Wednesday, December 30, 2015

On This Sixth Day of Christmas--Pray For Children And Grandchildren

"Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it."
Proverbs 22:6 (NLT)

Pinterest image
Someone has said that what this oft-quoted "train up a child" text might really mean is that whatever good instruction we give our children will never leave them. At any rate, most of us parents have one wish above all others, that we successfully pass on a strong faith and a good set of values to our children and grandchildren.

But none of us is perfect, and even if we were, it would not guarantee that our children would be. Every human being has the right, indeed the God-given  responsibility, to make personal choices. And even God's very first children didn't make all wise ones.

I once heard someone say that our real success as parents has less to do with what kind of children we raise as it does with what kind of grandchildren we produce. At any rate, Alma Jean and I thank God every day for being blessed with three children and six grandchildren who are far, far better than we deserve. But we know they all face challenges and temptations greater than any of ours in previous generations.

For example, will our offsprings' constant access to screen-based entertainment rob them of good connections with the real world of nature and of other people? Will increased wealth and an ever easier and comfortable life detract from their willingness to work and serve in self-giving ways? Will they form strong bonds with supportive communities of faith in which they will be able, if so led, to grow strong families of their own? And will they be able to live by the above six "family rules" in all their relationships?

Pray with me, on this sixth day of Christmas, that our future generations of grandmen and women will do far better than we in making this a truly God-blessed world.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

On This Fifth Day Of Christmas, Pray For A Livable And Well-Kept Planet

"The Lord God placed the human in the Garden of Eden as its gardener, to tend and care for it." Genesis 2:15 Living Bible

The very first mandate given us in the book of Genesis is to take care of the earth, to exercise responsible oversight of it on God's behalf. As caretakers created in God's image, we are entrusted with the wise stewardship of creation. 

Sadly, most people have chosen to exploit the planet for short term gain rather than preserve and care for it as the unique, life-giving treasure it is. Huge areas of rain forests ("the lungs of the planet") are being destroyed at an alarming rate to provide more grazing land to meet increased demands for ever more red meat in our diets. Coal burning power plants spew tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day due to our insatiable need for increased power, resulting in the planet warming at an alarming rate.

Good planets, like healthy bodies, require diligent care. We know we cannot expect to be able to abuse our bodies with alcohol, nicotine and other drugs, or with too many carbs, harmful fats, sugars and sodium, without paying a heavy price. In the same way the harm we do to the earth may become devastating and irreparable.

On this fifth day of Christmas pray with me that we will be responsible caretakers of our rich soil, pure water, clean air and all of the resources with which we have been blessed.

It's surely true, as someone has said, that "Good planets are hard to find."

Monday, December 28, 2015

On This Fourth Day Of Christmas--Pray For Goodwill Among People Of All Faiths (or no faith)

"All who are wicked will be punished with trouble and suffering. It doesn’t matter if they are Jews or Gentiles. But all who do right will be rewarded with glory, honor, and peace, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. God doesn’t have any favorites."

Romans 2:9-11 (Contemporary English Version

At a time when ISIS forces are making headlines with horrific acts of violence toward Christians and members of faiths with whom they disagree, and when western-led forces representing so-called "Christian" nations are making drone and other attacks that result in untold carnage, relationships between members of major world religions are strained as never before. We forget that God loves all people, and that Muslims, Jews and Christians alike claim to serve the God of Abraham and Sarah as revealed in our sacred texts, even though their understandings of God may differ. And we Christians likewise forget that Jesus' only teaching regarding enemies who persecute and hate us is to respond by returning good for evil rather than exacting revenge.

I've never been one to promote the idea that all religions are the same, that we should just forget about our differences and blend everything religious together into one generic faith. On the contrary, I feel that whatever I or others truly believe as our "way, truth and life" we should respectfully promote and affirm without apology.

But we can't get others to even consider our own faith if we are inconsiderate of theirs, and certainly not if we are hostile toward them. Jesus never lashed out against Samaritans or called them heretics. Nor did he ridicule or insult the religion of Romans or of other Gentiles of his time. In fact, the only religious teachers or teachings he lashed out against were unloving dogmatics within his own strongly held Jewish faith.

And certainly if we are to love and pray for even our enemies we should love and respect all of our many friends around the world who follow the faith of their choice--just as we would have them respect ours. That's not heresy, it's the Golden Rule.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

On This Third Day Of Christmas--Pray For The Release Of Long Held Prisoners

Some good men at Buckingham Correctional Center
"I, the Lord, have called you... to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness."
Isaiah 42:6-7 NIV

Imagine spending half of your time every day confined to a space as small as a medium size bathroom. At meal times and some other times you live in equally crowded spaces surrounded by concrete walls and barbed wire, never able to get away from the hundreds of fellow detainees with whom you share a concentration-camp-like environment for years on end. 

Whether detained for just or for unjust reasons, decades of such confinement result in an unusually cruel form of punishment.

So pray with me on this third day of Christmas for the humane release of three people such as the following:

Mr. A. Jefferson Grissette #1143033, currently at St, Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake was free on parole and doing well just four years ago. He had a good job, was working full time, paying off his debts and getting his life together. Unfortunately, he became a convenient suspect in a credit card theft case in Arlington because of some similar crimes for which he had been convicted earlier in his life. The only evidence against him was based on his resembling an obscure image caught on a surveillance camera. Without due process, he got another 18 years in prison after being urged to take a plea agreement rather than face a jury trial.

Also please pray for the release of men like Mr. Nat Painter #1009725, age 74, who is still incarcerated for a crime he committed 21 years ago, but who has consistently demonstrated good behavior in prison, and only wants a few remaining years of a normal life with his loved ones. He has  repeatedly been denied parole in spite of his almost certainly not being any further danger to society. His address is Coffeewood Correctional Center, 12352 Coffeewood Drive, Mitchells, VA 22792.

Virginia Public Radio
Likewise, pray for the release of Mr. Jens Soering #1161655, age 49, to his native Germany. Jens, whom I met at the Buckingham Correctional Center a couple of years ago, has just spent his 30th Christmas in a Virginia prison for a crime he says he foolishly confessed to at age 20 to save his then girl friend from being convicted of capital murder. As a son of a German diplomat he assumed he would be sent to Germany for a trial and get a lesser sentence. When she testified against him he got two life sentences here and she got 90 years. Jens has had nine books published since his incarceration. His address is BKCC, P.O. Box 430, Dillwyn, VA 23936-0430.

For an excellent Washington Post column by George Will on mandatory sentencing, check this link.

And here's a good article on the increasing numbers of aging citizens in our prisons.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

On This Second Day Of Christmas--Pray That Walls Of Separation Come Down

"For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility."   

(Ephesians 2:14 NIV)

Whether it be the Berlin Wall, the barrier fence on our U.S.-Mexican border, or Israel's Separation Barrier (seen here) that scars the Holy Land around Bethlehem and the West Bank, there is something in us that "doesn't love a wall", that begs to have it removed.

On this the second of the twelve days of Christmas, join me in praying that these kinds of physical walls will become a thing of the past. Also that those invisible barriers dividing us along race, class, gender, religious and national lines may be removed by the Prince of Peace, or at least that doors may be opened in them to allow us all full access.

In the vision of the "New Jerusalem" in the Apocalypse, the visionary new city representing the peaceful Lamb's radiant " bride", God's eternal dwelling, has secure walls but eternally open gates in all directions. "The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there is no night there." (Revelation 21 NIV)

Pray with me that the world's darkness will be dispelled and all of its walls be destroyed--or to be remade with gates that are forever open and welcoming.

Friday, December 25, 2015

On This First Day Of Christmas--Pray For New Birth Everywhere

For this first of an annual series of daily prayers and reflections for each of the twelve days of Christmas, I borrow from John of the Cross (1542-1591):

If you want
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say,

“I need shelter for the night,
please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul
you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
taking birth
as she grasps your hand for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.

Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally,
through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help;
for each of us is
His beloved servant
never far.

If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and sing …

–St. John of the Cross, “If You Want” in Daniel Ladinsky Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), 306-307.

May Christ truly be 'born in us' on this day.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Reflecting On A Holy Night (And A Horrific Night): Christmas Greetings From Hamlet Drive

Dear family and friends,

This has been a difficult holiday season. While we've been blessed beyond deserving this year, we received the terrible news on December 12 that my sister Mary Beth Shifflett, 69, and her husband of 51 years, Harven, age 77, perished in a fire that destroyed their mobile home in Greene County sometime after midnight less than two weeks ago. We remain in a state of shock, and are still waiting for their bodies to be released from Richmond for burial.

Meanwhile a service of memory is being planned for friends and family on Sunday, January 3. Pray for us.

Meanwhile, Alma Jean and I, with our three children and six grandchildren, enjoyed a Christmas meal together yesterday, sang some carols, shared some gifts with the young ones, and prepared some hygiene kits for refugees to send through Mennonite Central Committee, along with an investment in Oxfam to purchase some goats ($50 each) and some efficient small cookstoves ($25 each) for needly families abroad.

This year we won't tire you with any other wonderful details of our children and grandchildren's lives, much as we celebrate them each and enjoy them all (especially this week!). And this year we're again going simple with our season's greetings, saving trees and sending our Christmas blessings via email and blog to our many wonderful friends and family members.

We celebrate the following words from "O Holy Night" by a French poet, Placide Cappeau (a nominal Jew when he wrote the original "Cantique de Noël" as a commissioned work) which in 1885 became "O Holy Night" as translated and set to music by John Sullivan Dwight:

Truly he taught us to love one another,
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name!

Fall on you knees, O hear the angel voices,
O night divine, O night, O night divine!

These are words we want to take to heart and live by in 2016 and in the short remaining years of our life.

Blessings to you all!

Harvey and Alma Jean

P.S. Click here to enjoy "O Holy Night" as sung by the Indianapolis Children and Youth Choirs.  And here to hear an ensemble of members of the Pittsburgh Mennonite Church, led by our son Brad. You'll love his arrangement of "Go Tell It On The Mountain" with soloist Tony Brown!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Brilliant Christmas Gift Exchange Plan

Finding the right gift for people who already have way too much stuff can be a real challenge. So economist Joel Waldfogel suggests just giving a gift card or writing a check to a favorite charity in someone's name instead.

I love the giving to charity idea, but before we go shopping for gift cards, here's an even more efficient plan, one I've called the "Practical, Utilitarian and Radically Simple Exchange (PURSE for short). In all modesty, I consider it the perfect answer for today's busy and cost conscious shopper, and it can feel way more generous than a $50 gift card.

Here's how it works. You first get your family members, co-workers or friends together and agree to draw names. This makes certain that each person will give something and get something. But my PURSE plan goes further in assuring absolute equality for all, and better yet, it costs no one a single dime. 

Yes, you heard me right. In the end it costs no one anything, not even a trip to the mall (which for me is one of the better parts of this plan).

We accomplish this by simply agreeing to give each other money--legal tender, filthy lucre, dough, cash, a check, whichever--but solemnly agree ahead of time the exact amount each is to give, which could be an outlandishly huge amount, say $10,000 or even more. Because with the revolutionary PURSE plan, the agreed on amount doesn't matter--as long as everyone gives (and receives) exactly the same amount.

Is this brilliant or what? You have to agree, it couldn't be more simple or more fair, right? And when your annual Christmas exchange is over no one is a dime richer or a penny poorer. 

And better yet, no one is stressed, exhausted or disappointed.

True, the economy gets no benefit from this little transaction, but for people who already have everything they possibly need, it's really just the thought that counts anyway, right? 

And I've even cherry-picked an actual Bible verse to go with this scheme, found in Proverbs 1:14: "Cast thy lot with us, and we will share a common PURSE."
(emphasis mine, and with tongue firmly in cheek, of course;-)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Could A Kristallnacht Happen Here?

German mobs attack Jewish businesses and synagogues, 1938
After a campaign of fear-mongering antisemitism directed at Jews in Nazi Germany, an enflamed citizenry went on a two-night rampage of burning synagogues and vandalizing Jewish homes, schools and businesses. This infamous "Night of Broken Glass" happened November 9 and 10, 1938, less than eight decades ago, and in a supposedly "Christian" nation much like our own. 

Could a growing hostility toward Muslims in the US today bring about a similar outbreak of violence? 

There are already ominous signs of this happening. On December 11, in the wake of one of our leading candidates for president calling for an outright ban on all Muslims entering the US, there was an attempted firebombing of a mosque in Coachella, California. Worshippers inside were peacefully exercising their God-given (and First Amendment) right to pray together in the manner they chose. 

Just the day before, a Sikh temple in Buena Park, California, was vandalized and a truck in their parking lot was spray painted with anti ISIS graffiti. Sikhs, ironically, are not even Muslim, but in a climate of fear and hate, rationality is no deterrence.

Within the same week a man in a pickup truck threw a pig's head in front of a mosque in Philadelphia, a young student in New York City wearing a hijab was assaulted by classmates, a Muslim store owner in Queens was attacked by a random customer, a man threatened a Muslim woman at a car wash in Chino Hills, California, and a local office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Santa Clara had to be evacuated after they received a letter containing some kind of white powder with the message, "Die a painful death, Muslims". 

This is deeply disturbing. During 2015 alone, Islamic Centers and mosques in the US have been targeted a total of 63 times, according to CNN religion editor Daniel Burke. This is three times the number of such incidents reported last year.

Will a widespread Kristallnacht against Muslims in the US be next?

We must all weigh in with the kind of intense prayer and  persuasion necessary to ensure that this kind of history will never repeat itself.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Channel 29 Deserves Praise For MRRJ Series

Jennifer Smith died in a segregated cell at MRRJ October, 2013
TV29 reporter Tara Todd's investigative series on health care at nearby Middle River Regional Jail finally aired this week. She had worked tirelessly on this project for months, and the station's attorneys painstakingly pored over every detail before it came out on their local news Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The result is a sobering expose' of how a lack of appropriate medical care resulted in two inmates losing their lives and another, after begging repeatedly to be taken to the hospital due to severe pain, was found to have an advanced case of colon cancer upon his release.

Here's  a summary of concerns as compiled from yesterday's segment:

1. The Sheriff was never called to investigate the 2013 death of Jennifer Smith, mentally ill mother of four, even though the jail's stated policy is to do so to make sure a death isn't caused by criminal activity. It is also questionable whether they followed the appropriate protocol for withdrawal from the medication she had been on, and no one called 911 after she had had a seizure resulting from the withdrawal.  

2.  The jail's doctor, who lives two hours away, visits MRRJ only every other week. Even with a $85,ooo annual contract he put in a total of only 30 days at MRRJ last year, while being responsible for over 700 inmates. Their nursing staff, mostly LPN's, is smaller than that of the Albermarle Regional Jail, with two-thirds of the number of inmates.

3. MRRJ spends under $4 per inmate per day for medical care, while the average for Virginia jails is $8.50.  

4. MRRJ regularly underspends its total medical budget. In a recent year it did so by more than $170,000, and has underspent its prescription budget alone by as much as $75,000 per year. The savings go back into general MRRJ operations.

We also learn from the interview that the Virginia Department of Correction can "only make suggestions" and has no direct oversight of local or regional jails.

On another note, MRRJ's attorney, featured in the third segment, also appears to be a lobbyist for MRRJ. See link here

Journalist Tara Todd (photos courtesy TV 29) 

You can view each of the news segments via the links below:

Here's a link to a copy of a recent complaint letter signed by 19 femaie inmates at MRRJ.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Words Of Comfort From Unexpected Places

We were deeply moved by a sympathy card that came in the mail today signed by 46 inmates at the Buckingham Correctional Center. We've been blessed by a multitude of expressions of comfort and condolence since the death of my sister and brother-in-law, but these were especially touching.

Here's a sample:

My dear friend and brother in Christ,
It grieves my heart to hear of the loss of your loved ones. You all are in my thoughts and prayers. It breaks my heart when good people have terrible things happen to them like this. Please stay strong. God bless, Charles E. Zellers, Sr.

Dear Harvey,
My prayers are with you during this most difficult time. 
God bless, Thomas J. Flowers

Sorry for your loss. We mourn with you and pray that God comforts and strengthens you through Jesus.  J. Rodriguez

Sorry for your tragic loss. You and your family are in our thoughts and prayers. 
In Christ, Darrell Farley

Sorry for your loss of your sister and brother-in-law. God will take care of them. No more suffering.
God bless you friend, Kenneth Pack

May the Lord bless you and your family for the loss of your loved ones. They are in a safe place now. Allan Spitzer

Words cannot express the sorrows. I've been where you are. Keep your heads up. I'm in prayer for you.  Slim Walker

Sorry for your loss. Stay strong and God will always bless you. Don't give up, always look forward.
Manuel Jiminez

"Cast your burdens upon the Lord, and He will sustain you. He will not suffer the righteous to be moved." (Psalm 55:22), Carson

My deepest condolences, Wayne

May God carry you and your family through these times of heartbreak and sadness. Death is no stranger to the human race, but is a passage to being with the Most High. I know it may not be easy to cope with your loss, but know that God will comfort your and carry you through anything earthly-based. May God bless you!

"For He is our God; and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand..." Psalm 95:7
May He who created all things comfort you in this time of sorrow. Placing His peace which passes all understanding into your hearts and souls. You will remain in my prayers in your season of mourning and healing, in Christ Jesus.
Your brother in Christ, T. Truslow

Each of the following added similar words of encouragement to their names:

John Nissley, Robert Cleaton, S. Boyd, K. Vaughn, Antoine Allen, P. Howard, Milton F., K. Curtis, R. F., R. Hanson, Toby, G. Walker, James Turke, Michael Miller, R. Diaz, Daniel A., Butch, Bro. Ray Grant, Big Jeff, Floyd Baulch, TugBoat, R. Utterback, Wayne, Logan, Keith Laws, Edward DeHart, Kevin Epperson, Sam, A. F. D., plus several others with illegible signatures.

I've written to several of these men, and a few are on the Christmas card list I posted earlier (It's not too late to still send some!) but most are total strangers.

Their love and prayers are felt and appreciated. God bless them every one.

Some good men from Buckingham
12/18/15 UPDATE: Today we got another wonderful sympathy card sent by Mr. A. Jefferson Grissette of St. Bride Correctional Center, Chesapeake, Virginia, and signed by ten inmates. Truly touching. I met Mr. Grissette at the Augusta Correctional Center over a year ago. He had been there over six months and had never had a visitor.

12/19/15 Update: Another sympathy card today, this one from Kenneth Pack, the gentleman on the left in the photo above, and with 25 additional signatures!

12/21/15 Update: Two more cards from Buckingham, four more signatures!

12/30/16 Update: Four more notes and sympathy cards today, all from Augusta Correctional Center, with a total of 22 comments and signatures. Overwhelming!

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Christmas Of Sorrow and Grief

photo by grandnephew Michael Shifflett

Early Saturday morning we received the terrible news that my younger sister, Mary Beth Shifflett, 69, and her husband Harven, 77, perished in a fire that destroyed their mobile home in nearby Greene County. We are still in a state of shock and disbelief.

Neither my sister nor her husband were in good health, and had been in and out of hospitals for various life threatening conditions over the past number of years. So we would not have been surprised to hear that one or the other was in some kind of medical crisis at UVA. But we were never prepared for this.

My now deceased sister came into our home at four months of age as a foster child, the first of a dozen or more children my parents, with eight living children of their own, took in during my early childhood. I was six when she came to live with us, and we quickly grew so attached to her that my parents adopted her some years later. As her next older brother we spent a lot of special time together.

Mary Beth loved Christmas, and loved preparing gifts for others for the holiday season, as well as at any other special time. As an adult she was the most active of any of us in encouraging our family to get together for regular reunions and other occasions.

As a young adult she was able to find her biological mother and a blood brother and sister, and for a while spent considerable time with them. At that time she was told that her father was no longer living. This proved to be untrue, and she later found her aging father at a nursing home near Waynesboro, and maintained a relationship with him until he passed away some years ago. Yet throughout she has maintained her primary family ties with her Yoder family.

I will miss her very much. In many ways she had a troubled life, but she was a stubborn survivor, and will always be in our hearts.

The following is an excerpt of what my oldest brother Sanford, who with his wife Martha lives in Costa Rica, wrote on our family email group:

"I have so many happy memories of sister Mary Beth. The day she arrived as a little baby we were all so excited. As she grew she became my little favorite, often sitting on my knees, singing with me... (We) mourn a great loss but are committing the present in the hands of a just and holy God ...who is perfect in love, perfect in mercy ,and perfect in grace. He has done his will in his mercy and in his time, as He will with each of us."

I will post funeral plans here as soon as we finalize them, probably later on today.

Thanks for your love and prayers.

12/14/15 Update: I learned today that we will need to wait for the court to determine to whom the bodies are released after the autopsies are done, so plans are on hold until we get more information.

12/15/15 Update: Autopsy folks in Richmond did DNA matching today to legally determine the identities of the bodies, say they may not be released to the funeral home until "up to" ten days, though it could be less. This makes any kind of planning very frustrating, to say the least. Sounds like we may go ahead with a graveside service within a day or two of the bodies being returned and plan for a memorial service sometime this weekend. Sorry I don't have more details to share. 
Over 750 people have visited this blog post as of this evening, a near record. We so appreciate the outpouring of love and support.

12/16/Update:It looks now like we may have a memorial service at the Dyke Fire Hall Saturday or Sunday afternoon, January 2 or 3, with a meal either provided by a local group on a free will offering basis or with a carry in meal. We would have a half hour or so for scripture and a meditation (and special music?) followed by food and having a roving microphone for people to share memories. 
The time of the burial is still unknown due to the uncertainty of when the bodies will be released. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

DNR Op Ed: We Must Accept Syrian Refugees

I appreciate the Daily News-Record publishing this piece today, one I submitted early last week:
No one leaves home unless
Home is the mouth of a shark
You only run for the border
When you see the whole city running as well
Your neighbours running faster than you
Breath bloody in their throats...
You only leave home
When home won’t
let you stay.

excerpt from “Home” 

by Somali poet Warsan Shire
photo by the Independent
Many of us have been moved by recent images of Syrians desperately seeking asylum from the terror of war and the wholesale destruction of their homes and communities. These are not immigrants seeking a more prosperous future, but traumatized individuals and families who have lost hope for any future in their war-ravaged homeland.
They are fellow human beings, children of God who have experienced unimaginable trauma. What should be our response as people with a passionate love for God and a compassionate love toward our neighbors?
We cannot, of course, open our borders to everyone. But can we close our borders to an entire group of fellow human beings in need, and primarily on the basis of their religion, ethnicity or national origin? What if, God forbid, we ourselves would one day be forced to seek refuge wherever people would be willing to take us in?
After all, most of our ancestors were once either needy immigrants seeking a better life or persecuted refugees fleeing danger and oppression.
I agree there is always a measure of risk involved in opening our doors to homeless foreigners, even though Jews and Christians have always been taught to welcome the alien and stranger (Deuteronomy 10:18-19), and the Koran teaches adherents to “do good to the neighbor who is a stranger, and the friend by your side, and the wayfarer” (4:36). On this issue there are simply no risk-free options. We cannot turn our backs on desperately needy men, women and children without harming our cause and jeopardizing our own security.
In a recent speech in the House of Representatives, Republican Steve Russell of Oklahoma warned that our turning away Syrian refugees would hand a major victory to Islamic State jihadists.
Ever more citizens of Muslim countries who have suffered death and dismemberment from U.S. bombs and drone strikes would now have an additional reason to hate us, as well as to reject the faith we stand for. If we who claim to be followers of Jesus refuse hospitality to those fleeing the very terrorism we denounce, how can we maintain credibility?
For this reason and others, Rep. Russell, a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a 21-year career soldier, laments the rising tide of anti-refugee rhetoric, along with moves by numerous governors to bar fleeing migrants.
“America is a lamp that lights the horizon of civilized and free mankind,” Russell declared. “The Statue of Liberty cannot have a stiff arm. Her arm must continue to keep the torch burning brightly. If we use our passions, anger, and fear to snuff out her flame by a xenophobic and knee-jerk policy, the enemy wins. We have played into their hands, period.”
Russell also observed there is a robust, though never perfect, system in place for vetting refugees, one that would make coming into the U.S. through that process too cumbersome and time-consuming for would-be terrorists. He also expressed concern over some similarity between today’s anti-refugee rhetoric and views held during World War II by a majority of Americans toward Jews fleeing Nazis in Europe. To our shame, we turned away thousands of such asylum seekers, fearing there would be communist sympathizers among them.
The congressman went on to say, “We must not become them (ISIL terrorists). They win if we give up who we are. …  We must be watchful. We have to have each other’s back and be alert to dangers around us. We must speak up when we see something unusual. By maintaining who we are amidst the threat, amidst the hatred, amidst the trials, we win. Patrick Henry did not say, ‘Give me safety or give me death.’”

Friday, December 11, 2015

Nineteen Women At MRRJ: "Just Because We Broke The Law Doesn't Mean We Aren't People"

Middle River Regional Jail
I received the following list of grievances yesterday from a female at nearby Middle River Regional Jail, which houses over a hundred inmates from Rockingham County.

A total of eighteen from her dorm pod signed her statement, citing concerns about "hygiene, rights to protection of property, rights to confidentiality, the right not to be confined to their bunks for 16 1/2 hours a day" (during lock downs) and the need for changes "for the general welfare of the incarcerated".

The following are some of the concerns of the writer, supported by signatures of eighteen other women:

Medical Concerns:
* The doctor openly discusses inmates' medical issues in front of other people.
* When getting a pap smear, he speaks of "popping your hood".
*Any guard can collect and read medical request forms (HYPAA laws?)
* Medication distribution is questionable. Medications are pre-opened and separated into individual packages, some crushed.
* Several inmates, including myself, have been given the wrong medication.

Hygiene Concerns:
* There are only two commodes, two showers and two sinks for 42 women. One of the toilets was leaking for five months, and we had to walk through water to use the restroom.
* Bathroom area is unsanitary, with mold and mildew along the ceilings and floors.
* Cleaning supplies, which are to be provided three times a day according to the handbook are provided only once a day if at all.
* Two rolls of toilet paper are issued weekly, and the number of sanitary napkins provided are limited. I have personally had to beg for them.

Other General Concerns:
* Only two meals a day are provided on Saturdays and Sundays, at 6:30 am and 4:30 pm, which means ten and fourteen hours between servings. The handbook states that any food saved from a tray is contraband.
* When one person causes trouble our whole pod gets put on bunk restriction, often meaning we must stay in our bunks and not have our feet touch the floor for 16 1/2 hours at a time.
* Because of having filed several grievances I was threatened to be put in a segregation cell.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

How Christmas-Style Consuming Endangers Our Planet

Launching another of WalMart's mammoth cargo ships
Our appetite for cheap Christmas gifts and manufactured products from China and other developing countries requires massive numbers of huge cargo ships to bring us all the stuff our consumer appetites demand. These giant freighters use a  frightening amount of fuel, and together discharge more carbon pollution than all of the cars in the world, according to an article in the Daily Mail, and they mostly return to their home ports empty.

Then there is the enormous environmental harm done by the coal consumption and other resources needed to manufacture all of these goods in far away places like China, resulting in it becoming one of the most polluted countries in the world. According to a recent study cited in the Guardian, 1.6 million Chinese die each year of exposure to intolerable levels of pollution in their atmosphere and water supply. That's 4000 deaths per day in China alone, which provides 91% of all of WalMart's products, as one example.

But aren't we helping poorer countries economically by buying all of these manufactured products in huge numbers?

Bottom line: Any economic system that depends on the overconsumption by some for the financial survival of others is neither moral or sustainable. Thus we need to find more creative and God-honoring ways to celebrate the birth and life of Christ than by buying ever more quantities of things--stuff we'd all be better off without.
From National Geographic's "How Much is US To Blame For "Made-in-China" Pollution?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Enlisting In The Bloodiest Revolution Ever--An Open Letter To Liberty University

Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme 1883
"With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers (and sisters), as an act of intelligent worship, to give God your bodies as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him...

"As far as your responsibility goes, live at peace with everyone. Never take vengeance into your own hands, my dear friends: stand back and let God punish if he will. For it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay’... these are God’s words: ‘Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head’. Don’t allow yourself to be overpowered with evil. Take the offensive—overpower evil by good!"
- Romans 12: 1, 18-21 J. B. Phillips translation
The following open letter to students at Liberty University is in response to their president's call to carry arms on campus to guard against any threat by radical Muslims:

If you think the 21st century appeal to young men and women to join ISIL is radical and extreme, consider what it meant to heed the first century call to follow Jesus.

Each involves a lot of potential bloodshed, but with one big difference. For Jesus and his followers, the blood is all on one side. God's ultimate way of dealing with human sin and violence is by stopping it in its tracks, by absorbing it and refusing to be ruled by it, by offering an alternative life powered by resurrection and heaven-bent on reconciliation.

It is all about taking up a cross instead of taking up arms, about being armed with weapons of prayer and persuasion instead of with weapons of massive destruction. In the coming of Jesus, God declares war on violence itself, and makes of God's incarnate king a blood-sealed peace offering.

Early Christians were not naive about the cost of joining this radical movement inaugurated by Jesus. They were inspired by it, responding in large numbers to offer their lives as "living sacrifices" for this revolutionary "call to arms" in what has been called "The Lamb's War".

Times of intense persecution were intermittent during the first three centuries, so no one knows for sure how many Christians actually made the ultimate sacrifice, but they certainly numbered in the thousands under the reigns of Nero, Domitian and other ruthless emperors. The reasons they were martyred were not for joining another religion, per se, there were plenty of those, but because they refused to affirm the required Roman pledge of allegiance, "Caesar is Lord", having made their own enlistment vow, "Jesus is Lord". They chose the word "sacramentum" for their rite of baptism, borrowed from the Roman ceremony of enlistment into Caesar's army.

In the end, at one level the Christians won. In 325, the Emperor Constantine not only protected Christianity from further persecution, but became a nominal Christian himself, and made it the official faith of the empire. Ironically, this led to Christianity evolving into a religion that began to bless the use of force and to encourage its members to approve of war. And the rest is history.

Jesus wept.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Urge Your Friends To Send Christmas Cards To The Incarcerated This Season

Some good men deserving parole release at a Virginia prison
"Remember those in prison as if you were also in bonds, and those who suffer as though you were suffering with them."  
Hebrews 13:3
This year I'm again trying to get as many people as possible to send Christmas cards to people behind bars. Many of the inmates listed below have spent years in prison and are deserving of parole and/or geriatric release, but have been denied such release a heart-breaking number of times. 

So far, it's been almost entirely men who have corresponded with me. There are, however, two state prisons for women in Virginia, and the number of women behind bars is increasing, representing a growing ares of need.

When you and your friends send your card(s) to the following (or to any other inmates you know) you can include an article, a copy of an inspirational piece, your family Christmas letter, etc.. The total may weigh no more than one ounce, and include no more than four additional sheets of paper. Do not include cash, personal checks, postage stamps or prepaid envelopes. 

Mr. James E. Bender 1010837
Greensville Correctional Center
901 Corrections Way
Jarratt, VA 23870-6914

Mr. Daniel V. F. Bloom 1163875
Augusta Correctional Center
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville, VA 24430

Mr. Brian E. Brubaker 1315055
Augusta Correctional Center, D-3-6
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville, VA 24430

Mr. Stephano Colosi 1037581
Buckingham Correctional Center
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936-0430

Mr. Branson Fink 1011319
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville, VA 24430

Mr. I. P. Freely 1120992 
ACC, N-1-S-B
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville, VA 24430

Mr. Jason Good
Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation
East Patrick Henry Highway
Baskerville, VA 23922

Mr. Greg Goodman 1101523
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville, VA 24430

Mr. M. Steven W. Goodman 1028377
Greensville Correctional Center
901 Corrections Way
Jarratt, VA 23870-9614

Mr. A. Jefferson Grissette 1143033
St. Brides Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 16482
Chesapeake, VA 23328

Wayne M. Hermans 1130472
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville, VA 24430

Mr. Pernell Jefferson 1016207
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Mr. James F. McKenzie 1060198
Dillwyn Correctional Center

1522 Prison Road
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Mr. Ronald Miles 1067348
Deerfield Correctional Center
21360 Deerfield Drive
Capron, VA23829

Mr. John Nissley 1148222
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Mr. Kenneth R. Pack 1063808 (far left, above)
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Mr. Nat Painter 1009725
Coffeewood Correctional Center
12352 Coffeewood Drive
Mitchells, VA 22792

Mr. Wayne Parsons 1022667
P. O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Mr. E. Steven Reid 109153/1019824
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville, VA 24430

Mr. Minor Junior Smith 1158588 (legally blind)
Deerfield Correctional Center
21360 Deerfield Drive
Capron, VA23829

Mr. Jens Soering 1161655
Buckingham Correctional Center
P.O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936-0430

Mr. David W. Sowers 1011036
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville, VA 24430

Mr. Jerry Treadway 1021558 cell B-617 (deaf)
Wallens Ridge State Prison
P.O. Box 759
Big Stone Gap, VA 24219

Mr. Jonathan Tuller 1068596
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville, VA 24430

Mr. Howard Van Dyke 1418304
Deerfield Correctional Center
21360 Deerfield Drive
Capron, VA23829

Mr. Jonathan D. White 1161021
Augusta Correctional Center
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville VA 24430

Mr. John Bennie Williams 1091323 (blind, second from left, above)
Deerfield Correctional Center
21360 Deerfield Drive
Capron, VA23829

Mr. Raymond Witt 1180381
Augusta Correctional Center
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville VA 24430

Mr. Jamie Yoder 1010853
Augusta Correctional Center
1821 Estaline Valley Road
Craigsville VA 24430

Mr. Charles E. Zellers, Sr. 1036758 
Buckingham Correctional Center B1-113-T
P.O. Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

NOTE: If for whatever reason you prefer not to include your return address with your letter, you can have the person respond to me and I'll relay their message to you (assuming I have your contact information). In my many years of corresponding with incarcerated individuals I have never had any problems resulting from disclosing my address, but some people do recommend against it.