June 8, 2018

A Resting Place…

Category: News — admin @ 5:30 pm

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Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take…

—Children’s bedtime prayer
_________________________

An ordinary Monday morning at work. I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes, from the weekend. Not that my weekends are wild or anything. Not anymore. And not that I was up late and running around the night before. I wasn’t. I’m about as meek and mild as a lamb these days. Still. It takes a little time to get unlimbered, to get in the flow of things on a Monday. And you just never know, what the first day of the work week will bring at you.

I had just got off the phone when the doorbell jangled. I got up to take care of the customer who clumped up to my counter. An old friend, who has bought from me sporadically over the years. I smiled and greeted him. Good morning. I don’t know if the man ever was a cowboy, but he could have been. He’s tall and lean and bald with a long and majestic gray beard. He’s impeccably polite, neatly dressed in jeans and lumberjack shirt and cowboy boots. He stands ramrod straight, no slumping. And that morning, he was after the usual. Some white pine siding. That’s pretty much what he always buys from me. A few dozen pieces at a time. That’s all I’ve ever sold him, I think, those white pine boards.

I knew he had retired a few years back. He had told me when it happened. And now, this morning, I asked him a little bit about how that’s going. How’s life treating you? Staying busy? He chuckled. “You know,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, back when I retired. But I got more to do now than I ever did before. All kinds of projects to fix up at home. And you know what? That’s the way I like it.” I agreed. Yes. You gotta have something to work on, something to stay focused on. Otherwise, you’ll just wither up. And that’s no good. You’ll waste into nothing.

I don’t remember if I ever told the man about my book. I might have. Might have sold him a copy, even. I just don’t remember. But I must have talked to him about going up to Canada to see my parents, over the years. I’m sure I mentioned to him when Mom died. And I’m sure he was genuinely sympathetic. He remembers what I told him a little better than I remember the telling, I think. And he asked, right there, just kind of out of the blue. “How’s your Dad doing?”

And I told him. Dad’s doing pretty well, considering he’s ninety-six. He’s staying with family, up there in Canada. I’m fixing to head up to see him, later this month or sometime in the next. But to your question. He takes a lot of care. Every day. A lot of attention and a lot of work. When you’re as old as he is, everything takes time, to get done. Everything takes effort, and it takes energy. I’ve wondered sometimes. I respect the Amish for the way they take care of their elderly. Well. The way they take care of their own across the board. Including the elderly. In that culture, you live at home and you die at home. As much as possible, anyway, you do. Still. I’ve wondered sometimes if it wouldn’t be just as good when you get really old, to go stay in a retirement home where you get professional care and attention. I don’t know. I just don’t know, anymore.

The man nodded and leaned in on the counter. Something I had said stirred something down inside him. And he told me. His Mom is ninety-four. She has full blown Alzheimer’s. Sounds familiar, I said. He went on telling me. It got to where he just couldn’t give her the care she needed every day. She lived at home, and she wanted to stay there. But a few years ago, he had made the decision. And he had placed her in a “home” where they were staffed with professional help. And she was pretty comfortable there. He drove by every day, to see her. She’s getting bad, and can’t remember things. It’s hard, when she doesn’t know him. Still. He was grateful that she was at a place where she could be cared for by trained people. She was in a resting place. And she was as comfortable at this stage in life as he could make her.

And we stood there, he and I, face to face across the counter. Most real talk comes down in a place like that, in the natural flow of ordinary lives. And I told my friend. I know how that is. That’s how it was with Mom, too. She died back in 2014. She was completely out of it when she passed. And at the end, she took a tremendous amount of care, of time and effort from my sister and her family. And the community, too. I wondered back then. Would she have been as well off in some nursing home? I don’t know. I sure don’t judge any family who makes that decision. I just don’t. It’s too personal. People do the best they can with the options they have. Life has way different circumstances for you than it does for me. That’s just how it works.

My friend paid up and left, then. And that little conversation triggered a few other things that were stirring around in my head. I’ve thought about it often, in the past few years. Well, I think a lot of things, watching my father grow old. I’ve seen how hard it is, to walk that road. I’ve felt for the man. Used to be he could do pretty much what he wanted to, when he wanted to do it. Back through most of his life, that was how it was for him. Now he’s old. And now he can’t. It’s like the Scripture says. When you are old, a child will lead you by the hand and take you to a place you do not want to go. Now, today, the simple things in life aren’t that simple anymore. Everything is a production, everything has to be planned out. From getting up to cleaning up to sitting at the table and eating a meal. It all takes a lot of time. And it all takes the care and attention of someone else. That’s life, when you’re old. This I can say, from watching my father.

And I’ve wondered. Would Dad be better off in a nursing home of some kind? A place that is geared to taking care of you when you’re ninety-six? Why would one not at least consider such a thing? Can it really be that wrong?

Such a thought is anathema to the people I come from, of course. The Amish. One of the very few groups in the western world who have hung on to the traditional concept of what family is, going way back before there was any government “assistance” for anyone. It’s simply ingrained into their thinking from the way things always were. We take care of our own. Family is the first line of defense. Backing that up, that line of defense, is the church community. Culture and religion mix. And the bottom line when it comes to taking care of family is this. You don’t stick your old people in some antiseptic nursing home where they’ll be ignored. You don’t take someone from old familiar surroundings and put them in a place where they will wither and waste away. It’s just not done. Not in our world.

We are people of the land, the Amish say. The earth sustains us. We know we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. The land is our home on this earth. We live at home. And if there’s any means possible, if there’s any way to make it happen, we choose to die at home, too. That is where we lived. That is where we will lay down to rest. And that’s our resting place. And when all that is all you ever saw or knew from the time of your youth, it’s hard to grasp the thought that there might be another way. Another path that is just as right.

When you get out of the Amish culture, when you get around the Plain Mennonites, there they do it. There, it’s pretty much accepted, to place old people into a retirement home. It’s not always done, not by a long shot. But it is done. Their youth often go into “service” working at such homes. Way back after I left the Amish and moved down to Daviess, it was a pretty common thing. People I knew, good friends of mine, went away to work a year or two at Mountain View Home in Virginia. And there’s Hillcrest, in Arkansas, too. Both those places served as a “meet market” for Beachy and Mennonite youth, almost on par with Bible School. I’d say they still do, although I have been away from those circles for decades. Such things generally don’t change much.

Years ago, back in 1990s, I visited Mountain View Home over a weekend to see some friends who were working there. I was fairly impressed with the place. It was clean, well run, and the old people who lived there seemed about as content as an old person in a retirement home could be. I had just started college at Vincennes. I remember attending the Beachy church service that Sunday morning in the Mountain View community. And how the bearded Beachy “bears” looked at me a little grim and suspicious, I thought. Might have been my imagination. I never hung around that world long enough to really tell. Of course, those grim Beachy bears would not have been surprised at all that I didn’t stick around. They could tell I was being drawn out into the “world,” what with me going off to college and all. You don’t do that when you’re on the proper humble Beachy path. Not in those days, you didn’t, anyway. It’s probably a lot more accepted now in Beachy circles, to go to college.

A little side road, here. Well, it might end up a detour. The other week, I got to texting my old friend, Amos Smucker, the horse dentist. We don’t see each other that much since I quit drinking. I used to hang out at Vinola’s all the time, and he’d come over to meet me there. And we got together and talked a lot. Just to be clear. He hung out at the bar because I was there. Not because he hangs out at bars, much. Don’t want him to get in trouble here with his lovely wife.

Anyway, we try to stay connected in other places now, too. Me and Amos. I mean, I still eat at Vinola’s once in a great while, and we usually meet up for that. A few months ago, I wrote about going to the gun show with him. And he told me the other week, in his text. He was going to see his father-in-law the next Saturday morning. He thought I might be interested in going along. Of course, I said. I knew about his father-in-law. I couldn’t remember his name, but I knew the man was over a hundred years old. And I remembered how Amos had told me a few years ago at the bar. They were placing the man into a retirement home over in Ephrata, right around his hundredth birthday. I had listened to the story at the time, but it never really sank in. Not until that day, when Amos asked me if I wanted to go with him to visit. And I didn’t hesitate. Sure. I’ll go talk to a hundred-year-old man just about any time, I told him.

Saturday morning. A beautiful sunny day. Amos was stopping by around ten. I drifted out and about, ran some errands. Picked up some shirts at the dry cleaners. This and that. And by 9:30, I was back home, waiting for my friend. Just before ten, I saw his old car pull in. Amos waved as I walked out. We took off and were busy talking until about a mile down the road. Then he asked, abruptly. “Did you bring a book, for my Dad in law?” Well, no, I hadn’t. Never crossed my mind. But I definitely think I should take him one. Let’s go back and get one. And back we went, to my home. I threw a couple of books into my trusty messenger bag, and we took off again. North and east. Around Ephrata, then off on a side road. And Amos pulled in and parked. It was a Mennonite Rest Home. A spacious low flung place with different wings, looked like. We got out. I shouldered my bag and followed Amos across the parking lot and into the front doors.

It’s been a while since I walked into a place where old people live. The lobby was bright enough, and the place smelled clean. Still. There they sat, willy-nilly, in a rough half circle. And scattered about randomly. Old men and old women, hunched and scrunched over on their chairs and wheelchairs. Bent over and leaning on canes. I thought of a scene from Thomas Wolfe, where he vividly described the dust and ashes of old age. “They had been young and full of pain and combat, and now all this was dead in them: they smiled mildly, feebly, gently, they spoke in thin voices, and they looked at one another with eyes dead to desire, hostility, and passion.”

And that’s exactly how these people looked. They had been young once, all of them, and filled with passion and desire. Now their eyes were dead. Some of them seemed alert enough. Some glanced at us. Some stared into the distance. Others stared blankly at nothing. A few attendants flitted about. Plain girls in flowery cape dresses, wearing head coverings, smiling cheerfully. A shiver sliced through me, a premonition of something cold and lonely and dark. Lord. Please don’t ever let me live long enough to end up in a place like this. Or if I do, please make sure I got access to lots of whiskey. It won’t matter much either way at that point, I don’t reckon. This I pray from my heart.

Amos strode through the lobby like he’d been there before. I tagged close behind, clutching my McDonald’s coffee. Black and hot, it was. Off into a hallway, then, and down the hall. Not far. A door stood ajar, and Amos stopped outside. Knocked. Called out. “Hey, anyone home?” Someone shuffled about inside. A voice called to us, high and thin. We walked in.

The place was small, but roomy enough, I guess. Like a motel room, really. A bathroom walled off in the corner. A bed, desk, and some chairs. A table against the wall. And the man who lived there stood from his easy chair in the corner. He walked to greet us. He sure looked spry enough. Aaron K. Martin. That was his name. Mennonite stock. Old Order and Black Bumper. Clean shaven, like almost all old blood Plain Mennonites are. Somehow, Amos had connected with Aaron’s daughter, Velma. Amos comes from pure Amish blood, over in the Conestoga area. Velma is pure Black Bumper Mennonite. It’s extremely rare, that the two cultures mix in marriage. Amos turned to me and spoke my name. “This is my friend, Ira Wagler. He’s one of David Wagler’s boys.” The old man looked a little blank about that. Then he smiled and shook my hand. He seemed wiry and alert. He was also 102 years old. That right there was astonishing to me.

I took a seat, there at the end of the bed, beside the table. And we sat and talked, me and the old man. Aaron K. Martin. Here he lived, in this old people’s home. He looked to be in fantastic shape for having been around over a hundred years. And it wasn’t planned, any of it. But somehow, he spoke a few words in his native tongue. Pennsylvania Dutch. I talked back the same way. Comfortably and fluently. I’ve kept the mother tongue. Made a conscious effort to keep it over the years, by speaking it when I’m with my siblings or with people from my background. It greased the skids with Aaron. His eyes lit up. And we got to visiting about a lot of things.

He’d heard of my Dad, he claimed, when I asked him. Well, I had to nudge him a little. You know, the David Wagler who started Family Life. The magazine. Oh, yes. I saw in his eyes, that he had heard the name. And I asked him a lot of questions, then. About his memories of his youth. He was born in 1916. That was during the first World War. A long, long time ago.

And he told me, when I asked. He was born into the horse and buggy Mennonites. Back then, pretty much everyone drove a horse and buggy. And some people in his church decided it was OK to have a car, back when he was a boy. It didn’t seem like that big a deal, that he remembered. But then some people had a problem with the car. And the church split, right there. His parents went with the car faction that would later be known as Black Bumpers. His father was a businessman. And he was fairly well off during the Depression, when a lot of people weren’t.

We chatted right along. In a moment like that, you never quite realize how rare it is, what you’re seeing. And that’s fine. You have to walk naturally into every situation. So we just talked. I asked of how it was, when he was young and running around. And he told me. Just before his eighteenth birthday, his father bought him a car. Back then, Ford started off with the Model T. Then came the Model A, and after that, they made the Model B. I had never heard of the Model B, but I took the man’s word for it. His father bought him a Model B Touring car with a curtain top. For the grand price of $185.00. It was used, over a year old. And I don’t know if I heard the old man right, but I think I did. When it rained, he had to stop and snap the curtains over the side windows, too. That seemed strange to me. But I just nodded. And he told me, too. The car had no heater. The roads were mostly dirt, except for Rt. 322, which was paved pretty early on.

We talked about church things, too. Still in our native tongue. And along at some point, the old man asked me. He was making small talk, is all. “Are you married?” Well. What was I going to say to that? No, was my first response. He looked surprised, until I told him. I’m divorced. I wouldn’t have had to tell him that. He looked a little shocked at how lackadaisical I was about it. The thing is, I made up my mind long ago. I will never flinch from who I am. I won’t pretend to be someone I’m not. Would that have to mean that I tell an old man I’m divorced? No, it would not. But we were getting along just fine, and I felt comfortable telling him. He looked like he could handle it. So I said. I’m divorced. His eyes widened a little. And the conversation rolled on.

“Oh, well,” he soothed himself. “You’re not remarried, then?” I shook my head. He looked pleased. And again. I could have let it go and probably should have. But I didn’t. I piped up. I would get married again to the right woman, I said bravely. Or maybe it was a little foolishly. I should have let it go. Quit tormenting the old man. But something in me bristled a little, that he just assumed I’d never remarry. That’s the black and white world I came from. The Amish and the Plain Mennonites got all the answers, got all the marriage rules pretty much perfect and inflexible. Doesn’t matter who does what or who says what or who’s abusing who. You stay married. That’s why some (not all, but way too many) Amish and Plain Mennonite women stare at life somberly with hard, sad, stern faces that look like they’re set in stone. They are trapped. They have no options.

And I told the old man. It wasn’t me, that filed for divorce. I got served the papers. So I signed on the line and didn’t fight it. He smiled at me. Got a little conciliatory. “Oh, I see,” he said, relieved. “You were wronged in your marriage. You were the innocent one.” And one more time, I had to disagree. One more time, I had to shake up his worldview a little. No, I said. When there is a divorce, there are no innocent parties. Well, other than children. We didn’t have any children. I’m talking husband and wife. Sure, one might have made worse choices than the other. But neither one is innocent, regardless of how it looks from the outside. We’re all flawed. There is no innocence. He looked at me, astounded, as if he had never heard such an analysis about divorce in all his years.

We meandered off, then, down happier roads. I asked him how it was, way back when the Black Bumpers split off from the horse and buggy Mennonites. This man had seen the birth of all the Plain car churches. Everywhere. That is an astonishing thing. He saw them all because he was born before there were any. And I asked him. Where are your church houses? Are they still the same as they always were?

We meandered down a lot of bunny trails, too. Assurance of salvation was one of the man’s pet issues. And he was a little dubious at the plainer buggy people, that they shied away from the subject. The Amish and the OOMs don’t like to talk about “assurance of salvation.” They will generally make noises about having “hope” of salvation. And it seemed to be an issue with the old man, that they couldn’t see what was so clear to him. Still, when I asked about the split, about how the Black Bumpers broke off from the Old Order Mennonites, his eyes gleamed. And he told me. “There was a split, yes. But we worked it out, to where one group used the church house on one Sunday, and the other group used it the next. We have church every two weeks. So even though there were disagreements, we could still work together. That much, we could do.” I agreed. Yes, that was very peaceful and brotherly, to work out a schedule where two groups could use the same church house like that. I cheer for such unity.

I asked him a little bit about how that was, to move into a communal home like this after a lifetime of living free on the outside like he had. He smiled wryly and admitted. It had been a struggle for him to adapt, early on. But he had done it. And he liked it well enough, the lifestyle here. That’s what he told me, and I believed him.

It was getting time to wind down. Soon lunch would be served in the dining room. Amos and I made noises to leave. I reached into my bag and pulled out a copy of my book. I want to give you this before I go, I told Aaron. He smiled in thanks. I signed the book and handed it to him. He allowed that he’s not much of a reader, but he’ll look over what I wrote. I’d be honored, I said. As I was, that he accepted my gift.

Amos and I left then, walked back outside into the beautiful sunny day. And I couldn’t help thinking of the old man and my father, in the same thoughts. Aaron K. Martin and David L. Wagler. They are both in a place that very few people ever see. Dad was very much in the limelight in his journey among his people. Aaron labored in obscurity in his. One lived with the “hope” of salvation. The other lived with “assurance.” I bet they’d get along pretty well, now, anyway. Without a lot of fuss and argument.

Age has a resting place. Well, I guess it does. Dad lives with members of his family in their homes. Aaron lives in a retirement home. Both seem about as content as one could expect. Both are functioning decently well. Aaron is in better shape than Dad, physically and mentally, even though he’s six years older. Which is a lot, when you’re 102. Life is really random, like that.

And the logistics would probably be impossible, but I can’t help but think to myself. I sure wish those two men could meet.
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A brief update, here. Some of you may remember when I wrote back in 2015 about my sister, Magdalena. Early that year, she was diagnosed with stage four cancer. It had riddled her body, all through. She was in really bad shape. She bravely told us. She would not do chemo or radiation. She would leave this life with integrity if she had to go.

We trekked down, all of us, to take our leave and say good-bye. Even Dad insisted that he wanted to make the trip, the thousand miles down to see his daughter. We all went, at one time or another. There was little question in any of our minds that Magdalena would not remain long on this earth.

She went on an intensive natural treatment regimen with essential oils. She sank pretty low. And then a strange thing happened. She started improving. And by late that year, the cancer had left. She was healed. Cancer free. We all marveled and shook our heads in amazement. Miracles still do happen, we saw for ourselves. Magdalena has remained healthy since that time. She is entirely cancer free, which, again, is just astonishing.

And sometime along the way since then, she was interviewed about her journey. The story was professionally produced. It’s short, only six minutes or so. And I know how that is, when you speak on camera for hours, and the final result is edited to a few soundbites. Many of the details you spoke get left out. But still. It’s a powerful story, in my sister’s own voice and in her own words. Here’s the link. I’m proud of her honesty and her unabashed gratitude to the Lord for the miracle of healing and the blessing of life.

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May 11, 2018

Skipping Church & Other Sins…

Category: News — admin @ 5:30 pm

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Such had been the history of the old man. His life had come up from the
wilderness, the buried past…The potent mystery of old events had passed
around him, and the magic light of dark time fell across him.

Like all men in this land, he had been a wanderer, an exile on the immortal
earth. Like all of us he had no home.

—Thomas Wolfe
___________________

The question seemed innocuous enough, when I first saw it. Posted on an online forum as I was scrolling by. I barely gave it a passing glance. But then I stopped. Scrolled back up. I saw the words again, absorbed them. Read them again, slowly, to make sure I wasn’t missing something. It was a simple question. And it simply asked, exactly as follows: Staying home from church when you could otherwise go is a sin: Yes or No.

I don’t usually get ensnared by little polls like that. It’s just not worth the hassle or the energy it takes to get involved. People get all fired up. Not that my opinion means or matters much, I guess, except to myself. Lately, though, I’ve engaged a bit more. And that day, I stopped and looked at the responses. And I was shocked to see that the vote was about 60/40, leaning the wrong way. Those sixty percent, they said, yes. Yes. It is a sin. It was a Reformed site, so I don’t know if they were talking venial sin, or mortal. Venial, probably. Or maybe that’s just a Catholic thing. But still, bottom line. Most people in the poll said it was a sin not to go to church when you could otherwise go.

And I thought about it. And I thought to myself. What’s wrong with you people? What kind of bondage are you in? Why do you insist on dragging such chains around? Why do you burden yourself with all that legal jargon? It’s like that big pack Christian lugged around on his back in Pilgrim’s Progress. You don’t have to carry it. Let it go, let it fall from you. And I just couldn’t help myself. I staked out my territory, big and bold, in my response. And short, too. I spoke it like I saw it, like I’d speak it again, about anywhere it could be spoken. Just a few words: It is most definitely NOT a sin not to go to church.

Well. My little assertion did not go over so nice. The responses were polite and good-humored, mostly. They just disagreed or went off on little bunny trails. Maybe it’s just a fault and not a sin, one commenter suggested cheerfully. Would I agree? Nope, I would not. And I kept insisting. I never said you shouldn’t go to church. I’m saying it’s not a sin not to go. We are free to go, or not. A few responses weren’t very polite. They were harsh and dismissive. If I chose not to attend church, then my heart wasn’t where it needed to be. I wasn’t right with God, I was resisting the spirit, by not assembling with believers. Whatever that means. And back and forth we went, me and one surly guy who seemed particularly perturbed at my obstinance. He didn’t change my mind. And I can say with some certainty that I didn’t change his.

We didn’t get much done that day, I don’t think, to convince each other of anything. Me and the surly one. Still. I’ve mulled over the issue a lot, since it came at me. My mind goes to all sorts of cobwebbed places. And those places are all connected by one thing. Almost all my adult life has been one long struggle, one lonely and weary slog through all sorts of rocky and harsh terrain. A protracted and relentless quest in pursuit of one simple goal. To break the shackles of legalism and walk free. Mine wasn’t a relentless pursuit of perfection, like the old Lexus commercials used to say. It was a relentless pursuit of freedom. And if you think it’s a sin not to go to church when you otherwise could, well, I have a few things to tell you.

If it’s a sin to skip your church, or any church service, anywhere, for any reason or none, if that’s a sin, I might as well pack up my things. I might as well sell my Jeep, Amish Black, for what the market will cough up on short notice. And I might as well sell all my English clothes and gather up a goodly supply of those awful barn door pants. And galluses. And shirts without pockets. I might as well go buy a Beaver brand black Sunday hat and a new Mutza suit. I might as well move back to Bloomfield, Iowa, and rejoin the Amish. Or Goshen, Indiana. I guess it don’t matter where. The Amish would still take me back, providing I was properly penitent, with downcast eyes and sorrowful face.

If it’s a sin not to go to any church on any given Sunday for any reason or none, I might as well go back to living under the law. Because that’s exactly what you’re doing, if you ever, ever go to church because it would be a sin not to. You’re living in fear of negative sanctions. Punishment. If you don’t walk right, the Lord will smack you down. He’s just waiting for you to fall, to fail. And you’ll pay when you do. Maybe you’ll even lose your salvation, if you’re not more careful. The horror is real. That’s how it feels when you’re living under bondage and in despair. That’s how it feels to be chained and shackled to the law.

You may or may not attend a church for many reasons, including no reason. Whether those reasons are actually valid is between you and God. Look to your own heart. Your reasons for attending might be as wrong as you figure mine are for not. I know how it is, not to go to church. I’ll never forget those dark and brutal days back in 2007, right after Ellen and I blew up our marriage. I quit going to the church we were attending, the early version of Chestnut Street Chapel, there in Gap behind the clock tower. I told my friends there. I’m leaving. I’ll be around, but I won’t be back until I’m ready, when and if that ever happens. And to a person, every one of my friends at Chestnut Street accepted what I told them. They didn’t preach or tell me I was sinning. Every single one of them respected my wish to be left alone. I hunkered down at home. Home and work. That was my world in those days.

I’ve thought about it many times, since. How many churches would have been that understanding? How many groups would have extended the grace I saw and felt from my “family” at Chestnut Street? Not a lot, I don’t think. There are protocols to follow, formulas to plug in. If a brother strays, go admonish him. Do this, say that, and tell him how it is. Show him the Scripture where it tells you to do what you’re doing, admonishing him. All in love, of course. Chestnut Street was young enough and raw enough that there weren’t any established procedures for running after and pestering a backsliding brother who wouldn’t “come to church.” I wanted to be left alone. They left me alone. I knew they were there, if and when I was ever ready to return. They stood aside in silence. That’s one of the hardest things to do. They gave me my space without judgment and without condemnation. Sometimes real Christian love is such a simple thing as that.

I didn’t walk away from church entirely. Just Chestnut Street. Somehow, I eventually wandered into the structured magnitude of space that is Westminster Presbyterian Church, over on Oregon Pike. A huge sanctuary with lots of seating, and a balcony on three sides. I got to going to that place about half regular. I always walked in just a moment before the service started. Walked up the stairs and way back to a far corner of the loft. And there I sat, alone, and listened to the worship. The people there sure liked to sing, seemed like. And I sat in that back corner and listened to the preacher preach. Dr. Michael Rogers was a plump and learned man, dressed in a formal black robe. High Church, compared to where I was from. And Dr. Rogers was a faithful servant of God. He simply preached the gospel. He never had any idea of who I was or that I was even there. I soaked in his words, took them with me and absorbed them in the daily grind I was slogging through. And I never let anyone near me in that place, there at Westminster. I always got up as they were singing the last song and walked out of there.

I can’t remember that I got to know more than a handful of people’s names in that congregation during all that time, during all those days when I was wandering pretty far out there in the wilderness of life and all that life can be sometimes. I expected nothing from those people at Westminster. Still, during that time in the wilderness, I heard one lone voice as I heard no other. And that was the voice of Dr. Rogers, standing up there in his black robe, faithfully proclaiming the gospel. That right there was a powerful and significant thing, in retrospect. Much more so than I could possibly grasp in the moment.

I was about as unsupervised and unaccountable as I could have been. You always hear wise trite things about accountability. How you got to have it, to walk right with God. Well, I didn’t have it. I’m not saying accountability is wrong. I’m all for it. But I am saying there are times when most of us slog along without it. As I was walking in that moment. I didn’t go to the services at Westminster when I didn’t feel like it. Sometimes, the day was too hard, the road too long to get there. Sometimes, I didn’t see the inside of that church or any other for weeks on end.

My world was bleak and desolate. And when you’re stuck in such a world, you simply absorb the desolation around you. You feel it, taste it, hold it close to you. Trace it all the way down to its roots, and then you slowly start pushing it back. Working your way out. And that was me, in those days. When I didn’t feel like going to church, I didn’t go. When I didn’t feel like hearing Dr. Rogers preach, I didn’t. As Thomas Wolfe would say. Was all this lost? Or to rephrase Wolfe. Was all that a sin? To stay away from church, when I otherwise could have gone? If you are sitting under preaching or teaching that such a thing is a sin, you are in bondage. I don’t know of any clearer way to speak it. That right there is bondage. Get out. Walk free.

I go to church regularly. Chestnut Church, out on Vintage Road. We moved from behind the Gap clock tower out into the country, to a real nice church house that got gifted to us. There, I “assemble with believers” because I want to, not because it would be a sin if I didn’t. And there at Chestnut Church, Pastor Mark Potter faithfully proclaims the gospel every Sunday. Patiently, persistently, joyfully, he proclaims. He keeps insisting that the church is a hospital, not a country club. And there is one particular refrain the man has hammered hard over the years, like a blacksmith at his forge. About addictions. Pastor Mark preaches like he always has. And he says. When you are a child of God, nothing can ever make you not be. Nothing. And so it’s safe to bring your problems to God. Tell Him. He’s your father. He’ll never get tired of listening. And if there are things in life too hard to face, if the pain is too intense, if you drown reality in alcohol or drugs, well, bring that to Him, too. Try to stop. Tell Him you want to. And try. If you fail, try again. Talk to Him again. And try again. And again. And again, and again.

What does what Pastor Mark preached have to do with going to church or not? Not a whole lot, I guess. Still, it triggered something in my memory. And thus a little bunny trail back to last summer, when I was drinking as heavy as I had in a long time. Hard. Every day. And there were a few Sundays when I woke up and the last thing I wanted to do was go face anyone at church. I didn’t feel guilty or anything. I just didn’t feel good. Well, as you don’t, when you’re all bloated and sluggish. And so I just stayed home, those Sundays. Slept in a bit, even though my sleep was extremely broken in those days. And by late afternoon, I was ready to head out and start the process all over again, to dull some of that intense inner pain. And I did, like clockwork. Every day.

And I often thought about it back then, hearing the good Pastor’s words about talking to God and trying again and again. Yeah. A fat lot of good that’s done me. Talking. Or trying. Over the years, I have tried and tried and tried to quit drinking. I even stopped, cold, a few times. The longest I ever quit was just over two years, back in 2006-07. It was one of the last-ditch things I did, to “save my marriage.” Quit drinking. It saved nothing. And after my world blew up, the lure of the whiskey, those shades of delicious amber fire, drew me right back to the bottle.

It’s all so easy to rationalize, the reasons why. I have seen hard and broken roads and so much sorrow and loss. Plus, I write. Writers drink to dull the pain of what they have seen and lived. And relived, in the writing. The real ones do, anyway, the ones I like to read. (Or they did, back when they were alive. Wolfe drank heavily, right up to his extremely unfortunate and untimely end.) That’s the crutch I used. And I settled in my cups, pouring vodka and scotch on the rocks from bottle after bottle, day after day, year after weary year.

The thing is, Pastor Mark never told me I was “sinning.” He told me I was God’s child, and that nothing could make me not be. And he told me to try again. Not directly, as in getting in my face. But in his sermons, he told me. Try again. And again, after that. And again. And again. It got so that I barely heard him when he spoke those repetitious words. Yes. It was nice that he thought God could or would help. But it just was what it was, with the whiskey and me. We were connected for life, I figured. And sure, it was a choice. I never claimed or thought anything else. But it was a choice I didn’t feel much motivated to change.

Until it all changed, kind of on its own. I wrote about it after it happened. I decided, one Tuesday evening back in late August. After I talked to the guys about it, at our Bible Study. I need to do something about the whiskey. I’m not sure how or what. Later that night, I decided. Tonight, I won’t have a drink. And the next day, that day I didn’t have one, either. And things just took off from there. It’s approaching nine months, now. It’s still for today, for tonight, and maybe tomorrow. Not much further out than that. Just enough to keep walking without a lot of inner noise or stress. So, nine months it’s been, this new stretch of road. Which means very little, statistically. I mean, it was over two years, before, that I was dry. And the day came, after those two years had passed, when I went out one night and bought a bottle of single malt scotch and took it home.

The past may be prelude to the future. I don’t know. Still, you gotta start somewhere. I have no idea what sweet whiskey lullaby the sirens will sing at me, down the road. I guess I’ll see, down the road. I’m OK with that. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. I never made any promises or vows to anyone. Not to any person. Not to God. I’m kind of whistling along, here. Right now, today, I’m feeling pretty good. And right now, today, I’ll keep walking.

Bunny trails are always so tempting and inviting. The point I’m trying to get to. All through that time last summer when the whiskey flowed hard and heavy, all through that time I felt totally free not to go to church. I knew there would be no committee meetings, no vote on who is going to see Ira and admonish him about not coming around to assemble and worship with true believers. I knew that no growling deacon was coming to poke around and smoke me out. I was free to go to church, when I went. And I was free not to go, when I didn’t. If anyone ever tells you it’s a sin to skip church, any church, anywhere, at any time for pretty much any reason, don’t listen to that person. Walk away. Don’t accept the heavy burden of false guilt that others want to load on you. You are free. Walk free.

Circling back to that Saturday morning when I saw the poll question online. It was a little ironic, what happened later that day. The comments simmered down, by afternoon. Most were good-natured. It was interesting, to see what people thought. The grim ones remained grim. It’s a sin, not to go to church if you can. I felt sorry for anyone who felt that way. And that afternoon, I was running errands here and there, when a text came pinging in. From my friend, Steve Beiler, over close to the goat path west of Leola. Stop by if you get a chance. OK, I texted back. I’ll do that.

Steve and Ada Beiler are old friends, from way back. I’ve known them for decades. They attend my church, there at Chestnut. And I have one particular memory, from back in those harsh and heavy days, right after Ellen and I split up in 2007. She had left, moved way out to Phoenix. And I hunkered down alone, at the home we had shared for seven years. I hadn’t shown up in church for a while. I wasn’t looking to hang out with much of anyone. Sometimes you feel like being alone, and all you want is to be left alone. That’s where I was.

And I remember. After a few weeks or so had passed, I got a call from Steve one day. He didn’t say a lot. Guys don’t speak a lot of words to each other in times like that. But that day, Steve called, and I answered. We chatted a bit, and he told me. He figured it was about time to connect. Would I like to meet for coffee? Um, sure, I guess, I said. I felt pretty ambivalent about it. And we agreed on a time, a few nights later.

We met at a little coffee shop in the shopping center just off 501, beside Rt. 30. Of an evening. I’m not sure if it’s still there or not. I hardly go to that area at all. I remember some of the specific things we talked about, sitting at a table, drinking coffee. It was dark when we walked back out to the parking lot. And I remember how we gripped hands just before I got into my truck to drive back to my home. Not a lot of words were spoken. But a lot of things were silently expressed. That’s where Steve and I have been together, a place like that.

I pulled in and parked my Jeep outside Steve and Ada’s house. They were sitting in the office. They have a bunch of beautiful daughters and one sturdy son. I’ve watched all the children grow from the time they were babies. I walked in and took a chair. We chatted. And after a while, Steve looked at me. “Come along with us to Dover tomorrow,” he said. I half gaped at him. Dover. The Monster Mile. They are big, big Nascar fans, Steve and Ada. I used to be, much more than I am now. Nascar isn’t all that exciting to watch, anymore. I mean, it’s three races in one. Stage one, stage two, stage three. It all seems a little watered down. Anyway, here I was invited to skip church the next day and go watch the race.

I thought about it. I haven’t been to a Nascar race since camping with friends inside the oval at the Poconos, back in 2010. That’s been a few years. It’s about time to go again, I thought. Especially when I can go with such good friends and hang out for a day. The old me would have flinched a little, hedged back. Made introverted excuses. Not the new me. Sure, I said. I’ll go. And they both smiled. Noises were made, then. Could I drive my Jeep? Gaaah, I thought. Those crowds are going to be crazy, getting in and out. But still. What’s a new black Jeep for, if you can’t take it to Dover to watch the race with friends on a Sunday? And I said, sure. Again. I can drive. I guess I was on a roll, there.

And they told me, before I left. Pack a few things. Snack bars and such. You can take a backpack in, and a water jug. No glass bottles, though. Well, there went the whiskey I figured to sneak in. Just kidding. I headed home and just putzed around that night. By nine, I had retired. I figured to get up earlier than usual, for a Sunday. I planned to pick up my friends by 7:30 for the two-hour trip south to Dover.

Sunday morning. Early. My alarm clamored. I got up and rubbed my eyes. Good grief. I usually sleep in until 8:00 or so, on a Sunday. This was more like getting up to go to work on a weekday. I got showered and cleaned up. Dug out an old camo rain jacket. That’s what I’d wear, if it got chilly. Outside, the day broke. Cloudy. I noticed the grass was wet, as was the drive. Just before seven, I sat down to put on a pair of tough leather hikers. Comfortable, since we’d park a half hour walk from the track. That’s what Steve figured. They had been to Dover before. I’ve never seen the Monster Mile, except on TV.

And right then, I heard my phone buzz. What now? I walked into the other room and picked it up. Glanced at the screen for the name. Steve. What now? I answered. Hello. Steve greeted me. And he told me. He had not purchased the tickets, yet. Those were easily available, he had told me. But he was just looking at the weather. It was raining outside, here at home. And according to the forecast he was checking online, there would be rain down at Dover, too. There was a better than even chance the race would get rained out.

Well. What do you say in a moment like that? It was going to be a long day, down there at the track. I knew that. Still. I was mentally ready to go. And still, again. The last thing I wanted was to sit huddled in the rain at any Nascar race. That just wouldn’t be any fun. So I told Steve. I’m fine, with whatever. Yesterday, I had no plans to go to the race before I stopped by your place. I can just as easily plan not to go. I’m fine, going to church. We got a fellowship meal today, anyway. (Not that I’d partake in the church meal. But I figured to sneak home a big plate of food for my one meal, that evening.) And Steve made the decision, right there. The trip to the Monster Mile was canceled. We’d go hear the preaching at our church, instead.

And there it was. Whiplash, one might suppose. Except it wasn’t. It all came and went very calmly, as things usually do when you don’t try to manipulate events. When you’re free enough to just let life flow. It was totally OK to go to the race instead of church. And it was totally OK to go to church instead of the race. It was OK, either way, whatever happened. We took all that liberty and simply walked through the door that opened. It did not matter to me, which door that was. And I couldn’t help thinking later that morning, as me and Amish Black drove through the rain to Chestnut Church.

It’s kind of fun, to be free like that.

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