“Ah, Lord!” he muttered, shaking his head sadly,
thinly, wearily in the dark. “I have seen them all…
I have seen them come and go….” And for a moment,
he was silent. “It’s pretty strange when you think
of it,” he muttered….And he was silent, and
darkness, mystery, and night were all about us.
It was just an ordinary late afternoon, last Saturday. Big Blue and I were cruising around, running some errands. And it was a little early to be stopping by, when I came to Vinola’s. But I pulled in. Rosita had told me. She and a few friends were checking out the place tonight, soon before six. The restaurant part, I mean. I love Vinola’s. I think I might have mentioned that before, on this blog. I’m always raving about the place on Facebook. I brag about how great it is, wherever I go. The food is just fantastic. If you’re ever in the area, you really should stop by and check it out. There’s a restaurant, there, for all you people who won’t sit at the bar. If you stop by, tell them Ira sent you. And spend lots of money. I’m figuring to work up a few comp drinks, here. Anyway, I had told Rosita often, at work. You and Ken should check it out sometime. And tonight, she was there, with a few friends. So that’s why I pulled in early, to see them.
They were sitting at a table right close to the door, when I walked in. I sat with them and chatted for a while. Rosita had ordered an “Ira,” a real sweet drink Amy the barmaid named after me a few months back. (Nah, the story of how that all happened would take too much time, so I’ll skip it. I’m pretty proud to have a drink named after me, though.) They were waiting on their food. How’s the drink? I asked. They all beamed. “It’s really sweet and good,” Rosita said. Well, I said. If you’re not used to alcohol, I’d suggest that the three of you just share that one. It’s got a lot of different stuff in it. We chatted along. Outside, in the parking lot, a pickup with a cattle trailer was backing in under the big old oak tree. I looked. It’s not often you see a rig like that pulling into Vinola’s. The driver got out, walked around to the other side, opened the rear door, and pulled out a wheelchair. The guy in the passenger’s side lifted himself over, and they trundled in. I watched. Right up to the bar, they went. It was a little high for the guy in the wheelchair, but he made it work.
I walked over to the bar, then. It was pretty full, for it being so early. I took a seat at the far right end, behind the beer taps. Amy smiled in welcome and mixed up my Rob Roy. She brought it over with my usual glass of water. I hear someone ordered an “Ira” tonight, I told her. She laughed. “Yeah, when she (the server) first asked for it, she said someone wants an ‘Ora.’ I told her to go back and ask again, and she came back and said ‘Ira.’ I knew what to mix up, then,” she said. I laughed, too.
I just relaxed, then, and watched some football. I chatted a bit to the guy next to me. Kind of lean and wiry, he was, with a little blond mustache. He didn’t seem all that talkative, so I didn’t push anything. A few minutes later, I asked him, though. You get here often? I really like this place. I call it my bar. I live only a few miles away, so it’s real handy for me to get to.
“I’m here a lot,” he said. “Just earlier in the day. I got a forty-five minute drive, to get home. But I work two minutes from here. So it’s pretty nice for me, when I’m leaving work, to have a drink before that long drive home. But it’s usually around mid-afternoon, when I stop by. So I’m here late, for me.”
We chatted a bit more. And then I asked what guys ask each other. What do you work? He told me. “I work for (I forget the name), a burial vault company. That’s what I do. I go out and install burial vaults.”
I looked at him, extremely interested. A guy who worked in the death industry. I’ve often seen those trucks going down the road, pulling those funny little trailers. I’ve often wondered how it would be, to work for a place like that. Where you’re out at someone’s grave, almost every day. Not that there’s anything wrong with such work. Someone has to do it. Still, it’s the kind of thing I’ve always kind of shrank from. Working in graveyards. I never figured I’d ever experience anything like actually doing such a thing. Now, here was the next best thing. A guy who did.
Wow, I told him. You mean you go out and install vaults that will hold the coffins? That’s pretty wild. And I asked a lot of questions, rat-a-tat. Do you dig the graves, too? How about covering it, after you put that lid on the vault? What’s a vault made of? How do you deal with being around death, so much? Practically every day like that?
When you ask people what they do for a living, they can tell if you’re genuinely interested with your questions. They can tell, if you’re being fake or real. And he opened right up, and talked and talked. We sat there, sipping our drinks, just like old friends.
And he told me a bit about his work. It’s an industry, of itself. People who work in it know each other, are connected, a lot. He used to manage a smaller vault company, west of here. But he got tired of that, and came over to this much larger company in Leola. He liked not having the pressures that come from management. He liked just working in the shop, and going out to the field. “It’s good pay,” he said. “And I’ll never run out of work. Whatever happens, I’ll always have work.” Yeah, I said. I can sure see that.
And he told me a bit about his world. Most vaults are made of concrete, although you can buy cheaper wooden ones. The concrete vaults are warrantied to remain sealed for a hundred years. What kind of sense does that make? I asked. I mean, who’s gonna dig down and check, say, in fifty or sixty years, whether the lid’s still sealed or not? “It’s just a marketing gimmick,” he said. Well, I said. It’s probably for the living, that warranty. It’s sure not gonna make any difference to the person in the ground. He agreed. “It’s for the living.”
I asked how it all comes down, to take a vault out and put it in the ground. And he told me. He goes out to the graveyard an hour or two before the burial. He backs up to the hole, and that pole and winch system on his little trailer goes to work. He sets the vault down, and makes sure it’s right. Then he pulls off to the side a bit, and waits for the coffin to get there. The vault lid is still on his truck. Often, the deceased’s name is inscribed on the lid. And mourners can come around and check it out, if they want to. After the coffin goes down and the crowd leaves, he lowers the lid onto the vault. He’s the last guy to see the coffin before it disappears forever into the earth.
I kept asking questions. Do you cover up the hole? No, there are companies who contract to dig and cover up. All he does is go put in the vault and lower the coffin and cover it up. Then he leaves. That’s why he’s at Vinola’s earlier, most days. But that day, that Saturday afternoon, he had a late burial, at four o’clock. And that’s why he was there, and that’s why we were talking.
And I told him a little bit about Mom’s passing, last April. I come from the Amish, up in Canada. They bury their dead by hand, I said. It’s all done by hand, and the coffin is lowered by hand. And it’s covered up by hand, too, with shovels. And I told him how, up there in Aylmer, the pallbearers actually get down into the hole, and stand on the lid. And how the dirt is carefully handed down, and carefully placed. Until the lid is covered. Then they throw the dirt in, I said.
He was impressed. “That’s pretty respectful,” he said. “There’s an old guy over in such-and-such township (I don’t remember which one. I wasn’t taking notes.). He’s dug graves by hand, all his life. He’s seventy-two years old, and his hands are unbelievably thick and strong. He’ll dig a grave and cover it up for four hundred bucks. That’s way cheaper than the other contractors charge, with their machines. I told him he needs to raise his prices a bit. I mean, he’s out there, digging and hacking at rocks, in every kind of weather.”
That’s pretty amazing, I said. And then I asked him. Are you ever at a burial where no one shows up? He looked at me. “Yes,” he said. “Two or three a year. But you multiply that by all the workers who are doing what I’m doing, and it adds up.”
That’s awful, I said. How would that be, if no one shows up at your funeral? Not that it would that much difference after you’re gone, I guess. But still, I feel bad for anyone like that.
“I buried a millionaire, once,” he told me. “And there wasn’t a single person there, except me and the undertaker. A millionaire.” Someone had to have lived a pretty lonely life, I said. He looked at me. “His family bought the cheapest coffin they could buy. Do you know what the cheapest coffin is made of?
Oh, probably some kind of pressed wood, I said. He shook his head. Paused a little dramatically. “It’s made of cardboard,” he said. “That millionaire was buried in a cardboard box, and no one came to his funeral.” Ah, man, I said. I feel bad for the guy. “Well,” he said. “The undertaker told me the guy’s brother came in and said they want the cheapest coffin there was. His brother was always cheap, the guy said. So they wanted to treat him how he’d treated them.”
Any way you look at it, that’s pretty sad, I said. It’s sad that anyone would have to be buried alone, buried by strangers. And it’s even sadder that anyone would be buried in a cardboard box. And we talked some more. I asked him. Do you ever sense any spiritual stuff going on, in your work? He looked at me, startled. Well, it has to be there, I said. It has to be.
“Not so much, with what I’m doing, and where I am,” he said. I bet the funeral home people see that stuff, I said. The undertakers. He nodded. “Now there’s one strange bunch of people,” he said. “But in all the years I’ve done this, I’ve ever seen only one body.” And he told me the story.
“There’s this one undertaker who didn’t like me, when I first came around,” he said. “I don’t know why. But he didn’t. And one afternoon, it was only me and him, out there doing the burying. And he claimed that another person had to witness that there was actually a body in that coffin. So he opened it up, and I looked.” He stopped talking and looked at me, and grappled for words. “Then the guy said, ‘Oh, the body slipped down. I have to pull it up and straighten it.’ He stood there, and grabbed the body under each arm, and yanked it around. The head was just flopping all around. I tell you, I can see that as clearly, sitting here telling you about it, as I saw it when it happened.”
Wow, I said. That’s pretty crazy. Yeah, I’m sure the people who embalm bodies see things the rest of us never see. I’m sure they do. He looked at me again, pretty intently. Then he said, “When it comes to protection from any kind of spiritual evil, or any kind of protection, really, I trust Him.” He pointed straight up. “He has protected me, all my life. He has. And I think He will keep right on doing that.” That’s great, I said. Yeah, I hear that. I trust Him, too.
He had to go, then, soon. It was dark outside, and late, for him. After a trip to the restroom, he walked back to me. He stood there, and extended his hand. I shook it. He spoke his name and I told him mine. “Maybe I’ll see you around here again, sometime,” he said. “Thanks for hanging out.” I enjoyed it, too, I told him. And yeah, maybe we can do this again sometime.
A few odds and ends. First, Billy the Ghost. I’m always pretty amazed when people come up and talk about something I wrote. And I’ve heard the question more than a few times. How’s Billy doing? Is he still around? They ask wisely. And I always chuckle and shake my head. Nah, he’s been real quiet, lately. The tenant’s not claiming to be hearing anything. Maybe Billy read what I wrote about him, and decided to lay low for a while. I don’t know. But he’s been real quiet.
And I guess I have a little confession to make. I need to clean up my soul. Confess, and maybe get victory in the future. My book reviews on Amazon, those have been trickling in, off and on, all along. Nothing will show up for weeks and weeks, then all of a sudden, there’s three new ones in two days, or some such thing. And all along, I’ve never, never asked for them, on any public forum. Sure, when I’d give someone a signed copy (and I’ve given away a LOT of copies), I’d suggest that a review would be nice. Some very few people posted one, the vast majority didn’t. And that was OK. I wasn’t going to hound anyone. I gave you a book. Write a review. I wanted it to be a natural thing.
The numbers crawled along, crawled upward, all this past year or two. Four hundred. Then a painstakingly slow climb to that Holy Grail. Five hundred. I wanted that number so bad I could taste it. And a month or two back, one evening I looked and it was at 486. Four hundred and eighty-six reviews on Amazon. And I thought, what the heck? I’m going to ask for some. I want to reach that plateau.
And I did something I had never done before. I went on Facebook and asked for reviews. Here’s what I posted. “Latest review on Amazon. And yeah, I sure keep an eye on it. I want to get to 500. The 484th review had a simple message. ‘It jumps around too much.’ Keep talking, you readers. I don’t care if it’s one star, or five. Just get me to 500.”
And just like that, reviews started popping up. By the next day, it was in the 490s. And a day or two later, I checked the numbers in the morning. And there it was. 500. Five hundred reviews on Amazon. And yeah, I cheated a little. I asked for those last sixteen. Still, when you look at it, that many reviews on Amazon ain’t too bad, no matter how they got there. Especially not for an ex-Amish redneck who just happened to get a book published.
OK. My soul feels cleansed, now. One final thing, about the book. An email came in, way last spring. From some person, at Penn State Dubois. A small, small branch of the original place. Penn State. I’ve always despised that football team. But I have to say, I’ve always respected JoPa. The man was and is a legend. They tore him down, at the end, though. He died, a broken old man, because of all that. It was a public lynching. Everyone piled on hysterically, to deflect from their own sins. All of it made me sick. The way they took his wins away, that’s all just BS, too. If you judge Joe Paterno, you’re judging yourself. You’re judging the dark places in your own depraved heart.
Anyway, I got an email from Penn State DuBois, last spring. It was a “feeler” email. They give a book to all incoming students, to read, before they come. And this year, someone had suggested mine. If they did that, would I consider coming to speak to the incoming class? I almost figured the email was spam. But I answered. Yes. Of course. I’d be delighted to.
I couldn’t figure out, how my book would ever get slipped in like that. To a freshman class, in a secular University. That puzzled me. There has to be something subversive going on, I thought. And we talked, the person at Penn State DuBoise and me. “What’s your speaker’s fee?” She asked.
I don’t even know what a speaker’s fee is. Or I didn’t, back then. I almost said, five hundred dollars. That would cover my cost of fuel. And give me a little, left over. But I didn’t say it. I hedged. What can you offer? And she didn’t hesitate. “How about fifteen hundred dollars?” she asked. Yeah, I said. I think that’ll work for me.
After that happened, I got to thinking. I could have priced myself at twice that, and nobody would have blinked an eye. So now I’m telling the world. If you want me to come speak at any university event, my price is five thousand bucks, plus expenses. Am I worth that? I am, if you’ll pay me. So that’s what I’m charging. I’ll sure consider some pretty hefty discounts, like gas money and food, if you’re contacting me to come speak to your little book club. No discounts for universities, though, unless you fly me to Germany, or some such thing. Then, I’ll take what you give me. Here, in this country, my speaker’s fee is flat. Five grand. Take it or leave it.
And they scheduled me to come speak to the class earlier this month, a few weeks back. It had been a while since I spoke to such a large group. I headed out the day before, and drove all the way up to northwestern PA. Right off Rt. 80, that’s where DuBois is. I checked in at the motel the college had booked for me. I told the clerk my name. He looked at me. “Are you coming to speak about your book?” he asked. Yep, that’s me, I said. “Well, I’ve heard a lot about it,” he told me. Turned out that he was in the freshman class, but he had enrolled only a few days before classes started. So he hadn’t read the book the other freshmen had read earlier in the summer.
The next day, I wandered over to the little campus. Dressed in flannel shirt and jeans. An author can get away with just about anything, when it comes to things like that. We’re expected to be a little eccentric. I checked out the place a bit. Nice little school. At 11:30, I walked in to meet Marly Doty, the person who had contacted me. She showed me the little auditorium, where I’d be speaking. There, I met Tharren Thompson, the Director of Diversity. What a weird title, I thought. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. We hit it right off, he and I. Got along real, real well. Turned out he’s the one who had suggested my book. I thanked him profusely for that.
They had invited the public, too. And the place did not fill up, but a nice little crowd came. Probably sixty-five people, or so. It went about like it always does. I talked for half an hour, then read a passage from the book. The first date scene. And then I opened up for questions. I always enjoy that part. There’s never any shortage of those. And someone always asks. “How is Sarah doing?” I always hang my head in shame. And I tell them what I know.
It was over, then, and I stood in the back, by the piano. Signed the books people brought. And sold and signed a few that I had brought. It was all very enjoyable. I could use a few more events like that. Especially at my current speaker’s fee.
A few words about the Bible Study. The first one had only one person. The second one had three. And we wondered, as the next Tuesday approached. Would anyone new come? Allen Beiler was coming, we knew, and bringing his brother, Andrew. But would anyone else show up?
We hung out upstairs as 6:30 approached. Glancing out the window nervously. And all of a sudden, through the open window. there came a clatter of steel wheels, and the clopping of a horse. There’s a buggy driving in, I hollered at Reuben. The rig pulled up to the hitching rail, and a young man stepped out. Tied up his horse. And we went and welcomed him. A friend of mine, who I’ve known for years. I hadn’t seen him in a while, though. Allen and Andrew arrived, then, and we all had a real good time. The third Bible Study had five people. Not exactly taking the world by storm, here. But still. Increasing numbers.
Then, on Tuesday of this week, I got a call from my friend, Amos Smucker. He’s a horse dentist. I’ve never heard of such a thing. There were no such people around where I grew up. And now, a horse dentist wanted to come to where we are gathering. Could he come that night? He wondered. And could he bring a friend? Of course, I told him. Anyone can come. You don’t have to ask permission. You can come once, and never come back again, if that’s what you want. You can come sporadically, when it suits you. It’s not a continuation, the Bible Study, where you have to be there every week, or you’ll miss something. No particular theme. Just listening to individual sermons. Just come when you can.
And that night, nine people showed up, including the guy driving the horse and buggy. We were kind of a rag-tag group, I guess. But we were all pretty comfortable, I think. The group doesn’t have a name, yet. Maybe we could call ourselves the Rag-Tags.
And I thought about it, later. The most honest place you’ll ever find is at the bar. That’s where people open up, where people speak from the heart. And that’s how safe and comfortable we’d like our Bible Study to be. As safe and comfortable as the bar.
But at night, had they not heard the howlings of demented wind,
the sharp, clean, windy raining to earth of acorns? Had all of them
not walked down lonely roads at night in winter and seen a light
and known it was theirs? Had all of them not known the wilderness?
OK. I know I’m going to get clobbered, here. At least figuratively, by a lot of you. But I’m going to say it anyway, because it’s triggered by events that have just been coming down around me. And you write from where you are, is what I’ve always claimed. So I’ll just go ahead and say it. I’ve never liked Bible Studies or Prayer Meetings. Never been all that comfortable in or around such places. To me, Prayer Meetings and Bible Studies have always been just flat-out boring, and dreadfully dull.
I’m not talking about your Bible Study, or your prayer group, if you attend such a thing and enjoy it. I’m not saying you don’t get a lot of support from your “small group” people. So don’t go and get all offended. I’m only talking about my own perceptions. My own experiences. I come from the Amish. They don’t do such things. They never meet to openly pray, or study the Bible. Plus, they only have church service every two weeks. You come from a setting like that, and it’s a little different. It’s disconcerting when you suddenly walk into a world where there’s church every Sunday. And some sort of church or Bible Study every Wednesday night. It’s like, oh my, all of this is a bit much. It’s a lot of talk, from a lot of people who don’t have a whole lot of other choices. Do I really have to go? And it all got just a wee bit tiresome, for me.
I remember it so well, when I moved down to Daviess from northern Indiana after I left the Amish. The Wagler family welcomed me. And it was just naturally assumed I’d go to their church. Mount Olive Mennonite. A plain, plain group. Pretty much like the Beachy Amish, maybe even stricter in some ways. And that church welcomed me, too, just like the Waglers had. I was pretty traumatized right at that time. I had broken free, and I knew there would be no return. Ever. But I wasn’t quite sure what it was to walk forward. The people at Mount Olive made me welcome. They were kind, and I will never forget that kindness.
I remember the first Wednesday night service I ever went to, after leaving. Prayer Meeting, I think they called it. Same as a Bible Study, really, except it’s the whole church. Someone had a topic of some sort. “Topics” are usually dry as a bone. There’s lots of admonishing going on, about what it is to live right. And lots of Amens. After the topic that night, we split off into small groups. I tagged along with the little group of youth I was with, as we walked down to the basement. And we sat around, in a little circle. Someone asked for prayer requests. People said things like “We need rain. Crops are real dry.” Or “Let’s pray for so-and-so, that he’ll get saved.” I can’t ever remember a real meaningful deep personal request coming from anyone’s heart. But I digress. Back to that very first night. After the requests were gathered, someone started praying. A short prayer, maybe a minute or two. And then the next person prayed. I stirred, and looked around in panic. It was creeping right around, and soon it would be my turn. I’d never prayed aloud in public, before. I didn’t know how. What do you say? And then it was the guy next to me’s turn. He prayed. And then it was my time. My turn.
The only reason I remember that particular scene is because of that frozen moment. I sat there, silent and paralyzed. I couldn’t speak. After an agonizing ten or twenty seconds, I waved my hand. I pass. And mercifully, the guy on the other side of me didn’t blink or hesitate. He prayed his little prayer. And it went on around the circle, until it was finished. Nobody mentioned anything, about how I had not prayed. But I felt pretty ashamed. And yes, the next time at Prayer Meeting, I did manage to squeak out a few words. It was so hard to force myself. I just didn’t come from a place like that. And in time, I got to be decently fluent, when speaking aloud to the Lord. One thing, though. My spoken prayers were never, never long. They still aren’t. Not anything like the prayers from my heart. Those prayers go on and on, every day, like a preacher who doesn’t know when it’s time to shut up and sit down. I’m OK with that, though. I think the Lord is OK with that, too.
The Mount Olive Church people were pretty plain and strict. And if you didn’t show up at Prayer Meeting for a few weeks in a row, someone would come to investigate. Ahem. Any particular reason we’re not seeing you on Wednesday nights? And you shrivel, before an interrogation like that. You never really had a whole lot of choice. You had to go. A couple of things saved me, in the end. I came out to Lancaster, that first summer, to work for the money that I needed for college. And that fall, I enrolled at Vincennes University. So I wasn’t around, much, on Wednesday nights, anymore. I had a valid excuse, not to go to those Prayer Meetings. No one bugged me about not being there. And that was all just fine with me.
Those were Prayer Meetings. I’ve run into a few Bible Studies, too, in my wanderings. Little groups of adult singles, mostly, years ago. I went sometimes, just to mingle. And to meet people. But I was uneasy, at some of what went on. There was always lots of talk about some “victory” someone was living, right then. Lots of cheering going on, and bland talk about how good God is. Always, at some point, they’d try to get you to share your innermost dark secrets. Your sins. The stuff you were struggling with. The places of the heart that only the Lord knows. And maybe one or two other persons, in all the world, if that. I’m not gonna share that kind of stuff with people at a Bible Study. I’m just not, not when I just walked into the door. Why would I trust what they’re telling me to do? Why would I speak from the dark places in my heart? I wouldn’t. And I didn’t. I didn’t know them well enough, to go there. Not everyone was like that, of course. I met some real nice people at Bible Studies, people who truly cared, and were doing their best to walk a Christian life. It was the nosy ones that irritated me.
And mostly, I remember this, about the nosy ones. They seemed garishly eager, to get you to talk. Come on. Share your struggles. Share your sins. It was, of course, so they could “pray” for you. You won’t get victory unless you confess. And repent. That’s what they told me. And the more they pressured me, the more I shrank from them. From what I’d seen and heard in the Mennonite and Beachy communities, people ask you to share your burdens so they can pray for you, sure. And I’m sure they do. Pray for you, from above. But then they run around and tell others, often. Their “prayer circle” friends, probably. Those that do, their talk is always cloaked with “loving” language, like, the poor boy is struggling and needs prayer. Please pray for Ira. But at its core foundation, stuff like that is nothing but flat-out gossip. That’s something I saw, growing up. Gossip, I mean. Not Prayer Meetings. And I can sense the roots of gossip, no matter what kinds of glossy words it’s coated with.
That’s all real sketchy detail, right there. And I know it’s sketchy, to explain where I’m coming from. It all was what it was, back when it happened. And I may have been a little overly sensitive. But that’s why I’ve always had issues with Prayer Meetings and Bible Studies. And that’s where I am, or was, until real recently. And to tell you why I’m in a different place, there’s a big time bunny trail coming up, right here. But I promise to circle back.
There’s an old friend in my life. His name is Reuben. We’ve known each other all our lives. We were pretty much best friends, in all that time. I mean, from back when we were kids. And a number of years back, he made some very, very bad choices. He chose to walk down some real hard roads. He made some destructive, destructive decisions. And his world blew up. Just blew up into smithereens. He chose to leave his wife and family, for an idol. He did that. Walked away from his family. And from where I was at that time, well, he chose to leave all we had known as old friends, for an idol, too. And we were totally estranged, he and I, for a few years. Oh, yes, we were. If you know the story, you don’t need to hear it told again. If you don’t know the story, then what you’re being told here is enough.
Let’s just say that I wrote savagely at him, right here on this blog. I swore to curse him and his seed forever. Never quite got that done, though. I wanted to, but somehow, it just never happened. And yeah, that writing is all still right where I posted it, back when. It’s a record of a journey, I guess. And no, I won’t point you to any of it. If you want to read it, track it down yourself.
He left, then, and moved to a faraway land for a few years. And then, about three years ago or so, he moved back into the area to reconnect with his broken family. Mostly with his children, his sons and daughters. He wanted to get back into the daily operations of his business at Graber Supply, too. And he reached out to me, to see if some kind of reconciliation could be possible. I was extremely skittish, when he approached me, put out the feelers. But I didn’t discount it. And over time, we got to where we could talk, face to face. And there was a glimmer there, of what once was before. I could see it was all worth repairing, the broken pieces. Time had moved on. It couldn’t be what it was before, I figured. The friendship, I mean. But it could be something. Something worth building back up.
And, yeah, I’m very aware that there are many people out there who have looked very strangely at me in the past few years. What are you thinking? We’re lined up, here, behind you, with our swords drawn. Ready to follow and strike and condemn Reuben for all his sins. What’s wrong with you? You were real mad. Seething mad, bent to destroy all he is or ever was. And then, all of a sudden, you just laid down your sword. Are you weak, or what? How can we hold our swords up, when you won’t hold up your own? How can we follow, when you won’t lead?
And yeah, I hear all that talk. Well, not so much talk as murmurs. I feel those people looking askance, all around me. And that’s OK. I am where I am. I choose to walk where I walk. If you think that’s weak, that’s OK, too. But my response to all such bloodthirsty Christians is this. Thank you. I appreciate your loyal support. But I got a simple thing to ask. Why don’t you live your own lives, and let me live mine? What possible business is it of yours, what choices I make about who I hang out with?
And over time, we relaxed a bit, Reuben and me. There was still some tension there, depending on what might come up, or what might be triggered in my mind. There were a whole lot of moments like that, in my head. But we worked hard at it, he and I, to reach a new dawn. And I have to say, it was all pretty seamless, when he came back into the daily operations of his company.
It’s been tough, for him, outside of my own issues. And no, this is not a sob story about the poor guy. We all pretty much deserve what comes at us, that way. But still, it has been tough. There’s a whole heck of a lot of judgment out there, at him. Totally deserved, I’m sure. But still. At what point does one begin to lower the walls a bit? Even for such a wicked sinner as him?
There’s always a light that comes shining through, at some point, in a story such as this. Or the telling of it probably wouldn’t be happening. And that light came last November. Reuben and I had taken to hanging out, after work, every couple of weeks or so. We sipped scotch, and talked. (When we reconnected, I swore I would never drink with him. It took more than a year, for that little oath to fall by the wayside.) And it was mostly good, always. But one day, after work, he seemed a little excited. He had read some article on some internet site, written by some leftist woman who worked for Fox News. I don’t remember her name, and it doesn’t matter. But she was pretty well known. She came from the high-browed, elitist crowd. She was way too smart, way too educated to believe in such a thing as God. Faith was for hicks. And she wrote about how she came to know Christ. She lived in New York City. The center of the world. And somehow, she got drawn to attend a church there. Redeemer Presbyterian. She heard the sermons of Pastor Tim Keller. And eventually, she wrote, the hound of heaven hunted her down. Jesus stood by her bed, in a dream. And asked her to come to him. And now she knew. Now she believed in Jesus. And she wrote very unashamedly about her journey. And about where she was right then, and how she got there.
Reuben was fascinated by that article. It was so open and so honest, especially coming from a mainstream media personality. And he followed the link the woman posted, to Redeemer Presbyterian. And in less than a week, I saw the change in him. He was listening to those sermons. He told me about it. I’ve never seen the man more excited. He sent me a link or two. And one Sunday, when I couldn’t make it to Chestnut Street Chapel, I pulled up that link and listened. Tim Keller is a very dynamic speaker. And no, I don’t mean he yells and carries on. He doesn’t. He talks very calmly, infusing his message with lots of humor. But it’s always, always grounded in Scripture. And his message was inside out, from all I ever heard, growing up. Not that I hadn’t heard it before. It’s right along the same veins that Pastor Mark Potter has been preaching at Chestnut Street, these past three years or so. The same stuff. Powerful stuff. Life-changing stuff. It doesn’t take you long, to grasp the real truth, what real freedom is, when you hear Pastor Mark. And it doesn’t take you long, when you hear Tim Keller.
Reuben listened and listened to those Tim Keller sermons. I know that because the man wouldn’t stop talking about what he was hearing. Always, in every conversation, it got woven in, somehow, what he’d heard. And it changed him, too. His personality. He’s always been a driven man, as you’d have to be, to build up a business like he did. And he’s always had a tendency, sometimes, to let the pressures get to him. He’d get all snappy and uptight and loud. That part of him disappeared, almost completely and very soon.
And he told me, early on. “Every morning, when I get up, that’s the first thing I do. I drink coffee and listen to a sermon.” Well, what do you do with that? You cheer the man on, in this case. As I did. I was hearing the same stuff at my church, just at a more entry level. It’s preached for people like me, people who come from a guilt-ridden background like the Amish. Here is the path. It’s upside down, from all you ever heard. That’s what Pastor Mark preaches. So I could connect with what Reuben was telling me about what he was hearing.
I thought the whole thing might fade, for Reuben. He was living pretty loosely, in some areas of his life, back last November. Just like I’ve lived pretty loosely with my scotch for some time, now. And I saw him ponder and reflect on what was or wasn’t right. Not as a lost person. But as a child of God, awaking to the light, struggling to grasp, to see, to accept the gift that was there for him. And the next thing you knew, he was driving to New York City every Sunday morning, to actually attend Redeemer Presbyterian. Right into the big old evil city, he went. Week after week, and Sunday after Sunday. And he wouldn’t stop talking about what he was hearing. The gospel. I marveled. And I told him. When you hear a particularly good sermon that you think I might like, send me the link. He took me up on that. Two or three times a week, here comes another email with a link. I made a separate file, the Keller file, for what he sends me. And when I feel the need, I go and click on one of those sermons. I listen to what he heard. And I completely understand why Reuben is so excited about it all. Tim Keller is a true (and flawed) servant of God.
And no, it didn’t happen as you’d expect it to in any feel-good Christian story. Where everything suddenly gets all cleaned up and everyone is reunited and singing happy praises. And now everything is perfect. It didn’t and it’s not. Life is messy, and it’s just as messy for Christians as it is for anyone else. At least it is, if you’re honest. Which a lot of Christians aren’t, because they think they have to act all happy and bubbly about what Jesus did for them, all the time. That kind of pressure is an awful thing. So this little story doesn’t end like that. Reuben did not return to his wife. They are divorced. They remain divorced. I don’t judge that. How can I? I’m divorced, too.
And time passed on. A month or two ago, he told me one day. He’d love to start a men’s group of some kind. A Bible Study, although he didn’t call it that. He had in mind that a few guys could just hang out, upstairs in the conference room at work. And listen to a Keller sermon. They’re only forty minutes long, right across. And then there would be discussion. Sure, I said. If that’s what your heart’s telling you to do, then just do it. “Ah, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure anyone will come if I invite them.” Well, try it. And he texted a few friends, a few weeks back. “Next Tuesday evening, at 6:30. I’d love to see you here, for a Bible Study.”
I’d come, I told him when he asked. But this is blog week. I don’t go out evenings on blog week, much. But go ahead. And that Tuesday, I asked him. Anyone committed to coming, yet? “No,” he said. “I guess I’ll just go and wait and see if anyone shows up.” And that’s what he did. The next morning, I asked him. Well, who came? “I had a very nice time,” he said bravely. “All by myself.” And I felt bad for the man. Here he was, all excited. Wanting to just get together with a few guys, and share what he had found. And no one came.
Have one again next Tuesday night, I said. I’ll come, if no one else will. And so he scheduled it for Tuesday of last week. As that day came, I asked him. Did anyone commit to come? “No,” he said. “Are you still coming?” I plan to, I said. And I got to thinking. Who could I invite? This is Lancaster County. Everyone’s all busy all the time. It’s tough, to get something like this going. I called one friend. He’d like to, but he had other things planned. That’s totally OK, I said. I just thought I’d check.
Then I thought of my friend, Allen Beiler. He and his family have been coming to my church, now and then. I knew he was a market guy. Late in the week never suits him. He’s at market. But this was Tuesday. So I texted him. Would you like to come to a Bible Study here at the office tonight? I figured he would have something going. But he texted right back. “This is a little weird. I was just going to text you to see if you want to go hang out at Vinola’s tonight. So, sure, I’ll plan on being there.” Great. There will be at least three guys, I thought. That’s better than one, and it’s better than two. I texted Reuben. My friend Allen’s coming. He was going to text me to see if I want to hang out at Vinola’s. He’s coming here, instead. His response: “Amazing.”
I just puttered around at my desk after the others left at five. And right at six, Reuben walked in. He’d brought snacks and bottled water. He trundled everything upstairs, and set it out. Way too much food. And we sat there, talking, the two of us. We kept glancing out toward the road. A few minutes after 6:30, Allen’s big old dually pulled in. He parked, and walked up to join us. I made the introductions, and we sat and visited for a while. And then Reuben pulled up the sermon he had in mind for that first night.
We sat around the table and listened and took a few notes. Keller’s theme. Is God love or is He judgment? One side claims He’s all love. The other side focuses pretty much on judgment. And Keller asked. Does God judge us? Oh, yes, He does. He judges every single thought, every single action, every second of every day. Not that He’s standing there with a big old sledgehammer to whack you with, if you make a mistake (my words, not his). But He definitely judges everyone, all the time. Keller gets a lot said in forty minutes. He had several closing points. The one I remember was this. If God is the judge, that means we have no right to be. Not saying you don’t judge people’s actions. This is me speaking again, not Keller. We have to. In business, for instance. If you’ve given me a bunch of bad checks in the past, I’ll insist that you pay cash for any building materials you buy from me. Things like that. There’s ten thousand more examples.
But we never, never have any right to judge another person’s heart. Never. That’s God’s job. We have no right to be resentful or unforgiving at anyone who’s wronged us, either. No matter how deep that wrong was. And, yeah, I know a little bit about all that. It takes time, often, to get over a wrong, to heal from a wound that sliced deep. Lots of time, sometimes. And it takes Light that can only come from one source. Time. And Light. I guess it can all be broken down into two other things Keller keeps talking about, too. Forgiveness. And love.
And those two terms don’t mean anything close to what I was brought up thinking they mean. Forgiveness isn’t so much consciously forgiving someone else for the wrong they did me. It’s more like trying to get some small, small grasp of how deeply depraved my own heart is (Yes, is. Not was.), and how much I have been forgiven, simply as a gift, by grace. And love? That’s simply loving God.
After the sermon was over, we just sat around and talked. And it was open and honest talk. Good stuff, spoken from our hearts. And no, there was no closing prayer, although there certainly would have been nothing wrong with one. We just didn’t think about it. By soon after 8:00 or so, we were fixing to leave. And we talked about it. This was great. When can we do it again? We checked our schedules. We settled on next Tuesday evening, Oct. 14th. Here at Graber Supply, at 6:30. Allen’s going to pick the sermon we’ll listen to. Let’s try to get a few more people over, we agreed.
And now, for the first time in my life, I guess I can say I’m excited about going to a Bible Study. And if you’re a guy and you’re anywhere close, you are welcome to attend, too. I don’t care who you are, or what you believe. You can be one who sees things just like I do, or close to it. Or you don’t have to believe anything, about whether or not there is a God. You can be an agnostic, or an atheist. You’re still welcome. And I’m not just saying that. You really are. Yeah, you’ll have to listen to a sermon. That might be a negative thing to you. But it’s only forty minutes long, and I think you’ll be intrigued. And no, you won’t get clobbered, or ganged up on. You will be totally accepted. Same thing goes for all you judgmental Christians, too, of course. Come and listen, and speak your voice. You will be heard. I don’t care what your motivations are. You are welcome. And you will be totally accepted, too.
A couple of rules, and I mean, only two. You are expected to be cordial in your speech and conduct, of course. That’s a given. But the only two real rules are this. No drinking at the Bible Study. (You can go to the bar afterward, if you want. But you can’t drink there.) And if you smoke, you must step outside to do so. Those rules seem pretty manageable, I think.
I’m not sure where this thing is going, or if it’ll ever develop into much. For now, it is what it is, I guess. Just a few guys, hanging out. I’m looking forward to what might yet come, though.