The Amish

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Of all the things I talk about, none generates more enthusiasm than when I detail the Amish lifestyle. The Amish are viewed as an enigma in our culture, the ultimate Luddite rejection of technology. And yet, they are romanticized for their simple ways, the horse-drawn buggy, straw hats, and shewfly pie.

I’ve been doing business with the plain-folk of St, Mary’s County, MD for nearly 30 years. The plain people (a term they use for themselves) encompass both the Amish and the “team” Mennonites who still maintain the horse and buggy lifestyle. During this time I started driving for them, taxi service and equipment hauler. I spent nearly three years waking up at ungodly hours of the morning or responding to last minute pleas for emergency transportation before I’d had enough. The best stories I tell come from these experiences.

While I was driving, I usually kept the radio off and chatted with whoever was riding with me. Over the course of a 12+ hour road trip, you can learn a lot about someone. My favorite employer was Amos Stoltzfus (yes, nearly everyone who isn’t a Hertzler, Yoder, or Swarey is a Stoltzfus). Much of what I know about the Amish I’ve learned from him.

Amos is soft spoken, reflective, and good at seeing thru the presenting issues. That he is a bishop will not surprise anyone who knows him. Amish life is centered upon the church, and practically, the church district. There are no church buildings. Everyone builds their homes with the reality that it must also function a gathering place for the local church at least twice each year. A church district is made up of about 30 families. It is not unusual for a family to have up to a dozen children. Amos stopped counting grandchildren when they reached over 120.

The church district meets every other Sunday. (During the off weeks, the father reads the gospels to the family and the young ones get to practice sitting still.) Each district maintains a wagon that contains benches and hymnals. The service is usually 4 hours, during which time there is singing, preaching, and a chance to deal with the issues that each community faces. The Amish community is a fully functioning governing body, regulating the details of daily life, providing assistance to those in need, and “admonishing” those who stray from the narrow path.

That narrow path is defined by each community and encompasses nearly every detail of daily life. A church district is part of a larger community, and thus in St. Mary’s County, MD, there are 7. The larger community sets the guidelines for daily life. And they will vary from one community to the next, based upon the needs of the community and its relationship to the world around them.

Most people are familiar with the Amish communities in Lancaster County, PA. They are the oldest, most established communities in the United States. They are also the ones most in danger of being swallowed up by modern culture. Such a high percentage of young people leave the church to seek their fortunes in the greater world that they have spawned a new church group, the Amish-Mennonites. Of course, one of the coarser features of the Amish, and the thing that has traditionally set them apart from the Mennonites is their practice of “shunning.” If a child does not join the church, or if they join and then leave, that child/person is shunned. No contact; completely cut-off. This issue seems to be second only to the scarcity of land when it comes to the Amish leaving Lancaster, PA to establish other communities.

Not every community believes in letting their young people “sow their wild oats,” but most in Lancaster do. I’ve seen elaborate stereo systems in decked-out buggies (one wonders why the horse didn’t go off in a shear panic). I’ve eaten in restaurants late at night to see teenage Amish girls with their freshly applied makeup flirting with their non-Amish “friends.” While this is perfectly normal to our way of thinking, this is hardly the Amish way.

Amish school life is contained in a one-room building that goes to the 8th grade. At age fourteen, formal education ends. For the net two years, the child is under a “work apprenticeship,” to satisfy the compulsory education requirements of the state. At age sixteen, Amish nightlife begins – sort of. Every Sunday evening, the young people gather at a farm to sing, play volleyball, etc. It is here where the matchmaking begins. As families visit from other communities, fresh faces appear. Long road trips might get planned. Buggies coming home late at night (or wee early Monday morning) happen.

By age 20-21, weddings happen, but only after the crops are safely in the barn. An Amish wedding is a big affair – 300+ people in one house (remember, there’s lots of family to invite). Another 4 hour service, in German, a hymn sing, best men passing our candy, a volley ball game, and yes – a meal. Those benches will convert into tables, and you have never seen so much food. The bride’s family has been cooking for the last three to four days straight for this thing (by family, I mean sisters, aunts, and cousins too).

The honeymoon is a drawn out affair, with the new couple spending the next 4 months visiting all the people they invited, collecting their wedding presents – usually things needed to start housekeeping.

The Amish community reflects the attitude of little things done well. They generally have the same problems we have, for they are human as well. They recognize mental health issues and have their own facilities to deal with that (here is where their greater reliance upon the Mennonite Church helps). They operate their own insurance funds and are able negotiators when that is called for. They have an exemption from Social Security since they abhor involvement with the government. They are most noted for their contentious objector status – they will not serve in the military.

By being in such a tight-knit community, they have largely avoided the hero worship/hero thinking that permeates so much of American culture. Not only do they not watch TV (they don’t have electricity or personal telephones) they don’t read the Bible with the assumption that they too can be a David killing a Goliath. They recognize that David killed Goliath because he did small things on a daily basis that enabled him to fight Goliath when the time came. The Amish way is not just to focus on the small things, but to take pleasure in them.

I had helped one of my friends put up some corn silage one day, and we had taken a break for lunch. Sam tied the horses to a post near the corn bin. We came back out to find the horses had pulled out the sliding gate closure to the bin and let the corn out. A lot of corn out. Sam got the horses away from there and called for his wife, Sylvia. I stopped the flow of the corn as best I could, but we had a problem – buried under this three foot mound of corn was the gate closure for the bin. Sam and Sylvia then swapped with me and held the corn while I went digging for the gate. I was frustrated at the situation until I heard Sylvia laugh. And then Sam started. And pretty soon we’re all laughing. Because why wouldn’t you?

Givers and Takers

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Mike stopped by last night. I hadn’t seen him for a few years, though we don’t live that far apart. Life had taken him one direction, me another. So we do what guys do. We walked around, talked about work, big bucks, and finally, life. Back in the day, we had a lot of fun working out of the same barracks of the Maryland State Police. He was the one always keeping in touch, which is fortunate for both of us.

As we caught up, Mike told me about losing his father to cancer not that long ago. I’ve read that guys never really become men until they bury their father. I know it to be a fact in my life. While mine died quick, Mike’s had time to linger. Some might call it suffer, and though I’m sure he did, Mike told me how his father lived his final days. Helping others. Comforting others. Witnessing the goodness of God in Christ for his family and friends to see.

Mike was with him when he passed – a blessing. He told me how his dad opened up his eyes wide, his face brightened as if seeing something he’d been longing for, and then slumped back and died. At first Mike thought his father was excited to see him, but then the Hospice nurse told him, no. He wasn’t seeing Mike at all. He was seeing his final destination, Christ.

Mike’s dad was unique. He left a high paying job as an industrial engineer to work in children’s homes run by the United Methodist Church in West Virginia. He explained to Mike that he never felt he could really touch anyone’s life being an engineer, but he could working with people. Apparently he did, for over 3,000 people came to the viewing and the funeral. Mike’s father was a giver.

I’ve come to believe that we fall into one of two categories in this life – we are either givers or we’re takers. That not to say that a giver never takes and a taker never gives. But these are the two dominant themes people have in life.

When Jesus was explaining the final judgment to his disciples, he talked about dividing sheep from goats. One of the fascinating details of this story is that at the time Jesus spoke these words, sheep and goats were grazed together. In fact, the term “sheep” was a generic term covering both species.

So the picture is like this – at the final judgment a division will occur over a group that had up to that point been together – the righteous and the unrighteous. And the dividing point is not what you’d expect it to be. A theological quiz is not given. A statement of faith is not asked for. Political parties are not mentioned. Rather, the dividing point is very solid and fixed – how did you treat “The Other.”

“The Other” in Christ’s story is the poor; “the least of these” for Jesus identifies himself with them to the point of no separation. What we do (or didn’t do) to the least of these, “The Other,” we did directly to Christ.

The interesting part of this story is the ignorance of both the righteous and the unrighteous as to when they did (or didn’t) do these things. In fact, the unrighteous said they were looking for opportunities, and never found them. And that’s the heart of the story. While the unrighteous were looking (so they could be noticed?!) the righteous were doing. In fact, their actions were such a habit of life; they were unaware of their eternal significance. The unrighteous were too busy with life to notice. Givers vs. Takers.

The easy thing here would be to say one group is selfish, while the other group was selfless. I’ve come to believe these are two sides of the same coin, and it’s bad currency.

The command is to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The first understanding here is that I love myself. If I do not know how to properly love myself, I’m probably going to mess up loving my neighbor too. Instead of concentrating on being selfless, or fighting selfishness, perhaps the better way is to be able to fully embrace who God has created us to be. We are not a mindless blobs running around to be everyone else’s doormat, nor are we God’s singular gift to the world to whom every owes allegiance. We are created to be partners with God in his creation. We are far more than the sum of our parts. We need a full sense of ourselves image-bearers of God.

It is only when we are striving for that full sense of ourselves, when we hit the “Goldilocks” moment of just right, then we can give without being drained, without the martyr syndrome. Then we can live out of a sense of calling and into our truer selves. It is the truer self that will be most near the heart of God, reaching out to “The Others” in our life with the comfort and blessing we all desire.

Boxes

I’ve been fond of a few cats. L.O.S.T. is my current kitty, dropped off by someone, left to fend for itself on my farm. L.O. is like every other cat I’ve ever come across; she has a fascination with boxes. The smaller, the better. Young children at Christmas are similar – you can nearly always catch them playing with the boxes rather than the toys at some point during the day.

Boxes are quite useful, of course. They contain our stuff, and we are certainly a people of stuff. We’ve become quite adept at the size and shape of our boxes, going from the mundane and lowly cardboard variety all the up to the boxes that punctuate the wealth of an individual – the McMansion.

Along the way are drawers and file cabinets, closets and chests, all variations of the same theme. We are a people of boxes.

But there are also the boxes we can’t see, but are just as real, nonetheless. These are the boxes we use for people, ourselves included. These boxes have labels on them, just like the physical boxes we use for our stuff (or else the stuff is forever lost). We have religious boxes, political boxes, economic boxes, and moral boxes. They overlap, vary in shape, and are often inexact. We’ll call all of them identity boxes.

Identity boxes help us determine our tribe. Liberal or Conservative? Catholic or Protestant? Atheist or New Age? Blue collar or White Collar? Farmer or Everybody else? (Couldn’t resist that last one!) Our boxes inform our worldview – the smaller the box, the narrower our focus, and conversely.

Most people adopt the boxes given to them by their parents until a certain age; they then go through a period of exploration and discovery that tend to broaden the scope of the box. Some end up completely rejecting the box and seek another to fit into. Almost no one goes without some type of box. (It should be noted that a professional politician will fit into whichever one will get them the most votes).

And because we are human beings, capable of incredible self-deception, there are the boxes we say we belong in, and the ones we actually inhabit by our actions. It’s the subject of a life’s work to unite the two, especially if you’re a religious person.

Hypocrite is the tile we give to those whose words and actions don’t match well. It’s often the number one excuse of non-church goers – too many hypocrites go there. I used to rejoin that with the invitation that there was always room for one more. Until.

Recently, one of my favorite uncles passed away. Nothing untimely or unexpected. When I inquired of the funeral arrangements, I was told there would be none. He refused the funeral liturgy of the church. Uncle G. was a lifelong Episcopalian. His parish had gotten caught up in the fight over same sex marriage and the consecration of a gay bishop.   The result was an ugly internal fight within the parish that destroyed the bonds, which had held members together for decades. Uncle G. has a daughter who is a lesbian (actually one of my favorite cousins). One person’s slogan is another person’s relative, close friend.

The parish swung itself into the traditionalist box and locked out everyone else – literally. Uncle G.’s refusal was a turning point in my thinking. It’s one thing to be opposed to something. We’re all opposed to something, even if it’s putting ketchup on a hot dog. It’s another thing to hate.

There are a lot of ways to read the Scriptures. I’m pretty sure the same exists for all religious writings. I’m thinking specifically now about the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. We can read this as a to-do manual. And if we read chapter 6 in that fashion, we will come to the conclusion that we’ve screwed up before we’ve ever left the gate.

Every religious sect has its touch point from whence it builds out. Jesus’ words contained in these three chapters form the crux of the Christian’s life. But how should we read them?

One way has been to take the words of Christ quite literal and double down on everything. This is Fundamentalism. This is how I was raised. The members of this box are defined by what they do not do. Their piety is their observance of commands. Another view seeks to see Jesus’ words as examples to follow, but without the strict adherence of the Fundamentalist view.

But there are other ways to see Christ’s words. “Judge not…” Jesus proclaims a karma of sorts in our attitudes toward others. The mercy you show someone will be shown to you; the judgment you give will be given to you. This is an acknowledgement of the impossibility of keeping the law. Even if we can conform ourselves to its outward demands, there is the matter of the heart and where our minds go in its secluded regions. There are no areas where we are safe from the law’s exacting demands and we are all guilty…of being human. “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

I’ve walked away from my box. Oh sure, I still operate within a structure, but it’s a lot bigger now. I’ve taken the lid off to let the light in. I put in some windows and a couple doors. I’m inviting new experiences in the front door and keeping the back door open for any that need to leave. A few I’ve pushed out. Among the things that are gone is the idea that I have to conform my thinking to a specific group. I’m voting for Life, Love, Hope, and Faith. I’m rooting for Mercy and Grace, because I need to give and receive both. And I want to make sure my box is big enough for others who’d like to visit and stay for coffee. And pet my cat.