Saturday, December 31, 2016

On This Seventh Day Of Christmas, We Pray A Blessed New Year For All Of You!

"I pray for good fortune in everything you do, and for your good health—that your everyday affairs prosper, as well as your soul." 
II John 2 (the Message)

I so appreciate the occasional affirmation and encouragement I've gotten for doing blog pieces, radio spots and other occasional articles and op-ed pieces. Without readers and listeners, there would be little point in publishing, so thanks!

Since I began doing Harvspot on November 25, 2010, I've been gratified to see the number of page visits steadily increase, reaching over 15,000 this month. As blog sites go, that's far from anything to write home about, but I do enjoy writing, and you help make the effort feel worthwhile. It's also a way of getting things off my chest, plus some of these entries can be adapted and recycled for the Centerpiece radio spots I do for the Family Life Resource Center (where I work), or used in other ways.

I always value feedback, although you have to be a Google member to post comments on the blog itself. To find older posts, type in a topic or title you're looking for (in the search box in the upper left hand corner of the screen). Or to do some browsing of past posts, scroll down and click on to "Older Posts" at the bottom of the page.

Here's my New Year's wish and prayer (author unknown):

To leave the old with a burst of song;
To recall the right and forgive the wrong;
To forget the things that bind you fast;
To the vain regrets of the year that's past;
To have the strength to let go your hold
Of the not worth while of the days grown old;
To dare go forth with a purpose true,
To the unknown task of the year that's new;
To help your neighbors along the road,
To assist with their work and lift their load;
To add your gift to the world's good cheer, 
Is to have and to give a Happy New Year.

The 90-second Centerpiece radio spots are aired locally as follows: 
WEMC 91.7 FM 11:58 am (M-F) (Sun 7:58)
WBTX 1470 AM 9:20 am (M-F)
WNLR 1150 AM 11:28 am (M,W,F)

Friday, December 30, 2016

On This Sixth Day Of Christmas, We Pray For Our Children And Grandchildren

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

Pinterest image
At our Christmas gathering this year, we highlighted the 12th birthdays of our two oldest grandchildren. In the Jewish faith that is a major milestone, the age at which a child can be initiated into the community of adult believers.

As a sign of her growing maturity we gave our Madelyne a plaque with a prayer and a picture of St. Madeleine, a beloved 19th century founder of schools for girls around the world, along with a book about Mother Teresa. Our John Mark was given a plaque of the well known prayer of St. Francis ("Lord, Make me an instrument of your peace..."), and a book about this beloved imitator of Christ from Assisi.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

On This Fourth Day Of Christmas--We Pray For Welcome For All People Regardless Of Their Faith

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

Romans 2:9-11 (Contemporary English Version

At a time when ISIS forces are making headlines with horrific acts of violence toward Christians and members of faiths with whom they disagree, and when western-led forces representing so-called "Christian" nations are making drone and other attacks that result in untold carnage, relationships between members of major world religions are strained as never before. 

We forget that God loves all people, and that Muslims, Jews and Christians alike claim to serve the God of Abraham and Sarah as revealed in our sacred texts, even though our understandings of God may differ. And we Christians likewise forget that Jesus' only teaching regarding enemies who persecute and hate us is to respond by returning good for evil rather than exacting revenge.

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On This Third Day Of Christmas, We Pray For Release For Long Held Prisoners

John Bennie Williams, second from left, is 83 and legally blind
"I, the Lord, have called you... to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness."
Isaiah 42:6-7 NIV

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

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

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

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

Also please pray for the release of men like Mr. Nat Painter #1009725, age 75, who is still incarcerated for a crime he committed 21 years ago, but who has consistently demonstrated good behavior in prison, and only wants a few remaining years of a normal life with his loved ones. He has  repeatedly been denied parole in spite of his almost certainly not being any further danger to society. His address is Coffeewood Correctional Center, 12352 Coffeewood Drive, Mitchells, VA 22792.

Virginia Public Radio
Likewise, pray for the release of Mr. Jens Soering #1161655, age 50, to his native Germany. Jens, whom I met at the Buckingham Correctional Center a couple of years ago, has just spent his 31st Christmas in a Virginia prison for a crime he says he foolishly confessed to at age 20 to save his then girl friend from being convicted of capital murder. As a son of a German diplomat he assumed he would be sent to Germany for a trial and get a lesser sentence. Recent evidence supports his innocence. Jens has had nine books published since his incarceration. His address is BKCC, P.O. Box 430, Dillwyn, VA 23936-0430.

Here's a link to contact the Governor to express your concerns. Check the "Department of Public Safety" and ask for a response:

And here's a link to other names of inmates deserving of consideration for parole:

Monday, December 26, 2016

On This Second Day of Christmas, We Pray That Walls Of Separation Will Come Down

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

(Ephesians 2:14 NIV)

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

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

In the vision of the "New Jerusalem" in the Apocalypse, the visionary new city representing the peaceful Lamb's radiant "bride", God's eternal dwelling, has secure walls but eternally open gates in all directions. "The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there is no night there." (Revelation 21:24-25 NIV)

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

Sunday, December 25, 2016

On This First Day Of Christmas, We Pray For Christ To Be Born In Us Anew

I plan to repost daily prayers and reflections for each of the twelve days of Christmas. For this first day I borrow from John of the Cross (1542-1591):


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

From Hamlet Drive: A Hymn For Holy Night

Dearest family and friends,

It's been quite a year of blessings and losses, all of which, in God's grace, have become intertwined.

Harvey's beloved oldest sister Lovina passed away early this year, and a special grandnephew, Kendall Yoder, died in a car accident in April. This past spring Harvey, with Alma Jean's blessing, visited Costa Rica (with son Brad) to be with his oldest brother Sanford and wife Martha as guests at their family reunion. Alma Jean's LMH class of 1956 celebrated its 60th anniversary this fall, and she continues her ministry of love and care for numerous distressed people in our community.

We feel blessed beyond measure that we are still mostly well most of the time. And we thank God and offer daily prayers for our siblings, and for our three children and six grandchildren. We so celebrate and enjoy them all!

On this night of all nights we again share our favorite carol, one composed by French poet Placide Cappeau, who wrote it as "Cantique de Noël". In 1885 it was translated and set to music as "O Holy Night" by John Sullivan Dwight.

Here's our favorite part:

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

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

This is a message we want to live by in 2017 and in the short remaining years of our life.

Blessings to you all!

Harvey and Alma Jean

P.S. Click here to enjoy "O Holy Night" as sung by the Indianapolis Children and Youth Choirs.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Jesse T. Byler, 1928-90, Beloved Mentor And Friend

With two-year-old grandson Holden (photo by Daryl Byler)
Twenty-six years ago today the world lost one of the finest men I have ever known.

Jesse Byler died at 62 of a respiratory condition he had since childhood, when nine bouts of pneumonia in succession left his lungs permanently scarred. He left behind his good wife Betty and three grown children, Cheryl, Daryl and Judy.

I will always miss him as a memorable mentor and valued role model.

I learned to know Jesse when I was a student at Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU) and a dorm assistant for junior and senior guys attending Eastern Mennonite High School, where Jesse was then the school's principal.

It was Jesse who offered me my first career job in 1964, teaching upper level high school social studies and Bible classes and serving as Dean of Boys at EMHS. Fortunately for Alma Jean and I, newly married that summer, he selected her to teach Home Economics.

A year later, Jesse was instrumental in my receiving a call to serve as his assistant at Zion Mennonite Church near Broadway, where he was then their part time senior pastor.

This was my first experience in that kind of role, one I scarcely felt qualified for. But I couldn't have chosen a more understanding and supportive mentor, someone from whom I learned so much by his example as a caring pastor and Bible teacher.

One of the things that made his life so remarkable was that he accomplished all that he did in spite of his health condition, overcoming great odds in pursuing excellence as an educator and pastor. When he was advised to give up preaching in order to conserve his energy for a new assignment as head of EMC's education department, he encouraged me to accept an invitation to become senior pastor in his place on a half-time basis.

For the next twenty years, while I served in the dual roles of pastor at Zion and teacher at EMHS, Jesse and his good wife Betty remained loyal members of the congregation. When faced with a difficult challenge, I often turned to him for counsel or would ask myself, "What Would Jesse Do?".

Pastors staying on as members after resigning from a senior leadership role isn't usually recommended. And in deference to me, Jesse would have been willing to attend elsewhere for  an interim while I took over the lead pastoral role at Zion, taught some high school courses, and tried to find quality time with our family.

Needless to say,  I urged Jesse to stay, as the kind of person I felt I could ill afford to do without. And what a gracious friend and support both he and Betty proved to be, not only to me and to our family but to the whole congregational family he remained loyal to his whole life.

His wife Betty now lives at Park Place at the Virginia Retirement Community. One of their pastimes was putting jigsaw puzzles together. The following is a poem his oldest daughter wrote after her father's death.

Daddy, we'll put together
   your Christmas puzzle.
The one with the snow-covered
   peak, steep and stark.

You feared that last peak,
   afraid you might not
have the courage to battle
   up its slopes, not
have the strength to go on
   to the summit, that
your endurance would run
   out like the last
precious drops of your life-
   sustaining oxygen.

But Sunday when you stood on
   the foothills and looked
at the climb ahead, you smiled.
   You could do it, you said.
It was no different after all,
   from the other peaks
you've scaled, the other fears
   you've faced, the other
vistas that beckoned. Your
   last climb blended into
each preceding one and you
   entered dying with
the wholeness of your living.

So as we put these 3,000
   pieces together, we'll think of
you striding the ridge,
   breathing with delightful ease,
running with abandonment
   through the snow, freed of your
scarred, worn lungs.
   And we'll laugh with you.

Cheryl Byler Keeler
December 26, 1990

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Healthcare Nightmare For Virginia Inmates

A jail sentence can be a death sentence
An article in the December 10, 2016, Virginian-Pilot highlights a pattern of serious medical neglect and malpractice at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, one of two women's prisons in the state. 

This resulted in a 2012 lawsuit on behalf of female inmates for "failure to meet the minimum standards of medical care for inmates," according to the Pilot. The article goes on to report that a settlement was reached in which an outside monitor was appointed to oversee its healthcare services and "to bring the level of care up to the bare minimum a state must provide for those it imprisons," but added that "Fluvanna has yet to meet that standard, according to the independent monitor’s most recent report."

Perhaps the saddest example of that kind of neglect has to do with an inmate serving time on drug charges who had colostomy surgery due to a cancerous mass in her bowels. She went through enormous pain due to her condition and her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but was given inadequate pain medication and had to wait five months to return to U.Va. for a follow-up appointment in July of 2014, By that time she had developed a severe blood infection that had spread throughout her body, and "her tumor had grown through her buttocks and was continuing to enlarge outside her body".

Here's a link to the entire story:

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is investigating the Hampton Roads Regional Jail for recent cases of deaths resulting from lack of appropriate care for inmates suffering from mental and physical conditions.

The most well publicized of these was the case of a mentally disabled 24-year-old who died in August 2015 after losing 46 pounds over 101 days at the jail. His crime? Shoplifting $5 worth of snacks at a convenience store.

According to a piece in the Richmond Times, two other Hampton Roads inmates died recently after their requests for emergency medical care were denied.

Closer home, both the Rockingham/Harrisonburg and Middle River Regional Jails have received numerous complaints about inadequate medical and mental health care, though some recent steps have been taken to respond to persistent family and inmate complaints. These include long waits for receiving medical attention, unaffordable co-pays for medical and dental services that are available, and the use of outdated formularies for medications rather than inmates having access to the drugs prescribed by their doctors. 

One of the cases that has recently come to light at the RHRJ has been that of a woman who complained of severe pain for months and was later found to have advanced Stage IV cancer which should have been aggressively treated months earlier. Also, our local jail still defends its frequent use of a restraint chair or the isolated padded cell for "medical reasons" in some cases where an inmate is suicidally depressed.

The Middle River Jail, which houses over a hundred inmates from our area, was the subject of an extensive investigation by Channel 29 last year which cited a case of a woman dying in an isolated cell from lack of proper care, along with other cases of neglect and malpractice that resulted in painful and untimely deaths due to cancer.

It should be noted that the Middle River Jail has underspent its annual healthcare budgets by tens of thousands each year for the past decade, using the money saved in its general budget or returning some of it to the localities it serves. Here's a link for more information 
The Middle River Regional Jail Authority is currently under pressure to consider accreditation for its medical services through the National Commission On Correctional Healthcare. This could not be accomplished without cost, but could save tons of taxpayer money in helping avoid expensive lawsuits. It has also just received a $536,000 state grant for improving its mental health services, an encouraging development.

Please express your concerns to your City Council members or members of the Board of Supervisors.

Monday, December 19, 2016

How Giving Children Less May Bless Them More

from Amish wisdom website
I still remember how magical the number 25 seemed on the December calendar in the living room of my childhood home. Our farm family, consisting of two hard-working Amish parents and nine children, was dirt poor, but we celebrated Christmas in a way that could have warmed the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge himself.

Yet by today’s standards it was bare beyond belief. 

So why did we experience such a breath-stopping, adrenaline-rushing, sleep-denying anticipation of Christmas day?

Like other Amish families in our community, we had no Christmas tree, hung no holiday wreaths, displayed no Christmas lights. There were some pine cones and evergreen branches decorating our mantles and window sills, but that was about it. 

The carefully wrapped presents we had made or bought from our meager means were kept in hiding until Christmas morning. We each knew better than to look for such treasures in the weeks prior to the 25th. Snooping would have spoiled the fun and diminished the pleasure of our Advent waiting, wondering and guessing. 

The one gift from our parents we could always count on was a plate loaded with hard candy, nuts and an orange for each of us children. What made it priceless was that it was entirely our own, to be savored at leisure or consumed that very day if we wished. Other gifts from our parents were always a surprise, and especially in earlier years, were often homemade. 

For example, my older siblings remember that once during the Depression (just before my time) my mother made each child a pair of mittens from some reused flannel material. That was their main present. At other times there were homemade rag dolls or doll clothes, or hand made toy tractors or blocks. And it was not unusual to receive practical gifts like socks, scarves or gloves as well.

In later years there might be jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, a set of Tinkertoys or other inexpensive playthings to be shared. Once, wonder of wonders, my Dad splurged on a small wind-up train set for the whole family to enjoy--including himself, of course, an avid train lover and still a child at heart.

Since our trips to town were few and our allowances non-existent, we siblings often made things for each other, like a scrapbook of pictures, an embroidered handkerchief, or a wooden knickknack of some kind, carefully sanded and varnished. Or we gathered up our meager savings and shopped at one the of 5 & 10 cent stores in Waynesboro or Staunton. We knew that each small gift would be cause for great celebration. 

Family devotions on Christmas morning always included the reading of a nativity text, the timeless tale of poor folks like ourselves who were caught up in an event that still heralded “good tidings of great joy” 2000 years later. And like every other morning of the year, we knelt together in our living room as my father led in a prayer of blessing.

Today, when I compare these memories with our current Christmases, involving grandchildren surrounded by mounds of wrapping paper and boxes after having opened an abundance of battery-operated and other purchased items, I can’t help wonder who really had the most fun.

With fewer possessions, it takes very little to provide a bundle of pleasure. Each gift is priceless. Add a few more, and the result is even more delight.  But at some point the pleasure curve peaks, levels, and may actually decline. In our efforts to give our children and grandchildren everything we didn’t have, we may fail to give them some of the good things we did have, like experiencing great blessing in receiving small gifts.  

And like a greater capacity for joy itself.

This is adapted from the column I wrote for the Winter, 2011, issue of LIVING magazine.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

A Wave Of Giving For Refugee Relief?

The crisis in Aleppo calls for a massive outpouring of aid
Some fifty community members of diverse faiths, ethnic groups and nationalities met together in sub freezing weather at the Court Square in Harrisonburg recently. We were together to stand in solidarity with those suffering in the cold and hunger in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria and the Middle East.

That's the easy part.

While the present situation there may be beyond our ability to comprehend, it's not beyond our ability to respond to with an outpouring of compassion. We need to pray for them, yes, but then give as though our neighbors' lives depended on it.

Here are just a few of the reputable organizations through which we can offer generous help:

Mennonite Central Committee:
(You can also contribute to MCC by clicking on the "Make a Donation" link at the bottom of the Virginia Relief Sale website

Oxfam International:

International Rescue Committee:

Islamic Relief, USA:

Here's a link to a facebook page with a video of some of last night's gathering:

Check out this guide to giving to Middle East relief aid:

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Still One of My Favorite Christmas Pageants
In Barbara Robinson’s "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," six members of the Herdman family, "absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world," somehow finagle their way into getting lead parts in the Second Presbyterian Church’s annual Christmas play. It was a tadition that hadn’t seen any changes for as long as anyone could remember.

But to these uninhibited, stringy-haired newcomers to the church, everything in the story was new, and represented high drama. Pint-sized Gladys, who got the part of the "Angel of the Lord,’" bellows out, "Hey, Unto you a child is born!" as though it was indeed the most urgent news in the world. Leroy, one of the Wise Men, brings in the Herdman’s food-basket ham as his gift for the Christ child (instead of the fake gold, frankincense and myrrh he considered an unworthy offering). And terrible Imogene, as Mary, protested in practice, "You mean they tie him up and put him in a feedbag? Where was the Child Welfare?" (the Herdman’s knew all about Child Welfare). 

But on the night of the play--one everyone thought would be ruined by the Herdmans--scraggly little Imogene Herdman was awestruck.

"In the candlelight her face was all shiny with tears and she didn’t even bother to wipe them away. She just sat there--awful old Imogene--in her crookedy veil, crying... as if she had just caught onto the idea of God, and the wonder of Christmas." 

Maybe we all, like the Herdman’s, need to start over, hear and experience the story afresh.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Let's Keep Christ Out Of Our Christmas Excesses

A tree in Jesus's honor in a giant shopping mall
What do our children's lavish observances of Christmas, Easter and Halloween, along with our celebrations of their birthdays and graduations, have in common?

They've all become associated with getting lots more stuff, more calories, more cash.

Family members, friends or neighbors are usually the indulgent givers, sometimes in the guise of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy. It's what everyone comes to expect, and expectations tend to keep rising, fueled by a massive holiday marketing machine.

Not that all giving and receiving gifts should be eliminated. There is a sense in which all of life is one big gift exchange, each of us being in a state of lifelong interdependence with others in our families, communities and world neighborhoods. An occasional celebration marked by our giving each other gifts isn't necessarily a bad thing.

But spending ourselves into debt every year to buy ever more things for our children (and for other folks who already have everything they could possibly need) seems antithetical to what the first Christmas was all about.

So here's a modest proposal: What if we were to separate the exchanging of presents we do among ourselves--as in blessing our children and each other with some life-enhancing gifts--from the Christmas giving we do in the name of Christ and for the "least of these"? It is, after all, to such that Jesus would instruct us to give gifts to honor him, on his birthday or on any day, not each other.

The former we could do, complete with festively wrapped gifts and elaborately decorated trees on, say, the winter solstice, on December 21. Then we could do the latter on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day, as we 1) celebrate good tidings of great joy, 2) take time to thank God for our many blessings, and 3) plan how we will lavish Jesus with generous gifts throughout the year.

In other words, if we really want to observe what local JMU professor William C. Wood has called "Merry Excessment", we would separate it from our celebration of "Holy Nativity" or "Feliz Navidad".

I love the following by Arna Njaa, a Lutheran poet and author:

I faced my Lord and asked, 
"Would you have me give you gold, frankincense and myrrh?"

He turned his eyes of love out to the hungry world and said,
"Your gold is good for buying bread;
Your frankincense turns into acts of love;
And myrrh, the tenderness I would have you show
To all my children here below
Who hatred and injustice know.
To heal their hurt is finest gold,
To love them, frankincense,
To make them whole is myrrh indeed.
Whatsoever you do for the least of these
Is a gift to me."

That describes a kind of birthday celebration Jesus could truly get excited about.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Let's Make America Welcoming Again

The Daily News-Record published the following piece on its editorial page today.

Among other things, Christmas is a story about homeless and travel weary asylum seekers. 

According to Luke’s gospel, a Middle Easterner and his pregnant young wife are compelled to take a weeklong journey to Bethlehem due to an imperial order. Upon their arrival, the refugee couple is met with rejection rather than finding accommodations and welcome in their time of need.

As if this weren’t enough, the couple is then forced to undertake an even longer journey, this time through a desert and with an infant child, in order to escape King Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” and to find temporary safe haven in Egypt.

Thus the holiday season reminds us that God, in the guise of needy sojourners, continues to seek refuge and welcome in an inhospitable world. Advent is a good time to remember that in caring for the migrant, the stranger, the undocumented and the desperate, we are embodying the spirit of the Leviticus text which says, “You shall treat the strangers who sojourn with you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Currently, around 15 percent of Harrisonburg’s population is foreign-born, and the number of languages spoken in the city now approaches 50. Local first generation immigrants work hard every day as vital tax-paying members of our community, with an impressive number of them entrepreneurs whose businesses benefit our diverse economy.

At its August 24, 2016, meeting, the Harrisonburg City Council unanimously agreed to join the national “Welcoming America” initiative as supported by Faith In Action, an interfaith coalition of congregations in the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. In doing so, the Friendly City joined some 70 other jurisdictions, including nearby Roanoke, in officially welcoming worthy immigrants, moving here by choice, and needy refugees, driven from their homes due to persecution or war.

A Welcoming America City or County is one which:

Plans: All relevant sectors, such as government, business, nonprofit, and others, work together to create a welcoming community climate that supports long-term integration.

Commits: Municipalities commit to institutionalize strategies ensuring the ongoing inclusion and long-term economic and social integration of newcomers.

Builds Community: Newcomers and long-time residents find common ground and shared leadership.

Communicates: Messages of unity and shared values permeate the community through the media, through the voices of leaders, and among residents.

Sustains: Policies and practices are considered to ensure interactions between new and longtime residents remain positive ones and the community’s economic vitality remains strong.

I continue to hope that the County Board of Supervisors, for years blessed with an outstanding Cuban immigrant as its chairman, will join the growing number of congregations in the city and county extending this kind of welcome.

Amid growing reports of anti-Hispanic, anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments causing fear and insecurity among children and adults everywhere, we should all, individuals, congregations and public entities together, join in the ageless song of ‘peace on earth and goodwill toward all.’


If you wish to support the County becoming a part of the Welcoming America initiative, you may contact the current members of the Board of Supervisors:

Mike Breeden, District 5, (chair)
William Kyger, Jr. District 4, (vice chair)
Pablo Cuevas, District 1, 
Fred Eberly, District 2, 
Rick Chandler, District 3,

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Please Free Deserving Ex-Offenders

There is virtually no precedent in history for confining people in steel and concrete cages for life, a practice that is in many ways as cruel as a death sentence. The following was recently sent to me by an inmate at Buckingham Correctional Center:

Dear Governor Terrance McAuliffe:

Annually the President of the United States pardons turkeys. Why can't you as the Governor of Virginia pardon some humans who have proven that they are rehabilitated? Shouldn't it be considered unjust to continue to keep individuals incarcerated once they have successfully completed their DOC mandated education, programs, and vocational trades and are no longer a substantial risk to the community? 

Code of Virginia section 53.1-155 states that a thorough investigation will be made by the Parole Board of an inmate's history, physical/mental condition, character, conduct, employment and attitude while in prison. 

Here are just a few parole eligible prisoners who were sentenced prior to the January 1, 1995 implementation of Virginia's "No Parole" law and who continue to receive "Not Grant" reports from the Virginia Parole Board.

1). RONALD ANTHONY BLAIR, #1137599 - born, c. 1957 - incarcerated in 1987. Mr. Blair, housed in the Honor Housing Unit, has been a model prisoner throughout his incarceration.

2). ROBERT DAVIS FITCHETT, JR., #1035660 - born, September 29, 1963 - Mr. Fitchett was fifteen years young when he committed his crime in 1979 and was sentenced to two life sentences plus 21 years, but with the prospect of earning early parole release. The judge who sentenced him said that if he did well in prison he would "soon be able to walk the streets again". As you can see, this is not the case. Robert's family and lawyer saw the board on Tuesday the 5th of July and on Sunday the 10th of July their "Not Grant" decision was made which left only three working days to investigate his case. Robert has not received an infraction in approximately twenty-five (25) years, but each time the Board receives a victim impact statement, he automatically receives a three-year deferral (7-consecutive which equals 21 years) regardless of what Robert has achieved while incarcerated. Robert has been a model prisoner, having been housed for years in an Honor Housing Unit and has worked over twelve years for Virginia Correctional Enterprises at Buckingham.

3). RONALD GRIFFIN, #1165808 - born, c. 1962. Mr. Griffin has also been a model prisoner throughout his incarceration.

4). KENNETH RAY PACK, #1063808 - born, March 18, 1950, incarcerated since 1991. Mr. Pack has likewise been a model prisoner throughout his incarceration.

5). CLARENCE DUKE REYNOLDS, #1174999 - born, June 26, 1949. Mr. Reynolds committed his crime January 21, 1991. He has worked as the Chaplains Assistant and Clerk for numerous years, and is a model prisoner.

6). MINOR JUNIOR SMITH, #1158588 - born, May 3, 1946. Mr. Smith, legally Blind since the age of five, committed his crime in August 24, 1971. He is the author of an autobiography, "ABUSED", and writes poetry about his abuse as a child and his many years of mental, physical and sexual abuse since his incarceration. He is a certified Braille transcriber and has has been a model prisoner throughout the 45 years he has been incarcerated.

7). JENS SOERING, #1161655 - born c. 1966. Mr. Soering, originally from Germany is an award-winning author of nine books he's written while incarcerated  He insists he is innocence, and the primary investigator of his criminal case now agrees in light of recently uncovered new evidence. He too has been a model prisoner throughout his incarceration. 

8). ALLAN NOAH SPITZER, JR., #1110939 - born, June 20, 1949. Mr. Spitzer was arrested for aiding and abetting a murder and robbery in 1985. Allan is also a model prisoner and a trusted worker with Virginia Correctional Enterprises as a shipping clerk.

9). CHARLES EDWARD ZELLERS, SR., #1036758 - born April 10, 1968. Mr. Zellers accepted an Alford Plea and has been incarcerated since January 24, 1993. Charles is also a model prisoner and has worked for Virginia Correctional Enterprises for numerous years as a supervisor in the T-molding/Table Top and Open Plan Systems Department. He would like to have a statewide database kept with jail and prison inmates complaints and grievances listed. Charles has a passion for making Virginia a better state through the treatment and through computer, job and vocational training, and has educated school students about crime, laws and punishment. This is his first time in prison.

I pray that you will require the parole board members to have compassion and start granting parole to the old-law discretionary eligible prisoners who have successfully completed their DOC mandated treatment and have proven while incarcerated to no longer being a threat to their communities. The parole grant rate in 1994 was around 44% and now it is only 1 or 2 %. Why pay millions of dollars annually to keep "corrected" inmates in prison?


A Virginia inmate

Note: The Parole Board's October release rate was a mere 8 inmates of over 200 cases reviewed for the state's Department of Corrections. A Department of Education with that kind of graduation rate would be considered a total failure.

Here's a link to contact the governor:

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Why Are So Few U.S. Churches Named After John The Baptist?

Perhaps not the kind of shrine John would have chosen?
According to our local phone directory there are numerous churches with names of spiritual greats, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Saints Michael, Andrew, James and Stephen; and the Saints Peter, Paul and Mary.

But why so few named after St. John the Baptist? The only one I know in our area is a Catholic parish in Front Royal. Then there is the well known shrine to him in Jerusalem (above), an elaborate Franciscan Church of John the Baptist built at the supposed site of his birth.

A wilderness-based preacher
Assuming that a congregation's name is meant to express something of its mission and message, why don't more churches choose to embody the revolutionary life and preaching of this renowned prophet and preacher? Especially since his primary purpose (like that of the church) was to announce to all the worldwide reign of Jesus?

Here are some ways such a church might define itself:

Mission: We exist to announce regime change. We are here to embody the just and transformative Rule of Heaven being established right here on earth, as incarnated in the life, teaching, death and death-overcoming reign of King Jesus.

Message: We emphasize a complete and profound change of life, enlisting people into the Reign of God Movement through the initiation rite of baptism. We urge everyone, from the lowliest to the greatest, to change their ways, to get in line with God's plan to make all crooked places straight and to make of all mountains of privilege a level plain, and of announcing heaven's shalom, salvation, liberation and justice to all.

Lifestyle: We will identify with those who own little rather than those who hoard much. If we have more than we need, we will share with those who have less, meanwhile living simply, frugally and generously.

Community Rapport: While we pray for deliverance from severe tests, we will expect opposition, unpopularity, persecution and even death, knowing that nothing can ultimately defeat God's saving work in the world he created--and came to restore and redeem.


The following is from one of last Sunday's lectionary texts:

John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy:

Thunder in the desert!
Prepare for God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!

John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.

When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.

- Matthew 3:3-10 (the Message)

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Yes, We Americans Are Very Generous Givers

An open letter to our Global South neighbors: 

In spite of all you may have heard to the contrary, we Americans really do give very liberally. Many of us even outdo the poor widow in the Bible who offers up her last penny. In fact, we often give so far beyond our last penny that we have to max out our Visa cards in order to keep up our rate of giving.

Unfortunately, not much of that generosity benefits charities or our local churches. In the latter department, we Christians north of the Rio Grande contribute an average of only about 3% of our incomes. And of that money, usually well over one-half goes for things like air conditioning, heating, maintenance and mortgage costs for the buildings in which we worship and fellowship (that's for about two hours a week unless we’re on one of our weekend vacations), and to cover the salaries of those we hire to care for, lead and teach members of our own congregations. So we hope this explains why so little of our 3% charitable giving can actually go to meet the needs of the poor in our communities or those to the south of us.  

To be honest, the bulk of our really cheerful giving is done at places like Wal-Mart, K-Mart and the nearby Quick-Mart. We do love to shop, and tend to give most generously for things like pet food, snack food, junk food, convenience food and for the array of fine foods available at our favorite delis and restaurants, much of it imported from countries like yours where labor is cheap (thanks for that, by the way). And we also contribute large sums to the automobile and oil industries, so that we now have more licensed vehicles to fuel and maintain than we have licensed drivers to drive them. In addition, we willingly give more and more of our incomes to banks and furniture outlet stores for our ever larger and more comfortably furnished homes.

You might wonder, Does all of this giving reflect our real values? 

Actually, yes. Each time any of us gives another offering at yet another cash register, we are saying that, at that moment at least, we consider that product or service well worth the investment. In the same way, when it comes to offering our gifts to God, as an expression of our love for our Creator and for our neighbors, we are also stating, quite specifically, the actual dollar value that represents for us. 

You may wonder if we are ever bothered by where all our money goes, and how quickly it's gone. Or that every year, most of us in the US contribute far more to our nation’s military budget than we do to our church’s missionary budget. 

I'll admit we do feel a little bothered now and then, living as we do in one of the wealthiest and most heavily armed countries in the world. And yet, for whatever reason, God, unlike our local and national governments, doesn’t actually force any tribute from us, like through some Eternal Revenue Service. Is that a great religion or what? 

So what do you think you would you do if you were in our very privileged shoes?