Knowing How to Ask

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.

Crofting, Fire and God Thoughts

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.

You know who you are.

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?

image from young and catholic

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.”

A Time to Give

Advent is almost upon us. Traditionally, this is a season of preparation for the great festival of the incarnation, Christmas in the West, Nativity in the East. How do we prepare to greet our King? We clean everything, we get ourselves in good shape, we pay our dues to Him. Spiritually, this means prayer and repentance, fasting (cutting back on food and drink), and giving to the poor and disadvantaged.

It does not mean shopping and giving or receiving gifts, or going to parties. That is all reserved for the Twelve Days – the Epiphany celebration, from Christmas Day to January 6. In this world many, if they have heard His name, have never felt the joy of His gifts on earth. We should keep in mind that our celebration should be quiet, inexpensive and in keeping with a sobriety that remembers those who have been lost to famine and disease.

Here are some resources to help plan for Advent, Christmas and the year to come:

http://www.adventconspiracy.org/

Advent Conspiracy is a programme to motivate people to move away from materialism and the cultural push to spend and borrow. It is geared toward  group participation, such as a church. Pastors can utilize video and print resources directly from the website.

 

Another charity helping people who are caught in the worst conditions is Samaritan’s Purse. They are best known for “Operation Christmas Child” which sends gifts to school-age children around the world. I’m not a big fan of the OCC shoeboxes myself; many people are clueless as to what is appropriate so there ends up being a lot of waste. It does get people started on thinking about those in great need in other places, though. If you think you and your church or family are ready to move past the shoeboxes, a donation or a collection drive for Samaritan’s Purse efforts to relieve famine is a great undertaking.

http://www.samaritanspurse.org/

Samaritan’s Purse does relief work in many countries; they were in Haiti and Japan and are very active in Africa right now. They have a good track record of relief monies reaching those in need.

I will post more on other charities every week, or more often. I appreciate any references and personal stories, as well, if I may use them publically. If you wish to write to me privately, my email is magdalenaperks@gmail.com. Gmail is a great spam filter, so I am not at all worried about that. Send photos if you wish to publicize what your church or organization is doing. It will encourage others.

 

 

Amish Economy

Old postcard of Amish kitchen

We might be excused for thinking that “Amish economy” is a result of people who deliberately stay rooted in an agrarian way of life; that the Amish, and other Anabaptists, are thrifty and hard-working from necessity. Those in the Old Orders almost never have education beyond American grade eight. They learn trades and crafts rather than professions.

Amish economy is based on old Anabaptist principles that are about community rather than money. This may seem strange to Americans, whose goals are generally centred on obtaining a comfortable life, with a fair amount of ease and luxury, even if it is not ostentatiously rich. Most modern Westerners admire the rich, and are fascinated by the lifestyle of the wealthy. Vacation resorts make a good deal of money promoting this fantasy. If this attitude was not widespread, there would be no lotteries, no Las Vegas, no People magazine. There are no Amish equivalents to these cultural phenomena.

Yet the Amish and other Old Order groups do not live as asthetes and monks. They are focussed on living a Christian life rather than a comfortable life. Some people are surprised and even shocked when they see an Amish home that has a recliner, a gas stove, and wall decor; they were expecting something more austere and self-denying. But Amish life isn’t about austerity; the self-denial takes other forms, such as a rejection of popular culture and anything that will fragment the family and their own Amish community. Electricity is rejected as being the conduit for radios, television, DVD players and now, the mindless popular entertainment of the internet; but a gas stove and refrigerator (if allowed in that district) are good for the family. The home telephone is rejected as a means for idle chatter and hurtful gossip; yet Amish business people (and some teens during rumspringa) use cell phones to stay in touch. The automobile as a family-owned personal conveyance is rejected, but most Amish will accept or hire a ride when needed for doctors’ appointments, shopping, or long-distance visiting.

I can understand all of this. The telephone is an instrument that spreads petty talk and divides friends; the automobile takes families to distant places where they are apart from community, and encourages young people to stay away from home; and I don’t think I need to say anything more about the unChristian intrusion of commercially produced television and films. The economy of the Amish is “ekkonomia” – management of the household. Early Church bishops and priests were admonished to practice good “ekkonomia” in their communities. The Amish still take that seriously.

There are old Anabaptist principles on what is good work. It must benefit the community. It must allow for parents to be home with their children as much as possible. It is not possible to practice good work if the industry in which one works is destructive. Pacifist Anabaptists would not assemble rifles, or build tanks, or sew military uniforms. They will assemble woodstoves, build RVs and bicycles, and sew coats. They do not like their young people to travel far from home to work, although carpenter groups did travel together.  While most young mothers stay home with their children, others will work in retail or food service as they need to, if it does not interfere with being home with the children at crucial times of the day. (Many Amish women have home-based businesses, as well. This probably comes out of the background of an agrarian culture.)

Some underlying principles of Amish/Anabaptist economy are that the business owner should not earn much more than his workers – one old rule was that the owner should realize no more than four times what he pays the least paid of his employees. The business itself should keep its workers close to home, so that they can return to their families every evening.

Amish men at a horse auction in the 1950s

Gellasenheit is the Amish concept of self-surrender, of standing humbly before God, of not trying to rise above one’s neighbours and friends. It is the reason for the Ordnung, the way of life of that community. “Gellasenheit” is avoiding self-idolatry, or of being too pleased with oneself, of staying away from anything that smells of status seeking and privilege. It isn’t false humility; if one is good at doing something that benefits the community, then one should do it. Those who practice gellasenheit, though, will not draw attention to what they have done; they will not boast or risk the criticism of the group for putting oneself forward.

It is also an Anabaptist principle to be sufficiently independent financially, of being able to carry one’s own weight in the community. Those who cannot because of disability, age or circumstances can be assured that they will receive the care they need. Being financially solvent, free of debt, and able to earn a living wage and provide sufficiently for family and neighbours in need are the goals of the Amish householder. Amish and Mennonites are always quietly rasing funds for those who are suffering. Collections are taken door to door, auctions held, thrift stores run, to benefit “the least of these.” Because the churches are either held in houses, or at most are small, low maintenance structures among some of the Mennonites, and the clergy, for the msost part, serve without stipend, monies raised within the church can be used for the benefit of the needy. “Charity begins at home” is often misquoted to justify keeping church funds within the  immediate community rather than disperse them in the wider church-world; the Amish more typically exemplify this saying in its truer sense, that one learns to love and care for others first within one’s home group. (The charitable work of the larger Mennonite/Amish community benefits many worldwide, not just in their own home states, and not just among the followers of their particular kind of faith.)

This outreach is also part of the Amish/Mennonite witness of non-violence, “to do good and not evil.”  The Amish witness is of the “two kingdoms” – a Christian cannot serve both God and Mammon (money, worldliness). The Christian lives first in God’s kingdom, and is only of necessity in the world. In 1530, an early Anabaptist, John of Leyden, wrote, “A believer’s church should be a community of faith that practiced mutual aid.” That is, the faithful were to care for one another, and as Christ admonished his followers, to care for the stranger as oneself, exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Church is truly not “every man for himself” but “every man for each other.”

For further reading online: www.religionomics.com; www.reformedreader.org.

The Advent Fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Charity and Unnecessary Criticism

The Greek word we Christians use for love among the faithful is “karitas.” From it we derive the English word “charity.” Charity is not just giving to the poor and needy – it is the love of Christ expressed in this world. We are called to have this love – this charity – toward not just those who are suffering while we are well, but toward every other being on earth as created by God.

It’s a huge responsibility.

In the old monasteries, this kind of humility before God’s Creation was expressed in nonjudgment of one’s brothers (or sisters.) While discipline is kept by the abbot or abbess, or the bishop or elder, those who are co-equal under Christ must refrain from criticism and judgment. There was a simple admonition to the critical, derived from the long periods of fasting and abstention:

Keep your eyes on your own plate.

Criticism will lead to hubris – “I am doing so much better than this other one” – and even gluttony and envy – “I could use what you have wasted!”

Walk your own path; work out your own salvation; don’t carry what others have already put down.

There’s another old monastic story. Two monks, sworn to chastity and celibacy, who would not even lift their eyes to look at a woman’s face, are on a long journey from one monastery to another. Winter is close by, they need to hurry. On a deserted path to a village, they find a young woman, her feet too injured by frostbite to support her. One monk, without hesitation, takes the woman in his arms and carries her into the next village, leaving her with the priest for care and medical treatment. The other monk, who has not helped at all in the girl’s rescue, begins to chide his brother for breaking the vows, and not only helping the woman but carrying her in an intimate manner. The monks walk on, the one scolding the other. Finally, after an hour or so of this, the charitable monk says to his partner, “I put that woman down miles ago! Why are you still carrying her?”

Charity is the best part of faith. Be charitable to one another.