I am by nature an anxious person with a tendency to obsess. I can be very susceptible to the firm opinions of people of decided mind – and of course the preaching ministry of the church favours the (even temporarily) decided mind in the proclamation of the Gospel. My dear Badger talks to me about that sometimes – the guilt traps, what he calls ‘the hardening of the oughteries’ that can beset the pilgrim soul.
On my way home from the small medieval market town of Battle, where my mother lives, if I take the country way through the lanes I go through Crowhurst, another ancient settlement, and pass the door of the Church of England’s Home of Healing there.
I used to go to their healing services long ago with my beloved friend and Christian artist Margery May, but I stopped going because their chaplain at the time was a man who focussed on the Devil and demons a great deal, and in his preaching I perceived him to be preying on the fears of the vulnerable souls in his congregation. But all that was long ago, there’s a different chaplain now, and since I have moved back to Hastings I have felt a gentle tug every time I went past the door of the Home of Healing, and thought I would like to go. I’ve been something of a Walking Wounded for quite a few years now after all the difficulties I passed through of bereavements and other traumas, and have for a while felt that I could benefit from the ministry of God’s Holy Spirit in healing. I kept meaning to go to the healing services and then forgetting to block the space in my diary so that when they came round I couldn’t go. But last Thursday morning I went. I loved the worship, loved the vibe in the place – it ‘spoke to my condition’ as George Fox would say. When it came time for people to go forward for healing if they wanted, the chaplain said that we could give specifics of why we sought healing if we wanted – or we could just not say anything. I was so grateful for that option to just not say anything; and I went forward for healing and a lady prayed for me. I wasn’t expecting any outcomes in particular, I had no objectives, it just felt like the right thing to do.
I have a game on my computer that I sometimes play to relax my mind when I’m getting ready to write or unhooking from the day. It’s called Amazonia, and its shows a grid of jewels – very pretty, a number of different kinds. The game is to line up the types of jewel in threes, and that releases them (is Bejewelled Blitz like this? I’ve heard of it but not seen it) Sometimes if more than three jewels are line up or a jewel in a special gold setting is included, they burst free in a satisfyingly explosive way taking a whole load of others with them. In some stages of the game, jewels are locked in chains, and if you can get them in a line of three, a chain snaps off. If they are double-chained you have to do it twice to set them free. Chained, they block the game by barring the way in the grid. Once freed, jewels can come tumbling through into the space you make, and the game opens up. There’s also a dreadful thing that makes me feel a bit anxious – sometimes a jewel has a frost crystal round it, and if you can’t get it lined up in a three to set it free, the frost creeps and creeps across all the jewels, freezing and immobilising them until the whole grid is frozen over; such an awful feeling – quick! Got to stop that frooooost!!!
Why I am telling you this is because the inside of me gets a bit like that game – chained and blocked and immobilised by anxieties and hardening of the oughteries. And though I had no expectations of any particular result from the ministry at Crowhurst, it had an immediate and startling effect. It felt like when those chains snap off or the frost crystals are bust off from round the jewels in my game. Snap… snap… snap…!
In my last post, among all those kind and loving comments you left that were such a blessing to me was one from Maggie who said I looked different – more relaxed. Well, that’s why.
At the weekend it sent me a bit manic. Like most writers/artists/composers I have a depressive personality – it’s where the creativity comes from, the peaks and troughs. I felt disappointed at that, thinking, ‘oh, this isn’t a healing, it’s just a pendulum swing’. But the crystals kept busting and the little chains breaking – snap… snap… snap…! It is a healing.
Yesterday I fell into a guilt pit set for mammoths, worrying about the old people in my life who I haven’t visited and should have and the ones I have visited and can’t seem to see with eyes of compassion and kindness, and feeling trapped and wretched, and wishing they were all – no I won’t say that! I went to sleep feeling tired and fraught, having talked with Badger on the phone at length who told me as he always does that I have to set boundaries, limits, create space…
Then I woke up this morning and during the night those little frost crystal had bust – the frost hadn’t crept and spread like it usually does; the tiny chains had gone snap… snap… snap…! And nothing seemed too difficult. It occurred to me to call some of the old folks I ought to visit on the phone – and the idea of making phone calls just seemed normal and something I could face (which is not usual for me). Extraordinary.
But also when I woke up this morning – someone in the thread of comments from my last post spoke about the Quaker ‘stop’, the internal voice that warns and cautions – and a ‘stop’ had pinged off along with the little chains and crystals.
I had been worrying a lot about head-covering. I was in a store in the town during the week, wearing a cotton jersey zandana in a kind of mushroom colour, and a flowery summer dress and I thought I looked fairly normal and blended in OK – you know, just looking like me.
So I was in Marks &; Spencer looking at shoes (just enjoying myself – they never fit me, my feet are too big) and feeling annoyed because a man was standing with his wife just where I wanted to be. She was browsing and he was telling her ‘Oh, what about these ones dear, these look very nice,’ desperate in a patient kind of way for her to make a choice and get out of the store so they could go and look at chain saws or something, and she was taking no notice of him – you know how it always is. Why do they bring their husbands? Why don’t they let them go and have a nice cup of coffee and an almond croissant or something? I hate it when the ladies wear departments are all infested with bored waiting men, especially when they’re in among the bras.
Anyway, I went once round the rack to look at the shoes the other side until they got out of the way, then I went back to where they’d been, and sure enough the man came sidling up to me (oh no, heart sinks…) ‘Don’t I know your face from the Bruderhof?’ What? Who is this guy?
‘I don’t think so,’ said I, immediately encased in frost crystals. ‘I mean, I do go there sometimes but I don’t live there.’
It’s a thing that happens quite often, people looking at me meaningfully and saying ‘Do you live in Robertsbridge???’ Er…. no.
This is what they mean. These good and beloved people live in a village near me.
I thought I might have sounded a bit rude, so I relented and added: ‘I go to their open day in the summer and their carol singing at Christmas.’
The man leaned in further. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘Wonderful. And the great thing is, they always have a SMILE for you, don’t they?’
Aaargh! A SMILE. Oh yes, a SMILE (expletives deleted). So, understanding my cue I obediently snapped a smile into place and said spinelessly, ‘Er – yes. Yes, they do.’ And hurried away.
I hate this. I hate being conspicuous and weird and being mistaken for belonging to a group I don’t belong to – and for what it’s worth, no they don’t wear perpetual smiles pasted to their faces, they’re just normal people, and glare at you and look morose sometimes like everybody else. Nobody can look as stony as an Amish woman out and about among the English, so I’ve heard. Smiling is not a badge of obligation. But I digress.
So I have been worrying and fretting about this business of head-covering and how on earth to achieve it without continually drawing unwanted attention to myself.
And this morning I woke up and snap… snap… snap…! Something had pinged off in my head and things had rolled through and opened up. I was thinking about the Scriptures and how reading and obeying the Scriptures works – stuff I know perfectly well, but it was shining very clear.
I’ll tell it you in order the thoughts occurred to me – look, sorry, is this too long? This would be a good place for a tea-break if so; come back later when you have a moment, I won’t be offended!
First when I woke up I was thinking of Jesus and the directions into which he pointed us. A lot of the teaching of Jesus is not original; He draws upon not only the Scriptures (Old Testament, obviously) but also contemporary commentary on the Scriptures and sayings and teachings around in His day. What was so radical and startling was what He made of these traditions, how He bust open their assumptions and claustrophobic social application. Let me give you some examples.
At the wedding of Cana when his mother came to Him with the request to sort out the problem of the wine running out: ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ He said. He did respond to her request, but he resisted complicity to the Jewish mother thing of fitting in with family requirements.
On the occasion when He was teaching in a house crowded with friends and followers and word was brought to Him that His family were outside and wanted to see Him, please (in Mark’s gospel it’s made clear that they had come to get Him because everyone was saying He was out of His mind), instead of bowing to the traditional social obligations to family ties, He said ‘Who is my mother or my brothers?’ Looking round at the gathering of those who had come to hear Him, he said: ‘Here are my mother, my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my mother, my sister, my brother.’
‘My sister’ – He didn’t have to say that. Nobody said anything about sisters until he brought it in. Jesus directly opposed the stifling confinement of social regulations, and he did so in the direction of freeing and including women.
Like the occasion when the woman taken in adultery was brought to be stoned, and they asked Him about it, and He shielded her from their intent. No lecture, no moralising – just protection for her vulnerability, and ‘Go and sin no more’.
Or the time when He went to Martha and Mary’s home, and Mary had stepped out of her role as a woman, and abrogated to herself what was normally saved for men – sitting at His feet as a disciple in the part of the house expected to be only for the men to go, not doing as she should, fulfilling the expectations placed upon a woman and staying with the other women preparing the meal. And Jesus, asked to sort her out, said simply ‘Leave her alone – for she has chosen the better part.’ And bear in mind this follows straight on from the parable of the Good Samaritan, with all that it teaches about stepping out of prejudices and confinement by traditional social definitions.
Asked by the Pharisees for His opinion on ‘divorce for any cause’, which allowed men to divorce their women and send them on their way for any passing thing, thus leaving women very vulnerable, dependent always on keeping their menfolk happy, he said it was wrong.
In the sermon on the mount he gives socially subversive advice – if a soldier compels you to carry his pack for one mile (the Romans could do this), go with him two (this was against the regulations, so would get the soldier into trouble); if a man strikes you on the right cheek (which for a right-handed striker would imply a back-handed blow, the way he’d strike a slave), offer him your other cheek as well (which would require an open-handed blow, as one would strike an equal); and if a man sues you for your coat give him your shirt as well (which would publicly shame him for his callousness).
If instead of looking with a microscope at the Letter of the Law in what Jesus teaches, we look at the social direction into which it led people, everywhere we see chains pinging off – snap… snap… snap…! He taught for freedom and inclusion, which reversed the double misery of imprisonment and exile explored in the Old Testament. He, the fulfilment of Moses, led a spiritual Exodus into freedom. Inclusion is an aspect of freedom, because people cannot really be free if they are not safe and exclusion makes people neither safe nor free.
So I woke up with the freedom of Jesus on my mind, then moved on to thinking about the teaching of St Paul regarding headcovering.
And what struck me today (I mean, I knew this, but this is how it presented itself to my mind) was verse 16 – that illuminates what he was doing, which is recommending that we follow the custom in the churches of God – that our behaviour be not outlandish, not drawing attention to ourselves, but seemly and modest according to the custom of the churches of God.
It’s like his recommendation that slaves should obey their masters (Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 6:5), it’s like his teaching here, about not eating meat offered to idols – if we look at the thrust of it, the direction in which it leads, rather than making of it a new Law, we see that it’s about operating harmoniously within the social customs of our situation, to find a graceful way forward for building the Peaceable Kingdom. It doesn’t matter if we are man or woman, slave or free (there are no stigmas or status issues for the people who belong to Jesus) – what matters is building the Peaceable Kingdom. Paul was all in favour of slaves being set free – ‘Gain your freedom if you can’ was his advice, and his letter to Philemon about Onesimus is masterly! But he was not in favour of violent revolution but of building the Peaceable Kingdom.
And, crucially, he said this about Law: ‘The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.’
With headcovering as with all these things, it is the spirit – of humility, gentleness, yieldedness, willingness to listen, a quiet and teachable spirit – that matters, not the cloth or the shape or the style. Snap… snap… snap…!
Now it might be that a lady is born into an Amish family. There, I think Paul would advise her to wear the covering, for that is the tradition and to flout it would cause dissension and make her appear bold and unseemly. But to a lady living in a society where there was no such custom, I think he would have said ‘Do as you please, but cover when you go among the Amish, lest you cause offence and cause your sister to stumble.’
As to Plain dress. Both John Wesley (see para 26 of this) and George Fox (see Thomas Clarkson here) taught that we (men and women both) should dress according to the customs of our society, wearing neat, plain, modest, humble clothing, nothing flashy or seductive or status-conscious.
So I have concluded that unless one is Amish or Conservative Mennonite or in some cultural context where seemliness and tradition require it, then the headcovering is a personal conversation between oneself and God, not a biblical injunction for women. Yes, I know Paul writes about it in the Bible, but if we look at the Scriptures holistically, this is not a mandate like kindness, modesty, humility, gentleness, faithfulness and forgiveness are mandatory.
Which doesn’t mean: ‘Woooohoooo! Go out and buy a bright red lace dress and some 4-inch heels to match!’ It means, ‘Little sisters, don’t worry.’ (Luke 12:32, 2 Timothy 1:7)
So I will continue to cover my head, as and when seems suitable and appropriate, because that is part of the love-song God and I are humming along to. But if it doesn’t seem suitable and appropriate, I’ll just leave it off and not worry. Snap… snap… snap…! Frost crystals busting. Creeping frozenness interrupted.
I’m not telling you what you should do, by the way. Just telling you what’s happening with me.
To all of this I would like to add that I tried to find a link to a place that would enlarge on the notion of the Quaker 'stop', which I find very interesting and unhelpful, couldn't find one but was startled to find Google directing me to a site on 'How to stop screaming in young Quakers.' What? Oh, parrots!