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.

Why I Love Quakers and Why I am not One

Raised in a conservative American community, under the shadow of a Strategic Air Command Base (bombers going over the pole during the cold war), I had never questioned what it meant to be an American. I just accepted that the Air Force provided most of the local income, that men served in the Armed Forces, that the protests agains the Vietnam War were not helping any. It just was not something to be questioned; the Baptist Church and the local school system were one hundred percent American, and Democrats were in short supply.

I didn’t stay in the Baptist Church, but my faith journey was not in the peace churches. If anything, I went in the opposite direction, baptized as a Lutheran and confirmed in the Episcopal (Anglican) Church. These were state churches at their founding; they owed their beginnings to monarchs and parliaments. They were establishment churches, and still are.

It’s not as if I haven’t wanted to leave. I cannot abide the htought of providing for a standing army; seeing how the military almost ruined my sons lives made me see the armed forces quite differently. “Cannon fodder” is not just a joke, not just a cold statement by cold-hearted men. It is a reality. Those in uniform are expendable, no more than equipment. If it works well, fine; it it doesn’t, it can be discarded. If lost, it will be replaced. There’s no soul to the military.

I’ve been drawn to Quaker theology and philosophy since a young age. I’ve known Quakers, both Conservative and Liberal. I’ve never met a Quaker I did not like, love, or see as a newly-found brother or sister. I need peace people in my life, because there have been so many angry, warring, bitter people. I need people who will stand up and be counted for peace and the love of Christ. We all do even if we do not know it.

And yet I am not a Quaker myself. I’ve come close, but I haven’t crossed the line and never will. I suppose it is the sacramental nature of my faith. I also need the real, tangible, palpable signs of faith. I wish I could commune spiritually only, but I am of the earth, earthy. I need to hold the Lord in my hands, need to feel the water over my head. (Well, that happens once, but the memory is there.)

It’s probably deeper and more profound, as well. I am ordained to the sacraments, and the Lord is not going to let me go, come hell, high water or bishops with hardened hearts. The Lord has called me out to serve His flock in a profound way and I cannot put down the rod and staff and walk away. Besides, the sheep know the shepherd’s voice; they will follow anyway.

I am not leaving thee, Friends; I am just walking a parallel path.

Wearing a Godly Heart

I think I could be fairly criticized for overemphasizing the outward person in this blog. Certainly, my aim is to help Christians not only be Christian courageously, but to have the heart to look Christian in a world that knows Him not.

My point is not to just play dress-up, or move back to a gentler era (that never existed) but to encourage – to put it in our hearts to listen to the Holy Spirit.

The outward person should reflect the inward heart. The Godly heart will shine through rags and prison uniforms and the ravages of illness in a way no costume can match.

Fortify thyself with prayer, not just on First Day at the Lord’s Service, but at all times, in all ways. Pray without ceasing. When thy heart and mind are busy, pray with thy hands in good work, whether it is in direct service to others or in the simple ways of living life. Thy hands can pray with work in the kitchen, the garden, the office, the sewing room. Whatever thee will put thy hands to, let it be to the glory of the Lord.

Then crown or cap, thy glory will be manifest in Him who has made thee.

Caught up in the Details

I am a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, as my steady readers know. If it’s traditional, I’m in favour. If it’s not, I’m doubtful. I was once an enthusiastic liturgical renewal person, but seminary beat that out of me with a surfeit of alternative rites.

Having made that yet again perfectly clear, I am going to say this:

Stop worrying about the details. If we get the basics covered in Sunday worship, there’s scripture, prayer, and a good commentary, and I hope communion, I’m not that concerned if we use the right form of the words. It doesn’t have to be the pseudo-Elizabethan English of the Book of Common Prayer. It just has to be right in intention and theology, and we Anglicans (and many others) know what that is. The BCP has its faults – the pseudo-archaic language is one of them, and let’s face it, it is not the true Cranmer rite – and its great strengths.

But the wording is not that important, especially when it separates Christians from other Christians who pretty much believe the same things. It’s a red herring, a distraction from our mission. I can spend the rest of my life speaking Plain speech, or even Elizabethan Engish, and it doesn’t make any difference at all in heaven. Our forebears in the church spoke Aramaic and Greek for service, then mostly the vernacular, until Latin became entrenched in the Roman church.

I’ve worshipped in French, Spanish and Danish, besides English, and because they are not my native languages, I have no idea if the form was controversial or theologically sound. It didn’t matter. It was all I could do to keep up.

I will continue to use the BCP and its equivalents in English (my heart is really in the 1604 liturgy, mea culpa) but I can understand that some people just get left behind, and the prayer book lacks some liturgies we now find essential. No one had thought to keep the Great Vigil, for instance, until Anglicans and Romans looked to the East and saw that the Paschal Light service had never been forgotten in Orthodoxy. And I can’t see doing without it.

Time to move on. The Lord is calling us out into the mission field from those comfortable pews, and we have to become weekday Christians, not just Sunday-morning Christians. All the liturgies ever written and all the arguments over them will not change that.

Reminder on Plain Convocation

I am hoping to hear from more of you. Are you willing to travel to someplace like beautiful Ontario(on Lake Erie, for instance)  for a Plain Convocation? Prayer, worship, fellowship, talks,minisries, witnessing, and that horrid modern word – networking! I am in the very early stages of thinking about this. Wo would be willing to work on it? I am not tied down to place, time, or agenda. I think we would have to be near a major bus line, have local workers on hand, and be able to come up with some housing for a weekend.

Pray about this, and turn thy thoughts to the possibility of making a very public statement of inter-church Plainness!

The World and The Christian

I’m not sure I like using the word “Christian” here. Most of the time we take it to mean a church-member, or at least someone born into Western culture who is not professing anything else.  Those of us who have made the conscious profession of following Christ, though, know it means something more. Let’s look at St. Paul’s letter to the church at Colossus:

“If ye be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things; for you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”

And at St. John’s first epistle: “Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?”

These are lessons for the season of Pascha from the Book of Common Prayer, and a good time to be reminded of them, although the original framers of the BCP has no idea what “easter” would become. On Holy Saturday, the eve of Pascha, I was standing in line to buy coffee here at the hospital, and an older woman asked a cherub-faced little boy, “What happens tonight?” And his answer was not, “We remember that Jesus rose from the dead!” but: “The Easter bunny comes!” I almost cried with frustration. (Which, right now, is just where I am anyway, but this is a big frustration!) This child had no concept of the Great Vigil, of the Paschal celebration; the season was just that he received candy. It is heartbreaking.

The world has claimed our festivals and twisted them into horrid travesties of our joy. Someone is sure to say, “Well, didn’t the Christians do that to pagan festivals?” Yes, in a way, the Church claimed the calendar and made it Christian; certainly Christmas (Nativity) is the primary example of that. But Pascha was Pascha first; Israel remembered the Passover from slavery into freedom, and Christians took it on as the remembrance of our liberation from bondage to sin into the freedom of the love of God. Pagans and nonbelievers usurped our feast day and even some of our symbols such as the egg, which symbolizes the empty tomb. Orthodox churches still provide a red hardboiled egg at the end of the Vigil, and it is considered a symbol of faith to eat the egg, and hold up the empty shell. He is no longer here – why do you look for the living among the dead? (And if thee has kept an Orthodox Great Lent, thee knows that the egg is so delicious after weeks of denial, with no eggs, dairy or meat!)

The way of the world is the way of sin and death. The way of the world is desire, ambition, selfishness, greed and competition. It is not the way of Christ. There is no good compromise with the world, which is why we need reminding that we are to be separate, to keep our hearts, our eyes and our hands out of the world, and instead doing the work of God. Our mouths are to speak always of our Lord, and to refrain from silly chatter, gossip and criticism. (It is a good thing to get out of a habit of idle curses, even the mild “Oh my God!” and its silly variant, “Oh my gosh.” Think of the saying, “Do you kiss your mother with that foul mouth?”  and subsititute, “Does thee praise thy Lord with that same tongue?”) End thy conversations with “God bless thee!” and not worldly words such as “See you later!” or worse, “Good luck!” For thee does not know if thee will see anything or anyone later: the Lord may call thee out of this world before then. And what is this “luck,” but a pagan attribute instead of the will of God? Be Christian in all thy words and ways, that others will not be deceived as to the nature that thee has received in the Holy Spirit.

Thy person, thy home, thy work and thy words shall reflect Christ if thee chooses to follow Him closely and be worthy of the name “Christian.”


I think of envy as a sin of youth, a failpoint of immaturity. It is part of that clash of self and identity, of expectation and potential. It is love of this world, and of self, and a neglect of self-discipline and prayer.

Envy is not jealousy. Jealousy is guarding what one has; envy is hateful yearning for what one does not have. It is not “Please give me a meal, for I am hungry,”  but “I want what you have even though I have no right to it.”

To each his own gifts; envy denies the gifts of others and covets them. Envy says that God’s blessings for one’s self are insufficient.

Envy is murder. It is the root of gossip. It is the root of theft. It is the root of adultery.

Envy creeps into lives looking like ambition. It creeps into the church especially this way, as Christians battle Christians for control of the institution. We cannot control the Church. It is under Christ, not humans, but instead we attempt to annex the structure and system of the church for our own means. As St. John Chrysostom said, beware of ambition in a priest.

On the day-to-day level, envy leads to bitterness and causes love and admiration to turn to hatred and contempt. When we admire a person for his attributes we feel a kind of love. But if we become envious of those attributes because they are not ours, then that love turns to dislike and even virulent hatred. We may grumble about how arrogant someone seems, when the real sin is our own envy of their virtues.

Envy is most common over possessions. The old saw about “keeping up with the Joneses” is a statement about envy. We cannot bear, at times, to see the worldly success of others. We want the possessions, the status, the acclaim and the pleasure for ourselves. Modern marketing is an exercise in fomenting envy in as many people as possible in a short period of time. We envy the Hollywood actors and other famous people who can afford status symbol clothes, cars, houses and pets. We even try to emulate them despite our relative poverty. We flash the designer names and brand identifications to show that we, too, have status, and that others should envy. We belong, they don’t. And that is a losing proposition, because tomorrow, even tonight, there will be a different status object to desire, another person to envy, and the cycle is never ending. 

To step away from the world’s demands is to break that cycle of sin. The Lord told us this: Do not be concerned for how thee clothes thy body, or what thee will eat. The Lord provides. The world does not. 

My way of realizing that truth is plain dress and modesty. Plain people don’t need to envy; they don’t need the objects of envy. The Lord has set us in a good way of life, and we follow it. We are not to be envied, for we are the least of all. There’s nothing flashy or status conscious about us.

We have much to learn from monastics. The strictest groups still have uniformity of dress, to the point where it is hard to distinguish one from another.  They practive holy poverty, so that the monks and nuns are not concerned about the costliness or richness of their dress, and must be satisfied sometimes with old, faded and patched clothing. And it is enough, because true monasticism means that one’s eyes are not on the things of the world, but on the riches of heaven. One is clothed royally in prayer while the body is merely covered against indecency and bad weather.

I had to learn this kind of holy poverty, and it is a great gift. I was once worldly and envious of others, especially when I was young. When I was older I didn’t mind impressing people with my sense of style, my beauty, my understated but quite obvious status. I was proud, and that invoked envy in others, and that is a sin, to make others sin because of thee.

I’m not proud of the clothing I wear now; I don’t pay attention to it much until it gets to the point of ragged. It is a major change in attitude for me, thanks be to God! For He took me off the weary and lonely treadmill of envy and status seeking, and freed me for a life of prayer and service, and though I am feeble in that life yet, He will strengthen me for greater work.

Listening to God

I’ve been a Christian a long time. When people talk about their conversion experiences, I can’r remember mine. I was no more than five years old when I became convicted of the truth of the Gospel, and I have never doubted. I had my share of young silliness in religion, and more than my share of worldliness, but to me, all through my life, home is where God is. It’s made me a bit of a wanderer, because I don’t get attached to places and things, and soemtimes I regret that we are not more settled as we pass the half-century mark. But it really doesn’t matter that much.

New Christians and reborn Christians (those who wandered and then came home, let’s say) will come to us with words of how God has spoken to them – they know it, in their hearts!  And this can be so true. God does move our hearts. The Light of Christ enters us and we see.

But I also listen with a bit of hesitation at accepting “God has spoken.” Because there is more in our hearts than God, we have to be careful of the voices within. Our hearts, if we have not given up the world completely, (and we never will, this side of the Jordan) will give us messages of beguilement and pride, making those messages seem beautiful and clean, while they are really serving our dark nature.

“Oh, this is where I should be!” someone may cry out in an awesome church building or in a centuries old monastery, all peaceful and glorious. Rarely does anyone cry out with awe at the raw beauty of a soup kitchen or a clinic for poor children. We may be moved to tears of pity for the downtrodden and suffering, but rarely do we see the beauty of Christ in the desperately poor.

Christ told us that is where he will be. We know that. “What thee has done for the least of these, thee has done for me.”

That realization can’t be forced. It can’t be sentimental. Thee must see the suffering as well as the heavenly beauty. Sometimes all thee may see is the suffering, and the beauty comes back as a memory. Sometimes we don’t hear God in the moment, but later we do, when we reflect in prayer on what happened.

If God is speaking to thee, most likely it will be about something thee does not want to do. We are weak creatures, full of selfish desires, full of passions and silly enthusiasms. We prefer our own way. When God speaks, and thee is compelled by it, most likely it will be toward what is difficult for thee. God will make thee angry. God will frighten thee. The words of truth will make thee turn upon the human speaker, if such is the agent of the message, with bitterness and even hatred, “How can you even suggest I do such a thing? I can’t! I won’t! God would never ask that!” And yet that may be just what God is asking.

The Quakers have two terms for the compulsions of the heart. If they are of God, they are leadings. If they are of the sinful self, they are notions. Sometimes notions can look a lot like leadings. Thee may have a notion to cast away thy job, thy connections in thy native place, and go to China as a missionary. It sounds so noble and Christian.  But it may be vain and prideful. It may be a decision thee wants to make to prove how faithful and self-sacrificing a Christian thee is. It may be a romantic idea gained from reading a book or watching a film. It may be an attempted escape from the hard work of resisting temptation and living a life of peace amongst thy neighbours.

Equally, it may be a notion that thee can witness by living a quiet, inconspicuous life, that thee is setting a good example, for thy neighbours will surely see that thee is a Christian because thee is in church on First Day, thee is kind and considerate, thee does not have the biggest television set or the most expensive car on the block. Thee may be entirely convinced that God will allow thee to have a moderate amount of worldly success, and does not expect too much of thee. But this is mere spiritual cowardice. No one will notice that thee is a Christian if thee lives a worldly life. It is no witness at all. Instead, it says that the world is just fine, that Christians don’t need to challenge it, that God helps those who help themselves. And this is all nonsense, a deception of the devil.

All “messages” from God have to be tested, first with other, experienced Christians and then in action. All ideas, which may be notions or leadings, have to be tested in prayer. And the first prayer of all, and I am not ashamed to repeat it, is: “Thy will be done.”

More on Prayer

The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Now, these are devout men, always in the synagogue,  up to the temple regularly, and they knew the ways of their religion. They heard prayer all the time. But still they ask, “How do we pray?” 

The answer was the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven… I had to memorize it in Greek in seminary; I can’t recite it all the way through anymore, but it was a good spiritual exercise.  Most of us memorize the Lord’s Prayer at an early age, if we are raised in the church. It’s a good thing to do, for there are times in life of such dire need of prayer that we can’t even think, we can’t even respond, and the prayer the Lord gave us is always there for us. People will spontanteously join in if we say it out loud. It is the greatest comfort in times of trouble, and the Lord Himself left it with us. Many, many theologians have written on the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t think it needs a lot of explanation. People sometimes wonder about “lead us not into temptation,” but this simply means, “Don’t abandon us when we face the tough times for the soul.” That’s why it’s followed by “and deliver us from evil.” This is more accurately translated “save us from the Evil One.” It specifically means Satan, not just the accidents of life that lead to pain and inconvenience.

Prayer is the Christian’s strongest weapon against sin and evil. It puts us in the presence of God. With the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we turn to God, sometimes run to God, in prayer. In times of great turmoil, whether physical or spiritual, “Lord, save me!” is more effective than a mouthful of fancy words.

The Apostle Paul tells us, “Pray without ceasing.” Keep a word of prayer always in thy heart. The Jesus Prayer is meant for this unending prayer. It goes on in thy heart while thee is doing other things. And it will call thee to silence in the midst of noise, solitude in the midst of hurry. It becomes the prayer of the breath – as natural as breathing. Some of the prayer practitioners attempt to make it integral with breathing, but this seems forced to me, an esoteric practice. Let the Prayer be what it is, and work within thee for peace.

The prayer cap is a symbol of unceasing prayer. When are we not praying? And doesn’t a woman cover her head in prayer, to show that she is under the headship of Christ? (Remember that this is a privilege and a gift of glory; even bishops must uncover at the altar, but not women. They remain veiled as Moses was veiled, to keep in sanctity the glory of God.) So the prayer covering is her symbol and reminder of everlasting prayer.

Prayer is an attitude, a state of the soul. It is the natural state of the Christian. It can be conscious, as when we deliberately in voice and attitude turn to God with our thanksgivings and petitions, or unconscious, as our souls reach out to the Eternal Light that nourishes them as the sun nourishes plants.

The Lord hears our corporate prayers, the prayers the church sets before us to guide us and keep us safe from heresy (in theory, at least.)  The Lord hears silent prayer, and heartfelt prayer, and the simplest prayer offered in a half-second. Christians don’t need testimonials about prayer being answered. We know that our living and breathing is a gift of God. All things come from God, even those things we do not want. Prayer is not about petitions, asking for what we want. That is baby prayer. As we mature as Christians we pray “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And that is enough.

On the Plain speech

Thee may have noticed that I have begun adding some posts that use “Plain speech” – the Quakerly use of thee and thy. I didn’t think I would, but I find when I do, it puts my mind in sobriety and meekness, and I need a lot of that. “Plain” speech was a Quaker usage, not an archaism but an evolved pattern of speech from Elizabethan English. It is not the same as Anglican Prayer Book or King James Bible English. The verb forms are the same as used with “he” and “she,” according to some, but that seems awkward to my Elizabethan mind, and I end up using second person instead, so if I have been inaccurate, I ask thee to correct me as necessary.

American Quakers used the “thee” form well into the twentieth century, but it is mostly gone from daily speech, and remains more common in written communication between Conservative Quakers. It is the verbal equivalent of the prayer cap or flat black hat, a signal that a Quaker is present. It seems to be reserved now for Spirit-led communication, which I think makes it especially beautiful. Perhaps traditional Quakers use it in speech and correspondence amongst themselves or between Meetings, but I have not been the beneficiary of any of that, so I don’t know. Perhaps a sister or brother can inform us.

A sober mind is a good state to cultivate. It is the garden soil from which the beauty of the Spirit may grow. It is a prayerful attitude, a “praying always.” Keep thy mind on the things of heaven, friends, and avoid the things of the world, for they are distractions to the work of God. Keep thee from frivolities – television, novels, shopping for trinkets and status – so that the Spirit will find a willing home.