My Story (Part 1)
July 1, 2016
Welcome to part one of Emanuel Schrock’s true life story.
1. The Church
The sound of the steady beat of Betty’s hooves on the pavement mingle with the soft, rumbling din of the family buggy wheels. It’s a sound that is so much a part of who I am that it is like music in the background of my life, constantly reminding me of who I am and what I belong to: I am Amish, not by choice, but by birth. I was born into a family of twelve, and since my parents and grandparents were Amish, fate had already decided that I was destined to be Amish as well – like it or not.
To me it is strange how this works: Except in a few rare cases, the only way to be Amish is to be born that way, and the only way to stop being Amish is to become a sinner and turn one’s back on everything one has been taught. It is as though a sheepfold has been prepared in which exists the one true way to live and the right way to please God; to be born into that fold is to be privileged and chosen above the rest of the world. One is on the right road to God because of his Amish birth and not by choice.
Being Amish, then, becomes your life, and to you, nothing else matters more. Your existence becomes a life-long mission of preserving this precious heritage into which you were born and had no part in creating. You accept it without question as the right way, simply because your ancestors have always done it this way. You trust that somewhere in the history of your heritage there was a person who had the authority and the information to know what way in life is the right way; that he had some special revelation of God or a deep insight into the ways of righteousness that gave him the right and power to create this blessed fold into which you were born, and in which, if you remain, you are assured that you are safely on the right road to being in favor with God. This is the Amish way.
It is Sunday morning and my family is on the way to church. I am nestled in the front seat of the buggy with my father, who is driving, and my two brothers. My mother and my sisters are in the back seat. Dad is sitting silently on the edge of his seat with a blank expression on his face. Mom is giving occasional orders to the young girls on how to be behave, while chatting with my older sister in anticipation of meeting with the other women at church.
In my mind, I am secretly dreading the ordeal of church. Why couldn’t today be an in-between Sunday? There were a few things about church that I didn’t mind. I enjoyed some of the singing, and if there was a good preacher, I enjoyed the preaching as well. But generally, going to church was a matter of waiting for the day to be over. I didn’t really fit in with my friends very well, and I didn’t try very hard to. I was a quiet thinker, and would rather be left alone than be with others.
Today’s church service is no different than it has always been. After waiting in the barn until it is time to go to the house, I follow the line of boys behind the grown men into the living room where the service takes place.
The German hymnbooks are passed and soon the singing starts. The slow, mellow singing drags on and I wonder what the words are saying. As I sit there, my mind wanders to the two weeks that have passed since the last church service. Where did they go? What had become of my resolutions and promises to myself and God that I would do better after leaving church? Every time I sit here and hear the preachers speak of the righteousness and the judgment of God, I am convicted of my sins, and I promise myself I will do better. I hear the bishop’s thundering messages on hell and the awful fate of those who fail to please God, and I am desperate to make it to heaven. I promise myself that I will live better, that I will do whatever I must in order to make it; yet I can’t put my finger on what it is that I need to do. I know I have shortcomings and faults in my life for which I feel guilty. I am constantly angry with my siblings; my temper often gets out of control. I swear all the time, and my mind is often filled with awful thoughts of lust. I know all these things are bad, but still, I have a hard time thinking of them as bad enough to make me deserve hell. In my mind, I am not worse than most of the Amish members of the church who are sitting in the room with me, and I would think most of them would be good enough to make it to heaven. If not, what is the use of being Amish? Is this not what the Amish way is all about—to make a person good enough to please God? Yet I can’t shake this uneasy fear inside of me—this feeling of being distant from God, and feeling His anger and judgment over me.
As I sit there, I once again promise myself that next week will be different, that this time I will surely do my best to improve my life to a condition that is acceptable to God. Until then, I desperately hope and pray that my life will not be snuffed out and I must go to meet God. I tremble at the thought.
The singing is finally over, and one of the preachers gets to his feet to preach the first sermon of the day. He begins in the normal way: the greeting, the wish of God’s blessing and grace on all present, and the reminder that we are still in the land of preparation. Then he quotes the familiar verses that are always, without fail, recited by all the preachers. Even though I have heard the words a hundred times, they once again wash over my soul with a glimmer of hope:
Psalm 106:1 Danket dem HERRN; denn er ist freundlich, und seine Güte währet ewiglich.
2 Wer kann die großen Taten des HERRN ausreden und alle seine löblichen Werke preisen?
3 Wohl denen, die das Gebot halten und tun immerdar recht!
4 HERR, gedenke mein nach der Gnade, die du dem Volk verheißen hast; beweise uns deine Hilfe,
5 daß wir sehen mögen die Wohlfahrt deiner Auserwählten und uns freuen, daß es deinem Volk wohl geht, und uns rühmen mit deinem Erbteil.
Interpreted in English:
Psalm 106:1 Praise ye the Lord. O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.
2 Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord? who can shew forth all his praise?
3 Blessed are they that keep judgment, and he that doeth righteousness at all times.
4 Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation;
5 That I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance.
Thank God, for he is friendly, and his goodness endures forever. The words have a reassuring effect on me. God is friendly and good after all. To me, God is a constant reminder of my failure and guilt, and I’m afraid of Him, yet the Scriptures say that He is friendly and good.
I almost believe it.
Blessed are those who keep the commandment, and always do right. This verse always brings me a mixture of hope and despair. Hope, because it contains the answer, the secret that I have been looking for. If only I can keep the commandment and always do right, I’ll be blessed by God. Despair, because so far I have not been able to keep the commandment to my own satisfaction, let alone God’s. It is as though the great mountain of doing right and keeping the commandment is always a steep climb ahead of me, and I never see the top of the mountain. I desperately want to do what’s right and good. I want to please God and want Him to be pleased with me; yet it always remains just ahead of me, just outside of my reach. It always remains at the end of my promises to do better, and I never reach it.
The preacher has now begun another familiar passage of Scripture. The words flow from his mouth in simple eloquence; they are so familiar to him, he says them without thinking:
Psalm 103:1 Ein Psalm Davids. Lobe den HERRN, meine Seele, und was in mir ist, seinen heiligen Namen!
2 Lobe den HERRN, meine Seele, und vergiß nicht, was er dir Gutes getan hat:
3 der dir alle deine Sünden vergibt und heilet alle deine Gebrechen,
Interpreted in English:
Psalm 103:1 Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits:
3 Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases;
The words of the Bible once again bring a ray of comfort to my tormented soul. Who forgives all your sins, and heals all your sicknesses. This sounds so much like what I am looking for; it seems to match so perfectly to that of which I stand in need. I wonder what the conditions are to qualify for this blessing of having one’s sins forgiven. What gave the Psalmist the confidence to say that God has forgiven his sins? How did he know?
The words continue:
8 Barmherzig und gnädig ist der HERR, geduldig und von großer Güte.
9 Er wird nicht immer hadern noch ewiglich Zorn halten.
10 Er handelt nicht mit uns nach unsern Sünden und vergilt uns nicht nach unsrer Missetat.
Interpreted in English:
8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.
9 He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever.
10 He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
Merciful and gracious is the Lord; patient, and of great goodness. He does not deal with us after our sins, and does not reward us according to our iniquities. I wonder if these words are for me, or if they were written only for the rest of the world. Did God even care enough about me to know what sins I had that needed to be forgiven? Even though I didn’t dare believe the words, still they brought me comfort and a sense of relief. It was comforting to know that even though I wasn’t sure how to make it happen, God was willing to forgive and to show mercy and goodness. It was a relief to hear from a secure and authoritative source that God was still open to receive me and forgive my sins. I wondered how and when it would happen. How would I know when God has forgiven me? How long would I have to wait?
11 Denn so hoch der Himmel über der Erde ist, läßt er seine Gnade walten über die, so ihn fürchten.
12 So ferne der Morgen ist vom Abend, läßt er unsre Übertretungen von uns sein.
13 Wie sich ein Vater über Kinder erbarmt, so erbarmt sich der HERR über die, so ihn fürchten.
Interpreted in English:
11 For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.
12 As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.
13 Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.
Once again, the words are powerful and sound wonderful, but I don’t dare believe them. I have no trouble believing that God forgives sins and removes them from people, but I can’t believe He did it for me. Sure, I believe God can do it, but I just take it to mean that God is able to if He wants to and if the right conditions are met. I feel like I will never arrive at the place where I fear God enough for Him to show mercy and grace to me.
The first preacher, after preaching for a while, sits down. After a portion of Scripture is read by the deacon, the bishop rises to preach the main sermon. After reciting the same sayings and Bible verses that have already been said by the first preacher and the deacon, he begins to expound on the Scripture that has been chosen by Amish tradition to be his subject.
Today’s Scripture readings are out of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The deacon has read one chapter, and now the bishop is expounding on his portion of Scripture.
Matthew 5:17 Ihr sollt nicht wähnen, daß ich gekommen bin, das Gesetz oder die Propheten aufzulösen; ich bin nicht gekommen, aufzulösen, sondern zu erfüllen.
18 Denn ich sage euch wahrlich: Bis daß Himmel und Erde zergehe, wird nicht zergehen der kleinste Buchstabe noch ein Tüttel vom Gesetz, bis daß es alles geschehe.
19 Wer nun eines von diesen kleinsten Geboten auflöst und lehrt die Leute also, der wird der Kleinste heißen im Himmelreich; wer es aber tut und lehrt, der wird groß heißen im Himmelreich.
20 Denn ich sage euch: Es sei denn eure Gerechtigkeit besser als der Schriftgelehrten und Pharisäer, so werdet ihr nicht in das Himmelreich kommen.
Interpreted in English:
Matthew 5:17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
The words pressed down on me, and I squirmed with discomfort on the hard bench. Not a single letter will pass from the law till all will be fulfilled. I wondered what Jesus meant when He said that. Who would be the one fulfilling the law? Was I supposed to be the one responsible for fulfilling the law to the letter? This looked like a mountain of impossibility. No one I knew was able to keep the law, especially not to the letter. No one I knew even claimed to keep the law. In fact, everyone, including the bishop, readily confessed that they fell far short of keeping it. If even the preachers were sinners and didn’t keep the law, what hope was there for me? The seriousness of where I would spend eternity was so real, I wanted desperately to do something—anything—to make sure I ended up in the right place.
Except your righteousness is better than the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
These words added to my feeling of hopelessness. I knew I wasn’t better than the Pharisees, and how would I know when I was? What could I do to make sure that I was better than they were? I didn’t know, except to keep trying. Once again, I promised myself that I would do better, that this time I would really get serious about living a better life.
The bishop continued, quoting the words from memory:
Matthew 7:13 Gehet ein durch die enge Pforte. Denn die Pforte ist weit, und der Weg ist breit, der zur Verdammnis abführt; und ihrer sind viele, die darauf wandeln.
14 Und die Pforte ist eng, und der Weg ist schmal, der zum Leben führt; und wenige sind ihrer, die ihn finden.
Interpreted in English:
Matthew 7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
The question of my life was whether I was on the narrow road that leads to life or on the broad one that leads to damnation. The problem was, I didn’t know. Certain days I was satisfied enough with my life that I thought maybe I was on the right road, but then I would do, say, or think something that would cause me to question whether I was. Sometimes I wished that I would at least know that I was on the broad road. That way I would know where I was headed and could do something about it. This uncertainty and constant wondering if I was headed for heaven or hell was miserable and hopeless, and I longed for a way to know for certain.
I was told that the Amish way is the narrow way that leads to life. Sometimes I believed it, but most of the time I questioned it. If it really was, then why is there no Amish person who knows whether he is going to heaven or hell? More personally, since I was Amish, why didn’t I have confidence that I was on the right road? I guessed maybe I just wasn’t a good enough Amish person, or that maybe it was because I hadn’t yet joined the church. Yet, when I saw my Amish friends and neighbors, I got the feeling they didn’t know where they were headed, either. I hoped the Amish way was not what Jesus meant, because I was Amish and I wasn’t convinced that I was on it, and I didn’t want my entire life to be a big question mark of where I would spend eternity.
Finally, the bishop neared the end of his sermon and began to read the customary ending chapter. I knew the words by heart:
Matthew 7:21 Es werden nicht alle, die zu mir sagen: HERR, HERR! ins Himmelreich kommen, sondern die den Willen tun meines Vaters im Himmel.
22 Es werden viele zu mir sagen an jenem Tage: HERR, HERR! haben wir nicht in deinem Namen geweissagt, haben wir nicht in deinem Namen Teufel ausgetrieben, und haben wir nicht in deinem Namen viele Taten getan?
23 Dann werde ich ihnen bekennen: Ich habe euch noch nie erkannt; weichet alle von mir, ihr Übeltäter!
Interpreted in English:
Matthew 7:21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
These verses always scared me. I knew that someday I would die and I would stand before God to be judged. I tried not to think about it too much, but I knew that I couldn’t keep it from happening. Time would tick away, and even if I lived to be old, death would get me sooner or later. Every time I was faced with the issue of the judgment, I searched my mind for the right way to prepare myself for that event. I was desperate not to arrive at that place without being prepared for it. There was nothing I wanted more than to be in that small crowd on God’s right hand, hearing the words, Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Yet, when I searched my life for something that could provide me with the assurance that I would hear those words, I couldn’t find enough evidence to convince me.
Not everyone who says LORD! LORD! will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father in heaven. I wanted to do the will of God, but I wasn’t exactly sure how. I knew that He required me to live a good life, but I wasn’t sure that I was good enough. When I looked at the list of people who didn’t make it, I was scared. Have we not prophesied in your name? Have we not cast out devils in your name? Have we not done many wonderful works in your name? I didn’t even come close to doing those things. If these people were spiritual enough to do the good things they did, and still God said that He didn’t know them, what hope was there for me?
I longed to know God. I wanted Him to be more personal and more approachable. I wished I could get on His good side and know that I was. I longed to be accepted by Him, to know that He was pleased and not angry with me.
The bishop finished the chapter, and after a few closing remarks, sat down to hear the other ministers give testimony that what he had preached was founded on God’s word. After they finished, he rose, made some more remarks, and then we knelt for the long prayer.
The long prayer meant different things for different people. For some, it meant a good time to take a much-needed nap. For some of the boys, it meant a time to whisper and poke each other and do the rowdy things that were expected from them if they were cool. For me, it was something to be endured. The prayer was read from a book, in words that were difficult to understand. Even though the prayer was a better one than I could ever pray (or even the preacher, for that matter), it was read in a tone of voice that made God seem far away and out of touch with reality. I wanted God to be near, and not just some far-off God that must be approached with a perfect prayer from a book. Yet, I myself didn’t know how to pray. I didn’t even know if God heard my prayers.
After the bishop’s blessing to the congregation, another slow hymn was sung and then church was dismissed. Like a tidal wave, black hats flew to the heads of their owners the instant that the last word of the song was finished, and the boys and young men rushed out the door. We waited around the barn, trying to tell jokes and laugh until it was announced that lunch was ready. After eating bohne soup und lattveig brott (bean soup and apple butter bread) and waiting impatiently until Dad was done visiting with the men, the family was once again seated in the buggy, and Betty was trotting patiently homeward. I was once again in the front seat as I had been so many times before, thinking about the day and what had been said. Once again the questions pushed into my mind, and I wearily shoved them aside. Already, though, I could sense that my promises to do better were fading and becoming weaker. The timely warnings and the reminders of righteousness and judgment and thoughts of eternity somehow seemed less serious now that church was over. The strange and scary thing was, I discovered that I didn’t care.
To order a free copy of My Story—in booklet form—please contact the Amish Voice at (419) 962-1515, or send a note to P.O. Box 128, Savannah OH 44874.
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