New in His Hands

  “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber. 

Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. 

Thy LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.  

The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. 

The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. 

The LORD shall preserve thy going and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.”

Psalm 121, King James Version

When I first ventured to Seneca Rocks four years ago, I was on the search for a new church home.  Back in Northern Virginia, I’d been at first incredulous, then appalled at the complete lack of regard for the physical and psychological abuse of a student in a parochial school in which I’d taught.  (Although I choose not to revisit that incident, please suffice it to say that I notified everyone in authority within the Diocese and also brought my concerns to the attention of the print media in the area, to no avail.  However, God works in His own time, and the bishop and the superintendent of schools in that diocese have since been replaced.)

Having witnessed first hand the lack of Gospel witness in the parochial school, and then in the Diocese as a whole, I simply could not bring myself to return to the Catholic Mass or Sacraments.  (For those Catholics reading this, please know this is simply my own journey with my own experiences; I’ve encountered many wonderful Catholics and I am particularly fond of the Franciscans, having been a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order.)

Once in the mountains, I noticed there were two Mennonite churches in the area, Brushy Run Mennonite Church in Onego (pronounced, “Wahn-go”), and North Fork Mennonite Church on the way to Petersburg.  Both had neat white signs and an invitation to join them for services – “All Welcome”.  Well, I had NO idea what the Mennonites believed, nor if I truly was “welcome”.  Remember now, I’d been pretty much offered up as a sacrificial lamb all too easily by my own principal, pastor, school, church, and diocese back in Virginia.  To put it mildly, I was leery of any organized religion – or any church for that matter.

Last April, however, I guess God decided to bring the Mennonites to me.  I was living in a trailer near a ramshackle barn (which a month later succumbed to a strong wind) when I noticed a strange car parked on the road near the barn.  Now, that road dead-ends just beyond the barn at the home of an elderly woman who lived there with her daughter.  So I sort of looked out for odd vehicles and made sure that anyone venturing down that way had a reason for being there.

Since it was evening, I had on my flannel pajamas (it gets cold in the mountains in April) and pulled a jacket over my shirt before heading out to check on this new stranger.  I came up to the driver’s door and asked, “Can I help you with anything?”  The man looked a little startled but replied that he was here for a cottage meeting at my neighbor’s home and was waiting for the other vehicles to arrive.  I was delighted – I’d heard about cottage meetings the summer before when I’d asked her daughter about all the cars parked in their front yard the previous night.  “Oh,” she’d said, “We had a cottage meeting last night – members of the Mennonite church come and sing for Mom.”  I’d wanted to attend a cottage meeting ever since!

I asked if I could come and the man in the car smiled and said, “Sure!”  I raced back to get dressed and then headed to my neighbor’s home in time for hymns and devotions.

I had never heard Mennonites sing before and I was in for a treat.  Mennonite churches have no choir, no organ, no instruments of any kind.  The congregation itself is the choir, and every member of the church sings its part – bass, tenor, alto, soprano.  Song leaders have a pitch pipe to get the congregation in tune and lead the hymns.

Last April, packed in a tiny room full of God’s people, I was swept up into a beautiful hymn of praise in such perfect harmony as I haven’t heard sung a capella since I was a Girl Scout counselor-in-training back in the summer of 1973.  That song was one of those unexpected, joyous moments that took me back to a summer so sweet I could smell the pine trees on the wind and recall the friendships kindled around a campfire.

I clapped when they had finished their song, just caught up in the thrill.  Their faces were calm, but it was CLEAR TO ME that one does NOT applaud when Mennonites have completed a hymn of praise to God.  Okay, first mistake (of many!) but I wasn’t escorted to the door or reprimanded in any way.  I remember thinking, “Oh, please, let me not offend these dear people!”  I refrained from clapping for the rest of the hymns.  Yes, it was hard – I was conditioned to applaud when one encounters a wonderful event and this truly met that requirement.

Outside, after the cottage meeting was over, I spoke with some of the young people who’d come along.  One of them told the story of his parents, who’d moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia from Buffalo, New York and had converted from the Roman Catholic faith to the Mennonite faith.  He said she’d written a book about it.  I tucked that information into my head for a later time.

What struck me about this group of people of all ages was their kindness, their gentle spirit, and their fellowship – a coming together on a Wednesday night to sing for a member of their church who was home bound.  They listened to me, answered many questions with great patience, and invited me to attend a church service.

And that was the start of a closer walk with God.  Notice I write, “the start”.  It is an ongoing, daily conversion, a giving up of myself each day to God, in order to do His Will, not my own.  As a Secular Franciscan, we called this process “metanoia” – a daily dying of oneself to God’s Will for us.  Mennonites practice the same thing, without the Greek name.

I invite you to read along in the next several posts and share my missteps and blessings as I’ve come to know and embrace this Gospel way of living.  Learning about the Way of the Gospel does not come quickly, particularly when one is used to living “in the world” as I have done.  I liken this conversion to a novitiate in a Catholic religious order – there, a period of years is required for the formation of a candidate prior to her final vows and profession to the religious order.  In the Mennonite faith, especially for me as an “outsider,” I see this period of time in the same way.

There is no rush in this casting aside of the old life and putting on the new;  I want to fully understand and embrace this life of greater faith.  I seek to “Purge out therefore the old leaven… as [I] am unleavened.”  Cor 5:7  Some tasks associated in wearing the veiling come more easily than others.  And in some instances, God has needed to give me more than a gentle “nudge”.  But He has been a constant presence in my life, and His people have been a constant source of support, encouragement, exhortation, and love.

Since last April, I’ve been going through “Basic Bible Studies” by Wendell Heatwole, published by Christian Light Publications, Inc. in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Now, the book is only 79 pages, but it is SO good!  I’ve learned more about the Bible than I’ve ever learned before and I’ve been FULL of questions and tend to get off-topic during my regular Bible studies with Larry and Rhoda Showalter.  (Maybe I should say, instead, that the topics in the book lead to related topics and questions.)  We joke that maybe by the fall of 2017 I’ll be ready for rebaptism.  That is probably closer to the truth than I would’ve imagined last year!

I don’t think I mentioned that Larry Showalter was the man in the car in front of the barn that day last April, the person I thought might be lost.  He is a retired Mennonite bishop.  (Even now, my cheeks flush with embarrassment just thinking about that first encounter.  There I was, flannel pajamas, no veiling, hair blowing in the breeze.)

Larry wasn’t lost.  But God knew I needed some direction and sent it my way.

Embracing Lady Poverty

“Embracing Lady Poverty,” is what St. Francis of Assisi termed his eager acceptance of and fondness for living – um – extremely frugally.  He felt that by doing so, he removed many obstacles that stood between him and God – and he wanted nothing to stand in the way of his relationship with God.

As a single mother of three, I’ve known some pretty thin times.  But I never really struggled with poverty until after a car accident left me unable to work.  My meager savings eventually disappeared, I sold over half of my belongings, and moved to Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, a place I’d fallen in love with just a few months earlier.  I lived in a trailer for the first time in my life – and I loved it!  The living room of the trailer had large windows on three sides and, since the small trailer court was on a mountainside, I was able to view the gorgeous scenery quite easily.  It was definitely an improvement over gazing at three stories of vinyl siding on the neighboring townhouses in Northern Virginia.

I tried to work, but even a job I thought I’d be able to do – being a tour guide at Seneca Caverns – required its guides to rake leaves, pick up sticks after wind storms, and heft 40-pound boxes of rocks.  Couldn’t do that!

After I broke my leg and developed blood clots when the cast was removed, a dear woman at the local hospital filed paperwork so I could receive Medicaid.  That has been a life saver!  When food supplies dwindled, friends suggested applying for food stamps – and that was a real blessing, too.

I couldn’t afford to put gas in my car, much less make payments, so I gave my car to my son.  When I could no longer afford the monthly trailer payments, my two aunts made them for me.  I couldn’t afford Internet service but I could always use the computer at the library.  I haven’t had TV in over 22 years, so that wasn’t anything I missed.

In July, I moved into an old Craftsman-style home, built around 1900-1910, I’m guessing.  It hadn’t been occupied for over 10 years so you might be able to imagine its condition.  But I loved this house immediately – I saw what it could become.  All those earlier episodes of “This Old House” (back with Bob Villa) and “New Yankee Carpenter” (with a stouter Norm Abrams) and my decades-old affinity for old “fixer-uppers” had found a focus.

I had no car and no money for one.  A dear church friend loaned me one – and twice, he’s filled it with gas for me.  He and another church friend, also an auto mechanic, have fixed the loaner several times and have never billed me for parts or labor.  (Now that I’m employed, I intend to change that.)

I had no money to pay rent.  So I made a deal with the landlord – I’d fix up the house for 10-12 months in exchange for living here rent-free.  I gave him a list of what I intended to do in the house (fix roofs, restore light fixtures, upgrade electricity, etc.)  He agreed.  Friends helped clean, a church youth group from Pennsylvania tackled the kitchen and front siding, and two friends helped pull off old linoleum from the sun porch floor to reveal solid oak hardwood in great shape.

In August, I was asked to fill in for a housekeeper who cleaned three rental cabins on Spruce Knob.  I didn’t know if I could do the work – making my own bed was taxing.  But, I wanted to try.  If I could do the work at my own pace, which included breaks as needed, I just might be able to do it.  And I did!  It was hard, and I depended on pain relievers,  muscle relaxers, and frequent breaks to get me through it.  But I could do it.  I worked in exchange for the cabins’ owner, a carpenter, to fix two leaky roofs on my old house.

When I had to clean all three cabins in short order, it was next to impossible for me – and the frequent rentals during October’s fall foliage season made it harder than ever on my back.  I had to ask for help from the owner’s daughter-in-law and her husband.

Cleaning the cabins gave me the courage to apply for a position as a sort of “visiting grandma” – picture someone who nurtures, supports, educates, and provides screening for families with children ages 0 (pre-natal) to 5.  That sounded ideal to me.  And it wouldn’t be so difficult physically.  I interviewed with the supervisor and was offered the position.

The first day of training, I had to drive a little over an hour away.  I had no money and I had an empty gas tank.  I stopped at the post office to check my mail, hoping that maybe a birthday check was in there (my birthday had been two days earlier).  And my former employer, the cabin owner and his wife, had sent a birthday card and check for $100.  That is how I put gas in the loaner car.

The day I received my first payroll deposit in my checking account was sheer delight!  I have never in my life filled out a check with as much pleasure as that first check for trash pickup!  Up until now, every time I had to pay a bill it was incredibly stressful.  I have a little plaque on my desk to help me overcome my financial fears – “I can do all things through Christ… Philippians 4:13”.  I ordered checks years ago with scenes of antiques arranged in attractive displays – I needed to enjoy the process of paying bills and those checks helped.  But during that first day of writing checks just two weeks ago, I didn’t feel a need for my plaque or the pretty checks – I finally had money of my own and was able to afford things so many take for granted – garbage pickup, for example.

My second payroll deposit was last Thursday – the day I arrived home to discover that my water pipe had frozen.  I figured the following day I could pick up heat tape.  Well, I did – I also picked up new fuses for the ones that had blown when my space heaters were struggling to supply heat to my house that night.  I woke at 2 in the morning to a freezing house – drove 45 minutes or so to Walmart, hoping they’d sell what I needed.  I was able to get a few things, but had to wait until stores opened at 7 for fuses and heat tape.  Until then, I had not been able to afford those things and fortunately, I had money in my account when I really needed to buy them.

Before I was hired for this new position, I’d sold my sterling silver – the last asset I had.  With the proceeds, I bought a stacking washer/dryer and paid off some debts to friends.  A friend has been doing my laundry for me since my 46-year-old washing machine started leaking, but I don’t want to be lugging loads of wash 150 feet from the house to the footbridge, over the footbridge, and to my car parked about 50 feet up the road – in snow or ice.  Had a glaze of ice this morning and it was unpleasant enough maneuvering across it without carrying laundry!

I’ve discovered that living here in the mountains, it’s far easier to live with poverty – and to embrace it – than it was back in the suburbs.  Here, we have no Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors or fast food restaurants or malls or theaters or any number of places conspiring to lure me in and take my money.  Goodwill and Walmart are about an hour away.  Landscaped  yards and manicured lawns are uncommon, unless you go to town, so there’s no need to “keep up with the neighbors”.  Yes, I take care of my yard, but it’s easier here.

Back in April, I started attending a conservative Mennonite church here.  I found my church home!  I’m still going through the Basic Bible Study booklet and have applied to be received into the church when I’ve completed it, but I have never been so at home with any church community or people in my life.  I even find the women’s apparel fits with my preferences so perfectly.  When I moved here, I opted to let my hair go gray as I just disliked the endless need to keep up with coloring my hair.  I didn’t feel a need to wear earrings or jewelry, and I had no one criticizing me for my fashion (or lack of fashion) choices.  When I started attending our Mennonite church, I loved the way that the cape dress worn by the women was sensible, modest, and attractive.  The same style of dress worn by my friends today was worn by their mothers and grandmothers decades ago – their family photos display the same dress styles we wear now.  I like that – I really like that our apparel is not dictated by a fashion industry or department stores.  Mennonite women take their cues for dressing from the Bible.  Cape dresses are handmade to fit each woman.  Up until yesterday, my four cape dresses were from second-hand sections of Mennonite stores in Virginia and Ohio.  I’ve been quite happy with them!  But for my birthday, a dear friend from church gave me two pieces of material and offered to make dresses for me.  Yesterday, another dear friend sent over a completed cape dress, made to fit me using material that had been donated to the church’s sewing circle.  I look forward to wearing it to church tomorrow!

As much as I enjoy wearing a cape dress each day, I also have come to recognize how liberating a limited wardrobe is.  I own only a winter coat that needs dry cleaning.  My clothes fit pretty easily on a hook or two – a small closet would be more than enough room to fit them all!  I don’t have to coordinate pieces or have accessories to match.  When it gets cold outside, I layer skirts underneath the skirt of my dress for added warmth and sometimes add flannel pajama bottoms!  It’s actually warmer layering like this than wearing jeans.

Mennonite women also do not wear makeup, and I find that incredibly refreshing.  My morning routine has been shortened by not applying the little bit of makeup that I used to wear – mascara (that would run in hot weather), blush, and under-eye concealer.  Occasionally, I would wear eye shadow or lipstick.  But to be free from that routine is truly delightful!  And I don’t miss buying makeup.

Trips to the hair salon are non-existent now, too.  I don’t miss paying $25-50 for haircuts, and not always being happy with the results.  When I moved to West Virginia, I decided to let my hair grow out; I’d never had long hair, even as a girl, and I decided to see what it was like.  Since attending our church, I’ve learned to pull it back in a bun and wear a small white cap called a “veiling”.  I actually prefer it to any hairstyle I’ve ever had.  I will wear this hairstyle for the rest of my life – no need to keep up with current fashion trends or concern myself (and my budget) with salon treatments.  The veiling is scriptural and many Christian women are now adopting veiling for themselves.  For me, it’s also a delightful reminder that God is in charge – He is head of my home.  As a single mother and a former teacher used to making dozens of decisions each day, it is a relief to NOT be in charge.  I GLADLY let God be in charge, to be attuned to His “nudges” in my life.

In two weeks, I shall gladly bid adieu to my Medicaid card, happy that I’m once again able to provide for myself.  When this last monthly food stamp allotment of $194.00 is gone, I will be delighted to let someone else who truly needs that service receive the money.  Both types of assistance were provided to me in times of great need.

My lessons in poverty will stay with me, I trust.  I’m reading a book about Christian budgeting, loaned to me by our pastor.  And I can see how, just coming into money as I am now, will make it far easier to budget appropriately.  I have most of what I need (eventually, I’d like to get a car of my own) and everything I could possibly want.  I truly want for nothing.

Living in poverty – with no income, dependent on Medicaid and food stamps – was very humbling.  Humbling, not embarrassing.  I learned what I truly need in order to live – and I greatly prefer my simpler lifestyle.

Back in April, I was staying at a friend’s trailer (had no money for trailer rental of my own, no where to go) when I met my new Mennonite friends, who’d come to the farm for a cottage meeting at the neighbor’s.  Had I not been so impoverished financially, I would never have been at that farm, would never have met the retired Mennonite bishop who invited me along, would never have known the incredible riches of my new faith walk in the Mennonite church.  I have placed my faith firmly in Christ and not once have I been disappointed.  I know without a doubt that as I trust Him to guide my steps, He makes sure I walk on firm ground.

I have been so richly blessed this year – yet, had I failed to “embrace Lady Poverty,” I would not be here today, so deeply happy, in a church I admire and thoroughly love, with a life full of dear friends, and with a career that I am so excited about.  I know, too, that “Lady Poverty’s” friendship will allow me to relate to others I meet here and help me reach out to them in a way that would have been impossible before.

St. Francis of Assisi’s embrace of the Gospel was pretty radical – taking a vow of poverty was not exactly something that religious orders of the Middle Ages espoused.  But he was so right about its value – simplifying our lives makes us more open to God’s will, to God’s daily miracles, to God’s guidance in our lives.  Poverty makes us radically dependent upon God for everything.  And when we turn our lives, our hearts, and our minds, to God, we will never be disappointed.







Christmas… Recalling the Truly Humble Birth of Our Lord

When I was expecting our first child, it occurred to me – on a new level – that Jesus’ birth took place in the most humble of surroundings.  In February of 1987, I was decorating a tiny nursery at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois, with a dresser, a crib, and a rocking chair.  Little outfits were washed and stored away, plenty of diapers had been purchased and tucked away in the closet, and I’d taken Lamaze classes and read about breastfeeding so I’d be as ready as possible for our little one.  I was within minutes of the hospital, where I’d give birth to my firstborn in a warm, well-equipped room surrounded by nurses, an obstetrician, and an anesthesiologist.  This last staff member happened to be our next-door neighbor, who called home throughout my labor and delivery to report on my progress to his wife, who then relayed the news to our other neighbors!

That Christmas, I compared my preparations for our newborn with those of Mary and Joseph.  Surely, Mary knew about nourishing her child – that would have been something she’d have learned about by being around other newborns and new mothers.  She would have also been accustomed to birthing, if only from the animals around her home.  I think, though, that experienced mothers in her life would have helped prepare her for childbirth.  Prior to their journey to Bethlehem, had Mary tucked tiny little outfits, blankets, and soft rolls of cloth in a bag?  I think she must’ve known her time was near and would have wanted to be as prepared for her newborn as possible.  I wonder if she was a bit worried, with the prospect of being far from home and away from friends and family who could help with her labor and delivery.  It must have been disheartening, too, seeking shelter in a town bursting with visitors.  Over and over, Joseph sought a place to stay in Bethlehem – any place –  and was repeatedly turned down.  How long was Mary in labor as she and Joseph searched for a room?  Fatigue from worry and the strain of travel must have been wearing them down.

After being turned away from one inn after another, and after enduring labor pains while riding a donkey, the humble stable finally offered to Joseph and Mary must have looked so inviting.  At last, Mary could ease off the donkey’s back and lie down, resting in the straw.  Joseph could kneel beside her, comforting Mary as her contractions became more intense.  Imagine the earthiness of this stable for a moment – dust and cobwebs, cow “pies” and donkey droppings to sidestep, a dirt floor covered with straw, the smells of the animals present, gentle munching sounds as hay and grain were eaten, soft calls of the stable’s occupants, and the warmth those creatures must have added to the stable.  This is the place our Savior was born in.  Was Joseph able to make a bed of clean straw for his laboring wife?  Did he heat the well water to clean Jesus and his mother?  Giving birth in a stable is nothing any one of us would aspire to.  Christmas carols sanitize the event – “Away in a Manger” never mentioned the possibility of splintered wood, wobbly legs, or dusty, prickly straw.  Things we take for granted now were not so simple for the Holy Family.

The first visitors to the newborn King were humble, too, simple shepherds alerted to Jesus’ birth by heavenly angels.  I like to think that Mary and Joseph were delighted by these visitors, who told the new parents how they’d learned of their son’s birth.  Being simple country folks, the shepherds carried some food and water with them, and they probably offered to share what they had with Mary and Joseph.  If there were older shepherds in the group, they most likely gazed upon the infant Jesus with admiration and approval, congratulating the new parents on their new son.  I think these older men would’ve clapped Joseph on his back, perhaps embrace him, and assure him he did a fine job bringing his son into the world.  And all these things Mary would remember, would treasure in her heart.

As Christmas draws near, I want to create as warm and as welcoming a place in my heart as I possibly can for Jesus.  I want my heart to be filled with gratitude for the many blessings he’s provided me, with abiding love for the cherished friends and family in my life, and with a deep desire to do what Jesus would have me do, not what I would have me do.  Jesus asked his disciples to share God’s love with the world, to be a little beacon of God’s light for all.

Mary and Joseph would have gladly stopped where a little flame from a candle or oil lamp beckoned them to rest.  Please, God, let me be a little flame of your love in my little part of the world.


…”we can do small things with great love.”

Two weeks ago, I was asked to fill in for a housekeeper who’d broken her elbow.  She is responsible for taking care of three gorgeous rental cabins on Spruce Mountain in West Virginia and should be able to resume her duties in two months or so.  Although I was a bit hesitant, due to some back problems, I agreed to help the owners clean up a cabin the following day and see how it went. 

Just days before, I’d spent a day and a half cleaning a local pavilion for a family reunion.  It was very tiring, but very satisfying work.  I wanted to see if my back could handle the added labor.

Well, Wednesday night, our Mennonite community had a clean up night in the church.  I scrubbed the two bathrooms and was just about done in.  I was trying to keep up with the rest of the crew and overdid it.  I decided I’d better bring along an extra helper in case I couldn’t keep up with the cabin the following morning.

For the cabin, I planned a bit better.  I took a pain pill and a muscle relaxer before I headed over to the mountain. That helped and I felt that I really would be able to take on this housekeeping position.

I am quite surprised by how much I enjoy doing the work.  I cannot imagine a more pristine setting – the view from the cabins’ decks overlooks Germany Valley and right now, all I can see are green leaves and trees everywhere.  Fall must be beautiful from this vantage point – and a winter scene of snow everywhere would be so delightful!  As I drove up the narrow mountain road this morning, two deer crossed the road in front of me.  Definitely beats any prior commutes I’ve had!

Besides the great setting, the cabins themselves are a pleasure to work in.  The owner built them – he’s a carpenter, and the care he took shows in every little detail.  The angles of the roof peaks are mitered perfectly, the handrails of the staircases leading to the cabins are routed on the edges and sanded smooth on the ends.  Really nice.  It’s truly a delight to work in such a structure, a privilege to be entrusted to keep it clean and inviting for the next guests.

One more advantage to cleaning these cabins – my spine is actually feeling stronger than it has in decades. I cannot imagine a better place to head for physical therapy! And I’d much rather do something truly worthwhile that sit at a machine doing exercises.

I probably like working in those cabins because my home is not exactly pristine – yet.  When I moved in the end of June 2016, it had been unoccupied for over nine years.  Cobwebs were everywhere and leaves filled the kitchen floor to a depth of about five inches.  Two windows were in need of glass and admitted all sorts of night insects.  I don’t miss those at all.  I’ve made a lot of progress in the house, and had a lot of help doing so, but it is still in need of paint and scrubbing.  A bit at a time, I’m bringing the house back to life.  Tending to those rental cabins gives me incentive to tackle my own house as well and give me a bit of a vacation from the chores back home.

This past Monday, more than 150 people gathered at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Paterson, New Jersey to honor the contributions of janitors in the community.  Housekeepers, maids, janitors – all have similar jobs.  I have always respected the folks who kept my classroom warm, clean, and repaired as needed.  When I’ve stayed at hotels, I appreciated the care taken to make sure the room is comfortable.  And now that I’m a housekeeper, I take pride in making sure the cabins are just what the guests are looking for.  I realize that it’s the housekeeper whose touch in each cabin is one of the factors that can make or break a guest’s visit.  I scrub spots off of the stainless shower fixtures, scrub any spot that looks out of place, basically treat the cabin like it’s my own and family’s coming to visit.  Grandma was born in Barry, Ontario and we used to be encouraged to “clean as if the Queen is coming.”  Well, the Queen is welcome to visit here!

Saint Teresa was canonized by the Catholic Church on Sunday.  One of my favorite quotes is attributed to her and I think it’s fitting to close this reflection on doing small things with it.

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

A Little Jam Crock

Hartley's Jam Crock

Hartley's Jam Crock, bottom

I know I’m not alone in enjoying a good hunt for antiques – or “rusty junk”, as FarmerHoney calls it. Last Friday, I went to my first auction just over North Mountain in Franklin, at a neat little place called M&M Auction Service and Antiques Emporium. Now, I truly did not intend to purchase a thing. Really. But I finally caved!

A box of treasures was held up for inspection.  I bid on it, because there was a Baldwin Brass candlestick in it.  I think I can spot a Baldwin Brass candlestick at 20 yards.  They’re not made anymore but I’ve found them in thrift stores and antique stores and online.  Brass is a classic, and these are so well-made and fit in with my decor, if one might call how I decorate my single-wide “decor”, that I just find it hard to pass one up.  Besides, I told myself (and FarmerHoney), I can sell it for more than what I paid for it.  The winning bid was mine – $1.00.  I saw the same candlestick on eBay the next morning for about $25.00.

But the real treasure for me turned out not to be the brass candlestick, nor any of the other items I brought home to renovate and sell.  Tucked into the box was a small white crock, about 4 inches high, the one pictured above.  I’d never seen one like it before.  I turned it over and noticed the words impressed into the clay base, “Not Genuine Unless Bearing Wm. P. Hartley’s Label”.  Thank goodness for the internet!  I did some research the next day and learned that the unassuming little crock could fetch at least $22.00; one on eBay was listed for $38.00.  Thank you, God!

But as someone who loves history, I decided to pursue my research. Who was this Hartley fellow and when did he make his jam?

William Pickles Hartley (Pickles was his mother’s maiden name) was only a lad of 14 when he left school to work in his mother’s grocery store in Colne, Lancashire (England). Two years later, he began his own grocery business and in 1871, when he was just 25, he started the jam business when his supplier was unable to fulfill his contract.

Now in England in 1871, the sugar duty (tax) had just been halved the year before and people from more walks of life were enjoying sweeter foods and beverages.  In 1874 – 3 years after William Hartley began his jam business – the sugar duty was abolished.  What timing!  With sugar prices falling, jam business picked up even more and that same year, Hartley moved his jam production to a new factory in Bootle.

William Hartley was a very successful businessman, perhaps because he lived by the Golden Rule. To reward employees, he introduced an early profit-sharing plan. He built dining halls, one for men and one for women. He created a little village for employees at Aintree.  And on January 1, 1977, he vowed to give a specific proportion of his income for charitable and philanthropic purposes.

But the one thing about this man that I find most delightful is his faith.  I’m not talking about the devout institutional type of faith, though he was a Primitive Methodist. Sir William Hartley practiced what he preached.  I think his message as Vice-President of the Primitive Methodist Conference in 1892 would be an inspiration to Pope Francis today:

“I am not one of those who are much troubled as to creed; but I am much exercised as to whether I am such a disciple of Jesus Christ that my work people, my business friends, my neighbours, and my family can constantly see the spirit and temper of the Master in my actions.”

“My own opinion is that for thirty-five years (this being the time of my recollection) we have listened to too many doctrinal and theological sermons and too few as to the absolute importance of living Christlike lives; and unless we be actually miniature Christs day by day, breathing His spirit and living His life, it matters not what we believe, for our religion is a sham. Our actual creed is what we put into practice, and no more; and we want to be careful to see that our practice is equal to our creed.”

Pope Francis has always struck me as a man of great love – love for God and love for all of God’s creatures. Sir William Hartley appears to have also shown great love for God and His creation.

As a Secular Franciscan, I try to walk with Jesus each day and do what He would have me do. Some days it’s pretty easy – like yesterday, when I was out with our dog hunting for wildflowers and morel mushrooms.  Who could deny God in the presence of the West Virginia wilderness?

Other days, it’s tough to be a follower of Jesus Christ. In the last year, I have advocated three times in three different situations for three different people, one related and two unrelated. Each time, I felt it was absolutely essential to do what I did and each time, I knew before I made a step that the fallout would not be pretty.

In every case, I bore the brunt of criticism and condemnation for trying to speak up for those who lacked a voice. I’d do it again if need be.  I know that.  I’ve done it before.  I just need to learn how to continue doing the work God’s asking of me while at the same time protecting myself from the hurt and depression that comes my way as a result.  I have Bipolar Disorder II, and conflict and confrontation can send me into a deep depression.  I can become suicidal and I’d really prefer to avoid situations that trigger such awful feelings!

Learning about Sir William Hartley’s close walk as a disciple of the Lord brings me great peace.  In his time, he exhorted his fellow Christians to be more Christ-like, to pay less attention to the trappings of the church.  Pope Francis is doing the same thing today – he truly is rebuilding the Church just as his namesake did centuries ago.

I’m sure each man had and has his detractors.  I’m not one of them.  Jesus brought us God’s message of love.  It’s simple, yet hard to implement at the same time.  St. Francis of Assisi understood that message and lived that message – love your fellow creatures of God. These men – Jesus, St. Francis, Sir William Hartley, and Pope Francis – must be able to do this successfully because they lean so heavily on God; their relationships with their Creator were and are far stronger than my own.

There’s a lesson to be learned from all this…

When I’m in a jam, lean harder on God.