Tag Archives: God

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.

2016-08-22 15.51.31
“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 Heart.here.

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.”

2016-08-22 06.31.01

 

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.

DSC03630
“The midnight sun on the Norwegian border.”

God in Siberia

When I was young I thought Siberia was far away.  I also knew that it was a frozen land where evil people were exiled to. I sort of thought that it was so far away, so cold, and so bad that probably God wouldn’t even hang out there. It fascinated me deeply and I dreamed of going there. Why, I could never explain. My friend Theo, a psychologist from Luxembourg, insisted that it was because I was searching for pain. He told me this when he was driving across the US in his awkward yellow 1964 model car with 4 person wide bench seats and he stayed at my house. Thats when I thought of telling him that his car looked more like a boat than an automobile. But I didn’t.

DSC10230
“endless rides on the Trans-Siberian railroad…”

So several month ago  I was taking the train across Russia. Obviously that means across Siberia as well. I decided to stop in Irkutsk for a few days and go to Lake Baikal. It’s an insanely beautiful area and known for being the world’s largest and deepest fresh water lake. The train rolled into Irkutsk around midnight and I picked my way to a hostel across the city through the brisk autumn wind and frost over rough roads. The next morning I caught a mashrutka to the small town of Listvyanka. A mashrutka is a mini bus that might be a mini van or an old Sprinter. It often has all the seats torn out and has many small seats stacked inside. I was in one the size of a mini van and it had eleven seats in the back. I sat between an old woman clutching a tiny white dog and a musky smelling over sized man. It was tight. We all swayed in unison. It really brought life to the phrase “packed like sardines.” When you enter and find a seat, [or stand if it is packed] you pass some rubles and your destination to the driver who will make change while he is driving at mad speeds, swearing on his mobile device, and desperately swerving to avoid massive potholes and oncoming traffic. He passes the change through the human chain back to you.  I learned to embrace it and was thrilled to be part of this chain, passing along money, amount of passengers, and destinations in my deepest Russian accent.

DSC10408
“the shores of Lake Baikal…”

Listvyanka is an incredibly beautiful village nestled on the shore of Lake Baikal. I kept sensing that God wants me to grab my sleeping back and just head out into the mountains. It seemed kind of stupid. I was told it’s a really bad idea. The brown bears, they said, are crazy right now. It’s the last days of fall and they are desperately foraging, eating everything they can find. They were even coming into the village and raiding dumpsters. But God kept whispering that he wants me to go. So I did. I packed some sausages, bread, and water. I grabbed my sleeping bag and camera, and with one thin jacket and a small backpack I headed to the Siberian wilderness.

I spent several days hiking. It was fall. The leaves were yellow. The evergreens were a brilliant green, the water was a deep blue. Nature was in its finest glory. Miles across the lake the mountains were snow-capped. Playful chipmunks kept me company as I trailed off by myself into no mans land. Evening came and I ate sausages on the edge of the lake watching the last rays of the autumn sun fall over the rippling waters as a chill breeze began stirring.

DSC10402
“mountains outside Listvyanka…”

My best memories are around this one night. I knew I was pushing my luck just a bit, but why not do that sometimes? I admit I was a bit worried about bears. I had a small knife which I kept stuck into the ground beside me while I slept. I put a string around my camp site with branches leaning up to it, telling myself that this will give me plenty of warning if a bear should come. Then I would stab the медведь  in the eye with the knife. He would then run away howling and I would feel like Daniel Boone. It was a chilly night, right around freezing. As I lay down and zipped the sleeping bag all the way to the top from the inside, I was peacefully counting the five million stars in the sky above me. That’s when a small animal ran over me. I sat bolt upright with astonishing speed, but by the time I had my arms free I realized that I would have been dead had it been a bear. I was sleeping several feet from a small cliff next to the lake and I concluded  that if the bear came, I would simply hop over the edge. The stones below may be forgiving. Bruin will not.

DSC10571
“the untamed wilderness and mountains of Siberia will always have a special place in my heart…”

It had been a really good evening. I sat on a log that had drifted in on the rocky beach and had hours of interaction with God. So many good things happened. As I was drifting off to sleep I fully realized that I could wake up to the razor teeth of a raging bear, but I didn’t care. I had full confidence I would go straight to heaven and after all, what better way to die than being eaten by a grizzly while camping in Siberia? It would be a great story for the grand kids. Except I didn’t have any of those. So I smiled up at God before I drifted off into dreamless sleep.

DSC10620
“spending the night out in Siberia…”

I awoke at 5:00 in the morning. A strong wind had picked up and it was a cold one. Some rain drops were sprinkling on me. I jumped out of my sleeping bag, shivering violently. Daylight wouldn’t come till 7:00. I could just feel that it was going to rain. I considered my choices. Burrowing into my sleeping bag for two hours while the freezing rain pelted me would result in hypothermia. Walking back in the dark, especially on some of those crazy mountain switchbacks seemed like suicide. This was walking on ten inch wide paths that have a straight drop of a hundred feet into the lake. Not to mention my headlamp had turned on accidentally in my back pack  and died. Neither option was good, but attempting to find my way back to the village was a better option. That’s what I would do. I knew I was about four hours from the village, but I hadn’t come there on the path so I was unsure of the way back. I rolled up my sleeping bag and hit the trail. After ten minutes I came to a fork. I chose the well-marked one but 15 minutes into it I was clearly going the wrong direction so stepping carefully, I backtracked.

DSC10478
“Lake Baikal…”

I took the other path. It was obviously the right path, but then it petered out. I began quoting the Bible verse: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path…”  and as I did so a small but distinct glow appeared on the path in front of me, illuminating my way in the pre-dawn darkness while small drops of cold Russian rain fell. I followed the light. It stayed right in front of me. When I looked past it, I couldn’t see a thing. It was an incredibly surreal feeling.

Several hours later the belated morning light fought its way through the overcast sky and the miserable rain turned to giant wet flakes of snow. After several more hours I got back to the village where they told me I was crazy. I don’t know why.

But I jumped into the next mashrutka and headed back to Irkutsk. The snow kept swirling around us and the driver was no exception. Fast and furious. We were packed in there. He pulled up to a desolate outpost where two women huddled in the cold and yelled at them that there is no room. The babushka had a sharp retort and tore open the back door. Four of us were sitting in a row, and I thought we were squished in there real tight. She reared back and 60 years of muscle and bottled rage was let loose as she threw all of her several hundred pounds into the girl next to me who hurtled across the seat, collided with me, I to the guy next to me and we hit the opposite wall with a crash. Before we had time for a reaction she seated herself in the small space created, and held the second woman on her lap. The driver looked over his shoulder, shrugged nonchalantly, and she motioned him to drive so he did. But we no longer swayed. There was no room left to sway. Instead we were all nearly seamless and could practically feel each others blood coursing through bodies. It was weird. But that was Listvyanka.

I look back at this and I am so grateful for my time there. I learned as never before that when I want God, I just have to go looking for Him. He wants to be found. But He wants me to look. As never before I learned that God is wild. God loves adventure. All these crazy places were His idea anyway. He constantly kept egging me on and telling me He wants to be a part of this and He is enjoying it with me. And I was super impressed that He showed up as a light when I most needed Him. He is a good Father. And He lives in Siberia.

DSC10580

 

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?

God, Myself, and the Train

  As with so many of my journeys, I think the thing I crave most is finding God in a deeper way. It’s not like I don’t know God. He has become so incredibly special and close to me. But I find him like never before when I travel. I read a blog written by one of my best friends who was writing about finding God. He compared it to winning the heart of his girl, “Just like when I wanted to have a relationship with her, I didn’t ask other people about her. I didn’t read books about her.  I talked with her! Why would I do that with God? Why not just talk to Him?”
 This has put me on a journey. It has put my mind on a journey. I have been practicing this truth in a society that tells me the opposite. Society cannot bear unpredictability. It can not handle wildness. We have tamed everything and made it predictable. We become Christians at 16. We get married at 21. We have kids.  We don’t do anything risky. We don’t smoke. We don’t drink. We don’t dance. But what about our hearts? Are they as clean as our lungs and liver? Is there room for the blessed Father in there? Are they free and happy or sad and dying? Then we get older and we wonder where life went. I would like to propose that we think outside the box. What if God is wild? What if life is meant to be unpredictable? Would we be okay with that?
 I have taken this golden nugget of truth from my friend. I have been seeking God. At this time [for the time being] I have resolved not to read another book about how to get to know God. Not another book on how to build a relationship with God. I have found God. Him and I have a relationship. And we talk. We both talk. Admittedly I do more. [Haha.] But just hanging out with God and talking with Him as brought me ten thousand times closer than any book I may have read titled “10 steps to finding God.”
 And it’s been good. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything. I think back to the first time I met God. Behind the chicken house in southern Kentucky next to a putrid drainage ditch. (My brother and I renamed it Little Chicken River because we wanted adventure.) Then I ignored God. For many years. Besides, I didn’t know what to do with this experience. Then seven years later when my life was spiraling out of control He came again. He met me in a powerful, life-changing way that set me free and gave me courage.
 I left everything. Only to get sucked up in another system. To find healing from this, God led me on a long journey through Europe. I couldn’t say why I was going and I thought I was crazy going for a whole month. My comfort was that I had enough money to by a ticket back anytime I wanted. Instead the day I came back was the worst of them all. I wanted to cry. And I learned to know myself. I found myself. I discovered that God is big and wild. Unprogrammed. And He wants to be discovered. It was a month of hurts and fears draining from me and being replaced by confidence. By knowledge of being the beloved son of God. I vividly remember the profound moment that God met me on a smoky local train lost in central Bosnia in the middle of the night. I was standing beside the open window as we chugged along. It was a brilliantly clear night with stars sparkling so brightly I didn’t know what to do. And God touched my heart. I had found so much healing and this was like a final touch. It brought tears to my eyes. It was like a giant hug from God.
 Over the years I have traveled here and there again. I have taken about 70 plane rides in the last 20 months. But I prefer train when ever possible. Because I find time to relax, unwind, and hear from God. To talk to him. It’s like our special place. I have so many good memories of train rides across places like China and Australia.
 And that is why I chose to take the train from northern Norway to southern Germany. Yeah, its over 2000 miles and it takes 3 days and 2 [miserable] nights. But God comes and talks to me every day. It’s a hallowed spot. Yesterday it was mostly me talking to Him. Asking so many questions. And today it was Him talking to me. He said,”I know you have questions. You want answers. But you need to trust. Life is meant to be mystery. It is meant to be wild. If it weren’t you wouldn’t need Me. Because you have chosen to live from the heart. And we are going to share the adventure and the journey of life you are on.”  And my heart was so full I didn’t know what to do. Except, whisper thank-you as warm, salty tears pushed at my eyelids. And I knew as never before who I am.
 Now isn’t that pretty cool? God wants to share our lives. I have come to believe that he wants to be deeply involved and personally share in our adventures. He wants to be right beside us in whatever we are doing or pursuing.
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Discover what makes you come alive and go give that to the world. The world needs people who are alive.”
    You know how the first thing we all do when we wake up is to reach for our smart phones? You know how broadly we smile when there is an email waiting from that dear friend who is 6 hours ahead of us. Do you know how much God would like it and how broadly He would smile if we woke up and talked to him before leaving the covers? Not to mention before we even touch that smart phone.
 I also believe that many times we neglect to realize that God has created us uniquely. Those desires he placed in us may be something He wants us to explore, to follow through with.
  Honestly, I feel very vulnerable sharing this. But I have to. Because then you expect be to keep living this. It creates accountability. And perhaps there is a soul who is wondering how to connect in a deeper way with God. Please don’t read a book. Just go sit beside a river for a weekend by yourself. God desperately wants to connect with you. And He will. If you are willing. There is no prescribed way. But if we truly seek Him we  will find him!