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. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Hymn Sections For A New Anabaptist Hymnal?

Our most recent official hymnal has
served us well since 1992,
The first Anabaptist hymnal, the Ausbund, was created by and for the revolutionary sixteenth century church movement dedicated to 1) being simple, self-governed communities of faith, teaching and practicing Jesus' way of radical discipleship, 2) pledging allegiance to Jesus' worldwide kingdom rather than to any nation state, 3) denouncing violence in all its forms, taking up Jesus' cross rather than taking up arms, and 4) sacrificially serving and loving neighbors in need both near and far.

I've been reflecting a lot on how this early Mennonite theology may have forever changed when we gave up the use of our Ausbund-themed songs in favor of borrowing popular hymns from Pietist and other Christian traditions.

Maybe a new hymnal could help correct that, one that might include some of the following new sections:

Hymns Celebrating Jesus's Teachings
Our current Hymnal, A Worship Book, is undoubtedly the best post-Ausbund hymnal the Mennonite church has ever published. Nevertheless it has only one hymn based on the words of the Beatitudes, in the form of a chant seldom sung in our congregations. And very few others quote directly from the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, an exception being "Seek ye first the kingdom of God".

Here are a few other wished for hymn titles that might be included in a 'Jesus's teachings' category:

"Blessed Are You Poor"
"We Are God's City of Light"
"Pray For Those Who Persecute"
"First Go and be Reconciled"
"Lay up Treasures That Will Last"
"Whoever Hears These Words of Mine"

Hymns of our Anabaptist Ancestors
Gerald Mast, professor at Bluffton College, recently translated a hymn from the very first edition of the Ausbund, a hymnal that is steeped in the faith of our martyr ancestors. It is to be sung to the tune of "A Mighty Fortress is Our God". Ironically, our HWB has two versions of Luther's famous hymn, but none similar to it written from an Anabaptist perspective.

We need many more good translations of some of the better Ausbund selections, such as "Who now would follow Christ" in HWB by David Augsburger, and "Our Father God, thy name we praise, "translated by Earnest Payne.

Hymns on Creation Care
Surely one of the major crises of our time, prayer hymns expressing concern for the future of the planet deserve a section of their own in any new hymnal.

Hymns of Prayer for Christian Unity
Given our terrible tendency to divide over all kinds of disputable matters, we need to regularly use hymns that remind us of the importance Christ gives to our being one, as in his extended prayer in John 17.

Hymns of Christian Calling
Many of the numbers in the current 'Calling' section in our hymnal have to do with God's invitation to individual sinners to be saved and prepared for heaven (a good thing!) rather than also calling us to  Jesus's mission of "proclaiming good news to the poor,  bringing release to captives, and announcing the year of God's Jubilee."

Having said all that, there are many great resources on these and other topics scattered throughout our current hymnal, as well as in the supplements that have been published since, like Sing the Story and Sing the Journey. But my impression is that the more uniquely Anabaptist-themed selections are still used less frequently in most congregations than the more familiar generic Protestant hymns and gospel songs we're far more used to singing.

So let's rediscover and sing the Anabaptist ones more frequently, and keep writing some new ones for future hymnals. What we sing becomes what we most deeply believe.

Here's a link to another post on this theme:

Friday, November 16, 2018

Gemeinschaft Week of Gratitude and Generosity

A no gimmicks fundraiser, just a plain generous giving opportunity, via a check to Gemeinschaft Home, P. O. Box 288, Harrisonburg, VA 22803 or at

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Please Send Us Some More 'Mennonites'!

Groups of women meet regularly to sew comforters and quilts for needy people around the world.

Yassir, a mission worker in Sudan, recently asked some women in a refugee camp how churches in North America could be of greatest help to them. They responded with, "Please send us more 'Mennonites'.” 

Not sure how more 'Mennonites' would benefit them, he asked what they meant by that. They explained that they cover themselves with them at night and then hang them up as walls or dividers during the day.  He eventually figured out that she was referring to MCC comforters and quilts. 

Since these were tagged as coming from Mennonite Central Committee, people in the camp referred to them as 'Mennonites'.

I like that. What better ways to be known than through providing some warmth and some sense of private space for refugees and others in need?

Here's a link:

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Bitter End Of "The War To End All Wars"

Rather ushering in an era of peace, many
see the Versailles Treaty as directly
leading to the holocaust of World War II.
Today, 11/11, is Armistice Day, marking the signing of the Versaille treaty that ended World War I at 11 am a hundred years ago. This horrific carnage represented  the most wholesale slaughter the world had ever seen, resulting in thirty million soldiers being killed or wounded and another seven million taken captive.

A couple of decades later, World War II, a direct result of this "Great War", and with far more civilian casualties to add to the death toll, resulted in well over twice as many men, women and children losing their lives.

All of this could have been prevented if the many voices for peace had been heeded in the so-called "Christian" countries of the world prior to the onset of WWI. Both socialists on the left and Jesus-minded Christians everywhere universally condemned the hyped up pro-war propaganda preceding the deadly conflict, and many mothers and other groups of women spoke out against engaging in the conflict.

All to no avail. Led by military and other national leaders, the majority of citizens ignored all warnings and became convinced their side would win a swift and glorious victory. Young men flocked to register by the thousands, never dreaming they would have to endure unimaginable hardships and endless battles in which thousands were butchered and gassed in a form of trench warfare that often saw no real progress made by either side.

Up to the very last minute, deadly assaults resulted in futile and senseless loss of life, either out of fear that the armistice would not hold or out of sheer hatred and a desire to inflict as much last minute suffering on the other side as possible.

One wonders whether humanity is ever capable of learning from its own history, much less from listening to followers of the Prince of Peace who promote opposition to war as the most urgent moral issue of all time.

Here's a link to one of the best known poems about the War, written by Wilfred Owens, who was killed only months before the War's end. The title he gave his bitter piece was "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori" ("It is sweet and right to die for your country").

Friday, November 9, 2018

A Thoughtful Article On The Migrant Caravan

Regardless how we feel about Central American migrants seeking asylum in the US, wouldn't it be better to offer aid to help better their lives where they are than our investing billions in building a bigger wall?
One of my grand-nephews who lives in Nicaragua recently sent me a link to an article I've read and reread several times. It's one of the more moderate pieces I found on a generally anti-immigrant online news source called the Stream, and it includes the following statement on the situation in Honduras:

"In regards to unpunished violence, my husband’s brother was shot dead point-blank two years ago and no police action was taken even after filing several reports with eye witnesses. And three years ago, my husband was kidnapped and brutally beaten by local gang lords only to confront similar apathy from the authorities once he escaped.

"When cattle thieves stole and killed our two milking cows last year, I walked down the gravel road to the local police station only for the policeman to shrug and tell me that that type of crime is to be expected. No action was taken to investigate or punish the crime."

In spite of this, the author, who also states that even teachers in Honduras earn less than $400 a month, nevertheless believes Hondurans should stay in their country rather than seek asylum or try to find a better life in the US for their families (as most of our own ancestors did).

What would you do?

Here's the link to the entire article:

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The US Drug Cartel Almost Robbed Me Blind

Caveat Emptor 
"That will be $90," the cashier noted when I picked up a recent antibiotic prescription.

"But shouldn't my insurance cover some of that?" I asked.

"Yes, but this is for the part insurance doesn't cover."

Naturally, I experienced some sticker shock, given this was a mere month's supply of Doxycycline Hyclate, a generic form of Doryx my ophthalmologist had just prescribed. But I felt I had no choice but to pay with my Visa and prepare to leave.

Then out of curiosity I decided to go back and ask my pharmacist to check what their price would have been had I not been covered by insurance, assuming I had been prescribed one of those very, very expensive drugs we all hear about.

"I'll check it out," he said.

A bit later, he came back, somewhat apologetically, "Our discounted price is $30 without insurance."

He kindly let me pay that amount, saving me a cool $60.

This has me wondering. What kind of healthcare system has people paying three times as much for a drug if they have health insurance coverage than if they don't?

Meanwhile, I found a website with with some very helpful information on drug prices. Here I learned that the average cost for my prescription is $226.55 for 60 100mg. tablets, but with steep discounts available for those not billing insurance. All the information you need can be found at GoodRx.

Lesson? Caveat Emptor (Let the buyer beware).

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Our Troubling Mennonite Inferiority Complex

This 1100 page volume represents an amazing
legacy of faithfulness under severe persecution.
"Many American Christians simply assume that the state has no business dictating church beliefs or practices, that a church should be a gathered body of believers rather than a net that that scoops up everyone within the area of a parish, and that baptism is a step of obedience upon profession of faith. What most do not know is that Mennonites were the first (surviving) group of Christians to insist on these things, and that they died by the thousands for doing so."
- You May Be More Mennonite Than You Think (Christian History & Biography, Fall, 2004)

I'm all for practicing the kind of "demuth" (DAY-moot, the German word for humility) most of us Amish and Mennonites have had drilled into us from birth, but it saddens me to see more and more of my fellow Anabaptists becoming apologetic about their identity. Many congregations are dropping the Mennonite label from their church name, or are leaving the denomination in favor of becoming a part other more generic or widely accepted brands of Christianity.

I understand that, and Menno Simons himself, an early leader (though not a founder), of the movement would have never chosen to have this or amy group named after him. The Doopsgezinde (baptism-minded) faith communities in Holland and Friesland, where Menno had considerable influence, simply became nicknamed Mennonists because of his prominence, and the name was eventually adopted by the Swiss Brethren and others who represented the third wing of the Reformation, "free churches" that were under the rule of neither Protestant nor Catholic controlled jurisdictions. 

Perhaps their most priceless legacy, one we now take for granted, is their belief in freedom of religion. Anabaptists (re-baptizers, or adult baptizers) stood for the right of every person to make a personal choice as to how, or whether, to define and to live out his or her faith, independent of the dictates of the state. In sixteenth century Europe, infant baptism was not only a seal of ones membership into the state run church of one's birthplace, but it was the official registration necessary for having full rights as a citizen.

A second legacy, and one that hasn't yet caught on like the first (though in God's plan it eventually will), is that of a people who take Jesus's way of non-violence seriously, even to the point of refusing to fight in the wars of whatever nation in which they live. Unfortunately, not all Mennonites around the world have always been consistent with this, but at the heart of their movement is the conviction that Jesus came to usher in a rule (kingdom) of radical cross-bearing love for all, even our enemies. Never in history has this conviction been so needed as today, and Jesus and all of the prophets see this as the forever future of all God's people of faith and good will.

A third legacy is the conviction that believers are to be a part of simple, self-governed communities of faith that don't need elaborate buildings, professional clergy or complex liturgies, but that the church is wherever people gather together to support and care for one another and nurture each other in their faith. Again, this may no longer represent all Mennonite-related groups, but at their core is a commitment to a daily life of service to others that reflects the spirit, not merely of Menno, but of Jesus himself, whose radical life and teachings are seen as needing to be taken seriously.

Add to all of this the legacy of a rich history of martyr stories chronicled in the Martyr's Mirror. Here are over a thousand pages of heroic tales of men and women of unimaginable courage and conviction who were tortured and cruelly killed for their faith at the hands of both Protestant and Catholic state church persecutors. And there is the Ausbund, the oldest Christian hymnal continual use, still cherished by many Old Order Amish groups today, that contain many accounts of these martyrs.

Then there is largely overlooked 1000-page Complete Writings of Menno Simons, which represents inspirational teaching on a Christ-centered faith that was, and still is, well ahead of its time, and is free of some of the anti-semitism and calls for violence against people of differing beliefs that was characteristic of the writings of many of his fellow Protestant reformers.

With all due Mennonite humility, one could also cite the contributions to mental health reform brought about in part by conscientious objectors during World War II who served in terrible state run psychiatric institutions, and who helped establish ten different mental hospitals and treatment centers in the United States in the second half of the last century. And Mennonite Central Committee, a worldwide relief and service agency, has had a worldwide impact disproportionate to the size of its supporting constituency, and its PAX program (volunteers serving abroad) became a model for President Kennedy's Peace Corps.

One could also mention the good work of Mennonite Disaster Service, and the promotion of worldwide Restorative Justice programs, spearheaded by people like Howard Zehr and kept alive by EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Then there is the invaluable witness of Christian Aid Ministries, a relief and service ministry of more conservative Anabaptists that now rivals Mennonite Central Committee in its worldwide outreach and in the size of its annual budget. And we can't overlook the quiet but compelling witness of the Amish, one of the fastest growing group of Christian believers in the US, and its powerful testimony of peace and grace demonstrated in the Nickel Mines School shooting in 2006.

In the area of world missions, Mennonite church plants in Africa and in the Far East have grown exponentially, with far more Mennonites in other parts of the world than here in North America.

Should any of this result in a spirit of pride on the part of this small part of God's worldwide church family?

Of course not, but let's get over our unhealthy inferiority complex. And maybe thank God for whatever kingdom impact God has made through a minority family of faith that has a history of some bold ideas that are ahead of their time.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Local Event Highlights Concerns About Aging Inmates

John Bennie Williams, second from left, is blind and now 85.

The following was published as an Open Forum piece in today's Daily News-Record: 

Minor Junior Smith, legally blind since he was 5, is a 71 year-old inmate at the Deerfield Correctional Center, Virginia’s virtual ‘nursing home’ for the Virginia Department of Corrections. Mr. Smith, who experienced a hard life as a child, was charged with murder in 1971. He agreed to a plea deal in the case, at which time he was assured he could earn parole after a reasonable number of years if he took all the recommended classes and maintained a record of good behavior in prison.

Mr. Smith has accomplished all of this and more, having earned a reputation as a diligent worker, a prolific poet, an author of a book on his life story, and as an active volunteer helping others learn Braille. In spite of this, he has been turned down for parole, including geriatric parole, over thirty times in as many years.

John Bennie Williams, now 85, is another blind detainee at Deerfield, where he, like his fellow inmates, is housed in a dormitory-style pod with some 40 other men, an extremely stressful environment for a blind person. Mr. Williams has been incarcerated for over 41 years, and has likewise been turned down for parole countless times, in spite of his also having an excellent record of good behavior.

When parole was officially abolished in Virginia in 1995, provisions were made for compassionate release for prisoners who reached age 60 and had served at least ten years, or who were 65 and had served five years or more. Today there are over 4000 Virginia detainees who are parole eligible, ‘old law’ inmates incarcerated before 1995. In spite of these all having served 23 years or more, in August there were only four geriatric releases among the 24 inmates granted parole.

Costs for medical care skyrocket as inmates age, while the likelihood of their reoffending drops dramatically. And unless more are released, the number of seniors in Virginia prisons is expected to quadruple over the next decade. 

In some cases aging and ill inmates have lost all family and other connections after decades of incarceration and see no hope for any future for themselves in the outside world. So some states, like Kansas, Iowa and Louisiana, are dedicating parts of former prison facilities to providing nursing care as needed for such people.

A local chapter of Aging Persons In Prison--A Human Rights Initiative (APP/HRI) is hosting a free seminar at the Houff Student Center at Blue Ridge Community College which will address these concerns on Saturday, November 3, from 10 am to 12:30 pm. Panelists and presenters will include Dr. David Bruck of Washington and Lee University Law School,  Steven A. Northup, retired law partner with Troutman Sander LLP, Dr. Nancy Insco, CEO of Institute for Reform and Solutions, and Lashawnda Singleton, president of the Richmond chapter of APP/HRI.

No registration is required for this donation-funded event, and refreshments will be provided. Find more information at <>.