The Advent Fast

Put away the wreath, the tree and the garlands. Stow the lights and ornaments. It is not Christmas yet. It is the time of spiritual preparation. We all need this. We are not exempt. The bridegroom has gone to prepare His Father’s house for us, and we need to get ourselves ready for the heavenly banquet. Christmas is a remembrance of the Incarnation, of Christ among us, and of Christ’s return. Be prepared!

Out culture rushes us into premature celebration, pushes us to buy things we don’t need so we can give them as gifts, and makes a mockery of Our Lord’s birth and life among us. Let the pagans have their Yule, we have Christ. But He expects nothing less than everything; we aren’t to give His gifts to the world. We must prepare ourselves to be holy people, to receive His holy gifts.

When I recently wrote about the separateness of Christians, I received angry comments, as if we are wrong to be separated, different from the world. One reader insisted that she did not want to be holy if it was exclusive! Of course it is exclusive! Christ didn’t die to make your sins right; He died to make you right! You simply do not get to keep your sinful nature, and once received into the household of God, you must put off your old ways, or out you will go. You cannot bring in other gods, you cannot bring in the gaudy and cheap ways of the world. If you will taste of the cup of grace, you must first wash your hands, clean your face, and put on the spotless garment. God calls you to do this, and obedience is imperative, or the wine and bread will be gall and ashes on your tongue.

Be prepared to sacrifice ease and pleasure. Be prepared to give up some of the little benefits of our wealthy culture – the food especially. We are an indulgent people, easily cossetted, greedy children. Fasting is a healthy exercise.

This is traditional Christian fasting: No meat, eggs, or dairy. No alcohol. No refined oils. Whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit. Very light seasoning. Olive oil and wine can be added on the weekends. (We may add eggs or dairy on weekends, as well, depending on our health.) Nut butters are a staple in fasting season. Hummus made without olive oil is also a good choice. Falafel can be baked instead of fried. The Russians eat sea salt on bread in the fasting season, rather than butter. Since beans without fat are rather bland, cook them with vegetables for flavour – tomatoes, onions, carrots. There are lots of online sources for the fast.

We are starting the fast late since we are in the process of moving, and I may have to adapt it a bit to accomodate my husband’s health issues. I can certainly use a fast, since I gained weight over the last year. I need to get back into my old eating habits. Part of my fast is going to be daily exercise. The dog and I really need it. I restrict her food intake to suit her lower level of activity, but I didn’t restrict mine. This is a fault on my part; I do know better! The fast helps us get our bodies back in line, makes us stronger, and teaches us discipline. It reminds us that all good gifts come from God.

And may I suggest that this year that we do not break the fast with a sumptuous feast, but a modest one? Rather than spending one hundred dollars on your Christmas meals (and that’s just a convenient number – don’t bother telling me “I never spend that much!”) spend fifty; if you usually spend fifty, spend twenty-five. There is no church canon that says you must have turkey, eight side dishes, and five desserts. A smaller turkey or ham or beef; potatoes, beets and other winter vegetables, avoiding the expensive imported ones; and a pie or two should suffice. Give what you save to your local food bank as cash, not canned goods. They need the money to get people through the rest of the winter.

Instead of gifts for the family, give to a family in need. The Salvation Army and other charities have programmes to help people buy heating oil. Donate to one of these. Give to one of the charities that provide farm animals or vegetable seeds to poor communities. Do something with your gift-giving money that doesn’t involve Walmart or the mall.

God calls us to be His people, not people of the world. We are blessed in simplicity and humility, not extravagance and arrogance.

Discernment

This is what I need to discern: I want to go back into formal ministry, but I am reluctant to go back to traditional parish ministry. I am a very different kind of Christian now than I was five years ago. But I have a gift for preaching, liturgy and spiritual counseling. I want to do these things, but I am almost convicted that I don’t want to do it for money.

I need the money. I need an income – Nicholas’s pension will only stretch so far. We need more money to save for our own place, to have a bit of a cushion in case of disaster. We can make it on the pension, with careful management. But –

New glasses. Medical care for me. My obsession – a woodburning heating and cookstove.

And the infrastructure of my church is geared to the paid ministry, even though that isn’t working well. Parishes can’t afford their priests. It makes us into a commodity, even into hypocrites. If we speak against the establishment when the established church is wrong, we risk losing our jobs. If we follow our hearts and the church objects, we lose. How many priests and ministers are compromising well past the gospel? We are called to lead the people of God away from the world and to the gospel’s green pastures, but the flock wants to make the rules about how we get there. Who are we serving, the worldly flock – or the Good Shepherd?

Here is what I need – discernment. Please pray over this and let me know. Pray, wait on the Holy Spirit, and let me know what comes to you. It will help me in my discernment.

God’s blessings be upon thee!

New Year

The church’s new year has started, with the Sunday Next before Advent last Sunday. Most churches call this Christ the King Sunday, following the lead of the Roman church, but I want it to still be Stir Up Sunday (Stir up our hearts, O God) from the old collect. The plum pudding for Christmas should be mixed on this Sunday, a family activity. What with moving and all, I don’t think I will be doing the Christmas baking. That won’t hurt my waistline or our cholestrol levels any.

I am ready to make some resolutions for this new Year of Our Lord, though.

1. Learn, with God’s help, to keep my temper and patience better.

2. Stop rushing. Decisiveness is one thing, impatience is another. I need to find a balance.

3. Work on writing better. I had little time for posts each week, since I had a shared computer. I can now take more time at writing and crafting. I want to write professionally again, so my product needs to look better.

4. Be grateful for what I have, and not always be hoping for something better just to suit my taste.

5. In light of number four above, not settle in false humility for something shoddy and inadequate.

6. Help Nicholas find a vocational niche.

7. Stay off eBay, as it feeds the issues in number four.

8. Work on my own vocation and become a better scholar, a good resource person. I think a bishop would appreciate a priest and scholar who has knowledge and experience in other branches of the church, as I do.

9. Put my enthusiasms in perspective – are they leadings or notions?

10. As part of number three and number eight, improve my skills in some areas – photography and art, textiles, farming, and cooking. Most of my day is work of the hands, not work of the head.

If You Could Ask –

for useful things for Christmas, what would you want?

(PLEASE, if you are planning to start off your comment with why you don’t buy or give or receive Christmas gifts, save it. You might be Jewish, Old Calendar Orthodox, strict Puritan, or something, but we’ll go into those arguments some other time. The point is to clarify what is important to us in our daily life. We are of the earth, earthy, so we need material goods from time to time.)

Everyone likes to be given a wee gift occasionally. It is a way of reminding us that they care, that they want the best for us, and that they are participating in God’s generosity and hospitality.

This is a list of things I would graciously accept and not regift! It is not a hint! Except to family members!

FOODSTUFFS

Coffee, herbal teas, whole herbs and aromatics – cinnamon, nutmeg, white peppercorns, juniper berries, maple syrup, unpasteurized local honey, vinegars – white wine, balsamic, olive oil, chocolate.

PERSONAL CARE

Natural soaps – lavender, plain, or myrhh; good white bobby pins; cornered kapps.

TABLE AND HOME

Beewswax candles, all-cotton dishcloths and tea towels, canning jars, glass storage containers.

BOOKS

Complete works of C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright; writings of George Fox, Wiliam Penn and the early Anabaptists; books by John Howard Yoder; Dickens, Dostoevsky.

FOR NICHOLAS

Works of the Church Fathers and Max Lucado; back support pillow for reading in bed; long underwear; reading glasses.

I doubt if you will find any of this at a Black Friday sale, though.

the greatest gift of all

Indispensable

I’d like to know:

What do you find indispensible?

There are the esoterics – faith, love, joy. But beyond that, what is necessary to make your life a good one?

There are a few things that always go with me: Prayer book and Bible. Boar-bristle hairbrush. Swiss Army knife, or, as I call it, the Swiss Peace-keeper’s knife.

When we are settled somewhere, there a few other things: Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal; my sewing machine; clotheslines and washtubs; a few pieces of kitchen ware that make life easier, and perhaps, possible. Teapot, Gevalia ceramic coffee pot, ancient chef’s knives and a really good cutting block. A cast-iron skillet, an enamelled French saucepan. Wooden utensils, preferably olive wood.

Boots, prayer kapps, bonnet. For Nicholas, an old black hat that is beginning to look as if he inherited it from Jed Clampett. Natural fibre clothes. Boots.

At least one dog.

Each other.

my husband Nicholas

Getting Ready – Homesteading

There’s more to homesteading than milking the goats, it seems. I posted a list of practical things I thought to do first, but it is more than just “back to the land.” It is a mind shift, a sea change, a new way of being in God’s creation.

So these are some other ways to get ready:

1. Thank God continually. I am thanking God for the delays of last year. While we didn’t get started on the homestead, we are moving to a better place than the one before, we had time to recover from our physical and emotional traumas, and we formed a deep, lasting sisterly friendship with someone who had been just an acquaintance before.

2. Put the things of this world out of your mind. We will be leaving television and shopping malls behind, and it’s time to put them in perspective. We don’t need them, we don’t even need to think we enjoyed them much. For others it might be Saturday night at the pub, first run movies, restaurants or salons. It’s not that you won’t ever see any of these again, but it’s best to place them at the back of your mind as something you don’t need, and will hold you back if you pursue them even in memory. We have a Christian friend who works for the Lord, but had a rather dissolute youth. He talks about it a lot – the music, the bar scene, the old friends now gone. Some of us wonder if he finds his present life dull in comparison, even though he is happier and healthier. Live in today, not yesterday. The monastics were always told to forget their past, and not discuss it amongst their brothers or sisters. It’s still good advice for Christians.

3. Give first place to prayer and worship every day. The world forces us out of our daily cycle of prayer and contemplation by making us busy. If we live out of the world’s gravitiational pull, we should be able to resist this busyness. Start the day with prayer and thanksgiving, end it with prayer, praise, and petition. Ask for God’s presence in everything you do. 

4. Take the seasons as they are. Here in the North, we will be cold in the winter, hot in the summer. Snow will block the roads at times. Longing for summer days and notching up the thermostat will just make us poor in spirit and purse. And I am determined to never get caught on the road in a blizzard again! Our old heroic attitude was that we would get through the storm, no matter what, to make that meeting, that worship service, that visit. I’m so sorry, but I’m older now, and saner. Sometimes it can’t be helped – I’ve left home in light snow and driven right into the storm farther on – but even in just five years, weather mapping has improved. I intend to be more mindful of my time, health and energy, and flow with the seasons.

5. My Hebrew studies professor used to say, “People are more important than papers.” (Although that excuse worked one way – she didn’t like late work at all.) People are more important than my planned tasks, facebook, this blog, and my so precious sense of privacy. We need to make more time to sit and talk, share a loaf of bread, and hear about the people of our own community. Praying spontaneously with those in need is not weird. Always ask a blessing over food, even if it is just coffee and bread.

6. Take criticism with a grain of salt. Have confidence in the Lord. Trust those who have proved themselves wise and generous in spirit. Avoid those who always have a negative word to say about what you are doing – they may be envious, selfish or arrogant. Don’t let their angry spirit ruin your joyous spirit.

Getting Ready

Here are a few things that aren’t compatible with self-sufficiency and homesteading:

1. Debt. Student loans, large mortgages, car loans, credit card debt. Pay it down or it will eat up all your financial resources. Don’t borrow beyond a small mortgage. Don’t use consumer loans to buy equipment.

2. Electronics. Wean yourself and your family from television, dvds, and video games. They gobble precious time and you have to get out of the “newest gadget” mindset. Many of us use the internet for communication and business, but take your cue from the Amish – avoid using it for recreation. Set a limit to the time it is used.

3. Gadgetry. Don’t fill the house and barn with stuff bought at big box stores or online. Avoid anything that uses electricity; that especially includes kitchen gadgets.

4. Bargains. If you are not on your homestead, don’t buy stuff for it, even if it is a bargain. First, you may not need it when you get on the land; second, save the money to buy your land, then figure out what you need. Don’t fill your suburban garage with farming tools in anticipation of Some Day. Some day will come faster if you save that money for your land.

5. Hoards. Either before or after moving to the homestead, do not hoard. Keep what you will need only for the immediate future – a year’s worth of food and fodder, fabric and yarn for this year’s clothing, scrap wood and metal that is to be used for the immediate project. Don’t start accumulating just in case of some distant future need. Storage is too expensive, and peace of mind is important. Hoarders do not have peace of mind. They become increasingly anxious that their hoard will be lost or stolen, displaced or disrespected. It is tempting to buy the second and third tractors for parts, or the pile of lumber at a cut rate, but it will only rust, or warp, or rot if you do not have a way to put it to use or store it carefully. Don’t buy extra storage space! The return on the dollar is too low.

6. Collections. See hoarding. Collections of antiques you can’t use, ornaments that require display cabinets, books that require cases, dishes that require cupboards, are all great resource vacuums. They suck up your money and space. Pare down your belongings to what will fit into a reasonably small house that is easy to heat.

7. Nostalgia. Real rural living is not a rosy Currier and Ives scene. There will be some tough times, hard days, really bad weather, disasters and failures. It is modern life in a different context. You have to deal with modern people. Your neighbours will have things your kids will want and you can’t afford; you won’t find many people around who will work with you at harvest or planting, even for pay. Country life is not all oatmeal cookies and cozy fireplaces. My experience is that it is a lot of frostbite, sore muscles, poor pay, and isolation. If any of that scares you too much, you might as well reconsider what you are doing. If you can’t bear to see an animal die or eat beans and potatoes six nights running, then rural life may not be for you.

8. Competitiveness. The competitive spirit is just one of hubris, spiritual pride. The neighbours and the people down the road will have a bigger barn, a newer truck, a better looking husband, and a larger herd. Keep your thoughts in your own yard. It’s not a contest.

9. Laziness. If you are by nature indolent, can’t follow a schedule, or hate to get up off the couch, I’d suggest getting some spiritual healing to deal with this before you need to rise at five a.m. to feed the cows. Humans are not naturally lazy. We are by nature active, curious, happy beings. Indolence indicates poor health, physically, emotionally or spiritually. Expect at least a twelve hour day in the country, working on the farm, earning some money, preparing food and cleaning. You will enjoy times of rest much more if you have been working hard.

10. Worldliness. You won’t be living in the world anymore. Give your heart and life to God, and you will prosper spiritually, which will make the days you don’t seem to be prospering in other ways so much easier.

Home Enterprise

While we are all drawn to an idea of self-sufficiency when we think about homesteading, the hard fact is that we often have to keep a source of outside income.  There are lots of books on this topic, and they seem to become outdated very quickly as tastes and sometimes government regulations change. Home based cooking, for instance, requires inspections and licensing almost everywhere, which wasn’t true twenty years ago. It’s the same with butchering and selling milk. So far most of us would be able to sell our produce, but even that may be regulated in the United States soon.

There are a few jobs that seem compatible with homesteading. I have friends who work as medical professionals while their hubands work on the homestead. Teaching and ministry seem tobe  good homesteading jobs, too. Often, though, husbands go off to work in construction and trucking, which keeps them away for long periods of time. Wives are then doing the farming, which works out fine except when the extra helping hand is needed, and the children aren’t big enough. I experienced some of this raising sheep and traveling to a distant town for my education. The day to day misadventures of the sheep led to some problems that the substitute shepherd couldn’t handle without me.

We have a steady income in Nicholas’s pension, but we will need to supplement that in order to get ahead on savings. I’m thinking of starting a home-based sewing business. It would only have to pay a couple of hundred dollars a month, but I don’t want to start by investing a lot of money in fabric and supplies and then see it fail because the initial orders are small. At least with Plain sewing styles won’t go out of fashion!

A good Quaker friend used to supplement the homestead income by knitting. She had an antique sock knitter, and she did custom orders for handknit sweaters. I will keep an eye open to finding one of those sock knitters, and maybe a simple frame knitter for sweaters. I had one years ago, sold it, and regretted it since. I almost bought a sock knitter a couple of years ago, but it was a choice between that and a new tire for the truck. That truck is so selfish and spoiled!

One thing I know doesn’t work well, and that is running a small retail business off farm. So often that starts out undercapitalized and with an optimistic view of the local market. Yes, there isn’t a store locally selling handcrocheted golf club covers; that’s because there is no need for them! While we like the idea of having a retail location, the fact is that it is expensive to maintain if the sales drop off. Modern North Americans buy their stuff at big box stores and the occasional craft fair. Small destination stores have no cachet anymore. A farm stand by the road is one thing; a storefront is another. It will cost more than supporting the household itself.

The focus of homesteading for us is to serve God. We believe we can do that best living lightly on the land, providing for our own needs, and producing enough to help feed others. We want to consume less of the earth’s resources so that there is enough for all.

Taking Caution

I mentioned in my previous post about those who have failed and those who have succeeded in homesteading. While we may learn best from our own experiences, sometimes we could learn a lot from watching others and taking caution.

A Plain friend of mine years ago lived on a twenty acre homestead – pasture, garden, woods. They had a small log cabin with wood heat, a hand pump inside, and off-grid. It was a beautiful setting, very private, and they started out with the best of intentions. Two things defeated their efforts. One was lack of planning and budgetting. They acquired materials for a barn but took too long to build it, and when they were away,  thieves drove up to their lovely isolated site and took all the lumber. They ended up with a shanty barn made out of salvaged wood. They put their sheep in a plywood sided pen because they didn’t have enough room in the barn, and  a bear took two of them by reaching over the walls. They drove old vehicles that broke down a lot; second hand equipment that ceased running got left in the yard, cluttering the place and harboring vermin. The other pitfall was that my friend’s husband was not committed to living the Plain life, and was more than a little bit of a hoarder; soon the cabin was full of things “for later” but the things for now – a sink, a better woodstove, a functional vehicle for her – didn’t materialize. He was away working most of the time, and while she and the children were quite good at keeping the farm going, it was hard on her when he came home and didn’t want to  help with the things she couldn’t do like fix the propane refrigerator or cut wood with the chainsaw. He had a physically demanding job off the homestead, and they were both worked past exhaustion because they had not provided for the things they needed to make the effort easier – a log splitter, sheds for firewood and animals, storage for the food they grew. The homestead failed and their relationship broke down.

Our own previous off-grid experience was more accidental than planned, and after heavy rains saturated everything, flooded our little home, and pneumonia took three of the sheep in short order, we had to call it quits. A little more money and planning would have put us and the animals in better living circumstances. My own developing pneumonia could have killed me, and sapped all my energy. Nicholas was gone to work most days, and most of my time was spent cutting firewood, caring for animals, and trying to stem the rising tide in our two small rooms. Thankfully, a nearby friend invited us to live in his house, the sheep went to a friend’s farm, and I recovered gradually in a warm, dry place. We hadn’t meant to land on the property for an extended period without a better plan, but weather and circumstances overwhelmed us. Just a couple of thousand dollars would have seen us through, but we had no way to raise it, and for want of a nail that horseshoe, and the whole battle, were lost.

Recollections of homesteaders from the sixties and seventies are a bit vague; I was a child and a teenager then, but Maine was full of people living off-grid on old farms, getting back to the land. Some of them lived “alternative” lifestyles in small communes, hippies turned farmers. Some were genuinely interested in forming a new way of life; others were just growing pot. Some stayed on as artists, teachers, and animal breeders. Those who were involved in the underground economy often wasted their health and their means of living by sampling their own wares too much. Some got tired of the hard work, the long winters, the lack of stimulating culture. There were no first-run movies or rock concerts. Art galleries were unknown. It was the antithesis of a city and for those used to cultural activities of an enlightened sort, the local Baptist church hymn sing and the Kiwanis’ beanhole bean supper were a poor substitute. People and politics were seriously conservative. Multi-culturalism was French-language square dance calling and ployes suppers at the sugaring camp. (Things may not have changed much in the north.)

Those who came to homestead looking for a better life and who left when they didn’t find it may look back with nostalgia or pain. The reality of northern winters knocks the romance out of living in the woods for many newcomers.

Back to the Land

Now that we are confirmed in moving back to the Maritimes, and we have a place to go, the reality of planning is setting in. I’ve known many homesteaders over the years, some living quite successfully on small acreages, others failing bit by bit, year by year. Realistic planning is the key to starting well.

Although we are welcome and encouraged to raise food and animals on our little patch, I am not rushing into this. Some steps have to happen first. We have to set the money aside for animal shelter and fencing. We have to get the garden area opened by plow. We have to arrange for organic fertilizer – which is fairly easy in that neck of the woods, since there are several beef and sheep farmers. And I am not feeding animals over the winter who won’t produce anything until next year! The advantage of getting layers and milkers cheap right now is offset by the expense of them eating their heads off with no production for months. Sellers are anxious to move their extra stock in the fall, but I can’t make it cost out this year. Since the only outbuilding on the property is an old garage, we need to see if that will be adequate for shelter if some box stalls are built in it. Right now, we have agreed to let the vehicles stored in it stay rather than inconvenience the landlords, who are generous, Christian people – a great blessing!

The house is heated by oil or baseboard electric heaters, which is the only downside to the rental. We are all right with being a bit cold this winter; Plain people wear a lot of clothes anyway, and we will be snug in sweaters and comforters when we aren’t outside working. I don’t see an easy switch back to wood, since the house hasn’t had a woodburning unit in decades. I know I want a Pioneer Maid stove for cooking, heat and hot water; how to do this is the big question.

The house is two bedrooms, plus a small room as an ante-chamber to one of the bedrooms, just the right size for the grandbaby’s crib. There is a good-sized back entry room, heated, so I have a place to sew and spin and keep the dog. The kitchen is large. The living room is pleasantly situated to look out toward the woods that border the river bank. There are two bathrooms, one with a washer and dryer, an unexpected convenience. I will use the washer through the winter this year, and switch back to my laundry tubs in good weather. There is a clothesline already, and I always travel with lines, as well, if I need more room for drying. The dryer won’t get used much, except for real emergencies. I have my wooden clotheshorse for indoor drying.

Our plan is to stay home most of the time. I will buy groceries in bulk, and since we have two long fasts before summer, beans and potatoes will figure in the menus a lot. I intend to get a secondhand freezer, not too old, and bargain for meat in quantity. Since we will be mostly vegetarian, I doubt if we will use more than one pound of meat a week. Using about fifty pounds of meat a year isn’t much, and it may prove out to be less. I could quite possibly cut that in half, if we keep the strict fasts, which are twice a week, every week, with advent and lent about a month each, and the two short fasts of two weeks in June and August. The fasts are not only meat free but dairy free. The strict fasts exclude fats most days.

I have patterns for all our clothes but men’s trousers. Jeans are still very cheap in the thrift shops, and our winter clothes should go another year or more. Unless I find good dark wool on sale, I doubt if I will get my cloak made this winter, but my cloth coat will do. We are fine for shoes except for muddin’ boots. I have fabric for dresses, bloomers, nightgowns and patch quilts so I have plenty to do on days at home. Nicholas is looking forward to time outdoors with the dog, planning for next year, moving a bit of snow in the driveway, and generally helping around the house.

For being at home is a big factor in homesteading. Some people have to take outside jobs to get the mortgage paid for a few years, but we are hoping that selling produce, wool, lambs and maybe preserves will cover what extra cash we need. We want to live simply and to work together day by day. It’s a form of Christian discipline as well as a social protest against greed and worldliness. Maybe if some of us put on the brakes of this runaway cart we call modern life, the rest of the world will slow down and see the light.