Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Fervent Prayer For Church Restoration and Repair

While Mennonite Church USA is widely recognized as a "peace church", we Mennos seem to be far better at severing ties with each other than we are at repairing and restoring them.

In my fifty years as a member of Virginia Mennonite Conference, we have gone from being one of three Anabaptist-related communions here in Rockingham County (the other two being Old Order Mennonites at variance with each other) to having over a dozen separate spin-offs in our area today, none of which have any kind of regular communion fellowship with each other.

One example of severed ties particularly painful to me was when our neighboring Cornerstone Church of Broadway (established in 1986 as a VMC congregation separated from Trissels Mennonite), left our Conference in 2001. I had been pastor of the neighboring Zion Mennonite church for twenty years prior, and many of its founders were my friends. I even suggested the "Cornerstone" name to its lead pastor.

During its first decade the Cornerstone church experienced dramatic growth, establishing daughter congregations in Elkton, Mt. Crawford, Port Republic, Waynesboro and Richmond, Virginia, and as far away as Charleston, South Carolina, and Versailles and Hannibal, Missouri. According to my 1997 Mennonite Yearbook, Cornerstone had become a network of nine churches in its first ten-year of existence. It was an exciting and blessed time, and later even more congregations were added, as far away as Florida.

Since then most of the 17 pastors listed in the 1997 Yearbook have severed their ties with both the parent Cornerstone group and the Virginia Mennonite Conference (a part of Mennonite Church USA), and are leading growing evangelical congregations with names like New Life, Crossroads Community Church, Freedom Fellowship and Abundant Life. A number of the pastors involved continue to fellowship and work together on an informal but regular basis, and I know of at least two who are an active part of a VMC church today.

I've always liked "cornerstone" as a church name, a term the Apostle Paul used for its founder (Jesus) in his letter to the Ephesians. And in his first letter to believers at Corinth Paul begs the church to maintain unity based on the conviction that "Other foundation can no one lay than than which is already laid, Jesus Christ", a verse Menno Simons attached to all of his many writings. In other words, all who are built on that one foundation, with Christ as cornerstone, and who partake of one bread, are vitally connected both to each other and to their Lord.

A year after Cornerstone's departure, the five congregations in VMC's Mountain Valley District, most within a fifteen mile radius of here, also withdrew. I couldn't keep from crying when this happened, at one of our two 2002 Conference assemblies. These occasions have always been for me a kind of reunion of my "freundschaft", my spiritual extended family. Now we were experiencing yet another painful breakup.

The largest of the Mountain Valley churches, Dayton Mennonite, has since affiliated with the Conservative Mennonite Conference. The other four smaller Mountain Valley congregations continue as an independent network.

I am beyond saddened that followers of Menno, along with all too many Christians today, are so prone to divide and re-divide from each other with distressing frequency. This in spite of Jesus' fervent prayer that his followers "remain one as I and the Father are one", so that "all may know know that you are my disciples."

So here's my own fervent prayer:

That all parts of the former Cornerstone network, the Mountain Valley congregations and all other former members of Virginia Mennonite Conference reunite with each other and renew a collaborative working relationship in all areas possible.

That all area conferences who were formerly a part of the "Old Mennonite" or "General Conference Mennonite" family of churches make peace with each other and commit themselves to prayerfully maintaining their "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace", meanwhile extending a hand of fellowship to more conservative Amish and Old Order Mennonite congregations as well.

That Anabaptist/Mennonite groups also reach out to the Protestant communions from which they were separated nearly 500 years, ago and explore ways of strengthening ties with each other as followers of Jesus.

That all Protestants seek ways of reuniting in table fellowship with Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions around the world, in order to celebrate our being "one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth".

I know that sounds impossibly ambitious, but what lesser vision would be worthy of our daily petition that God's "will be done on earth as it is in heaven"? Isn't this what Jesus' prayer is all about?

It is, after all, his church, not ours. He is the One True Vine, and we are mere branches. He is our only connection to the divine roots on which our lives depend.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Responding To Our Neighbors In Nepal

Mennonite Central Committe
"How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" I John 3:17

This was one of the assigned texts read at our house church Sunday and in many congregations around the world. How appropriate in light of the devastating earthquake in Nepal just the day before. 

Here are just a few of the many relief agencies through which you can make an immediate donation to help, with links below each of their photos:

Mennonite Central Committee (see above photo)
Oxfam International
CARE International

Oxfam International
CARE International

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Worsening Crisis In Virginia Prisons?

Augusta Correctional Center
Early this year the Augusta Correctional Center at nearby Craigsville was forced to double bunk to make room for some 250 additional men being transferred there from the aging Powhatan Correctional Center, which was being shut down. The Craigsville facility, already at more than capacity, has struggled to keep enough correctional officers hired and trained to provide for its security needs.

One of the other factors that contributes to a worsening security problem in Virginia's correctional system is that there is virtually no reward for any kind of "correction" demonstrated by inmates. In other words, there is no hope of early release for most of the 31,000 in prison since parole was abolished in 1995. Even for those who are still eligible for early release under the "old law" (the 4000 plus inmates incarcerated before 1995, who have been behind bars for 20-50 years) the parole grant rate is at its lowest point ever in Virginia, currently at under 3%.

All of this means incentives for good behavior are greatly reduced, and gang activity and a rapid turnover of correctional officers makes maintaining adequate security and good prison morale an ever more serious challenge.

Here are two other examples of policies that affect prison morale and security:

1) Hourly "pay" for work inside prisons has remained at only 27-45 cents an hour for for decades, and from 55-80 cents for those working in one of the many Virginia Corrections Enterprises--even though their slave labor brought in a total of $54,680,835 in income for the Department of Corrections in 2013. Meanwhile, charges for canteen items continue to rise, and the costs of postage and phone calls have also gone up significantly.

2) Treatment for mentally ill and emotionally distressed inmates is either unavailable or is woefully inadequate. The Marion Correctional Center in southwest Virginia, specifically designed for the estimated 40% of offenders suffering from mental health disorders, has beds for only 300 inmates, less than 1% of the Commonwealth's total number of detainees. While Marion has a staff of over 200 employees and a per inmate cost of well over $80,000 annually, the Buckingham Correctional Center, by comparison, is overcrowded with 1,154 residents and has only 396 employees and a budget of just over $25,000 per year per inmate.

All across Virginia, legislators and ordinary citizens alike are beginning to realize that our present criminal justice system, which has incarcerated six times the number of inmates we housed in the commonwealth just 25 years ago, is broken and in need of a serious overhaul.  Either we continue with the status quo, or we provide national leadership in reversing the pattern of incarcerating citizens at more than five times the average rate of that of the rest of the world.

Across the US, in red states as conservative as Texas and Georgia, legislators are trending toward more effective ways of reducing crime and dealing with offenders.

Here's a link to more posts on prison and parole reform.

Friday, April 24, 2015

"What cursed, wicked abomination and traffic!"

Dutch Anabaptist Leader Menno Simons (1496-1561) minced no words in his opposition to military violence.

In Menno's day, warfare mostly involved bloody hand-to-hand carnage carried out with lance and spear, in which men clubbed, stabbed and lacerated one another to death in unimaginably horrific ways. With the later invention of gunpowder and ever more efficient and brutal means of killing, now including drone strikes, engaging in war would be even more unthinkable for a follower of Jesus like Simons.

Here are some quotes from The Complete Writings of Menno Simons:

Captains, knights, foot soldiers, and similar bloody men risk body and soul for the sake of gain, and swear with uplifted fingers that they are ready to destroy cities and countries, to take citizens and inhabitants, to kill them and take their possessions, although these have never harmed them nor given them so much as an evil word.

Since we are to be conformed to the image of Christ, how can we then fight our enemies with the sword? Spears and swords of iron we leave to those who, alas, consider human blood and swine's blood of well-nigh equal value.

O God, what cursed, wicked abomination and traffic! And they call that protecting the country and the people, and assisting in justice!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Photos Of An Amazing Anniversary Celebration

Over 200 people filled the Park View Mennonite Church Social Hall Friday evening, April 10, to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Gemeinschaft Home. The event raised over $6000 for the program and for the cost of the publication of its history, free copies of which were available that evening.

Some of the special guests at the event were Delegate Tony Wilt, Virginia Senate candidate April Moore, the Honorable Judge John Paul, Social Services Director Don Driver, Board of Supervisors members Rick Chandler and Fred Eberly, and City Council member Kai Degner. Past Gemeinschaft pioneers like Titus Bender, Barry Hart, Glendon Blosser, Jim Gilkeson and Jenni Amison were also given special recognition.

 Gemeinschaft board member John Butler, a graduate of Gemeinschaft, was the capable emcee of the event. John remains very active as a volunteer and community mentor for the residents, many of whom served as waiters for the delicious meal prepared for the occasion, thanks to the Home's beloved and accomplished chef, Brenda Leigh, Gemeinschaft 'house mother' and inspirational role model for the men.

Mercedies Harris, another Gemeinschaft graduate, told us how much the program helped him at a critical time in his life. He is now a minister in Waynesboro and is serving on the Governor's Task Force On Restoration of Rights.

Howard Zehr, internationally known pioneer of the restorative justice movement and professor emeritus of EMU's Center For Peace and Justice, gave the keynote address. With the restorative justice model, he said, we ask a different set of questions, not simply about what crime was committed and how an offender should be punished, but the question of who has been wronged, and how can restitution be made that satisfied the needs of the victim?

Commonwealth's Attorney Marsha Garst gave a an enthusiastic response to Zehr's speech, emphasizing her growing conviction that restorative justice is not "soft on crime", but can in many cases be the best way to hold offender's accountable to make their wrongs right.

Gemeinschaft (Gah MINE Shoft), a German word that means community, is exceedingly grateful for the growing support they feel from the Harrisonburg and surrounding communities.

Visit Gemeinshaft's website or its Facebook page to find out how you can become involved as a supporter of the Home.

Photos courtesy of Gemeinschaft Board chair Dr. Sam Showalter.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

DNR Article Calls For Improved Mental Health Services At Our Local Jail

The following excellent front-page piece by Elaina Sauber in today's Daily News-Record makes a strong case for improved and expanded mental health services at our local jail, and highlights some changes a number of us have strongly advocated for years. 

For those of you who don't have access to the paper, this condensed version contains the first and last parts of the article, posted here with the kind permission of Peter Yates, DNR's managing editor:
Mental Health In Focus At Local Jail  - Elaina Sauber
George Nipe, half time jail counselor (photo by DNR's Daniel Lin)
HARRISONBURG — On the day after Christmas, Shannon Smith was desperate. The Dayton resident was on probation for the unlawful wounding of a police officer in 2012, and struggled with bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. She attempted to end her life with a gunshot to the abdomen.
“I don’t know that I necessarily wanted to die,” she said. “I really felt like I didn’t know where to get help.”
An inmate at Rockingham County Jail, Smith’s attempted suicide sent her to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville over New Year’s, and then back to jail for possession of a firearm as a convicted felon and a probation violation.
But Smith, 38, is getting the counseling she needs that goes beyond medication. Since landing in jail in January, she has met with licensed professional counselor George Nipe a half-dozen times.
Nipe now provides 20 hours of weekly therapeutic support for inmates with mental illness at the local jail as part of an 18-month pilot program.
Started in January by the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board, the pilot program widens the jail’s resources for distressed inmates through one-on-one counseling led by Nipe, who teaches coping skills to handle their emotions in jail and other high-stress environments.
The Community Services Board spent $30,000 in one-time funds on the pilot program, and in December, Harrisonburg City Council and the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors each approved $15,000 to match the amount, according to Ellen Harrison, CSB director of acute services.
 That spending was approved amid heated debates between residents and city officials on the construction of a $63 million annex to help alleviate overcrowding in the jail, with opponents vying for incarceration alternatives.
Nipe joined nurse practitioner Michelle Wood, who works in the jail three hours a week providing medication assessments and services, and community liaison Joanne Benner, who counsels inmates with serious mental issues for 10 hours a week, and helps them prepare for release. All are employed through CSB.
While many observers familiar with the pilot program see it as a step forward in the jail’s mental health care, some ask whether 33 hours of care a week is sufficient when, according to the State Inspector General’s Office 2014 jails review, such facilities have become “an essential part of the commonwealth’s mental health system.”
(the middle section of the article, not included here, highlights the prevalence of bipolar disorder and substance abuse issues in jail populations)

‘Not Enough Time’
While the jail administration’s efforts to treat inmates with mental illness have improved with the pilot program, one practice at the jail still disturbs observers such as Harvey Yoder, a licensed professional counselor.
When inmates express suicidal thoughts or become a potential harm to others, jail staff often confines them to a restraint chair or its segregated padded cell. Yoder thinks such devices are counterproductive to an already troubled inmate’s mental state. 
“It’s exactly the opposite of what a mentally ill person needs: supportive, nurturing connections with human beings who care about them, who can explore their fears [and] give them assurance,” said Yoder, who has been vocal advocate for seeking alternatives to jail as a means of easing crowding.
In the first half of 2014, unstable inmates were confined to a restraint chair, which restricts the legs, arms and torso, 22 times. The padded cell, which is empty except a grate in the floor for inmates to relieve themselves, was used 14 times during the same period, according to records Yoder obtained from jail administrator Capt. Steve Shortell.
Records tracking the use of those devices during the second half of 2014 and since January were not readily available. Benner, however, believes the amount of inmates’ restraint time has decreased since Nipe started working at the jail. “It used to be everyone who made suicidal comments [was put] on suicide watch in the padded cell or restraint chair,” she said, “but now, they can have a professional assessment before getting to that point.” 
Hutcheson notes that the restraint chair and padded cell are used for an inmate’s own safety, adding that the jail also has a regular segregated cell with a bed and toilet for at-risk inmates. Jail staff is required to conduct 15-minute checks on such inmates, he said.
“In most cases, it’s someone coming in off the street because of alcohol, drugs or a combination, in an agitated state and having violent behavior,” Hutcheson said.
Yoder said he thinks the pilot is a “step in the right direction,” but it may not be sufficient for the jail’s nearly 325 inmates.
“One half-time person for that population ... with a larger percentage of mental-health issues than the average population — it’s just not enough time for any one person to meet the needs,” he said.
‘Hopeless And Helpless’
As for inmate Smith, who was permitted a five-minute conversation with a Daily News-Record reporter to detail her experience, she presents Nipe with the spectrum of mental-health issues with which he must deal: addiction, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, the latter requiring medication and counseling.
“I really felt like I didn’t know where to get help,” she says of her suicide attempt. “I felt really hopeless and helpless — and found my father’s gun.”
Now things are looking up and Smith wants to turn her life around. Nipe, she says, “is very encouraging, and is interested in seeing if I could be transferred to Western State Hospital [in Staunton], where I could get some help for my mental problems.”
But the help Smith gets is far from perfect, she said. When she had trouble adapting to the new medications Wood prescribed her, Smith said she had to wait a month before she could meet with Wood again.
“At no point could I relax. I just cried and cried,” Smith said.
Wood confirmed that inmates sometimes wait several weeks to see her, but said that the three hours a week she works is simply not enough to meet their needs any sooner.
Said Wood, “I think if I could see every inmate when they wanted to be seen, I’d work at the jail 40 hours a week.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Tell Me A Story

"A Girl Reading" Pierre Auguste Renoir 1890

“Once upon a time” was a magic phrase for our children growing up. Without access to cable TV or a shelf full of DVD's, they relied on tales read from books or that we shared from our memories for a lot of their entertainment.

Bedtimes at our house were known as “story time”, when we read and re-read, told and re-told tales new and old--stories from the Good Book and from countless other books, along with favorite family stories, made-up stories, silly stories and serious and sad stories.

Now that our three are grown and long gone, we miss having them on our laps, tucked in their beds or beside us on the living room sofa, begging for just one more chapter from Little House on the Prairie or from our Bible story book.

Good stories never grow old, become better with retelling. They bond the teller and the hearer together, and are powerful in the ways they inform, influence and shape the values and faith of our young. They have always been a primary means by which societies pass on their way of life to the next generation.

Unfortunately, Hollywood is replacing our homes and congregations as our society’s primary story teller. And according to an organization called TV-Free America, today’s children are spending nearly 30 times as much time passively absorbing these pathetic myths as they do in meaningful conversations with their parents, or in hearing them share tales from the past.

Here are some examples of how many media generated stories tend to undermine our values:

1. Girl meets boy, they fall in love, and within minutes (or at most, hours), they are physically passionate. It’s portrayed as what everyone does. And there are few negative consequences, no worries about pregnancy or STD’s, almost no concerns about the emotional or social effects of these kinds of near instant hook-ups.

2. Our (good) guys always beat up their (bad) guys. The other guys are clever, but ours are armed with more intelligence and better weapons. Almost always, our guys' use of violence proves to be a justifiable, instant and permanent solution to almost any human problem.

3. Cool people routinely put down, embarrass and outsmart uncool people. Most parents, teachers and other adults are definitely not cool people.

4. The only way to get to be anybody--or to be liked by anybody--is to be physically attractive. And the only way to be attractive is to be thin, young, and to be made up like the latest Hollywood idol.

These are lamentable narratives indeed, fit for neither children nor adults.

We parents and grandparents do have some advantages in the storytelling department. We have laps, and loving arms to wrap around our children as we introduce them to some really “happily ever after.”

Sunday, April 12, 2015

"True Evangelical Faith"

Menno Simons, 1496-1561
Some 500 years ago members of the "Anabaptist" or free church movement in western Europe (founded on freedom from state control of religion) began to be referred to as "Mennists" or "Mennonites" due to the influence of one of their most loved and long-lived leaders, Menno Simons.

Menno, a former Catholic priest from Friesland, was not the group's founder, having joined the movement ten years after it began in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525, but became its leading voice and its most prolific writer.

He uses the term evangelical here as distinct from both the Catholicism of his time, which strongly emphasized the necessity of good works, and contemporary reformers, who stressed faith alone as necessary for salvation:

True evangelical faith
is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant;
but manifests itself
in all righteousness and works of love;

It dies unto flesh and blood;
destroys all forbidden lusts and desires;
cordially seeks, serves and fears God;
clothes the naked; 

feeds the hungry;
consoles the afflicted;
shelters the miserable;
aids and consoles all the oppressed;
returns good for evil;
serves those that injure it;
prays for those that persecute it;
teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord;
seeks that which is lost;
binds up that which is wounded;
heals that which is diseased
and saves that which is sound.

The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it
for the sake of the truth of the Lord,
is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

- Menno Simons, "Why I Do Not Cease Teaching And Writing" 1539

Friday, April 10, 2015

Maybe We Marry Just The Right Person

At our 50th anniversary August 2014
“Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become ‘whole’ and happy.  The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person.  This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage.  It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.  We never know whom we marry; we just think we do... The primary problem is…learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”   
- Stanley Hauerwas

I agree with Hauerwas, but believe there is something just "right" about the "wrong" (imperfect and imperfectly matched) person we choose to marry.

I often meet with couples in my office who are on the verge of breaking up. Each is angry and vindictive, and all they seem to be able to do is to disrespect, blame and accuse each other.

On one such occasion, in a moment of inspiration, or maybe a bit of desperation, I said, “OK, imagine if you were to split up, and the only way you could be relieved of your partner was to persuade someone else to take them off your hands. And to do that, you would have to create an classified ad listing all of the virtues of the other person you could think of, much as you would do if you were advertising a vehicle, ‘One owner, well maintained, nice looking, in excellent condition, etc.’"

I suggested this tongue in cheek, of course, to help them recall all of the good qualities that attracted them to their partner in the first place, qualities that sooner or later someone else would be sure to find attractive, just as they had years earlier.

Those good assets in our marriage don't tend to just go away, but typically a mound of negative behaviors begins to get in the way of our seeing and appreciating our spouse as we first did. But in spite of everything that blocks our vision and hinders our appreciation, those good qualities are likely still there, along with the not-so-great ones.

Of course, I'm not encouraging staying with an unrepentant adulterer, abuser or addict. But under normal circumstances, we need to recognize that each of us comes as a package, with our own mix of assets and liabilities. And since our marriages weren’t arranged by others, we need to remember that we chose each other because of what we really valued, and chose to minimize the other person's faults, much as we continue to minimize our own.

So we probably deserve each other, and need to be remind ourselves regularly of why we made the fateful choice we did, based on our own best judgment at the time.

So what if could each stop blaming the other for our lack of happiness, and to go forward with the belief that we are somehow just right for each other, a perfectly matched couple. That doesn’t mean we’re a perfect couple, which would take two perfect people, but what if our unique mix of assets and challenges were seen as just right for us to experience the optimal amount of growth that may have never happened with any other combination of two human beings?

Then we could stop complaining and start putting our efforts into building a satisfying and God-blessed relationship.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Another Sign of Mercy's Law

We're all familiar with Murphy's Law, the one that says if anything can go wrong, it will. But I also keep running into examples what I call "Mercy's Law", seemingly random happenings that turn out much better than expected.

Take a medical scare I had a couple of weeks ago, when I experienced some unusual rectal bleeding for the first time in my life, ever. I was definitely alarmed at what I saw, bright red, obvious and ominous. 

More than concerned, I called my doctor's office immediately, and was told that my primary physician, Dr. Alan Morgan, could see me at 7:30 the next morning. That seemed providential.

The hours that followed were good for me. I thought about how God-graced my life has been, how few my ailments, how many my blessings. Alma Jean and I hugged each other, prayed for the best and even pondered the worst. It was a time for gaining perspective.

Then a blessed relief. 

My good doctor diagnosed me as having a benign case of ICD 455.0 ("internal hemorrhoids without mention of complication"), which came as a complete surprise, since I had never experienced any discomfort of any kind. Needless to say, I have never been so grateful for a diagnosis in my life.

ICD 455.0. I can live with that.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Misrepresented Mary of Magdala

In the Easter account in John's gospel, Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Magdala (the town she was from along the coast of the Sea of Galilee), is honored as the first person to give witness to the resurrection of Jesus. She is also named as among the few of Jesus's followers who remained at his side during his crucifixion (the male disciples who fled undoubtedly knew they were more likely to be arrested than the women).

Over time Mary Magdalene, mentioned more often than any other woman in the gospels (even more than the most of Jesus's twelve male followers), became identified as one of the several women of questionable character who anointed Jesus in an act of penitence--and even as the woman caught in the act of adultery.  

Since most of these women are unnamed, this is pure speculation. And adding to the confusion, there are numerous other "Marys" in the gospels, Mary the mother of Jesus (think "Magnificat"), Mary, an avid student of Jesus and the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, or Mary Clopas.

By the time of Pope Gregory I, Mary Magdalene was known as a composite figure erroneously identified with some or all of the female characters in the gospels who showed their devotion to Jesus by pouring expensive ointment on his head or feet, then drying them with her hair. According to his Homily XXXIII, this sixth century Pope declared,
"She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?
"It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance."                
Most scholars no longer accept this view of Mary Magdalene's identity, and insist she was almost certainly a person of both sterling reputation and of considerable means, who with the other women named, were Jesus' patrons and confidantes during his ministry, according to this text:

"After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means."    - Luke 8:1-3 NIV

The "seven demons" that once afflicted her, most current scholars believe, probably had to do with a complicated physical (or mental?) illness from which she had been delivered, not some kind of demon possession.

In an article in the June, 2006, issue of Smithsonian magazine, historian James Carroll concludes that the church has wrongly made a caricature of Mary Magdalene. They created this Mary as a representative of her entire gender, as redeemed but weak and vulnerable, and destined to remain subservient and secondary.

The actual truth, Carroll believes, is that she was a respected and valued part of Jesus's inner circle.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Living By The Fifth Gospel

Jesus went about announcing, "God's rule is breaking in everywhere, right here and now. Radically change your ways to God's ways and embrace this good news!" 
(Mark 1:15, paraphrased)

I have always professed to live by the gospel (good news) according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but during this Holy Week I'm realizing how much I may be living by an antithetical version of Jesus' life and teachings, one we might call "The Gospel According To US".

This widely celebrated gospel affirms that...

1. It's OK for some people to accumulate more and more wealth and possessions while others lack even bare necessities.

2. We can accept huge worldwide and US wage and income inequities as normal and inevitable.

3. We can secretly support the maiming, dismembering and slaughtering of enemies like ISIS or any other groups that commit atrocities or who simply threaten our national interest.

4. We can support the investment of huge amounts of money in expensive real estate for ourselves, as well as in state-of-the-art furnishings and amenities and million dollar endowments to enhance and support our church buildings and church institutions.

5. We can "fare sumptuously" every day, and whenever we host any of our frequent feasts we need only invite our close friends and family members.

6. Our social life and church life need involve only people who think, look and believe much as we do.

7. Our wardrobes can represent the kind of fashion statement that includes expensive jewelry and multiple changes of clothing to later be disposed of in yard sales or thrift stores to make room for more.

8. We can enjoy luxurious cruises and expensive vacations whenever and however we can afford them.

9. We can look forward to a leisurely retirement and to living to a ripe old age without having to risk any major discomfort or sacrifice for our faith.

10. All the while, God will look with favor on our living by this "fifth gospel", will comfort us in our distresses, shower us with blessings and give us a free pass to eternal bliss.

Now is that good news or not?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

All Life Is Precious--A Conversation With Dr. Roman Miller

I sent the following draft of some reflections and questions to EMU biology professor Roman Miller for his response: 

This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby, 

Kneeled down in the dust

Toiling over a lump of clay

Till he shaped it in his own image; 
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul. 

 - James Weldon Johnson's "Creation", from God's Trombones--Negro Sermons in Verse

According to the Genesis creation account, human life begins with the creation of Adam from adamah, or dust. God forms a human prototype, adam, (Hebrew for man) from ordinary clay (adamah), then that God-formed soil becomes a living, God-breathed soul, Adam.  So the progression is from adamah (dust) to adam (generic human) to Adam (individual soul/person.

I understand that in the Bible, a "soul" is not something that comes to inhabit a person, but is a term synonymous with the essential person one becomes, a whole, living human being made "in God's image".

So from the creation event on we might think of human life not so much as "beginning", either at conception or when exiting the womb, but as continuing, in a sequence involving distinct forms somewhat like a swallowtail evolves from pupa to chrysalis to an individual butterfly.

From my perspective, human life at each stage of development is to be respected and guarded as God's special creation. But just as there is a difference between sperm/egg life and fetal life, is there a similar difference between a body in formation (still on life support in the womb) and soul life, or whole life? And might the original creation account offer some helpful perspective?

Certainly neither God nor any other creature would have dreamed of terminating the sculpting and designing process the Creator was engaged in when God "made" the first human adam. All the organic elements of body life were being "knit together", much as they are during each pregnancy. As with the first "adam", we humans are fearfully and wonderfully "made" in that process, formed from existing organic material (adamah, or dust), and with all of the complex physical parts and organs required for human existence.

It is then, after God makes this first human creature (complete with all of its organs and other body parts), that God creates something amazingly wonderful and unique, as in, "And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (or 'living soul')." (Genesis 2:7).

The actual Hebrew word for create ("bara") is used only three times in the six stanzas of the original creation hymn (Genesis 1-2:3), first when creating something from nothing (the "heavens and the earth"), then when creating living creatures (sea life), and finally when creating human life (Genesis 1:26-27). In all of the other steps in the creation account, the text uses terms like "Let there be," as if the Creator were setting things in motion and watching them develop. Or the text describes God as having "made" things, presumably with existing material, as in the case of both the heavenly bodies and of human bodies.

Interestingly, I recently learned that the Celtic theologian Pelagius disagreed with Augustine's view that God created everything in the world ex nihilo; out of nothing, but rather that God created the world ex Deo, out of the very essence of God's being.

At any rate, to create is usually thought of as bringing something entirely new into existence. And so it is when God breathes spirit into the generic adam, since it is at this point that the human being (formed from adamah) appears to become a living soul and is named Adam, a formal name that distinguishes that person from all others, including Eve and every other human creature. Thus human beings, male and female, are indeed a special species, bearing God's image.

So should we see pregnancy as a similar process of a human in formation, of our being assembled with all of the amazing organs and body parts needed for the soul life which comes with God's "breath"? Thus we would never dishonor organic (physical) life, would always treat it with utmost reverence and respect, and experience any termination of that form of life (via a miscarriage) with a deep sense of loss and the greatest of regret, especially as it represents the loss of a dream of all that this life could have become. But are there understandable differences of degree between that and the mourning the death of a child or adult who has actually lived and breathed among us?

Societies and cultures from the beginning of time have all seemed to recognize that "difference of degree" in one way or another. For example, we seldom name, christen, or have formal memorial services and burials for a miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy. Not because we regard this or any form of human life as mere tissue to be discarded. No, an embryo or fetus represents something fearfully and wonderfully God-formed. And we grieve and mourn whenever a life doesn't continue to full term, and never has the opportunity to realize its full potential.

The Torah makes clear, in Exodus 21:22  that any human-caused miscarriage is a wrong that must be atoned for, "When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine."  (NRSV)

Meanwhile, while Christians have long been divided over whether the willful terminating of a pregnancy is murder, I pray we would no longer be divided over whether we protect and preserve human life at whatever stage, from the womb to the tomb.

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What follows is Dr. Roman Miller's helpful and thoughtful response:

1) Interesting to link embryonic development to forming adam.  Never thought about it quite in that way before.

2) Using the Johnson's poem creates beautiful imagery which may not necessarily depict reality.

3) Suggesting human life "as continuing" (your 2nd paragraph) resonates with the biological reality.  Living cells (sperm and ova) merge to form a living zygote (single cell) which subsequently divides to form a ball of cells (morula) which hollows out (blastula) and then implants into the maternal endometrial wall as a trilayer early embryo that undergoes continual development forming a fetus and then is birthed as an infant.  In all of those processes, biologically speaking at least, life does not begin, rather it continues.  Usually when people say "When does life begin" what is meant is what is the origination of individualization or sometimes when is the emergence of personhood?

4) Subscribing to the "breathe" idea as central (paragraph 7), i.e. "God breathes spirit into the generic adam" resonates with many Jewish perspectives who see protection for the developing person only when he/she draws a first breath.  (Personally, I disagree with that perspective and think it is short-sighted.)

5) You talk about ensoulment--i.e. becoming a living soul -- (Paragraph 7).  Traditional Roman Catholic view was that God inserts a soul into the developing embryo at some stage -- while the debate is "when" -- but most Catholics put it rather early in development.  In contrast I would think of "ensoulment" as an emergent property of embryonic/fetal development that corresponds with other emergent properties -- e.g. migration of cells to form distinctive tissues and organ seeding, development of sensations, increasing brain activity, complex movements, etc.  All of these happen pre-birth.

6) I think the crux of the discussion on abortion -- embryonic stem cell research etc is really hinged on the concept and value of the embryo (especially the early embryo).  Your discussion values the embryo (more than simple tissue) but probably doesn't value it enough (in my view)!  You refer explicitly to two scriptures (the Genesis creation passage) which is the focus of your piece and then make a side comment about Exodus 21.  Maybe a fuller view of how Scripture portrays the unborn would be helpful?  For example, Luke 1:41 personifying fetal movement or reflecting more on the meaning of the incarnation.  So what was the earliest point (time-wise) of Jesus of Nazareth?  "Quickening"?  Parturition? Or is there another view of ontogeny here?  I think there is and by reflecting on the meaning of the incarnation (assuming a divine conception) we gain an insight into the nature of development. (Consider Luke 1:35; Matt 1:20 for example as starters.)

7) My personal approach (you don't need to buy this) is to talk about personhood as a mark of individual originalization.  I'm not talking about "functional personhood" as frequently described, i.e. cognition, reflection, etc, as evidence of soul or individualization, rather I'm talking about biological personhood establishes the identity of a new individual -- while entirely dependent upon another, still expresses its own individuality.  I think that individuality, soul, personality, thinking, etc are all emergent properties that occur in utero but find fuller expression in infancy, childhood, adulthood, and maturity.  Finally those emergent properties (instead of continual flowering) begin to decline with aging and exit into another existence at death.


Here's a link to a post on evangelicals and abortion