Thursday, September 29, 2016

Racist Fliers Rock Our Daughter's Quiet Town

Fliers include a link to a white supremacist website (blocked out in this photo)
We're living in disturbing times.

One recent sign of this was residents in the Rochester (NY) area town of Pittsford finding white-supremacist literature on their driveways and in their mailboxes urging people of European descent to "Make Rochester Great Again". The fliers direct people to a white supremacist website that states its purpose is to "network like-minded whites for the furtherance of the European white races."

Area response was one of determination not to let this outrage go unanswered. Town leaders issued the following statement Tuesday:

"The Board of Trustees of the Village of Pittsford denounces in the strongest possible terms the recent sinister, racist activities in our community. There is no room for such division and hatred and we have zero tolerance for such despicable behavior in our village or town. This Board stands together as one with all residents and visitors to our Village regardless of race, creed, color, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation."

Concerned residents have planned a sign making party for this Saturday afternoon in preparation for a solidarity walk set for 3 pm this Sunday, October 3.

Meanwhile, people are being urged to write positive chalk messages on their driveways in opposition to this kind of racist-based hate.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Shame Isn't Always A Bad Thing

My parents were pretty effective in correcting their nine children by using frequent verbal reprimands, even the occasional “Shem dich!” (Pennsylvania German equivalent of  “Shame on you”). They mostly had the kind of relationship with us that made us want to stay on their good side and to enjoy their blessing and approval.

Today any use of shame to correct behavior tends to be seen as a Very Bad Thing, since shame, as opposed to guilt, is about being a failed or flawed person rather than about a basically good person engaging in unacceptable or inappropriate behavior. Shame is seen as diminishing people's self esteem, something to be avoided at all costs, especially in the case of children.

As a general rule, I support that. Let's separate the person from the problem, then address the problem and not disgrace the person. Let's not assume we always have to make others feel worse in order to help them behave better.

But are there times when feeling worse can motivate us to do better? Are there times when I need to recognize that I am not only violating a rule, but that I am being a jerk, insensitive to the needs and feelings of others?

Fortunately, the gospel offers abundant grace, forgiveness and transformative healing both for what we are and what we do. So we can pray both boldly and contritely as the ancient Hebrew leader Ezra did on behalf of himself and his people, "I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens" (Ezra 9:6).

Sometimes that's a matter of just facing the truth.

Then there is this insight from an Amazon review of professor Jennifer Jacquet's recent book "Is Shame Necessary? New Uses For An Old Tool":

"In cultures that champion the individual, guilt is advertised as the cornerstone of conscience. But while guilt holds individuals to personal standards, it is powerless in the face of corrupt institutions. In recent years, we as consumers have sought to assuage our guilt about flawed social and environmental practices and policies by, for example, buying organic foods or fair-trade products. Unless nearly everyone participates, however, the impact of individual consumer consciousness is ineffective.

"Is Shame Necessary? presents us with a trenchant case for public shaming as a nonviolent form of resistance that can challenge corporations and even governments to change policies and behaviors that are detrimental to the environment. Jennifer Jacquet argues that public shaming, when it has been retrofitted for the age of social media and aimed in the proper direction, can help compensate for the limitations of guilt in a globalized world. Jacquet leaves us with a new understanding of how public shame, when applied in the right way and at the right time, has the capacity to keep us from failing other species in life’s fabric and, ultimately, from failing ourselves."

I haven't yet read the book, but she makes a good point. Maybe some serious shame is long overdue for realities about which we fail to feel sufficient guilt to motivate us to change:


• We have condoned the incarceration of more people than any country in the world, 2.3 million (China is a distant second with 1.6 million) with more men of color behind bars and on probation and parole than were slaves prior to the Civil War.

• We have been complicit in the spending of more of our tax dollars for military purposes than is spent by the next ten most armed nations in the world combined.

• We feel entitled to a life of comfort and convenience that is contributing to massive deforestation, depletion of our resources and the pollution and destruction of our environment for generations to come.

• We waste 40% of the food we produce and market in spite of millions who live on the brink of starvation every day.

Abortions have always occurred, but this shows the legal ones
• We profess to be pro-life while defending abortion on demand, capital punishment, massive bombing and drone strikes, and withholding help from the poor at home and abroad.

• We support a healthcare system that promotes corporate profit over meeting the needs of the underserved ill and aging among us.

What would you add to this shameful list?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Seven-Year-Old's Prayer For Justice

A friend recently gave me this quote, but couldn't remember where he had gotten it. Let me know if you know more about this young man.

"God, please help the poor get rich and the rich get poor, so they know what it feels like. And then, God, let everyone switch back to medium and let everyone have the same amount of food and money."                          
- Ben Zimmerly Jantzi, age 7

Children have an innate sense of fairness. Everyone should be treated alike, and enjoy their fair share of everything.

Somewhere along the way we adults seem to shed this simple concept, and begin to take for granted that "life isn't fair" and that we simply need to get used to it having huge disparities between the well off and the many "Lazarus" figures in the world. (see today's Luke 16:19-31 lectionary text)

But seven-year-old Ben is closer to seeing things the way God does. God has no favorites, and loves and cares for everyone alike.

We should too.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

How a Handful of Florida Mennonites Decided the 2000 Election and Changed World History

Home to 3000-5000 Mennonites & Amish
The outcome of the 2000 presidential race was extremely close, and eventually came down to a mere 537 vote difference in the closely contested state of Florida.       
This raises the question of what might have happened if Mennonites in that state would have just stayed at home on election day. Assuming most of them voted for the party that prevailed (as the majority of Mennonites elsewhere did) that alone may have decided the outcome.

If that is so, what difference could that have made in the future course of history? 

Consider these four hypothetical questions:

1. Would there have been an invasion of Iraq?
This move by the newly elected commander in chief led to what became the longest war in US history, next to the Afghan conflict, and resulted in the loss of over 4000 American lives, plus some 40,000 US service men and women being psychologically and/or physically maimed for life. In addition there have been an untold number of Iraqi and other casualties as a result of the instability and chaos created by the US invasion. 

Some would argue that deposing a dictator like Saddam Hussein was worth all of that and more. But imposing regime change by military means has never been supported by historic peace churches. And regrettably, large numbers of Christians in that region who were formerly able to practice their faith in relative peace have since had to flee for their safety, resulting in the Christian witness being diminished in that part of the world.

2. Would the US national debt have spiraled out of control as it did after 2000? As a result of sizable tax cuts that turned a national budget surplus into a growing deficit, along wth the enormous cost of waging two largely unfunded wars (see increase above), our grandchildren face an exorbitant burden of debt that will have a major impact on them and and on future generations.

3. Would the US have been able to ratify the Kyota Protocol, with significant implications for the future well being of the planet? The actual merits of the treaty and the evidence that supports its provisions can always be debated, but the fact of it not passing is very likely the result of the Florida vote count.

4. Would the makeup of the Supreme Court have been altered? A different makeup of the Court may have, for 
example, affected the outcome of  the Citizens United case, which gave corporations the status of "people" who can make unlimited campaign contributions, and which has added to some of the loss of accountability (and civility?) in current and future political campaigns. Of course, the merits of this and other decisions of the Court can always be debated, but the questions remain.

We may never know the answers to any of the above, but the concern over whether our voting as Mennonites may sometimes have major unintended consequences deserves careful consideration. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

An Urgent Letter To Governor McAuliffe

The following sample letter was written by one of several DOC inmates with whom I correspond. Please feel free to use any part of it as you communicate your own concerns to the Governor:

Governor Terry McAuliffe
Honorable Terry McAuliffe, Governor
Patrick Henry Bldg. - Third Floor
1111 East Broad Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219
Fax: (804) 371-6351

Dear Governor McAuliffe:

News of the recent budget shortfall precipitated our thinking toward a method to save taxpayers' dollars allotted to Virginia's prison system, without jeopardizing public safety. It is apparent that we, the taxpayers, are financing the incarceration of many individuals "who are no longer a danger" to our communities, due largely to their ages. The Virginia Department of Corrections currently houses model inmates that are nearly ninety years old. As I am sure you are aware, statistics are available to backup this claim. These facts are very disturbing to us as human beings.

Currently, there are nearly 2,800 parole eligible 'Old-Law' inmates who have been incarcerated a minimum of 21 years and up to at least 47 years that we're aware of. Many are first-time offenders who have earned and deserve a second chance through parole. If 80% of these inmates were paroled, "a cost-savings of $61.5 million dollars," (2,240 inmates x $27,462 (Footnote 1) ) per year would be realized.

Additionally, there are nearly 600 Geriatric-release eligible inmates with a statistical recidivism rate of less than 1% (Footnote 2) (over 60 years of age). Nationally, the average cost of housing inmates over 50 is $68,000 (Footnote 2) (more for those over age 60). If 80% of geriatric inmates were released under supervision, "a cost-savings of $33 million dollars annually" would accrue, (400 inmates x $68,000). The geriatric population is the fastest growing age group in the system with the lowest recidivism rate and the highest cost to taxpayers.

Ninety-five percent of the 'Old-Law' inmates are over 40 years of age; averaged with geriatric eligible inmates, all of whom are over 60, nets an average age of parole eligible inmates of 50 years of age. Utilizing a mean recidivism rate of 1.5% (2% over 50 and 1% over 60), prisoners who might reoffend amount statistically to "only 41 inmates who might reoffend, out of 2,720 who could safely be released!"

Governor McAuliffe, as you are aware, the rate of parole in the Commonwealth comes under your purview as Chief Executive. Please consider instructing your Parole Board to implement a policy of increasing the parole rate substantially for the following reasons:

> Savings of nearly $100 million dollars annually, with minimal risk to public safety.
> Relieve prison over-crowding and/or closing up to 3 major institutions.
> Allow many elderly and first-time offenders a chance at redemption.
> Use savings to augment education in the Commonwealth (our teachers are paid $7,200 below national average).
> Transform corrections in Virginia to a more forward thinking posture.
> Every offender should be educated, treated and released at the earliest possible time when they are no longer a threat to society.
> Provide services to help returning citizens reenter safely back into communities without the stigma of being an ex-offender looming over them for the rest of their lives.
> At what age or for how many continuous years would incarcerating individuals satisfactory and does not constitute Cruel and Unusual Inhumane Treatment of inmates. We would say no more than twenty years years of reprogramming and training preparing individuals for society. Also anyone who meets the current Virginia Geriatric Law and does not pose a threat to citizens should be granted parole.

We as taxpayers can no longer afford the antiquated, costly, inhumane and excessively punitive system of Corrections which the Commonwealth employs. As recent polls show, the majority of the public is for increased parole. Our current budget shortfall provides you a "Golden Opportunity" to implement the aforementioned bold actions and avoid tax increases.

Thank you for your efforts, time and consideration in the aforementioned matter. A response would be appreciated.


cc: Mr. Brian Moran
      Department of Public Safety and Homeland Security
      P.O. Box 1475
      Richmond, Virginia 23218
     Office: 804-786-5351
     Fax Line: 804-225-3882

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Are We Losing Ground In The War On Porn?

Unlimited X-rated access 24/7
We may have never been very effective in combatting this evil to begin with, but there can be little doubt that an ever darker and more pervasive porn industry is gaining ground. Along with new internet porn sites springing up constantly, high tech means to access them are multiplying as well. Our children and teens can find ways to view almost anything they want on their cell phones, ipads, and other devices. Even some eleven and twelve-year-old boys are becoming addicted, making one wonder how they will ever experience healthy wedded-for-life relationships.

Over time we have become ever more jaded by indecency in general. We have failed to celebrate and hallow our own God-given gift of sexuality and have helplessly watched it being exploited and cheapened on every side. Over the past years network television, for example, has seen an increase of over four times the number of scenes involving nudity and promiscuous sex, according to a report by the Parents Television Council

As a nation and even in our churches we are strangely divided over how to deal with this issue. Oddly, it is folks on the political left I hear saying, “Let the market rule. Let individuals decide and let’s keep government out of this.” Meanwhile, those on the right who are urging more government intervention to drive porn out of our communities, to force libraries to protect children by filtering Internet sites and by requiring retailers to keep sexually explicit magazines out of the reach of children.

What can we do?

We could begin by recognizing that this is not just a question about restricting some kinds of speech (outright obscenity is already not protected by law) but whether we can reasonably regulate some forms of commerce. Since pornography has become a multi-billion dollar industry, should it be exempt from some minimal safety, health and marketing standards? Most of this new “speech” is, after all, anything but “free.” People are hired to submit to demeaning and even hurtful acts simply for money, not because they enjoy what they’re doing. The resulting “product” is marketed aggressively and reaps phenomenal profits, not so much for its “actors,” but for its producers and promoters, mostly money-grubbing white males. 

Likewise, we could start by recognizing pornography as not like just any other kind of adult entertainment, but as a product that results in varying degrees of addiction for millions who use it. By way of comparison, it was years before we recognized nicotine addiction as a health problem. Or before we understood the nature of addiction itself as a serious disruption of the reward mechanism in our brains. It was only after we realized some of the social and health care costs of tobacco addiction (for smokers and non-smokers alike) that we began to set strict age limits on who can purchase nicotine products. We also began to regulate how and where these products could be marketed, and even put warning labels on tobacco products. 

The National Council on Sex Addiction and Compulsivity estimates that some two million Americans have become addicted to cybersex alone, costing the economy millions in lost productivity and jeopardizing the ability of users to maintain healthy real-life relationships that benefit us all. Researchers like feminist Dr. Diane E. H. Russell of Mills College (Oakland, CA) point out that the industry not only degrades women but is subjecting more and more of them to outright violence, both in the production of much of today’s pornographic material and in the rape fantasies it creates in men who regularly get pleasure from seeing images of women being used--and even criminally abused--on screen. There are few signs of “safe sex” anywhere in this picture.

So at the very least we need to exercise our good First Amendment rights to urge our becoming a porn-discouraging, rather than a porn-encouraging, society. After many years, we finally did that with tobacco, through a combination of education and some reasonable forms of government regulation.

Without resorting to Prohibition or to heavy handed Taliban tactics, we the people decided we would be better off having more smoke free environments in which we all can work, eat and shop. We began investing millions in promoting the benefits of not using tobacco, and in offering help for overcoming nicotine and other addictions. And we did most of this not just for moral or religious reasons but because common sense led us to believe it was in everyone’s best interest. 

Consider the benefits of uniting our efforts--women and men, religious and non-religious, liberals, conservatives and everyone between--to actively discourage and de-popularize supporting this demeaning industry. I know some will object that we’ll never be able to define exactly what pornography is, but as someone once said, just because there is something called dusk shouldn’t keep us from being able to distinguish light from darkness.

And there is enough real darkness out there that should cause us all concern.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Raising Our GQ (Gratitude Quotient)

We may all wish for a higher level of intelligence, but when it comes to living a truly good life, our IQ may be less important than our GQ. 

Where might we find ourselves on a "Gratitude Quotient" scale?

If we choose to live on the gratitude-deficit side of a GQ "graph", we will likely experience some or all of the following:

Seeing ourselves as victims with an unfair share of problems.

Feeling down or depressed much of the time.

Blaming others, being critical of others, seeing them as the source of our problems.

Feeling like the world owes us.

However, if we choose to live on the gratitude-rich side of the graph, we will experience more of the following:

Seeing ourselves as privileged, with an undeserved share of blessings.

Feeling positive and hopeful most of the time.

Seeing others as fellow human beings worthy of our care and concern.

Feeling indebted to God and to God's children around the world.

There may not be much we can do to improve our IQ, but living a life of gratitude is a choice we make every day. It's not that everything we experience in life will be good, but we will celebrate the good we can find in, around and through whatever a day brings.

We can respond as author Ann Vos camp did following tragedy after tragedy in her life. In her book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare  to Live Fully Right Where You Areshe invites us to journey with her in celebrating 1000 blessings, large and small, that we can discover and celebrate in our ordinary, everyday lives.

Gratitude is indeed a choice.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Bandaid On A Boil? Some Misgivings About Advocating For Prison Reform
As many of you know, I'm passionate about improving conditions in our local jails and state prisons. Cramped quarters, poor medical treatment, inmates living in concrete buildings with oven-like summer temperatures, my list of grievances keeps growing.

Yet I'm wary of giving the impression that if all of these kinds of conditions were improved, that we would then have a humane and effective system for dealing with offenders.

The fact is that our 18th-century-based reliance on confining law breakers in steel cages is both inhumane and insane. Jails and prisons as we know them need to be eliminated and replaced--except in cases where some kind of restraint (normally temporary) is necessary to insure the safety of an offender and/or the community.

Some day our routine use of steel cages for incarcerating people will be seen with the same kind of disbelief with which we now view public floggings or other forms of torture, or putting people in stocks on the public square.

We can do better than that. In many cases, we can use some kind of restorative justice process in which offenders actually have to make restitution to their victims, including making things right with the community in which they live. In doing so, they need to continue to work to pay their fines, rectify their wrongs, support their families and rebuild their lives.

Having said all that, we must still work at improving conditions of confinement while we work at fundamentally changing a criminal justice system that is failing us all.

Meanwhile, here are some examples of needed changes at our local jail I'll continue to have concerns about:

• Having no one confined to the holding area for more than 12 hours without being provided with a blanket and mattress while waiting to be placed in a regular cell.

• Having no one confined who is awaiting trial simply because they can't afford bail.

• Not having inmates confined to segregation cells or placed on lockdown for long periods of time without opportunities for regular physical exercise and mental stimulation.

• Having non-violent offenders be able to come the visitation area without being in handcuffs and prison garb, and all inmates being able to wear ordinary civilian clothes to court appearances.

• Not having families bear the burden of paying an arbitrary $1 per day in jail “rent” ($3 for MRRJ) before their family members can purchase commissary items.

• Having commissary items and phone service provided at reasonable cost and not for profit. 

• Having quality health care provided for all inmates regardless of their ability to pay, with those on prescribed medications being able to continue them without interruption.

• No longer having suicidally depressed inmates placed in a restraint chair or the isolated padded cell due to the lack of sufficient mental health personnel.

What necessary bandaids would you add?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Billboard Aimed At Amish Claims Trump Is "Just Like YOU".

photo courtesy of Chris Landes

Just when I thought I had seen everything, I get this photo on Facebook of a billboard in Lancaster County (PA), deep in Amish country.

Needless to say, I am way beyond mystified as to how the recently formed pro-Trump "Amish PAC" can make the claim of "Just Like YOU" on its billboard. Seriously, one would have a difficult time imagining any candidate more polar opposite of the plain-living and peace-loving Amish.

This doesn't mean Donald Trump doesn't have any redeeming qualities or any viable policies. And as a follower of Jesus I am mandated to love him and respect the office he is seeking. It's just that he's a far cry from being like the modest, God-fearing people of my heritage. 

Think about it: 

one of many rooms in the Trump mansion
Trump's third family-dedicated wife

Trump's preferred mode of transportation

Trump's (and Ms. Clinton's) pro-life plan for dealing with enemies

Friday, September 9, 2016

More On The Trump AMISH PAC Ad

AMISH PAC ad in the July 13, 2016 issue of the BUDGET
The Sugarcreek (OH) Budget, a weekly paper subscribed to by Amish and conservative Mennonites all over the nation, ran its first Amish PAC in its July 13, 2016 edition.

After receiving numerous negative responses from readers, associate publisher Milo G. Miller refunded the advance payment the paper had received for ads from the group and determined the Budget would run no more of them.

According to Mennonite World Review reporter Tim Huber, the PAC's outreach director Ben King, who grew up Amish, responded with, "We're not going to let that stop us. We'll look at other ways to reach them as well. We've used small shopper papers. We'll probably start in the[Lancaster area]."

According to the MWR, the Amish PAC is working to distribute mail-in registration forms to theAmish, is adding a third billboard in the area and is planning to go door-to-door with their efforts.

Senior scholar Stephen Nolt of Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, a 2004 effort by Republicans in Lancaster County (PA) and Holmes County (OH), did result in an increase in Amish registered voters in Lancaster by 1,300 to 2,100 that year, but many of them didn't actually vote in November (and seven registered as Democrats).

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

An Unspeakable Grief

“A voice heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, for they are no more.” 

This Biblical cry of anguish is felt by all parents, but especially by mothers who experience the premature end of a pregnancy, or who give birth to a stillborn or suffer the loss of an infant or young child.

Children are not supposed to die before their parents; it is out of sequence. We expect to help them grow and to see them successfully launched. When they die prematurely the normal life cycle is interrupted and our parental dreams come to a horrific end.

I'll never forget cries for help I've heard as a pastor and a counselor from expectant parents who reported that the heart of their baby had stopped beating, and that their much anticipated new life had been wrenched from them.

Having seen sonograms of our grandchildren, I realize more than ever how real and how incredibly precious the life of an unborn baby really is. And as with all losses, we are never fully prepared to deal with it. 

One young mother shared with me how her five-year-old, who had become super excited over the prospect of welcoming his first little sister, expressed his disbelief and dismay at her miscarriage with, “But Mommy, I’ve been practicing every day how I could help take care of the new baby!”

Among the questions he asked his mother were, “Did you eat enough? Did you breathe right, so the baby could get enough air?", all of which added to the heartbreak of his parents’ own “Whys?”“What if’s?” and “Oh No’s.”

Later the remaining members of that diminished family stood by a nearby river and read a poem written for their little girl. They then prayed a heartfelt prayer and threw rose petals on the water as they said a final goodbye.

As a pastor and family counselor I have learned to feel a deeper compassion for parents going through this kind of loss. And I am better able to identify with an anonymous mother who lost several babies and who wrote the following "Poem Without a Name," that I found on the "Missing Angels" website:  

“To those who look away when I grow teary-eyed in the baby department, look a little deeper. Surely you have some compassion in your heart. To those who change the subject when I speak my sons' names, change your way of thinking. It just might change your whole life. To those who roll their eyes and say that we barely had them at all, and how could we miss them so much, in our hearts we have seen them live a thousand times. We have seen their first steps, first days of school, their weddings, and their children. We have had them forever in our minds.”

When we bury an older adult we are left with a bittersweet collection of memories we can cherish and treasure for years to come. But when we are forced to part with a young child, we are burying all of the dreams of a life so looked forward to and never lived.

At such times of grief, our words are often far less helpful than an arm around a mourner’s shoulder, accompanied by a simple and heartfelt, “I’m so, so sorry.”

Monday, September 5, 2016

HARD TIME VIRGINIA Volume 1, Number 5

The following items come from various inmates with whom I correspond:


An anonymous inmate who served eight years at Lawrenceville Correctional Center claims that many of the men there were robbed by gang members upon their arrival. He also reports gangs essentially controlling the prison while he was there, that ruthless members extorted other inmates wanting to use the microwaves, showers, phones, etc., and that illegal cell phones, drugs and prostitution were rampant. He also said that if gang members learned that an inmate was a sexual offender, they extorted protection money from them. 

He concludes with, "The correctional officers and staff are not trained by Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), but are trained and paid through Geo Group, which like other private companies, are more about making money and cutting costs than about inmate well-being or rehabilitation."


"We were placed on lockdown status last month due to multiple gang fights. I do not understand why our housing units continue to be placed on lockdown when events occur in other units while we are at work. Our two units house Administration, Kitchen, Laundry, Medical, Segregation, Trash, VCE workers and Inmate Advisors, all of whom are essential for the orderly operation of the facility."


"In March 1981, John Hinckley shot three federal employees, including former President Ronald Reagan. What is bizarre is that he had been going home on furlough for years and now, after 35 years, Mr. Hinckley has been released. Thank God for second chances!"


Mr. Nathaniel Painter has been behind bars for over 20 years and has earned an impressive work record both prior to and during his incarceration. He has gained the respect of everyone who knows him but has been denied parole 13 times.

Mr. Robert Davis Fitchett, Jr., committed a crime in 1979 at age 16 and received two life sentences plus 21 years. He is currently housed in an Honor Pod and has worked in profit-making Virginia Correctional Enterprises for over twenty years, but continues to be denied parole.

Mr. Charles Zellers, Sr., was incarcerated in 1993 based on a plea deal in which he was assured would be granted early parole based on good behavior. Not only has he been a model inmate, he is a trusted supervisor in a Virginia Correctional Enterprise Sheet Metal Shop and has taken multiple classes to better himself. In spite of that, he has been denied parole 8 times.

Mr. John Clinton Wright turns 89 in October and has been incarcerated for 39 years. He has been a model inmate throughout his time in prison and has been eligible for geriatric release since age 65.

Mr. Minor Junior Smith has been incarcerated 45 consecutive years and has been eligible for parole release since 1986. He is a 70 year old model inmate who has been legally blind since age four, and reports having been sexually abused numerous times during his incarceration. He has been a long time and valued worker in his prison's food service. 

A poet, Minor recently sent me the following piece about his life:

"Birth of a Criminal"

From the over-crowded prison behind blind eyes, my autobiography must unfold.
Many actualities pertaining to my past were doubted; many other ones were untold.

Incarcerated in Craigsville, Virginia, I am haunted by events from age three.
But first, I'll reveal bits of information about my parents and who delivered me.

Since my parents enjoyed farming, in 1940, they bought and moved on a fond one.
For the sake of characterization, father's name will appear as: Richard Johnson.

In 1943, his and mother's baby daughter perished in a tragic house fire up there.
Rena was born in a barn in 1944, while a new house was being built for the pair.

May 3rd, 1946, father's stepmother delivered me; I was mother's only real son.
Our small home in Montgomery County, Virginia was beside the rocky top of Dark Run.

Those pictures of me, when I was a baby, proved that I was in excellent health.
And I was sufficiently provided for by my father, who possessed a normal wealth.

I never did find out why mother had chosen to separate from father, to this day.
Yet, future comments about it would make me think that I was the one who had to pay.

With $200, mother took my two sisters and me to West Virginia when I was three.
Then, in some way, twelve-year-old Loretta parted from five-year-old Rena and me.

While we stayed there with mother's relatives, I did not see a cow or a churn.
I stood too closely to a stove, and each leg became inflicted by a serious burn.

The next thing I remember knowing was that ride in Uncle Henry Johnson's car.
Although he took mother, Rena and me back up Dark Run Hollow, he did not go far.

A black man's house squatted between two roads, which led into Poor Mountain.
His and Uncle Kelvin's family shared the same spring, their only water fountain.

We stopped before the black man's abode after Uncle Henry had spoken to mother.
"You kids go to your granny's," she said, "Henry doesn't want to go any further."

Rena and I passed three farms on the hollow's left-hand road to begin a new life.
Mother had said that daddy would take us to live with Ole Elsa Pratt, his new wife.

For our little feet and legs, a trip to Granny Johnson's cabin was a long way.
Our sister had drawn spring water that morning was one thing granny had to say.

Having eaten gravy and bread, we rode in daddy's truck that was big and black.
He took us all home after he had picked up Loretta at his daddy's nearby shack.

Mother had taken half of the money daddy had saved in a post of their bedstead.
Maybe that was why I had to share a contemptuous and disturbed step mama instead.

In the kitchen, I quoted mother by calling her: "Ole Elsa Pratt!" when was met.
Mama would label her former pediatrician, "a horse doctor," a slang title for a vet.

I would be hearing complaints about an agonizing hysterectomy she'd gone through.
However, she began by setting forth good principles for us to follow that she knew.

To my belief, the results of the surgery caused other people and me much harm.
Occasionally, when we three Johnson children played, it would set off her alarm.

Her usual irrational behavior patten was almost entirely influenced by spite.
This one factor would cause my mind to be compelled by--envy; fear; lust; strife!

Daddy earned $250 per week in the early 50's, but he was still meek and mild.
Two of his seven daughters had perished in infancy, and I was his youngest child.

He handed Rena and me each a pet after he had returned home in his big truck.
Immediately, mama drowned Rena's baby chick, having first drowned my baby duck.

Loretta cared for me, cleaned our house or chopped wood and probably a thistle.
I couldn't understand why mama had put hot water in Loretta's yellow bird whistle.

Mama didn't like Loretta's looks, so daddy returned her to granddaddy's shack.
Our sister visited Rena and me a few times, but afterwards, she never came back.

She would be shifted from one welfare home to another throughout several years.
Even if she was, at least she no longer had to cope with mama's abusive jeers.

Eventually, in Fishersville, Virginia, Loretta would become a practical nurse.
As for Rena and me, our tormented lives around mama varied from better to worse.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Bible Speaks Less About Heaven As A Future Destination And More As A Source Of Divine Direction

A nice pair of Jehovah's Witnesses came to our door some time ago and asked, "Where do you expect to live forever after you die?"

It was clear they expected me to say "heaven", but having done some recent reflecting on the subject, I responded with, "I hope to live here, on a renewed and restored earth."

On that point we found some surprising common ground. We agreed that according the last chapters in the book of Revelation, multitudes of God's people will come down from God's heaven, like a radiant bride (represented as a grand city of light, pure as gold) to live as God had first intended when the first heavens (atmosphere, sky) and earth were created, as described in Genesis.

And the eternal God will be their source of light, according to John's vision in the Apocalypse, and God will live among them forever.

I'm the first to recognize, of course, that everything about the future is shrouded in mystery, as something beyond what mortals can fully comprehend.

However, what is clear in scripture is that heaven is first and foremost God's throne room, God's headquarters, where the eternal God, together with beings both human and heavenly, reigns supreme over creation.

Thus in the Bible, heaven is first and foremost a supreme source of direction for the living, and less about a final destination for the dying. And in fact, God's eternal plan for humanity may be to have us live on a planet just like this one, only one free of deprivation, death, violence and evil.

In this way, God's original plan for creation is perfected and fulfilled. It was never destined to fail.

Meanwhile, we submit ourselves to a voice greater than our own, a rule that supersedes all the governments and institutions of our own making. Beginning now, we see ourselves as worldwide citizens of a God-governed, justice-ruled, love-lavished, wisdom-based universe, as a part of the supreme Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven.

The two terms are always used interchangeably in scripture.

So this is our daily prayer, "May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

This means living on the basis of an entirely different reality, today and every day. If we do that now, God will take good care of our future.

Here's a link to some other thoughts about the after life:

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Ending Binary Thinking--The Power Of AND

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote:

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow 
in the spring. 

The place where we are right 
is hard and trampled 
like a yard. 

But doubts and loves 
dig up the world like a mole, 
a plow. 

So much of our national conversation has degenerated into highly polarizing either-or debates. We fail to realize how much better it is to do more both-and thinking.

For example:

Can we defend the right of people to own firearms for legitimate purposes
support reasonable regulations on their purchase and use?

Can we respect and support police officers
hold those strictly accountable who behave unjustly?

Can we recognize the legitimacy of the "Black Lives Matter" movement
recognize and affirm the value of all lives everywhere?

Can we be strong advocates for the victims of crime
be strong supporters of release for offenders who are willing to take every step possible to rectify their wrongs?

Can hold an ideal of marriage as between a man and a woman
show compassion and care for people who are born with a different gender orientation from our own?

Can we love America for all of the ideals represented in its founding documents
call the nation to accountability when it does not fully live up to its core values?

Can we be staunchly pro-life
show compassion toward women dealing with an agonizing decision regarding a pregnancy?

Can we support the right of the state of Israel to exist as a free, democratic and safe nation
call it to task for its denial of those same rights to fellow Palestinians?

The list could go on. What would you add to it?