, including her mother, had always been a part of a 500-member East Fairview Church in Milford, Nebraska. Then sometime after 1954, just after Debra's parents moved from the area, that large congregation experienced a major split over some conflicts among the leadership that resulted in a three-way division.

Most of the Kremers left East Fairview, but not Grandpa.  

"Bill," they said, "aren't you coming with us?  We're all leaving."  

To which Grandpa replied, "Nope.  If I can't get along here, I can't get along anywhere."  

He died a member of East Fairview.

Debra describes her grandfather as a "really smart, down-to-earth, well-read man", believed to be the first Mennonite west of the Mississippi to graduate from high school, a fact of which the family was quite proud. 

But he also had a lot of God-inspired wisdom and common sense. As in, "If I can't get along here, I can't get along anywhere."

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Sodom's Other Sins

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) 

The Mennonite church is in the midst of multiple conflicts and deep divisions over what to do with gay and lesbian members, especially those wanting to be in committed relationships. The Bible has some serious things to say about this issue, going all the way back to the same-sex gang rapes of Sodom.

But what is usually overlooked is that, according to the prophet Ezekiel, that wasn't even the worst they were guilty of. God indicts them for living lives of luxury while the poor among them suffered from hunger and a lack of basic necessities.

Only 3-5% of our members would ever be even remotely tempted to enter into same sex unions, but all of us are prone to various forms of greed, defined as "a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed" (Merriam-Webster).

Seated at the highly privileged end of God's worldwide table, we continue to heap our plates full of consumer goods while half of the rest of God's children often have to do without. We may have a hard time thinking this makes us greedy, but how might the desperately poor half of the world's people see us?

And where is Jesus seated at this table? Not with those who are rich in consumer wealth, or who strive for a life of complacency and "careless ease". In the eyes of the poor, and of their greatest advocate, Jesus, we have all become far too attached to money and the abundance money can buy.

And note these sobering words of one of Jesus' followers, the apostle Paul:

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)  

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Merciless Massacre of Trees

Nasser family homestead before and after
Our friend and fellow house church member, Margie Vlasits, just returned from a two-week study and work trip to Israel/Palestine two weeks ago. One of the stories she told was that of the Daoud Nasser family, Lutheran Palestinians who operate a fruit and nut farm just outside of Bethlehen on the West Bank.

The state of Israel has claimed large portions of land Palestinian have lived on for generations, insisting on land holders having officially documented deeds going back to the days of the Ottoman empire of a hundred years ago. Most Palestinians don't have such papers, but the Nasser family was an exception. But since their property was seen as vital to nearby (illegal?) Jewish settlements, other means were used to try to get them to leave voluntarily, such as cutting off their water and power supply and finally giving them a blank check for compensation for the property, an offer the Nassers were unwilling to accept.

Here is an except from a description of this family who simply wished to stay on their ancestral farm, one they have called a"Tent of Nations", hospitable to all people regardless of their faith or ethnic background [from The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson (InterVarsity Press, 2012)]:

(Recently)...when soldiers stopped Daoud’s car in the middle of the night and forced him, over his protests, to pull his children from their sleep, he did not return anger for the insult. Instead, he spoke to his children in English, which the soldiers understood as well, saying, “Do not be afraid. These soldiers are people. They are young and frightened like you. They are human beings too. So don’t be scared.” A change came over the soldiers, and they completed their search quickly. When they finished, the squad commander approached Daoud humbly and spoke to him as a fellow man, rather than a suspected terrorist: “I am sorry that we did that. Please apologize to your children on my behalf.”

Faced with an unrelenting attempt to isolate the farm from the outside world, the Nassars have become pioneers in homesteading and turned their farm into a living laboratory of self-sufficiency. They installed solar panels that soak in the Mediterranean sun and provide twenty-four-hour electricity throughout the property, including electric lights in many of the caves. During the 2009 shelling of Gaza, visible from their land, Daoud and his family channeled their frustration and helplessness into digging another of the now eleven cisterns that collect rainwater and provide a reserve of thousands of liters of water (powered by the solar pump). Four water-less compost toilets stand opposite the pens where egg-bearing chickens and milk-yielding goats cluck and bleat.

And, having been blessed with abundance springing out of seemingly hopeless soil, they are committed to sharing their harvest with Israelis and Palestinians alike. So they run summer camps for youth that bridge religions and nationalities, operate a guest house and job training center for women in the nearby village, and host thousands of visitors annually from around the world. 

Now for the rest of the story:

On May 20, the day after Margie returned home, news came that the Israeli military had bulldozed all 1500-2000 trees on the Nasser homestead and left the family heartbroken and stripped of their means of livelihood. Many of their olive trees were over a thousand years old.

Please check out this link by a concerned Jewish rabbi for more details and for a petition you can sign appealing for justice for this family..

And please pray for the peace of Jerusalem as a home for all Palestinian and Jewish alike. The kind of injustice done to the Nassers scars everyone in the region and inflames the passions of those who believe violence is the only way to achieve peace.