Those Last Tenths of a Mile Before Heaven Began


before Heaven

It’s the route that we take when we remember those lives before Heaven.

The roads on this route are full of curves and hills. Each homeowner/store owner remembers those days in 1998 and 2011. We do, too.

A few weeks ago when Dave traveled out of town for a meeting, he mapped out the route we’d take this Saturday for the annual Jerrel Good/Paul Slabach Memorial Bike Ride.  (You can read more about the people in this event here.) He stopped at each place we’ll visit and scouted the surrounding area for safety issues for the two dozen bikers who will be on this ride. He’d taken his weed eater and trimmed around the edges of the bank where the cross we’d place a few years ago could hardly be seen for the weeds and brambles.

Dave took the time to cross the road to visit with the store owner – who recognized him and marked his calendar for the event this year – June 17, 2017.

before Heaven

Because he traveled the route alone, Dave had a lot of time to think.  If you know Dave, you’ll know he’s a thinker, and you’ll understand how this route caused him to think. I wasn’t with him, but I am as sure as I can be that he also cried.

On Sunday when he continued his messages on the Lord’s Prayer and shared from Thy Will be Done on Earth as it is in Heaven,  he shared. That poignant sharing came from the depths of his heart.

We see life on this earth from our human perspective. As parents, we want to offer the best for our kids. We want their happiness, their health, and their success, and strive to help them achieve those goals.  Then, when “bad things happen to good people,” we don’t get it because we’re looking from our perspective as parents and not from the perspective that our Heavenly Father sees. The Eternal View.

“I watched the odometer as I neared the crash sites.  These guys had no idea that they were nearing the place where God would call them Home in a matter of minutes. They had no idea, but God knew. Five-tenths . . .  four-tenths . . . three-tenths . . . two-tenths . . .  one tenth, and BAM!  It was over.”

As he recounted those scenes, he cried. So did we.

“But THEN I remembered that it wasn’t over. It was only the beginning!”

That is why we ride.

This Saturday when we ride, we’ll certainly be remembering. We will remember the ripping rawness, the horrendous ache, the harrowing questions, and definite uncertainty. We will remember asking Why? over and over again.

This side of Heaven, life often doesn’t make sense – and sometimes it’s so unfair. Before Heaven, we wrestle and we groan.

Then comes Heaven – where there are no more tears, no more pain, no more sorrow. Where the old things will be passed away and all things will be new.

I’ve learned that when we answer the questions of our kids – and even questions of our own – it helps solidify our faith. We find answers to our own questions when we have to contemplate the ones others are asking.

This I also know: we can look back and see that God continues to be good, even when life hurts and doesn’t make sense. We know that His will is done here on earth – as it is in Heaven. Truly, reaching Heaven is really what this life is about.

before Heaven


So we ride and we remember. We will not forget the ache, the sorrow, or the pain.


before Heaven

before Heaven


Yet, more importantly, we will remember the faithfulness of the God we serve.

We have traced His hand in the years since Heaven claimed our guys.

This we will remember: that our God has been faithful.

And He is always eternally good.






Pinterest Before Heaven

Six Things I Learned From My Aunts

The aunts from whom I learned.

My mother and her sisters, minus a sister who died in 1955. In this 1992 photo, they were 75-86.

Truth be told, I learned more from my aunts than I ever realized at the time.

These aunts of mine (both maternal and paternal) were a stoic bunch. For the most part, they were German-Swiss stock with an ancestry that portrayed family partings from one country to another, never to see family members again. A family rich in Christian faith and trust, they were a family who descended, in part, from survivors of an Indian massacre in 1757. Several of my paternal aunts were raised by their father and older siblings after the sudden death of their mother. My maternal aunts lost a sister to an aneurysm and later a brother (both suddenly) many years before. All of them experienced hardship and heartbreak at some point in their lives. They were strong and stoic. They were courageous and caring. They mentored and mothered. They persevered and they prayed.

All of them are gone. There are days I wish I could sit at Aunt Verda’s laden table for Sunday dinner again, or watch Aunt Della’s eyes twinkle when she heard our laughter. I wish I could visit with Aunt Annie and see her smile, or look into Aunt Myra’s true blue eyes and feel her hug. I miss Aunt Mabel’s gentle regalness and Aunt Alma’s teaching, although at the time I didn’t appreciate her knowledge of the Bible. How I’d enjoy hearing Aunt Kate share her poetry or hear Aunt Rhoda and Aunt Edna tell stories of life when they were children.

Like Emily in Our Town, it’s impossible to go back and live those days over. I wonder what I’d discover if I could go back and re-live one of those days.

You know that feeling?

Some days it seems the world would just be better if I could look into one of their eyes, or hear those voices again. Even though they could do nothing about what’s happening in my world, just being there would make a difference.

I learned that doing what one ought to do, and doing it well, was praise enough.

While my aunts expressed appreciation, they were not quick to compliment or praise for talent or ability. Appreciation for a job well done, affirmation for character traits that were important, yes. But lavish praise? No. For after all, “self-pride stinks.” Satisfaction for a job well done should be reward enough, they would say. We didn’t need lavish praise for doing what we ought to have done in the first place. When a need was evident, they stepped up to bat and found a way to help meet the need without expecting praise, because that’s what families do. I learned that there is no better reward for a job well done than the satisfaction that comes from knowing I did it right, I did it on time, and I did it well. That was praise enough.

Even though money was tight and their possessions were few, they were hospitable. There was always room for one or two or three more at their table. When they had uninvited guests in their home, one would never have guessed they weren’t expecting company. There was preparation ahead of time, especially for Sundays, so there was always more than enough to go around. Any one of us would have been welcome in their homes at any time, and we knew it. I learned that hospitality is more than doing. It is being. I learned that preparation is an important part of hosting, but hospitality comes from the heart.

My aunts were not prone to gossip. I still find it hard to believe the things that were never mentioned to others. They shared secrets in their diaries, but no place else. Anything shared in confidence stayed there. All of them grew up in the home a minister, and several of my aunts had spouses involved in church ministry. What happened behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors, and there was no finagling to obtain information from any one of them (ask me how I know!) Many secrets, I am certain, they carried with them to their graves. I learned that gossip does not a friend make and that it’s nice to have folks with whom one’s secrets are safe.

I learned that stability is stronger than panic.

When there was a crisis in the community or in the family, I didn’t see my aunts cringe or become ruffled easily. They remained calm, did what had to be done, and provided stability along the way. They managed to get things done without flaunting what they were doing. I experienced that quiet care and endurance as a child and grew to appreciate it even more as I got older. I learned that stability in distress is stronger than panic.

None of my aunts were extravagant. Their homes, clothing, and pocketbooks were orderly and clean. They always knew which side of the pocketbook held the Chapstick or Rosebud Salve. They could whip out a checkbook without searching in the bottom of a purse, for it was exactly where they always kept it. I learned that tidiness includes your pocketbook.

I remember the evening during visitation after a heart attack claimed the life of an uncle. There had been no warning and no time to say goodbye. I watched them, the sisters, my aunts. There were glimmers of tears in their eyes, but no weeping or wailing. How could I possibly handle the death of a sibling with such grace? I wondered.

Underneath their tears was a calm, serene emotion. This was life. Through their grief ran a chord of trust and faith in God. Underlying their sorrow was Truth. God was faithful. He had been faithful in their past. He was faithful today. He would be there in their tomorrows. Their unconditional trust in the sovereignty of God steadied them in their grief.

I learned from my aunts that sorrow does not need to break me.

That is why my aunts could sing in times of sorrow. They had tested the promises of God and found them true, Every Single Time. As a young child, I didn’t understand that faith because I had not yet experienced it myself. I learned that a deep, settled faith comes from years of walking with God and trusting Him when life doesn’t seem fair or doesn’t make sense. 

from my aunts, I learned to be strong

Looking back, I realize the things I learned from my aunts were caught as much as they were taught. It gives me pause. It gives me grateful praise.

Pinterest 6 Things I Learned





Finding My Great-Grandpa’s Grave

“This is a broken world, and we are broken people.”

What do you do about a dark thread in your family’s past?  How do you handle the grief of years past?  Is there hope and healing for those who suffer such loss?

A guest post by Dorcas Smucker, who blogs at Life in the Shoe . Dorcas has a column “Letter from Harrisburg” in The Register-Guard.


Finding My Great-Grandpa’s Grave

The last few years, I’ve been intrigued with family stories, and this sad tale of my great-grandpa in particular.  Here’s the brief version:

Aaron Miller was a fine young man living near Charm in Holmes County, Ohio.  At 28 years old, he was married to Mary and had two little boys, Enos and Adam.  Mary was pregnant with a third boy. Aaron was known to be a capable and hardworking farmer.
No doubt all these things factored into the church ordaining him to the ministry in the spring of that year.  Unfortunately, the church was having serious problems.
One day, at about noon, Aaron told his brother he’s going out to see if the clover was ready to harvest.   The afternoon wore on and he didn’t return, so the family went looking for him.
He had taken his own life, hanging himself in a tree.
Such a death carried such terrible shame in the Amish culture that he was buried outside the cemetery, on the other side of the fence.
We heard the story from Mom, never in a lot of detail, but at least it was honestly told.  I thought about it a lot more after I lost a nephew, Leonard, to suicide almost ten years ago.
What are these dark threads weaving through our lineage, I wondered, wreaking such unspeakable pain?  Was there hope for our children?  Did our story go on?  Were we doomed to terrible secrets and continual shame?
The reason for our trip to Ohio last month was to speak at a women’s retreat.  But what a great opportunity to take a side trip into our family history.
A few years ago, I heard a hint that maybe the fence had been moved to include Aaron’s grave inside the cemetery.  Strange how that news gave me a lift of hope, for myself now, for the future, and even back into the past.  I was determined to find his grave and see for myself.
I emailed my brother Marcus who contacted our second cousin Marvin for directions, and in the morning, before the retreat started that afternoon, we followed the directions out of Berlin and down ever-narrower back roads until we were back in the hills creeping along a one-lane dirt road, looking for a lane to the north.
Finally we asked an Amish girl on a bike, and she pointed us to the lane we had passed twice.  “Follow it on back,” she said, “Past the house.”
So we did.  It went from gravel to mud to a grassy track, and there on a bit of a rise was the little cemetery, beautiful and old and quiet and looking out over a valley with fields and a sawmill.
We opened the gate and went in, and within minutes we found it, a small, tilted gravestone for Aaron Miller.
Suddenly I was in tears, thinking of that terrible terrible day, the horse-drawn hearse slowly trundling back that long lane, the long line of silent people, that desolate little widow, 25 years old, rounded with child, holding the hands of two frightened little boys, and the overwhelming sense of disaster, of darkness, of abandonment, of condemnation, of loss.
Then, in a final twist of pain, her young husband that she loved and desperately needed was buried outside the fence, because his deed was too bad to ever be atoned for, and the whole community saw her and her boys as the tainted leftovers of his sinful choice.
So I cried for her, and for all of us since who have lived under any cloud of shame and rejection, and did not know that there are words for this, and truth, and hope, and help, and even, impossibly, redemption.
I don’t know how or why the decision was made, but at some point in the fairly-recent past, the cemetery needed to be enlarged, and they moved the fence so that it now encloses Aaron’s grave, and he is now buried with his community and his people.
At the far end, on the right, you can see where the new part of the fence begins.
I wished I could tell my great-grandma about it.
Later that day, I found a genealogy book about my ancestors in the Anabaptist  Heritage Center. Several pages were devoted to Aaron’s death.  An old account reads, “The deceased . . . left a wife and 2 children, father, mother, brothers, and sisters, who are deeply sorrowing over this rash deplorable act.”
This is a broken world, and we are broken people.  Depression is genetic and really awful, and sometimes it overpowers a person and wins.
But it isn’t the end of the story. I am sure of that. Here we are, Aaron’s descendants, and there are lots of us, and we are survivors and storytellers and moms and dads and students and singers, and we get to see sunsets, and we fight hard.
We still grieve for Leonard, but we know that Jesus takes away not only guilt but also shame, and He heals.  We have moved on, and we have redeemed his death by talking about depression in honest words, by asking for help, and by a deep and continuing compassion for hurting people.  We are not ok with “fine” when we ask “How are you?”  We are adamant about wanting the truth.

We believe that the story goes on.

I wish I could go back and tell my great-grandparents that the word is depression, it isn’t their fault,  there are things you can do for it, and it’s ok to ask for help.  I’d like to tell them that the shame their community placed on them was not from God, and that Jesus takes our shame and gives back His glory.  I want to tell them that silence is wrong and unnecessary, the truth will set them free, and they are unimaginably loved.  And they have a hope and a future.

Since I can’t tell them, I am telling you instead.

The Father Who Hated Cats and His Daughter Who Loved Them

cat kittens

We stopped to visit friends on our way back to Halifax County the other Sunday evening.  Amid the hugs and hellos, I noticed the kittens.  Eleven kittens, to be exact.   We picked them up and scratched their heads as they arched their backs and purred.  It was a cat lover’s paradise.

As we sat at dinner, I watched the antics of the kittens through the windows.  They tussled and tumbled, capered and bounced from tree to lawn.

“I can’t get over these kittens,” I said to the man of the house.  “What happened to the man who hated cats?”

He grinned at me, but he didn’t answer.  He didn’t need to.

cat black

I knew the answer, because there’s a story behind the kittens on their farm.  It’s more than just a story about cats.

It’s about a father and his little lass.

You see, there was a time when no cats were allowed at their house.  Even though Alison loved cats, her father didn’t.

“Cats scratch furniture,” he said.  “They shed hair.  They’re always underfoot.  Cats are nothing but a nuisance.”

Every time his daughter mentioned getting a cat, his response was simple and emphatic:  “No!”

But she was her father’s daughter, so she kept asking.

cat father daughter hug

“Please, Daddy,” she’d beg.   “I’ll take care of him all by myself.  You have a horse, and Nathan has a dog.  I just want a kitten of my own.”

Her birthday was coming in May.

Each time she was asked what she wanted for her birthday, her answer was the same:  “I want a cat.”

Finally, her father relented.

For her birthday, she got a cat – two of them, in fact.

One was a stuffed animal; the other was a wiggling, whiskery kitten.  He was little and playful, and black as night.

“I’ll call him Blackie,” she said, as she hugged him to herself.

cat black in house

Each morning she fed her kitten.  She gave him milk and fresh water. She gave him love, lots of hugs, and strokes.   He grew, and so did Alison.

She became attached to her kitten, and he to her.  He’d scamper outside and play at her feet.  Whether she slid down the slide, skipped with her jump rope, or hung upside down from the swing set her father had built, he was there.

Her father grew used to Blackie.  He became accustomed to watching as he opened the front door, to keep the kitten from slipping inside.  Yet he didn’t seem to mind when Blackie snuck in to sit on Alison’s lap.

He didn’t realize he was growing fond of his daughters’ kitten.

cat sunset sky

Then one warm evening in February, a man stopped at the house.  The father met him outside.

He was the only one who heard what the man had to tell.

“I ran over a black kitten,” the man said.  “Does he belong to you?”

“He belongs to my daughter,” the father replied.

The man offered to pay for the kitten.  He was so sorry, he said.

The cat had run out in front of his car, and he hadn’t seen him until it was too late.  He offered to be the one to tell the little girl what had happened.

The father wanted to tell his daughter himself.  He braced himself as he went inside, where the mother was putting dinner on the table.  Putting his arm around his little girl, he told her what had happened.

To his surprise, she didn’t cry.  She didn’t even seem to mind.

As they ate their dinner, the conversation centered on the death of the kitten.  They talked about heaven and souls and dead cats.

After dinner, the father went to get his shovel.

cat shovel

“I want to carry him myself,” his daughter said soberly, her lip quivering just a little.

They walked across the yard to the pasture nearby, the father with his shovel, the little girl with her dead kitten.

The father dug the grave, watching his daughter out of the corner of his eye.  When it was time to put Blackie in the hole, he reached for the kitten.  She pulled back.

Ever her father’s daughter, she wanted to do it herself.  She reached down and put the little black kitten in the ground.

Then she watched as her father covered him with dirt.

cat soil hand

Gently, her father took her hand in one of his.  Carrying his shovel in the other hand, he walked with her back to the house.

It was quiet and still.  There was no black bundle waiting to pounce at her feet.

On the back porch, he put his shovel down.

His little girl was sobbing now.

Gently, her father picked her up and sat down on a chair.

She buried her face in his shoulder, as he wrapped his arms around her.  And she cried.  How she cried!

He didn’t say anything as he held her.  He didn’t need to.

Yet she noticed even as she was absorbed in her own grief, that her father was crying, too.

She felt his tears as they ran down his cheeks and fell onto her head.

So they sat there in the darkness, holding each other; the big man who used to hate cats, and his little girl, crying together.

In the years since that winter evening, the daughter has grown and become a teenager.  Even now, when she hears folks compare God’s love to the love of a Father, she understands what they mean.

She can remember the shadowy twilight when she sat in the arms of her father and cried out her first deep ache and loss.

She will never forget that night, and the realization that she was not (and never will be) alone.

cat double rainbow

This story first appeared in a local community newsmagazine in 2000.  Later it was published in my book Southside Glimmers.  Alison is now a grown woman and a mother of three.  And her father is still there (and always has been) for his little girl.