Plain Dress November

Plain is as Plain does

I’ve been Plain since 2006, along with my husband. He was naturally plain, I think; even as a child, when his mother, a very good seamstress, would make him fashionable shirts and clothes, he would only wear them to please her, preferring jeans and dark shirts. He was a natural for clergy garb – black pants, black shirt with the funny white plastic tab in the collar. (I absolutely despise those tabs.) He’ll wear the same shirts now, without the insert. Oddly, he always hated belts – the buckles were never plain enough for him, and he’s not shaped well for a belt, anyway. When I switched his trousers to braces buttons, he was well-pleased.

He hates suits. When he’s had to wear one, especially if it means a tie, he looks like a dressed-up bear. He rolls his arms forward and leans out of the tie. He no longer has either.

My journey to Plain is well-documented here; I don’t need to recapitulate. I’ve survived the hostility from friends and family, and in some cases, I’m still waiting for some people to come mend their side of the fence. Those that don’t like it can go on not liking it; I’m done defending myself because for Heaven’s sake, I have done nothing wrong in this.

Should others become Plain? Only if called. When the call is felt, it is inescapable. I was probably called from childhood. I loved Plain people, Quakers and Amish. I loved nuns in traditional habits. I thought our Baptist ministers in their suits and coloured ties were real peacocks compared to the Catholic and Anglican priests! (I’ve since met some really flamboyant dressers, and have toned down my opinions.)

We do need to think about Plain when we are called. It will be a long, hard meditation, with a lot of wavering. It isn’t vanity to take pains with Plain when we start. It took me a couple of years to refine what I needed to do. Some of it is pragmatic – the stiff caps instead of soft caps, the length of skirts, the choices of colours. (My husband is partially blind for the last year and more; I’ve switched to brighter colours so he can see me more easily.)

Dressing in the morning is now more than undies, jeans and a pullover. I have to consciously think of how the clothes go on, and remember why I am doing it. Long dresses, some of them cotton, require shifts and such underneath, and an apron (or some such) over for modesty. (I have a lot to be modest about,which I used to flaunt, or at least emphasize. I’m not ashamed of it, but it isn’t what I need to present first to the world.) Priests of the high church party used to have cards outlining the prayers they were to say as they put on their ecclesial garments, a practice derived late in the 19th century from the vesting prayers of the Orthodox Church, which are ancient. I have used both, although when alone my vesting prayers were along the lines of “Please, God, don’t let me say anything stupid out there, and keep me from tripping over my cassock again.”

In the church, I was plain at the altar. I wore cassock and surplice (a really long one that looked like a nightie; it subbed as an angel costume) and black stole, known as a tippet. This is also called a preaching stole. I very rarely wore coloured stoles, an alb or a chasuble – the round garment that signifies the prist who is celebrating the communion. Some priests wear their university hood with cassock and surplice and stole. I was taught to wear one or the other, hood or stole. I’ve lost my hood, and I doubt if I will replace it. It says to the people, I think, “I’m smarter than you.” There were times I would get called out of the vestry, not get back in, and start the service in just cassock. I sometimes said the service in street clothes. Everyone there knew who I was and what I did, why did I need special clothes?

Things I like about Plain: I don’t send mixed messages. I don’t look rich, or sexy, or trying to look younger than I am. People ask me questions in a friendly way. Sometimes I have amusing encounters with people who guess all the wrong things about me (except that I am rich, sexy or young.) I can make my own clothes and ear them for years without anyone wodnering why I’m out of style. My shoes are comfortable. I get to wear aprons.

It is an easy vocation, now that I’ve done it for quite a while. It is a blessing.

The Two Kingdoms

Born in a poor man's house, not a palace

From the beginning of His time on earth, Jesus Christ rejected the power and privileges of this world. The Magi, expecting a king as foretold in the prophecies and by the splendour in the heavens, went to the palace to find Him. He wasn’t there. He was in a poor carpenter’s one-room house.

He never owned a house of His own. He didn’t settle down and raise a family. He was questioned by the authorities concerning all that He did, and He answered in authority, although He was penniless and homeless. He said it Himself: My kingdom is not of this world.

So whose world is this? Not meaning the Earth – for all of Creation is His – but the “world” of power and gain and privilege – which means private law. The world is the world of money and things bought and sold, of profit and anxiety. It is the world of wanting more, of grasping. It is the world of competition. It is Satan’s world for now.

We have to live in this world to some extent. Christ gave us the Commission to go forth, preach, prophesy and baptize. We are the good news, even if some want to shoot the messenger. We can’t live entirely out of the world, unless we are called to a kind of special ministry in that – but even the hermit monk is called to pray for those in the world.

We aren’t to fall in love with the world. We are not to accept its standards. We still live in the other Kingdom, even if we move through this present one.

This is a terrible tension in which to live. The world is beguiling. Pleasure is its promise, even though it doesn’t really deliver it. Holding that tension can destroy Christians if they wander too far from the Way of Christ.

I’m going to try to put this in words that aren’t too Christiany. The world is a harsh, terrible place. The marketplace is a a monster looking for victims. It is not a place for Christians, because we have to keep our hearts open, honest and loving. We can’t toughen up or we will miss the opportunities God sends us to help others.

This is not our kingdom, either.

I live in this tension every day. I can’t ever put off being who I am. I can’t imagine it anymore. Leave the house in jeans and my hair down, with no protection on my head? I would feel as if I were thrown into the Coliseum. I can’t go shopping all day in the mall, buying with a credit card. I would know I was out of place, and I don’t have a credit card and never will again. And what is it I need there? Ninety-eight percent of everything in the shops is trash. It is useless, it is wasteful. It will be replaced by something else in a few weeks. I can list the things I believe I will need in the next year, and none of it would be purchased in a mall. The mall, online shopping, catalogs and big box stores exist to sell worldly people things of this world.

Politicians, even though they may claim to have our interests at heart, are of this world. They owe favours to the people with money, and they have to pay them back or they won’t have campaign money next time around. Politics and government support people who want to make lots of money, who charge outrageous amounts to the taxpayer for roads, hospitals, transportation, communication and even the food we eat drugs we use. These people like luxury, like to have pots of money set aside. Money is how they keep score.

All right, I don’t get that. I have no use for huge, expensive houses or power boats or planes, or even for fine wine and food. I can’t tell the difference between the $15 VQA from Niagara and the $100 chateau-bottled vintage. I like sausage and kraut. I’m not tempted in that direction.

But if I were…as I was when I was young…I still hope I would know that it is not the life for Christians. I don’t have the right to more than my own fair share of the earth’s resources, no matter how much money I have. I don’t have the right to make a huge profit off the needs and wants of others. I have the right to a fair exchange of goods of value – so I’d better be able to do something useful. God has put me in the world for a reason, and it is to preach Christ, crucified – and risen.

So I do believe in being separated from the world, as much as I can with a good conscience. I show my separateness by the way I dress, in clothes that are not only modest but distinct. Plain is deliberately historic; it is deliberately unornamented. These tie us to Christians of the past, and make us recognizable as such in our culture. As global homogenization continues, we are noticably different. We choose a way of life that is in reference to the ways of our ancestors (always a prophetic cry to Israel in the scriptures – to return to the ways of the fathers) and is one of less impact on the environment. We buy much less; we provide for ourselves as much as we can.

As a Christian, it is not just a matter of looking different and acting different. (Teenages have been doing that for generations.) If we dress Plain and live simply just because we are fascinated by the Amish, the novelty will wear off and we will tire of the game. I practice Plain life because it is my calling, my discipline and my sacrifice to God.

It is my calling, my vocation. I am called to live out my faith in a particular way, and Plain is part of that. It is my discipline because it keeps me faithful and mindful of the way of Jesus Christ. It is my sacrifice to God because I have given up the things of the world that pleased me most. My prayerful goal is to strip off the layers of worldiness from my personality and my soul, to be outwardly what God has told me inwardly.

How is this life in the Kingdom of God lived? It’s the simple way of living, the deliberate modesty and covering. It is daily prayer and Bible study. It is refusing to do things that other people take for granted – recreational shopping, enhancing one’s appearance, going to casinos. It is also something deeper than that. I mentioned credit cards; I am opposed to borrowing money for high interest rates. This just impoverishes people and drives up the real cost of goods. We have to pay taxes and buy car insurance, but I won’t buy life insurance. We will accept charitable help when we must, because stubborn pride and starving to death can go hand in hand. We will be collecting the disability insurance Nicholas had through his Canadian pension; he paid into it for many years and there really isn’t anway to opt of it if one is working in Canada.

We will not sue other Christians – and I’ve never had an opportunity to bring a suit against anyone else. We are admonished in scripture to take our case before the bodyof Christ and not to the civil courts. The legal system is of this world; it sets people in adversity against each other. I could have sued the church when my employment was unjustly terminated, according to a lawyer we consulted. I chose not to, for more than one reason, but primarily because it is not Biblical. I could not see any possibility of reconciliation with the church if I brought a lawsuit. We are still not completely reconciled; I pray for it everyday. I have asked for forgiveness and reconciliation, and it is not resolved yet, after five years. But we are also admonished to be patient in our petitions.

We did not sue the hospital where Nicholas was so badly injured. There was a communications error and a mistake made, but it was not negligence or maliciousness that caused the accident. Suing the hospital would have helped us a lot financially, but it would have brought harm to our neigbours who support that hospital with their taxes. The hospital did a lot to make up for what happened; individual staff members were kind and generous, as were people of the community. They did what they could. I did not want to gain by injuring them.

Yes, people think we are crazy. They think we are religious fanatics. They think we must have guilty consciences and are trying to make up to God for it. But we are reconciled in Christ; we are forgiven and made whole. Nothing crazy about that!

A serious Christian, my husband Nicholas

Plain as Prophecy

Plain as Prophecy

Friends and I recently commented on the question, “Why the Plain witness?” Most of us can say not much more than it is our vocation, an individual call and answer. When the Lord calls, the only answer is “He nai ne,” – “Here am I,” in Hebrew. It is not an answer of confidence, an answer of “Send me, because I am ready to go,” but an answer given trembling in the dark, “Yes, Lord.” What else can one answer?

St. Paul told us to be ready, to be girded in the armour of God; the Lord Jesus tells us that we need to be watchful, to be ready, to be sober, for the master will come quickly and without warning, and we need to go to his side with our lamps lit.

And that may be the Plain witness, to have our lamps lit. We cannot be hidden under a bushel, the world’s measure. We cannot be a city deep in a valley, no beacon or hope to the lost and terrified traveler. We are to be a city on a hill. We are the visible witness – not only to our own faith, but to the life of the world to come.

That is the prophetic witness. We have been called out of the world because the world is not His. The world has gone its own way. What is that world? It is the world of buying and selling, the world of entertainment and idle talk. It is the world of being concerning with one’s own pleasure. It is a world where people are used rather than honoured, where each is after his own and never mind what anyone else needs. That’s the world in which we have to live, but we don’t have to bow down to it. We don’t have to surrender and be assimilated.

Plain is a witness against the exploitation of innocents. Plain is a witness against the carelessness of modern living. Plain is a witness against industrialism and commodification. Plain is a witness against cold-hearted government and fiscal irresponsibility. Plain is a witness against the the world, the flesh and the devil – against greed, selfish pleasure and evil.

That is the prophetic witness of Plain.

There are false prophets – I can think of cults that use modest and plain-type dress to control their followers, but these are not people following Christ; they profess their own way and make themselves gods. They have usurped the style of Christians in order to hide themselves – wolves in sheep’s clothing. But by their works you will know them – secrecy, criminality, exploitation. We are warned that there will be many false prophets and christs as the world careers into self-destruction.

Those who practice modesty of heart are dedicatd to the scripture and to service to the least of God’s children, who are humble and meek and gentle in spirit – these are the true children of God and who walk in the Light. Their prophetic witness is growing.

“Let your light shine before men.”

Plain Life, Plainly

Plain chores

It looks like we are seeing the leading edge of a Plain revival. The twentieth century left many people stranded spiritually; we moved from an all-encompassing Modern philosophy to a Post-Modern zeitgeist. The Moderns are still in control of most institutions, but those of us outside the mainstream of those same institutions are, from a Post-Modern perspective, looking to the past and lost tradition for a way to follow into the very uncertain future.

What is Modern and Post-Modern? In my context, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, a move in academia, society and politics to a philosophy of Progress and optimism based on human achievement, is the beginning of the Modern era. (Most academics would agree, I think.) Post-Modern (don`t be afraid of this term) is based on experience and philosophy of the twentieth century, when the senseless destruction and chaos of the world wars and other conflicts brought into question the legitimacy of Progress. Its seeds were sown in the Enlightenment itself and in the social protests of the nineteenth century. Widespread genocide and ecological destruction reinforced this philosophy amongst academics and influential thinkers. Post-Modernism asks:

How can we believe what we were taught when those beliefs brought so much destruction –

How can chaos and violent anarchy be Progress –

This is the meta-question that has led many of us to find another way. We want a way that follows the teachings of Christ without the excesses of culture that we now reject, such as materialism and consumerism. The cultural churches – the mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican institutions – seem to be still enmeshed in the dominant, destructive culture. So in the late twentieth century, other ways of faithful living have been explored, rejuvenated and reworked, such as the New Monasticism and the Plain movement.

I can`t speak to the New Monasticism; while we live in an informal community, it is not ordered in any way except that we are all Anglicans and the centre of our week is Sunday attendance and participation at worship. Nicholas and I are very Plain but have accommodated ourselves to the way of living here in the rectory. We have electricity, a vehicle, an internet connection and television. The house is old and not particularly up to date. But we are unable to garden since that would mean the removal of old trees much valued by the neighbourhood, and recycling is not as efficient as I could wish it. I make my own clothes, do some canning and we interact with other Plain people when we have the opportunity. We are trying to maintain our Plain philosophy in a more worldly church community. I don`t see that we have any influence on them at all.

It is what it is; this is a transition stage for us, and with some matters becoming realized, we should be able to move on to a more suitable place for small scale farming and a self-sufficient life.

I think this is where many of us Plainers are headed. While not Anabaptist in profession, we are looking for suitable places to adopt some of the best of Anabaptist and traditional Quaker ways. (I will acknowledge that not all Plain followers are necessarily traditionally Christian; we need to make room for Quakers and others who are more liberal in their theologies.) I hope that as a movement we do not fall into the sectarian errors we have seen in the past. (Formal shunning and the ban, for instance, are inappropriate. We can avoid close association with those whose influence on us is deleterious, but we cannot withdraw from our witness.)

The great irony, of course, is that one of the tools we use to be a Plain community is the internet. Most of us express some concern and even dismay that this is the best we can do, but I doubt if we can give it up without losing community. I would prefer a more traditional form of communication myself. Scott Savage tried this with Plain magazine, but the funding fell short and he could never exceed a certain circulation number due to the printing technologies he used.  (I have still not written to Scott as I had planned. He`s been through some rough stuff in the last few years, and I don`t want my concern and curiosity to sound as if I am criticizing him for choices he made.) I envision something more like the Amish Budget, a newsletter with many columns written from many locations, giving the local news and views. But publications are supported by advertising, and no one wants to advertise in a publication for people who reject consumerism; we are not a very good market.

I`m not at all sure we can define ourselves yet. We are Plain, but we have so many expressions of that. We don`t have an ordnung and won`t, since we don`t fall under but one authority as a group, and that is Christ. We are working out our salvation with fear and trembling, day by day, question by question, leading by leading. We are drawing on the Anabaptists who have been the living encyclopedia for Plain life, and the traditions of Quakers, monastics and other groups who chose to be isolated from the Modern world. I would prefer that we do not quarrel amongst ourselves – I had enough of that sojourning with the Orthodox and their many cries of `You are not canonical!` (If you have been part of an Orthodox community you know what I mean. The Paedalion is both beacon and cudgel.) This is a weakness in the Anglican church, which will ignore the dissenters until they get tired of the yelping and throw the pups out. (Puritans, Quakers, Methodists and now the Biblical Conservatives, whatever they are going to call themselves.) The Quaker meetings are, in their erudite and polite way, at odds internally all too often.

Let`s keep it simple and courteous. Let`s speak Plain English (not Plain speech, except amongst ourselves) and give the St. Francis sermon – preach with our lives, using words only when necessary.

Witness

as Plain as can be

The Witness of Plain life is not for everyone. It is a rocky road to walk, and it is a narrow way. The Holy Spirit has called a few of us out of our old lives into this New Life, and though it is a path trod by others, we are not a throng.

I think some people – women particularly – are in love with this expression of faith because they have encountered it in romantic situations. They read novels set among the Amish, they have visited Old Order communities, or they have admired a much younger Harrison Ford in the movie “Witness.” While this is an introduction to the Plain Life, it is not the whole of it.

Plain Life has its roots in Anabaptism, a separatist movement at the time of the Reformation. (You can look up the history on-line; I’m not going to go over old ground here.) The core doctrines of Anabaptism are believers’ baptism (hence adult baptism or rebaptism), pacifism and nonresistance to violence, and the two kingdoms (God’s Kingdom of the faithful and Satan’s kingdom of this world.) The physical sacraments of baptism and communion (the Lord’s Supper) were retained from the old church.

So it’s not just a matter of costume. The early Quakers adopted much of Anabaptist practice, and moved away from the physical sacraments to a spiritual understanding of sacramentality. The simple form of dress was a bit of cross-pollination, it seems. While Quakers learned much from Menno Simons, the Amish and Mennonites who emigrated to North America adopted Quaker standards and styles of Plain dress.

What is common to Plain people from these traditions is pacifism and nonresistance. This goes beyond refusing to answer an assault with like kind, but spreads out into a life of peace, including exemption from military service or the punishment for refusing to serve. Quakers and Anabaptists have often suffered because of their pacifism. For the Anabaptists, martyrdom is always preferable to violence.

One cannot be Anabaptist or Quaker and a patriot. They are mutually exclusive. Traditional Quakers will not support an established military; Anabaptists believe that established government is of this world, not God’s kingdom, and the two are by necessity separate.  Their political philosophy is one of self-governance and mutal support within the community, a benign anarchy under Christ. (We are the body; He is the head and sole leader. Bishops, ministers and deacons serve in prayer and humility, not in power and control. That’s the ideal, at least.)

This is one of the reasons that Plain Life is difficult. It represents more than five hundred years of living a way that the world doesn’t understand and that Satan doesn’t want the world to understand. It is a heavy legacy to carry.

I find myself struggling with it daily. I have to ask myself often if I am following the Way of Christ, or if am I following my own notions. I am convicted that Plain Life is the Way to which we are called, my husband and myself, but I also have to ask if decisions I make are based on the Way or on legalism, on following Jesus our Saviour or on compromise with the world. Unceasing prayer is the only solution to the inner conflict, a constant sense of the leading of the Spirit.

We want to be separate from the ways of the world, but we also want to be a Witness, for as John Donne wrote several centuries ago, “No man is an island.” We are interdependent with Christians who are not Plain, as well as with nonbelievers. Keeping in the middle of the road isn’t easy when there are so many distractions around us, and they are so beguiling. But what good is our witness if we will compromise and abandon the principles of our faith on mere whims?

It’s always a balancing act between faithful living and moving through the world.

9/11 Again; Time to Move On

Okay, call me un-American. Call me a liberal. Call me names if you must. But it is time to move on.

I wasn’t in New York or even in the United States when the World Trade Center was targeted by terrorists. I was in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. I lived in the States, but was studying across the border. Soon after I moved to Canada permanently, partly because politics in the Untied States was beginning to threaten Constitutional freedom. I had a good job offer, and I took it, and I have never returned for more than a few days at a time. I do not intend to live in the United States again.

So if someone wanted to tell me to get out of the USA if I don’t love it like my own dear mother, well, too late. I left.

Tragedy falls to everyone. Everyone. No one is exempt. Sometimes it is a manmade tragedy – the use of commercial jetliners as bombs against national symbols of power and prosperity – and sometimes it is the inexplicable nature of things – hurricanes, earthquakes, cancer, epidemics. We will all suffer loss, if we are not the victims.

The tragedy nine years ago is now tied by political opportunists to conservative Christianity and Christianity in general. (Not regarding conservative Christians like myself who are pacificists, believing that is the Way that Jesus Christ taught us by dying a painful, bloody death as a falsely-accused criminal for our salvation.) 9/11 is rapidly becoming an ethnic schism in the United States, taking its place with other hotspots of ethnic violence. “Remember, do not forget,” is the key phrase. “Hate those who did this. Keep the hate alive by making a moment of tragedy into a national warcry.”

Armenians and Turks; Serbians and Bosnians; Palestinians and Israelis. There are a thousand other ethnic conflicts fueled by “Never Forget” rhetoric. Atrocties, injustices, ugly human vitriol are the continuing result.

Time to move on; forgive, forget. God has forgiven your sins simply because you asked Him to do so, and He has put them far from you, as if they were drowned in the deepest ocean. He forgets. He always forgives. Weep over those who were lost, but weep more for the tortured souls who would take a human life to make a political point.

Jesus said, as he suffered agonies on the cross, “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they have done.”

Can Americans say the same thing?

When We Became Plain

We’ve been publically Plain for more than four years now. It was a very easy step for us, but the consequences were great, and no one expected it of two middle-aged Anglican priests. My husband, Nicholas, had lived in southern Ontario for quite a while, and often encountered Amish and Old Order Mennonite as he travelled around the province in his work. He openly admired them, the simple, Christian way of life, the lack of materialism. He adopted some of that simplicity in his life, although it wasn’t that obvious. Anglican priests, for the most part, dress quite simply. Black is the colour. That’s about it. Black shirt with white collar insert to look like clergy, black jeans or trousers, a plain black jacket or sweater. Yes, I know Anglican clergy, male and female, who are veritable peacocks. (You know who you are.) Most of us, though, keep to the simple and narrow way – it’s easier and it hides the coffee stains, which are an occupational hazard.

I, on the other hand, had closets of clothes. My daily dress was basic black, with some grey for variety. Off-duty, once out of overalls and denim jackets (raising sheep limits one’s wardrobe, too) I had dresses of fanciful shape and hue, and shoes, shoes, shoes. I had designer clothes. Oh, yes, tasteful designer clothes in those timeless styles, but cashmere, expensive wool, silk. Poor Nicholas was more than a bit intimidated by my high style when we met. (I wore designer jeans, a silk blouse and a suede cowboy hat. He was wearing an ugly plaid shirt and khakis – it just screamed “priest out of uniform.”)

Once we were together, and I had winnowed the chaff from the grain, wardrobe-wise, I was motivated to go one step further. Nicholas gave me his copy of Scott Savage’s The Plain Reader. I was home at last. Within a few days, I was down to two dresses, a skirt and blouse, and boots. I kept my black wool coat and made my first prayer kapp, thanks to Shepherd’s Hill.

But why?

It wasn’t mere Amish-enthrallment, motivated by romantic novel covers. I had known Mennonites and liked them, and had felt a bit of a tug to get Plain, but didn’t follow through. Anglicans aren’t Plain, I reasoned. No one will understand, people will hate it, I will look silly.

So I put that impulse aside. Little did I realize at the time that the hounds of heaven were on my heels.

Nicholas and I talked it over. It was a new life for us. We were already rural people, living a very simple life. It seemed practical, but it seemed more than that. We were making a break from the worldly past, and we were eager to show it. In Plain dress, with kapp and sturdy boots, I felt armored for the battle. I was ready. I was under the shelter of the heavenly hand.

That was the fulfillment of my search. I once said, “If only we could go out into the world, and take the monastery with us!”  I meant that we need to carry peace and mercy with us, sheltered by God. We move in this world, but we are not of it. We live in His Kingdom, here on earth. We are not citizens of the world of commerce and trade, just sojourners eager to return Home.

I went through many permutations of Plain, from nearly monastic to what I wear now, a Quakerly cape dress or jumper and a white or black kapp, and a very Plain Mennonite bonnet. I have made myself a slat bonnet, and those who know me as the most Austere of Austere Plain will be surprised to hear that today I bought two print fabrics for summer dresses, by Nicholas’s advice.

Nicholas looks the same as he has for four years or more: black shoes or workboots, black or blue jeans, black braces, Plain cotton shirt in white, beige, blue or black. He does have one madder red shirt he calls “orange” and thinks way too flash. He wears a black felt hat in winter, a plain straw hat in summer, doesn’t cut his hair and wears a full beard. He was wearing the Brethren chin beard, but his low vision now prevents him from shaving properly, and his beard and mustache have filled in. His winter jacket is his old peacoat, which he has had for many, many years. He’s a handsome man and I am blessed to have him by my side.

That’s us, Plain.

What’s with the Sin, All the Time?

Christians talk about sin a lot. Google or tag surf the word “Sin”. Lots to read.

That’s a frequent criticism of the church. “What’s with the sin! You talk about sin all the time!”

We do, and we always have. The Philokalia, a collection of spiritual readings intended for Orthodox monks, has pages of lists of sins. I was raised in a Calvinist Baptist Church where the constant theme was “Avoid sinning.”  And we were told how to avoid sinning, mostly by staying away from the opposite sex. My logical little mind soon realized that staying away from the opposite sex did nothing to check gossip, lying, and envy among teenaged girls. Also, staying away completely from the opposite sex meant that the reason we stayed “pure’ – marriage – wasn’t going to happen. I knew a number of elderly spinsters in that Baptist Church.

Sexual immorality, of course, is the Big Sin for most evangelicals and fundamentalists. They see it (in a theological sense) as misplaced love, love that is owed to God and expressed in the basic relationship of a man and a woman loving each other and loving God together. Sex then becomes a mystery of the divine order rather than a physical human need. At that theological level, to misuse sex is the same as dishonouring a sacrament. (Please note that what I mean here by “sacrament” is theologically technical – not the sacraments of the church, but an action and a physicality that are sacred.)

The modern problem with emphasizing sexuality is that it becomes the focus of the definition of sin. It is so interesting! Prurience itself is a sin, when to hear about sex while being shocked by it becomes stimulating. Of course, sin is much more than sexual immorality.

Sin is anything that separates us from our love for God. Sin is always an idolatry of the self. We are more interested in pleasing ourselves than in pleasing God.

And isn’t it easy to excuse it, even as Christians? “It’s not vanity, I’m just trying to look nice for my husband.” “It’s not greed, I just think it’s okay for Christians to have nice things.” “It’s not envy, it’s just that she really doesn’t deserve that.” “It’s not pride, I just think I did a good job and should have some recognition.”

So the Church has talked about sin a lot, in order to alert us to its dangers. If I don’t tell you about the jagged rocks under the water ahead, your boat will probably hit them. Forewarned, you can steer around, or turn back if you must.

We can’t avoid sin in this world. It is a fallen world. Christ waits to restore it in the last days, with the saints in heaven asking, “How long, O Lord? How long?” We wait, but we wait amongst our own fallenness and the accumulated sin. We see it everyday – in broken lives, in hurt people, in hearts that may never mend from the injury done them in the name of human love. We see a polluted and damaged creation. Like cleaning up the tar balls on beaches after this latest oil spill, we can only mop up on the surface. The real damage goes much deeper. The real damage of an environmental disaster goes beyond ruined beaches, dead wildlife, and a crippled ecology. It goes down into our hearts, where luxury, greed, and desire pollute and corrupt us.

Our world is based on lies, the child of the father of lies. We are told daily that we need to look and act young, that we should be spending money on things and experiences, that the past is a dead and ugly thing. All of this leads to sins of the heart.

Why do we want to be young as we grow older? Is not grey hair the wisdom and glory of age? We must have been brainwashed, to think that being young is a good thing. Although I remember the carefree days, I also remember the overweening self-esteem that led me into some bad situations. I got in well over my head at times. I’m glad that’s all past.

Vanity is encouraged by those who want us to buy their products. Fifty-plus-year-old women don’t have lustrous dark hair, at least not many of them. Telling us that we need to look young (to get partners) is just a way to sell us a poisonous product to turn our hair a different colour. Make-up is the same thing, as well as face creams, foundation garments and figure-enhancing clothes. If you look like the middle-aged grandmother that you are, who is going to want to be your partner? Look, I figure that while I am married in middle-age, my husband is also middle-aged, and I dont’ need to look elsewhere or win anyone else’s admiration. If I wasn’t married, I don’t think I would look for a new partner. If God sent someone my way, he’d better be interested in a  grey-haired, Plain-dressed grandmother or keep on moving.

Vanity is a waste of money and time. Get used to yourself. Start young, and avoid the silly products, the waste of money and all the anxiety around dressing and looking like an advertisement.

Greed is subtle. We measure success in this world by money and possessions – the most fleeting of things. Beyond meeting our basic needs, why are we concerned about having ornaments and luxuries? So we can impress others? Be more concerned with the state of your heart before the Lord than with the state of your goods before the world! Keep possessions to a minimum, be easy to move if the Lord calls you elsewhere. You are only a pilgrim here.

We are brought up to be competitive, on the theory that good-natured competition encourages excellence. But it more likely encourages working for praise, and that leads to envy. We can’t seem to rejoice in another’s blessings without wondering why we didn’t get the preferment. Competition, along with the anxiety generated in us by an inundation of advertising meant to weaken our self-confidence, ruins our joy. Someone else can get the prize, or get the preferment, or get the promotion: The Lord has work for you that may not include any of those things. Be happy in the work of the Lord!

And when we do get the envied prize, the coveted preferment, the gainful promotion, then we are proud. We won! We are better! Have you ever noticed that the only personal trait in Jesus that is described to us is His sinlessness? It isn’t His skill in His trade, His athleticism, His rugged good looks. None of the usual traits that lead to fame are there. It is His willingness to do the work of the Father. Certainly, we must strive to be competent at our work, for we owe that to God who gives us our talents. But to desire and then gloat in worldly success because of them displaces them from heaven and drops them in the muck.

While we know we will not achieve sinlessness here in this world – for we are drawn into it not only by our own desires, but by the ways of the world that we cannot change – The Lord desires to forgive our sins and lead us in righteousness. All we need to do is walk in His light.

Pinball Wizards and the Church, But Mostly about Hospitality

Mother Kay and I watched an old episode of the reality show “Ace of Cakes” last night. (We are cake voyeurs.) Duff, the owner and head chef at Charm City Cakes, brought a pinball machine to the bakery to inspire a commissioned cake.  (Which was really a set display piece and not a cake, which must have been very disappointing to people who saw Duff deliver the cake at the pinball convention.)  Then the Stanley Cup came for a visit. The bakers play with light swords and helmets when they make Stars Wars cakes. They really get into their work.

I’m not a culture junkie, but let’s face the facts – we all want to have some fun at work. We all want to laugh a bit. We all like some games and a modicum of silliness. The great saints weren’t dead serious all the the time. They had a glass of wine with the monks, told jokes and ridiculous stories, and even Mother Teresa laughed and joked and hugged and partied a bit, in the midst of the tragedies that surrounded her in Calcutta. Fun and laughter engender creativity, which is part of our holy image.

I encourage churches to plant gardens. There’s a great deal of God-partnering creativity there, and who doesn’t laugh and smile when they see a garden growing and blooming? I used to have my confirmation students take on craft and art projects – big paper banners to hang in the church on special occasions. It wasn’t expensive, it wasn’t anything to last forever, but they got to contribute to the liturgy and the church environment. They had fun doing it.

I think the church hall could use a pinball machine. The hall could use a glass of wine and some music, too. Our hospitality to others and to ourselves is so weak. Don’t just serve lemonade on the lawn, serve it on the sidewalk! Have a meal after church service, a good meal, not a cheap meal, and put up signs all over the town “Join us at NOON Sunday for a celebration of joy!” If people know we are joyous and a fun bunch of people, who are that way because we love God and each other, they may join us at 11 am on Sunday. And if they don’t, well, they got to see a group of Christians who care.

All those meetings we have in the church – oh, lots of them, too many to count – they need to involve some fun components. Serve good coffee and snacks, creative snacks, not just the box of Tim’s doughnuts or the fruit tray. Bowls of yummy home-made granola. Fresh-baked bread and good cheese. Chocolate dipped strawberries.  (As an aside, seminarians learn to find the free food, usually laid on for the higher-ups like board members. And the skill persists. Nicholas and I were at someone else’s seminary a couple of years ago, working in their library. This wasn’t even our denomination; I was cataloguing a unique collection and he was reading John Howard Yoder. Their local clergy had sponsored a seminar and they left an unattended coffee buffet outside the auditorium. A quick glance up and down the corridor, and several muffins and a couple of cups of coffee walked away. At university, we theology students found that the business department that bordered our wing sponsored occasional buffet brunches.  They had chandeliers and couches in their lounge. We had plastic chairs out in the hall. We paid as much in tuition, so we felt no qualms about walking through the adjoining door and helping ourselves to the Friday fruit salad and danish.)

I’m not sure why we make people sit through church before we reward them with coffee and stale mini-donuts. Shouldn’t we set up a coffee and tea service in the narthex so people can refresh themselves through the sermon and the choir anthem?

I could say something here about food charity. Okay, I will. When buying for the food bank, don’t be stingy. There are just pennies difference between the cheap soup and the good soup, between oatie-o’s and the Gen’ral Mills brand that rhymes with Tear-ios. Poor people are always having to buy the cheaper brand. Buy them the good one! (And please stop donating the cans of black olives. You don’t like them, either.)

As for distant hospitality – why aren’t we fighting harder for food and water aid in places that have neither? Are we keeping it for ourselves, as if we needed all of it? We don’t. There are surpluses. Maybe I’ve said this before. If the U.S. Army can move entire military bases thousands of miles and set them up in hostile territory, why can’t they set up aid bases where they are needed? The “local corruption and war lords” argument is not working for me. There’s no money in it for oil companies, armament suppliers and the Pentagon overlords, so it doesn’t get done. Fight for it, out there! Write letters, email your bishop, throw some good demonstrations when and where they count. Forget the G8/G20 conferences. They never see the protesters, who now are known as thugs and troublemakers. (Fair or not, that’s how they are viewed.) How about a big sit-down protest at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC? Or in front of Westminster Abbey, or Notre Dame? Lots of signs saying “Feed the world now,” some speeches by celebrities, and don’t move for three or four days.

Hospitality is more than coffee after church; it is everything from a cup of cold water given in love to massive movements of rice and medicine in the name of the Lord. Are we stingy? Are we cheap?

If it were Jesus asking for bread, would you give Him a stale crust, or reach for the freshly baked whole wheat loaf?

Moving Away from Materialism

I don’t know if materialism as I mean it here is a philosophy. If it were, it would simply mean that one believes that things are real – have substance and “thingness,”  and don’t possibly disappear when we can’t see them, as poor old Barclay hypothesized. So that’s not what I mean.

What I mean is not just consumerism – which is part of materialism – that drive to buy and consume and accumulate – but a belief that possessions are good, and that one gains “good” from them beyond their functionality. We can’t deny that we use things, or that we need a certain number of things. We are tool-users, and there’s a reason for that. It makes our lives productive and safer. No one is proposing here that we go back to a paleolithic lifestyle, following herds of wild animals, dressed in who knows what, guarding our campfires carefully because we don’t have flint. I’m acknowledging that we need objects more sophisticated than a heavy rock.

The problem as I see it is that we have endued things with personality. Objects are not just objects – tools and conveniences – but have inherency, a status. “Valuable” is a word we attach to objects. It has value beyond utility. Its mere possession makes someone a “better” person, more worthy of admiration and flattery. (I’m going to avoid including ‘status” experiences here, a a somewhat different topic.) A person derives status from the object rather than the other way around.

Advertising creates a false status – this famous person uses this product, therefore his or her status is transferred to it; a consumer of the product can then derive some status from the product, presumably by some osmosis. In a way there is a logic to it. Tiger Woods is an excellent golf player. He chooses to use a certain kind of nine-iron because he knows what a good nine-iron is; if the consumer buys the same nine-iron, he will be using a better tool than the one he is using now. This is logical within its own little closed loop, but doesn’t take into account the facts outside the loop: Tiger Woods is paid to use that nine-iron and perhaps has not considered its full utility. Or the advertising shows him using it, but the one he uses in tournaments is different. Or it is a perfectly good and usable nine-iron, but without the inborn athletic ability and years of practice Mr. Woods has, the buyer will never realize maximum potential from the nine-iron, and may play no better than he did before.

Derived status just doesn’t work, does it?

So carrying a Coach or Gucci handbag, using l’Oreal hair dye and driving a Lexus do not confer status. They might excite envy in someone who is status-conscious, but the products themselves will not gain status for the one buying them. The Gucci bag will not get you the best table at Le Cirque. (If that is still around – I don’t know – although I just googled it and yes it is, with a huge five star boast. For those who don’t know, it is a restaurant in New York, once the hotspot for all the glitterati. A meal there would cost us a week’s wages.)

Status is illusory. I’m going to just make the bold statement – status is a lie. Advertising lies to you.

Some new products will make your life easier. If you hate ironing, the no-wrinkle shirt will please you and relieve the load of guilt you might feel when you don’t iron – but you have to take it out of the dryer while it is still warm, and you can’t hang it on the clothesline and expect that it will be wrinkle-free. It will make you do some work, too, but that might be a good exchange for you. Those all in one mop devices (rhymes with sniffer) with the disposable cloths for sweeping and washing floors might satisfy your cleaning needs, and you are comfortable with throwing out the little expensive nylon reinforced nonwoven nonrecycable sheets. You are probably not going to derive status from them; they are conveniences and you know it. (Yes, at first convenience products can endow status – in my mother’s day it was cake mixes. Forty years ago, you said something about your socio-economic bracket and the amount of social time you indulged if you were “too busy to bake.” Now you can buy cake mixes at the dollar store, and many children have never had a scratch-baked cake.)

Our culture – that of North America and Europe and the other areas of the globe we influence, which is a lot – has gone status mad. A young friend went to New York City for the first time this spring. She’s a girl from the country, but raised with television and fashion magazines. She’s no hayseed, although she isn’t experienced in the world. She had many memorable experiences in the city, and truly enjoyed her trip to all the cultural sites, but one of her most vivid memories is the other women buying rip-off designer handbags on the street from vendors selling goods packed in a shopping cart. These women were going back to small town Canada with bags that said Prada and Gucci, to a place where some of them will have to drive a tractor and sort seed potatoes. Where the heck are they going to derive this status? No one, I hope, is realy fooled that they got an authentic bag from Paris. How does this lie about status improve their lives any?

This may be materialism at its worst. It is the tremendous waste of resources that goes into making status objects, and the continued deception (most of it self-deception) that these objects confer good. It wastes the materials it takes to make the object, the cost of transporting it, the human energy of crafting and selling it, and the brain cells of the purchaser or recipient who should be thinking of more productive things than owing a fake Gucci handbag.

So having laid out my premise and perhaps having defended it, it’s time to get to the core of this argument.

People are more important than objects. Relationships with people matter more than relationships with objects.

We laugh at edgy comedy where money fixation is used as the punchline – the character who pledges his mother’s house on a short sale in the stock market, hoping to flip a stock fast enough and for enough profit to buy a new Lexus. And what if he fails? (Short sales being a gamble.) Mom will have to go live with his sister. (Cymbal crash, we all laugh.)

There’s the plot of the drama I watched last night – a Johnny Depp movie. He’s a young man in the nineteen-sixties who falls into the drug smuggling business. Despite numerous busts, despite jail time, despite getting married and having a child, he keeps going back to the fast lane. He’s got good intentions for this one last deal, but it always falls apart. He goes from the Miami palace and the jet set lifestyle to prison. On the way he alienates his parents, his first love, his friends, his wife and finally his adoring little daughter. While it is a cautionary tale, a tragedy in the classic sense, it would be tempting to a young person who might think they were smarter than old George Jung, the character Depp plays. He’s got the girls, the looks, the clothes, the toys, the drugs and alcohol. It’s party life. Even if he had succeeded, and had escaped the law, where would that life get him eventually? The same alienation, the same poor health, the same lack of self-understanding. And death.

Maybe we aren’t interested in the fast lane. But we can be just as material, just as grubbing, to get the things we want.

The church often wants to marry culture. It’s a mismatch. Jesus told us it would be. Anyone who can read the gospel with an open mind can see that. Although we have to live in this world, we are not of this world.

I believe the only way to defeat this materialism is to live entirely in God, following the way of Christ, which is a way of realtive poverty and a way of self-denial. For some, that may mean the poverty of a dedicated life religious, with no possessions at all except the clothes they wear, and complete celibacy. For others, it may mean asettled family life, just enough shelter and possessions to be reasonably self-supporting, and in the chastity of marriage. There may be minor variations on these themes, but it all comes down to humbling ourselves before God and embodying that humility in our ways of earning money, our appearance, our public discourse. We need to get rid of our mirros – the glass reflecting kind and the advertising we see in print and video. Mirrors begat anxiety; we are unsure of what we offer the world. We start judging ourselves and then we judge others.

Christ lived in holy poverty and with the interdependence of His group of disciples, based on a village-agrarian culture. It is still a good model, even if our “garden” is a farmer’s market. God calls us to humility in Him because we need that humility to live with others. And although I am communciating with you via this electronic medium, it is not nearly as good as if we could live in real-time community. We ar all spending too much time bathed in the glow of plasma screens and not enough time under the sun God provided. Our words are silent on deaf ears. Although we are building productive virtual communities, we need to look to ways to make them face to face and hand to hand.

I feel the world changing. Soon I believe we will be ready to move out into a real community of voices, smells, and the sights of  three-dimensional human faces. This virtual community can become a real community. The time is shifting fast. God is working in hearts, minds and through our hands.