Friday, August 30, 2019

Worship Isn't Just About Flattering God

Does the saying "Imitation is the sincerest
form of flattery" have anything to do with
why we need to worship?
"(God)... creates each of us in Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does..."
Ephesians 2:10 The Message

To the average unbeliever, spending time in prayer, meditation or praise is a pointless waste of time. Why should a deity require adoration? Does God need to be placated and ingratiated in order for us to merit God's protection and blessing? 

Or is worship primarily designed for another reason altogether?

Left to ourselves, we become highly focused on the here and now, and on whatever meets our immediate needs.

But when our attention becomes wholly focused on the eternal God of the universe, we are able to better see things from a full picture perspective, and to see our time here as a timeless God sees it, from distant past to far off future.

As humans, we tend to take on the qualities of the God (or gods) we worship. If we are devoted to the god Mammon (Money), we take on the qualities of greed and of acquisition at whatever cost. Or in the case of the god Eros ('desire', the Greek version of Cupid), we become all about possessing and ravishing the objects of our passion. 

But if we practice being in a state of intense devotion to the loving and compassionate God described in scripture--the God known through the prophets and through Jesus--we who are made in God's image begin to reflect more and more of the qualities of our Creator and Redeemer.

As in the example of the praise psalm in the image above, we thus begin to join God in pouring out benefits and blessings to others, being lavish in our forgiveness of those who do wrong and repent of it, devoting ourselves to the healing of diseases and rescuing people from destruction, and to seeing all of God's creatures, especially our fellow human ones, as deserving of our compassion, kindness and mercy.

In other words, we reflect and imitate the gracious qualities of God in the way we celebrate and care for all of God's creation. We begin to reflect God's mind, take on God's work.

Sometimes believers have been accused of "being so heavenly minded that they're no earthly good." But for me, the greater danger is to be so thoroughly earthly minded that we are of no earthly good--or we even end up doing more harm than good.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Community Criminal Justice Days October 17-18

The Institute for Reform and Solutions, in collaboration with EMU's Center for
Justice and Peacebuilding, is hosting this two-day conference aimed at
reducing incarceration and recidivism in the Shenandoah Valley.

Register now at Institute for Reform and Solutions.

Nancy J. Insco, Ph.D.
Institute for Reform and Solutions
P.O. Box 1909
Staunton VA 24402

110 Old South High St.
Harrisonburg, VA 22801


President/Managing Partner
Justice Concepts Consultants LLC
Reform and Solutions LLC
Promoting Justice Reinvestment through Innovative 
and Cost Effective Corrections' Solutions

Friday, August 23, 2019

Guest Post: Prisoners Beset by Bugs and Heat

Not designed for natural ventilation, these
concrete prisons become extremely hot.
It’s been a rough summer for residents of the state’s 18 prisons that lack air conditioning.  Inmates say temperatures inside often exceed 100 degrees.
Thirty-seven years ago, Virginia opened a prison in Buckingham County – a place designed to hold 640 men, but today the population is nearly double, and without air conditioning residents say the building is like an oven.
“This concrete heats up," says an inmate we'll call Dex.  (He asked to remain anonymous.)  "It stays hot pretty much until fall. It doesn’t cool down.” Dex has been locked up for twenty years and has at least five more to go.“I caught my wife in bed with another man, and we got into a fist fight," he explains. "He broke a little bone underneath his eyebrow.  It severed an artery in his brain and he died.”
Dex works in maintenance at Buckingham, as did another inmate back in 2016.  Both told us some exhaust fans designed to circulate air through the prison were broken.“All of the equipment with the rare exception  is all original equipment, so it’s well over 30 years old.  What makes it particularly difficult is that some of those companies are no longer in business, and the parts are rather difficult to get, so we do our best to try to keep the machinery running, and it just proves more and more difficult with each passing year.”
And Dex says smaller fans purchased by inmates are largely ineffective at keeping prisoners cool.“Once the temperature in the cell reaches 100 degrees, you’re just blowing hot air on yourself.  It’d be like holding a hair dryer to your face to cool you off.”
During a heat wave in July, the department of corrections said it did everything it could to keep men comfortable – that ice, for example, was available.  Not so according to Dex. “We have an ice machine in the pod, and as long as the temperature stays at an okay level it will produce ice, but once the temperature is 95 or better in the pod, it can’t keep up. It melts faster than it can create new ice.”
The state also claimed it tried to keep prisoners hydrated. I saw on the news where they were giving us water bottled water.  I’ve never seen that.” What he did see was an older inmate, recently transferred from another prison.  His name was Walt Isenhour. “He had come from Sussex, which is an air conditioned prison, and at those air conditioned prisons you can’t buy fans, so when you get transferred to a place that doesn’t have air conditioning, you have to wait at least a month before you have the opportunity to get a fan, and he was in that waiting period.”
On July 15, Isenhour reported feeling ill, returned to his cell and died.  The medical examiner says he suffered a heart attack.
Governor Ralph Northam seemed sympathetic and indicated Virginia might be prepared to provide air conditioning to prisons that didn’t have it. Obviously we want to do everything we can to be humane. There are a number, unfortunately, a number of prisons that don’t have air conditioning. We did everything we could during that heat wave to be safe, to make it as comfortable as possible, but we have a lot of work to do, and certainly that’s something we’ll need to address in the upcoming budget.”
Meanwhile, the prison is coping with one more misery.  Last weekend the state closed Buckingham to visitors, put inmates on lockdown and placed some of their possessions in quarantine for seven days as part of an effort to rid the prison of scabies – a tiny burrowing mite that gets under the skin and causes intense itching. Officials said they had treated several cases and were sending all clothing to another facility to be cleaned by industrial, hospital-grade washers. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Fifty Years Ago Today, Hurricane Camille Nearly Demolished Neighboring Nelson County

Bechtol's book is almost impossible to put down.

Back in 1969, in the aftermath of headline news about the Woodstock festival in rural New York, the most devastating tropical storm ever to visit Virginia poured untold amounts of rainfall just across the Blue Ridge Mountains from us. Whole sides of mountains collapsed, and the downpour was such that it would forever change the landscape and the lives of Nelson County residents.

A highway marker offers a succinct summary of the tragedy.
Many of my friends, including members of the Old Order Mennonite community, gave weeks of their time as volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Service, helping to clear debris, look for the missing and dead and eventually to begin to rebuild. In gratitude for their work, the director of the funeral home in Lovingston donated their historic horse drawn hearse to one of the Old Order groups, one still in use today for their funeral services.

Here's a link to a full account of the tragedy of Camille

Camille reminds us of death, but of resurrection as well. A scene at a Pleasant View Old Order funeral.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Shalom-Based Self-Care And Communal Care

As with vehicles, our 'wheels' may need some balancing and realignment from time to time.
I had the privilege of meeting with some 50 members of the Eastern Mennonite School staff and faculty today to talk about wellness. I had almost turned their invitation down when I first received it just days before my open heart surgery set for July 5. But then I reconsidered, thinking there may be no better time to discuss good self care than after recognizing from personal experience how important it really is.

We began by focusing on the health and harmony of the original creation as a template for the kind of wellbeing(shalom) we seek, and on how God is about restoring 'whatever is marred and whatever is missing' in our personal lives and in our relationships with others and with all of creation.

Each person then chose a number between 0-10 with for each area on the above 'wellness wheel' with 0 representing extreme dissatisfaction with that part of our lives, and a 10 indicating complete satisfaction. Individuals then shared with others at their table the areas of growth they are most interested in working on in the coming year, and some concrete steps they are intending to take in order to facilitate that growth,

We discussed the need to not only increase our resolve to pursuing growth, but to make ourselves accountable to engage in the kinds of new practices that turn those goals into actual achievements. Most of us already know what new habits we need to develop in order to see that happen.

Ultimately, the world cannot become fully whole except to the extent each of us experiences it ourselves, and none can be completely whole as individuals without the wholeness and wellness of everyone else, and of every other part of creation.

We wait in expectation and with a sense of participation with God in seeing that kind of ultimate shalom come to pass.

Here's another relevant link:

Monday, August 12, 2019

Our Imagination Can Fuel Either Fear Or Faith

I read this as "the evidence of things not YET seen."
At 3:30 in the morning of July 5, as I was preparing for my trip to Charlottesville for open heart surgery, these words kept ringing through my mind:

Each step I take, I know that God will guide me.
To higher ground God ever leads me on,
Until some day the last step will be taken.
Each step I take just leads me closer home.

On the one hand, I found this familiar song encouraging, reminding me that no matter what the outcome, this unanticipated experience would ultimately result in something good. On the other hand, it introduced some foreboding as well. Could this be like a bad omen of something in the five-hour procedure shortening or even ending my life?

In the face of the unknown, our imaginations inevitably fill in the gaps of what we don't know, either enhancing our fear or adding to our faith. And in times like these, it's not hard to imagine everything coming to an apocalyptic end.

So when we are highly anxious we tend to be ruminating along that fear end of the spectrum, imagining all manner of worst case scenarios. In accordance with  'Murphy's Law' we assume that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, even terribly wrong.

On the other hand, when we are operating within the faith end of the spectrum, we are visualizing better than expected outcomes. This doesn't mean we don't recognize the possibility of things turning out badly, but we don't see that as inevitable. By faith, we see bad things as less likely to happen than good, and trust that God's odds are truly in our favor.

So I've decided to occasionally spend some time prayerfully preparing for the worst, but spend the majority of my time picturing things turning out reasonably well--and ultimately very well. And to believe that even if bad things happen, I will never have to face them alone, and that God, and God's people, will help me through whatever comes. Until the very, very best finally comes.

Imagine that.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Prisoner Rights And Jail House Wrongs

By law, the following rights are guaranteed for those incarcerated:

Cruel and Unusual Punishments - Every inmate has the right to be free under the Eighth Amendment from inhumane treatment or anything that could be considered "cruel and unusual" punishment. Note: Unfortunately, the Eighth Amendment does not clearly define what "cruel and unusual" punishment includes, meaning much of the definition has derived from case law. Generally speaking, any punishment that is considered inhumane treatment, like torture or abuse, or a violation of a person's basic dignity may be considered cruel and unusual within the discretion of the court.

Sexual Harassment or Sex Crimes - Inmates have a right to be free from sexual harassment or sex crimes, like being raped or molested while in custody. This applies to crimes or harassment from both inmates and prison personnel.

Right to Complain About Prison Conditions and Access to the Courts - Inmates have the right both to complain about prison conditions and to voice their concerns to prison officials and the courts.

Disabled Prisoners - Inmates with disabilities are entitled to certain reasonable accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act to ensure they receive the same access to prison facilities as those who are not disabled.

Medical and Mental Health Care - Prisoners are entitled to receive medical care and mental health treatment. These treatments are only required to be "adequate," not the best available or even the standard treatment for those outside of incarceration.

First Amendment Rights - Inmates retain basic First Amendment rights (i.e., free speech and religion) to the extent that the exercise of those rights does not interfere with their status as inmates.

Discrimination - Inmates have the right to be free from discrimination while imprisoned. This includes racial segregation, disparate treatment based on ethnicity or religion, preferences based on age, etc,.

In practice, the following are some of the wrongs routinely experienced by those behind bars:

1. Most do not have adequate access to the law library or legal materials and are allowed only one year to appeal a case.

2. Work opportunities are limited for the many inmates who would like a job, and wages for those who work average less than $1 an hour.

3. Many jails and prisons do not provide needed educational or rehabilitation programs.

4. Most provide inferior and inadequate dental, medical and mental health care. 

5. Most meals meet only minimal nutritional standards and are nutritionally less than adequate for inmates who work out or are otherwise physically active. 

6. A large number of people in jails are awaiting their trials and have not been convicted of a crime. Unable to make bail, they are housed with convicted and sometimes dangerous felons. 

7. Most prisons require inmates to live in cells the size of an average bathroom, and some have more than two inmates per cell.

8. Most prison cells and dormitories do not have call boxes (intercoms) or other communication device inmates could use to contact someone if and when emergency assistance is needed.

9. Officers often do not make regular bed checks as required, and are mostly seen on the floor only during designated counts. 

10. As a matter of health and human rights, all correctional facilities without good natural ventilation  and exhaust fans should have operational air-conditioning units installed to protect those inside from the danger of excessive heat.

11. Drinking water may not always be checked regularly to ensure it is safe and healthy.

12. Most jails charge inmates a keep fee for their incarceration in addition to the punishment imposed by the court. This should be declared illegal.

13. Phone services and commissary items are typically overpriced and their costs regularly increase even though prison wages remain flat.

Note: Most of the above items are reported by prisoners with whom I am in contact.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Some 'Tweets' By The First Republican President


We should never make a saint of Abraham Lincoln. He was singularly responsible for engaging the nation in a war that inflicted more destruction and death than any in our history. And while he is credited with freeing America's slaves, he came to that position (as a matter of political expediency) late in his presidency, and to my knowledge never renounced his own racist statements such as the following: 

"Our republican system was meant for a homogeneous people. As long as blacks continue to live with the whites they constitute a threat to the national life. Family life may also collapse and the increase of mixed breed bastards may some day challenge the supremacy of the white man." (1)

But in a time of increasingly divisive, destructive and deceit-filled rhetoric, it's helpful to reflect on some of the many positive statements by America's first Republican president, as follows: 

“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”

"As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings (2) get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

"The money power preys on the nation in times of peace, and conspires against it in times of adversity. It is more despotic than monarchy, more insolent than autocracy, more selfish than bureaucracy. It denounces, as public enemies, all who question its methods or throw light upon its crimes."

"They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle."

"My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side.”

“Gentlemen, I depended on this witness to clear my client. He has lied. I ask that no attention be paid to his testimony. Let his words be stricken out. if my case fails. I do not wish to win in this way.” 

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish, a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

(1) One of numerous racist quotes by Lincoln.

(2) The American Party, popularly known as the "No-Nothing Party," was an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic political movement.