April 29, 2016

The Penitent…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


…for in all that limitless horizon there was no shade or shelter,
no curve or bend, no hill or tree or hollow: there was only one
vast, naked eye – searing and inscrutable – from which there
was no escape, and which bathed his defenseless soul in its
fathomless depths of shame.

—Thomas Wolfe

The preacher man stood with his head bowed to his chest, all silent, looking solemn. He had been preaching right along, but apparently there was something heavy on his mind, something that made him pause. Some story. He stood there in silence for a few more moments in the open doorway between two rooms. And then he settled in to tell it.

Recently he had traveled to another Amish community, somewhere far away. I can’t remember, but I’d guess it was somewhere down in the States. And he had stayed there over Sunday, and he was invited to preach. Which he did. But that wasn’t the story. After church, there was the traditional noon meal. Homemade bread, Amish peanut butter and all the fixings. And after the meal, the men relaxed and spread out and sat around to visit.

And the preacher man told us. A strange thing he saw. He noticed a man sitting hunched over, off to the side, alone. Youngish, probably in his thirties, I took it. He watched the man, intrigued that he sat there, all by himself. No one bothered him. The man seemed greatly burdened. He hung his head. And then a tear trickled down his cheek. And another. The man reached up listlessly and wiped the tears away, but the preacher could see. More tears trickling down, more tears wiped away. And then more and more. The weeping would not stop.

And the preacher man turned to the men around him, the people he was visiting with. And he asked them. “Why does that man sit alone, and weep? What happened? Why does he grieve so?” And one of the older men next to the preacher sadly shook his head. The other men around them kind of froze up, silent, listening in. And the old man told the preacher what had happened in the sad man’s life, that he sat off alone, all by himself. A terrible thing, it was, a sin better not talked about much. A sin you almost can’t come back from.

The weeping man had been an ordinary average guy, growing up. He ran around with the other youth in the community. And in time, like most Amish boys do, he asked a girl if he could take her home one Sunday night after the singing. She said yes, and the two of them started dating, got to be a thing. And after a few years, there was a wedding one Thursday. They got married. Just another ordinary Amish couple settling in to their own home, their own household. And then the children came along. There were two or three, if I remember right. And their life path was set, as in days of old, the days of their forefathers. Their children would grow, there would be more, and then the parents would grow old together, surrounded by their extended family. Such was life foretold, and such was all that anyone ever expected from the weeping man and his wife.

The preacher man paused, here, in the telling of the story. And he looked even more grave and somber than before. He spoke softly, as if he were talking directly to each individual in his hearing. I know it felt like he was talking only to me. No one saw it coming, the trouble for the young couple. But somehow, the wife was tempted by another man. An English man. They kept it hidden, pretty well, so that no one suspected anything. Until it couldn’t stay hidden any more. The scandal broke across the community. The shocking news was proclaimed from the rooftops throughout all the land. And the young Amish wife ran away with her English lover. Deserted her home and her husband. I can’t remember what the preacher said happened to the children. If they went with Mom or stayed with Dad. Wherever they went or stayed, they bore the burden of their shame.

And the young Amish wife filed for divorce. For the husband, it was the most shameful stigma imaginable. He staggered with the blow. Everyone clucked and talked of how awful it was, that his wife treated him so badly. What was she thinking? And everyone blamed her, all the way. Her poor husband couldn’t help it, that she divorced him. He was about as innocent as he could be. Still. Divorce was divorce. He was allowed to stay Amish, in the church. He could never get remarried, at least as long as his ex-wife was alive. And penance. There would be never-ending penance.

The husband eventually got a bit of a grip on his life. Adapted to the new reality that was his world. He was Amish and divorced. A misnomer, if there ever was one. And in time, he took to sitting alone and weeping always after church. The others learned to leave him alone. And so he sat there, and his tears would not stop. They would never stop.

And the preacher paused, then, as he wound down his story. And he told us. He understood, then, why the man sat apart and wept. It was a heavy thing he carried, and lived with every day. And he spoke, in a voice of compassion. The poor weeping man would bear the shame and sorrow of his sin all his life. He would always, always sit and weep after church on any given Sunday. But, the preacher told us. When the Lord returns to gather his children, there is hope that there will be room in heaven for the poor weeping man, too. That he might also be gathered in, when the Lord comes for His own.

I remember the scene vividly from my childhood. Not where church was that day. But the story and the setting. The preacher man of long ago was Elmo Stoll. And I remember that even as a child, I felt very sorry for the weeping man, that he could never have any hope of joy in his life, but only guilt and pain and sorrow and relentless shame and penance that could never end.

The Amish. Divorce. Mention the word “divorce” in polite Amish company, and it’s like waving a cross at a vampire. They recoil from it that strongly. It simply is not part of their lexicon, the concept or the practice. And that’s OK. I’m not criticizing any of that. Just observing. That’s part of why the Amish have maintained their identity, part of the reason they remain a separate people, their strong stand against any kind of divorce for any reason. It’s simply not allowed. If your partner leaves and divorces you, well, that’s not your fault. You can stay with your people. But you can never, never be the one filing for divorce. Do that, and you will be cast out. Don’t matter how good a reason you had. That’s just how it is. And that’s how it’s always been.

And other than Elmo’s little tale, I don’t remember a whole lot of such stories in my childhood. Maybe a few, always told in hushed tones. I remember one story Dad told a few times about a single girl, a spinster, who came to work for Pathway, there in Aylmer. I can’t remember her name, or where she came from, but I can still faintly see her face. A rather beautiful girl, in my young mind. And Dad always told us her story. She was engaged to a young Amish man back in her home community, wherever that was. And their wedding date approached. And the last night before the wedding, her man decided he didn’t want to get married after all. He ran away, disappeared, and soon emerged in some nearby city. English. She was devastated, of course. Dad always shook his head as he concluded the tale, and said, wisely. “She can’t be thankful enough that he didn’t wait until after they were married, to leave like that.”

I could never see that much to be thankful for, when your betrothed deserts you on the night before your wedding day. And I thought stern thoughts about any man who could ever do such a thing. He must have been a real bad person. And then one day, long ago, I fled from my betrothed, too. Openly, face to face, not sneaking out the night before the wedding or anything like that. But still, we were betrothed. The Amish take family very seriously. And I broke the bond of family. Be careful how you judge, is what I take from looking back. People have their reasons for doing what they do. Someday, you might do close to the same thing yourself.

After we moved to Bloomfield, there were a few more rumblings here and there, about divorce scandals. Maybe those rumblings always were out there, maybe I was just too young to be told. Or maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Anyway, sometime during the eighties, I think it was, there was a large scandal down south of us a ways. Just over the line in Missouri about a hundred miles. The Clarke community was a real plain place. “Low” Amish, we called people like that. Very strict, not a lot of comforts allowed. Hard working people, of course. And life was hard.

It kind of swept through that community like a plague. Young husbands, half a dozen or so, leaving their wives and children. Running off to town, living English, and running with English women. It sure made some waves in the regional Amish world of that time, there in the Midwest. I remember people clucking and shaking their heads. How could any man be so deliberately wicked? To just off and leave your wife and children? What kind of man would do such a thing? And what was going on, down in Clarke, anyway? The Clarke community hunched down, deeply shamed. And the young abandoned wives bore the heavy burden of their shame, as well. It was a strange and bitter thing, such as I had not seen before.

In Lancaster, I don’t hear much of such a thing as divorced Amish people. I’m sure there is the odd couple, here or there, where one or the other ran off. It happens just about anywhere, and it happens seemingly randomly. I was chatting with a local friend not long ago about it all. And he told me. A few years back, there was this young Amish man my friend knew real well. They grew up together. Went to school together. The man had married, Amish, and they had about six children or so. And one day, out of the blue, the young father just took off. Went and bought a Harley and took to running with a rough biker crowd. Why? I asked? Where did that come from? You don’t just run off and join Harley people unless there was something going on before. My friend shook his head. “I have no clue,” he told me. “The guy just seemed to go haywire. And he left his family, just like that. They’re all still Amish, his wife and children. I guess she’s his ex-wife, now.” And I clucked in sympathy and shook my head. Who can understand such a strange thing as that?

An odd marriage doesn’t have to involve divorce, or even separation. Down east of me, there is an extraordinary situation, a thing such as I’ve never heard of before. There, in one district, a wife left the Amish church a number of years ago. She didn’t leave her home or her husband, just the church. She joined some English group of some kind. Got a car, and didn’t dress plain anymore at all. When such a thing happens, usually, there’s an explosion. Someone leaves, a home breaks up. But that didn’t happen here.

The woman and her husband continued living together, and they still live together today. Their home never broke up, never got busted. What makes this scene so extraordinary is that the husband is the deacon in his church. Ordained and everything. He remains the deacon. The whole thing just boggles my mind. I’ve never heard of such a thing before. But there it is, a mere few miles from where I live. And I’m certainly not knocking the situation. I think it’s fantastic, that everyone involved is so level headed. Including the bishop and the preachers.

I got to talking about it all with my friend Amos Smucker, the horse dentist. If anyone knows what’s going on, right now or in the past history of all of Lancaster County, he does. And he told me. “It’s the plainer, hard core communities where this kind of stuff happens more. Sure, it’s happened here in Lancaster. I can tell you of a few examples. But those plainer places, they get it in waves. Six, nine couples at a time. Not long ago something like that happened out there in western Pennsylvania, around Smittensburg and Punxutawney. Those communities are real strict and plain. And it just seems to happen more in places like that.” And I thought back to Clarke, Missouri, back in the eighties. Yes, it seems like the plainer communities have more of a problem with it, I agreed. There was no judgment in our conclusion. We were just observing.

Winding down, then. Coming from where I came from, I never imagined that the stigma and shame of divorce would ever be something I’d have to deal with. It’s not something that crosses your mind much, when you’re growing up Amish. Stuff like that mostly happens to people out in the world, and once in a while to some Amish person who should have known better than to marry the spouse they did. The odds are pretty long though, that it’ll ever happen to you, not when you’re safe inside the box. You don’t look for it, you don’t expect it.

There’s a small distinction for me, I guess. I never experienced divorce as an Amish person. I had left decades before. I can only imagine what the shock of it all must be like, if you’re still a part of your people, and something like that comes at you. It would have to be a hard thing, a bitter thing. It just would have to be.

And so I am where I am today. And yeah, I know. I’m a poster child that the Amish use, that parents point out to their wayward children. Look at Ira. He left, when he shouldn’t have. When he knew better. And just see how it went for him. He got all educated, when he should have been content at home working on the farm. He married English. And now he’s divorced. And that’s not all. When his marriage blew up, it got really, really messy. It was a huge scandal that rocked the world he left. A man like that should never hold his head high again, not around the people he came from. He shouldn’t be able to look them in the eye. And he wouldn’t, if he had any shame.

There’s a lot more that’s left unsaid, I suppose, from people who talk like that. Penance. Endless penance. That’s what they figure I should be doing. That, and there must be tears, there must be incessant weeping. There must be perpetual remorse. It all looks a lot like the sad man who sat off to the side alone in the preacher’s tale.

I will give them this, the people who judge me. I will give anyone this. It’s a harsh and brutal thing when a marriage blows up. Few things I have ever seen have been anywhere close to as brutal as that. And yes, you rage and cry to the heavens. There are tears, there is sadness, there is rage, there is weeping. All those promises, all those hopes and dreams, all those plans for a home and family in a place of peace, all that gets swept away into the debris of a torn and broken world. And yes, there is penance and regret. There is remorse that cuts so deep you think you’re sliced in half. And yes, none of it will ever really die inside you. All of it will live in you for as long as you’re alive.

But the Lord is the Lord of broken people with wounded hearts. He cares for the lost, he cares for the exiled, he cares for those whose lives are so shattered that there is no hope. And he heals them. Somewhere in the Old Testament, there is a place where he speaks to people like that. And he tells them.

I am the Lord of the whole earth. And I know you are far from the place you grew up in, the place you call home. You are stranded far from there, and you will never see your home again, despite the deepest longings of your hearts. But I want you to have joy in life, wherever you are. I want you to make the world around you more beautiful. I want you to plant gardens. I want you to live, and not weep. You are my children, and you will never not be. Go, then, and live and rejoice on this earth.

That’s what the Lord said to his lost and exiled children a long time ago. And that’s why I don’t sit off to the side alone and weep like the sad man did in the preacher’s tale.



  1. my eyes are leaking…

    Comment by RAM — April 29, 2016 @ 6:12 pm

  2. Oh wow! Lump in my throat kind of post, but I especially love the last three paragraphs!

    Comment by Velma Smucker — April 29, 2016 @ 6:34 pm

  3. It is sad when the church rules interfere with the love, grace and forgiveness of God.

    Comment by carol ellmore — April 29, 2016 @ 6:52 pm

  4. WOW! Beautiful.

    Comment by forsythia — April 29, 2016 @ 8:33 pm

  5. I love this.

    Comment by Ann Cralidis — April 29, 2016 @ 8:34 pm

  6. Beautifully written! Speaks of the love of the God I know.

    Comment by Lee — April 29, 2016 @ 9:18 pm

  7. I said I couldn’t wait for this weeks post. I could have waited forever. You show a strength with no boundaries, a deep understanding of the broken hearted. Lessons hard learned. My prayer for you….Peace.

    Comment by G racina — April 29, 2016 @ 9:19 pm

  8. I am one of those with divorce in my past, now married to another. My ex was nasty and I fled for my life. Any and all sins of mine are forgiven by Jesus, but not by the church I attend. They will never let me take communion with them nor become a member. I am heartbroken over this. Your words are healing for me and I thank you for writing them. I am going to quit worrying about an outcome there and show them how a truly forgiven Christian lives with beauty and grace.

    Comment by Karen Regling — April 29, 2016 @ 10:08 pm

  9. I too was “dumped” 25 years ago with 5 children to raise , the death of a marriage is torture , but the Lord God says “I will be a Husband to you.” He has cared for me and protected me all this long time but the pain and grief seem to be deeply embedded. I left the light on for many years but it is turned off now. Thank you for your wonderful blog every 2 weeks .

    Comment by Georgia — April 29, 2016 @ 10:34 pm

  10. Great post. You are so well balanced and confident and well adjusted (at least when I’m around) that I tend to foget the awful storm you went through. Well said. You are a redeemed life living well. Will Stoltz sings a song where the title tells it all: “There’s no Future In My Past.”

    Comment by John Schmid — April 29, 2016 @ 11:52 pm

  11. The poor, weeping man would have been better off leaving the cruelty of the Amish “culture”. So, don’t you be cruel to yourself. Ask yourself. Are you in or are you out?

    Comment by lisa — April 30, 2016 @ 12:37 am

  12. Very powerful. I don’t know that I will ever get over my divorce. The sense of failure is immense.

    Comment by Deb — April 30, 2016 @ 6:47 am

  13. Might we all strive to be as loving, kind, understanding, forgiving, and faithful as God is…thanks for another great post!

    Comment by Phyllisitty — April 30, 2016 @ 8:12 am

  14. Much of what I have read in your book and in your blogs makes me self-righteously shake my head, and then I read your current blog, and I know why I look forward to every other Friday. I desperately needed to read what you wrote this time, and I thank you for sharing your wisdom with your special brand of writing.

    Comment by SusanN — April 30, 2016 @ 8:12 am

  15. Doesn’t the Bible say that we are free to remarry if the spouse was unfaithful? and aren’t the Amish Bible based? The man should not have to leave the Amish to remarry. Are they adding to the Bible? There is a penalty for that!

    God bless you Ira. I rely on the verse that says that the joy of the Lord is my strength.

    I love your transparency. Seems like you are a family member come to visit… Keep it up!

    Comment by Kathy — April 30, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

  16. More solid teaching in that post than in most counselors’ offices.

    Comment by Aaron Martin — April 30, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

  17. A great post and sad, also. Our God is a God of love and mercy. He does not expect us to atone and do penance all our lives and live apart from our loved ones. And, the man you wrote of, his wife left him! What sin did he commit, unless there is more to this story than we know. Even so, God loves each and every one of us as if there were only one of us. He welcomes us with great mercy and love. He does not impose a life sentence on any one. Think of the Prodigal Son in the Bible. That is what God is like! It took me most of my life to be able to realize that there is a difference between what God says and what man says He says.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — April 30, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

  18. Amen, Brother.
    Nate Miller

    Comment by Nate Miller — April 30, 2016 @ 4:47 pm

  19. The wave in Clark, Missouri started in the 70’s while I was going to school there. My cousin’s husband was one of the ones who left.

    One of the men who left during those years is now a born again Christian with a nice family. But his Amish family is still back there. He pleaded with his Amish wife to leave with him, he couldn’t take it any longer. She refused, therefore she now is banned to suffer her entire life as a married woman who can never get remarried.

    In response to Kathy who asked why they can’t remarry; doesn’t the Bible give them that option and aren’t the Amish Bible based? The Amish are Bible based, but mostly on the Old Testament. They believe that divorce was forbidden and there can be no forgivness unless the two partners who separated get back together.

    This makes divorce an unpardonable sin which is not consistent with new covenant teaching (New Testament). It creates a sad situation for many Amish couples who either separate like Ira wrote (and I know quite a few) or who continue to live in fear among the Amish divorced in their hearts but appearing to be a family on the outside.

    Comment by Lester Graber — April 30, 2016 @ 5:08 pm

  20. I did not mean to leave the impression that only one of the ones who left is now born again. I think a number of them are. There is no going back once you have freedom in Christ.

    And Ira, you did a great job of writing this particular post. Appreciate it. In fact you did a great job with all of them!

    Comment by Lester Graber — April 30, 2016 @ 8:14 pm

  21. Forgiven by the Lord means the sin is wiped away and forgotten. Mistakes happen. Once forgiven we are to forget, which is difficult. The Amish have many very cruel ideas and rules. Abuse is wrong, it should not be tolerated.

    Comment by Linda Ault — May 1, 2016 @ 9:03 am

  22. Good for you , Ira. May God bless and keep you. Emma

    Comment by emma — May 2, 2016 @ 11:15 pm

  23. If redemption were penned as a symphony, this post could serve as its score. A delightful, harmonious balance of haunting and slow transitioning to lilted, despair to hope and broken to wholeness. Wow.

    Comment by Maria — May 4, 2016 @ 11:43 am

  24. These shocking episodes in Clark MO took place in the 70’s while we lived in the neighboring community of Bowling Green.

    Many such episodes are the result of the extreme legalistic system in many communities throughout the States. Many are caught in these legalistic traps–having no escape from their bondage. Many live out their whole lives in perpetual shame and hopelessness–some even wasting away in prisons–never discovering the Grace that can be found in Christ–to wipe away such shame. I weep for these–I was there…..

    Comment by Ben — May 4, 2016 @ 10:12 pm

  25. This is a beautiful piece of writing.

    Comment by Collette Hayes — May 8, 2016 @ 1:22 am

  26. A person far wiser than I wrote “needless self doubt,self castigation would be found to be a defense against responsibility for one’s own life,and an unworthy attempt at placating God with a sacrifice not approved by Him”…in other word’s, self-condemnation was a dangerous sin if that’s what one would call it.To me that means it’s perfectly OK to grieve and get it out of your system,then get on with life.My first divorce ripped my heart out,pain like I had never felt before.I sensed that if I was going to wallow around in the “woe is me” slough nothing good was going to become of it mentally or emotionally.Life did get better after a time and it’s good to this day…hold your head up,look’em in the eye and keep on keep’in on..great post on a taboo topic in the Old Order whence I came from..peace to all.

    Comment by lenny — May 8, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

  27. I just finished your book, Growing up Amish.
    I feel you had a very troubled time deciding what to do.
    I pray you are at peace now with whatever you are doing.
    Are you writing any more books?

    Comment by Lovie Jo Roberts — May 13, 2016 @ 3:00 pm

  28. Thank you Ira for this post. I read all your posts and relate…I’ve been there. I feel every emotion you write about…and understand them.

    Comment by Lena — May 22, 2016 @ 5:21 am

  29. When Agape and Phileo Love is absent, twisted theology is present.

    Comment by Sho — December 3, 2018 @ 5:29 pm

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