Saturday, June 20, 2015

What can the Amish teach us about forgiveness?

An interview with Suzanne Woods Fisher,
Author of The Heart of the Amish


Everyone has been hurt. Everyone experiences conflicts, great and small. Everyone has someone to forgive. In The Heart of the Amish: Life Lessons on Peacemaking and the Power of Forgiveness (Revell/May 5, 2015/ISBN: 978-0800722036/$12.99), bestselling author Suzanne Woods Fisher reveals the lessons that the Amish teach about what to do when we just can't bring ourselves to forgive someone who has wronged us.

The Heart of the Amish invites readers into the world of a people renowned for their ability to forgive. Her in-depth, personal research uncovers the astounding, yet fundamental way the Amish can forgive anyone — from the angry customer at the grocery store to the shooter at the Nickel Mines schoolhouse. Through true stories gathered from a variety of Amish communities, Fisher illustrates how they are able to release their pain and desire for revenge, living at peace with others. Readers will learn how to invite God into their stories, apply lessons from the Amish to their own circumstances, and find the freedom that comes with true forgiveness.

Q: Where did you get the idea to write The Heart of the Amish?

It began years ago as I was working on some non-fiction books about the Amish. The book came into focus for me as I was hosting a radio show called Amish Wisdom. I kept bumping into stories that held such meaning and significance, real-life stories I couldn’t stop thinking about. The people I interviewed had faced some very difficult experiences, and yet they offered grace and forgiveness to their wrongdoers. Some were the recipients of grace and forgiveness. The outcome of the experiences was vastly different than what we’re accustomed to in our modern world. What a difference it makes to invite God into the conversation of conflict! 

Q: What first drew you to the Amish way of life?

My grandfather was raised German Baptist (Dunkard), a cousin to the Amish. He was one of 11 children, so I have quite a few Dunkard relatives. Quite a few! I’ve always been intrigued by the choices of my relatives and their aim to be “in the world but not of it.” Studying the history of the Amish meant I was studying my own family tree. The origin of these churches, both Amish and German Baptist, is rooted in Anabaptist theology.

Q: Can you share your research process for this book? Did you find Amish communities were open to talking to you about their experiences?

It wasn’t easy! This book handles some very personal, gritty topics. Thankfully, the relationships I have built over the years with some Old Order Amish individuals bore fruit. One friend would connect me to another, to another, to another. Not everyone allowed their story to be told in a book, and some (though not all) insisted on changing names and details to protect privacy, but little by little, this book grew and took shape.

Q: The Amish have always held a certain fascination for many. Why do you think they are so interesting to us?

Such a good question! I think there are a lot of reasons people are fascinated by the Amish. Their pastoral lifestyle, their simpler way of living, their clear priorities, their emphasis on family, faith and community.

Q: There has been a recent rash of reality television shows that have awakened a new curiosity in their ways. How has this hurt or helped the Amish?

This is just my opinion, but I think those “reality” shows only perpetuate myths and misunderstandings. 

Q: What is the number-one lesson the Amish can teach us about forgiveness?

To make forgiveness your aim in everyday moments so God has something to work with in you when big events come along (and they do and will come along . . . for all of us). 

Q: Many are familiar with the shooting that took place at the Nickel Mines schoolhouse, which shed a national light on how deeply committed the Amish are to forgiveness. Why was it so intentional for that community to forgive what happened?

The Amish take the need to forgive very seriously. It’s woven into their daily life, modeled to their children, encouraged and valued. They practice forgiveness in the small moments of life, so when the big moments arrive (such as the Nickel Mines tragedy) they are prepared to respond with intentional forgiveness.   

Q: You say forgiveness to the Amish is not an option — it is essential. What do you mean by that?

The Amish believe that to forgive an enemy — so contrary to human nature — is to follow Jesus’s instructions on forgiveness, as well as His example. And they don’t just seek to forgive. They also love and bless those enemies.

The fundamentals of Amish forgiveness rest on a literal interpretation of this verse: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15 KJV).

Most Protestant traditions assert that forgiveness begins with God, that we receive it and then are able to forgive others. The Amish believe they receive forgiveness from God only if they extend forgiveness to others.

Better minds than mine have tried to settle that sticky theological debate. Anglican theologian John Stott might have best captured the intention of Jesus’s words in his book Through the Bible, Through the Year: “This certainly does not mean that our forgiveness of others earns us the right to be forgiven. It is rather that God forgives only the penitent, and that one of the chief evidences of true penitence is a forgiving spirit.” Whether, like the Amish, you accept a literal interpretation of those verses or a more figurative interpretation, it is clear that forgiving others who wrong us is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

Q: Why is it important to forgive as early as possible, even when the offense is small, like a little pebble in the shoe?

Practice, practice, practice!

What will spill out of you when you are under great stress is what spills out of you now in the day-to-day friction of living. Our ability to forgive what seems unforgiveable is deeply connected to how we handle the smaller transgressions: when someone cuts in front of us at the grocery store, when our spouse forgets an anniversary, when our family accidentally locks us out of the house.

Q: What are some practical ways the Amish teach their children lessons on forgiveness?

Right from the start, Amish parents model forgiveness to their children, turning negative thoughts into positive ones, being the first to extend the olive branch to others.

Q: What are some tips for making forgiveness a daily habit?

The Amish believe life isn’t fair — the toast burns, the milk spills, the car breaks down. They believe we are part of an imperfect world, far from the Garden. They expect life not to be fair, so when the hard things come into their life — and they do, just like everyone’s life — they’ve had experience with how to manage them. Forgiveness is like a muscle. The more it’s exercised, the stronger it becomes. Each time you forgive, it becomes easier to forgive the next time.

Q: What is your favorite Amish proverb about forgiveness?

“You can stop forgiving others when Christ stops forgiving you.” Think about that. It’s really the essence of humility!

Q: How do you hope The Heart of the Amish affects its readers? How did writing this book impact your own life?

The goal of this book is to help readers make a habit of forgiving. None of us can know for sure where life will take us, but we do know there will be potholes and detours and fender benders along the way. We just don’t have much control over the things that happen to us in life. To think we won’t need to forgive others is just . . . faulty thinking. Why not prepare our hearts and minds to be forgivers? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who taught and lived forgiveness, said it best: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act. Forgiveness is a permanent attitude.”

I think there’s a pretty good chance readers won’t feel like the same person after reading this book. That is exactly what happened to me.


Learn more about Suzanne Woods Fisher and The Heart of the Amish at www.suzannewoodsfisher.com, on Facebook (SuzanneWoodsFisherAuthor), or by following her on Twitter (@SuzanneWFisher).

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