Knowing How to Ask

When I was a pastor, people called me often to ask for help. While I had to exercise a certain amount of discernment in addressing these requests, I was, most of the time, fairly uncritical. It is difficult for most people to call someone they don’t know well and ask for help.

The requests ranged from a need to get to the doctor for an appointment to requirements for several hundred dollars to pay a delinquent bill. I know I turned down a couple of requests from people unknown to me because they did not present a good case as to why my church community should help them. These were cold calls made by someone who may have had a genuine need, but were asking  the wrong person, or they may have been from someone who scammed local churches for cash whenever they ran short of drinking funds. Sometimes the help I could give was a referral to the food bank or another agency. A couple of times I referred people to the local police department. If a young man called me on a cold fall or winter night, looking for food and a place to sleep, that’s the number I would give him. The local police were not averse to letting a traveller sleep in an empty cell and getting him a pizza or burger.

We local clergy heard from a certain couple twice a year. I don’t know their back story, but they would land in a  local town, check into a motel, and start calling around. They were always on their way to somewhere else to work or live with family – Halifax, Ottawa. They always seemed to have enough money for the first overnight stay, but not for a second night, while they waited for someone to send them funds to continue the trip. They needed food or money for medicine. One pastor tried to get to the heart of the matter and confronted them at their hotel room, accompanied by another clergyperson. I think they just got the same story as always – they had hitched a ride with a trucker into town, couldn’t get any farther, were waiting for bus fare from someone’s mother or sister, and all they needed was…

They caught me the next season. They were in a nearby town, just up the river, and didn’t have the money for a second night at the motel but couldn’t get their bus fare until the next day. She was too sick for them to sleep rough; they were out of cash and food. I inwardly scolded myself for picking up the call. No, I wasn’t supplying any cash. I could drop off food but it really was in the opposite direction of where I was headed at the time. I got their room number and called the motel manager. I arranged to pay for their room for the night and allowed for their supper and breakfast at the restaurant. I called them back, explained the deal, and blessed them on their trip, cautioning them that the next time through I would expect them to ask someone else if they stopped over locally.

They stayed within the dollar amount I had allowed for meals, and I did not hear from them again. Nonetheless, the following season they came back through, and got some other minister down river to put them up and provide meals. I think they were just travelers; not gypsies (Roma) or Irish travelers, but people who always had been footloose, working migrant jobs for a couple of decades, who had taken to the life on the road and knew no other. I am not criticising that; they seemed to know that there were limits to our charity and stayed within them. I found it easier to deal with them by being forthright and business-like, and maybe that is all they expected. They always offered to pray for those who helped them. They were just wayfarers, and God expects us to protect them, too. They may have been called bums or hobos at some time, but in a way I admired their simple life, and their unwillingness to be tied down to the status quo. They didn’t bargain with me or offer repayment they couldn’t make. They never offered to work in exchange for a meal and a cot. They were, in their own light, honest.

I wonder how often we secretly bargain with God when we tell Him our woes and troubles and want help. “God, help us find the money-the job-the home-our health – and we will be Yours forever. We will work for You. We will reform and be better people. We will make You proud, if You just help this time.”

When we pray like this, we aren’t being honest. God needs nothing from us, and if He has a mission for us, it will be presented according to our abilities now. God doesn’t wait around until we have completed the training course. He just sends us out, to do His will, and we do it as best we can. Postponing doing that work until He has made us better is a lie we try to tell Him and we most certainly tell ourselves. He sends us out on the road, seemingly  unprepared, except that He also promises to hear every prayer and answer every request as we need. We sometimes ask for what we don’t need; God will gently lead us to see why we don’t need it. God doesn’t miss the call, or get it too late, or finds that He doesn’t have enough funds to help out this time. And there is nothing we can do for Him except be honest, and listen in all honesty.

Crofting: When Not to Do

Scotland, a croft field

We are having strange, depressing weather. It is overcast, with the occasional storm. The air is heavy with humidity, and the temperature, while not high, is uncomfortable. All the rain and humidity have encouraged the garden like mad, along with the weeds. Since I mostly planted in hills, this isn’t too bad, since I can cultivate the hills and leave the weeds, or chop them back with the hoe. But not today.

The goats are out on picket,enjoying the prolific meadow plants. Since we didn’t mow the back quarter of the lawn, they are feasting on clover, timothy, sweetgrass, oxeye daisy and rudbeckia. The meadow itself has goldenrod and evening primrose and chickweed. I had planned to buy baled hay in the field this week, but haying is delayed by rain. I have no hay left, so they have to graze and browse. I will get hay soon, a few bales at a time as I can afford it. But not today.

Bucky still has a swelling on his neck. It is not CL, as he has no other symptoms of what used to be called pseudo-tuberculosis, a serious goat disease. It is not over or near a lymph node, he has a great appetite and energy, hasn’t been feverish or peaky. Our daughter-in-law, who is a vet tech, said I could lance it rather than having him break it in the barn and get it dirty. I will pick up clean razor blades and some gloves and iodine when I next go to town. Right now, though, I am fighting mildew and mould everywhere, the air is heavy and still, and we have had a huge fly and insect population explosion in these weather conditions. The barn is quite clean – I’m pretty fussy – and I think I will wait to lance the abscess, if that is what it is and not just accumulated serum from the bad bruise he got when he got his head caught in the gate. I suspect the latter rather than an infection. Tara has a bumpy place on her left cheek which I suspect is retained cud or maybe an insect bite. Neither animal is ill, and opening a wound may cause more trouble. So not today.

I am still recovering from my long illness. It isn’t something we think of much, but our skin is a major organ. Mine was quite inflamed and damaged. If it had been my liver or my kidneys, I would have been on all kinds of meds and probably hospitalized. Growing new skin cells takes energy, too. Although I am just about whole again, with minor patches of eczema on arms and legs, and the last of the inflammation on my face subsided and new cells being produced, I still need time to heal. Healing takes nutrition, fluids and rest. I am sleeping about 10 hours at night, much more than my usually seven. I have much to do and I’m impatient to do it. But not today.

I check in with God frequently on what must be done. Turning my heart and thoughts to Him, I have learned to wait on the Holy Spirit, because I am naturally an impatient, active person. I felt last night that I am idling here, waiting for things that may never come. I was about to – horrors! – start feeling sorry for myself. But I do have time for prayer, and study, and paying attention to my dear husband. Maybe that is all God wants of me right now.

Illness

I have been sick for weeks. I’ve spent almost all this new year ill. I am left feeling completely tapped out, fragile as a soap bubble, right on the edge of failing.

This was not a good time to be an invalid. I had much to do, much to sort, plan, plant, sew, knit. But the old body had other ideas, and decided that a good long session of over the top allergic reactions was needed.

I am finally turning the corner. The skin is starting to heal, although I look like I was spattered with something hot. My face looks like I just went through a chemical peel – it is red and tender. Over the weekend, my lower lip was so swollen that it pushed out my chin and jaw; I wasn’t recognizable. I had already had one trip to emergency for the first allergic reaction, which gave me a swollen, distorted face and impaired breathing.  This crisis, I stayed home and treated myself with benadryl and ibuprofen and fasting – 48 hours on just water, because I couldn’t get anything else in my mouth. I slept for most of two days. Finally, the horrible inflammation went away.

I asked for prayers from all my friends via facebook. I think that was what saved me from worse.

I don’t know how prayer works – but God gave us the privilege of joining with Him in shaping life by turning to him with our needs and fears.

God asks us to give Him our spiritual energy, and then blesses us with answered prayers. The more we pray, the closer we get to His will, and the more we see answer to our prayers.

So the Apostle tells us to pray without ceasing – and for good reason.

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.”

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.

The Roots of Hoarding

I’ve discussed previously some of the aspects of extreme hoarding, and perhaps why people do it.

Some people begin hoarding from depression; they just stop throwing out what they don’t need, or what is useless, or even what is trash. They stop cleaning, so unwashed clothes and dirty dishes accumulate and new ones are purchased rather than the old ones cleaned. They stop caring about themselves, and have no energy for personal care and household maintenance.  They start blocking out all that is too much to comprehend and address, turning inward to amusement in television, the internet or even shopping, in efforts to treat their own depression. Substance abuse and overeating go along with this.

Others are suffering grief – they have lost a spouse, parent or child; they have been fired from a much-loved job or their business went bankrupt. Depression is part of the problem, but the grief causes them to hang on to anything that reminds them of the happier, more successful past. They can’t part with any of the things the loved one owned; they buy or bring in more items that reinforce the sense of the past as a better place. They may turn to collecting pleasing objects such as clothing, jewelry, books, art, or craft supplies and for men, guns or sports equipment. (Men may collect any of the other categories as well, but women seem rarely to gravitate toward sports or hunting in collecting.) I suspect they have a very active fantasy life built around the loss, and they begin to act it out by hoarding, as if the objects will help make the fantasy come true.

Some hoarders are desperate to build a real life out of imagination in much the same way. They have a perfect image of what their life should look like, if they had the objects to make it that way. They do not take into account people they live with, or the impossibility of building the dream castle in their three-bedroom suburban bungalow. When everything is just right, they know they will have the dream home, the dream family, the dream life. These people may not be able to address some disappointment in their lives, that they did not achieve a goal they treasured, or that old goals no longer match reality. Some women begin to hoard when their children move out, trying to fill the emotional gap by filling the physical space.

Hoarding can be related to pathologies – dementias and other organic brain illnesses. We may be seeing some of this in elderly people who can’t seem to sort out the contents of their houses, or accumulate truly useless things such as empty bottles or broken items found on the street. Others may be manifesting symptoms from old brain injuries, or may be forming a brain lesion. Anyone whose hoarding is a change in their personality that can’t be explained by emotional trauma needs to be examined to see if there is a brain injury or illness.

Emotionally based hoarding may be a result of a spiritual emptiness pervasive in our culture. We were hunter-gatherers in our ancestral past, and some of that still clings to us. Some people are hunters, who thrill to the chase. I’m one of those people, both physically and emotionally. I have the muscle structure of a marathoner, a mind that stays on edge while working, and I prefer to seek rather than to find. Some people are gatherers, who enjoy the social aspects of being in the “field” (the shopping mall, for instance) and are more thrilled with the result than the pursuit. But we now have a culture that doesn’t value group effort, or sharing. The rewarding aspects of gathering – spending time with the group, supplying the needs of many, a sense of security in a preserved harvest – are lost while the gratification of accumulation is over-emphasized.

I think I feel very sorry for those who are attempting to build a fantasy life instead of living in real time. Daydreams are useful on several levels: They can give relief from boredom or depressing conditions; they can help define goals. But when the daydream overtakes reality, then severe interpersonal problems develop. The real people with whom we have messy and complicated relationships get pushed out because they don’t match the furnishings, so to speak. The intended goal – the perfect life in the perfect house with the perfect spouse and family – is negated by the hoarding behaviour. It overwhelms them emotionally and physically. The whole “perfect life” concept is a product of advertising, worldliness and the selling of fantasy, whether in a romance novel, on the television or at Disneyland. While the occasional indulgence can be fun and relaxing, a break from routine, too much exposure seems to disorient susceptible people; they can’t tell the difference between fantasy and their own life. They may not be aware of the script playing in their heads, although they may realize that things around them are not at all satisfactory. They can’t settle in and be grateful for their blessings; they are always petitioning for the better blessings.

Every minute spent shopping for more than the necessities of life should be countered with ten minutes of prayer. Every minute spent watching fiction on television should be answered with ten minutes of scripture reading. I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course, but a more balanced spiritual life will insulate us from the depredations of culture.