Out of This World
Being a Lutheran can be a cross, especially in trying times. Why insist on believers having citizenship in two distinct kingdoms—earth and heaven—when one of them, the world around us, is so dysfunctional? So I took a three-day leave of absence to join an Amish congregation whose bishop, Vernon Raber, told me, "We are citizens of one kingdom only, the kingdom of Jesus Christ!" I thought they were an excellent group to escape to, good Christians singing and praying in German, my mother tongue, and avoiding the vulgarities of politics. I liked it.
My ephemeral desertion to Raber's world might raise eyebrows among my Lutheran coreligionists. "How can you enjoy the company of people disdaining this world, which is of course not Christ's (John 18:36) but nonetheless the realm of our hidden God?" they might ask. Someone will surely reprimand me: "Have you forgotten Luther's counsel that we Christians must engage the secular reality we live in, which is ruled not by faith but by reason, the 'empress of all things,' in Luther's words?"
It would not surprise me to hear someone ask: "Do you deny that our faith in the Good News of being redeemed sinners sets us free to fulfill our divine tasks in this sinful and temporal world? Are you not mocking Christ's sacrifice?"
Well, I don't deny this, nor do I wish to mock Christ, and I haven't forgotten Luther's advice. But even a confessional Lutheran might be permitted an occasional reprieve from sound doctrine to delight in the company of a warm-hearted minority of people believing an entirely different theology—people like Vernon Raber.
I ran into Bishop Raber and his flock in what's called Little Arabia, a flat, rural section of southeastern Illinois where ancient oil pumps lift and lower their bizarre heads rhythmically. Many of the machines belong to Amishmen like Raber who do not own cars but drive horse-drawn buggies. They use the wells' natural gas to turn their own pumps and generators, but have contracted outside companies to exploit the petroleum. Raber said he had five oil wells but that his real business was breeding fish. He estimated that he ruled a quarter million of these creatures swimming in 20 ponds on his 140-acre property until trucks cart them to resorts for sports fishermen as far away as New York and Ontario.
Raber made it clear that he had none of the worries of his non-Amish neighbors. The 36 families in his congregation had full larders. During the hunting season, they had shot plenty of does, slaughtered 30 hogs, and made 1,000 sausages. The women had bottled copious amounts of fruits and vegetables from their gardens.
Carrying their Burdens
So now they had plenty of food and no need for gasoline. They didn't smoke, they didn't drink alcohol, they didn't watch television and, moreover, were spared the health-care problems plaguing the rest of society. These descendants of German and Swiss Anabaptists shun the world as much as possible. Of course, when a fire breaks out on a non-Amish neighbor's farm, the Amish are usually the first to help. Beyond that, they eschew secular reality. They do not carry health insurance or pay into Social Security; in their eyes such modern schemes would fly in the face of Paul's admonition to "carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2).
"It works," said Raber, who, like all Amish ministers, has never been to seminary, and whose church members elected him bishop for life by drawing lots from a hymnal. "Five of our members just underwent surgeries costing a total of $90,000. So a deacon wrote a few letters to other members and to sister congregations, and soon the medical bills were paid." Sitting next to me on the driver's seat of his buggy, Raber knocked me cheerfully in the side with his left elbow: "This is cheaper than health insurance, isn't it?"