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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.
Happiness, gratitude, joy: Words that are bubbling through social media, in publications and in books currently on the best selling list. As Christians, how can we be concerned for these, while serving Christ fully?
There is no wrong in being happy, feeling grateful, or looking for joy. The real concern for Christians is that we displace our dependency on and faith in God while seeking these pleasures. While all measures of such positive emotions must be, in some way, a gift from God, we are concerned principally with receiving these graces directly from God, and not from our own selfish pursuits.
I could not avoid Victoria Osteen’s words on happiness and God. Many Christians were shocked, or at least troubled, by them. Here is a quote from the broadcast, purportedly Mrs. Osteen’s words:
“I just want to encourage everyone of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.
“So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”
Of course, there is a huge problem in that first sentence. Yes, obeying God, when we are doing it, in an important way, is for God. It is for “our own good” in another way, but certainly not to make us happy, as in having pleasant emotions. Eventually, obedience to God will give us happiness, and more, but first, we must pass through a lot of negative emotions. The fear and uncertainty is to cleanse our spirit of sin and our inevitable loss of God when are main concern is to seek our own happiness. Obedience to God does not change God, or make His life easier; God does not need us in that way. We please God to walk in His way, which is the way that leads to peace, true love, and spiritual maturity. Obedience to God is to further the very real goal we have with Him, to “build His Kingdom” by keeping temptation and sin at bay.
Does God take pleasure in our happiness? The Bible would seem to say that God takes pleasure in our obedience, as we pray, study His word, and follow His commandments. Happiness as in seeking pleasure, in pleasing ourselves, even if it costs others peace, happiness and comfort, is not according to God’s will. That kind of happiness is merely selfishness, a childish desire to meet our whims and petty desires.
There could be a married couple, where the husband has taken money committed to supporting the family, and purchased something that fulfills a desire he has had, something like a sports car, or a cruise. He is incredibly pleased with this, but his wife is appalled. The money had been meant for education, or a new house, or their retirement. The husband is happy; the wife and family can share this new experience and perhaps they will get some pleasure from it. Still, the husband’s immediate happiness and anticipated pleasure has robbed the family of some security, or even thwarted a plan to improve the family’s life overall. A car or a cruise would not be a bad thing in itself. He didn’t buy anything dangerous or illegal. yet the family will suffer longterm for his decision to make himself happy.
Does worship make God happy? Many times, God condemned Israel for their empty ceremonies. Paul admonishes the churches for being more concerned about putting on a show and having a feast than in praying and expressing gratitude to God. The people attending these ceremonies and gatherings may have been very happy in that experience. They may have been even ecstatic, dancing and singing, crying out in unknown languages, overwhelmed by the excitement and attention.
I Kings 9: So He said, “Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”…
The wind, earthquake and fire whirling around Elijah were not God. The still small voice that whispered directly in the prophet’s ear was God. Elijah was expecting the quiet voice; the excitement was something else. The noise and shaking were a response to the presence of God, but not God.
Happiness is like that. Pleasure is one thing God uses to drive us closer to Him, to announce His presence. Humans, though, have corrupted that pleasure, and we can find it in things, places and sensations that God would not give to us. The pleasure of sin is short-lived. It will fail us. Seeking pleasure in consumption, in gaining power, or in idleness is sin. It will, in the end, ruin us for God’s ultimate purpose, which is to bring us to Himself.
Even attending church and enjoying what seems innocent and enlightening can separate us from the love of God. If we turn our attention to those who claim to be teaching God but are only teaching about themselves, we will fall into sin. We will share the hubris – destructive pride – of those who misuse God’s name to gain the pleasures of this world.
When I saw Victoria Osteen’s words on God and happiness, my first thought was, “Tell that to the martyrs.” These witnesses of the faith did not serve God by being happy. My guess is that they were often unhappy, as they were imprisoned, hunted, interrogated or tortured, and then killed. There is no real pleasure in that. I believe, too, that those who are martyred for faith often had an incredible, indescribable joy. They received the best gift from God in that, a consolation that they were close to Him, in His presence, as they found courage in the Holy Spirit. They had the peace that passes all understanding even as they were in pain, hungry, wounded and frightened.
Joy is not just happiness. Happiness can be as fleeting as eating an ice cream cone on a hot, sunny day. Happiness can be the mere moments we lose our concerns and worry while watching a comedy or reading an exciting book. There is nothing wrong with that kind of happiness, as long as we don’t think that is all the happiness we need. That kind of happiness becomes addictive, and we need more and more to even begin to feel happy in it. True happiness never takes from others, or puts our own pleasure above theirs. Mere pleasurable happiness is not going to lead to joy.
The joy we find in God is not something we can turn on and off. We can’t go shopping for joy. Joy is like stepping into a beautiful lake to swim, at the right time of day, and finding that is the right temperature, the right depth. The same lake may not yield that pleasure of rightness every day; we can even go and merely sit on its shores some days. Yet it is always there, and when the great confluence of grace and heart meet, God and His loving, humble creature, we are bathed in those joyful waters.
Victoria Osteen’s words on happiness may have been careless, spoken more in enthusiasm and a desire to please than in a wickedness to turn us from the way of God. Personally, I ignore anything Joel and Victoria Osteen say. Their way of living and their public presence do not seem, to me, to be the way to God. Their speeches and sermons are empty words. Don’t be deceived, but do not treat them with contempt and hatred. Don’t be envious of their success, as it is merely worldly. All pleasure that is not of God is a millstone around the neck. Praise, fame, admiration, riches and possessions are a puff of smoke in eternity. Many follow these people and have made them rich. But to say that is the reward God has given them is to say that those beloved of God who professed Christ in pain, poverty and death are wrong, and we know this is not truth.
Ash Wednesday is this week; this means beginning the Lenten disciplines. In this world where there is a huge gap between those of us who HAVE and the many, many who HAVE-NOT, fasting is a necessary discipline. First, it teaches us to do without, because in every life there are seasons of having less than we need, whether it is food or love; second, it puts us in solidarity with the poor, who daily suffer a lack of necessities; third, by cutting back what we spend on food, we have more money to share with those whose income does not meet their need. Keep the fast: Vegan and vegetarian meals, substituting beans and legumes for protein, with rice and whole grains and simply prepared vegetables. If fruit is expensive, skip it. Make time to cook and bake for yourself, which means giving up other pursuits like television, computer games and shopping. Go to church and pray regularly, so that your fast is not just self-congratulatory acts. The money you are not spending on groceries and self-indulgences then goes to a charity, or directly to the poor.
I am not open to hearing any excuses or exceptions. If you must make them, do not lessen the resolve and dedication of others, so keep them to yourself.
Anyone who even brings up Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers will be given a penance. My experience with Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers is that more people come to them than will attend church throughout Lent. No fast, no feast.
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
Advent is almost upon us. Traditionally, this is a season of preparation for the great festival of the incarnation, Christmas in the West, Nativity in the East. How do we prepare to greet our King? We clean everything, we get ourselves in good shape, we pay our dues to Him. Spiritually, this means prayer and repentance, fasting (cutting back on food and drink), and giving to the poor and disadvantaged.
It does not mean shopping and giving or receiving gifts, or going to parties. That is all reserved for the Twelve Days – the Epiphany celebration, from Christmas Day to January 6. In this world many, if they have heard His name, have never felt the joy of His gifts on earth. We should keep in mind that our celebration should be quiet, inexpensive and in keeping with a sobriety that remembers those who have been lost to famine and disease.
Here are some resources to help plan for Advent, Christmas and the year to come:
Advent Conspiracy is a programme to motivate people to move away from materialism and the cultural push to spend and borrow. It is geared toward group participation, such as a church. Pastors can utilize video and print resources directly from the website.
Another charity helping people who are caught in the worst conditions is Samaritan’s Purse. They are best known for “Operation Christmas Child” which sends gifts to school-age children around the world. I’m not a big fan of the OCC shoeboxes myself; many people are clueless as to what is appropriate so there ends up being a lot of waste. It does get people started on thinking about those in great need in other places, though. If you think you and your church or family are ready to move past the shoeboxes, a donation or a collection drive for Samaritan’s Purse efforts to relieve famine is a great undertaking.
Samaritan’s Purse does relief work in many countries; they were in Haiti and Japan and are very active in Africa right now. They have a good track record of relief monies reaching those in need.
I will post more on other charities every week, or more often. I appreciate any references and personal stories, as well, if I may use them publically. If you wish to write to me privately, my email is email@example.com. Gmail is a great spam filter, so I am not at all worried about that. Send photos if you wish to publicize what your church or organization is doing. It will encourage others.
We see it ahead, now that Halloween is past; American Thanksgiving lies in its path…Christmas. Our friend George, downriver, saw the first lighted Santa lawn ornament yesterday. The advertising fliers have arrived, full of Christmas gifts, food, decorations. The silly season is upon us.
This the season to pretend we are what we are not. We are rich, successful, urban bon vivants. We are people who throw great parties. We have gourmet tastes, and banker budgets.
We’ve seen “A Christmas Carol” and read the book; we love “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We think Christmas is going to be:
And instead it is Chevy Chase and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
The fliers from Canadian Tire and Wal-Mart have all the tackiest Christmas decorations anyone could want, because nothing says the joy of the first Noel like a huge inflatable plastic snowman. Mostly, in this climate, they partially deflate from the extreme cold, and flip themselves over in the high winter winds. It looks as if Santa jumped from the flying sleigh, and his parachute failed to deploy.
Then there are the gifts that seem to appear only at Christmas. Beyond the gag gifts (mooning Santas, ugly reindeer sweaters, tinsel jewelry) the stores stock up on odd appliances. This year I see something called a wine aerator, and I have no clue how that works, as if the $12 plonk you do drink could use a little oxygen to improve the bouquet; a travel blender, because don’t you hate staying in a hotel room where you can’t have daiquiris in the middle of the night; various massaging foot appliances, from booties to baths; the usual suspects of electric shavers in various styles and genders; coffee makers that do everything from grind beans and heat the cream to duplicate the processed sweet sticky mocha drinks you usually buy at the convenience store; and crackling wick ™ scented candles, and I have no idea what that means.
The catalogs and store fliers show svelte young women in spangly, low-cut dresses. I wonder how many women actually buy these dresses for the rounds of holiday parties. Maybe they do in wealthier enclaves; here party wear is jeans and sweater and parka. The fancy dress-up might give us a momentary sense of, just this once in the year, being in the 1% instead of toward the bottom of the 99%, but it also seems a fantastic waste of money and spangles. First, when will you ever wear it again? (Clue: Never.) Second, we live in the snowbelt, and that wee bit of spandex and glitter will not keep you warm if the car breaks down two miles from home.
Saddest is the Christmas food. Not the candy canes, which are just sugar and flavouring, but the “have on hand for drop-in guests” frozen hors d’oeuvres and desserts. Little bite-sized pastry wrapped savoury things; chocolate dipped everything-else. Are we sitting at home, waiting for friends and neighbours to just drop by to admire our lovely Christmas decorations, bring a small but tasteful gift, and flaunt their spangly Christmas clothing? More likely we are folding the laundry on the couch, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” If the neighbours drop by acting all uptown, they are likely to get coffee and pretzels.
I’m suspecting that the retailers and merchandisers are in for a big surprise. Too many people are unemployed or underemployed. If they have credit cards, they may be unwilling to charge gifts and treats when they are hanging on to any unused credit balance in case they need car repairs. Maybe the days of sitcom Christmases are over. I won’t miss that, because I never had them, really.
And the chocolate-coated-everything will be half-price by December 27.
Back when I was a young mother, “The Tightwad Gazette” was a hit among our circle of friends. Most of us were under thirty, in first-time jobs, starting families and households. We loved Amy! We needed this kind of advice, and for people my age (now over fifty) it helped us feel normal as frugal people, and not like paupers when we compared ourselves to the consumer culture spreading through our society like an influenza virus. Amy and her family lived in Maine, like our little group, and many of us shared the same conditions and challenges her family had.
We learned to make our own granola, bake our own bread, darn socks, clean with baking soda and vinegar, establish car pools for work and playgroup, refinish furniture and power-shop garage sales and thrift stores. We used it up and wore it out, made it do or did without. I admit: My mother and grandmother taught me most of this, but it was new to the people who had moved to almost rural Maine in the late sixties and early seventies, looking for a quieter, healthier way of life. Amy helped them find it, as they had left a suburban and urban world that was rapidly evolving into the greedy, status-hungry mess we now see.
Amy and her frugal companions never advocated harming your family by neglecting nutrition, good sanitation or medical care. They advocated giving gifts and helping others. They did not mean “tightwad” as in miser; it was a humourous play on how others characterized them when they saved buttons and zippers from old clothes that they then made into patchwork quilts or diapers. They weren’t hoarders. If you want you can find photos and interviews on video with Amy at her home. It is spare and clean. Her collections of reusable items are well organized.
But times have changed. And this is why I am not a tightwad. We are just poor. I do employ those old ways of keeping body and soul together; I have food in the house at all times because I have a supply of dried foodstuffs in the pantry – beans and lentils, flour and cracked wheat, potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips I bought in quantity, which should last us at least a couple of months. We have firewood, and we installed a woodstove because we could not afford to heat with oil or electricity, which were the existing systems in the house. Our reasoning was that it is cheaper here; seasoned firewood is available from our landlord; and in the worst case, we can scavenge wood, which we can’t do with oil, electricity or propane.
Back when I was a young householder, it was possible to buy or rent a big old house in rural Maine with barns and sheds, acres of land, and maybe a woodlot. A couple of Jotul stoves and a big garden later, you were good to go. This isn’t possible now. The houses are older and losing condition if they weren’t renovated 30 years ago. Woodburning stoves are expensive and old ones are no longer acceptable to insurance companies. For someone without a woodlot, cords of wood in an area where there is high demand can run as much as oil overall.
Many of us have to look at living in smaller houses, and even micro-homes, less than 500 square feet. Ours is less than a thousand, but since we use only four rooms principally, we use about 700 square feet of living space.
This is why I can’t be the classic tightwad, and I’m not sure I am inclined in that direction. We can’t afford the space to store all the bits and bobs to be re-used; we can’t trawl the thrift store and garage sales for items to be stored for later. All my extra fabric, notions, items for resale and out of season coats have to be stored in a dresser and one closet. In a micro-home, there would be even less room, and it makes no sense at all to rent a storage locker for $25-$100 a month to store items that could be purchased new for less. I’ve seen what happens when people with a tiny home start to store those things – the vintage finds for resale (that don’t get sold); the bags and boxes of extra clothing the children outgrew and haven’t yet grown into; the hardware, kitchenware, linen, toys, appliances, and even lumber for the house that is not yet built, and can’t be built until the two acres is cleared of sheds, old trucks in various stages of cannibalism, piles of scrap metal to sell, and firewood to cut and split.
I limit the saving. I don’t stock up unless I am certain I can use it within its lifespan. I am the opposite of a hoarder – I get rid of things when they have not been used. I find this is the only way to live in a small house without getting overwhelmed.
There is still plenty to be learned from Amy and the tightwads of my generation. But I think we are all going to have to look at the reality of downsizing – of consuming less – of turning old things into new things by recycling rather than storing for later. So if you have trash bags full of old detergent bottles for the Scouts to turn into bird feeders, well, just go ahead and take them to the recycling center. It’s time.
I live on the banks of the St. John River, between Grand Falls, where there is a deep gorge through which the river falls, and the broad expanse of the same river at Perth-Andover, two villages joined by a bridge older than I am. The next nearest community is New Denmark, across the wooden decked one lane bridge across the river, and up steep slopes.
I was priest in the Anglican Parish of Denmark (New Denmark, Lake Edward, Medford and Limestone Siding). We go to church at St. Ansgars, New Denmark. While my side of the river is wild and wooded, with tiny upland or river side farms carved out of wilderness, New Denmark is neat and well-kept, a microcosm of its original.
It was a peaceful place to live. The two churches, Anglican and Lutheran, face each other across the main road. The Anglicans came first, but the bishop had to find a Danish speaking priest. They had the only Danish language Anglican service in the world. A very few original Danish prayer books remain. I occasionally had bilingual Danish-English services.
The neat farms and their hundred year old farmhouses remind me of Amish farms, except that occasionally some householder will break with the usual pattern of white house and black trim to have red trim and shutters. Few houses within the parish limits are painted anything but white or the shades common to red or yellow ochre.
Most of the land along the main roads is cleared in fields, with hedgerows between. When the Danes first arrived, they had expected cleared land as they had farmed in Denmark, where all the woodland was owned by nobility, and many of them had farmed as tenants rather than as landowners. They were not prepared to clear land, but over the last 140 years, they have opened the forests and maintained good farm land when in other parts of the province the fields were neglected and have returned to forest.
Like the Amish, the Danish farmers have a reputation for being frugal. After I was appointed to New Denmark, I visited back in Maine, attending church at New Sweden. “Well, now,” said one friend there, “so you are in New Denmark. I remember when the Danes all came here to buy our old farming equipment!” “And who is still farming?” I asked. “Oh, they are,” he agreed. Frugality does pay.
When I lived in the rectory, I had quiet neighbours. There was the Lutheran pastor’s family across the street, and a retired widow next door to her. Behind me were neighbours who never made a sound.
I didn’t mind living right over the cemetery. I had the most beautiful view from a rectory anywhere in the diocese – and my first rectory had been directly on the Bay of Chaleur. There is nothing more magnificent than the ever-changing light and shadow in this spur of the Appalachians.
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.
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.