Sunday, March 20, 2016

Our Crazy Trip To Ohio

"Didn't you think you weren't supposed to go?" said Emily Sommers, last night at the Gospel Echoes fundraiser banquet. "I think I'd have thought, 'I'm just not supposed to go to Ohio.'"

Actually, I never thought I shouldn't go.  I only thought, "Wow, this is a LOT of obstacles in my way."

They messaged me a long time ago.  Would I consider coming to speak at Gospel Haven's women's retreat in March of 2016?

I consent to one out-of-state event a year and didn't have any others scheduled for 2016.  So I said Yes.

The name of the retreat is the same every year: Joy in the Journey.  The theme for this year was "Peace."  I was asked to speak about mothering, particularly adult children, and also dealing with depression.

About three weeks before the retreat, my laptop computer, the one I do most of my writing on, utterly and completely crashed and died.  You know how it is--sometimes a computer is sort of aging and faltering, but if you call a techy son for advice, turn it off and back on, and beg your husband to fix it, it functions again.

This time, it was dead and gone.

However, over on the counter in the office was a little black book-sized device that was supposed to keep the household's computers backed up.  Matt had set it up for us a few years ago, but then he went back to Washington, D.C,. and I wasn't sure that it was still doing its job in his absence.

I clicked around on the big desktop computer, found the file for my laptop, and there it was--all my work, up to date.


I spent a few days at a funny little house at the coast, writing like mad on my tiny little Netbook.  Paul was with me the first two days.  When he left, he mentioned that he's going to run a cleaner/efficiency-increaser program on the home desktop computer.

Ok, I said.

I came home two days later with the worst sore throat ever, razor blades shredding my tonsils, it felt like.  Within two days I had a full-blown case of strep throat.

It was awful.  And the retreat was only a week away.  I emailed Fannie Wengerd from the retreat committee, and she asked the rest of the ladies to pray.

I recovered enough to work some more, but the password to the backup had disappeared when Paul ran the cleaner-upper program.

No no no.

We ran through our normal list of passwords and suddenly one worked.

Mercy, the relief.  I was afraid the password would be some computer-generated nonsense that we would never figure out.

A month before the retreat, I had contacted the publisher of my first three books and ordered 60 copies of each title to be sent to Fannie's house.

Five days before the retreat, they still hadn't arrived.

Worried, I contacted the publisher again.  They had forgotten to send them.

Paul, being less busy with school and warehouse than he used to be, decided to go with me on this trip.  Happily, he has a Companion Pass deal with Southwest Airlines, where we can buy a ticket for him and mine is free.

He parked the car at the long-term parking at the airport while I went through security.  Then, while I waited on the bench where you put your shoes back on, he sent me a text.  His license was missing from his wallet.

I am not proud of my reaction, which was a mix of panic and flabbergasted horror.  How could he do this to me??  Who does this, going to the airport and not double-checking their license??  This isn't like him--is he getting dementia???  Was he headed for that happy, oblivious state where people are healthy and strong but have to be watched every minute or they'll wander downtown in their pajamas?

I have a good imagination.

I didn't recognize the real issue or the real enemy--it took me a few days to realize that.

Paul got through security on his Costco card.  [The next day, the DMV faxed a paper that said he owns a license, and then our daughter overnighted his passport for the flight home.]

We had "C" boarding passes for the flight to Las Vegas, which meant we were among the last ones on the plane.  Toward the back, I saw an empty aisle seat and grabbed it.

Oh dear, this guy beside me was very large.

The plane took off, and the guy gradually expanded until his shoulder overlapped mine and his arm took over the armrest between us.

He fell asleep and expanded still further.  His huge arm edged further and further into my territory as I scrinched into the remaining 2/3 of the seat.  I put my tray down and it settled on top of his arm.

The Sleeping Giant, I called him.  He snoozed blissfully with his nose in the air, his sunglasses on, his earbuds in his ears, growing with each breath, like a balloon.

Perhaps I could do some work to redeem the time and the trip.  I placed my notebook on the tray which was still resting on his arm, and dug for a pen.

Another wave of panic.  I had forgotten to put in that handful of pens I had collected on the desk.  I had one pen.  ONE!  How would I make it?  I have to have at least three pens or I feel terrified and panicky.  Would they have pens in Ohio??

Calm down, Mrs. Smucker.  At least you have this one.

I took the cap off the pen and it began to drip big ominous drops of black ink on my notebook.  No no nooooo!  It had exploded, as these pens will, from the pressure changes of flying.

"Spiritual warfare" is a Christian concept that probably sounds crazy to non-believers.  But once you've experienced it, you know it's real.

There's good and evil.  God is good and he's on our side.  We have an enemy called Satan who is evil and who is against us in every way.  When you're doing God's work, you can expect opposition.

You fight by praying and pressing on and praising instead of panicking, which you might guess I am not so good at, in the moment.

I've learned that if I'm going to speak somewhere, opposition presents itself in the guise of frustrations, endless interruptions, fear, and misbehaving computers.  If I'm going to speak or write about marriage, the opposition doubles.

It's weird but real.

I sat with Paul on the flight from Las Vegas to Canton-Akron, near the front of the plane, wondering if all was finally going to be well.

About halfway through the flight, a silvery gray cat came walking up the aisle, creating a stir among the passengers around us and causing the flight attendant to take one pop-eyed look and shriek, "WHOSE CAT IS THIS??!!"

An embarrassed woman hurried up the aisle and snatched up the cat, muttering something about letting him out of his carrier.

I thought, "Did that just happen or did it not??"

I had my Netbook open on my lap.  Quickly I typed in the comments everyone was making.

Here's an exact copy of my notes:
whose dog and pony show are we running here?
I thoguht I was hallucinting
just when you thought this flight was going to be boring
he just came calmly walking up the aisle
15 yrs ago dog got out
bit flite attendant on achilles

I considered writing out a description of this little event and having the guy beside me sign it, just to make sure I wasn't hallucinating, and so people would believe me when I posted it on Facebook.

And then I laughed and laughed.  The tide had turned, I was sure of it, from frustrating to simply bizarre.

We got to Canton-Akron, got our luggage, and walked out of the terminal.  It was after midnight.  Paul had made a reservation at one of the two nearby hotels that have shuttle service.  He called them.

"Your reservation was for two nights ago," they said.  "Tonight we're filled up."

The tide hadn't turned after all.  Oh Paul.

Paul called the Hilton.  They had a room.  They sent a shuttle.

The original hotel gave us a refund.

The next day, I tracked down the book order via the tracking number the publisher sent me.

It said they're sending 180 books, in one box, weighing 24 pounds.


That's kind of impossible, you know, if each book weighs half a pound.

Paul called them up and used Dad Voice* on them.

Eventually we got to Berlin, Ohio, a village that's 80% Amish and Mennonite, and got booked at the Berlin Grande Hotel, and the tide turned and things went well and I was a genuine tourist, gawking at the cute Amish people and gushing about the bonnets and buggies and billowing skirts.

One morning I went down for breakfast and passed the open door to a utility room, and there was a gray-haired Amish maintenance man, eating a banana and reading a newspaper.  That made me very happy.

The books arrived in time.  Well, most of them did.  They sent 60 each of two titles and only 12 of the third, but I was beyond worrying about such things.

I ran into our old friend Alice Miller at the retreat.  She had followed our travel saga on Facebook.  "That was weird," she said.  "Marland said, 'That doesn't sound like Paul Smucker! He's such a planner.'"

That was when I realized that, as I had so many times in my life, I had completely mis-identified the enemy.  I had focused on Paul and his strange mistakes rather than realizing --DUH-- it was all part of a package of opposition that I'd been facing for weeks.

I could quit worrying about Paul getting dementia.  We could face this together.

After an eventful weekend, we flew home.  At the airport, I went to baggage claim to get our stuff while Paul took the shuttle to long-term parking to get our car.

When he picked me up on the rainy curb, he said.  "Well, I can drive legally again."


When he got into the car in the parking lot, he had looked down, and there was his driver's license, down between the seat and the center console.

Who knows what other-worldly forces pushed and pulled behind this trip of ours, but it all turned out well and we are so happy to be home.

When our daughter Emily realized the name of the retreat was "Joy in the Journey," she laughed and laughed and laughed.

*Emily's perfectly descriptive term.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

How We Spend Our Sundays

Day of rest isn’t always so restful

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
March 13, 2016

As a Mennonite minister’s wife, I sometimes get tired of Sundays. But when I missed a recent Sunday, I found that I indeed missed it. At least I got popcorn at the end.
We Mennonites are not only different from the rest of the world in our conservative appearance, but we also keep Sunday as a distinctive and special day.
Designated in the Bible as a day of rest, it’s the day when our combines are quiet, bakeries are closed, and corn waits for Monday to be picked and frozen. We don’t mow the yard on Sunday or fix the car or go shopping. Families draw their own lines about entertainment and recreation. Organized sports are discouraged.
Individually, we argue with our conscience about things like sewing. Mom always said it was work, therefore inappropriate for Sunday. But for me it’s recreation, so surely it’s OK. A silly discussion to have with oneself, maybe, but tradition is tenacious. We take this seriously. Sunday is also for worship. We go to church, usually twice, and sing hymns, listen to preaching, study the Bible and pray. And we “fellowship,” a religious word for “talking a lot and hanging around for a long time after the service to catch up with everyone else.”
Sunday illustrates the reality that living out the Christian faith is rarely a clearly defined, once-and-done matter. Instead, we live in that challenging, ever-shifting place of finding our balance between two opposing truths. On this side, we have God instituting a day of rest, a holy and deliberate institution, with promised blessings if you treat it reverently and darker consequences if you don’t. On the other side, Jesus in the New Testament observed the day but clarified, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”
There’s also tension between the value of tradition and the need for change, and between individual and corporate faith. Faith affects all of life — that’s been the Mennonite belief for 500 years. Just how it looks and acts in this or that detail — that discussion also has been around for 500 years.
So, for this slice of our lives, this is how we do Sundays: We are up early. Paul, my pastor husband, is in the recliner, studying for a sermon with his computer on his lap while I’m in the kitchen cutting up carrots and assembling a pot roast in a huge pan while wearing an old shirt of Paul’s over my Sunday dress.
Our son Ben comes downstairs, makes coffee and discusses departure times with his dad, since Paul meets with the other pastor and the advisory board half an hour before the service begins, and Ben often leads the singing. On days I make chicken and rice, Paul peels off his dark suit jacket just before it’s time to leave, stands at the sink, and yanks the skins off the chicken legs without splattering his white dress shirt — a remarkable feat, I always think.
The girls show up in a flurry of clicking heels, fluttering skirts, mugs of tea, and “Does this look OK with this?”
The guys leave, Bibles and laptops and hymnbooks in hand.
I tell the girls to hurry. Someone always is delayed, announced in a wail from upstairs. I make sure the oven is turned on.
Purse, Bible, phone, missionary newsletters to put in the mailboxes, birthday cards for a few, get-well cards for others, a Pyrex dish to return, and we are out the door as well.
The sanctuary at Brownsville Mennonite Church is, as the name indicates, a place of safety and peace, and I settle into it, body and spirit. God is within me, always, I know, and here he is among us as well, within, between, beyond. We are safe here and loved, and we worship.
Ben leads the congregation in singing two or three hymns, a capella, four parts, no piano, words and music coming from the past to lift us toward Heaven. “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love …”
Dismissed for Sunday school, a hundred people head to their classes, up to the balcony or down the hall, with excited little nursery-class kids darting around them.
In the ladies’ class we “share,” another religious word for talk. We share our concerns and questions, pray for each other, and share from our lives in a discussion on how the Bible applies to the reality of a struggling teenager or a dying friend or a financial crisis.
Back in the sanctuary, a sermon follows from Paul or Pastor Kevin. Both take seriously their job of explaining the Bible in a way we can all understand. Recently, though, they’ve introduced the fancy new tool of PowerPoint,¬ an innovation that makes some of the older folks nervous. Paul, a lifelong teacher, is all for using technology to make things clearer. Some people, especially the children, understand better if they see a picture, he says. Imparting truth is more important than tradition.
We mingle and fellowship after the service. “James, how is your foot since surgery?” “Aunt Susie, how is Uncle Milford doing?” “Are you coming to Ladies’ Retreat?” “Yes, I can host the youth group in two weeks.” I scout the milling group and then go to Paul, who is standing near the doors shaking hands with everyone, and we have a quick consultation about who to invite for lunch.
Often, another meeting is squeezed in after the service — maybe the missions committee or the people planning Bible Memory Camp or the social committee.
On the way home, we divide up duties. Our family tradition is that you help before Sunday lunch or after, but not both.
Emily spreads a pretty tablecloth, picks a bouquet and sets out the china. We assemble, give thanks and eat. The pot roast flakes apart in a puff of steam and tastes like all good Sunday pot roasts ought to taste. And, of course, we talk and laugh.
The guests leave. Paul cleans up the kitchen with anyone else who didn’t help beforehand, and then for the first time I get to truly rest, collapsing for a long nap.
It’s nearly time to leave for the evening service when I get up, and as I come back to life with a cup of tea, I wonder about being the pastor’s wife and the balance between freedom in Christ and the sacrifice of worship and wanting to stay home and do nothing.
I usually end up going, because it makes Paul happy, and he skinned the chicken to make me happy, and because this is one way I apply the verse in Isaiah that says, “If you call the Sabbath a delight, and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please ... then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land...”
This is faith: to believe and do, even if you aren’t sure what the results will look like.
The evening service is less formal, with more lay people involved in speaking, singing or reporting on mission trips. The youth group disappears to someone’s house for snacks and youth-oriented fellowship. Paul and I go home and make popcorn and grape juice, and talk about the day, and read. The kids come home and we make more popcorn, and talk more. We plan our week, the clever people make up puns, everyone laughs, and then we go to bed and Sunday is over.
If Sunday was too exhausting, I take Monday morning as my own time of rest, staying home, making tea and sewing.
I got strep throat last week, surely the worst case in history, with razor blades shredding my throat when I swallowed and swaddled quilts failing to keep me warm.
I stayed home on Sunday. The before-church flurry swept around me — Paul rushing out with his sermon notes, Emily hunting for a lost binder of lesson plans, Jenny assembling a scroll at the kitchen table, scotch-taping paper sections together, with a skewer across the end.
“It’s for the story in Jeremiah where Baruch writes on the scroll. One kid can be the king and tear it up and throw it in the fire.” She slapped the tape down determinedly. “I always get my best teaching ideas right before it’s time to leave.”
“Wait. You’re not having a real fire, I hope,” I croaked.
“No, Mom.”
Then they were gone, and the house was quiet.
I texted my friend Jean and asked her to have the Sunday school ladies pray for me.
It was awful to be alone on a Sunday morning. I missed the singing, the Sunday school discussion, Paul’s sermon, and the fellowship. I missed the missions committee meeting and the mail in our box and seeing my friends and checking up with Aunt Susie and holding babies. Ben grilled chicken for lunch and brought me a fragrant plate of buttery potatoes and a crisp chicken thigh. I missed the evening service in both body and heart, and the missions report on CAM-West, the Ohio-based aid program with a branch on the West Coast. It felt all wrong.
But when everyone was home again we had popcorn, and I was well enough to enjoy it and to laugh at the kids, so it felt at least a little bit special, like a normal Sunday.
Faith always will be both solid in its source and fluid in its application. We will always be adjusting for balance, and there will always be tension between individual and community priorities, between valuable old ways and equally valid new, between freedom and duty.
We will always be tweaking our Sundays — less of this, more of that — worship and rest, sacrifice and fun, people and solitude.
As we take tentative steps in this walk of faith, on Sundays and every other day as well, we find, just as we are promised, a sure and triumphant joy.