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We traditionally acknowledge this letter to be from James, brother of Jesus, first bishop of the church in Jerusalem. It is very much in the style of Old Testament wisdom, but reflects the practicality of the new faith in Christ.
James says: “Do not let class distinctions enter into your faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord.” And he goes on to say that we are all too ready to welcome the well-dressed stranger into our gathering, but dismiss or humiliate the one who is poorly dressed. “Listen, my brothers, it was those who were poor according to the world that God chose, to be rich in faith and to be the heirs to the kingdom which he promised to those who love Him.”
We can love the world and its rewards, or we can love God. We can’t love both. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus said. If we pass among the worldly as one of them, if we are accepted in all the right places by all the right people, we will have had the reward we deserve: the World. We won’t get the reward God promises to the poor and faithful: His kingdom, the kingdom that is not just a future promise, but the life of the Spirit in which we share now.
According to James, we cannot separate the life of faith from the life of works. By our works the world will know us and the Lord will know us. He will know if we have been faithful by what we have done for the least of His children, not to earn a reward from Him, but simply from our love for Him. Our love for Him is expressed in every moment of our lives, from how we live and work to how we dress and speak.
For example, if I love my husband, I do not go around acting as if I don’t know him, smiling and flirting with other men. I don’t dress in a way that would give the impression that I am interested in other intimate relationships. I don’t say things about him that would shame or humiliate him. I don’t tolerate other people shaming him.
Yet Christians are tempted to act as if they don’t know their Lord. They may dress as if they belong to the world that despises Christ, that disbelieves God, that jokes and shames about the sacred. They may speak in a secular and irreverent manner. They are often ashamed to pray in public, or give a greeting of peace or a blessing. Will the Lord know them at that Day when all will be known?
We are to be cheerful prophets of the kingdom, not gloomy and harsh and judgmental. While we live in a critique of the world, we are still to be welcoming to the lost who seek Christ. The Lord makes it clear: Our life in the world is to be a life of love even when we are not loved ourselves.
All blogs pick up spam. WordPress is really good at catching it and dumping it into a special file so we can review it. But this is what I’m wondering…
Doesn’t it seem a little futile to send adverts for insurance and gambling to Plain people?
When I was much younger, after some pretty intense reading in my undergrad days, I made a promise to God, that if He wanted me to do it, I would accept Holy Poverty, and live as one of the poor. Of course, I had no idea just what this podvig (Orthodox term for a cross to bear) would be. I suppose I expected a nice little Via Media poverty, no mansions or marble halls, but a modest roof over my head. God has had other ideas.
God doesn’t like His children to get too comfortable in the world, and because he has blessed me with holy poverty, I was definitely led in that promise rather than exercising some pious notion. Thank you, Lord.
Holy Poverty is what monks and nuns and dedicated religious practice. Some of them are blessed with orders that provide the roof and pot of kasha on the table, but I am just an Anglican, in ordained orders, married and therefore outside the monastery wall! Poverty is indeed hard. It means that sometimes we have to make choices about eating or paying the rent. Sometimes the choice is just not eating and not paying the rent, until someone is moved to show up with a little help.
Someone rather cruelly said to me recently when I was explaining why I couldn’t afford to do what someone wanted me to do, “Get a job!” but jobs for middle-aged, non-parochial priests are very scarce. As defenceless Christians, we can’t take just anything that comes along, and let’s face it, not everyone wants Plain people working for them. This is not a complaint, but an observation. If an employer is not moved in his or her heart to hire us (even if we are well qualified) then there is not much we can do about it. We are not called to take anyone to law over our rights.
Holy Poverty is a prophetic ministry. It is breaking a hole in the city wall; it is suffering down a well; it is going into captivity or spending the seasons far from home, because God sent you to do that. It is suffering along with the children of God, the poor. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” (Matthew 5.) A person can be poor in goods but not poor in spirit if they resent their poverty and dream of grasping the goods of others. Holy Poverty is real poverty, but it is rich in Spirit. It is a life free of worldly distractions and avaricious climbing to get the next prize.
I believe that to experience the poverty of the Spirit, you must be poor in the goods of the world. It is not a matter of detachment in spirit, but a matter of real detachment. You don’t own things. You don’t look to own things. You don’t hoard. You don’t collect. You have only what you need and if you have a surplus, you look to share. We are physical creatures in a physical world. We can’t live at some “spiritual” level unless our bodies are there, too. So the goods have to go.
There can be humiliation in this kind of poverty. We sometimes have to ask for help. Those who give are then blessed in the giving. Going to fellow Christians and asking them to share isn’t that humiliating, though, when they give in goodness and generosity, as members of the family of God. The humiliation is when we have to turn to the State for help, guaranteed under law, and have to answer all the too-personal questions and face the inevitable sense of judgment. We get to experience this so that we can understand what other poor people live through. We will manage to find work soon, since we have job skills and contacts. (Hiring is slower and more complicated than it used to be.) Some people will never find suitable work, because they lack education, or skills, or a network to help them. “Get a job” is incredibly humiliating when you know there is no job out there for you.
Remember the poor, in thy giving and in thy prayers. It may be thee some day who turns to thy fellows for help and succour.
Did I tell you that we have a new favourite theologian? I probably did, with my usual evangelic zeal. This man, now home with Christ, was a Mennonite theologian who had studied under Karl Barth in Basel. He was probably one of the sharpest thinkers of the twentieth century, a real no-nonsense, no-excuses Anabaptist. If you have not encountered Politics of Jesus (1972, Wm B. Eerdmans Co.), it’s time.
I want to quote briefly from the book, but it is difficult to find the right sound bite. Yoder is not a sound bite kind of writer. His arguments are well-reasoned and complex. I just can’t believe that in seven years of theological education, no one told me about Yoder (or Anabaptism, except in the negative way.)
On the Haustafeln (house tables or rules of order) in the New Testament epistles:
“After having stated the call to subordination as addressed first to those who are subordinate already (my note: slaves and women) the Haustafeln then go on to turn the relationship around and repeat the demand, calling the dominant partner in the relationship to a kind of subordination in his turn. Parents are asked not to irritate their children, husbands are called upon to love (agapan) their wives. Philemon is invited to receive Onesimus ‘no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, both in the flesh and in the Lord,’ as he would receive Paul himself. That the call to subordination is reciprocal is once again a revolutionary trait…” (Politics of Jesus.)
We practice this radical subordination because Christ became subordinate to the redemption of humanity. Christ gave us the example and imperative of defencelessness, a choice to practice subordination and meekness. Yoder and his students made this clear: Pauline ethics are not just a Christianized reiteration of Stoicism or Judaism, but unique and new. Wives and slaves are in obedience to husbands and masters not because they have a lesser role, but because the husbands and masters are now in obedience to them, as well, in the unity of Christ. The covered head of a woman and the iron cuff of a slave are no longer signs of subjugation, but signs of the headship of Christ under which both the husband and the master are now subjects.
The “politics of Jesus” aren’t a matter of who God may favour, or of sovereignty on earth, or of controlling money, but the politics of defenceless, nonresistance, and the politics of peace.
Some years the garden is a marvel to behold, a miniature Eden, full of fruit in season, lots of it, plenty to eat, plenty to share, plenty to store for the long winter. The plants blossom like girls in party dresses, the stalks grow like twelve-year-old boys in new jeans. The sun is right, the rain is right, the breeze is right, and the varmints stay away.
I don’t think I’ve ever had one of those years.
Something goes wrong every year. I got the garden in late because we moved to a place where there was no garden spot and we had to prepare the soil; the spring was cold and wet; the summer was cold and wet; the fall was cold and wet. Deer/raccoons/mice/squirrels/sheep/chickens ate the seedlings and fruit. The frost came late/early. Cutworms moved into the neighborhood. Some helpful person picked all the beans/peas/tomatoes before they were ready. Well, you get the picture.
This year we had beautiful plants – tall, strong stalks and lots of blossoms. But the fruit didn’t set, except for a few peppers. Then the peppers disappeared. Squirrels had decided that our garden was an early morning snack stand, and the baby tomatoes and little peppers were just vanishing. I finally put down soap chips and dog hair, and they have stopped trying to take everything, but that might be because the tomato plants got too tall to be raided! We did have some really good peppers and the herbs, except the parsley, have done well. So it isn’t a total loss, and it does look really nice.
God made squirrels, too. I like squirrels in their proper environment – that is, outside my garden. They may be close relatives to rats, but I like some rats. Rats are smart and funny. Squirrels may not be very bright, but they are amusing. (I won’t mention their wars in our backyard, though. They can be nasty with each other.)
We had counted on homegrown food to help offset the grocery store costs. We didn’t get much. But so far, God, in His bounty, has provided. We pray that He continues to provide. I guess the big issue is, does our consumption mean someone else won’t have enough? Does our Standard American Diet deprive someone else of food?
This is part of our pacifism, that our actions do not harm someone else. We have found out that some things we enjoy are very costly in the distribution of food to others. Beef, for instance. Grain and water go to feed cattle that become hamburgers and supermarket steaks. That grain is desperately needed to feed people in impoverished, drought-stricken countries. Beer is another environmentally expensive choice. It uses a large amount of grain and water, too. And the shipping costs are high – fuel that could be saved or utilized in more practical ways.
I used to buy ethanol for my car years ago, then it dropped off the market. Now it’s back as bio-fuel. It’s made from corn, mostly. This is not really a good alternative to petroleum. It ties up acres of productive farmland so we can drive cars. Do I need to say that people are starving, people who would gladly eat the corn we are grinding up into car-fuel?
Remember the parable of the talents? The master of the estate gave his stewards certain amounts of money to invest and manage, and when he came back, two of the stewards had made good use of the money. But the third had buried his in the ground, and was punished for wasting what his master had entrusted to him. Is our selfish use of the vast resources of North America the same thing, burying what God has entrusted to us in our own desires? Shouldn’t we be investing the bounty of the Lord in the Lord’s people, the poor?
Do you ever have those middle-of-the-night moments, when you wake up and remember something odd? Now, I wear mostly traditional plain dress, and like it, but some of that is adapted from modern clothes, like a jumper over a plain longsleeved dress, practical and modest. And I prefer traditional fabrics like linen, wool, and cotton denim.
But maybe if you are looking to “get started” without going all out, this is a source I suddenly remembered from my childhood: Vermont Country Store. They have an online catalog, and they are a source still for traditional jumpers and dresses, some in knits, pretty feminine prints, and the sort of ordinary stuff my mother and her friends wore. This is not an endorsement in some way – I haven’t purchased from them in years, but they have an excellent reputation. Their US prices are a bit high for my budget, but one could put together a good, modest, almost plain work wardrobe without paying those outrageous mall prices.
After you’ve done something for a while, you forget all the little shortcuts and nuances because you just do them. So here’s a little upgrade on laundry.
Wringers are expensive, but very useful if you are not a strong person or if you’ve had wrist and hand injuries. Used ones are often all dried out and the rollers hard to replace. New ones are available at some general stores, like Lehman’s. They are between $140 and $190 US, and attach to the washtub. A complete hand washer is about $600, which seems to be out of range for many of us, but if a couple of families bought it together, it would be worth it.
Lehman’s, which supplies a lot of Old Order families, also has scrub boards at a good price. They don’t pay me to say this, but I’ve had good experiences with Lehman’s. They have an online catalog.
I forgot to tell you that some white vinegar in the rinse tub (about 1/2 cup or so) will cut the soap scum so that it doesn’t settle back on the clothes if the water gets saturated. The vinegar smell dissipates in drying. For the delicate things, add some essential oil (lavender is nice), just a few drops in a small tub for the rinse. Your lingerie drawer will smell great.
Drying racks can get quite pricey. They should be made of very smooth hardwood dowels or plastic coated metal. Cheap ones don’t last long, and either splinter or bend if they are wire. But it might be all you can find. See if a craftsman will make a good one for you if you have to do a lot of indoor drying. Put the rack a few feet from the wood stove or in a sunny window in the winter, and the clothes will dry quickly while humidifying the house.
I am looking for an old-fashioned sad iron (metal bases with detachable handle) that doesn’t cost too much. Antique ones are available, usually without the handle, and they are often rusted. The metal bases heat on the stove. You clamp on the handle, iron away, and switch to another hot base when the one you are using cools. There are propane-fired irons, but these are a bit scary and really don’t solve the fuel problem. Steam is generated for the sad iron by sprinkling the clothes or ironing them while still damp from the wash. I remember the older women sprinkling the clothes with a little cap that fit over a glass bottle, then folding them, wrapping them in a towel, and refrigerating before ironing. The little sprinkling caps are still sold by general stores.
This makes wash day sound like a huge chore, but it is really one of the breaks in routine that can be fun. I like the pace of handwashing and ironing, and it is the day you can say, “Sorry, I’m really busy,” and have some time for your own thoughts while your hands work. It is just instant gratification to rub out the stains in dirty clothes and make them look new again. In families with many helping hands, it used to be a time to talk and chat and tell stories.
We need more of that.
I have a very old Micmac pack basket that I still use regularly. I used to refer to it as “the second car” because I used it so much for hauling stuff. Now we have no car, so it is just the pack basket. If you don’t know, a pack basket is a deep rectangular basket, with a flat side to put against your back, and straps like a backpack. They are made in several sizes (yes, they are still made) and they are excellent for carrying awkward shaped things down a trail. They hold about a week’s worth of groceries for us, or a large bag of dry dogfood and ten pounds of potatoes, as on its last trip from the store.
I cite the pack basket as one of the useful things from the past that is still available for those looking for the simple life. But – warning! – they are expensive. If you want one, best to go to a basket store on a reserve to avoid the retail mark-up. Sometimes crafters will have them at farmers’ markets or craft shows. I have never seen an old or antique one in a store in good shape, probably because they are still useful at home.
The one I have was my father’s, and I think he acquired it in the sixties from an older farmer who no longer could use it. By the style, it is older than fifty years. It is still in excellent condition, made from thick ash and has canvas web straps. People sometimes offer to buy it from me. I won’t take less than $1000. And then they say, “Oh, come on…” but that’s what it is worth to me. In other words, I’m not selling.
I think the pack basket is a good choice for women. My husband complains that it rides too low on his back, when he wants the weight across his (very strong) shoulders. Women tend to carry weight against their hips – babies, laundry baskets, bundles, groceries in sacks, small animals. I find the pack more comfortable than he does, and unless it is very heavy, I wear it. I think I am going to rig some carry straps for him to tote purchases that come in big awkward bags, like flour, potatoes and dog food.
As for the archetypal Hudson’s Bay blankets: When my older sister and I were quite young, perhaps not yet in school, we spent a few days at a neighbour’s house. I don’t remember why, except my mother was probably in the hospital with a new baby. It was winter, and we were put to bed in a cozy little bedroom at the top of the stairs. It had two doors, one to the hallway and one into the kitchen wing of the house. The double bed we slept in was under a window, and I suppose the grandmotherly lady caring for us was concerned that these two little girls would get cold. We were literally tucked into bed under two Hudson’s Bay blankets, the white ones with the coloured stripes and the point markings. I remember that I could not move under these blankets! I really could not roll over or get myself out of the bed; I was effectively trapped for the night, unless I woke my sister who could assist in pushing off the blankets.
And then when we, my husband and I, lived in houses with heat from woodstoves, and the fire going out in the night or the wind coming up and stealing the warmth out of the barely insulated building, I remembered those Hudson’s Bay blankets. I’m a little stronger now, so I could get out from under them unassisted (I think).
The authentic blankets are still loomed by Woolrich; they are available from a variety of outlets. Antique or vintage ones are available as well, even on internet auction sites, for a lot less. I am wary of old textiles, as much as I love them, since they can harbour molds and dust mites that make me very ill. If I were to acquire an old or used one, I would give it a good soak, roll it up in a white sheet, squeeze the water out and lay it flat on a table or screen out of the sun to dry. An hour or so in midday sun after it dried would help kill anything unpleasant that remained. (Yes, you can wash wool. Avoid shocking it by quick transistions from hot to cold water and it shouldn’t shrink or felt. Sheep get wet all the time without any effect on the wool. Don’t wring or rub wool when it is wet, or you may break the fibers. Dry it flat so it doesn’t stretch.)
So there are two old things from my childhood that are still useful for the simple life. There are probably more, and I may comment on them as it occurs to me.
Thee may have noticed that I have begun adding some posts that use “Plain speech” – the Quakerly use of thee and thy. I didn’t think I would, but I find when I do, it puts my mind in sobriety and meekness, and I need a lot of that. “Plain” speech was a Quaker usage, not an archaism but an evolved pattern of speech from Elizabethan English. It is not the same as Anglican Prayer Book or King James Bible English. The verb forms are the same as used with “he” and “she,” according to some, but that seems awkward to my Elizabethan mind, and I end up using second person instead, so if I have been inaccurate, I ask thee to correct me as necessary.
American Quakers used the “thee” form well into the twentieth century, but it is mostly gone from daily speech, and remains more common in written communication between Conservative Quakers. It is the verbal equivalent of the prayer cap or flat black hat, a signal that a Quaker is present. It seems to be reserved now for Spirit-led communication, which I think makes it especially beautiful. Perhaps traditional Quakers use it in speech and correspondence amongst themselves or between Meetings, but I have not been the beneficiary of any of that, so I don’t know. Perhaps a sister or brother can inform us.
A sober mind is a good state to cultivate. It is the garden soil from which the beauty of the Spirit may grow. It is a prayerful attitude, a “praying always.” Keep thy mind on the things of heaven, friends, and avoid the things of the world, for they are distractions to the work of God. Keep thee from frivolities – television, novels, shopping for trinkets and status – so that the Spirit will find a willing home.
One of the best things about a blog is that the reader can dialog with the author. That’s what the “comment” box is for. If anyone is new to blogs, and doesn’t know about the method, this is how it works:
You go to the comment box. You say anything you want. You send it and it goes to my e-mail account. I read it and decide what to do with it. It is not automatically published. You will get a message saying that your comment is awaiting moderation. I can add it or delete it. If you give me your email address, I can reply personally “offpage”.
If you have something to say that you don’t want others to see, I will respect that, so just ask me to keep it private. I prefer to know who you are, so please sign your comment. Unsigned comments will not be published, nor will I reply to any that are anonymous. But you can still say what you will.