Amish Grace

Every fall the presidents of the Consortium of Christian Colleges gather to dialogue. We discuss the challenges facing our institutions and our families, and we share and seek spiritual growth as a group of Christian leaders. Ruth and I have had the opportunity to attend seven of these gatherings, and they have become more meaningful over time.

The meetings for us always fall right after our board meetings so in order to go we have to head out first thing Sunday morning (following the close of board business on Saturday) and spend the day flying – usually to somewhere in the eastern part of the U.S. In the fall, the tradition is to meet on a campus. The president of the campus usually provides a tour, an introduction to some key faculty, and hosts us for dinner conversations on campus. This fall the meetings were held at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. We left early on Sunday morning on United to connect through Chicago to Harrisburg, Pa. For those of you who fly you will not be surprised that our experience did not go as planned. The flight from Chicago was cancelled. Since it was a Sunday, most of the flights were full, and it looked like the best option was to turn around and go back home – so close to the destination but, given flight schedules, it did not look good to get to Pennsylvania. At the last minute, an agent found us a flight on a different airline to Philadelphia so we flew there, got a rental car and headed for Harrisburg. For those of you who think traveling is fun . . . well, let’s just say my experiences recently would suggest that the challenges outweigh the “fun” times! We arrived almost at midnight having missed dinner at the president’s (Kim Phipps), but we made it.

Kim had decided that one of the things we might want to ask, since we were in central Pennsylvania, is what we could learn from the Amish Christian testimony. I have never met an Amish person, and I admit that I have stereotypes of their community: people who reject technology; people who ride horses instead of driving cars; folks who generally live in the 19th century in an attempt to preserve some past notion of traditional life. I really did not think I would or could learn anything from the Amish – or at least anything I would want to learn. Typically, I was wrong.

The morning started with a very thoughtful professor, David Weaver-Zercher, providing a devotional centered on a topic of a book he had written — Amish Grace. He began by talking about a tragic shooting in an Amish community, Nickel Mines, in central Pennsylvania. I vaguely remembered the news covering this, but like so many other tragedies, unless you experience it personally it quickly leaves your memory.

In this particular case, a gunman entered an Amish school, carefully selected the boys and sent them out of the school and proceeded to shoot the 10 female students before turning the gun on himself. When you hear such a story it is almost surreal. How could anyone do something like that? Of course it happens again and again in our world. Perhaps more significantly, how does a Christian community live up to its commitments after a tragedy like this one? Jesus said on the cross to the ones that were crucifying him, “Father, forgive them, for they are unaware of what they are doing.” I always thought that was a nice statement, but I never really thought of it as a claim on those that follow Jesus. Professor Weaver-Zercher had studied the Amish response to the tragedy and, given the community’s serious commitment to the radical forgiveness of Jesus’ message, he talked about how they sought to forgive the man and his family who had so ripped apart their community by violently taking the lives of their children. He called it “Amish Grace.”

It was clear from the professor’s presentation that the process of forgiveness was not an easy one. The community had thoughts of vengeance, anger and intense pain at the losses they suffered. This was no quick forgiveness where the community came together and said, “Just like Jesus we have to forgive, so we do and we move on.” No. It would take much too long to tell the story, and I would encourage you to read the book because the story needs to be read and understood in its complete form. What impacted me was a statement that the professor made: “This community was able to forgive as a direct result of the ‘tools’ they had developed as a community over time.” Tools – now that was an interesting concept. What he meant was that this group of Amish people lived a genuine shared existence – what we used to call “community.” They did not just live in proximity to each other or show up and meet each other in church once a week. They also agreed to live and work together, in community. This type of community required sacrifice, hard work and transparent conversation – all requirements of real community. They had developed the “tools” necessary to live and work together.

For the greater part of Monday we spent time with Amish families, talking to them about how they farmed, what school was like, what types of technology they accepted, how marriages developed among the younger people in the community. We wanted to know what it was like to really live in an Amish community. The experience was quite powerful. We learned that, just because the Amish lived more simply, it did not make life simple. In order to thrive as a group of people they agreed to submit to each other and to the authority of the elders. Decisions required time and a lot of conversation. When they made decisions in community they agreed to live with the decisions and to do their best to make the community work (we learned it was how they decided to experiment with DC power but not AC). In the end, it is how they arrived at an attitude of grace toward the man that shot their children.

One of the significant challenges facing Western culture, and the Christian subculture within it, is the loss of a real community. If your experience is like mine, there are few places we find genuine community outside our own small nuclear families. Our churches, for the most part, are amalgamations of individuals who gather to worship once or twice a week. We have Rotary clubs, book clubs and art circles – all excellent meetings, but most people live their “lives” outside the gatherings. I will never forget the image this past week while I was in England of being on a packed Tube (London underground train) and seeing no one making eye contact with another. Each had their music or phone device active – earphones in – in a world of their own. In a world that maximizes the power of the individual, we have lost the “tools” to live together in community, and that includes churches.

George Fox is not a perfect place by any means, but it is one where we are trying to think about what it means to live in community. We are developing the next generation of Christian leaders, and we know that they will need “tools” – some similar, some different from the past – in order to live as a testimony of Christ to our world. While we are in an attitude of Thanksgiving this week, we do give thanks for all the many blessings that God has given us while asking Him at the same time to help us understand and develop meaningful communities that will give testimony to our world of God’s grace – “Amish Grace.”

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