Friday, January 30, 2015

Remembering Aunt Audrey: A Nephew's Reflections

Audrey Shank 1932-2014
I had the privilege of being Audrey Shank's pastor during most of the years she served as a missionary to Jamaica and the Caribbean. Prior to that she had become known as a soloist in some of the most popular recordings ever done by Mennonite Hour choral groups in the 60's and 70's. In her retirement here in her home area she was a much sought after mentor and Bible teacher. 

Her oldest nephew, Rowland Shank, Jr., a local psychologist, offered the following reflections at her memorial service January 24.

I feel as if—in some ways—I knew Aunt Audrey very well, and—in other ways—not as well.  This was due in large part to long periods of geographic separation, with minimal contact or connection.  However, for approximately the last two years of her life—either by providence or by happy coincidence—my wife Donna and I  rented a house in the Park View area at the same time that Audrey was moving into the basement apartment in that  same house.  This proximity gave me an opportunity to get to know Audrey much better.

[Parenthetically,  I’m sure that if Aunt Audrey was present and heard me say that this living in close proximity was perhaps by “happy coincidence”, she would let me know in no uncertain terms that coincidence had nothing to do with it, and that it was most certainly providential!  Or, this is probably better-stated in the words of my wise and wonderful 101 year old Great Aunt, Martha Whissen Shank, who,  in a very recent conversation with my wife Donna about Aunt Audrey stated, “Well, that would be Audrey; she had definite ideas!”].  To get the full effect of that sentence, you would have to know my dear Great-Aunt Martha, and hear it in her voice, not mine.  I hasten to add that Aunt Martha was not criticizing Aunt Audrey; they were in fact, very close, with Aunt Audrey calling Aunt Martha every day, and visiting frequently.

My affectionate name for Audrey was Aunt Aubrey….her nickname for me, from the time I was a young boy, was “Fedder”—that’s F-E-D-D-E-R.  I never learned the derivation of that name, and I never asked—I imagine that it spontaneously emerged out of her love of words and language—including made-up words, and I definitely experienced it as a name that bespoke fondness and affection, which meant a great deal to me.

One of my early memories is spending weeks and weekends during  summers, at Grandfather Shank’s house in Broadway, during a time when Aunt Audrey was either still living there, or was coming home for visits.  Aunt Audrey loved to sing, and would sometimes practice her singing outdoors, her voice reverberating off the side of the steep hill on the South side of the house.  She had a beautiful and distinctive alto voice, which became well known when she sang with The Mennonite Hour.  Recently, when we lived in the same house, we would also hear her singing, downstairs.

Audrey grew up in a dog-loving family and was a “dog-person”…I don’t think there was ever a cat in Grandmother and Grandfather Shank’s house, at least to my memory or knowledge.  However, in the time that she lived in the basement apartment of our rented home, she underwent a radical conversion.  A tiny, black, rather mangy, and quite feral cat started frequenting the back of our house.  We began putting out food and water.  In a very—very—short period of time Audrey became captivated by the cat that she later named Sweetie—“Sweetie Shank”.  Only Aunt Audrey could name a cat “Sweetie”!  I’ve rarely seen anyone become so rapidly and intensely attached to an adopted pet.  Aunt Audrey and Sweetie became “attached at the hip”.  Audrey would worry about her, love on her, fuss over—and at—her, and talk to her as if she were a baby or a toddler.   Many an evening, if we were quiet upstairs, my wife and I listened with wonder and amusement as Aunt Audrey crooned over, and cuddled with, Sweetie.

A single-minded person…throughout her entire life, Audrey focused like a laser beam, on being a follower of Jesus.  When I think of Audrey, I think of the Pauline passage “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel…”  Aunt was most assuredly not ashamed of the Gospel…to the contrary, she was ready, able, and willing to proclaim the Gospel pretty much anytime, anywhere, and to—virtually—anyone.

Like her father, J. Ward Shank, and her mother, Stella Brunk Shank, she loved words, writing, and reading—and most of all, she loved The Word, and she studied it in-depth and tirelessly.  In fact, she studied the Bible more assiduously than anyone I’ve ever known.  If you don’t believe me, pause on your way out after this service and thumb through one of her many Bibles, which is on the table of memorabilia in the foyer.

Audrey also loved words and language in general.  She majored in English at what was then EMC, and later taught English Composition.  She also had the reputation of being a formidable opponent in Scrabble.  Audrey and her cousin, Emily Grace Shenk, who is by profession an “editor of editors”, were known for their epic Scrabble tournaments—not just single games, but tournaments that stretched over lengthy periods of time.  I personally chose not to play Scrabble with Aunt Audrey, in the interest of avoiding continuous humiliating defeats and repeated blows to my self-esteem.  Life is difficult enough, without constantly being beaten at a table game with your elderly Aunt.

Audrey was witty, and had no trouble thinking on her feet.  Here’s one example.  Many years ago, at a Shank family reunion at Highland Retreat Camp, there was a detailed family genealogy stretched across three picnic tables.  While studying the genealogy, I gently teased Aunt Audrey about the fact that—having never married and therefore having no children—the line with her name came to an end, and that she therefore had not followed the admonition to “be fruitful and multiply”.    Audrey didn’t miss a beat—she instantly quoted Isaiah 54:1(b), which reads, “…more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband, says the Lord.”  I had no comeback…and I decided that the better part of wisdom was to give up on this particular line of teasing.

Although it sounds very cliché-like, Audrey will be missed—missed by many, many people whose lives she touched, who she loved, and who loved her.  However, I trust and believe that we will see and know her again, in that place where, as the book of Revelation says, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Prophet Jonah And The War On Terror

Ancient Nineveh, near today's Mosul, Iraq
Next to the story of Noah and the great flood, the one about Jonah and the great fish is among the most likely to be pictured on the walls of our church nurseries.

But this is not primarily a story for children, but one about how God's people are to respond to a terrorist nation. And it is not so much about the character of Jonah as it is the character of a God who reaches out to all nations, even the worst of them.

Jonah (means "Dove") is called by God to carry a warning message to Israel's archenemies, the dreaded Assyrians, known as one of the most brutal and cruel regimes in history. Among their atrocities were skinning people alive, impaling them on stakes, cutting off prisoners hands, feet, noses and ears and ripping out their tongues. Wholesale beheadings of people they conquered were also routine.

In speaking out against them the Hebrew prophet Nahum spared no words: “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims. The crack of the whips, and rumble of wheel, galloping horses, and jilting chariots. Charging cavalry, flashing swords, and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses---all because the wanton lust of a harlot, alluring, the mistress sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft.” 

Some examples of Assyrian war crimes
All of this could have given Jonah pause when God called him to a special mission to deliver bad news to Assyria's capitol city, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”

But there was likely another motive for Jonah "fleeing from the presence of the Lord" by booking a ship to Tarshish, headed in the opposite direction. As a loyal Israeli patriot, I suspect he wasn't wanting any part of giving advance warning to the Assyrians, fearing they might take God's words seriously and repent, resulting in God showing them mercy instead of utterly annihilating them. 

When that turns out to be exactly what happens, Jonah is totally outraged and pouts, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

In other words, Jonah's hatred was such that he would rather die than to see his ruthless enemies live.

Does anything in this story sound familiar?

For a related post see barbaric.html

For more background on the brutality of the Assyrian empire, see

Monday, January 26, 2015

After Purging The World Of Violence, God Lays Down His Warrior's Bow

God was sorry he had made the human race in the first place; it broke God's heart... As far as God was concerned, the Earth had become a sewer; there was violence everywhere...
God said to Noah, "It's all over. It's the end of the human race... I'm making a clean sweep."
- Genesis 6, the Message

While the Biblical account of Noah and the flood is one of our most popular children's stories, it is also one of the most distressing narratives in the Bible.

Picture a world that has become so evil, so filled with violence (the primary sin mentioned in the text), that God despairs of having ever created it. In an act of anguish and outrage, the Creator orders all life on earth destroyed except for a remnant of eight people. Noah and his family, along with one or more pair of every other living creature, are the only survivors.

Who can help but be troubled by the fact that God "repents" (changes his mind) in the story, that he so rues the day that he made human beings that he utterly annihilates them? Is that the God we love and serve?

Thankfully, there is more to the story. In providing us with the rainbow sign, God dramatically changes direction once again, this time in announcing a pledge of amazing mercy: 

"Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth." -Genesis 9:15b-16 (NIV)

One of my Old Testament professors, Millard Lind, noted that the Hebrew text doesn't actually name the sign as a rainbow but that it says, simply "I have set my bow in the clouds", as in a warrior's weapon. Thus God is engaging in an act of unilateral disarmament in laying down his bow.

Remarkably, it is unstrung and pointed away from us. And rather than having an ominous, warlike appearance, it is bright and multi-colored, a divine peace sign to be celebrated forever.

The least we can do is to pledge that it will remind us, too, to forever respect and preserve the well-being of all things living.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Deadly Sin We Mennonites Seldom Talk About

"Gluttony" Hironomous Bosch c.1500
"You know the old saying, “First you eat to live, and then you live to eat”? Well, it may be true that the body is only a temporary thing, but that’s no excuse for stuffing your body with food, or indulging it with sex. Since the Master honors you with a body, honor him with your body! ....The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body."
from I Corinthians 6 (the Message)

It seems ironic that Mennonites, highlighted in one of the world's largest books on self denial and suffering, the Martyrs Mirror, have 400 years later become known for the popularity of their great books about mouth-watering food.

Best sellers like the Mennonite Community Cookbook (an old classic), the More With Less Cookbook (our favorite), Mennonite Country Style Recipes (so useful and practical), the Fix-It and Forget-It series (a New York Times bestseller), and more recently, Mennonite Girls Can Cook, have far outsold books on other topics by Mennonite authors. Good eating is both our delight, associated with good hospitality and great fellowship, and one of our downfalls.

I love a well prepared meal, and believe occasional feasts can be a great thing, especially the special ones Jesus told us to invite the hungry and the less invited to. But what Jesus and the prophets condemn is "faring sumptuously every day". In other words, when we make every meal about living to eat rather than eating to live. I, for one, need to learn to balance occasions of celebrative and joyful feasting with other times of reflective fasting, of doing without or doing with less, out of respect for creation and for the world's desperately poor.

Meanwhile, what overall message are we Mennos giving about temperance and self control? It's not that we never talk about overeating, we regularly joke about it, and like most other North Americans lament how it's making us overweight and unhealthy, a deadly sin indeed. While we may not overtly condone gluttony, as in the German fressa, the animal-like devouring of food (in contrast to essa, the grateful partaking of daily fare) we seldom find ourselves denouncing it.

In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas writes that there are five ways to commit gluttony (from the Latin gluttire, meaning to gulp down), e.g., "an over-indulgence and over-consumption of food, drink or wealth items to the point of extravagance or waste; a misplaced desire of food or its withholding from the needy", as follows:
  • Laute - eating food that is too luxurious, exotic, or costly
  • Nimis - eating food that is excessive in quantity
  • Studiose - eating food that is too daintily or elaborately prepared
  • Praepropere - eating too soon, or at an inappropriate time
  • Ardenter - eating too eagerly. (Wikipedia)
Clearly we could use some more emphasis on over-eating as among the deadliest of our sins, right up there with lust, wrath, greed, sloth, pride and envy.

In the words of the nineteenth-century Russian Bishop Ignatius Brinchaninov:

"Wise temperance of the stomach is a door to all the virtues. Restrain the stomach, and you will enter Paradise. But if you please and pamper your stomach, you will hurl yourself over the precipice of bodily impurity, into the fire of wrath and fury, you will coarsen and darken your mind, and in this way you will ruin your powers of attention and self-control, your sobriety and vigilance."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Marching For All Life Everywhere

My friend Dean Welty of the Valley Family forum called me yesterday with a last minute invitation to join the group going to the March For Life rally in Washington, DC today.

While I do not favor the criminalization of all abortions as some pro-life folks do, I will always be a strong proponent of protecting and respecting human life at all stages of development. So I have seriously considered joining the March sometime before I die as my way of supporting what I would consider a "whole life" policy, one that demonstrates love and care for all human life from "the womb to the tomb".

I explained to Dean that I probably shouldn't cancel my appointments for today at this short notice, but that I will seriously consider getting on the bus next year--if the group is OK with my carrying placard that might read as follows:

• Anti-War
• Anti-Abortion
• Anti-Hunger
• Anti-Capital Punishment
• Anti-Injustice
• Anti-Overincarceration 
• Anti-Human Trafficking
• Anti-Homelessness

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

MY Father Who Art In Heaven? Paying Attention To Plural Pronouns In The Bible

Many of us read the Bible as though it were written purely for our personal devotional reading, in spite of the fact that most of our scriptures are addressed to whole communities of people.

One of the ways the King James (Authorized) version of the Bible is helpful is that it distinguishes between a singular “you” and a plural “you” (as in the Southern “you all”).  According to the English language of the time, when one refers to one person, the pronouns “thee,” “thou” and “thine” are used. When the “you” is plural, the words “ye,” “you” and “yours” are used.

Our modern English no longer makes those distinctions. As an example, when Jesus offers his teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, we see that the “Lord’s Prayer” is meant to be a communal prayer, introduced with “When ye pray...”

Note the plural pronouns "we," “our” and “us” used in this familiar text. Rather than our praying “My Father who art in heaven,” and “give me my daily bread,” we are asking our one Father, who loves everyone alike (note the use of the singular “Thy” and “Thine”), that all of the hungry everywhere be fed. Even the prayer for forgiveness of our debts (or trespasses), while certainly including each us as individuals, is for all of God’s people to be forgiven--as they in turn forgive others.

Then, addressing individual prayer, he says, "When thou prayest, go to thy closet and pray in secret," then he adds the following for group prayer, "When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do." In other words, prayer is never for displaying our eloquence or to parading our piety. Keep it short and without pretense when you pray in the presence of others.

I find it very helpful reading the Bible from this perspective. It is certainly personal, of course, but is not just for our private interpretation or edification.

In short, the Good Book is about one God, singular, for all of the people of God, plural.                

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Hangman, by Maurice Ogden

“…I did no more than you let me do.”
I ran across this poem when I first began teaching social studies and Bible classes at Eastern Mennonite High School fifty years ago, and I have never been able to forget it.  

Poet Maurice Ogden, who had this published in 1954, was known for his humorous pieces, but this one soberly reminds us Edmund Burkes' famous quote, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men (and women) to do nothing."

Here is the link to the short animated film version I showed my students:

The Hangman
By Maurice Ogden

               Into our town the hangman came,
               smelling of gold and blood and flame.
               He paced our bricks with a different air,
               and built his frame on the courthouse square.

               The scaffold stood by the courthouse side,
               only as wide as the door was wide
               with a frame as tall, or a little more,
               than the capping sill of the courthouse door.

               And we wondered whenever we had the time,
               Who the criminal? What the crime?
               The hangman judged with the yellow twist
               of knotted hemp in his busy fist.

               And innocent though we were with dread,
               we passed those eyes of buckshot lead.
               Till one cried, “Hangman, who is he,
               for whom you raised the gallows-tree?”

               Then a twinkle grew in his buckshot eye
               and he gave a riddle instead of reply.
               “He who serves me best,” said he
               “Shall earn the rope on the gallows-tree.”

               And he stepped down and laid his hand
               on a man who came from another land.
               And we breathed again, for anothers grief
               at the hangmans hand, was our relief.

               And the gallows frame on the courthouse lawn
               by tomorrow’s sun would be struck and gone.
               So we gave him way and no one spoke
               out of respect for his hangmans cloak.

               The next day’s sun looked mildly down
               on roof and street in our quiet town;
               and stark and black in the morning air
               the gallows-tree on the courthouse square.

               And the hangman stood at his usual stand
               with the yellow hemp in his busy hand.
               With his buckshot eye and his jaw like a pike,
               and his air so knowing and business-like.

               And we cried, “Hangman, have you not done,
               yesterday with the alien one?”
               Then we fell silent and stood amazed.
               “Oh, not for him was the gallows raised.”

               He laughed a laugh as he looked at us,
               “Do you think I’ve gone to all this fuss,
               To hang one man? That’s the thing I do.
               To stretch the rope when the rope is new.”

               Above our silence a voice cried “Shame!”
               and into our midst the hangman came;
               to that mans place, “Do you hold,” said he,
               “With him that was meat for the gallows-tree?”

               He laid his hand on that one’s arm
               and we shrank back in quick alarm.
               We gave him way, and no one spoke,
               out of fear of the hangmans cloak.

               That night we saw with dread surprise
               the hangmans scaffold had grown in size.
               Fed by the blood beneath the chute,
               the gallows-tree had taken root.

               Now as wide, or a little more
               than the steps that led to the courthouse door.
               As tall as the writing, or nearly as tall,
               half way up on the courthouse wall.

               The third he took, we had all heard tell,
               was a usurer…, an infidel.
               And “What” said the hangman, “Have you to do
               with the gallows-bound…, and he a Jew?”

               And we cried out, “Is this one he
               who has served you well and faithfully?”
               The hangman smiled, “It’s a clever scheme
               to try the strength of the gallows beam.”

               The fourth man’s dark accusing song
               had scratched our comfort hard and long.
               “And what concern,” he gave us back,
               “Have you … for  the doomed and black?”

               The fifth, the sixth, and we cried again,
               “Hangman, hangman, is this the man?”
               “It’s a trick”, said he, “that we hangman know
               for easing the trap when the trap springs slow.”

               And so we ceased and asked now more
               as the hangman tallied his bloody score.
               And sun by sun, and night by night
               the gallows grew to monstrous height.

               The wings of the scaffold opened wide
               until they covered the square from side to side.
               And the monster cross beam looking down,
               cast its shadow across the town.

               Then through the town the hangman came
               and called through the empy streets…my name.
               I looked at the gallows soaring tall
               and thought … there’s no one left at all

               for hanging …  and so he called to me
               to help take down the gallows-tree.
               And I went out with right good hope
               to the hangmans tree and the hangmans rope.

               He smiled at me as I came down
               to the courthouse square…through the silent town.
               Supple and stretched in his busy hand,
               was the yellow twist of hempen strand.

               He whistled his tune as he tried the trap
               and it sprang down with a ready snap.
               Then with a smile of awful command,
               He laid his hand upon my hand.

               “You tricked me Hangman.” I shouted then,
               “That your scaffold was built for other men,
               and I’m no henchman of yours.” I cried.
               “You lied to me Hangman, foully lied.”

               Then a twinkle grew in his buckshot eye,
               “Lied to you…tricked you?” He said “Not I…
               for I answered straight and told you true.
               The scaffold was raised for none but you.”

               “For who has served more faithfully?
               With your coward’s hope.” said He,
               “And where are the others that might have stood
               side by your side, in the common good?”

               “Dead!” I answered, and amiably
               “Murdered,” the Hangman corrected me.
               “First the alien …  then the Jew.
               I did no more than you let me do.”

               Beneath the beam that blocked the sky
               none before stood so alone as I.
               The Hangman then strapped me…with no voice there
               to cry “Stay!” … for me in the empty square.

I found copies of this piece in multiple websites with no mention of copyright restrictions.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thousands Of Inmates Pray For Passage of Virginia Parole Bill HB 951

The majority of Virginia's parole eligible inmates are over 50
A bill before the Virginia House of Delegates this session, HB 951, holds new hope for aging "old law" prisoners incarcerated before parole was abolished in 1995, which means that in 2015 they will have been behind bars for twenty years or more.

It would mandate that "any person eligible for parole whose time served, including earned sentence credits and good conduct credits, has exceeded the midpoint of the most recent discretionary sentencing guidelines established by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission § 17.1-806 for the same or similar offense, the Board shall order the release unless (i) it is of the opinion that release should be deferred because there is substantial risk that such a person will not conform to the conditions of parole and (ii) it issues a reasoned decision explaining the basis for such decision."

The men and women affected would appreciate your taking the time to contact your representatives in Richmond in their support, such as the following: Tony Wilt,  Steve Landes,  Todd Gilbert,  Richard Bell   Emmett Hanger,  Mark Obenshain,

For more background, you may want to read the following in yesterday's Daily News-Record

Why Keep The Elderly In Prison? 
(the title I had submitted was "Still No Parole Reform In Virginia")

While parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995, more than 3,500 older inmates remain parole eligible. Unfortunately, the parole grant rate in recent years has been under 3 percent, one of the lowest in the nation.

Some of us had hoped that with the governor’s appointment of a new board this year, deserving state inmates would finally get a better break.

However, little appears to have changed. Many inmates with whom I correspond have virtually given up hope for release. One 72-year-old at the Coffeewood Correctional Center with an exemplary prison record of more than 25 years has been refused parole 13 times. Other model prisoners have remained free of prison-related infractions for decades, and have taken virtually every class and rehab program available to them (and in some cases have even earned college credits) have been routinely denied. This in spite of their having learned work skills that make them invaluable assets to their respective institutions, and in spite of having members of their communities and their prison counselors actively advocating for their release. None of this seems to make any difference, not even the fact that many parole eligible inmates (those incarcerated before 1995) are in declining health and are eligible for geriatric release.

According to Virginia Citizens United For The Rehabilitation of Errants, more than 700 inmates in Virginia prisons are 60 years of age or older. Of these, 74 are older than 70, and one is 90. With the recidivism risk for offenders more than 60 being less than 1 percent, what purpose is being served by paying for their incarceration and geriatric care (some $60,000 a year when medical costs are included)?

Yet after years of going before an official parole board interviewer (prisoners typically do not get to meet with an actual member of the board) the rejection letters they routinely receive are typically the same:

■ Release at this time would diminish the seriousness of the crime;

■ The board considers you a risk to the community;

■ Serious nature and circumstances of your offense[s];

■ The board concludes that you should serve more of your sentence prior to release on parole.

All of this is stated in what is essentially a form letter signed mechanically with the name of the board’s chairman.

How can a decades-long record of exemplary behavior in a state prison, one of the most crime-ridden settings imaginable, be interpreted as a sign that a person will renew a life of crime upon his or her release? And as to the “seriousness of the crime,” an inmate cannot change their past offenses. The primary question is whether our so-called correctional system is actually correcting a given individual — not whether he or she has been sufficiently punished.

Meanwhile, the commonwealth is attempting to reduce costs by closing some prisons and cramming more and more inmates into other facilities. The Augusta Correctional Center, for example, has recently gone from having a capacity number of around 1,000 to more than 1,350, a situation that could threaten the safety of both inmates and under staffed prison personnel alike.

I want members of the board to know that when they deny release to incarcerated citizens who have worked hard to earn it, they are not speaking for most of us. And that they are affecting morale inside prison in a decidedly negative way.

As a taxpayer and concerned citizen, I am disheartened and dismayed.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Pro-Family Policies For Offenders Benefit Everyone

Being jailed is often fatal to already fragile family systems
I have personally witnessed the harm our over use of incarceration can cause already fragile families, resulting in traumatized and neglected children, broken relationships, financial crises, and increased costs of foster care and other social services--things all of us taxpayers end up paying for. An important part of rehabilitating offenders is helping them maintain strong family and community ties.

Let's Promote Alternatives to Incarceration

We need to implement the many alternatives to incarceration that are included in the Moseley Architects “Community-Based Corrections Plan” recently approved by our Community Criminal Justice Board, the Harrisonburg City Council and the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors, such as the following:

• Day Reporting Program

• A Drug Court with alternative sentencing and treatment authority

• Home Detention Options, with or without the use of ankle bracelet technology

• Having more pretrial cases released on bond while awaiting hearings

Let's Implement More Family-Friendly Jail Policies

• Non-violent offenders not having to come to the visitation booth in handcuffs and prison garb

• Relieve families of the burden of having to pay $1 per day in "rent" for their family member before he or she can purchase things at the commissary

• Have commissary items priced more affordably

• Have inmates able to continue their meds without interruption while in jail

• Have more affordable phone services for regular family contacts

• Add a parenting and family relationship class in the jail

Let's Provide More Post Release Family Services

• Have local individuals or congregations offer mentoring for families of ex-offenders

 • Offer vouchers for pro bono relationship counseling provided by interested local professionals

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Robbing Adolescents Of Their Self-Esteem

"By age twelve girls are robbed of ever seeing themselves as being beautiful enough again."
Cherith Fee Nordling

As grandad of a priceless ten-year-old grand-daughter I'm deeply concerned about the effect our media saturated culture could have on her self-esteem.

In a study done by Daniel Clay, Vivian L. Vignoles, and Helga Dittmar of the University of Sussex they found the following:

"In Western cultures, girls’ self-esteem declines substantially during middle adolescence, with changes in body image proposed as a possible explanation. Body image develops in the context of sociocultural factors, such as unrealistic media images of female beauty. In a study of 136 U.K. girls aged 11–16, experimental exposure to either ultra-thin or average-size magazine models lowered body satisfaction and, consequently, self-esteem."

The following are among the sobering findings you can check out on the Just Say Yes website:
  • 40% of all 9 and 10-year-old girls have already been on a diet – Duke University
  • 70% of 6-12-year-olds want to be thinner – National Eating Disorders Association
  • In one study, 3 out of 4 women stated that they were overweight although only 1 out of 4 actually were – Rader Programs
  • While only one out of ten high school girls is overweight, nine out of ten high school juniors and seniors diet – Rader Programs
  • A study found that adolescent girls were more fearful of gaining weight than getting cancer, nuclear war or losing their parents – Rader Programs
  • Teen pregnancy statistics show that girls who engage in unprotected sex often have lower self esteem - Family First Aid
Here are some of their stats on the effect of media on girls' and women's self esteem:
Needless to say, I am way beyond outraged by all of this.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Give Me Five: Some High Priorities That Should Unite All Christians

We could call this the "Hebrews 13:1-5 mandate", five basic instructions Bible-believing Christians of all kinds should affirm and live by:

1. "Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters." No matter our differences, this should be our foremost priority, right next to our love for God. It is only by demonstrating genuine love for each other that people will know that we are indeed Jesus' followers. 

2. "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." In the spirit of Jesus we also love the alien and stranger among us--in the same way God does--impartially welcoming our neighbors of every race, nationality and religion into our homes and into our friendships.

3. "Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." God has a special heart for those who are enslaved, in chains or behind bars, and wills the restoration of freedom and justice for all who are in bondage anywhere and everywhere.

4. "Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral." For social stability's sake, for children's sake, and for God's sake, promiscuity and infidelity in relationships need to be avoided like the serious plagues they have become. Couples should forever honor the marriage vows they have made, and a separation or divorce should be sought only in cases of ongoing abuse, addiction or adultery.

5. "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have." If we're serious about following Jesus, we will radically and joyfully celebrate "living simply so that others may simply live". Materialism and consumerism will be seen as idolatrous and as contrary to everything Jesus taught and demonstrated.

So, my fellow-believers, give me five, summarized in the above instructions from the Hebrews text. They could represent a message even an agnostic would understand.

Friday, January 9, 2015

James Glanzer 1949-2014--A Passion For Healing

James Robert Glanzer
James Glanzer, who died of cancer at age 65 on December 29, made an immeasurable impact on my life.

As a friend and colleague from the time I began to work at the Family Life Resource Center 26 years ago, Jim blessed the lives of hundreds of people through his ministry of spiritual and emotional healing and through his many gifts of service as a professional counselor.

Jim lost his first wife Jan to cancer over two decades ago, and developed a special ministry of working with people who were going through experiences of grieving and trauma.

Not only was he a much sought after clinician, he left an indelible mark on the FLRC office building on 273 Newman Avenue the agency purchased in 2000.

Prior to our moving in, Jim stripped each of the oak paneled doors in that century-old, two-story former residence and restored them to their original beautiful condition. Both his hands and his heart were always about restoration and recovery.

He will be sorely missed, and we pray God's special blessing on his wife Sherrill and his three sons Marshall, Murray and Monte and their spouses, and on the three grandchildren, Elijah, Wyatt, and Lola. May his good legacy live on in each of us.

The following version of Psalm 23, from the New Living Translation of the Bible, was adapted and read by his older brother David at his memorial service:

The Lord has been my shepherd;
The Lord has been my shepherd,
 I have had all that I needed.

He has provided me rest in green meadows,
 led me along peaceful streams
    and to lakes where fish abound.

He has ever renewed my strength.

He faithfully guided me along right paths,
 bringing honor to his name.

Even when I have walked, have often walked,
 through the dark valleys,
    through the fearsome canyon of death....knowing you were close beside me,
    I was not afraid,
        when I knew you were close beside me.

Your rod, to guide, and your staff, to rescue,
 have protected and comforted me.

You prepared a feast for me
 in the presence of my enemies;
 honored me by anointing my head with oil.
You prepared feasts for me, and my cup has overflowed with blessings.

Truly - most truly - your goodness and unfailing love did pursue me
 all the days of my life,

and now, I come to live in your house,
    to be at home in the house of the Lord...

Memorial donations may be made in Jim's honor to Family Life Resource Center scholarship fund, or Sentara RMH Nursing Scholarship Fund

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ray Kuykendall--Simple Faith, Amazing Grace

Ray Kuykendall 1930-2014
"Better is one day in your courts
    than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper 
    in the house of my God
    than dwell in the tents of the wicked."
Psalm 8:10 (NIV)

One of the first persons I met when Alma Jean and I first visited the Zion Mennonite Church over 50 years ago was Ray Kuykendall. I will always remember him, among other things, as the usher who greeted folks at the door with a smile and a welcome as warm as Florida sunshine.

I can't count all the times or recall all the ways Ray blessed me with his friendship in the twenty plus years we served as pastor at Zion, a relationship that came with lots of warm embraces, hearty greetings, and generous acts of kindness.

Ray really knew how to love people, not only in the way he welcomed folks at the church door, but in his acts of service to help people wherever he could, or in his years of driving the Summer Bible School bus, or in his later years, in working as a volunteer at Gift and Thrift. He was the kind of servant with a heart that made you feel like Jesus himself had just reached out to you and blessed you.

Ray would be the first to admit he wasn’t perfect, but in my mind he was truly a man of God, one I will always visualize as being assigned doorkeeper and usher duty in the life to come, making sure we each have a good seat at the welcome table.

So many of us will always love him and miss him.

Ben Risser, a former Zion member and now a pastor at Ridgeway Mennonite, composed the following song about Ray, one that was sung at his memorial service December 27.

Simple Faith

He was born back in the mountains, went to school through the sixth grade
Times were hard, his family poor, rich memories that seldom fade
He learned to love the forests, working hard with tender care
A reverence for God's handiwork and all things living there

He can spin a tale of huntin', turkeys, deer, and sometimes bear
He's loved the same woman, raised his children with great care
He knows the anxious wait for prayers to reach God's ears
Yet he's kept on keeping on for all his 84 long years

With a simple faith, simple plans
He's lived his life just trying to do the very best he can
Simple faith, simple plans
The way he loves the Lord makes him a giant of a man

He'll tell you he's not perfect and still stands in the need of grace
But his life's been used of God to let us see the Master's face
At church on Sunday morning, there's a hug and a welcome smile
Everyone's his neighbor and he'll go the extra mile

His hair has turned to silver and his hearing's somewhat poor
But his heart is just as big as God's great out-of-doors
He desires to follow Jesus with a soul that's young and strong
A simple testament to faith he's lived his whole life long

Monday, January 5, 2015

On the Twelfth Day Of Christmas--Pray That The Church Will Overcome Its 'Ediface Complex'

Richard Jacobson website
"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands."
Paul, Acts 17:24 NIV

It's almost impossible to think of congregations these days without associating them with the buildings in which they meet. Architecturally these special structure are highly visible, easily recognizable, and say a lot about the faith and finances of the people who worship in them. And for the majority of the week, much of their heated and air conditioned spaces are unused.

But where did the idea of Christ's followers needing to own, or meet in, special kinds of real estate come from? There is no hint of Jesus ever giving his disciples instructions about forming building committees, raising funds for temple construction or electing trustees to look after church property.

On the contrary, Jesus and his apostles made it clear that the current temple of their day wasn't  relevant to the Kingdom of God movement, and it was that insistence, as much as any one thing, that got both Jesus and his follower Stephen killed. "The temple will be destroyed," Jesus declared, and in in the future "Wherever two or more are gathered in my name there I will be in their midst." And he told a Samaritan women, "The day will come when God will be worshiped neither in Jerusalem nor on this mountain (the one sacred to Samaritans)" (John 4). 

In his best selling book, "What Jesus Meant" Catholic author Garry Wills writes, "Jesus did not come to replace the Temple with other buildings, whether huts or cathedrals, but to instill a religion of the heart, with only himself as the place where we encounter the Father."

For the past 26 years Alma Jean and I have been members of a small house church congregation that meets weekly in member homes, much as first century believers did. We welcome newcomers joining us for our informal two hours of worship and Bible study, followed by a fellowship meal, but our main focus is on equipping each other for our various ministries between Sundays rather than on carrying out some well scripted liturgy when we're together. We share responsibility for leading the sharing and prayer time and the Bible studies, and our services are more like spiritual "carry-in meals" rather than sit-down banquets prepared by professional chefs.

We don't claim that ours is the only right way to experience church, but we do believe that Jesus never meant for his followers to be highly dependent on burdensome real estate or a trained and professional clergy to continue Jesus' mission on earth.

And giving more of that money to the poor instead might be the kind of action even unbelievers could understand.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

On The Eleventh Day Of Christmas--Intercede For Fair Wages For the World's Workers

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

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

Of course, even the minimum wage working class in this country has benefits most of the world's poor would envy, most of whom will never enjoy amenities like air conditioning, flat screen TV's, cell phones, and in some cases, subsidized housing, access to food stamps and other forms of public assistance. Thus poverty in this country often means something different from that experienced by most of the world's poor, a point I make in a 2011 blog "Two Levels of Poverty".

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 3, 2015

For The Tenth Day Of Christmas--Pray For Hospitality For The Stranger And Alien

"Rest on the Flight into Egypt" Luc-Olivier Merson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here are some interesting numbers:

Friday, January 2, 2015

On The Ninth Day Of Christmas--Pray That The Church Will Truly Embrace Its Gay Members

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 1, 2015

On The Eighth Day Of Christmas--Pray That Weapons Of War Will Be Abolished Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

You and I are invited to become living demonstrations of that reality. It begins wherever, whenever and in whomever God is sovereign.

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

For more posts on this topic check this link.