Sunday, June 23, 2024

Ex-Amish Alaskan Homesteader Affirms Her Upbringing, Becomes An Internet Sensation

Elise Matson was never baptized in the faith that
nurtured her, so is not under the Amish ban. 
Elise Matson left her Amish community as a teenager, choosing to live off the grid in a remote area of Alaska in much the same way her family and her Amish neighbors still do in the rural Tennessee community in which she grew up. She still maintains ties to her family and continues to practice a simple lifestyle in spite of the notoriety of having gained over 1.2 million followers on Tic Toc, with many of the posts about her chosen lifestyle having gone viral. 

Aware of the many misconceptions people have of the Amish, she chose to use social media as a way of correcting some of the stereotypes that persist about the community of faith for which she still has a deep appreciation. Not all Amish are the same, of course, since there is no central authority that dictates their practices, and each Amish district is essentially self governing.

I'm sure the fact that her posts have generated so much interest is based on the realization of many that the technological and other innovations they have embraced have taken a heavy toll on the quality of their personal lives and their relationships with others.

Like any community of faith the Amish are far from perfect, but we would all do well to emulate some of the values of modesty, simplicity and peaceableness that many of them have maintained in their close-knit, community-based way of life. More of their kind could help save the planet and help ensure the survival of the human family.

Here is a link to some of her posts.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Seven Reasons Not To Fast As A Part Of Fundraising For The Hungry

I recently posted a blog proposing a modest  fundraising and consciousness raising idea, as follows: 

• That in the face of incredible levels of hunger and homelessness in Gaza and elsewhere that congregations take up a special offering on a Sunday prior to the annual Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale to raise some additional support for Mennonite Central Committee's relief work, especially for the sake of those unable to attend the Sale.

• That churches encourage people to fast from Saturday dinner to the following Sunday noon (in other words, simply skip Sunday breakfast).

• That some person or persons who have served in an MCC or similar assignments in a needy part of the world share their stories in that Sunday service.

• That the youth of the church or some other willing group prepare a simple Sunday noon congregational meal of rice and beans or some similar fare of the kind that millions of the less privileged subsist on every day.

• That in these ways we help raise a record half million dollars this year for MCC's ministry to the hungry and homeless (last year's Relief Sale total was over $400,000).

Much to my surprise, I've gotten almost no positive responses to this proposal so far, but plenty of reasons why the above idea may not fly. 

Here are some examples, and maybe you'll want to add your own as a comment:

1. "People are already overwhelmed with so many fundraising and other projects they're asked to support."

2. "A lot of our people are already deeply involved in efforts like the Relief Sale, and may not feel like they can take on one more thing."

3. "Some of our members have health issues that make missing a meal a problem."

4. "Our Hospitality Committee is already overwhelmed with the number of Sunday meals they're asked to prepare."

5. "As a pastor, skipping breakfast on the day I have to preach doesn't feel like a great idea."

6. "I don't like making people feel guilty as a way of getting them to give more than they're already giving."

7. "The Relief Sale has always been associated with enjoying lots of good food, not doing without it."

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Are Congregations Cruise Ships Or Mercy Ships?

Since 1978, Mercy Ships has provided free healthcare at ports in over 70 needy countries around the world.

Churches have often been compared to the Biblical ark, God-blessed vessels providing safe passage and a secure refuge in an age plagued with doom and gloom. Using the ark analogy, should we see ourselves primarily as those being rescued or as those committed to a mission of reaching out to and rescuing others?

Many churches are focused primarily on the former, becoming like cruise ships with passengers lured on board by a professional team of pastors, youth leaders and praise and worship bands catering to their every need. The success of such congregations tends to be measured by how many people sign on for all of the comforts and amenities promised.

But what if we thought of the church as a community dedicated to an all-hands-on-deck mission of offering help, mercy and good news for the spiritually ill and physically needy? 

To me, Mercy Ships are a fitting metaphor for such mission-driven communities of God followers. Like the crews of those vessels of mercy, committed congregational members see themselves as a part of an enlisted and trained team devoted to Jesus's mission to "bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free."

According to the Mercy Ship website, "Our hospital ships are filled with state-of-the-art medical equipment and a volunteer crew of doctors, nurses, medical staff, technicians, teachers, physical therapists and other caring people driven by mercy to help make the world a better, healthier place for all."

By comparison, the Carnival Cruise Lines states the following as its basic aims:
Ensure safe, responsible and secure operations
Warmly welcome our guests and team members to our home, making them feel a part of the Carnival family
Embrace our diversity and be inclusive
Engage by being friendly, smiling and using names
Show trust, care and respect for each other, our ships and the environment
Anticipate needs, respond rapidly & own issues until they are resolved
Live & share a positive attitude
Show pride in our jobs and our company
Include fun in everything we do!

So here we have two very different kinds of rescue ships, one set up to equip its crew of believers to make the world a more shalom-like place and the other to primarily help those on board feel good and to enjoy a good life on their way to paradise.

A state of the art cruise ship featured in Architectural Design magazine.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Fasting And Feasting To Raise A Half Million $$$ For The Hungry This Year

This year's Relief Sale will be held October 4-5 at the 
Rockingham County Fairgrounds, and could raise a
record half million dollars.

I have long been in awe of all the dedicated volunteers who make the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale a success each year. The money raised for Mennonite Central Committee at this annual event may seem negligible in light of the unprecedented needs of millions of our hungry and homeless neighbors around the world, but every half million dollars helps, and I believe the Sale might actually be able to raise that amount this year (last year's total was well over $400,000).

I occasionally hear people question whether indulging in so much food and purchasing so many unneeded items at the Sale is the best way to raise money for the hungry and destitute, but I can't believe Jesus would object to an occasional feast or festive occasion for a good cause as long as everyone's invited. After all, he frequently enjoyed a good meal, and with some unsavory characters at that, so much so that some even brought accusations like, "Look at him! He eats too much and drinks too much wine, and he is a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" (Luke 7:34, CEV)

So let's just assume an occasional feast or festivity is a good thing. 

But what Jesus clearly does object to is "faring sumptuously every day," like the rich man Jesus warns us about in Luke 16:19. As an observant Jew, Jesus observed both feast days and fast days, and in fact fasted for 40 whole days in preparation for his public ministry. 

All major religions I know of commend fasting as a spiritual practice, accompanied by prayer, repentance, reflection on our dependence on God, and being in solidarity with millions who suffer from want. In both Catholic and (most) Protestant traditions there are regular times designated for doing without--or doing with less--as in the observance of 40 days of Lent, as an act of self-denial versus self-indulgence. 

So here's a modest proposal for a fast in preparation for the Relief Sale's efforts this year:

1) Encourage your congregation to designate a day between now and the Relief Sale for some kind of fast for world hunger. This could mean abstaining from food from sunset on a Saturday to a Sunday noon, for example.

2) Encourage your congregation to have have a simple meal to help identify with those not blessed with the food abundance we are (rice and beans or some similar fare) and to host it as a fundraiser for the Relief Sale on some Sunday noon, especially for those not able to attend the Sale in person.

3) Have your church encourage those who can attend to not only assist in raising money by buying food and other items but to match or exceed that amount with a cash, check or credit card gift at the Everence giving table.

4) Encourage people to give online or send a check to VMRS, 601 Parkwood Drive, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, with SOS on the memo line.

If enough followers of Jesus in our community were to do that we could easily raise a record amount of funds to bless those in need.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Guestpost: An Open Letter To President Biden

It's hard to imagine the devastation experienced by the 2.2 million people packed in such a small area, many of them already living in refugee camps for decades prior to the recent holocaust they have endured. (CNN graphic)

The following letter has been submitted to the Daily News-Record, and I post it here with the author's kind permission:

Dear Mr. President, 
Is there nothing . . . absolutely nothing . . . that will alter your response to the god-awful violence taking place in Gaza?
Is there nothing . . . absolutely nothing . . . that will cause you to withdraw the billions of American tax dollars that you persist in sending to Israel to support and supply its vicious attacks on the defenseless people of Gaza?
Is there nothing . . . absolutely nothing . . . that will cause you to stop the unceasing flow of arms to Israel so that it can drop bombs relentlessly on the battered, broken, traumatized people of Gaza?
Is there nothing . . . absolutely nothing . . . that can touch your heart and change your dogged support for the certifiable genocide being carried out in broad daylight against the people of Gaza in full view of the entire world?
Are not 36,000+ slaughtered Gazans enough?
Are not a million+ people displaced from their homes over and over and over enough?
Is not the massive destruction of all physical living and thriving spaces in Gaza enough?
Is not the looming starvation of an entire population of 2.2 million Gazans enough?
And now this!  Is not the horrifying, excruciating, fiery death of 50 hapless Gazans and the injuring of hundreds more by a sudden conflagration precipitated by an Israeli bombing raid . . . is not even this enough?
How many Gazans must die, Mr. President, before you bring an end to this paroxysm of violence inflicted on the defenseless people of Gaza?
How many Gazans must die, Mr. President, before you repudiate the genocide taking place in Gaza, a genocide funded and supported in every possible way by the American government? 
Mr. President, you are the one person in the world who can bring this war to an end. 
Pull the money.  All of it.  Stop the weapons.  All of them.  Demand an immediate ceasefire.  
Mr. President, end this genocide.
For the life of Gaza.
For the life of Israel.
For the soul of America.
Dorothy Jean Weaver

Dorothy Jean is a friend, a fellow Mennonite and a retired professor of New Testament studies who has led many tours to Israel/Palestine. 

Friday, May 24, 2024

Prepping For The Final Exam

This new study Bible published by Menno Media
will be available in December, 2024.
In my years of teaching high school courses a question I was often asked by students was, "Will this be on the test?"

Most people of faith like myself believe we will all face a day of examination, not so much about facts we know about faith but how we have lived out the beliefs we profess. So with tongue only partly in cheek, I offer the following passages as being among those worthy of being underlined in the primary Textbook we use in preparation for our finals.

Fill in the blank:

1. from the prophet Micah: "God has told you what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do ____________, to love _____________, and to __________________________________."

2. from the lawgiver Moses: "So what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to love and serve God with all your ________ and with all all your _______, and with all your ______.  And you shall love your ____________ as yourself." Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12, Leviticus 19:18

3. from the apostle John: "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just/righteous (Greek: dikaois), and will ________ our sins and __________ us from all injustice/unrighteousness (Greek: adikais)."  I John 1:9

Multiple choice (circle your answer):

4. from Jesus's inaugural address (which begins with nine characteristics of God-blessed persons): "Whoever hears these words of mine and a) commits them to memory,  b) has them posted the walls of classrooms and public buildings, c) does them, will be like a wise builder who builds his house on a solid rock foundation."  Matthew 7:24

5. from Jesus's description of the final judgment: "Come you who are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry, and you a) prayed for me, b) fed me,  c) referred me to a charity organization for help."  Matthew 25:35

6. To a wealthy entrepreneur who asked how to inherit eternal life Jesus answered with: a) "Sell what you have and share it with the poor,"  b) "Give a tenth of your income to charity," c) "Pray the sinners prayer and become baptized."  Mark 10:17-21

7. To a religious person who asked the same question, Jesus responded with: a) the story of the Prodigal son (you should repent as he did) b) the parable of the Ten Virgins (you should be watchful as five of them were) c) the story of the Good Samaritan (you should do as this unlikely foreigner did).  Luke 10:25-37

Brief Essay: 

8. from the prophet Isaiah: Describe how you have experienced this kind of fasting in your life:

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
    releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
    setting free the mistreated,
    and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
    and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
    covering the naked when you see them,
    and not hiding from your own family?  Isaiah 58:6-7


1. justice, mercy (or kindness), walk humbly with God  
2. heart, soul, strength, mind, or might, and neighbor 
3. forgive, cleanse 
4. c  
5. b 
6. a 
7. c.
8. A merciful God will grade this.

Monday, May 20, 2024

An Early Morning Reflection From Inside LVCC

Jonathan White has been incarcerated
for 42 years and been repeatedly denied
parole in spite of being a model prisoner.
I received these reflections from a friend who has been transferred from Augusta Correctional Center (recently closed) to the Lawrenceville Correctional Center (LVCC), which has been a state-contracted privately run facility but is again being taken over by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) as a "reculturalization" program for qualified veterans and parole eligible prisoners. It is being renamed the White Oak Correctional Center. 
I post the following with his permission:

I have been up since 4 a.m. when the diabetics were called to "stand by" to receive their insulin. For years now my biological time clock has been geared to a 3:30-4 a.m. wake-up. I guess my upbringing as an early riser has been ingrained in my biological time schedule. It is also a good quiet time when I can read my morning devotion and plan my day. It is one of the most peaceful times inside this environment for personal reflection.

Laundry services start early at this facility too. Workers report to work at the same time the kitchen workers start their first shift, 3:30 a.m. They come to the pod and collect the dirty laundry for the wash details, then return it clean later in the day. 

Today, another round of transfers is in progress. The process of transferring all those that do not meet the criteria of the new reculturalization project here and replacing them with parole eligible offenders and veterans is still underway.

Last week the transport bus broke down before it could leave the facility, so that run had to be rescheduled. Yes, there were some rather disappointed folks, but they just had to go with the flow. There are over 750 men currently approved to transfer into this facility out of 1200 applicants that opped to participate through the advertisement on the JPay kiosk announcement posted in February. I have seen men recently that have been transferred here from as far back in my incarcerated times as July 12, 1982.

Yes, that is the date I first stepped foot on the Southampton Correctional Center and served my first nineteen years of my sentence. Southampton was considered a youthful offender facility during that time for first-offenders and anyone under the age of 25. I was just a fresh 22-year-old, and had never been in any type of penal system whatsoever, juvenile or adult.

Doing time then was much more productive and rehabilitation oriented then it is today! Men had a desire to strive to earn every privilege they could to make their lives better both while in prison and for when they left prison behind. The foolishness that many of today's younger generation allows would have never existed or been tolerated. I know first hand because I lived through many of the hardships and struggles that the older generation had fought and bled for to achieve. But today the rehabilitation oriented mindset has been replaced with drug abuse and mental health issues.

Yes, the DOC is definitely a major participant in the lack of rehabilitation and the mayhem the prison system faces now. But the type of offender's coming into the prison system are also a major factor. Men who were revolutionary militants fighting to change the economic and racial issues prior to the 1980's and used the legal justice system to fight those oppressive injustices have been replaced by "crack babies" "heroin and mental health post-war veterans," and the lack of rehabilitation. Society has made a prison cell its solution rather than addressing the problem with the proper rehabilitation. It is easy to make excuses for people's criminal behaviors when it doesn't affect them directly. But when little Mikey and Susan are in their elementary school classroom exchanging sexual favors, or using their allowances for some spice, crack, heroin, methamphetamines or some other mind altering illegal chemical substances, that's a problem. Next you have the early development of the soon to be incarcerated felon rather than a social graduate.

Okay, this story does have many different versions as to how it all comes about. But the prison system is not the fix-all for everything. I am told all the time that to heal and redeem one's self we each have to take responsibility for our own actions. Believe me, I have been up and down that rocky path as well. Don't get me misunderstood here, taking responsibility for our own actions doesn't solve all the problems we are going to continually face in a lawless society. But it does allow us to recognize that each of us can be a positive part of the solution.

This LVCC reculturalization project has many men transferring into Lawrenceville with the hope of being granted parole if they subject themselves to the planned programming that this unstructured and undeveloped prison revamping has to offer now that the VaDOC has resumed oversight its day to day operations. I sincerely caution everyone that chose this planned project not to look outside themselves for such a reward that doesn't exist. Those of us here are going to have to deal with some major crap we have to put behind us to live the rehabilitated lives that we have struggled to achieve over the years of our incarceration. The LVCC reculturalization  project has a very long way to go to develop. Some of the task is going to have to be of our own design. Yes, we are all back on that road of "responsibility" again. Collectively, this facility has a blighted past history of illicit irresponsible behavior on the part of everyone who was here when many of us arrived.

Today, that can change and a positive solution can be achieved. It is going to take a community of minds working together to set the tone for true reculturalization  in this facility. It should start with granting parole to those of us who have been through the fire of change and allow us the opportunity to serve as examples for others to follow. Give us the second chances and employment and volunteer rights to help those behind with our community service. This will be a positive demonstration of rehabilitation.

Jonathan White
Parole Eligible/Veteran - LVCC

Here is a link to a record of Mr. White's achievements: