Church Door


The door of a church is more than simply a way inside. It is a symbol of baptism, marriage, death, heaven. It is the symbol of entering into the eternal union with God, and it is, when one is outside it, symbolic of the loss of community.

Cathedral doors are incredible structures. The massive wood and metal doors themselves are surrounded by stone arches, sculpture, art work. They are high enough for giants. Thousands of people may enter through those doors for a single event. They are a symbol of God’s triumph, of Christ’s entering and leaving this earth, and taking us with Him to life everlasting.

I have been noticing church doors here in Iowa City. Some of the old doors are ornate and beautiful, works of art and engineering. Others have been modified to include a small airlock entry to keep drafts out in the winter, and keep air-conditioning in through the summer. Chipboard, plywood: seemingly temporary structures overshadowing the door behind it. They make me anxious, as if entry to the church now requires a test, a holding place, a narthex before the narthex.  Practical ugliness replaces open beauty.

Side entrances and “new” doors are often steel, reinforced glass, locked with mechanisms. They don’t have obvious doorknobs or latches. I approach them and wonder if it is a pull or push situation. They are glum, industrial portals, with no character, a resigned modern patch on an historic structure.

One church we visited lately had actually closed off their main doors; the narthex had been turned into a tiny meditation space. If a visitor was not prepared, or came to the building from the other side, it would seem impossible to get in the building, as the obvious doors are no longer functional.

I really don’t like this trend. I have never liked locking churches, and having them vacant most of the week. My vision of the church is that of a place where people want to be, where they are comfortable meeting, working, talking and visiting as well as a place where they come for prayer and sacrament. Medieval churches were like this; markets were held in their precinct. People took shelter, courted, made plans, rested, and viewed the art they enclosed. Priests, clerks and monastics were available for prayer, discussion, instruction and advice. Schools were conducted, music made. the dedicated were there for prayer all day and night. The church was sanctuary, Pilgrims ate and slept there.

I doubt if we can return to that ordered use of churches and the Church until we are willing to give up our ownership of those buildings and institutions, and return them to God.

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Plain and Maintain

DSC01152When I became Plain, friends asked me how I could give up the “fun” of fashion and shopping. I didn’t think of it as giving up fun, but as finding peace. I was no longer bound to the anxiety of styling my hair, buying clothes, managing an extensive (closets, people, CLOSETS) wardrobe, and “watching” my weight. I had the fun of sewing, choosing fabrics that are suitable and of good quality, and of being confident that in all occasions, I was appropriately dressed. I no longer worry about the ups and downs of weight gain and loss triggered by a chronic illness. My hair is gloriously long and gloriously weaving silver strands amongst the chestnut red and brown. I don’t spend anything on cosmetics and jewelry. I have no valuables to lose, I don’t have to replace clothes because they are no longer suitable to the fashion. I have freedom. The price of being a clotheshorse was not only the hit to the credit card, but the constant level anxiety of trying to look good. That anxiety is gone, and I resent it when people tell me I should have it back, and give up Plain in the way I express it. Am I sometimes “mistaken” for a nun? Yes, but that isn’t really a mistake, as I belong to a religious order. Am I sometimes mistaken for Amish? Yes, but that is no insult, to be “mistaken” for a woman of peace. To be a woman of peace is my goal.

Currently, I have to wear a uniform at work. I don’t really like the uniform, but it is part of restaurant culture. I do it. I keep it as simple as possible. It seems to be an accepted part of modern life, that many of us require special clothes for work. And then I do wear a “uniform” the rest of the time – the simple Plain dress and kapp, or the habit. Plain is more than having just a few choices of clothes. Jeans and a sweater are not Plain, unless that is one’s expression of Kingdom living. Mere simplicity is beneficial, yet there is a deeper spirituality to Plain.

Hermosa House Julie Larry and Iska May 2014

I have come to love the habit. It is what I have been longing for, in my heart, walking under the protection of the roof of the Church. It tells people who I am and what I am at a quick glance, just as the architectural vernacular of “church” is expressed in formal ways. The form follows function, in that it is modest, easy to make (really), and yet complicated enough to remind one that in essence, the wearer is cloistered, set aside, protected, while still serving God in the world. The head covering is our protection, and the sign of prayer, much as a bell tower or steeple is. The scapular is a narthex, covering all that is within, and our yoke to bear for Christ. The long tunic unites all dedicated religious, the nave of the church. No matter what we are inside, no matter what tribulations and wounds we have borne, we are included in that body. Whether we wear shoes or we are discalced (wearing sandals, or barefoot), we do so with simplicity and practicality. My shoes are all functional and very plain, good quality, and bought to last for years. Every piece of jewelry I wear now has religious significance – cross, St. Michael’s medal, holy images. Plain is how I express living in God’s Kingdom. I have left this fallen world, and while I am still in battle to keep it from overwhelming my one small castle, I am secure within its walls.

Teresa of Ávila, Roman Catholic saint and mystic, wrote extensively on mystical union, once writing, "If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend."


Leaving Chicago


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.

Hermosa House Julie Larry and Iska May 2014

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.

hermosa house beggars poster

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.


Once Plain (On Avoiding Mirrors)

I do not think I will be leaving my Plain life. I am at home in Plain. I am comfortable Plain. My husband, house and way of life are Plain. There are moments of dissatisfaction. I wondered last night if I would ever consider a dishwasher, for instance. But since I had the supper dishes washed in less than ten minutes, I think I answered my own question.

But people I have known over the last three or four years as Plain have been leaving the life. Some attend traditionally Plain churches, but are shifting to a faith community where Plain is less accepted or known. They are timid of taking their Plain selves there. Sometimes the shift is because they are disenchanted with Plain.

I feel sorry for them, and sometimes a bit frustrated, especially when they sought deep advisement about being Plain. But apparently it was not a leading for many, just a notion. A reverse vanity, even a real vanity – Plain but vain.

I was surprised when one young woman dedicated to her Anabaptist way of life changed churches, dropped her prayer kapp and full aprons, and started dressing in modest but fashionable outfits, “covering” with nothing more than a folded scarf or a hairband. She started wearing make-up. She painted her walls bold colors and bought room accessories. She let all of us know about it. In effect, she left behind what her ancestors had struggled to keep. I sadly relinquished her friendship. She was too vain to be Plain. She courted having hundreds of friends and acquaintances through writing and publicizing her new-found fashionable Christian life.

As I said, I cannot imagine giving up Plain. Maybe it’s because I am so aware of how fragile life is. I want to live close to its roots. A life stripped down to essentials, a life lived under an open sky, a life full of challenge and opportunity to know God, not just know about God. I don’t think that can be found in an elegant house, with elegant friends, pre-occupied with career and the frivolities of modern distractions. It’s a way of being at sea while living ashore. I love that about life at sea. It is basic. It is all sky and water and distant land to be sought. It is birds overhead, fish flying from wave crest to wave crest, whales and seals. It is the wind for a tutor, and the sea itself as a home.

One cannot take anything extra to sea. There is no room for superfluous baggage. Before the voyage, one has to plan minutely what to take. There is no shopping mall, no easy way to refuel, restock, take on fresh water. There must be enough, and what is packed aboard must be of use. Potatoes and canned food, certainly. Repair kits for clothing and sails, medical equipment and supplies. Warm and useful clothing. Charts, sextant, radio, GPS, books of nautical and natural knowledge. Bedding, soap, dishes, pots and pans. The barest of basics, and if there is extra space left, a bit more of those basics. (I once sailed with someone who had insisted on bringing her glass coffee maker. Everytime we hit a patch of rough sea, the first thought was to go stow the coffee maker in someone’s berth. A Chemex coffee maker does not make a good bunkmate.)

And that is Plain life to me. It is carrying just what one needs for the journey. To give up on it from insecurity, vanity, or the desire to please someone else, is the same as swallowing the anchor. It means giving up the life lived as to drink it down to the lees. It is to accept the cosseting and spoiling that numbs our souls.

I worked in the marine industry for a couple of decades. I lived on the waterfront, worked on the waterfront, and traveled across the water itself almost daily. I knew many sailors who lived aboard. Some had made the great sacrifice and divested of the extraneous, the merely pleasing. They sailed. They traveled. They called from far distant ports in other countries, on other continents. And others had not divested enough. Their decks and home-wharves were cluttered with effluvia – the extra bicycle that needed a new tire, the lockers of old clothes and mouldering books, the hoses and lines and chains that never found a home. They crammed their small living spaces with shirts, jeans, running shoes, notebooks, mementoes, odd china, cookware, cookbooks, torn sails, artwork, broken computers. All of it was to be used – someday. But in the meantime, they were held back. It is impossible to really sail with loose goods on deck or below. It is dangerous. It is frustrating. One might motor on a calm day from harbour to harbour, but it is not possible to successfully set sail and heel the boat. Some vessels end up so overcrowded with the retained flotsam and jetsam of the owners’ lives that they would simply capsize.

Plain is the sailors’ life. It is the life that can travel to new spiritual ports of call. The early Quakers and Anabaptists knew this. They kept their possessions to a minimum. They might have to up anchor and away in t he night. They at least knew, deep in their bones, that any of us can be called away on a moment’s notice, leaving behind everything earthly. They did not want their souls weighed with the baggage of regret for what was lost.

From dust we came, to dust we shall return. Anything that is traveling with us is merely dust, no more, in even a few short years, anything more than its compounded elements.

So the mirror – liar, that it is, is our enemy. It tells us what we think we are. It is merely an image, not the woman or the man. Avoid mirrors. They will provoke discontent, insecurity and vanity. They will make a Christian envious, because the image is not that of what the mind wants to be true. The mirror can be left behind on the long voyage. How the sailor feels in the face of the wind, what the muscles of the body say, how warm and comfortable the skin is in sun and breeze and water is the real living being. The mind at rest and the soul that can answer its Maker without hesitation are the  true image.

Shepherds and Pastors

I kept a flock of Shetland sheep for ten years. I got out of shepherding reluctantly, for the good of my remaining sheep. We intend to start a new flock this spring, here on the croft. We will keep a couple of goats for milk and kids, but I believe at heart I am really a shepherd, not a dairy maid.

I learned, as a shepherd, that when Jesus told his shepherd parables, He knew what He was talking about. I wonder if His growing years were spent in the Galilean hills, working with family who were shepherds. It wasn’t an unusual event in a boy’s life then. While shepherds had sort of a rough reputation in first century Palestine, that applied to hireling shepherds, men without resources, who would work for a few pennies a month, along with rough barley bread and rougher beer.

I don’t know if it is evolution (probably not) or cultural training (most likely) but humans respond to lambs very strongly. Humans are naturally attracted to and protective of neo-nates (newborns) of mammal species; it’s the squished up face and big eyes. Lambs, though, seem to be especially winsome. Our species have been keeping company for 10,000 years or more, so it is no shock to realize that humans and sheep have many good traits in common.

I know that the modern political attitude is to compare people to sheep in an unflattering way, but a shepherd sees it differently. Sheep aren’t stupid, or identical, or blind followers. Nor are humans, really. One trait sheep and humans have in common, though, is a need to gather, and find a leader of sorts.

Sheep may be smarter about that than humans. Sheep are never influenced by how pretty another sheep’s fleece or face is; they are not swayed by the vocal prowess of another sheep; they don’t care how many of the other sheep like one certain sheep. Sheep have a need for a leader in the flock who can find food and water, who senses danger, and who can remember how to get to the safe and warm places. That leader sheep also must have a strong parenting instinct and recognize the lambs of its own flock.

Maybe sheep are smarter than people that way. We are too easily beguiled by promises. You can’t promise to animals – they don’t have a future tense in their language. We are apt to follow the person with the friendliest smile, the most flattering words, the ones who give us a sense that we are special while the other people are fairly wrong-headed and even damned. Sheep don’t have a concept of damnation. If they have a concept of salvation, it is probably a lot like, “Green grass, clean water, cool shade, every day.”

I can stand amongst the flock and say, “I have a vision for your future!” and they will go on eating the same good grass. If I fail to keep them in good grass, they will look elsewhere. It would take Sing-Sing to keep a flock in if they really want out. They push, dig and jump. They stay where they are fed well, or they are gone.

Think of that as an analogy for the church and its leaders. Sheep can’t be bribed with doughnuts and sweets. They get tired of that pretty quickly, and will not make a diet out of it. Entertainment might get their attention for a little while, until they realize that it isn’t connected in any way to getting fed. They are interested in the basics of life – food, water, shelter. If pastors thought more like shepherds, I think their flocks might be coming around the old barn more often.


Living Off the Clock

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.

Shetland sheep via wikimedia

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.

by Edward Hicks

National Geographic article:

More information about the Sami by the Sami: