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I had no intention to live in Chicago. I meant to train for a remote location job, then return to Iowa City. Instead, I took a restaurant job, then another one, and then a retail job. I spent a hard winter unemployed, along with a lot of other service industry employees. My income level kept dropping while costs went up. Finally, we decided the only prudent option was to pull out of the big city and head back to Iowa.
We had outreach work to do in Chicago – as we would in any city. I started giving out the day’s leftovers from the restaurant. We added transit passes to our gifts to the poor on the streets, then clothing and meal gift cards. We rallied to meet immediate needs of greater cost such as a night’s lodging, a month’s rent, groceries for a family, medical bills, court costs. Often, this came from my earnings or Father Larry’s pension, as well as from donations of friends and family. We got people off the streets, kept people from turning to crime, filled some empty stomachs, sent people home, and as one person said, saved some lives, by the grave of God.
We moved into a big, 100 year old apartment and called it Hermosa House, after the Hispanic neighborhood where we were based.
But it was always just me.
We had to face the reality that we were broke. Our savings and disposable resources were gone. No one was coming to live in Hermosa House with me. Chicago is scary and for good reason. It has a high crime rate, a high assault and murder rate, and a fractured economy that pushed the poor farther and farther down into debt and despair.
“Though your brother’s bound and gagged
And they’ve chained him to a chair
Won’t you please come to Chicago
Just to sing
In a land that’s known as freedom
How can such a thing be fair
Won’t you please come to Chicago
For the help that we can bring”
That’s from “Chicago” by Graham Nash, written when I was young, some four decades ago. And it is still true. In the meantime, we have lost our idealism, our sense of community, our willingness to sacrifice our own success for the good of others.
You might call that hippie philosophy, but it is really the heart of Christ.
I am now looking for work in Iowa City, staying with Sister Magdalena, who has been part of our order since the early days but hadn’t been able to get more involved. So I need a job, and we need a place that is solely dedicated to the YOKE – a new Hermosa House. With help and prayer, we can do that here in Iowa.
Maybe you won’t be afraid of Iowa City, a middle class, professional university town. Crime rate is low, there are no swaths of abandoned housing. It is a place with a gentle history. It has its problems, including a growing stratification between working class immigrants and “townies,” and the usual American slow simmer of politics and racial conflict.
We may return to Chicago. We will people dedicated to the gospel, though, willing to give up middle class life and worldly measures of success. Chicago is America’s Calcutta. To work with the poorest of the poor, with those abandoned by everyone, one cannot judge by the usual standards. Success is measured by the number of hungry fed today, by housing found for the homeless, by literacy taught to high school dropouts. The gospel is not measured by dollars in a bank account or the value of real estate, or even by the number of pew sitters at Sunday worship.
With lots of prayer, careful dialogue and hands dedicated to God’s work, the YOKE will preach the gospel.
I read a beautiful National Geographic story online about the Sami (or Suomi, or Lapps as we called them years ago.) These are the reindeer people, many of them still living their semi-nomadic life above the Arctic Circle. They are very much in tune with the environment around them, with the signs of weather and the ways of the reindeer. Although they once followed the reindeer according to where the reindeer thought to go, they are now confined to certain pasturing grounds. This has affected how they live by forcing them to herd the reindeer more, using snowmobiles rather than their traditional skis and sledges, and it has changed the reindeer, often causing stress and lower birth rates. The Sami believe, and are most likely right, that the reindeer know by instinct and herd decision where they should be, but the government thinks differently.
A friend recently wrote me with a question about forming Christian community, and I posted to him the article about the reindeer people. This is what I want to do; I almost feel compelled to it. I don’t mean move to northern Norway, but live a life according to the seasons. Christians should be good at keeping the seasons, as our church year is seasonal. Yet we are so often driven by the clock and calendar. We are driven by expectations which, when we examine them, are worldly and not other-worldly. This earth is God’s creation for us. He placed us here. And when Eden was brought up from the mist and mud, there were no roofs or clocks or shops. It was just the animals, God, and then the adama – the people of the earth.
So this earth should be our world, not the world of buying and selling, of status and prestige, of power and money. We speak of the two kingdoms because we humans built the second one; that tower of Babel is not finished, nor abandoned in our desires. There is but one true kingdom, and that is the Kingdom of God. Jesus told His followers that it is at hand – meaning imminent, and at His resurrection, that Kingdom was founded. But in sin and blind ambition, we refuse to fulfill the promise of the Kingdom, and live on in our fantasy world, regulated by clocks, driven by desire, harassed by human, not divine, expectation.
My recent round of illness was aggravated by worry and the feeling that I needed to get a job, get better medical care, get it all done so that I could rest and maybe recuperate. I can hear my mother’s voice yet in my head criticizing the pile of laundry and the dusty floors. Dear mother, you left this world more than decade ago, with not a dirty dish in the sink and the laundry folded. I most certainly would put up with mountains of dirty clothes and floors that yet needed washing to have you back.
When we work closely with animals, a lot of other things hang fire. Sometimes the herder or shepherd leaves everything – dirty dishes, phone calls to return, sermons to write, checkbooks to balance – because the herd needs their human companion. One animal down can cascade into illness through the whole flock. Things must be done when the time is right, usually not a moment sooner nor a moment or two later. The flock becomes the focus. And I believe this is as it should be.
We will not regain Eden before the return of Christ, but we can work at living in God’s Kingdom now. That may seem like an impossibility to many people, who are tied to work hours, with debt to be paid. Nor should our work be other than in the Kingdom; must we work for unethical companies, at soul-destroying jobs? And even if we are satisfied with our work, is it really what God intends for us? Getting free of debt as quickly as possible, planting even a small garden, spending more leisure time in natural surroundings are good beginnings to living closer to the Kingdom. Sometimes our church home stands in the way as well; there’s an issue for all Christians to consider. Is the church itself too much of this world? I know mine is often too concerned with raising money and finding new parishioners, while employing church leaders concerned with their ambition and advancement rather than with the health and well-being of their flock.
I hope to be closer to the Kingdom myself in seasons to come, really closer to our flocks and herds, spending more time as a herder and shepherd rather than as a household manager and professional worrier. I do desire fields and pasture for the animals where they can be what they are, and I can be with them. But we too are constrained by fences and government; we too, as the Sami, must adapt somewhat, even when we see that it is not the best thing. We can always work for change, though. We can work toward restoring something of Eden, a place in which to wait for the Lord’s return. Best that when He comes to us, He finds us at the work He gave us, not the work of the other world.
National Geographic article:http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/11/sami-reindeer-herders/benko-text
More information about the Sami by the Sami: http://boreale.konto.itv.se/samieng.htm
When I was a pastor, people called me often to ask for help. While I had to exercise a certain amount of discernment in addressing these requests, I was, most of the time, fairly uncritical. It is difficult for most people to call someone they don’t know well and ask for help.
The requests ranged from a need to get to the doctor for an appointment to requirements for several hundred dollars to pay a delinquent bill. I know I turned down a couple of requests from people unknown to me because they did not present a good case as to why my church community should help them. These were cold calls made by someone who may have had a genuine need, but were asking the wrong person, or they may have been from someone who scammed local churches for cash whenever they ran short of drinking funds. Sometimes the help I could give was a referral to the food bank or another agency. A couple of times I referred people to the local police department. If a young man called me on a cold fall or winter night, looking for food and a place to sleep, that’s the number I would give him. The local police were not averse to letting a traveller sleep in an empty cell and getting him a pizza or burger.
We local clergy heard from a certain couple twice a year. I don’t know their back story, but they would land in a local town, check into a motel, and start calling around. They were always on their way to somewhere else to work or live with family – Halifax, Ottawa. They always seemed to have enough money for the first overnight stay, but not for a second night, while they waited for someone to send them funds to continue the trip. They needed food or money for medicine. One pastor tried to get to the heart of the matter and confronted them at their hotel room, accompanied by another clergyperson. I think they just got the same story as always – they had hitched a ride with a trucker into town, couldn’t get any farther, were waiting for bus fare from someone’s mother or sister, and all they needed was…
They caught me the next season. They were in a nearby town, just up the river, and didn’t have the money for a second night at the motel but couldn’t get their bus fare until the next day. She was too sick for them to sleep rough; they were out of cash and food. I inwardly scolded myself for picking up the call. No, I wasn’t supplying any cash. I could drop off food but it really was in the opposite direction of where I was headed at the time. I got their room number and called the motel manager. I arranged to pay for their room for the night and allowed for their supper and breakfast at the restaurant. I called them back, explained the deal, and blessed them on their trip, cautioning them that the next time through I would expect them to ask someone else if they stopped over locally.
They stayed within the dollar amount I had allowed for meals, and I did not hear from them again. Nonetheless, the following season they came back through, and got some other minister down river to put them up and provide meals. I think they were just travelers; not gypsies (Roma) or Irish travelers, but people who always had been footloose, working migrant jobs for a couple of decades, who had taken to the life on the road and knew no other. I am not criticising that; they seemed to know that there were limits to our charity and stayed within them. I found it easier to deal with them by being forthright and business-like, and maybe that is all they expected. They always offered to pray for those who helped them. They were just wayfarers, and God expects us to protect them, too. They may have been called bums or hobos at some time, but in a way I admired their simple life, and their unwillingness to be tied down to the status quo. They didn’t bargain with me or offer repayment they couldn’t make. They never offered to work in exchange for a meal and a cot. They were, in their own light, honest.
I wonder how often we secretly bargain with God when we tell Him our woes and troubles and want help. “God, help us find the money-the job-the home-our health – and we will be Yours forever. We will work for You. We will reform and be better people. We will make You proud, if You just help this time.”
When we pray like this, we aren’t being honest. God needs nothing from us, and if He has a mission for us, it will be presented according to our abilities now. God doesn’t wait around until we have completed the training course. He just sends us out, to do His will, and we do it as best we can. Postponing doing that work until He has made us better is a lie we try to tell Him and we most certainly tell ourselves. He sends us out on the road, seemingly unprepared, except that He also promises to hear every prayer and answer every request as we need. We sometimes ask for what we don’t need; God will gently lead us to see why we don’t need it. God doesn’t miss the call, or get it too late, or finds that He doesn’t have enough funds to help out this time. And there is nothing we can do for Him except be honest, and listen in all honesty.
I haven’t posted much on modesty lately. I am so fully immersed in my modest ways, that I no longer think much about it. That’s why the nun’s daily clothing was called a “habit.” There’s a lot to be said for the habit, for just stepping into the simple garments meant to just clothe the body, without a thought as to flattery or appeal. Everything I wear is easy, even if I have to wrangle some pins into it right now. My daily dress routine takes mere minutes, and unless I have some unforeseen encounter with kitchen splatter, garden mud or barn muck, I’m pretty much set for the day, no matter where I go.
I used to be a clotheshorse, being slim and pretty. But that was living in what the world expected of me, not what the Lord expected of me. In choosing clothes and spending time on appearance – hair, make-up, outfit – I was making a little idol out of the image in the mirror. It was about ME. Either it was about my feeling like an attractive woman, or it was about me wanting to be just like others. Even as clergy, that got reinforced. I think many of us had a fear that ME would drown in the collar and suit. We even fretted over vestments, expensive lengths of cloth that cost a small fortune, to be worn one hour at a time on Sunday morning. Choosing the right vestments (for flattery and to express one’s innate good taste and brand of theology) was a major issue. After a few trials, I came to dislike vestments greatly. They are heavy, expensive, easily stained, difficult to clean, and a downfall of pride for priests and clergy. When I had several services a day, wearing vestments felt like spending a whole day modelling wedding dresses. The weight of the cloth, the care needed to keep it unsullied, the moving about in yards of satin and brocade – I dreaded it. I switched down to cassock, surplice and black stole pretty quickly. That felt as natural as a dress and apron.
So why was I still getting into the plastic collar and suit? To prove that I was a real priest? To impress others? Some of both.
What I am doing should tell people what I am. If I’m at the altar, or i n he pulpit, or visiting the hospital, I’m the pastor. But mostly I’m a Christian. Part of what I do is stifle that vanity and pride.
Being a Christian became more important to me than being the priest. I identify more strongly with the simple portrait of Jesus and his disciples in the Gospels than I do with the medieval role of the presbyter.
But I needed to stop identifying so strongly with the cultural role handed to me at birth – attractive woman, whose appearance evokes lust, envy, desire, smug approval, or pride. This is what happens when we unthinkingly, unquestioningly, accept what the culture wants for us, without regard for what God wants. And sometimes when we do question the cultural normatives, we still give in, out of fear of being different, out of pressure from those who don’t like our choice, out of persuasion from friends and family who are embarrassed at our rejection of what they accept. Subconsciously, we know that the adoption of a uniquely Christian way of life and its call to separate ourselves visibly will hold us up to a standard we may fail. We may want that opportunity to let our standard slide a bit.
I found that the clergy collar did not require a high standard. Too many clergy have used the collar to hide their sins. Others in recent years have boastfully worn it in the midst of their worldly life – ambition, envy, desire for wealth and status.
God calls us out of that.
And there’s no excuse for pride of modesty either. I see this in evangelical young women, for the most part, mainly because they are the ones who come to me for guidance and advice. There is a lot of initial enthusiasm, and they flaunt their new modest (but fashionable) dresses and headscarves before their less modest friends. They wear modesty rather than are modest. They are not interested in leaving the sinful world behind while aiming for the new Jerusalem. They want to be the Christian character in the game of culture. Others – usually young American women who have read some Amish novels or have seen some “Amish” themed movies or television – desire the Plain life, but find it means Self disappears into the cape dress and kapp. When the cape dress fails to flatter them as they wished, they abandon it. They have not given up the idol in the mirror.
Plain is as much a dedicated life as the monastery. It is a practice of Christian self-denial, and to some degree, all Christians are called to it. The context of it will be different from one place to another, but it is the same. It is a modesty of forgetting the anxiety around the projection of Self. God requires that we become transparent to His Will, both in receiving it and giving it forth. If what we want to project is our own personality, contrived as that is, we cannot be the medium for God’s Peace.
I will say it bluntly: Christian life, no matter who you are, requires great self-sacrifice. It requires great sacrifice of all that we may hold dear in this world. We don’t live in the world of popular culture – television, entertainment, parties, popularity, personal attractiveness, amusement, status, shopping – we live in the Kingdom of God. Jesus brought it to us, and we inherited it with His death, resurrection and return to the Father. We have it now. What we bring into that Kingdom must be beneficial to all who live in it. What we carry out of it must be what proclaims the Kingdom, and the reality of new life through Jesus Christ. It isn’t just a matter of “believing in him,” a brief prayer that we memorize as a talisman, but a change in our daily lives. We are called by Him – really called, like a parent calling a child home at dusk, and no matter where we are and what we are doing, we are with Him and alive in Him, and He in us. When the rest of the world looks for Jesus, they will see you.
As readers know by now, I am shocked and disheartened by recent world events, particularly the violence we see. I’ve said before that we need to work on our own lives to end acceptance of violence. It is all around us; it is the go-to solution when demanding doesn’t work. It happens on the large-scale when 93 people are killed in one day in Oslo, Norway by a man with homemade bombs and some guns. It happens on a small scale everyday whenever a teenager is beaten for being gay, or a parent hits a child in the name of discipline. It happens quietly with racial slurs and jokes. It happens loudly when a political rally is shouted into an angry frenzy over the issues of immigration and second languages.
I would like to see a large scale dayof peace. This would be a demonstration of unity among Christians, in fellowship with those who are not Christians, for the right to live in peace. We Christians need to step forward as world leaders in the matter of peace. We are the people of Peace; we have the promise of Jesus Christ. “My peace I leave with you.” It’s been done, effectively before. The Civil Rights movement in the USA succeeded with peaceful demonstrations and nonviolent resistance. It has happened elsewhere.
I asked friends on facebook if they would support organizing a worldwide Day of Peace. One said, “Only if it isn’t religious.” Another one said, “Demonstrations don’t do any good. We just have to live lives of peace.” The problem with the first statement is that Christians can’t leave their faith out of things. If we do, we are blocking the Holy Spirit from working through us. After all, our Faith is not a philosophy of doing good and living quietly. It is a belief that God Himself is working to change us utterly and thoroughly, and no part of ourselves or our lives can be set aside from that. The problem with the second is that while people may admire it, they have no motivation to try it themselves, because we make it look as if it is entirely personal, a matter of choosing between equal goods. But Christians, if they read the Bible, can see that that is not the case. We aren’t here to fit in. We are here to stand out.
The apostles stood up in the middle of cities and towns and told the people about Jesus, the Christ, the One who saves humanity from itself. They got arrested and beaten for it, often, but they also, in that witness as well as the witness of Christian life, changed people’s hearts. Following Jesus, they opened the path to God for many. Thousands were moved and joined the people of Jesus. And not once did they say to the people that war would work, that might equals right. Early witnesses in the church (Justin, Origen) emphasize the pacifism – the peace witness – of Christians, who would not even fight against those who would take their lives.
So sitting back and living lives of quiet righteousness may not be enough. My fear is that all Christians will be dumped into the category of people who advocate war and violence; the Norwegian who proclaims himself Christian and then kills innocent government employees, passers-by on the street, and most horribly, teenagers trapped at a youth camp; hawks who hold a Bible in one hand and a bundle of cash in the other, simultaneously quoting Deutoronomy and showering so-called defense contractors with money. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry are what Christians look like in the public eye. We stand there mute as stones while this goes on.
If you believe that the way of Jesus Christ is the way of Peace, that we need to beat our swords into plowshares, that we need to send our public funds to those who are suffering rather than filling the bank vaults of very wealthy war profiteers, then now is the time. Who would get behind the initiative to have a Day of Peace, initiated by Christians?
It has to be the start of a new movement, to bring the Peace of Christ into the world, as He told us to do. It won’t be a one-time only thing and we get to go back to watching “Die Hard” movies and eating corn chips. It has to be the public proclamation that Christians are here to spread the peace that passes all understanding, the Peace that Jesus Christ left with us.
It’s a beautiful day here. The sky is a mild blue, with streaks of white cloud afloat. The breeze comes and goes; the air temperature is mild. The rain yesterday left everything as bright green as an emerald. The garden, after its heartbreaking start in destruction, is recovering. We have baby tomatoes and tiny, ruby-like radishes. The raspberries are hanging heavy on the wild canes; I will be hanging the wash out and then picking some for dessert tonight.
It’s a quiet, bucolic life. I can see the goats outside the window, resting in the grass, enjoying the wind. Nicholas was out early to get their tethers set, and they were incredibly cooperative today in going where they were wanted.
It’s hard to believe that so many families, in a country much like this, are grieving. And it’s not the proper grieving of those seeing off an elderly friend who lived a good and purposeful life. It is the soul-mutilating, life-changing grief of families who have lost children. So many of them, too. All at once, in a nightmare out of a horror film one would not want their children to see on the screen.
First, those who killed and injured in an explosion at the heart of the government, in Oslo, Norway. I think of the many times, when I lived in Washington, DC, that I walked into my own office building, a block from the White House, a building that housed government offices, too. My roommates worked as interns in various agencies and congressional liaisons. We think of terrorists and violent anarchists targeting the White House, or the Pentagon, or Congress. But there are literally hundreds of agencies and support offices tucked into privately owned buildings, where other people work who have nothing to do with the government. So many US government employees are really just clerks, secretaries, office managers, who have nothing to do with policy. Those were the people targeted by bombs in Oslo. People just like us, going to work, stopping for a cup of coffee, planning their weekends.
As frightening and horrifying as the bombings were, what happened next was unimaginable.
My husband, when he was a parish priest, was a big supporter and fundraiser for our nearby church camp. We all sent children from our parishes there for a week of fun and Christian fellowship. My own children had attended Scout camps in the States, always a week of relaxation and silly pranks, and learning. Nicholas’s children went as campers, and the middle child was a counselor for several summers. We all spent time there, chaperoning or teaching or leading worship. And I think of our children – Roland, Alex, David, Matthew, Kaitlin -as if they had been caught in a nightmare scenario there in the quiet woods of New Brunswick, as happened on a peaceful island outside Oslo. I think of all the other children and young adults who might have been there – Brittany, Claire, James, Nick, Zach, Kendra, Andrew, and many, many others. Because you must realize – all these young people knew each other. They were friends, siblings, cousins. Their parents knew each other. They went to the same schools and churches. I will not tell you to imagine what it would be like to lose them all at once. You probably already have today. I can empathize with the pastors, teachers and police who now are helping the families and communities of those lost.
I am not going to lamely excuse this terrible tragedy as “the senseless action of one deranged man.” He may have a serious mental illness that went unrecognized, or he may have hidden it well from those who know him. But those who will rouse both the unbalanced and the sane to hatred of others, who will manipulate with lies and exaggerations to enhance their own power and cravings for control, and those who capitalize on fear and xenophobia for a profit, bear the brunt of responsibility for this outrageous act. Those who call themselves Christians while spewing vituperative words and encouraging violence need to cower in dread when they think of the Great Day, the Dread Day, when the Lord will call them to stand before Him. They had best repent now and change their ways and work for God’s peace, not against it. The blood is on their hands, as well.
As it is on politicians who promote war and violence, who take campaign money and gifts from the gun lobby and the “defense industry”, which would be better termed “war factories.” No Christian should hold a weapon to use it against another human being. Each person is an image of the Creator; to harm that person is to desecrate the One who made the person, and who made the assailant, as well. To sin by violence is to destroy the Divine, both in the victim and in the perpetrator.
“All who take the sword will die by the sword.” Jesus, the Christ who went to His own violent death meekly and abhorring violence, calls for the witness of peace. All Christians, everywhere, need to put down their swords. We need to stop letting “defense” and the right of might be excuses for death. There is no just war. In every war, the innocent die. People going about their business, shopping for groceries, cooking a meal, repairing a fence, looking for a lost sheep, walking to school, hurrying home from work, die because of politics. Bombs. Guns. They don’t change politics; they kill people.
Cut armaments out of national budgets. Stop making weapons to kill people. Don’t glorify violence in literature, on television, in films and in video games.
Study war no more.
It’s a quiet day here, as I am under the damping effects of a minor cold. Colds are slightly more serious for me than most otherwise healthy people. I have an allergy to viruses, and even a cold can cause flare-ups of eczema, hives and angio-edema, the most serious form of that group of allergic reactions. So I am on the couch, coughing and sneezing, waiting for the subcutaneous bump on my forehead to disperse (it usually takes about 24 hours) and doing some on-line reading. I use Google Reader and the tag surfer on WordPress, and this opens up a lot of sites it would take me hours to find on my own.
I don’t have to tell my readers how much misinformation is online about Plain groups like the Amish. People who barely know what Anabaptism is about criticize Amish, Mennonites, and anyone who looks Amish as cultish, needlessly romantic, and anachronistic. The Amish and such Anabaptist groups are not a cult, and don’t come close to a definition of a cult. Most of those misperceptions are based on watching movies and television. Although the Amish follow an ordnung, or code of behaviour, so do most Christians. But most of us in the mainline churches don’t take it seriously; that’s the main difference. Then we sit around in committee meetings at church wondering why so few people care about the church anymore. Our blatant hypocrisy may be the key answer to that question. I could have been accused of this myself a few years ago, and justifiably in some ways. But not in the way most people would think: my divorce and remarriage. That was setting to right situations that had gone horribly, destructively bad. Details aren’t necessary here; but it was the worldliness of other behaviour that was really isolating me from fulfilling God’s intentions for me. I was a clotheshorse and a culture dilettante. I was trying to live with a foot on both sides of the Jordan River. I was called into the Kingdom of God, but I wanted to keep a pied-a-terre in the world.
Practicality is my natural turn of mind. There is nothing baroque about me. “Plain” was, perhaps, easier for me than for others. I think all Christians are called to give up the world as much as possible. We are not to be a frivolous people, and we are always called to a life of sobriety. We are to be considerate, thoughtful, and aware of our place in the Kingdom. We are given joy and even happiness, as long as we do not forget who we are.
I submitted to Plain in dress and way of life. We have occasionally ventured back into some worldly pursuit – television was the worst temptation, when we lived in a place where it was always available – but after a spell, we left that behind. Even in reading secular literature I am always asking myself, “What does this mean to me as a Christian?” We can’t completely avoid interacting with the world and culture, but we are called to do that on His terms, not the world’s.
Giving up a worldly wardrobe was a bit of a wrench at first. Through clothing I told the world who I thought I was. I expected that the world would take me at my word, and it pretty much did. I had a classically proportioned figure and I let the world know that. And as one friend once told me, “You are quite beautiful without make-up, but with it you are stunning.” So I would play up the blue eyes, high cheekbones and cupid’s-bow mouth. I wanted to be admired and desired. But that was making an idol out of my appearance, and that kind of shallow self-absorption was contrary to my natural self, who didn’t care much for frivolous indulgence.
I missed my fine clothes because costume was a canvas for my projection of my pretensions, a rendering of my view of self-worth. Once gone, and once in sober black and grey dresses and white kapps, I didn’t mind anymore. Without make-up, I was more concerned with my real health issues, rather than being focussed on appearing healthy while disguising the neglect of true health.
I took to Quaker Plain dress quickly and easily. It is comfortable, inexpensive and easy to maintain. It doesn’t go out of style quickly. The Amish had adopted Quaker style when they emigrated to Pennsylvania, and the two Christian denominations seemed to have supported and influenced each other for about a hundred years.
But modern day Plain dress, whether overtly Amish as in an ordnung or Conservative Quaker as it has evolved and been adapted, is not historic. Even a hundred years ago Plain Quakers and the Amish had a more elaborate form of dress, especially among women. Skirts were much longer, in keeping with the expectation in the dominant culture that a modest women doesn’t even show an ankle; aprons were at least in two parts, cape and skirt; many Amish did not use buttons but continued to use straight pins, as some conservative groups do today. Kapps covered more of the head, had wider ties, and were invariably tied under the chin, especially among the Amish.
Today’s typical Plain dress is simpler in construction, and shorter. Aprons may still consist of two parts, but are much shorter and use less fabric. Only a handful of Old Orders bother with the open front cape and the innumerable straight pins to hold clothing closed. (And the pins aren’t that bad to use once the wearer gets accustomed to it. I have rarely pricked myself pinning on a dress or apron. I went to safety pins and snaps because my husband became wary of all the straight pins. A lost straight pin is much easier to replace than a lost button, too.) The kapp can be a very light, almost transparent confection that sits gloriously on the wearer’s glossy, swept up hair, or it can be the cupped and pleated style that covers the head from the ears back. It is practical because it keeps the loose ends of hair under control, and I don’t often have to redo my bun and kapp unless I have been caught out in a gale.
As for footwear – shoes have become as much a status statement in Western civilization as an expensive automobile or an exotic vacation. Shoes are a bit of poshness that most women can covet and even express. The more ridiculous the shoe in material and height, the greater the status. Stiletto heels say exactly the same thing as footbinding did in imperialist China. Just like displaying long, painted fingernails, the wearer is saying, “I don’t have to work, walk or do anything for myself.” This is where feminism failed us. Instead of being about equal rights under the law for women, it devolved into “Do what you want.” So how can anyone take women seriously if women act frivolously just because, well, they can? We as women object to men being lifelong adolescents, concerned with sex, fun and drinking. Why do we accept the same sort of role for ourselves, and worse, put ourselves in fetishistic, impractical outfits to do the same stupid things?
I am liberated by Plain dress and Plain life. I am not chained to a credit card anymore. I am always suitably dressed for any occasion, assuming I am not covered with flour, goat hair or garden mud. And if I have become disheveled in doing my real work, I can easily change into a fresh apron. I don’t have to choose special undergarments on which to hang my tight, skin-exposing clothes, and I am not in four-inch high hobbles.
Yes, I dress Plain as a statement of Christian witness, but part of that witness is that I am no longer a slave to the hell-driven commodification from Madison Avenue. Not only has Jesus Christ given me spiritual freedom, following His way has freed me from the anxiety and wasted energy of fashion and status.
Some people say that they find Plain dress too austere – too plain. No colour, no pattern, loose and unbecoming. But there is a traditional Anabaptist group who enjoy colour and pattern.
Hutterite women and children wear bright colours, calicos, plaids and prints. Sometimes they wear them all together. When we were out West in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Hutterite women would shop at Walmart or the market, in their distinctive polka-dotted black kerchiefs, wearing long pleated skirts and a matching, short-waisted, long sleeved jacket. (I can’t seem to find any photos of this ensemble.) They liked bright patterned fabrics, and looked very Eastern European. The men and boys wore white shirts, dark jeans, and white or straw cowboy hats. the babies looked like little Russian dolls, all bundled up in bright fabrics and bonnets.
The women still dress much like this, although the men no longer wear the long jacket, and the sugarloaf hat has disappeared!
These may be one-piece dresses made to look like the traditional vest and skirt, always worn over the white blouse. Each colony – the Hutterites live communally, in groups of about 100-150 – buys a quantity of fabric each year, under the direction of an older woman in charge of the sewing. The families can then choose from the storeroom for new clothes to be sewn. While the men are in charge of the fields, machinery, animals and general business, women take turns at running the kitchen, the sewing room, the school and the gardens. These are all large scale endeavours, as all meals are communal in a common dining room.
Hutterites speak a form of German called Hutterisch. Sometimes families will leave the colony, which while it is considered a disgrace, doesn’t seem to cut them off from contact with their family back home. Many will join Mennonite churches if they choose to live away from the colony. It seems to be a hardship to leave, and learn to live without the support of the community, making decisions about money, furnishings, and even clothing.
Among other Anabaptists, Hutterites are known for their blunt speech and even bawdy, earthy sense of humour. They have some celebrated youth choirs, sharing the Mennonite history of choral harmony.
As we discussed Plain dress recently, I think a number of us offered all the usual reasons for it – conformity to Biblical precepts, practicality, denial of self. These are all good personal reasons for Plain dress; I say it is my Christian witness. When people look at me, they know they have seen a Christian. But couldn’t I do that with a cross necklace, a modest skirt and blouse, a kerchief instead of a prayer cap? I could wear a t-shirt even, with Bible verses and great fish graphics. Christian. I could wear my clerics – Christian.
But as I thought about it I was inspired: my Plain witness is a Witness to Peace. I am a Peacemaker.
The Quakers are, throughout their whole Plain history, notable Peacemakers. The Anabaptists who followed Menno Simons were pacifists. that white prayer kapp, apron and long blue dress say “Peace be with thee.”
My husband’s beard and long hair, as well as his Plain coat and hat, are symbols of Peace. The early priests in the apostolic church grew out their beards and hair as a way to disassociate themselves from the Roman Empire, whose male citizens were shaven and shorn, a symbol that they were eligible to join the army.
Most people know about the Amish mostly from popular fiction like the movie “Witness.” The witness is a young Amish boy, but the “Witness” is the Amish witness to Peace throughout the movie, over against the kill-or-be-killed ethic of the corrupt police force that the protagonist works within.
The white kapp and the black bonnet, the beard and the broad-brimmed hat, are symbols that we, Nicholas and I, are dedicated to that same Witness. We live that non-violence, and we let people know that. We are witnesses – and hostages – to Peace.
Danny Coleman: The Kingdom, the Gospel and Gospel Order – Coleman is claiming the Kingdom Present, as taught by George Fox; a well-written summary, but it is not unique to Quaker theology, as the same can be found in both Anabaptist and Anglican theology.