January 29, 2010

Esau’s Birthright…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:52 pm


And Esau said: Behold, I am at the point to die:
and what profit shall this birthright do to me?

Genesis 25:30

They never told us why.

Everything was preached from a solid foundation of what had always been. Amish this. Amish that. You live this way because that’s the way it is. You live this way because it’s where you were born. You live this way, you walk this path because it’s the only way, the only path we’ve ever known.

It was our birthright. And we were special. The special people. The chosen ones who preserved and honored the only true way. With some prodding, there might be a reluctant admission that yes, others not of our particular faith might make it to heaven. But only because they didn’t know any better and were not born Amish. But those who were born in the faith had better stay.

Better stay, or surely face a terrible Judgment Day in the afterlife.

That’s what we heard. What we were told. By our parents. And in the sermons we heard in church. From our earliest memories.

But other than that, they never explained why. Why we were special. Why we alone knew the only true path. Why we were born special. Only that we did and we were.

It sure made for some messed up minds. And messed up lives. Not for the drones, the dense ones who accepted without question what they were told. But for anyone with a speck of spirit, it got a little crazy.

Think about it. You are in a little box. A comfortable box, but a pretty confining one, when it comes right down to it. You wonder what’s outside. Peek out a bit, now and then, and peer around. But deep down, you know that if you step outside that box, you are speeding down the highway to hell. And could arrive at any instant. Boom, just like that.

It’s a brutal thing. A severe mental strain. And it’s the reason that in every community (except Lancaster County), when Amish kids run wild, they usually run hard and mean.

It’s because once that line is crossed, there are no others. And nothing you can do, absent returning, can make any difference. Believe otherwise, like the Mennonites and the Beachys, who drive cars and prate about being saved, and the devil’s got you right where he wants you. That’s what we were taught and what we believed.

In Lancaster, somehow, it’s different. The youth don’t have that wild driven look in their eyes. Not even the “wild” ones. Not sure why that is. Maybe because overall, the community here has a more relaxed attitude about such things. That’s my conclusion, at least, from where I am.

And it seems to work here. A large majority of the youth that drive cars while running around ultimately settle down and join the church. Marry. Raise families.

But still, if you dig around a bit, it’s not ideal.

In a recent conversation with a young local Amish man, we discussed the Amish culture, lifestyle, heritage. He was quite progressive in his thinking. Many of his close friends had left in the last few years, he told me. And he had to make a choice. Join them or stay.

He stayed. Not because his friends were necessarily wrong. And certainly not because they weren’t Christians, believers. He decided to stay because of all the positive things the Amish have and hold. Family. Culture. Tradition.

What he was really saying was that he valued his “birthright” too much to let it go.

And I respect that. Told him so. But then:

“What about your children?” I asked. “What if they choose not to stay?”

He hedged. “I would hope they would. I try to show them, teach them by example.”

I had no doubt. But I persisted. “I’m sure you do,” I said. “But what if one of your sons decided not to stay? Could you bless that? Or would you use guilt to try to change his mind?”

I don’t think anyone had ever asked him quite that question before. He hedged again. Repeated himself. “I would hope my son would choose to stay.”

“And there you have it,” I said. “When it boils right down to it, what you’re telling me is that the Amish church is based on a foundation of fear. How can that possibly be a good thing? It’s unsustainable.”

But I left it then. Didn’t push it. We meandered on to other subjects. He was a good guy. Maybe he hadn’t thought things through quite to the end, but who among us has?

In another recent conversation with a reader, I was asked about my own experience. How I made it to where I am today. As a believer. A Christian. It got me to thinking, and resulted in this post (in case anyone wonders where I came up with this week’s subject).

My writings have never been overtly religious. And I abhor didacticism with a passion. Where each story ends with a sweet little prepackaged lesson. Figure it out for your- self, the deeper meanings. And the lessons, sweet or bitter. There are plenty of preachers out there. I’m not one of them. But the reader’s question got me to thinking. I have never told the story of how I became a Christian, not on this site. And at some point, my readers deserve to know where I’m coming from.

I think we’ve reached that point. So here goes. But be forewarned. If such things make you uncomfortable or queasy, turn off the radio, as Rush would say. Stop reading. Now. Because I don’t want to hear your griping.

The reader’s question got me to thinking. Remembering. Reliving. Triggered a rush of vivid scenes in my mind. Of how I made it. How I survived.

I almost didn’t.

Between the ages of seventeen and twenty, I left home three times. Each time I returned, determined that now this was it, that this time I would stay. It wasn’t fear alone that brought me back, but a host of things. Family. Relationships. Friends. The comfortable world I knew from birth. And fear.

After the third time I decided this was it. No more. The time was right. To settle down. Join the church. Live a quiet life of peaceful simplicity.

So I did. Joined the church, that is. Began dating a girl. My friends were getting married. So I figured that was the logical next step. The relationship got serious.

But always, something wasn’t right. I fretted, restless. And at twenty-four, I realized I could not do it. Could not make it work. Depressed, I brooded. The mental strain was almost unbearable. Waves of turmoil and doubt engulfed me. That period of my life was probably the closest I ever came to actually losing my mind.

About then, my horse died. Collapsed and keeled over, for no apparent reason. From some rare brain disease. At least that’s what the vet claimed. It seemed like a sign.

My father, sensing my traumatized state, offered to buy me another horse. So I would stay. I turned from him in gloom and silence.

And so I boarded the bus in Bloomfield and left. Again. For the fourth time. Leaving in my wake a shattered landscape strewn with the wreckage of broken relationships. I moved to Daviess. The land of my fathers. Restless, I traveled. Went west and worked on the wheat harvest. To Florida then for the winter. Back west to help with spring seeding in the same fields I had harvested a few months before.

To a point, I unwound from the tension of recent events. But I was not at peace. And once again, something pulled me back. To the fold of the Amish church. This time I was double determined. I would make it. But not in Bloomfield. I moved to the northern Indiana Amish settlement. Lived in the Topeka area for awhile, then Goshen. Worked in a trailer factory. This time it would work. I would make it work.

It didn’t, of course. And I couldn’t. I recoiled from the vapid provincial banality that surrounded me. There was simply no way I could stay. And this time I knew it was the final time. That I was lost. And that if I left again, there could be no hope of salvation. Ever. I sank into quiet desperate despair.

Like Esau, I was exhausted, famished, approaching death. And my “birthright” could not sustain or save me.

And somewhere from these depths, I finally did what I should have done long before. I cried out to God. Not that I figured He’d hear me. I wasn’t sure He even existed. But I prayed. For the desire to do right. I didn’t even have that much. I had no hope what- soever that my prayer would even be heard, much less answered.

But it was. Both.

In less than a month, he walked into my life. A young Amish man who had joined from the outside. He had not a speck of Amish blood in him. He’d married a beautiful Amish girl; they had a family. A couple of energetic young sons. He sported a long black beard. Was more Amish than the Amish. But we connected. Big time. He understood my frustrations. My despair. And my fears. I spoke to him as I had never confided in anyone before. I trusted him.

And gradually, gently, the man calmed my spirit, gave me hope. Led me to realize that my rough and rowdy past could be forgiven. That all the pain, all the wounds could be healed. My own. And all that which I had inflicted on so many others in the past.

By showing me Christ’s love, my friend led me to Him. For the first time, I grasped that Christ had died for me. Suffered. Bled. And that I could be His. Through faith. I was amazed at how simple it really was.

And so I was reborn. Spiritually. A huge load was lifted from me. Replaced with a deep quiet sense of joy and internal peace beyond anything I had ever known.

It wasn’t a really emotional thing. And I don’t get that emotional about it now. Guess it’s that old reserved Amish blood in me. Live your beliefs, speak if someone asks, but don’t babble nonstop about them. Anyone can claim anything.

But the experience was intense and it was real.

With my spiritual birth came an entirely new freedom. It did not take me long to realize that much of what I had been taught, implicitly or overtly, had been flat out wrong. The cultural box might provide some protection, but it could never bring salvation.

And once I really truly grasped that fact, I left the Amish church for good.

I have never looked back. Except to reminisce, remember, reflect. On how it was. Including the good things. Things you have read on my blog, if you’ve been with me for any length of time.

I have no desire to return to that lifestyle. Ever. I respect those who do, however, and those who have chosen to stay. Like the young Lancaster County father who hopes his sons will follow in his footsteps.

Sadly, after I made the choice to leave, my friend took it pretty hard. He had high expectations for me. That I would cherish my heritage, the same one he had adopted as his own. That I would follow my father’s footsteps as a defender of the faith. And so much more. He saw it was not to be, that all his expectations were dashed, never to be fulfilled.

He chose to turn his face from me in sorrow and anger. I have not spoken to him in more than twenty years. But he was and remains one of the most important people I’ve ever encountered. When the chips were down, he did not hesitate, but waded into the darkness to lead a lost soul to the Light.

He will always be my friend. Perhaps one day we’ll meet again as brothers.

In the years that have passed since I last saw him, I have tried to do to others as he did to me. Meet people where they are. As they are. To reflect Christ’s love in the messy details of everyday life. And it’s not like my own life hasn’t been messy since then. It has been, brutally so at times. Mostly as a result of my own choices.

But God is who He is. Forever. Unchanging. And always there, even when He doesn’t seem to be. This I have learned. And this I know. Ultimately, I rest in that knowledge.

And if there is only one thing my readers glean from my writings, I hope that’s it. That God is there, even when He seems far away.

Some (not all) from my background would, if pressed, conclude that I, like Esau, have squandered my birthright for a mess of pottage. Because I walked away from it all. All the traditions. The structure. The blessings. The cultural identity. And left it all behind. And, from their perspective, for what?

But they are wrong. It is not true. For all Christians of every denomination, including the Amish, there is a far more important birthright.

We are joint heirs with Christ in our Father’s kingdom.

January 15, 2010

Head Static…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:54 pm


Fire drives a thorn of memory in the heart.

—Thomas Wolfe

It’s been noisy lately. Steady static noise. In my head. I’m not sure why. Probably a combination of a lot of things.

Sometime over the holidays, around Thanksgiving, I could feel it creeping in. Out there on the fringes of my consciousness. A deep sense of brooding, tinged with sadness. Remembrance and loss. Palpable. Persistent. Crashing in and receding in small but savage waves, it could not be shaken off or shrugged away.

I’ve learned, when such a brooding mood strikes, not to ignore it. Let it work its way through the system. Not embraced necessarily, but absorbed. Usually within a few days, a week at most, it’s gone.

But not this time. It hung in there, hovering around me like a cloud. Right up through Christmas.

I thought of things. A tangled jumble of memories and events. Stuff that went down in recent years. Stuff that crept back into my head. What was before. Things that once were but no longer are. Idealized in retrospect, certainly. But still, things that might have been.

Guys aren’t supposed to be like that, I know. Shrug it off. Move on. I had, I thought, mostly. But somehow, a sliver of a thread still connects. The past returns, unan- nounced and unexpected, at the most inopportune moments. And will not be denied.

Sporadically then, the grieving process continues.

After the holidays, I pretty much snapped out of it, as if waking from a dream. Where am I and how the heck did I get here?

I knew, of course. And know. But something inside doesn’t.

Overall, 2009 wasn’t that bad of a year. I accomplished some, if not all of my goals. Did some pretty intensive writing, which is one of my main measures of judgment. And I’m one year older. Approaching fifty.

And there were losses, too, unexpected and abrupt. I think of my friend Allan some- times. And it sinks in how much I really miss him. Sometimes of a Sunday evening, I half expect him to come striding through the door, chattering away as only he could. Always catch myself and push back the rush of memories. Think it cannot be that he’s gone. That, I suppose, is part of the grieving process too.

The winter weather isn’t helping any. Incessant cold has set in. Day after day, week after week. Snow storm after snow storm. It’s enough to depress a guy, even if he wasn’t so inclined otherwise.

And then, to top it all off, over New Years, I got sick. I never get sick, not with all the vitamins I scarf down every day. Not to mention Superfood. But on the Monday before New Years, I felt it coming on. Ached all over. Back, knees, head. A day later, the full blown head cold set in. Might have been the Swine flu, for all I know.

So I was inflicted with another kind of “head static.”

It got worse. On New Years eve, I lost my voice. Almost totally. No running around seeing the old out, and the new in. I sat bundled up, watching football, sipping orange juice and tea, and gulping handfuls of whatever vitamins I could grab. For a few days I pretty much stayed in the house, which is highly unusual for me. Even when I’m sick. After a week or so, I slowly cleared up. Almost back to normal now. Hope it’s another five years before I get hit like that again.

This week, the Haiti earthquake dominated the news. A poverty stricken nation, solely dependent on foreign aid already, practically leveled. A natural tragedy, almost beyond comprehension. California, take note. One of these days, San Francisco will simply vanish into the sea.

Some of my friends were closely affected by the Haiti disaster. A few were almost killed. Rodney and Lillian Smoker, a young couple from our church, were practically at the epicenter. Rodney spent most of his twenty-eight years in Haiti, living there with his missionary family.

The Smoker family. Lillian, Jeremiah, Rodney

They had arrived a few days earlier for a three-month stint and were at his “home” when the quake hit. They were in the second floor of the three story house. The structure collapsed onto almost thirty people on the first floor, killing most of them. Miraculously, Rodney and Lillian and their year old son, Jeremiah, escaped almost without a scratch. They managed somehow to get a message back to their extremely worried families late that night. Two days later, a group from another church five hours away sent in a team to evacuate them and a few other survivors. So they are safe, at least physically. But Rodney lost many, many of his close friends and “family.” Unbelievable devastation all around, and for him, staggering personal loss.

The shock and emotional trauma, I’m sure, will have to be dealt with for a long, long time. For both of them.

The media immediately denounced Reverend Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh for making un-PC statements about the disaster. Limbaugh can defend himself. I heard him say nothing wrong. But poor Robertson was mercilessly excoriated by secularists and Christians alike for his comment. Something about how way back when, the Haitians made a pact with the devil to be free from the French. And how voodoo remains prevalent in the country to this day.

Near as I can tell, what Robertson said was true. He didn’t say the devil pact was the reason for the earthquake. He did say that Haitians need Jesus and a whole lot of charity right now. Meanwhile, his organization is flying in countless plane loads of supplies for the Haitians. Why is anyone fussing about that?

Somehow, Robertson reminds me of the Old Testament prophets. Every time he opens his mouth, he’s viciously attacked and denounced from all sides. Including Christians who hasten to distance themselves from a daft old fogy and to proactively showcase their own “tolerance.” Robertson, undeterred, soldiers on.

I’ve noticed that if you listen to him in context, what he says usually makes a whole lot of sense. Not always, but more often than not. He is the last of a dying breed. Along with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Robertson provided an instant media-ready punching bag for decades. There won’t be any like them after Pat passes on. And that’s our loss.

A few words about football, which I have ignored on this site for months. First, a public apology to my Jets. I scolded them quite severely when they fired Mangini last year. I still think it was a mistake. But the new rookie coach, Rex Ryan, has performed more than proficiently so far. Especially with their rookie quarterback. Even won a playoff game last Saturday. And yes, I celebrated. Being a Jets fan is somewhat akin to being a Cubs fan in baseball. Always hopeful, but knowing full well that the team will find a way to defeat itself.

They will run into a wall this weekend, I think, against the Chargers. But I’m rooting for them. My prediction: the winner of the Cowboys/Arizona shootout (next weekend) will lose to the Chargers in the Super Bowl.

I live in an old house. All brick. The builder must have loved natural light, because he installed large, and I mean huge, windows in every wall, every nook and corner. Vast monstrosities, the original windows still remain. Ancient decrepit, leaky things.

And in a winter like this, the cold air blows right through. The windows function more like a sieve. I’ve always despaired of replacing them because of the astronomical cost of replacing so many.

But the crews are hungry this winter, so I decided to at least get a quote. I contacted a young Amish contractor, who allowed that he could probably install them for under $300.00 each. I was astounded. I figured the cost would be double or even triple that figure. So I bit. Come on out and measure and give me a price, I said.

And so he did. He arrived that very night after work. Knocked on the door. Young married guy, probably in his mid thirties. I invited him inside.

“So you’re Ira Wagler.” He said. It was a half statement, half question.

Unsure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing in his mind, I guardedly conceded that I was.

“I’ve read your Elmo Stoll stories,” he said. “My Dad gave me a copy awhile back.”

Oh boy. “Well, what did you think?” I asked.

He liked it. And we sat there at the table and discussed Elmo story in detail. He was intelligent, articulate, a progressive young Amish man. But thoroughly Amish. Which was fine. He wanted to copy the blogs his Dad gave him, he said, but the copy was a copy of a copy of a copy, he figured. The words were almost blurred. Copying them again would make them close to unreadable.

I had known the Elmo blogs were floating around out there. In the Lancaster area and a whole lot of other places. The Amish man’s little anecdote confirmed it.

I’ve got to get The Shepherd Chronicles together and get them published in a little book, I thought to myself. If people are out there trying to decipher almost unreadable copies, there has to be a market. There simply has to be.

If I’m remembered in no other way, there will be at least one future generation of Amish that will know me through those writings. Of that I am convinced.

I dug around and found a hard copy of the blogs and gave that to him. He thanked me profusely. In the meantime he was busily measuring my windows. Upstairs and down- stairs on the north and west sides only. Figured I’d do the coldest half of the house first. The windows are ordered. Within a couple of weeks they should be installed. Cold air, be gone.

And speaking of Elmo Stoll, one of my readers created a computer generated portrait of the man a few months back. Emailed it to me. I was impressed. Accurate enough to be recognizable, for sure. With the reader’s permission, I’ve posted it below.

“Elmo Stoll”
by Lee Nelson Hall, Jr.