Monday, 27 December 2010

New Year's resolutions

It’s coming up time for the New Year. I really like New Year’s resolutions. It helps me get a clear frame on what my priorities are for the short and medium term – to start on right now but expecting to take a while to process.

This year I have three resolutions.

Eat chalk

Walk – spend time in nature

Live spaciously

EAT CHALK – well, I posted about that during November. What I mean by that is that 2011 is to be a year when I focus on how I speak to people, to make it gentle and quiet, both in my voice and in what I have to say. All through the gospels, right from when the angels announced His birth and through a variety of incidents in the course of His life, we come across the phrase “Fear not” in connection with Jesus. “Don’t be afraid, it’s me.” I really like the idea that the voice of a person’s life, what a person’s whole self says, could be “Don’t be afraid”. So that when people see it’s you the tension goes out of them and they sigh with relief, “Oh! Phew! It’s you”.

For that to happen, the voice of a person’s life would have to be gentle and quiet; and strong too, I think. So that the sound of their voice brought people home to themselves, spoke peace.

To work towards that is one of my 3 tasks for 2011 – and that’s what I mean by “eat chalk”.

WALK – SPEND TIME IN NATURE – I really could do with getting some more exercise. I also crave time just being with the beauty of everything. During 2010 I did so much writing (I wrote 4 books; that’s a lot!) that all through the breezy blue sunlit days I was perched up in my garret, writing and writing, with a cloth hung from the window to keep the noon light and the afternoon light and the light of the sun setting out of my eyes. I didn’t go on the beach even though I live near the sea. I didn’t go walking in the hills or the woods. I didn’t sit out in the garden. I didn’t cook outdoors. I just wrote.

I wouldn’t quite know myself if I wasn’t writing something, and I have started a new book, but this one can go more slowly. This year I want to spend time walking, and being outside in nature. I love the earth. I love the beauty. It moves me so deeply, and it fills my soul with joy; all of it, the grass and the light on the water, the flight of birds and the stateliness of trees, the smell of dust and grass and flowers, the feeling of sun on my skin, the sparkle of frost.

This winter when it snowed, one day I had to go up into the hills to take a funeral, and the roads weren’t safe for my little car. So I had a lift with the funeral director’s bearers, and we had to go a circuitous route to stay on safe roads. The latest fall of snow had been very light and soft, every leaf and twig bore a tottering load of snow. The funeral was at half-past three in the afternoon, as the sun was low in the sky. Travelling up to the crematorium we drove through a fairy land of snowy trees, and when we came out from the funeral the sun was setting. The grass lawns of the cemetery were smooth expanses of untrodden snow, sparkling and glistening where the light caught and shadowed blue. Across these expanses fell great panels of vermilion light from the setting sun. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.

So this year I want to spend more time outside, to walk and think and just be, knowing I am alive and marvelling at the beauty, being grateful for the chance to have been here, the chance to have been part of this beautiful earth,

LIVE SPACIOUSLY – I don’t know exactly what’s happening with me, but I am getting less and less able to accommodate mental clutter. I cannot cope with complicated relationships – tension and arguments and games. I cannot even bear too much human company (Julie if you are reading this, it does NOT mean your visit to us in September – maybe you are not exactly human; I will be just fine with you :0)

And I can’t be bothered with the endless interaction Things require – tidying and sorting, washing and organising – some of them will have to go. Things set up a kind of IV to themselves from one’s soul – they drain energy away. And I can’t cope with complex schedules. I can feel the tug of a number of people I’m supposed to visit and spend time with… and somehow… I don’t.   I care about them. I am happy to pray for them. I think about them. And there it stops. I’m not going to see them.

Today, we had visitors for the day. Fortunately, having raised five children, my hands know how to put together an adequate meal with little input from my head. But as I looked at the crumpled, slightly grubby cloth on the table, and put out for each person just a fork and a paper napkin, I had to concede that my performance as a hostess makes even the stable at Bethlehem look relatively stylish. Basic. That’s all I can do. I can feed them something tasty and nutritious, they are welcome at my fireside, and I care about them – how they feel, how they are in themselves, what their dreams are and their faith, their spirit inside them. More than that I cannot do.

I feel guilty about it often. An example: my mother is on the brink of moving house. She is coming to live near us so that as she gets old we shall be there for her. I am conscious that as her daughter I should have been to stay with her and helped her pack up her home. I have left it to her friends to do that, and it is remiss of me. But she is a lady of many treasured possessions, and very decided and particular preferences – and the will to tangle with all of that is like expired elastic in me. I can’t make myself do it.

This year, I am giving permission to myself to live without guilt in relation to these changes. I am going to make space for the urgent need to live simply. I will have only the honesty of who I am to offer, here in my home. Sometimes, when I can, I will make it to someone else’s place to visit, but if I can’t get my head together to do that, I will accept it in myself, and just hope they do too.

I am going to undertake the discipline to do one thing at a time, to let things go, to walk quietly through the days of my life, building structures of the Peaceable Kingdom.

I have thoughts about life, but in social situations – parties and visiting scenarios – I have less and less to say about anything. I am going to accept that.

If I am not harassed by things to do and deadlines to meet and social interactions to accomplish, then when my grandson comes to visit me, I am pleased to see him. When I am overwhelmed by the pressure of what people want of me and tasks scrambling to get done, then he becomes a nuisance. I will not have a child become a nuisance; that is not of God. So in 2011 I am going to make my life more spacious, so that there is room in my spirit to welcome the little ones of God.




IN 2011 – THAT’S ME

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Beyond the tree and the coloured lights

Behind the coloured lights of the Christmas tree

behind the family times

behind the Christmas feast and the laughter

the gifts and the excitement and the fun

(even behind the challenges of spending time

 with people we find difficult

people who are lonely for a good reason

people we heartily wish were not in our family – but are)

quietly, eager faces full of wonder

stand the mother and child

reminding us

this is what it was always all about.

May the courage, faith and good hope of Mary

and the blessed presence of the child Jesus

be with you this Christmas

and through the year to come.

With love from Pen (Ember) Wilcock

Friday, 17 December 2010

Take me to your leader

So, the next question prompted in my mind, by the Gunn Bros film The Monstrous Regiment of Women, was:

Do I think men and women are created equal, and if so what do I mean by that?

Yes and no.

I don’t believe that all women are the same as each other, or that all men are the same as each other. So, for example, when it comes to caring for little children, I think in general women are better at it than men, but I also think that some men are much better at it than some women.

And I think things go better when people do what they’re good at. In an earlier blog where I mentioned that England has a queen, and she does a great job, a sister who commented on the post reminded me that however good a job she is doing, the queen is biblically out of order. I remember the scriptural texts that led my sister to that belief, but I am baffled by the concept of a God who would prefer a man doing something badly over a woman doing it well just because the man is a man and the woman is a woman. I have no clear opinion about this; it just doesn’t make sense to me.  Where this is an issue, I prefer the route of simply deleting the hierarchical status. Let's not have monarchs, then.  Same I feel about bishops, and indeed any ordained clergy.  If there's going to be a row about whether women are allowed to be bishops or priests, let's not have them.  Jesus wasn't a bishop or a priest, and He had no kingdom of this world.

Other kinds of equality?  Are women and men equal in the sense of being basically the same - interchangeable?  Despite the neurologists' findings that there is very little difference between the male and femael brains, I personally believe that, even factoring in the great variety among human beings in either gender, men and women are so startlingly different from each other they sometimes seem to come from different species if not actually different planets. I know marriage must be God’s idea because I can’t imagine that any other than a transcendent and all-wise being could possibly have come up with so laughably crazy an idea as a woman and a man trying to set up house together, and still have it work OK.

Are men and women equal in importance then – that is, do they have equal eminence, equal status, equal prestige? Yes, they do. They are both infinitely valuable to God – and there is no relative quantification of ‘infinite’ – and apart from that, neither man nor woman has any importance at all; no eminence, status or prestige whatsoever, outside of their own imagination. Neither man nor woman is more valuable than the other to God, and neither has any other value at all.

So should men rule over women? This is an unnecessary question, for God has already told us they always will (here), and that He regards it as a curse.  She was looking for a connection, a linking of soul-to-soul (her desire is for her husband); instead she found herself a link in a chain of command (he shall lord it over you).

But it seems to me that there is a way round this whole equality question that makes it completely irrelevant.  Because this whole thing is about who's the boss, who's in charge, isn't it?

Here are some things Jesus said that blow it right out of the water:

Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3 KJV)

And he said here (Luke 22:24-27 KJV) that the greater person should be like the junior person, and the boss should be like the go-fer.

And Jesus said: Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Matthew 11:29 KJV)

And here is something from one of the New Testament epistles (Ephesians 5:18-33 KJV) saying that a wife should reverence and respect her husband as deeply as the church reverences Jesus, and that the husband should love his wife with as tender and self-sacrificial love as Jesus loves his people in the church.  "They two shall be one flesh."  One flesh.  How can you have a hierarchical relationship in one flesh?  Hierarchy requires different ranks, different strata of status; one flesh is indivisible.

I have read Christian writers saying that in any relationship there is a conflict of interests, and when that occurs there has to be a hierarchical relationship, or there will be a stalemate.  So one partner must have the casting vote and that should be the husband, because he's the head.  That's logic, but it still isn't what Jesus said.  When Jesus came upon his disciples arguing about which of them was the greatest, He said "except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."  So you can set up an arrangement where the husband is in charge and the wife has to do as he says, but that still leaves them both outside the kingdom of heaven, because Jesus said that's not the way they do it there.  To even enter it, you have to go the way of simplicity - stoop down, and be humble enough to get in.  You don't stride into heaven, the lintel is low.  You crawl in on your hands and knees.

It seems to me that all we have to do is put these teachings into practice and the whole problem just goes away. All you get left with is faithfulness, humility and love.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

To be or not to be

So. Working backward through my list of yesterday I next come to the question ‘What do I think about abortion?’

I have not honestly visited this question since I was an undergraduate of eighteen and wondered if I might be pregnant myself. I can recall the turmoil. My upbringing valued the art of fitting in. You don’t cause trouble. You don’t draw attention to yourself. You don’t rock the boat. You sit nicely and pass the biscuits and initiate conversation on topics that cause no contention. You are grateful for what is done for you, you work hard, you take responsibility, and you behave in a manner that will bring credit to your family. On reflection I could see that an undergraduate eighteen-year-old pregnancy was not going to be good news. Everyone I knew socially at that time (mid-70s) was of one mind – you make it go away. But not me. I had joined a pro-Life group (the only university club I did join), though I had stopped going because it was a pro-Life pro-Feminist group, and I was a bit annoyed by this because I wanted to put my hand up and be counted for babies to have the chance to live, but I didn’t think I was a feminist and didn’t want to become known as one by default. Anyway, the problem with its attendant turmoil did go away because I wasn’t pregnant – not by happenstance but because the contraception I had been carefully and precisely using had not let me down. I mention this moment in my mis-spent youth because I think it’s important to make it clear I am not thinking about ‘these girls who get themselves into this situation’; I am thinking ‘if this were me’.

Later, as a young mother of 22, I became friends with a Jewish obstetrician. By this time I had clearly abandoned my mother’s painstakingly taught lessons in how to conduct myself as a young lady, because I asked him not if his wife was quite well or he had enjoyed good weather on his holiday, but how he could square being a good Jew with his occupation as an obstetrician, involving as it did the regular performance of abortions.

He was a man not unfamiliar with questions of life and death. He had come to England in the first place on the Kinder-transport, sent by his parents as they saw what was approaching. So he evaded the concentration camps, but his family had not, which must have left its scars, don't you think? He wanted, I sensed, to work close to where life was, where life began. He was very honest in his answers to me. He said that he had become an obstetrician in the first place because he loved children, and wanted to be part of bringing babies into the world. When he began it, that’s what he had been thinking of, not doing abortions. But he said that people seek abortions because of serious moral dilemmas. He said that he had interviewed women who were afraid for their lives because they were pregnant, and women whose lives would be ruined for ever by the birth of a child. And of course, though he didn’t say this, women who have been trained to be compliant and respectful, to please and serve men, may be all the more likely to find themselves in this terrible dilemma. Women who have done what is asked of them and are not sure how to refuse an unwelcome request, or how to say ‘no’ when a situation has evolved beyond what they intended or imagined.  He said he didn't see how he could improve anything by forcing such a woman to bring a child into the world.  He said he thought it was desperately sad, but some of the situations brought him to the place where he saw it as the best thing to do.  And he didn't like it.

When I met that man I had one child. I went on to have four more, all planned and intended. I used contraception on those occasions when I judged it not right to have a child, and left of the contraception when I thought another baby would be okay. I never had to do more than leave off contraception once or twice and I would conceive; and I never conceived when I was trying not to.

After I had my twins (Child 3 and Child 4) I felt I had seriously exhausted my resources on the child-raising front. We lived in a very tiny two-bedroomed cottage, with slightly less money than we needed to pay our bills. I had no car and it was a long walk to any grocer’s store. My husband was a busy musician, often out weekends and evenings as well as working fulltime (though when he was home he was a very hands-on father, and formed a close and happy relationship with his children). We had four children under four, all in nappies at night, some by day as well, no help in the house, and I was tired.

But the Lord asked me to have another child. He showed me that wherever the Bible says ‘blessing’ it means ‘fertility and increase’. He showed me that children are a gift from the Lord. He sent a word of knowledge for me to our prayer group. ‘I want you to have this child,’ he said. So I did. And what a child. The wild side of feral. Untameable. Our own small fury. That fifth child deserves a whole blog post of her own, but she threw the entire peaceful rhythm and ordered routine of our home life up into the air like confetti. She shredded beyond repair all my preconceptions about myself as a person and as a mother, and pulverised my illusions about my ability to cope. Since then she has grown up in to a sort of guru – not in the context of a cult I mean, just that she is as wise as the hills and the stars, and walks as free and as pure as the soul of the wind. She is an extraordinary woman.

When she was a baby, John Bickersteth blessed her. He was the closest to being a saint of anyone I ever met. It happened when I was supposed to be at my husband’s side in a meeting for worship, but couldn’t because I was still trying to get my wild baby to sleep in the corridor. I had her in her moses basket which I was swinging gently at the darker end of the passage where people were not, in the hope of her going to sleep. While I was doing this, John Bickersteth and his wife arrived at the meeting. This was in the context of his big stately home place that he’d turned over to the Lord to use as a conference centre, Ashburnham. He and Marlis were just going into the big hall for the meeting, when he stopped, left her side, came along the corridor to me, and asked: ‘Are you all right?’

I wasn’t. I felt upset and frustrated because I never seemed to be free of having a baby to care for, and I wanted to be in the meeting; and I hadn’t wanted this child in the first place, it was all the Lord’s idea and he’d sent me one that caused havoc and never went to sleep. But I had only been standing there in the shadows, quietly rocking the moses basket. Nothing in my demeanour should have given me away – and besides that, John was almost blind. He had about 10% vision. But the eyes of his soul were not blind. He had Seen me. So I told him about that baby, and how the Lord had asked me to have another one even though I felt I’d had enough, and how tired I was and how hard she was to care for. I told him about the vision I’d had when she was conceived – of an old plant fruit like a rosehip or an onion, wrinkled and finished, that had become infused with radiant light and turned back into a rose-bud again. And John said the Lord would honour that I had been obedient to Him, and that this child would be a special blessing. And he blessed her. I hung onto that through her stormy and difficult childhood, and I remember it now that I see her pure soul – a wise, ancient soul, a soul with a blue starry robe that sees into the secrets of life and knows about love and truth and freedom, and the power of patience and kindness – all the things that most of us come to much later in life than she has.

So I know a bit about having babies and what a struggle it can be. I am well aware that once a child is born your life is never the same again. But in my understanding of things, though a child’s body must form, and its mind and character develop, these proceed from the interaction of the soul with its environment: and the child’s soul arriving into your body is what conception is. The soul arriving is what starts it all off. When the angel Gabriel came to Mary, he was not suggesting that she grow or raise a Messiah. What He was would be there with her from the moment of conception – though His style of Messiahing certainly owed something to His mother, as you can see if you compare His sermon at Capernaum with the power and glory of His mum’s Magnificat.

So the idea of abortion is something I have given headroom to, but I would not give liferoom to it. I could not actually do it because if we had got to the place where this small holy guest had chosen the hospitality of my body, I could not live with myself if I turned her (or him) away. God can be trusted. God alone gives life. If God thought that my body was a suitable stable, and my womb a suitable manger, then Amen.

But I am speaking out of my life, my experience. I cannot begin to know what it must be like to be a woman whose family will beat her and burn her and murder her if she has this child. I cannot imagine how it must feel to live with the kind of rigid Protestant parents who would cover her with shame and throw her out of the family, and leave a woman raised to compliance and belonging and authority and hierarchy on her own with no support just when she needed it most, expected not only to manage an independence she was not raised for, but the expensive and exhausting care of an infant without the means to provide that.

Abortion? This is what I think about abortion. I think that like many social ills, abortion is an end-stage that people think of as a first-stage. Abortion is symptomatic. It is to be expected in a society where shame and punishment are rife, where breastfeeding is seen as obscene, where people are infected with materialism and consumerism, where women are supposed to be elegant and thin and sexy and employed, where raising children is not natural and sweet but processed through institutions and regulated by inspectorates, and where religious people get all acidic about sex. In a society that sets up gatherings – everything from church and chapel to theatres and restaurants and colleges – where the presence of babies will be an interference, unwelcome and a disruptive nuisance, of course people will seek abortions. Because they are themselves only human, only children, and they don’t want to be left out they want to join in.

When I had my second child, and she was about seven or eight weeks old, I went to a carol service. This took place in a medieval church on a freezing December night. It was beautiful, magical, charming, ethereal – songs about the baby Jesus, readings about the baby Jesus, a little Nativity tableau, everything you could wish. But oh dear! My baby got restless. She was one who liked to be fed at least once an hour. And in such a setting, breastfeeding was not socially acceptable. Hoping to quieten her and string her out until the thing was over, I crept out into the small, icy porch. There I found all the other people with restless infants, crowded into this bitterly cold inadequate stone ante-room because the real children were nothing but a darned nuisance to the people who were singing lovely songs and reading lovely poems and Bible passages grouped round a baby and its mother who were conveniently devoid of screaming, pooping or breastfeeding because they were only statues.

In such a society abortions will occur naturally. It’s no good blaming the women or saying they are selfish or sinful. If we don’t like abortion, then everything we do and say, every choice we make in our homes, churches, shops, caf├ęs – everywhere – will have to say YOU ARE WELCOME.  Abortion is the end-stage of an inhospitable society that practises a culture of blame. Why do women seek abortions? Because they will be excluded, punished, ostracised, blamed, limited, poor, left alone and get into trouble. We could change that, couldn’t we?

Just as long as babies are a nuisance, people will seek to avoid the responsibility they bring.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Partings and connections

Crumbs. The Righteous Brothers. Bet that takes you back! John Wimber used to play keyboard with them, back in the early 60s!

That song, along with this one, has a strange effect on me – sets up an almost unbearable yearning and lostness. And then I want to hear it again. And again. Like you go back to woggling a loose milk tooth again… and again… as a child – fascinated by how much it hurts.  
Connections, separations, how strange they are.

Decades ago, we were travelling back from Yorkshire to Sussex in our family car, having stayed there with my parents. My mother was driving back to Hertfordshire, so we came down the A1 together, eventually reaching a roundabout where she would peel off east and we would continue the journey south. I remember the moment when we reached the roundabout, and I looked for her, and she waved from her jaunty bright yellow Renault 5 – and then she was gone. I remember the feeling, of total loss, like a death within a life. Partings always affect me like that. Standing at the railway station waving goodbye as the train pulls out sends me crazy with loss. Unbearable.

But final partings – death, divorce – send me into different territory entirely. Feelings reach a certain level and then (in me) they flat-line. There comes a point where my soul reaches beyond the register feelings are designed to cover. Feelings are a kind of luxury item, for relatively simple, relatively trivial things. Some experiences in life surpass feeling.

On those occasions when, like rotten fabric giving way, I have felt my life tearing in two from top to bottom, I have experienced very little in the way of feeling. Feelings are more for The Righteous Brothers and Ben E.King, not for the moment when everything topples and you think, ‘This is it,’ just before it all goes down.

I had a dream – maybe twenty years ago – that we lived in a ramshackle happy little house by the edge of the sea. Its light frame made of graying wood exposed by the white paint peeling back in the salt and wind and sun held the glass panes of many windows. It was a house of light, a summer house, built on the sand of a beach where wiry grasses grew among the dunes. In the next bit of the dream – I worked as a hospice chaplain in those days – I saw myself urgently begging the hospice receptionist to supply me with some kind of lethal medicine so that I could bring my children’s lives to a close if the impending disaster proved more than they could bear, and she refused; said it was not their policy to give out such drugs. Then, in the dream, I saw the shabby little house standing bleached in the joyous sunlight and the children playing in the sand round about; when suddenly, from nowhere it seemed, a tidal wave swept in and engulfed everything. The flimsy wooden frame was broken to matchwood and swirled in the sucking waters that smashed the house to pieces before I could even move. Frantic, I struggled in the sea-water that swept me away, desperate to rescue my children, but among the roaring commotion of waves over my head, I could not even see. Eventually, kicking and struggling, my hand made contact with the hand of one of my children, and I knew she was dead. I knew they all were. And so I let go. It didn’t matter any more. ‘This is it,’ I thought. Only a sadness as vast and fathomless as the sea.

I never forgot the dream, and in terms of life story (taking the sea, the house and the death as metaphorical), it came true. The circumstances that swept our life away were as sudden and comprehensive as that freak wave, and just as irresistible. The security I had in place to shelter us proved as flimsy and insubstantial as a wabi-sabi little shack built on the sand.

When I was a child, if I or my sister went to a party, or some special outing, my mother waving us goodbye from the door as we went our way would call to us; ‘Have a nice time!’ If we were going to school, she would send us on our way with the words, ‘Best work!’

Every year, I save the Christmas cards I have been sent, secure them into a bundle with a rubber band, and tuck them away in a drawer. When December comes around, instead of looking through the address book and making a Christmas card list, I take out the bundle of cards and read them through, with their accompanying letters, reminding myself of the names and circumstances and tastes in Christmas cards of those who like to keep in touch. I did that this morning, with a slightly strange feeling, because I knew that somewhere in the bundle would be a card from my father, whom I found dead in his cottage last March.

My father and I were not close. Gentle, eccentric, untameable, he lived his life on the edges of everything like a feral cat that can neither leave nor come home. As far as I know he never read a thing I have written – he certainly would not have discussed it if he had. I visited him dutifully but not often as he grew old. I tried to be kind to him. I am very like him, the Norse ancestry is very plain in us both, and we had a certain like-magnets-repel thing going on. But, away on his own planet where no-one else dwelt but him, he cared about me very deeply in his unique and incomprehensible way. My mother, infuriated by him, once (among many times) berated him for his difficult temperament, like a broken branch jammed sideways in a stream. ‘You think I’m difficult to live with?’ he half-joked: ‘How do you think it feels like to me? I have to live with myself all the time.’

One time in the last year or so of his life, my mother was regaling us all with some story of how she is often (she doesn’t know why) mistaken for an Austrian when travelling abroad. Musing on why this might be, she lost track of the word she was searching for. ‘I think I must remind them of… remind them of…’

‘Hitler?’ he said.

A unique sense of humour. An unforgettable man. As a child, I adored him. He had effortless, natural glamour, and was quintessentially kind. As an adult? I cannot say what I felt for him. My relationship with him spiraled up into one of those places feelings don’t reach; like metal plates rubbing together the discord between us was intolerable. He was my father. I was like him. That was all.

So, I found his card.

This was the moment, I think – not the moment I found him dead or paid tribute at his funeral or watched the curtain close around his coffin – that I saw him wave goodbye as his rickety chariot peeled off into the blue.

‘Have a nice time – love Daddy,’ said his card; and on the front a picture of a snow bear curled protectively round its cub.

So. He is on his way. Things must have been resolved. In this, as in so many other occurrences, I have the sense of touching a living web of meaning that sings along its every thread with joy, and at the same time sweeps through my soul with the music of intensest sadness.

Goodbye, Daddy. God bless you.

More thoughts on community and economy - Senator Bernie Sanders

This video is well worth your watching and considering.

As Christmas approaches, most of us will be buying some gifts and also the seasonable meat and vegetables to feed our families and guests.

This is a time to bless our community by purchasing from small local firms and producers - the farmers' market, the craftsman, the family-run shop.

A community is grown organically by systematic blessing. Sometimes locally grown produce and locally made artefacts cost more money than things made in China and flown across the world to be sold in a supermarket. There would be a reason for that, and it is likely to be related to the standard of living the producers can expect to enjoy. Anything small is more easily fixed and more easily maintained. Local systems are simpler and easier to safeguard. Local self-interest is easier to influence than self-interest on a remote and global level.

Thinking globally and acting locally; living simply and frugally, consuming very little; supporting local tradesmen rather than large international corporations; encouraging self-reliance and a good level of self-sufficiency in our own families - these measures will help to stabilise the terrifying economic slide we presently have in prospect.

I think sisters do not always appreciate what a crucial role we play in the shaping of society.  Mention the word 'politics' and it translates instantly as 'Men; arguing - contention,' and sisters turn off, don't want to know.  We think of ourselves as women of faith and prayer, but not as political activists; see that as not our place, something we leave to the men.  It never occurs to us that whether we intend it or not, where we buy our children's toys and our clothes and our vegetables is political, and that politics is not a secular matter but is part of our discipleship. 

If we read the Old Testament prophets, we notice God's grief and rage that the poor and needy are sold for a pair of sandals, hear Him cry woe and thrice woe to those who but house after house and field afte field until they have bought up everything and it all belongs to them.  That's what Bernie Sanders is talking about.  It is part of our faith.  It's in the Bible.  And what accumulates to consolidate or change it will be the innumerable individual decisions we make day by about where to get our carrots, our lamb chops and our underwear.  Prayer changes things; and where we source the commodities for our households is a prayer.

Closing the gap

If you can fight your way through all the ads and eye-catchers, here's a reminder of Dave Bryant's song Jesus Take Me As I Am

What brought it especially to my mind is the part asking God to make me like a pure, precisely cut crystal through which the light of Jesus can shine clearly.

Thinking of that song reminds me of a man I met when (a long time ago now) I and a handful of friends had the privilege of going each week to join in the Christian fellowship group at a prison a few miles along the coast. 
As new men came into the prison and wanted to join the group, the first attendance of each was very revealing.  Some came in quietly, desiring self-effacement.  Others came in with swagger and loud bravado, obviously stretched thin by life and afraid of being seen and known.  One man came at first unkempt and hostile, principally to gibe and sneer, but ended up being the most eager in the waiting queue, having showered and combed his hair ready for the weekly meeting now held precious because there he was accepted and loved. I remember forming a completely wrong impression of one man the first time I saw him.  With a wickedly disarming smile and a cheeky line of humour he chatted and befriended us.  Then we settled down to worship, and he spoke up to request (I remember it still, 30 years on!) No 136.  I thought it would be some kind of joke - like the times men asked innocently to sing It only takes a spark to get a fire going (!) 
But he was not joking.  The song he requested was 'Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me' - and he meant it too.  That made me stop and think.  He was someone I grew to love and respect, for he was Christ's man, a most gentle and beautiful friend of Jesus, for all he'd made mistakes in life and done wrong things, ended up in prison.  The Lord had lifted him.  "Thou, O Lord, art a shield about me; my glory, and the lifter of my head" (Psalm 3:3).

The memories of those songs that have meant so much to me all came flooding back as I meditated on a short phrase I came across in Cynthia Keller's excellent novel An Amish Christmas, which I have been so enjoying reading in the last few days.
The phrase, ESSE QUAM VIDERI, quoted from Cicero, is apparently the motto of the state of North Carolina, and it means not 'eat until you are sick' (as you might at first think) but TO BE RATHER THAN TO SEEM TO BE.  It is the focal theme of the novel as the story unfolds and, ever since I read them, the words have been on my heart and on my mind.

People often describe me as 'transparent' and believe me to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person; and I guess that's true up to a point.  What you see is what you get - but I do select very carefully what I allow you to see; and I think that's prudent.  Letting it all hang out is rarely wise and never lovely to behold.

But that means what I seem to be and what I am are often two different things.  They have to be.  I speak and write what I believe regardless of whether I achieve it, and that's my intention.  I want to point your thinking toward the truth I believe in, not the depressing shortcomings of the way I live it.

A few weeks ago I listened to a friend teaching about some religious belief that God forgives only three times (not his own belief - he was teaching about a tradition).  I hope that tradition is wrong.  Tonight as I came into the quietness and peace of my room to let God's gaze of love search my heart at the end of the day (and don't run away with the idea I'm a holy mystic vigiling my way through the night, I did this for about five minutes), I had to say sorry once again for moaning and whingeing and gumbling and complaining and being unfair and unkind about other people.  This is what I said sorry for yesterday too.  Maybe it will be the last time and I will never need to say sorry for it again, but somehow I can't help thinking.... 

I felt that hopeless 'Here I am again, Lord' feeling.  Only three times?  I hope not.

So I pick myself up, or He picks me up or something, and I carry on.

Where I want to travel to is that place of real transparency, 'light of Jesus shining through', where the beauty of Jesus is seen in me, and the gap is closed between what I am and what I seem to be.


Do you know this hymn?

Dear Master, in whose life I see

All that I would, but fail to be,
Let thy clear light for ever shine,
To shame and guide this life of mine.

Though what I dream and what I do
In my weak days and always two,
Help me, oppressed by things undone,
O thou, whose deeds and dreams were one.
                                                                       (John Hunter 1889)
That's what I mean.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Plain dress November - thinking globally and acting locally

Among the comments on my blog post yesterday, someone made a really interesting and fair point that I wanted to respond to more fully than my comment allowance would permit - I so I thought I'd take it up here.

The point I wanted to respond to is this:
I don't quite understand the desire to buy local. If something can be produced better, cheaper, or faster by someone else, why would I want to do it inefficiently here? Yes, I could benefit the local shop owner. But I do it at the expense of someone who needs the money more. And the local shop-owner can do something that can't be produced better, cheaper, or faster by someone in Taiwan.

The issue at stake here is what can be called 'the journey of the pound in my pocket'.

In the Bible, blessing is always seen in terms of increase, be that prosperity or fecundity. Spending money is a form of blessing, so we have to think carefully about where we want to direct our blessing.

For the Christian, an important principle of spiritual obedience is Christ's command to love our neighbour - and of course He took that from the teaching of the Jewish Torah.

So in spending money we are mindful to remember to bless our neighbour.

Here are the reasons I try to shop locally.

1) I can watch that the producers I am blessing and supporting are compassionate. I can visit the farm or the shop and see how staff are treated, or if I am buying animal produce, how the animals are treated. When I lived in Aylesbury we bought eggs from a place where you went to the shop along a track through the fields where the hens were, and could see their conditions for yourself. In a supermarket, there are only eggs on a shelf from a place far away out of sight that I cannot check.

It is important to me that the goods I buy are produced with compassion and integrity, and I do not believe an unscrupulous producer would tell me the truth. I like to be able to see for myself.
2)  If I buy from a small local business, a high percentage of my money stays in the community (depending where the goods are sourced). Part of the reason the US is in debt is because the US buys a high proportion of goods from China, but because of Chinese currency kept artificially low, the Chinese have no reciprocal need to buy from the US. So there is a steady leakage of financial advantage to China. Enriching China is not necessarily a problem, but rising debt in the US is. Sourcing goods from one's own country creates stability and prosperity. This was Gandhi's point about Khadi cotton.

So if I buy my potatoes from a local greengrocer, sourced from a local supplier, both of them employing local staff, the money I spend will roll around within the community where I live, creating stability and prosperity. It is a form of loving my neighbour. Also in that small owner-run shop, the greengrocer can have his kids in the shop with him if his wife has to go for a hospital appointment, and he can choose to make room in his staff for his cousin's son with Downs Syndrome, and his elderly dad can mind the shop for the day while he takes his family to the fair. He also has the intellectual stimulus of autonomy and responsibility in running his own business - and if he wants to he can tithe to charity, maybe putting 10% of my potato money in the Quaker meeting collection for poor and destitute people :0) .

If I buy my potatoes at the supermarket, I know that the hardnosed supermarket people have cut the suppliers to the bone. The supermarket chooses the bargains, but it is the suppliers not the shop who stand the cost of special offers. The staff who work there are only units - they cannot bring their children to work or have their elderly dad stand in for them. The staff will spend their money in the supermarket probably (they will have incentive schemes), so though in one sense they spend their money locally, they mainly spend it in that shop. So only a tiny percentage of my pound returns to bless my community - most of it is barrowed away to increase the bank accounts of shareholders and big businessmen. That is not unethical per se, but it is not how I wish to spend my money.
The goods on offer in the big, cheap supermarket are cheap either because they pay our producers so little they are putting them out of business, or because they have sourced them from overseas in conditions which sometimes represent our export of exploitation, poverty and abuse of human and animal life.
Cash crops grown overseas are often a short-termist and unsustainable way of dealing with poverty, creating social and financial vulnerability, removing the freedom of indigenous peoples to make real decisions about the use of their land, and often resulting in serious impoverishment of the community and the environment - like the prawn farms that have ruined the agricultural lands in some parts of the world, or the rainforest that has been cut down to the detriment of all of us to create cattle ranches for cheap beefburgers sold by food giants.
I don't think it can be the case that all supermarkets are bad or that all their products are unethical - but I do know that it would be extremely difficult for me to verify.
3) There is also the issue of food miles (or the transportation of any manufactured goods), which does immense environmental damage that we ought to take seriously. As the time of Peak Oil comes upon us, we have to take this seriously.  The more locally to their point of consumption goods are sourced and produced, the lower is the environmental impact their production creates.

Modern life has become so complex that I don't find it easy to uphold a principled way of life.  Sometimes, for example, a big chain out-of-town supermarket may sell very ethical goods (eg British organic vegetables or Alpro non-GM soy milk) where the corner shop has only goods at higher prices than I can afford made by corporate giants whose business practice I distrust, and wilting vegetables long past serving much nutritional purpose. 

Shopping carefully is something I regard as one of the largest ethical responsibilities of the household.  It is a spiritual thing, not just a chore.  It's one of the reasons I choose to live very simply, because that gives me the spaciousness in my life to make the decisions of household management as if they were not merely a task to be done, but also a form of blessing, a testimony, a witness, a creed and a prayer - all of which I believe they are.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Plain dress November - Hebe's chant on perception

Back in January I posted something my daughter Hebe wrote; she calls it "A Chant On Perception".  I wish you could hear her actually chant it, because it is beautiful.  Reading through the comments that some of you left yesterday, and thinking of a conversation with a friend today about a hospital procedure she must undergo tomorrow, these seemed like the right words, even though I have posted them before.  I hope they bless you as much as they bless me.

Seeing yourself – a chant on perception

When you see your face in the mirror,
Don’t be dissatisfied with what you see.
For your face is only one part of you.
There are parts of you that you cannot see.
There are parts of you that you will never know;
You cannot know how beautiful you are to others.

There is also a part of you
That others can never know;
The part of you that is only for you to see,
And it is beautiful in its mystery.

I believe there is a God,
And he knows all of you and me.
He knows the things that I cannot know –
The parts that only you can see.

But he also knows what I know,
And the parts you can never see,
God can see the whole of us –
Even that which is a mystery.

When you look at your face and your body,
Don’t be dissatisfied with what you see;
For beauty is not only in that which is visible,
But also in parts that are not seen.

And do not think that any part of you is ugly,
Even the inside part of you:
For part of the beauty that is you
Is when every part of you is together.

A body is far more beautiful alive than when it is dead;
But, when all is said and done,
We cannot know how beautiful we are
’Til we see what God sees.
And do not be afraid when you are changing –
Your face or the inside of you;
For that’s what it is to be alive.

If you ever feel misunderstood,
Ugly, or even invisible,
Know that, because I have seen you and known a part of you,
There is a part of you that is a part of me.

Can you see that we are a part of each other, then?
So what you see in the mirror is not all of you:
Don’t be trapped by feelings of inadequacy;
Let it be a mystery, and let it set you free.

So do not be unhappy with your body –
Love it, for it is part of your wholeness;
And if you cannot do that,
Love it because it is part of mine.

(Words of chant © Hebe Wilcock 2006)

Monday, 15 November 2010

Plain dress November - Plain peace

‘Will this bring me peace?’ is a decision-making question I learned from Wayne Dyer.

When I have shared this with people, they have looked at it askance sometimes, if they understood it to refer to an ‘anything for a quiet life’ kind of peace. It seems selfish if you understand it to mean, ‘Which way will give me the easiest ride?’ That’s not what it means.

If I have a choice to make, or if I face a puzzling situation, the question, ‘Will this bring me peace?’ reveals which way has resonance for my true nature.

To take an example: if someone has been rude to me and I am planning a confrontation, amassing smart replies and stinging put-downs, I might ask myself, ‘Will this bring me peace?’ It would bring a short-term sense of satisfaction, and a smug feeling of victory, but it would also damage the relationship further and take me a step nearer to being the kind of person I never meant to be. It would not bring me peace.

On the other hand, suppose someone has been bullying and harassing me over an extended period, and finally they do something that oversteps the mark; it’s time to sort things out. I consider whether to continue to let things go by in silence, or whether to deal with the matter. ‘Will this bring me peace?’ They have overstepped the mark in a way that is disadvantageous to my family; I am neglecting my responsibility if I continue to let it go. Without being rude, without losing my temper, without being quick to raise antagonistic issues but answering thq questions as they come, I am candid about what I see as the problems, and clear in my request for a change. Though the exchange is scary and takes courage to initiate, once it is done matters that would have festered into resentment are voiced and can be laid to rest. Dealing with it has brought me peace.

Plain dress has brought me peace. It is a constant reminder to me of how I should act and speak, what I believe and who I want to be. I feel less troubled than I did at first about the lack of comprehension with which it’s met. I don’t encourage questions, and I find that even in the UK, where the term ‘Plain’ has not entered the language, people respond with an oddly instinctive knowing of the kind of person this must be. The abdication from attempted sexiness, chic-ness, elegance, youthfulness and sophistication has been like a weight rolling from my shoulders. In Plain dress I have an auric mantle all around me that says ‘Holy unto the Lord’ – only in my mind, but that’s the place where it counts. And not ‘holier-than-thou’ – that’s something quite different.

The books I read, about the Amish way of life and Quaker spirituality bring me peace; they remind me of the way I am called to tread.

The peace I am talking about is not the right to an easy life – though the way I have chosen nurtures quietness and spaciousness in everyday living and in my mind. This peace is not complacency, far from it. The Plain way brings with it continual review, searching my conscience, seeing that I have been strident or unkind, that I have neglected to pray, that I have made choices out of step with my values, that I must say ‘sorry’, retrace my footsteps, start again.

This peace is the sweeping clean of the inner chamber of my soul, and setting a lantern there. It is tending the flame and singing the simple melody of Life.

‘Will this bring me peace?’ is worth asking – before an expensive purchase, before a house move, before accepting a marriage proposal, before sending off a job application, before going to that hen party or watching that television programme or buying that magazine. Peace that is not the absence of struggle but the presence of love; peace that belongs to aligning my life the best I know how to do with what I have seen in Jesus.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Plain dress November - learning new lines

Wandering around on the platform waiting for the train to Lewes to emerge from the tunnel at St Leonards Warrior Square Station, I noticed a big wall poster announcing the opening of Love Story the musical.

Love Story! That took me back forty years! Everyone in our school was reading it. So beautiful. So passionate. So sad. In fact so beautiful was it, that it caused me to suppress out of sight the puzzled misgiving I felt – but… but surely… but surely love doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry…

Of course it doesn’t.

Quite the reverse.

Love means having to say you’re sorry more than you ever imagined possible. Love means learning to see things from the other person’s point of view and letting your pride tumble into the dust and not bothering to waste your time going to get it back.

Love means letting go of things that really did matter to you quite a lot because the other person matters to you more.

Love means getting over yourself and settling for reality. Love means accepting that if the other person still drinks their tea like Darth Veda (slurrrp… Aaaaaaaaaahhhhh!) until they drop dead at 94, well that probably doesn’t matter so very much in the grand scheme of things.

But whatever else it means, love means being willing to say you’re sorry over and over and over again.

In Buzzfloyd’s house, she says, they have been working on ‘unqualified apology’; dispensing with ‘I’m sorry, but…’ and just stopping without going further than ‘I’m sorry.’ She says it is transformative.

The Plain way is not Plain, without humility. Humility is not humble, without being willing to say ‘I’m sorry’

Love Story. ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ However did it manage to run and run and run, turning on a one-liner that is so patently obviously untrue?

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Plain dress November - Thee! Quaker!

In 1929 David Lawrence wrote a novel originally entitled Tenderness, which was mainly about a love affair. It became famous for having been banned, under its subsequent title Lady Chatterley’s Lover, mainly because of its inclusion of words then not permitted to be in print, and probably also because its content was considered obscene. Lawrence was desperately hurt at the burning of his book (as Peter Abelard, some centuries before him was also wounded by the experience of having to burn his book which also fell foul of righteous authority). Lawrence wrote a poem about it, asking:

Can you tell me what’s wrong
With the word or with you
That you don’t mind the thing
But the word is taboo?
The ban on D.H.Lawrence’s book was lifted in 1960, but still left it with the aura of a bold and daring venture past the boundaries of good taste and decorum, so naturally we all read it as schoolchildren as soon as we got our hands on a copy.

What I remember struck me about the novel was not the words that seemed to have gripped the attention of others, but that Oliver Mellors, the lover of the title, called his lady ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. I think it was probably the first time – I was eleven when I read it – that I’d grasped imaginatively that ‘thou’ was not a more formal mode of address, but an intimate form.

I had begun to study French at school of course, and had learned the ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ forms of address, and no doubt had it explained to me that in English the two had merged so that we used only the equivalent of ‘vous’ in modern English. That’s a very telling development, I think: losing the ability to address one’s nearest and dearest in an intimate form, retaining only the option of distance, formality and politeness, says a lot about the English.

At church, in my childhood and teenage years, we still spoke to God as Thee and Thou – and I think this had the effect of oddly reversing the sense of formality. In the 1970s, as people rebelled against addressing God as Thou, they believed (I think) they were lowering barriers of separation and distance by dispensing with a stiff, formal mode of address in favour of the everyday (and therefore more friendly, casual and intimate, they thought) form of address, ‘You’.

I mourned that passing, that modernizing because, outside of Lady Chatterley, our praying in church was the only place that had still retained the softer, more intimate ‘Thou’, with its breath of tenderness.

I loved the ideas Martin Buber explored in his book I and Thou, of being able to be completely open to, beheld by, another – with nothing held back. He wrote about communion, about really seeing one another; and that was what speaking the ‘thou’ meant to him. When you become thou to me, I have really seen you, really known you, really loved you. Really seen thee, really known thee, really loved thee.

The use of thee and thou has gone now from England’s north country. My grandfather could still speak broad Yorkshire, but it would not have crossed my father’s mind to do so.

By the time I discovered that the Quakers also said ‘thee’ – albeit with their own defiance of correct grammatical use (I don’t understand why) – that too was waning, indeed had vanished, from mainstream Quaker usage.

But it is still alive among some, not all, Plain Quakers. Quaker Jane always uses the ‘thee’ form. Others with Plain Quaker aspirations also use it, often forgetting halfway through a sentence and ending up with some ‘thee’s and some ‘you’s.

Yvonna asked me in the comment thread after yesterday’s post if I would also start to use the ‘thee’ form of address.

I like what I have found some Plain Quakers doing – which is saying ‘thee’ to those who will understand, and ‘you’ to those who would find ‘thee’ baffling and strange. That seems sensible to me.

I do very much like the Quaker ‘thee’; but I think even better I like the full usage of ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ and ‘thy’. Uh-oh. I can see it coming – I’m going to be out on a limb yet again over this one, aren’t I; following neither Quaker idiom nor anyone else’s either!

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Plain dress November - 'an excellent thing in woman'

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected European folk tales in the nineteenth century. Here’s an excerpt from their story The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids:

It was not long before someone knocked at the door and called out, "Open the door, children dear, your mother is here, and has brought something for each one of you."

But the little kids knew from the rough voice that it was the wolf.

"We will not open the door," they cried out. "You are not our mother. She has a soft and gentle voice, but your voice is rough. You are the wolf."

So the wolf went to a shopkeeper and bought himself a large piece of chalk, which he ate, making his voice soft. Then he came back and knocked at the door, calling out, "Open the door, children dear. Your mother is here and has brought something for each one of you."

The dual nature of motherhood implicit in this intrigued me, and my children became used to having me say on occasion: ‘I am not your mother. I am the wolf.’

What’s brought it back to mind is quoting Bill Coleman here a day or two ago : '…did you ever hear an Amish adult raise his voice?’   And in the same post, quoting another, forgotten. source:  'Speak softly, the world will listen.'   You may have forgotten it, but it stayed with me.  Talking to myself developed to an art form!

So I’ve been thinking about the way people speak – to each other, about each other, and just anyway – and about the way I speak.

In Shakespeare’s play of King Lear, the king says this of his daughter Cordelia: ‘Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.’

To be gently and quietly spoken is something I aspire to. I am a long way off.

Not so very long ago, my beloved Badger drove across, at the end of the working day, from his office in Oxford to my mother’s home near Cambridge, to pick me up and drive us back to Hastings in East Sussex. That’s two stints of driving each roughly two and a half hours long on the end of a day’s work. My mother expressed concern lest he fall asleep. He made light of this, saying: ‘Oh, don’t you worry – Ember will talk to me all the way home.’ Regrettably this is probably the case, whether he’s tired or not!

Quick to improve any occasion with my usual sparkling wit, I made some remark about this being a dubious remedy, given that in my preaching days those in my congregation remarked often on my soothing – even soporific – voice.

‘Your voice? Soporific?’ (insert derisive laughter here) responded my mother.

My first husband used to remark on occasion that my voice is (like my mother’s, he said) hard and rather masculine. Sigh. It shouldn’t be, should it? It should be ever gentle, soft and low, as if I had been eating chalk specially purchased for the purpose, an excellent thing in woman. I am not your wife, chum. I am the wolf.

But that’s all going to change. I have decided to approach 2011 with heart and mind prepared, and get ready with my New Year’s Resolutions in time for the actual New Year, rather than creating a retrospective list in February, or Second Month as I shall have to learn to say.

And Resolution 1 is going to be to learn to speak gently. Not too softly or I shall drive all the old folks crazy. (‘Eh? You what?’) Not too low either, for the same reason.  But gently anyway - and a bit more soft and low than is my wont.  I usually start off OK, but then I kind of warm to my subject, and before I know it am holding forth with all the dulcet tones of a politician at a public rally. This has to change.

But there is a Resolution 2. What I actually say. On the train to Lewes today, Hebe and I amused ourselves listening to two sets of old ladies, one behind us, one in front of us, conversing. Those behind us whiled away the journey complaining about their family for three quarters of an hour. ‘And you’ll never guess what, but he phoned her at that hour of the night! Yes, he did! And as soon as she picked up, “Where’s Sharon?” he said. Well, what could she say? So she told him she didn’t know and next thing he slammed the phone down on her! Yes!’

Neither lethal nor interesting, just the usual drivel designed to blacken the character of absent friends and strengthen the impression of great virtue and integrity in our noble speaker. Righteous indignation. Yawn.

In front of us creaked the aged voice of another venerable friend also discussing an absent companion: ‘Well that was a nasty thing to say! That was very nasty. She can be very nasty sometimes, can’t she!’
Aye, and she’s not the only one.

God save me from descending into such an old age. There is only one hope of avoiding it. Start now.

So 2011 is to be the year that I meditate on what I say and how I say it.

Note to self: First day first month 2011 – eat chalk.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Plain dress November - Lasst Licht Hinin

In 1909, a book of Carl Larsson’s pictures was published. He was a Swedish artist who painted beautiful interiors and portraits – a record of his family life at home and on his farm. He was a remarkable artist.

The book was entitled Lasst Licht Hinin – which means ‘let the light come in’.

I have seen pictures from the book, but never held a copy; it is our of print now. But though I like the pictures, and admire his work very much, what has stayed with me particularly is that title.

Lasst Licht Hinin.

This morning, now that Badger is on two weeks holiday from work, we were able to spend time lying in bed and just chatting at the beginning of the day – and we were talking about his own spiritual journey in connection with Franciscan spirituality. He said that something about the Franciscans he finds very helpful is their emphasis on practice rather than doctrine. The first objective of the Anglican Third Order of St Francis is ‘to make Jesus known and loved everywhere’. They go about fulfilling that by gentleness and kindness and understanding, and by living a discipline of humble simplicity and faithful prayer.

Unlike many of the Christian groups we have come across, their minds are not taken up with orthodoxy and heresy, rectitude and error, but with the outliving of a way of simple obedience to Jesus’ command to love one another. They are Christian believers, but it is upon the lifestyle rather than the creed that they lay emphasis.

Our conversation then rambled on to the Quakers. It is with the Quakers that I feel most at home. I have one place where my thoughts do not wholly concur with Quaker beliefs, and that is regarding the Eucharist. I believe the Eucharist has great power. However, I do not believe that the Eucharist needs to be celebrated by a special priestly caste, or even restricted in its expression to a ritualized liturgical meal. I believe the Eucharist happens wherever a human life touches what Jesus was doing at the Last Supper – gathering, breaking, sharing; and making connections between his torn and broken body, the torn and broken body that is His church, the vulnerability of human life as events tear and break it, and the redemptive transformation we find as we gather in our vulnerability, and consent to touch Christ risen in the sharing, the breaking and the Peace. Gosh, that was a long sentence.

I could keep you here all day telling you things I love about the Quakers, but to pick out a couple of things: I love it that they believe there is ‘that of God in everyone.’ I love it that they look to find in the silence ‘evil weakened and the good raised up.’ And I love it that they refer to the Divine presence in terms of the Light – so describing God experientially rather than analytically.

I love their testimonies – to peace, simplicity, truth and integrity, equality and community and the wellbeing of the Earth. I love their understanding that God’s voice is heard in silence. It rests my soul that no-one speaks because they are scheduled or ordained or employed to do so – but only because they have something to say; and, most of the time, when they’ve said it, they stop.

It was in reading the website of Quaker Jane that I first came across the phrase (George Fox I think) that ‘Christ has come to teach His people Himself’. And that speaks to me so powerfully that it sets my soul alight. The whole of my life I have been thinking about the way of faith; and having been on Earth for 53 years now, I have concluded that the touchstone of abundant life is a living personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Without it, even the most beautiful form of religion is basically window-dressing. With it, hierarchies and dogmas and institutions become optional paraphernalia.

Lasst Licht Hinin. Let the light come in.

Today, that is what the Spirit is saying to me.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Plain dress November - where God hides in Plain sight

Two places in the tumbled wild world of Creation

Where God dresses Plain, where His mystery makes itself clear;

One is water, and the other is silence –

The first for the eye, the second for the ear.

Folk think that God is far away in Heaven,

And must be channeled to us through the Bible, the priest or the seer:

But if thee longs to touch God for thyself, wait with water and silence;

Then thee will glimpse Him, then thee will finally hear.


Sunday, 7 November 2010

Plain dress November - Die Stille im Lande

‘Speak softly, the world will listen. Go slowly, the world will wait’.

I can’t remember who gave me those words, or who first said them, but they have blessed me over many years, and I think they are true.

Thinking of them now, they also recall to my mind the words of my teacher Martin Baddeley, who said, with reference to the story of the Canaanite woman: ‘Jesus walked, and He stopped. What is the speed of love?’

Slow… soft-spoken… humble… gentle… quiet… kind… These adjectives all belong to the Plain way: and a person is not Plain, no matter how she or he may be dressed, unless these words describe his or her life and character.

Die Stille im Lande is how the Amish are sometimes described: the quiet folk of the Earth.

In his breathtakingly lovely book of photographs, Amish Odyssey, Bill Coleman tells of a conversation he had with an Amish school teacher:

One day during recess I said to her, ‘I have never ever heard these children raise their voices, at any hour of school. In or schools you can hear the kids from a mile away. Why not here? They’re playing games, but they’re quiet.’ She said, ‘Well, did you ever hear an Amish adult raise his voice?’

Recently I came across two contrasting examples of teaching the Gospel.  One, to my mind, sits easy with the Plain way, the other does not.

I find that teaching lingers with me, like a taste in my mouth. A favourite treat of mine – a luxury because they’re expensive – is a Bendicks Bittermint. Mmmmm… If I have one, I like to enjoy the taste lingering on in my mouth for a while after the sweet is all gone.

By contrast, back in the summer, we bought some Chinese baby pinenuts. Normally I love pinenuts, but eating only a few of this sort can give a bitter, metallic after-taste that lingers for days – or even weeks for some people. Apparently Chinese people like the taste. I must be made differently! I gave the remains of the packet to the wild birds, and never bought any again.

These two examples of teaching I came across were, for me, like Bendicks Bittermints and Chinese baby pinenuts.

To take the Bittermints first.

I followed a link a friend posted on Facebook that led me to discover this beautiful soul, Elder Paisios, and his wise and gentle teaching. Here’s another page of his – the one my friend originally linked to.

Elder Paisios drinks from the same well as the Plain Christian. He walks with a love for all creatures and a reverence for the living Earth. He is humble and gentle in his attitudes, forbearing and respectful towards his fellow human beings. His quietness and simplicity hold up for us a kindly lantern drawing us to Christ’s Peaceable Kingdom. His words and life and example are a blessing to me, and the taste and fragrance of them lingered on long after I left his web pages behind.

The very same day, another friend on Facebook posted links to a teaching series about headcovering. I followed one of them. I’ll tell you about it first, and you can decide whether or not you are curious to hear it – it’s a YouTube video.

I was attracted to the link because the opening screen picture showed a choir of women (Old Order Mennonites maybe?) singing. It’s title was Chrsitian Headcovering. I thought it would be a lovely video, with singing, and maybe teaching from gentle and peaceful women (like Anna Cory or Mercy Hoyt), so I started the video.

It turned out to be a series of photographs accompanying a soundtrack of a male teacher talking about – well, Satan mostly.

Satan was what he started with. The first word on the video was 'Satan'.  The preacher spoke a lot about Satan and demons, much more than he said about God.  He spoke about the point of view of demons and of Satan.  He said that Satan opposes the headcovering and Satan will attack the headcovering and spoke of demons lashing out at headcoverings. He spoke about Godly men in his church trying to 'work with a sister' in deliverance, trying to put a covering on her head, and said the demons in the woman would lash out in anger and try to throw the covering away. He explained that this is because the headcovering supports God’s order but, listening to him, I did wonder if he had been dealing with some very angry ladies and not with demons at all.. He went on to say that destructive forces in the Western church are attributable to three things: women ‘getting out from under’ the authority of their husbands, women teaching and preaching in church, and women abandoning the practice of headcovering.   I don't think he meant me to form this impression, but I came away with the feeling that he thought women were responsible for everything that had gone wrong. And his recommendation to correct this state of affairs was naturally enough, that women should ‘get back under’ the authority of their husbands, stop teaching and preaching in church and cover their heads.

But actually, that wasn’t enough. He said – and repeated, and I think he enjoyed it – that if the women did go back to headcovering, then they would become ‘sitting ducks’. Satan was going to attack them, and they would be sitting ducks. The reason? Firstly because Satan hated them and their headcoverings, secondly because covering their heads and refraining from teaching in church and ‘getting back under’ the authority of their husbands because that was their upbringing and culture, or because they were following the example of their mothers or obeying what they had been told, was not good enough. The only thing that would protect them from Satan who hated them and would be attacking them was if they did these things out of their own strong personal conviction.  You can listen to the video here if you'd like to.

Well, you reading this may be saying ‘Hallelujah! Sock it to ’em! Go, preacher!’

Me? I hid from my newsfeed the friend who is posting the series of videos.

His words lingered with a bitter, metallic aftertaste like those Chinese baby pinenuts. His hard, strident voice and talk of Satan and demons and attacking and lashing out spoke to me, indeed they did; but what I heard was ‘Satan’ and ‘women’ linked strongly together: whether he meant it or not, the impression I formed was that this man hates women. I found him disturbing, and I will never intentionally listen to anything he has to say again.

Plain women cover their heads, and they are gentle and humble. But the same can be said of Plain men.

Plain women have a servant heart; so do Plain men.

And as for teaching and preaching in church, well – the more I hear and see of the possible ways to take, the more attractive I find the Quaker way, in which nobody is exalted as a preacher or teacher, but the meeting gathers in silence and it is the Spirit who speaks; through anybody.

At around the same time I came across these two examples of teaching, I also came across a headcovering Christian lady on Facebook. As she was friends with 15 of my friends, I went to have a look at her profile to see who she was. I find people’s photos can tell you a lot about them. This lady had photos, but not many. Prominently featured among the ones she had were pictures of her car, and of a piece of cardboard. Both the cardboard and the windows of her car bore huge messages – the cardboard one was homemade but I think she must have gone to the trouble of having the stick-on sheets for the car windows printed. What do you think they said? ‘Smile, God loves you’? ‘God sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved’? No, nothing like that. They were messages to say that every person who has married a divorced person is an adulterer. What kind of a woman wants to drive around with that, above every other thing in the world or the Bible she might have chosen, plastered all over her car?

It is my faith that we are sent here to help Christ build His Peaceable Kingdom; and every word or action of gentleness and humility puts another part of that great dream into place. Words of hate and attack and blame and Satan and condemnation do not build the Peaceable Kingdom. They hurt people, they foster fear and distrust, they hinder the formation of love. They are like the disciples in their anxiety and over-zealousness, who tried to stop the little children from reaching Jesus. People are only little children inside, even the worst of them. It is men like Elder Paisios who have what it takes to lead them home.

Strident, loud, harsh, insistent – these adjectives do not belong to the Plain way.

What you would like to see in the world – speak about that. Speak about lovingkindness and goodness, speak about faith and healing, speak about forgiveness and friendship and trust and peace. Let the rest fall away. Let it go. It doesn’t belong to you, it’s not the Plain Way.

Be a Bendicks Bittermint, and leave the Chinese baby pinenuts out for the wild birds.

I wondered whether I ought simply not to post this, if it is my belief that we should speak what is gentle and kind and refrain from the rest.  I have made some judgements and criticisms here, after all. In the end I decided I would.  Friends and relatives of mine see what appears on my Facebook wall, and they may believe that I associate myself with all the ideas other friends or even other women who practice Christian headcovering have posted.  So I wanted to say here that, for me, the Plain way is not a statement about gender relationship, and it has nothing at all to do with Satan or demons or lashing out; it is about building the Peaceable Kingdom, and walking in paths of humility, quietness, understanding and prayer and goodness.  It is about approaching the world with love.  This takes strength, and it is not accomplished without trouble.  But it is neither angry nor strident; it is a quiet way.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Plain dress November - finding the flow of what is natural

There is a collection of thoughtful philosophical reflections, written by Lao Tsu, who kept the imperal archives in the Honan province of China in the sixth century BC. The collection is known as the ‘Tao Te Ching’ (‘Tao’ meaning ‘Way’, ‘Te’ meaning ‘Virtue’ and ‘Ching’ meaning ‘Classic’).

Aside of the Bible, I think it has been the source of deepest inspiration for me of anything I have ever read, and it was probably the book that started me on the path of Plain Christianity (as well as the Fioretti – the Little Flowers of St Francis).

Lao Tsu looked at nature: at water and hills, clouds and streams, and he thought about what approaches to life make a success of it. The conclusions he reached are almost identical with those of Plain Christians (provided you bear in mind he is writing six centuries before the birth of Jesus! I'm talking about lifestyle here, not theology!)

It would be possible to produce a translation of the Tao Te Ching side by side with Bill Coleman’s photographs of the Amish, and the result would be perfect harmony.

Here is a taster of the kind of things Lao Tsu said in his prose-poems:

‘If I am humble, I can never be overcome’

‘Be newborn – be free of yourself, be humble, be earthy, be a valley for the whole world.’

‘The sage rules from the purest motives
Relying wholly on quiet and inner peace.
He watches the seasons rise and fall
And if he knows how things grow, he knows they are fed by their roots
And they return to their roots
To grow and flower and flow.’ 

‘The sage wears rough clothing and holds the jewel in his heart.’
 Somewhere during this last week, reading very late at night, I came across these words:

 'Let your natural life be spiritual, and your spiritual life be natural'
But I apologise to whoever wrote them – I can’t remember who it was, or even whether I read it in a book or online. A Google search returns nothing. Sorry.

The way of peace and simplicity, that I have learned from thirty-five years of search and study and discipleship, looks for and espouses what is natural. It is unforced, It allows things to be as they are, to find their natural order in Christ’s Peaceable Kingdom of life made whole.

It is a Plain way, characterized by what is humble, gentle, quiet and natural.

The Plain way is not only about dress. It is not even primarily about externals; but what we choose and put into the world, the homes we weave around ourselves, the garments in which we clothes ourselves – these are indicators of the soul path we are choosing.

In a Plain home, everything is kept simple and natural. Once a home is cluttered and dirty, the bones, the forms, the character of the house are lost. When we keep our homes clear and simple, the dignity of the architecture can appear; it is as though the house becomes a person. The textures and forms of things – wooden floorboards, skirting boards, cornices, architraves, the shape of windows and the workmanship of paint and putty and small repairs, these become visible; the story the house is whispering, the song the house is humming, are quietly revealed.

When this happens, we find that the house is not talking about itself at all. The house is wanting to show us the beautiful light that slants in through simple, unadorned windows, and draw our attention to the movement of the trees in the autumn winds outside. Our house is inviting us to wonder at the colours of the dawn framed in the plain square of the window, without the competition to distract us, of jazzy wallpapers and many pictures and confused piles of possessions.

When you climb the stairs in our house, as you reach the top, if Hebe’s door is open, you look straight into her room to the window opposite.

The carpet in Hebe’s room is the palest brown peach. The walls are very very pale, subtle pinkish greys and whites. Her curtains are oyster coloured. Her furnishings are very few and simple, natural wood and wood painted in soft matt ivory shades. The walls have no pictures. Nothing clamours, nothing shouts. The bedlinen is cream and beige and vague shades of peace. There is only one thing to catch and hold the eye: the view through the window of ash trees tossing in the wildness of November weather. The room is speaking to the light, and the light is speaking to the room. It is not arguing with nature. Hebe has allowed it to be a gentle sanctuary which opens its eyes and says: ‘Look’. That is what a Plain room is like.

It is the same with Plain dress, and this is the reason for solid colour and for simple, loose shapes. They do not shout SEX or FASHION or STATUS or MONEY or COOOOL! or STYLE. They do not shout at all. The clothes are simple and earthy and peaceful, and all they say is:
‘This is a human being.’

[All quotations from the Tao Te Ching taken from the transaltion by Man Ho Kwok, Martin Plamer and Jay Ramsay, published by Element, except the last quotation, taken from the translation by Gia Fu Feng and Jane English, eited by Toinette Lippe and published by Wildwood House.]

Friday, 29 October 2010

Chip MacGregor

I wanted to tell you about my literary agent.

The first thing I should tell you is I have never met him, because he lives in America, and I have never been there. There aren’t any literary agents for Christian writers in England. Well – I did have one but he went bankrupt; UK Christians aren’t that great at buying books it seems.

My agent is called Chip. Nobody in England is called Chip. It has that exotic American snap to it. Chip. That’s his name. And MacGregor - which I had associated only with Peter Rabbit before.

My agent – Chip – seems sharp and pointy in his mind to me. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He works very hard. He is a very self disciplined man. His agency is flourishing and doing really well (I think – it has increased its staff anyway and that’s surely a good sign). He has a list of authors who seem mostly highly successful and talented people. Chip sends us emails making sure we know about the Google register and being Brutally Honest with us about Marketing – which is to say he tells us that’s our responsibility and if we don’t do it nobody will. He goes into patient detail about what we have to do for Targets and Platforms and Goals and Priorities and things. I read all his emails.

I have this bad feeling about my agent. Well, no – not about Chip, because he's a sweetie; about me actually. The thing is, I don’t market anything, because I couldn’t sell a bottle of water to a man dying of thirst; obviously – you’d just give him it, wouldn’t you?

When I write a book, publishers ask me to send a list of famous people (speakers, preachers, writers – you know, people with a Ministry) so they can be approached for commendations and endorsements for the book cover. And they send me a pile of books to give to famous people to help with the marketing. I don’t know any famous people. I either give the books to the church for raising money to fix the roof, or to people coming by to pick up things I advertised on Freecycle.

My books do OK. My Hawk & Dove trilogy has been jogging along for 20 years now, quietly selling. My Spiritual Care book found its way into most hospices. But marketing is not my forte. I can only write.

And the reason I have this bad feeling about my agent is I think I let him down. I am not a success, not really, or savvy. I don’t have targets – at least, only three: to make Jesus known and loved everywhere and to help build the Peaceable Kingdom and to make sure that anything that passes through my hands is blessed before it goes on its way. I do no marketing. I can’t get my head round target audiences or techniques. I’m just not made that way.

I don’t give my agent enough work either. I just take a book along to a publisher and say ‘Will you publish that?’ and they say ‘OK then is this enough money?’ and I say ‘Sure’. Chip places some things for me, and I’m grateful for that, and grateful to know that I have a literary agent. It’s not the thing that makes me feel like a proper writer – only writing does that; but it kind of feels like someone’s on my side. But I feel bad that I don’t do my side of the business all that well.

But there is one thing especially I wanted to tell you that I really really love about my literary agent. There are subsidiary things – I love that he prays for me; I love that he is faithful and patient, and that in a quiet way his faith in God is as humble as it is tough. Chip hasn’t had life easy. But the thing I really really love is this photo I have of him with his granddaughter Maelie just after she was born.

Any man who has the soul within him to allow such tenderness to shine from his face also has my friendship, and my trust. When I look at this picture, I believe in Chip. Nothing to do with his sophistication or his sharp mind and the way he knows the market. I just know that such vulnerable tenderness as that takes you all the way home.