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as Plain as can be

The Witness of Plain life is not for everyone. It is a rocky road to walk, and it is a narrow way. The Holy Spirit has called a few of us out of our old lives into this New Life, and though it is a path trod by others, we are not a throng.

I think some people – women particularly – are in love with this expression of faith because they have encountered it in romantic situations. They read novels set among the Amish, they have visited Old Order communities, or they have admired a much younger Harrison Ford in the movie “Witness.” While this is an introduction to the Plain Life, it is not the whole of it.

Plain Life has its roots in Anabaptism, a separatist movement at the time of the Reformation. (You can look up the history on-line; I’m not going to go over old ground here.) The core doctrines of Anabaptism are believers’ baptism (hence adult baptism or rebaptism), pacifism and nonresistance to violence, and the two kingdoms (God’s Kingdom of the faithful and Satan’s kingdom of this world.) The physical sacraments of baptism and communion (the Lord’s Supper) were retained from the old church.

So it’s not just a matter of costume. The early Quakers adopted much of Anabaptist practice, and moved away from the physical sacraments to a spiritual understanding of sacramentality. The simple form of dress was a bit of cross-pollination, it seems. While Quakers learned much from Menno Simons, the Amish and Mennonites who emigrated to North America adopted Quaker standards and styles of Plain dress.

What is common to Plain people from these traditions is pacifism and nonresistance. This goes beyond refusing to answer an assault with like kind, but spreads out into a life of peace, including exemption from military service or the punishment for refusing to serve. Quakers and Anabaptists have often suffered because of their pacifism. For the Anabaptists, martyrdom is always preferable to violence.

One cannot be Anabaptist or Quaker and a patriot. They are mutually exclusive. Traditional Quakers will not support an established military; Anabaptists believe that established government is of this world, not God’s kingdom, and the two are by necessity separate.  Their political philosophy is one of self-governance and mutal support within the community, a benign anarchy under Christ. (We are the body; He is the head and sole leader. Bishops, ministers and deacons serve in prayer and humility, not in power and control. That’s the ideal, at least.)

This is one of the reasons that Plain Life is difficult. It represents more than five hundred years of living a way that the world doesn’t understand and that Satan doesn’t want the world to understand. It is a heavy legacy to carry.

I find myself struggling with it daily. I have to ask myself often if I am following the Way of Christ, or if am I following my own notions. I am convicted that Plain Life is the Way to which we are called, my husband and myself, but I also have to ask if decisions I make are based on the Way or on legalism, on following Jesus our Saviour or on compromise with the world. Unceasing prayer is the only solution to the inner conflict, a constant sense of the leading of the Spirit.

We want to be separate from the ways of the world, but we also want to be a Witness, for as John Donne wrote several centuries ago, “No man is an island.” We are interdependent with Christians who are not Plain, as well as with nonbelievers. Keeping in the middle of the road isn’t easy when there are so many distractions around us, and they are so beguiling. But what good is our witness if we will compromise and abandon the principles of our faith on mere whims?

It’s always a balancing act between faithful living and moving through the world.

We just moved to another city, a smaller, older city with a great history, but a very upscale demographic. It also houses several prisons and detention facilities – so go figure! It is rather Dickensian in atmosphere, an intriguing combination of tasteful old money and improbable characters.

And I am again the only visible Plain person. I have to get used to the stares and whispers, and they have to get used to the long black dresses, prayer cap, bonnet and boots. As my husband puts it, “If they don’t look twice at someone with pink hair, why are they staring at you?”

A subliminal impulse is to try to blend in a bit better – wear a colorful scarf over the cap, dress up a bit more. I’ve tried that before, and felt like a brown hen in borrowed peacock feathers. It just doesn’t work for me. It makes me feel awkward and self-conscious, even clumsy. I can’t appear to be what I am not.

I’ve had the opportunity to advise someone who is convicted to become Plain, and she’s not sure how to do this. She thinks she’ll feel conspicuous in a cap, long dress and shawl. She doesn’t know how she’ll explain it to her family. Here is my advice on making the transition.

Begin quietly. Pin up your hair, take off the earrings, switch to plain shoes. Pack up the fashionable clothes and give them to Goodwill or the Sally Ann, or at least put them in the attic. (I say give them away, so you’re not tempted to go back too quickly.)

After a couple of weeks, start wearing a bandanna or kerchief in a dark colour. People may make jokes about it, but you can just say, “I like the way it looks,” and go on with your day. That’s one of the key points to being Plain – don’t care what people think and say; you know it’s right for you, so do it.

Then comes the big day, and you go out in the prayer cap. I began by going to church with my first handmade cap. It was rather old-fashioned, with little lappets and a narrow band, and the ties were mere decoration. One friend instantly called it “becoming,” which was just what I wanted. It became me. Another said it was “fetching and sweet.” Another positive reaction. The Lord spared me the harsh and nasty words at first, although they came a few months later, when I was stronger in my conviction. By then I had learned “to give the bonnet,” as Quaker Jane calls it, and turn my head away slowly and deliberately, as if to say, “That comment/stare/smirk is not worthy of a person’s attention.”

My Plain dress is now so much a part of me that I cannot envision myself in worldly clothes. I dream of myself Plain, it has become so ingrained. It is me, deep down and always. One casual observation made to us is that we were “hardcore Christians.” And that’s a good way to put it. Plain is riskier, more obvious, and more humble than the visible witness of the clergy collar or nun’s habit, because it is so often a subject of derision and contempt. (Stupid Amish seems to be a theme in Hollywood.) And it’s not that the visible clergy and ordered aren’t sometimes subjected to that humiliation. I experienced it in the dog collar and black suit, too, but someone would come to my defense then, perhaps uneasy with the sacrilegious. But no one defends the Plain publicly, at least not in my experience. We have to take it on the chin and roll with it.

Anyone entering Plain life needs to realize that they will be noticed, will occasionally hear and experience negativity, and there is no fighting back. But that is one of the indications that God ordained it for us, that in our Christian witness, we disturb the world.

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