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.