Monday, December 31, 2018

Day Seven Of Christmas--Pray For The Healing Of The Nation

The nation is in deep trouble.
While many US citizens experience material prosperity and still enjoy the blessings and freedoms afforded by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, there are many moral and social ills in the nation that should be of great concern:

- Polarization, animosity and divisions are increasingly evident everywhere. Disagree with me and you are my enemy.

- There is a sharp decline in our respect for truth. Misinformation and outright lies are accepted as somehow OK.

- Our annual military budget more than exceeds that of the next ten highest nations combined.

- Our rate of incarceration is by far the highest of any nation in the world.

- Our abortion rate, while in decline, is still unacceptably high, and nearly 40% of our births are to  unwed parents.

- Some 13,000 immigrant children are being held in detention.

-  Over 70,000 people in the US each year are dying as a result of opioid addictions.

- The gap between the very rich and the very poor is widening.

Meanwhile, here are ten things you can do for your country:

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Day Six Of Christmas--Pray For The Health Of Our Warming Planet

Here's a graphic way of seeing the increase in the earth's
temperature over the past century and a half.
"The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him."
    Revelation 16:8-9  (NIV)

A recent headline in our local paper read, “Melting Arctic Ice Pouring 14K Tons of Water Per Second.” 

According to the article, reprinted from the Washington Post, the rate of melting in the world’s polar regions has tripled over the past decade, contributing to nearly 2 millimeters of sea level rise each year.

Most of this dramatic change appears to be the result of our insistence on a self-indulgent lifestyle in which we've become addicted to our comfort, convenience and overconsumption. And in the process of producing, marketing and transporting all of the goods necessary to make this lifestyle possible, we are burning vast quantities of fossil fuels that are polluting our atmosphere and contributing to global warming to a degree never dreamed of before.

I well remember the days before the completion of Interstate 81 when most of the trucks transporting consumer goods up and down this part of the Shenandoah Valley traveled on Highway 11, right through towns like Staunton, Harrisonburg and Winchester. This would be impossible today.

Our population has grown since, of course, but even with vehicles on our highways emitting fewer pollutants and being more fuel efficient, the sheer amount of carbon dioxide being emitted overall is far greater than ever. 

Besides praying, here’s a link to some specific ways we can better care for our precious planet:

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Day Five Of Christmas--Pray For Loved Ones Experiencing Grief and Loss

Norman Kreider 1933-2018

In the past two months we’ve attended memorial services for three valued friends, Geraldine Rush, Brenda Miller and Norman Kreider. Each was a member of the Zion Mennonite Church family near Broadway during many of the two decades I served as pastor there, and their lives have blessed ours in unforgettable ways. 

The service for Norman at Weavers Mennonite Church on Thursday was the most recent, where we shared with his family and his many friends some of their heartfelt loss. Norman’s lifetime of leadership in music, teaching and many other aspects of church life were invaluable, and he and his wonderful wife Dorothy were among the most hospitable and service-minded members a community and congregation could ever hope for.

Norman was a special mentor to our son Brent, who worked for him for many years, and from whom he learned so many of the practical skills he's been grateful for ever since, especially in woodworking and construction. But far beyond just learning work skills, Brent has often expressed gratitude for the positive impact Norman had on his personal life. And of course the three Kreider children, Emily, Jeanette, and David were especially blessed by having this kind of good father, and having Dorothy as their devoted mother. David later died in a tragic fire in 1999, the most traumatic experience of loss imaginable.

When we moved from the parsonage to the first house of our own thirty years ago, Norman enlisted the help of Brent and others in making many of the needed improvements we still benefit from every day. Just one of many reminders of his gifts as a servant.

For many years, Norman operated Miles Music Company, and in later years owned and maintained numerous rental properties in and around Harrisonburg. Perhaps more importantly, he and Dorothy were a key part in the founding and early years of Gift and Thrift, the Mennonite Central Committee enterprise that is still thriving today.

As an example of his generosity, he was willing to help a destitute single mother with three children we were working with years ago. He arranged for a loan for her to buy some land for their mobile home when they were being evicted from their mobile home park. This was a risky move on his part, to be sure, but  she was eventually able to make all of the payments and have a valuable property to sell, providing her with some of the assets she needed for her latter years.

But Norman's legacy goes far beyond his many good deeds. He demonstrated how to simply be a good person--unassuming, unpretentious and genuine. He modeled what it was like to just be ones self, but to consistently be ones better self. He showed us how to be a gracious servant, a kind encourager, a memorably good man.

The world is richer for his having lived in it, and left poorer by his passing. 

Here's a link to a recent post on grieving:

Friday, December 28, 2018

Day Four Of Christmas--Pray For Our Refugee Neighbors Around The World

“The towns and people of Moab
    are at a loss,
New-hatched birds knocked from the nest,
    fluttering helplessly
At the banks of the Arnon River,
    unable to cross:
‘Tell us what to do,
    help us out!
Protect us,
    hide us!
Give the refugees from Moab
    sanctuary with you.
Be a safe place for those on the run
    from the killing fields.”                        - from Isaiah 15 ((the Message)

Someday we will almost certainly look back at this time in history as the Decade of the Refugee.

A staggering one in 110 people today have have been driven from their homes by war, famine, dire poverty, gang violence and/or persecution. This results in hundreds of millions of individuals facing homelessness and untold hardship, often with little hope of being able to return to their places of origin.

Please pray for an end to war everywhere. Pray for much needed help for suffering men, women and children refugees in already overcrowded places like Gaza, Syria, Myanmar, Yemen, and Central America. Pray for those countries and agencies seeking to respond to their needs, and for those who deny refuge.

And please offer whatever financial help you possibly can:

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Day Three Of Christmas--Pray For Release of Deserving Prisoners

This is one of many photos I have of real people I've
had the privilege of learning more about through
correspondence with Virginia inmates.
An increasingly large number of Virginia inmates are eligible for geriatric parole, many of them with stellar records of behavior since being incarcerated for much of their adult lives. Some of these aging prisoners are blind, infirm and/or have multiple health problems.

Many others who are parole eligible continue to be denied release by our Virginia parole board on the basis of "the seriousness of their crimes," even though there is nothing they can do to change that. They can only demonstrate that they have turned their lives around in the most challenging possible kinds of environments, a crowded and stressful prison, and many of them have accomplished just that.

These have suffered far too long and deserve a second chance.

Join me in praying they will be granted that opportunity.

Here's a link to one of  many earlier posts on this subject

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Day Two Of Christmas--Pray For Those Who Live In Constant Fear

Our faith, like Mary's, can overcame our fears.
The reassuring words "Fear not" are found repeatedly in the Christmas story, addressed to Joseph, Mary, Zachariah, Simon and to the shepherds. And to all of us.

Today millions live under the constant threat of "bombs bursting in air," of violent gangs blackmailing and plundering, of death by slow and painful starvation or untreated injuries or illnesses.

Meanwhile, many people who are exceedingly well off are nevertheless tormented by anxiety, imagining worst case scenarios of terrible things that might happen to them. Some of that worry is normal, and may even be helpful in small, occasional doses, as ways of preparing ourselves for unforeseen misfortunes. But as believers we can use that same imagination on the faith end of the spectrum as we do on the fear end. We can visualize undeserved and unexpected good things that are equally possible in our future, and that in God's plan will indeed eventually come to pass.

Fear not. Christmas is a sign that God is with us, forever.

Here's a link to an earlier post on overcoming irrational fears (phobias):

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Day One Of Christmas--Pray For World Peace

During this season, I hope to offer a simple prayer reminder for each of the twelve days of Christmas. We begin with God's long awaited announcement of "peace on earth among all people of goodwill."

This is a repost from a year ago:

Click here to read the entire post.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Case Of The Verizon Blackout Blues

For some unknown reason, I haven't been able to access anything on the internet on my home computer for the past four days. So I've been checking my emails occasionally at my office but otherwise have been having to rely on other means of communicating with the outside world.

After taking my laptop to BlueRidge Mac Thursday and being assured that wasn't the problem, I dialed 1-800-VERIZON for help. After a series of questions by the Verizon robot voice lady, I got to talk with a very nice tech person from India who took me through a series of steps and then assured me it was a network issue, and that their engineers would put this on their priority list and that the problem should be resolved within three hours.

After more than that number of hours, I went through the process again, involving the same robot lady and a second kind person from India. He assured me that Verizon engineers would soon be working on my case, and that it should be fixed within 24-48 hours. That takes me to this evening sometime.

Meanwhile, life goes on. And while I'm needing to make more phone calls than usual, and I do miss having access to the internet, I haven't suffered any serious withdrawal symptoms.

And its comforting to know that Verizon is actively working around the clock to restore our service 😏.

12/24/18 UPDATE: After five days, service is finally restored. Still have no idea what was wrong or and why this took so long to fix.

Monday, December 17, 2018

'Couple's Meetings' Could Save Your Marriage

One of many books that can show us
how to avoid having problems turn
into crises.

Rather than having relationship problems come up at random and lead to useless and escalating arguments (involving two speakers and no listener) why not file problems and then address them in a timely, business-like way in a couple’s meeting? 

In these kinds of periodic problem solving sessions, we can make an "it" out of a difference or a difficult decision and attack "it" (the problem) rather than each other, just as partners in a successful business partnership do.

Here's a sample agenda for such meetings:

   1. Share compliments and appreciations. This sets a positive tone and is a reminder that there is more to a relationship than problems.

    2. Review any unfinished business from past meetings. 

    3. Review calendar and do necessary scheduling (including planning a date or dates for the two of you!) 

    4. Discuss any financial issues, take care of paying bills, etc. 

    5. Agree on a list of concerns, then take one item or problem at a time, as follows: 

    a. First discuss the issue in terms of each of your underlying interests (why this is so important), rather than first stating your positions (this is what you/we should do). 

    b. Throughout, always take turns being the speaker and the listener.  When you are the listener, make sure you fully understand the other to their satisfaction before you take your turn to speak. Use a talking stick if necessary!

    c. Take time to brainstorm ideas for possible solutions, generating as many new options as possible (no evaluating or critiquing during this part of the process). 

    d. After discussing some of the more agreeable options on the table, decide by consensus--or delay a decision if it’s not possible to come up with a win-win solution--or just agree on an interim solution.  Remember, no agreement needs to be set in stone for all time, but will be honored until it is reviewed and changed. 

    e. Decide how and by whom a decision is to be carried out, and what will happen if it isn’t.  Put both the agreement and a friendly, agreed on “consequence-for-not-following-through” in writing. 

    6. Decide on a time for your next couple’s meeting, and who will be responsible for making sure the session happens (of course, either can respectfully ask for a special meeting at any time). 

    7. Keep it under an hour, and end with some activity you both enjoy. 

    8. If all else fails see a mediator or counselor for help.

Note: A couples meeting is not necessarily the solution to our personal problems. More on that later.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

To Blog Or Not To Blog, That Is My Question

This has been an interesting journey.
After eight years and some 1300 blog posts later, I've been asking myself whether it's time to give Harvspot some rest.

For example, I've questioned whether this is a healthy outlet for recurring writing urges or a kind of compulsion that's taken too much time away from other things?

I've also needed to examine my motives. Has this form of self-publishing become too focused on the numbers of pageviews and whatever positive feedback I may get from readers?

Up to this point, I've justified the time and effort involved as follows:

1. As a committed believer and  pastor, I want to use whatever means I have available to:
    a. preach a Jesus-based repentance to the complacent and comfortable (starting with myself)
    b. proclaim a Jesus-graced healing to the bound and broken (also including myself)

2. As someone with a special concern for the health and unity and the church, this has been a way of getting some deep concerns off my chest and on the table for conversation and feedback.

3. As a citizen of the worldwide, heaven-headquartered reign of God, this has given me a forum for promoting criminal justice and other issues affecting the poor and powerless in God's world.

4. As someone who will probably never publish a memoir, I've seen this as one way I can exert some positive influence while also leaving some kind of record (for my offspring?) of what I've been occupied with during some my brief and unspectacular life.

5. I often use parts of blog posts as raw material for things like our house church newsletter and other articles, or as themes for the 90-second Centerpiece radio spots I do for the Family Life Resource Center (where I still work half-time).

For now, I've decided to just slow down a bit. Rather than feeling a need to produce any set number of posts, I'll simply write whenever, and about whatever, I find myself compelled to.

Your prayers for wisdom are always appreciated.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

"The Whole World Stinks!"

Sometimes it's about what's wrong 
with us, not the world around us.
I once heard the story of a man who came home very drunk and passed out on his couch, a pattern all too common in his life.

One day his longsuffering wife decided to rub some strong smelling Limburger cheese on his mustache while he was in that state, thinking it might rouse him from his stupor. When it finally did, he immediately looked around him in disgust. "Something smells terrible in here," he said, and staggered around the house trying to figure out where the foul odor was coming from.

Having no success, he finally stepped outside, looked all around and yelled, "The whole world stinks!"

That's how it may seem when we see the world through the lens of our own misery, our own depression, our own negativity.

But the problem, and the solution, may be much closer home.

Like right under our nose.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

She Was A Giant Of A Woman

Polly Taylor, 1921-2018
Here are some remarks I made at Polly Taylor's memorial service at the Trinity Presbyterian Church yesterday. Scores of people attended, and many paid heartfelt tributes in her memory. Among them was a young Iraqi Christian who was welcomed by her and her son Mike when he emigrated to the states and who lived in her home until he could find a place of his own. That was just so typical of her.

"Living for Jesus" was her favorite song and the theme of her active, well-lived life.

I can say with confidence that if everyone lived like Polly Taylor, we could save the world. She cared for the earth and for every creature on it, and would never condone any act of violence toward anyone under any circumstances. So I feel truly blessed being able to claim Polly Taylor as one of my admired friends and colleagues in this community, a saint who went about doing good all of her life.

Our paths began to cross over 40 years ago when we were both charter members of a local peacemaker group first known as Choose Life, later to become a local chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. And that little group, a part of coordinating a demonstration and march in Harrisonburg in support of the anti-nuclear Ground Zero Week in the early 80’s, met in Polly Taylor’s home on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month for the better part of a decade, along with committed people like Helen and Murval Annon, Titus Bender, Ruth Bishop, Charles Churchman, Bill Fuller, Ray Gingerich, Gerry Glick, Pete Mahoney, Bill and Ramona Sanders and others. And she would always serve us breakfast at her little house on Valley Street, sharing good things from both her kitchen and from her deeply held convictions in ways I’ll never forget.

And she would have kept on hosting us (she was never weary of well doing) until we started meeting at Bill Springston’s on Franklin street because of his health preventing him from attending otherwise, and then at Alice Springston’s for years and years after that.

She will live on in those of us who loved her as a model of strong faith and good courage. 

And when the roll is called up yonder, I can picture her inviting us in to sit around her table and serving us some good breakfast.

Friday, December 7, 2018

HARD TIME VIRGINIA, Volume IV, Number 1 (occasional news by and for Virginia inmates)

With Prayers for Hope and Healing for this Holiday Season and Throughout the New Year

Moran, Bennett Meet With Citizens Concerned About Low Parole Numbers 

     Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and Virginia Parole Chair Adrianne Bennett met with over 20 invited citizens and local officials--including Delegate Tony Wilt--for a 2:30- 4:00 pm forum at James Madison University Tuesday, December 4, on the status of parole in Virginia. Two recent parolees accompanied Ms. Bennett and shared their personal journey of rehabilitation and reentry. An excellent report on the meeting appeared the following day on the front page of Harrisonburg's Daily News-Record.
     At a public meeting at 4:30-6:00 pm local citizens and members of inmate families from as far away as Chesapeake came to hear Moran and Bennett speak and to make their passionate case for parole consideration for deserving loved ones, including geriatric inmates. 
     Two recently released parolees, Mr. Paul Taylor and Mr. Weldon Bun, each of whom had spent over 20 years behind bars for murder convictions offered hope to family members, many of whom were in tears, as were most of the rest of us. They also stressed the need for reaching out to members of victim families. Some of their comments:
     “If you can't be a citizen outside, be a citizen inside.”  
     "Seek out those in the prison system who are invested in rehabilitation. Not all corrections officers have that focus."
     “Don’t lose hope. Keep believing that your loved one will one day be free.”
     “Personalize yourself with your parole board.” 
     "Send thank you letters even when turned down, send photos of family members visiting, and speak with them individually when the opportunity arises."     
     “Be accountable but don’t condemn yourself.”

Increase in Parole Releases In October

For August, 2018, there were four geriatric and 20 regular releases, with only two of them being women. In September there were 12, with only one being a geriatric release, and only one woman.
     In October, however, there were a total of 35, including one female and three geriatric releases.

Sexual Abuse Still Happening In Virginia Prisons

In Virginia there are still community showers in many of the lower security prisons, and some prisons that do have them fail to provide shower curtains to protect inmates from be exposed to inmates and staff.
     In September 2003, Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Although PREA passed over fifteen years ago, prison rape is still a problem for adults and youth in facilities across the country.
     Sexual abuse in detention is a crime, whether committed by staff or by another inmate. It is also recognized under international law as a form of torture. Sexual abuse in detention can take many forms, such as:
     Sexual harassment, as in unwanted sexual advances, name-calling, or threats
     Rape or attempted rape
     Any unwanted sexual touching
     Forced prostitution
     Any sexual activity that you feel pressured into doing
     When a staff person has any sexual contact with an inmate, it is always sexual abuse.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, from 1980 to 2015, the number of female inmates in Virginia prisons rose from 303 to 3,123, a 930 percent increase. During the same 35-year period, the male population grew 308 percent, from 8,617 to 35,167.

A Relative's Funeral
by Minor Junior Smith, legally blind and age 73, at Deerfield Correctional Center
With dad and my step-mother, I had rarely attended a relatives funeral in youth.
I was writing about childhood abuse, for I believed that somebody wanted truth.
A little bird perched on the window sill of my Mecklenburg Correction Center cell.
It was too early for Corporal Lee to say that my counselor had saddening news to tell.
The bird reminded me of mama feeding them to Sprite our starving pet cat.
For the sake of characterization, her maiden name is published as Elsa Pratt.

Briefly, I pondered on those difficult times she and I had shared in "Dark Run Holler".
That was one place my dad had taught me how to earn the honest dollar.
 Over my counselor's phone, Loretta told me that our stepmother had passed away.
Then, Corporal Lee telephoned a bank for me to pay two officers' salaries for a day.
My hair was all gapped-up, well, the next day was not for looking cute.
An officer and a Sergeant fitted me in tan shoes under my borrowed, odd-colored suit.

The sergeant drove, while the officer and I rode in the back of the car.
From Mecklenburg's prison to Montgomery Country's Elliston, the distance wasn't so far.
I remained docile and quiet with shackled ankles and handcuffs securing my arms.
I took a few memory trips, knowing that part of our road had split one of dad's farms.
Near Dixie Caverns, we turned off U.S. 81 onto old route 11's right-hand lane.
Blindfolded, I could have run the rest of the way without a cane .

At age eight, there was the site, where I had stood to board the bus for school.
Trying to buy some neighborhood boys’ friendship, I had first broken the golden rule.
As we bypassed dad's former Riverside farm, a hum began invading my ears.
What lay ahead for me was freedom to speak to people, whom I had not seen in years.
For a refill in Elliston, the sergeant pulled into a state highway shed.
I wondered how many of my buddies had served in Vietnam and ended up dead.

Outside the car the officers relaxed my feet and hands, some voices were not new.
I stood steadfast and ready when dad and a niece ran their embraces through.
Mama's four sisters and two brothers saw my Step-mother ready for burial in a copper vault.
I accepted the fact that my downfalls in life had been my own fault.
Like some things in life, it happened with little thought and no goal.
Our threesome stood before Bryant Funeral Home, as if we were playing a role.

Perhaps some of dad's people were extending warm greetings because I was his son.
Throughout the entire ceremony, I would not hear a word about prison.
However, I became leery as I watched my half-brother, Gordon, look his son up and down.
Eventually, eyeball to eyeball, my smile met Gordon's ugly frown.
Some other ones looked upon me with utter disdain for how I had disgraced them.
A Brother-in-law ran down a hill, as though he expected me to follow him.

Some of the people in the congregation knew me before I had turned seven.
The minister said that our bodies were houses, made to prepare our souls for heaven.
By the success of dad's first offspring, I considered all four of my real sister's horrible luck.
To shed tears, dad, Ralph Pratt and I sat like we had in dad's old Dodge lumber truck.
In 1985, I telephoned dad from Staunton Correctional Center. and finally got an answer.
Softly he told me that my step-brother, Ralph had died from hereditary cancer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Moran: "We'll Never 'Throw Away The Key' "

Recent parolee Paul Taylor, Virginia Parole Board Chair
Adrianne Bennett, and Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran
Photo courtesy Daniel Lin, Daily News-Record
If you don't have access to the Daily News-Record, here's an excellent piece on yesterday's meeting on parole reform.

To become a subscriber, or to renew your subscription to the DN-R (now under new management) contact 574-6200.

Parole Discussion Draws Policymakers, Advocates

By MEGAN WILLIAMS Daily News-Record  Dec 4, 2018

HARRISONBURG — A group of more than 20 stakeholders in the discussion of parole and parole reform met at James Madison University’s Festival and Conference Center on Tuesday, including Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and Virginia Parole Board Chair Adrianne Bennett.
     Among those in attendance were professors, attorneys, concerned citizens, nonprofit advocates, local politicians, lawmakers and people recently paroled from prison.
     The event was hosted by JMU Mahatma Gandhi Center’s Terry Beitzel and Harvey Yoder of the Valley Justice Coalition.
     Paul Taylor, a former Newport News resident, and convicted killer, served 23 years in prison before being paroled 15 months ago. During his time in prison, he worked to facilitate programs to help other inmates transition back into society to lead productive lives.
     “I couldn’t be a citizen on the outside so I decided to be a citizen on the inside,” Taylor told the group assembled at JMU.
     Taylor said he saw men who needed hope and it was Bennett who told him that she was looking for people who could be her neighbor if paroled without feeling scared, and she counted Taylor among them.
     “He’s been doing some great things, inside and out,” Bennett said.
     Virginia abolished parole for felonies committed in 1995 or after. Now sentences handed down without years suspended must be served, with some discretion for good behavior.
     According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, inmates convicted of a felony prior to 1996 are eligible for parole only under few conditions.
     The Virginia Parole Board, at its discretion, may grant parole before the offender completes his or her sentence if it determines that an offender is suitable to be paroled and that his or her release is in the best interest of the public. Otherwise, mandatory parole requires offenders to be released six months before completion of his or her sentence.
     A condition of Taylor’s parole included five months of intensive programming to help him get back into the community and manage his life, Bennett said.
     In Virginia, only 22.4 percent of all prisoners who are released from prison are reincarcerated within three years. That’s the lowest in the nation, Moran said.
     However, when it comes to recidivism for paroled felons, that number drops to 5 percent in Virginia. And when just looking at discretionary parolees, it’s only 1 percent, Bennett said.
     In Virginia, there are 2,100 inmates convicted before parole was abolished in 1996 who are eligible for parole, Bennett said. In 2017, more than 300 inmates received discretionary parole, and, of those, two-thirds were younger than 60, she added.
     “If we can safely release people before 60 they have a chance to have a life and be a part of society,” she said.
     One issue that came up at Tuesday’s event included what are referred to as “Fishback cases,” referencing a 1999 case Fishback v. Commonwealth.
     Local resident Latonya Cooper’s husband was given a decadeslong prison term after parole was abolished, but before a 2001 ruling that said juries had to be told that the sentences handed down were given without the possibility of parole. Until then, that information was not required to be shared with jury members.
     Cooper said she believes her husband’s sentence would not have been so severe if the jury had known that he would not have the chance for parole.
     “How do we know what was in the mind’s of that jury?” Moran asked of juries involved in “Fishback cases.”
     At the end of the day, Moran said that he feels the goal of the Department of Corrections is corrections, and granting second chances.
     Adding to that, Bennett said: “I do not believe the abolishing of parole has made our community any safer. It just creates a lack of hope of getting out.”

Contact Megan Williams at 574-6272, @DNR_Learn or

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Fanny Crosby: Mennonite Theologian By Default?

Fanny Crosby, 3/24/1820--2/12/1915
Many of us grew up enjoying hymns and gospel songs written by Fannie Crosby. Blind from soon after her birth, she nevertheless authored some 8000 texts and composed several of her own tunes as well.

Crosby was an amazing woman, widely acclaimed for her warm spirit and her rescue mission work. She was a product of the revival movements of her day and her songs made a profound contribution to that movement in America and elsewhere.

Mennonites, like many other Protestant related groups, chose many of her works for their hymnals. Life Songs 2, published in 1938, included 14 of hers. The 1969 Mennonite Hymnal used 12, and the 1993 Hymnal, A Worship Book, eight.

I grew up on a steady diet of these and other gospel songs, never questioning whether they were entirely congruent with our church's Anabaptist teaching, or whether they were about only one half of the gospel, the part having to do with one's individual experience of salvation.

Most of Crosby's songs are full of personal pronouns and depict the Christian life as being primarily about one's personal relationship with Jesus rather than about our being a part of nurturing communities of disciples of Jesus. These testimony songs certainly have their place, as in "Safe in the arms of Jesus," and "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine," but fail to recognize the shared life of faith and discipleship that is integral to the story of God's people.

Several of her hymns that are included in our current Hymnal, a Worship Book, however, do use "we" language, and are primarily about God, rather than on our subjective experience of God:

36   God of our strength
100 Praise him, praise him
102 To God be the glory
115 Jesus, thou mighty Lord

Meanwhile, a little known fact about Crosby is that she also wrote many militant, patriotic songs in support of such conflicts as the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.
Here's a sample of some of her lyrics on that theme:

On! ye Patriots, to the battle 
Hear Fort Moultrie's cannon rattle: 
Then away, then away, then away to the fight! 
Go, meet those Southern traitors, with iron will, 
And should your courage falter, Boys, Remember Bunker Hill.

So how did this prolific song writer come to exert such influence on peace-promoting Anabaptist-Mennonites?

Certainly her songs and hymns were highly singable and memorable, and they may have subtly influenced and shaped our theology in far more ways that we may ever fully realize.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Guest Post: Parole Failures Show That Our Culture Has Lost Sight of Grace

Immanuel Kant 1724-1804

The author of the piece below, which I post with his permission, is Ian Huyett, a Staunton resident and a former student attorney at the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse Clinic, where he represented three parole candidates. His paper “‘As I Had Mercy on You’: Karla Faye Tucker, Immanuel Kant, and the Impossibility of Christian Retributivism” was published in the Summer 2018 issue of Religio et Lex.

Paul (real name withheld) looked at the unopened letter from the Virginia Parole Board with terror and hope. He had reason to be skeptical. The Board rarely grants parole. On the other hand, a lot had happened during the 35 years that Paul had been incarcerated.

Locked up for fatally shooting a man during a trailer-park robbery at 24, Paul was now 59. The wild-eyed, long-haired drug-user who had been arrested was gone, replaced by a kindly, balding patriarch—known to other inmates as a positive role model and mentor.

The Board had received dozens of references on Paul's behalf—describing how he had excelled in his education, taught inmates to read, saved a man's life, inspired young prisoners, designed and taught classes, and become an ordained minister. Another state's parole board had repeatedly recommended that Paul be paroled. A ministry had even offered him housing and a job upon release.

Yet, as Paul opened and scanned the letter, his eyes leapt instantly to one familiar phrase: "nature and circumstances of the crime." It was another denial letter. Paul's accomplishments could not tilt the scales against his long-dead, 24-year-old self. For some on the Board, redemption was simply not relevant. Paul feared he would be forever defined by the sins of his youth.

Paul's denial is a failure, not just of policy, but of philosophy. In criminal justice, the idea that decision-makers should ignore a criminal's changed character is often called "retributivism." Retributivists hold that the sole purpose of punishment is to rectify a past crime by inflicting suffering on the guilty party. On this view, whether that party has changed over time is a non-issue.

Retributivism can be traced to the Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant. And, while Kant may seem like ancient history today, retributivism is, in fact, a relatively new idea. For over a thousand years—dating from at least the rise of Christianity—great thinkers took it as a given that criminal justice should encourage personal transformation.

Jesus, after all, advocated pardoning criminals who were in fact guilty. In the Gospel of Matthew, he rebuked a hypothetical creditor for having his debtor thrown in jail. After Jesus' death, Roman critics of Christianity objected that many Christians were former violent criminals. As one exasperated Roman exclaimed, “What other cult actually invites robbers to become members!”. The early Christian leader Tertullian boasted of these complaints, saying "Thus the name [of Christ] is credited with their reform."

During the Middle Ages, critics of the church's military orders complained that they were made up of the scum of Europe: former rogues, thieves, and murderers. But to Bernard of Clairvaux, the leading European thinker of his age, this was "both happy and fitting." Jesus, said Bernard, "recruits his soldiers among his foes." Thomas Aquinas, too, wrote that tribunals should employ "mercy which looks to the conversion of the wanderer."

To these thinkers, justice was rooted in God's love for human beings. But in the Enlightenment worldview of Immanuel Kant, all moral duties became a series of abstract demands—reducing criminal justice to the impersonal satisfaction of blood guilt. As the Enlightenment displaced Christianity, then, the West lost its relational understanding of justice. Because Kant's duties do not yearn for us to be saved, they will not care if we are.

That there are prisoners like Paul exposes both the prevalence and the weakness of retributivism. Paul's story shows that redemption is not only possible, but that it is transcendent. His transformation, in the midst of the shadow of violence, points to a light beyond the shadow.

If we draw on a source of experience deeper than Kant's, we will discover that criminal justice—like the rest of the human story—should be more complex than our Parole Board's one-dimensional denials. In order to change policy, though, we must first challenge ourselves and our culture. We should ask ourselves whether we, too, have unconsciously drifted—like American moral and legal thought—away from what matters most.

At 4:30 pm Tuesday, December 4 there will be a public conversation on parole in Conference Room 8 at JMU's Festival Center with Virginia's Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and Parole Board Chair Adrianne Bennett. Park in Lots D1 or D3. All are invited.

Friday, November 30, 2018

God's Rule Is From The Top Down, But It's All About Bringing The Bottom Up

'The rulers of this age lord it over their subjects. But among you, whoever would be greatest must be the servant of all.' - Jesus
At our house church this week we celebrated "Reign of Christ" Sunday, initiated by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and meant to be observed on the last Sunday of the church year. Known as "Christ the King Sunday," it was intended to remind believers of the primacy of God's eternal rule over that of all temporal powers on earth. Not without significance, 1925 was the year Benito Mussolini became Italy's dictator and the Head of its Fascist Party.

For some, metaphors of 'king' and 'kingdom' conjure up negative images of colonialism, despotism and dictatorial rule from the top down. Indeed, God's reign, referred to by Clarence Jordan as the 'God Movement', is not bottom up. Our faith is inspired by something far greater than human-based wisdom alone. Left to ourselves we tend to be driven by what benefits our pocket books and supports our prejudices rather than living by a transcendent vision of what is truly good for all people for all time.

Jesus, along with the Biblical prophets, calls us to that kind of transcendence and transformation, to become an active part of a worldwide movement in which we become colonies of caring dedicated to bringing heaven's ways to earth.

In this season of Advent, we renew our pledge of allegiance to that repentance-based revolution.

For more on the artist who created the above piece

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

State Officials Address Parole Issues December 4

Secretary of Public Safety Brian J. Moran
For those of you who are concerned about release for geriatric inmates and others in the Department of Corrections deserving of parole release, this is an opportunity to hear from two people who are directly involved with these issues at the state level. 

At 4:30 Brian Moran, Secretary for Public Safety, will give a 15-20 minute presentation on "Parole, the Current Landscape in Virginia," followed by Virginia Parole Board Chair Adrianne Bennett speaking briefly on "Virginia Parole Board's Scope of Releasing Authority." 

This will be followed by a Q & A session. 

The event is free and open to the public, and will be held at the Festival Conference and Student Center at James Madison University Tuesday, December 4, from 4:30-6:00 pm in Conference Room 8.  Park in Lots D1 or D3.

Here's a link to one of many posts on parole, this one by an inmate:

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Son Brad At VMRC's Strite Auditorium Sunday!

That's at 2:30 pm this Sunday, November 25, at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community.
Strite Auditorium is on the second floor of Crestwood, the building closest to
Virginia Avenue (Rt. 42).

Friday, November 23, 2018

It's 4 pm--Do You Know What Your Children Are Up To?

Is constant screen use causing depression among teens or is
depression contributing to their screen addiction--or both?
Among the "bad places" we were warned to stay away from when I was a child were beer joints, dance halls and movie theaters.

How times have changed.

Today some of the most dangerous places for them to be might be alone in their own bedrooms, with devices like their smart phones, video games and computer screens. These 'bad places' are not only getting progressively worse, but are becoming ever easier for children to access. 

Not only is the available content of grave concern, but the sheer amount of time kids are glued to their screens is concerning. In a landmark statement November, 2016, the American College of Pediatrics warned, 

While the limited use of high-quality and developmentally appropriate media may have a positive influence, excessive or developmentally inappropriate use carries grave health risks for children and their families. Excessive exposure to screens (television, tablets, smartphones, computers, and video game consoles), especially at early ages, has been associated with lower academic performance, increased sleep problems, obesity, behavior problems, increased aggression, lower self-esteem. depression, and increased high risk behaviors, including sexual activity at an earlier age.

Among their recommendations are things like turning off screen media during meals, not allowing internet access in children's rooms (especially after bedtime), and setting appropriate time limits for social media use.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Preparing For Our Finals

Here's what matters most.
During my years of teaching high school juniors and seniors, my students often asked questions like, “Is this going to be on the final exam?”  

I used to be a little annoyed at that, believing everything I taught was important, but looking back, they were just being smart. In the same way, as we all face our ultimate 'finals', we need to ask, “What does God consider of greatest importance?”

As we review the textbook we expect to be judged by, we realize the Bible is a very big book, and we might not, for example, be able to get all 613 commands in the Torah just right. But we do certainly want to get the main things right. We want to learn what God is most passionate about, and to keep our eyes open for statements like the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your might and with all your strength,” and the one given equal importance, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

We want to be sure to underline things like that.

Then there's Jesus's mission statement straight from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, to proclaim release for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s Jubilee.” 

And elsewhere, in the last chapter of the book of Hebrews, we have a summary of some key points to remember, five commands that are like an abbreviated version of the Ten Commandments. In my Bible they're under the heading “Closing Exhortations”. As I've always told my students, a good place to look for material to review are the summary statements at the end of a chapter or section. 

In Hebrews 13 he first of these is, “Keep on loving each other.” 

But not only each other, but secondly, “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers." Be on the lookout for angels in the form of aliens, immigrants, refugees. 

Then there’s "Remember those in prison, as though you yourself were in bonds, and those who are mistreated as if you yourself were suffering."

And "Marriage should be honored by everyone, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and the immoral."

Then there’s a hard one, but sure to be on the test, "Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have." 

These are all commands that are easily neglected in a society that urges us to selfishly pursue our own comfort, convenience and pleasure.

Just over a year ago I had the privilege of speaking at the memorial service of Rachel Stoltzfus, a saintly member of our house church. She and her husband Robert, who had passed away over a decade before, took in international students in their home, dozens of them over the years. They loved everybody, they cared for others' needs, and lived simply. Rachel was well prepared for her final exam as taught by Jesus:

"I was hungry and thirsty and you… gave me food and drink." Check.
"I was a stranger and you… invited me into your home." Check.
"I was homeless and you… clothed and sheltered me." Check.
"I was sick and in prison, and you…visited me." Check.

Jesus concludes this section of Matthew 25 by saying that to such people, like Rachel, God will say,"Come you blessed of my Father, enjoy the inheritance prepared for you from the creation of the world.”

This doesn't mean we earn our passing grade by our good works. Jesus’ good news is that whenever we are willing to repent and to take up his cross we become both an agent of God's amazing grace and a recipient of it, a grace that doesn’t ask for recognition or reward, and that gives extravagantly without complaining or without seeking gain.

That’s how things work in God’s economy. Receive love. Give love. Repeat. And Receive grace, give grace. Repeat.

That’s sure to be on the test.