The (unlikely) road to voluntary service
I could talk about the two years I homeschooled and what kind of a selfish mistake that was. I could admit that I could not stand my seventh grade teacher. I could admit that I had such dislike of her that at the end of seventh grade I was begging...literally...to homeschool. And when I heard that she wasn't teaching again, a couple of years later, I begged just as much to go back to school.
It was during these two years that I “became a Christian” and joined church.
I could talk about the last two years of school and the two terms of Bible School I attended in MO.
I could talk about a lot of things, and they would all fit in to the narrative of the unlikely road that led to voluntary service.
The path to voluntary service was very unlikely. There was probably nothing about me to indicate, when I graduated from twelth grade, that I would spend three and a half years working at a children's home and another combined four and a half at a rehab.
Because when I got out of school I was working part to full time at a nursery. My goals in life: get out of school (check), maybe get in a term or two at Bible School, (eventually got done), get the nerve to send something to a publisher, maybe once (I was in a writer's workshop by mail at the time)...
Beyond that, I was pretty much directionless.
I am not really sure what I expected out of Bible School. I went under the impression that you were supposed to go looking somehow “victorious” or “mature” or something that I knew I wasn't.
I remember hearing “how do you expect to get anything out of Bible School if you are such an emotional and spiritual mess here at home?”
I didn't know. I don't even remember my given reason for wanting to go to Bible School. I think my two terms of Bible School can be described as long on the books and short on relationships. I had to get good grades. I was deathly afraid of becoming one of those stories of Bible school kids who got into trouble and got sent home.
That last sentence makes me laugh. Or cry. Or some of both. I knew I was absolutely no good at volley ball...which was the activity of the afternoon after last class. And at that stage of life it seemed if you were good at volleyball...you were...good.
And it seemed to me that anyone could play volleyball better than I could. As far as I knew, anyone could do anything better than I could.
At the same time I inwardly mocked at all the guys and girls who “only came to Bible School to find their life partner.” And took pride in the fact that I wasn't about to do any such shallow beside-the-point-of Bible-school thing.
I didn't...and if possible, returned home from Bible School prouder and with a lot more knowledge. And I was a lot more hollow.
I hoped I would pass for more mature. I knew I wasn't. I tried to pass myself of as knowing more. Maybe I did.
Looking back, it all looks so empty. And futile. And pointless.
I was actually less secure. I now knew a lot of kids from a lot of different places...and compared to what I saw of their lives, mine sucked.
I was very discontent... I knew people who had been “all over”. I had been out of the country maybe once or twice.
Almost every one I knew had their own cars...or trucks. I didn't have a car.
I couldn't even drive.
Thus my two terms at Bethel Bible School came and went. The afternoon after I got back from Bible school I was out checking fence on our property...and wondering what the point of the previous three weeks was...and hopelessly rebelling against the pointlessness of coming back to...this.
My return back home from Bible School after my second term coincided with grandma B. moving in with us. She had actually moved in a week or so before.
The euphoria or so called high of having been at Bible School disintegrated almost immediately in the throes of a spat between grandma and I that sent me into a tantrum and her into a rage.
And I wished among other things, that I could die.
Thus the answer to the question What did Bible School do for you? In a word, by all appearances...nothing.
I knew I was irrationally...almost unreasonably...angry almost always. I am not even sure that knew why, entirely. I knew life sucked. Home life was almost unbearable at times. My job at the nursery was the same sort of escape that school had been.
And as far as I knew everything about homelife that was wrong was my fault.
I eventually convinced myself of several “facts”.
I was one of God's biggest mistakes.
I was “a sin”.
I was good for one thing... working my tail off.
Fittingly enough, that got me nowhere.
What I am going to say is not going to make any sense.
Does that really matter?
Yes... No... Maybe... I don't know.
Why do you want to bypass some of this stuff?
Because...um...it would prove...for real...that I really should not have tried to go into voluntary service...
And so, that means that you should just deny where you have been....?
A few scraps of respectability would be nice...
A soft, Divine chuckle.
I don't understand...why are you chuckling?
It will become clearer to you...later.
But what WILL people think?
You really are concerned about what people are going to think, aren't you?
How should I view it then?
What if the reasons you shouldn't have gone into service are the very reasons I led you into voluntary service?
I almost sense a twinkle in His eyes. Almost a wink.
I really do not understand.
You don't have to understand.
No. Just believe.
“Did you hear that so and so is going to Belize?”
“I just heard so and so is going to Romania/”
“Hey, did you hear who is dating?”
“Are you going to so and so's wedding?”
Somehow, I hated hearing news like this. Everyone else was going into service, teaching school, dating, getting married. “Living the dream.”
Meanwhile... I was twirrling my fingers around in nursery potting soil. I didn't hate my job at the nursery. I had had a job there for several years and knew all the ropes. There was a future to be had in the nursery...if I would have wanted it.
I wanted it. And at the same time I didn't. I was bored. Looking for something, and not even knowing what that something was.
Then one day I got a letter from a Bible school friend. He was planning to go to work at a place in Virginia. Harrisonburg, Virginia. Christian Light Publications, to be precise.
Later we talked on the phone.
After that conversation, I flopped on my bed and stared up at the ceiling. Life seemed .so...pointless. Futureless.
I tried to imagine being “good enough” to be in service...in Virginia. Or anywhere. The chances of that ever happening seemed so remote as to be laughable.
I slipped into a quiet, hopeless depression.
It quietly ate at me that everyone was able to do all the things I couldn't.
I was angry at life... at myself...at God. Jealous of almost everyone. And furious at someone
I wasn't even aware of.
One afternoon I took mom aside and told her I was thinking about going into voluntary service...somewhere.
The irony probably will not be lost on anyone.
By the next afternoon, several fingers on my right hand were crushed in a metal roller. As a result of an act of total stupidity on my part.
For a few months, at least, any ideas about service were pushed into the back ground and forgotten.
If I thought I was “material” for service anywhere, the truth eventually became apparent. We were fixing up Grandma's property in Salem, trying to get it ready to sell. So, with bandaged right hand and maybe some mild pain killers, I tried to pull my share of the load.
And grew more and more irritated at myself for how stupid I had been.
It didn't help that around that time...perhaps a year later... my brother, who owned the shop, got his foot crushed under one of the coils as he was attempting to load it one morning.
I began to think maybe I jinxed everything I touched.
In the course of a few phone calls to CLP it was determined that it wouldn't really work out for me to work there....at least right away.
Mom made what struck me as a stupid suggestion.
“I think you should go to Faith Mission.”
I was so bet and bound to go to CLP that I let the idea pass from my mind. And waited in vain for a call that would indicate that CLP had changed their mind...or something.
Thus passed a long, rainy fall and winter.
Nothing could have prepared me for what was just around the corner.
It was somewhere around the first of January, 2000. I was fretting about if I would ever hear from CLP and if they would say yes and wondering if they would say why if they would say no.
It was a Wednesday, and mom and I were talking. We had arranged for someone to give us a call that afternoon, Eastern time.
Mom suggested for the second time: “I think you should consider calling Faith Mission.”
I groaned inwardly.
Not Faith Mission! Not where they have retarded children and you have to change diapers and...ugh! No, anywhere but there!
Out loud, I said “If CLP gives me a call and I get a no...(groan)...I will call Faith Mission.”
I got the call from CLP. It was confirmed that working there was a closed door. I mentioned that I was thinking about looking into Faith Mission.
The voice on the other end of the line, in Virginia, said he thought that would be a good idea.
So I hung up the phone. I sat drumming my fingers on the dining room table.
I picked up the Mennonite directory and thumbed through it to the Beachey Amish section. I found the name Faith Mission Home. I saw a name and a phone number to call.
Dennis Eash. Administrator.
I dialed the number and waited.
The number that was listed was actually Dennis' house, and his wife answered.
After briefly explaining what I wanted and getting the number to the main home, I hung up.
This is getting crazier by the minute.
Heart racing, I dialed. And waited.
The secretary answered and put me through to Dennis.
A half hour or so later, I knew where I was going to go. What I didn't know was how long it would take to actually get there.
Several days later a thick envelope with my name on it arrived from Faith Mission.
I filled out the application, and mailed it.
The date I put on the application form and the agreement to abide by the FMH rules: January 13, 2000.
A year to the day later, I arrived at FMH.
The year between was the worst...most stretching...most painful in my life up to that point.
I was “supposed” to go sometime in March...then April.
Then came the word that it was indefinitely called off.
I went into “a tizzy”.
Every night I would pray the same prayer. “Please. God tell me if I am supposed to go to FMH.” I even set a date. God, tell me by so and so if I am supposed to go. And to my chagrin I got a reply just before that date.
One night it came to a climax. I was out of words. I was out of faith, frankly. I remember kneeling by my bed.
It wasn't exactly an audible voice. And it wasn't exactly an inner voice either. But it was a voice.
“You have asked and asked and asked. Now, shut up and let me work.”
Gulp. God doesn't say shut up, does He?
It was like a slap in the face to get that word. So, I shut up and fretted, and worried, and...
That August the youth group went on a camping trip. On my part, it one of the stupidest stunts of my teen years. And yet at the time I felt absolutely self righteous and proud of how righteous I was. Virtuous about how much trouble I got the ones who were playing cards into.
I am amazed now how shallow, and narrow and, proud I was at the time.
I was assistant Sunday School Superintendant at the time. I was riding the crest of a wave of “doing the right thing and telling on the bad boys”.
The Sunday morning after we got back from camping I had Superintendant duties and had devotions.
Breakfast that morning, I found out that plans were being made for me to go to FMH the middle of January the following year, 2001.
After church that morning, there was a meeting about how to deal with some of the ones who were being “rebellious” at the time.
Meanwhile I was getting angrier and angrier. I worked myself into a near suicidal rage more than once. That probably sounds incredible, but it was an understatement at best.
Things would come up and I would “fly off the handle” and the following ugly progression would follow. Almost every time.
First a wave of almost uncontrolable rage. At sometimes insignificant things. Then I would quickly slide into self condemnation...self cursing...all the way to wishing myself to hell.
One afternoon, during such a round, I actually felt the flames of hell around my feet. I could all but smell it.
I was in the middle of a self destructive, self abusive, self condemning tantrum.
Everything I knew about God said that He should have slapped me.
Wrote me off.
Said I was finished. Anything but what He did.
He was silent.
I cannot describe how wrong that seemed in the middle of the moment. I was about ready to write myself off. I was on the verge of writing a letter to the powers that be at FMH, telling them I was not coming. That I could not come. I was too much of a mess. In too much of a confused, tormented state of mind.
In fact, I had already began to write a draft of a letter to that effect.
And, perhaps incredibly, I was not really sure why.
I was inches from throwing everything away.
One afternoon, Mom commented, “how do you expect to be able to work with mentally handicapped children when you are so full of hatred and rage?”
I didn't know.
“You really need to forgive your mom.”
Call it whatever you want, a word of wisdom on mom's part, that was literally the first time the fact was brought to my willing consciousness.
I fought the fact for a while. But you can hide...or run from the truth for only so long.
Then came the nearly all night spiritual fight that changed everything.
Once in a while I house sat for my boss and his family when they were on vacation. It was the week of Thaksgiving.
Mom had been “hammering” the idea that I needed to forgive my biological mom. I was perfectly miserable.
Wednesday evening after prayer meeting our chorus practiced for several upcoming Christmas appointments the next month.
Mom and dad went home right after prayer meeting. Dad was still in a wheel chair as a result of a tree cutting episode, earlier that fall, in our back yard that resulted in him breaking his left wrist and left ankle.
Seeing dad laid up in an easy chair and having to get around in a wheelchair did not help my outlook on life at all.
Nor did the fact that we had to heft his wheel chair up the church stairs every Sunday morning and evening.
Nor did the fact that I knew too much about what was going on the Saturday that dad fell from the tree and...well...changed things forever.
Nor did the fact that I sensed...although I wasn't and nobody said so outright...that I was somehow to blame for the events that led up to the accident. Such as the way dad tied off the branch (a huge branch that may as well have been a regular tree) that I instinctively wondered about but also knew it would not have done any good to question.
Or the fact that I was the lone witness to what happened in those minutes. I was actually in the middle of it all...standing on the bottom rung of the ladder. And I received the butt end of the branch that swung around and landed with a crash on the house roof. I saw the branch coming toward me in slow motion, and felt myself flung backward to the ground by the force. I also felt “something” snap. This, at the exact moment that dad was flung to the ground. The running chainsaw, with its 36 inch bar, still running, landed between us. But a somewhat irrational instinct bade me get to my feet and...I am not sure what I thought I would do next. That was when I saw dad on the ground. About that instant, mom and my younger brother came running.
Most of the rest of that day passed in a blurr of trying to clean up the branch mess and attempting to ignore the growing pain in my back and neck.
All this was whirrling in my mind that Wednesday evening. Just before Thanksgiving, huh? I was having a hard time seeing anything to be thankful for.
And I was supposed to be getting ready to leave for FMH in January.
We got through practice and my brother gave me a lift to the nursery....which was just up the road from home.
We pulled in and parked by the gate.
My brother turned off the ignition and we sat there in the dark.
We talked for a long time.
About a lot of things, that I won't attempt to reconstruct here.
It was as if I was standing in front of a stone wall. God stood right there as well, saying “It's up to you, buddy. If you refuse to forgive your mom, your walk with Me is over.”
What are you supposed to do when God says that to you? What can you do....but give in?
Finally...after several hours of unendurable spiritual warfare, I was given the grace to utter the words. “Okay, God, I forgive my biological mom.”
When I said those words, I felt like I had become a new person. I felt as if I had...finally...tasted what it was like to be born again.
In that moment I felt like I had let go of everything that defined my life up to that point. I had “let go of the rope” and had every sensation of free falling.
The next day was Thanksgiving.
In the following weeks, I faced a huge problem. How was I going to get ahold of my mom?
I tried to draft a letter...got about a page written and suddenly got a stong sense that somehow this wasn't what I was supposed to do.
Get her phone number and call her.
After a bit of sleuthing and one or more dead ends, I got what I was told was my mom's phone number.
It was a day or two before Christmas, and I made the call that my mom said made her day, and her Christmas.
Meanwhile, I was scrambling to pack and get ready to leave for Virginia.
I have made at least four false starts on this page this morning. It is not because there is nothing to say....just the opposite. There is simply too much to say. And I really do not know how to go about saying it.
What would you like to be able to say?
Um, well... That it was all smooth sailing. That I never fell again. That I never doubted Your goodness again.
So why don't you say that?
Because it wouldn't be true.
Is there anything else?
It's the people who are going to read this, right?
Gulp... yes. I know what some of them will say.
What will they say?
A testimony is supposed to be positive. You are supposed to talk from victory about...um, well, victory. You are supposed to be able to say that, once you have forgiven someone you never struggle with anger or bitterness toward them again.
Where did you get that idea from?
Um, Father, you know...I have been pretty well trained in the right way to do some of this stuff in the last number of years...
And, you can't say that?
Well...I could say that...but...
It...it...it wouldn't be true.
So instead of claiming what no one really believes...
I will try to tell the truth...
Within a month of arriving at Faith Mission, I had a nickname.
I will always say that I was not really voluntary service material when I arrived at FMH. I will stop short of saying I should not have gone when I did. But that would almost be true.
I had no idea how I was going to survive a year of voluntary service. Or six months. Let alone six weeks. Six minutes after arrival at the Richmond airport, I was ready to get back on the next plane to Portland, Oregon.
The man who came to pick me up at the airport was Dennis Eash...the Administrator. The one I had talked to on the phone a lot in the past year.
He had a goatee.
The fact is that I had a return ticket... that I was tempted to use in the next several months.
I had come to FMH with the understanding that I would be free to leave any time “if it didn't work out.” The powers that were at the Home were duly warned about me. You could say that I was “painted black” before I even set foot on FMH soil.
And there was no apparent reason to believe that it would work out.
For my part, I had no reason to think I would last longer than one year. I would stick out a terrible year as a floater (probably) and then slip away with a degree of disgrace back to Oregon and then...
“And then” never happened.
What did happen still amazes me.
I stayed three and a half years.
I was a floater over half of that time.
I was eventually child care worker (E Boys “dad” for over a year).
I did somewhere between one hundred and one hundred and fifty night of night duty.
During one round, the almost incredible happened.
It was in the middle of a nineteen night stint of night duty. I was folding laundy in the downstairs laundry room. Thinking my own thoughts. It was approxamately midnight.
It is time to go look up your real mom.
My first thought was that the length of time I was on ND was getting to my head.
The next night...same time. Same place. Doing the same thing.
It is time to look up your real mom.
I was half way convinced that I was going crazy. I put it out of my mind, again.
The third night. The same place. Same time. The same words.
It is time to go look up your real mom...
Standing down there in the laundry room, my heart began pounding, hard. My mind began racing. Maybe this was for real.
God had just told me to go look up my real mom.
And that is a story for another time.
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