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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.
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.
I read a beautiful National Geographic story online about the Sami (or Suomi, or Lapps as we called them years ago.) These are the reindeer people, many of them still living their semi-nomadic life above the Arctic Circle. They are very much in tune with the environment around them, with the signs of weather and the ways of the reindeer. Although they once followed the reindeer according to where the reindeer thought to go, they are now confined to certain pasturing grounds. This has affected how they live by forcing them to herd the reindeer more, using snowmobiles rather than their traditional skis and sledges, and it has changed the reindeer, often causing stress and lower birth rates. The Sami believe, and are most likely right, that the reindeer know by instinct and herd decision where they should be, but the government thinks differently.
A friend recently wrote me with a question about forming Christian community, and I posted to him the article about the reindeer people. This is what I want to do; I almost feel compelled to it. I don’t mean move to northern Norway, but live a life according to the seasons. Christians should be good at keeping the seasons, as our church year is seasonal. Yet we are so often driven by the clock and calendar. We are driven by expectations which, when we examine them, are worldly and not other-worldly. This earth is God’s creation for us. He placed us here. And when Eden was brought up from the mist and mud, there were no roofs or clocks or shops. It was just the animals, God, and then the adama – the people of the earth.
So this earth should be our world, not the world of buying and selling, of status and prestige, of power and money. We speak of the two kingdoms because we humans built the second one; that tower of Babel is not finished, nor abandoned in our desires. There is but one true kingdom, and that is the Kingdom of God. Jesus told His followers that it is at hand – meaning imminent, and at His resurrection, that Kingdom was founded. But in sin and blind ambition, we refuse to fulfill the promise of the Kingdom, and live on in our fantasy world, regulated by clocks, driven by desire, harassed by human, not divine, expectation.
My recent round of illness was aggravated by worry and the feeling that I needed to get a job, get better medical care, get it all done so that I could rest and maybe recuperate. I can hear my mother’s voice yet in my head criticizing the pile of laundry and the dusty floors. Dear mother, you left this world more than decade ago, with not a dirty dish in the sink and the laundry folded. I most certainly would put up with mountains of dirty clothes and floors that yet needed washing to have you back.
When we work closely with animals, a lot of other things hang fire. Sometimes the herder or shepherd leaves everything – dirty dishes, phone calls to return, sermons to write, checkbooks to balance – because the herd needs their human companion. One animal down can cascade into illness through the whole flock. Things must be done when the time is right, usually not a moment sooner nor a moment or two later. The flock becomes the focus. And I believe this is as it should be.
We will not regain Eden before the return of Christ, but we can work at living in God’s Kingdom now. That may seem like an impossibility to many people, who are tied to work hours, with debt to be paid. Nor should our work be other than in the Kingdom; must we work for unethical companies, at soul-destroying jobs? And even if we are satisfied with our work, is it really what God intends for us? Getting free of debt as quickly as possible, planting even a small garden, spending more leisure time in natural surroundings are good beginnings to living closer to the Kingdom. Sometimes our church home stands in the way as well; there’s an issue for all Christians to consider. Is the church itself too much of this world? I know mine is often too concerned with raising money and finding new parishioners, while employing church leaders concerned with their ambition and advancement rather than with the health and well-being of their flock.
I hope to be closer to the Kingdom myself in seasons to come, really closer to our flocks and herds, spending more time as a herder and shepherd rather than as a household manager and professional worrier. I do desire fields and pasture for the animals where they can be what they are, and I can be with them. But we too are constrained by fences and government; we too, as the Sami, must adapt somewhat, even when we see that it is not the best thing. We can always work for change, though. We can work toward restoring something of Eden, a place in which to wait for the Lord’s return. Best that when He comes to us, He finds us at the work He gave us, not the work of the other world.
National Geographic article:http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/11/sami-reindeer-herders/benko-text
More information about the Sami by the Sami: http://boreale.konto.itv.se/samieng.htm
When I was a pastor, people called me often to ask for help. While I had to exercise a certain amount of discernment in addressing these requests, I was, most of the time, fairly uncritical. It is difficult for most people to call someone they don’t know well and ask for help.
The requests ranged from a need to get to the doctor for an appointment to requirements for several hundred dollars to pay a delinquent bill. I know I turned down a couple of requests from people unknown to me because they did not present a good case as to why my church community should help them. These were cold calls made by someone who may have had a genuine need, but were asking the wrong person, or they may have been from someone who scammed local churches for cash whenever they ran short of drinking funds. Sometimes the help I could give was a referral to the food bank or another agency. A couple of times I referred people to the local police department. If a young man called me on a cold fall or winter night, looking for food and a place to sleep, that’s the number I would give him. The local police were not averse to letting a traveller sleep in an empty cell and getting him a pizza or burger.
We local clergy heard from a certain couple twice a year. I don’t know their back story, but they would land in a local town, check into a motel, and start calling around. They were always on their way to somewhere else to work or live with family – Halifax, Ottawa. They always seemed to have enough money for the first overnight stay, but not for a second night, while they waited for someone to send them funds to continue the trip. They needed food or money for medicine. One pastor tried to get to the heart of the matter and confronted them at their hotel room, accompanied by another clergyperson. I think they just got the same story as always – they had hitched a ride with a trucker into town, couldn’t get any farther, were waiting for bus fare from someone’s mother or sister, and all they needed was…
They caught me the next season. They were in a nearby town, just up the river, and didn’t have the money for a second night at the motel but couldn’t get their bus fare until the next day. She was too sick for them to sleep rough; they were out of cash and food. I inwardly scolded myself for picking up the call. No, I wasn’t supplying any cash. I could drop off food but it really was in the opposite direction of where I was headed at the time. I got their room number and called the motel manager. I arranged to pay for their room for the night and allowed for their supper and breakfast at the restaurant. I called them back, explained the deal, and blessed them on their trip, cautioning them that the next time through I would expect them to ask someone else if they stopped over locally.
They stayed within the dollar amount I had allowed for meals, and I did not hear from them again. Nonetheless, the following season they came back through, and got some other minister down river to put them up and provide meals. I think they were just travelers; not gypsies (Roma) or Irish travelers, but people who always had been footloose, working migrant jobs for a couple of decades, who had taken to the life on the road and knew no other. I am not criticising that; they seemed to know that there were limits to our charity and stayed within them. I found it easier to deal with them by being forthright and business-like, and maybe that is all they expected. They always offered to pray for those who helped them. They were just wayfarers, and God expects us to protect them, too. They may have been called bums or hobos at some time, but in a way I admired their simple life, and their unwillingness to be tied down to the status quo. They didn’t bargain with me or offer repayment they couldn’t make. They never offered to work in exchange for a meal and a cot. They were, in their own light, honest.
I wonder how often we secretly bargain with God when we tell Him our woes and troubles and want help. “God, help us find the money-the job-the home-our health – and we will be Yours forever. We will work for You. We will reform and be better people. We will make You proud, if You just help this time.”
When we pray like this, we aren’t being honest. God needs nothing from us, and if He has a mission for us, it will be presented according to our abilities now. God doesn’t wait around until we have completed the training course. He just sends us out, to do His will, and we do it as best we can. Postponing doing that work until He has made us better is a lie we try to tell Him and we most certainly tell ourselves. He sends us out on the road, seemingly unprepared, except that He also promises to hear every prayer and answer every request as we need. We sometimes ask for what we don’t need; God will gently lead us to see why we don’t need it. God doesn’t miss the call, or get it too late, or finds that He doesn’t have enough funds to help out this time. And there is nothing we can do for Him except be honest, and listen in all honesty.
We had a flue fire a couple of days ago. I was in the kitchen and first heard a strange sound, as if the refrigerator compressor was in overdrive. I went to look. Then I noticed the smoke coming out of the joints of the stove-pipe, and an ominous glow at the juncture of stove and pipe. A flue fire. I had never had one before, and it was distressing. My husband came in at my call and turned all the drafting vents closed while I called the fire department. I gave location, name and phone number and the 911 dispatcher (who is in Fredericton) immediately connected with the Perth-Andover Fire department. A few questions later, and it was obvious to me that the fire was out. I said so, but my contact at the fire department said they were coming anyway, just to make sure nothing was happening further up the chimney.
In the interval, Nicholas went to the barn to feed the animals and I cleaned the kitchen. I had bread and cinnamon rolls in the oven of the wood stove, so I transferred them to the electric oven. I did the dishes in the sink. I called my landlady and explained what had happened. I moved some furniture I thought would be in the way. I had windows and doors opened, and the dog shut in the bathroom. The trucks arrived before Nicholas was done in the barn.
Two trucks and an auxiliary car pulled into the driveway and yard. The house was suddenly full of firemen. (I know, I should say fire fighters, but they were all men.) It is a small house, and five firemen quickly fill it. They had a good look at the stove and stovepipe, brought in equipment to measure stack temperature, and unloaded ladders.
“It doesn’t smell like a flue fire,” one said. “It smells really good, like cinnamon rolls.”
It wasn’t necessary to take a ladder up to our steep, metal-covered roof, but they did take a thermal imaging camera to the attic. No hot spots. Cutting off the draft had put out the fire, and it was obvious that it had been quite hot as the stove-pipe was discoloured. I asked if it was still safe to use. “No problem,” said the fire marshal. “This happens all the time. We’ve had some weird weather, and that damp, heavy air drives the gases back down the chimney. You said you cleaned it.”
“Yes, we did it ourselves, with the nylon brush.”
“Oh, that Selkirk flue did its job then. That’s what it’s for – to insulate the hot gases from your walls. Good installation, too.”
Then they all stood around for a minute or two, commenting on the nice baked bread smell coming from the oven and on the virtues of our Amish-built Suppertime Stove. “I wish I’d bought one like that for my house,” one said.
They left a good deal of wet snow and mud behind on the kitchen floor, but I didn’t mind at all.
I got to tell the carpenter who installed the stove about the incident, and how the fire department complimented his installation. I also passed on that I had written to John Tschirhart in Ontario, who sold us the stove, and he said the installation sounded like a good one as well. Bob was pleased. He’d made a small error in the installation, which was that the hearth in front did not extend far enough out from the firebox door. His solution was to add a bright steel sheet in front, secured under the stone hearth, and held in place with level head screws. This works nicely, looks good, and doesn’t catch feet or extra dirt. He snipped the outer corners so that they won’t get caught on furniture or boots and curl. The shortage was only two inches, but he added seven inches and I am pleased with the way it looks. Bob had considered the same stove for his house, and perhaps regrets it a little that he didn’t get it now that he has installed mine.
The firemen and the carpenter were kind and interested in our concerns. Their visits were almost pastoral. Bob and I shared news of health and home since we last saw each other in the spring and he made a fuss over my Australian shepherd, Ash. She remembered him and was joyous to see him again.
I have not been shy to say that I anticipate a difficult winter. We are living on the edge financially. We do what we can to get by, and we know that there will be more sacrifices. Still, God has opened the hearts of many to lighten our burden. A neighbouring pastor brought us vegetables form his garden, and we are still eating those beans we froze. Other friends have helped in getting us settled in our barn; one is planning a trip soon to bring hay and leave with wool I still have from my Shetlands. She shipped me muslin when I couldn’t get it locally, and lots of fabric pieces. Another friend has given us needed lentils and wheat, herbal medicines and little treats, as well as delivering other herbs, and garden seedlings when we lost ours in a storm. Many friends sent me garden seeds this year, and we are blessed yet with pumpkins, squash and preserves from that harvest. A friend downriver brought me a seedling elder tree. A friend in the US mailed me two boxes of cotton dresses and skirts; I layer them on the cold days. Books have come from a friend in England. My landlady and her sister stopped by to give us a 10 kilo bag of flour, tangerines and potatoes.
Today I received an unexpected box of organic rice, herbal teas, and other useful products. The sender was anonymous. I’m fairly sure I know who it was by the postmark. Still, it was great fun – and the maple hard candies are delicious and soothing. Our church warden was running the bazaar end of the church luncheon and bazaar today, where I dropped in for a few minutes; I mentioned that I needed a new bobbin case for my ancient machine, and it would be a few days yet to get it. She said, “I have an older machine in my garage – it was my mother’s, and it was Dorothy’s before that. I don’t know how well it might run, but you are welcome to it.” I said I would pick it up tomorrow after church.
In the ancient ways of Israel, once a generation, every fifty years, a jubilee year was declared. Food that had been stored was distributed so that the fields could lie fallow. Debts were forgiven. Inequities were amended. Land was returned to its original owners if they had leased it out or sold it from economic necessity. Slaves were released. It was a year of thanksgiving and celebration.
In Luke 4:19, Jesus proclaims that He is there to announce a jubilee. It is the time of the Lord’s favour. As the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary says:
“(On 4.19.) acceptable year-an allusion to the jubilee year (Le 25:10), a year of universal release for person and property. (See also Isa 49:8; 2Co 6:2.) As the maladies under which humanity groans are here set forth under the names of poverty, broken-heartedness, bondage, blindness, bruisedness (or crushedness), so, as the glorious Healer of all these maladies, Christ announces Himself in the act of reading it, stopping the quotation just before it comes to “the day of vengeance,” which was only to come on the rejecters of His message (Joh 3:17). The first words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,” have been noted since the days of the Church Fathers, as an illustrious example of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost being exhibited as in distinct yet harmonious action in the scheme of salvation.”
Salvation has come; it is an everlasting jubilee.The enslaved are free, the debt forgiven. The goods are distributed and none is to be in want. Yes, from that day forward. And this is God’s creation, just as heaven is. Are we not to realize that jubilee now? Our sins, our debts before God, are forgiven. Are we forgiving others? Are we restoring what was taken unjustly? Are we distributing the bounty of God’s earth? Are we letting the land and water rest so it too can be revitalized?
It had been a Protestant teaching that the kingdom of God is yet to come, and our trials will be rewarded eventually. But Jesus came proclaiming “The Kingdom is at hand” – it is now. He proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favour – now.
Rather than gratitude for what we have received bountifully, we are acting like the wedding guests who would not come to the banquet. When I served communion in the church I would say to the people, “Come to the Lord’s table, for all is made ready for thee.”
If you’ve been reading here for a while, you will know that I have been waiting to be reinstated into licensed ministry for a long time. My last parish work was in 2005. I did not expect to be out of the cassock this long.
I have looked for parish work all over the world. There is one big obstacle: my bishop has to give me letters of good standing. In effect, he has to sign my license over to another bishop. He has not done that, and does not want to do that, but also has not met with me in the last year to discuss what I may do.
I am called back into parish ministry of some sort. I need to know if it is going to be here, in the Diocese of Fredericton, or if I may now be given letters of good standing, or if I am just out of the Anglican Church. I am insisting on knowing.
I am storming the gates. I’ve been quiet and polite long enough.
I have much to offer: I am well-read, I have the classical languages under my belt, and I am a good speaker. I like people; I like visiting people. I am always willing to look for the lost sheep, or find better pasture for the flock. I am earthy and grounded. I don’t have airs. I am not above the people, I’m just ne of them with a different role. I am not ambitious. I believe I am authentic and genuine.
I am called. That is the important part. I am called by the Lord to serve His flock, to be the sheepdog to His good shepherd.
I like my bishop. He likes me. This is a ridiculous situation.
So I am storming the gates – not to conquer, but perhaps to liberate. Perhaps to free myself, perhaps to free the church, in a small way.
We lost another silkie hen today. Nicholas said it looked as if she went to sleep beside the grain pan, but she was cold when he touched her. That is four out of six; a friend thinks, as I do, that there was something wrong genetically with that clutch. We will see if the two survivors make it through the winter. I don’t blame the breeder. It may have been something new for her, too, especially if there had been some inbreeding. Suddenly a double recessive fault can show up. I had wanted the silkies for both breeding and brooding, but if these two survive, they will not be bred.
Nicholas was melancholy about it all day, and I was subdued as well. I’ve lost a lot of young animals over the shepherding years, and I’ve lost others to storms, old age, illness and predators. It’s the way it goes on the farm. We do the best we can, but there are so many factors of uncertainty that we can never do it all perfectly.
This is what I find reassuring: The Great Creator of this universe did not intend to lose any of His creation. While the molecules and atoms of our substance go back to whence they came, the life He puts into all His creatures will return to Him. While as Christians we believe that we humans, made in His image, will have a sense of Being in life after death, we can also be assured that the wee creatures are loved by Him and are of Him. C.S. Lewis wrote of this – that the animals we called friends, who were loved by us, will have their Being in the Creator, too. So when we lose these sweet little friends, and even when the life of a farm animal is sacrificed to feed us, God is watching over them, and takes back the essence of their being.
At the last day, when our Lord shall stand upon this earth, and make it over to the perfection God intended – the new heaven above, and the new earth under our feet - all that we have known and loved, companion animals, farm animals and even the trees and flowers that enriched our lives, will be there, too.
I hope this is a comfort to others as it is to me.
A leopard with a harmless kid lay down
And not one savage beast was seen to frown
The wolf did with the lamb can dwell in peace
His grim carnivorous nature there did cease
The lion with the fatling fawn did move
And a little child was leading them in love
Long ago there was a young painter
Who had a dream that every creature came
And stood assembled by his side
And he painted the sight that had sweetened his night
For the one hundred times before he died
A kid lion and a snake and a child
Wide-eyed and formal and smiling like the sun had stopped
And time had ceased to move
And the wolf and the lamb
Came and ate from his hand
And a man-child was leading them in love
Friend have you seen all the lines and the spaces
The colors that the old painter sees
In the peaceable kingdom that shines in the faces
Of people from more gentle times than these
I find myself adrift these days
An endless maze of ends and ways
And worlds seem so crazy to be here
But look away look away
Back or forward from today
To the visions of either fools or seers
Oh my friend have you seen all the lines and the spaces
The colors that the old painter sees
In the peaceable kingdom that shines in the faces
Of people from more gentle times than these
Such a beautiful place
Full of joy full of grace
It was bathed in a saintly yellow light
To what learning to know that such things can’t be so
He could only believe that they might
Oh my friend have you seen all the lines and the spaces
The colors that the old painter sees
In the peaceable kingdom that shines in the faces
Of people from more gentle times than these
Friend have you seen all the lines and the spaces
The colors that the young painter sees
In the peaceable kingdom that shines in the faces
Of people from more gentle times than these
(Lyrics by Billy Gilman; I would have posted the link, but the publisher’s site was quite awkward and horrible with advertising things like gambling, quite out of keeping with The Quaker Painter, Edward Hicks. So, Billy, I apologize, and I hope you understand.)
After a century of advancing from class bigotry, it looks as if Britons are in perhaps one final round of the battle for social equality. Despite great gains to grant equal rights under law for aristocracy and commoners, beginning with popular reform of the Church of England in the 19th century, class warfare has gained new ground in the cultural life of Great Britain. The recent riots and looting are evidence that class unrest is still pervasive. the Church of England and all Christian churches are losing ground, not because of the influx of immigrants of other faiths, but because so many British find the Church to be irrelevant, more concerned with preservation than with growth. Whether the perception is deserved or not, the great stone churches, solemn liturgies and vested processions seem beyond incomprehensible to many modern people, not just in Britain, but throughout the world.
Owen Jones, a young British journalist, addresses the topic of haves and a growing class of have-nots in Britain in his 2011 book Chavs (Verso Press). For those who don’t have any contact with the British popular press, a “chav” is a person, male or female, who lives in government-provided housing, doesn’t work, engages in petty crime and assault, drinks, smokes, uses drugs, is sexually promiscuous, and lacks any useful education. The popular image of a “chav” is someone between the ages of 14 and 50 in fake Burberry tartan clothing or other designer brand rip-offs, tattooed, causing ordinary middle-class people grief by harassment and theft. In dress, “chavs” prefer the sort of pseudo-athletic attire and ornate gold jewelry of American hiphop musicians, with the social attitudes and behaviour of the young people of New York and New Jersey who are lately known as “guidos” following the popular success of the television series “Jersey Shore.” But the horrified disdain that the middle class of England has for “chavs” goes far beyond the fascinated contempt that Americans express for the Jersey beach culture of Snooki and her companions. The respectable working class of England seems to be disappearing because of the promotion of “chav” culture, with those who traditionally classified themselves as urban working class identifying more with the middle class.
My husband, Nicholas, has dual citizenship in Canada and the United Kingdom. His parents came to Canada in 1957, looking for work opportunities. They both grew up in the East End of London, in Dagenham, home to a large Ford plant and a refinery. They lived in row housing where back gardens were devoted to vegetable growing and poultry husbandry. The men in the family worked at the car factory, on the police force, and on the docks. The women kept a spotless house, minded children, and kept up a united front of pinnies.
Bill Perks Sr. was a skilled labourer, though a slag accident in a foundry had badly scarred one foot. Hilda was happy to be close to her family in London; the Baileys and Perks had been in that area for centuries. But Britain did not offer much advancement for young people who came up through the charity schools. They had two children already, and were still living, post-war, with family. There was a major housing shortage in the East End, as the docks and rail yards were bombed extensively, and the collateral damage was in the antique row housing. Bill had served in the war, with an infantry unit sent into Germany. He was underage when he enlisted, just seventeen, but he looked older and by then no one asked too many questions if a lad looked fit for service. Hilda, a couple of years younger, was too old to be sent away to the country, and she had a wartime job in a local boot factory. One day, a bomb exploded in the street outside her home. She had thrown her hands in front of her face when she heard the impact; the windows of the house were blown in. She found grains of glass working through the skin of her hands for weeks afterward. Hilda’s brother Dennis Bailey flew in Lancaster bombers through the war, and one of the squad’s assignments was to blow up the dams that were instrumental to the Nazis’ heavy water scheme.
East Enders – Cockneys – had a reputation for earthiness and humour. They were the working class of the greater city area. The East End had been a haven for disease and crime in the late 19th century, but back then there were plenty of responsible people who were descended from the original riverside dwellers. They had plied small craft in trade up and down the river, or had been employed as stonemasons and carpenters in the building of London, living north of the Thames and east of the City wall. They kept up a tradition of manual and skilled labour.
Class distinction and class struggle have been part of British culture since the Romans. The Second World War went a long way to changing that, although Great Britain has retained an aristocracy, although since the late 18th century, commoners who were financially successful or otherwise contributed to the strength of the nation were elevated to the peerage. (And even in Jane Austen’s day, those recently knighted or ennobled were considered as less important than those who inherited titles; the inheritors rarely had to work for a living, while the new peers always had.) An immigrant population changed the linguistic and cultural landscape, as well. Britain had to change, or be left behind as the European Union, the United States, and what was formerly known as the Third World forged new links of trade.
In Britain, as in the other developed countries, there soon rose a new underclass whose traditional sources of employment were gone, as manufacturing and unskilled labour jobs went offshore to less expensive production markets. (It is a strange, convoluted concept, that the means of production are marketed like commodities. Labour has become a commodity.) There was a cultural backlash; the disenfranchised working class clashed with immigrants who would work under worse conditions for less money. As the unemployed evolved into another subculture, the employed and educated classes became alarmed. It used to be that being working class was no shame in Britain. One endeavoured to get and keep employment, and avoid the “dole” or social assistance benefits. There had always been both upward and downward mobility, as the sons and daughters of bakers and butchers chose higher education in the new universities, and the children of teachers, bankers and government employees took up skilled trade because that was what interested them, or that was where the good money was. There was class discrimination and stereotyping, but the national effort of Hitler’s war had pulled Britons together as never before. Class distinction became less important; class mobility became more common. The recent royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton demonstrates this. Her parents were British Airways employees who opened what became a very successful mail order business. William and Kate do not share common ancestors closer than the 15th century. William’s parents, Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer, had a common 18th century ancestor, and Diana’s family was old and titled. Charles’s parents, Philip and Elizabeth, were as close as second cousins in one line, third cousins in another, with Queen Victoria as a common ancestor. Kate’s genealogy, although documented, was of little importance in the decision to marry.
Part of the backlash of achieving commonality in culture is that those who have always assumed on privilege do not easily give it up. Thus those who threaten privilege are demonized and are further marginalized. In looking for images of “chav” culture, I suspected that almost all the illustrations were staged, photographs of university students at “chav” parties or deliberate stereotyping for the photo shoot. Young men in tracksuits with Burberry plaid baseball caps, outrageously sized gold chains, pendants and rings, young women with huge hoop earrings in skimpy tank tops and shorts, with pillows underneath to make them look pregnant; all the models clutching beer cans and cigarettes. They photos remind me of the “redneck” parties of my generation, when female friends would go to a party at someone’s cottage in Daisy Mae cutoffs, with their hair in pigtails, the young men in sleeveless black t-shirts and torn jeans. The refreshment of choice was Southern Comfort or Jim Beam or Lone Star beer, and the music reverberating from the boombox was Lynyrd Skynyrd and Tom Petty. For some it was just affecting a silly costume, but for others I think there was a genuine dislike for the stereotype of the poor American rural Southerner. It was “okay” to call them white trash because we were white, too.
Owen Jones wrote this in Chavs: “To admit that some people are poorer than others because of the social injustice inherent in our society would require government action. Claiming that people are largely responsible for their circumstances facilitates the opposite conclusion.”
Equality for American blacks took government action. We are still fighting the stereotype that claims that blacks and other non-European descended people are inferior in intelligence and ability. We are still fighting a stereotype that characterizes black culture as demeaning and immoral. Here in Canada, the first nations fight the same battle. Their language and culture was taken away by brutally separating children from family so that they would become “white” in speech and behaviour. Their own cultural history was handed back to them and marked as a failure, although it had supported them and their ancestors for generations.
Once a group of people are marked out as inferior, it makes it easier for the dominant culture to exploit them and deny them human rights. It is disheartening to see the trend continue and in fact take on new aspects, especially in the repeated marginalization and stereotyping of the most vulnerable people.
Unemployment in the UK is just under 8%, a bit of a climb over the past five years. Unemployment in the USA is over 9%, and may be even higher because of the way the unemployed are tallied in the US. Canada seems to be holding at about 7.5%. I acknowledge that middle-class workers can feel threatened when they are in an uncertain job market, and both Europe and North America stand cautiously on the brink of economic hardship. Those who are frightened always look for a source of trouble to blame, and the exaggerated response to what seems to be a manufactured “underclass” may be part of it. American conservatives often blame the “welfare” poor for high taxes, although social services is a small part of the American government’s budget.
But maybe we are all falling into unconscious elitism. My husband and I, both with master’s degrees, live in the bottom 10% of household income in Canada. We receive no benefits beyond his Canadian Medicare and his disability pension (a government insurance payout after he had worked for wages and paid taxes for 35 years.) I do not qualify for Medicare, and we pay for my medical care out-of-pocket. We do not receive housing subsidies, aid with prescriptions and other medical needs, nor any supplement to cover our increasing household energy costs. We get by because we deliberately budgeted what we could afford. Even then, we have needed small amounts of financial aid from the church to cover expenses when we had to pay for something beyond our usual budget.
Will we be demonized in the same way that working class Britons have been? If we can’t afford a house with a two-car garage, vacations in the Caribbean, expensive clothes, or new cars, will we be suspected of trying to cheat the taxpayers if we qualify for “benefits”? Will scurrilous rumours circulate about how we don’t pay taxes,how we apply for benefits we don’t deserve, or have strange and secret orgies of drinking and promiscuity? Possibly; those who have lived near large Old Order Amish or Mennonite communities, or any homogeneous Christian group, have heard such stories about the strangers in their midst. And just as most working class residents of the UK pay their taxes, don’t apply for unneeded benefits, and live fairly quiet, normal, even spiritual lives, so do various “outsider” groups in North America, from native Americans to Mormons.
I’m hoping that the “chav” hysteria will die out soon, as a precursor of greater tolerance in the world. It doesn’t look like it, though, with the conservative politicians in the United States continuing to incite disdain and fear of immigrant and underclass groups.
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.
The day started badly. The smallest chick left got smothered during the night, probably trying to huddle under the larger birds. She wasn’t growing as she should, and since yesterday’s swollen eyelid incident, I had thought she might not be strong enough to make it. There’s no use in coddling along the ones who have something wrong with them, as eventually they weaken the whole flock either by breeding or by getting an illness that might have been otherwise avoided. I wish Nicholas wouldn’t get so attached to the weak ones. I can look at it as part of life – not all chicks can survive – but he is a softie at heart.
The surviving four seem to be getting bigger and are healthy. If I lose anymore, I am going to complain to the seller. We take exceptional care of the chicks. They aren’t crowded, the crate is clean, they always have feed, grit and fresh water. I haven’t tried putting them in the barn yet, as our nights get cool about this time of year. They will start spending some time out there once they have fully fledged. They can have lots of hay for bedding, with pine shavings underneath. I think I’ll invest in a reflector lamp and a good extension cord as well.
Three items that don’t seem to stay on a farm long: Heavy extension cords, good 100-foot hoses, and battery chargers. They grow feet and shuffle off down the road, I suppose.
The dead chick put me in a pensive mood all day, with just an undercurrent of anxiety. I don’t want to have put a sum of money into what I hope will be our future egg and breeding stock and lose it to unknown causes. A friend down river says she had the same thing happen recently with her rare chick purchase, losing three out of eight in a week.
The goats went out on the west side of the house, under overcast and breezy conditions, but by the time I got home from a run to get a prescription for Nicholas, the heat and humidity had risen, and Vanilla was panting like she was in Lamaze class. I transferred them all to the barn, leaving the sliding door open into the new fenced pen, now known as the goat porch. It is really for the chickens, but it is useful to be able to leave that door open with goats loose in the barn. Tara, though, remembered what I suspect is an old trick, and tried leaning out through the fence. It is reinforced with upright 2x4s, and screwed to supports top and bottom, but she put a big bow in it until I grabbed her by the horns, pushed her into a stall, and shut the door. She was not pleased. The other two made use of their freedom to enjoy the pen. Vanilla settled down after about fifteen minutes and a drink of fresh water. The goats are so fussy about water. They had a bucket of water, but apparently some minute insect fell in it, and they wouldn’t touch it again.
Laundry got out on the clothesline, and supper made; the food blog post got written. (New posts for “In a Plain Kitchen” are at http://inaplainkitchen.blogspot.com. I will fix the blogroll link here soon.) One bathroom got cleaned. I can never seem to get both done in the same day.
When I was a young lass, a new mother, and a working wife, I would be close to frantic tears on days like this. Every task was interrupted at least once. I would start something, find I needed to move something, clean something, or find something before the next step. Every time. Every step. Just to do laundry I had to grate soap, relocate the borax (removed to another room for cleaning), run extra hot water to dissolve the soap and borax, find a laundry tub, empty goat drinking water out of tub, load tub, pick up the spilled compost (thanks to the dog) from under the clothesline, clean up after the dog under the clothesline by first trying to find the shovel which was in the garage, and then the rake, which was in the garden…
I survived the day. I did it without loss of temper. I have learned this important lesson: There’s tomorrow. It may be better than today or it may be worse or it may be the same but in a different way. That’s okay. We can live with it. We are not being judged on how well we got organized. God looks at the good heart within. Pass through each day with love and not with anger; pass through each day as if it is your last here. Pass through each day as if you have eternity before you – because you do.