Top Ten Books

My top ten most influential books, and why:

Gospel of Mark

1. The Gospel of Mark. The immediacy of Jesus’s mission, the uncertainty and hubris of the disciples, the world-shattering results…well, if I am going to call myself a faithful follower of Christ, I’d better know what He was about.

Hans Christian Andersen

2. The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen. If my parents had only known how subversive fairy tales are, I might never have been allowed them.

lord of the rings

3. The Lord of the Rings: It was a revelation to me to see that life does not have to be pleasant and fun to be good, and that there are higher goals than selfish pleasure. I was young, still in my hippie years when I read Tolkien. It shaped my Christianity, and gave me a sense of nobility.

mere christianity

4. Mere Christianity. C.S. Lewis’s great classic about living a Christ-like life in the midst of a secular society.

freddys book

5.Freddy’s Book, John Gardner. Surprise! This lost classic is about the Reformation years of Gustav Vasa in Sweden; its characters include the Devil

essaysofebwhite

6. Essays of E.B. White: Mostly about life on a saltwater farm in Maine; big influence on my writing style. White’s frank essays on the complications of simple life gave me perspective on being an adult. “Death of a Pig” is one of the best.

Jane_Eyre

7. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte: Not so much the romance – I doubt if Mr. Rochester would have been very appealing to me – but Jane’s strong sense of justice and principle, as well as her modesty and simplicity, spoke to me, and I have held her as a model through my life.

diet for a small planet

8. Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappe: I often fail to be a good vegetarian, but this book helped form my sense of ecological justice. It was the first cookbook I ever owned

beard on bread

9. Beard on Bread, James Beard: An early choice for bread-baking in my life, and it certainly introduced me to breads other than spongy sweet white bread my mother made and the grain-dense “hippie” doorstops I first baked.

To_Kill_a_Mockingbird

10. To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee: I grew up in the far northern corner of the eastern United States. The racial and class conflicts of the rest of the country bypassed us, for the most part. I was a small, imaginative, athletic child, much like Scout. From Atticus Finch, I learned how to stand up for what is right, even when it is not popular or even likely to succeed.

I could probably list another ten, but this is plenty enough, of talking about myself. Maybe some of you have the same favorites, maybe some of you might be intrigued enough to look at some which aren’t familiar.

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.

Living Off the Clock

I read a beautiful National Geographic story online about the Sami (or Suomi, or Lapps as we called them years ago.) These are the reindeer people, many of them still living their semi-nomadic life above the Arctic Circle. They are very much in tune with the environment around them, with the signs of weather and the ways of the reindeer. Although they once followed the reindeer according to where the reindeer thought to go, they are now confined to certain pasturing grounds. This has affected how they live by forcing them to herd the reindeer more, using snowmobiles rather than their traditional skis and sledges, and it has changed the reindeer, often causing stress and lower birth rates. The Sami believe, and are most likely right, that the reindeer know by instinct and herd decision where they should be, but the government thinks differently.

A friend recently wrote me with a question about forming Christian community, and I posted to him the article about the reindeer people. This is what I want to do; I almost feel compelled to it. I don’t mean move to northern Norway, but live a life according to the seasons. Christians should be good at keeping the seasons, as our church year is seasonal. Yet we are so often driven by the clock and calendar. We are driven by expectations which, when we examine them, are worldly and not other-worldly. This earth is God’s creation for us. He placed us here. And when Eden was brought up from the mist and mud, there were no roofs or clocks or shops. It was just the animals, God, and then the adama – the people of the earth.

So this earth should be our world, not the world of buying and selling, of status and prestige, of power and money. We speak of the two kingdoms because we humans built the second one; that tower of Babel is not finished, nor abandoned in our desires. There is but one true kingdom, and that is the Kingdom of God. Jesus told His followers that it is at hand – meaning imminent, and at His resurrection, that Kingdom was founded.  But in sin and blind ambition, we refuse to fulfill the promise of the Kingdom, and live on in our fantasy world, regulated by clocks, driven by desire, harassed by human, not divine, expectation.

My recent round of  illness was aggravated by worry and the feeling that I needed to get a job, get better medical care, get it all done so that I could rest and maybe recuperate. I can hear my mother’s voice yet in my head criticizing the pile of laundry and the dusty floors. Dear mother, you left this world more than decade ago, with not a dirty dish in the sink and the laundry folded. I most certainly would put up with mountains of dirty clothes and floors that yet needed washing to have you back.

When we work closely with animals, a lot of other things hang fire. Sometimes the herder or shepherd leaves everything – dirty dishes, phone calls to return, sermons to write, checkbooks to balance – because the herd needs their human companion. One animal down can cascade into illness through the whole flock. Things must be done when the time is right, usually not a moment sooner nor a moment or two later. The flock becomes the focus. And I believe this is as it should be.

Shetland sheep via wikimedia

We will not regain Eden before the return of Christ, but we can work at living in God’s Kingdom now. That may seem like an impossibility to many people, who are tied to work hours, with debt to be paid. Nor should our work be other than in the Kingdom; must we work for unethical companies, at soul-destroying jobs? And even if we are satisfied with our work, is it really what God intends for us? Getting free of debt as quickly as possible, planting even a small garden, spending more leisure time in natural surroundings are good beginnings to living closer to the Kingdom. Sometimes our church home stands in the way as well; there’s an issue for all Christians to consider. Is the church itself too much of this world? I know mine is often too concerned with raising money and finding new parishioners, while employing church leaders concerned with their ambition and advancement rather than with the health and well-being of their flock.

I hope to be closer to the Kingdom myself in seasons to come, really closer to our flocks and herds, spending more time as a herder and shepherd rather than as a household manager and professional worrier. I do desire fields and pasture for the animals where they can be what they are, and I can be with them. But we too are constrained by fences and government; we too, as the Sami, must adapt somewhat, even when we see that it is not the best thing. We can always work for change, though. We can work toward restoring something of Eden, a place in which to wait for the Lord’s return. Best that when He comes to us, He finds us at the work He gave us, not the work of the other world.

by Edward Hicks

National Geographic article: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

The Modesty of Self

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.

apron over apron - upper Valley tradition

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.

from Amish Village

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.

Obedience – it really is that hard!

Following the traditional Anglican daily lectionary is a lesson in old-fashioned obedience. It just goes right on through the Bible, not skipping very much, and not making any apologies, either. It includes a lot of the ugly stuff that you really, really wish wasn’t part of the Judeo-Christian message. But there it is. Politically incorrect and as obtuse about it as your Great-Uncle Elmer.

In the First Epistle of St. Peter, apostle and bishop, he is quite blunt about how to live as a Christian. “Slaves, obey your masters;” not just the nice ones who treat you well and give you a day off, but the awful ones, too, who are way too demanding and don’t appreciate anything anyway.

And then, the Big One: “In the same way, you wives should be obedient to your husbands.” What?! Is that still in the Bible?

“Then if there are some husbands who do not believe the Word, they may find themselves won over, without a word spoken, by the way their wives behave, when they see the reverence and purity of your way of life.” This suggests that maybe some husbands are like slave-masters, doesn’t it, unappreciative and domineering. But are modern men like that?

The human nature of 2000 years ago is a lot like the human nature of say, five minutes ago. I can say this because I continually appreciate that my own husband loves and appreciates me as a wife and a Christian, and lets me know. (And even though I think he has the right to edit and censor what I write, he insists that he doesn’t and won’t!)

Wives, obey your husbands, and “husbands must always treat their wives with consideration in their life together.” Now, Peter says women are the weaker partner and he does mean physically. This is just a general fact of sexual dimorphism (differences between males and females physically) and although as a woman, I am stronger than a lot of men my size, most men are a lot bigger than I am, and my husband is literally twice as strong as I am. Although women are physically frailer than men, they are equal heirs to the gift of life in Christ Jesus, not just weak children who need constant supervision.

Obedience is acknowledging that while marriage partners are equals in Christ, and give each other mutual respect, someone has to be head of the household. In some circumstances, if the husband is not able to do that, then the wife may have to take that role, but in a traditional household, the husband, who works outside and deals more with the public, has that decision-making role. Most things should be decided together, in cooperation, as Christians should always do, but if there is no concensus, it is up to the husband to take the leading role, standing in the place of Christ. He may make mistakes and needs to admit when that happens, but then the wife shouldn’t belittle him over it, either.

It is a modern disease in culture that women put men down, and men treat women as if they are stupid. There is a lack of mutual respect that makes “obedience” and “consideration” impossible, not just hard. I would rather “obey” my considerate and respectful husband than have nothing but contempt for and from him when I don’t get what I want.

Yes, men (and women) make mistakes about their family lives, and I have seen too often that this leads to hard feelings and recriminations and even marital failure, because one party cannot forgive the other. “Love each other as I have loved you,” the Lord said, and He, in love for us, has forgiven us everything, even the human sin that sent Him to a criminal’s death, undeserved. We forgive ourselves a thousand little faults every day – the burned toast, the late start, the lost pencil, and we forgive ourselves some pretty big faults, too – laziness, hesitancy, lack of compassion. But when our partner makes a big mistake, are we quick to rush to fault-finding and blame, rather than comfort and consolation? If we are truly one flesh with our spouse, then that problem is our problem, too, and the only sensible (and Godly) thing to do is address it and overcome it.

Marriages are sometimes so broken, though, by deceit and infidelity, that the other spouse cannot enter into that state of comfort, consolation and problem-solving. Sometimes the marital expectation is so unreasonable and so anti-Christian that a partner simply cannot stay and obey. This is worse than ever, I believe; we live in a world where we are taught “Me first,” and that we have rights to pleasure and personal fulfillment even at the cost of those who love us and deserve our love.

It is through daily interaction with the Word in Scripture and in Holy prayer that we learn how to live in a broken world as healed children of God. There is no harm in simply obeying! We obey God in how we act in our daily lives, not by spending an hour or so in a church building once a wekk and giving some money when asked. We live in obedience when we are willing to practice what we learn, or why bother learning it? Why would I bother studying civil engineering if I’m never going to build a road? Why would I read God’s Word if I have no intention of following Jesus?

Let the world know that thee is a Christian, by following the Way. The Lord gives thee simple instructions: be obedient; dress simply and modestly, give to those in need. Live in the kingdom of God as if thee is already in the New Jerusalem.