We’ve got an Amish community not too far from here. It is the place to go when you need to stock up on produce, farm-grown foods, or heirloom-quality furniture. It is also known as the place to go if you really just need to see some Amish people doing what they do. And a lot of people like to do just that—to go and look, to go and gawk.
Even though we’ve got an extensive group nearby, we recently found ourselves in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, North America’s best-known Amish community. (Full disclosure: Our actual travel objective was Harrisburg and the overrated Civil War museum there, but every hotel in the city was completely full.) We did not stop on the road outside Amish farms to watch them do their work, and did not go on a bus tour, but we couldn’t help but see horses and buggies around town, and, of course, plenty of the distinctive Amish clothing.
As we headed north, back toward our home, I started to think about the Amish and why we find them so endlessly fascinating. Though they are small in numbers, everyone knows who they are and everyone knows at least a few of their unique customs; though so much of their religious practice appears insufferable, they are regarded as Christians who love and practice grace. They are the heroes of a million stories, the subject of a thousand documentaries. Why are they so fascinating? I have a few ideas.
The Amish challenge us. In a world where we are so completely dependent on our high-tech devices, the Amish somehow manage to survive without them, and even appear to thrive without them. Where we are convinced that newer is better and that we are only ever one innovation away from joy, the Amish seem plenty happy to do without. If you spend time around the Amish, or if you begin to learn about their ways, you necessarily find yourself asking questions like: Do I really need my smartphone? Are all of these devices really bringing happiness? What have I lost in all of this innovation? The Amish challenge so many of our deeply-held beliefs and assumptions.
We want to figure out the Amish. We are fascinated by the Amish because we so badly want to figure them out. Where they proclaim that they have great uniformity in their lives and laws, we see great contradictions. Their faith appears contradictory: They speak about the grace of Christ but live by law; they extend grace to those who harm them, but shun those who leave them; they rejoice in their salvation, but do not share Christ with others. Their laws appear contradictory: The men can have buttons, but the women must use straight pins; connecting to a phone network attaches them to the world, but connecting to a road network does not; they rely on doctors and lawyers, but will not allow their own children to be educated beyond eighth grade. When I see the Amish, with all their strengths and weaknesses, all their grace and legalism, I look for a key that unlocks it all. I look for knowledge that makes it all make sense.
The Amish recall a simpler time. Where life today is marked by endless complexity, the Amish are known for their quiet simplicity. As they go about their lives, they draw us to a simpler time. In some ways the Amish live in the best of both worlds—the world today and the world of centuries ago. They live their day-to-day lives in that simpler world, that quieter world, that slower world. But, when necessity dictates, and law permits, they take advantage of modern innovations. They use horse-drawn buggies to get to their worship services, but hire drivers to take them to the store. They have no electricity in their homes, but give birth and die while connected to modern medical equipment. Their simplicity attracts us. It draws us.
The Amish recall a purer time. The Amish call us to a simpler time, but also a purer time. This purity is an illusion, I think, but it still captivates us. Even though we love our modern technologies, we can’t deny that they have changed us. We tend to think that they have polluted us. Marshall McLuhan was right when he said that we create technologies in our own image and, soon enough, they return the favor. We are products of our technologies, dependent upon them, and shaped by them. When we look at the Amish, unshaped by radio and television, cell phones and web pages, we see something that looks pure by contrast.
We admire the Amish. We admire the Amish for their stubborn refusal to change and to adapt. We are amazed that they continue to live in this high-tech, always-on world in the way they do. Yet they live in it unabashed, unembarrassed by their eccentricities. They don’t allow external pressure to shape their deepest beliefs. With the modern world pressing in around them, they don’t only survive, but thrive. Their communities continue to grow, their land holdings continue to expand, their businesses continue to thrive. We admire them in many ways, but perhaps most deeply simply for being, and remaining, who and what they are.
So I suppose the most fascinating thing of all about the Amish is that they still exist. When they first came to national attention in the early twentieth century, prognosticators gave them a generation or two before they were gone. They thrived. When they received close study in the middle of the century, sociologists and anthropologists once again decreed that they would soon surrender to the world around them. They grew. And as the technological distance between them and us deepens and widens, they seem to be thriving all the more. Their very existence is a marvel; their practices are a challenge. We love the Amish because, in some ways, we long to be the Amish.
Reading is kind of like repairing a bicycle. Kind of. For too long now my bike has been semi-operational. It has one brake that just doesn’t want to behave and all my attempts to fix it have failed. Why? Well it turns out that I haven’t been using the right tool. To get the bike working I need to use the right tool. And when it comes to reading, well, you’ve got to use the right tool—you’ve got to know what kind of reading to do. Here are seven different kinds of reading.
Studying. Studying is reading at its best, I think, but reading that can and should be done with only the choicest books. Life is too short and there are simply too many books to invest a great deal of time in every one of them. And this is where so many readers go wrong—they spend too much time and invest too much effort in books that simply don’t deserve it. When you study a book, you labor over it, you read it with highlighter in hand, you flip back and forth, you try to learn absolutely everything the book offers. Only the smallest percentage of books are worthy of this level of investment, so choose carefully which books you study. (Suggestions:Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen or The Holiness of God byR.C. Sproul)
Pillaging. Pillaging is one of my favorite forms of reading, and especially when the book is in a familiar category and written to be very practical. I will often buy the latest and greatest books on business and productivity and read them at a rapid pace. As I do this, I am looking for tips that I can ponder and apply. I do not intend to allow these books to teach me a whole new form of getting things done—I have my system and it works well. However, I am eager to pillage these books for ideas that can tweak my system and make it better. (Consider: Essentialism by Greg Mckeown or Habit Stacking by S.J. Scott)
Devotional. Devotional reading is reading deep truths meant to make a deep impact on your faith. This is slow and meditative reading that requires an open Bible and plenty of prayer. The Christian faith has many wonderful devotional works that are drawn from the Bible and will, in turn, draw you to the Bible. Read these ones day-by-day and allow them to lead you closer to God as he reveals himself through his Word. (Consider: The Reformed Expository Commentary series or Morning and Evening by Charles Spurgeon)
Skimming. In recent years we have heard a lot about the evils of skimming, and it is true that for many people skimming is now their dominant form of reading. This is not a good development. But having said that, skimming still has its place. Some books are worthy of little more than a skim, and especially if you have already read extensively in that category. If you have read six books on marriage, you probably don’t need to do more than skim the seventh. Most books will benefit from a skim before in-depth reading as it will both help you understand whether it is actually worthy of study and help you better understand the flow of the author’s argument. Do not making skimming your only form of reading, but also don’t feel guilty if you find yourself skimming twice as many books as you read in depth. The more books you read, the more you earn the right to skim.
Stretch. Stretch reading is going beyond the popularizers and reading the sources. Some of us find that we much prefer reading books by the people who write on a popular level and who make their topic eminently accessible. But sometimes we ought to force ourselves to read more difficult texts—the Church Fathers or Reformation-era writers, the historians or scientists. (Suggestions: The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards)
Rerun. Rerun reading is returning to an old favorite to read it again. This may be that old novel that you fell in love with so many years ago and returning to that novel is like journeying back to an old vacation spot. It may be that formative Christian living book that meant so much to you when you were first saved. Either way, your purpose in reading this book is almost entirely pleasure; you are not reading it to learn from it as much as for the plain enjoyment of finding comfort in its familiar words and phrases.
Failed. Failed reading is an important part of any balanced reading diet. I speak to far too many people who feel it is wrong to stop reading a book before they have finished it. But sometimes you just need to admit defeat and stop reading. The more books you read, and especially the more books you study, the more you earn the right to give up on a few of them.
Who is the most important person in your church? On one level it’s kind of a silly question to ask. Yet in his book Healed at Last, Scott Blackwell provides an answer that is both sweet and encouraging. He tells about his friend Steve who has been profoundly disabled since birth.
He has been forever wheelchair-bound, and his arm and head movements are often uncontrolled or controlled with difficulty—especially when he gets excited. His speech is difficult to understand, and his vocabulary is limited. Because he was born in the 1950s, those who cared for him made certain assumptions about his ability to learn, respond and understand. He was institutionalized and given minimal stimulation and therapy—such was the state of rehabilitation for the profoundly disabled back then. It was assumed he would never be able to read, so he was never taught. Now, in his fifties, Steve is thoroughly dependent on the aid of others. He requires assistance to eat, drink, bathe, dress, toilet, and so on. Steve also constantly battles the kind of respiratory and gastro-intestinal disorders that life lived full-time in a wheelchair bring. All this is so much more difficult to witness knowing that trapped within Steve’s dysfunctional body is a sharp and inquiring mind that was left untended and ignored for years.
Yet, as Blackwell points out, Steve finds joy despite such severe challenges.
Steve is the most joy-filled and enthusiastic believer in Jesus I think I’ve ever met. He’s bright, intelligent, witty, stubborn, passionate and compassionate. He holds down a job and, every time I talk with him, he insists that he is far too busy. His grin and his “G’day” is one hundred percent genuine for every person he meets. He insists on having his Bible open at the right passage with the rest of us, even though he cannot read it. The phenomenal thing about Steve is that somehow he manages to view every day of struggle as another day of triumph, and this he does, by his own testimony, through his faith in Christ. Hope and trust in God’s promises burn brighter in Steve than in anyone else I’ve ever met. In our church it’s impossible to preach about the return of Jesus, or the great resurrection day, or even death, without being interrupted by the man in the front who is madly flailing his arms around and shouting with excitement, “No more chair!”
After telling more about Steve’s deep faith and his sure hope that one day he will stand on his feet before his Savior, Blackwell says this:
Personally, I think it is possible that this makes Steve the most important person in our church. Once, during a rare moment of melancholy, he asked me why I thought God had caused him to live out his life in a chair. I thought for a long time before I said I didn’t know for certain, but that maybe his disability and his chair were meant for our teaching, blessing and benefit. I suggested that, possibly, it was God’s intention that through Steve our church might learn great lessons about patience, love, endurance, joy, compassion, hope and faith. I said to him (and I believe it is true) that he is perhaps our most dynamic and effective evangelist and pastoral worker. His look of surprise and shock actually made me laugh out loud. It had never occurred to him that this was what he was for us. He was just Steve.
Through my friend Steve, God has worked wonderful deeds of spiritual growth and maturity in our church.
I have written about envy before and have referred to it as “the lost sin.” Envy is a sin I am prone to, though I feel like it is one of those sins I have battled hard against and, as I’ve battled, experienced a lot of God’s grace. It is not nearly as prevalent in my life as it once was. Recently, though, I felt it threatening to rear its ugly head again and spent a bit of time reflecting on it. Here are three brief observations about envy.
ENVY IS COMPETITIVE
I am a competitive person and I believe it is this competitive streak that allows envy to make its presence felt in my life. Envy is a sin that makes me feel resentment or anger or sadness because another person has something or another person is something that I want for myself. Envy makes me aware that another person has some advantage, some good thing, that I want for myself. And there’s more: Envy makes me want that other person not to have it. This means that there are at least three evil components to envy: the deep discontent that comes when I see that another person has what I want; the desire to have it for myself; and the desire for it to be taken from him.
Do you see it? Envy always competes. Envy demands that there is always a winner and a loser. And envy almost always suggests that I, the envious person, am the loser.
ENVY ALWAYS WINS
Envy always wins, and if envy wins, I lose. Here’s the thing about envy: If I get that thing I want, I lose, because it will only generate pride and idolatry within me. I will win that competition I have created, and become proud of myself. Envy promises that if I only get that thing I want, I will finally be satisfied, I will finally be content. But that is a lie. If I get that thing, I will only grow proud. I lose.
On the other hand, if I do not get what I want, if I lose that competition, I am prone to sink into depression or despair. Envy promises that if I do not get that thing I want, my life is not worth living because I am a failure. Again, I lose.
In both cases, I lose and envy wins. Envy always wins, unless I put that sin to death.
Envy divides people who ought to be allies. Envy drives people apart who ought to be able to work closely together. Envy is clever in that it will cause me to compare myself to people who are a lot like me, not people who are unlike me. I am unlikely to envy the sports superstar or the famous musician because the distance between them and me is too great. Instead, I am likely to envy the pastor who is right down the street from me but who has a bigger congregation or nicer building; I am likely to envy the writer whose books or blog are more popular than mine. Where I should be able to work with these people based on similar interests and similar desires, envy will instead drive me away from them. Envy will make them my competitors and my enemies rather than my allies and co-laborers.
What’s the cure for envy? I can’t say it better than Charles Spurgeon: “The cure for envy lies in living under a constant sense of the divine presence, worshiping God and communing with Him all the day long, however long the day may seem. True religion lifts the soul into a higher region, where the judgment becomes more clear and the desires are more elevated. The more of heaven there is in our lives, the less of earth we shall covet. The fear of God casts out envy of men.”