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.]