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Almost Amish by Nancy Sleeth

Going back can sometimes be the quickest way forward.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

“What are you, Amish or something?” a large man with a booming voice asked from the back of the room. I was not surprised by the question, but the tone rattled me a bit.

Open your eyes! I wanted to reply. Am I wearing a bonnet? We arrived in a Prius, not on a pony.

The question came at the close of a long day, at the end of a long speaking tour. I was tired, but that’s no excuse for my less-than-gracious thoughts. It was not the first time my family had been compared to the Amish, nor would it be the last. So why did this question stay with me, long after the workshop ended?

Over the previous few years my husband, Matthew, and I had gone around the country giving nearly a thousand talks, sermons, seminars, and retreats about the scriptural call to care for God’s creation. We wrote books on the subject. We made films. From Washington State to Washington, D.C., we had fielded questions on everything from lightbulbs to the light of Jesus, from water bottles to living waters, from soil erosion to the four kinds of soils. The Q&A session was usually our favorite part of the seminar.

As a teacher, I often say that there are no bad questions. This one, as it turns out, was especially good because it forced me to examine my life in new ways. Now, a few years later, I feel nothing but gratitude for this man’s question, for it started me on my Almost Amish journey.

Principles to Live By

The Amish are by no means a perfect people, and there are dark sides to their history. Their example, however, does have much to teach us. How can we incorporate the best of Amish principles into our modern lives? To answer this, I did some reading. And some visiting. And some listening. I in no way pretend to be an expert on the Amish, but the more I read and visited and listened, the more I found to admire. The Amish are islands of sanity in a whirlpool of change.

Along the way, I discovered some Amish principles that we can all try to emulate. These principles (similar to the list that Wendell Berry laid out more than two decades ago in Home Economics) provide guidelines for a simpler, slower, more sustainable life. They offer me hope.

  1. Homes are simple, uncluttered, and clean; the outside reflects the inside.
  2. Technology serves as a tool and does not rule as a master.
  3. Saving more and spending less brings financial peace.
  4. Time spent in God’s creation reveals the face of God.
  5. Small and local leads to saner lives.
  6. Service to others reduces loneliness and isolation.
  7. The only true security comes from God.
  8. Knowing neighbors and supporting local businesses builds community.
  9. Family ties are lifelong; they change but never cease.
  10. Faith life and way of life are inseparable.

How do these principles play out in our twenty-first century, hyper-connected lives? Below are some practical applications that have enriched our family’s life:

1. Homes are simple, uncluttered, and clean; the outside reflects the inside.
Most modern American homes are burdened by the accumulation of mass-produced junk, bought on impulse and paid for with credit, which either falls apart or no one uses. Even heirlooms can become clutter if we are not wise in our stewardship of them. Cluttered homes lead to cluttered lives, and cluttered lives can harm families.

Our homes reflect our values. They reflect who we are inside and what we hold most precious. If our houses are cluttered, our hearts are too. Possessions should work for us; we should not work for them. Too easily, our homes and the stuff that fills them can become false idols, tempting us to break the first of the Ten Commandments. The Amish offer a less cluttered, more sustainable alternative.

2. Technology serves as a tool and does not rule as a master.

Recently, I sat down and made a list of the things I love about our twenty-first century technology:

I can work anytime, anywhere.
I can check e-mail anytime.
People get back to me immediately.
I can access entertainment anytime.
I can stay informed all the time.
I can get in touch with almost anyone, anytime.
I can buy almost anything, anytime.
I can multitask.
There’s always something to do.
I never feel alone.

And then I made a list of what I hate about modern technology:

I can work anytime, anywhere.
I can check e-mail anytime.
People expect me to get back to them immediately.
I can access entertainment anytime.
I can stay informed all the time.
Almost anyone can get in touch with me anytime.
I can buy almost anything, anytime.
I can multitask.
There’s always something to do.
I never feel alone.

I know I’m not the only one feeling this love-hate relationship with technology: We love the convenience technology affords. We hate how technology is taking over our lives.

The Amish are different—famously so. They understand that technology is neither fully good nor fully bad, but a tool to be used; we should not become either slaves or gluttons on account of it. In the upside down world of Christ, setting boundaries with technology can be one of the most liberating things we can do.

3. Saving more and spending less brings financial peace.

Amish attitudes toward money are based on biblical principles. Saving is encouraged; frivolous spending and coveting are not. The Amish stay out of debt, give generously, and make investments in keeping with their values. Amish businesses thrive when others fail because the goal is to make a living, not make a killing.

Think about where the US economy would be today if we applied Almost Amish principles to personal, corporate, and governmental finances. We would not spend money we did not have. We would restrain our tendencies toward greed. We would plan for the future, sacrificing immediate gratification for the long-term good. We might not have the mercurial highs, but we also would avoid the devastating crashes that have left so many homeless and hopeless in recent years. We would take care of the poor among us. Those with more would help those with less.

4. Time spent in God’s creation reveals the face of God.
When visiting a church, we often ask people in the audience to buddy up for a few minutes and discuss how God speaks to them. We’ve heard a wide range of answers: God speaks through Scripture, through events in our lives, through people we encounter, through dreams and visions, and in dozens of other ways. But one of the most frequent places where God speaks to us is in nature.

I like to call these “Romans 1:20 moments.” In this verse Paul says, essentially, that we can get to know God by simply taking a stroll in our backyard. Romans 1:20 moments are when we stand on a beach watching the sun go down, or climb a mountain, or sit beside a stream; in the stillness, we hear God’s voice. Many of the pastors we work with say they heard God’s call not in a church, but in his other cathedral—in nature. Such exchanges have a biblical precedent. As my husband likes to say, “Jesus mostly taught on field trips.”

Once again, we can take a cue here from the Amish, who make the outdoors a central focus of life. The more time they spend in God’s creation, the more they come to know the Creator. But the opposite is also true. The less time we spend outdoors, the more alienated from God we can become.

Scripture tells us to live in the world, not of the world. The Almost Amish extension might be to live less in the man-made world and more in the God-made world. Adjusting the ratio can be the difference between a paradise imperiled and paradise restored—an abandoned lot or a community garden.

5. Small and local leads to saner lives.

If the Amish made bumper stickers for their buggies, the bestseller might read, “Be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2, kjv). The world believes bigger is better, yet recent history has revealed the high cost of our mega-sized world. Big farms fail. Bank mergers collapse. Big schools become just another form of big business. In our anonymous communities, we don’t know the neighbor down the street or the person sitting beside us at church. Now we are slowly relearning what the Amish have always known: that infinite growth is not only impossible but in many instances undesirable. Focusing on an infinite God, not infinite growth, frees us from so much striving and allows us to lead simpler, less burdened lives.

In a similar way, the teachings of Christ turn the world upside down. Those with the most possessions in this life may end up with the least in the next, and the little guy shall inherit the earth. The believing beggar Lazarus is in heaven, while the man who relied only on his riches is in the hot seat.

Each of us needs to be challenged by the example of Jesus made flesh and then needs to keep doing a little better every year. It’s that simple, and that hard. Thinking big by supporting small. Loving globally by purchasing locally. Losing our lives in order to gain them.

Supporting small farms and businesses, interacting with our neighbors, and fellowshiping within a small faith community are daily reminders of how we can start bringing heaven here on earth—leading simpler, saner lives with people we know and love, in our local communities, this very day.

6. Service to others reduces loneliness and isolation.
The Amish understand that the key to a joyful life is simple: serve God and serve your neighbor. Interdependence can be more holy than independence. But how does that play out?

The Amish serve their children by doing the hard work of parenting, teaching them the skills and habits that will make them healthy spouses, colleagues, and neighbors. Instead of short-term distraction or coddling, they aim for long-term character and strength.

Through example, they show how caring for grandparents is a joy, not a burden. Likewise, service to neighbors and coworkers is treated more as an opportunity than an obligation. And service to one’s own faith community is a chance to follow the example of Jesus, one act of compassion at a time.

In acting kind, we become kind. In serving others, we are served. Blessed are the merciful and the pure of heart. As the physical arms of God Almighty, we comfort those who mourn. In doing so, we serve him gladly, all the days of our lives.

7. The only true security comes from God.
Half a century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon entitled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” In it, King warns that moral advances are not keeping abreast with our technological advances: “Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood.”

We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. As the family of God, we must reach out to protect and care for others, even when it is inconvenient or costly. The most obvious opportunities for extending friendship, hospitality, and security are to those who live close by, and yet many of us spend far more hours in the portals of our virtual neighborhoods than on the porches of our neighbors. Less time in front of the computer screen means more time to spend on the town green.

The Amish build stability, routine, and tradition into their lives, all centered on God. We, too, can build a firm foundation based on an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God. Family and friends, acting as the hands and feet of God, can provide comfort along the way. Yet it is God—first, last, and always—who is the Truth, the Light, and the Way.

8. Knowing neighbors and supporting local businesses build community.
The Amish have avoided many of our social ills because they build community into their lives. People know and care about one another. They support one another’s businesses, worship together, take an active role in their children’s education, welcome neighbors into their homes, and engage in group activities to break up the routine of work. Because of this emphasis on community, virtually no members are homeless, unemployed, or living on government subsidies. Almost no Amish people are incarcerated, and rarely do Amish couples divorce.

By submitting to a higher authority, they keep the focus on the Ultimate Authority. This submission to God makes getting seem less important and giving more rewarding. The happiness of the community contributes to the happiness of the individual, and vice versa.

Here’s the good news: the power of community is not limited to those born Amish. It can start with you, in your neighborhood, beginning today.

9. Family ties are lifelong; they change but never cease.
Broken families have become the norm in modern society, but an anomaly in Amish communities. The main reason families do not break up is because their first allegiance is to God, not self. Children are not idols to be worshiped. Husbands and wives are not disposable. The (top) Ten Commandments are not optional. Harmony takes precedence over self-interest.

The Amish have a saying: “A happy marriage is a long conversation that always seems too short.” And, of course, happy marriages tend to make for happy families. Do everything in your power to make gatherings with family part of a long conversation, full of joy, harmony, and faith in an all-powerful Father who loves every one of his children. Keeping your family on track might be the most important job you ever have.

10. Faith life and way of life are inseparable.
Incorporating Amish values into daily rituals and rites of passage reminds us how faith can permeate every area of our lives. We are God’s children not just on Sundays, but every day of the week. Whether we are at work, at home, in the car, or on the soccer field, we are to act with compassion and love. What we do and say does matter, not only to our friends and family, but to our Father. God sees not only our actions but our motivations—our heart writ large, as clear as a neon billboard on Times Square.

Where we seek spiritual guidance also matters. The Bible warns of a time when people “will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). The Amish example helps us counter such impulses, reminding us time and again, as C. S. Lewis advises in Mere Christianity, that “Going back can sometimes be the quickest way forward.”
As we give and receive forgiveness, our lives become more peaceful. As we slow down, we are able to hear God’s voice. When we simplify, we have more to give to others. And when we set boundaries, our lives become more sustainable, calm, and joyful.

The Almost Amish life is a conscious life. Though the choices we make may vary, it is a journey that we can take together—and above all, with God.

Will there be false starts? Of course! The busyness of modern life has a way of thwarting even the best of intentions. Yet each time we seek out an Almost Amish path, we move one step nearer to the Kingdom of God. Every time we choose the Almost Amish way, we come one breath closer to a slower, simpler, more sustainable life.

At one time or another, many of us have been amazed when God puts exactly the right Scripture before us, at precisely the moment we need it. In my regular Bible reading, I have been studying the teachings of Jeremiah.

This is what the Lord says:

“Stop at the crossroads and look around.
Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it.
Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Jeremiah 6:16
This wisdom bears repeating: Stop at the crossroads. Ask for the old, godly way. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.

Thanks to that man in the back of the room with the booming voice, I now have an answer to his question, “What are you, Amish or something?”

“Not Amish—Almost Amish!”

My prayer is that wherever you are along the Almost Amish path, you have the will, passion, and energy to make one change—however small—this very day. My prayer is that you gain joy in drawing closer to God and lean on him for the strength needed to carry through. My prayer is that you find the peace that passes all understanding as you continue along the Almost Amish journey. May God bless you with his love and protection every step of the way!