Meet Your Maker
by Johann Christoph Arnold
Christoph Arnold - Bruderhof

Conditions were primitive and rough in the backwoods of Paraguay, where I grew up in the 1940s, and the harshness of daily life had an effect not only on many adults, but also on us children, who reacted to their callousness with disrespect and mockery. Nothing was sacred, despite the efforts some parents made to instill respect in their children, and we were often cruelly insensitive to the peculiarities and afflictions of other people.

Anybody can be mean, but in the culture of today, mean-spiritedness has become a way of life. Violence, promiscuity, arrogance, snideness, and indifference mark modern culture. At the bottom of it all is a cynicism that not only corrodes individual relationships; it destroys our relationship with God. If one were to describe our time with one word, that word would have to be irreverence.

What, then, is reverence?

It is the spiritual side of respect. It is nothing pious, soft, or sweet. Reverence is wonder at what God has created; it is man's standing in awe of what God has made. He is the creator of life in all its rich and varied forms - exquisite flowers and magnificent trees, tiny insects and colorful birds, creatures on the land and in the sea.

There is no doubt that life has an immensely high value, both human life and the life of animals and plants; yes, even the life of stars and stones. I am convinced that not only animals have an emotional life-feeling; I am convinced that plants, too, have a life-feeling. It is unthinkable that the beauty of plants and their swaying in the wind, the moving upward and downward of the sap in their stems could exist without any life-feeling. And I believe more: I believe that astronomical organisms, like the stars and the earth, have a life-feeling. In a fiery star like our sun with its flaming protuberances and its deepening solar spots there is no doubt a living soul; one could even speak of a breathing process. Eberhard Arnold

Reverence is our natural, unspoiled response to the marvels of God's creation. We experience it when we witness the birth of a baby, the power of a storm and the glory of a rainbow, and often when we are sitting at the bedside of a person who is dying. Reverence is the movement of our hearts that comes to us through a piece of music or writing, through a work of art in painting or sculpture, when these are born from the creative spirit God gives to his children. It can be spoken, or it can simply be felt.

Without reverence, God is pushed aside, and our lower nature comes to the fore, our bitter, cynical self-will. Then we forget that all life is sacred. Then we are not far from accepting abortion and capital punishment, euthanasia and assisted suicide as acceptable ways to deal with seemingly unbearable or insoluble problems.

I believe every person begins life with an inborn sense of reverence. But this must be nurtured and protected. It can grow, or it can be crushed. I don't believe it can ever be completely lost in anyone, although it certainly may be dulled. It may take years to win it back again if a person has lived with an attitude of irreverence for a long time; many people have told me this. Cynicism, once established, is hard to eradicate, for by its very definition it mocks the essence of what is true and good in life - the spark of God in each person, the eternal that is in every soul.

Reverence as a spiritual concept may be foreign to some people, and yet it is a crucial dimension to all our relationships, including our relationship to God. Without it one cannot pray.

Last year my wife received the following letter from Anneta, a nurse we know who volunteered for several months at a hospital in rural Haiti. Anneta's thoughts shed light on the significance of reverence - and on the unredeemed rawness of life where it has been snuffed out.

After delivering twelve babies into this world as of today, I ponder the significance of these births to my life, the life of the children, and to God.

Me: God has placed me here now and is allowing me to participate in his creation. So often during labor and delivery, fear twists my stomach instead of wonder and joy. So many things can and often do go wrong. Afterwards I mostly just feel relief that it went okay, or heaviness when it didn't. My shallowness of faith prevents me from rejoicing in the majesty of God's creation and his plan for each soul. My helplessness is often so evident. I believe I am here now for God to show me that I am nothing, how in the past year I have placed myself in the way of God's working and selfishly took things into my own hands. Lord, I pray that Haiti teaches me complete surrender of all life to you. Forgive my arrogance and prepare me for your use.

The babies: I often wonder what life holds for you, petit - the tough, sad faces of your mothers, the blatant absence of your fathers, the grueling hard work, and the terrible fear. Yet each single life is created by God for a purpose.

And God: The ones you send for a few minutes or hours or days - my inmost depth wonders at the meaning of these small lives - they are like spoken words of yours, and those stillborn just your thoughts. I think of my own culture and of the anguish of my friend Paula in America over her stillborn baby, and her tears and weeping months later at the grave. And here in Haiti the dry eyes and quietness, the immediate resumption of life when a baby dies. After nine months - the lack of attachment. Do they lose so many that they can't afford to grieve? I feel a small corner of your power and mystery, yet I am not sufficiently in tune with you to understand it all. My soul marvels in reverence for you and I pray for depth in you.

The following month Anneta wrote again:

I went over to maternity, where another nurse and I delivered a little baby girl who was missing her skull bones. She only had a face; the rest of her head was missing. Her brain was exposed, open. We have had her mother in the ward for a long time and had done an ultrasound, so we were expecting the baby to have problems, but it was still a very shaking experience. She never seemed to breathe, but her little heart beat for twenty minutes. Hundreds of people crowded in to look at the "creature" or "frog" as they called her. I chased them out, but most of them came right back in, and my heart was aching too much to enforce it...

I picked up the little one, holding her disfigured premature body until the heart stopped, then laid her down, covering her head with a latex glove to protect her from mockery...I was overwhelmed and couldn't stop crying, although it was not out of grief that I cried - more out of a strange, painful joy. I felt as if I had been drawn closer to heaven.

Some days are extremely difficult, and I rely on prayer hourly to get me through. I am so privileged to be here with these people and to be allowed to experience pain, birth, and death with them. One night last week I delivered a little boy from a mother with polyhydramnios. He was very premature, and his abdomen was swollen and hard. I tried resuscitating him, but it soon became clear that this child would not live long.

His heart beat very slowly, and I wrapped him in blankets and took him over to his mother. She looked at me with big, tear-filled eyes and nodded quietly. A crowd of onlookers surrounded us, and I asked if any of them wanted to hold the little one. All smiled and politely declined, so I held him tight. The families here will never touch or take the body of a stillborn child, or even of a deformed newborn, unless they think it will live. Of course, I can never judge how someone else deals with life and death; these people have taught me so much. Perhaps it is just their way of coping.

As I stand there in the stench of a pool of amniotic fluid and blood, a single dim light bulb barely holding back the edges of night, lizards and flies around our feet, the soul of that little baby reaches out to mine, melting the past, present, future of worries and the weary struggle of life into undiluted pureness of awe. I grasp him close as his heartbeat slows and fades away. My eyes are filled with tears, my heart both torn and stretched.

I put the little one down and go to find a cardboard box from the pharmacy - one just the right size so that no part of his body is bent, which is important to the family. Andres, the janitor, will take him away tomorrow.

Young children with their natural guilelessness can teach us much about reverence. They are genuine and sincere, without ulterior motives. With them, there is no danger of practicing their piety in front of other people. And children sing - unselfconsciously and happily, thus expressing their connectedness to God more beautifully than the most eloquent prayer. Children are generously forgiving, and they abandon themselves completely in their enjoyment of life. In short, children are reverent.

But this reverence, this childlike spirit, must be protected. We should never force children to say prayers (let alone memorize long ones), for then their innate longing to speak to God may be harmed. More important than regular prayers is preserving in our children their natural longing for what is of God. And in doing this, we also preserve our own reverence. I have been told by several articulate, highly educated people that when it comes to prayer, they use the simplest words and relate to God just as a child would.

My grandfather, Eberhard Arnold, was a theologian. I never knew him, but I have been told that he was not an overtly religious person. Things of the spirit were simply natural to him, and after a few minutes in his presence you knew that all that mattered in his life was Christ. Even so, he did not teach his children much from the Bible; he must have had too much of it himself as a child. Papa told me that when he was sixteen years old, he discovered the Lord's Prayer on his own and was amazed that such a prayer existed; his father had never mentioned it to him. My grandfather led his children to faith through his actions.

My wife and I have nineteen grandchildren, and we notice again and again how close they are to God. They will speak trustingly of their guardian angels, and they love to sing the lullaby from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel:

When at night I go to sleep
Fourteen angels watch do keep:
Two my head are guarding,
Two my feet are guiding,
Two are on my right hand,
Two are on my left hand,
Two who warmly cover,
Two who o'er me hover,
Two to whom 'tis given
To guide my steps to heaven.

True children - that is, those who are still childlike - have no doubt that this is true. And in these times we grown-ups, too, are in need of protection, day and night, by the unseen powers from heaven.

Recently a child said to me, "I'm frightened when I hear about wars and bombs, and people getting killed. It gives me nightmares!" How far should we go in exposing our children to the need of the world? It is a difficult question. Certainly we cannot bring them up in protective isolation, yet on the other hand, we do not want to burden them unnecessarily with thoughts and images of violence and hunger, disease and death. Perhaps the balance is in making our children aware of these things but at the same time helping them to remember that God's angels are always watching over them. What is happening in the world is certainly terrible and awful, but we must believe that, ultimately, God will create a new heaven and a new earth. This is promised us in the Book of Revelation: "He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, death will be no more; sadness and crying and pain will pass away."

Jesus taught us reverence for children. He said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to them." And, "Assuredly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter it." And then, "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my father."

If you are around children very much, you will soon see how trusting they are, and how dependent on us. When you sit by a child at bedtime, you can feel how necessary it is that the child find an inner contact with God. You can tell him that high above the stars there is someone who is good, someone who knows and loves him. He may say, "I know who you mean; the angels are up there above the stars."

"Yes, but above the angels is someone still greater. It is God."

Then the child may feel something of this great being, the Creator who is above all things and yet is always close to us. We can tell the child, "In your heart, you can feel this good and great God; you can speak to him, and obey him."

This is important, for obedience comes through listening. And when we learn to listen to the inner voice of the living God, then we can learn to obey him. In such a way we can help our children to realize that the voice of their conscience is actually the voice of God at work in them. There is such a voice in the depth of every heart. Even the young child knows when he has done something wrong, and this works in his heart and makes him restless and unhappy until he is stirred to put it right. And so the child can be led to an understanding of the power of good over evil and to a living faith in God.

Rudi, a lifelong friend, was a seven-year-old orphan when my grandparents took him into their family in the early 1920s. When he arrived, he was frightened and cried bitterly at the prospect of yet another home. He remembers:

My fears about a new orphanage were soon gone, for this was a real home. Eberhard took me on his lap and told me that he would be my father and Emmy my mother (it was like that until they died). Still, I longed to have my real parents, and I wept often.

My new parents comforted me and told me about God. From that time on, peace slowly came into my heart and I felt the need to pray every evening. My prayer was not just for myself, but also to thank God for all the good things we had, even though we were extremely poor: for my bed, for my shoes, or for the extra piece of bread we had that day.

In my previous book Seeking Peace I included an anecdote from Magdalena, a woman I have known since childhood, about the death of her little brother, and the death of her mother several years later. She has since told me the following:

When I was fourteen years old, my mother became very sick. Most of her life she had suffered from asthma, and so her heart was weakened. We children were told that Mama needed a big operation, and because of her heart condition she might not live through it. This came as a terrible shock to us. Our mother, with her joy and her tenderness, was really the heart of the family.

Like never before, I went down on my knees and pleaded to God for our mother's life. I promised to serve God for the rest of my days and to give up all my wickedness if only God would preserve her life.

Mama lived through the surgery, and her life was spared, even though she never regained her full strength. She lived a few more years before she died during an asthma attack.

I truly believe that my prayer for Mama was answered. At that time I found a relationship with God that has lasted until now. Although I was still very young, I knew from then on that I could always turn to him, but I also knew I had promised to serve him and must do my part.

We should never underestimate the power of children's prayers. Adults tend to be divided, untruthful, and insincere; many of us live double lives. Yet children are single-hearted. Because they are close to God, their prayers, simple as they are, can turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

Excerpted from Cries from the Heart, available FREE in e-book format at or visti the author's website at:

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