Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Checking The Spread Of The "Affluenza" Virus

Retired residents in the VMRC homes along Park Road will soon be moved elsewhere
on campus so these units can be torn down to make room for more upscale housing.
Some forty years ago Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community dedicated Heritage Haven, an innovative HUD-subsidized apartment complex for lower income retirees. VMRC is the only retirement community in the Valley that offers this kind of option.

This was followed by VMRC creating multiple independent living units as a part of its Park Village campus. Both were hailed as state-of-the-art  retirement housing for low to medium income residents, units ranging in size from one bedroom with one bath to two bedrooms and 1 1/2 baths.

Now, only a few decades later,  VMRC is experiencing market pressure to replace the twelve Park Village units located along Park Road with more spacious and upscale homes like the newer ones across the street and across from the Park View Mennonite Church.

To many of us, residents and supporters of VMRC alike, this is a symptom of a disturbing trend, not one VMRC is necessarily creating or promoting, but one that reflects a viral spread of affluenza that is infecting us all. In my lifetime, homes for the well-to-do have become ever larger, featuring such amenities as multiple-car garages and walk in closets, even as the average number of occupants in these homes has decreased.

As an empty nester myself, I recognize the need to do some serious downsizing of my own, so I am not in a position to point a finger here. But I would appeal to all pastors, teachers, priests, rabbis, and other leaders of faith communities to address the creeping consumerism to which our scriptures devote far more attention than many other tenets of the faith we consider important.

Meanwhile, as we each seek to rid ourselves of our own affluenza infection, we can also share our personal concerns with the dedicated folks at VMRC, by contacting them directly or by sending a message on their Facebook page. These good people solicit our prayers and counsel as they plan for a future in which an optimal number of seniors, with or without large incomes, can receive the care they need.

Eventually VMRC may create a second campus that could increase the availability of more upscale units, but the cost of infrastructure (streets, water and sewer lines, etc.) is seen as prohibitive at this point, hence the current push to demolish and replace a number of perfectly functional and comfortable existing homes.

My big dream would be for VMRC to give priority to creating ever more affordable housing options, like its wonderful Heritage Haven complex for lower income retirees, and let other retirement communities in the area cater to the needs of the more well-to-do. Both Heritage Haven and Park Village continue to have long waiting lists of retirees who are unable to afford most other options.

I'm thinking Jesus, who lived in the most humble of circumstances, might actually prefer places like that to lay his head.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Giving Up Indifference For Lent

While we enjoy all the comforts of spacious homes, millions
of new refugees are in danger of perishing in the cold.

If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion--how can God's love be in that person?
- I John 3:17 (NLT)

     I've always found it hard to read the above text, and found it equally difficult to read the following excerpt in a recent TIME article about Syria:

     “To avoid getting caught in the crossfire, nearly 900,000 people have left their homes since December, most of them heading north toward the Turkish border through the snow in sub-zero temperatures. The vast majority of the displaced residents are women and children, who, if they’re fortunate, find space in makeshift displacement camps with tents that are stretched beyond capacity without basic services. But Turkey has closed off its 550-mile border, leaving thousands to live in the open among the icy hillsides or unfinished buildings, the UN says. Mothers are burning garbage to keep children warm. Babies and small children are freezing to death.”

     All of us who profess to be pro-life need to demonstrate a willingness to make major lifestyle changes to help our fellow human beings in situations like these. Pretending to be helpless in the face of a crisis this overwhelming cannot serve as an acceptable excuse. 

For example:
1) We can and must give extravagantly and joyfully to relief organizations like Mennonite Central Committee and other groups offering aid to refugees.
2) We can drastically reduce our overconsumption for our own comfort and convenience and reinvest in causes that help alleviate suffering around the world.
3) We can help reduce the demand for fossil fuels that contribute to pollution and climate change that increase the likelihood of record breaking droughts, floods and other unnatural disasters.
4) We can urge our nation to stop adding billions to a "defense budget" capable of killing ever more people while people are dying from lack of food and shelter.

     What better time than Lent to engage in practices that promote life and well being for all.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

In Technology We Trust?

I've just completed 33 Monday-Friday radiation treatments at our local hospital following having a malignant tumor removed from my parotid gland in November.

Other than the inconvenience involved, and having to rack up a total of some 400 miles of travel back and forth over the six and a half week period, I can't say it was a terrible experience. There were some anticipated side effects, like dry mouth, some "sun burn" on the left side of my face, and an almost complete loss of appetite for the past several weeks, but this unpleasantness should all go away over the next several months.

But I do shudder to think what all of this will cost Medicare and my Everence health insurance, given the fact that the gigantic Varian Trilogy Truebeam linear accelerator used for a this cost the hospital a cool $4 million, according to one of my radiation techs. Speaking of, two of these fine people capably administered these treatments every day, and once a week I also saw the nurse assigned to my case, my MD oncologist and a nutritionist.

Overall, I see myself as truly blessed by being born at a time and in a place where this level of help is possible, all to assure that all of the cancer in my body is gone.

Of course, it could crop up somewhere else at any time, but meanwhile I am profoundly grateful to God, my loving family and friends, and the wonderful professionals at RMH/Sentara for all the good help and care I've received.

Monday, February 17, 2020

A Manifesto For A Moral Housing Movement

"Woe to you who think you live on easy street in Zion,
who think Mount Samaria is the good life.
You assume you’re at the top of the heap,
voted the number-one best place to live."
- the prophet Amos

(Amos 8:1, the Message)

Four Moral Housing Principles

No one should be homeless.

Large homes should be occupied by large households.

Smaller homes should be occupied by smaller households.

Empty Nesters should consider downsizing or taking in extra occupants.

There's a lot of talk about a shortage of affordable housing these days, but is there an actual lack of living space or simply a lack of equitable access to it?

As I travel around Harrisonburg, I see homeless people almost every day, as well as expansive mega-homes with multiple bedrooms and baths that are often inhabited by only one or two people.

What's wrong with that picture?

Meanwhile there are many modest homes, apartments, townhouses and duplexes in the neighborhood that provide adequate housing to individuals and small families, along with many mobile homes and other older dwellings in various states of repair. At the same time, the Harrisonburg Housing Authority has hundreds of people on their waiting list for subsidized housing, and those on low incomes are finding it ever more difficult to find a house or apartment they can afford.

According to a local United Way funded ALICE* Report, a family of two adults and and two children in our area needs a combined income of $66,180 in order to afford housing and other living costs. But based on information available from there are very few 3-bedroom homes available for rent for under $1000 a month, and an equally few homes that can be purchased for under $200,000.

Here are some things we empty nesters and others with more space (and more stuff) than we need, might do to help:

1. Put our home on the market and purchase or rent a smaller place, including the option of some seniors moving into an independent living facility at a retirement community. This would make more homes and more bedrooms available to growing families and encourage us all to downsize and get rid of some of our surplus in a way that would make things a lot easier on our children and others when we pass on.

2. Take in international or exchange students or offer hospitality to other individuals who need a bedroom on a short term or long term basis.

3. Make our home available to an organization like Oxford House or some other kind of group home for  persons in recovery or with special needs--or turn it into a homeless shelter! I know there are zoning issues that could get in the way, but our community should be able to work together to make reasonable accommodations for more moral housing.

4. Join with others in the community in a campaign to help make existing housing more energy efficient, thus reducing housing costs and helping save the planet.

Harrisonburg is known as the "Friendly City." I hope that means being hospitable to the the least of these and not just to the most of these.

*Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed

Thursday, February 13, 2020

HARD TIME VIRGINIA, Vol. 5, No. 2 (an occasional newsletter by and for Virginia prisoners)

Parole Grant Numbers Continue To Disappoint
According to the Virginia Parole Board website, only two regular grants were approved in December, neither of them geriatric cases. The Parole Board allows some parole violators to be continued on parole or discharged each month, but granted actual release to only 137 old law prisoners and 21 geriatric prisoners in 2019. This leaves 1,854 offenders in the system who remain parole eligible, and means the percentage of first term parole releases is under 8% for the year 2019.
     Virginia boasts of having one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country, less than 22%, which should mean that the risk of released persons reoffending is lower than in most states. This is especially true for aging persons and for old law prisoners who have demonstrated good behavior within the DOC for the 25 plus years they have been incarcerated since parole was abolished in 1995.

Healthcare Costs Are Rising With Aging Prison Population 
A November 30, 2019, Richmond Times-Dispatch article by reporter Richard Green, notes that medical care for Virginia's 30,000 inmates now accounts for one-fifth of all operating expenses for state prisons. According to figures provided by the staff of the Virginia House Appropriations Committee, the cost of inmate health care grew from roughly $140 million annually to more than $230 million in the decade ending June 30 of last year.
     Fourteen percent of state prisoners are at least 55 years old, up from 8.5% in 2012, the report found. A report last year by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission reported the number of inmates age 50 or older increased by nearly 40% from 2010 to 2016, and there was no indication that the growth rate was slowing.
     From another source: Thirty-one percent of Deerfield Correctional Center's prisoners are 60 years old or older. Due to increased medical needs, the cost for their keep is at $44,891 per inmate each year compared with $31,610 for the rest of the prison system.
     Note from someone in the system: “Even with the $230 million spent for treatment annually, prisoners are still not receiving adequate healthcare. It takes over a year for an inmate to receive a pair of prescription glasses or a set of dentures. This is not adequate healthcare”

Secretary Brian Moran To Speak At Gemeinschaft Home’s 35th Anniversary Event
Brian Moran, Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety, will be the honored guest and keynote speaker at a major anniversary and fundraising event sponsored by Gemeinschaft Home of Harrisonburg, Virginia, Friday evening June 19. 
     Gemeinschaft is a 90-day residential therapeutic community that houses from 40-50 men who are transitioning from prison and preparing to be productive citizens in their community.  
Moran is a logical choice for giving the keynote address here, based on his job description, described in Virginia code § 2.2-221.1. as follows:
     The Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security shall establish an integrated system for coordinating the planning and provision of offender transitional and reentry services among and between state, local, and nonprofit agencies in order to prepare inmates for successful transition into their communities upon release from incarceration and for improving opportunities for treatment, employment, and housing while on subsequent probation, parole, or post-release supervision.

DOC Sued Over Its Unhealthy Food Budget
Reporter Ned Oliver, in a piece in the January 22, 2020, Virginia Mercury. describes a briefing by the Virginia Department of Corrections in which Sen. Adam Ebbin, Democrat from Alexandria, asked what the department spent feeding the men and women under its care.  The answer was $2.10 per day. 
     One Virginia inmate has sued the Department, alleging a diet high in processed meats and grains put him at high risk for obesity, cancer and other chronic conditions. The DOC continues to insist that its that their food is adequate and healthy, according to radio station WVTF, which covered the suit.

Good News About People Behind Bars Doing Good 
In an effort to show that prisoners want to make a positive difference, the Pre-Reentry, Veterans, and S.O.A.R. communities of Augusta Correctional Center have been organizing charity drives for non-profits. In January they sent $200 to "Big Brothers and Big Sisters" of Richmond for National Mentor Month. 
     For Victim Impact Week in April, they have organized a drive to donate to the "Virginia Victims Assistance Network." They have also created their own "Victim Impact Tree" where residents place the names of victims on leaves and then paste them on the tree in their honor. These men understand that they can never take back what they've done, but can find some peace in helping others and becoming instruments of positive change.
     This is all a part of ACC's "Investing in Community Action Networking" (I.C.A.N.) which is one of the workshops that is offered in the Re-entry Community. Their message to residents is that "we must become the change that we seek," believing that when they do this they help bring about social transformation. They want those on the outside to know that they are not just about talk, but are about actions that speak much louder than words.

On The Outside
An excerpt from Veer Magazine, August 20, 2019: "The unfortunate reality of probation for many is an extremely difficult set of rules and regulations that often result in violations or more commonly technical violations. A technical violation of probation is any action considered as misbehavior by a person under supervision that is not by itself a criminal offense and generally does not result in arrest. Failing to report for a scheduled office visit, missing a curfew, lack of employment or attendance at school, testing positive for drug or alcohol use, or contacting a victim or co-defendant are examples of actions that can be considered violations. The fact is that persons on probation and parole in Virginia are more likely to be incarcerated due to technical violations than for committing a new crime thus continuing a system of criminalization as opposed to reform."

What The People Want
ACLU of Virginia released results from a survey of registered voters taken late last year. Three quarters said they favored criminal justice reform. 62% said too many people were going to prison, costing taxpayers too much money, and 75% said it was time to reinstate parole for non-violent offenders.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

From "I Cannot Tell A Lie" To "It Was A Perfect Call"--Truth Decay In The U.S. Presidency

This legend about Washington supported an established 
truth about him as the first president.
"Thou shalt not bear false witness."
- The Bible

The legend of George Washington saying "I cannot tell a lie" (in response to his allegedly cutting down his father's cheery tree) was widely circulated because it accurately represented our first president's character.

Later Abraham Lincoln earned the title of "Honest Abe," and was reputed to have once walked six miles to return three pennies he owed a customer. This is also likely a legend, but one consistent with the first Republican president's character.

In contrast, Richard Nixon is remembered for declaring "I am not a crook," even though his actions mostly proved otherwise.

President Bill Clinton betrayed the nation's trust by insisting, "I did not have sex with that woman" and for lying about his misdeeds under oath. He later apologized for his behavior.

President Barak Obama famously promised, "You will be able to keep your doctor" when describing his wished for healthcare plan. This turned out to be false.

Then there's our current president, who refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing, and who insists his highly dubious dealings with Ukraine were "perfect." He may be remembered for having told over 15,000 documented untruths in his first three years in office.

Is there a disastrous and dangerous trend here?

Yes, not only in how untruthful our national leaders have become, but in how much dishonesty even people of faith have come to accept as a new normal.

And how quick many are to dismiss all evidence of this kind of dishonesty as being "fake news."

Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Mennonites Enamored By A Powerful Ruler

Mennonites in Russia profusely blessed Alexander II at his
1856 coronation (note 1 below).
Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, a member of the faculty of the Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, gave me permission to post the following translation of a congratulatory letter to Alexander II at his coronation in 1856. 

     It is from the entire 'Mennonite Brotherhood' in Russia, with the exception of the Kleine Gemeinde group, and was signed by 9 church elders and two district chairmen (note 2). They are ancestors of Kansas, Minnesota, Dakota and Nebraska Mennonites. 

Most serene and supremely powerful Emperor! Most Gracious Emperor and Lord!

May your Imperial Majesty, Most Gracious One be willing to accept our heartfelt congratulations and thankful feelings, which we are so bold to lay down before the feet of the Most High's illustrious throne in all humility, All Gracious One.

In the happy knowledge that we, the whole Mennonite Brotherhood in southern Russia, with sincere hearts and filled with thanksgiving, are true subjects of your Imperial Majesty, we gladly follow with all our soul the inner drive of the heart, to express reverently and in childlike manner before our Imperial Majesty, that we owe our thanks for this noble peace [Crimean War had just ended], next to God's all-wise guidance, to the most gracious and fatherly sentiments of your Imperial Majesty, through whose blessings we feel constantly committed, and especially for the upcoming coronation, to prayer with all inwardness, that God the Lord would bestow the richest fullness of His blessings and gifts upon your Imperial Majesty as well as upon our whole, passionately beloved Imperial House, so that the reign of your Imperial Majesty may be long and blessed.

Mindful of the privileges most graciously bestowed upon our Mennonite Brotherhood by the revered Emperor and Lord Paul in a Most High Decree of Grace (Privilegium) on the 6th of September, 1800, we will gratefully continue to show ourselves more and more worthy, and strive with all of the strength and means at our disposal, to secure the benevolence of the Most Gracious One (Emperor) toward us in the future as well, that we and our children may live a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and respectability under the most gracious protection of your Imperial Majesty, as we have been so blessed to this day under your Imperial Majesty and His majestic, most-blessed ancestors.

May the Lord our God fulfill in the richest measure our childlike prayers and wishes for a long, happy and blessed life and rule of your Imperial Majesty and direct the heart of your Imperial Majesty according to His divine [God's] good pleasure.

We are unspeakably happy to be in deepest reverence your Imperial Majesty's most humble and most faithful subjects, the Mennonite Brotherhood in southern Russia, in the name and on behalf of the churches and district of Chortitza, Mariupol [Bergthal] and Molotschna. 


Here is some commentary on the above by Neufeldt-Fast:

Without being too judgmental; knowing that their era is not ours; believing that they were not "just" saying this to get on the good side of the new Tsar; convinced that they were sincere in their praise but not naive about the need to protect their charter of privileges; certain that nine elders are not ignorant about their Anabaptist heritage; knowing that this Mennonite praise for the Romanov dynasty predates 1856 and continues decades later ... I think it's ok to test out the term "Imperial Anabaptists." (as opposed to democratic Anabaptists)

At one level, the letter is a restatement of the contract: We Mennonites will continue to "show ourselves even more worthy" of the generous charter of privileges, that is, to be a model community, and we will strive toward that end "with all of the strength and means at our disposal." And in return, we expect the Tsar to be benevolent toward us, so that "we and our children may live a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and respectability" under the Tsar's protection.

At one level, it is wholly compatible with the recently republished 1660 confession (United Frisian/Flemish/German; now "Rudnerweide 1853"): "Article XI: Concerning Secular Authority" and I Tim. 1:2f (link:,_or_Short_and_Simple_Statement_of_Faith_(Rudnerweide,_Russia,_1853)#XI._Concerning_Secular_Authority).

But ... can an Anabaptist-Mennonite really be a Monarchist?

Their question was the exact opposite: Can a Mennonite/Christian ever be a Democrat?!

To Russian Mennonites (and not just them), the democratic revolutions across Europe appeared as chaotic eruptions that aimed to replace divinely ordained rulers with human institutions established on the “grace of the people” alone, not of God.

When this Tsar, Alexander II, was assassinated in 1881, Russian Mennonites tell their recently resettled siblings now in America of their deepest grief at this “irreplaceable loss” at the hands of “democrats" (note 3).

Even the very popular evangelist and poet-minister Bernhard Harder wrote a poem / hymn mentioning these "democratic assassins." 

What was at stake? Harder and at least two if not three generations of Russian Mennonites were convinced that the Russian monarch was a divinely ordained bulwark against the “pestilence” and “vain and sinister schemes of democrats” and “servants of Satan”: “God lives! And no assassin can arrest his truth” (note 4).

Years later after the 1905 Russian Revolution, P. M. Friesen writes about the Mennonites: "as a genuine Christian-conservative and generally bourgeois group, ninety-nine out of one hundred Mennonites considered such words as 'democrat,' 'democratic' with suspicion, foreboding ill, and from a democracy only evil was expected" (note 5). He was ignoring the social unrest in large Mennonite factories and huge class distinctions growing larger every decade among Mennonites in Russia.

Is there anything to learn here for contemporary American politics? What are the hopes and fears? 
Are they defined in an apocalyptic manner with a “pessimistic” view of human nature, and advocating for patterns and institutions to hold the chaos in check until the apocalyptic end? Or are hopes dreams of the millennium  articulated with “optimism” about human potential, seeking a movement forward to an improved fulfillment of history?

Some things have changed -- but maybe much has remained the same too.

--Best wishes from Canada. "God Save the Queen!"

Note 1: Coronation Album, from Brown University Library.
Note 2: Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College, N. Newton, KS.
Note 3: Cf. letters from the villages of Fabrikerweise (Mennonitische Rundschau I, no. 23 [May 1, 1881] 1), Schönau and Halbstadt (MR I, no. 22 [April 15, 1881] 1), and Grossweide (MR II, no. 1 [June 1, 1881] 1).
Note 4: Geistliche Lieder und Gelegenheitsgedichte von Bernhard Harder, edited by Heinrich Franz ( Hamburg: A-G, 1888) vol. 1, no. 519, 566; no. 533, 583f. Re: democratic assassins, see no. 521, p.  568f.
Note 5: Peter M. Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia 1789–1910 (Winnipeg, MB: Christian, 1978) 627;

Friday, February 7, 2020

Local Population Grows, Marriage Numbers Lag

There's sure to be a lot of incredible sadness each year among
partners and family members affected by our divorce numbers.

I’ve been recording marriage and divorce numbers for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County since 1996. In spite of an estimated local population increase of over 25% in the past two decades we have had no significant increase in the number of marriage licenses issued. For example, we had exactly the same number of marriages in 2000 as we did last year.

This doesn’t mean we have fewer people in intimate and exclusive relationships, however, but fewer people are choosing to legally document them. Couples often feel it will be easier for them to break up if they aren't officially married but when these unregistered couples do break up, as is frequently do, they likely experience the same distresses divorced partners go through, or worse. 

Unfortunately, they just aren't included in the marriage and divorce 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
2018           935                 476
2019           947                 487

Clarification 1: Marriage numbers are based on the number of marriage licenses issued, and include those who come here from other localities to marry, whereas divorce numbers include only the breakups of people who live in the City or County. However, it is logical to assume that a roughly equal number of residents from here 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 like these over a period of many years, one might safely conclude that the odds of a given marriage surviving are not nearly as good as we would like.

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, according to a new Pew Research Center survey, married adults are more satisfied with their relationship and more trusting of their partners than those who are cohabiting. Here are some of their findings:

Friday, January 31, 2020

A Prayed For Preamble To The President's State Of The Union Address This Year

A spirit of genuine repentance would bless everyone.
This is the kind of introduction I wish our president could give to his speech this year:

My fellow Americans, before I talk about the state of the union, let me say a few words about the state of your president.

While there is much in my life for which I feel blessed, I have also become keenly aware of many personal failures for which I feel deep remorse.

Like the flawed and human King David of old, I have failed many times in being the person of moral integrity and fidelity I should have been. To my family and to my nation I acknowledge that with much regret and remorse.

I am also convicted by the words of one of the psalms of David* which declare that a person approved by God will always "speak the truth from his heart," and that "there will be no slander on his tongue." Whether I have actually spoken over 15,000 falsehoods since becoming president, as alleged by the Washington Post, or only 15, even one lie is one too many. I am also sorry for all of the ways I have slandered people in my speeches and in my many tweets, and for how I have disrespected women, Latinos, Muslims, my political foes, and even my political allies. For all of that I sincerely ask for your forgiveness.

I am equally troubled by the many questionable business deals in which I have failed to act with the standards of integrity that should be expected of any citizen, and certainly someone appointed to the highest office of the land. Like the notorious public official Zacchaeus after his face to face encounter with Jesus, I want to declare publicly that if I have defrauded anyone, I will restore whatever I've taken unjustly fourfold. That's how serious I am about wanting to set things right.

Finally, as far as all of the charges that have been made against me in the impeachment hearings, an acquittal before God Almighty is far more important to me today than any offered by courts, Congress or the voting public. But from this day forward I commit myself to maintaining an ever higher standard of conduct as your president. I realize that people of all races, colors and creeds are subject to the same ultimate judgment, whether rich or poor, Republican or Democratic, native born or recently emigrated. We are all equally responsible, in the words of the prophet, to "to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly before God." No exceptions.

So today I humbly and gratefully identify with John Newton, the former slave trader who after thoroughly repenting of his wrongdoings penned the memorable words, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind but now I see."

And now to the state of the Union...

* Psalm 15

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Relationships: Aiming For Deep Or For Wide?

Someone I really love and admire just sent me an email that's left me praying for a basic change of focus in my life. At my age that may not be easy, but it's something I know I need to take seriously.

The email, from a friend who suffers from chronic pain and whose activities and social life are significantly restricted, in part reads as follows: 

In a day when broadcast communication has become such
a norm... we as rushed, driven people are so overrun with communication from all sides that I fear we are finding it hard to sit down and map out a serious area of Bible study or reflection for our own growth, or to pray for long blocks of time.

Even in my quiet world the phone calls me with so many messages or voices from those I love. Often we share so much of the trivial with others that we hardly have time left to give from deep within ourselves to our families and neighbors--those who live closest to us. 

So how do we keep ourselves as deep wells from which we share things that can impact for eternity those who reach into our lives? Maybe we need to be purposely shutting the door to some of the good we could do further away in order to offer deeper things to those within our reach.

I pray we can be whole people who can be oil upon the head for everyone God sends our way. Christ became flesh so we could know as He knew what it was like to walk all the way to the cross. 

Teach me to be more like Christ. Teach me to do ministry as He did, reaching out to the crowds, yet sitting down with His twelve and revealing deep things of the Kingdom.  

It was the simple word deep in her post that I couldn't shake off. I found myself asking whether too much of my life has been spent in efforts to go wide rather than focusing on going deep. In other words, have I been so driven to reaching ever more people through social media, radio spots, blogging, writing and speaking opportunities that I failed to experience enough of the heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul connections I need with God and with other people? And might a change in this area mean my connecting with fewer people rather than always striving to connect with more?

My first impulse was to rationalize by defending a need to do both. After all, Jesus spent long days offering healthcare and soul care to crowds of people, but also set aside time for solitude, prayer and fasting, and for deepening his connection with God and with an intimate group of close friends and followers.

My problem has been to find the right balance. But I'm already convinced this means making meditation and reflection a priority over being driven to get ever more work done in a day. In other words, my going deep needs to take precedence over going wide. I need to focus more on fostering intimate and nurturing connections and not just instant and superficial ones.

The following is a kind of ladder of different levels of communication we humans may experience, from the least intimate to the most intimate:

Ritual Communication: As a means of establishing connections, this a necessary first step in all relationships. This includes our "hello's," "how are you's?" "good morning's," etc.

Information-Level Communication: Here we focus on life events, news happenings, and on task-related information.

Opinion-Level Communication: Here we discuss ideas and opinions about current events or personal beliefs.

Feeling-Level Communication: Here we share personal emotions of joy, sadness, grief, anger and the like. 

Soul-Level Communication: This includes times of deep, reflective listening, involving body language and touch that convey caring and empathy, as well as including times of golden silence. This often involves the use of words, but goes well beyond words to an experience of soulful communion.

Each of these levels of connection has its place, but I want to see this as a ladder for descent and not just ascent. I need to learn better how to go deep before I spend more effort at going wide.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

How Would Jesus Impeach?

"If an offender refuses to hear you, then tell it to the ekklesia (the assembly). If he will not hear the ekklesia, then you must remove that person, consider them an outsider."     
- Jesus (who loved outsiders)

I can already hear people objecting to my title. The Bible isn't political, isn't about impeachment, and has nothing to say about the removal of any president or other public official. Besides, God's kingdom is separate from the temporal kingdoms of this age.

But as members of the Christian faith, we also affirm that everything here on earth is subject to God's rule. Our primary creed is "Jesus is Lord." Lord over everything. Lord over Caesar. Lord of all nations.

Christians affirm that while God ordains secular governments as a way to keep evildoers in check, everyone will ultimately be judged by the same standard. No exceptions. 

We also believe that the government (kingdom) of God and the governments of this age are by no means equal. God's rule is far and above every principality and power, and that rule is both now and forever.

So I'm disturbed at Christians seemingly seeing Jesus's life and teachings as naive and largely irrelevant to here and now, real-life issues. 

When it comes to finances, for example, the Jubilee economics taught and modeled by the Hebrew prophets and by Jesus and his early followers are simply set aside by most believers in favor of the wisdom of Wall Street. When it comes to  the governing principles by which we live, the U.S. Constitution is regarded as more authoritative than the Bible. And on the issue of defense, the Pentagon is seen as offering more security, and having more validity, than the non-violent, cross-bearing faith lived and taught by the Prince of Peace.

So should we at least consider Jesus' teaching and example in regard to something like an impeachment trial?

After all, even most members of Congress profess to be Christian. While they have also sworn to defend the Constitution, whatever they do in both their public and private life should reflect their allegiance to an even higher authority.

Were they to see themselves as subject to God's rule, as taught by Jesus and the prophets, they might consider the following as they consider removing a president:

Like the removal of a member from his or her congregation, as outlined in Matthew 18, the ultimate goal of an impeachment trial should not be to convict or acquit, but to rectify wrong and to restore the wrongdoer. In other words, the primary focus should, in the words of Jesus, be to point out the fault and to invite the offender to repent, to make amends. Only after repeated failed attempts to do so are we to excommunicate, or "impeach," someone.

Sadly, our current president may be unlikely to choose changing his ways, or rectifying any wrongs, having insisted that what he did was "perfect," and that he sees no need for him to repent or ask forgiveness.

But before any efforts to indict or remove anyone, there should be a sincere appeal to the offender to repent.

That's what the gospel is all about.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Would Virginia Counties Seceding (To Join West Virginia) Be Like Local Congregations Seceding To Join Some Other Communion?

No, this is not fake news, but actual legislation being considered in West Virginia.
The following resolution was introduced January 14, 2020, at the West Virginia state legislature:

"That the question of admission, or, the rejection of such admission, of any county or independent city of the Commonwealth of Virginia desiring admission to the State of West Virginia, and a majority of whose qualified voters, voting on the question, have approved such measure, prior to August 1, 2020, shall be submitted to the voters of the State of West Virginia at the next general election to be held in the year 2020.

"Such proposal shall be placed upon the general election ballot in the following form: “Shall the following county (or independent city) _____________________(name), currently a constituent part of the Commonwealth of Virginia, be admitted to the State of West Virginia as a constituent county of the State of West Virginia.”

Most of us will see this as most likely never happening and as being constitutionally unthinkable. In other words, it's a ludicrous idea that should never even be considered.

Yet we think nothing of it when churches withdraw from their Conference bodies or from their denomination to join another group of their choice.

Maybe that doesn't represent a fair analogy, but are some examples of local Virginia Mennonite Conference congregations that were once a part of Virginia Conference and in many cases have affiliated with some outside group:

1835 Virginia Mennonite Conference (formed from Lancaster [PA] Conference)

    1900 Old Order Mennonite Conference (left Virginia Conference and affiliated with Groffdale Old Order Conference in Pennsylvania)

    1953 Wenger Old Order Mennonite group (unaffiliated)

    1957 Mt. Pleasant Old Order Mennonite congregation (affiliated with Weaverland District Conference in Pennsylvania)

    1972 Southeastern Mennonite Conference (organized as a separate conference)

    1985 Timberville Mennonite Church (unaffiliated)

    1990 Calvary Mennonite Church (affiliated with Ohio-based Biblical Mennonite Alliance)

    2001 Cornerstone Churches (originally Mennonite, formed their own coalition of congregations)

    2002 Mountain Valley District churches (first unaffiliated, then the largest of these congregations, Dayton Mennonite, later joined the Conservative Mennonite Conference [now simply "CMC"] headquartered in Irwin, Ohio)
    2003 Broad Street Mennonite Church (unaffiliated)

    2005 Shalom Mennonite (joined Central District Mennonite Conference headquartered in Goshen, Indiana)

    2007 Lloyd Wenger Old Order Mennonite group (unaffiliated)

    2016 New Beginnings Church (became non-denominational and has remained unaffiliated)

Friday, January 17, 2020

A Heart Wrenching Time For United Methodists

If there were easy answers to the church's current
dilemmas, we would have probably arrived at 

them a long time ago.
As someone who decries same-faith church divorces, I can't help but feel grieved over the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., the spiritual descendants of John and Charles Wesley, possibly splitting into two separate bodies in May.

I certainly have lots of empathy for churches everywhere faced with the increasingly divisive issue of how to deal with gay and lesbian members who want to be in some kind of marriage union. And I totally understand the case to be made for traditional marriage, defined as being between a man and a woman for life. For the record, this is the position I've supported for pretty much all of my life.

So far be it from me to have an easy answer for United Methodists. But one of the problems all churches face in dealing with this and many other disputable issues is that there are no simple binary positions into which their members, or their member congregations, fit.

On the issue of same sex relationships. there is a whole range of responses supported by members of most of their congregations, as follows:

1.  Condemn and ostracize all lesbians and gays, keep them “in the closet.”

2.  Advocate acceptance of gays and lesbians but expect them to undergo a change of orientation (“healing”), enter into a heterosexual marriage or live a life of celibacy and secrecy.

3. Openly welcome and accept all believers into membership without making sexual orientation a barrier, but continue to support sexual relationships for only one man and one woman in marriage.

4.  Support the above approach as the church’s official position, but make pastoral exceptions for faithful same-sex relationships where no other option seems viable, similar to Paul’s “better to marry than to burn with passion” counsel (much like the approach many churches have taken with divorced persons seeking to remarry).

5.  Celebrate and affirm all monogamous and faithful relationship equally--heterosexual or homosexual.

6.  Encourage monogamous relationships, but make questions of exclusivity and fidelity matters of personal conscience.

7.  Leave all questions about sexual behaviors up to the individual.

So in order to actually accommodate everyone, should UMC divide into seven groups? And how are they to accommodate all of the other differences of conviction held by members of their churches?

In my opinion, our ultimate responsibility is to prayerfully seek to have our membership rolls correspond with the names of those we believe are written in the Lamb's Book of Life.

But since that may seem hard to discern, do we risk erring on the welcoming side or on the excluding side of the above spectrum?

That is the question that's tearing my soul apart, and the soul of churches everywhere.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Oh The Accolades From My Online Friends!

This is a sample of some of the more interesting responses I've gotten recently to some of my facebook posts and op ed pieces in our local newspaper:

"Mr. Yoder is one of the most radical left wing neo-liberals ever, Period. He is completely lost in his socialist agenda and cares nothing about America, traditional values or anything related to the Valley. Reading his opinions is a complete waste of time!"

"Though I love Harvey Yoder as a brother in Christ please do not waste a second in debating with him. Bless him and move on. His worldview has nothing in common with reality and the true fall of man. I only pray he keeps himself insulated and protected in his ideological cocoon and safely stays immune to the world around him. His arguments sound great in a sociology class but wouldn’t play well on the streets of Baltimore. Cut bait and don’t waste your time, breath or frustration attempting to use facts and common sense to change his “perspective”. He is harmless and a genuinely sweet gentleman that I unfortunately would not want as a partner in a life or death situation."

"Mr. Yoder, if you want to be taken seriously on any issue, then you really do need to educate yourself regarding that issue, starting with your description of the gun that your parents owned when you were growing up. They owned a 22 caliber rifle, not a 22 gauge rifle. Rifles are classified by caliber, shotguns are classified by gauges. Secondly, I've read your blog, and more specifically, some of the hot links to the blogs of others that you apparently endorse, as they appear embedded within the articles in the blog itself. Many of those who comment on these articles demonstrate complete ignorance of the Shenandoah Valley, coupled with an arrogance that is a complete turnoff. I saw references to folks in this valley "re-fighting the civil war", "backwards thinking", "people only wanting to own guns because of an irrational fear of the government", "bullying" (specifically in reference to the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors meeting at Spotswood High School the other night), and the list goes on and on. There was even one person who liberal who suggested that their friends move up to Canada to escape the backwards thinking people of the Shenandoah Valley. 
Mr. Yoder, you and your liberal friends live in a bubble of your own making. What happened at Spotswood High School the other night was not "bullying". It wasn't even anything close to bullying. What you witnessed, Mr. Yoder, is people who disagree with you about the fundamental principles this great country was founded on. If you can't handle the robust exchange of ideas, then I would suggest that you take your liberal friend's advice and move to Canada where everyone agrees with you. Otherwise, I would suggest that you stop talking and writing down to the good people of this valley and the values that we hold dear. It really doesn't paint you in a good light."

"Mr. Yoder, if you do not wish to be judged by the ignorant and arrogant words of these folks, then perhaps you should think twice before including their articles as hot links in your blog. Furthermore, I find it very hypocritical that you advocate for the confiscation of guns as it relates to peaceful, law abiding citizens, and yet you constantly lobby for the release of violent criminals from prison into our society. I too long for a day when there will be no more death, no more pain, no more evil, and no need for guns, but until Jesus returns, there will be sin and violence in the world, and the second amendment is the citizens' last line of defense against tyranny. I'll be keeping my guns."

"Harvey, I have nothing against you personally, and I wish you well, but I see absolutely no need for us to get together and have "meaningful dialogue". I have lived around, and known people like you my entire life. With all due respect, you have lived your entire life in a bubble. You've never worked in the private sector, run a business, or had to live with the consequences of the governmental policies that you promote. I remember reading a post from you a few years ago, where you admitted to not knowing the difference between the national deficit, and the national debt. You very clearly (as you have acknowledged) know nothing about guns, and yet advocate for stricter gun laws for law abiding citizens. At the same time, you openly lobby for the early release of convicted criminals, and even think it "unfair" that prisoners in the Rockingham County Jail should pay a $1 per day keep fee for their room and board. You lobby for "restorative justice" options within our criminal justice system, which likely works very well when a kid accidentally throws a baseball through his neighbor's window, and then mows his neighbor's lawn for the summer to pay off the debt, but is absolutely useless and dangerous when applied to hardened criminals. In short, Mr. Yoder, I'm sure that you are a very nice fellow, and I have very little doubt that you mean well, but frankly, I don't want people of your mindset to be in charge of anything. You truly live in an alternate reality. As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, though, I do wish you well, and specifically today I wish you and your family a very blessed and Merry Christmas."