Leona Goering Gingerich is a retired music teacher who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her husband Ken. She attends Albuquerque Mennonite Church.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 NRSV)
Growing up, I heard these verses from Deuteronomy chapter 6 recited over and over. The words are familiar. In Jewish liturgy, they are known as part of the Shema. But it is the verses that follow this familiar passage (v. 6-9) that recently caught my attention.
Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 (The Message)
This past spring, during a time of deep sorrow, I found myself sifting through old photographs. My family, along with scores of other people, was grieving the death of MJ Sharp—the young peace worker who was kidnapped and murdered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
You see, years ago, MJ was one of the kids in our neighborhood, a classmate and close friend of our youngest son, Andy. MJ and his two sisters and parents moved into the Indiana neighborhood the same summer that my husband and I moved in with our sons, Josh and Andy.
Friendships grew and soon a handful of young adolescent friends were exploring the community and slipping in and out of each other’s houses. They were a bundle of energy as they explored their environment, formed relationships and tested the waters about life and love and meaning and who they might become.
I’m sure my husband and I weren’t the only mom and dad hoping our parenting efforts would give our children the support they needed to safely reach adulthood. The world was big, exciting and sometimes scary. The words to Graham Nash’s song, “Teach your children,” became more than just lyrics. We wanted the best for our children. Frederick Buechner put it this way: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
And so this band of friends played, studied and explored together as they entered and exited each other’s houses and families. After 8th grade, MJ and Andy decided to attend Bethany ChristianHigh School in Goshen, Indiana, and their friendship deepened as they were nurtured within an educational Anabaptist community. Although each chose to attend a different Mennonite college, they stayed in touch. Their families both eventually moved from Indiana to other places.
In 2016, my husband and I were living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as were both of our sons. MJ visited Andy in Albuquerque and became acquainted with a small community of like-minded folks. He eventually decided to move to this city and commute to his job in the DRC. We were thrilled to invite MJ into our lives once again—and to follow the careers of our “children”–in a world that was still big, exciting and sometimes scary.
So in March 2017, when we heard MJ was missing in the DRC, our hearts were heavy. Several weeks later, when the bodies of MJ and his co-worker were identified, our hearts were broken and we began the long journey of grief. As we prepared to attend the memorial service in Kansas, Andy asked if there might be some photos of MJ from those Indiana years. And that was the time of deep sorrow that I referred to earlier when I was sifting through photos.
Among the photos that I found, was one where MJ and Andy are sitting together on our davenport, just two happy looking friends. In the background on the wall, are two framed fraktur pieces hanging above the piano.
My husband and I purchased these frakturs (by artists Roma Ruth and Esther Ruth) early in our married life while living in Pennsylvania during the United States bicentennial. They have moved with us back and forth across the country and were usually the first pieces of art to be hung in a new place. Even today, they hang above the piano in our Albuquerque adobe home.
The messages on the fraktures give testament to an Anabaptist peacemaking faith – a faith that both the Sharp and the Gingerich families attempted to pass on to their children.
“It is our fixed principle rather than take up Arms to defend our King, our Country, or our Selves, to suffer all that is dear to be rent from us, even Life itself, and this we think not out of Contempt to Authority, but that herein we act agreeable to what we think is the Mind and Will of our Lord Jesus.” Thirteen Mennonite Ministers of Pennsylvania, May 15, 1755
“We have dedicated ourselves to serve all men in everything that can be helpful to the preservation of men’s Lives, but we find no freedom in giving, or doing or assisting in anything by which Men’s Lives are destroyed or hurt.” Benjamin Hershey. Mennonite Minister November 1776
Also included is a verse from George Neumark’s hymn Wer nur den lieben Gott last walten:
“If thou but suffer God to guide thee,
And hope in Him through all thy ways.
He’ll give thee strength whate’er betide thee
And bear thee through the evil days.
Who trusts in God’s unchanging love
builds on a rock that naught can move.”
And cradled inside the artistic illustrations, are the words: Jesu, meine Freude and Blessed are the Peacemakers.
I am struck how these messages speak to the work that MJ was doing. I don’t know if MJ and Andy were aware of what was hanging on the wall as they sat on our davenport enjoying their friendship. But I would like to believe that the spirit of the words somehow permeated the environment; that perhaps it summoned us all to get those commandments about love and peace inside us, inside our children; written on our hearts forever.
Today I continue to take responsibility for what I hang on my wall or post in my yard. Simultaneously, I grieve the loss of MJ and know there may be a cost. But grief and loss are not an excuse to remove the “commandments” from the wall or the yard signs from the lawn. There is still much peacemaking to be done.
The messages on the frakturs continue to summon MJ’s family and friends and all of us to carry on the work of peacemaking. And when we find ourselves in the place where God has called us-where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet-in this big, exciting and scary world, we clutch each other’s grief -tricken hands and go forward together, in the steps of Jesus, loving our enemies and continuing to do what needs to be done.
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