Sunday, November 28, 2010

Playing Truth

Somehow, as I scrambled to find one text after another as the minister called out the citations and expounded on them in a particularly broad-based message today at church, I managed to have a meta-experience as well as listen to the commentary, remember chapter and verse numbers, turn pages, and take notes.

I have mentioned before, I think, that one thing I especially appreciate about the Old German Baptist church is that they have a plural ministry--there are always 4, 5, or even more ministers in front on a Sunday morning, taking turns at opening remarks, choosing and lining hymns, leading prayers, and giving the message of the day. There is a lively exchange of ideas and insights, and no boredom from hearing the same voice or the same point of view every week.

After more than a year and a half of attending almost every Sunday, raptly listening to 2 hours of detailed reflection on the Bible, it amazes me all that is in those ancient writings. And then outside of church, I am exposed to a somewhat random assortment of other points of view on scripture--Anabaptist and Quaker listserves, Facebook friends, several individuals I share a meal with now and then, news articles online, etc.

Today it just all came together: people have been reading, writing, discussing and arguing about
these same words for nearly 2,000 years! And everyone thinks they are right! And there is always some new idea, context, or perspective!

How can this be? It's just one volume!

Then an image came to mind. A piano (most of them, anyhow) has 88 keys--88 different notes. That's it. That's all. If they are in tune (and since I have a piano-tuning friend, I tend to assume "in tune" as the normal, default condition), then each key is a fact...a truth. There is no arguing about it. It just is. That's the note. You press the key, that's what it is. (Not some instruments, where the manner of sounding the note can influence its pitch, like a violin or a trombone).

But how many different ways there are to put those notes together! An infinity--because even when two people play the same notes in the same order, it comes out different. Even when one person plays the same notes in the same order on different days, it comes out different. Each individual, then, may bring an entirely different mood or effect to those 88 simple truths. Something complex, subtle, unique is woven out of those truths each time someone sits at the piano...whether it is a child playing Chopsticks, or a sibling gleefully playing Fur Elise for the 14th time in an evening because she knows it's annoying after about the 3rd time, or an advanced student practicing a fragment of a difficult piece over and over, or a fabulous musician playing a highly publicized concert, or an untrained prodigy improvising something that sounds like Bach, but will never be written down or played again in all of time.

Some of these piano players may feel as if they've made a mistake in some contexts, there is no such thing as a mistake. Sometimes the player might feel there's a mistake, but no one else could possibly know. What does "wrong note" mean when each note is a Truth? It is not that the note itself is wrong, but that it is in the wrong context, making it inharmonious--ah, NOT necessarily inharmonious with the other notes, but inharmonious with the effect which the player is trying to achieve. A note in a jazz piece may be deliberately, effectively, deliciously inharmonious...if a harmonious note were struck instead, THAT would be a mistake.

When I think of the Bible as a compilation of Truth, I can look at the ministers and others as players of that Truth. Each plays a different composition, but each composition is still full of Truth.

Attending the German Baptist Church is like going to a recital where many talented pianists play pieces from different composers. Lots of variety. They may be apparently unrelated, or focused on a theme. I may prefer some offerings more than others. No matter what, I get to hear lots of Truth.

Being exposed to a wide variety of religious perspectives and views is like listening to lots of different kinds of music. Some styles naturally resonate with my personality and experience more than others, just like some people like jazz and some like classical. But other people appreciate the ones I don't, so there's something for everyone.

It's fascinating to think that such rich diversity can come from just those same 88 keys...or from one book.

Understanding this makes it really easy to step back from doctrinal or interpretational arguments. Should women cover their hair? Is it ok for them to wear pants? Is same-sex marriage an abomination? When is divorce ok? Who can re-marry? Can we shop on Sunday? How and when should baptism be performed? Should ministers be paid? Is it ok to kill if you're in the Army, or getting an abortion? On and on....

People think they can and should settle these questions once and for all. But that's like saying from now on, the only piece of music that is really the Truth is a chromatic arpeggio encompassing all 88 notes. Or the "tuning song" that the piano tuner uses to test the notes in her effort to restore them to perfect order.

If we ever did arrive at such a complete, perfect one-right-way understanding of the Bible, I think it would be the end of the Bible. Who would stick around listening to that chromatic arpeggio over and over?

It is the very diversity, even dissonance, of all the possible pianists and compositions that keep us engaged. Let's remember to enjoy the concert and appreciate the pianists, not constantly criticize every piece.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Coming Out, for Jesus's Sake

"Jesus came to make room in the world for more love by punching holes in the status quo."

These words that issued unaccountably from my own mouth were the surprising conclusion, many years ago, to a long discernment with my pastor about a crossroad in my life:

Some years after I became very actively involved in the local Mennonite congregation...a few years after my divorce from my third husband...a couple years after my baptism...I found myself unexpectedly on the brink of a new intimate relationship. It was a well-established "farmwork friendship" that I realized had grown into something much deeper and more significant, fed by the fertile soil of shared labor and watered by long conversation while working. I expected this surprising new love to remain unrequited in my heart; surely this person did not feel the same way about me. But suddenly, there was the question shyly blurting from her lips--"Do you want to be girlfriends?"

My actively lesbian phase lay in my distant past, honored as an essential part of me but long ago and far away. It was not something I'd intentionally put aside, but rather just drifted away from as old friends moved away and new friendships formed more frequently with men, who were more likely than the lesbians I knew to instruct me in the finer points of car mechanics and carpentry. I had never been ashamed of my relationships with women, and went forward into subsequent relationships with men claiming "bisexual" as the most fit descriptor of my intimate inclinations.

But now I was a baptized Christian, either tempted or blessed with this opportunity to live out a love that had been blossoming inside me for a long time. For the first time ever, I felt that I needed to make a thoughtful decision based on not just my feelings, but on how an openly committed relationship with someone would affect all my other relationships...with God, with my church, with my family, with my friends, with my customers, with the conservative Catholic community that brought their teens to the farm for "Farm School" every Thursday. I gave the whole situation a couple weeks of grave, searching introspection, aided by gifted pastoral counseling.

And when my pastor asked, concluding a fruitful session of guiding me in self-examination, "What do you think Jesus would have to say about this?" I replied--or at least the words came from my lips, I know not how--

"Jesus came to make room for more love in the world by punching holes in the status quo."

It was far, far more than an answer to a discernment about a particular relationship. To my great sorrow, that beloved soul sought increasing distance from me after a brief time of closeness. My love for her remains free in the world, growing and deepening with the years, but again unrequited. God and God alone knows the future of that love.

But that profound synopsis of the Gospels of Jesus Christ remains to me as new and powerful as it was the day it came tumbling from my lips. It has guided me ever since, in all kinds of relationships and decisions. That's my mission in following Christ: to make room for more love in the world, punching holes in the status quo if it gets in the way. Jesus was a revolutionary. He overturned the money-changers' tables; he championed prostitutes, tax collectors, the lame and leprous, foreigners, all of the outcasts and misfits and untouchables of his day. How can I be a revolutionary now, in my time? How can I nudge my culture towards His Way?

One thing I've realized is the folly of being "conservative" or "fundamentalist". We can't continue Jesus's revolution by saying "ok, we've arrived, let's circle the wagon and defend what we've achieved." Because it isn't ever enough...there's always further to go. There is always more love seeking room to grow in the world. When Jesus on the cross said "It is finished," I don't think he meant that he was done making room for more love in the world.

And so we didn't stop struggling to make room for more love when we "gained religious freedom" to be anything but Catholic, despite the millions who believed our beliefs were deadly heresies...and love within and across faith boundaries was set free to bloom and grow. Thousands of revolutionaries lost their lives to persecution in the Reformation, or death by illness on the ships that brought them to the New World...and the loss of life in the quest for the freedom to love our own god in our own way continues in struggles between Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Pagan, etc.

We didn't stop struggling to make room for more love when we made major strides in overcoming racism even though many thought interracial marriage was sinful...and love was set free in colorblind couples. We still struggle against racism embedded in our collective cultures and our individual fears; we struggle for balance between "coexist, assimilate or be assimilated" in regard to growing Hispanic and Asian communities among us.

We didn't stop struggling to make room for more love when we gave women the right to vote and own property, instead of being property, even though we thought that would lead to sinful behavior and destruction of marriages...and women were set free to support and love their children outside the bounds of abusive marriages, while men were set free from the burden of solely supporting their families. We still struggle with oppression and violence between the sexes.

We are gradually struggling towards making room for more love by learning to celebrate, instead of revile, the love some people have for same-gender significant others...and love that has been kept hidden like a sprout denied sunlight while struggling for its very life is being set free, lessening the grip of hatred and bitterness on the world.

As part of this, we are beginning to see a vaguer issue, as if through a glass darkly--the evil grip of bullying in general, and its deadly, deforming effects on victims, perpetrators, and by-standers. Here, too, we need to make room for more love in the world by punching holes in the status quo of believing that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." We are learning that cruel words can and do end lives as easily as cruel actions. Any form of humiliation is an occasion for us to struggle to make room for more love in the world.

Beyond that, I am sure there are many more kinds of love desperate to be given room in the world. We must find them all and struggle to free them, whether we think they are sinful or not, whether they are central to our own lives or not.

Because we need the world to have as much love as possible. That way, we can be assured that it will be there for us when we need it. And we must teach our children to see, seek, and nurture honest love wherever it is trying to grow, to be revolutionaries in its cause, to set it free to heal the world.

That's what Jesus taught me.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Reflections on Friendship

Friendship is challenging at times, for me. In the course of so many years, I've had a lot of unpleasant experiences. Many of them have been due to my own lack of social graces...which is due to not having had much of a social life as a child, therefore no opportunity to learn the fine points of friendship, therefore prone to blunders, therefore avoided by the more socially graceful kids, ..... Sigh.

A lot of them have been due to others' lack of social graces, too.

This past year has been an interesting year, the beginning of several tentative new friendships. Each is so unique. Each of us, in some way, has hit a "bottom" where we were desperate to find a better way of living with ourselves and with others. We have been hurt, physically and emotionally abused, neglected, manipulated, you name loved ones of all descriptions as well as relative strangers.

That means we come to friendship with "issues"..."baggage"..."history"...i.e., we're each in some way "damaged goods" thanks to previous friends, family, etc. Sometimes, no matter how compatible we are as people, our "baggage" just interferes with the other person's. It makes starting a new friendship interesting to say the least.

Last night I had a very special dream about one of my new friends:

In the dream, this person, like me, was a professional bus driver. We went out for a leisurely drive in one of the busses that I drive daily. (Like I said, this was a dream; I'm not really allowed to take the busses out for a Sunday drive!)

My companion and I did all the things we would normally do on a Sunday drive. We went up and down hills. We turned left and right. We stopped and started in all sorts of conditions. Ordinarily, we would have been doing this with the purpose of performing our duty of transporting people to their destinations. In our own cars, off-duty, we might have taken the same trip to see the scenery, or simply for the sake of enjoying one another's company and talking while driving.

But this trip had a different purpose. We were evaluating the vehicle--an older, quirky bus that had a lot of miles on it. Before we committed to driving it on-duty, with precious passengers on board, in all kinds of weather and road conditions, we needed to know its limitations...and we needed to develop reasonable boundaries for operating it in service, so that we would never exceed the limits of this particular vehicle. Some busses just shouldn't be driven out on K-10 at 65 miles per hour; others are just fine for that but would rather not go 5 miles per hour on the busy campus all day.

Each bus is a little different, and they become more individual with age and wear. On-going repairs and minor accidents add to the aging process of a vehicle. They start out bland and identical, but over time they are customized more and more. Zip ties and duct tape, Tek screws and caulk all come into play when something irreplaceable but non-essential fails.

We put the bus through its paces. We tried accelerating fast and slow, on slopes up and down, to see how it would respond in various situations. We assessed the play in the steering wheel, and whether the vehicle tended to drift to one side or another as we went down a level road. We tried the brakes to see how fast it would stop, and whether it pulled to the left or right. We tested the turning radius...and one of us had to help the other back it out of the cul-de-sac where it couldn't turn around (oops--we should have planned the route ahead, not just wandered around making random turns).

I woke up knowing exactly what this dream was about. It was about how to be friends. Or more specific, how to take good care of friendships.

We need to take time, now and then, and assess our friends/friendships. Not to judge, not to try to change someone else, but rather to better understand what we have to work with in our friendship. If someone has sensitive areas, we need to be careful of those in the friendship. If someone has blind spots, we need to understand that. Likes and dislikes, skills and disabilities--these are all equally part of the assessment. Not that anything about them is right or wrong, we just need to know what they are. Some, we may be able to fix right away. Some we may need to wait for a part. Some we may need to wait to fix them until they get worse. Many really can't be fixed, but are just the unique "character" of something that's gone down the road a few hundred thousand miles.

This assessment is not a one-time thing, because people change and friendships evolve too. With some friends, we may need to assess the boundaries of the friendship frequently; with others, not so often. With the buses, we do a daily inspection report, required by federal law. But sometimes a more comprehensive assessment is needed, as this friend and I did in my dream.

Too often, we go about friendship just like we go about driving our personal vehicles. We just take them for granted, and never take the time to look under the hood until we are stranded by the roadside facing an expensive tow and repair. How much easier it would have been to just check the oil routinely! But, in fact, many friends would be fearful of doing such an assessment, while others would be offended by the whole idea, fancying themselves free of quirks.

I especially treasure those few rare friends that begin the friendship with the instinct to do that "test drive" and assess our strengths and weaknesses right away, together, based on fact, so that we can set realistic boundaries for the friendship. In the long run, I think we will not be disappointed at having taken the time to approach friendship seriously, as seriously as driving a bus.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Random Reasons, Part 4

"Doesn't that make you hotter in this weather?" the bus passenger asked.

This conversation occurred hours after the first round, which I drove in a vehicle without AC with internal temps reading around 113. That's the highest I've ever seen in a bus. It might actually be the top of the scale, so that it could have been even more. Later in the day, the replacement bus was a more civilized 83 degrees.

The surprising basic answer is: Actually, there are only a few days every summer when I am ready to tear it from my head because it feels like it is adding to the burden of the heat. Other than those rare times, it offers a little protection from direct sun. And I've never had a sunburned "part" in my hair since I began wearing it. Small but nice benefit. My hair stubbornly parts itself, even when firmly brushed and tied straight back. For this reason alone I will never be mistaken for a birthright Old German Baptist, since their hair always obediently flows straight back from hairline to covering edge to bun.

The more complicated answer is that the covering offers a unique line of defense against the heat. Being cotton, it absorbs and evaporates water quite effectively. So when the heat bothers me, I just whisk it off for a moment, soak it down with water from my water bottle, the hose, etc., wring it out, and put it back on. Probably no one has ever noticed that it was wet. But unless the weather is terribly humid, it makes a huge difference in helping my body keep at a functional temperature.

The passenger's follow-up comment was, "That string under the chin would drive me crazy!"

It took a little getting used to. Going through that transition in the mountains of British Columbia, where (no matter what they say) it is never too hot or too humid was a good start. I found in my first few coverings that the exact fit has a lot to do with the comfort of the strings. The little bit of elastic at the nape of the neck is a nice modern touch on my Old Order River Brethren style covering...the Old German Baptists have just a rigid binding at the back, so there's less flex in the chin strings.

Sometimes, like my OORB friends, I'll untie the strings for awhile when I'm in a semi-private setting. Some denominations never tie the strings, but leave them hanging down loose. Some have a long continuous ribbon that loops across the back of the shoulders without holding anything, or ribbons that are tied loosely at the collarbone--purely vestigial. Some cover just the back of the head, and not the ears like mine does. Most women, but especially these, rely on a straight pin at the top of the front to hold the covering firmly to the hair. It doesn't seem like it would be effective, but it is. I like the OORB style for its plain, practical work-a-day functionality. It stays on because it is tied on. And I can make them myself.

The firmly tied strings do serve a spiritual purpose, I find. Though they are not distracting, I do notice them as I move my jaw. Which means whenever I speak, there is a subtle reminder to consider my words, and be sure they are becoming to a godly woman. The slight tug of the strings reminds me that I am a light to the world that is not hidden under a bushel--when people see me, they know at a glance, from a distance, that I am a Christian. It behooves me to make sure I am comporting myself in a way that honors Christ. In this way, my every moment in the world at large is a witness to my faith in God and His son.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The prodigal Son, Revisited

I woke up in bed at home at about the time the opening in hymn was being sung at church. Oops! I jumped into clothes, grabbed a snack, and headed off on the 45 minute drive. In case I haven't mentioned it before, the fact that others frequently arrive after the beginning of the two-hour service helps me feel more welcome there--just as I am, imperfect. Better late than never. If nothing else, the weekly drive through rolling Kansas hills uplifts me with awe at the progression of the seasons, the diversity of plants and wildlife, etc. I see neat rows of corn and soybeans, home gardens, woodlands, wetlands, pastures kempt and unkempt, hayfields.

Thus I walked in as the minister was in the middle of expounding on the parable of the Prodigal Son. One of my all-time favorites, maybe because I've been such a wayward child of God all my life. It was a series on this parable that drew me back to Peace Mennonite months after the first time I left, after being publicly humiliated by the pastor during a service...that pastor left, and the interim pastor made room for this lost sheep to return to the fold. (That time was made easier by the outreach I felt from numerous people in the congregation. During that absence, I received several cards and calls from people who understood why I chose to stay away, who expressed appreciation for the spiritual gifts that I had brought to the church, who kept me in touch with church activities. Oddly, few of those folks are still with the church. This time, no one has tried to encourage me to come back.)

But the beauty of scripture is that it is always new. There is always something more to see in it, as in a mirror. There is always a new insight, a new lesson, a new juxtaposition of the verses with each other, or with my daily life.


...As I struggle through a time of chafing at the isolation of my daily life...

...Having yesterday found myself in yet another seemingly pointless discussion of Peace Mennonite's bizarre shunning of me for the past 5 years...

...Remembering two single women of about my age who committed suicide in recent years and understanding from my own experience how easily one could come to feel too lonely to go on...

...Having very recently chided someone's stereotypical disdain for Pollyanna as an unrealistic optimist, where in fact she is courageously honoring her minister father's love for the bible's many, many "rejoicing texts" by struggling to find something to rejoice about no matter what horrible things befall her...

...What caught my mind today was the centrality of rejoicing with others in this and the two preceding parables. The three parables are perfectly parallel: Something valuable is lost; it is found (through diligent searching in the case of the sheep and the silver talent, diligent hope and patience in the third parable); and rejoicing naturally ensues...rejoicing with relatives, friends and neighbors.

How have I overlooked, in these parables, the theme of rejoicing in community as a scriptural, spiritually important activity, all these years? I knew that celebrating--rejoicing--was important, and I've lived my life accordingly for a long time, but I never really "got" its spiritual significance until now. Possibly because there is no immediate family or community in my life at this time, to rejoice with or to mourn with.

Modern life co-opts the spiritual need of humans to celebrate and rejoice together, and trivializes it in many different ways. We are encouraged to celebrate "Hallmark holidays" like Mother's Day by purchasing unneeded gifts and eating unneeded food. We are encouraged to celebrate annual milestones like birthdays and anniversaries in the same manner. We are encouraged to make sports teams our idols, and celebrate their activities. We are supposed to celebrate "hump day" and "TGIF".

These are the kind of celebrating that the elder son resented not having been offered--the opportunity to make merry with his friends. A kind of meaningless celebration that is not about the successful hard work of mending of something broken, not about gratitude for a miracle, but simply about glorifying things that we take for granted. The eldest son, like today's culture, does not recognize the difference between revelry and true thanksgiving.

This kind of celebrating is simply so many excuses to indulge in excess, to spend money, to lose our souls in meaningless frenzies of spending and indulging. The economic system loves these sorts of celebrations. They are predictable. Commerce can tell us when and how to celebrate them, produce special foods and media bits and attire and memorabilia. Commerce can make it easy to "rejoice" because we can purchase everything we need.

In the end there is hardly a moment that we aren't supposed to be celebrating some pre-ordained "special day". Every day is special, according to the calendar. They blur together. Celebrating becomes a way of life. Any true miracles worthy of rejoicing are lost in the bustle of day-in, day-out celebrating. We become immune to rejoicing, numb to wonder.

What is lost is something precious. There is no room left to celebrate the little personal victories in our lives. Our neighbors are too busy to rejoice with us over the finding of our lost sheep, because it's Superbowl Sunday. They are too busy to join us in celebrating that we've found our lost coin, because they are out shopping for Halloween costumes and candy. They are too busy to join us in celebrating our reconciliation with a long-estranged loved one because they are taking all of the neighbor kids to the pool to celebrate someone's birthday with swimming and cake and ice cream and pizza and pop after which everyone is exhausted and strung out on sugar and broke.

It is not just that we are too busy celebrating to rejoice. We've also become a culture where these real causes of rejoicing could never be admitted in the first place. It's a shame to admit losing something (only a bad shepherd would lose a sheep--call the humane society! And why didn't she have those silver talents deposited in an FDIC insured account?) We don't talk about our family problems (unless we're rich enough that the media talks about them for us); if we haven't been able to share our heart-wrenching parental agony over Junior's running away with our credit card and not calling home, how can we explain our joy to the neighbors upon his chastened, repentant return?

Understanding that, these scriptures take on an even deeper meaning. Not only do these people--this culture we have sadly lost--have close relationships with families and neighbors so that they rejoice together over personal milestones, rather than empty conventional occasions, but they also are close enough that they can admit to one another the misfortunes and errors that have laid the grounds for the situation calling for rejoicing.

For nothing can be found unless we have somehow managed to lose it.

But a further sad coda on the theme. What do these parables become, when the rejoicing in community is stripped away? They are empty, nothing is left of them. There are a hundred sheep in the pen, ten coins in the purse, two sons working in the field. The journey of the human emotions and effort to attain these things is negated. A tree falling in the forest with no one to hear. Meaning is stripped away.

At some point, the unacknowledged struggle isn't simply worth it anymore. I wonder if this is what my departed friends discovered, and sought an end.

People need others to rejoice with, real rejoicing, the rejoicing of personal struggle and achievement.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Going Home

I was driving the truck home late. I'd come down Massachusetts, which I often do late at night because that's just about the right amount of night life for me. And I was first in line sitting at the red light, waiting to hear the words "WALK LIGHT IS ON TO CROSS 6TH STREET; WALK LIGHT IS ON" that would signal a green light for me to proceed across the bridge. Traffic was light, and I wasn't paying much attention to anything.

Never-the-less alert to my environment, I noticed when the man on the northwest side of the intersection moved. Suddenly, he turned, looked both ways, and bolted into the intersection. Was he trying to get across before the walk light was on to cross 6th street? He moved hesitantly at first, then boldly. But instead of heading to the corner next to me, he ran up to the driver's window of the truck.

In the streetlight shadows, long straggly hair flopping into his face as he ran, his behavior first inspired me to think he was someone I knew but just didn't recognize. Or someone who knew me by sight because of the covering, but whom I didn't particularly have acquaintance with. But as he reached the truck and spoke, I knew he was a stranger. Not even a bus customer, or he would have mentioned recognizing me.

"I live in North Lawrence. Can I pay you to take me across the bridge?" I was dumbstruck. This broke all the rules! Just this summer an lgbt person was badly beaten when strangers offered him a ride downtown at night. Now this strange, bold man was asking me to let him into my truck and drive him into a dimly lit section of town.

Everything stopped. "What on earth does God want me to do with THIS?" I wondered. Visions of axe murderers, carjackers, etc. threatened to take over my mind.

But the only thing to do seemed to be to gesture him to the passenger door with a solemn flick of my head. Profuse thanking ensued, clearly powered by alcohol. He held a handful of coins towards me, saying, "Here, gas money." "Just put your seatbelt on", I said quietly. After the second request, he complied.

As the walk light turned on to cross 6th street, I asked where he wanted to go, and he indicated a general area of the neighborhood. I drove to the nearest major intersection where I could easily continue on my way home. As we went, he continued to thank me. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye once, and saw that he was watching me intently. Yet I didn't feel afraid or threatened. I just drove serenely down familiar roads. "You're an angel," He went on. "A real angel of God. I'm a sinner. Thank you again...well, I'm not that much of a sinner, I'm a man of God, I just..." If I responded, it was with the slightest Mona Lisa smile of amusement at his classic alcohol-based reasoning.

"No," I said slowly. "I'm not an angel. I'm a child of God, and I'm a sinner, just like you." He lapsed into profuse thanks again.

Coming to an intersection near his destination, I stopped and said, "I'll need to turn here." Amid profuse thanks, he offered the money again, and again I refused. He left the truck and we went our separate ways.

Ever get the feeling you've just met an angel, as a test of your Christian integrity?

As I think back on this event, I realize once again the blessing of not being a news junky or watching a lot of TV or movies. I was able to make a rational assessment of the situation, rather than flashing back to images of some horror movie scene. I could just let the scene unfold on its own. And that left me free to do what Jesus might have done.

Coming to Christ

Some people are born into a Christian life, raised on it as well as the bread on their table. At some point they are asked to claim a deeper commitment to it, as a formal stage in their life journey.

Some people wander around for decades without any religion. In some cases, their lives become unmanageable, they hit rock bottom, and in the depths of brokenness they reach out to God as a last resort, and thus are led to give their lives to Christ.

It's plain to anyone that my life hasn't followed the first plan. So it's perfectly reasonable to think that there must have been some awful crisis that prompted my conversion. And it's probably human nature to look at my definitely non-bible-approved sexual/relational history, and come to the conclusion that the crippling burden of my carnal sins drove me to cry out to God for relief.

In fact, this doesn't seem to have been the case. In not one crisis did I ever think God would be any help whatsoever. I might have cried and screamed and thrown temper tantrums, but I certainly wasn't going to ASK for help from something that didn't exist, anyway.

God had to be sneakier with me. God courted me patiently during all those years I didn't even believe He existed. And when I finally started noticing Him, He wooed me. All that time, He was protecting me, fitting me for the work he had for me through the diverse experiences of my life, preparing me to be his servant. Whenever I decided to make that commitment.

The not-so-straight-and-narrow sexual history was (in hindsight) clearly part of that preparation.

For the occasion of Baptism at Peace Mennonite Church, it was the custom for the one being baptized and admitted to membership in the church to give a brief statement of their faith as part of the service. On February 25, 2001, I read these words to the congregation:

What I'm about to read won't make much sense. That's OK. It doesn't have to. I'm rummaging through a backpack I've been wearing all my life: some stuff I don't even remember, or know how it got there. Some of you will recognize bits and pieces and see that they are out of context or broken or inside out. That's ok, too--just how it is in a bag you've carried a long time. The cough drops come unwrapped and stick to the Kleenex and grocery store receipts, and there's some pennies, and magic beans a little kid gave me, some rocks, a dirty sock, some nuts and bolts and raisins and birdseed--well, YOU KNOW!

A parable: A child watches a parade in a foreign city, surrounded by strangers whose ways make no sense. Her parents stand over her, hovering, keeping her safe from alien influences. The Emperor of that world walks by, wearing nothing. Her parents bend to whisper, "He's got nothing on." She is puzzled, then listens to the crowd around her describe the rare beauty of his garments to one another. "but He HAS GOT NOTHING ON!" she cries aloud. The foreign children throw sticks and stones at her. She clings to her parents.

Childhood values: family values. Homemade dresses, saddle shoes. No cartoons, no bubble gum, no soda pop, no Barbie dolls, no paint-by-numbers, no movies, no social groups or activities, no church. No explanations that made sense. Everything scientific and educational.

In grade school, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, hymns. Tis a gift to be simple. Hiking the wonders of nature, identifying birds and flowers, rocks and fossils. Living in tents in Canada for a month every summer. Sailing; watching fish in their strange watery world under the docks. Tidepools; turning over rocks in the streams. Searching for living mysteries to unfold.

In high school, In Manhattan, Kansas, seeking to unfold mysteries of the spirit. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Tao Teh Ching; for the first time in my life, the Bible. Unitarian Fellowship: taped classical music, lectures on social issues. It's all about coffee, which I never drink. The youth group, which hides itself from me, does drugs. A few wise elders inspire me to a long life of service.

Tentative friendships with peers in the foreign city: pot-smoking Hippies, vicious Born-Agains, treacherous Charismatics, suicidal Lesbian Feminists, crazy Artists, shy Poets, condemning Baptists, hypocritical Preacher's Kids. Where to I fit? How CAN I fit when I still can't make sense of their ways, and can't articulate my own? I have a dream.

Independence hits like a brick wall. an unplanned child, a brutal marriage, divorce, homelessness. No work or living skills. A few friends hold hands through the storm of early adulthood, each similarly desperate for unique reasons. The dream, unattainable, is abandoned.

A life of fragments, pieces from different puzzles, ends that don't meet. Waling the void's edg, three years of celibacy, lesbian lovers, drunken old men, two-timing young ones. Women of the Heartlands, Women's Festival, the I Ching, the Wander Game, The Manhattan Mercury, in slipstream time, cycles into a dark night, spiraling down a twisted tortured mile. None of this is sustainable. Who tempts me to walk away?

Only years later, I realize that over those troubled waters there came a quiet bridge, a bridge to gently lead me to a new way of thinking, living, loving. It came so ordinarily that it's taken 20 years to see it: the More With Less Cookbook. Not another issue of the Watchtower, not a visit from the Sister Missionaries, not people on the street corner selling roses. I bought it at the local food Co-op. i knew I had "less", I wanted to know what to do with it. The stains document its centrality to my life: a toddler's scribbles, Whole Wheat Orange Bread, Fruit Crumble, Mini Pizzas, Tangerine Peels. Gather up the fragments.

I walk away from the castle: a retreat into the wilderness. No child now; she's in my parents' care. Vision quest. Sitting zazen twice a week. Chopping wood, carrying water. Walking to the mailbox. meeting my self for the first time. A wise woman guides me through dark nights, helping me learn to heal and love myself. How can we meet the gods face to face till we have faces? I remember that once I had a dream.

A voice emerges from the wilderness. A new life, a new job, another marriage. Still in a foreign country, but learning the language. K-State, then Friends University; Vegetable Crop Production, then Business Ethics.

Time and again I realize I've strayed from the path. I boldly abandon each wayward trail and strike out cross-country in the right direction. I don't know what the path is or where it's going; I only know it exists because I am learning to know when I am not on it. I remember fragments of a dream. I buy a house from a Mennonite family; and old hippy friend turned Mennonite repairs the stair rail.

A divorce, a job loss, another job, another marriage. Lawrence. The Episcopal Church calls me a child of God but denies me bread at His table--even the crumbs. Hundred dollar floral arrangements with South American flowers, while we pray for the poor. An old lady I've never seen before, with too much perfume, tell me to move from HER family's pew on Easter sunday. Does the Emperor have clothes?

I retreat again: church in the garden. I consider the lilies. A friend comes to gather wildflowers for his church; the third time I follow them. Here! The upper room is full of windows and sky, faces I danced with on Saturday, friends I'll dine with on Sunday. Sunday school discusses stewardship: sustainable agriculture, not a pledge drive.

Thanks to a dog, a farm falls in my lap, I lose the job. The dream! The path! God calls me to follow. He sends a flock of Quaker sheep--I listen--a flock of Mennonite sheep--I act. Mennonite hay. One good dog leads to another. A llama. I don't need a sailboat any more, I'm in charge of an ark! I begin to know how Noah felt.

Who tempts me to walk away? I spend one Lent in silent retreat, being the Lord's shepherd through lambing time. At midnight, by moonlight, I walk to the flock pastured by a stream, I move silently among them, I rest on the ground where they lie chewing their cuds. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. It is good. I consider the lilies.

Who tempts me to walk away? We spend another Lent studying TREK. Puzzle peices begin to fit. Tis a gift to be simple. Everything that is not of the farm and church fall away from me like an old skin: pieces from some other puzzle. Some are people I love; I have been transformed into something new that I have always already been, and they don't know how to follow. I'm sad, but without self-doubt. Chop water, carry wood. Tis a gift to be free. At church, each service holds some special, surprising message for me. Mandy's dad preached on teh Kingdom of God. Imagination caps! I come to the little children; I'm a child. There's room for me at the table, whenever I'm hungry. Weren't we supposed to remember Him EVERY time we shared bread with one another? Dream becomes vision. Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.

Who tempts me to walk away? Separation and sin, a season of stress and strife. Misunderstanding, regrouping. For others, great good fortune far, far away. For me, eventually, the prodigal daughter returns. What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good--need we anyone to tell us?

The Emperor has no clothes; He's given them all away. He tempts me to walk away, and welcomes me to His table. Actions speak louder than words. I wash my face with tears, time and again. This water will be fresh and sweet!

Congregational response: And when we find ourselves in the place just right we will be in the valley of love and delight.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Steps or Stops?

A couple weeks ago, one of the ministers at the Old German Baptist meeting began with Psalm 37:23: The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighteth in his way. He went on to note that "stops" as well as "steps" may order our lives, by turning us in another direction.

I made a suggestion to a new friend the other day, and received a gentle, graceful "no" as an answer. It hit me far harder than reasonable considering the situation. A "stop" for sure.

Hearing "no" used to be much harder for me, before I had done a lot of work on myself in Alanon, a 12-step program for friends and relatives of alcoholics...which I'm eligible for through ancestors, friends, friends' ancestors; mine and others' former significant others, employers, customers, coworkers, etc.; etc.). And also before my Canadian adventure a few years back (the point in my life where I REALLY learned to depend on God in daily affairs, like "where am I going to sleep tonight?").

Now I know to...duh...STOP when I run into a "stop", and really look inside, when I receive "no". Sometimes I do just shrug it off...and then I know either it really DIDN'T matter or I really AM trusting God. Yay! Sign of a healthy, balanced life in the program and in my Christian journey.

Sometimes I feel relief...and then I know I really didn't want "yes" anyhow, so why did I even bring it up? Better take the time to figure that out. Note to self, don't do that next time.

Sometimes, I find a lot of feelings roiling around in me: maybe hurt, anger, resent, disappointment, loss.... Then I know to stay stopped, take a deep breath, pray, and wait for God to clue me in on what HIS plan is (since obviously it's different than mine).

Slowly I'm unravelling this current "stop." In my daily life, it's totally inconsequential. But it is an important "stop" to honor in my spiritual life.

New friendships are difficult, esp. because I'm out of practice. In fact, I've pretty well given up on finding new friends in daily life. The ambient culture has changed a lot in the last five years, with the explosion of electronic networking in all its many forms. And my journey has led me further and further from the mainstream of the ambient culture, in many ways, through immersion in the non-human Community of Life at the farm, through dabbling in the Plain culture of the River Brethren and Old German Baptists, through mingling with the world of homelessness as I go about my bus driving.

But it was always hard. I've never felt comfortable in ANY subset of the ambient culture. "In the world but not of the world" is not a remote, abstract ideal for me; it's the reality I've pretty much always lived in. The dilemma is to make sure, if I'm not OF the world, that I'm OF something REAL and HOLY. As a consequence, I don't really belong ANYWHERE. I'm ALWAYS stumbling around blindly, bumping into walls I don't see and making faux pas that no one has the heart to tell me about.

Gradually, as I continue about my routine daily tasks, the muddied water from the "no" begins to clear.

Just as expectations are premeditated resentments, I think anticipation is premeditated disappointment. So I know now to look at what I was anticipating, that I am disappointed about not having. It shows me an unfulfilled deep desire in my life, a need perhaps.

In this case, I realize that one of the biggest gaps in the cast of characters in my life is any sort of ongoing fellow traveler on this Christian journey. No matter how intimate my relationships with God and Christ and the Holy Spirit are, they just aren't human relationships, and that's something I think most people need. Healthy ones. And for a Christian journey, Christian ones.

It is partly a wish for simple, mild companionship on this spiritual journey: the kind of friendship to help smooth over the moments of discouragement so that they don't bog me down and throw me off track. Sometimes I just need another human to say "mmhmmmm" and nod or shake their head appropriately while I give myself the luxury of a rare few minutes on the "pity pot". And who will then gently remind me to get OFF the pity pot. The dog listens attentively, but just doesn't "get" my petty trials and triumphs. Not even when she could hear.

It is also, strangely, a wish for someone to hold me accountable on behalf of God. It is very easy to justify to myself my various strayings from what I think is the path God has set me on. Maybe I am entirely deluded as to what the path is and where it is going? There is no one to tell me, "Hey, you're hallucinating! Get it together!" There is no one to have to explain it to. For me, explaining things to another human being is a key way of working them out in my mind. I fall into the gaping holes that I can't even see when I'm just pondering on my own. It's esp. nice to have someone around to help me out of those holes after they help me see them and I fall in! Then they can brainstorm with me how to patch those holes. Furthermore, it keeps me humble.

The novelty here is that I actually encountered someone whom I instinctively trust enough to want to be accountable to be willing and able to say, "Here is what happened, what do YOU think about it, what would YOU do, what are some options for things I could do?" with regard to ethical/spiritual issues, and to not just out-of-hand reject that person's response.

Part of that trust is founded, I think, on feeling that they would not: want power over me for any reason; want to control me or give me advice; want me to depend on them in any way. That there is nothing particular in it for them. I can take or leave their suggestions. Someone who doesn't seem to have a vested interest in me becoming MORE saved or baptized than I already am. Detachment. This is appealing. One of my key life lessons has been to NOT put my faith in any one person, or in any human institution: "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" to paraphrase the Mennonite Confession of Faith. It seems prudent to remain a bit detached from any one person or church.

In this person, I glimpse a level of integrity that resonates with mine, an intentional choice to do the right thing as much as humanly possible. I want to tag along a little while, to measure that integrity, to learn from it, to relax in its safety! Aside from Plain folks, I've met very few Christian folks who demonstrate a certain sort of integrity throughout their daily life. I find this sort of approach to life more among Buddhists...which I resonate with a lot, but those folks are not really interested in my Christian journey. We're all hypocrits to some extent, but at least there are a few rare people who a) realize they are and b) try to be less so. My respect for those few is immeasurable. My hunger to have them for companions on this journey is ravenous, the hunger that comes from starvation.

Such trust is also grounded in the humility (an extremely rare commodity) to admit their own errors and shortcomings in a way that is simple and straightforward, not overwhelmingly self-deprecating. It's the kind of humility that I admire so much in the Old Order ministers I've listened to. It makes it easy to hear things that would otherwise be very hard for me to hear, indeed...and to hear them in a way that I can consider them prayerfully and thoughtfully, in my own time.

It would seem so natural to turn to Plain friends for such fellowship! But the companionship I crave is limited to the members of the church; a more bland friendship is offered to outsiders like me. Plain culture doesn't apparently have a mechanism for such companionship with outsiders, esp. not across gender lines. Virtually all adults "of a certain age" are married...and a married person would not engage in ongoing deep one-on-one discussions with a single person apparently of the "opposite" gender. Yet my perspective and experience more closely resonates with a traditional male perspective, though my body disqualifies me from those circles. To make things more complicated, it would also be questionable to become too close with any particular person apparently of the "same" gender.

When I ate Easter dinner at the home of some OGB friends last year, I ended up literally standing with one foot in the living room engaging in a conversation about bus driving while having the other foot in the kitchen with my attention on making sure I was available should something need chopped or set on the table: an amusing but poignant symbol of my place in their community.

Sigh. New friend "stops" me with a friendly "no." Here I am. A forest of thoughts springs up around this "stop." It's bound to be slow going here as I struggle to unravel the difference between the godly feeling of spiritual loneliness, and the simple human "fleshly lust" of wishing to not live and work so much alone, with no end in sight and so many disappointments behind me. But, God willing, this struggle in the dark forest will eventually be fruitful...

Unless they are nut trees. Then I guess I'm simply nuts....

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Independence Day

We are casual acquaintances, tending towards short conversations touching on some aspect of Christian--a commonality along the lines of England and the US, "two nations divided by a common tongue".

Today as she talked about her reasons for leaving her former church to join her present one, she emphasized, "They weren't following the Bible." She related a story where she felt the pastor had fallen short. She had prevailed on him to intervene in someone ELSE's situation--one not directly involving her--where she felt the other party was sinning. She was "following proper biblical discipline procedures" of going to the party that offended her (not directly, but by offending someone else) with her pastor and another church member. Needless to say, the person thus confronted (I'm not clear whether this was even a member of the pastor's church or not) did not mend her ways immediately. The last straw for my friend was that the pastor said, "Well, what can we do? We don't want to offend anyone!"

I have to agree I would not have a lot of respect for a pastor who didn't want to make waves. Jesus was ALL about "punching holes in the status quo to make room for more love in the world." He DEFINITELY offended people. He got crucified for it, in fact.

But, was this woman wearing a head covering? No, neither her former church nor her new church required women to cover their heads in obedience to Corinthians. So, who's calling who "unbiblical" here? I just have to shake my head and say a little prayer sometimes when "bible-thumpers" harangue someone about failing to follow one scripture, when they are failing to follow one of the clearest, most straight-forward, and easy-to-fulfill scriptures!

And--in addressing the problem of her being offended by someone's behavior which did not directly involve her, it seems to me that the scripture about minding the log in one'e own eye before worrying about the mote in another's needs to be balanced against the procedure for dealing with someone else's improper behavior. Maybe it wasn't that the pastor didn't want to offend the "immoral" third party, but rather he didn't want to offend this woman I was talking to by telling her to MYOB?

Her uneven attention to scripture was neatly exemplified as our conversation drew to a close.

This year July 4th falls on a Sunday--tomorrow. As she departed, I said my customary all-purpose farewell: "Have a good one!"

She replied, "Have a good Fourth of July!"

Hm, wouldn't a Christian have said, "Have a blessed sabbath?" rather that focusing on the secular holiday?

My Christian faith and practice of living "in the world but not of the world" has led me to examine my priorities in the light of scripture. The sabbath--God's holiday--comes first above secular occasions. I quietly refrain from the practice of many secular occasions for several scriptural reasons...mainly from the point of view of not wasting precious resources on frivolous material things that will not last.

My thoughts on Independence Day run towards sadness for those who died in the struggle to free us from the tyranny of British rule. For what were their lives lost? To replace the monarchy with the tyranny of TV, Walmart, and minimum-wage jobs? Serious stuff.

Therefore, I declare my independence from Independence Day! I'll celebrate the first Sabbath of the month as usual by going to church with the Old German Baptists, who practice the separation of church and state fairly rigorously. Likely there will be comments about "the world" celebrating some strange holiday with disruption and excesses. After church, I'll go the the Shape Note Sing, and practice a "lost art" dating back to this country's colonial times.

Dressing to Please

When we first met, she recognized me as a Christian (or something) by the rainbow covering. I recognized her as a Christian of a certain ilk by her dress--demure mid-calf denim jumper over a white t-shirt, and athletic shoes with white socks, and long hair with bangs.

I have avoided the conversation about her dress, because I'm not sure I could be lovingly, non-judgementally Christian about it. I simply know that she has stated that she made a decision to wear only dresses, because "it is pleasing to the Lord."

I think it's great that she wants to please God, but I'm not sure how she--and quite a few other women--figured this particular God-pleaser out.

This style of Christian women's dress truly perplexes me. It's distinctive enough that I can recognize women by it a long ways away...and yet there is, quite simply, NOTHING biblical about it...aside from the fact that the jumper, at any rate, is not "a man's clothing" which women should not wear. But t-shirts and athletic shoes WERE men's clothing when I was a child, and remain "unisex"--or, more accurately, "bi-gender." It is, at least, practical and not ostentatious or fashion-conscious...and fairly modest, though the "modesty police" from many cultures and times would cluck their tongues at the bare elbows.

Jesus himself actually never really got specific about women's dress, aside from maybe some vague comments on modesty...and he very specifically told us to not worry about what to wear. I take that as permission to wear practical, comfortable, modest clothing that befits my daily work. Denim and t-shirts had not, to my knowledge, been invented in the time of Jesus. I don't think knitting had even been invented. Sandals were the norm, if any footwear were worn. Paul, who had a little more to say on the subject, merely asserted that women should not wear men's clothing, and should cover their heads when they pray.

So, why doesn't she cover her head if she wants to please God, since that IS clearly stated in the bible?

This is such a prevalent blind spot among biblical literalists--the women go bare-headed day in, day out, in church, in public and at home! Paul would have found this shameful! Yet the literalists insist that a few vague inferences about particular sexual practices in a now-obsolete cultural context are proof that it is ALWAYS sinful to have a committed, lifelong emotional relationship with someone of the same gender!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Progress not perfection

Sometimes I really struggle with THE Christian religion, though rarely do I struggle so with MY Christian faith.

I got to church rather late today, which no one seems to thing that makes the Old German Baptist church a good fit for me, even if it is an unlikely fellowship and full membership is unreasonable.

When that happens (frequently) it tends to highlight whatever the minister-of-the-moment is saying in the first few minutes I'm there. I like to think that God gets me there just in time to hear what I need to hear.

This morning, there was a series of questions: "Are YOU part of the light of the world? Are YOU part of the faithful? Are YOU the salt of the earth?" I try to honestly answer these in my head as he goes along: "I TRY to be; I'm as faithful as I CAN be; I HOPE I am." I relax into reflection on my way of life, my daily actions, my thousands of little choices and efforts that are the fruit of my attention to Jesus' commandments and examples. I think about these questions a Alanon, it's part of the program to keep "taking my inventory" on a daily basis to make sure I don't fall back into crazy, self-destructive ways of thinking. I don't always act the way I want to, but I do know that I am committed to being a light for others, to living out my faith in every aspect of my daily life, to being "salt of the earth". I think I generally do a pretty good job. I feel generally pretty good about my Christian practice these days. I know I have a long way to go, and will have a lot of opportunities to practice what I believe...that's kind of the whole point of living, to my way of thinking!

And then an iron-hard statement blasts out from the minister's tongue: "If someone is living a life of sin, they aren't really a Christian."

My feeling of resting in God's merciful love, safe in the fellowship of gentle Christian souls who, like me, strive to live out their faith "in the world but not of the world," shatters. I know I sin. I lead a life of sin--though many Christians might disagree with me on the exact nature and severity of my sins.

I start picking up the pieces.
  • How much I've grown in my program and in my faith! Instead of reacting in hurt, anger, or resistance, I felt calm. Here is a statement that challenges me. But I know I AM a faithful Christian. This man is not my man is my judge. God, and God alone, will judge whether I am enough of a Christian to satisfy Him. And God isn't done with teaching me yet.
  • In times past, I might have felt personally attacked by this. Maybe I SHOULD feel personally attacked by this, because I think this is the same minister that seemed to repeatedly weave apparently irrelevant "anti-gay" texts into his closing comments the first few times I visited.
  • Being personally attacked doesn't mean I have to accept that attack. I don't agree with this statement, and I don't have to agree with it. According to my understanding of Mennonite doctrine, as set forth in our Confession of Faith, baptism marks the beginning of a Christian's journey. We will spend our whole lifetime on that journey. God isn't done with me yet...but He DID call me to follow Christ, and I've been doing that as faithfully as I know how for more than 10 years.
  • Man is imperfect. We all thought, word, and deed...daily. It's the human condition. So we ALL "lead lives of sin". Therefore no one is a Christian?
  • Jesus is very clear about many sins...especially judging others; love of money/possessions/fame (or anything else) more than God; adultery.... Some of these are very easy to measure: a person is having sex with someone else's significant other, or they aren't. Period. But some of them are difficult to nail down. How can someone else know whether you love your car "too much"? Where's the line between giving someone friendly feedback and passing judgement on them?
  • If "living a life of sin" refers to homosexuality, Jesus was pretty quiet on the matter. He also demonstrated enough particular affection for one particular disciple that several of the gospels mention "the disciple that Jesus loved". I'm not convinced anyone really knows what Jesus felt about the kind of love I have felt for other women...and I don't think we ever will.
My thought settle on a Quaker friend's strong, soothing words when a mutual friend was rejected by someone who accused him of living a sinful life: "Any house where people live is a house of sin. AND a house of grace. Too bad he couldn't see that. Come to think of it, failing to see grace is a pretty major sin."

I want to live life as gracefully as I can. Sin will always be there, too, but I can't let it be my entire focus. Staring at sin begets fear; fear eats away at faith. I want to keep my life focused on God's grace, to feed my faith. Then faith will triumph over fear. I want to keep running towards God. If I just try to run away from sin, I am lost.

It would be easy to let a comment like this sway my decision every Sunday whether or not to drive an hour or more (round trip) to attend the Old German Baptist service. After all, I'm not a member and don't expect to be one. But I keep going. Because I want to. Because I crave the fellowship and the insights of other Christians...whether they are "really" Christian or not.

Jesus made it pretty clear: We need one another. We need to gather in His name to follow in His Way.

Somewhere the scriptures speak of one strand being weak, while a cord of several strands is not easily broken (maybe someone can hunt that chapter and verse down and add a comment? I don't have a real concordance since my Canadian adventure (one of the few things I regret letting go of), and I've never figured out anything on-line.)

And long before that, right at the very beginning, God said "It is not good for Man to be alone." We need companionship on our faith journeys, for better AND for worse. Would Adam have eaten the forbidden fruit if Eve hadn't suggested it? Perhaps not. And likely Eve would not have eaten it on her own, either. Sometimes two heads are NOT better than one, when we put our weaknesses together instead of our strengths. Ask any two 7 year olds after a misadventure, when they are busily blaming each other.

Of course, that gives us lots of learning opportunities. "Good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of experience comes from bad judgement."

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Little Ministry (#837,298)

It was a hot morning at Farmers Market, and energy was visibly flagging among both customers and vendors near the end of the morning. A mother and her two young daughters stopped by for some kale...pretty much all I had left by the end. As they strolled out of the shady booth into the blazing sun, the mom leaned down to hear a question from one of the girls. They stopped and turned back.

A question about another vendor? Directions to the port-a-potty? A lost stuffed animal? So often returning customers are hoping I'm the Information Booth...and I'm happy to oblige. The commercial theory is that is customers are happy and comfortable, they will stay at market longer and buy more stuff...that's good for all of us at the market. And chances are they will return to the vendor who went the extra mile to give good service AFTER they made their purchase.

It's also part of my spiritual practice: To take the time to treat each person with kindness and respect, whether there's something in it for me or not. Doubly so, for those who might tend to be less respected by others: Children, the elderly, frail, differently abled, foreign, another color, dressed oddly.

This time was different. "She has a question she's been wanting to ask you" the mother said as they approached the table I stood behind. She wanted to make sure I paid attention to her daughter, who was probably in the 4 to 6 range. It must be something important. I silently blessed the mother for taking the time to come back on such a hot day, and for making sure I gave her daughter the attention she deserved.

The little girl looked up at her mom, questioningly. Mom nodded. "Go ahead, honey. Ask your question."

Reassured, the girl looked at me. "Why do you wear that on your head?" she asked, full of sincere curiosity, excited that her desire to know was being honored by both her mother and me.

I smiled in sudden understanding. Probably it isn't just the child who is curious, but also the mother...hence the effort extended to come back and ask.

"I wear the prayer covering because there's a place in the Bible where it says that women should cover their heads when they pray. And I know I need to pray all the time. So I wear this to help me remember to pray a lot."

That was all that needed to be said in that moment. It was a good answer. The child understood, and was satisfied. So did the mother. We all smiled.

As they turned and walked away, tears of gratitude welled up in my eyes. What a gift it is to answer a child's honest question with an honest answer that is one they can grow with for a lifetime, no matter where life takes them, no matter what their beliefs for practices.

Remember to pray a lot.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Where are we going? When will we get there?

I did a double-take as I passed a familiar church on the way home, and saw the signboard out front. "Galactic Odyssy VBS". Or something like that.

Another church is doing Vacation Bible School with a shipwreck theme. Last year two of them were using a program called "Crocodile Dock." These curricula come pre-packaged, with flashy graphics, advertising banners, games, etc.

I am not even sure I can adequately express my puzzlement. Total disconnect here, in my mind. I don't recall crocodiles playing a significant part in the bible, unless it was bit parts in the Old Testament...something related to Moses and the bulrushes, maybe...and of course Noah's floating menagerie. But Christ and crocodiles, in my mind.

Celestial city, yes. I just started reading the late 17th century classic, The Pilgrim's Progress. (This is the "little book" that Mrs. March gives each of the girls in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.) Galactic travels...not so much. What translation includes the world "galactic"?

By contrast, one of the ministers at Willow Springs expounded on Sunday School during his sermon. Or, more precisely, expounded on why the Old German Baptists do not have "bible study" or "Sunday School"...and I presume no "Vacation Bible School" either. Quite simply, it is considered the responsibility of the father to teach his family God's Word. Therefore the church does not undertake to do it for him.

In Alanon, we have a saying about "Don't do for others what they should do for themselves." It makes sense to train our own children in the faith we want them to claim and profess later in life, rather than delegate that important task to others. That goes for values, beliefs, scriptures, practices, etc.

Even in the context of an unchurched childhood, I think my parents got this right. I grew up with their values firmly in mind and heart, a solid foundation for the rest of my life. I had the raw materials, the concepts and vocabulary, to put together an adult faith when it came time to do so, even if I could not have explained any of it for a game-show quiz in VBS if that had been part of my childhood. Obviously, it is a quirky and unorthodox adult faith, fitting quite imperfectly into any of the conventional denominational boxes. But square peg though it may be, it is a strong square peg, one with deeply held and deeply lived convictions.

I don't think an isolated week of "Galactic Odyssey" would have given me the spiritual strength to persevere on the difficult spiritual journey that's gotten me where I am today.

One thing that has always impressed me about the Plain churches is that the children sit with the parents throughout the entire matter how long the service, no matter how young the child. (Teens cluster in the back, wisely segregated by sex.) Some services are several hours long, and the mothers of young children may come and go occasionally to tend to the real needs of hungry infants or take toddlers to the bathroom. I liked this about the Mennonite church I first attended, too--that at least sometimes the little children remained for the whole service. After all, Jesus said "Suffer the little ones to come to me, for such is the kingdom of heaven." Sometimes their cries seemed to underscore a particular point..."out of the mouth of babes."

It is not only the mothers that see to their children during the service. Often the mother has an infant, and the father has the next older sibling in his lap on the men's side of the meetinghouse, tender and loving. How precious it is to see fathers attending to their young children so kindly in public! Not what one observes in more worldly venues, like the bus or the grocery store.

Sunday one of the ministers had his daughter--perhaps 7 years old--sitting with him at the front of the room. I was struck by the irony that she was one of the few women who will ever experience a service from that vantage point, since women are not ministers in the OGB church. An odd concept to me, certainly, but I can see that it serves these people well in the context of their practice and community. But how wonderful that her father is, truly, teaching her the Word in every way he can. She will grow into a woman with a special sympathy for her husband should the lot fall on him to be a minister.

But--how could a complex adult sermon, more than an hour long and full of tracing the referenced scripture from one chapter and verse to another, ever compete with Gameboy? And there, perhaps, is the key to understanding the "Galactic Odyssey" phenomenon. The OGB children don't have Gameboy, tv, movies, etc. to draw their attention towards the realms of fantasy. They are surrounded, instead, by people who are talking and living the scriptures. Like Mary, they sit and listen when Jesus visits their home through their father's words. Their challenge is to find the scriptures, rather than achieve some computer-game goal. What different skills and values they will learn, compared to their worldly peers!

The world's children, by contrast, are distracted by many things. Like Martha. It takes something with flashy graphics and a catchy title to get their attention, much less hold it.

I think the OGB have chosen the better part.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Another woman in a covering

For several weeks now, I have noticed a tall, slender woman wearing an inky black abaya and pushing a stroller--first walking downtown, while I was driving the bus, and then at Farmer's Market the past couple weeks. Every portion of her frame was covered by flowing black fabric, except just her face. Thus robed, it was unclear even what her genetic heritage was.

This week at market she strolled by unaccompanied, at a time when my booth wasn't very busy. So I took a risk and stepped out to flag her down as she passed.

"Hi," I said. "I just wanted to let you know that I always feel happy when I see another woman dressing according to her faith rather than fashion."

She was puzzled when I first approached her, but when I made that awkward statement she visibly relaxed and smiled. "Yes," she replied. "I've noticed you, too. I feel the same."

We smiled at one another in silence for a few moments. It was still awkward. After all, in other parts of the globe people are killing people who wear different religious dress than their own. But I wanted to show my friendliness. Even this many years after 9/11, I imagine she gets more than her fair share of hatefulness because of her religious dress. Every moment of being in public must be a certain act of courage for her, in this country...especially in the full-length abaya. Other Muslim women in town mostly just wear the hijab with more modern slacks and shirts.

She continued after a few moments. With a little laugh, she said, "People don't understand. Sometimes they think I'm a nun." I shrugged that shrug that says, in some cultures, "Well, what can you do? Ignorance knows no bounds." As I stand close to her and hear her speak, I realize that she is probably a melting-pot American like myself, not a foreigner. My respect for her grows. For an American woman to wear the abaya is very unusual; I had expected her to have been raised in a strict foreign country.

"I came to it late in life," she said. "So it's especially meaningful to me." "Me, too," I replied, nodding. We understand each other in a way others can't possibly. We know nothing of one another's stories, but we know them none-the-less. We were each raised some other way, a different faith or no faith at all...certainly no deep religious practice involving anti-fashion statements, modesty or anything like that. Somehow we have each been led on a unique spiritual journey, drawing closer to a Deity that has claimed us for his own, and we have each answered "YES" to that Almighty. I imagine she, like me, has had the experience of reading our scriptures for the first time as an adult, and puzzling over them, and eventually coming to those "ah-hah" moments that, like bricks, have gradually formed a strong foundation for the practice of our faith in a largely faithless world. It's a very different journey than that of someone who was raised in either faith, learning it as the language of daily life from the moment of birth.

I struggle to put all this, and more, into words to this total stranger who is in some odd way a spiritual sister. "I guess it's about faith. It's wonderful to see other people who are willing to put their faith above fashion. In this world [I roll my eyes around at the scantily clad, tatooed, pierced, high-heeled, coifed, heavily booted, crudely t-shirted, etc. crowd passing us on both sides as if we do not exist] I think ANY faith at all is so important. So many people don't believe anything." She agreed, smiling again. We smiled a few moments longer and I excused myself to return to my booth.

Meeting other kindred spirits at Market, I always offer my contact information. But somehow it was not important to keep in touch with her through worldly means. We did not even ask one another's names.

We will see each other when Allah and Christ see fit. And the merest glimpse of the other will enrich our day and encourage us in our faith.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

For Goodness' Sake

A friend has undertaken an inquiry into the nature of goodness ( In the midst of busy times and transitions at the farm recently, I have only been aware of this in a perfunctory manner...noticing her facebook updates, and nothing more. But today's status made me stop and take notice:

"Something weird is going on with my soul."

Been there. Done that. Here's where it got me. It's a good thing...but profoundly surprising, if I stop and think about it. I'm not the least bit surprised other people think I'm nuts.

Not that she will end up anywhere remotely close to where I appear to be, from the outside. Or she might. I'm just saying there's no correlation to any outward result. Heck, I don't even know where I'll end up, just a little of where I've been and where I am now.

Skimming her blog brings cascades of recognitions, memories, understandings of my own journey. This blog was begun to tell the story of the rainbow covering that I wear daily, to explain it to others, to help myself to understand it better. But it is also the current chapter of a lifelong journey. And so she has reminded me that after starting in the middle of the story, it's only fair to spend some time, now and then, going back and filling in some of the history.


Where did my own journey start? The foundation was laid in family values: beauty (real beauty, like a lawn studded with thousands of dazzling dandelions), truth (like the little child saying, "but the Emporer HAS GOT NOTHING ON!"), education (like having Audubon guides read to me instead of bedtime stories when I was a toddler), etc.

But I can (at least at this moment, from this perspective) trace the actually intentional quest to a season in high school. Finding the Witter Bynner translation of The Way of Life [Tao Teh Ching] while taking inventory of the high school library one summer. NOTICING the shimmer of sunlight on autumn grasses. Reading and discussing Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) with my best friend. Was that also the year I learned to spin yarn, and realized I needed to raise my own sheep someday? It well could have been.

From ZMM: "And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good: need we anyone to show us these things?" Those words have been faithful guides on my journey. ZMM tells of several, interwoven journeys: spiritual, psychological, physical. The complex, non-linear telling of these inseparable tales foreshadows my own convoluted sense of time in my own life...a non-linearity that sometimes puzzles others. The past is current here in the present; the future is embodied here as well; now is all there is but the past and future are both enfolded here. When someone says, "oh, forget that, it was all in the past"...well, how can I do that when it is part of the present?

Circularity. The poem Miracle tells about one seed, that of my baptism: a truly momentous event in my life, in hindsight. Getting there was 40 years of the journey--40 years of other, generally more subtle miracles.

But before my deliberate commitment to God (baptism), I simply didn't have the language to describe the previous miracles, the steadfast guidance I received from God in my daily living, the love and care that nurtured me whether I believed in it or not. I didn't believe in it, in fact. Not a passive lack of considering believing, but an active, "informed" denial of any such thing. It is very difficult to be aware--in any detailed sort of way--of something for which we do not have language. About the most we can say is--as Diane so well put it--"Something weird is going on". And then we can hope that someday we will stumble on the words with which to explore it.

Silly me. God was here/there all along. This I know from the depth of my heart and soul and mind and spirit. Yet back then I "knew" the exact opposite: that God was a ridiculous myth, an intellectual construction by and for those who were too stupid to live without some sort of SuperParent making up rules and punishing those who broke them.

I can't prove it either way. Neither can anyone else. Perhaps it's simply a symptom of mental illness that I'm wearing this "little piece of spiritual cloth" on my head.

But for goodness' sake, for God's sake, I can't imagine not wearing it, now.

For God's sake, because it is one little thing I CAN do that is following scripture (obedience R-not-me)...and...(because I am not as nice as I think I'd like to be yet) it asks the Emperor's-new-clothes question of all biblical literalists, "so why aren't YOU taking that scripture literally, if you claim to be taking all these other really vague scriptures literally?"

For goodness' sake, because it reminds me to be good. Now. Today. Always. Whenever God or anyone else is watching.

Good. Good day. Good night. Good bye. Good grief!

For goodness' sake, it's WAY past my bedtime.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


In a world filled with strangers who rarely speak to one another, the rainbow covering is a powerful message. It apparently says, "speak to me".

9:30 p.m. Home Depot is closing in 1/2 hour but there's time for me to drive across town to the "big box" district where I rarely go, to get parts to replumb the basement sink so I can wash dishes (ah, the little things in life!). I do a seasonal migration among the various hardware venues: the closer they are to home, the earlier they close. The later it's light enough to work outside on the farm, the later I am heading "across the bridge" at dark-thirty-five to get parts for the late-night home repair project, or tomorrow's morning effort. Winter, Ernst, 5:30 or 6. Early spring, Cottin's, 8?. Late spring and days I drive the bus, Westlake, 9.

Closing in on Summer Solstice, Home Depot, 10.

I never expect to see anyone I know there. My friends tend to shop I also prefer, but lack of plumbing warrants an exception. So I don't expect to be greeted by other customers. But as I turn down the plumbing aisle, I hear a cheerful "hi".

Startled, I look around. A young man in plain dress, German Baptist style, is coming out the next aisle. I recognize the clothes but not the man; I'm poor at recalling names and faces, and I tend to visit with the women at church. A few of the older men shake hands and chat for a minute after the services, but the young mens' attention tends to be on the young women of the faith, not the older outsider. As it should be.

In Home Depot, however, he has been pleased enough to see me that he says "hi" and gives a big grin. Then we both seem to realize that we don't know what to say to one another, AND we would neither of us be here at 9:30 if we weren't here for something critical to the next morning's work. We are both a bit alien to the world of this enormous store that caters to those who care about decorating their homes with the latest in stylish vanities...designed for two basins, his and hers, so they can primp without bumping elbows.

I am pleased to learn that I rate a greeting from him here.

After my search for plumbing parts, I need one last item. Running out of time, I hail a young "associate" or whatever Home Depot calls them. He's about the same age and build as the young German Baptist fellow. He efficiently guides me to the desired item, we joke a bit finding the right size, I'm turning to walk away....

"Wait," he quietly asks. I stop, puzzled. This IS the item I needed, isn't it?

"Can I ask a silly question?" How often I hear that phrase, and it's always about the covering! "There's no silly question, go ahead," I reassure him. At this point you know that they are thinking that they are blushing and they are ashamed of it and they are wishing they hadn't been quite so brave after all, to be in this embarrassing situation of asking a total stranger (and a customer no less, in this case) to satisfy their curiosity. A curiosity that is somehow embarrassing to admit, like when my sisters and I first started admitting to one another that we liked boys.

"Your..." and he points to his own head, not having language to name the thing he is seeing.

"Covering," I prompt.

"Your covering...does that color mean something?"

"It means a lot of things." I don't feel led, at 9:55 p.m., to embarrass him further by coming out to him. Maybe he's gay himself, and wants to come out to me, but my "gaydar" is dead silent here. If he knows what rainbow means, he'll get it. If not, he'll figure it out someday.

I give the first answer, the answer that led to the choice of color. "Among other things, it means that I'm not a member of a particular church or community. I don't want to mislead anyone." And I continue with Anabaptist History 101, Intro to Sects, Cliff Notes version. He knows of Amish and Mennonite, but not German Baptist, even though the GBs are the only plain folk in this county. So I know he's from out of town.

Plain dress styles not only indicate where the wearer is from, sometimes they indicate where the viewer is not from!

In today's vain, consumerist world, I think it is a terribly powerful statement of faith to dress according to one's faith, in defiance of the dominant culture. To proclaim to strangers, as well as friends: I believe something. I have given up things you hold dear for something that I hold dear.

To witness, quite simply, to the possibility of faith.

If someone sees me, speaks to me, then that might be the "tiny seed" that begins their own miracle. They would not ask about the covering if it didn't hold some fascination for them, something that they don't understand, but something that draws them like a candle draws a moth. I understand this well, because even as a child I was fascinated by the Amish, more than just seeing their beautiful horses and buggies. But there was no one available to answer my silly questions.

The covering is a candle set high on a candlestick for all to see. All you of faith, who do not show it in your dress: consider whether you have lit a lamp and hidden it under a bushel.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Archeological fragment: Miracle

From time to time, I'll throw in bits of my old writings, especially poems and songs, that hold clues of the long, meandering faith journey I've been on. This one was written in late 2004, during the period of "invisible homelessness" between the time I left the farm and the time I was called to Winnipeg to begin my term of voluntary service with Mennonite Central Committee. Since I did not begin the tradition of dating each poem with the location (including the nearest river) until sometime during my Canadian adventure, I have no record of where I was staying at the time it was written.


It was such a small seed,
just a tiny speck of faith
watered in with a mere sprinkle of water
that wintery Sunday morning.

I did plant it in earnest--
even seeds that probably won't grow
deserve a decent burial, right?
At least I gave it a chance.

Even if it germinated,
there would be weeds crowding it out;
there would be ravaging rabbits and stomping boots:
all manners of evil in a sprout's world.
It would probably die,
but I went ahead and put it in earth.

Maybe the soil was sour; I didn't know.
Maybe there was poison and pestilence there;
I didn't know much about such seeds or soil.

Yes, there were weeds
and farmhands with boots and machetes,
slashing at random.
There were stray sheep with greedy teeth and sharp hooves.
There were crows.
There was drought, and wind, and frost,
and fierce summer sun.

It was such a small seed;
it was so hard to have hope that I didn't,
and for a long time nothing happened.

Then, suddenly, it seemed to take root.
Every time I looked it was bigger, and growing--
as big as a tree!
But--it's crowding out everything:
not just the weeds I hated, but wildflowers, too,
and other things I'd planted.
Now I'm afraid;
it's so big, and so fast,
I can't reach to prune it all;
it's so tough it defies the knife;
it's seeding itself far and wide;
it's out of control.

I mean, I sort of knew God could work miracles,
and all He wanted me to plant was a tiny seed,

but I didn't know
it was out of my control.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Being a covering is hard work.

Evidently, I scratch the top of my head in perplexity a lot...or at any rate, that's where coverings wear out first. Both my currently active coverings have grown so threadbare at the top that they've developed small holes. Don't know when I'll have time to sew new ones.

I don't mind wearing them with holes in them. There's actually something satisfying about it. First the humility of knowing that I'm not too vain about them. If I were wearing them for show, I'd worry more about how they look. I think it also says something that I scratch my head in perplexity that much...I know I DON'T have all the answers, and the holes prove that I take the time to think things over! Then, too, their tattered, faded condition proves that I've been wearing them long enough to wear them out. It's not a passing fad for me, it's a commitment for the long haul.

After church at Willow Springs the other day, A brother I'd not talked with before shook my hand and introduced himself. He observed in a friendly and straightforward manner, "I've heard of the coat of many colors, but this is the first I've seen a covering of many colors!" I smiled broadly. I hadn't thought of my covering as a reflection of Joseph's famous garment. It "covered" (protected) him, too.

[Is it a sin of omission that I failed to point out the "queer" significance of the rainbow colors? Can I plead my case based on "Women should not speak in church?" Perhaps not...we had stepped outside onto the broad steps of the building, so technically we were no longer IN church. I think not. To discuss such matters would seem as inappropriate as expounding on my favorite website or rock star to's a part of a world that is not their world. When in Rome, do as the Romans....]

The brother continued. "I presume you wear it for the same reason we do." I said that I'd started wearing it nearly 5 years ago. He nodded in approval, clearly satisfied with my answer. "Then it is a real conviction." "Yes, and that was after several years of discernment. My River Brethren friend gave me the pattern she uses...."

I do not know where this adventure is leading me, or the good brothers and sisters of Willow Springs. But it is clearly God who leads me wherever we are going.

I need only be present in each moment, listening to that still, small voice that seems so much louder when I step away from the turmoil of the "English" world.

Monday, May 3, 2010


One Sunday morning recently I set forth on the long drive to one of the churches where I often attend Sunday morning meeting with the Old German Baptists--actually almost on time, for a change! It had been a couple weeks since I'd been able to get away from the farm on a Sunday morning, and I was really looking forward to the spiritual gifts that invariably come from the nealry two hours of clear, practical bible study that is what passes for a church service with the OGB.

The 45 minute drive to the "8 Mile" meetinghouse is, in itself, a good meditation. The path lies clear across Lawrence and out the other side, then through miles of hilly farmland. It's good to get out of the river valley now and then, for a change of perspective. Seeing other farms always teaches me something about farming...and sometimes there's a special gift, like seeing a calf born just as I'm driving by. Besides, just driving on the open road has been a "therapy" thing for me for decades.

But imagine my surprise when the parking lot was empty at 8 Mile! Perhaps I'd read the calendar wrong? Since the denomination had a "division" last summer, the small remnants of two churches had joined for worship each week--odd Sundays at one meetinghouse, even Sundays at another.

I drove back to the Willow Springs meetinghouse. Again, an empty lot. Perplexing.

Some dim memory tickled at the back of my brain. Had my OGB friend M. said something a few weeks earlier about a special event some Sunday in April? I couldn't remember. Life has been very, very busy this past month.

But now what? Not exactly "all dressed up and no place to go," because I don't "dress up" for church. But certainly out and about with no clear destination.

I decided to try the Lone Star Church of the Brethren. It's another small, white, wood frame meetinghouse, not quite so plain on the inside (there's a piano, and printed bulletins). The Church of the Brethren, like the OGB and Mennonite churches, is descended from the Anabaptist movement at the time of the Reformation in Europe. Each denomination has preserved some practices at the expense of others, but they share many core values: simplicity (whatever that means...), pacifism, adult baptism. The COB order of the service is very like the Mennonite church I'm exiled from, and uses the same favorite "blue hymnal" as many Mennonite churches, including "mine". They had just finished the Children's Time when I arrived, and were singing the children off to Sunday School so the parents could focus their attention on the sermon. I felt sad for the division of ages. More fun for the children, perhaps, but with families so busy during the week, it seems more important than ever that the children and adults should share the whole church experience, as in the Old German Baptist church.

God, you are showing me who I am in you, and where my path lies. It's not at all clear, but times like this at least show me where it isn't. Please give me the strength and patience to "let the little ones come to me" as you did, "for such is the kingdom of heaven."

I have attended here before, and had not found the service to lift me to heavenly heights of praise and awe, nor lead me to profound depths of reflection. But sometimes it is most important to focus on "Whenever two or more are gathered in my name."

When my mind wandered during the "Meditation Time", I perused the rather commercial-looking pre-printed bulletin cover. There was an interesting meditation printed on the back. I was surprised to recognize the author's name at the bottom...someone who frequently contributes to the lively exchange on a COB listserve I participate on.

The minister directed me to the stairs after the service, making a polite escape tactless. Making small talk as we went down to whatever awaited, I mentioned my pleasure at seeing Brother Eberly's name on the back of the bulletin. "Oh," said the minister. "I guess I'll have to read it...."

Hm, I guess God needed me to help get Brother Eberly's message to the minister....

The fellowship time after the service was far different from either Mennonite or OGB, however. Here this little community showed its full glory. "Something to eat downstairs" turned out to be more than enought finger foods for a full, balanced, healthy meal: fruit, cheese, crackers, raw vegetables, summer sausage, chips, salsa, and cookies. The older lady next to me in line invited me to sit with her and her husband. Another lady about my age sat next to me as I settled in across from the older couple.

"Where do you live?" The older lady asked. I generally begin the answer to this question with "North Lawrence", and go from there as seems appropriate. "Oh, I grew up in North Lawrence," she replied. We compared addresses and found she'd lived just a few blocks from my place in the early 50's, at the time of the '51 flood. She related how her mother and sisters had spent two years living on the back porch of their home while the flood-ravaged house was rebuilt. A useful bit of history...the following day was the public hearing for my Conditional Use Permit to allow camping at the farm, including for myself to have somewhere to live while renovating one of the little houses.

Thanks for the encouragement, God! I'm not so nuts after all...just learning from the past. Camping out for a summer is nothing compared to living with two kids on a porch for two years!

Someone commented on my covering. "You must be German Baptist". I tried not to choke on my astonished laughter, nor embarrass the questioner. "Well, I do attend there usually, but they were having a special function today. Actually the German Baptists wear white gauze coverings; this one is cut from the River Brethren pattern." I went on to explain that each Plain church had its own covering style and color, and I wasn't any of them.

God, I guess you wanted me to remind these people of their Anabaptist cousins in other faith communities. The last names here are all the same ones from the Old German Baptist church, but I guess generations of "disfellowshipping" have spintered the once-close families. Maybe my presence here will begin a path towards rejoicing in their similarities rather than shunning their differences. So many families have been torn apart through our churches' history. As faithful Christian presence in our nation dwindles, it seems like we should band together to strengthen our numbers across divisions, not perpetuate our disagreements about the logs in each others' eyes.

The woman next to me heard me mention I was a Mennonite. "I tried to find Peace [Mennonite] Church when I first moved to town," she said. "I went to the address in the directory, but it was Ecumenical Christian Ministry building, and no one there had ever heard of Mennonites. It was really strange."

I sadly shook my head, commiserating with her confusion. "When was that?" I asked. It was just after the congregation had bought a building of its own and left ECM behind, apparently leaving no forwarding address. My heart aches for my church, hiding from new members and casting out old ones that don't fit the mold.

Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.

She does not, perhaps, realize that we are ministering to one another. Seeing her disappointment in the implied rejection of not leaving a trail she could follow, I'm reminded that their behavior towards me is not so much about who I am as about who they are, and how they are wounded. My heart softens a little, and I can pray for them more gracefully than usual.

We exchange email addresses. We haven't used them yet, but we each know there is another lost sheep, looking for their rightful fold.

Meanwhile, any flock will suffice for company. The rainbow covering helps me remember that every human interaction I have, every day, truly is ministry work if I remember that it's so. Not just my ministry to others, but others' ministry to me.