Friday, August 31, 2018

Two Female Inmates Lament Conditions At MRRJ

Middle River Regional Jail
I just received copies of two letters written by women at the Middle River Regional Jail, passed on to me this morning by a concerned parent whom I have known for several years and whose daughter I have visited at the request of a local prison ministry. The second letter is by one of the women in her dorm pod.

To whom it may concern:

I am currently an inmate at Middle River Regional Jail. Since I arrived a month ago conditions have gone from bad to worse. When I arrived I stayed in a filthy intake cell for six days with no access to a shower. I have been in an open pod now for two weeks and am honestly concerned for my health and safety at this facility. A virus has been passed around the pod continuously for weeks. The ladies here have suffered for weeks at a time with fevers up to 102 without medications even though they have repeatedly sent request forms to medical. Even after finally seeing a nurse and/or a doctor, medicine, or the correct medicine, was still not administered. Requests for bleach or other disinfectant to kill any germs were also denied.

This facility is overcrowded and cannot adequately accommodate the female inmates who keep arriving. The indoor recreation room where we are being housed has been turned into a female pod with no showers, phones, working TV's and with only one restroom to accommodate 32 women. We were also not able to access the commissary to obtain hygiene and other products.

I have serious concerns about living conditions at Middle River and feel someone needs to address this situation immediately.
- a concerned female inmate

To whom this may concern:

I am writing out of concern for myself and fellow inmates here at MRRJ.

I was sent here on a sanction from Drug Court for 20 days. I was being treated for a bladder tumor prior to coming here, which was very painful. I was denied medical help six times and was told I was faking my illness, even though medical had documentation of my not only having a bladder issue but kidney damage as well.

During this time, twelve of us were put into a makeshift pod with no showers, one toilet and no phones. After a week they decided to switch people from this pod to another open pod, which resulted in several people becoming infected with lice within two different pods.

During lunch two different women from our pod found grub works in their broccoli, and we had to get our drinking water from sinks where we wash hands and brush our teeth.

We are stuck here on the inside, hoping our complaints can be heard by the appropriate people on the outside.

Thank you for your concern.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Grasping At Straws To Reduce Plastic Waste

This urgent word from our Creator: "CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELF."
Celeste Kennel-Shank, in her column in the last issue of the Mennonite World Review, challenges us to drastically reduce our use of plastic in light of its damaging effects on our planet. We're in danger of doing irreparable harm to our health and to our earth, she warns, if we keep producing more and more of this non-biodegradable material and dumping it into our landfills, rivers and oceans.

Quoting data from the Christian Science Monitor, she writes, "Since the 1950's, humanity has generated some 6 billion tons of plastic waste. Just 9 percent of that has been recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and the remaining 79 percent ended up in landfills or in litter."

So for a start, could we at least find ways of cutting our plastic waste in half?

Here are a few of my ideas. Feel free to add some of your own.

Reject buying more and more food and other products packaged in plastic containers.
This is where I've noticed the biggest increase in the plastic waste we accumulate at our house. Plastic packaging can be put in recycle bins, but whether they actually get turned into new consumer products isn't necessarily guaranteed. In a market-driven economy, any recyclables that aren't found to be profitable at any given point can and will go straight into our already bloated landfills. So we'll need to avoid bringing over-packaged stuff home as much as possible.

Refuse and reuse plastic bags.
Most of us have hundreds of these, and they can also be recycled in most cases, but many of them can also be cleaned (as needed), stored in the vehicles we use for most of our shopping, then used to put produce in to take to the checkout. They can even be offered to the cashier to put other regular purchases in if we don't have other reusable shopping bags with us. Just as plastic bags virtually last forever in a landfill, they can survive multiple uses when shopping.

Avoid using styrofoam containers.
We could make a practice of simply taking our own washable and reusable take-home containers with us when we eat out instead of asking for styrofoam containers for leftovers, or using styrofoam plates at picnics and carry-ins. We can also avoid convenience food and other venues using this abominable material.

Drastically reduce purchases of other plastic products.
This is anything but easy when so many everyday things from toys to buckets to lawn chairs are made from this convenient, light weight and nearly indestructible material. It's hard to think of doing without it completely, even though most people managed to survive with very little of it early in my own lifetime.

Cut back on the use of plastic straws and eating utensils.
Straws represent a very, very small percentage of the plastic waste stream, but every little effort helps. And someone needs to come up with a simple way of carrying some non-plastic forks, spoons and cups with us when we frequent fast food joints (purses for men, maybe)? Thus we could at least reuse the plastic tableware we already have, or use alternatives.

Don't toss used contact lens down the sink or into the commode.
Even these tiny products can cause serious damage to the ecology of our rivers and oceans.

Final word: Whenever we "throw away" any of the earth's resources we need to remember that there really isn't any "away". Everything we use and discard stays right here on the good planet God gave us to care for.

Friday, August 24, 2018

To Help Double Relief Sale Income This Year: Spend Generously, Then MATCH That With a Cash Gift

For more information about how you can help this year's Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale raise much needed funds for refugees and other relief needs, visit their website  Last year there were ten cash donations of $500 each, several $1000 ones, one of $2500 and one at $5000, plus many smaller contributions, resulting in a total of nearly $41,000. We hope to significantly increase that this year by promoting the "matching" idea in addition to soliciting these larger contributions.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

G. K. Chesterton On Progressives and Conservatives

Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton lived from 1874-1936.
The following Chesterton quote is one I found myself reading several times, and thought others might enjoy it as well:

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types -- the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob.” G.K. Chesterton

Rather than our focusing primarily on what is "left" or "right", can we know and love the "way, truth, and life" that inspires us with what is above rather than blinds us by what is below?

Saturday, August 18, 2018

To Knot Or Not To Knot? Why We Should All Promote Pre-Engagement Counseling

Is much of our premarital counseling a waste of time?
As a pastor and marriage counselor I have long promoted the idea of couples not waiting until just weeks before their wedding to get some serious relationship counseling--and that it would be wise to do this before their engagement. It became clear to me that by the time most couples sought traditional premarital counseling it was unrealistic to ponder the really hard question of whether they were making a wise marriage choice. The date for their wedding had usually already been set by then, and postponing or cancelling their plans just felt too difficult.

During my years of teaching a high school family life course at Eastern Mennonite High School, and during the 16 years I worked as a part-time counselor to students at EMU, I strongly promoted pre-engagement counseling, and a significant number of couples began seeking it. With those who did, a number of them decided against becoming engaged (usually in cases where one or the other was already having some serious misgivings about the relationship), even though breaking up couples was not my goal.

At EMU we also began offering an annual Sunday afternoon "To Knot or Not to Knot" seminar for dating couples in serious relationships, in which we had a panel of a recently married couple, a seasoned older couple and a divorced person share some of the things they were glad to have resolved before tying the knot, and some things they really wish they had understood better prior to getting married.

The couples attending were given a compatibility exercise to do as a part of the three-hour workshop, one based on items from a premarital inventory, and the women attendees also met with the female presenters and the men with the male presenters for some further follow-up conversations.

Of course, no workshops or counseling sessions can fully prepare couples for a successful marriage, but the more help we can offer ahead of time on how to make the wisest possible choices, and how to avoid unpleasant post-marital surprises, the better.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

From The Anabaptist Ausbund To The Unparteiische Gesangbuch--How Choosing New Hymns May Have Forever Changed Our Church

"Out of the fullness of the heart, the language of each mortal springs. 
If you would truly know a man, just listen to the songs he sings."
- Amish hymn writer John Paul Raber, Songs from Within (1991)

"Several Beautiful Christian Songs Which Were Written and Sung
Through God's Grace by the Swiss Brethren in the Passau Castle Prison"
The first version of the collection of Anabaptist songs that later became known as the Ausbund was published in 1564, just decades after the beginning of the Anabaptist (free church) movement. Believed to be the oldest hymnal in continual use in history, it has gone through numerous revisions and expansions, and was long the mainstay of early European and American Mennonite congregations. It is still the standard hymnal used by many Old Order Amish groups in the United States. 

The 51 hymns published in its first edition were written and compiled by a group of Anabaptists in a notorious prison in Passau, where believers were being held by Reformed (Protestant) authorities and were awaiting possible torture and/or death. Singing these heartfelt pieces together was a vital part of what kept them steadfast and unyielding under severe pressure to deny their new-found convictions. 

Here is an example of one of these very earliest hymn texts, "O Herre Gott in deinem Thron" ("O Lord God on your Throne") composed by Michael Schneider, a tailor. It was recently translated and put to verse by Gerald Mast, professor of communications at Bluffton College (used here with his permission), and meant to be sung to the tune of Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," the already popular Reformation hymn in Schneider's time:

O Lord God ruling from your throne,
your laws and statutes gave us 
a way to live for you alone
released from selfish blindness.
But now through Jesus Christ
we who have been baptized
know only one command:
to love without demand;
God's call to gracious service.

Against all strife and tyranny
God's love for us is given.
This love endures defenselessly,
though death and devil threaten.
Because of Jesus Christ,
our discord harmonized.
We fear not any foe;
when love is all we know,
no conflict can dishearten.

Sisters and brothers let us take
the path to joy from sorrow.
The cross of costly friendship make 
our past and our tomorrow.
We follow Jesus Christ,
who gave for us his life;
came here with us to dwell, 
delivered us from hell,
through fierce and faithful mercy.

This hymn is quite similar to Luther's "A Mighty Fortress" in its description of the church's spiritual conflict with evil. However, Luther staunchly defended the use of the literal sword when necessary to combat the enemies of the faith, which to him clearly included Anabaptists who advocated for a church free to practice its faith independent of the rule of the state.

I'm impressed by how Schneider's hymn combines an affirmation of courageous faith with a spirit of unwavering solidarity with fellow believers, and am struck by how different it is in tone and content from many of the hymns, choruses and gospel songs we sing today.

Historically, we can note a significant shift in hymn choices among Mennonites already by 1803, when Lancaster Conference Mennonites published their first collection of German hymns to supplement, and very soon replace, the Ausbund. They included far more songs from Pietist, revivalist and other traditions than those by their Anabaptist forbears. The title they gave the new hymnal, "Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch" (Impartial or Non-Sectarian Song Book) is telling, and suggests that Mennonites were already aligning themselves with more generic forms of Protestantism, marking a shift in focus toward a more personal and inward experience of faith (with lots of I-me-my language) rather than the more communal and discipleship-focused tradition of their spiritual ancestors (who used predominantly plural pronouns in their hymns and other writings). 

Another hymnal of that era published for use in more progressive Amish churches, called "Eine Unpartheyisches Liedersammlung," likewise included a majority of hymns that were borrowed from other evangelical traditions. And in subsequent English language hymnals produced by mainstream Mennonites, such as The Church and Sunday School Hymnal, Life Songs, the Church Hymnal, and the Mennonite Hymnal, there are far more hymns by non-pacifist writers like Fannie Crosby (who also wrote patriotic songs in support of the Mexican/American and the Civil War [1]), than those authored by past or present Anabaptists.

It could be argued that this is a good thing, a sign of a kind of openness and ecumenism that should be commended. But were all of our choices of newer hymns made deliberately and wisely, and with a realization that what we sing most fundamentally informs and shapes our faith and the faith of our children--likely far more than the sermons we hear or the authors we read?

Note, for example, the primary emphases in one of the many gospel songs I grew up with (and loved), like "My Jesus, I Love Thee,”  written around 1862 by William R. Featherstone, a young Methodist who died at age 27. (found on page 522 of our current Hymnal, a Worship Book):

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign;
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

I love Thee because Thou hast first loved me,
And purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree;
I love Thee for wearing the thorns on Thy brow;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

In mansions of glory and endless delight,
I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright;
I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow,
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus 'tis now.

I am certainly not against our singing this kind of personal testimony piece as long as we remember that our Lord is worthy of praise not only because he “purchased my pardon” and offers me "mansions of glory and endless delight." Rather, he is one whose way of life we are to follow and demonstrate here on earth, by God's grace, as a community of believers who are citizens of God's worldwide "colony of heaven." God is about redeeming and perfecting a people, a body, a bride, a living, unified temple whose cornerstone is Christ, not just about rescuing individual souls. 

If this is true, more of the hymns we choose for worship should express our understanding of Anabaptist-based practices such as 1) living as simple, God-governed communities of faith committed to teaching and practicing Jesus' way of radical discipleship, 2) pledging allegiance to Jesus' worldwide kingdom rather than to any nation state, 3) denouncing all forms of violence and taking up Jesus' cross rather than taking up arms, and 4) sacrificially serving and loving neighbors in need both near and far.

In the spirit of the writers of the Ausbund, we would do well as Mennonites to sing more of what celebrates and shapes that kind of life together. 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

This Just In: Very Young Humans Can Feel Pain

Here's link to a conversation about the amazing development of human life, and how that matters.
One of many persuasive arguments against abortion is based on scientific evidence that fetuses respond to pain at a significantly earlier stage than previously believed.

As more and more people recognize this, my sincere hope is that they will be moved to do whatever they can to preserve and protect developing life both in the womb and beyond. Any and all growing convictions against inflicting any form of violence on the innocent should also result in an outpouring of financial support for causes such as those below on behalf of the very young.

Meanwhile, for most of us, being anti-abortion is cheap. But for an accurate gauge of actually how pro-life we are, follow the money.

1. Mennonite Central Committee partners with local organizations around the world
to aid victims of famine, war and other crises.

2. Doctors Without Borders provides free healthcare for suffering people all over the globe.

3. UNHCR has a strong presence among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, 
currently experiencing miserable monsoon rains. 

4. Click here to contribute to CARE, which offers aid to countless refugees in dire need.

5. Here's a link to support our local pregnancy center

6. And here's how you can help a local fundraising effort for worldwide refugee relief:

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Summers Get Hotter, Inmate Health Risks Rise

Crowded concrete prisons like these create 'cruel
and unusual punishment' for many.
This is an edited version of a piece written by an inmate inside one of Virginia's prisons:

Each summer there is a wave of heat-related deaths in America's prisons, mostly in states of the former Confederacy which have opted for a policy of building poorly ventilated concrete prisons without air-conditioning. Most of Virginia's prisons are no exception.

"[Air-conditioning] is seen as a luxury and prison officials do not want to be seen as running luxurious prisons," stated David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project.

Virginia facilities do air condition areas such as guard shacks, dental and medical departments, security offices, staff control rooms, staff dining rooms, and warden's offices to ensure the comfort of staff members. But typically areas where prisoners eat, exercise, live, shower, sleep, and work do not.

Often overlooked are the oppressive conditions men and women have to endure to earn their pay of $0.50-1.50 per hour while incarcerated. Some of the hottest spots in prison are Enterprise Shops, kitchens and laundry areas, most of which do not even have windows to allow cooler fresh air to come in. Then after work inmates have to endure sweltering and restless nights in their housing units during the summer months.

Some housing units are not equipped with exhaust systems to remove the heat from the area and to draw fresh air through each prisoner's 10 x 13 inch window, which has a plate with multiple holes smaller than a No. 2 pencil. 

Other facilities do have large industrial fans to circulate air, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, fans are ineffective at temperatures over 95 degrees and can actually increase body heat. They also state that both cool showers and cold drinking water are effective only for brief periods, and consuming large quantities of water can cause other medical complications.

As one anonymous inmate notes, "The general population thinks of air conditioning as simply making air colder, but there's so much more to it that that. There's large particle filtration. There's small particle filtration. There's odor diffusion. There's humidity control."

Prisons should be retrofitted with climate control to keep interior temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and which takes into account the heat index, the measure of heat and humidity that indicates what the air temperature actually feels like.

"Climate control is not a matter of comfort and luxury," says David Fathi, with the ACLU. "It's a matter of life and death."

This is especially true for inmates who are 65 years old or older and who may be overweight, have been diagnosed with asthma, coronary artery or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, who have diabetes, hypertension, liver cirrhosis, thyroid dysfunction, have been prescribed calcium channel blockers and psychiatric medications, or who are required to use a CPAP machine. Prisoners often experienced dizziness, nausea and weakness due to extreme heat conditions that make it hard for them to breathe.

People outside of prison who experience extreme heat have options that prisoners do not have. For example, they can take a cool shower (most prison showers have mixing valves which control the temperature of the water), drink cold water (most prisoners have access to only a limited amount of ice), move into the shade or go to a place that is air conditioned.

In 2017, an American Meteorological Society study warned that what we now call extreme heat will be commonplace as soon as 2020. It is my hope that the Virginia Department of Corrections will join the 21st century and install air-conditioning in each prison before that time. If not, those prisons without should be closed.

Please contact Governor Ralph Northam and request that he address this problem, and that he reduce prison overcrowding and provide first class education and computer, vocational and job training to all inmates who are parole eligible and will be returning citizens. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

A Family Life Course At EMHS Turns Fifty

An estimated 2500-3000 alumni of Eastern Mennonite High School have taken its "Christian Family Living" class since it was first introduced in the 1967-68 academic year. That was when juniors and seniors were first given a choice among a number of courses they could elect to meet their Bible requirement.

CFL, as it became known, turned out to be a course almost everyone took, and is the only one of the original offerings that's still a part of the EMHS curriculum.

Today it is being capably taught by Curt Stutzman, and it is still the elective chosen by over 90% of upperclass students. It was my privilege to teach it for most of the 21 years I was a part time Bible and social studies instructor at EMHS. And while on a sabbatical leave in 1983-84 I had the opportunity to upgrade the course outline, below, pretty much as it is still used today.

Meanwhile, other Mennonite high schools added similar classes, sharing their content and study guides with each other. In the EMHS version, in addition to daily assignments, students do an extensive interview project involving doing a family genogram and learning more about the strengths (and areas of growth) revealed in their parents' and grandparents' stories. In the second half of the semester, they are paired off as pretend "engaged couples" working together on a project that involves planning a wedding, finding a job and place to live (based on current newspaper ads), doing a first year budget and working on a "marriage agreement".

In addition to reading assignment and other course work, regular guests are invited for conversations with the class from among the ranks of single adults, engaged couples, divorced persons and married couples in various life stages in the community. Needless to say, during the years I taught the class I learned as much as the students, and undoubtedly enjoyed it at least as much as they.

Here's a copy of the current course outline:


Course Objectives:
Upon completion of this course, the student will be able to--

--integrate Christian values into personal and family life issues
--strive for healthy family relationships in the family of origin and also in the family of procreation
--identify and use improved communication skills
--recognize what the Bible says about individuals, marriage and families
--perceive the Church as the spiritual family which provides support for individuals and families

Course Outline:
Unit 1:  Living in Families                                      Unit 5:  Weddings and Honeymoons
Unit 2:  Adolescents in Families                             Unit 6:  Marriage
Unit 3:  Intimacy:  Friendships and Relationships  Unit 7:  Issues in Family Life
Unit 4:  Dating, Mate Selection, Engagement        Unit 8:  Parenting

Course Requirements:
            First Quarter                                                  Second Quarter

Genogram and Parent Interview  40%           First year project        40%
Scripture memorization                        10%                Scripture memorization        10%
Book reports                                           20%                Book reports                            20%
Unit tests                                                 20%                Unit tests                                  20%  
Participation, etc.                                  10%                 Participation, etc.                   10%

To make this class a meaningful one for all involved, it is essential that students come to class prepared to participate.  Bring a Bible to class each day.  Class discussion is very important in Christian Family Living, and students are expected to offer insights and ask questions during class discussion time.
Work turned in late is graded at 80% the same day or 50% thereafter.

Students will select two portions of Scripture from the following list to memorize during the semester, one each quarter.  Choose from among the following Scriptures:

Galatians 5:19 to 6:5 Ephesians 5:1-12 ` I Corinthians 13
Ephesians 4:17-32 Colossians 3:1-17

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Kinds Of Progressives, Conservatives, Capitalists, Socialists, Libertarians, Old Orders, New Orders, Leftists and Moderates God Loves

The world offers us a wide range of left and right ideas and 
"God shows no favoritism. In every nation God accepts those who fear him and do what is right."
- Acts 10:34a-35 

Never has the world seemed more polarized and divided than in our age of instant news and unrelenting propaganda. Anyone to the left or right of us on any issue is too often seen as being suspect if not dangerous.

In my old age, I'm beginning to see certain differences of opinion as being a normal thing, given our limited understanding of the truth, and have begun to appreciate some diversity of viewpoints as having value for our learning and growth.

What is most important, I've been thinking, is that we gain an "above" versus a "below" perspective, rather than a left/right focused one. In other words, that we not become so earthbound and earth-based in our beliefs that we fail to see the world, its people and its many crying needs from the heaven-led perspective of God's reign. 

When we see things from this altitude, it will go a long way to change our attitudes toward others. Maybe we'll become a little less sure about of our time-bound ideologies and become more focused on our theology, our be-ology and our do-ology as children of God. 

To me, what really matters is how well we follow in the steps of the One who chose disciples from the ranks of tax collectors, Zionists and Zealots, all prone to experience debate, doubt, and even denial. 

As communities of faith may we avoid the latter but every day be blessed and learn from the diverse people God has placed in our paths. And together to "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God."

That kind of above-based perspective is what should unite us.
Every healthy community of people needs its innovators, integrators, preservers and mediators.
See this link for some reasons why.