Sunday, 23 April 2017

Cutting of losses



There’s an aspect to minimalism I think doesn’t always sit easy with people committed to simplicity – the whole business of cutting your losses.

Say I’m looking for a jacket.

It must be the right weight. If it’s for occasions like officiating at funerals, preaching and public speaking, I’ll probably choose something less warm than I otherwise might, because public buildings are usually overheated and I find it harder to deal with being hot than cold.

It has to fit – and that includes being long enough to cover my derrière; because if, wearing trousers, I have to process in past people or go up to the sanctuary to fetch an offering plate, it’s always the rear view that takes people’s mind off the occasion and refocuses them onto contemplating the lamentable error of my sartorial choices.  So why not wear a skirt? Because then I either have to own two jackets (as shorter jackets suit skirts and longer  will suit trousers) or wear skirts all the time – then you get into tights and slips and the complications of shoes that don’t look tragic with skirts but are still good for walking, etc., etc..

It has to be black, as it’ll be worn at formal occasions including funerals.

And – now this is the spanner in the works – it has to be cheap. The way to get high quality clothes for very little money is to buy at auction from private sellers on eBay. And generally speaking private sellers don’t accept returns.

I ask for measurements and scrutinize photos. I stick to brands I know, because they are made for different imaginary women. For example, Per Una clothes are designed for women with short backs and small frames, so the larger sizes are for plump, busty women with short backs and small frames – but thin arms. More your Italian type of woman. I need clothes made for another kind of woman altogether – with broad shoulders, a long back, long arms, and altogether hefty. More your Germanic type of woman. So I don’t buy Per Una.

I make sure to buy in stretchy fabrics because woven (rather than knit) fabrics feel like straitjackets to me. And I don’t want to do any ironing. As in ‘ever’.

Even with all this thought and caution, the purchase often doesn’t work out. What might seem an obvious preferable alternative would be to save up for a high quality shop purchase so I could return it. Except that it usually takes me 2 or 3 months and several times of wearing a garment before I reluctantly conclude I don’t like it. So an expensive purchase would simply mean a bigger mistake.

It’s important to me to like my clothes. In my jacket I’ll be on public display, but not at an event which is about me (if you see what I mean). My work isn’t like a TV presenter or actor – it points beyond myself; I need to be effaced, and concentrating entirely on something else. I need to be able to forget myself utterly when I’m preaching, or leading a quiet day or a funeral. I’ve watched preachers who aren’t easy in their clothes, tugging at this and tweaking at that, watched them readjust in alarm as their bra straps emerge from their too-generous necklines – no no no; that’s not for me.
So if I take hours of care and thought and select a second-hand high quality jacket and it arrives and I think it’ll do fine, and I wear it a time or two but have to conclude it makes me look lumpy and frumpy and I feel miserable in it – then what?

Two options; soldier on or try again. If I try again – ie buy a different jacket – this is the point where the minimalism/simplicity conflict kicks in.

Simplicity is humble and lowly, thrifty and responsibly and not wasteful. Simplicity is satisfied with what it has and doesn’t throw things away.

Minimalism runs a tight ship and travels light, so throws things away very readily.

In my particular case, I’ve opted more for the minimalism. If something doesn’t work out, I pass it on. It goes to a charity shop and earns them good money.  I have noticed that with a minimalist wardrobe, what I like and what works becomes clearer to me. If I don’t have loads of clothes, I don’t get confused about what’s going on. The garments that aren’t working stand out very quickly.  If I have loads of clothes and none of them are all that great, I don’t easily notice what doesn’t work because I don’t feel all that good in any of them.

And other questions begin to emerge. For example, I keep one skirt (that I don’t especially like but it’s the best quality/style/weight/fit/length I could find) to wear on formal occasions when a skirt is expected. But I now find myself asking, why is it expected? Do I even want to be at occasions where dressing in skirts is more important than being the person I am? Do I really want to spend time at events where style outweighs substance? Where what I can offer is outweighed by what I’m wearing? Probably not.

But I don’t think those questions would ever have come up for me if I hadn’t been aiming for a minimalist wardrobe – I’d just have a pile of skirts and trousers and dresses and not stopped to ask myself, ‘why have I got this garment at all?’


And the thing is, once the minimalism has helped me identify the styles and fabrics and colours I really want to wear, then the simplicity comes into its own – because at that point I need make fewer and fewer purchases. I’m happy with what I have.


Friday, 21 April 2017

Gospel Simplicity Quiet Day at Penhurst

I’m offering a Quiet Day at Penhurst on May 3rd, exploring minimalism, voluntary poverty and the discipline of simplicity.

Jesus said, "You cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own."
We’ll be thinking about his challenge to a life of radical simplicity: 
  • the spiritual power of living with minimal possessions; 
  • the social and ecological impact of living simply; 
  • the exciting possibilities of grace (or gift) economy; reviewing our relationship with money. 

This day is for people already convinced of the need to commit to a path of simplicity and at least seriously considering voluntary poverty. 

We will be sharing our experiences of what it means to take this path, and exploring how to deepen our faithfulness in this area of discipleship.

Usually my quiet days fill up quickly, but this one has attracted only a handful of people. As somebody said to me in considerable perplexity at a discussion group once: “But . . . why would we want to give up our things?”

The choice and discipline of Gospel simplicity are not especially easy in practice, though they do bring freedom and peace. Learning from each other, and experiencing the affirmation of a shared path, will be very helpful, I think.

This is a call to come if you can. We live in unsettling times when going deeper into an understanding of simplicity is strengthening. This quiet day is intended as something of a council of the wise, and I confess I feel disappointed that so few are even interested. So far.


Even so, of course:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
~  Margaret Mead



[Attending the Quiet Day costs £25.00. This covers your lunch and snacks, and the retreat centre running costs and staff; none of it goes to me.]


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

We have this treasure in jars of clay



In the last week I read two articles about the nature of faith, one by a Buddhist, one by a Quaker/Buddhist/Christian.

The Buddhist (Stephen Batchelor) was writing about the prevalence of deities in Buddhism – Shakyamuni Buddha, Avalokiteshvara etc. He argued that these are projections of human qualities, developed into personifications and deified.

This is similar to (or the same as) the Christian theology of the Sea of Faith movement, which (if I’ve understood correctly) sees the divine as a human impulse projected and worshipped as a separate entity.

It also reminds me of a phenomenon Rudolf Steiner describes – the Arising Angel. Steiner proposes that every community accumulates a corporate personality – something more than the sum of the individuals composing it. This ‘arising angel’ has the clarity and purpose of an entity.

The second article I read is not for citing, because it was the private post of a friend on Facebook – but he was writing in response to another article asking whether anyone had first-hand experience of actual miracles. My friend said that despite his own experience of involvement in the church – and he has in the past been part of those wings of the church signed up to belief in signs and wonders – he has never seen anything he could hand-on-heart call a true miracle.

And then last night I watched again the wonderful Star Wars movie Rogue One, with the unforgettable character of the courageous, selfless blind Chirrut Imwe walking through the crossfire, “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”.

What I think is this.

We, as humans, necessarily experience life bounded by conditions of time and space – that’s a condition being physically alive imposes on us. That’s why we experience time as linear. Actually (I think) everything happens all at once – but in order not to crash our systems we have to pass through the everythingness of it all one event at a time. Anything else would be a physical impossibility. And we are all one – with each other and with God. We appear separate, but we have our individual being in the sense that a wave does; it is a discrete wave but it is also part of the ocean. The ocean is in the wave and the wave is in the ocean. The ocean informs (literally) the imagination of the wave, but that doesn’t mean the ocean is merely the projection of the wave’s imagination. It’s there all right – that’s why the wave is.

I believe that the idea of God as a projection of what is in humanity sounds appealing because it is the exact opposite of the reality – if it were just a little out it would sound odd; because it’s a mirror image it looks plausible.

I believe that the reality is that we are what God has put forth – one might say, ‘imagined’ – and holds in being, with the quirk that because God’s nature is eternal, we (being the product of the mind of God) are too.

I agree that religion is rife with personifications, both in the sense of anthropomorphism and in the sense of using the faith community to advance personal agendas both unwittingly and intentionally. “Thus saith the Lord” is a jolly good method of getting your own way.

And miracles?

I have seen miracles. Personally, first-hand – miracles of healing that were instantaneous and defied medical explanation. I’ll tell you about just two.

The first involved a teenager who loved music. He played trumpet and piano, and he enjoyed sport – especially running. But he had arthritis. Gradually he stopped being able to join in running at school, then he could no longer play the piano, eventually it became too hard for him to lift up the trumpet and work the keys.

However, he had a school friend. This school friend – also a teenaged boy – had been through hard times. His alcoholic father had died and his mother had a complete breakdown (had to be hospitalized). Though he had two older sisters, they were not able to give him the care he needed. Alone at home with his bereavement he fell into despair and attempted suicide. We knew him because the man who was then my husband was his teacher at school. So he was discharged from hospital into our care. During the time he lived with us, he opened his heart to Jesus. He came with us to numerous meetings for worship and watched the healing and prophetic ministry. And he brought us his friend from school, asking for him to be healed.

Knowing that only God can heal, we made no promises. We said we could only do what we had learned – announce healing in the name of Jesus and see what happened. So I and my husband and the lad who was living with us all prayed and announced healing for the lad with the arthritis. And he got better. Right then.

When he said he was better we sent him for a run round the block, which went well, then made him play something on the piano – which went equally well. As time went on, my then-husband was able to monitor at school how things went – did it last? Yes, it did. He was well again. I believe that was a miracle.

In our family we also relied on miracles for healing my then-husband’s back. He had a dodgy back and in the summer, when he had hay-fever with constant sneezing/asthma and a lot of concerts (think lugging about boxes of sheet music, instruments, music stands etc) he usually put his back out. All the doctor could offer was lying on the floor and painkillers through a long slow recovery.

When he first did this, we came across a ‘natural healer’, a man with a gift of healing. I don’t know what his religion was. We went to see him with my husband walking like a crab and all bent sideways; we came out with him perfectly aligned and walking straight.

In subsequent years the summer challenges continued to create back problems for him, but we had moved to a different part of the country and no longer had access to that healer. But in our new location we had become connected with friends in Christian healing ministry. One friend in particular – Margery – prayed for and announced healing for my husband’s back on two occasions when he hit the same problem. Again, we got an instant result.

I think those were miracles. I have other examples I could share with you, but this post is already long.

Let me just add what I think miracles are. I do not subscribe to the ‘God breaks his own rules’ view. I do not believe a miracle is a suspension of, or deviation from, the natural order. I believe that it would be an intrinsic impossibility for God to break his own rules. It is our ‘normal’ state that is aberrant. We were meant to be like Jesus, with everything fixing itself up all around us, brought to peace by our arrival. The suspension/deviance/aberration is what we call ‘sin’ – that imaginative dislocation from the ocean informing our wave.

But it can be healed. “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.”   And the Force – or the Spirit, or God, or however we want to conceive Divine Being – is what I come from and am made of; but is also so much more that the small aspect of the holy I call “me”.





Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Much comes from nothing



When I was a child, I heard my mother express the view that it is irresponsible to have children unless you can afford to pay for their education. I don’t know what prompted this remark – I went to a state-funded school and then to a university in the days when grants (not loans) for accommodation and tuition were available for university students. But, an impressionable child, the comment stayed with me.

Then I had children of my own. I believed in home birth and in home education, and failed in my aspirations to achieve both. Well – I had one baby at home and we home educated for a couple of years but, like the whole of my life, none of it went to plan.

When my children were small, I used to think back to my mother’s remark, and it worried me that I had so little to give my children. I thought about it long and hard, wondering what I could contribute of value to their unfolding lives.

But I remembered a wonderful TV series I'd seen in the 1970s, about the Brontë family in Haworth. There they were, on top of a hill surrounded by moorland, with little money and few opportunities. For exercise in the evening they walked round and round the dining table, talking to each other and inventing worlds (there's been another superb dramatisation by Sally Wainwright recently - To Walk Invisible).

I could readily imagine this, because I have always invented worlds. My mother liked her children quiet and still, and there were many occasions when I had nothing to do but make things up. I still do it. In church when I’m usually bored and waiting for the end, I make up stories. Before I go to sleep I make up stories, and when I wake up in the morning. When I’m waiting, when I’m travelling, when I’m walking to the supermarket – I create worlds and tell myself stories. If you are not the main person (if you see what I mean), you have to wait a lot. So there are lots of opportunities to create worlds.

I realized that an important component in this is the presence of ‘nothing’. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no money. Having to wait, having to sit quietly, being by yourself. I saw what the Brontës did with their nothing, and thought perhaps my children could do the same. So I resolved to be sure they had lots of ‘nothing’. Blank paper to draw on, lying in the dark while I sang them hymns and folk songs as they fell asleep, the hills and woods, the garden and animals, the fire on the hearth. Not much else. They got to work on their nothings and made something of them, just like the Brontës. Two make their living as freelance artists, one is a singer-songwriter, one is a musician, they are all writers of one kind or another, they are all good cooks and good gardeners, keep accounts well. Their lives are vivid, well-laced with laughter and full of faith and wisdom. That nothing went a long way.

Minimalism is also a good way of playing happily with nothing. Seeing how much nothing you can make out of something. Making as many spaces and gaps as possible between the too, too solid mounds of stuff, making it melt and resolve, vanish and dissipate and evaporate. Balancing along, seeing what it is possible to drop, to relinquish, to pass on and leave behind. Imagining and shaping a life like the Cheshire cat, slowly vanishing, leaving nothing but a grin. Or a half-remembered perfume, or the snatch of a tune.

“Where my caravan has rested, flowers I leave you on the grass.” Gipsy patrin – the ephemeral leavings that show the way to those who can read them and are on the same route. Something and nothing, a handful of leaves and grass; it’s all we are.