Only God Knows


From Family Life, October 1978


SYLVIA MULLET CLASPED AND UNCLASPED her hands. She took a deep, deep breath. Her heart hammered fiercely, so loudly that it seemed everyone in the room could hear it. Did Mark Miller's wife, Clara, who was sitting beside her, feel the same way? Outwardly she looked so calm. Who, oh, who would it be? Sylvia looked at the ministers sitting in the front. They had just come in, and now the old white-haired bishop had arisen. He stood before the congregation. "Those chosen in the lot are... " His voice faltered and he paused. He needed a moment to steady his voice. His heart went out in sympathy to the brethren whose names were written on the paper in his hand.

How solemn this ceremony was - this choosing of God for a man to preach the Word. Most of the men sat with bowed heads. William Yoder shifted his feet. He was well aware of what was going on. And beneath it all was an undercurrent of feeling within him. He wasn't worried that his name was on that list. It wasn't that. It was the sense that "all was not well" with his soul. Three years before, William and his wife had moved here to Cedar County. Before he was married, he had been reckless and defiant. He had done some deeds which lie now longed to erase from his mind forever. It was true, he had settled down later on, and gotten married. Now the children were growing up. William was a concerned husband and father.

Lately, the still small voice of conscience had been troubling him. It happened most often in the dark of night, and William could not sleep. More than once he had decided during the night to go to the bishop and un-burden himself, but in the morning's light things had looked different. "Others were involved, too," he would think. "They were just as much at fault as I was. Besides, what would the people here think if they knew?" Now today, during this solemn hour, he was deeply troubled. It was not easy to live with a burdened conscience. After services he would watch his chance and talk with one of the ministers or the bishop. It no longer mattered that he might have to make a public confession. He was more than willing. He sighed. Life sure looked different at twenty-eight than it had at eighteen.

SIX BLACK BOOKS, each bound with a rubber band, were lying on the table in front of the room. In one book was a slip of paper containing an appropriate Bible verse. The man who drew that book would he the one chosen by God. The bishop cleared his throat. His voice was steady once more. Slowly, clearly, he read the names, "Mark Miller.... Joseph Mullet.... Amos Mast.... William Yoder.... Henry Graber.... Dan Yoder." After a long pause, Bishop Ray said, "You may come up here on the front bench." How quiet the room became. No one seemed to move. Bishop Ray looked out the window. He saw the fields that were just turning green. Nature was going on year after year, just as God had ordained it. But for his congregation, time seemed to have stopped for a moment.

Finally Mark Miller arose and came slowly forward. Two years before his brother had been ordained in another state. Slowly, one by one the other men who had been chosen by the church came up to take his place. Which one would not return to his seat?

Sylvia Mullet saw the men take their places through a blur of tears. Surely it would not be Joseph. Oh, surely not. How well she remembered her father's life. He had been a minister, and had had such a burden to bear. How often he had been blamed for things he had left undone, or had done wrong. More than one night she had awakened and knew by the light of the lamp in the kitchen that he was sitting at the kitchen table, with his Bible before him. Sometimes he had to be gone in the evening, and more than once she had seen Mother wipe tears from her eyes as she got the children ready for bed. She had been too young to understand at the time. She only knew that Mother was sad, and her own little heart had nearly burst. Sylvia remembered the many times her father had been troubled and silent, and had hardly eaten. And yet she knew he would never have given up his priceless calling.

But there had been happy times, too. One incident that always stood out in her memory was the time Father had been unusually grave and silent. Then one evening they had had visitors. They hadn't come in, nor stayed long. Father had come into the house afterwards with his face lighted up with joy. She had gone to bed that night with warm, happy circles around her heart. When Father was glad, the whole family was happy. The knowledge that she was a preacher's daughter was always with her. There were many things she could not do that the other girls did. "You want to be a good example for the other girls," her mother would say. The trouble was, she did not always want to be that "good example". She wanted the freedom, the gay carelessness some of the other girls seemed to have. One day her father had talked to her in his kind, loving way. He reminded her that since he was a minister, the people looked to him and his family as examples. He could preach the Word and admonish the people, but if his life and that of his children did not correspond with what he preached, his words meant nothing. He told her that doing things that weren't right not only was harmful to her, but also to those who followed her example.

And later, when she had met Joseph, she had been glad for the restrictions her parents had put on her. Joseph was such a fine Christian. Sylvia often thought of her father's words. He had not lived to become an old man. She often wondered if the extra strain and worry had not helped to cause the fatal heart attack. And now, was this what God had in store for them? She could see Joseph near the end of the bench, his brown, wavy hair neatly combed down. He looked pale, but calm. Dear, dear Joseph. Must it be him? And what about herself? How unworthy and unfit she felt to be a preacher's wife. She and Joseph were still so young, so inexperienced. She twisted and untwisted the handkerchief in her hands.

HENRY GRABER SAT WITH his head bowed. For months he had had this feeling. He hardly knew when it first came, or when he was first aware of it. He could not name it, nor describe it. Perhaps God was sending him a warning that he would die soon. He was healthy and strong. Maybe his death would come suddenly.

"Laura," he said one evening, "I - I have this strange feeling. "

"What feeling, Henry?"

"Well, I can't say exactly. Like - like I had some- thing before me. I don't know what. "

"Are you... do you feel all right?" Laura did not want to let Henry see that she was worried. She put the baby into the playpen and came back to the supper table. The other children had gone out to play.

"I feel okay, " Henry said quietly. "Do you think we could start getting up earlier? We should have more time to read in the mornings, and I don't want to be late getting into the field either. Dan doesn't expect me out before eight o'clock with all the chores we have, but if I'd get up half an hour earlier it would give us more time."

"You're getting up so early as it is, and you're getting so thin, too," Laura said. "We should make it a point to get to bed earlier then, too."

Henry and Laura had been so thankful for the chance to raise their family on the farm, and they certainly wanted to please Dan Miller. He had been good to them, giving them this chance on his farm. From then on a tiny, nagging feeling was in Laura's heart. Was something going to happen to Henry? Little things he hadn't seemed to notice before bothered him now. At night he would wake up and the feeling was there. He reviewed his life. Was there something in his life that God was not pleased with? Was he really ready to die, should the call come suddenly?

In the darkness Henry examined his feelings. He held no grudges against anyone. He could feel only love for his fellow men and a deep concern and sorrow for the erring ones. Henry thought of his many shortcomings. In his youth he had lived too much for his own pleasure. How he regretted the wasted years. He had not been willfully disobedient - just unconcerned. But God knew that he wanted to live a true, consecrated life. And then the bishop had announced that a minister would be ordained, providing the congregation felt agreed and prepared.

A new feeling gripped Henry. Was this what God was calling him to? Surely not. Why, he would hardly be in the lot. He tried to shrug the feeling off, but the thought persisted. "Prepare yourself. Prepare yourself. " Over and over these words rang in his mind. At night he had wrestled with this feeling. To be a preacher? God knew he wanted to live a true life, but it just wasn't within him to preach. He could not. And then precious promises of help and peace would come into his mind. Human eyes did not see the battles, the silent but real conflicts that raged within his breast.

THE BISHOP WAS talking. He had laid the little black hymn books on the table. Only God knew which book had the slip of paper. God would lead and guide. He made no mistakes. He would give grace and courage to the man He chose. "Let us kneel and pray," he said. There was a shuffling of feet and then all was quiet as the people knelt. The bishop's voice had been steady and quiet, but now as he prayed, it trembled. Sylvia Mullet felt numb. She heard the bishop's voice, but to her shame she realized later that she had not heard one word of the prayer itself. Automatically she arose when the other people did and she felt if she did not sit down immediately, she would faint.

The bishop was standing again. "You may come and draw your books." There was a long pause and a silence that was almost deafening. Only the ticking of the old clock on the mantel and the twittering of a sparrow outside could be heard. To stand up, go over to the table and pick up one little book. It seemed like such an easy thing in itself, but Dan Yoder had never realized how hard it could be to do such a small thing. He was a fearless man, unafraid to stand up for his beliefs. But now in this solemn moment, his courage and strength seemed to have left him.

William Yoder's blue eyes were dark and troubled. To the congregation he looked terribly burdened with the realization of the new calling that might rest upon him. But it was that great foreboding that really troubled him. He felt as if he had been living a lie. His past was not clean. Though he had meant to live a changed life, some wrongs had not been made right. And now God was speaking so loudly. This was so unexpected. Surely not, surely not him. Unworthy, unfit, unprepared. He bowed his head and tears dropped on the small black book in his hands.

Henry Graber's face was very pale. His eyes were shadowed and his large frame looked almost gaunt. "He is working too hard," the people said. And yet there was no one more willing to help others when the need arose. He often left his own work to help his neighbors. Henry drew his book, then sat with bowed head. This was too real to be a dream. What he had feared had come to pass. It would only he a matter of minutes until he would be sure.

Joseph Mullet looked very young as he drew his book. His brown eyes were clear and trusting. Joseph's mother tried to swallow the lump in her throat. Joseph had always been an obedient son. Tender-hearted, quiet-spoken Joseph! She could see Sylvia with the younger women. She looked pale and strained. "Warm-hearted impulsive Sylvia," her mother-in-law thought. "No matter what the outcome, she will do her best."

More than one person had the feeling the chosen one would be the bishop's son, Amos. Amos was a tall, congenial man. But now his usual friendly look was replaced by a burdened look. How well he knew the load his father had to carry.

Mark Miller, his curly, bushy hair looking disorderly, picked up the last book. Only God knew the thoughts that went through the minds of the six men on the front bench. Only God knew which man held the book with the slip.

And now, the time had come. How can a person describe the tenseness, the strain, the silence that was felt at this time? For weeks this moment had been looming before them. It had been wondered about, prayed about, struggled with. Within a few short minutes all wondering, all doubts, all questions would disappear. God's choice was about to be revealed. Yes, there was a strain that could be felt, but there was also the feeling that God was with them. His presence was not seen, but it was felt, just as His presence is always felt by those who place their trust in Him.

The bishop walked over to Mark Miller. Carefully the rubber band was taken off his book. Quietly, carefully the bishop paged through the book. The rustling of the pages could be heard in the back of the room. The book was returned to Mark. He was not the one.

Next was Joseph Mullet, the youngest in the lot. He felt weak. His hand trembled so that he felt unable to give his book to the bishop. Sylvia sat with her head bowed. She could not look. She heard the rustle of the pages, the ticking of the clock, then all was silent. She held her breath. When she forced herself to glance toward Joseph, the book had been returned to him. He had not been chosen. Next was Amos Mast, the bishop's son. Bishop Ray's hands trembled as he opened the book and paged through it. The slip was not there, so the book was returned.

Only three men remained. The bishop's face was pale. He suffered with the men before him. How he could feel for them! He had helped more than once to ordain a minister or deacon, but that did not make the undertaking easier or less serious.

Would it be William Yoder? He was next. Breathlessly the congregation watched as the book was quietly taken and opened. Again the rustle of the leaves. The slip was not found in William's book. Now there were only two men, Henry Graber and Dan Yoder. Laura Graber looked down at the sleeping baby on her lap. Something seemed to be tightening within her breast. Only two men - Henry and Dan. Which one would it be?

The bishop reached for Henry's book. How quiet the room was. The pages of the book- rustled. Laura did not look up. And then she heard the bishop clear his throat, and another silence. "The Lord has chosen Henry Graber. "

The congregation saw only the man with the bowed head. They did not see the turmoil of feelings inside. They did not know of the fierce battle that had been fought in the days and long sleepless nights in the past few weeks. They did not know how relentlessly the good and evil had striven within his breast. They did not know how hard it had been for Henry to give up his own will and accept whatever it was that God had called him to do.

To preach the gospel, to help keep the church pure and unspotted, to visit the fatherless and widows, to help the sick and needy, to rebuke and admonish the sinners, to live a life that would be a shining example of the gospel. Yes, it might mean to he blamed and misunderstood, to be accused of showing partiality and picking on certain members. It would undoubtedly mean spending sleepless nights and leaving his dear wife and children with lonely evenings when his duty called him away from home. It would call for a closer communion with God, studying his blessed Word. But surely there would be joys, too - the joy of helping souls on the straight and narrow way. If nothing else, his would be the joy of being in God's perfect will and laboring in the footsteps of the Master. This would he his portion all his life. Only God knew what trials lay ahead of him, and what joys and blessed peace. Only God knew his faults and weaknesses, and how hard it would be for him. But at the end, if he remained faithful, there would be laid up for him, the crown of righteousness which Paul, another minister of long ago, had written about.

One of the ministers was speaking. How well he knew the truth of the words he uttered to the solemn, listening congregation. "...You can help to make this a tiresome, heavy burden which God has placed upon our brother today, or you can help make it a great joy in his life. A burden or a joy - which would it be?

God had done the choosing, but now, the answer to this question did not lie in God's hands alone, but in the hearts and lives of his people. A burden or a joy, which would it be?