Could this be a first at Faith—a 94 year old in the pulpit? Imagine what it is like to be old. All but a few of my first cousins gone; all but several high school classmates gone; all college classmates gone. Only Harold Schmidt, there on the back row, and I in Civilian Public Service in World War II. As a survivor, I have been asked to reflect on my spiritual journey.
Some of you have read my memoirs: My Early Years and Coming Home. Our lives unfold in stages—Shakespeare’s "Seven Stages." For me birth at Sterling, Illinois—first years on a farm. . . . to Goshen, Indiana. We were then Old Mennonite. . . . to Bluffton, Ohio. . . . In 1935 our family moved 800 miles west to Bethel College, Dad a Bible teacher and I a college freshman. In 1939, aged 20, the outbreak of World War II, I entered the University of Chicago. . . . Then the draft and 4 years, 3 months and 29 days of alternative service as a consciencious objector. . . . Colorado Springs. . . .MCC headquarters at Akron, PA. . . . an aborted trip to China. . . .The day Germany surrendered, I met Lois Sommer. . . . Seven months later we were married and six weeks later I left for MCC relief work in Germany. . . . A year later Lois joined me in Berlin. . . . In 1949 we returned to Chicago for doctoral study. In 1952 we drove to Bluffton for my first full-time salaried job, our first income tax, and with our first child—8-month-old Esther. I was 33 and Lois, 28.
The years sped by: a deanship, a presidency, boards, committees, a house in the woods.. . . five children—Esther, Joan, Karen, David and Ruth. . . .A year’s leave from Bluffton College to establish the Teacher’s Abroad Program in Africa. . . . A six month sabbatical with family in a VW Van circling the Mediterranean—23 countries, camping, visiting MCC units. . . .In 1975 a move west to Bethel College to teach peace studies and direct the Mennonite Library and Archives. . . . Then the story sprawls out like the delta of a river: 13 grandchildren, two great grandsons—a family scattered at times from Tokyo to Munich to Gainesville to Minneapolis,
Embedded in these twists and turns is a faith journey. I vividly remember my baptism at the age of 11—that very afternoon I erupted in anger at my younger brother Gerald, he such an annoyance. How could it be that I, just baptized, could be so sinfully angry? . . . For me, becoming a follower of Christ has been a journey of many steps. . . I have been carried by the flow of scripture:. . . . From the first words of the Bible: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.". . . A faith journey. Genesis 12: The Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you.". . . Belonging. The book of Ruth: "Where you go, I will go. . . . your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.". . . . The lyrical beauty of biblical truth. Isaiah 40: "Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.". . . . The teachings of Jesus: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God". . Hearing Jesus’ invitation: "Follow me". .Luke 24: Meeting the stranger on the road to Emmaus, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?"
In my faith journey have been mentors. . . . .Seventh grade teacher Carey Steiner giving me extra assignments and asking me to take the eighth grade exams, this leading to skipping a grade. . . . In the beauty of a sunset service at summer camp, pastor Jesse Smucker inviting us to walk in the footsteps of the Master. . . .Teacher Ruth Lapp introducing me to Wordsworth: "My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky, so was it when my life began, so be it when I grow old.. . . At the university Winfield Fretz encouraging me to pursue Anabaptist studies. . . . In 1941 in CPS camp—hesitant to take on the job of asst. camp director—receiving the counsel of Orie Miller, Executive Secretary of MCC, who said, "I have long followed the rule that when the church asks you to serve, let your answer be ’yes’ unless there is a good reason to say ’no.’" . . . . Albert Gaeddert, director of our CPS camp at Colorado Springs, nurturing the vision of our camp becoming a blessed community. . . . On the unexpected death of our first child, Ruth Marie, seeing in the eyes of Lois a beauty of spirit and acceptance that was of heaven. . . .
As Lois and I age, achievements fade away. That which lingers are sacred moments and places, friendships. . . . Our five children and their bonding to the faith. . . Our family bonding in adversity—a divorce, a separation. . . . And 13 grandchildren and two great grandsons. . . . Observing close at hand Lois’ work with the Et Cetera Shop, beginning 40 years ago in Bluffton with the first MCC shop in the U.S., Lois traveling the U.S. and Canada helping establish shops that have grown to 110 and annually generate $20 million in support of MCC. . . . With those of my age gone, finding new circles of friendship with younger persons. . . . On Tuesday mornings the circle of friends meeting around our table for coffee and discussion of issues great and small. . . . Until recently, teaching a Sunday School class.
More blessings on the journey: . . . . Arriving in Kansas in 1975, we found a church home at Faith Mennonite. I soon was being called on to give talks on our adopted Mennonite homeland in Kansas and to direct scores of tours of Central Kansas. . . . Immediately Lois and I fell in love with the Kansas prairie, the Flint Hills, highway 96 straight west 500 miles to our cabin in Colorado. .. . broad horizons, the infinity on the plains. . . . We have been pleasantly jolted by interruptions in our schedules—a major one, a phone call reporting the recovery of 23 copper plates of etchings of Jan Luykens used in illustrating the 300-year-old Martyrs Mirror, this leading to curating an exhibit at the Kauffman Museum which has itinerated to 70 venues in the U.S. and Canada. . . We have enjoyed intergenerational living on a farmstead on the edge of the campus with David and Heidi and sons Ben and Mark—shared meals, guest rooms, garden, laundry, freezer, newspapers. . . . We continue to receive unexpected bits of wisdom from Great Grandson John, aged 6, who reflected, "I get Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day confused, because saying ’thank you’ and ’I love you’ are pretty much the same.". . . . I am grateful for Lois’ generous spirit. We realize that all that we have belongs to the Lord. For much of our life we have given a tithe to church causes and in recent years 20% and 30% of annual income. The joy of giving.
In retirement, more surprises. At my 50th high school reunion, recovering a long lost friendship with classmate David Kliewer. Both of us Mennonite pastor’s sons, in the war David a pilot in the Marine Air Force, I a conscientious objector. On Wake Island David engaged in combat, was captured and imprisoned for four years in Japan, followed by Harvard Medical School and then a distinguished medical career in Oregon. Finding each other, I learned he was rediscovering his peacemaking Anabaptist past. For 20 years we exchanged hundreds of letters. On the shelf, a book-length collection of letters of David and Robert, "Kindred Spirits.". . . . I have found satisfaction in writing tributes for memorial services of friends—more than 70—enough for another book. . . . Giving blessings.
Lest these reflections sound too up-beat, let me acknowledge displeasures. I am troubled by the separation of MCC Canada from MCC-U.S. I grieve to see Mennonite congregations splintering off. I am pained as the U.S. launches wars and kills with drone missiles. I despise politics that focus just on the next election, snubs the poor, favors the rich, ignores long term issues.
In growing old are all the details of daily living: pills, taking naps, forgetting names, letting go, discarding. Two years ago I had a near encounter with the end. A change of medication, a pacemaker, blood transfusions and I bounced back. It led me to think of the gentle and natural process of God’s ways of birth, growth, career, golden years, taking leave. . . . A beauty in the seasons of life.
Aging has pluses and minuses. Loss of independence. I no longer drive a car. I use a cane. My children have become my parents. And, oh, the loss of hearing. Talk swirls around me as noise. I sometimes nod and smile as though I understand a speaker—feeling a bit guilty that I misrepresent my level of hearing. . . The liberation of not needing to do everything. . . . Giving up travel, but enjoying the trips of an adventurous family. . . . Sending each week an e-mail to our children and grandchildren. . . . Rereading a marked-up Bible. . . . Being amused when the receptionist where you were once in charge, asks for your name. . . . Finding delight in the little things of God’s creation: patterns of light and shadow, the intricate beauty of an individual flower, the infinity of Kansas horizons. . . .At bedtime, a game of Scrabble—no scores kept, together seeking the most five or six-letter words.
Offering prayers of thanks for the blessings of the day. Grateful for our Mennonite-Anabaptist faith, Christ-centered, "a road less traveled."
Aging has been a journey—unfolding with set backs and surprises—as Abram setting forth for a new homeland. . . .on the way to Emmaus meeting Jesus. . . . seeking to walk in His footsteps.