Passing the Torch

Showy Evening Primrose
When you see these, praise God, and think of Jake.

A dear friend passed away last month. He is 98 years old. He prayed for us daily for more than twenty-five of those years. His name is Jacob Kulp. Even though he was still a Mennonite when he died, his life and testimony and prayers are a sizable part of why our family is Orthodox today.

Jake was so faithful in his prayers that when he missed a day, I could feel the difference. One day, back in 1987 or 1988, I was having just an irritating, off-kilter day. (At the time, I was Mennonite Chaplain for Philadelphia Prisons.) Nothing was going right and it seemed that there were spiritual forces that were just bringing everything down. As I pondered this, I thought of Jake. It struck me that there must be something wrong with Jake. I called his home and found out that he had been taken to the hospital. I went right over to visit him. As I entered his room, before I could say a word, he said, “Brother Cranford, can you forgive me? I was too sick to pray for you today.”

I was humbled and amazed by this, and replied, “Jake, there is nothing to forgive. I could feel the difference. It’s my turn to pray for you.” This happened when Jake was a young man in his eighties.

It was around that same time that I helped Jake to wire a new house with electricity. In the middle of the work one day, he began to weep. He then raised his hands to heaven and looked up and said: “How long, O Lord, how long will you tarry your coming?” He then confessed to me how he thought it would be easier to live the Christian life as he got older, but that he found that it seemed the temptations were that much stronger the closer he got to the goal. This was very sobering to me, in my thirties, coming from a godly, prayerful man, in his eighties.

How did Jacob Kulp help me along the way to Orthodoxy? At Finland Mennonite Church, Jake was one of a generation of folks whom we had the privilege of getting to know. They still wore plain clothes. They sang four part harmony without instruments, sometimes in German. They were serious about their faith in Christ and dealt honestly and kindly with all they met. There were six couples who had been married over 50 years in this little church of 140 people.

We saw the church ignoring these people and their wisdom. They were listening, instead, to the college and seminary educated church growth experts. They dumbed down Sunday School. They introduced instruments into the services, and began to opt for a “worship band” repeating gospel choruses in place of theology laden hymns.

We occasionally heard these older folks, gently, and, oh so meekly, complain about some of the innovations. Then came the discussions over divorce and remarriage; then ordination of women; acceptance of homosexuality; ordination of homosexuals; blessing of homosexual unions. At the same time, friends of mine in three different Mennonite colleges were getting flack for encouraging prayer and Bible reading in the dorms. And the seminaries were moving on to reconsider the inspiration of Scripture and the deity of Jesus Christ.

These simple, godly, older folks just held onto their faith and prayed. One by one, couple by couple, they moved into church old folks homes where they could still sing the old hymns and hear the Scriptures preached. They are out of sight of the local congregations, so the churches can innovate as they please. One by one, they are passing away.

I still haven’t answered the question.

The first time I walked into a service at St. Philip Antiochian Orthodox Church, the icons had an interesting message for me. At that point, it was just the iconostasis, the 24 medallion icons and the Platytera in the church, along with a few portable icons on the walls. I was immediately reminded of Jake and our other, older friends in the Mennonite church. The message I got was this:  This church belongs to Jesus Christ, to the Virgin Mary, to St. John the Baptist, to St. Philip, to St. Nicholas, to St. Cyprian, to St. Thekla, etc. And we dare not do anything here to make them uncomfortable in their church! I have never seen that stated in defense or theology of the icons, but it was reassuring to me.

There were a number of comments at Jake’s viewing and funeral that asked the questions: Who is taking his place? Who will take up his ministry of prayer? Who will delight in wonder and praise to God at the blossoming of an evening primrose?

As the older generation passes away, responsibilities are passed down. Am I prepared to be a wise old man or just an old fool? What legacy am I preparing to leave behind? What treasure am I sending on ahead? What kind of guidance and example am I giving for others to follow? Am I living in such a way as to finish the course to obtain the prize before the cloud of witnesses beckoning me on?