February 15, 2008

Preachers…(Sketch #6)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:58 pm


“They are gone now, those giants of the earth in the
world of my youth…..the preacher whose powerful,
high-strung voice reverberated like a gong through
the assembled congregation in countless sermons
over the years..…”

—Ira Wagler, “At Dusk in Winter”

The mid-Spring winds whipped and swirled around the house that afternoon. Brooding clouds roiled overhead, threatening more showers. Inside the house, a large group of people was sitting upon row after row of backless wooden benches. Many nodded off, then guiltily jerked awake and tried to focus on the speaker. He droned on and on. The hours passed. As he concluded, a tautness, a strained tension swept through the assembly like a living thing.

It was Sunday afternoon at our home in Bloomfield, Iowa. The date: May 7, 1978. I was sixteen years old. We were having communion service, or “Big Church,” as we used to call it. An all-day affair. But this particular service was distinct from most of the semi-annual Big Church services. Because at the end, around four o’clock or so, a new preacher would be ordained.

Bishop George, the elder statesman, and his minions finally wrapped up the regular Big Church service by distributing the bread and wine. Then church members washed each others’ feet as the last song was sung. As the last note died away, everyone sat there quietly, expectantly. The whole house pulsed with palpable tension.

Bishop George, a slight bald man with a long gray beard, stood to recite the rules of the ordination. He and the other preachers would retire to a separate side room, which happened to be my parents’ bedroom. One preacher would open the door a crack and place his ear in the opening. All members would vote by whispering their choice into the preacher’s ear. A tally would be taken. Any married man with three or more votes would be in the lot.

Bishop George and the preachers retreated into the room and closed the door. And the voting began. The older men went first. Walked up to the door, paused briefly, then whispered their choices, and returned to their seats on the backless benches. Then, in accordance with their age, the younger married men, the young unmarrieds, the women and finally, the single girls.

I was not a member. So I didn’t vote. My buddies and I, normally a wisecracking surly bunch, watched somberly. Wide-eyed. No smart-alecky actions. No smirks. The air was heavy, oppressive.

It took awhile. Then, after the last member had voted, the door shut on the cloistered preachers. They tallied the votes. Minutes passed. Then Deacon Menno popped out of the side room door and gathered five Ausbund song books. And popped back in. Everyone pretended not to notice, but all eyes took a careful count. There would be five men in the lot.

Minutes later, the preachers filed out in somber procession. The tension escalated. The time was at hand. They took their seats on the bench along the wall. Deacon Menno arranged the five song books on a little table. Each book was tied shut with a thin white string. Then Bishop George got up. Cleared his throat.

“There are five brothers in the lot,” he announced in his high, squeaky voice. “They are ….” And he slowly, concisely pronounced the five names. The chosen men, seated at various points among the other men of the congregation, sagged visibly as each one heard his name.

Then slowly, one by one, they got up. Instructed their wide-eyed young children to remain seated on the bench while Daddy left for a few minutes. And walked the long path alone up to the little table with the books. Each man chose a book and picked it up, then sat on the bench before the table. Soon all five were seated. Five books. Five men. Waiting in suspense.

After a short prayer, Bishop George slowly approached the bench, where the five men sat. He took the book from the first. Untied the white string. Opened it.


The first man almost collapsed with relief. Bishop George handed back the book and took the book from the next man’s trembling hands. Fumbled with the string. Untied it. Opened the book.

Again, nothing.

The three remaining men viewed the situation with increasing alarm and accelerating heartbeats. The congregation looked on. No one moved. No one breathed. Original odds were one out of five. Now it was one out of three. Bishop George approached the third man and held out his hand. Took the book. Untied the string. Opened it.

Again, nothing.

Now it was down to one out of two. Two young men. What passed through their minds at this instant remains known only to them. They sat there, frozen with the pressure. Mercifully, Bishop George did not prolong their agony. He approached the fourth man and held out his hand. Took the book. Untied the string. Opened it.

Inside the front cover of the book was a little slip of white paper. Bishop George’s hand shook slightly as he took the little slip of paper. He looked down at the young man before him and made a slight motion with his hand. Pointed his right index finger, sig-nifying, “You are the one.”

The young man slowly struggled to his feet. And there, before us all, Bishop George ordained him, proclaiming him a minister of the gospel from this day forth, until his death. The young man briefly lost control of his emotions; his body shook and racked with quick, choppy sobs. Only briefly, then he stood there quietly, his head bowed. Accepted the office, and the duties he would henceforth carry.

The other men in the lot, vastly relieved at the outcome, now clustered around the young man who had just been ordained, and comforted him. The preachers, too, all of them, came and welcomed him into their midst.

Then it was over. The congregation was dismissed. The young man sat down on the bench. He looked around him, at all the shadowy figures meshing in a hazy blur. He was now a preacher. Until his death. His life would never be quite the same. Never.

Nor would my family’s. The young man ordained that day was my oldest brother, Joseph. He was thirty years old.

And that’s how it all comes down. How an Amish preacher is ordained. He gets up that morning, just a regular member of the church, and goes to the service with his wife and children. He returns home that evening, ordained for the rest of his life. A preach-er. Lots of work, for no pay. Just like that.

The whole thing takes less than an hour. Wham, bam. And there is no counseling session, no discussion with the ordained to see whether or not he has a calling. If the lot hits him, he had a calling. If it doesn’t, he doesn’t, at least until the next ordination. If a man feels he has a calling and is so proud as to express that, he never, and I mean never, gets ordained. Nobody votes for him.

It’s the only system the Amish have ever used, and is based on the account in the New Testament where the Apostles replaced Judas after he betrayed Jesus. Matthias was chosen by lot.

The system has its flaws. But overall, it works amazingly well. A quiet young man who never had much to say will be ordained, and, with no training whatsoever, gets up to preach a month later. Sink or swim. Somehow, he swims. And over the course of years, develops into a gifted speaker and a powerful preacher.

Of course, the reverse is also true. I’ve heard many a sermon from preachers who could not speak publicly. Who spent the first ten minutes of their sermons bemoaning the “heavy load” of their calling. Men who sank, overwhelmed. Who should never have been ordained, in my opinion. The worst of these are the ones who don’t realize they are sinking. And go on and on, saying nothing. Not sound and fury, signifying nothing. Then you’d at least have sound and fury. But saying nothing, signifying nothing.

But the lot chose them. Like it chose Matthias the Apostle. But, if I’m not wrong, we read nothing more of Matthias, other than that he was ordained by lot. So perhaps he wasn’t that great a speaker, either.

When I was a child in Aylmer, we had three preachers in our little church that consist-ed of a single district. Peter Yoder, the Bishop. Nicholas (Nicky) Stoltzfus. And Jacob (Jake) Eicher. In my childish world, they seemed like giants of thunder upon the earth. They still are, in my mind. I can close my eyes and see them, and hear their voices still. Preaching extemporaneously, with no podium and no notes.

Peter Yoder was of medium height and girth, a gentle man with a gentle voice. Ordained at around twenty years old, he was a Bishop before he turned thirty. A remarkable thing. He was married to my father’s older sister, Martha. They never had any children, but adopted two little girls, sisters, after they moved to Aylmer. Betty and Mary.

He putzed around on small farm and had a little harness shop. The shop always reeked of the fine new leather he used for mending harness. It was attractive to children because Uncle Pete had a shelf filled with boxes of candy bars. For five cents apiece. He also sold cheap, tinny pocket watches, hanging on display, mounted on a cardboard poster. The boys in our family got one of those pocket watches on our eleventh birth-day. (We were allowed to shoot the .22 rifle on our twelfth.)

Over the years, Peter developed a stellar reputation as a trouble-shooting Bishop. He traveled extensively to other communities to help settle church disputes and other problems. His grave and gentle demeanor established his credibility and gave weight to his words.

In 1972, along with several other families, he and his wife moved to the new community of Marshfield, MO. Before moving, they held an auction on their farm to dispose of excess goods. Peter’s old plug of a driving horse, Ichabod, was purchased that day by Solomon Herrfort (Sept. 14th post).

Peter never got too excited while preaching, although occasionally he worked himself into a ghost of a mellow rhythm. His voice never carried like some, but I did not dislike hearing him. A gentle man. With a gentle voice.

He died in the early 1990s, while I was a student at Bob Jones. In Aylmer. And was buried there. My sister Maggie and I considered making the long journey from South Carolina to attend his funeral, but I was hesitant to leave my classes, even for a few days. I have always regretted that we didn’t go.

Nicky Stoltzfus was my least favorite of the three. A tall, gaunt man with a long, long majestic beard that curled out at the tip, well below his chest. He had hollow eyes, hidden under bushy brows. He always sported just a shade of stubble above his mouth, just a hint of a mustache. He believed there was nothing wrong with having a mustache. Which was anathema to the established Amish church, a cause of much dispute.

The real scholar, the theologian of the three, he preached by far the deepest sermons. In a bone-dry voice. Never raised. Paying little heed to the time, which made him very unpopular with the children. Nicky believed in extreme simplicity and often preached while barefooted. I don’t know if such a thing would even be legal now, what with all the laws about health and cleanliness and such. As a child napping with my head on my father’s lap in church, I often wished Nicky would just shut it down and sit down.

Influenced perhaps by his Anabaptist roots, Nicky sincerely (and perhaps a bit eagerly) anticipated the imminent persecution of Christians like himself. Late one night, he and his wife Lucille, enjoying the peaceful slumber of the just, were rudely awakened to a great clattering of chains outside in the dark. Nicky and Lucille were terrified, and knew that the Communists had arrived and were coming for the preachers first. Rising and moving with quiet haste, they snuck out the back door with their daughter Millie in tow and fled into the fields. In the dark. Barefooted, probably, with no time to pack any-thing. Sadly (or fortunately), it turned out that Nicky’s large Holstein bull had broken through the barnyard fence and amused himself by banging his nose chain against the gas barrel out beside the shop, causing the great clattering that had roused them from their slumber.

Nicky moved out of Aylmer in 1970. Like a wandering vagabond, he drifted to a number of remote and plain communities over the next twenty years. He ended up in Rich Hill, MO, where people can still hide out in the hills and not be bothered. When old acquaintances stopped by to see him there, Nicky’s first concern was to find out how they were traveling. If they were traveling by car, he admonished them for their worldly ways. To avoid unpleasantness, people took to parking their cars some distance away and walking to his house from there. (What, me? Nope, I just walked here. Yep. From Pennsylvania. And yes, it was a long and dusty journey. A cold drink of water would be nice.)

He passed away recently; I’m not sure exactly when. In his final years he lost his sight. Was completely blind. But even then, still he preached while sitting on a chair. Drawing his sermons from the vast, internal wellsprings of his fertile mind.

Jake Eicher. A frustrated engineer at heart. Jake’s hands were always stained black with the ink and grease he handled on his job as Pressman for Pathway Publishers. He printed all the issues of “Family Life” for probably the first ten years. Kept the clanking, hissing presses rolling, often by sheer ingenuity.

A fiery man with flat, straight-hanging hair and bushy beard, Jake preached in a powerful high-strung voice that invaded the last crevice in the remotest corner of the largest house. I’ve heard it said of Jake, perhaps unkindly, that he had one good sermon in him and that we heard it many times. Probably true. But the man could keep the children awake and alert. He was my favorite, and the favorite of most children. We never napped when he rose to take the floor. He usually stood behind his chair for the first few minutes, warming up, then pushed the chair aside and strode a few steps, back and forth through the open doorway separating the two rooms, waving his arms as the mesmerized congregation absorbed the high rolling thunder of his voice. There were few like him.

He too passed away, sometime in the mid-1990s, I think. I did not hear of his death until weeks after he was gone. He was bedridden for several months before he died, and could not speak. During this time, they say, he often wept, sobbing like a child.

Bishop Pete Yoder. Nicky Stoltzfus. Jake Eicher.

They were preachers. Giants on the earth in the world of my youth. But, in retrospect, common men, with common human flaws. Who lived their lives in strict accordance with their simple faith. Men who have now passed on. Men, chosen by lot, who labored faithfully and tirelessly without complaint for decades in their Master’s vineyard. Men who transferred the mantle of their calling to those who followed, in the same manner they themselves were called.

Like my brother. Who in turn has already assisted in ordaining those much younger than himself. Men who will carry on after he passes to his own reward. And so the continuation flows through time like water, from one generation to the next. As it has for the last three hundred years. As it will for as long as the Amish church endures.


February 8, 2008

Prisoner of “Freedom”

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


“In prison, those things withheld from
and denied to the prisoner become
precisely what he wants most of all.”

—Eldridge Cleaver

He would be free, he thought.

Free from the prison of his unhappy circumstances.

Free to live life as it should be lived, to greet and seize each day. Savor it. Extract from it all he could. To live. Really live. And be free to share his passions with the “love of his life,” his soul mate.

He had a wife. And family. And a very successful business he had patiently nurtured over the course of many years. Wealth. A beautiful new home. On top of a hill, sur- rounded by trees and fields and a pond.

But his soul was empty. He chafed to live. To be free. He threw his energy into many different things. Missions. Flying. A new church group, founded from the ground up. He even bought an old church house and donated it to the church group.

He was voted into office as a church leader. Not an elder. A team, they called it. He was one of five. Took his turn occasionally preaching a sermon. He waved his Bible and peered over his bifocals at his audience from behind the little podium. Forcefully proclaimed the Word. With darkness in his heart and death in his soul.

Because something had happened.

He had found the “love of his life.” His soul mate. There was only one small problem. She was married to someone else.

Despite that, they launched into a passionate affair. In secret, as such things always begin. It seemed so exciting. The affair was different from all others in history, he felt, because it involved them. He convinced himself it was not wrong, but right. The affair continued for about a year, with increasing intensity.

He envisioned the future, when they would be together. When they would be free. And begin a new life. In a faraway place.

Then one day, almost exactly one year ago, he made some bad decisions. Let down his guard. Showed up at a public event. Displayed for all to see his devoted attach- ment to her. Trailed around after her like a smitten puppy. The relationship was exposed. At least a part of it.

The proverbial crap hit the proverbial fan. A major explosion followed.

He bluffed. Lied. Blatantly. Pounded his fist on the table. Wept some crocodile tears. Claimed it was not what it appeared to be. Figured the full force of his aggressive personality would overwhelm any inquiries.

The bluff worked. For awhile. And the lies. But not for long. The truth eventually clawed its way to the surface. Was proclaimed from the roof tops. Flew across the land like a lightning bolt. In all its raw and bloody details. He staggered from the blow.

Unknown to anyone, he had traveled to a large southwestern city and bought a big house on two acres. For himself. And his soul mate. By then, she had left her husband and moved to another large city, not that far away from the city where he bought his big new house.

His big new house was a beautiful place. In an upscale neighborhood. Perfect views of the mountains. And high-desert sunsets. A place to be free.

And so he left. His family. His church. His business. All his friends. Moved two thousand miles away to his big new house. With its beautiful views of the mountains and high-desert sunsets.

Now I can be free, he thought. He changed his first name. New life, new identity, and all that. Hiked the mountains around his big new house. Tanned in the sun. Bought a new convertible. Lost some weight. Let his hair grow long. Whitened his teeth. Took dancing lessons. So he could dance with his soul mate.

It was fun. He felt free. For awhile. But he was alone, mostly. And strangely empty. His support structure evaporated. Old friends no longer spoke to him. Or hung out. Or returned his calls. Slowly, realization dawned. Of what he was becoming. An outcast. A pariah. Persona non grata.

But he still had his soul mate. He clung to the relationship. It was all he had. She came to see him. For a long weekend. In his new place, his big new house with its beautiful views of the mountains and high-desert sunsets.

She was all he wanted. All he’d ever dreamed of. But he wondered, deep down, if she really felt the same. If she was really true to him, in the big city where she lived when they were apart. Deep down, he also knew the answer.

They flew around in his plane, a twin engine Barron. One day, as the plane was just off the ground, a wind shear nearly brought it down. He struggled for control. For a brief second almost lost it. But somehow, he got it back. The plane bucked, then steadied. And straightened.

A crash would have killed them both. Provided tons of dramatic sermon fodder. For a lot of preachers. For a long, long time.

But it didn’t happen. Because he was who he was, he figured. Such things couldn’t happen to him.

Now and again he went back to his old home, the area he’d left. To see his family. To conduct business. But he discovered things had changed. Drastically. No one wanted to see him. And no one would. Not his old friends. Not even his children. The realization sank in deeper. What he was. An outcast. A pariah. A person not welcome.

He always returned alone to his big new house two thousand miles away, with its beautiful views of the mountains and high-desert sunsets. Alone, with his freedom.

One wonders. Had he been able to fathom the actual costs, would he have made the same choices? Danced to the same piped tune? Way back, when the affair began? Who knows? Maybe. Maybe not. But probably.

In illicit matters of the heart, once certain lines are crossed, there comes a point of no return. Where perceived delights of instant gratification override any measured con- siderations of the terrible price. That the Piper will always require. Always. With no exceptions.

So he finally has it. By the bushel and by the truckload. The “freedom” he craved. So deeply, for so long. And finally pursued. And grasped. And held onto. At the cost of all he accumulated, all he treasured, relationship-wise, over a span of almost fifty years.

But what is true freedom? And does he really have it? And what is he now?

He is a wicked man. Living in darkness. With a hardened heart. With death in his soul. He is also a lot of other things.

But one thing he is not.

He is not free.



It just doesn’t happen. Not like that. Magically. At the last minute. When what must be done gets done, against all the laws of probability. When underdogs bristle, rise up, and seize the prize. And suddenly, the inevitable crowning ceremony dashed, exposed in shambles for the shell game it was.

But wasn’t it something? WOW, as one reader commented. What a game. It was without question the best Super Bowl I’ve ever seen. Maybe the best ever. Certainly one of the best.

I hosted my usual two Super Bowl guests. My brother Steve and my friend Paul Zook. I don’t like to be around a lot of people; it detracts from the business of watching the game. Paul watches one football game a year. The Super Bowl, at my house. He and Steve have been coming now for probably the last five or six years. Paul always asks which team I’m rooting for and picks the other one. It works. Makes it lively.

I had plenty of food. Cheese, meat and chips. And a great pot of my award-winning (in my own mind) secret formula chip dip, which includes but is not limited to hamburger and cheese and salsa, all heated up in one gooey mass. My guests must have liked it, because they sure ate a lot of it.

I warned my guests that if New England was leading by 20 points or more by halftime, I would shut down the party and send them home. They chuckled and kept right on feasting on chips and many bowls full of my award-winning chip dip.

My thoughts on the game. Tom Brady spent a lot of time in a position that I liked a lot, lying flat on his back looking up at the domed roof. The Giants’ defense dominated. Harried Brady. Hit him. Sacked him. He was shocked. And stunned. And out of his rhythm all night. And the amazing thing: that Giants defense did not get one off-sides penalty all night. They simply overpowered the Patriots’ offensive line, causing an uncharacteristic number of false starts.

Watching the entire game was exhausting. Because you knew, just knew, as surely as the vile Bellichek was wearing that ratty cut-sleeve hoody of his on the sidelines, that the Patriots were going to pull it out at the end. Sure enough, they scored with less than three minutes to play. Steve and I just looked at each other. But I forced myself to watch it to the bitter end.

And then Eli Manning got his moment in the sun, and in front of a disbelieving world, coolly rose to the occasion and performed like a champion. The last drive of the game will quite likely go down as one of the all-time classics in football lore.

The sequence of events.

The final drive. Eighty-three yards. Every snap from center in the shotgun formation was low. Eli had to reach down for the ball. Every time. A fourth and one. An almost-interception. A near-sack, then the magic escape, the desperate throw, and equally magic catch. The touchdown a few plays later almost seemed like an afterthought. You knew they were going to get in somehow. Such magic just doesn’t happen, not on the last drive of the Super Bowl. Once, maybe twice in a lifetime. That it all clicks. That the football gods smile. And that your team wins against insurmountable odds.

After the touchdown, Steve and I joined about ninety million other people (out of the ninety-seven million watching in this country) in one long delirious shout of triumph. And high-fives. Paul Zook looked glum and pretended he didn’t care. Which he probably didn’t.

The Patriots almost reached the summit. They had their hands on the latch of the golden door, and were pulling it open. To enter in triumph. To claim immortality as the greatest team ever, in NFL history. But suddenly their hands were slapped away, the golden door slammed in their faces. At the last possible minute, they failed. Tasted the agony of bitter defeat. It will haunt them always.

They had a remarkable run. Winning 18 straight games. But many of their players are old. They were hanging on for this perfect season. A lot of them won’t be back, I think.

They had another problem. During their remarkable run, they dissed a lot of teams. Ran up the score. Classlessly. Ruthlessly. So it was easy to hate them. And so much the sweeter when they stumbled and failed at the exact moment the ultimate prize was in their grasp.

I still respect the team. And some of the players. After the game, Tom Brady was a class act. He answered all questions. Honestly. Unlike his coach, the vile Bellichek, who dissed the Giants and the game by leaving the field before the game was officially over. And muttered clipped, one-word answers in the post-game interviews.

It was great to see Coach Coughlin and Little Manning celebrate. Redemption is sweet. And Little Manning is now no longer just Payton’s little brother. He is Sir Eli, knighted victorious on the battlefield of blood and fire. When the chips were down. Before hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide. The slayer of one of the greatest teams ever to play the game.

In politics, Super Tuesday has come and gone. Not that I watched any of it. Or any of the talking heads. It appears that McCain pretty much has the Republican nomination locked up. I can’t imagine how that happened. But it did.

I WILL NOT vote for him, should he be the nominee. I just won’t. And I encourage my readers not to, either. He might as well be a Democrat, from his atrocious voting record. On speech. On global warming. On immigration. He’s Ted Kennedy’s buddy. I believe Hillary would do less damage to this country than McCain. Not that I’ll vote for her. I’ll probably end up writing in a candidate, maybe Ron Paul. Or voting for the Constitutional Party candidate, if they can get one on the ballot.

Happy Valentine’s Day (to those to whom it applies).