Reason and Sacrifice

YOKE blog post 2-27-15 fast

“If it were easy, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice,” my older son said to me this weekend.

And that is simply true. It is early in Lent, and Easter looks a long distance away.

Yet onward with this fast.

Why am I fasting? I have some good reasons – it is traditional, it frees some funds for charity, I need to lose 20 pounds to lessen the burden on my arthritis damaged hips and feet.

It gives my body a break from rich food, alcohol, sugar and meat.

Reasons, good reasons.

Sometimes we don’t have a “good” reason for fasting, though, in the fasting seasons. And then we should simply fast, cutting out meat, dairy, fish, sugar, alcohol. We live for a few weeks the way many people in the world must live all the time.

Sometimes the reason for the fast is simply obedience.

See more at The YOKE: http://www.theyoke.org

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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

Chicago_downtown_(another_view)

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.

 

Happiness

 

lake with ducks wikimedia

Happiness, gratitude, joy: Words that are bubbling through social media, in publications and in books currently on the best selling list. As Christians, how can we be concerned for these, while serving Christ fully?

There is no wrong in being happy, feeling grateful, or looking for joy. The real concern for Christians is that we displace our dependency on and faith in God while seeking these pleasures. While all measures of such positive emotions must be, in some way, a gift from God, we are concerned principally with receiving these graces directly from God, and not from our own selfish pursuits.

I could not avoid Victoria Osteen’s words on happiness and God. Many Christians were shocked, or at least troubled, by them. Here is a quote from the broadcast, purportedly Mrs. Osteen’s words:

“I just want to encourage everyone of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.

“So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”

Of course, there is a huge problem in that first sentence. Yes, obeying God, when we are doing it, in an important way, is for God. It is for “our own good” in another way, but certainly not to make us happy, as in having pleasant emotions. Eventually, obedience to God will give us happiness, and more, but first, we must pass through a lot of negative emotions. The fear and uncertainty is to cleanse our spirit of sin and our inevitable loss of God when are main concern is to seek our own happiness. Obedience to God does not change God, or make His life easier; God does not need us in that way. We please God to walk in His way, which is the way that leads to peace, true love, and spiritual maturity. Obedience to God is to further the very real goal we have with Him, to “build His Kingdom” by keeping temptation and sin at bay.

Does God take pleasure in our happiness? The Bible would seem to say that God takes pleasure in our obedience, as we pray, study His word, and follow His commandments. Happiness as in seeking pleasure, in pleasing ourselves, even if it costs others peace, happiness and comfort, is not according to God’s will. That kind of happiness is merely selfishness, a childish desire to meet our whims and petty desires.

There could be a married couple, where the husband has taken money committed to supporting the family, and purchased something that fulfills a desire he has had, something like a sports car, or a cruise. He is incredibly pleased with this, but his wife is appalled. The money had been meant for education, or a new house, or their retirement. The husband is happy; the wife and family can share this new experience and perhaps they will get some pleasure from it. Still, the husband’s immediate happiness and anticipated pleasure has robbed the family of some security, or even thwarted a plan to improve the family’s life overall. A car or a cruise would not be a bad thing in itself. He didn’t buy anything dangerous or illegal. yet the family will suffer longterm for his decision to make himself happy.

Does worship make God happy? Many times, God condemned Israel for their empty ceremonies. Paul admonishes the churches for being more concerned about putting on a show and having a feast than in praying and expressing gratitude to God. The people attending these ceremonies and gatherings may have been very happy in that experience. They may have been even ecstatic, dancing and singing, crying out in unknown languages, overwhelmed by the excitement and attention.

storm clouds wikimedia

I Kings 9: So He said, “Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”…

The wind, earthquake and fire whirling around Elijah were not God. The still small voice that whispered directly in the prophet’s ear was God. Elijah was expecting the quiet voice; the excitement was something else. The noise and shaking were a response to the presence of God, but not God.

Happiness is like that. Pleasure is one thing God uses to drive us closer to Him, to announce His presence. Humans, though, have corrupted that pleasure, and we can find it in things, places and sensations that God would not give to us. The pleasure of sin is short-lived. It will fail us. Seeking pleasure in consumption, in gaining power, or in idleness is sin. It will, in the end, ruin us for God’s ultimate purpose, which is to bring us to Himself.

Even attending church and enjoying what seems innocent and enlightening can separate us from the love of God. If we turn our attention to those who claim to be teaching God but are only teaching about themselves, we will fall into sin. We will share the hubris – destructive pride – of those who misuse God’s name to gain the pleasures of this world.

When I saw Victoria Osteen’s words on God and happiness, my first thought was, “Tell that to the martyrs.” These witnesses of the faith did not serve God by being happy. My guess is that they were often unhappy, as they were imprisoned, hunted, interrogated or tortured, and then killed. There is no real pleasure in that. I believe, too, that those who are martyred for faith often had an incredible, indescribable joy. They received the best gift from God in that, a consolation that they were close to Him, in His presence, as they found courage in the Holy Spirit. They had the peace that passes all understanding even as they were in pain, hungry, wounded and frightened.

Westminster_Abbey_C20th_martyrs wikipedia

Joy is not just happiness. Happiness can be as fleeting as eating an ice cream cone on a hot, sunny day. Happiness can be the mere moments we lose our concerns and worry while watching a comedy or reading an exciting book. There is nothing wrong with that kind of happiness, as long as we don’t think that is all the happiness we need. That kind of happiness becomes addictive, and we need more and more to even begin to feel happy in it. True happiness never takes from others, or puts our own pleasure above theirs. Mere pleasurable happiness is not going to lead to joy.

The joy we find in God is not something we can turn on and off. We can’t go shopping for joy. Joy is like stepping into a beautiful lake to swim, at the right time of day, and finding that is the right temperature, the right depth. The same lake may not yield that pleasure of rightness every day; we can even go and merely sit on its shores some days. Yet it is always there, and when the great confluence of grace and heart meet, God and His loving, humble creature, we are bathed in those joyful waters.

Victoria Osteen’s words on happiness may have been careless, spoken more in enthusiasm and a desire to please than in a wickedness to turn us from the way of God. Personally, I ignore anything Joel and Victoria Osteen say. Their way of living and their public presence do not seem, to me, to be the way to God. Their speeches and sermons are empty words. Don’t be deceived, but do not treat them with contempt and hatred. Don’t be envious of their success, as it is merely worldly. All pleasure that is not of God is a millstone around the neck. Praise, fame, admiration, riches and possessions are a puff of smoke in eternity. Many follow these people and have made them rich. But to say that is the reward God has given them is to say that those beloved of God who professed Christ in pain, poverty and death are wrong, and we know this is not truth.

 

Staying Plain

Plain as Prophecy

It seems a double handful of friends in various places have decided they are no longer plain. When I ask why the answers range from “My husband/family didn’t like it” to “I was tired of telling people I’m not Amish.” The most honest answer was probably “It was a mistake, I wasn’t meant for this.” I won’t question people’s motives, but I can’t see it myself. Plain is so easy – so low-key – so cheap!

A long time ago I got tired of the mirror. I didn’t want to be the person checking her hair, checking her clothes, checking her make-up. I wasn’t fashion obsessed, but I had the idea that as an artist, my body was a canvas, and I would show the world who I was by what I displayed on it. But instead of having a number of “costumes” that went on easily, so as to get on with the day and serve as a billboard for my creative work, dress became a matter of insecurity.

I was projecting who I wanted to be, not who I was. I was manipulating how people saw me. They didn’t get to know me, they got to know my clothes.

While I am usually in habit now, out on the street, I still dress Plain at home and when I travel anywhere. Do people think I’m Amish? Maybe. Not a bad thing. I don’t do anything that would embarrass an Amish woman or mislead someone about the Amish. (This also reminds me to behave modestly in all things.) And if someone asks me if I am Amish, I say that I am not, and that I belong to a different church. If they are curious enough to ask more questions, it is an opportunity to witness to them, to spread the gospel. Either in habit or Plain dress, I am happy to pray for or with someone if they ask. This is apostolic witness; no Christian should be ashamed of it.

Me, full habit

Me, full habit

Stay Plain. Become Plain. It means you never fuss with clothes again. The habit is a medieval form of Plain; those in religious orders might consider taking it up if they put it off. Plain is comfortable. It is practical. It is inexpensive. You can have a smaller house because you don’t need extra closet space. It doesn’t go out of fashion. It is easy to sew. Covering means that you don’t worry about hairstyles, grey hair or thinning hair. Plain means you need one mirror in the house. You gain self-confidence. You know how people see you: As a Christian. It is a commitment to a way of life that liberates.

medieval nun

Plain means you stop thinking about yourself as some sort of ornament decorating the world, and become Real. Becoming Real means living in God’s Kingdom, now and always, rather than staying in the illusion that is the world and our insecurities.

nun in cloister

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.