Some of us are goers; some are stayers.
Paul W. Nisly was a goer. He left his family. He left his beloved Kansas soil. He left the Beachy Amish church. He came back often to visit; he retained deep roots. But he did not stay. (More about him in a moment.)
Like Nisly, I am a goer. I know the longing for big things and new experiences, know how they strain against the love for what is known and appreciated.
I wonder where I would have gone if I hadn’t loved my parents so deeply. I wanted to go to a liberal Mennonite college once, a place I knew would change me. I saw those changes as freedom. I wanted to do more, be more, than the place I had grown up. But my parents didn’t want me to go.
“Some of the professors don’t even believe in the virgin birth,” my dad said. “I’d rather have you go to a secular college than go there.”
I looked at them and saw their lives, their conservative Mennonite dress, and I knew there was more to them than outward appearance. If dress was all they’d cared about, I wouldn’t have stayed. They were fighting for something bigger, fighting for simplicity, for a simple adherence to and reliance on the Word above anything else.
What they had was beautiful, and as strong as the longing in me was to go, I wanted also what they had. To stay.
My parents are stayers.
And perhaps this is what conservative Mennonites are as a group. Stayers. Not to say they are better Christians than the rest. But they hold what they have, the traditions they have formed, as precious. Sometimes they hold to tradition as salvation, and that is wrong. But they have a vision of a simple people living in simple reliance on God that is beautiful.
I’ve been thinking about the goers and the stayers since reading Nisly’s newly published memoir, God’s Guidance: A Kansas Amish Boy Reflects on Being Led to Places He Had Not Planned to Go.
I wondered, as I read, what emotions he experienced as a young Amish and then Beachy Amish boy stepping away from the familiar folds of home into the head-exploding world of modern literature, which he explored on his way to earning his doctorate in English.
For his dissertation, he chose to study Flannery O’Connor — an author who employed violence and colorful language that surely many of his family members in the Amish and Beachy Amish churches wouldn’t approve of.
He stepped away from a setting of close-knit families and traditional churches, of strict dress codes and expected ways of doing things — not so different from my own background — to a more liberal, though still Mennonite, conference. I wonder why he switched and how he felt, with his sheltered background, to have his eyes opened to other worlds through story.
Nisly says little about those emotions or his reasons for the change, choosing instead to reflect on broader questions of life and death and tensions in the country.
He tells about his marriage to his teenage sweetheart, his academic journey and his work as an educator at Messiah University, as well as his work as a pastor and bishop of Mennonite churches far from his home in Kansas. He went many places: to Grantham, Pa., to live; to Alaska, Israel and Switzerland to vacation; to Kenya to design a degree program. At the death of his daughter in her young womanhood, he went to a place of grief that still lingers.
ANd that is the other realization I had as I read his book. Life is always loss. It doesn’t matter, in that respect, if you are a goer or a stayer. In the end, you lose it all. Nisly quotes Douglas Gresham, stepson of C.S. Lewis, in saying all human relationships end in pain.
“The only difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you decide your story ends,” Andrew Kauffman says in his novel The Waterproof Bible, and he is right. Every romance ends in death.
There is only one real consolation, and that is heaven. The places where loss lingers are the places where Jesus is real.
“Unless we enter deeply into Jesus’ suffering, we miss the power of the resurrection miracle,” Nisly writes.
Whether you are a goer or a stayer, that is a truth worth holding onto.
While Nisly doesn’t have his memoir available for sale in an online venue, he does mail books to interested parties. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.