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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Divorce Numbers Spike In Our Community


In the introduction to his book "Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way", M. Gary Neuman opens with, "Why do couples divorce? Usually because one or both partners believe that ending the marriage will free them to create happier, emotionally healthy lives for themselves and their children." 

After making that cheerful assertion, Neuman goes on to say that if parents handle their divorce in a mature and respectful way, that their children will do just fine. In  other words, a marriage breakup need be no more traumatic than, say, a bad house fire or a move to another state. 

But is this usually the case? 

Thankfully, many children of divorce manage to recover well in spite of the dismantling of their household as they have known it. But based on my own observation, amicable divorces may actually result in more distress for children than the angry ones, at least in cases when the anger is associated with outrageous and clearly unacceptable behavior on the part of one or more of the parents involved. In those circumstances, or when there is ongoing adultery or abuse going on, children can clearly understand the reason for the divorce and may even feel genuine relief when it happens.

But when two otherwise loving, supportive parents call it quits and go about explaining that how they are going to have a nice, friendly divorce, children are confused. Why can’t these nice people they love so much just work things out, just a they expect their kids to do when they’re not getting along?

For better or for worse, 612 couples in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County decided to call it quits last year. This represents a dramatic increase over last year, when our number was 474, just ten short of the highest annual recorded number, 484, in 2013. And this doesn't include an untold number of undocumented hookups and breakups that are unaccounted for (Meanwhile, the number of marriage licenses issued last year was 985, actually less than the high of 1003 reached in 2001). 

Assuming our family breakups involve an average of one child per unit, that's over 600 children whose lives will never be the same, and whose own future marriages may suffer from the lack of a healthy, amicable and stable marital models to build on.

Here are the numbers, each representing its own untold story:

Year           Marriages     Divorces

1996           873                 387
1997           950                 405
1998           964                 396
1999           932                 405
2000           947                 365
2001          1003                438     (most annual marriages)
2002           976                 421
2003           961                 399
2004           959                 437
2005           889                 381
2006           929                 389
2007           925                 434
2008           950                 405
2009           903                 347     (fewest annual divorces)
2010           879                 358     (fewest annual marriages since 1996)
2011           933                 433
2012           995                 445
2013           924                 484     
2014           972                 427
2015           955                 474
2016           985                 612     (most annual divorces)


Clarification: Marriage numbers include those who come here from other locations to marry, whereas divorce numbers include only the breakups of who live in the City or County. However, it seems logical to assume that a roughly equal number of residents marry in other jurisdictions as marry here from other communities, so the numbers above should be reasonably valid for comparison purposes.


Footnote: The above numbers don't mean that over half of the couples getting married today are doomed to break up. Maybe their marriages will be more enduring than those entered in to in earlier years and that are now failing. And of course many of those divorcing are already in their second, third or fourth try.

On the other hand, were we to include all of the "undocumented" marriages to our numbers, the number of total breakups would be far greater. These are the increased number of couples who have "left father and mother" (become a separate household), "cleaved to each other" (become an exclusive couple) and "joined together as one flesh" (sexually consummated their relationship), only without benefit of a marriage license or a wedding ceremony. Contrary to popular opinion, their resulting undocumented "divorces" can be just as painful and disruptive, especially when children are involved.

In cases involving ongoing abuse, adultery or addictions on the part of a partner, a marital separation may not be justified, and even be a necessity. But adult partners who simply haven't learned to get along should seek whatever help necessary to resolve their differences and repair their relationship, rather than just head for the nearest exit. After all, we expect our children to work things when they disagree, not just give up on the family.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"Christianica"--US Civil Religion On Steroids

source
"If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."     II Chronicles 7:14 (KJV)

The United States, like many nations, interpret passages like these as personally addressed to them, as the "my people, called by God's name" referred to in the text, set apart as unique and exceptional. 

According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this form of  “civil religion” is a means of unifying a nation by giving it sacred legitimacy and authority. In fact, all nations seem to develop some form of ideology for this purpose. For example, during World War II Nazi soldiers wore belt buckles with the words "Gott Mitt Uns" ("God with us") engraved on them, suggesting that God was clearly on their side.

The Reverend Franklin Graham has emerged as one of many apostles of this nationalist religion, recently noting: “Hundreds of thousands of Christians from across the United States have been praying. This year they came out to every state capitol to pray for this election and for the future of America. Prayer groups were started. Families prayed. Churches prayed. Then Christians went to the polls, and God showed up. While the media scratches their heads and tries to understand how this happened, I believe that God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country... My prayer is that God bless America again!”

The implication is that all things wicked and godless are on one side of the political debate and that God will bless only one party's vision of liberty and justice for all. The truth is that God stands in judgment of all of the world's temporary principalities and powers, and that God's real mission is to save and reconcile all peoples on earth, and to engage each one of us in that mission.

At January 20 inauguration Graham made the following remarks: "Mr. President, in the Bible, rain is a sign of God's blessing. And it started to rain, Mr. President, when you came to the platform. And it's my prayer that God will bless you, your family, your administration, and may He bless America."

Graham then read from 1 Timothy 2:1-6, a beautiful text which exhorts believers to pray for their leaders, including notoriously godless ones like Nero, and concluded with 1 Timothy 1:17 (see above), which reads,"Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen."

Trust me, I am a wholehearted believer in this prayer and benediction, and I want nothing but God's equal blessing for everyone in the whole world. But used in this context we imply that God's relationship to one nation, representing some 5% of the world's population, is a special one, quite the opposite of what the New Testament (and the I Timothy text) actually teach. For example:

1. The apostle Paul, in this first century church letter, is clearly not endorsing the Roman empire or any other nation as being God's special people, and it would be hard to imagine him offering a prayer at an emperor's coronation. Rather, he taught that God's people are all those from every nation who pledge allegiance to Jesus as Lord and are committed to him as their supreme authority. Meanwhile they live as "resident aliens" in the God-ordained but secular nations they inhabit.

2. In this text Paul is clearly urging us to first pray for all people everywhere, and then for all kings (plural), emperors, rulers, presidents and prime ministers elsewhere in the world.

3. The purpose of this prayer is that all believers everywhere may live in contexts of peace and stability, allowing for God's saving and reconciling message to be freely lived and proclaimed.

Marcus Miller, a teacher at Iowa Mennonite School, recently quoted Mike Pence on Facebook regarding the passage Pence chose to place his fingers on when he taking the vice-presidential oath of office,  2 Chronicles 7:14. Conflating scripture with the American Pledge of Allegiance, Pence stated, "... if His people who are called by His name will humble themselves and pray, He will hear from heaven, and He – as He’s always done before – He will heal our land. One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” 

Miller comments, "Pence’s quote represents the worst combination of bad theology, bad history and American exceptionalism. What we end up with is a patriotism mashed together with religion and this thing referred to as 'American Christianity' that often contradicts the values taught by Jesus and scriptures."

Ironies abound in this kind of wedding of church and state, such as the use of a Bible that forbids the swearing of oaths as a part of the swearing in ritual, Pence's laying his hand on the Bible Ronald Reagan used at his inauguration (casting the former president as an idealized model of a godly leader), and the elevation of a twice divorced billionaire into that same sacred place of honor.

This is not to denigrate the preciousness and worth of every human being involved in our national civil rituals, and I want to join all of you in praying for them, and for the wellbeing of the nation, every day. Only to say that in any marriage of the Christian church and the nation state it is the latter that will always play the dominant role. 

Here's a link to some additional blogs on civil religion, beginning with one on the role the "Second Beast", or "False Prophet", plays in world empires.

And here's something on Trump's religious convictions by Stanley Hauerwas: 
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/01/27/christians-dont-be-fooled-trump-has-deep-religious-convictions/?utm_term=.12bf5a96c6c2

Friday, January 27, 2017

Four Sound Ways to Reduce Incarceration

"If the risk is low, let them go"
Nearly 40 percent of U.S. prisoners are behind bars for no compelling public safety reason, according to a recent report by NYU's Brennan Center for Justice. Their groundbreaking analysis shows how to drastically cut our prison population while still keeping crime rates low.

Some day we will look back at our 18th century-based practice of warehousing people in steel cages as not only an unusually cruel form of punishment but as extraordinarily costly and unproductive.

We could do far better using restorative approaches that would require people to make restitution to their victims and/or enable them to get actual treatment for their addictions. Temporary confinement may still be necessary for offenders who are clearly a danger to their community, but long term incarceration should never be accepted as the norm.

Here are four ways to help reduce the human and financial costs of over-incarceration:

1. Regularly post the actual costs of our courts' decisions. Prison sentences carry a hefty price tag, not only involving the $28,000 or more per year for each inmate's room and board, but also the untold cost in wages and taxes lost for their communities and families, plus the cost of increased social services needed when breadwinners are removed from the community.

2. Make each local jurisdiction responsible for the cost of incarcerating their own offenders. Virginia's state-funded Department of Corrections represents a $1 billion a year industry, and as with every expense covered by the state, there is no free lunch. Professor W. David Ball of the Santa Clara University School of Law recommends that states defund prisons and make counties pay for inmates they incarcerate. Or the state could collect revenue as before and allocate the money now spent on prisons to counties (based on their violent crime rate), who would then need to determine their communities’ priorities.

3. Require each prosecutor, judge, magistrate and law enforcement officer to spend a day at a prison or jail once a year. This was proposed for judges by former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley at a community meeting held here over a year ago, in order for them to "see where they are sending people". The purpose would not be to have officials become softer on crime, but to encourage them to consider more humane and effective alternatives to incarceration.

4. Urge the Parole Board to free aging, physically ill and other inmates who qualify for release. Due to excessively long sentences, the cost of caring for our aging prison population is increasing dramatically, while the likelihood of older persons committing crimes is greatly reduced. Too many inmates who for years have demonstrated exemplary behavior have been denied parole year after year in spite of their best efforts. 

source
Tomiko Shine, researcher with Maryland’s RAPP (Release Aging Persons In Prison) will lead a discussion on this at the Trinity Presbyterian Church at noon Thursday, February 9, along with Earl Nelson, recently released after spending 48 years in prison. This will be followed by a 1 pm showing of producer Wynona Hogan’s just released 55-minute documentary on our local Rockingham and Middle River jails.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Americans Dependent On Massive Foreign Aid

Huffington Post photo
"Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who have toiled in your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter."

          -James 5:4-5 (NIV)

"America First" is a slogan we hear a lot these days, accompanied by calls to "Buy American" and to make America great again by buying more "Made in America" products.

Reality check. Relying on US-produced goods for our day-to-day consumption would leave most of us stripped of many of the garments, gadgets and gourmet meals we've become so dependent on.

Let's start with our over-ample food supply. While the US still produces megatons of corn, grain, meat and other food products for our tables and to export to the rest of the world, an increasing percentage of our daily diet comes from far off parts of the US (where many of the crops are harvested by immigrant labor) or from Central America, South America and from other places as far away as China, with field hands in all of those countries making a pittance each day.

Think pineapples--or bananas, or citrus fruits, or strawberries. Where do most of these varieties of delicacies come from, and who harvests them and ships them here? And why do bananas, imported from far south of our border, cost half as much per pound as locally grown apples? Or how can apples imported from China compete with what are grown right here in our Valley?

It's all about the cost of human labor.

Next, let's take a stroll through our walk-in closets. Check the tags: "Made in Vietnam", "Made in China... Bangladesh... South Korea... Indonesia", the list of foreign products goes on and on. Actual US textile mills and garment factories are so few and far between that we'd be threadbare within a decade without foreign imports. Or if we were to revive an American clothing industry massive enough to match consumer demand, the cost to keep us clad in the manner to which we've become accustomed would be prohibitive.

Again, it's all about the cost of labor.

Finally, there are our many tech toys. For lack of time (and a lack of expertise on the subject), I won't try to describe how much "hardship" we would endure without cheaply produced smart phones and other high tech products that foreign miners and other workers are turning out around the clock--all to satisfy our appetites for the latest gadgets.

The sobering fact is that most of our communities would be at a loss to know how to produce even a fraction of what we feel we need for our survival (let alone the need to hold on to the standard of living to which we've become accustomed). So in the meantime we're going to remain dependent on tons of "foreign aid" coming our way through the contributions of millions of overworked and underpaid international workers.

So let's call this what it is, foreign blood sweat and tears--billions of dollars worth of it pouring into our well stocked malls, supermarkets and homes every day.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Dan Bowman Lights Up A New Documentary

photo courtesy film producer Shaun Wright
Blind since age 12, Daniel Bowman is truly a legend in his own time.

He is now mostly retired, but during his 76 busy years he's earned an enviable reputation, first as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, then as a local piano tech and furniture craftsman, and always as an unforgettably engaging human being.

Two associate professors in JMU's School of Media Arts and Design believe it's time the rest of the world learns more about his story.

Mike Grundmann and Shaun Wright have produced a half-hour documentary on Bowman titled "A Good Blinder" that will be shown at the Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg at 7 pm Tuesday, January 31, along with the premier showings of two other short films recently released by members of the same JMU department. Having known Dan as a fellow student at EMU and as a valued community neighbor, I am really looking forward to attending this event. Admission is free.

I've always been amazed at Dan's talents as an accomplished organist and pianist and as an expert in tuning instruments, as well as his amazing skills as a craftsman. Some of the results of his woodworking hobby have raised a total of $12,500 at the annual Mennonite Relief Sales held at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds each fall. One of his wooden marble rollers alone brought $3700 at one of the auctions. Currently Dan is working on a model of a grist mill with a water wheel, complete with moving wooden parts.

At midlife, Dan added a second masters degree to his resume, an MDiv from Eastern Mennonite Seminary, reflecting his deeply held faith and his commitment as an active lay leader at his church, Ridgeway Mennonite.

His daughter Diane notes, "Many local pastors have enjoyed conversations with this theologically trained piano tuner!" Mike Grundmann, one of the producers of the documentary, states, "He still has all ten fingers, a lively wit and theologically trained mind that makes for profound reflection."

Dan and Ferne Bowman have three grown daughters and six grandchildren, and Ferne has recently published a memoir of her life titled Song of the Redwing Blackbird--An Amish Mennonite Girl Grows Up, which can be ordered at fernelappbow@verizon.net.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Governor McAuliffe: Please Expedite The Promised Review of This Inmate’s Case

Coffeewood Correctional Center
Mr. Ronald Miles #1067348, a 61-year-old inmate at the Coffeewood Correctional Center, has been incarcerated for over twenty years for a robbery in Arlington he insists he did not commit. He has had a petition for clemency before the Governor for over 30 months, since he was unable to get justice from the courts, despite credible evidence and other documents he believes fully support his innocence and make a case for his deserving a retrial. While he was told his case would be reviewed in a timely manner, he has yet to hear from anyone in the over two and a half years that have passed since this promise was made.

Mr. Miles reports having once been arrested as a youngster for robbery, which prompted two Arlington detectives to question him about other crimes after he was arrested in March 1996 for removing an inspection decal which someone had told him he could have. Mr. Miles was then released. However, when he appeared in court on June 27, 1996, for his minor offense of three months earlier, he was arrested by an investigator who allegedly has a long history of wrongfully arresting suspects and falsifying evidence. Mr. Miles was accused of a robbery that occurred on January 22, 1996, at an Arlington hotel, though no witness had identified him as the suspect. The investigator attempted to get a confession, but did not succeed. 

At this time the investigator escorted Mr. Miles to the Arlington Jail to be booked by a sheriff deputy whom Mr. Miles discovered was not a certified booking deputy. The detective gave the deputy an evidence card and the deputy placed Mr. Miles' whole left thumbprint on the card. They alleged later that the thumbprint was found on a hotel room door, and that it took 4 1/2 months to match. 

At the preliminary hearing on July 22, 1996, the victim of the crime falsely identified Mr. Miles at the direction of the prosecutor and the the investigator. Mr. Miles did not have n attorney, and had not waived his right to counsel. The court and prosecutor later falsified the record to have it appear that Mr. Miles had waived his right to counsel, although he has evidence to the contrary.

Further, the original description by the primary witness in court does not match him in size, complexion, and balding, and no mention was made of a speech impediment he has which would have been obvious in the alleged verbal and physical altercation Miles was accused of having participated in at the hotel. So serious questions remain as to the nature of the evidence.  

Mr. Miles has also obtained letters from the state lab,which indicates no record of his thumbprint having been matched. In addition, Mr. Miles demonstrated in court that it is impossible to leave a whole thumbprint on a flat vertical door as the prosecutor falsely alleged. The thumb automatically turns sideways.


But despite many red flags in the prosecution's case he was still found guilty by an all-white jury. There was only one African American to draw from in the entire jury pool, who happened to be Mr. Miles' own sister, a fact the prosecutor falsely alleged she was unaware of.

I have been in ongoing communication with Mr. Miles and his now 86-year-old mother, and truly believe his case has merit. While I am not in a position to prove or disprove his innocence, I would encourage you to urge the Governor and the Parole Board to expedite a thorough review of his case. 

In a Commonwealth that places high values on both justice and liberty, we must make every effort to ensure that those serving time are doing so justly and those who are innocent are granted liberty.

Here's a link to express concerns to the Governor's Office and to the Department of Public Safety.

https://governor.virginia.gov/constituent-services/communicating-with-the-governors-office/

Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Six Great Guns For Moms And Grandmas"


Six Best-Selling Semiautomatic Handguns Share Two Qualities

I post the following with sadness and without comment, other than to say that two other qualities these six killers share is that they are each 1) extremely deadly and 2) highly dangerous to carry. Here's a link to some of my own thoughts about owning guns for self-defense. 

The six best-selling semiautomatic handguns in the U.S. all have two things in common: They're easily concealable and fill the need for a personal defense weapon.

Motley Fool's Rich Duprey looked at monthly reports of best-selling new handguns identified by online auction house GunBroker.com to compile the list. Here's how the six best-selling handguns stack up in Duprey's analysis:

1. Ruger LCP — This gun "more than lives up to the task" of concealed carry suggested by its name, which stands for "lightweight compact pistol," said Duprey. Its price tag, which is about $260, is an attractive feature of this .380 ACP pistol.
The LCP II addresses many of the shortcomings of the original Ruger LCP introduced in 2008, improving the gun's sights and trigger, according to The Daily Caller.
This gun also made Breitbart's list of pocket guns that are "great guns for mothers and grandmothers who realize they are the first line of defense for their children or grandchildren should trouble strike."

2. Glock G19 and Smith & Wesson M&P Shield (tie) — The Glock 19, a single stack handgun with a 15-round capacity, retails for about $600. This gun will be carried by the Marine Corps Special Operations Command's elite Raiders, Military.com noted, calling the gun a "reliable, easy-to-maintain 9mm pistol."
The Smith & Wesson M&P Shield was introduced in 2012 and includes 9mm and .40, and .45 models with prices starting at about $450.
"In addition to the impressive reliability, I found the light, slim pistol shockingly accurate," Joseph von Benedikt wrote for Handguns magazine.

3. Sig Sauer P938 — Duprey described this 9mm hammer-fired, single-action pistol as a lightweight and ideal for concealed carry while handling like a much larger pistol. Its asking price is $819.
In a review for Ammoland.com, Brian Anse Patrick called the Sig Sauer P938 a "truly compact quality pistol worthy of choosing."

4. Glock G43 and Springfield XD-S (tie) — The G43 and Springfield XD-S are easily concealable, single stack pistols that go for $500 or more, Duprey noted.
In a review for Lucky Gunner, Chris Baker placed the G43 among the best in its category, saying "for those times when a double stack is just too big to carry, the Glock 43 should definitely be on the short list of guns to consider."

The Springfield XD-S, which is often chosen by law enforcement officers as an off-duty/backup weapon, "features unique grip texturing, interchangeable backstraps and a perfectly proportioned frame," American Rifleman noted.

Monday, January 16, 2017

My Brother Eli--Retiring After 55 Years Of Ministry

My brother Eli and his beloved Ruthie (photo by son Steve)
My older brother Eli officially declared himself retired this weekend on the 55th anniversary of his ordination as pastor. At 82, he has been going through a series of stressful treatments for multiple myeloma and he and his good wife Ruthie are devoting most of their time dealing with his medical issues and being with their children and grandchildren.

A founding pastor of the Wills Ridge Mennonite Church in Floyd County, Eli has always had a dual career, providing most of his family's needs by building custom kitchen cabinets and making handcrafted furniture. He was a master at his trade, but always saw his primary mission as being a servant of the heaven-sent Galilean carpenter to whom he devoted his entire life.

Eli has been a special mentor and esteemed big brother to me. After having been mostly healthy all of his life, it's hard to see him having to endure the series of medical problems he's had in the past two years.

His grown daughter Judy is the author of "Vera's Journey", the story of Vera Heatwole, a legendary local Mennonite matriarch who became deaf as an adult and lived to be over a hundred (the hardcover edition of her story has sold over 6000 copies). Judy is now completing a series of three books about my brother Eli's story, the first two of which are available at the local Christian Light Publishing's bookstore on Chicago Avenue. To me, they are a priceless treasure of information about our family's hard times and blessed times in drought-prone northeastern Oklahoma near the end of the Great Depression, followed by our family's move to eastern Kansas and then, in 1946, to the Shenandoah Valley.

I love my brother dearly. On my last visit Eli showed me a journal book full of wonderful poetry he'd written over his lifetime, something I had never seen or known about before, though he had recently shared the following sample in a family letter we circulate among us remaining five siblings:

Where Is The Gold In Those Golden Years?

My mind turns back to when we first met,
Though long ago, I remember it yet.
Your gentle spirit, your lovely smile,
That scene went with me mile after mile.

Our friendship developed, and with time it grew,
With our times together we eventually knew
The day would come when we'd be together always
Regardless of what life brought, clouds or sunny days.

Though life shared together brought pressures to provide gold,
Since God had blessed us with children five-fold,
We were told that someday there would be "golden years",
So be faithful, be steadfast and have no fears.

Now times have come with pain and some distress,
Along with many good times to give courage, I guess,
But where were the golden years we were assured would come?
Did we miss something, leave something undone?

Then we sat at the table, ready to pray,
We paused and contemplated what we should say.
I reached for her familiar hand to hold,
Oh, then I realized I had found the gold!

You can send my brother your well-wishes at Eli Yoder, 740 Starbuck Road SE, Floyd, VA 24091, or email a message to his son at snjyoder@gmail.com.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Jesus Offers Little Hope For Us Dromedaries

A daunting prospect, for sure

"Again I say to you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God."    
Matthew 19:24

In order to become a member of the God Movement the Bible tells us we need a miraculous transformation (a new birth), experience a radical life change (repentance) and take part in a public commissioning rite (baptism). But the church has come to embrace a growing number of camel-like members through a different and equally miraculous-sounding means, being threaded through the eye of a needle.

Christians have long dismissed Jesus' words as hyperbole when he declares that it's easier for a grown camel to get through a needle's eye than to have us rich people enter the heaven-ruled Kingdom of God. We well-off American believers have come to not only welcome the wealthy, but actually woo them, and have ourselves become among the richest people on earth.

I do believe that Jesus is referring to consumer wealth here rather than capital investments (in wealth-producing land, factories or other enterprises), a point I make in an earlier blog. But in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus' predecessor John the Baptist, he clearly denounces any consumer-based way of life, in which we hoard more and more personal possessions, as unacceptable. Jesus makes it clear that his followers can't be in alliance with both God and Mammon.

What the church has done is to create needles so huge that their "eyes" are big enough to drive fully equipped RV's and loaded semis right through them. Of course, such needles are of little use for sewing or mending things, but at least they would appear to meet Jesus's requirements for entrance.

But Jesus' way is to have our surplus clothes, bank accounts and vehicles all melted down to the kind of fine thread used for what needles are intended for, to sew or mend things.

A more recent interpretation of Jesus' statement is to say he was really referring to a very narrow passage outside a city wall (the needle) that led to a small well-guarded gate (the eye). This pedestrian gate, we are told, was one just large enough for a person to get through, but one that a camel, stripped of its load, might also manage to squeeze through by the hardest. But no first century writer is known to have interpreted Jesus' metaphor that way, even though it actually makes a similar point.
(see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Eye_of_a_needle)

Meanwhile, if we aspire to be radically conservative Christians, a people who treasure, preserve and pass on Jesus' way of new birth and new life, we may have some serious rethinking to do. Are we willing, on the basis of seeing everything through an entirely new lens, to do a complete about face and begin to move in a St. Francis, Mother Theresa and Christ-like direction, or will we continue loading more and more on the backs of our camel caravans and keep moving in the John D. Rockefeller and Donald J. Trump direction?

Meanwhile, should be be asking which route might result in the greatest personal benefit?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

HARD TIME VIRGINIA, Volume 2, Number 1 (an occasional update on Virginia's prisons)

The majority of Virginia's parole eligible inmates are over 50
Governor Announces Major Parole Board Change

Virginia Parole Board member Adrianne Bennett, appointed to the Board last year, has been named as its new chair, replacing Karen Brown, who has served in that role since 2011. Prior to her new appointment Bennett worked in the Norfolk and Virginia Beach Public Defender’s Office. 

Ms. Brown is being replaced by Jean Wooden Cunningham, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Cunningham has served as Chair of the State Board of Elections and as a member of the State Council of Higher Education. 

According to an article in the January 10, 2017 Richmond Times-Dispatch article, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been concerned that the five-member panel was not moving quickly enough on parole reforms proposed in 2015. 

According to the Times, McAuliffe said, “I want to make sure that we are moving expeditiously on these parole hearings. I want to make sure that we’re doing everything that we possibly can.” 

As of October, 2,765 inmates in Virginia prisons were eligible for parole, according to the Times, which means that at an average cost of $28,000 to incarcerate one inmate annually, the  estimated cost of housing parole-eligible inmates is over $77 million. And with older inmates the cost can be much greater, while their risk of reoffending is greatly diminished after age 50.

It remains to be seen whether the newly constituted Board will increase its parole grant rate for old law (incarcerated before parole was abolished in 1995) and geriatric inmates. Once at 41%, the current rate of parole releases granted is under 6% of the cases the Board reviews each year.

A recent sad example is that of Minor Junior Smith, age 70, who is legally blind and has been incarcerated for over 45 years. Known by most prisoners as Smitty, he has become proficient in reading and transcribing in Braille and is considered one of the hardest workers in the Buckingham Correctional Center's food service, where has worked for over 12 years. A prolific poet, he has been a model prisoner throughout his confinement, and has published a book about his hard life as a child called "ABUSED." 

Mr. Smith was recently turned down for parole release for the 30th heartbreaking time. 

(See one of his recent poems below)

Fluvanna Correctional Center For Women Cited For Healthcare Nightmare

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 women for "failure to meet the minimum standards of medical care for inmates," according to the Pilot. The article goes on to say that a settlement was reached in which a 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 she finally had 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".

Increased Copays Discourage Inmates From Seeking Healthcare

Since a typical prisoner is paid only $0.27 an hour at an average of 20 hours of work per week (no more than 30), a month's pay is typically under $25. If an inmate needs a set of dentures the copay is $390, any medication costs $2 per prescription, and for a pair of bifocals an inmate is charged $40. 

No offender is denied medical care due to his or her inability to provide the co-payment, but all but $5 each month of an inmate has in their account must first go toward these expenses.

In 2015 the Department of Corrections collected $616,250 in medical copays from inmates and their families.

Here's a link to email the Governor with your commendations and concerns https://governor.virginia.gov/constituent-services/communicating-with-the-governors-office/

Since this is the beginning of the legislation session, here's the email address for Senator Mark Obenshain mdobenshain@gmail.com, and this for local delegate Tony Wilt deltwilt@house.virginia.gov.

Here's one of Minor Junior Smith's most recent poems:

LAKE SIDE
BY: MINOR JUNIOR SMITH

"Lake Side"

To keep these poems balanced, I must compose at least one about old Lake Side.
Each summer, people of all ages traveled to the amusement park for a great ride.
Sam, Sally, and Peter Austin came up to take us back down there before school.
Daddy and Sam moved our dinner table out on the back porch, where it was cool.
In leg-braces, I was having a mild brush with polio, so I had hobbled out of the way.
Following a full recovery, the braces would be returned to our family doctor without delay.

I wasn't thrilled a bit about riding hobbyhorses, but I would enjoy the car ride.
Pete had brought his new bow and arrow set, totting a cap-pistol by each side.
It was too late in the season to pick red plums or for tying June-bugs on a string.
So, after we'd shot some caps and arrows, we took turns swinging in the swing.
By pulling its string too hard, Pete broke the bow. So what! He was merely human.
Our parents expected Dwight D. Eisenhower to govern the office of President Truman.

Two-Gun Pete and I trailed along behind our mamas over to the dairy twice.
Each time, we boys couldn't resist stopping by the back porch for Koolaide without ice.
Sam helped daddy manage chores before we all got cleaned up to leave the farm.
Who cared if butter wouldn't melt in my mouth or if a watch would not run on mama's arm.
My parents and I followed the Austins to the car and settled in the rear seat.
Peter sat in front with his parents; they always acted so nice and looked so neat.

While riding smoothly over the rocky road, daddy got out and opened the gate.
Our threesome had taken the Martin Family down to Lake Side on an earlier date.
At the Salem Tannery, Sam took the bypass, which lead us directly to Lake Side.
For lunch, mama had served us cake and peaches after all that chicken she'd fried.
Near the Ticket Stand, an array of multi-colored lights lit up the sky's night.
Every imaginable ride was either zooming near the ground or soaring overhead in flight.

Just like he owned the place, Pete lead the way to a particular hobbyhorse.
Our mamas helped us mount; then we rode off accompanied by a musical course.
Mama always wore lipstick when she went out and sometimes a skirt and blouse.
Daddy had chuckled and followed Sam to take a brief tour through the Crazy House.
Bored from having to wait in the car one Sunday, our mamas had mentioned divorces.
Our group rejoined inside the arcade once Pete and I had dismounted the horses.

Tired and sleepy from the day's activities, I hung around mama like a little coot.
With an odd looking gun, Pete mowed toy soldiers down, but I didn't get to shoot.
He threw spears and popped three balloons on a corkboard to win a teddy-bear.
Our daddies were friendly with mama's niece, June, who was already there.
Two-Gun Pete took just five of us back to the car with prize in hand.
During our recreation, I wondered why they hadn't opened the Cotton-Candy Stand.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Modest Proposal For Tripling Our Fall 2017 Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale Fundraising

Perhaps five-year-old Omran Daqneesh should be named an honorary member of our fundraising committee for Syrian and Iraqi refugee relief.
Our annual Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale raised an impressive more than $341,000 last fall, the second highest amount in its 50-year history. Much of it went for much needed support for refugees in the Middle East, a humanitarian crisis of unbelievable proportions.

Could we triple that amount for the 2017 event?

Here are a few ideas:

1. Think BIG. If people of faith in our community can raise millions each year for building and maintaining underutilized church buildings, and if our church-related institutions can raise millions for expanding and upgrading their state of the art facilities, we should be able to raise $1 million annually for Syrian and Iraqi refugee relief, one of the greatest humanitarian crises of all time.

2. Think Massive Cash Campaign. In addition to the income raised at the Mennonite Relief Sale through food and other sales, through the relief auction, and through the My Coins Count project (formerly Penny Power), individuals, families, churches and other organizations could be encouraged to make large cash and credit card donations at the sale, with tables set up for this purpose and a giant thermometer graph showing the growing total throughout the day.

3. Think year round. Urge people to think creatively about how they can increase their over-and-above giving for urgent humanitarian needs throughout the year, through selling things they don't really need in order to add to their giving, through an annual tithe (or more) of whatever is in their savings accounts, through giving an amount equal to what they spend eating out, etc., and urge them to regularly make these kinds of payments toward the annual goal on the Relief Sale website or an address set up for this purpose.

4. Think "Sharing Our Surplus" (SOS). All of this should represent new money from deeper into our bank accounts or from the sale of the abundance of our possessions, not money subtracted from other regular giving we do. This kind of generous giving should be the result of our choosing to do with less in order to aid those who have little, in the spirit of II Corinthians 9:14b: "Right now you have plenty and can help them (the poor in far off Judea); then at some other time they can share with you when you need it. In that way each can have as much as they need."

These are just some initial ideas. I'm in no way suggesting that existing hardworking committees of volunteers plan for less by way of food and other sales or auction efforts, but that we all add massively to the funds raised by their amazing work.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Oh How We Love Your Precepts! A Litany For Radically Conservative Christians

source
Fewer young adults are active in church than ever, we're told, but they tend to be drawn more to congregations with strongly held beliefs than those with less well defined faith positions.

The Christian faith, of course, is not primarily about mouthing theologically correct statements but living the kind of life Jesus lived and taught. Or in the words of the late Clarence Jordan, "faith is not belief in spite of evidence but a life in scorn of the consequences".

So how does the church demonstrate the kind of radical, Christ-based convictions that are worth living and dying for?

One of the gifts the Hebrews of Biblical times most treasured was the Torah, the law of God brought to them by Moses and expounded on by their prophets and psalmists. Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is an acrostic poem with 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each stanza has eight verses, each of which celebrates the blessing of knowing God's wisdom for living as found in the "Ten Words" and other commands given at Mount Sinai.

The Torah,  besides being a guide for everyday living, was also the equivalent of their new nation's Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, essential to their identity as a people free at last from Egyptian bondage and exploitation.

Christians, members of God's revolutionary new worldwide kingdom, should exhibit the same delight in the commands of King Jesus found in his inaugural "Sermon on the Mount", thought to be used as a catechism for instructing first century believers in the faith. Given the authority with which the Servant-King spoke, the Nine Beatitudes and other teachings found in the gospels and the early apostles should be given the highest priority in Christian worship and in our daily living.

So in support of a radical Christian conservatism, in the sense of treasuring, preserving and passing on true faithfulness to God, I propose the following kind of litany for regular use in Christian worship services, based on Matthew 5-7:

(Worship leader reads the regular print, congregation responds in unison with the bold print

Leader:
Blessed are the spiritually impoverished, and those who mourn, the meek and teachable, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for Christ's sake. Blessed are those who are passionate about justice and right living.

Congregation: Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Everyone who harbors anger against another will be liable to judgment; whoever insults another will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that another has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled, and then come and offer your gift.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Everyone who looks at another with lustful intent has already committed adultery in their heart. So if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces another, let them give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say that everyone who divorces another except on the ground of sexual immorality... commits adultery.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Never use an oath...Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist someone who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone sues you and takes your tunic, let them have your cloak as well. And if someone forces you to carry something one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be known as children of your Father in heaven. For God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Beware of doing your good deeds before others in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father in heaven... When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.... And when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from the one who asks to borrow from you.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ Unbelievers seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and God's justice and righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in another's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own? Or how can you say to another, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of another's eye.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. 

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who builds on a solid rock foundation.

Oh How We Love Your Precepts!

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

"When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed, because he taught as one who had divine authority, not as their teachers of the law." Matthew 7:28-29