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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Even When The Trumperor Has No Clues, We Must Still Show Love And Respect

So say it with me,"Donald, God loves you, and so do we."
Vice-president Joe Biden recently said of candidate Donald Trump, "This guy doesn't have a clue about the middle class. Not a clue... He has no clue about what makes America great. Actually, he has no clue, period."

Vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine spoke even more harshly: "Folks, you cannot believe one word that comes out of Donald Trump's mouth. Our nation is too great to put it in the hands of a slick-talking, empty-promising, self-promoting, one man wrecking crew."

But are these attack-mode generalizations really helpful? 

The comments above are actually among the milder ones being directed at the presidential nominee these days. He is being called petulant, Islamophobic, a liar and a cheat, to mention only a few of the labels attached to him. 

I must admit that in light of some of his outrageous statements, I'm tempted to join the chorus.

But should we? 

Not that followers of Jesus may not, and sometimes must, point out wrongs and untruths promoted by people in power, and hold them accountable for their words and actions. But we must first recognize and remove beams of prejudice and hatred from our own eyes. 

We must also celebrate the fact that there is no human being on earth who is not the focus of God's unconditional love, and no one who is not incomparably precious and deserving of our love and respect. 

In short, we must commit ourselves every day to live by the words of Jesus, 

     "You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

- Matthew 5:43-48 (the Message)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Half Of Virginia's Inmates Are African American

Mr. John Bennie Williams, 83 (second from left), is legally blind, has been in prison 40 years, and has been turned down for parole or geriatric release over 20 times











• African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate
that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. In five states
(Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin),
the disparity is more than 10 to 1.

• In twelve states, more than half of the prison population
is black: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana,
Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina,
South Carolina, and Virginia. Maryland, whose prison
population is 72% African American, tops the nation.

• In eleven states, at least 1 in 20 adult black males is in prison.

• In Oklahoma, the state with the highest overall black
incarceration rate, 1 in 15 black males ages 18 and older is
in prison.

• States exhibit substantial variation in the range of racial
disparity, from a black/white ratio of 12.2:1 in New Jersey
to 2.4:1 in Hawaii.

Data courtesy of http://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/The-Color-of-Justice-Racial-and-Ethnic-Disparity-in-State-Prisons.pdf

Sunday, July 24, 2016

German Mennonites Supported The Third Reich's Vision Of "Deutschland über alles"

source
According to numerous sources (see links below) the majority of Mennonites in pre-WWII Germany became caught up in the nationalistic fervor whipped up by Hitler's Nazi Party, as expressed in the slogan "Germany Above All". 

As one example, the following telegram was sent by a group of Mennonites to der Führer on September 10, 1933:

To Chancellor Adolf Hitler, Berlin:

     The Conference of East and West Prussian Mennonites, assembled today in Tiegenhagen, Free State of Danzig, feels deep gratitude for the powerful revival that God has given our nation through your energy, and promises joyful cooperation in the upbuilding of our Fatherland through the power of the Gospel, faithful to the motto of our forefathers: "No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid which is Jesus Christ.”

Sixteenth-century church leader Menno Simons, who attached the apostle Paul's "No other foundation" text to each of his writings, would have been aghast.

Undoubtedly Hitler, not much of a religious person himself but grateful for the support of a people he saw as even more purely Aryan than most other Germans (due to their having mostly married among themselves for some centuries), was gratified. At least he took the time to write the following response:

     For your loyalty and your readiness to cooperate in the upbuilding of the German nation, expressed in your letter to me, I express my sincere thanks. —Adolf Hitler

The fear and frenzy the Nazi party engendered, with dire warnings of a threat of communist infiltration and of Jews subverting German values and identity, took the nation by storm. According to historian Dean Taylor, in 1933 the United (Vereinigung) Mennonites stopped asking for special treatment as conscientious objectors from war, and in 1934 dropped the term “nonresistance” from its confession of faith.

The Mennonitisches Blätter, an official Mennonite paper, actively encouraged members to take up military service, and in its May, 1939, issue the editor wrote a glowing tribute to Adolph Hitler on his 50th birthday, according to a March, 2004, article in the Mennonite Life.

As a result of this shift in beliefs and practice, thousands of Mennonites supported the Blitzkrieg and joined the fight against the Allied forces in World War II. Some even took part in the brutalities inflicted in Nazi death camps, though many claimed to be ignorant of all of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. In any case, we have no record of Mennonites speaking out in protest against the Nazi regime.

As a member of a church committed to non-violence even in war time, I have often been asked what I would have done had I been of draft age in the '30's and '40's.

Had I been a German citizen during that time, I hope I would done everything possible to rally people against Hitler's coming to power, and thus have helped prevent the tragedy of the Holocaust and of the deaths of some 50 million people as a result of World War II.

And I may have even quoted Menno Simons himself in doing so, as follows:

...Love compels us to respectfully and humbly show all high officials what the Word of God commands them, how they should rightfully execute their office to the glory and praise of God... to punish the transgressors and protect the good; to judge rightly between a man and his fellows; to do justice to the widows and orphans and to the poor, to rule cities and countries justly by a good policy and administration, not contrary to God’s Word but to the benefit of the common people.

...The regenerated do not go to war, or engage in strife. They are the children of peace, who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and they know no war. Since we are conformed to the image of Christ, how then can we kill our enemies with the sword? Spears and swords made of iron we leave to those, alas, who consider human blood and swine’s blood as having well nigh equal value.


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

http://www.ephrataministries.org/remnant-2012-11-mennonite-nazis.a5w 
Dean Taylor, "Mennonite Nazis: a Lesson From History"

Tim Huber, of Mennonite World Review, for Meetinghouse, describing a workshop entitled, “From Aryanism to Multiculturalism: Mennonite Ethnicity and German Nationalism, 1871 to Today”, presented at Mennonite World Conference, 2015.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Church or Family—Which Should Come First?

Zion Church, across the road from our parsonage home 1969-88
For most of our parenting years, I was a busy pastor and part-time teacher, and our family lived in the parsonage across Zion Church Road from our congregation's meeting house. 

Between the demands of church work and living in our church’s glass house, we had more than our share of stress. Even if I hadn’t been a pastor, I would have still needed to work at balancing the energy needed for our church family and for our own, given my tendency to become over-committed and over-involved in work responsibilities.

Increasingly I hear people resolving this tension with, “We’ve decided our family comes first,” referring, of course, to their nuclear family. In practice this often means parents taking on fewer church responsibilities, taking more family vacations on weekends, and rarely joining in congregational activities other than on whatever Sunday mornings they happen to be in town.

While I support the need to set reasonable priorities, I am concerned whenever church participation gets put further and further down the list of after-school activities, soccer practice, music lessons, and a multitude of other events and meetings. Or when increased time vegetating around the family’s entertainment center takes precedence over maintaining good connections with friends and fellow church members. 

Part of this problem, according to author Tom Sine, is that “the identity of the church and the meaning of community for many have become hopelessly confused with buildings, budgets, programs, personalities, and—regrettably—even the self-seeking values of American culture.”

But assuming a concept of church as a community of like-minded folks committed to caring for each other, I believe it is shortsighted to pit biological family against church family. Why? Because having a people who are our spiritual sisters and brothers, and who become spiritual cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents for our children, is more important than ever in our child rearing years. 

Our marriages are less likely to thrive, or even survive, if our families aren’t being well nurtured.

While ailing marriages and families can often benefit from professional help, all of them need the kind of regular first-aid offered by members of their biological and spiritual families. In fact, I see a direct correlation between the growing number of marriage breakups and the increased breakdown of this kind of community and extended family support. When couples lack access to wise elders and peers with whom they can share their distresses and from whom they can gain much-needed encouragement and help, even small problems can become overwhelming.

During our minivan years, many of these problems have to do with child rearing itself. Wise couples realize their need for the blessing and support of a whole congregation in order to raise a whole and healthy family. My own parents felt so strongly about this that they made a fourteen-hundred-mile move with their eight children to become a part of a faith community they believed would have a better influence on us.

Their sacrifice paid off. While the church community they chose may not have offered much in the way of polished worship services, great preaching, or eye-catching Sunday-school material, it provided something far more important. The congregation offered lots of support in the form of frequent, warm hospitality and time spent working together at harvest and building or quilting projects, all of which were associated with good meals, conversations, and story telling. It was in those settings and from these church-family mentors that I gained many of my values. I still love these good people and cherish their memories.

In rearing our own three children, we are forever indebted to the good church people who invited our family into their hearts and homes, people like the Algers, Brennemans, Kuykendalls, Lantzes, Millers, Showalters, Souders and many, many others who loved us, took an interest in our children and made a positive impact on us all. We could not have done it without them.

Yet I see very few books or articles on marriage or family life even mentioning a larger context than that of the nuclear family unit of mother, father, and 2.3 children, with an occasional visit by doting grandparents. The underlying notion is that parents do this by themselves, and they alone get the credit (or the blame) for how their children turn out.

So how can we work together to help our children grow in their faith and in their commitment to God and the church? 

Here are some important ways:

• Both at home and with our church family, we celebrate lots of love, joy, peace, and other good Spirit fruit. We realize that as a community we need to demonstrate the same kind of gleam in the eye enthusiasm for serving God and the family of God that we want our children to have.

• We cultivate good relationships with others in our congregations by taking time for warm, stress-free connections and conversations with each other and with each other’s children.

• As much as possible, we make child-care arrangements with other members of our church family or with other folks who share and reinforce our values.

• We try hard to be in agreement with our spouse (and with other parents in our church as much as possible) in setting reasonable expectations and guidelines for involvement in church and youth group activities—without either compromising our positions or engaging in ongoing power struggles.

• We plan for vacation and other family activities that involve the larger church family, such as service projects, camping experiences, and attendance at church-wide assemblies that expose our children to as many good people of faith as possible.

• Meanwhile, we reduce, rather than increase, access to the many forms of entertainment available that compete for good family and church time.

In short, we remember we simply can’t do all of this on our own. We realize it takes a whole congregation to sustain a good marriage and to raise a whole and healthy family.

Monday, July 18, 2016

HARD TIME VIRGINIA, Volume I, Number 4


CONTENTS

• Summer Heat Turns Some Prisons Into Ovens
• FY2015 DOC Educational Services
• May 2016 Parole Grant Rate at Less Than Three Percent
• After Years Behind Bars, Released Parolees Face an Uncertain Future
• Blind Poet at BKCC Stressed By Move To Another Prison 
• Poem: "A Sadder Day" 

Summer Heat Turns Some Prisons Into Ovens

Among the oppressive conditions in many of Virginia’s large concrete prisons is the excessive buildup of heat in older facilities without cooling systems. The sun heats up the concrete, which holds the heat for days and nights on end. Under certain conditions the use of showers turns a unit into what feels like a sauna. 

In the meantime, a kitchen supervisor recently had to be wheel chaired to medical for heat exhaustion while working on the serving line in one of the prison’s kitchens, and inmates pray for rain to bring them some relief.

Each detainee is allowed to purchase one eight-inch electric fan at a cost of $29.09, and is allowed to purchase two pairs of gym shorts with prices that range from $10.69 to $17.28 depending on their size. But many do not have money to purchase either the fan or the gym shorts.

FY2015 DOC Educational Services

A 2007 study by Virginia Tech indicated that the recidivism rate for inmates who complete a Career and Technical Education (CTE) program is 20.6 percent less than for those who do not do so. This translates into $7.63 saved for every dollar spent on educational services.

According to VADOC Director Harold Clarke, "The first priority of the Department of Corrections is public safety. We don't want to see offenders return to prison. Education plays a crucial role in helping men and women return successfully to their communities as law-abiding citizens,”

Virginia's Education Services provides the following:

Adult Basic Education: A literacy program which advances students' academic skills for those not having a verified GED or high school diploma.
During FY 2014-15, 1,083 students tested for a GED, 800 passed resulting in a 74% pass rate as compared to 71% for the state.
Apprenticeship: Programs where a work assignment is combined with classroom or related instruction. Apprenticeship programs are registered with the Department of Labor and Industry. In FY 2014-15, 756 Apprenticeship students (104 Apprenticeship Completions).
Career and Technical Education (CTE): Technical programs prepare students for entry level employment in a variety of jobs. This also includes employability skills, safety and applied math. Many programs provide an opportunity for students to obtain industry based certifications as an additional credential for future employment. The 37 classes range from Auto Body Repair to Computer Systems Technology to Welding.

May 2016 Parole Grant Rate at Less Than Three Percent

Virginia's Parole Board released only six of over 200 inmates up for parole review in May, according to their website. In light of such a low inmate “graduation” rate, one wonders about the effectiveness of the DOC’s efforts at “correcting” offenders. 

Also, one should ask what purpose the DOC’s educational programs serve if deserving inmates can’t be released back into their communities to actually use the skills and training they have acquired?

Among those turned down for release recently was a model inmate at Augusta Correctional Center who has been incarcerated for 26 years for the murder of his wife and her lover in 1990, clearly an impulsive crime of passion. He had been drinking and was beside himself over her betrayal. 

Studies show that offenders like him, in spite of their abhorrent and inexcusable crimes, are among the least likely to be a danger to their communities when they return. Yet, having been sentenced to 87 years, he may well die in prison if he is not granted release for exemplary behavior.

After Years Behind Bars, Released Parolees Face an Uncertain Future

After serving over forty years inside Virginia's prison system, Claude Lamb was finally granted discretionary parole release earlier this year. Currently on disability, he receives $730 per month and is living in an apartment he rents in Portsmouth for $500 a month. He no longer has friends or family in the area to turn to for help to pay for his utilities and groceries.

If we taxpayers can afford to keep people behind bars at a cost of some $26,000 or more a year, we should be able to help them with basic necessities when they return to their communities.

Blind Poet at BKCC Stressed By Move To Another Prison 

Minor Junior Smith, legally blind, is being moved to another facility along with three other blind inmates. The thought of having to become oriented to another completely strange environment is highly stressful for him.

Mr. Smith’s poetry recalls experiences from his troubled past, an example of which follows:

"A Sadder Day"(Saturday)

Uncle Oliver would tell me years later that fluid had been drawn from his spine. 
During that Saturday court session, I would be scheduled for treatment of mine.

Deprived Uncle Oliver had been serving in the military when he had lost his mind. 
Related by blood, his daddy and I were the ones who were indeed partially blind.

He claimed that a spell from Lucille had caused him to see snakes out of one eye. 
Included in jokes, one found it difficult to separate a fact about him from a lie.

However, wearing a glass eye, he provided Aunt Agnes with transportation in a car. 
Recently, daddy had bailed him out of jail for creating a disturbance in a bar.

Harry Hart's youngest uncle had also become mentally ill in the armed forces. 
Even so, a check from The Veteran's Administration was one of his financial sources.

Uncle Oliver might have been unaware that he was qualified for the same benefit. 
They lived on Dark Run's separate roads, and each man would be known to have a fit.

I had no idea what was being said about me in the Salem Courtroom that morning. 
My parents had left me in the lobby with a policeman not having given me a warning.

The officer treated me to a Baby Ruth candy bar, which reminded me of Aunt Beth. 
Imaginations of harsh treatment in a "bad welfare home" had me scared half to death.

Evidently, convincing statements were expressed as I experienced a sadder day. 
Upon seeing mama's decayed-teeth smile, I knew that she must have had her way.

In the truck, mama assured me that I could play with Melonie all day on Sunday. 
She added that I would be admitted to Jefferson Hospital for a spinal tap on Monday.

We passed Riverside to shop for groceries at Hall's store beyond the county line. 
Mr. Hall's three sons waited on us, and he was flashing smiles like a neon sign.

To help daddy select foods, mama left me beside a cooler drinking a bottle of pop. 
I watched one of the young Hall men loading our truck with sacks of Red Dog chop.

I couldn't imagine why that young man didn't have any hair on top of his head. 
His partial baldness reminded me of one thing badgering mama had previously said.

Under pressure, she had told Sally that there was something wrong with my mind. 
Was a fragment of glass from the lens causing my left eye to go completely blind?

In the store mirror, I could see that the lid was almost closed over my left eye. 
Mama handed me a bag containing ice cream, the last item daddy had chosen to buy.

Situated amid the truck seat, I held the half gallon of ice cream on my lap. 
Nothing else was said to me that day in regards to hospitalization or a spinal tap.

A trip to town and another one to the store probably left mama feeling revived. 
Depressing ideas of what lay ahead for me made me feel more fearful and deprived.

Below Riverside, we turned left and rode to the gate by the weeping willow tree. 
Would someone think that the tree was weeping for Danny Clift, Uncle Oliver and me?

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


Sources for this newsletter include inmates who prefer to remain anonymous.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Memorial Message About A Memorable Man--Wayne North 1929-2016

photo provided by family
Wayne North was an exceptionally warm and wise pastor and friend. For a number of years prior to his illness I had the privilege of meeting with him and two other men for a monthly breakfast conversation, and learned to appreciate him one of my most valued mentors.

Wayne died July 8 at age 86, leaving a legacy of indelible memories behind (see obituary). Some of his many gifts to his family and church family were highlighted in the message brought at his memorial service by pastor Mark Keller last Friday at the Harrisonburg Mennonite Church.

I post the following abbreviated version with Mark's permission:

Wayne was a thoughtful planner. He carefully worked out most of the details for this service.

Two years ago, after he was given the diagnosis of leukemia and the prospect of soon leaving the world, Wayne added some additional thoughts to his plans that he wanted to be included in this
service.

To me specifically Wayne said, “I want you to concentrate on the scripture text rather than the tributes. It is bad enough having one pastor lying in his grave and the other lying in the pulpit.”

Wayne’s dry, winsome and instructive humor was a gift and blessing throughout his ministry.

Also back in 2014 the Norths purchased two oak trees to be planted in the HMC Memorial Garden. The Oak trees, under which the cremains of both Wayne and Doris will be placed, were to be planted close together so that as they grow the branches will intertwine. What a lovely metaphor of the life of Wayne and Doris together.

Wayne chose the two Oaks as an echo of the Biblical ‘Oaks of Mamre’ under which Abraham and Sarah entertained three angels. However, Wayne turned the text by asking that their memorial trees at HMC to be called the ‘Oaks of Memory’ rather than the ‘Oaks of Mamre.’

The two oaks were transported, planted and cared for by the HMC Creation Care Group. This was accomplished in appreciation of Wayne’s strong affirmation, support and participation in the founding of the Creation Care Group.

In an intimate ceremony the ‘Oaks of Memory’ were dedicated at which time Wayne prayed:

Holy God, Creator and Lord of all Creation, we come to this place to plant two trees. We come because of your enabling and long-suffering love and amazing grace. We give thanks for time to observe the planting of these oak trees.  We plant them with the desire and intention that as they grow they will be witnesses to your faithfulness, your beauty, your glory and your grace. May the memories they stir bring joy and blessing to all those who pass by.  Though they bear our names may they bring honor to you, O God, through every season they endure.  To the praise of your name do we dedicate these trees. Amen.

Those of us who listened to Wayne teach, preach, and pray have long appreciated how he could
so thoughtfully and artistically put into words concepts of the mysterious, the existential and the
divine. He was frequently able to cause us to think more deeply than is often done and with fresh
insights. Many, including myself, experienced the sense of the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking
through Pastor Wayne.

The most recent instance of this I witnessed was that in the April 10 Sunday worship service Wayne led us in the congregation prayer. His prayer touched one listener so profoundly that he asked me if I could send him a copy. One of the sentences from that prayer is so appropriate for today, "Lord Jesus] May we be so gripped by your resurrection power that our doubts are turned to praise and our fear to celebration."

Knowing that Wayne was an effective and skilled communicator and knowing that his life journey would soon be finished, he accepted one last writing ‘assignment’ just a few weeks ago. Wayne agreed to write reflections of his life as he neared the end. Wayne quickly responded to the invitation in an email saying, “I confess I welcome an ‘assignment’ such as this. It will serve as my testimony to a faithful God Who has led me every mile of the journey and without whom I would have nothing to say."

As a part of the reflection assignment Wayne also sent a copy of a reflective devotional he gave at the VMRC ‘Coffee Hour’. From that 2014 VMRC writing, given not long after he was first diagnosed with leukemia, Wayne said, “The only thing at the end is love relationships. The greatest of these is love.”

Just a few days ago Wayne again affirmed that it is now so clear to him that love and love relationships with others are all that matters in life. He went on to say how much he valued Doris and his family and the love from friends and church members.

In the introduction to the ‘writing assignment’ Wayne reflected that, “…interestingly, while it is all about God, every one of the stories I will tell are also about people. People were important--essential if I were to have faith and grow in faith. So this [reflection writing assignment] is about relationships and those many others to whom I owe so much.”

The conviction that God’s presence in the world is embodied through human lives was perhaps the driving force as to why Wayne was such a careful thoughtful and effective pastor. Wayne tried over and over to convey, I believe, that the Christian mission is to be mindfully present and to represent God in his beloved world.

Near the end of the ‘reflection assignment’ Wayne wrote, “Of course receiving a death sentence does wonders for focusing your attention. More than that it forces one to rearrange priorities and name the essentials, only now, the essentials are so much more clear. But then I discover that I’ve been working at that all my life. … It is grace in the form of love that has brought me this far, love will carry me through, and love awaits on the other side."

The final paragraph of Wayne’s writing describes a couple of hospital experiences that were helpful in thinking of the end of life. To one hospital visitor seeking wisdom for some of life’s big questions, Wayne writes that he said, "…when you strip away all the stuff and nonsense, all the pretense and trappings—all that matters is love and that you have loved. After all, God is love and that is what he asks us to be and do.

That insight has great appeal in our world today. When the ‘wisdom seeking visitor’ left, Wayne writes, "…the nurse who had been with us came to my bed, crouched down at the foot of the bed and said, 'Thank you for sharing so deeply. As I heard both of you talk, it was so beautiful I needed to leave the room to cry.'”

Wayne’s clarity of the centrality of love speaks again to our mission as God’s people. Wayne’s ending story of his ‘reflections paper’ illustrates this, I think.

A hospital worker regularly cared for his room. "[She seemed to be] …beaten down by a difficult life, full of fear, She would [come] into the room, head down, not engage eye contact and avoiding conversation. I decided I needed her as friend. I did my best to warmly greet her, tell her how much I
appreciated her service, how much she made my day a better one. She began to smile, talk more easily, tell me about her life, stick around an extra minute and ask if there was something else she could do. … the next time I was on her floor [as a patient]. She was excited to see me and we began to chat like the old friends we were becoming.

"It became so clear to me. That’s why we are here. This is what will endure—the works that will follow us. The treasure we store up in heaven."

That encounter fits so well into Wayne’s declaration: “The only thing at the end is love relationships. The greatest of these is love.”

Wayne’s experience with the Church when he was growing up was love, care and inclusion. Although there were probable other things going on in the Church.. he was accepted. Wayne cared deeply that all people have the experience from the church he had in his formative years."

It seems so simple doesn’t it? Love is Biblical, it is Jesus-like. God so loved the world. Love one another. The greatest of these is love. God is love. That is why, I believe, Wayne wrote that his life reflections are filled with stories about interactions with others.

There is so much more wise beauty in Wayne’s written reflections illustrated by his life experiences. But I am thinking of time and remembering Wayne’s directive to concentrate on the scriptures.

Wayne chose the scriptures for today on which the Brahms Requiem is based. The experience of singing the Requiem in his senior year at Goshen College provided for him a profound spiritual
experience.

He wrote as if he had slipped back in time and he was singing:

Just to learn [Brahms Requiem] … has been a glorious experience. It is lament of death, the comfort of God’s promises, and the exaltation of Christ’s victory over the grave and the beauty of heaven. [In the final presentation of the Requiem] we approach the climax of I Corinthian 15: 'Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: Death has been swallowed up in victory,' the certainty of faith becomes overwhelming real. I am singing with all of my soul, mind and strength. Then comes, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where O death is your sting”? And I am lifted into a realm where there is no doubt only divine joy. I am flinging into the face of Satan his defeat and Jesus’ victory. I finish the chorus with tears streaming down my face and only my mind able to say the words with my spirit on another plane.

I believe Wayne’s life is a reflection and interpretation of these scriptures. Could we not say as Christians that the way we conduct our lives is really our personal interpretation of scripture?

The best way to end this meditation, I believe, is to re-read the scriptures Wayne chose for this day.

For the North family and us all: Matthew 5:4, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

To help us understand Wayne’s reality now after his death: Revelation 14:13, "Then I heard a voice from heaven say, 'Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. 'Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.'”

To help us understand the mystery of Wayne’s death and ours to come: 1 Corinthians 15:51-57, 'Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52  in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory... But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wayne is now raised in that victory.

Amen

- Mark Keller is associate pastor at Harrisonburg Mennonite, where Wayne himself served as pastor for many years.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

If Your Wife Was Being Threatened By An Armed Attacker, Should You Use A Gun To Protect Her?

I can't verify the math in this graphic, but here's a link to the source
One of my gun-advocating friends recently asked me whether I would use armed force to defend my wife if she were being attacked.

According to the numbers above, perhaps I can take comfort in the fact that in the US, at least, most of us have only a 0.0000085641025264% chance of being killed by someone with a gun in a given year. I'm not much of a mathematician, but doesn't that put my wife and me at far less risk of being shot than our being struck by lightning?

So based on the logic of the statistics cited, I'm puzzled by those who feel I should buy an AR-15 or two to defend myself and my family.

This doesn't mean I would just stand passively by if someone dared to inflict harm on a friend or a member of my family--or even a stranger, for that matter. In fact, in the desperate and adrenaline-driven passion of the moment I might find myself inflicting serious injury or suffering grave personal injury or death in an effort to prevent someone from doing violence to another, and especially if it were my wife or another family member (though in fact none of knows exactly how we would respond).

Or in the case of a terrorist attack in a public place, if I as a civilian (rather than a uniformed and trained police officer) were to brandish a gun, I would far more likely add to the carnage and chaos going on, to say nothing of my risk being shot by any official first responder aiming to take out any shooter in the area. So I would likely do what even most concealed carry gun toters have done in such circumstances, run for cover.

At any rate, the above are not the kind of extremely rare scenarios that will determine whether I arm and train myself to use deadly force. I grew up on a farm where guns were considered necessary for butchering, hunting and getting rid of varmints. For me that's not necessarily a problem (though having any gun around is always a safety risk, especially with children around). But purchasing a firearm and keeping it loaded for the sole purpose of killing or maiming someone is something I refuse to do as a follower of Jesus.

Having said that, I will not hesitate to keep my doors locked as appropriate, and will immediately dial 911 if I suspect an intruder might be about to cause harm to me or to anyone else. That's what I believe the God-ordained institution of civil authority is instituted to do (see Romans 13), to protect the innocent and to bring violent people to justice. Some kind of "well-regulated militia" or a well trained and disciplined police force may always be necessary as long as a majority of citizens are not living by the higher law of love for God and for their fellow human beings.
http://harvyoder.blogspot.com/2016/01/elections-vs-insurrections-is-second.html

Having said that, the use of military force, especially on foreign soil, is in my mind quite another matter. Here the primary aim is to inflict death and destruction, and to intimidate, threaten and/or conquer an alleged enemy by whatever means possible.
http://harvyoder.blogspot.com/2016/06/why-christians-should-still-refuse-to.html

What are your thoughts?

Monday, July 11, 2016

A July, 2002, "Open Letter to President Bush"

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Members of our house church congregation sent the following to the Daily News Record 14 years ago, prior to the U.S. launching a six-week "shock and awe" bombing campaign in Iraq that began March 20, 2003, and marked the start of an unending state of war in the region.

Dear President Bush,

We are deeply concerned about your reported plans to carry out a bombing campaign against Iraq. While we certainly cannot support Saddam Hussein's policies, neither can we condone the use of destructive bombing raids.

Your unilateral use of the blunt instrument of war in violation of international law would further hinder peace efforts in the region and would result in terrible suffering and loss of human life. In addition it would give our Muslim neighbors even more reason to reject the faith that you, Mr. President, and many others of us profess, a faith that commands us to do good to our enemies rather than to bomb or starve them into submission

As adherents of that faith we oppose all war, but are especially appalled by the acceptance of ever more terrifying means of destruction in modern warfare.


source
After the first aerial bombings of the Spanish town of Guernica, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that "the United States consistently taking the lead in urging that this inhumane practice be prohibited".

We pray that you, Mr. President, would do the same.

Members of Family of Hope House Church


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Six Recommendations By The Charles Colson Task Force That Could Save US Billions

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In 2014, Congress created the Charles Colson Task Force to spend a year and a million dollars reviewing the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the largest prison system in the country. Most of what is recommended here for federal prisons would apply equally to any state's Department of Corrections.

On Jan. 26, 2016, the Task Force released the following six recommendations, approved unanimously by its nine members selected by both Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress. The following is a summary of their 132 page report:

Recommendation 1: Reserve prison for those convicted of the most serious federal crimes.
Congress should repeal all mandatory minimums for drug offenses except for kingpins. Only 16% of people in state prisons have been convicted of a drug crime, but 50% in the BOP.

"Moreover, most people in federal prison for sex crimes were convicted of possessing, trading, selling, or producing child pornography versus sexual assault... Significant shares of those convicted of federal sex crimes are subject to lengthy sentences with few opportunities for reductions post-conviction."

In addition, there should be a review of all the other 200 mandatory minimums in the federal code. For example, judges should be allowed to sentence below the mandatory minimum for certain weapon offenses associated with nonviolent crimes.

While drug offenses were by far the biggest cause for the eight times increase in the BOP from 25,000 people in 1980 to almost 200,000 today, weapon possession crimes came in a distant second.

Finally, any prohibition on probation should be eliminated. 

Thus, each of the 94 federal judicial districts should establish front-end diversionary programs e.g. drug and veterans courts. Prosecutors should be encouraged to expand pretrial diversion.

Recommendation 2: Promote a Culture of Safety and of Rehabilitation in Federal Facilities
The BOP is presently 20% above its rated capacity. One of the immediate ways to help to reduce this 20% is to amend the good time credit so that 54 days, not just 47, are given for each year.

Another safety recommendation is to have appropriate staffing levels as well as not having more individuals sharing cells designed for fewer residents. Also, there must be adequate and beneficial in-prison programming and services based on individual risk.

The BOP's current assessment tool of static risk factors should be expanded to include treatment needs as well as program shortages.

For example, two of the most effective, but have waiting lists, are the Residential Drug Abuse Program and prison industries. Making RDAP and its one-year sentence reduction available to all prisoners as well as using research suggesting a working wage would enhance their effectiveness. Other programs doing better but still needing funding are mental health, drug abuse, education, and treatment for persons convicted of sex offenses. Finally, the 5% or almost 10,000 of the BOP held in some form of segregated housing should be greatly reduced. Studies show that staff can promote behavioral change with positive relationships with those who are in segregated housing.

And last, but certainly not least, is that the BOP should house individuals as close to home as possible. One strategy is to contract with state facilities when no federal facility is near.

Furthermore, the BOP should establish a central family affairs and visitation office to enhance the bonds between families especially between incarcerated loved ones and their children.

Recommendation 3: Incentivize Participation in Risk-Reduction Programming
"If the incarcerated exist in a state of perpetual idleness, prison can become a reliable incubator for future crime."
Thus, the Task Force recommends that Congress (1) authorize individuals not serving life sentences to earn up to 20% of time served by complying with his or her individualized case plan.

Examples of this plan would include skill-building, ongoing education, vocational training and faith-based programming. For lifers who legally cannot get the 20%, there would be rewards such as additional recreation, increased visiting and phone use and access to specialty commissary items. (2) Establish a Second Look provision that would permit anyone who has been "in" for 15 years to apply for re-sentencing. A judge in each 94 fed districts would hear these petitions. If okayed, there would be a full judicial review.

Also, "Judges would not be required to adhere to existing mandatory minimum sentences" but could consider other factors such as change in prison, whether release would pose too great a risk to public safety and how societal norms have changed concerning the underlying offense. If turned down, they could try again in five years. In addition, victims could provide written testimony but the sentence cannot be made more severe.

Finally, the judicial panel "may choose to terminate the prison term at review, shorten the prison term to an earlier future release date, add a period of community supervision, or attach certain conditions of supervision."

In 2014, less than 4% of the BOP had served 15 years or more. The abolition of parole removed any mechanism by which these long sentences could be reconsidered. Besides the Second Look, the Task Force recommends that the clemency initiative of President Obama remains in place for future Presidents and that this process continue to be improved.

Recommendation 4: Ensure Successful Reintegration by Using Evidence Based Practices in Supervision and Support
BOP released 40,000 in 2014. Most spent the final portion in "pre-release custody" which: (1) is provided by US Probation (2) cannot exceed one year and may involve a halfway house called Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs), home confinement, or a combination of both. Home confinement is limited to six months or 10% of the prison term, whichever is less.

The Task Force states that there must be a much better "transition of individuals transferring from BOP to community agencies to ensure a safe and seamless reintegration."

At the same time, supervised release should be strengthened and the use of early termination should be greatly expanded. In fact, for successful individuals, federal judges have the authority to terminate a supervised release term after a year.

Recommendation 5: Enhance System Performance and Accountability through Better Coordination across Agencies and Increased Transparency
The Task Force recommends the following actions: (1) establish a joint Dept. of Justice/Judiciary working group to oversee the implementation of these reforms. Specifically, make sure that federal probation is anchored in evidence-based practice which are consistent with best practice and that conditions of supervision-including any potential supervision fees-support rather undermine reentry. (2) expand and disseminate public info about fed corrections. (3) set up an Office if Victim Services in the BOP. (4) expand the perspective of the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) by including formerly incarcerated individuals and victims as well as defense attorneys. (5) establish a permanent BOP Performance, Accountability and Oversight Board to ensure BOP carries out these reforms while maintaining high standards of correctional practice and (6) review fed collateral consequences that have no public safety basis and develop recommendations to Congress starting with allowing Pell Grants in the BOP and eliminating criminal history disclosures for fed employees.

Recommendation 6: Reinvest Savings to Support the Expansion of Necessary Programs, Supervision and Treatment
Congress should immediately provide funds to the DOJ and the Judiciary for the following: (1) a validated risk and needs assessment tool for the BOP (2) increased staffing, programs and services to U.S. Probation (3) U.S. courts to establish the Second Look (4) the USCC to expand capacity and training and (5) grants for front-end diversion programs.

In addition, the Joint Working Group should develop recommendations for reinvesting savings from the reduced BOP population, including continued funding for the above and support for other Task Force recommendations.

The Task Force estimates that if these six recommendations were implemented as a whole, the BOP population would be reduced by more than 60,000 by FY 2024 with a savings of $5 billion. "Rather than closing BOP facilities, the BOP will first transfer individuals out of privately operated facilities" which now house 11% of the BOP's population.

Therefore, "Under the justice reinvestment model, the savings resulting from implementing these recommendations will be reinvested in other programs that can improve accountability, reduce recidivism and increase public safety."



The above material was forwarded to me by an reform-minded inmate in one of our Virginia prisons. The full 132 page report, TRANSFORMING PRISONS, RESTORING LIVES can be found on the www.UrbanInstitute.org website.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Kind Of Ark We Should Really Be Building

It's opening today, July 7, 2016
"God saw that the earth had become corrupt and was filled with violence." 
Genesis 6:11 NLT

According to the Biblical account in Genesis, it took Noah 120 years to build the original ark, one designed to provide refuge for himself, his family and a remnant of every kind of living creature on earth. In one of the grimmest narrative in all of scripture, everything and everyone else perishes.

Near Williamstown, Kentucky, a replica of that massive vessel has been completed in less than two years, thanks to the ambitious dream of entrepreneur Ken Ham. Set to open today, it was constructed at a cost of over $100 million, and occupies 200 acres of what will be an 800-acre theme park that will include a zoo, among other attractions. The Creation Museum, just 50 miles away, is run by the same organization, Answers in Genesis.

The 510-foot-long replica of the Biblical ark, made mostly of timber and not designed to actually be seaworthy, is supported by three 70-foot concrete towers, and is expected to draw thousands of visitors annually who are willing to pay an admission fee of $41 per adult to see its many exhibits, including some featuring life-size dinosaurs.

I find it interesting that well known Mennonite architect LeRoy Troyer of Mishawaka, Indiana, was hired to head up the construction, employing, among others, some experienced Amish timber framers from various surrounding communities. The project is requiring 3 million board feet of lumber, mostly imported from New Zealand then specially treated in the Netherlands before being shipped to the Kentucky site.

But is this really the kind of massive project followers of Jesus should be supporting?

That question is sure to be a subject of debate, but if God were to speak to modern day Noahs, I'm wondering if he might propose one or more of the following alternatives:

A. Provide for the resettlement and care of millions of refugees around the world who have been displaced by war and famine. Many of these desperate men, women and children may languish in makeshift tent cities for decades if nothing is done to relieve their plight.

B. Provide an embrace of welcome for marginalized people all around us, people discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity, nationality or for any other reason. Urge whole communities of God's people to provide arks of safety for ex-offenders, for the disabled, for the unemployed, for those born with differing gender orientations, and for the homeless and orphaned everywhere.

C. Invest in creation care projects that preserve rain forests, save endangered species, clean up waterways and oceans, protect unspoiled wilderness areas, and which treat all of God's creatures with decency and mercy. This could involve investing in means of food production that avoid as much suffering as possible for many animals now confined in factory farms where they are often exploited for maximum profits with little regard for their welfare or wellbeing.

How might the above kinds of ark building projects help an unbelieving world better understand and reverence the God of the Bible?

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

Here are some links of that may be of interest:

http://www.elkharttruth.com/hometown/elkhart/2016/07/03/Mishawaka-architect-area-Amish-craftsmen-build-full-scale-ark-replica.html

http://www.newsmax.com/newswidget/Noah-Ark-park-Ken-Ham/2014/02/27/id/555252?

http://www.breakingisraelnews.com/70711/noahs-ark-opens-doors-storm-controversy/#1C0sGPMcxo7tXZfW.97

http://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/arkencounter/2016/05/05/ark-time-schedule/83965160/

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Stable Marriages Benefit Everyone

Marriage Savers, Inc.
This was published as an Open Forum piece in today's Daily News-Record:

In a recent issue of Time magazine Belinda Luscombe cites research that shows that people in even average marriages enjoy better health, live longer and report greater satisfaction with their lives than do most who are divorced or who choose to remain unmarried.

But our marriage numbers are declining. There were only 2,077,000 official marriages in the US last year—fewer than in 1970 when the population was only 203 million. In Harrisonburg and Rockingham County there were 955 wedding licenses issued and 474 divorces granted last year, and our annual marriage numbers have remained flat over the past two decades, even though our population has increased over 25% during that time. 

Of course, this doesn’t take into account the increasing numbers of couples hooking up and breaking up in unofficial and unregistered ‘marriages’. And sadly, these relationships, according to Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a Professor at UVA, are even "less stable, have less trust, less sexual fidelity, more violence, and are five times more likely to break up than homes with intact, married parents."

Thus the case for maintaining marital fidelity and family stability is strong, both for the partners involved, for their offspring, and for the entire community. Having said that, we know stable relationships require a lot of realistic thinking and tons of hard work. 

For starters, writer Alain de Botton, in a piece in the May 28, 2016, New York Times Sunday Review, urges us to give up the popular romantic myth that there is someone out there who can meet our every expectation and satisfy our every need. 

“We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them… But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”

This kind of shift in our thinking, he believes, offers the best hope for couples staying together, resulting in the acceptance of the fact that “The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste… but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently… Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”

More people may be getting that, in that the divorce rate among the college educated, at least, is lower and is actually falling, according to columnist Michael McManus of Marriage Savers, Inc. He says their divorce numbers have dropped from 15% in the 1970s to only 11% two decades later, and cites studies that show, interestingly, that the divorce rate is highest, at 36%, among high school dropouts. 

What can a community like ours do to support stronger and more stable marriages? 

One attempt launched in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County in 1998 and renewed a decade ago was something called a “Community Marriage Policy” in which local congregations formally agreed to the following:

 • Expect couples wanting to get married to have been acquainted for at least a year.

 • Guide engaged couples through an intensive marital preparation process involving individual or group educational sessions dealing with religious, financial, relational and intimacy issues and utilizing some form of premarital inventory.  

 • Promote premarital chastity and faithful marital relationships.

 • Encourage enrichment opportunities to strengthen existing marriages and provide intervention and support for marriages in distress.

 • Train mature married couples to serve as mentors to engaged couples, to newlyweds, and to those experiencing marital difficulties. 

 • Cooperate with other congregations and agencies to share resources and to create a positive climate in which all marriages are helped to succeed.

As a pastor, family counselor and grandfather, I would love to see area congregations renew their commitment to something like this. Anything we can do to add to the number of people who are in supportive and stable relationships will strengthen and bless our community for generations to come.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

To Exit Or Remain? The July 4, 1776, Question

The Grand Union Flag
In 1776 my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Christian Yoder, Jr., moved his family by team and wagon from Berks County, Pennsylvania, to the far western frontier of the state. A man now in his early fifties, he had emigrated to this country in 1742 at age sixteen with his widowed father, and now felt he needed to make another major move.

It is likely that he and his father, Christian Sr., had risked the hazardous transatlantic journey 32 years earlier for two reasons. One was to avoid having Christian, Jr., conscripted into the Swiss army, the other was to experience the kind of religious freedom and tolerance William Penn promised religious minorities in the New World.

In 1776 my immigrant ancestors, having experienced intense persecution and endured one bloody European war after another (often over religious conflicts), faced another set of trials. Their new found place of refuge had become a land of turmoil, with Christian, Jr.,’s own sons now being in danger of being conscripted to fight against the British.

This created a serious dilemma for the members of their Anabaptist community. To them, King George’s rule seemed anything but tyrannical in comparison to all they had experienced in western Europe. Besides, they understood their Bibles as commanding them to submit to constituted authority in every way that didn’t violate their conscience. As three Mennonite bishops in Pennsylvania wrote in 1773, "Through God's mercy we enjoy unlimited freedom in both civil and religious matters."

Ironically, once the fight for independence began, the freedom of nonviolent Christians to live by their religious convictions became much more limited. By 1777 colonists were being forced to sign a pledge of loyalty to the revolutionary government, which incidentally never represented a full majority of its citizens, many of whom either remained Loyalist throughout the Revolutionary War or were neutral.

So what were the Quakers, Brethren, Mennonites and Amish to do? Not given to making political protests, some just moved west.

Here are some of the principles that shaped their response:

Romans 12:14, 17 “Bless those who persecute you... Do not repay evil for evil.”
If this was to be the stance of first century Christians toward a Roman emperor like Nero, they reasoned, shouldn’t the same apply toward a far less malevolent King George III, whose authority was greatly limited by the English Bill of Rights (forerunner of our own) adopted in the prior century?

Romans 12:18 “If it is possible, as far as it is depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

In November 1775, Mennonite and German Baptist ministers sent "A Short and Sincere Declaration" to the Pennsylvania assembly. In it they suggested that as an alternative to militia duty they donate money and otherwise help any families left destitute because their husbands and fathers were off fighting. Instead Pennsylvania passed a law levying a special war tax on all non-associators. Later the state agreed nonresistant Christians could hire substitutes or pay a fine, which most felt they could not do, because as their Declaration stated, they found "no freedom in giving, or doing, or assisting in anything by which men's lives are destroyed or hurt." As a result, Patriot officials routinely confiscated their property to pay the taxes and fines.

Romans 12:19 “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

The 1775 Mennonite Declaration also said, "We have dedicated ourselves to serve all men in everything that can be helpful to the preservation of their lives, but... we are not at liberty in conscience to take up arms to conquer our enemies, but rather to pray to God, who has power in heaven and on earth, for us and them."

Romans 12:20-21 “”If your enemies are hungry feed them, if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The Continental Congress made it illegal to provide lodging or food to any Loyalists, and illegal to even market food in Philadelphia while it was under British control. Three men from the Weaverland Mennonite Church were charged with treason for giving lodging and food to some escaped British prisoners, and a 70-year-old Susannah Longacre was sentenced to 117 lashes on her bare back (fortunately, this sentence was reduced to a lesser punishment) for offering food to some men who claimed to be British soldiers but were really American soldiers going up and down the Philadelphia Pike to see who would be willing to feed their enemies. Mennonites insisted they were not offering hospitality to others because they were either British or revolutionaries, but simply because they were hungry or in need of shelter.

Romans 13:1-7 “We must submit ourselves to governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established....Give everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenues, then revenue; if respect, then respect: If honor, then honor.”
To these simple believers, armed resistance to authority was out of the question. They believed God wanted stability and order, not chaos or bloody conflict. On this point they were in agreement with John Wesley, whose widely circulated tract, “A Calm Address to the American Colonies,” sought to dissuade Christians from taking up arms against the Crown. Not that Wesley so much favored either the monarchy or the Anglican church, but  because he believed an imperfect peace was always better than a bloody war. And John Dickinson, a respected Quaker lawmaker from Delaware, made the same argument to his colleagues prior to their signing the Declaration of Independence (which he refused to do).

In the end, and after contentious debate, the more militant members of the Continental Congress persuaded the colonies to cut their ties to the British crown and to leave.

Could there have been a better way to achieve greater independence, liberty and freedom than through a revolutionary war, as in the case of Canada, Australia, Poland and countless other countries in the past?

What do you think?

This is a revised version of something I posted five years ago. Documentation for some of the above can be found in MacMaster, Horst and Ulle, "Conscience in Crisis" (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979), pp. 266-7 and 515-6 and in historian John Ruth's The Earth is the Lord's, a Narrative of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Just Right, Exactly Perfect Age

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I once asked a group of high school students at EMHS to write down what they felt was a truly ideal age. In other words, at what point would they feel they've reached a peak in their life, after which they would no longer be so eager for their next birthday?

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised at the result, but I was. The majority of these juniors and seniors chose an age somewhere between twenty and thirty.

I know our culture places high value on physical attractiveness and youthfulness, but demographically we are a society with a larger than ever proportion of older and retired people. So it seemed sad to have them see their "over the hill" point being even before mid-life. 

I'm sure most of these former students of mine have changed their minds on this and many other things since then, but wouldn't it be great to have our middle years, as well as our retiring and aging stages of life, be seen as looked-forward-to and truly blessed? 

Yesterday was my birthday. Alma Jean and I celebrated it with my next older sister Maggie and her good husband Alvin Schrock in their simple and hospitable home in a wooded area in Cumberland County. Maggie is the sister I was closest to, and she had just celebrated her 80th birthday eight days before.

To me, Maggie doesn't look a day over 55, and is still enjoying life as an active gardener and grandma. Much of our time together was spent in reminiscing and with catching up on our children and grandchildren. Maggie and Alvin's had just published an illustrated book for the family in honor of her birthday, complete with stories and photos of the families of each of their seven devoted children.

What better life could one hope for, I thought to myself. They have their share of some health concerns, thankfully none of them life threatening, but enjoy an unending supply of love from each other and from multiple offspring who adore them. 

So maybe 80 is just the right age, as long as ones health is still reasonably good and ones mind reasonably acute.

My own perfect age? I've decided that for the next 364 days my answer will be 77, in the spirit of the oft-quoted Robert Browning:

“Grow old along with me! 
The best is yet to be, 
The last of life, for which the first was made: 
Our times are in his hand 
Who saith, “A whole I planned, 
Youth shows but half; 
trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”