Category Archives: Religion

Give me The Roses While I Live

Soundlessly, the long bearded Amish man, hat in hand, clad in  dark clothes, closed the door behind cousin Joshua  and myself as we stepped into the small room where my deceased grandmother lay. Joshua and I looked at each other and stepped forward toward the freshly stained walnut coffin. Groszmommy, as we knew her, had died. She was gone. Into the shadowy hinterlands forever.

A torrent of feelings ripped through me. Isn’t it crazy how a lifetime can wash over you in one minute? In one second. Her and I had had a tumultuous relationship at best. My mind drifted.

 Suddenly it was 1992 and I was with some other little cousins at Groszmommy’s house. We were playing an innocent game , pretending we were driving trucks as all healthy little boys do. We would set up cardboard boxes in front of little chairs for car hoods, and hold round Tupperware lids while we roared in our little voices. “Brrmmmmm. Brmmmmm.” We were really going places. Or so we thought. Then Groszmommy came around the corner and things really went places. Mostly went south.

 “Boys,” she scolded with a raised voice, “that is wicked! You know you can’t do that. “Es macht der Herr böse!” (It makes God angry.) God does not want us to drive cars and you know that! All four of us dropped our steering wheels, mindless of the impending crashes that would happen. The youngest one began crying.

 I was only 4 years old, but I wasn’t going to let Groszmommy run over us like that. After all, I was practically a man. “Groszmommy, we can do it our home. My mom doesn’t care.”

 Silence fell. You just don’t talk back to Groszmommy. She advanced menacingly.  One step closer. And closer. Really? Four-year old Jason was going to talk back to her? She raised her voice and glared down at me with icy eyes. “Well, I don’t care. Its wrong and you are not doing it here.”

 I took one last stand. “You’re not my boss!” I yelled.

 Her eyes flashed and she made a lunge for me. My courage was exhausted. I turned tail and ran, with Groszmommy in hot pursuit. I needed a truck. A real one. To go faster. She followed only a few feet till timeless wisdom dictated she should take care of the other three rebels instead of chasing me. I ran as fast as my legs could take me to my mother, where I hid in her skirts, sobbing that Groszmommy was going to get me. My dear mother wiped my tears and calmed me down. I admire her so to this day for situations like this. She comforted me and helped me understand that while we were on Groszmommy’s turf we played by her rules. And she ruffled Groszmommy’s feathers without disrespecting her in front of me. That day a  cautious unspoken truce was formed. 

 I did not like Groszmommy. I endured her. I did not trust her. I tried to evade her as much as possible. And I was confident  she didn’t like me. We never engaged in friendly conversation. I didn’t have a single good memory of her or with her. But now Groszmommy had died. This truce was  broken only by her death.  A truce that was in place for 25 years. A quarter of a century. Never again could she hurt meAs I looked at her withered face lying serenely  in the coffin, my heart went out to her. Now this was a woman of faith. A woman who had given all for what she believed. She had been born and raised in a different Amish community and when she switched affiliations, her family shunned her. With her husband she pioneered a new Amish community. Hopes were high. But then Grandpa died young and she was left with about 15 children. She struggled valiantly and she won.

My mind went back through the years. I realized that every single time we went to her house I cringed. I remembered being at the awkward age of 14 when there was a gathering of all 40 of her grandchildren to sing for her one evening. Of the impassioned speech she gave at the end.

“My dear children, you must stay in this Amish church. We are God’s chosen people. You cannot go into the world. It is wrong.  You may be tempted to go to a different church, but remember that is the devil as an angel of light deceiving you. Now I wouldn’t want to judge, but people who are not in our church are wolves in sheep’s clothing. If you want to go to heaven, you must stay here. Don’t leave this community. Or you will burn in hell for all eternity. To forsake the church is condemnation. To even think of leaving this Amish church is sin. Now lets sing the hymn, “Sin Can Never Enter There.” I was torn. This teaching is all I had ever heard. And yet, all I wanted to do was to leave this community and see the world beyond. My desire is sin. I am condemned. There is no hope.

I remembered how the day before I left the Amish community forever, my parents asked me to go visit Groszmommy and tell her about my impending move. Now that was beyond hard. My dear and brave sister Regina went with me. Awkwardly, we entered her small house where she greeted us with warm handshakes and gushed on about how nice and thoughtful it was to come see our aged grandmother. We sat down and began visiting. We talked about the weather. Who got married. Who died. Who had a baby.  I cleared my throat. This was hard.

Groszmommy beat me to the punch, “Well Jason, this is so nice of you to come visit me. I have been wanting to talk to you. You know, it is that time of the year when young people can ask to be baptized into the church. Maybe you would like to? Oh, think of how happy your parents would be!” She said it with such hope. Such shining eyes.

Regina looked at the floor helplessly. I looked at the floor helplessly. Time stood still. I wished a hole would open up and I could drop in. I wished for wings. I for sure wished for a truck. A very fast truck. The old clock on the mantle ticked each second of eternity into the deathly quietness of the room. I wanted to scream. You could hear a pin drop. The sound of three people breathing. “Tick. Tock. Tick Tock.” Every second was like an hour.

Finally I looked up. I looked my grandmother square in the eye. “Groszmommy, I am leaving. Tomorrow I am moving to Pennsylvania. I am sorry for disappointing you.”  The silence became deafening. I felt pressure around my head, around my body as if I were a hundred meters under the sea. The silence was shattered only by Groszmommy’s helpless sobbing as she burst into tears. And did she ever cry. Now I really wanted to leave. Gradually her sobs subsided and she began talking. She reached for her worn German Bible.

“Jason,” said Groszmommy, ” I want to read to you from die Schrift. She opened her Bible to  Ephesians 6:2 and began reading, “Ihr Kinder, seid gehorsam euren Eltern in dem HERRN; denn das ist billig .Ehre Vater und Mutter; das ist das erste Gebot, das Verheißung hat, Auf daß dir’s wohl gehe, und du lange lebest auf Erden.”

Translation:  “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honor thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.”

She continued, “So as the Bible says you have to obey your parents. To do otherwise is not right. It is sin. Sinners can never enter heaven.” She looked at me triumphantly. She had won.

In a voice thick with emotion, humiliation, sadness, and anger I replied, “Groszmommy, I did not come here to discuss this. I came here only to tell you of my decision. It’s final. And I need to go now.” As she gripped my hand in a goodbye, her gaze alternated between icy anger at a crazy grandson and deep love while salty tears fell onto my hands in an eerie promise of widening the unspoken chasm between us.

I came back to the present. Cousin Joshua and I looked at each other. Large tears stood in his eyes. I felt my heart begin to soften. I knew this dear old lady loved me. But she didn’t know how to show it. How to bridge that gap. Now as she lay in front of me, my heart went out to her. I felt a love for her such as I never felt before. How foolish it was, the quarter century of distrust. And yet how completely unable were we to change anything. Then or now. Unbidden tears slipped out of my eyes. I looked at Joshua and in a tremulous voice I whispered,  ” I want to follow the good in her life and forget the bad.” With full eyes he nodded. And we wept together. We wept for her. For her miserable life. We wept for her hurts. We wept for the hurt we gave her. And we wept for a hope that she might be in a better place. Finally he whispered, “We should probably go out.” With a last look at Groszmommy we left the little room. But I left every piece of bitterness there. Every hurt was washed away. Forgiveness was in my heart. I gave her the roses when she died.

The funeral was large. About 800 people showed up to pay their last respects. A graveside service was held. With the large group of relatives, I  stood next to the open coffin and took a last look at her. Then it was sealed. Sealed forever. As the coffin was lowered into the ground the entire group began singing a German song:

Gute Nacht. Gute Nacht.                (Good night. Good night)

Nochmal sei dir Dank gebracht.   (Again, we bring you thanks.)

Und nun schlaf Ich ohne Sorgen. (And now I will sleep without worries.)

Ohne Furcht bis an den Morgen. (Without fear until the morning.)

Weil mein Vater ob mir wacht.    (While my father watches over me.)

Gute Nacht, Gute Nacht.                (Goodnight. Goodnight.)

I cried all through the song and wished with my whole heart that every word was true for her. It was such a beautiful way of letting go of her.


When the singing finished the officiating Amish preacher had a word of encouragement for the family. He told of her faithfulness, her selflessness and mentioned that her greatest sorrow in life was when her children and grandchildren left the faith. That was me. 800 people were present and in that moment I could feel all 1,600 eyes turn in my direction and bore right through me. But I didn’t mind.

As a final act of respect, I along with the other grandsons took my turn shoveling dirt into the grave. And I whispered ‘”Good bye Groszmommy. See you on the other side.”

Her last words to me had been simple. She asked ,”Jason, what are you going to tell God when you stand before him on Judgment Day and he asks you why you dishonored your parents by leaving the Amish?”

I replied, “I am going to tell Him I did the best I knew.”

She replied, “It won’t be enough.”

So today my dear Groszmommy, as you look down from the skies on high, I promise you that I will truly do the best I know, and under the blood of Jesus, that will be enough. I will make every attempt to live my life in such away that when I stand before God, you will poke the grandfather I never knew, the grandfather who died before I was born and whisper to angel Grandpa, “That’s our grandson! Can you believe it?”

And I also promise you that I will give the roses to those who are living. I will not wait till my friends die.


Honoring Your Parents

Last week I went to my home state of Kentucky to visit my parents for a few days. It’s been awhile since I ‘ve been there and I was really excited to be going again. With great anticipation I thought of seeing my parents. My brothers and sisters of which there are not a few. Eating fresh, juicy, crisp red watermelons in the fields, still cool from the night before.

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“Helping my brothers harvest those watermelons!”

I went. I did so many things. Played with my younger siblings. Washed dishes with my sisters (much to their embarrassment), grilled some great food, got up everyday at the crack of daybreak to harvest summer squash, and in a few days I was so stiff and sore I could hardly move. But it was amazing.

And Sunday came. I went with them to church. Tradition dictates that guys my age must all madly scramble to sit on the back row. I am not sure why. I am not always known to do exactly what everyone else does and this particular time was no different. I decided to sit beside my dad on the front row. So there I was, in my charcoal/pepper trousers that I had picked up in London with a lightly plaid shirt that screamed bloody murder in the middle of somber, subdued solid colors, sharing the old German hymnbook with my dad, slowly chanting a 17th century tune that sounded more like shrieks and moans from the purgatory hinterlands  than a joyful noise.  But that’s okay. As I was sitting there my thoughts went back to how I used to do anything possible to avoid spending time with my dad. How it has changed so much. How today I chose to sit beside him, breaking all cultural norms, because I admire and respect him. How I felt from him that he was proud to have his worldly-wise son sitting on the front row with him.

My thoughts went back to ten years ago when I was debating about leaving the Amish culture. Would it be worth losing everything I ever knew for a life of uncertainty? My good friend Amos was very much on the same journey that I was. He felt God calling him into something different. We had many hours of late night talks. Talks of what we think God might have for us. Dreams of what we want to do.

But time went on. Eventually we had to make a choice.  There was endless pressure from our parents to just give up; do what everyone else does; just join the church. And I tried. I actually gave up and decided I would just join the church. But I couldn’t do it. In a powerful move of redemption God showed me I must leave. Read that story of My Ever Restless

I moved ahead with my plans. My parents were heartbroken. So was I. If you are not a calloused person… well then, it’s really hard to break the hearts and shatter the dreams of your parent. It’s rough. It makes a person feel so small and so mean.We aren’t made to feel small and mean either.

I left. Amos did not. I betrayed the trust my parents placed in me. They grieved. The community sent them sympathy cards. They were forced to accept several years of intensive counselling from foggy minded bishops for their failure in raising a son. Amos was patted on the back. He was a hero. He was well liked. He stood on the end of the broad way and looked down the road longingly. But he turned around. They said it was bravery. I said it was cowardice.

But the THING is, Amos betrayed himself when he turned around. I embraced myself when I left. Amos turned his back on what he knew in his heart was good for what he his mind told him is good. I turned my back on what my mind told me was good to follow what my heart knew was good. And the problem is that both Amos and I have to live with ourselves the rest of our lives. And we must love ourselves. For if I don’t love myself I can never love another person from the heart. I have not done nearly everything right. But I followed God then, and I follow God now to the best of my knowledge. It has set me free. Amos is still frustrated with his choice which has led him to hate himself. And you just can’t love yourself, your surroundings, the people around you or anything, for that matter when you despise yourself. Don’t try it. Just believe me.

Now to our parents. My choice in honoring God and myself has allowed me to reach forward and rebuild the relationship with my parents. Amos’ choice of honoring his parents over God has left him feeling like his parents robbed him of something. And they did. They demanded his integrity and his soul. He gave it to them. He still holds that against them. He cannot forgive them for this.Even though he was briefly celebrated for his wise choice he developed a deep dislike for his parents and moved out. Because I am free, I reach out to my parents. I enjoy spending time with them. My dad and I are better friends than we have ever been.

The Bible says that if we lose our family for Jesus’ sake it will be restored to us a hundred fold. I feel like I am seeing this today. Amos is not. I hear when  family gatherings are created he tries to be busy elsewhere, unless he just can’t get out of it then he will show up for a bit.

My good and wise friend Leroy said, ”I believe that the highest honor I can bring to my dad is to live my life in such a way that when I stand in front of the judgement seat of God and my dad is in the background watching, he will tap his neighbor and say,’That’s my son. Did you know that? That’s my son!’

I am more convinced than ever that the best way we can possibly honor our parents is to whole-heartedly follow God’s path for our lives. Whether that is with them or somewhere else is for each individual to hear from God.

How could this happen? Because God is gracious. Because my parents truly are good people. And yes, because of the choices I made. I pondered this on my 12 hour drive home. I was overcome with thankfulness. I shed some tears and whispered, “You are good.”

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Killing Marie’s Dreams

I want to tell you the story of Marie. It’s been burning on my heart for a few weeks now. Sometimes it just makes me so mad. And in other moments just sad. You see, there are some things I hate with a passion. I hate when people are taken advantage of. I hate when innocent young lives have their hopes and dreams stolen for no reason.

I met Marie for the first time when she was 6 years old and I was 13. She had huge, sparkling, brown eyes that twinkled with mirth and abandon from the pure joy of being alive and chasing yellow winged butterflies through pungent green alfalfa fields. From  innocence. From being loved.

Time went on as it usually does. About 15 years later Marie’s eyes are dead, mirthless and chilling. She moves slowly even though she is still young. She is the spitting image of a walking dead person. It just kills me. Let me tell you why. But first I want you to know that this story is 100% true.  I scrambled some details to hide her identity.

It was a hot muggy August day in southern Kentucky. The Amish community was abuzz. A new family was moving in . The Ephraim Yoder family had been part of an Amish community in a northern state, but Ephraim  felt like his family would benefit from a more traditional lifestyle and so they moved to Kentucky. Several moving trucks brought the family and their belongings. Neighbors got together and unloaded the severe looking utensils, furniture and machinery they brought along, while other men unloaded draft horses, cows, and crates of chickens. The did not need to unload the kids though. And the second oldest daughter Marie lost no time in getting acquainted with her new neighbors and farm.

That was it. Ephraim Yoders were officially part of the community. Ephraim was stalwart. He was traditional. He was well liked. He knew dutch better than anyone else. The bishop loved him. He had lots of kids and they fitted in well. Except for Marie. She got into so much trouble. The poor school teacher had his hands too full. Marie did not run with the bad crowd. She was the bad crowd. She was the ringleader of clean mischief and youthful fun. Her somber-faced teacher plucked out most of the wispy golden beard he had managed to accumulate in sheer perplexity.

Then Marie was old enough to go to the singings and start running around. When the other girls her age were baptized into the church at the age of 17 and 18 she couldn’t make herself follow suit. In her heart she harbored a secret dream of leaving this life style and seeing the world. She dreamed of something greater but she guarded this dream carefully.

Year after year her concerned parent begged and wept, pleading with her to join the church. Older, self-righteous cousins and friends scorned her, chided her, and humiliated her in futile attempts to make her join the church. The bishop, the preachers, the deacons and their wives all had to take their turns in an attempt to break this strong-willed young woman. But they couldn’t.

After four years of pressure, four years of brain washing, four years of mental torture, four years of being told she is hell bound, she finally broke down. She agreed to attend the instruction class, after which she would be baptized into the church. Week after week she was forced to sit with other scared young people while the revered bishops repeated meaningless jargon in a language none of them understood. But Marie’s time had not yet come. Her mischievousness had not escaped the bitter memory of church members and as tradition dictates, members are allowed to give a dissenting vote towards receiving any candidates for church membership. In a back-handed manner, a sniveling member gave a dissenting vote. Marie was devastated. She had sacrificed everything she ever dreamed or hoped of to appease the Amish community, which promptly rejected her.

Marie was down for a while. She had a really hard time engaging her neighbors and community members because she felt like they betrayed her. She was quiet. Her eyes had begun to lose some of their light. But a quiet confidence stole back into her heart. God began speaking to her and loving on her. She began to feel like a person again. In her heart she resolved to run from this group of people and start a new life somewhere else. From a friend of a friend she obtained the phone number of a Mennonite lady far away and in the dead of night she stole away to an unoccupied building and made a desperate phone call. Yes, the Mennonite lady said. Just come. We will take care of you, even though we don’t know you.

Contrary to what every one always said, Marie was a respectable girl. Unlike some young people she could not bring herself to disappear unexpectedly. She informed her parents of her plans, and when they saw that they could not change the mind of their strong-willed stubborn daughter they hitched the horse to the carriage and made a flying trip to the bishop’s house. Weeping uncontrollably at the prospect of the eternal demise of his daughter, Ephraim explained the predicament. His 21-year-old daughter has determined to run away, and in a hushed voice racked with sobs he said, ” and we think she will.”

The community rallied in support of faithful Ephraim. Marie was locked in a house and was not left alone for one second. Beginning immediately, older members from the community sat with her from the crack of dawn to past dark, remonstrating, chiding, shouting, scolding, scoffing, belittling, telling her of the awful wrath of God she will incur if she leaves. Telling her she will burn in hell forever. Telling her she is killing her parents. Reminding her that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft and therefore she is a witch. A servant of Satan. Marie just laughed. But the tyranny and the dastard verbal abuse continued. The second day, the third day, and by the fourth day she was desperately tired. A thousand demonic voices shrieked in her head and each one said something slightly different.

The fifth day dawned bright and clear. Promptly at the 7:00 AM preacher Moses and his wide Martha showed up and began the day by tearing apart this beautiful girl. After several hours they were relieved when another older couple took over. Towards evening Marie was in agony. Her head was spinning. She had no idea what was true and what was a lie. All the things she had believed seemed so distant. She wasn’t even sure that God existed anymore. All she knew was darkness. Complete, utter, hopeless, bone chilling darkess. After 5 days of being locked in a house and having each thought and feeling shredded, she caved. What ever you want, she finally said.

The community was relieved. Yet another person was saved. They lost no time baptizing her into the church so that the thought of deserting may ever be far from her.

But it’s not good. The light in Marie’s eyes just died. And it’s the saddest thing in the world. There is no life. There is no hope. There are no dreams. I believe that the cruelest thing you can do to a person is to steal their dreams. And this Amish community ,in a systematic approach, dismantled and buried her dreams one agonizing detail at a time while she watched in horror-stricken silence, too dead to even mourn the loss.

I will stop there. There really isn’t more to say. But please, would you whisper a prayer for Marie? A prayer that she may find life? And not just her. For the many Maries that are hopelessly stuck in this culture. If you know a Marie, tell her something nice. Make her feel valued. Let her know there is life, there is hope, there is reason to dream.Thank you.

***I should add, that while this is a true story, there are many Amish communities that will not operate in this manner. And even within this particular community there are many good people.***

When You Just Can’t Go On

We have so much emphasis on being strong. And it’s something I pursue passionately. I intend to pursue it the rest of my life. I have chosen to be intentional with strength to myself and those who God placed in my life in any facet. Sometimes strength is saying “I am weak.”

Recently I came to a place where I had been fighting so many hard battles on different fronts that I was completely exhausted. (I still am, for that matter.) I felt like I had been on the battle field, dealt a mortal wound and was just laying there under the hot sun with shelling still ringing in my ears, waiting to expire. A very kind friend took the time to talk to me, and it changed my life.

He asked whether I had the energy to pursue God, and I said I didn’t. I was so exhausted that I literally didn’t have the energy or even the desire to pursue God. And I feel like that was the first time this has happened to me. Certainly the first time I verbalized it. I didn’t really know what it meant either. How to proceed from this point. Does this mean that I am no longer a follower of God? He advised me to ask God to pursue me. So I did.

And here is what happened. I just told God that I was so tired I didn’t have the strength or energy to pursue him. If this relationship is going to work, He would have to pursue me or give me strength to pursue him. And He did. Almost immediately I noticed a calming of battle forces, a soothing healing to the heart and in the weeks since then just a deep euphoric feeling of  being carried in the arms of God while I heal and prepare to face life and the enemy again-head on.

I am profoundly grateful for a God that cares so deeply. I mean, obviously He does with the story of redemption, but this was an entirely new field of care for me. On the very heels of this experience I have had the privilege of going deep into the remote Arctic circle and camping  under the midnight sun. To see some of the most stunning and imaginative pieces of God’s creation. It has restored the feeling of love and sonship to a new level.

I put this story out there because I want everyone to know that if you ever get to the point of being worn out, don’t despair. Just be honest with God, tell him where you are at. I think we under estimate what honesty with God will do. Let’s be real, He knows it already anyway. He will meet you there and carry you if you allow him to.

“The midnight sun on the Norwegian border.”

The Vicious Circle of Life

I want to tell you a story. It’s about Moses and Samuel and Peter and Enos. These four men all lived in a thriving Amish community in western Ohio. It is a very tight knit community where everyone loves everyone. Indeed, it is like a great big family. It is truly beautiful.

But look past the story. Do you see how it is when we all look to each other for affirmation? Do you see the emptiness of following our peers? Have you noticed how we all wait on the next step in life to make us happy? Have you ever thought that those whose example we follow may not be who we think they are? My challenge to each of you is, stop it. Be yourself. Find happiness and contentment now, because time certainly won’t bring it. It is my experience and belief that this can be found in an incredibly deep way in the Creator. Yes, I chose to put this story in the setting of an Amish community. But it happens everywhere. Do these things really happen? Yes, they can and they do. Emma is my classmate.

“Please note that while this is a subject that lays very closely to my heart many of these words are entirely satirical. If you do not know what this word means you may check the dictionary before commenting.”

Moses is 18. He is in the prime of his life. The muscles on his arms…well they look more like stovepipes, you know? Everybody loves him. Especially the girls. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons they will gather in corners giggling and arguing about who they think Moses likes. Of course, they get it all wrong. He is at the point in life where he has to decide if he wants to stay Amish or not. His dad Aaron, thinks he should. But Moses really does wonder how it would feel to drive a big diesel truck. Moses knows full well that if he leaves the Amish he will wind up in hell and that would positively be a bad thing, but lately he has begun doubting whether God is really that strict. It would be an awful shame to not have a bit of fun if you could squeak by with it. He looks at his neighbor Samuel. He can tell that Samuel is truly happy and loves being Amish. Samuel is obviously contented. Moses often thinks that if he got married like Samuel he would feel like a real man. He would feel like he fit in. A sense of belonging. Fulfillment.  And Peter. Moses just lives in awe of preacher Peter. Such a good man. He just makes you want to be Amish. And when he looks at Enos the bishop he feels the deepest reverence. Enos has fearlessly led this community of Amish along the proven and safe road of tradition for decades. Moses thinks Enos will have a special place in heaven.

Samuel is 28. When he was 22 he got married to the only girl he ever loved. Her name is Bertha and she wears round, wire-rimmed glasses. They have 4 cute little children. But he feels empty. He is not sure why. He felt that way when he was Moses’ age but he assumed that if he got married and settled down he would be fulfilled. He thinks maybe once he gets his own dairy farm he will be happier. Especially when Eli and Henner are old enough to help. So life goes on, as Samuel waits to become happy.

Peter is almost 50. He has worked hard all his life and is very successful. He has about a hundred acres of Buckeye soil and most of it he uses to grow grain and hay to feed to his thriving Black Angus herd. The cows are incredible. Their black hair shines like ebony. People say Peter polishes them but they know it’s not true. You can’t catch and polish over 200 beef cows every day. His wife Magdalena is sweet and portly and known clear over to the Indiana line for making the best meatloaf in the state, not to mention her shoo-fly pie tastes as good as what those Lancaster folks make. They have 9 children, the two oldest married, and they have three little cute-as-a-button grand-children. Peter was ordained as a minister five years ago. It’s widely whispered among the men that he will likely be the new bishop once old bishop Enos dies. But deep down Peter just feels so empty. He is a third cousin once removed to Moses and lives a quarter of a mile away as the crow flies. He admires Moses. He often hears Moses sing those sacred old German songs at the top of his lungs when they are both in the back 40. He feels like Moses has a depth and a grip on life that he himself doesn’t have. Samuel also lives in Peter’s church district and Bertha is Magdalena’s niece. Even Samuel, Peter just thinks he is so solid. After all, not once has Samuel had to make a church confession for breaking the rules. Peter’s face still turns red when he remembers all the confessions he had to make in his younger years. Excessive phone use. Hiring taxi drivers when it wasn’t necessary and he thought no one would find out. Trimming his beard. There was that time he drove an English neighbor’s truck. As the now deceased bishop Amos had told him, ”Be sure your sin will find you out.”  And when Peter looks at Enos, he is truly impressed. What a man. What a legacy. That man is obviously walking in the ways of the Lord and is perfectly contented. Peter is the preacher so he must lead by example and it wouldn’t do to show his doubts.  But there are times when he is preaching that the feeling of hypocrisy makes his throat so dry he almost chokes. Maybe it is old age that brings contentment. So Peter pulls down his hat, eats more meatloaf and re-doubles his effort.

Across the creek where Enos lives, times looks like it would go real slow. That’s because Enos goes real slow. He uses a cane these days but he gets around pretty good. He even whacks stray cats with his unvarnished oak cane whenever he gets a chance, never mind he fell in the barnyard last week when he did that. His wife Ella, fussed something awful at him for the way his overcoat looked but he was too embarrassed to say what happened so he made up a story about Harvey, (his son-in-law who took over the farm) having used his jacket to warm up a newly born calf from the muddy field next to the creek. But time goes real fast for Enos. It seems but a moment ago that he was Moses’ age. He still grins at times when he thinks of all the fun he had. He did his share of heroin. Some of the hangovers weren’t that fun. He had been seeing Ella for nearly a year but on the side he kept seeing an old flame Millie, from Holmes County. It was pretty easy to get around and he still misses his 1964 Pontiac GT. It was deep purple and had 325 horse power. It was in 1968 that he was forced to shape up. He had just come back from a night in Holmes County with Millie when Ella told him she was pregnant. Of course he had to sell his car, join the church and get married all in a month or two. He grieved the loss of Millie and the car deeply but he made the best of it. But the worst of it was a week after Ella and him were married, Millie contacted him to say she was pregnant. He told Ella he has to go to Holmes County on business where he was thankfully able to talk her into having an abortion.  He remembers thinking he would feel different when he was married. He would feel good. He would feel mature. He would feel Amish. That didn’t work. So he thought maybe when they have kids.  That didn’t work either.

There is one thing that Enos often wonders about. That would be his secret son Charles. When Enos Junior, their second son was born they hired a maid girl, Emma, from up in Geauga County to help them. Junior was rather sickly and spent weeks in the hospital while Ella faithfully took care of him there. Somehow Enos and Emma really hit it off and spent some nights together. He was glad Ella never caught on. But to his dying day he would never forget Emma’s white, horror-stricken face when she told him she was pregnant. He did his best to talk her into an abortion but she was done listening to him. She left and two weeks later he was relieved to hear that she had run away from home and taken a PanAm flight to London. Enos was blown away and often wondered how she managed that. Ella just couldn’t understand why such a sweet girl would forsake the faith and cried uncontrollably the day they received the news that she was excommunicated and shunned. It seemed like Ella felt they were to blame for Emma’s downfall so she always kept after her family for news. It was Ella that brought back the news that Emma had a son Charles. Later Ella brought the news that Emma got married to an Anglican pastor in London. And many years later that Charles got married, and that he was a professor in some for seminary, whatever that might be. Enos knew that Charles was his son. He wondered what Ella would say. Oh well, no point in telling her now.

After this Enos tried even harder to be a good person. He was so upright and traditional that he won respect far and wide. Becoming a preacher was hard to accept but he saw it as punishment from God to help atone for his sins. He thought it would bring peace and fulfillment. It didn’t. Being ordained a bishop didn’t help either. He loathes himself for it, but doesn’t know what to do. The system obviously works for Moses, and Samuel and Peter, so Enos keeps thinking he just isn’t trying hard enough. Sometimes he wonders if his sins were too great to forgive, but he can’t even say it out loud. But oh, what he wouldn’t give to be 18 again, or to find peace. Sometime when he has nothing else to do, he gets one of his sixty-two grand-sons to drive him over to the cemetery. He looks at the gray concrete markers of his relatives lying under the weeping pines and tries to imagine that he will be there in a few years. That’s when an icy grip clutches his heart so he can hardly breath. He is scared. He feels like he isn’t ready to face God but he just doesn’t know what to do. At night he has fitful dreams. He dreamed he was preaching and saying we are made of dust, when it began to rain. He was horrified to see that the rain completely disintegrated him and reduced him to a pile of fine dust as his hollow soul floated away. On winter days when he sits beside the fireplace sipping his scalding hot, flavorless coffee, and blowing clouds of smoke from his pipe to the white ceiling like Gandalf, he sheds a few tears. Ella thinks it’s because God is touching him. But it’s really just because he is so frustrated with life. He spent his whole life waiting to feel happy and as his steps slow he has this sinking feeling that he will never find it. But he has hope. He always felt like getting to heaven was sort of like shooting a deer when he was hunting. You take a shot. You hit or miss. He hopes that by luck he will hit those pearly gates. Sometimes he thinks of Ella’s second cousin’s nephew Jonas who claims that he knows he will go to heaven. Right up and claimed he met Jesus and talks with him every day. Then he started going to the Baptist church. That’s proof that he doesn’t even know about Jesus. Then Enos prays in German for the lost soul of Jonas. It makes Enos feel a bit better. Enos is a broken old man on the inside, waiting for death. But you would never guess.

Will you become like Enos?

It Is Well With My Soul

Its been about 140 years since Horatio Spafford penned the words to this old and much-loved hymn. For years it’s been a favorite song of mine. Do we know what this guy went through? He was financially ruined in 1871 by the Great Chicago Fire. Several years later him and his wife and four daughters decided to take a trip to Europe. Last minute he had to stay back and the ship sank. He lost his four daughters. Then they had another son and he died at the age of four. Their Presbyterian church regarded their tragedy as divine punishment. Horatio was a nineteenth century Job.

The other Sunday in church the worship leader picked this song. I connect deeply with it. It is one of those songs that brings the presence of God into my deepest soul. With arms outstretched and foot tapping to the beat I was singing “Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say, It is well,it is well with my soul.” At the most emotional moment a voice whispered to me. It was a voice unpleasant and dark. A voice condemning. A voice that I do not listen to. The voice of darkness. The voice sneered and said,”So you say. What if you actually had trouble in your life? What if you lost a loved one? What if your fondest dreams were crushed?”

It put me on a search as I explored my feelings and faith. Yes, I am enjoying life. The last few years have been an exceptional springtime of the soul. I have been happy. But my thoughts went back a bit further to those days of confusion and hurt. When there was not springtime in my soul. When it seemed like the very sun was setting in my soul.

When I was 21 years old I had to decide if I wanted to live in the comfort and happiness of my family and friends, or whether I would boldly follow God into the unknown. Into a world and culture I knew nothing about. It was a hard decision but I answered the call of God. I was deeply hurt at losing my family.But still I said, “It is well with my soul.”  Then God provided countless dear friends from all over the world that became like family. Just to show me that he cared. As if that weren’t enough, he restored the relationship with my family to a better place than I could have ever imagined.

Unfortunately I am no stranger to death either. A good friend of mine, Aaron, was shot multiple times and beaten beyond recognition. We had been friends for a long time. I thought he would always be in my life. But he wasn’t. Another friend was killed instantly in an accident. You just can’t get used to it. But each time I said,”It is well with my soul.”

But the time that it was really hard to say was when I lost my friend Daniel. You know how sometimes [they are rare] you meet a friend who just gets you? That was Daniel. He knew so much about me but just accepted me. We were best friends. And then one day he was gone. Never again would I see his smiling face, hear his bubbly, contagious laugh or sarcastic remarks. That was the end. And that was hard. I admit I questioned God for months. “Why,” I demanded to know.

But God didn’t say why. Instead he said,”The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Jason, can you bless my name? Still?”  Before I even answered he piled another question on the list. “My grace is enough Jason. Do you believe this? Do you? Come on, say it if you do!”

Sometimes it took me most of the day to say it. But every day for months God asked me these questions. And every day I struggled through them.  Every day, by the end of the day I would pause before God and say,”The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed  be your name. And yes God, your grace is enough.”  It is well with my soul.

So yes, I might be enjoying life. I don’t need a miserable existence and deep hurts to say it is well with my soul. In my deepest moments of need God showed me His grace was enough and he helped me to say it is well with my soul. And I know the same God who helped me valiantly at that moment will help me next time and I shall say “it is well with my soul.”

Voice of darkness go. You are not welcome here.

My Ever Restless Heart

I often meet curious people. I love curious people. I am a curious person.  And I am often asked where I come from when folks hear my accent. It’s quite obvious indeed that I am not a Lancaster native. Have you ever wondered where I come from? Or why on earth I chose to live in an ‘overcrowded’ place like Lancaster? Here is my story.

First I  want to give a  shout out to my parents. This was a very unpleasant experience for them. They did the absolute best they could. I am very proud of them, and today I appreciate them more than I ever have. I cannot begin to imagine how it would feel to spend 20 years teaching your son the Bible (as you perceive it), only to have him say,”I don’t believe you.” They have handled the situation incredibly well.  They are the best.

Second I should clarify one fact. I was raised in a unique community that is a hybrid between Amish and Mennonite. My heritage is 75% Amish, and 25% Mennonite. Based on this and the fact that this community has chosen to follow Amish values rather than Mennonite values I will call them Amish for simplification.

“At the age of 19. I am on the right. Stomping about at a mud sale.

Growing up Amish was a great experience. My parents were likely the most understanding and possibly most open-minded Amish in the faction in which I was born and raised.
My ancestors came from Switzerland in the eighteen hundreds, bringing with them a desire to be true Christians but hampered with generations of alcoholism, violence, and at times witchcraft. My dad was the first in generations to really stand up and take control of the situation. Instead of violence or even a bad  temper he was calm, and expressed regret and apologized when he became impatient.
The integrity of my dad cannot be questioned. Even though we completely disagree on the practical out workings of the Christian life, he taught me that you must know what you believe and stand strong on these beliefs despite time and current. He began a legacy of change and truthfulness that profoundly impresses me and which I am committed to continuing. He expected me to apply this wisdom within the boundaries set by the Amish church, however.
I was born and raised on a farm in south central Kentucky, where I began working in the garden and helping with the chores at age five, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the age of six I began attending the one room school-house where I learned English, in addition to Pennsylvania Dutch which we spoke around the house. My dad has a large vegetable farm,

“Picking summer squash with my sisters on a beautiful summer morning.”

so my summers were spent harvesting vegetables and fruits for practically as long as I can remember. In addition, we spent lots of time putting up hay and grains for the winter. As the oldest of nine siblings, there was always lots to do. Spare time was spent  fishing   in the farm pond, for trout in the stream or swimming in the creek. I had lots of cousins my own age, life was so much fun. Innocence and bliss reigned.
Slowly a dark cloud rose. My family attended a funeral of a relative in a neighboring county that was part of a slightly less conservative division of Amish. They had bicycles! Slowly, a forbidden thought formed in my mind. What if, just what if, it wasn’t actually sin to have a bicycle as I was taught? And I am living life without one? I began thinking that when I was all grown up, I might consider switching to that particular faction so I could experience the thrills of a bicycle. Of course I didn’t want to incur the wrath of God and everlasting damnation, but what if it wouldn’t? At the age of twelve I began pondering this and a seed of doubt was planted.
As I became older and reached the ages of 14-17 I thought of these doubts, but they were buried so deeply that I could barely even decipher them. I would never have dared to voice doubt about our lifestyle. All my life I had been taught that at about age 18 I would undoubtedly go through a church membership class and be baptized into the church. When I turned 18 a good friend of mine approached me awkwardly and said he is considering to go through this class and wondered if I would join him. I didn’t know why, but I knew I couldn’t. I refused, and pitied him as he sat in front of the church Sunday after Sunday while we all sat on backless benches in the squelching humid summer heat, clothes soaked with sweat, listening as the preachers with slow monotone voices expressed the displeasure of God on those who choose to turn their back on us , God’s sacred chosen people, and warning us to stay on the straight and narrow path of eschewing the conveniences and technology that the world has to offer. The candidates of the church membership class would read

“Picking blackberries with my youngest sister”

verses out of the large Luther German Bible with ancient script, scarcely comprehending what they might be reading, but realizing it was a most integral part of the journey toward earning the hope of salvation, while many in the congregation nodded and slept in the warm summer air.
I felt no regret at not being in the class. And as the time for the classes came each year I was invariably approached by the preachers, my parents, and friends who plead with me to stake my claim with the church so I too could have a chance at salvation. Each year the pleas became more intense, but I refused, saying I needed more time. Deep down, even though I barely recognized it, the real reason was that if I held out till the age of twenty-one without taking church membership, I would be free to leave. This was the age that an individual’s independence was recognized.
I became somewhat of a black sheep, but a strange one. I spent hours reading the Bible to arm myself with arguments on why the Amish church is wrong in its teachings, and therefore it would be right for me to leave. I was very unfulfilled and I knew it. I felt that perhaps if I left and did some great work for the Lord I would finally be happy. Alarmed at the heretical path I was taking, I was summoned to the houses of the preachers many evenings, where we talked many hours late at

“The bishop of the community.”

night in dimly lit back rooms arguing about scripture. While I was not a Christian and had bad motives, my arguments were quite sound, resulting in frustration with the preachers and an even emptier feeling inside myself as I drove my horse home across the dark countryside. The evening sessions usually ended with the preacher telling me,”You are just too young to understand.”
New doubts came to mind. One of my uncles had defected from the faith years before and had relocated far away. He was shunned and given the letter of excommunication which stated that the Amish church releases him from their oversight and recognizes him as a son of Satan and gives Satan the power to destroy him so that his spirit may be saved on the last day.
Occasionally my uncle would come back for a short visit which would always result in a family gathering. The rest of the family made sure that he experienced the shunning, requiring him to eat all his meals in a separate room. And yet, while visiting he was always talking about the Lord while the others told tall tales and joked. I pondered this deeply. ‘Why is the excommunicated sinner more godly than those people shunning him?”
Other events unfolding around me like unabashed dishonest leaders, unrepentant moral failures of upright church members all shook my confidence further. I was hanging onto my upbringing by only a thread.
As I was now well past the age of twenty, I along with everyone within the community realized I had to choose. I had to lay out a course for the rest of my life. I was scared and uncertain. How could I choose a path, not having any experience at all? I was admonished regularly by members from all walks of life within the community to give up my selfish ways, take membership, and to carefully consider the dire eternal consequences for those who abandoned the faith.
I spent months in inward agony, desperately trying to hear from God, haunted by terrifying evil spirits that could only be shaken by prayer and singing to God. I prayed, I spent hours reading the Bible, but it seemed that the harder I tried to find God, the further he disappeared from my life. My life still looked good on the outside, but inwardly I knew something was deeply wrong. I was beset with sins and found no victory. I was hollow. I was empty. I was fake. Only I knew this and carefully guarded this secret. I knew full well if I confided in anyone they would insist that church membership would solve all of the problems, a concept that I couldn’t bear to think of, because I didn’t believe it.

“Hay hauling. Hot sweaty work.”

After a week of intensely searching for God, a week filled with hard work in the hot muggy climate of southern Kentucky, I went along to the Sunday morning service like usual. I joined into the slow, mournful German chants from the sixteenth century, but after the singing was finished I rested my head on my hands and listened to the monotone admonitions with one ear. Something happened. I don’t know how or why, but the Spirit of God started speaking to me. This was not audible, nor did I leave the room in my spirit. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before.
It seemed as everything else faded from around me. I alone was left to face the Spirit. I was asked three questions, the first being whether I am a Christian, to which I responded with a confident, adamant yes. I was almost indignant actually. Me? Seriously? I was like the best Christian around! The next question was whether I would enter heaven if I were to die, to which I again gave a hearty assertion. Of course I would. The next question got me. It was simply one word, one small word. “Why ?”
I didn’t know why. I gulped and swallowed some stagnant air as I searched for an answer, but still I stalled. Time and eternity stood before me without moving. In desperation I lifted my head to focus on the preacher, but he had strayed from his usual exhortations of shunning electricity and other such sinful vices to speaking of staying on the narrow way, which I didn’t want to listen to with the conviction I was under. I didn’t have an answer that I liked so I finally said,”I don’t know.”
I was shocked. For the first time in twenty years I admitted to my self that I couldn’t think of a single reason that I should be allowed to enter heaven. With the strong teaching I’d had of the horrors of hell fire, I was terrified.
But God is good and always completely thorough and all-encompassing. Strangely, never having heard the plan of the new birth, it was revealed to me how Jesus had already died for me and that by accepting his death and perfect life, I would become blameless. Broken and shattered, with my last shred of self-righteousness gone, I gladly accepted this reality, knowing my life would be changed. And it was. Immediately my heart was flooded with peace. Deep peace, so deep there was no way to explain it and no reason for it. I felt so incredibly light, that I thought I may float away. , I didn’t know this was called the new birth. I just knew something mind-blowing from God had happened. Much to my chagrin, I realized I would need to announce that I had been wrong. No I hadn’t been a Christian. I would need to tell my parents of who I had been, what I had done. But that was fine. Suddenly I didn’t really care what people thought anymore.
My parents did not take it well. Indeed they agreed that I wasn’t a real Christian before, (obviously, I hadn’t become a church member which constitutes the new birth and Christianity as the community saw it.) They cautiously agreed that I may now be sincere and if I would take church membership that would be proof.
I recoiled at the thought of dedicating my entire life irrevocably to the Amish religion. Absolutely recoiled in utter horror. But the same Spirit that met me in my time of need asked me whether I am not willing to sacrifice my entire life for him after he gave everything for me. I wanted to say yes but it took awhile, and after I told God I was willing to stay I felt even more free and happy. I reached another level of peace that I didn’t know existed.
And then it became clear to me that God would not have me stay here. I came to realize that I would never be allowed to speak of how I was born again and it was literally the biggest thing that had ever happened to me. It was a test. Slowly, albeit, I had given up my one big dream, and now God was granting me the one thing I had always wished for. Except, no longer was it optional. I had to leave. As I was faced with this overwhelming new reality my heart actually sank. I didn’t know how. How else to live. To survive. I didn’t know if I could do this.
I spoke with my parents about where I was at and they were somewhat understanding even though they didn’t approve of my choices. I bought a bus pass to travel around America for 30 days and started visiting friends and looking for a new church.
I realized that I would no longer be able to live with my family. The community I was raised in would want nothing to do with me. In fact they wouldn’t even want me in the same state. As I traveled I thought about these things. I would lose all my friends. Should I get married someday none of my family would attend the wedding. I would not get to see my eight younger siblings grow up. They would never know why I left, always hearing whispers and rumors of what a heretical wicked person I was. I knew my parents would not appreciate the slander about me but they would be powerless to do anything about it. To speak up would be betrayal of their faith. Perhaps what hurt the most and actually angered me is that my parents would be hurt, looked down upon and deemed a failure because of the unfaithful son, while they lived with more integrity than those who will point fingers.
After traveling for a month and a half I returned to tell my parents that I decided to leave. I came to realize I have no future here. It was very hard for me to accept and they tried very hard to have me stay longer. But they also realized that if I don’t change my mind there is no reason for me to stay within the group.
I set a moving date several weeks out. Actually just a leaving date. I felt like I should give my parents and relatives ample time to confront my decision. And they did. Even though my imminent departure was a well guarded secret among the extended family, my relatives would come to speak with me. Strong, husky, stalwart uncles with long beards urged with me to stay in the fold while tears silently slipped down their cheeks, as they grieved the eternal demise of a once promising young man. Self righteous relatives became angry and scolded me. How dare you betray all of us? Cousins were deeply fascinated by the unabashed rebellion but warned me to stay and asked whether they can do anything to change my mind.
And then came the time I would last go to church. I gave each person an extra hearty handshake, knowing that this is the last day they would look at me as a normal human being. Tomorrow I would do the unthinkable. Tomorrow I would betray them and the friendly faces and twinkling eyes would be replaced with ostracizing glares and icy gazes. Tomorrow the entire village would be plunged into shock and with hushed whispers they would tell the horrifying tale of a young man who lost his way and went to serve the devil. With a feeling of deep sadness I sat with the other Amish people and allowed myself to listen to yet another sermon of the evils of telephones and cars, and sang with gusto the old familiar chanting tune knowing I would come to miss it eventually. As I left the church service for the last time, tears welled up in my eyes.
At home, everything was strained. My parents were grieving deeply and it was hard to act normal knowing it was I who was causing the grief. I told my older siblings of my move and they were sad, and just wanted to be with me, even though they didn’t say much. Sadness covered the house like a fog. My younger siblings did not know what was about to happen. I wanted to tell them, but I knew my parents had kept them in the dark in the hopes that I may change my mind yet.
But moving day arrived and reality could no longer be ignored. I told no one, but I had no idea how I would have the courage to walk out when the time came. I made plans but didn’t know if I would have the strength to carry them out. My younger siblings were informed that I was moving and they were shocked, asking many questions. I packed my few earthly belongings and then a local van driver came to take me to the nearest bus station. (Bless his heart if he reads this.) Eyes brimming with tears, I bid each member of my family goodbye and walked toward the cab. My legs felt like jelly. I did not know if I could even walk there, but I kept taking one step after the next. I couldn’t bear to look back. I tried to breathe normally and stay calm, but I just wanted to scream. I wanted to wake up and realize this is a dream. But I had a calling, I had a mission and I must follow that. I no longer belonged to myself. I kept repeating to myself that we must love nothing, not even our family more than God in this life. I made it into the cab, turned and took one last look and wave at my precious family who had gathered in front of the only home I had ever known to say good-bye to one of their own. Their faces were forlorn. So was mine.