Today after the second service at GCC Elkhart, where we had an actor dressed in an elephant costume to kick off our new teaching series, Elephant In The Room, I drove from the north side of Elkhart to the east side of Goshen. Back to the place where I spent my childhood. Back to my people in Clinton Township where some might say, people dress in costume as a way of life.
My uncle Eli Yutzy, father of 11, grandfather to 60 and great-grandfather to 41 died in his sleep this past Thursday and this afternoon the family gathered to bid him auf wiedersehen.
I love my extended family. Warm smiles. Firm handshakes. A few hugs. I love the way we gently poke fun at each other even as a plain wooden box with my uncle’s remains stands nearby. Though I feel distant and disconnected most of the time, when we come together in this way, I am quickly drawn in by the familiar sights and smells of childhood.
The hard, wooden, backless, benches. Black and white garb. The odd but familiar smell of people of the soil who moments before were harnessing their horses to their buggies and arriving on the family farm for the funeral. The waft of a gentle, almost spring breeze, coming through an open window to give some relief to the stifling lack of fresh air in the room, filled to capacity on this early March afternoon.
It’s funny what happens with small things like the breeze that came through the window as we kneeled for a 10-minute, break-your-toes, kill-your-knees, fall-asleep prayer that was read from the little black German prayer book. As I knelt there with my eyes closed, the gentle breeze transported me to countless Sunday mornings as a child spent listening to my ancestors singing their songs of faith in familiar, chant like, mournful tunes and preachers that droned on and on. Some extolling the virtues of holy living and others blasting hell fire and brimstone.
Today as one preacher after another stood to speak, my expectations were met. Nothing had changed. The idol of tradition stands. The message was just as I remembered and it was sobering to hear the grace of Jesus, the free gift of God, eternal life that was bought at such a steep cost be preached as nothing more than a “great hope”. “We hope to attain eternal life, but we can’t know for certain” were the preachers words. I grieve the lie of that statement – my people, my family hear these words and rather than grasp the powerful truth of Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord or Ephesians 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— and many other passages that speak to this free gift of eternal life, they instead remain in denial of the great freedom found in Christ to live, really live.
My people. People I love. The place I come from. The simple life is, after all, very complex and the burden of religious/cultural tradition, guilt, shame and disapproval is often too heavy to carry for those on whom judgement has been exacted. So, I do the only thing I know to do – turn to Jesus who assures me that nothing can separate me from His love and that His heart work continues in me AND it continues in my people.
(Full disclosure: I’m aware that there has been a shift within the Amish culture regarding this sort of teaching depending on the church district or community. BUT by and large this is the “party line”.)