Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Oldest Brother Writes About Race 60 Years Ago

Sanford Yoder, at 87
At the height of the racial conflicts following the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision, my brother Sanford had the following piece published in the English section of the October 15, 1957, Amish Mennonite publication, Herald der Wahrheit (Herald of Truth). For someone who grew up in a deeply segregated state (Virginia), he was clearly ahead of his time, and what he says is very relevant for the racial animosity that rears its ugly head today. 

Sanford was 27 when he wrote this piece, which I have edited slightly for brevity.

Segregation or Integration?
Sanford Yoder 10/15/57

The national and possibly the international spotlight is on the desegregation contention in Little Rock (Arkansas), Nashville (Tennessee), and other hotspots in the South. In Little Rock, Governor Orval Faubus set National Guard troops around Central High School, a school of 2000, to keep Negro pupils, who had been told by the school board to enroll there, from entering, and thus has gone directly against the Federal Court order, which creates a serious national problem. In Nashville a large elementary school was dynamited by segregationists because one colored child was enrolled in the first grade.

Feelings seem to be mounting, creating mobs bent on violence, manifested in throwing rocks, jeering, mocking and spitting on passing Negroes. This is a sad state of affairs. One thing commendable in this whole situation is the spirit of humility which the Negroes as a rule have manifested in the face of these harassments, and in some cases, cruelty.

Who is right, Governor Faubus or Judge Davies of the Federal Court? those who want integration or the segregationists? the North or the South? the white or the colored? On which side are we?

We as Christians should not be involved in civil conflicts... It is up to the powers ordained of God for the purpose of maintaining law and order in the world to settle this, and not the church (Romans 13:1-4).

But some of us may have allowed this unregenerate world to influence us into believing that the colored race is inferior to the white and therefore should not be permitted an equal fellowship with us.

And while the Word of God very emphatically teaches that Christians are to have "no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness..." it does not mention the race of people. We should have no more to do with the evil deeds of a white man than a colored man, and should have as much to do with, and be as concerned about, an unregenerate colored man as if he were white, Indian or Chinese.

Separation of the church and the world must always be maintained... But the Bible certainly does not teach segregation of the races in God's family. Christians of all races are one in Christ, who has bought us all with the same price, his own precious blood... "Wherefore there is neither Greek or Jew, circumcision or uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free; but Christ is all, and in all." (Colossians 3:11)

Our Anabaptist forefathers believed this, as we can see by our 1632 Confession of Faith, which was written in the face of persecution and hardships. We still accept it because it is based on the inspired Word of God. Article V. states, "...he has caused this Testament be proclaimed in his name, through his beloved apostles, messengers and servants... to all nations people and tongues... that all men without distinction, if they are obedient, by faith... are his children and rightful heirs."

We are so thankful for the all-inclusiveness of the Gospel of Christ, because, were it not so, we too would no doubt be excluded.

We do not hold to this belief just because the United States Supreme Court in 1954 ruled that segregation of the races is unconstitutional and made integration the law of the land (although we do believe in respecting the laws of the land), but we believe it because it is the message of the gospel of Christ. The apostle Peter, in his experience on the housetop of Simon the tanner, was shown this truth in a vision, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." (Acts 10:15)

Some are afraid of what this attitude will do to our witness to the world. Beloved, this love for everyone, white, black, red, yellow, and even those who don't believe this, is our witness to a world filled with hatred and prejudice.
Woodberry Forest, Virginia
For the past five decades Sanford and his wife Martha have been self-supporting church planters in Costa Rica. At 87, Sanford still writes an occasional piece for the La Antorcha de la Verdad (The Torch of Truth), distributed widely over Central and South America, and for a book of daily devotional readings published here in the states, Beside the Still Waters.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Our Deep-Seated Need To Be Remembered

This is only one small section of some 80 acres of cemetery in Beckley, WV.
"Every headstone, every book, every sculpture, every song, every building, every award, are all just the same thing... the individual crying, 'I was here.' And yet everyone of us, given the passage of enough time, is forgotten." 

To celebrate our 53rd wedding anniversary, Alma Jean and I spent some time in Beckley, WV, this past week visiting the Tamarack arts and crafts center, the New River Bridge Visitors Center and other sites in this scenic area of West Virginia.

But we almost missed something nearly as amazing right next to the EconoLodge on Harper Road where we were staying, the historic Sunset Memorial Park.

I'm always intrigued by cemeteries, so I decided this would be a great place to walk for some daily exercise, but I was totally unprepared for what I saw when I crested the first hill on the property. Before me was over a half mile of seemingly endless cemetery stones and mausoleums of every size, shape and design, some marking burials of over 200 years ago. 

I was told that over 19,000 people are buried there from all over Raleigh County and the surrounding area, a larger number than those currently living in Beckley itself.

Walking in that vast area of memorial stones reminded me of how all of us want to somehow leave some footprints, some markers of our journey here on earth. As humans, it is not only death itself that we want to avoid or delay, but we fervently wish not be forgotten after we are gone.

My faith and hope tell me that no good life, no good deed, no good person will ever be lost forever, and will live on in ways more significant than can be captured on any gravestone.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

In Mending Relationships, Put Acceptance First

Be accepting in dealing with people, but assertive in dealing with problems.    

There are many conditions for living in relationships that require serious negotiation, but there should be no conditions for loving. This means that accepting others as persons of incomparable value needs to be our starting point in repairing relationships, not something withheld until some end point when all problems have been resolved.

Here is a handout I often give to couples in marital counseling:


1. There is no other and no better place to begin in restoring and healing our relationship than where we are right now.

We will not remain stuck where we are, but we will begin from where we are.

We accept where we are as a good starting place.

2. There are no other or better persons to work with in this process than the two of us, with our unique mix of human weaknesses and special strengths.

We are not perfect, but we are each lovable, respectable and precious human beings 
who are capable of growth and change.

We accept who we are as individuals who can make this happen.

3. There is no other or better time to begin this work than right now.

The possibilities for our future are limitless. 
The problems in our past are important only as experiences we can learn and grow from.

We accept the challenge to invest our faith and our energy into working at this every day.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Mennonite Editor Is Charged With Sedition

Wars often put American rights at risk.
In the middle of World War I, on June 15, 1917, the highly controversial Espionage Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by US President Woodrow Wilson.

The Act provided for a penalty of up to 20 years in prison for anyone convicted of interfering with military recruitment, and it imposed a penalty of up to $10,000 (over $166,000 in today's dollars) for anyone convicted of doing so. It also gave additional powers to the Postmaster General to confiscate any mail that could be considered "seditious or treasonable".

As a part of a senior history project years ago I did some research on how this dramatically impacted the Mennonite publisher of a weekly newspaper, the Sugarcreek (Ohio) Budget, a paper still widely circulated in Amish and Mennonite communities across the US. At the time editor Samuel H. Miller, who was also a preacher heavily involved in church work, was delegating a lot of the responsibility for his paper to his linotype operator, A. A. Middaugh.

While Miller was in Pennsylvania for meetings, Middaugh printed a rather lengthy letter in the May, 15, 1918, issue of the Budget that was written by M. E. Bontrager of Dodge City, Kansas. It was just one of scores of newsy letters from readers published regularly in the paper each week, but this one read as follows:

How are we meeting the great problems confronting us? Shall we weaken under the test or are we willing to put all our trust in our dear Savior? ....Our young brethren in camp were tested first. Let us take a lesson from their faithfulness. They sought exemption (from military service) on the grounds that they belonged to a church which forbids is members the bearing of arms or participating in war in any form. Now we are asked to buy Liberty Bonds, the form in which the government has to carry on the war. Sorry to learn that some of the Mennonites have yielded and bought the bonds. What would happen to the nonresistant faith if our young brethren in camp would yield? From letters I received from brethren in camp I believe they would be willing to die for Jesus rather than betray Him. Let us profit by their example they have set for us so far, and pray God may strengthen them in the future. Many people can't understand why we don't want to defend our country... (by taking up arms).

As a result of this exercise of free speech and freedom of the press, editor Miller was charged with "inciting and attempting to incite insubordination, disloyalty and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States, in publishing in the newspaper known as the Weekly Budget, which was distributed to certain people, among them were A. A. Kauffman and others..." The result was his having to pay fines and court costs totaling $900, which would be the equivalent of nearly $15,000 today.

So much for the First Amendment. And Editor Miller, a traumatized man, soon sold his paper and got out of the publishing business for good.

While the Espionage Act of 1917 is no longer applied in the same manner it was when first enacted, it has never been repealed, and so technically remains in effect today.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Are We Ready To Fund Truly Pro-Life Policies?

At the very least, we should inflict no harm.
According to an article in the July 24 issue of TIME magazine, "The United Patients of America", many Americans are increasingly conflicted in the current debate over healthcare.

An example is that of Alison Chandra, a pediatric nurse who has a three-year-old son with heterotaxy, an extremely rare condition in which he was born with multiple heart defects, two left lungs and five spleens.

According to the article, while Alison and her son are currently covered by her husband's employee health plan, the likely return of lifetime caps under any proposed replacement of Obamacare would make their child virtually uninsurable. His care has already cost nearly $2 million, and their son's future prospects are grim at best, but without health insurance coverage there would be little hope for him.

Chandra, who is strongly pro-life, laments, "Those who would have crucified me for aborting my child now want to make it impossible for me to keep him alive."

Herein lies the dilemma. With ever more advances in means of saving the lives of those who in the past would have had no chance of survival, who will pay the astronomical costs for their treatment?

For me, the answer is simple. Let's make deep cuts in our spending on massive means of military destruction and reinvest that money in saving all of the precious lives we can.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Guest Response To Patrick Buchanan Column "Are We Still A Nation?"

Were the original colonists a monolithic group?
The following is an excellent response written by local playwright and producer Jay Zehr:

Pat Buchanan's recent column described the United States as originally consisting of one people descended from the same white ancestors, practicing the same religion and all speaking the same language.

This is total fantasy.  Historian James Stuart Olson describes the colonies in 1776 as “a cultural kaleidoscope of three races and dozens of ethnic and religious groups." Multiple European languages were still spoken. In the 1790 census nearly one fifth of the population was of African descent. West of the Appalachians there were still significant numbers of indigenous people.  

Had the U.S. immediately implemented the principle of all men being created equal with inalienable rights (including the long established principles of property rights) the U.S. would now look entirely different.

Buchanan also disparages contemporary religious diversity. But that's hardly new. Among the faiths he cites, the LDS church was established in 1830. Jews are only 2.2 percent of the population, Muslims just one percent, Hindus and Buddhists even less. Does that really represent a national existential crisis? A large majority of Americans still identify as Christian. The percentage is even higher among Hispanic immigrants. 

And the conflicts between different branches of Christianity was much worse in the eighteenth century. It's amazing that Pat Buchanan, a Catholic, waxes nostalgic about John Jay describing early Americans as all "professing the same religion."  

John Jay was notoriously anti-Catholic and suggested the image of a "wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics." He opposed civil liberties for Catholics unless they renounced their "wicked...and damnable doctrine."  Catholics were discriminated against throughout the colonies. Priests could be arrested for entering Virginia. The pro-Catholic provision of the Quebec Act was a major factor leading to the American Revolution.  

Fortunately for Mr. Buchanan, the principle of liberty for minority faiths prevailed and he is free to practice Catholicism. Yet he now implies that the presence of a very small number of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists is contributing to a supposed collapse of the nation.

Of course, xenophobia is hardly new. Consider this quote: 

"Few of their children in the country learn English... The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages ... Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."  

That's Benjamin Franklin writing about German immigrants who he considered a different ethnicity.  Many of our ancestors that Buchanan suggests we venerate would have never made it to these shores had that sentiment prevailed.  

So yes, Mr. Buchanan. We have major conflicts in the U.S. But we still have a nation.  The United States of America  has survived much worse. With positive leadership instead of constant doomsaying we still can.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Brad's Latest Song: "You Can't Fix Everything"

Our son Brad's most recent song sends a strong message about limits in life, a word I need to hear and heed. Maybe I should consider putting its title on my tombstone. 
Read the lyrics below and/or listen to it on his website:

you can’t fix everythingUse Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.

you always try your best to clean up every mess,
though you’ve had much success,
you can’t fix everything,
so quick to roll your sleeves, before you even grieve,
as if you don’t believe that
you can’t fix everything
there are things in this world, when they’re gone, they’re just gone
there ain’t no magic words gonna save them,
just a boy and a girl, 7 holes in their hearts,
where were you gonna start to repair them?
I’ve got this private hell, in case you couldn’t tell?
so I remind myself, hey,
you can’t fix everything
pick up each broken dream, examine every seam,
glue where the fracture’s clean but
you can’t fix everything
many things in this world, when they’re lost, they’re just lost
there’s no cost you can pay to replace them,
I’ll fly my heart at half-mast for the love that can’t last,
7 holes in the song we were playing,
but we knew that, yeah, we knew that..
a string tied around my wrist, so I will not forget
the way you whispered it:
“you can’t fix everything…”

Brad is a singer-songwriter in Pittsburgh.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Reflections On A Virginia Conference Assembly

In the introduction to Amish farmer and minister David Kline’s book, “Letters From Larksong,” are these words by one of his friends, poet Wendell Berry:

.... my friend David Kline told me,
"It falls strangely on Amish ears,
This talk of how you find yourself.
We Amish, after all, don't try
To find ourselves. We try to lose
Ourselves"--and thus are lost within
The found world of sunlight and rain
Where fields are green and then are ripe,
And the people eat together by
The charity of God, who is kind
Even to those who give no thanks.

Our July 20-22 Virginia Mennonite Conference Assembly proved to be another great time of uplifting worship, inspirational messages and meeting with friends and fellow believers I've grown to love and appreciate over my past fifty years of ministry.

Sadly, VMC, like many other Mennonite communions across the land, is faced with some dwindling numbers due to individuals and congregations leaving the church for a variety of reasons. This brings about feelings of grief over the "loss of loved ones", sisters and brothers who've been so much a part of our church family. We're all left with fears over how we might stem these losses.

This year's assembly theme was "Neighbors: Strangers No More", a special focus on the church reaching out to include new immigrants, refugees and other alienated and disenfranchised people in our communities. The evening services and all of the workshops highlighted these concerns.

In our delegate sessions, however, we largely went about business as usual, as in dealing with finances, discussing church policies, and trying to find consensus on the wording of our conference's vision statement. Good things to think about, and in some ways all important. But I couldn't help but wonder, what would happen if we were to spend the bulk of our business session time in how to extravagantly invest ourselves and our resources in the service of others, and less on efforts to define and preserve ourselves and our future as a conference?

In other words, might Jesus' admonitions about not saving or preserving our personal lives (but to take radical risks of losing them) also apply to our corporate lives as churches and church institutions?

I love my church family, and so much want to see it preserved. But Jesus's way of accomplishing this may be counterintuitive. He would have us save ourselves not so much by building, staffing and financing our programs and institutions, but by radically giving ourselves and our assets away.

Just like He did.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Parable Of The Terrible Tares

"While everyone was asleep, someone sowed weed seeds 
among the wheat."
One of last Sunday's scripture texts included Jesus's story of someone planting a field of wheat, then having an enemy sow noxious weed seeds in that field while the farmer slept.

When the owner of the field was asked by his servants whether they should root out the unwanted weeds he told them to wait for the harvest to separate the good from the bad.

In explaining the parable's meaning, Jesus says the field is the world, the wheat represents God's people and the weeds, evildoers. Let them both grow together, he said, until God separates them at the last judgment.

This passage has been a source of confusion for those who assume this means that the church therefore exercises no discernment as to who is a follower of Jesus and who is not. This would contradict what is taught in passages like Matthew 18 and other texts which counsel us to meet with a erring person privately to bring about restoration, then if needed take another caring person with us to make another appeal, then involve the whole congregation if necessary to discern whether that person is to remain loved and cared for as a member or to be loved and re-evangelized equally warmly as an outsider. The church continues to love and care in either case.

But this parable is not about the church but about the world. In other words, followers of Jesus are not to go about seeking and destroying God's enemies, going after unbelievers or persecuting members of ISIS or others who are clearly living in ways that are counter to the life and teachings of Jesus. Let God be the judge of all outsiders, Jesus is saying, meanwhile we are to go about the business of simply being a faithful community of Jesus followers.

The field is the world.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The High (And Hidden) Costs Of Incarceration--Guest Post by Julie Bender

Add caption
The following is based on research done by Julie Bender, a member of the local Valley Justice Coalition:

“Jim," age 20, is serving a six-month sentence at the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail, charged with grand larceny. It appears he may have been under the influence of street drugs and/or Xanax at the time of the offense, not fully comprehending the trouble he was causing its consequences.

One might ask whether options other than incarceration should have been considered. If so, the following questions might have been considered:

● What would appropriate consequences be for breaking and entering a private home and stealing a used flat screen TV? In Jim’s case, this resulted in a charge of grand larceny. States other than Virginia have raised the threshold for grand larceny to $1000, so the charges in another community most likely would have been considered simple larceny. However in Virginia, the threshold is still $200, thus the charge of grand larceny.

● What damages were done to the home, at what cost for repairs?  

● How might this young man be held responsible for his misbehavior?  

● How might he realize the effect of his actions on the victim or community and “make things right?"

● How might he best learn about the effects of his ongoing use of drugs?

These questions might have resulted in other alternatives: a suspended sentence, probation, fine, counseling, community service, house arrest, drug treatment, or restorative approaches, where Jim would have been supported in facing his victim and working out a plan to repair the harm done, both relationally and financially.

One might even ask whether other alternatives to incarceration might have been more readily accessible if he had been a Caucasian male rather than a "person of color".

At the time of this writing, Jim has already served five months of incarceration, at a cost per inmate of some $26,000 per year.  Meanwhile he owes thousands in court and attorney fees he needs to be able to pay off. In addition, his time behind bars has cost his family approximately $200 a month for supplemental nutritious food, toiletries and medical copays, along with thefamily having to pay $1 a day for "jail rent".  

Minimum wages lost in this six-month time period would add up to $7800.  

Financial costs for the time it will take for Jim to get re-established with a job, housing, and transportation will likely fall on parents for at least the first year, and possibly through his entire three years of probation.  Should he take to the streets and become homeless, the costs would then fall on the community. 

And then there are the hidden "social” costs of Jim's incarceration:

● the likelihood that he will reoffend, given that his underlying drug issues were not addressed;

● the effects on Jim's younger siblings, particularly an at-risk teenage brother;

● the stigma Jim now faces, with his crime history, in finding work, housing, enlisting in the armed services, further education, and marriage;

● the criminogenic effect of incarceration, which reinforces maladaptive behavior and survival strategies.  In Jim’s case, these could include:
    • learned helplessness;
    • learned violence, in order to defend oneself against other inmates;
    • learning (from other inmates) how to make methamphetamines;
    • disrespect for authority and for other humans;
    • the role modeling (sometimes constructive, often not) observed from the jail staff in  authority over him.  
These are troubling questions and issues posed by only one young adult experiencing incarceration and facing the future. What if we multiply them by 337 (juvenile population projected in 2017) or 18,000 (adult population in local jails in Virginia projected in 2017?  

What are those implications for our community and our state?

Click on Comments below for an engaging response.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream... For A Big Health Hazard?

A pint of Trader Joe's Premium Chocolate
As long as I can remember, I've always loved ice cream, a treat we didn't often get to indulge in when I was growing up.

Last weekend Alma Jean and I were enjoying some of this addictively delicious frozen fare with our son Brad and one of his apartment mates.

At least "enjoyed" seemed like the right word until I read the Nutrition Facts label on the pint of Trader Joe's Ultra Chocolate Premium in front of me. The "Facts" I read there were cause for alarm, especially since they were based on a serving of a mere half cup (105g) of this favorite dessert:

Total Fat 16g                24% of daily value
Saturated Fat 10g      48% of daily value
Cholesterol 65mg      22% of daily value

This was doubly distressing in light of the fact that I'd like to lose some weight and that my doctor has prescribed some Lipitor to reduce my cholesterol.

Then there was the additional realization that my normal "serving" of this favorite type of dessert is likely to be in excess of a full cup rather than a paltry half.

So, sad to say, my lifelong love affair with ice cream, especially the premium, extra delicious kind, may need to come to an end. Or at the very least, I'll need to check the nutrition labels a lot more carefully in the interest of maintaining good health and a lower weight.

Given the kind of food addict I am, I may need your help to staying on the wagon on this one.

P.S. Since posting this, I've become aware of research that shows that sugar, rather than fat, is the primary culprit in causing our epidemic of obesity. And this product is, of course, is loaded with it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Brad Finds A Profound Note On His Doorstep

An anonymous "Fellow Pittsburgher" left this amazing note on our son's
doorstep a number of months ago upon seeing his 

yard sign welcoming immigrant neighbors.
(note transcribed below). 

We have never met.

When my grandparents were teenagers, they traveled, mostly on foot, across Europe. They were "undocumenteds" in every country through which they passed.  They obtained visas to enter Canada, where they met, married and raised a family.

They lived. They were Jews. The remainder of their families did not survive. Canada, the United States and all other countries stopped admitting Jews in the years leading up to the war.

When I drove by your house today and saw your yard sign, I felt some consolation. I felt that your sign honored the family that was lost, because you were telling your community, "Never again."

Kind regards,

A Fellow Pittsburgher

Check this link for more on these yard signs sprouting up everywhere: 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Welcome Signs Multiply On Pittsburgh Yards

photos by Brad Yoder

On an early morning walk today while visiting our son Brad, we saw 16 yard signs expressing welcome for immigrant neighbors. These were all within a five-block residential area bounded by Meade St. and Thomas Boulevard in the North Point Breeze section of Pittsburgh where he lives. 

All but three of these were the ones with the message, "No matter where you're from, we're glad you're are neighbor" that originated in our home town of Harrisonburg. Two others simply said "You Belong," and a third was a "Refugees and Immigrants Welcome Here" sign (on the lower left of the photo montage above).

This area is far from being some Mennonite ghetto. In fact, Brad is the only person in the immediate neighborhood presently attending the city's one Pittsburgh Mennonite Church.

Is this phenomenon a heartening sign or what?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Mennonite Girls From Everywhere Can Cook

Tens of thousands of Mennos cook in these kinds of kitchens.
I am disappointed that your cookbook includes a recipe for tacos. To me, that's not Mennonite food. 
- anonymous comment on Mennonite Girls Can Cook

Herald Press recently published a beautifully illustrated book called Mennonite Girls Can Cook. As a Menno who loves good food it's hard not to like this attractive work by ten very creative members of my faith.

Their use of the label "Mennonite" raises a question, however. Doesn't this just add to a stereotype that Mennonites are fair skinned middle-class North American folks of Swiss, German, Dutch or Russian descent who live north of the Rio Grande?

The fact is that there are now more Anabaptists/Mennonites on the continent of Africa alone (nearly 700,000 according to the latest 2015 stats), than there are in Canada and the United States combined. And their numbers are growing far more rapidly than ours.

As another example of this growing diversity, there are more Mennonites on the subcontinent of India, some 250, 000 in all, than there are members of our entire Mennonite Church USA, now well under 100,000 in number and declining.

To be fair, the numbers of all Anabaptist related groups in North America is over 683,000. But oddly, Mexican and Central American Mennonites are officially counted with their South American counterparts rather than as a part of the actual continent they share with Canada and the US.

This is presumably because their culture, language and ethnicity are seen as being more similar to fellow believers further south, but doesn't this represent a subtle form of bias on the part of those of us of European descent?

I know the good folks who produced this cookbook in no way intended to convey any such bias. And the fact that they are  dedicating all of their royalties to programs to feed hungry children is beyond commendable. I'm simply using this example to highlight an issue I feel deserves attention.

Or am I just being way too picky about such things?

Here's a link to the 40th anniversary edition of another best-selling Mennonite cookbook:

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Life As Rehearsal For A Royal Wedding

Rebekah at the well, painting by Nicholas Poussin
At first glance, last Sunday's lectionary readings seemed like a hodgepodge of texts lacking a common theme. But at our house church we reflected on the following: 1) human beings from the beginning are hardwired by their Creator for relationships; 2) while the most primal and most intimate of these is marriage, the Bible has something far greater in mind than just the creation of biological families; and 3) the Biblical drama ends with people of every nation and tribe and language celebrating a royal wedding that knows no end.

Surprisingly for the patriarchal times in which they were written, the second chapter of the Song of Songs, along with Sunday's Psalm 45 "royal wedding" text, portray conjugal unions as celebrations of love that are mutual, joyful and intimate. This makes marriage a wonderful metaphor for the kind of honeymoon-like and deeply satisfying bonds we form in our experiences of worship, as a people who are completely won over as God's beloved and forever Bride.

The Genesis 24 account of Abraham's servant, who is led to just the right young woman as wife for his son Isaac, has its parallel in the story found in the fourth chapter of John's gospel. In that passage Jesus is both the seeking servant and the royal Messiah. At Jacob's well, he wins over a receptive Samaritan crowd brought to him by an unlikely woman from the town who comes there to draw water. At this ordinary time and place we sense a rumor of a God-blessed wedding, one bringing together God and God's people, a united new God-family that will include even unorthodox Samaritans. And just as Rebekah leaves all to cast her lot with Isaac, who loved her deeply from the moment he met her, so Jesus's disciples everywhere are loved into leaving all behind and casting their lot with him.

It's like a wedding. You "leave" one family and you "cleave" in the formation of a new one. And in Sunday's Matthew 11 text, Jesus is making what sounds like this kind of proposal to would-be disciples, "Come to me, all who are weary and weighed down, and I will give you rest," or as Clarence Jordan translates it, "I will give you zest.'' "Take my yoke on you (that is, companion with me) and learn from me, for I am gentle and gracious of heart, and you will find rest in your inner being." In other words, you will find a place of home.

So whether in our human relationships or in the intimacies of the spirit, we find ourselves enthralled, blessed, joined together in relationships that offer deep joy and great purpose. Life becomes a kind of wedding rehearsal, in which the divinely betrothed learn to live lives of integrity, fidelity and deep passion.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Oh Free At Last! Independence Day at BKCC

Allan Spitzer, 68, was
incarcerated 32 years.
Inmates at the Buckingham Correctional Center had a special reason to celebrate the Fourth this year upon receiving news that six of their friends and fellow detainees had been released June 29 by the Virginia Parole Board. More than one of them cried when they received their parole grant letter, many having been denied parole year after year and coming to believe they they were going to die in prison. 

Charles Zellers writes, "There is a God and His holy hands are working to correct the injustice that has been done to parole-eligible inmates throughout the years. Those who were lost were pulled down to their lowest point in life until they were humbled before God and then He showed them mercy and brought them up out of the pits of hell making them victorious. I truly believe that these individuals will now be model citizens in society. God truly is a mighty God."

Henry Tipold, 72,
incarcerated 38 years.
Zellers is suggesting we write letters of thanks to the Governor and to members of the Virginia Parole Board, thanking them for offering these men their hard earned independence and encouraging the Board to continue to give deserving "old-law" men and women (incarcerated before 1995) their second chance at a new life. 

Ever rising costs and overcrowding inside Virginia's jails and prison adds to the urgency of these releases for the men and women sentenced prior to the 1995 so-called Truth-in-Sentencing (TIS) Law.

Another reason to release such inmates, he points out, is because many of the older prisons need remodeling. Some do not have air-conditioning and become unbearably hot, well exceeding temperatures in even animal shelters, those generally not to exceed 80 degrees. Inmates are allowed to purchase one eight-inch fan if they can afford the nearly thirty dollar cost.

Also from Zellers, "Hopefully, in the near future, all of DOC''s facilities will provide reentry for the inmates being released so that they will not be sent to other reentry facilities where they could be victimized by VADOC staff and inmates. This is why "old-law" and "new-law" inmates should not be housed together. This practice of VADOC has been going on since the 1995 TIS Law was implemented, and many parole-eligible inmates have lost their parole and good-time release dates because of those new-law inmates. BKCC has an entire 64-man housing unit that could be used as a reentry program to help get parole-eligible inmates out of the VADOC. 

"Each inmate being released from VADOC is mandated to go through a five-month reentry program, even after they have served 20-50 consecutive years inside VADOC. Presently, all of these programs are currently filled which is slowing down the release process. More reentry units are needed or VADOC has to speed-up the reentry programs, or even waive the reentry step if the parolee has a stable home plan and individuals on the outside to help them."

Here are some addresses:

Governor, Terrance R. McAuliffe
Patrick Henry Building
1111 East Broad Street, 3rd Floor

Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security
Brian J. Moran
P. O. Box 1475
Richmond, Virginia 23218-1475

Virginia Parole Board
P. O. Box 26963
Richmond, Virginia 23261-6936
Email at

Friday, July 7, 2017

July 22--Help Release Aging People In Prison

This local effort is being spearheaded by a remarkable teenager, Wynona Hogan. All of us aging people should get behind it.

Monthly meetings of the local RAPP chapter will be at the Parish Hall, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 660 S. Main Street, Harrisonburg, VA 22801, at 7 pm on the third Monday of each month.

Here's a link to more posts on this issue:

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Memorial Service Meditation: "If Everyone Lived Like Rachel, We Could Change The World"

Yesterday we celebrated the "commencement"
of Rachel Anna Stoltzfus, 91, who graduated
summa cum laude from this life May 13, 2017.
Rachel Stoltzfus and her late husband Robert made a profound impact on the lives of dozens of international students for whom they provided lodging and hospitality over many years.

Yesterday a number of them shared their stories at Rachel's memorial service, one of the most moving experiences I've had in a long time. 

The following is my meditation at that service, held at the former location of the New Covenant Church of which Rachel and Robert were charter members:
Welcome to this special service in memory of a truly unforgettable woman, Rachel Stoltzfus. She is an inspiring example of how great saints can come in small packages, an illustration of how God has chosen the quiet and un-acclaimed people in the world to confound and put to shame the lofty and the mighty. As in the the Magnificat announced by Mary, God scatters the proud and haughty ones, and has exalted the lowly, the meek, those who will indeed inherit the earth.

I feel blessed and honored to have been this woman’s pastor over the past couple of decades, and now to celebrate with you this commencement ceremony in honor of Rachel Anna Stoltzfus, who graduated summa cum laude (with greatest honor) as a part of the God's great class of 2017. Throughout her life she quietly and faithfully served so many people in so many ways and over so many years.

In the “Heroes of Faith” chapter in the Bible (Hebrews 11) we are given examples of numerous ordinary persons who, by faith, accomplished something that put them on God’s honor roll, the lesser known and the well known alike, people like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and others. The passage ends with “It would take too long to recount all the stories of faithful ones who trusted God for a better future than they experienced in this life, of whom the world was not worthy", or as another translation has it, "they were too good for this world.”

Today we add our sister Rachel to that growing list in God’s story, people who are to be commended for a faith—not so much a faith based on believing certain things in spite of the evidence, but as Clarence Jordan once put it, a faith that acts in faithful ways in spite of the cost or the consequences.

And Rachel reminds me of the words of another text, the one that encourages us to not be so concerned about an outward beauty associated with lots of jewelry, or fashionable clothes or regularly permed hair, but a beauty that comes from deep inside, the charm of a gentle and quiet spirit. Rachel was beautiful in every way (just look at the photos in your program!) but in terms of an inner beauty, she was truly a knock-out. 

She wasn’t just some nice and submissive and passive person, but impactful in a very special and powerful way. In fact, the more I thought about doing this little meditation, the more it struck  me how much the world would be literally transformed if everyone lived like Rachel.

Think about it.

What if everyone welcomed strangers and foreigners and international students like Rachel and Robert did? What if all of us, like her, wouldn’t care whether our house looked like a page from Better Homes and Gardens? What if we lived as though what really mattered was not how well a home is furnished, but how well our hearts were furnished to be open to simply loving people, no matter where they were from, no matter whether they were Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist? Or if anyone needed a welcoming meal, or a room to stay in, and if we had one available, they would be warmly loved and well nurtured. That mindset would change the world.

And if we all lived and loved like Rachel, there would be an end to ugly church splits, to hate speech, to harsh words and hurtful gossip, to unspeakably awful wars and violence of all kinds. We would be experiencing the kind of shalom God envisioned when the world was first  created, a world in which nothing is marred and nothing is missing, where God’ will is being done here on earth in and among us, as it is in heaven. It would be a world in which people were prized above possessions, where no one was ever left to starve or be without clothes or shelter, where there was no competition for attention or praise or high honor, but a simple life of devotion to loving God and to loving every neighbor as oneself. 

That’s Rachel. And hers was never a piety for piety’s sake, but a life of prayer and of hymn singing (she loved singing, and knew more hymns by memory than most of us know, period) and of church fellowship that kept her focused, not just on a heaven in the sweet by and by, but on bringing more of God’s heaven-based blessings to bear on earth in the here and now. 

And what if we all were as careful in the stewardship of the earth as Rachel, on her little demonstration plot around her house just a stone’s throw from here? What if we, like her, took time to grow more things to harvest and preserve and share with others, and to till and enrich the soil and whatever it produced, carefully caring for fruit trees and berry bushes and grape vines as she did? And what if we were to reuse, recycle, reclaim, make do in such a way that we, like her, would leave an almost invisible carbon or any other footprint? Surely if everyone were the kind of earth steward Rachel was, the planet would be spared the threat of global warming, the air would be pure, the water clean, the oceans teeming with life. She left the world, and the earth, a better place than she found it.

To some, she might have seemed thrifty to a fault, so careful was she not to waste even the tiniest bit of table scrap that could be composted or that could be food for some bird or animal or human being. But as focused as she was on being thrifty and sparing in her spending, this wasn’t at all about hoarding up more treasure here on earth for herself, but about being able to be truly generous with what she had. As an example, sometimes when she did have some things that needed to be taken to the landfill, she would accept my offer to add it to whatever I was taking to dispose of. But it was always hard to do anything like that for her that she didn’t want to compensate me for it, to help pay for my gas or for my time. Thrifty but generous. 

Sometimes it’s easy to think pessimistically about the world’s future. And if its survival depended on the policies of generals and politicians and prime ministers and presidents, that future would be dark indeed. But God continues to entrust the earth’s future to ordinary people like you and me, like Rachel and Robert, like the everyday saints who faithfully and quietly keep on doing what’s right, who consistently do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with their God and share generously with others, just like Rachel. 

It's good that the future of the world isn’t just left to the world’s scientists and PhD’s and its preachers and its prophets, but on those everyday people whose wisdom runs deep and who in a stubborn and quiet way become a preserving salt, a persistent light, a transforming leaven that outlasts and outshines every other force in the world. 

So as we say our farewells to Rachel, let’s make sure her wisdom, her ways, God’s ways, Jesus's ways, live on in us, wisdom being a way of loving and living that we can look back on, as we are doing with Rachel’s life today, and celebrate as genuinely enduring and satisfying. 

From the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible:

Listen as Wisdom calls out!
she cries aloud,
Listen to me! ...Choose my instruction rather than silver,
    my knowledge rather than pure gold.
For wisdom is far more valuable than rubies.
    Nothing you desire can compare with it.
...Listen to my instruction and be wise.
...For whoever finds me finds life
    and receives favor from the Lord.

And from the New Testament: 

The wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.

Thanks be to God, and to Rachel for that demonstration of wisdom that results in a radically transformed life, and one that could literally change the world.

According to Jesus, life's "Final Exam" is like a kind of multiple choice test, as in “I was hungry and you… a) fed me, b) ignored me or c) outsourced the task of feeding the hungr to the Salvation Army.” 

In Rachel’s case, the answer was clearly “a”. Check.

The same with the following items in the "exam":

I was thirsty and you… gave me water. Check.
I was a stranger and you… invited me into your home. Check.
I was cold and without shelter and you… clothed and housed me. Check.
I was sick and in prison, and you…visited me. Check.

To those the King will say, "You've passed the finals." "Come you blessed of my Father, into the  new heaven and the new earth prepared for you from the creation of the world.” Along with people everywhere who have first experienced God's mercy and grace, then spend the rest of their lives as channels of it.

So it is with joy that we commit our sister Rachel into God's everlasting care and to her eternal reward. And in is in light of Rachel's motto of “only one life, it will soon be past, and only what’s done for Christ (and to the least of these) will last,” that we close with these words, 

“So then, dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”
The family buried the urn with Rachel's remains next to her husband's at the Weavers church cemetery after the noon reception. There we affirmed Psalm 23 and received the following Irish blessing:

May the blessing of light be with you--
light outside and light within.
May the sunlight shine upon you and warm your heart
‘til it glows like a great peat fire,
So that the stranger may come and warm himself by it,
and also a friend.
May a blessed light shine out of the two eyes of you
like a candle set in two windows of a house,
bidding the wanderer to come in out of the storm.
May the blessing of rain--the sweet soft rain--
fall upon your spirit and wash it fair and clean.
May it leave many a shining pool where the blue of heaven shines, and sometimes a star.
May the blessing of earth--the good, rich earth--be with you.
May you ever have a kindly greeting for those you pass 
as you go along its roads.
May the earth be soft under you when you rest upon it,
tired at the end of the day.
May the earth rest easy over you when at the last you lie under it.
May the earth rest so lightly over you
that your spirit may be out from under it quickly,
and up, and off, and on its way to God.

from An Irish Blessing, a Photographic Interpretation, by Cyil A. and Renee Travis Reilly

Monday, July 3, 2017

Raising A Million: The Unamazing Miracle Of "The Sharing Of The 5000"

Were Virginia Mennonites to experience a revival of generosity this year for the desperate needs of millions of war and famine refugees, how much revenue might our September 29-30 Virginia Relief Sale generate for Mennonite Central Committee?

Last year's total was over $360,000, the second highest amount ever. This year's Sale is adding a cash contribution option as a way of greatly increasing that number.

The 2017 SOS ("Sharing Our Surplus") initiative aims at enlisting extra support through generous check, credit card and other gifts, a plan especially designed for folks not inclined to participate in the annual auction.

In a recent optimistic moment I suggested that a wealthy community like ours should be able to easily raise a million dollars annually through this kind of event. Of course that idea has been dismissed as preposterous, and even I realize that kind of miracle is less than likely.

But let's do some math, based on a modest "$100 plus $100 x 5000 Plan", as follows:

Let's assume that of the estimated 10,000 attendees at the Sale, 5000 earn some kind of regular income ranging from $20,000 to $200,000 a year. Without limiting any of their other charitable giving, let's assume it were possible for each of these persons to set aside a minimum average of at least $200 annually (or 1% or more of their income, whichever is greater) to contribute at the relief sale, as follows: 1) $100 average for food, auction and other purchases, and 2) another $100 average as their tax deductible gift for refugee relief.

Those with more means and greater motivation, of course, would need to spend more than $100 in food and auction purchases and/or give more than $100 as an outright gift in order to compensate for those who give or spend lesser amounts in response to this kind of need.

But that's all it would take to raise a cool million for MCC.

But is this kind of $200 (average) annual giving splurge at all reasonable or possible?

Think about it. $200 is significantly less than many of us might spend on any one of the following in a year's time:

Pet food
Starbucks coffee
Lawn care
A weekend vacation
Air conditioning
Soft drinks
Snack foods
Eating out
A car payment
Bottled water
Magazine subscriptions
Hair care
Ice cream

The total of all of our expenditures on such items alone (all completely out of reach for families living in a refugee camp) would likely be staggering. So if we fail to reach anywhere near a million dollar goal, it won't be because it would require some kind of miracle to accomplish.

A more likely explanation might be that like Dr. Seuss's Grinch, our middle class American hearts have become several sizes too small.

This truly represents an unprecedented crisis.
Note: While the SOS initiative is an effort officially endorsed by the Virginia Relief Sale Board, the views expressed in support of it in this or any of my blog posts are purely my own.