On October 20, 2019, I led music at church and we sang “The Lord is My Light,” from Sing the Journey songbook. I like the lyrics of the song and of course, we sang this in the pre-COVID era. Maybe you will learn to like this song as I do.
In Luke 5, we read the story of disciples whom Christ asked to put out into the deep. There, Jesus, told them, they should let down their nets for a catch. When they indeed made a very large catch, they were astonished. We are encouraged to move into the deep water in life, put down our nets, and then acknowledge the one who makes us fishers of people.
When the Dry Fork River, W.Va., rose to record levels in November 1985, the Riverside Mennonite Church flooded, and the church suffered much damage. Randolph County, W.Va. got over a foot of rain in two days, and the 40-50 Riverside members needed help to clean up and fix their building.
At flood stage, the meetinghouse and parking lot, three miles north of Harman, W.Va., were in danger of being swept away by the roiling river. Water came up to the window sills, and the benches floated inside. What probably saved the building was a large number of trees that floated against the building and kept the structure intact.
The Shenandoah Valley Mennonite Disaster Service organization responded immediately, but not until roads were passable were volunteers allowed to begin cleaning up in the area of Riverside church. After that, volunteers went to the Harman area to help. Students from EMHS and EMC went out by the van load to help clean up and fix up. One group of EMHS students pulled piles of dead turkeys from a field, some of which had already partially decayed.
From 1932-2017, Riverside Mennonite Church had been a part of the Middle District (later Central) of the Virginia Mennonite Conference. The Middle District Council authorized a generous donation to help in renovating and rebuilding. The church ordered new hymnals, new pews, a new rug, replaced some aluminum siding, and needed significant dozer work on the parking lot. Riverside pastors Joe Mininger and Woodie Sites waited a month before calling Sunday morning services again. Volunteers Paul and Nancy Showalter gave substantial time and energy in leading the renovation efforts.
By August 1987, the church’s renovations were complete, with a new kitchen, Sunday school rooms, and indoor toilets. The building project was finished debt-free, and a celebration service took place at the church on August 30, 1987. A church bulletin from that era carried the banner “Spared for a Purpose.” It took the concerted efforts of MDS resources, local help, community volunteers, and young people from Harrisonburg to help Riverside Mennonite Church recover from the devastating flood of 1985.
In 1952, Samuel O. Weaver’s high school English teacher insisted that he learn how to diagram a sentence. Sam saw no need to learn how to diagram a sentence, and he told A. Grace Wenger, his EMS teacher, that he intended to return to Newport News and milk cows for his brother. She replied to Sam that he didn’t know where the Lord would call him and that he should learn how to diagram a sentence. Sam graduated from high school, college, and earned a Master’s Degree, though sixty-seven years later, in a 2019 interview, Sam laughed and admitted that he still does not know how to diagram a sentence!
In spite of not being able to diagram a sentence, God used Sam in a mighty way during his twelve years as principal of EMHS, 1969-1981. A. Grace Wenger was right—Sam didn’t know where God would lead him or in what capacity he would serve the church. It was in the late 1960s that Sam was called to lead Eastern Mennonite High School as it sought to become independent from Eastern Mennonite College.
Dr. Myron Augsburger, President of EMC, needed a high school principal with financial and marketing skills. So he hired Sam Weaver to head the high school in 1969. To lead the high school, Sam needed training in education, and he enrolled in a Master’s program at James Madison University. In the meantime, Weaver relied on dependable teachers already working at EMHS, like James Rush, David Mumaw, Lois Janzen, Harvey Yoder, Marvin Miller, Ron Koppenhaver, Gloria Lehman, Esther Augsburger, Sam Strong, and Vivian Beachy. In 1977, Sam hired Ernest Martin to develop the academic program at the school. Knowing little about academics, Sam acknowledges that “Ernie saved my hide,” by establishing increased trust and reputation in the community for curriculum at the high school.
In the fifteen-year process of creating an independent high school, Dorothy Shank ably chaired the EMHS Board, 1974-1981. In an era when few women served as leaders in the Mennonite church, Dorothy prayed about the decision, and then said she would help the school as the first woman chair of the Board. It was Dorothy, in an interview, who stated that we all stand on someone else’s shoulders and that it is important to recognize God’s faithfulness in launching a strong and independent EMHS in the 1970s.
Eastern Mennonite School began as a high school in 1917, but it soon added junior college classes. When the junior college grew into a four-year program and earned accreditation in 1947, it created an identity problem for the high school. By the early 1960s, with enrollment growth in the college, visionaries in Virginia Mennonite Conference got busy and built a separate building for the high school in Park View, first used in 1964. Over Christmas break in 1963-1964, students and teachers picked up books from the college library and moved them to the new high school campus nearby on Parkwood Drive.
A few years after the high school moved into its new building, the EMC Board wanted the high school division to support itself, and according to the college’s business office, EMHS was operating at a deficit. In 1967, according to EMC accounting methods, the high school deficit was over $69,000. The Executive Committee of the EMC Trustees, which presided over the high school, asked the high school to balance its budget within five years. With Sam Weaver at the helm of the high school, the school reached a balanced budget by 1973. While Sam was the Principal, he gives credit to people like Daniel Bender, Dwight Wyse, Shirley J. Yoder, and Glendon Blosser for helping to set the financial ship of the school in good standing.
The years of Sam Weaver’s leadership at EMHS, 1969-1981, were tumultuous years in the United States, with the Vietnam War, an era of rebellion and protest for youth, and rising inflation driven by rising oil prices. Still, students kept coming to EMHS, from as far away as Pigeon, Michigan, Sarasota, Florida, the Tidewater region of Virginia, and northeast Ohio. By 1977 the high school had 277 students, with a waiting list. Sam’s Christian education philosophy relies on ownership of a student’s education from the home, the church, and the Christian school. Students tested Sam’s leadership, to be sure, but the school grew in many ways and earned its charter in 1982.
Dorothy Shank remembers that during her tenure as Board Chair in the late 1970s she worried when good teachers left EMHS for other positions. She prayed God would send the school good replacement teachers. She especially worried when Marvin Miller, an outstanding music teacher, 1966-1981, left EMHS. “But,” Dorothy rejoiced in the interview, “God brought in Jay Hartzler,” another exceptional music teacher.
In a 2019 interview with Sam Weaver and Dorothy Shank, they noted the excellent support for the high school from Virginia Mennonite Conference churches in the 1970s. Sam visited Districts and churches and encouraged support. Consequently, churches in Virginia Conference stepped up and supported their high school, through a Congregational Aid Plan formulated by Glendon Blosser. Sam notes the way Conference Districts sent delegates to the Board meetings, like Robert Mast from Chesapeake, Va., and Ike Oberholtzer from Newport News. In return, the EMHS Touring Choir began a spring circuit of singing in many of the supporting churches, leading them in worship and song.
Programs and buildings seemed to spring up in the 1970s, attracting many students to attend. The school built a new fine arts addition in 1972, and while Dorothy Shank served as Board Chair, the school added a gymnasium, finished in 1976. In Park School, a former public school located next door to the high school that EMHS used as early as the 1960s, the high school set up an Industrial Arts program and Art program. The college set aside rooms for high school students in Maplewood dorm, and to the present has not charged for the use of Lehman Auditorium for the annual high school graduation.
Dorothy Shank remembers that the tone of moving toward separation was tense at times, but by 1982 the two schools went different directions on amicable terms. And Sam Weaver, the balding principal who established the financial and church-based foundations for the school, decided it was time for him to move on. In 2019, an EMHS faculty member publicly recognized Sam at the annual National Honor Society Induction, when his granddaughter, Julie Weaver, joined the society. As Principal during the 1970s, Sam had signed all of the Honor Society documents.
It is not by our power, as Dorothy asserted, but by God’s grace and faithfulness, that EMHS moved toward independence from the college in the 1970s. There had been those at the college who entertained ideas on what to do with the building should the program be discontinued. With good leadership, EMHS became a viable church school, a process that began in the 1960s and culminated with a charter in 1982.
In God’s mercy, when I crashed on my bicycle, I fell away from the busy highway and into the guard rail. On a Saturday ride for exercise, March 30, 2019, I fell and broke three ribs, bruised a lung, and suffered a dozen cuts and bruises, but God spared my life. New rumble strips on a familiar road surprised me and took me down within seconds.
In God’s mercy, the two cars following right behind me both stopped. One woman whom I didn’t know laid hands on me and prayed aloud, while the other called 911. Within a minute, a sheriff stopped and kept me propped between the steel guardrail and his leg to prevent me from falling or collapsing into the four-lane highway.
In God’s mercy, a former student served as my nurse in the ER and a doctor whose children I teach reassured me but said it would be 4-6 weeks until I healed. My ER doc, a very recent medical school grad, thought she saw 7-8 broken ribs and a punctured lung, and with too much trauma for the local hospital to handle, she sent me by ambulance to UVA Hospital.
In God’s mercy, I received excellent care in Charlottesville, Va., though on a Saturday night, with the University of Virginia in a March Madness basketball game, and patients in the ER in much worse shape than me, I waited. Eighteen difficult hours after the accident, alone in my room, I stopped the young doc who came on her 8:00 AM shift. I asked for answers and clarity on my injuries. She halted her usual routine and talked to me, showing me broken ribs, #6, #8, and #9. I had a bruised lung, she reported, not a punctured lung. In a revelation of how small the world is, I discovered that my remarkably skilled first-year resident doc is an older sister to one of my World History students at EMHS.
In God’s mercy, my wife, family, and close church friends have taken great care of me. I’ve been through intense pain and night-time discouragement about how I landed in such a helpless predicament. Bones heal, however, and in God’s miraculous mercy, internal pain slowly subsides.
In God’s mercy, students came to visit me in my living room. From my sofa, they extended kind words, laughter, and a song that I shall never forget—their presence, like that of angels, encouraged me to get well so I could return to my classroom. In God’s mercy, I work at a school with supportive administrators and colleagues who care about me. Many people rallied around me in my time of need — these gifts I acknowledge as flowing from God’s abundant mercy. Seven weeks later, in God’s mercy, I am mostly healed and back to regular work patterns.
I like Abram’s response when God offered him a covenant (Genesis 15:1-18). Abram’s fear and questions grew into faith and led to an elaborate sacrifice. Abram’s openness to the promptings of God demonstrates how to live into our Lenten journeys. I had a God appearance years ago in the holy land, though not nearly as dramatic as Abram’s theophany.
As a young man, I volunteered for four weeks of work at Nazareth Hospital. I had dropped out of college after my freshman year, and three Mennonite buddies and I traveled for six months throughout the Middle East and Europe. We were on our own with almost no communication home for the entire time.
One Sunday afternoon at Nazareth Hospital, we Mennonite guys, five British fellows, and four Arab nurses took a walk to see Mt. Tabor, the traditional site of the Transfiguration. Young men from the local community confronted us and did not like seeing single Brits and Americans escorting Arab female nurses on a long walk. It stirred my anger, and though we got through that uncomfortable event without incident, it took all of my restraint and nonresistance teachings to refrain from pushing back.
I experienced Holy Spirit transformation while working at the international Nazareth Hospital, visiting Mennonite missionaries in Israel, taking a trip into the Sinai, and camping along the Red Sea. I had been seeking God’s leading in my life, uncertain that I would ever reenroll in my Mennonite college back home. In the womb of supportive Christian leaders in Israel, travels around the country, and a revelation I received while camping on the sands of the Red Sea coast, I was transformed. That revelation of faith pointed me back toward Virginia to finish college, which I did.
This year, a day before Ash Wednesday, a student asked me if I had considered giving up anything for Lent. I hadn’t, though, by that evening, I sensed an inner nudge to give up recorded music. Giving up my music is a big deal. I listen to music in my study when I research, write, and grade papers. I turn on the radio in my Jeep when I drive around town, and I listen to favorite tunes when I exercise. I’ve given up recorded music for Lent, though not live music; my life has suddenly turned much quieter and more reflective. It’s through a new lens that I read the gospel narrative describing how the devil tempted Jesus for forty days in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-2).
To respond to the promptings of faith, I think, means accepting change, remaining open to new ideas, living into creative possibilities, and taking untraveled paths. It’s exciting to stay open to the promptings of faith, to see what new roads lie ahead, and to receive grace-filled blessings, like God’s covenant offered to Abram so many years ago.
The Mennonite Lent Reflection https://themennonite.org/lent-promptings-faith/
On January 1, for the past 117 years, singers from all around come to sing from Joseph Funk’s Harmonia Sacra songbook. On New Year’s day 2019, 360 singers came from six states and Ontario, Canada (see my photo above). We sang twenty-nine songs, led by over a dozen song leaders. Each song was announced in the Legacy Edition of Harmonia Sacra, and the number was announced in the wide-format book.
The Mennonites at this singing came from all kinds of conferences and churches. The three things we can do together across Mennonite boundaries in the Shenandoah Valley include the annual relief sale, working together in disaster relief, and singing together from the 19th century Harmonia Sacra. One can attend a Harmonia Sacra singing once a month in the Shenandoah Valley, they are that popular. Song leaders on January 1 2019 were progressives, leaders in MC USA, and men with plain coats, from the Old Order community in Dayton. In recent years, buggies have been tied outside the church for the singing at Weavers Mennonite Church, west of Harrisonburg.
Why will I go again next year? Because it brings hundreds of Mennonite singers together from among the fifteen or more varieties of Anabaptists in the area. Second, because folks come from great distances, including other states, to celebrate faith through song. I met a woman from Kentucky whom I had only corresponded with by e-mail previously. Third, I’ll go again because my faith is nurtured and bolstered when singers all around joyously proclaim faith through the wonderful art of four-part singing. Fourth, I’ll go again because in our last song, “Fair Haven,” we expressed that in Jesus Christ our faith is one. Perhaps this annual singing, around me whom were basses who made the benches resonate with their low notes, represents a foretaste of heaven itself. At the end of “Fair Haven,” we expressed in music, that “we all shall meet in heaven.” It will be fun when Joseph Funk himself can lead a Harmonia Sacra singing on the other side. I hope to be there for that one too.
Like the shepherds, I’ve had angels visit me. Unlike the startling heavenly hosts in Luke’s gospel, however, I’ve felt the presence of angels in the harmonies of great songs. One that stands out is called “Angel Band” and this song has helped me through difficult times, but it has also sparked moments of sheer joy and delight.
First story: In my classroom at school, students come after lunch every Thursday to sing gospel bluegrass music. The joy in performing time-tested and well-known gospel songs with my students has enlivened my classroom.
There’s no credit for students to attend, no requirements, and no tryouts. They just show up and sing or bring a mandolin, guitar, banjo, upright bass, or violin. For a dozen years I’ve done this. We sing old gospel songs, over and over, and they light up, relishing the chance to sing or play a break on their instrument.
Just about every week my angel band will sing the old favorite, “My latest sun is sinking fast.” I look forward to this high point in my week and it thrills my soul with great joy when students sing and perform. Our little angel band is unpolished and does not compare with the fine music performed elsewhere on our Mennonite high school campus, but for the weekly angel band of singers in my classroom, it lifts me near to heaven.
In the third verse, there’s a humorous but haunting phrase when the song writer heard the “noise of wings.” My mother taught me to listen for the noise of wings, to look for angelic visits, and not to discount the odd or extraordinary ways that God meets us through angels. The kids who sing in my room each week bring me deep joy. I have my dear mother to thank for helping me see angelic visitors, right in front of me, every Thursday at the end of lunch.
Second story: A few years ago a young leader in Harrisonburg passed away. In his prime, a great musician, and involved in a number of kingdom enterprises, our community mourned his early death. I took off school to attend his mid-day memorial service at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg.
The Angel Band song brought tears to my eyes and caused me to weep. Performed by outstanding musicians, I will never forget that moment of being drawn into an angel band of mourners and musicians, all attempting to make sense of a death that we found hard to comprehend. Deep joy trickled into my soul amidst great loss, borne on the wings of an old traditional song with simple lyrics. In that moment of loss, an angel band of great musicians with lilting harmonies bore me away on snow white wings, helping release the grief so deeply embedded in my soul.
Third story: On October 21, 2018, my congregation held a Sunday morning worship service to embrace our grief and loss. In the past fourteen months six adults have passed away. We’re not a large congregation, and these deaths have impacted us. One of those, my father-in-law, passed away seven months ago, and to help me cope with his loss, I chose Angel Band as the offertory song. At his funeral, his sixteen young adult grandchildren sang Angel Band.
During our recent service on grief and loss, I may have learned how the shepherds felt when they were “sore afraid.” It was at the end of the second verse of Praise the lord, sing hallelujah, that I forgot whether we’d sung the last verse. The refrain is long and I had been working on dynamics and tempo, and the congregation followed my directing. Enraptured by the soaring sopranos and the strong bass lines, in the last two measures I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t remember if we had sung the last verse. With my directing arm raised and poised, everyone stopped. Embarrassed, I had to ask, “Have we sung the last verse?” With smiles and shaking heads, they made it clear that we had another verse to sing. I have a new affinity for the terrified shepherds.
Leading music at church gives me great joy, in spite of my mistakes and foibles. Usually I am surrounded by excellent musicians who cover my average musical skills. I am grateful for the weekly “angel band” at church who enter in with joyful songs, ready smiles, and sincere affirmations.
Join me, during this holiday season, to look for angel bands all around. They are not mysterious, ephemeral, or ghost-like. Angels are those in your world who sing heartily, laugh and listen to you, or who help you deal with the loss of a loved one. Heavenly visitors are near if we can see them, just like the shepherds who saw some sort of an angel band so very long ago.
On November 7, 2018, I became the Apostle Paul for a day at Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg, Va., where I work. While working with a team of history teachers, History Day began five years ago at my initiative. Each year we choose a theme and implement the day-long concept for over 300 K-12 students. Our teachers and students get involved in a variety of ways. I met students on my trailer, parked behind my Jeep, in the school parking lot. We had a fire going in a pit, and we burned scrolls, like converts in Ephesus burned their magic scrolls in the first century, as described in Acts 19.
On History Day, November 2017, we celebrated a century of education at Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg, Virginia. We had a host of stations to help students understand 100 years of education. I played the role of Virginia Mennonite Bishop Lewis J. Heatwole, one of the key founders of Eastern Mennonite School in 1917.
History Day 2016 took place at Fort Seybert, West Virginia, where the theme was the French and Indian War era. My role was Thomas Jefferson. One of our history teachers has land where there’s an annual reenactment of the 1758 fort burning by the Indians. It’s part of the annual Treasure Mountain Festival. It was a day for our students and teachers to learn colonial American methods, crafts, and practices.
History Day 2015 at Eastern Mennonite School focused on the 1950s and ’60s in the United States. I sang in a Peter, Paul, and Mary band. My role for the day was Noel Paul Stookey. We played well known ’60s protest music like “If I had a hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The faculty helped for the day and our K-12 students learned, in an experiential way, about the ’50s and ’60s.
Our first History Day, October 31, 2014, helped students and teachers understand The Burning of the Shenandoah Valley 150 years earlier during the American Civil War. The Burning was a devastating event for Virginians in 1864, and our small school faculty and staff worked together to make it a history teaching event. I played the role of Union General Philip Sheridan, though the only officer’s outfit I could find to wear was Confederate gray.
Photos from Eastern Mennonite School archives.
At the end of the Virginia Mennonite Conference annual assembly, July 21, 2018, Assistant Moderator Kevin Gasser encouraged us to “stay together.” Spoken from his heart, unrehearsed, and on the spot in front of the delegates, Gasser, pastor of Staunton Mennonite Church, encouraged delegates to “please stay together.” These wise words of counsel from a relatively young Conference leader were much appreciated. Churches have left in the past, but here are my thoughts on why the Virginia Conference has had a reasonably good track record of staying together.
Historical Consciousness: There’s a deep sense of shared history. It’s been over 180 years since the first Conference met and kept minutes, but the first congregation, Trissels, is coming up on its bicentennial in 2022. At the very beginning, in the 1820s, Virginia Mennonites almost divided over whether meetinghouses should be built, and whether revivalist preaching would be allowed. There have been other times in the history of Virginia Conference when we almost split apart, but leaders stepped forward and urged unity, as did Pastor Kevin Gasser, when the Virginia Conference met at Calvary Community Church, Hampton, Va. It is remarkable that in these fractious and difficult times, the Conference is moving steadily ahead with a history book writing project, not even knowing where the Conference will be when the book is completed in 4-5 years.
Cordial Acceptance: Respect for elders has been a historic practice in Virginia Mennonite Conference. In deference to age and experience, older people were called “Aunt” or “Uncle.” Mennonites who have been a part of the Conference for generations accept those who move in from elsewhere, like myself, they seldom object to significant changes, and they roll up their sleeves and help, with little fanfare. The southern attitude of hospitality is a tangible cultural value held by many in the Virginia context, and combined with Christian virtues of love, respect, and understanding, they serve as part of the glue keeping Virginia Mennonite Conference together almost 200 years.
A Mission Board: A wise pastor in another conference of MC USA recently told me that Virginia Conference’s mission agency helps keep our churches together. This was not an overstatement. At our annual meetings, delegates are inspired with stories of mission activities. When times get tough, as they are now, we often find common interest and focus through outreach, service, and evangelism. Virginia Mennonite Missions is part of the Spirit glue that helps keep Virginia Conference churches together.
Good Leadership: In 1947, when difficult times in the Mennonite Church threatened to split the denomination apart, moderate Virginia Bishop Timothy Showalter was asked to preach a sermon at a tense gathering of ninety bishops and over three hundred ministers from across the United States. Showalter urged moderation, respect for those who were different, and cordiality toward others on the divisive nonconformity issues of his day. A stenographer likely copied the sermon and one of this historian’s prized finds was discovering a copy of Bishop Showalter’s sermon in the denominational archives. It felt like Kevin Gasser, outgoing Assistant Moderator, was channeling Bishop Showalter’s counsel to “please stay together.” Wise words indeed.