Tag Archives: Faith

Nomad in a Train

I got up at 5 in the morning, packed my bags, ate some muesli with fresh raspberries and shouldered my bags. The morning air was crisp and the sun was threatening to break through the clouds. Daylight comes quite early here and it felt unusual to be walking the streets of Tromsø while it was entirely deserted.
I walked over to the bus stop that I needed to catch the #100 bus to Narvik. This bus was something between a city bus and a long distance bus. You could simply flag it down anywhere and get on, or wait at a designated stopping point. It had room underneath for my back pack, and a comfortable reclining seat to let me snooze for a bit yet. It was about a 4 hour ride with 158 designated stops before Narvik, the vast majority of which we did not stop at.
I wonder if the day will ever come that I am not in complete awe as I travel around Norway. It was the same story all over. Large, imposing, snow-capped mountains. Towering, bald-faced, rock cliffs that make a person cringe. Waterfalls cascading off these or crashing down through the mountains. Icy fjords reaching their fingers deep inland from the Arctic Ocean. Feverishly, I tried to take it all in.

"...perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle..."
                                                              “…perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle…”
"...perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle..."
                                                                 “…perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle…”

The ride down was quite uneventful. I was dropped off right in front of the Narvik train station where I had another two hours to wait. I went outside and sat at a picnic table in the warm morning sun where I made and ate a sandwich. Some of that delicious, freshly sliced Norwegian bread [my German friends snicker that I think Norwegian bread is good] that I buttered down with real butter, some spiced ham and Gulost cheese.
I boarded the train which was quite short and had only one car bound for Stockholm.

"...boarding the Arctic Circle train in Narvik..."
“…boarding the Arctic Circle train in Narvik…”

The rest of the train was going to Luleå which is about halfway down across Sweden. This was an amazing train ride. I thought what I saw this morning on the bus was incredible, but the view from the train was so much more. While the bus snaked around the bottom of the mountains, the train went right on up and boldly cut a path around these, precariously hanging to the side while we looped around mountain after mountain with fjords far below. I stood at the window with camera in one hand and Go-pro in the other.

'''..last glimpses of Narvik as the Arctic Circle train gets lost in the mountains...'''
                        ”..last glimpses of Narvik as the Arctic Circle train gets lost in the mountains…”
" the last arctic fjord sliding by as we went inland..."
                                          ” the last arctic fjord sliding by as we went inland…”

DSC07618 DSC07647
About an hour into the trip we got to the Norway-Sweden border high up in the mountains. Up here there are no crazy, heart-stopping, hair pin curves. Only tundra covered plateaus with rocky peaks and giant rock strewn about. It looks like a desperately cold and uninviting place in the winter. I cannot imagine how high the snow would pile. Because of the wind [and perhaps other reasons] there are miles of long wooden sheds on the top of the mountains that the train runs through. It is an electric train so there are wires strung along all the way, even through the sheds. I find it quite fascinating that the Swedes have this infrastructure so far north, and yet in the US we think that a train running from NYC to Toronto is so remote that we have to switch to diesel engines.

" ...a lake up on the plateau..."
                                                                            ” …a lake up on the plateau…”
"...small cottages way up on the mountains..."
                                                   “…small cottages way up on the mountains…”
"...train tunnels..."
                                                                     “…train tunnels…”

A lot of people got on at Kiruna. It is widely known and celebrated as one of the northern most posts of Sweden and I am genuinely surprised that people just believe it. Are they not aware that you could stay on the train another three hours? Interestingly however, practically every one of these dozens of people were wearing huge body back packs, hiking shoes and rain gear instead of the standard travel wear.
I would recommend anyone who comes to Narvik to take the train to at least Kiruna and back. The scenery is unbelievable. And it is so incredibly cheap. My ticket from Narvik Norway to Stockholm Sweden cost a paltry $42.80.
But we went on. Towards evening the tundra started fading away and gave room to evergreen trees. Relentlessly the train carried on sweeping me ever further south. I lost track of time. But at some point we stopped at Boden and the Stockholm car was disconnected and attached to a Stockholm bound train while the rest went on to Luleå. I had a table seat so reading and writing was pretty easy and no one sat beside me throughout the whole journey so in the evening I got out my inflatable pillow [what a life saver] and cramped myself into a short position on the double seat. I managed to sleep for about 6 hours.
In the morning I got a cup of coffee from the restaurant car. It cost 20 SEK which was reasonably cheap and I had my own creamer along. The coffee was strong and dark. So dark that it actually felt like it was a bit syrupy. Oh but the flavor. When it got to my lips I shivered and tingled with delight from head to toe.
I got into Stockholm a bit before lunch, and my train out wasn’t till evening. I was really excited to be in this great city for a day and promptly headed to my favorite cafe, Espresso House for some breakfast. I spent the day going to a few of my favorite places and then watching the sun slide down in the west and watching planes come down into Arlanda.

"...Stockholm at day..."
                                                                         “…Stockholm at day…”
"...Stockholm at night..."
                                                                   “…Stockholm at night…”

Around 11 that evening I walked back to Stockholm Central Station where I got on another train bound for Lund Sweden. I sat beside a pleasant young middle eastern guy and promptly fell asleep. When I woke up, he had moved across the aisle to sleep on a newly emptied double seat, so I laid down as well. I was rudely awakened at 6:30 by an announcement that we were arriving in Lund, so I had to get off. I waited a quick 10 minutes for the Copenhagen bound train to arrive and jumped on it.
I got my morning coffee here, and boarded a train for Hamburg Germany. I sat across from an interesting young man from Australia who was traveling for a year. We had great conversations and visited with the young Libyan who sat across the aisle. When the Libyan saw the conductor come he scuttled into the toilet where he would stay silent and well hidden till the conductor had passed along. He regaled us with tales of how über rich Libya is and how the money flowed. I guess when you have that much you want to hide in the toilet so you don’t have to pay the conductor!
My favorite part of the journey was when we got to the end of Denmark. Literally. I am glad we didn’t just drive off into the sea. Instead the entire train drove into the bottom of a ferry and all passengers got off. I went to the very top and spent the 45 minute ride feeling the salty ocean breeze blow through my hair. The train then drove off on the German side and went on to Hamburg.

"...crossing to Germany on a ferry..."
                                                       “…crossing to Germany on a ferry…”
"...aboard a DB Regional near the end..."
“…aboard a DB Regional near the end…”

I had a 45 minute layover in Hamburg and then I got the sleek red and white ICE1081 to Würzburg. Here I had a one hour layover and I caught a red regional train to Heilbronn. What a relief to be here. To have a shower. To wash my itching hair. Clean clothes. Ahhh. After all that was over 2000 miles of traveling through 4 countries for 3 days and 2 [miserable] nights.

I would be here for just a few days till I would continue. And let the train carry me eastward toward where the sun rises. Eastern Europe, are you ready?

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.

Bosnia…How I came to Love It [part 1]

I had stayed the night in a smelly, dingy hostel in Split, Croatia. There

Walking to the Zagreb train station.
Walking to the Zagreb train station.

was something about the smell in there that reminded a person of fresh compost, and it was also unusually warm for November, making it a miserable night. But morning came, as it has every day since the beginning of the world. I washed my face and walked the 30 minutes to the train station, looking for a train bound for Bosnia.IMG_2832

It was one of those normal old style trains that had numerous compartments in each car, each one having 6 seats, with an unbelievably small table on the end and a tiny trash can the size of a brass matchbox. There were about a dozen cars mostly of an Eskimo blue color with old diesel engines. I chose a seat and leaned back. I was profoundly excited to be going to Bosnia. I was also scared. I let my mind wander.

I thought back to 12 years earlier when I was a small Amish kid with long black hair and a tattered straw hat. I didn’t think I was so small then. It was a sunny fall day. I had just come back from the one room schoolhouse where I had already put up with six years of schooling. More than enough to know exactly everything I needed to know to make it through life. And then some. If I had my way, I wouldn’t spend another day in that room. I was busy picking red tomatoes when I heard the whining of an automobile coming down the road. The old red Isuzu pickup slowed down as it made a right hand turn into our gravel driveway, kicking up a cloud of dust before it skidded to a halt in front of the old water pump. I gazed in from the tomato field, curious who it might be. Then I doubled over laughing. The driver crawled across the seat, rolled down the passenger window, and stuck out his upper body. He stretched his hands toward the ground and slithered out like a snake. The show was over. I went back to work.

At the dinner table that evening, as we were all enjoying some of my mother’s fine southern-dutch cooking  while the conversation centered on the man who crawled out of his little truck head first. ” I guess he was an Arab?” I asked rhetorically. My dad paused, and a thoughtful expression illuminated his face. “No,” he replied, “the Arab  said he was a Bosnian.” We all furrowed our faces. Everyone tried to remember if they knew what that was. Finally someone voiced the unspoken question. “Whats the difference?” We all looked at Dad. He is wise. If any one knows, he would. But he shook his head. “I don’t know.” With our limited knowledge of the outside world, we called every foreigner an Arab.

The Bosnian came back. I met him. He started coming nearly every day. He would frequently bring his eight year old son along who romped about the large green yard with us and took horse-drawn wagon rides.  Usually he would bring his wife Mirsada along. She was warm and friendly. They bought large quantities of fresh vegetables that he took along back to Lexington to sell to his fellow immigrants. We got to know them and slowly their stories surfaced. Adnan showed his arms that he carefully kept sleeved. With deep fascination I noted the dozens of scars running on each arm from his wrist to his elbow where his arm had been opened with a knife. Again and again. And again. The he lifted his shirt. His stomach and chest were nothing but a mass of scars where he had been sliced open scores of times. It was horrible. And compelling. He had been a soldier and was captured. He was tortured beyond the realm of reality, but added proudly, that he didn’t give any information. Then they brought his wife and began torturing her in front of him. They slit her arms open. They did other things. Adnan screamed. He chewed his tongue. He kicked. He threw himself violently against his chains. But when the burly torturer gouged a piece of Mirsada’s cheek out with tongs, he was ready to speak. So now he had switched sides. As soon as the war ended he fled with his family, wandering about Europe for several years before settling in Lexington Kentucky.

Year after year they came. They brought all kinds of tasty foods. I spent so much time with them I even learned the basics of the Bosnian language. It  became a heritage which I almost adopted. Consequently, when I was in Europe years later with a spare week on my hand, the choice was easy. I would go to Bosnia.

I was jolted back to reality when the door to the compartment opened and two older ladies entered. We exchanged several pleasantries till I had to admit I spoke English. They nodded and smiled. But we spent several hours together, them knitting, and me

Between Zagreb and Sarajevo
Between Zagreb and Sarajevo

watching the Croatian countryside slide by.  The train came to a halt as when we reached the Bosnian border. Agents came through checking every one’s ID. The old ladies gave their ID cards  which were returned while I gave my passport. The agent frowned and said ‘Wait here.” I felt quite lost without my passport, not having seen where the agent disappeared to. Ten minutes later the train hadn’t moved yet. People began grumbling. People asked why. Slowly at first then with momentum news went up and down the train. “There’s an American on board and we think there is something wrong.”  People all across the train left their seats and headed for my car. They crowded into the aisle and tried to get a glimpse.  A dark-haired talkative man elbowed his way to the door of my compartment and addressed me. “You American?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Why you here?

“I am a tourist.”

People kept crowding , trying to get a peek. Someone kept feeding them misinformation. More people shoved in. The questioning continued.

“You running from  INTERPOL?”

“No.”

I don’t believe you.”

Rapid conversation in Bosnian ensued among the crowd. I started to think they might throw me out the window just to get the train moving. Briefly I imagined what it would feel like if my body went crashing through the glass. I also imagined how it would feel if the train just left while my passport is outside.  I stared out that window, ignoring the man offering me insults, and the curious  bystanders. Then the uniformed agent entered the car, elbowing his way through the crowd,  returned my passport, smiled, and hurried off. Well, he tried to.  My interrogator caught his sleeve and asked if I was a fugitive. The agent gave him a withering look and said no.

Thedark-haired man  passed the withering look on to me then

Northern Bosnia on a dreary November day
Northern Bosnia on a dreary November day

deflated, and chagrined sauntered off. Unfortunately [for his pride] he was wrong and his crowd of supporters lost interest.  They were after all only looking for a diversion and all moved back to their seats as the train started moving, belching black smoke into the gray November sky. I leaned back and sighed with relief.  watched the remote country side slide by.  Small house dotted the landscape. Many of the homesteads had a horse or two cows near a small barn. Several pigs or sheep running around while a  chickens pecked in the dirt. Farmers pushed wheelbarrows. Ladies were hanging out laundry. Life was slow. No one hurried. Except me. I hurried on, relentlessly carried away by the train.

The elderly ladies got off innorthern Bosnia. And at the same time a smiling young man got on. We exchanged greetings in Bosnian but when he learned I was from America his eyes shone. His English was good and he asked all about my travels and where I would go in Bosnia. Then he told me all about the foods I  have to try. When evening had come and the train pulled into Sarajevo he got off after bidding me a hearty ‘doviđenja’.

Gazing out the train window.
Gazing out the train window.

The train pulled away from Sarajevo after what seemed like a long time. Almost as if it needed a lot of time to rest because it was an antique. But we headed off in the direction of Mostar. I had the compartment to myself and opened the window. I stuck my head out. The brisk fall breeze ruffled my hair. I looked up as we snaked through the mountains. The stars were so close I could almost touch them. They twinkled and winked at me. The full moon reflected off the sheer stone mountain and the blue river winding through the valley below. In that moment God from heaven reached down and touched my heart. Very clearly he said, ” I am with you, even here.” Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought   back to the time I was 12 years old, picking tomatoes and saw the first Bosnian. I didn’t know what a Bosnian was. Now I did. Now I was alone in the war ravaged country of Bosnia and did not know a single person here. I briefly wondered why I was here. But it didn’t matter. A peace deeper than I had even known filled every corner of my beating heart.

The trained screeched to a stop and several people got on. One of them chose my compartment. He was an older man, sturdily built with shoulder length graying hair. He was a man  of few words, and promptly pulled the curtains on either side of the door, while he stood in the door, effectively blocking out any new passengers. We rode the next few hours in companionable silence.

I knew we were getting close to  Mostar. But I was worried. The train paused for barely a moment at stations, and there were no announcements made prior to stopping. I knew that I would not be able to read the sign and get off in time. As if knowing my dilemma, the man gestured that he will tell me when we get to Mostar. I smiled. But my thoughts raced on. Would he tell me to get off in hick town to rob me? I vowed to be alert and careful.

Finally my fellow passenger said, “Next stop, Mostar.” We both got up and went to the door. Mostar it was. I  took a deep breath as my feet hit Bosnian soil for the first time. Something about it felt right. I found my way out of the train station and oriented my self. I had a small map, but there were no road signs. I began walking in what seemed like the right direction. But I stopped – shocked- as I saw house after house that was shelled out. Occasionally there was a street light and I could clearly see bullet holes everywhere in the clay houses. A person would have been hard pressed to find an area the size of a brick without a bullet hole. That’s when I really began to wonder why I was wandering down this street at 22:00, so far away from where I belonged. Or maybe I belonged here. It was hard to

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.