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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

moulding life like you mould fiction

Life - sometimes I wish I could mould it the way I can mould fiction. Wouldn't that be nice? "I think this will happen now and then this and this - presto!" Mind you, fiction can have a mind of its own and take you in directions you never imagined in order to maintain a story's integrity and plausibility. But still, you can turn it left or right most of the time and create any happy ending you want. Of course this doesn't work in real life. And whenever I do "my will be done not yours" prayers that doesn't work either ;o)

Actually, as a writer, writing in the Christian fiction genre is one thing and it can be done well if you put heart and soul into it. But I find I have to write the other kind of stories too, where things don't always wind up picture perfect, and I need to do this kind of writing as a Christian as well as typically Christian storytelling. Yes, it is different than Christian fiction because it is the sort of writing where struggle and tragedy and enigma play a more prominent role. You can have the hard endings Christian fiction normally won't accept.

We just received our first copy of "The White Birds of Morning" in the mail. This is published in Toronto, and the publisher is still a Christian, BUT it's meant for a much wider audience than Christian fiction appeals to. Really it's meant for a global audience, Christian and non-Christian, which takes away some freedoms Christian fiction gives you but grants you others Christian fiction can't offer. There's no way for me to even begin to try to write about real life without working in both genres.

I may not be able to mould my world the way I can mould a fictional story. But I know this: real life is the stuff of fiction and real fiction is the stuff of life. We owe it to God and one another, indeed to the whole world, to talk about that real world as honestly and positively and faithfully as possible. It is not the place to fake it or cover up the truth. Nor is it the place to twist things out of shape and make light darkness or tragedy the norm. Too much is at stake. The "puffy clouds and blue sky" storytellers need to remember that. So do the "dark clouds and even darker sky" ones.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

resurrection

"Jesus turns all our sunsets into sunrise!"

Friday, April 22, 2011

God is dead

And how would you have felt Friday night, Saturday, early Sunday morning, with Jesus dead and, as far as you knew, never coming back like Lazarus or the widow of Nain's son or the 12 year old girl (talitha cum)?

If you were one of the apostles you were hiding and hoping the Romans wouldn't arrest and kill you too. And you knew the ugly taste of fear that was snarled at the back of your throat. And not a little amount of shame that you'd run and deserted him - it wasn't just Peter.

How did Saturday feel to you? After three years of his voice, his wisdom, his humor, his love, his mystery? How did Saturday feel when all of that was gone? Apparently forever?

I recall a painting called "Holy Saturday" but I could not find it though I scoured the net for the image. It's an older piece however I don't know the artist either so I may never locate it to show any of you.

The Eleven are in a room together. Their faces are flat with grief, dismay, depression, despondency. In the forefront, slumped in a chair, is a bearded apostle, possibly Peter. His eyes are vacant. You can see this person has lost all hope, all joy - the life has been sucked right out of him.

We meditate on Good Friday. We celebrate on Resurrection Sunday. In-between we scurry about our business. There is nothing for Holy Saturday or Black Saturday (at least, no tradition I'm aware of though the Orthodox or Roman Catholics may have some vigil I know nothing about). And yet it is day on which God is dead. Really dead. Jesus is lying slack-jawed on a stone slab. (Or perhaps his jaw was properly bound up to keep it shut. I had to do such things when I worked as an orderly in a hospital when I was twenty something.)

Flies may be crawling unhindered on his hastily wrapped body. Maybe his eyes were not shut properly and are rigidly half-open under the shroud. Have you seen many dead bodies before the funeral director got a hold of them? That is Jesus. That is God Incarnate.

A corpse.

Rigor mortis making the arms and legs stiff as wood. Rigid as the crossbeams upon which he was nailed.

It seems to me we spend time at the Cross, we spend time at the Empty Tomb, but we never spend time with the Body. And the Silence.

Dorothy Sayers once wrote that of all the times people have said "God is dead" the one time it was most true . . .

. . . was just before he came back to life.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

good friday by john masefield

The English poet John Masefield, a follower of Christ, wrote a piece that was a combination of play and poem. This is an excerpt from that work. Masefield was Poet Laureate of Britain from 1930 until his death in 1967.



Good Friday


The wild duck, stringing through the sky,
Are south away.

Their green necks glitter as they fly,
The lake is gray.

So still, so lone, the fowler never heeds.
The wind goes rustle, rustle, through the reeds.


There they find peace to have their own wild souls.
In that still lake,

Only the moonrise or the wind controls
The way they take,

Through the gray reeds, the cocking moor-hen's lair,
Rippling the pool, or over leagues of air.

******
Not thus, not thus are the wild souls of men.
No peace for those

Who step beyond the blindness of the pen
To where the skies unclose.

For them the spitting mob, the cross, the crown of
thorns,
The bull gone mad, the Saviour on his horns.

******

Beauty and peace have made,
No peace, no still retreat,
No solace, none.

Only the unafraid
Before life's roaring street
Touch Beauty's feet,
Know Truth, do as God bade,
Become God's son.

Darkness, come down, cover a brave man's pain,
Let the bright soul go back to God again.
Cover that tortured flesh, it only serves
To hold that thing which other power nerves.
Darkness, come down, let it be midnight here,
In the dark night the untroubled soul sings clear.

[It darkens.]

I have been scourged, blinded and crucified,
My blood burns on the stones of every street
In every town ; wherever people meet
I have been hounded down, in anguish died.

[It darkens.]

The creaking door of flesh rolls slowly back ;
Nerve by red nerve the links of living crack,
Loosing the soul to tread another track.
Beyond the pain, beyond the broken clay,
A glimmering country lies
Where life is being wise,
All of the beauty seen by truthful eyes
Are lilies there, growing beside the way.
Those golden ones will loose the torted hands,
Smooth the scarred brow, gather the breaking soul,
Whose earthly moments drop like falling sands
To leave the spirit whole.

Now darkness is upon the face of the earth.

waters and stones - for good friday

As I walked over a wooden footbridge with my Alaskan Malamutes this Maundy Thursday I paused to look down at the flowing water. Spring comes slowly to the Rockies and the run of water is nice. But why is it nice?

Slow water moving silently is pleasant enough. But the water that excites speaks and has places to go. This morning I not only stopped to look at the creek as it shrugged off a long winter's ice. I watched its speed and I listened to its voice, a voice I had not heard for 4 or 5 months. And what makes the water speak? What gives it its voice?

Gravity and volume which gives it a current gives it a voice. The call of the sea into which it will eventually be gathered (in this case, Hudson's Bay and the Arctic Ocean) also gives it a voice. And stones. The stones over which it leaps or the stones which it squeezes past give it a voice.

Without the small stones over which the creek makes its swift passage there wouldn't be much of a sound. Without the banks against which it rubs its shoulders there wouldn't be much of a cry. Without the larger stones or rocks or boulders it touches as it runs past there wouldn't be any music.

I listened and looked and a white rivulet made one kind of music, a white rapid another, a whole tumble of white water offered me the richness of the symphony or the rush of a jazz quintet or the shout of a rock band with lead guitars and keyboards and drums and the deep regular beating of the electric bass that never falters. Of course it made other music too. Silver and white and green music not of this earth that still is of this earth.

The stones make the music. The canoeist and the kayaker come looking for the stones and their music for there they will find the power and strength they want to test themselves against and, if they are successful, the exhilaration that comes from passing the test.

Of course, the test can damage and destroy too and the stones and rocks tear the bottom out of a canoe or kayak. But without the stones the test is not there. And without the stones the music is not there either.

Is this our life? The stones that give us rapids and white water and beautiful sounds are also the stones that strike and batter and break us? Is this the Jesus life? The stones that make him so important to us - the Cross, the Suffering, the Bleeding - are also the stones that strike and batter and break him?

Perhaps the whole earth and its stones and waters are a Symbol of Christ and his Passion. Perhaps the whole earth and it stones and waters are also a symbol of the human race and our own passions where we stumble along in Christ's footsteps whether we know it and acknowledge it or not.

Waters and stones. Never one without the other. Never the beauty without the danger. Never the music without the murmur, almost unheard, of death.

And then the death of death.

Monday, April 18, 2011

STREAMS: THE STUDY GUIDE

STUDY GUIDE FOR STREAMS


PRELIMINARY: STREAMS has a short introduction and conclusion and five chapters, each chapter divided into seven sections. The seven sections are meant to allow people to read a chapter a week by finishing a section a day. A study can therefore be set up for 7 weeks or, if a group wishes to spend two weeks on each chapter, 12 weeks. The study guide can, of course, be modified to suit any pattern the leader and group want.


INTRODUCTION – THE PATH TO WATER

1) How important is water to our daily lives? How important is it for cleaning or cooking or drinking or growing things? Can a person go longer without water or longer without food? Can you recall the times you really have been thirsty and couldn’t quench your thirst for a long time? Have you ever made any spiritual connections with that experience?
2) Is water something that matters to you in terms of recreation? Do you spend much time on or by rivers, lakes, streams, ponds or the great oceans? Is water something that matters to you in terms of landscape? Is a mountain or forest or desert vista more meaningful that a stretch of ocean and beach or a lake with a shore of stones and pine trees? What does a water vista say to you about God?
3) What Biblical stories can you think of from the top of your head where water plays an important factor? Not just vast bodies of water but small amounts of water too, even water contained in cups or jars or the palm of the hand? What stories did Jesus tell or what teachings did he offer that had water in them?
4) Have you ever been in situations where water frightened you or threatened you? How did you deal with those situations? Did those experiences take away your enjoyment of water as something to play in or rest at or look at and be inspired by?


CHAPTER ONE – THE RED SEA

1) Have you ever experienced being trapped or blocked by water that formed an obstacle you could not easily get around? What did you do about it? What did you learn?
2) What sort of obstacles have you faced emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally that you could not easily see your way through or around?
3) When you are faced with virtually impassable barriers in your life do you pray first, try to figure a way over or around first, or do both simultaneously? What happens when the situation is not resolved quickly? Have you ever had the experience of facing an issue or problem that you could not solve by any human means or ingenuity whatsoever?
4) What do you do if you feel your prayers have not been answered and a Red Sea in your life has not been parted? Do you feel angry with God or disappointed? Have you ever come to the point of having to accept that God’s grace must be sufficient for you because the barrier is not being lifted or going anywhere soon, like Paul’s thorn in the flesh?
5) When your Red Seas do part, how many have been a combination of your effort along with prayer and how many have been resolutions you consider miraculous? How do you celebrate them?


CHAPTER TWO – THE RIVERS OF BABYLON

1) Have you had experiences in your life that have not simply been difficult obstacles, but actually gave you a feeling of being trapped or in a state of captivity?
2) How did you deal with those situations? How many of them were dealt with by a combination of prayer and human effort and how many simply by pure prayer? How many times did your release come quickly and how many times did it feel slow in coming?
3) If an answer or freedom from a situation that entraps you does not come swiftly do you feel frustrated or exasperated? How do you deal with your relationship with God under such circumstances? Are you able to tell him you are upset at his apparent lack of concern (if that is how you feel)? Are there any Biblical precedents for expressing your struggle and hurt to God in that way? (Such as in the Psalms?)
4) Have your times of darkness and great stress offered you any insights on God and his love for you that you never learned from your times of light and peace?
5) What do you think Job’s comforters did wrong when they came to him in his distress? How should they have handled it differently? How do you like comforters to speak to you when you are in distress? How do you think you should approach and assist others when they are in that state?


CHAPTER THREE – RIVERS IN THE DESERT

1) How many of you have traveled through the desert by car or by foot or by any other means with the exception of aircraft? How much water did you take with you? Was your experience pleasant? If you had run out of water how quickly would your experience have changed from pleasant to nasty?
2) How many times in your Christian life have you had periods of great dryness in your soul where prayer, worship and Bible reading were difficult? Did these periods last a long time or were they short in duration? How did you handle them?
3) Did you find others were generally patient and compassionate if you shared your struggle with a “desert experience” or were some people annoyed or impatient with your difficulties?
4) Have you found books that talked about Christians having bouts of spiritual dryness and were these books helpful to you? Or have you had a hard time finding Christian writers or pastors or teachers who were open and honest about such seasons in the Christian life?
5) Have you ever come out of the desert feeling more empowered like Jesus was after being tested by Satan? Or has your experience been the opposite? What made the breakthroughs happen that brought you from the desert to water and new life again? What did you learn in the desert that you had never learned anywhere else?


CHAPTER FOUR – THE JORDAN RIVER

1) What rivers (spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically) have you had to cross in your life that, once crossed, changed your life completely?
2) How many of these rivers were easily crossed and how many were difficult, even frightening? How did you manage to get up the courage to cross the hard rivers? How often did you feel God urging you to make certain crossings and promising that he would be with you?
3) What was your baptism experience like? Normal? Drab? Exciting? Do you feel the step made a big change in your life? Or do you feel nothing truly changed? Was it something that happened when you were so young – a newborn, an infant, a child – that you have no memory of it at all or whether it spiritually impacted you?
4) How important is water baptism on a scale of one to ten as far as you’re concerned? Is it a two or three (not such a big deal) or is it an eight or nine or ten? Do you think there is too much fuss over water baptism and not enough attention paid to other spiritual realities? Or do you feel baptism is treated as a given and not celebrated enough?
5) When you look at how the early Christians regarded baptism do you feel its vital significance may have been lost somewhere over the past 2000 years? Do you think it would be best to baptize immediately after salvation or wait? Do you think waiting makes baptism a pinnacle to be achieved instead of a grace, like salvation, to be received?


CHAPTER FIVE – THE SEA OF GALILEE

1) When you picture Christ’s ministry, do you often imagine him walking through the countryside or do you envision him also walking by the shores of the Sea of Galilee? Have you thought about how much of what he does or says happens on or near water? Or have you generally been focused on him moving on and through dry land or not?
2) How important is water symbolism to Jesus? Can you name a number of occasions in which he used it? Can you recall the various events that happened by the waters of the Sea of Galilee?
3) How many times and in what ways has God used water to speak to you or teach you something you had not learned by another means?
4) Have services by lakes or on beaches or by other sources of water been more meaningful to you than services indoors or even outside where water was not present? If the water services were more significant for you why do you think this is so? How does God use water to reach out to us?
5) Read the first verses of the first chapter of Genesis. Why does God make sure water is there before he carries on with the rest of creation? Why is water that important to him? Why has he made it so important to us?


CONCLUSION – TIDES

1) Do bodies of water, whether still or moving, help you to meditate on what God has done in your life? Do they help you to pray about the people and problems that concern you? Do they help you praise? Or does water make any difference?
2) What do waves tell you about God? Or rain? Or waterfalls? Why do we experience tears of joy or grief or pain? Why does the Bible make sure we know Jesus experienced tears of grief just as we do?
3) What storms in your life and in your heart have terrified you? How has God quelled them? Are there ones that keep recurring or never quite seem to fully disappear? Do you take those to the Christ as well? How does it all tie into Philippians 4:6&7 or Isaiah 26:3 or John 14:27 or Colossians 3:15?
4) In what ways do springs of living water flow out of those who follow and worship Jesus Christ?

ROOTED: THE STUDY GUIDE

STUDY GUIDE FOR ROOTED

PRELIMINARY: ROOTED has a lengthy intro and a lengthy conclusion. There are also five chapters, each corresponding to a Biblical garden, and the chapters are divided into seven sections. This division is used to allow people to finish a chapter a week by reading one of the seven sections per day. The study can be completed in 7 weeks allowing a session for each of the five chapters as well as one for the introduction and one for the conclusion. Naturally, a study leader can modify this. People might wish to spend two weeks with each chapter, for instance, thus creating a 12 week study. In that case, the questions I’ve laid out here as a guide can then be allocated to the modified sessions they best address.

INTRODUCTION – THE GARDEN PATH

1) Gardening used to be a big thing for a lot of people. For some it still is. But for many, a vegetable garden is a thing of the past, and they might only have a few flowerbeds to tend. What has been your experience with gardens? Have you ever had them? Do you have one now? Did your parents or grandparents have any?
2) What have you learned from gardens and gardening? Has it benefited you at all to have a garden or spend time caring for a garden? What lessons have you learned that carry over into other life situations?
3) What parables did Jesus offer us that have things like seeds or plants or crops or fields in them?
4) What teachings did Jesus give us that mention gardening or farming or agriculture?


CHAPTER ONE – EDEN

1) What are your thoughts on why God might have decided to establish a garden in a world that was already perfect and beautiful?
2) Why do you think the test of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was necessary?
3) Why do you think God permitted Satan and the angels who rebelled with him to live? Satan and demons have caused much harm in our world – why wouldn’t God just kill Satan and his angelic followers once they rebelled to begin with?
4) What special gifts from God arose out of humanity’s fall into sin that didn’t exist before that fall?
5) Have you noticed promises in Scripture that lead you to think God might restore a place like Eden again for his people?


CHAPTER TWO – EN GEDI

1) Why do you think God put the Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon in the Bible? Do you think it is just about celebrating love between a man and his wife or is it about celebrating other kinds of love as well?
2) Why do you think God inspired the author of this book to use poetry instead of prose to write it?
3) Do you believe there is a connection between Jesus’ love for us, and his death and resurrection ,and certain passages in this book, or do you find that interpretation fanciful?
4) Why do you think this book is rarely preached from anymore even though in past generations of the Christian Church it was used a great deal?
5) Do you think our world’s understanding of love defines love as beautiful, but very soft and weak? Do you think the Bible portrays it that way? Do you yourself think love is stronger than death or hell or evil or darkness? If so, how do you know that?


CHAPTER THREE – GETHSEMANE

1) Have any of you ever been to Israel? Have you been to the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane? What was that experience like for you?
2) Why do you think Jesus often used Gethsemane as a place of prayer when he was in Jerusalem? Why didn’t he use any other place?
3) Do you think it was possible for Jesus to have rebelled in the garden, to have disobeyed the Father’s will and to have refused to drink from the cup that had been prepared for him? Could he have rebelled and broken relationship like Satan did when he was still a beautiful archangel?
4) Why do you think the praying took place in a garden before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion? Did it happen just because Jesus liked to pray in such a lovely and peaceful environment or do you think there were connections with the Garden of Eden that God meant to highlight? If so, what were some of those connections? How did what Gethsemane was like and what happened there differ from what Eden was like?
5) Do you think the name Gethsemane and what it means had anything to do with Jesus and what happened to him there, even though the place was named long before he used it for prayer?


CHAPTER FOUR – THE GARDEN TOMB

1) Is it a coincidence that Jesus was buried in a garden? If not, what makes you think so? Do you think it was part of God’s plan? If so, why do you think that?
2) The Jews believed the Messiah would come at Passover. They had scriptural reasons as well as reasons that arose over the centuries. While it’s true that Christ was crucified and then rose from the dead at Passover, do you think he might have been born at Passover as well? Where in the Bible, for instance, does it say he was born in December?
3) What connections are there for you between a spring garden and Christ rising from the dead in a spring garden? How meaningful are those connections? Could those connections have been established before the creation of the world – was spring meant to symbolize Christ’s resurrection long before it occurred – or is that too fanciful an idea as far as you’re concerned?
4) Why do you think Mary could not recognize Jesus until he spoke her name?
5) Do you think Christ’s resurrection in a garden bursting into bloom has anything to say to you about the promise of your own resurrection after your death or about the ways God wants to bring you back to life right now?


CHAPTER FIVE – SECOND EDEN

1) What passages in Revelation make you think back to the first garden in Eden? What are the similarities? What are the differences?
2) People often see Revelation as a book of doom and gloom. Why do you think the passage about God wiping away every tear from his people’s eyes is missed? Or the parts about his being among his people or sin and death coming to an end? Why are all the beautiful colors and garden imagery and the sounds of music often overlooked?
3) Why does God begin the Bible with a perfect garden that is violated and then end the Bible with an image of a perfect garden of water and trees and peace that can never be violated?
4) How much time do you spend in Revelation? How many times have you read it? How often have you read and re-read the passages on restoration and renewal and closure? How often have you connected the book back to Genesis or to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection or to the rest of the Bible in a way that has nothing to do with end time prophecies?
5) Why do you think God felt it was important to give John this revelation for the Christian Church? Not just the judgment parts, but the parts about healing and beauty and the eternal presence of God among his people?


CONCLUSION – THE CHRIST PATH

1) What similarities do the Biblical gardens have with one another? What are the major differences?
2) Which is your favorite garden and which is your least favorite? Which one would you like to spend more time in? Which garden in this study has taught you the most? Is this garden the same as your favorite garden or not?
3) Why do you think God finds it important to use garden imagery as way of connecting with those who believe in him?
4) Do you think there will ever come a time on earth when gardens no longer exist, when humans no longer think tending gardens of any kind is important or a good use of energy and resources? If that should happen, do you think God’s use of garden imagery in the Bible will cease to have any meaning for people?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

holy quotes 25/clement of alexandria

"The Lord has turned all our sunsets into sunrise."

Clement of Alexandria, early church leader, born 150 A.D.

holy quotes 24/benjamin franklin

"How many observe Christ's birthday! [or resurrection] How few, his precepts! O! 'tis easier to keep holidays than commandments."

Benjamin Franklin, American author, inventor and patriot

holy quotes 23/walker percy on Communion

"What she didn't understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning."

Walker Percy, American author

holy quotes 22/doonesbury

"Nor will I be using any imagery that mocks Jesus Christ."

Garry Trudeau, American cartoonist and creator of the "Doonesbury" comic strip

holy quotes 21/for my american friends

"It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religion, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here."

Patrick Henry ("Give me liberty or give me death!")

holy quotes 20/shakespeare on Christ

" . . . in those holy fields
Over whose acres walked those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed
For our advantage on the bitter cross."

William Shakespeare (but which play?)

holy quotes 19/jim elliot

"Father, make of me a crisis man. Bring those I contact to decision. Let me not be a milepost on a single road; make me a fork, that men must turn one way or another on facing Christ in me."

Jim Elliot, American Christian and missionary to the Auca Indians

holy quotes 18/oscar wilde

"How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?"

Oscar Wilde, British writer

holy quotes 17/c.s. lewis

"The Christian "doctrines" are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection."

C.S. Lewis (British Christian and author of "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Mere Christianity)

holy quotes 16/albert einstein on Christ

"As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene....No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life."

Albert Einstein (E=MC squared)

holy quotes 15/h.g. wells on Jesus

"I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history."

H.G. Wells (British author of "The War of the Worlds")

holy quotes 14/napoleon on the Crucifixion

"Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires; but what foundation did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded an empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him."

Napoleon Bonaparte

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

holy quotes 13/anonymous

“God needs men and women, not creatures
Full of noisy, catchy phrases.
Dogs he asks for, who with their noses,
Deeply thrust into-Today,
And there scent Eternity.
Should it lie too deeply buried,
Then go on and fiercely burrow,
Dig until-Tomorrow.”


(Anonymous German Pastor, 1926)

engage, entertain, enlighten

My basic approach to Christian fiction - and literary fiction - is my three e's: engage, entertain, enlighten. In other words: ENGAGE - the plot should be sufficiently interesting and the characters sufficiently intriguing to make the reader care about what happens in the story and what happens to the people in the story - the reader needs to be brought to a place of personal investment and involvement; ENTERTAIN - the story should move along at a decent clip yet with a sufficient blend of romance, suspense, humor, excitement, as well as a generous dash of thoughtful moments, so that readers are not only fascinated or thrilled but satisfied in terms of their emotions, their spirits, and their minds; ENLIGHTEN - the entire story should ultimately take the reader to higher ground and cause them to re-think, re-imagine, re-interpret what they believe or how they live, even if such a process is occurring very subtly - to sum it up, heart, mind, soul, and strength should be be affected. (The third "e" is often the missing ingredient and I'm not talking here of soapbox or personal agenda or doctrinal harangue - I'm talking about a writer making every effort to afford room for the grace of God to work its way into the reader's head-space and heart-space due to issues the story raises, profound issues that cause the story to endure instead of vanishing a few days after the final page is turned.)

My approach to Amish fiction is to show the reader the depths and intricacies and beauties of the Amish faith by embodying these elements in true-to-life characters, authentic and plausible and realistic stories, and by means of contrasting the Amish with the world around them. All writers should be aiming at creating characters that live and breathe and are real as well as stories that live and breathe and are real right along with them. But in the third area, that of contrasting the Amish world with the non-Amish world, I like to take my Amish out of their comfort zones and see how their faith stacks up not only when it is challenged by events within the Amish community, but also when it is challenged by events outside the Amish community. And to do that, I often take my Amish protagonists right out of the community.

For example, in my first work of Amish fiction, half the story takes place away from Lancaster County and occurs in Montana and other states west of Pennsylvania in 1875. In this storyline, a woman who was raised Amish has to not only choose if she will return to her Amish roots but how much of that Amishness and Christianity she will live out in the rugged world of the American West. Does her Amishness show through? Does it make a difference? Is it vital and vibrant enough to truly influence the non-Amish culture around her?

In my second work of Amish fiction, a young Amish man who wants to fly is coerced into enlisting in the army and winds up in France in 1918. He is ordered to engage in combat patrols against the Germans. What can he do? What difference will his Amish beliefs make when it comes to a kill-or-be-killed situation? Can Amish Christianity truly impact friend and foe in a combat zone or is it only safe and sound and workable in an Amish community in Pennsylvania, Ohio or Indiana. About one-third of this Amish story takes place in World War I Europe trying to answer those questions in an engaging and enlightening and yes, entertaining manner.

In my third work of Amish fiction, all three main protagonists are in Rumspringa and cannot decide whether they want to take their vows and be baptized into the Amish faith or not. When one of them becomes a runaway from the Amish community the other two set out to find her, a quest that takes the three of them from one coast of America to the other. Thus, about 75% of the book takes place away from any traditional Amish community. Nevertheless, whether they have taken their vows or not, all three carry their Amish upbringing with them wherever they go. So what they believe, or are not sure they believe, about the Amish approach to the Christian faith impacts their decisions and their relationships and everything they do or say from Lancaster and Philadelphia to New Orleans and Las Vegas and Oregon and Montana. Does the Amish way have anything to say to them about life and death choices in California? Can it reinforce their trust in Christ when fear is knocking on every door of their hearts and minds in Nevada? Does it help them pray? Or does it fail them? That's the Amish story that takes place on the highways of America from the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle - and it's as thoroughly-going a piece of Amish fiction as a story that stays home in Ohio or Pennsylvania.

That's how I write Amish fiction. That's how I find that the true meaning of the Amish faith in Christ opens up to me - by having an Amish story unfold at home and also having it unfold far away from home. After all, if home is where the heart is, the Christian faith, and the Amish version of the Christian faith, should be able to thrive wherever in the world it finds itself at any given time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

book contract for "wings"

Some of you will have read the few chapters I blogged during the winter under the title "a gift of wings", a story set in 1917 about a young man of 18 who wants to fly. The only trouble is, he's Amish. Well, I'm happy to announce that book has found a home and I have been offered a contract by Harvest House in Oregon. They've already started working on the cover art. When you read you have favorite books and stories and when you write you have them too. Among the stories I've penned this is one of my favorites. It's title, by the way, is taken from Psalm 139: "If I Take the Wings of Morning". I'm grateful to God and grateful for the support of those of you who read some of the chapters and said, "Amen, keep going." Now Snoopy cries, "Chocks away!"

Saturday, April 09, 2011

the surprise of Easter

When I pastored at my last church, Heartland, we decided we'd had enough of Easter sneaking up on us. After all, people look forward to Christmas eagerly for weeks. But most are surprised it's suddenly Palm Sunday. This is often true even if Lent is kept, the 40 days that are meant to remind us of Jesus' fasting and temptation in the wilderness. (In our town most of the churches keep Lent together, special services being held at noon hour every Wednesday, each church taking a turn leading a service and offering a simple lunch afterward. But Easter still sneaks up on those who don't attend.)

What to do to create a sense of anticipation regarding Easter? Well, in the same way Heartland and many other churches celebrated Advent in December and counted down the four Sundays before Christmas Day by lighting candles, we decided to count down the Sundays before Easter Sunday or Resurrection Day by lighting candles then as well. There are about 7 or 8 Sundays, depending if you include Palm Sunday.

We created a different wreath than the Christmas wreath - this one was a crown of thorns. Our candles were different colors too, representing different moments or seasons in Christ's ministry, and we changed those selected moments from year to year. For instance: born a baby; a toddler in Egypt; his baptism and the dove descending; the healing of people with leprosy; weeping at Lazarus' grave; weeping over Jerusalem; the Sermon on the Mount; the calming of the storm; the feeding of the five thousand. Obviously, the moments one can choose to focus and meditate on are limitless.

Nor was it simply the pastor or leadership who lit the colored candles. In fact, the only candle I ever lit was the one I gave to others to use when they lit the Easter candles or Lent candles or Passion candles (as we sometimes called them). Children lit them. Seniors lit them. The challenged lit them. Whole families at a time lit them. Couples lit them. Teens lit them.

Did we see Easter coming in the same way we saw Christmas coming? Yes, we did, because every Sunday for two months the flames burned on the wicks and we remembered something else about the strength and beauty of Christ's human journey among us. Our messages were tied into the same theme, so that for two months everything pointed to Christ on the Cross, the necessity of his sacrifice of courage and love on the lonely hill, the overwhelming wonder and glory of his Resurrection in a spring garden in Israel. The message aspect may seem like a given, but no so. Of the churches we visit now, no one is dovetailing sermons toward the Easter story. It all of a sudden happens on Palm Sunday, not before.

As a family, we miss that ring of Easter candles. Sure, we're aware that it's only a couple of weeks away, we know our son has university exams before Easter and that our daughter, still in high school, will get an Easter break. But, as she said recently, it's not the same. The same holy hush of lighting light for the Light of the Word is no longer with us. I suspect we should have set up a family altar with Easter candles. And even though I'm standing in for a pastor on Resurrection Sunday, while he ministers in Mexico alongside a Mexican brother there, it's still just the one message, not eight of them.

Still, it's a privilege to preach on Easter Sunday of Christ. And still, it's not too late to light candles in his honor before the days when we recall his betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and return. It's better to do the candles in community, I think, but family is Christian community too, and they will burn as brightly and significantly among we few as they would in any other gathering of believers, large or small.

My friends, the days of Christ's Passion are coming upon us. Do not let them catch you by surprise unless the surprise is a renewed wonder at God's love and grace. Jesus is coming. Prepare your table, prepare your heart. Light a candle, if you can, and remember the darkness has never understood the light that is Christ and can never put it out.

Never.

Highway (chapter 5)

5

The Shenandoah River was twisting and turning far below them as they made their way through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It was the first time she had ever seen a waterway that deserved the description “serpentine”. She felt that if the loops of the river drew together much more tightly they would be snipped off and form their own pools or ponds and the Shenandoah cease to exist.
“Ox bow lakes!” Milwaukee had shouted as they raced along.
“What?”
“When the loops get so tight they break away from the main stream they form ox bow lakes. That’s what they’re called.”
She leaned forward and placed her gloved hands on his shoulders so that she could talk into his ear. “How did you know that’s what I was thinking?”
“I know all.”
“You know all?”
“Well. God knows all. But I know what he chooses to tell me.”
The green, blue, and gray of the mountains were a relief after a day spent in and around Washington DC. The traffic, exhaust, and heat had been so bad they’d given up, parked at a motel, rented two separate rooms, then gone walking to see the monuments. Milwaukee had loved the cavernous depths of the Lincoln Memorial and been touched when he read the words of the assassinated President’s Second Inaugural Address. There was so much about forgiveness he wondered aloud why Miss Beachey had not taught them the speech, and recited lines of it in front of Michal and others who stood nearby with their bottles of water and digital cameras.

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Michal had been most moved by the mirrored black wall that listed the American dead of the Vietnam War. She had lingered by the sculpture of women nurses holding a wounded soldier while one of them looked skyward for the helicopter. From the sculpture she watched as people took rubbings of names, or placed flowers, or just squatted down and stared at a particular part of the wall. She and Milwaukee had both seen two older women, once mothers and now, she hoped to God, grandmothers, break down and weep in front of the names etched in stone for 1968. She had leaned her face into Milwaukee’s arm and denim jacket and wept herself.
“Ah, that there is always war and always pain that can’t be healed because of it.”
Milwaukee asked if she would pray with him at the White House. Standing at the black iron fence and looking at the fountain and the wide green front lawn they whispered prayers for the President and their country in Pennsylvania Dutch. Around them people were taking photographs and one small group held signs and protested the war in Afghanistan. Beyond them they saw a man and a boy kneeling and making the Sign of the Cross.
When they returned to the motel they ate some of the food both their families had stuffed into the Honda’s saddlebags, said goodnight, and opened the doors to their separate rooms. They had agreed to get up at four and leave the city before gridlock occurred, but when they started on their way at 4:30 AM after a prayer and a coffee there were already more cars and trucks than either of them liked. Finally they got out of the city on Interstate 95, but the speed and volume of traffic was not much of an improvement from the streets of the capital and twice Michal thought they would be sucked under the tires of heavy rigs. Finally they made their escape onto a secondary roadway Michal had found on the map and entered an entirely different world.
It was one of old trees bending over tea brown creeks, of pink and white cherry blossoms scattering through the air in the short and sudden bursts of showers, one petal pasting itself to the arm of Michal’s jean jacket. There were miles of gray split rail fences and pastures and horses. Time and time again small bronze plaques popped up by bridges and stream and fields as the road twisted south and west. When they stopped for lunch at a turnout near a wooden bridge and laid their jackets out in the sun to dry Michal had a chance to read two of the plaques that were only a few hundred feet apart. One said that Union and Confederate cavalry had clashed at this stream on May 14th, 1862 and the Union troopers put to flight with the cost of several dozen lives on both sides. The other said a platoon of Federal infantry had fought a pitched battle with two platoons of Confederate soldiers on April 27th, 1864 and that there were graves marked by stones further back in the trees.
“This is beautiful old-fashioned countryside,” Milwaukee said as he dangled his bare feet in the swift silver and green water.
“And yet men have died in war right here,” Michal told him with a plaintive look on her face.
“Is that what the plaques said?”
“Yes. Now I wonder if all of the ones I’ve noticed talk about the war to save the Union.”
“If all the signs looked the same they probably did.”
“But these were not even the big battles like Gettysburg or Shiloh. Just little fights. Who could remember all of them? Who was taking notes?”
Milwaukee trailed his fingers in the stream. “I suppose the officers were. And the men whose friends were shot. And the people living on the farms nearby.”
Michal stared at twigs rushing past between the banks. “It seems to me we always commemorate the wars, but never commemorate the times of peace. Why are there no plaques saying Bill and Mary Bishop watered their livestock here for 63 years, were married for 77, raised five children, 12 grandchildren, and 29 great grandchildren, died in their beds a year apart and are buried under an oak tree on the land they cleared?”
Milwaukee tossed several mall stones into the creek. “I suppose because there was no tragedy. No sudden death. If Bill had drowned here watering his thoroughbreds or Mary had been swept away in a flash flood coming back from Lynchburg then there might be plaques up. But no one commemorates the normal, Michal, no one remembers the routine, do they? Even we have a hard time remembering the days and weeks where nothing out of the way happened.”
Dark caught them still in the Blue Ridge Mountains so they parked at a large turnout where a camper had also settled in for the night, locked and chained the bike, took out their sleeping bags, climbed a slope through a belt of trees, and opened the bags at a flat stretch of grass, crawling in with their clothes still on. They were above the treetops and could see lights shining all along the Shenandoah Valley while over their heads the stars put on their own show.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” said Michal. “But am I going to freeze to death up here?”
“I hope not, “ Milwaukee replied. “But it isn’t July yet either. Weren’t you wearing a yellow bandana under your helmet today?”
“Yes.”
“So put it back on. Your head will be the one part of your body that gets cold if you don’t.”
“Okay.” He heard her rustling around. “And – what about bears? Are there bears up here?”
“I don’t know. These are mountains. I guess so.”
“You guess so?” Milwaukee heard irritation creep into her voice. “You drag me up a mountainside in the black of night and you guess there might be bears?”
“Hey – what happened to my winged warrior?”
“That’s Nick.”
“Well, you’re mine. And we’re out on the open road now. Just you, me, and God. You’re not going to fall apart on Day Four are you? Michal Deborah Troyer? Deborah was a fighter, remember?”
Michal was quiet for several minutes and Milwaukee wasn’t sure if she was silent out of anger and thinking up a retort or whether she was mulling things through. He decided she had fallen asleep when suddenly she spoke up.
“Deborah the Winged Warrior and Savior of Her People needs a bit of help tonight. So why are you lying so far away?”
“I promised your father – ”
“Will you stop that? I know you are not going to take advantage of your winged warrior. How about your promise to me?”
Milwaukee frowned in the dark. “Which promise is that?”
“To protect and defend me. Suppose a bear wanders along and wants a bite of my arm?”
“Michal, this is not Alaska or Montana – ”
“Never mind where it is or isn’t. I need you closer to me. Not too close. Just close enough.”
“What is close enough?” Milwaukee asked her.
“I need to be able to hold your hand. If a bear attacks me I can handle it if I know you’re there. Once it starts to hurt I’ll squeeze your hand more tightly and then I’ll be okay.”
Milwaukee began to laugh quietly, putting his head into his sleeping bag while he did so, but she heard him anyway.
“What’s so funny?” she snapped. “Get over here.”
“But I’m warm.”
“Stay in your bag and wriggle over. I don’t care how you get here – just get here.”
Milwaukee squirmed and used his knees and elbows to slither and slide toward her. Once he rolled completely over and got dirt in his mouth. He began to cough and spit.
“Is that you?” she asked suddenly.
“No,” he growled irritably. “It’s the Killer Bear of Shenandoah Valley.”
“Ha ha,” she said.
“Okay. I’m here.”
He reached out touched her. She screamed.
“Michal!” he said in a harsh whisper. “Stop! It was my hand! My hand still connected to my body!”
There was quiet again. Then he heard giggling.
“Oh, oh, crazy me,” she laughed softly. “The people in the camper are probably calling the state police on their cell phone right now.”
“You have got to calm down, Michal. We’re in Virginia. Not the trackless wilderness of the American West.”
“Not yet anyway. Okay, you’re close enough. Can I have your hand again?”
“Are you sure you’re not going to try another scream?”
“Just don’t touch my face. So where is this hand of yours?”
“Here.” His night vision had improved and he laid it on her stomach.
She latched onto his hand with both of hers. “Good. Good. Well, I’m ready to sleep now. How about you?”
“I was.”
“Did I scream away your sleepy feeling?”
“Something like that.”
“I’m perfectly relaxed myself. Look at how gorgeous the stars are. It’s as if they’re only a hundred feet away.”
“Mmm.”
“Don’t be cross. God is watching over us. Do you mind if I pray out loud?”
“Pray away.”
She spoke in High German, thanked God they were safe, and requested the same protection for Tabitha and Nick. Then she began to pray for their parents and the Amish community in Marietta, spending a few moments on each person. After five minutes she began to slow down and suddenly stopped. Milwaukee thought she had decided to pray silently. Then he heard her deep regular breathing and knew she had fallen asleep. Despite that, her hold on his hand was as strong as ever. He wondered if he would be able to get to sleep with his right arm stretched out like that.
Lying on his back and watching the stars his mind wandered back to the people Michal had been praying for and the day of their departure. The talk with the leadership that final morning had surprised him. He expected more discussion and warnings about a young man and woman traveling alone together. Instead they were focused on not bringing Tabitha back prematurely.
“We have Rumspringa for a good reason,” the bishop had told him and Michal as they sat together in the Troyer kitchen. “In the past, too many young people were being baptized and then breaking the Ordnung over and over again, doing things they should have gotten out of their systems long before. So, all right, we decided we needed to keep young men and women back from something so serious as their commitment to Jesus Christ and the Amish faith until they truly felt ready. That is why we permit the “running around” time. The young people who do Rumspringa are far more faithful in keeping their baptismal vows.”
“It is not that we don’t wish young Tabitha back safely within the fold,” Pastor Smucker spoke up. “But if you find her, God willing, and bring her back here against her will, God forbid, not only will you have Sheriff Bueller breathing down your neck, her return will not be of any benefit to the church or her family or herself. She will not wish to take the vows nor will she be ready to take them, do you see? Better she get this all out of her head, this open road and seeing America business, and then come back to us and say, Yes, now I am ready to follow Jesus, now I am ready to be Amish.”
“We only wish to talk with her and persuade her to reconsider this road trip,” Michal responded, hands folded in her lap. “I am her sister. I would never try to bring her back by force.”
“Gute, gute,” smiled Pastor Beachey. “We try to keep both the laws of man and the laws of God. But here is something else I want you to think about. It may be if you were to go out on the roadways and tracks of America looking for your little sister God might have something in store for you yourself, Michal Troyer.”
“What do you mean, pastor?”
“Well, as I have prayed about this matter, some thoughts have come to mind: Suppose God wishes to show the older sister something? Suppose God has a plan to touch Michal Troyer’s heart? After all, you have not yet taken your vows, hm? And you have not indicated any desire to do so. No doubt you are working things through with the Lord. Good, good. But this – open road – may be as much about yourself as it is about your sister. You both have concerns to clear up with the Lord and it may be this is how he intends to help you do it. Open road, open heart – I don’t know. But I wonder if this is your journey, Michal Deborah, not simply your sister’s?”
The bishop grunted. “Pastor Beachey makes a good point. We assume it is all about Tabitha. It may be all about you.” Milwaukee sensed that Michal was not only squirming in her seat as the bishop fixed his gaze on her, but squirming inside. “Or you, young man.” The bishop transferred his gaze to Milwaukee.
He was startled. “Myself? But I was ready to take the vows this month.”
The bishop nodded and hooked his thumbs in his suspender straps. “You think you are ready. We think you are ready. But it may be that God says, No, wait, not just yet, there are two or three things I must show Master Bachman, and I need all of America to do it. Who knows? It may be so.”
The two pastors said amen in quiet voices.
No further words were spoken. Milwaukee listened to the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall. Michal glanced around the table at the three bearded men.
“Is that it?” she asked.
Bishop Eby smiled. “I think so.”
“It sounds like you are giving us permission to take the motorbike and head down the highway.”
“You do not need permission. You are Rumspringa. Do as you wish. Go and run around.”
The two pastors laughed.
“But –” Michal hesitated. “I would like your blessing as well.”
“Thank you. Of course. Perhaps I did not make myself clear.” The bishop leaned forward, his large hands clasped together on the tabletop. “We believe God has a plan in this, yes, even in your sister’s disappearance. You and young Master Bachman are part of that plan. You could not do it if you were not Rumspringa. Taking a motorcycle across the country? It would not be permitted. But, here, look, you are not yet baptized, not yet Amish. You are free to go. So much of Rumspringa is foolishness, and crazy, childish games. But you have an opportunity to do something with your Rumspringa that is more than just wildness or indulgence or – experimentation – ja? Here you have a chance to save a soul, to alter a life. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature, there is a new world. And not just one life, not just Tabitha’s life. Your life, Michal, Nick’s life, Master Bachman’s life – yes, many lives can be made new. Who knows what God is up to? But something like this does not fall into place due to human effort.”
The bishop and pastors stood up.
“Of course you have our blessing, children. Go with God. Please, let us pray for the two of you.”
Their heads bowed, Milwaukee and Michal received 20 minutes of prayer. The rest of the morning and afternoon passed quickly – the loading of the saddlebags, money from his family and the Troyers and even the Amish community, changing into blue jeans and jean jackets at their homes.
“No need to wait until the washroom at Roy’s garage,” Bishop Eby had teased Michal, who had reddened like a rose. “I do not plow in my Sunday best. You do not ride in a cotton dress, no matter how good and plain.”
As they had straddled the bike with dozens of people standing about and wishing them well Milwaukee had heard Mrs. Troyer speaking softly to her daughter.
“Every day, once the boys are in school, I will walk the mile to that telephone hut the church has. I will wait there 15 minutes to see if you will call.”
“But mama,” Michal had protested, “I know I shall not be able to call you each and every day.”
“No, but some days it will be possible, others not. So I will wait and see and spend my time in prayer for you and Tabitha and Milwaukee and Nicholas Ferley. God has a plan, yes, there is always a plan even if we do not recognize it or see clearly how it is working out. So when you can call I will be the one to pick up the phone.”
“What time, mama?”
“Nine o’clock each morning. I will sit in that hut between nine o’clock and nine-fifteen each morning. Even if it takes you a year to find your way home again.”
She had kissed Michal and Michal had thrown her arms around her mother.
Milwaukee’s father had taken his hand. “You are much loved, my boy. Every day there will be prayer and every night.”
“Thank you, papa.”
“Come back to us.”
Then Mr. Troyer stood before him. “I did not ask a small thing, may God forgive me, and what you are doing is not a small thing. My wife and I will always be grateful. No matter what occurs or does not occur.”
“I want to do this, Mr. Troyer. I want to try.”
Mr. Troyer nodded. “I see that. In Christ we live and move and have our being. May it be as God intends. Thank you.” Surprising Milwaukee, Mr. Troyer had wrapped his long arms around him and kissed him on the cheek, his beard scraping Milwaukee’s face. Then he had given Milwaukee a small black leather book. “It is the Bible in German. Luther’s translation. The print is small, but you have a young man’s eyes. I have had the book since I was 15. So may the reading of it bless you.”
“Oh, no, sir, I can’t – ”
Mr. Troyer had continued to press it into Milwaukee’s hand. “So may the reading of it bless you.”
They had rumbled along the road and past the Amish farms where some farmers had begun to take their first cut of hay. Several waved to Milwaukee and Michal as they motored slowly by. At the turnoff that led to the highway out of Marietta a buggy was drawn up by the side of the road. Bishop Eby was standing beside his horse and waiting for them. Milwaukee stopped, but did not switch the engine off. The bishop smiled and put a hand on each of their shoulders.
“So you go, and you go with God,” he said. “No day will pass by without prayers for the two of you and those you seek. In the Lord’s good time may you find them. In the Lord’s good time may you find what is in your own hearts as well. Just remember.” Here he leaned in toward them and dropped his voice. “It is not our world out there. Yes, God is active in all parts of it, I believe that, but it is not a place where what we value is cherished. There is much hate, children, there is much violence. I have heard of the beauty of mountains and deserts and seas, such beauty that overwhelms a man. But the danger, Milwaukee, the danger is also great. Watch. Pray. Be wise. Again and again, turn to God. If you have desperate hours or days of fear, turn to him who turns the earth.”
There was no moon as Milwaukee lay on the slope in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the sky seemed to grow darker and darker and the stars thicker and brighter until the gleaming flow of the Milky Way was obvious. Michal’s grip had not loosened as time passed. Milwaukee wanted to lie on his side, but could only do so by turning carefully and facing her. Michal’s skin was pale in the starlight. Looking at her he thought again that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, on a movie screen or off. He began to get drowsy as he gazed at her quiet features and thought there were a lot worse ways for a man to fall asleep in a strange place.

Thank you, my Lord, for this gift. I hope you have others just as pleasant in store. I’m sure there will be more than enough of the other kind.

new book finished

I'm celebrating the successful completion of the manuscript I've blogged as Highway or Highway to God. It's actual name as it rests this morning with my agent in North Carolina is "A Road Called Love". It weighs in at just about 96,000 words. My agent will take the summary of the book and three sample chapters to the big writers and publishers conference at Santa Cruz next week called Mount Hermon. Who knows? Maybe someone will show some interest right off the bat - or maybe I'll have to wait. Either way, I place it in God's hands just as I did when I was writing it. Born to run (with Jesus)

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Highway (Chapter 4)

“Are you going for a walk, Michal?”
“Yes, mama, a long prayer walk. I need to clear my head.”
“So long as you remember the bishop and the pastors are here to speak with us at four.”
“Ja, ja.”
The day was bright. Michal walked quickly down the drive and across the road, opening a gate into a hayfield. A small beaten path skirted the field and headed toward the river. Michal took it. Her pace remained brisk. As she made her way through the green grass that was as high as her chest she whispered prayers and hoped God would provide her with answers she could clearly hear and clearly see.
Sometimes you speak to us in ways that are not obvious, Lord, you know that yourself, and no doubt you have your reasons for doing so. But here we have such a strange set of circumstances it would be helpful if you did not add to them. Sometimes we are to ask for signs, sometimes not. Well, I must ask you for a sign. It is one thing for me to up and travel across America. I don’t even know if I want to be Amish. But is it fair to ask it of Milwaukee? He is ready to commit himself, to settle down, to marry. His Rumspringa is over. Why should he be pushed into spending months on the road when his heart is here? Surely this is not just.
The Susquehanna was swollen with the rains of April and May and moving with strength through the green hills. Michal opened another gate and took a path that followed the riverbank for miles. Most of the time she could see the water, but other times the trees that had burst into leaf blocked her view. Robins and blackbirds streamed from branch to branch, calling back and forth. As always, the river and the life that thrived on its edges combined to lift her out of the gloom she was struggling with, but still there were no easy answers.
Of course, when is it that you make things easy? It would be enough to ask you what we should do about my father’s request, yes, and now my mother’s plea. But I treated Milwaukee so badly that afternoon in the barn how on earth can we travel together? I have not spoken with him since. Really, there is nothing to say. I told him to get out of my life and he has done what I asked, gentleman that he is. I do not feel inclined to hunt him down and apologize. There are no words I’m aware of that can make up for my rudeness. And if I were he, I would not wish to spend a year or half a year on a motorbike with me, myself, and I.
Now and then, at any time of the year, even winter, Michal might run into deer if she took the path she was on or any of the others that wound through the trees and brush at the top of the bank or along its sides. Suddenly, as she prayed, she came upon two spotted fawns without their mother. They froze and stared at her. She stopped walking immediately and spoke softly to them. Their wet black noses twitched and their large dark eyes studied her intensely. Then, lifting their hooves high and stepping carefully, they slowly turned and moved down the bank into a thick cluster of trees with fresh yellow-green leaves.
I wish I could just live in the forest like the deer. Mother says make peace with Milwaukee. I am too ashamed to make peace. I am too ashamed to go to his house. And even if I did apologize, so I still don’t believe it would be a good idea for us to go together on this search for a needle in a haystack. It would not work, you yourself know it would not work, Lord. He is almost Amish. I am almost not Amish. We both need to move on. Don’t you agree?
She came through a thick screen of brush and there was Milwaukee. He was seated on a boulder 30 or 40 feet straight down the bank from the trail and hurling stones as hard as he could. Now and then she saw that he was rewarded by a far-off splash as his throws connected with the Susquehanna.
Lord, do you find this funny? Was it a slow day?
For a moment she thought about carrying on and going quietly by without saying anything. He wouldn’t even know she’d been there and gone. But she realized that would be cheating – whatever game God was playing, she had to go along with the rules. Milwaukee should not be there. The two of them had never gone to the riverbank together, it was not one of their spots. Other young people, both Amish in Rumspringa and non-Amish, came to the river to neck in the bushes and smoke cigarettes or drink beer. But this was not something she and Milwaukee had done. Yes, and others came to walk and pray as she was doing, but again this was not something the two of them had done. She had no idea if Milwaukee had ever come to the river before today. But he was here now. And it was no accident.
Having made up her mind not to try and slip past and instead to see where this chance meeting led – a meeting she knew was not chance at all, but had God’s fingerprints all over it – on impulse she decided to throw a few stones of her own. Bending down and picking up four or five, she stood up, braced her legs, twisted her arm back, and threw the first one with all her might. It did not reach the river. She tried again, biting her lip and trying to summon every ounce of strength into her right arm. This time she saw the splash and so did Milwaukee. He had not been throwing anything for a few minutes and she sensed his confusion as he sat with his back toward her in his Levi denim jacket and faded jeans.
He must think it is a fish jumping – bass or walleye or perch or even rainbow trout or catfish or northern pike.
She took three stones in her hand this time and flung them all at once, hoping at least two would make it. To her surprise, she did better than that – all three stones reached the river and all three raised big white splashes. She had no doubt this was God again. It made no sense otherwise. Milwaukee sat staring straight ahead a few more moments then he slowly twisted his neck and looked behind him.
Michal was sure she would see a frown. After all, she had practically picked him up and hurled him from the barn. Standing there in her navy blue dress, black apron, and white prayer Kapp she timidly put up her hand in a small wave. Their eyes met. His were brown and warm. She felt a quiver go through her and was more than a little shocked. What was this? What were her head and body doing to her? Milwaukee was just a friend, and an estranged friend at that, thanks to her.
He smiled his big, full, beautiful smile and some of his light brown hair was in his eyes along with the sunlight. The quiver went through her again. For a moment she didn’t know what to say, what she was feeling was so unexpected. Why should his hair or eyes or hair matter to her or affect her? A few days ago she’d wanted to pitch him on his head. But the worse – or the best, she thought later – was yet to come. She heard him speak her name for the first time in almost a week.
“Michal.”
She froze like the fawns had frozen.
“You always had the arm to go with your looks.”
She felt the blood come to her face, starting at the throat and working its way up over her nose and cheeks and forehead to her hairline.
“Uh – Milwaukee – hi,” she finally got out.
“Did someone tell you I was here?”
“No, no.”
“Because I didn’t say a word to a soul. I didn’t even know I’d wind up here myself. Esau pretty much ordered me to take the day off. Go pray, he said. Go think. Go listen. Then you will know what you should do. So I wandered this way and at first I was going to go back to the house and get a fishing pole, but then I realized I really didn’t want to see anyone, not my brothers or mother or father, there was no one I wanted to speak with, so I came straight here without fetching my pole. But I was wrong, you know.”
Michal continued to feel upended by the surge of strong emotions seeing Milwaukee had unleashed. “You were wrong?”
“Yeah. ‘Cause I definitely like seeing you.”
Now something started up in her chest.
“Do you have any idea how beautiful you are standing there all Amish like that? With the sun pouring over you? Black apron, black hair, blue eyes. My good, good, stunningly good-looking friend. Man, I’ve missed you. I’m sorry we quarreled.”
Michal’s head was reeling from his lavish compliments. “You’re sorry?”
“I was going to come by and apologize. But the whole week has been crazy with that idea of your father’s going the rounds. Some people are saying, hey, it’s Rumspringa, if Tabitha Troyer wants to go to Mars or Pluto, let her go, it’s time to stop living her life for her. But others are saying, look, this is dangerous, it’s not as if Tabitha is 20 or 21, she is only 16 and she is out on the streets and highways of America with a boy who has no connections to the Amish faith. So who knows? But your father and I have met a couple of times on our own.”
Michal finally managed to get her focus back enough to make her way down the slope to the boulder where Milwaukee was sitting. He moved over and she sat beside him, her hands in her lap, looking at him as if she were seeing him for the first time.
“Did you know that?” Milwaukee asked.
Michal had no idea what he was talking about. “No, I didn’t.”
“Once we met by chance at the post office and went off a ways and chatted – though I suppose it wasn’t by chance, was it? Do you think anything is really by chance, Michal?”
Why am I still light-headed? This is crazy. “No,” she replied.
“And the other time he dropped in and spoke with my parents and my brothers and myself. Everybody has their opinion about your father’s request, Michal, and everybody has their own ideas about what I should or shouldn’t do, or what you should or shouldn’t do for that matter. Of course, I have been working all this through, praying all this through. My parents think I should help your father, by the way, so do my brothers. Hey, since you’re here and I don’t have to get up the nerve to go to your house – ” the fascinating smile – “I wanted to tell you, well, I noticed how well you sang on Sunday.”
Michal was startled. “I sang well?”
“Not the same as the old days, but you weren’t half-hearted, you know? You sang as if you were reaching out for something, reaching out for God.”
“Oh.” She smiled. “It must be my anguish.”
Milwaukee’s face grew somber and he nodded. “You miss your sister. You are worried about her. You wonder how your parents are going to hold up.”
Again she looked at him as if she were seeing him for the first time. “Yes, all those things.”
“I don’t know what to say to you. Your father thinks you can talk Tabitha into returning home. I think Tabitha is so strong-willed she won’t listen, at least, not right away. But if we did go on the road the chances of finding them anytime soon – unless God intervenes – are pretty slim. So that would mean there was plenty of time for the highway to get inside of her head and, who knows? She might be ready to come back to Lancaster County by August or September if you put things the right way.”
Michal put a hand on Milwaukee’s arm as if the incident in the barn had never occurred. “You don’t need to feel you must go on this journey or my family will fall apart. We’ll make out all right. Lots of other Amish families have faced worse Rumspringa experiences than this – jail time, teen pregnancies, drug overdoses, driving under the influence, car wrecks. Tabitha is smarter than that.”
“But she’s far away, Michal. Anything could happen to the two of them and you wouldn’t know for days or weeks if they needed your help. I think the people who support your father’s request are the ones who can truly put themselves in his shoes. If it was their daughter, they would pray for God to send someone who could help them. Those who say his idea is a foolishness, well, it’s not their daughter, the emotional connection isn’t there, they don’t get it. I feel a lot of, I don’t know, sympathy, empathy, what’s the word I want?”
He looked at her for help. Then he shook his head and began to laugh.
“What?” she asked, smiling at his laughter. “What is it?”
“No Amish girl should look like you look, Michal. You are so distracting I swear it’s a sin.”
The heat was in her face again. “Why do you say that? I am dressed as plainly as I can dress.”
“Yes. Which only serves to highlight your incredible eyes and skin and three AM hair by contrast.”
“My three AM hair?”
Milwaukee leaned back and closed his eyes, still laughing in stops and starts. “The whole thing is crazy. I swore I would never talk with you again after our spuckte, our spat. I really felt low. Avoided you at church. I suggested to your father he get one of my brothers to go on this – this rescue mission. Mark rode a BMW during his Rumspringa, yes, a big one too, 750, it should be Mark I told him, not me, all because I didn’t want you and I to be stuck together for six or seven months. So your father says to me finally, My Michal is suddenly an ugly duck to you?”
Michal burst out with her own sharp laugh and grasped Milwaukee’s arm again. “He did not.”
“He did. Anyway, it’s all crazy, how could Mark be Amish and ride a bike? But I’m trying to work up all these feelings against you, you see, no more Michal, no more Michal, and then you drop out of the sky here today and I can’t stop talking to you, blah, blah, blah, on and on, like I’ve had all these thoughts in my head and no one to share them with until you come along, it’s been pent up in me and now I’m some sort of gusher. I am supposed to be cross and look at me – I’m so happy to see you. Even if you were your father’s ugly duck I would still be babbling away. But – ” He sat up and opened his eyes and looked at her. “You are very easy on a man’s eyes.”
Oh, I am going to burn up if he keeps talking this way and looking at me like that.
“Well, Milwaukee, well,” she stumbled. “I – it is – not just you who feels this is all very – strange – our meeting like this. I did not think – we should travel together either, I had convinced myself we were – incompatible. For a moment I thought I should just sneak past you here, but I think – I really think – God had something to do with this.”
“Oh? God Almighty? You truly think you and I are that important?”
“Are you teasing me?”
“I never tease blue-eyed girls.”
She smiled. “No? Well, I do think this chance encounter by the river was – planned in advance – by someone – else.”
“If that’s so, what are to make of it? We are sitting here together after we both swore we would never sit together again – what does it mean?”
Michal looked down at her hands. A ladybug was slowly making its way along her thumb. “I guess I’m not sure.”
“Well, can you tell me what you think of your father’s idea now?”
“Now?”
“Yes. Right now. Not what you thought last night or at breakfast this morning.”
Michal’s lips curved upward again, but she kept her eyes on the ladybug. “I suppose – because it matters so much to mother and father – I would go – if the church is behind it – I would go – ”
“With who? With who would you go?”
The ladybug flew, its small red wings whirring. Michal looked up at Milwaukee. “With you. I would go with you.”
He did not reply. Neither of them looked away. Eventually Michal reached for his hand and held it.
Milwaukee cleared his throat. “I – I told your father I would honor you – that I would not cross the line – that I would honor you and your family – ”
She smiled and leaned her head against his shoulder. “Of course you would.”
“That – somehow I would not let him down – that I would find your sister – I don’t know how I can make a promise like that – but he is in so much pain – your father – your mother – ”
“We.”
“What?”
“We. How can we make a promise like that. You and I.”
She sat up and faced him, holding both of his hands now. He gave a small smile. The light brown hair was in his eyes again. Her emotions had settled inside her head and chest, but not by much. She reached over and gently brushed the hair aside. It made her fingers tingle. She had no idea what her touch did to him, but his smile widened.
“All right,” he finally responded. “We.”
She had never seen the brown in his eyes look so deep and dark.
“But,” he went on, “just because we want to help your family that doesn’t mean the bishop and the leadership will agree with the plan.”
“It does not matter,” Michal said.
“Of course it matters. Your mother and father have to live here for the rest of their lives.”
“And the Marietta Amish will let them, my dear. It is not my parents who are taking a Honda Rebel down the freeway. It is you and I. And we are Rumspringa. We are not members of the church. The bishop breaks nothing in the rulebook by letting us go. Until we are baptized we remain Rumspringa, the ones who “run around”. So we go and run around, and they let us go out and run around, just as we have been running around for the past two years.”
“Well, that is another thing, Michal.”
She could not help smiling as she watched him grow older and more serious in front of her eyes.
He misunderstood her smile. “I’m not kidding. Taking a 250cc bike onto the big asphalt is no joke. Every semi that roars past us will make it feel like we’ve been hit by a twister. If we get a double trailer it’ll be our own personal hurricane.”
“So we take the back roads.”
“I don’t know the back roads,” he protested.
“We get a map.” She was still smiling at his grownup intensity and at the situation God had maneuvered them both into. “I’ll navigate, you drive. Pilot and co-pilot. Deal?”
“But we don’t even know where we’re going. We don’t even know where Tabitha and Nick are. They could be on the Interstate and we’re puttering away on the cart and donkey route and we miss them.”
“Well.” She thought about that. “God will have to navigate too. You said yourself he would need to intervene if we were going to find Tabitha on a million miles of open road. God knows what we have to work with. So he has to work with us with what we’ve got.”
“And what have we got?”
“Five loaves and two fishes. If he wants us to have more than that he will have to multiply them.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
Michal shrugged. “He’s done it before.” She put out her hand. “Deal?”
Milwaukee laughed. “You are so crazy. The leadership have not even given their consent yet.”
She kept her hand extended. “They will. I told you. We are Rumspringa.”
He shook his head. Then he gripped her small hand. “Deal.”
“Now hug me. We are never someplace like this where only the deer can see us. I’m not sure why didn’t come to the river together.”
Milwaukee folded her into his arms, feeling more alive with her close to him than he had all week. “It’s because we did not care much about hugging or kissing each other.”
“Perhaps the road will change that,” she murmured.
“Perhaps.”
“You might make an Amish woman of me yet. Anything can happen on the open road.” She put her head on his chest. “Isn’t it marvelous what God has done for us today?”
Milwaukee held her more tightly. Inside his head everything was turning around and around.
“I can’t believe this,” he said.