God likes small people. He cannot use big ones.
Back in the summer of 1951, Sam Stoltzfus was eight years old. The world was big and wondrous, and there was a significant event coming up in his small boy’s world. He would soon be going in with the boys into the Amish church service. This usually happened when an Amish boy turned nine.
In Sam’s church, there were closely followed routines for the congregation to enter the house or barn where the church service was held. At 8 a.m., the ministers would walk in by order of their being ordained. Next, the married men would file in by age, oldest to youngest. Next, the women and girls. The men sat on one side, the women on the other.
At twenty minutes after eight, someone would come and tell the boys to get ready to go in. “They would brush off their trousers and the big boys would comb their hair,” Sam said. Ten minutes later, the boys would walk in, shake the ministers’ hands, and sit down just behind them on three or four long benches. “Going in with the boys was a big ritual in our Amish world—the first rite of passage from boyhood to being big. The next step would be when a boy turned sixteen and got a horse and buggy and began ‘running around.’ Next to first day of school, going in with the boys was a big milestone. Every Sunday morning we’d watch the older boys with envy. They looked so big and important coming into the meeting room.”
But there was one task Sam had to do before he could go in with the boys. His mother insisted that he memorize the Lob Lied (Hymn of Praise). The Lob Lied is a twenty-eight-line hymn, all in high German, sung as the second hymn at Amish church services. “This looked like a big task for an eight-year-old with lots of other things to read,” Sam said. “But I wanted to go in with the boys so badly that I worked hard on it that summer. I had already learned several small children’s prayers and had memorized the Lord’s Prayer. Mom had given me a little present then. But the Lob Lied was much harder.”
All through the month of August, Sam worked hard to learn the Lob Lied. “I recall saying it over and over and often stumbling over the words. Mom would praise me when I got it right, but she would frown if I missed a word. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. I didn’t know it all by my ninth birthday, and Mom said I could not go in with the boys.”
The next church Sunday, Sam felt awkward because all the church boys knew it was his birthday. He knew they were wondering why he didn’t go in with the boys. “Mom didn’t allow any shortcuts.”
So it was back to studying more and reciting more until Sam could finally repeat the entire twenty-eight lines without missing a syllable. His mother smiled and told him, “Now you may go in with the boys.”
That first Sunday morning will be forever etched in Sam’s memory. “We boys liked to watch the big boys come with their horses and buggies. Cousins Hans always saw who had the fastest horse and the fanciest harness. Finally, the farm’s owner came and called us to go in. We’d all use the restroom—a nearby horse stall or barn corner—and then we’d be ready.”
His mother had cued him how to enter the room. “Mom had told me again and again, ‘Just shake hands with the ministers, the ones with their hats on, not the older men.’” Sam remembered how he felt walking in that first time with his friends. “I can also remember well shaking hands with the four ministers, who looked so reverent with their hats on. Amos U. was first—he looked so wise. Then came Ephraim, always with a smile, followed by Uncle Sylvan’s kindly face. Deacon Aaron was last and had such nice twinkly eyes.”
Then Sam would sit on a bench next to his cousins, sharing the Ausbund hymnbook. “When the Lob Lied was sung, I could read the lines and help sing. All forenoon we had to sit still and listen to the preacher. Mom had warned me that if I didn’t behave, I’d have to sit with her.” He tried, without success, to keep a grin from spreading across his face. “That happened once or so.”
Now...some questions for you...
If you don’t know why you’re keeping rules or observing rituals, they can seem meaningless. Why do you think Sam felt so committed to memorizing the hymn? What did it do for him, besides giving him the nod to sit with the boys?
Going to church on Sunday is highly valued in the Amish culture. They prepare for it on Saturday afternoon and arrive early for it. What are some ways your family could value church more?
"Going in with the Boys" is a story from Amish Peace: Simple Wisdom for a Complicated World (Revell Books) and is re-printed with permission.
Suzanne Woods Fisher is a bestselling author of fiction and non-fiction books about the Old Order Amish for Revell Books. She hosts a weekly radio show, Amish Wisdom, and is a columnist for Cooking & Such magazine. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find Suzanne on-line at www.suzannewoodsfisher.com.