Exton church of Christ
There were two friends we knew we wanted to spend time with as we entered the lush farmlands of Amish country near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The first was a family, the Driedger's, whose daughter, Connie, we had bonded with in Beaverton when she moved there after landing a job in the mapping industry, and settled near enough to us that we not only worshipped together, but would also hike together up and around the mountain behind our house.
When we arrived, Connie’s family not only let us plug into their home, they invited church family over for a bonfire one evening so we could get to know more of our brethren. During the week, Connie’s sister, Arlene drove us to and from the gospel meeting at their congregation, the Exton church of Christ, to hear the preaching of Ken Works. And since Arlene and Tim had volunteered as historically costumed tour guides at Valley Forge, we spent an interesting day there learning from their expertise, all the ends and outs of George Washington’s winter there with his troops.
At the Exton church of Christ, we were acquainted with another member there, Joshua Gurtler, a scientist working in food safety whom we had taken to lunch when he would travel for work and worship with us in Oregon.
Josh invited us on a special outing one sunny afternoon that provided a rare opportunity to converse at length with some of his Mennonite and Amish friends in Lancaster County with whom he had acquainted himself by knocking on their doors, a baked pie in hand, requesting permission to hunt the animals on their properties who eat their crops. He explained to us that among the twenty properties on which he has been allowed to hunt, he has found the Amish to always oblige for two reasons: not only for a more plentiful harvest with some of the foxes gone, but also because they do not believe that they even own the land. As Josh’s relationship with the communities around him has progressed, he eventually became a taxi driver of sorts, for one Amish family when they wanted to hunt on property up too far north to go by buggy, so Josh drives and hunts together with them and is privy to many of their stories and perspectives.
I had taught, years ago, a series for the women at our home church of 28 years in Beaverton on the various religions including the Mennonites and Amish, but as we entered their county, Josh refreshed and added to our knowledge. The Mennonites are actually older than the Amish, and are divided in some 18 sects, ranging from groups almost identical to the Amish, to groups who are just as liberal and unbelieving on what God says in scripture on, for example, moral topics, as many of today’s mainline denominations. Their elders interpret the scriptures for them and draw the lines of what is allowed and not allowed within their congregations. For example, the Mennonites can have tractors to plow their fields, but the wheels have to be metal—rather than having rubber tires. If the school kids are riding bikes home from school, they are Mennonites, if they are riding scooters, they are Amish. Amish carriages are grey, but Mennonite carriages are black.
When we stopped by the first farm, owned by a Mennonite friend of Josh’s, the middle aged gentleman welcomed us with a warm smile and showed us the huge pile of wooden pallets he was cutting up to heat his home, as well as the baby pigs in his pig barn and his milk cows. He’d been corrected by the church for piping the milk to storage containers, but when he challenged the fact that a local Mennonite carpenter used a shop vac hose away the sawdust, he closed the mouths of his critics. We stayed and chatted awhile while his dogs, to my surprise, happily gnawed on the black, unskinned leg of a calf and as we chatted, his wife took a break from her cooking to come out to chat. Before we left, she was willing to accept from us a copy of the book I wrote called Your Fresh Start that contains a chapter I especially hope they take to heart on freeing ourselves from arbitrary human restrictions and permissions, to restoring New Testament Christianity where no one binds or looses any behaviors God does not address in scripture. What freedom is ours when we speak up on topics God speaks up on, and are silent where God is silent, and my mission is to walk souls toward that very freedom.
One of the most surprising realities to me, is that the Amish are encouraged by their elders, not to read the Bible. Josh was told so by his Amish friends, who explained that when members are reading the Bible that such “causes problems” in the Amish community (because the specifics of the Amish faith and traditions are nowhere to be found in Scripture).
Josh noted that not only did the church of Christ in Exton have members that were once Amish, but that an entire Amish congregation had turned from their human traditions in favor of making Christ the head and sole ruler of their church, and that presently there was another Amish group studying what God says on the topic of baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38) and whether or not it is necessary for salvation. Josh said he is going to try to attend and participate in that study. What an example Josh is of community involvement and developing friendships where he can shine God’s wisdom and love.
We said our goodbyes to the friendly pig farmer and travelled on and around the colorful autumn countryside. It was midafternoon now and kids of all ages could be seen happily running across harvested fields, the boys all wearing black straw hats, and others riding their bikes on the country roads home from school.
We had one more friend of Josh’s to meet, an Amish farmer who happened to share a name with a famous American author I must keep to myself to protect the farmer’s privacy. As we pulled into his winding, paved driveway, I was stunned by the pristine beauty of every corner of his acres and acres of land. Vibrant flower beds, white trimmed fences, green mowed grass, lovely weeping willows around his pond, and laundered horse blankets drying in the sun across his fence. As we parked in between his buildings and silos, he was off working somewhere so Josh walked around the farm and finally retrieved him.
This busy father of ten approached us smiling from ear to ear. He was weathered, perhaps in his late forties or early fifties. He was not much taller than perhaps 5’ 7, stocky with clear, big brown eyes, a full greying beard, thick lips and curly brown hair. He wore suspenders over his shirt and black pants that had more patches than original fabric. His straw hat seemed more form than function, given that it was so shredded it was missing half the top and had cobwebs all over it.
Although Bible reading is not being encouraged in this circle so as to prevent conflict, this Amish man, although humble, did not comply. He had the delightful habit of reading his Bible both in the morning and every evening. He had to. How could he not. It fed his spirit. "It comes alive! Do you know what I mean? It springs to life before me. I love it!" He exclaimed wholeheartedly with his thick German accent, and then asked our permission to run back into the house to retrieve it.
When he returned with his Bible and his two young children, a gorgeous little boy barefooted with straight blonde hair, perfect fine features and brown skin, and a solemn daughter, about 3, with brown eyes, long, flyaway brown hair and a serious heart. They stood at his feet listening intently as he explained that he studies scripture in German, but preaches it in English, so the children can understand. I asked if I could hold his Bible, and saw that it had German on one side and English on the other. As the men continued to converse, I slowly turned to 1 Peter 3:21 "Baptism now saves you —not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ". When there was a pause in the conversation, I handed his Bible back to him my finger on the passage, and said with quiet emotion, "This verse amazes me! Have you read this? Isn’t this something!" He read it thoughtfully and nodded.
We spoke at length. In their disciplined lifestyle, children are free to spend their days playing in a creek, finding frogs, running through the fields after school and doing their chores until they’re absolutely starving when mom puts the home cooked meal on the table, and exhausted when bedtime comes. Even still, he explained that all the same problems that exist in the big city can be found in Amish country. These families have to fight against pornography, drugs, kids addicted to video games, and all the other pulls of the far country. He reminded us of this sad reality: there is no sheltered life, and the importance of vigilance, as the enemies of our souls are even among the sweetest children.
Some may argue that such a “sheltered life” must be so repressive, but, in many senses the people of Lancaster County are far more free, and I pray they will be even more free when they take to heart the scriptures and release themselves from the confines of man-made religion.
As our conversation was winding down, and the sun was beginning to set, I studied his face, instead of photographing it. “You are a very interesting man” I confessed. “I will never forget you.” He thanked us warmly, we said our goodbyes and he turned to go into his house with his happy little children whose home cooked dinner was getting cold.
I could have stayed a week. We mailed him a copy of Your Fresh Start and, Lord willing, will touch bases again the next time we pass through Lancaster County. I admire how Josh Gurtler has made it clear to the members of his community that he can be trusted, that he respects them, enjoys their company and is willing to have important conversations on eternally relevant topics- even gifting them copies his own account of what God says and why he believes what God says. What an encouragement for all of us to be more involved in making a difference for good in our communities.
217 North Whitford Road
Exton, PA 19341