Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Read This From The Top Down, Then From the Bottom Up

An amazing piece by British poet Brian Billston, posted with his permission.
Now re-read the piece beginning with the bottom line and going up, starting with
"The world can be looked at another way..."

Monday, February 26, 2018

My Big Cost Saving Proposal For The Pentagon

Why do we arm service men and women 
with $700 rifles?
Background: From a recent reading of the Pulitzer prize-winning Politifact site I learned that since 1968 "more Americans have died from gunfire than died in … all the wars of this country's history." According to their findings, about 1.4 million firearm deaths have occurred in the past 50 years compared to 1.2 million U.S. fatalities in war. The number of gunfire deaths does include suicides, but it's sobering to think of the huge homicide rate in our country.

But guns are far from being the only murder weapons involved in these phenomenal numbers. According to the same Politifact site, there are even more Americans killed each year with knives, by physical assault, or with clubs, baseball bats and hammers than there are with rifles. Of course, when you add handguns to the mix, that dramatically changes the equation, since pistols are the weapon of choice for most one-on-one murders.

In the wake of the latest horrific school shooting, I've heard some of the above statistics being used to downplay the idea that limiting access to semi-automatic rifles would substantially reduce fatalities in our country.

Which leads me to a simple question.

If such weapons as AR15's, especially when equipped with large magazines, aren't a significant factor adding to our nation's overall civilian kill rate--or increasing the number of school children being maimed and slaughtered--why not rethink how we train and arm members of our military, to whom we issue very similar (though fully automatic) weapons?

Just think of all the tax money we could save if we sent soldiers to battle armed with baseball bats and hammers instead? Or given the fact that more people die as a result of auto accidents than from gun murders, why not just give them vehicles to crash into enemy lines?

We don't do so for one simple reason. They are not as efficient at killing the largest numbers of people possible in the shortest amount of time possible.

Here's a link to a piece on the urgency of funding more research on this topic.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Make This Event A Part Of Your Lent This Year!

Join hundreds of your friends at a special performance by Ted & Company set for 7 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at  the Divine Unity Community Church on Country Club Road.

This promises to be not only a good experience for Lent, but will also help raise money for Gemeinschaft Home. A suggested $15 donation gets you in the door, then Ted Swartz will auction off a number of bargain items you can bid on during the course of the evening.

You and your family and friends can all be assured of a very good time for a very good cause. Please help us spread the word.


About the play: There are many Gospel stories of Jesus gathered around tables. There was food to eat and food for thought, exploring who was invited to those tables and who showed up. The miracles of Jesus were sometimes ordinary stories with extraordinary results.

​In The Jesus Stories writers and performers Ted Swartz and Jeff Raught offer a fresh look at the Gospel stories and discover that when uncorked, these stories pour out sparkling drops of laughter Jesus must have found in the people he met along the way. Bon Appetit!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Conflict And Controversy, Yes; Combat, No

Today I'm posting an interchange in response to something controversial I put on Facebook last week (about the need for "well regulated" gun policies). My friend Winston Shiflet responded with the gentle suggestion that I was ignorant of certain important facts. 

What is in italics, below, was my answer to him:

None of us has all the answers, Winston, and I'm sure there is enough ignorance to go around. I always find it humbling to realize that so many good people support so many convictions they hold with great certainty, even though can't all be right. But maybe we can learn from each other if we take time to listen.

To which he responded with what I thought was a stellar example of civil and helpful reflection of the kind one rarely finds on social media, and which I print with his permission:

Harvey, you make a decent point, in that many people have their own different convictions and that can’t all be right. That point I won’t argue. The method that one comes to a strongly held conviction, however, is the fundamental difference as to how one reaches those ends. 

When one reaches a conclusion from logical decisions on the best data available, it is no guarantee that one has all of the answers, but would achieve the best possible understanding based on the data we can prove. This also must be tempered with compassion. 

When one reaches strongly held beliefs based on emotions alone, with a willingness to avoid facts that don’t support their ideology and a seemingly disregard for actual factual data, it does not bode well for arriving at the most scientific, verifiable conclusion. It is simply fundamental differences in people’s ability to identify the world around them. 

You graciously and humbly (?) attempt (?) to present yourself as always seeking common ground among people whose world view is achieved from diametrically opposed influences and experiences. I believe that this reconciliation is unachievable on a scale to be significant in finding the common ground you profess you seek. 

Facts without compassion is truth without euphoria. Compassion without facts is euphoria but never really understanding why we are here or the world in which we truly live. You won’t change your world view regardless of any facts that would show you in error. As difficult as it can be at times I attempt not to allow my emotions or ideology alone to direct my world view when facts show me a verifiable different conclusion. I attempt not to turn my emotions off in order to maintain my compassion but not to the level of ignoring the obvious be it good or bad. 

Do yourself a favor. Read Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, a fantastic book by a great author. It won’t change your views on anything but it will give you a bit of insight into the irreconcilable differences in world views of those with the “unconstrained" and the "constrained" visions. 

All of us must remain open in order to grow both spiritually, emotionally and intellectually, but ignoring the true human condition will achieve nothing but war, be that in verbal conflicts or on the battlefield. Unfortunately that has been the human condition since the Fall of Man. Ignoring the true condition of Man will always leave us in confusion and disappointment. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Holy Nativity In The Gospel According To Mark

"Glory to God in Highest Heaven!"
Yesterday's lectionary texts for the first Sunday of Lent included a part of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, which begins not with Christ's birth, but with his baptism.

Might it be that Mark saw this event as the more significant sign of God's "advent"?

In Luke's birth account, the heavens open up with an angel's joyful announcement, followed by a multitude of heavenly hosts proclaiming "Glory to God! On earth peace and to all goodwill"! In the account of Jesus's baptism in Mark, the heavens open up with God"s Spirit breaking in in the form of a dove, accompanied by the inaugural announcement, "This is my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased"!

Jesus is here experiencing his second "birth", not through the water of Mary's womb but in the Spirit-drenched baptismal water of the Jordan River, where his Hebrew ancestors crossed over into their new life and new liberation as God's free-at-last people.

In our present violence-prone world, as then, God hovers over us with Dove-power rather than bursting in with the scream of an eagle. Jesus comes as Lamb, and is Spirit-filled as Dove. He comes as prey rather than predator, as Life-giving Redeemer rather than as Warrior and Conqueror. In the end, it is the power of God's mercy and truth that conquers and prevails.

Such is Advent. Such is Lent. Such is baptism and new birth. Such is the power of divine suffering and resurrection.

Feliz Navidad! The Lord has come!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Fifteen Laudable Statements By Our President

We wish our president the best as he works at
fulfilling his promises to the American people.
The following are gleaned from campaign speeches, news interviews, Twitter messages etc.:

"As America regains its strength, opportunity must be extended to all citizens. That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons, to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance at life." (2018 State of the Union Address)

"We’ve got to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt. ... I would say over a period of eight years," by "vigorously eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government, ending redundant government programs and growing the economy to increase tax revenues.” "It can be done. ... It will take place and it will go relatively quickly.  ... If you have the right people, like, in the agencies and the various people that do the balancing ... you can cut the numbers... and balance a budget quickly and have a stronger and better country.”

"I have great respect for women. I do cherish women, and I will take care of women."

I will "fix the background check system" (used when purchasing guns to ensure states are properly uploading criminal and health records).

I will provide "more funding for drug treatment, especially for heroin addicts".

“I would rarely leave the White House because there’s so much work to be done. I would not be a president who took vacations. I would not be a president that takes time off. You don’t have time to take time off.” 

"Our goal is to keep the promises made to Americans through our Social Security program.”

"The Trump Administration seeks to invest $550 billion to ensure we can export our goods and move our people faster and safer.” (only $200 billion is in the new blueprint for infrastructure)

“I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.” 

"We are going to ask every department head and government to provide a list of wasteful spending projects that we can eliminate in my first 100 days.”

“My plan will also ensure funding for historic black colleges and universities, more affordable two- and four-year college and support for trade and vocational education.”

“We can provide six weeks of paid maternity leave to any mother with a newborn child whose employer does not provide the benefit. 

“First, I'm going to reinstitute a five-year ban on all executive branch officials lobbying the government for five years after they leave government. I'm going to ask Congress to pass this ban into law so that it cannot be lifted by executive order. Second, I'm going to ask Congress to institute its own five-year ban on lobbying by former members of Congress and their staffs.”

“We’re going to have insurance for everybody, There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.” 

“I am going to take care of everybody … Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.” "Despite what you hear in the press, healthcare is coming along great. We are talking to many groups and it will end in a beautiful picture!"

"I promise to uphold the rule of law by aggressively enforcing existing federal laws to prevent the sexual exploitation of children on line including the federal obscenity laws, child pornography laws...and the sex trafficking laws..."

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Linking Sexual Harassment To Pornography

Our porn culture has gone mainstream and
become a new norm.
We should find it heartening that more and more men are finally being called out for violating and sexually abusing women. This has undoubtedly been a serious problem for a long time, one that is finally becoming more exposed for the cancer it is--through the MeToo movement and some long overdue prosecutions of offenders.

With men and boys today getting their primary sex education from porn sites rather from morally minded and worthy role models, should it be surprising that we see ever more examples of this kind of inexcusable behavior? And the impressionable age at which boys are first being exposed to porn now averages age 11, according to a recent study, and is believed to be trending to even younger.

The hardwiring effect of this kind of sordid entertainment on a developing brain is, in my opinion, crippling when it comes to men creating stable and satisfying relationships that are for "'til death so us part".

Consider the following misleading and seductive messages promoted by the porn industry:

1) Attractive and readily available females everywhere are endowed with augmented body parts that make them highly desirable and extremely seductive. Ordinary women who don't fit that stereotype, no matter how intelligent, gracious, compassionate, decent or kind they are, are second rate.

2) The world is full of beautiful women who are totally and enthusiastically focused on fulfilling men's every sexual fantasy. There is no limit to the frequency or varieties of pleasure they are eager to offer whoever wants it.

3) These fantasy figures demand nothing and expect nothing from the men they pleasure. They are willing to cater to their sexual needs with no questions asked and without any expectations of being treated with respect or loved and cared for as equal partners.

With that kind of mindset, is it any wonder we live in the kind of hookup and breakup culture we do, in which asking someone for a date is seen as a sign of a greater interest in a real relationship than is actually going to bed with them? Or should we be surprised that so many men act as though they are entitled to take whatever liberties they wish with women without any recognition of the harm they inflict?

I know that any talk of waiting for sex until people are truly committed to the covenant bond we call marriage is considered by some these days to be quaint and prudish. From my own experience, and from my observation as a marital and family counselor, however, I increasingly see it as just being prudent.

I have yet to see how today's commercialization of sex (with the US being one of the world's major producers and promoters of porn), accompanied by society's acceptance of commitment-free copulation without regard for the worth and dignity of the human beings involved, is really a viable path to"happily ever after".

On the contrary, I see it as a set up for some serious heartbreak, regret and remorse.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Urgent VDOC Reforms Proposed By An Inmate

From inside the Buckingham Correctional Center.
To whom this may concern:

Please consider promoting legislation or encouraging the Virginia Department of Corrections Director to see that the following are implemented by the VADOC.

1). Each offender housed within the VADOC should be permitted to possess a computer. A laptop or tablet style computer would be preferred as long as they are equipped with the following:

> a lighted standard keyboard that would allow offenders to learn typing skills
> standalone or WiFi capability from a secure server

2). Each offender should be allowed to purchase software programs such as Microsoft Office (Access, Excel, Paint, PowerPoint, Word Applications) as well as other preapproved educational applications and have them installed onto their personal computer by personal property officers which could be trained to install them.

3). Each offender should have 24-7 access to mandated legal materials (i.e., VADOC policies, Virginia's laws, court decisions, forms, federal decisions as well as VADOC and Institutional rules and procedures. This information should be connected to a wireless server so that offenders would have 24-7 access to research, prepare and print legal materials without tying up the law library to do research.

4). VADOC should update their policies to add the following at each facility:

> The ratio of law library computers to offenders should be 1:25. One computer for every twenty-five offenders
> The ratio of typewriters to offenders should be 1:100. One typewriter for every one hundred offenders
> a room should be provided which would comfortably hold all computers and typewriters
> each computer should be connected to a wireless server
> each computer should have Microsoft Office with Access, Excel, PowerPoint, and Word
> VADOC policies and procedures should be added to each computer for easy research and printing

5). Each offender should be allowed to print their legal materials from their personal computer to the institutional law library through a wireless server.

Additionally, offenders should be allowed to print their non legal materials from their personal computer to the institutional mailroom through a server. This would allow the mailroom the capability also to scan each offender's mail into their computer. Currently, offenders do not receive any mail directly from society. Each piece of mail is photocopied in black and white and the original is destroyed. This includes photographs and cards.

If VADOC facilities are going to continue photocopying each offender's incoming mail then they should be required to use colored copiers when photographs or cards are received. Black and white photocopying of photographs and cards are so insensitive. They do not have the same effect as colored photographs and cards.

6). Each VADOC facility should allow each offender through their case manager to scan their legal and personal materials into their personal computer. 

By allowing this, it would allow each offender to get rid of excess paper materials which could be fire hazards and attracts insects (i.e., ants, coach roaches, silverfish, slugs, spiders, and etc.) to hide within or underneath.

7). Each VADOC facility should create and start a program that would teach each offender some sort of computer programming language. Maybe Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). This is an occupation in which each offender could use on their own in the modern day society.

8). Each offender shall be provided education and job skills which should be continued into society. This would mean that for-profit companies must operate with VADOC facilities. Each offender that is not eligible to be a returning citizen should be relocated the newer high security facilities that are required to house them and adequate jobs must be provided so that each offender will be employed daily. No educational or vocational classes should be provided for them.

9). Each VADOC facility with community showers should redesign each one into a single stall shower and each should have a curtain so that an offenders nudity is not viewed below his/her shoulders. Each offender shall be required to shower behind a nontransparent curtain alone and each shower wall should be at least seven feet in height.

Charles E. Zellers, Sr.
DOC No. 1036758
Buckingham Correctional Center - N3-301 Top
Post Office Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936

Friday, February 9, 2018

When Talking More Is Making Matters Worse

Sometime we just need a time out.
Occasionally I've had clients reporting all night marathons they've engaged in with their spouse in an effort to resolve some difficult problem between them.

Some seem to interpret the biblical injunction to "never go to bed angry" as meaning they should never go to sleep without having come to some kind of resolution or agreement in a conflict.

If that's possible, it's certainly a good thing. But when we realize we're at an impasse and just keep on arguing, believing that just one more paragraph will fix everything, we soon get to the point of diminishing returns. In other words, if thirty minutes of discussion is good, an hour is not necessarily twice as good, or two hours four times as helpful. At some point more talk can just make things worse.

Far better to have an agreement that either party in a conflict can call for a time-out, with the understanding that the other will honor it. And that the person asking for the break will take responsibility to offer a 'time back in' within a reasonable time, say within a couple of hours. This gives everyone a chance to calm down, cool off and try again, hopefully with better results.

Then if this doesn't work, it may be good to find a pastor, a counselor or other mediator to help.

I believe there are more solutions than there are problems, and that conflicts don't have to become crises, or result in combat. If we can stay calm enough we can always find a way to work things out.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Local 2017 Stats: One Divorce Per 2.3 Marriages

This just in, the latest data on local marriages and divorces.
As you can see below, both marriage and divorce numbers have remained relatively flat in our community over the past two decades, in spite of a 25% local population rise during that time. 

This doesn't mean there are fewer people in intimate and exclusive relationships, only that more of them are failing to document their relationship. And when these unregistered couples break up, they experience the same distresses divorced partners do, but their breakups are of course not included in the numbers below:

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)
2017           983                 426

Clarification 1: Marriage numbers include those who come here from other locations to marry, whereas divorce numbers include only the breakups of people 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.

Clarification 2: One cannot assume a rate of divorce based on any one year's numbers, as in "45% of first time marriages in our community will end in divorce" (Many of the above couples are marrying or divorcing for a second, third or fourth time). But with numbers of over a period of this many years, one might safely conclude that the odds of a given marriage surviving are not nearly as good as we would like.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

From Re-Visioning Anabaptism To Making America Great Again--How My Church Is Leaving Me

What I read as a teen changed my life.
When I officially became a Mennonite at age 26, I assumed I was joining the church of Harold S. Bender's "Anabaptist Vision".

Having been brought up in a strict but godly Amish (later 'Beachy Amish') family and community, I already felt grounded in my faith, but I found Bender's articulation of it riveting and life-changing.

In his widely acclaimed 1942 lecture at the American Society of Church History, later published as The Anabaptist Vision, Bender described the faith of our spiritual ancestors as being about three major convictions, 1) the church is a body of people committed to taking the teachings of Jesus seriously, 2) the church is a voluntary community of believers who deeply care for and support each other, and 3) the church is a witness to peace and non-violence in every dimension of life, no exceptions, even at the price of persecution.

Some of my enthusiasm for this kind of re-visioning of a sixteenth-century Anabaptist movement may have bordered on the naive and idealistic, but I've continued to see Bender's work as a important articulation of what the Mennonite Church aims for.

This was reinforced as I regularly read the Mennonite official paper, the Gospel Herald, as a teen, to which my father subscribed. It contained articles that have continued to influence my faith ever since, including those by H. S. Bender, J. C. Wenger, C. K. Lehman, John Howard Yoder, Myron Augsburger, Don Jacobs, John Ruth, Willard Swartley, Katie Funk Wiebe, Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, Don Kraybill, John Drescher and countless other writers and authors. I felt more and more at home in a church tradition that I came to see as being about a 'third way', one that was neither Catholic nor Protestant, but respected the contributions and connections of all believers worldwide.

Today I'm less confident that most of my fellow Mennonites are about that church's vision, having become more and more influenced by other fundamentalist and evangelical traditions, and increasingly caught up in a pursuit of power, wealth and prosperity.

For example, I would never have dreamed that so many of my otherwise conservative Mennonite peers would become so caught up in the current tidal wave of American nationalism. Nor that they would defend to the hilt an unrepentant, twice-divorced president who lives a life of unprecedented luxury and who promotes an ever greater expansion of the US military budget, already larger than the total spent by the next ten top greatest military powers.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that conservative-minded Mennonites should have supported the Democratic or any other political party ticket in the last (or any) election. I'm OK with their casting a vote, if they felt they should, on the basis of their belief that the Republican side supported more of their values than the alternative.

But I never expected such strong support for the current hyper-patriotic "America First" agenda. And I can't imagine even one of the Mennonite leaders named above espousing the Trump-inspired nationalistic and anti-immigrant fervor I see today. Not one.

Nor can I imagine any of them labeling people like myself as "socialist", "liberal", "Trump-hater", or "communist sympathizer", all of which I've been accused of in recent months in Facebook and elsewhere. One fellow pastor earlier even suggested I should just go back to being Amish because I wasn't favoring changing our membership guidelines regarding military service.

Having said that, I've sometimes felt equally abandoned by many of my more progressive Mennonite friends in my MCUSA denomination.

Take some of the directions my alma mater, EMU, have taken, for example. One of its major departures from a simple, Jesus following path, for me, was building the largest and most expensive addition to their campus to date, the University Commons sports and student life facility completed several decades ago. Since then, campus renovations and the acquisition of a spacious home for the president on the top of Harmony Heights, large enough for a homeless shelter, have all reflected state of the art, top of the line improvements that to me feel contrary to the goal of educating students for sacrificial service in the  global community.

Contrast that with the EMC of just years before my attendance in the 60's, when president J. L. Stauffer lived in a modest house and on an extremely modest income that had to be supplemented by boarding college students and raising chickens in the back yard (his small chicken houses were later renovated and rented to students).

Having said all that, am I about to leave my church?

NO. I'm well aware of having plenty of blindspots and beams in my own eyes to pay attention to. And meanwhile I would love to be reunited with all who have left the Mennonite fold who would be willing to accept, confront and engage with me as a fellow follower of Jesus.

Yet I can't escape the feeling that many of my sisters and brothers all across the liberal/conservative spectrum are not just leaving me, which is of no real consequence, but are departing from the radical vision of their 16th century Anabaptist forbears, who represented a truly upside-down and worldwide movement of believers.