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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."

Saturday, January 11, 2020

What The Nickel Mines Response Could Teach Us About Revenge


The radical and non-violent response by the Amish to their
terrorist attack proved to be their most powerful witness ever.

You have heard it said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," but I say to you, do not resist an evildoer,... Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.
- Jesus

Do not repay evil for evil... Do not take revenge, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord"... If your enemy hunger, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
- Paul

What we are seeing in the Middle East is the result of a vicious cycle of revenge, each side justifying their violent responses as completely legitimate ways of evening the score, of executing justice. 

But how well is that working?

Among the tragic and unintended consequences of this most recent vengeance cycle has been the accidental shooting of a Ukranian passenger plane in Tehran, resulting in 176 precious lives lost. While Iranian authorities are now taking appropriate responsibility, it is highly likely that the victims of that terrible attack would still be alive if we had not responded to an alleged "imminent threat" in the way we did, thus putting the Iranian defense forces on hyper-alert status. 

I am in no way excusing the Iranian action, or reaction, but even in the case of responding to the worst possible kinds of bad actors, like Kim Jong Un, for example, we don't see it as being in the nation's best interests (and against international law) to kill him. The possibilities of untended and terrible consequences are simply too great, including the likelihood, in the case of Iran, of bringing about greater sympathy and support for the Iranian government and for its policy of seeking revenge against the U.S. in whatever ways possible, thus making us all less safe. 

Imagine our response if a foreign attack by some super power would have made a martyr of Colin Powell while he/we were plotting an invasion of Iraq in 2003? Would that kind of preemptive strike have been in an attacking country's best interest or would it have galvanized American resolve to get ever more revenge by whatever means possible? Which in fact is what drove the US to attack on Afghanistan and Iraq, which even the president who initiated those attacks to later acknowledge them as a mistake, particularly the invasion of Iraq.

I know most of my readers will dismiss Jesus's and Paul's teaching against exacting revenge as applying only to our personal relationships and not being applicable to nation states. But even a legitimate national right to defend is not the same as an unlimited right to attack.

These same readers may also see any comparison between how a nation should act and how the Amish responded to the attack on their children at the Nickel Mines School as ridiculous. But is it?

What would have happened if after the 911 tragedy, when we experienced an outpouring of sympathy and support from virtually all nations everywhere around the world, including Muslim ones, we would have responded in a manner more like that of the Amish?

At the very least the U.S. could have called for a high level meeting at the UN to probe every possible means of ever having a tragedy like the 911 attacks to happen again anywhere in the world. 

But the Amish went much further, actually returning good for evil, raising money to help their attacker's family, attending his funeral service, and stating their unconditional forgiveness for his horrendous deed. This didn't take away from their sorrow or anguish, but it was their radical and Christ-like response to it.

(Parenthetically, I prefer to see forgiveness as being an appropriate response to either repentance or ignorance on the part of an offender. In other words, to forgive as God forgives, based on a change of heart and mind (repentance), or as Christ asked for God's forgiveness on the basis of "they know not what they do" (ignorance). In this case, the attacker was neither ignorant nor able to repent (as far as we know). But what the Amish offered was a supreme expression of unconditional agape love, even toward ones worst enemy.)

In the case of the Amish, it could be argued that their response--that of returning good for evil instead of exacting revenge--has actually made them safer rather than more vulnerable to attack. They have garnered the universal respect and support of people all over world in their witness against evil and for their faith in their Lord as the non-violent Prince of Peace.

But could that approach ever actually work as a national strategy?

We may never know, since it's hard to imagine any nation ever trying it. But we can say with near certainty that an "eye for an eye" approach (originally meant to limit rather than add to a cycle of vengeance) will never achieve lasting world peace, and only cause eventual blindness for all who engage in it.

Note: Years ago I read something on the theme above, someone raising the question of what might have happened if our nation had responded to 911 as the Amish did to the Nickel Mines tragedy, but I haven't been able to find the source. If anyone can find that, I would like to give appropriate credit. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

How Might Mennonites Have Inadvertently Contributed To Our Current Middle East Crisis?

Retirement mecca and home to 3-5000 Amish and Mennonites
Some years ago I raised the question of what might have happened if Mennonites in Florida would have simply stayed home on election day in November, 2000. Like most other Mennos, known to prefer presidential candidates they feel are less likely to support abortion, their votes alone were almost surely enough to decide the race.

The disputed margin in Florida, as you may remember, was just over 500, and resulted in a candidate being chosen who was instrumental in ordering the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq following 911. By that very narrow margin, and in a case decided by the Supreme Court, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore and won the presidency.

Personally, I think George Bush was, and is, a decent and admirable person, and have no illusions about his opponent being the ideal candidate or as becoming the model president. But looking back, most of us, including George Bush himself, see the above invasions as having had serious unintended consequences, and as having directly contributed to the rise of ISIS and to the level of crisis we are currently experiencing in the Middle East.

You may of course dismiss all this as pure speculation on my part, and to even argue that had the presidential race been decided differently, the outcomes would likely have been the same, or even worse, both as to how the U.S. would have used its military power and how it would have addressed other important issues like climate change, for example.

Yet I find it an intriguing "what if" question, as I outline in my previous blog:
 https://harvyoder.blogspot.com/2016/09/how-handful-of-florida-mennonites.html

Meanwhile, what affect, if any, did the 2000 election have on abortion rates in this country? As you can see from the graph below, the rate of recorded, legal abortions, while still far too high, has thankfully shown a steady decline over the past decades, under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

And for reasons that have little or nothing to do with who occupies the White House.


"I urge that petitions, prayers, requests, and thanksgivings be offered to God for all people; for rulers and all others who are in authority, that we may live quiet and peaceful lives with all reverence toward God and with proper conduct."
I Timothy 2:1-2


Sunday, January 5, 2020

On The Twelfth Day Of Christmas--A Final Post of Christmas Past


This wonderful piece by St, John of the Cross is taken from “If You Want” in Daniel Ladinsky Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), 306-307.

If you want
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say,

“I need shelter for the night,
please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul
you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
taking birth
forever,
as she grasps your hand for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.

Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally,
through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help;
for each of us is
His beloved servant
never far.

If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and sing …
(first posted December 14, 2015)

Saturday, January 4, 2020

On The Eleventh Day Of Christmas--An Unforgettable Post Of Christmas Past

It could have happened much like that.
Adam Shank wrote and shared this when he was worship leader at Shalom Mennonite a couple of  years ago. Adam was born in Harrisonburg and he and his wife spent 3 years serving with Mennonite Central committee in Nicaragua. As Home-School Liaison at Smithland Elementary School, he has worked with many families from diverse backgrounds.

Christ was born today in Harrisonburg

His light can be seen shining from the 
mansions of Harmony Heights,
To the apartments on Norwood.

Jose and Maria were picking apples one county over,
But Maria was too pregnant for the trip home,
When harvest ended in October.

Now doubled up with Maria’s cousin Elizabeth,
She delivers unto us,
The world’s greatest gift.

A wail and a cry comes out of the dark
Of lot 103, 
Spotswood trailer park.

The cry is a herald, calling for unity,
And organically it happens,
As people bring gifts for the new family.

From Holly Court the Eritreans offer loads of injera bread
While the Iraqis bring pita
In case they prefer that instead.

Baklava from Kurdish neighbors on Mosby had everyone gawkin’
Which paired perfectly with the cafecito
Brought by SalvadoreƱos living on Hawkins.

Mennonites from Park View plugged in their crock pots
And with the little coordination
Kept Mexican sopa de res piping hot.

Then there was the group of African Americans living over by Simms,
Who lifted up their glad voices 
And sang gospels and spiritual hymns.

The Puerto Ricans from Harris Gardens not to be outdone,
Brought heaps of arroz con gandules,
Enough for everyone.

Chinese, Russian, Somali, people from the Valley,
The crowd grew so large,
We couldn’t keep our tally.

As the gifts were given the good news we began to tell
Of the Savior born to La Maria
Living behind the Taco Bell.

With God dwelling among us we all began to see
That light of Christ, that image of God
In every person, in our own humanity.

In that moment you could feel change was just around the bend,
For this new babe would truly help us 
Make America Great Again.

Friday, January 3, 2020

On The Tenth Day Of Christmas--A Memorable Post Of Christmas Past

Beloved mentor and friend Jesse Byler 1928-1990, with
grandson Holden (photo by Daryl Byler)
Just over 29 years ago, and just before Christmas, the world lost one of the finest men I have ever known.

Jesse T. Byler died December 23, 1990, at 62 of a respiratory condition he had since childhood, when nine bouts of pneumonia in succession left his lungs permanently scarred. He left behind his good wife Betty and three grown children, Cheryl, Daryl and Judy.

I will always miss him as a memorable mentor and valued role model.

I learned to know Jesse when I was a student at Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU) and a dorm assistant for junior and senior guys attending Eastern Mennonite High School, where Jesse was then the school's principal.

It was Jesse who offered me my first career job in 1964, teaching upper level high school social studies and Bible classes and serving as Dean of Boys at EMHS. Fortunately for Alma Jean and I, newly married that summer, he selected her to teach Home Economics.

A year later, Jesse was instrumental in my receiving a call to serve as his assistant at Zion Mennonite Church near Broadway, where he was then their part time senior pastor.

This was my first experience in that kind of role, one I scarcely felt qualified for. But I couldn't have chosen a more understanding and supportive mentor, someone from whom I learned so much by his example as a caring pastor and Bible teacher.

One of the things that made his life so remarkable was that he accomplished all that he did in spite of his health condition, overcoming great odds in pursuing excellence as an educator and pastor. When he was advised to give up preaching in order to conserve his energy for a new assignment as head of EMC's education department, he encouraged me to accept an invitation to become senior pastor in his place on a half-time basis.

For the next twenty years, while I served in the dual roles of pastor at Zion and teacher at EMHS, Jesse and his good wife Betty remained loyal members of the congregation. When faced with a difficult challenge, I often turned to him for counsel or would ask myself, "What Would Jesse Do?".

Pastors staying on as members after resigning from a senior leadership role isn't usually recommended. And in deference to me, Jesse would have been willing to attend elsewhere for  an interim while I took over the lead pastoral role at Zion, taught some high school courses, and tried to find quality time with our family.

Needless to say,  I urged Jesse to stay, as the kind of person I felt I could ill afford to do without. And what a gracious friend and support both he and Betty proved to be, not only to me and to our family but to the whole congregational family he remained loyal to his whole life.

One of Jesse and Betty's favorite pastimes was putting jigsaw puzzles together. The following is a poem his oldest daughter wrote after her father's death:

Daddy, we'll put together
   your Christmas puzzle.
The one with the snow-covered
   peak, steep and stark.

You feared that last peak,
   afraid you might not
have the courage to battle
   up its slopes, not
have the strength to go on
   to the summit, that
your endurance would run
   out like the last
precious drops of your life-
   sustaining oxygen.

But Sunday when you stood on
   the foothills and looked
at the climb ahead, you smiled.
   You could do it, you said.
It was no different after all,
   from the other peaks
you've scaled, the other fears
   you've faced, the other
vistas that beckoned. Your
   last climb blended into
each preceding one and you
   entered dying with
the wholeness of your living.

So as we put these 3,000
   pieces together, we'll think of
you striding the ridge,
   breathing with delightful ease,
running with abandonment
   through the snow, freed of your
scarred, worn lungs.
   And we'll laugh with you.

Cheryl Byler Keeler
December 26, 1990

Thursday, January 2, 2020

On The Ninth Day Of Christmas--A Heart-Wrenching Post Of Christmas Past

This is all that was left (photo by grandnephew Michael Shifflett).
A Grief Beyond Belief

Early on Saturday morning December 12, 2015, we received the terrible news that my younger sister, Mary Beth Shifflett, 69, and her husband Harven, 77, had perished in a fire that destroyed their mobile home in nearby Greene County. We were in a state of shock and disbelief.

Neither my sister nor her husband were in good health, and had been in and out of hospitals for various life threatening conditions over the past number of years. So we would not have been surprised to hear that one or the other was in some kind of medical crisis. But we were never prepared for this.

My now deceased sister came into our home at four months of age as a foster child, the first of a dozen or more children my parents, with eight living children of their own, took in during my early childhood. I was six when she came to live with us, and we quickly grew so attached to her that my parents adopted her some years later. As her next older brother we spent a lot of special time together.

Mary Beth loved Christmas, and loved preparing gifts for others for the holiday season, as well as at any other special time. As an adult she was the most active of any of us in encouraging our family to get together for regular reunions and other occasions.

As a young adult she was able to find her biological mother and a blood brother and sister, and for a while spent considerable time with them. At that time she was told that her father was no longer living. This proved to be untrue, and she later found her aging father at a nursing home near Waynesboro, and maintained a relationship with him until he passed away some years ago. Yet throughout she has maintained her primary family ties with her Yoder family.

I will miss her very much. In many ways she had a troubled life, but she was such a loving and stubborn survivor, and will always be in our hearts.

The following is an excerpt of what my oldest brother Sanford, who with his wife Martha lives in Costa Rica, wrote on our family email group:

 "I have so many happy memories of my sister Mary Beth. The day she arrived as a little baby we were all so excited. As she grew she became my little favorite, often sitting on my knees, singing with me... (We) mourn a great loss but are committing the present in the hands of a just and holy God ...who is perfect in love, perfect in mercy, and perfect in grace."
(first posted December 14, 2015)

Click here for some more posts on the memorable life of my late youngest sister.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

On The Eighth Day Of Christmas--An Urgent Post Of Christmas Past


Their dispair is unimaginable.
For Christ's Sake We Must Shelter Desperate Refugees


No one leaves home unless
Home is the mouth of a shark
You only run for the border
When you see the whole city running as well
Your neighbors running faster than you
Breath bloody in their throats...
You only leave home 
When home won’t let you stay.

excerpt from “Home”  by Somali poet Warsan Shire

Many of us have been moved by images of Syrians desperately seeking asylum from the terror of war and the wholesale destruction of their homes and communities. These are not immigrants seeking a more prosperous future, but traumatized individuals and families who have lost hope for any future in their war-ravaged homeland.

They are fellow human beings, children of God who have experienced unimaginable trauma. What should be our response as people with a passionate love for God and a compassionate love toward our neighbors?

We cannot, of course, open our borders to everyone. But can we close our borders to an entire group of fellow human beings in need, and primarily on the basis of their religion, ethnicity or national origin? What if, God forbid, we ourselves would one day be forced to seek refuge wherever people would be willing to take us in?

After all, most of our ancestors were once either needy immigrants seeking a better life or persecuted refugees fleeing danger and oppression.

I agree there is always a measure of risk involved in opening our doors to homeless foreigners, even though Jews and Christians have always been taught to welcome the alien and stranger (Deuteronomy 10:18-19), and the Koran teaches adherents to “do good to the neighbor who is a stranger, and the friend by your side, and the wayfarer” (4:36). On this issue there are simply no risk-free options. We cannot turn our backs on desperately needy men, women and children without harming our cause and jeopardizing our own security.

In a 2015 speech in the House of Representatives, Republican Steve Russell of Oklahoma warned that our turning away Syrian refugees would hand a major victory to Islamic State jihadists.

Ever more citizens of Muslim countries who have suffered death and dismemberment from U.S. bombs and drone strikes would now have an additional reason to hate us, as well as to reject the faith we stand for. If we who claim to be followers of Jesus refuse hospitality to those fleeing the very terrorism we denounce, how can we maintain credibility?

For this reason and others, Rep. Russell, a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a 21-year career soldier, laments the rising tide of anti-refugee rhetoric, along with moves by numerous governors to bar fleeing migrants.

“America is a lamp that lights the horizon of civilized and free mankind,” Russell declared. “The Statue of Liberty cannot have a stiff arm. Her arm must continue to keep the torch burning brightly. If we use our passions, anger, and fear to snuff out her flame by a xenophobic and knee-jerk policy, the enemy wins. We have played into their hands, period.”

Russell also observed there is a robust, though never perfect, system in place for vetting refugees, one that would make coming into the U.S. through that process too cumbersome and time-consuming for would-be terrorists. He also expressed concern over some similarity between today’s anti-refugee rhetoric and views held during World War II by a majority of Americans toward Jews fleeing Nazis in Europe. To our shame, we turned away thousands of such asylum seekers, fearing there would be communist sympathizers among them.

The congressman went on to say, “We must not become them (ISIL terrorists). They win if we give up who we are. …  We must be watchful. We have to have each other’s back and be alert to dangers around us. We must speak up when we see something unusual. By maintaining who we are amidst the threat, amidst the hatred, amidst the trials, we win. Patrick Henry did not say, ‘Give me safety or give me death.’”
(originally posted December 12, 2015)