Archive | December, 2017

A Guided Lament you can use right now

21 Dec

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Do we lament when life is so rotten and dark that we have no where else to turn?  Yes.

Do we lament when there is still hope, but much work yet to be done?  Yes.

What we have seen this Advent as we’ve studied psalms of lament, is that lament is a faithful, clinging to God, an emotional plea asking him to intervene.

When we lament, we pray, “How long O Lord?” because we are waiting for him in the midst of our pain.

When we lament we are asking God to restore and revive us.

As you read this post, you may be at your wits’ end.  And you might not be.  No matter if you are going through a difficult time, or if things are relatively good, I encourage you to practice lament.  Include lament as a regular part of your prayer.  So what I’ve created below is a guide that you can use to help you lament.

Maybe even take the guide and use it to lament with your family or small group.  When we used this guide during our worship service at Faith Church, I read a section, then gave a few minutes for people to lament.  I invited our church family to lament out loud if the wanted.  Some did!  Most prayed quietly to themselves.

You’ll notice that the guided lament below starts broadly, lamenting for our world, and then gradually narrows, finishing with a lament for yourself.  Feel free to read over the brief description I’ve created ahead.  You might want to personalize, add to it, totally change it!  What I have listed below is just a guide.

So find a quiet place, away from distractions.  You might want to put your phone on airplane mode, light a candle, and take a few deep breaths.  Maybe read Psalm 126 again.  And then when you’re ready, address your lament to God.

Lament for our world

Lament for our world.  Lament for the refugees without a home, often scraping together an sparsee existence in a war-torn camp.  Lament for the families around the world who have lost loved ones because of terrorist attacks. Lament for fractures that run deep between people and nations in our world.

Lament for our country

Lament for our country.  Lament for the homeless who wonder how they’ll survive the winter.  Lament for damage that sexual predators have caused.  Lament for the pain caused by mass shootings.  Lament for communities devastated by flood and fire.

Lament for your community

Lament for your community.  Lament for the hungry coming to food banks for help.  Lament for the people living in motels.  Lament for broken families and how deeply it affects children. Lament for the many in our community who do not know Jesus.

Lament for your church

Lament for your church.  Lament for those in your church family who have been experiencing physical pain for many months and years.  Lament for the families that have dealt with a different kind of pain, the pain of loss and brokenness in its many forms.

Lament for your family

Lament for your family and all the difficulties you’re facing.

Lament for yourself

Lament for yourself.

How to lament: keep holding on to God

20 Dec

This week we have been studying Psalm 126 which reminds us that when you plant seeds of sorrow, God can give you a harvest of joy.

In my previous post, I talked about the difficulty of gardening, and how the psalmist uses that as a metaphor for life.  But after all the clearing, tilling, weeding, and watering, when you finally get to reap a harvest, what happens?  You are bursting with joy!

In the garden of life, this process might actually occur quite rapidly.  You sometimes receive very quickly an answer to your prayer of lament, for example, and that fills you with joy and even laughter.

But other times the answer to your prayer requires long months of waiting.  Remember Jesus’ parable of the widow who went before the judge, in Luke 18?  The widow had an adversary, Jesus said, and she wanted help from the judge.  Because she was a widow, in that society it meant she was in a fairly unprotected position.  Normally her husband would help, but as a widow, her recourse was to ask the judge to intervene.  Jesus doesn’t tell us the specifics of the problem the widow was having with the adversary, but he doesn’t need to describe the situation.  What he wants us to know is that the judge wouldn’t hear the widow’s concern.  He dismissed her.  So she came back, and the judge dismissed her again.  This went on for days, until finally the widow wore the judge down, and he helped her.  Jesus’ goal, Luke tells us, was to teach the disciples to pray and not give up. We call that prevailing prayer.  And sometimes lament can feel like that.

One of the most common refrains in the psalms of lament is the anguished question: “How long, O Lord?”  Just like gardening can take a lot of hard work, and require a lot of patience, prayer of lament is sometimes an act of prevailing before the Lord, going back to him over and over.

Sometimes you don’t see the answer to that prayer until after you pass away.  In those cases, God answers it posthumously.

This psalm reminds us that lament is like that.

Lament latches on to God and it doesn’t let go.

That kind of clinging to God is easy for some of us.  Hard for others.  If you have a more independent personality, you might struggle with asking God for help.  You don’t ask hardly anyone for help.  Most often you can figure it out on your own.  And when I say that, please do not read me as accusing you of being arrogant.  Instead yours is a genuine concern not to impose on others.  It is a concern to take responsibility for your life, which is good.  And so you rarely ask for help.  Let me say to you that you need to learn to lament.

Or maybe you are the kind of person who is well aware of your lack of ability, and maybe you have gotten tired of lamenting, asking God for help.  You can feel like all you do is lament, and it is getting you nowhere.  Like the image in the psalm, you are sowing seeds of tears, but unlike the image in the psalm, you are not harvesting joy.  You feel like giving up.

No matter where you are in your relationship with God, I encourage you to lament.  And to hold on.

 

What to do when life is hard and filled with tears

19 Dec

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A friend of mine has graciously allowed me to borrow his tiller each year to get our garden ready for planting.  It is a monster of a tiller.  You have to grip that thing with all your might, lower your center of gravity, and hold on for dear life. I am not kidding.  It is a workout.  Then if you hit a patch of hard ground, where the tiller blades might not be able to dig deep, the blades bounce off the ground, and the tiller lunges forward dragging you along, like the guy in the photo above.  It is a scene.  But as you muscle the machine back around for another pass, and another pass, that hard ground eventually gets broken up into smaller and smaller pieces.  Until finally, the tiller runs through earth smoothly, the dirt ready to be planted. And I’m sore for a few days.

Gardening and farming, done well, usually involves hard work, doesn’t it?

In my previous post, I talked about how our next Advent psalm of lament is a psalm of ascent.  It includes uplifting songs of joy, but it also talks about the hard work of growing produce.

We can see both of those emphases in the two sections of the psalm:

  1. Verses 1-3 Joyful Memory
  2. Verses 4-6 Tearful Lament

There is a phrase at the beginning of each section that serves as a marker, helping us know that there are in fact two sections.  That marker is the similar statement “brought back captives” or “restored our fortunes”.  In the original Hebrew these are nearly identical.

So let’s look at each section.

Section 1, verses 1-3 – Joyful Memory

The word “captives” in verse 1 reminds us that the psalmist is referring to the Babylonian exile.  The powerful Babylonians had attacked and defeated Israel, and carted them off.  They lived in Babylon for 70 years.  Then the Persians attacked and defeated the Babylonians, and Cyrus king of Persia allowed some Jews to return to Palestine.

My seminary prof, Dave Dorsey, taught that likely only 5% of the captives returned to Israel, 95% remained in Babylon.

But those 5% who returned, the psalmist tells us in verses 1-3, were like men who dreamed. One alternate translation I read says that this could be saying “Men returned to health, given new life.”

Imagine the wonder of that moment.  For 70 years they were in captivity.  You are taken into captivity.  If you were about 30 years old when you are taken into captivity, you probably have a young family in captivity.  Think about what happens in 70 years?  Likely you pass away, and it is maybe your kids, or even more likely, your grandkids, who return.

We talked about this last week.  The kids and grandkids have been hearing stories of the glory of Jerusalem and the temple and how wonderful the Promised Land was.  And now they get to return.

And they are laughing and singing.  They are praising the Lord!

You can see why this would be a great Pilgrimage song.  Just as the original exiles returned excitedly to Palestine and Jerusalem, singing songs of joy, each year as people all over Israel journeyed to Jerusalem for the various feasts, they would re-enact the original pilgrimage of those first captives who returned from exile.

So the psalmist is excited.  But his joy turns to lament.

Section 2, verses 4-6 – Tearful Lament

He laments because there is much yet to be sorrowful about, much restoration yet to take place.  In this lament, he uses the image of farming, talking about how sorrow leads to joy.

Planting is hard work, which is why he calls it tears of sorrow.

We have a garden in our back yard, and we like to plant some vegetables each year.  When gardening, the first thing you have to do might be clearing away old growth and weeds.  And then there might be the tilling, as I described in my experience with my friend’s monster of a tiller.

But tilling is only the beginning.  Next you do the work of planting, and then you do the work of protecting your plants, putting up fences to keep out the rabbits and groundhogs.  Then there is weeding, and then regular watering, and more weeding.  Day after day after day.  Week after week.

To be fair, we are spoiled here in Lancaster.  Our soil is astoundingly rich.  And we get regular rain.

In a dry climate like some parts of Israel, farming can be extremely difficult, and could even appear to be pointless.  How do you know if rains will come?  Will this be a waste?

That is possibly what is going on in the minds of the exiles.  They will not only be doing physical, real farming.  They will also be tending the figurative land, seeking to rebuild the city, the temple, and in a more important way, seeking to rebuild their nation and their relationship with God.  For the psalmist, the idea of planting tears, with the hope of reaping a harvest of joy, has deep, deep meaning.

That’s where we can take a look and examine our own lives.

What is the hard work of planting tears that you are doing in your life? What ground are you tilling?

It could be parenting.  Grand-parenting.  Reaching out to neighbors and friends.  You are investing time and energy in people, especially in your family and friends.

It could be a ministry in church, serving, teaching, using your gifts.

What other kinds of planting are you doing in your life?  What is hard?

Think about what you are praying for.

Is it a broken relationship, healing from physical pain and illness, financial hardship?

When you are praying, and when you are waiting, you are planting seeds of sorrow. That is lament.  Lament is prayer in which you are planting seeds of sorrow.  You are crying out to God, saying “Lord, this is hard work!  I need you to intervene.”

Israel was crying out to God for salvation, to send a savior.  The land was in bad shape.  They wanted God to come and save them.

That is what Advent is all about.  Advent means “the coming”.  In the season of Advent we remember the first coming of the savior, the Messiah, Jesus.  And we examine our lives and seek to make our lives ready for his second coming.  He came once and he said he is coming again.

In the midst of the difficulty, the darkness, in the midst of the hard work of planting tears, God entered the world.  Do you need God to enter your world?  Perhaps you’ll consider lament.

What is a song of ascent? (the next U2 album?)

18 Dec

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For years the rock band U2 has been hinting that they are going to release an album called Songs of Ascent. What might “Songs of Ascent” refer to?  Why would U2 think of that title?

As the years went by, U2 changed directions a bit, first releasing an album called Songs of Innocence, and just this month, a companion album titled Songs of Experience.  Might there by a trilogy in the works, and Songs of Ascent is forthcoming?  Time will tell.

While there is no U2 album called “Songs of Ascent,” when I first heard they were considering that title, I took interest because there are psalms of ascent in the Book of Psalms in the Bible.  I wondered how these psalms might have sparked U2 to consider an album with that title?  So what are these songs of ascent?

During Advent 2017 at Faith Church we are learning to lament, and the psalmists are guiding us.  During this third week of Advent, we are studying Psalm 126.

Here it is.  Psalm 126

A song of ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

What do you notice first?

That it is short?  That there is no author named?  Both true.

What I want us to focus on is its subtitle: a song of ascents.  What is that?

An ascent is an upward movement.  We ascend the stairs.  I know, we don’t normally talk like that.  It sounds kind of fancy to talk like that.  We tend to say simply, “go upstairs”.  But that is what the word “ascent” refers to, a moving upward.  In Acts 1 we read about Jesus ascending to heaven, and thus we celebrate his Ascension Day.  On that day, Jesus, we believe, physically ascended, flew through the sky, upwards, to heaven.  His disciples, we are told, looked up and watched him fly higher and higher, apparently, until they could see him no longer.  That is an ascension, a movement upward.

So why is this called a psalm of ascents?

Actually all of Psalms 120-134 have this title, “A song of Ascents”.  The Hebrew word for “ascent” could refer to stairs, and even specifically the stairs leading up to the temple.

So the title could be translated “song of the stairs.”  Scholars tell us that these songs of ascent were used in worship in the temple, maybe sung by priests standing on the stairs.  Maybe even as people were ascending those stairs to enter the temple.  Scan through Psalms 120-134 and what do you notice?  They are all very short, and thus could fit well within the short amount of time it would take for people to walk up stairs.

If that is true, that the psalms of ascent were used in temple worship, then perhaps we could say that songs of ascent are a kind of preparatory songs to help people get ready to worship.  You can envision groups of priests and worshipers singing these songs together.

But scholars also tell us that these songs of ascent were used as pilgrimage songs.  There were a couple feasts each year in which Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.  Scholars believe that the pilgrims would sing together as they journeyed on foot or on the backs of animals, on their way to the city.

Almost certainly, this group of songs of ascent was written after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile.  That is the same time period as Psalm 85 last week.  In fact, psalm 85 and 126, as I think will be very obvious, are often grouped together because they are so similar.

Take a look at the text of the psalm again.  Read it through a couple times.  What do you notice?

My first thought when reading Psalm 126 was, “Wait…Is this a lament?  The word ‘joy’ is repeated four times.  Laughter is mentioned.  The people proclaim, ‘The Lord has done great things for us.’ How is this lament?”

Just like last week in Psalm 85, what we see in Psalm 126 is an eruption of joy because the Lord has restored their fortunes in returning some of the people of Israel from exile in Babylon back to Palestine.  But right there in the midst of joy is also lament as they realize how far they as a nation have to go in order to keep the restoration going.

So this is a lament.  Starting with our next post, we’ll take a closer look at how this song of ascent is crafted and how we can learn more about lament from this psalmist.

How lament can bring beautiful restoration

14 Dec

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Throughout this second week of Advent 2017, we’ve been talking about restoration from Psalm 85.  We’ve seen how God is at work to bring restoration and revival.  We’ve also learned our responsibility to work alongside God.  It can seem too hard sometimes when the restoration is going to require lots of sacrifice and effort.  So we lament.  We ask God to help.

And when we participate with God in the work in restoration and revival, a beautiful thing happens.  The psalmist describes in his final section of Psalm 85, verses 10-13. 

Verses 10-13 are some of the most amazing words in the whole Bible.  Worth printing here for sure.

Love and faithfulness meet together;
    righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
    and righteousness looks down from heaven.
The LORD will indeed give what is good,
    and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness goes before him
    and prepares the way for his steps.

These final verses point us to the future.  They are an assurance that God will restore and revive.

Look at how the psalmist portrays the renewal of the land.  He envisions the promised land that had become a waste land return once again into the promised land.  And it is God who does it.

What we read in this section continues the psalmists flow of thought started in verse 9, where he describes the God’s glory dwelling in the land.  A logical next question is, “What will happen when God is in the land?”

Normally I would look to the next verses, 10-11, to tells us what will happen when God is in the land, but they are a bit cryptic.  Poetry is beautiful, but it can also be hard to decipher.  Do you see all the figurative language there?  It is delightful poetry, but it is not clear as to what it means. Love and faithfulness are made out to be like people who meet each other.  Righteousness and peace as well, compared to lovers who kiss one another.  What is the poet trying to say?

Perhaps he means all these qualities to be flowing from God, as his presence will be in the land when his people fear him.  Maybe.  But I think the psalmist is being a bit more creative than that.  Follow me here.

I think that in the first line of verse 10, love represents God because in verse 7 he had already called for God to show the people His love.

Then I think, still in that first line of verse 10, that faithfulness represents people who fear God because in verse 8 the psalmist calls them faithful servants, and verse 11 faithfulness springs from the earth, the domain of people.

Now go to the next line, and I think the word righteousness represents God, because in verse 11 righteousness looks down from heaven.  Then peace represents people because in verse 8 he promises peace to his people.

To summarize, if my poetic interpretation is correct, verses 10-13 describe what happens when God and his people are in right relationship.  It is beautiful.  There is restoration and revival of the land.  In verse 12 this impact is beheld as the waste-land has been transformed and bears a harvest.  The psalmist sees a time in the future when the land is restored and revived.  Verse 13 once again depicts righteousness, once just looking down from heaven, now going before God, preparing a way for him.

And so in Psalm 85’s lament, we come full circle.  Restoration in the past shows the psalmist his immense need to lament for continued restoration in the present, which, if it results in obedience and faithfulness, will lead to ultimate restoration between God and his people in the future.

Yes, lament is right and proper when things are so bad there is no where else to turn, when the bottom rots out.

But lament is also right and proper when God has begun to restore us, and there is much work to do to keep the restoration going.

Lament. Call for him to help.  Follow his lead.

As you look at your life, do you see how God is at work restoring you?  Maybe you see areas that still need a lot of work, areas that feel like they are too much, too difficult?  If so, lament!

Cry out to God!  Tell him how you feel.  You can be brutally honest with him.  Ask for his revival and restoration in your life, in your family, in our church, in our community, in our country and world. Always hold before you the beautiful vision of restoration that is possible when God and people are in right relationship.

Lament to God, ask his help for full restoration and revival, with a determination to obey him and to work hard for the restoration and revival.

Who is responsible for restoration and revival? God? Us? Both?

13 Dec

Image result for restoration in progressRestoration and revival might take a lot of work.  I just did a Google image search on the phrase “the hard work of restoration”, and almost all of the pictures are about car restorations.  Some furniture.  Some homes.  There is restoration from natural disaster that can take years.  I suspect only a few of us will get involved in that kind of restoration.  Maybe most of us work on our homes, but rarely do we do full restorations.

But just about all of us work on a different kind of restoration.  Relationship restoration.

My guess is that nearly everyone, at some point in their lives, must work towards restoring a relationship that has become broken.  In this week’s posts we’ve talked about the experience of seeing a new spark of life in a relationship that seemed to have been dead. That new hope is a wonderful thing.  But it carries with it the reality of the mountain of work yet to occur.

As we continue our study of Psalms of Lament this Advent, we have started looking into the four sections of Psalm 85.  You can review the previous sections here (one), God’s blessing in the past, and here (two), a lament for restoration to continue.

In this post, we look at section three, verses 8-9, and what do we see? The promise of present blessing for God’s people is connected to their obedience.  Three times in these two verses the psalmist mentions obedience.  Isn’t that interesting? He is lamenting to God, asking for God to keep the restoration going, to bring revival, but he also knows that he and the people have a part to play.

Do you see the three times he mentions obedience?

In verse 8, he says I will listen to God.  God will be his source of wisdom and truth and knowledge.  He will learn from God how to live.  No more living based on what he thinks is right and good.  Look where that got him and the nation.  Now he places his focus on listening to God.

Second, still in verse 8, he says that God promises peace to his people, but let them not turn to folly.  They wanted the peace.  They wanted peace badly.  After living in captivity for 70 years, and finally being allowed to return to their own land, they want peace.  They don’t want enemies and fighting.  We all want peace.  Enemies and fighting wear us down, gives us stress and generally ruin life. We want peace.  God promises peace, but they must obey.  They must not turn to folly.  Folly is foolish choices.  Behaving badly.  They must follow God.

Third, in verse 9 he says salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in the land.  That’s what they want.  They want God to be with them in the Promised Land, because he is stronger than their enemies.  He can protect and save them.  But again, there is a condition.  They must fear him.  Go back a few weeks and review the sermon Emerald gave on the fear of God from Deuteronomy 6.  Fearing God was vital to the people of Israel being restored and revived.

Put these three statements about obedience together, and what conclusion do we have?  Restoration has begun, and restoration and revival will continue, as long as the people are faithful to God.  There is much work to be done. 

I get that.  I was once one who needed restoration.  When I was 17, I was a very reckless irresponsible driver, and as a result I got into a bad accident.  I unintentionally hit an Amish buggy, and a lady inside died.  If you want to read the whole story, you can do so here.  A couple Sundays ago, my parents and I, and my two youngest kids, visited the Amish family.  It was our annual visit.  For 26 years, every year around the time of the accident, we go visit them for the afternoon.

They had already forgiven me long ago.  In fact, they forgave me the day after the accident.  My fortunes were restored, but there was much work to do for the restoration to continue.  And so every year we go over to their house.  I’ll reveal to you a bit of my feelings about this.  Every year I have anxiety about going.  There is part of me that doesn’t want to go, and I contemplate saying, “My family can’t make it.”  And every year when we pull up to their house, I feel a heaviness, a bit of shame returns, and I have to steel myself, take a deep breath, and say “Let’s do this.”  It’s not overwhelming.  It’s just awkward.

The Amish family do not make it awkward.  It’s all within me.

The Amish family are wonderful actually, and they always have been.  And usually all it takes is a few minutes, after greeting and hugging and shaking hands, and the conversation starts to fly.  This time one of their sons was there too.  He has a tree-trimming business, and was doing a job over at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station. He remarked to us about how huge and impressive the cooling towers are.  Then he looked at my dad and asked, “What is nuclear power anyway?  Is it like a gas?”  And so for the next five minutes we sat there as my dad tried to explain nuclear power to an Amish man!

We were there two hours, and as we left, I thought how important is the ongoing work of restoration.  So important that it is well worth a visit once every year, even if it is for the rest of my life.

Restoration and revival are God’s work, no doubt.  But God invites us to work them out with him.  And lament calls out to God to do just that.

When we participate with God in the work in restoration and revival, a beautiful thing happens, and that is what the psalmist so gorgeously depicts in the final section of his poem, which we look closely at in our next post!

The Freedom of Forgiveness Received

13 Dec

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In the Gospels Jesus tells the story of a certain servant who owed millions of dollars to a king.  When the king requested an accounting of the debt, the servant couldn’t pay.  The king ordered the servant, the servant’s wife, children and all his possession to be sold to pay the balance.  Horrified, the servant fell on his knees before the king, pleading for time.  The king, filled with pity, forgave the entire debt.  The man left rejoicing until he bumped into another servant who owed him a few thousand dollars.  The first servant violently demanded that this other servant pay him immediately.  When the man could not, he had him thrown into prison until the debt was paid in full.  Word of this got back to the king who called in the man he had forgiven.  How could he have his enormous debt forgiven and then go out and choose not to forgive the small amount this other man owed him?  The king, astounded and angry, reinstated the large debt and threw the man in prison until he paid every penny.  Jesus’ concludes by remarking, “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart.” (NLT)

It is a story familiar to us; perhaps too familiar.  All of us can share probably numerous personal illustrations of broken relationships, bitterness, and grudges.  We wonder when we’ll ever experience the full life that Jesus promised he came to give us.  Jesus skillfully used this parable to illustrate that this full life should never include grudges or bitterness toward people for anything they do to us.  Symbolically, and certainly in reality, forgiveness frees us.  We see in the parable the joy of the first servant, who, if he had not received forgiveness from the king, would have remained locked in a prison, despairing for his lost wife and family and everything he had.  Sadly, like us, he returned to that prison as a result of his inability to receive forgiveness and show it to others.  I know from firsthand experience that this parable is true-to-life.  I am that first servant.

 

The Crime

In the fall of 1991 just eleven months after passing my driver’s license test, I had been driving with no accidents, no tickets, and basically thought I was the best driver in the nation.  I remember how much fun it was trying to push the limits.  My parents’ drive to church, for example, took about fifteen to twenty minutes; I did it once in eight.  It was a video game to me rather than the responsibility it should have been.  Like I said, I hadn’t gotten into any trouble, no tickets for speeding, no accidents because of recklessness, though I had a few close calls.  But don’t we all?  On Sunday November 3rd, 1991, I went to church with my family and couldn’t wait for it to be done so I could rush home, shovel down dinner, and leave to play football with the guys from church, our Sunday afternoon tradition.  After lunch, my brother, Jeff, and I hopped into my parent’s early 1980s AMC Concord station-wagon.  Yellow with imitation wood grain paneling on the sides, it is a model hardly seen on the roads now twenty years after its manufacture.  We picked up his friend, Chad, my friend, Dave, and sped over to Lancaster Christian School for the game.

I knew the back way to LCS very well because my brother, sister, and I all attended there through 8th grade.  Part of that back way took us south on Kissel Hill Road just to the east of the Lancaster Airport.  It was a beautiful fall day, cool, clear, and crisp.  I clearly remember driving on the section of Kissel Hill Road between Millport Road and Oregon Road.  As I came over the crest of one small hill, I hit the gas and we felt the car lurch into high gear.  Sounding like I knew what I was talking about, I made some inane comment about the car “doing good today because it hit third gear at 70 mph.”  Dave, who hadn’t yet put on his seatbelt, responded that he’d better do so!  Little did he suspect that his caution might have saved his life.  As he fumbled with the belt, I saw an Amish buggy about 100 yards in front of us in our lane, heading the same direction as us.  I said to everyone in the car something like, “I’m going to blow by these guys.”  I thought I was so incredibly cool.

For those of us in Lancaster County, accustomed to the Amish community within our borders, the sight of Amish horse and buggies is commonplace.  Lancaster is known world-wide as a hotspot of Amish culture.  Thousands of tourists visit each year hoping to catch a glimpse of gray horse and buggies on the roads or of Amish families in their traditional black and blue outfits.  Subject to religious persecution in Europe, the Amish journeyed to the New World in search of their own promised land.  Their culture and customs have remained, for the most part, exactly as they were centuries ago when they first came to America.  The Amish know English, for example, but talk amongst themselves in their Pennsylvania Dutch/German dialect.  All Lancastrians can tell you stories about how their culture is changing incrementally, but there is no denying that the Amish have maintained a traditional culture in the midst of a progressive one.  The changes and pressures of a farming county that is rapidly blossoming into a wealthy suburban county have, however, over the last few decades, soured many Amish to their Lancaster County soil.  As neighborhoods and business parks cover farmland, hundreds of Amish families have migrated to quieter farmlands in such places as Indiana and Mexico.

This small second exodus has done little to change the face of the Amish in Lancaster.  Buggies are still regulars on country roads like that one I traveled.  By and large, the American culture in Lancaster treats the Amish just as they do their slow-moving buggies, taking them for granted and passing them by.  The standard legal practice for passing buggies is to slow down behind them, put your left turn signal on, verify that the left-hand lane is clear ahead, pull over the double-yellow lines into the left-hand land, pass the buggy, put your right-turn signal on, and move back over the double-yellow into the right-hand land.  For some this drill is a nuisance: “They slow our progress.  Their metal rims wear ruts into our roads, and their horses make a stinking mess everywhere.”  This minority view with its accompanying round of Amish jokes can be contrasted, as most Lancastrians will tell you, by the accurate description of the Amish as extremely hard-working, peaceful, and prosperous.

I stomped on the gas again, now doing about 70-75 mph and steered the car into the left lane to pass the buggy.  As we raced closer to the buggy, I will never, ever forget seeing the nose of the horse turn out in front of me.  Instantly I knew they were trying to turn in front of me.  I hadn’t looked for, nor had I seen their turn signal or the small country road they were attempting to turn left onto.  Instinct took over as I pounded the brake pedal with my foot.  The brakes locked and the car skidded forward, tires screaming.  We smashed into the buggy, and I heard the POP of my windshield shattering into tiny pieces of glass.  The buggy flew over top of the car and we rumbled to a stop in the field to the left.  My hands, gripped tight to the wheel, were streaming with blood, but only from shards of windshield glass that grazed my knuckles.  I still have a tiny scar in between two knuckles on my left hand, a constant reminder that basically nothing happened to me.

Dave never quite got his seatbelt buckled.  When I hit the brakes, he grabbed the shoulder belt and held on with both hands.  The belt locked and swung him around like Tarzan and his left shoulder hit the windshield.  Possibly his shoulder, but maybe the buggy, broke the windshield.  Other than soreness, though, neither he, Jeff, nor Chad were hurt.  Dave’s father, who visited the scene that evening after it was cleared, later told us that the skidmarks from the car quite visibly ran off the road, missing a telephone pole by about 12 inches.  It all happened so fast, I do not even remember seeing a telephone pole.

After making sure everyone in my car was okay, I tried to open my door but the collision had jammed it shut.  Just then an Amish man came running up to our car yelling frantically, “Does anyone know CPR?  Does anyone know CPR?”  At 17, I was the oldest in the car.  I think Dave had a bit of training, but we were not prepared for what we saw after we got out.  We walked down to the crash site, and there the Amish man was holding from behind the crumpled pile of what looked like his mother.  She was severely injured, convulsing, and definitely missing teeth.  I told Jeff and Chad to run to the nearest homes, which in that area were all farms, to find a phone and call 911.  They sprinted across the fields, so riveted on getting to a phone that my brother never even saw the Amish lady.  He remembers that the fields were recently plowed, as though he was running sluggishly on a sandy beach.  A very frustrating prospect when all you want is to get to a phone as fast as possible.  My brother’s race to the phone is the first instance of many in which I realize the extreme pain my sin brought not only to the Amish family, but also to my family.  Imagine being a 13 year old, running with all your might to get to a phone to call 911 because your older brother had caused an awful accident?  Dave and I stayed and flagged down cars hoping someone might have a mobile phone, which at that time was still a rarity.  I tugged at his shirt in desperation saying something like “What do we do?”

 

Immediate Aftermath

Eventually cars stopped, and a policeman and an EMT/ambulance crew came to scene.  That was a huge relief for me.  A family friend who was driving by picked Jeff up from the scene and dropped him off at our home.  He was the first to inform my parents, and together with my dad returned to pick me up.  On their way back to the accident they could see from a distance the car in the field, the buggy unrecognizable.  Imagine the dreadful feeling of driving to the scene of devastation that your son caused.  How that must have felt for my dad!  As my dad and I sat in the back seat of the police cruiser, I don’t remember much except fear and an overwhelming desire to tell the truth, to get what I knew was a weighty burden off my back.  The officer gave my dad and me a few moments alone after I had blurted some initial details.  We figured he left us to ourselves then so we could go over the details of the story together, possibly to come up with a spin that didn’t make me so culpable for the accident.  I knew it was horrible, so I told him exactly what happened, even that I was going at least 70 mph.  They were able to confirm that later anyway by the length of the skid marks.  I came to find out in the coming weeks that the officer was really impressed with my honesty.  At the time I was simply scared to death of any further trouble.  Lying was not an option.  I didn’t know if I was going to jail, the local juvenile detention center, Barnes Hall, or some other awful place.  But the cop let me go home with my dad clearly stating that there would be follow up.

I’ll never forget what my dad said in response to my rather tepid apologies as we drove away, “You’ve been through enough.  We’re not going to make it worse for you.”  He was right, and I’m very glad for it.  It was already bad, about to get worse.  When we arrived at our house, less than five minutes away, my mom met me at the door.  I must have spent the next half hour just crying on my mom’s shoulder.  As the news got out many family and friends showed their love and support by coming over to do nothing and everything at the same time: be there.  The friends from church who we were on our way to meet stopped their football game and came over, dirty and disheveled from the game.  Gradually a herd of my school and church friends migrated to our house to show support.  That in itself was meaningful because I had rarely attempted to mix these two groups of people.  I think they even prayed together.

As I was with my friends huddled downstairs in my basement, my parents called me upstairs to my bedroom to tell me that the police officer had just called with a report about the Amish lady who had been taken to the hospital.  Due to permanent brain damage, she needed life support to stay alive.  Since the Amish don’t believe in life support, she died that night in the hospital.  The horrible news began to pile on top of me.  The Amish lady, the officer told us, wasn’t the mother of the man.  It was his wife.  More than that, it was his newlywed bride, and they had been on their honeymoon.  They had only been married for 5 days, he was 21 years old, and she was 19.  Traditionally, November is the Amish marrying season, and they were on their customary Amish honeymoon travels, visiting a few days in one relative’s home then moving on to another and another and so on.  In the midst of that bliss, she was dead, and I had killed her.  It was, and still is by far, the worst day of my life.  My mother recalls that she held me crying in her arms while my dad and brother sat next to me on the bed, and my 9 year old sister Laura was convinced I was going to jail!  Eventually everyone left our house, but God and I talked long into the night.

The next day my parents let me stay home from school, and actually, one of my friend’s parents let him stay home with me.  He picked me up and we watched Monty Python videos to get our minds off the disaster.  In the middle of Live at the Hollywood Bowl, my parents called.  They had found out from my uncle, who had connections in the Amish community, that the viewing was going to be that day, and they told me that I was going.  It was extremely frightening news.  Yet it signals the depth of my parents’ character.  I know my dad later told people that it was the hardest thing they ever had to do.  As a parent of a 6 and 5 year old now, I can hardly imagine what I would do if I was in their shoes.  How would I handle this horrible thing my son did?  How responsible would I feel?  And what would my reaction be?  Step by step through the process of dealing with my sin, my parents did everything right.  In a world where so many want to shift blame, especially when their children mess up, my parents stood by me and guided me through handling this situation in a God-honoring, responsible and truthful manner.

That evening, my parents, my youth pastor (who had only been at our church for 3 months…it still amazes me that he came…another example of godly commitment), and I went to where we thought the viewing was going to be.  I felt so nervous there was actually pain ripping across my guts.  I didn’t know what these people were like (shows how much this Lancastrian cared about the Amish sub-culture as I grew up around it) or what was going to happen.  Would they come pouring out of the porch of the house with shotguns?  That was literally the image in my mind.  We got the house and it didn’t seem like anyone was home.  We had mistakenly been given the location, not of the viewing, but of the husband’s family’s home.  Some of his relatives were inside, and my mom remembers his grandmother coming out to meet us, hugging me and expressing her forgiveness.  This kind gesture I do not recall, most likely due to the fact that in my mind the worst was yet to come.  Amazingly the husband’s father was there and needed a ride to the viewing.  So we took him with us, and he led the way.  The father, while very reserved, wasn’t mean to us, and even expressed his forgiveness.  But can you imagine driving to the viewing of your son’s new wife with the family of the guy who was responsible for her death?

When we finally made it to the viewing, we saw Amish buggies parked all over the farm property, heightening my fear.  This was a tragedy in the life of Lancaster’s Amish community, drawing many to support the family and attend the viewing.  A loss in what was supposed to be a joyful season made the front page of the local paper.  Then the moment came.  We got out of the car and walked into the dimly lit house.  My mom mentioned that because the father-in-law was with us we didn’t have to go through the painful process of knocking on the door, we were immediately ushered into the house.  I had never been in an Amish home and was surprised at how similar it looked to my own.  The family, through the grapevine, knew that we were coming and met us in the front room.  The parents of the Amish lady who died, Melvin and Barbara Stoltzfus, walked up to me and put their arms around me.  Through tears I muttered how sorry I was, and they spoke some of the most incredible words that I think are possible to utter, “We forgive you, we know it was God’s time for her to die.”

Unbelievable.  It was totally, absolutely amazing.  But they went even further than that!  They proceeded to invite my family to come over for dinner!  And they wanted us to come soon, within a few weeks’ time!  I cannot express the relief that flooded over me.

Then someone led me to a back room where the husband, Aaron Stoltzfus, stood beside the open casket of his wife, Sarah.  To my surprise, as I nervously glanced at her, I was looking at a beautiful young woman.  Aaron, like her parents, came to me with open arms.  I said, “How can I ever repay you?”  He simply forgave me.  We hugged as the freedom of forgiveness swept over and through me.

As I read and reread the previous few paragraphs, I feel extremely limited in my command of the English language to evoke the feeling of what took place.  When I tell the story live, it seems to carry a greater impact.  Maybe the audience reads my face.  Maybe the emotion can’t help but flow through me.  All I know is that the Stoltzfus’ concise words of forgiveness rushed through me with power.  Some people have said that Amish are able to forgive like that because their theology leans toward fatalism, meaning that they believe everything is determined, is bound to happen, so there’s no reason to get all bent out of shape about something bad.  God is in control.  They become somewhat emotionless about all the pain and suffering in life and are much more capable of dealing with it well.  I don’t know how true that is for every single Amishman, but I do know that this particular family is very emotional.  In a positive way.  They are incredibly upbeat and warm people.  And I know the accident, Sarah’s death, was very, very hard for them.

My mom, recalling the events said, “I will never forget what Pastor Jim told us the next day.  He watched Joel during this entire night.  He said he started out as a young teen with an incredible burden of guilt on his shoulder but walked out of that house with a tremendous weight taken him through forgiveness.”

 

The Sentence

The Stoltzfus’ did have us over for dinner sometime in that next month, an event I recall with wonder.  There we were sitting in that same Amish home with Sarah’s family, Aaron, and some from his family too.  The table was loaded with delicious food, and never once did they show any kind of resentment.  Never once did they attempt to make us feel bad.  On the contrary, it was a kind of a get-to-know-you session, an intentional beginning to a meaningful relationship.  We exchanged stories comparing and contrasting the Amish sub-culture with mainstream American culture.  They were so kind.  They had opened their home and hearts to us!

The larger Amish community in Lancaster was also very impressive to me.  I still have the pile of at least 50 cards that I received from various Amish people across the County.  They were constantly encouraging and pointing me to God.

It was also in this time that I clearly recall a striking visit from my soccer coach.  I remember meeting him at the door one evening, probably just a few days after the accident.  I will never forget what he said.  “Joel, you will be compassionate from now on.”  How true.  Since that time I have never had trouble forgiving people.  Not that I have worked on it and have become talented at it.  On the contrary, I think God must have changed my heart, because I don’t have to try to forgive anymore.  It flows out as naturally as my heart beats without me having a say in the matter.

In the ensuing months, I did not drive again, handing my keys over to my parents.  My trial was set for February 5, 1992.  Because of the severity of the accident I was charged with vehicular homicide, a charge that indicates the accidental, but irresponsibly reckless use of a vehicle that caused the loss of life.  I’m not sure where it falls on the murder/manslaughter scale, but I do know that if I was one year older, I could have been facing jail time, which is another facet of the whole story that points me to the grace of God.  I was 17, a minor, and was therefore dealt with under the juvenile justice system, saved from a much harsher penalty in the adult courts.  Soon after the accident, I was assigned a probation officer and a public defender to walk me and my family through the penal process prior to the court date.  The standard punishment for juvenile vehicular homicide at the time was a suspension of the offender’s driver’s license for 3 years, 200 hours of community service, payment of all court costs (only about $100), and probation until the community service requirement was completed. To me, with Sarah’s life gone because of my actions, it was an extremely generous sentence.

My trial and punishment served as another instance for the Amish family to demonstrate the freedom of forgiveness.  They wrote letters to the judge begging for my pardon, asking that I be acquitted on all counts!  Imagine the character it would take to write that letter! Because of the severity of the crime, however, there was no way pardon was possible based on the law.  At the trial the only thing my dad asked the judge was if it might be possible for me to get my license back sooner because I would be going to college soon and would need to drive.  I hoped that maybe I could have more community service in exchange for a short suspension, but the judge held firm to the standard.  A wise decision that was completely rational and acceptable to my thinking.  As we walked out of the courtroom, my probation officer met us in the hallway.  I will never forget pulling out my wallet and handing my precious driver’s license over to her that day after the court appearance.

 

From Forgiveness to Friendship

Our relationship with the Stoltzfus’ family has continued ever since (both Aaron and his in-law’s surname is Stoltzfus.)  Over the years they have come to our house and we to theirs, about once each year near the anniversary of the accident.  Once when they came to our house, I remember playing ping-pong with Aaron.  We must have played 10 games and I beat him every time, which was to me an awkward situation.  Here I am, I thought, an irresponsible kid who killed his wife, and now I’m playing ping-pong with him.  He really seemed to enjoy it and wanted to keep playing.  I wondered if I should have let him win, but what would that do?  I came to realize that our relationship with Aaron and the rest of the Stoltzfus family, though it began under the most horrible circumstances, had grown into a legitimate, normal relationship.  They had forgiven me, and never, ever, went back on that decision.  And they backed it up with a real relationship.  Consider this: five years after the accident, Michelle and I invited them to our wedding, and they came!  For the ceremony and the reception, bearing gifts.  Some may read this and think, “How insensitive!  You invited them to your wedding?  Isn’t that a slap in the face!?!?!”  On the surface, it certainly looks like it.  It does seem odd to me that we would invite the Stoltzfus’ to share in our celebration when only five years earlier, I had totally shattered theirs.  But that viewpoint fails to realize the depth of the relationship.  The past had been forgiven, and we were actually friends.  People invite their friends to their wedding.  I particularly like the idea of trumpeting to the world their brand of forgiveness.  To me, having the Stoltzfus’ at my wedding was not to show off the fact that I had friends in the Amish community, it was to display for everyone who knew us the glory of God that results when people obey his commands!  To accent this further, when we moved to Jamaica to be missionaries three years later, the Stoltzfus family supported us financially.  Forgiveness, they taught me, is not always a one-time event.  Perhaps this is one angle of what Jesus intended when he replied to Peter that we ought to forgive someone not just seven times, but seventy times seven.  In other words, Jesus said, in order to follow its purpose of freedom, it requires follow-up, the rebuilding of a relationship or, as in my case, the creation of a new one.

God blessed the situation even further as Aaron eventually remarried Sarah’s younger sister, Levina.  To me it was as though God allowed the family to be whole again.  They now have a beautiful family, full of children.

This past year when we visited Melvin and Barbara (Aaron and Levina live in a house on Aaron’s family’s property in Leola, so we don’t see them as much) on their farm/bakery in Lititz, it was the first we had seen them in a couple years.  We missed one year when we lived in Jamaica, and the next year because we had just returned home, so it was good to see them after a 2 or 3 year gap.  For the first time in 11 years we talked about the accident frankly, but very kindly.  Again, they were never condemning, just admitting how hard it was.  How they miss Sarah.  I had the chance to express my gratitude and share with them how the freedom of forgiveness they gave me impacted so many people whenever I share the story.  I cried then as I am now as I type this.

In this land of liberty, that kind of freedom I received often eludes us.  We have so few pictures of what it actually looks like.  God glorified himself in my life, however, by blessing me with a wonderful picture of how people can handle terrible crimes against themselves.  My uncle, Jim Ohlson, when commenting on an early manuscript of my story added, “What I have seen in you is that the forgiveness of the Amish gave you the confidence to live life to the full.”  Jesus said “I have come that they might have life, and life to the full!”  That full life is only possible by through the freedom of forgiveness received.