19 December 2009

Quakers in the Country: Transportation

I guess that we have a different view of transportation than do people who live closer in to town. We’re not really that far out, perhaps two miles to the blacktop and three more to the post office and feed store. Of course, in the metropolis of Belmont, Ohio, that’s about all you get. There’s a little dry goods store there in town, all creaky old board floors and glass-fronted wooden cabinets that haven’t been moved in 75 years, probably. But if you want to buy green onions, it’s a 50 mile round trip to a chain grocery store, and going to the very good local library is at least 20. And of course, now that the kids are attending the giant public elementary school across the interstate, they ride the school bus about an hour each way. You know you live out and away when the school bus drives up for your children, turns around in your dooryard, and heads back the same way it came.

Being far away from town means that transportation is an issue. The little town of Zebra up the road to the north about two miles closed its post office in 1901, and now David Kemp parks his pickup in the cellar under the old dry goods store. So we can’t buy anything there, nor can we buy anything in Lampville, about a mile to the south, because there’s nothing left there except a couple of old derelict pickup campers for the deer hunters and a one-holer outhouse that we occasionally use when we take walks in the evening. Nope, if we want to buy a gallon of ice cream or a hammer, it’s a twenty-mile round trip. To buy a piece of plywood is 50 miles, like the green onions. They tell me that there’s another general store in Centerville, about 15 miles to the east, but I’ve never been there, as it’s not on the way to anywhere I need to go. The reality is that out where we live, being able to go to meeting, to the grocery store, to the library, to anything like that, all require a commitment to some sort of significant transportation device.

The local Amish use buggies, surreys, and hacks to get around, at a pretty smart clip, too, with those standardbreds that they use. Toby Yoder once told me that one particularly good horse he had could make the 28 miles to Quaker City in about two and a half hours. They’re also the best vehicles for snow country, as a lightweight buggy can go places where any four-wheel-drive would founder hopelessly. We could buy a very decent buggy for about $1500, a sort-of decent horse for another $1500, and then a new set of nylon harness for about $300. Not too bad, and we have enough hay field to keep a horse fed cheap except in the winter. But so far all that we have is Dude, the twenty-five dollar donkey who is actually worth much less, as far as I’m concerned. The kids tell me that he is broken both for saddle and to drive, but Dude’s major function up to this point has been to provide sympathy to my hard-working and lonely wife when she wants a break from five demanding children and from coping alone with our perpetually deteriorating infrastructure, while I’m out on the road. When she needs a kindred spirit and I’m out driving through snow storms in Iowa, Shawna heads out to the old post-and-beam barn that Dude lives under, and shovels out his accumulating piles of organic matter. Then she sits down in a clean spot, and Dude comes up for companionship and to investigate her pockets for carrots. Dude doesn’t think nearly so well of me, and when I hold out a carrot he just stares back warily as if I was some sort of noxious vermin. The feeling is entirely mutual. One of these days, we’ll build a donkey cart out of pieces of old Chevrolet, and Dude can start contributing in other ways, but until then the donkey is mostly just a work- in-progress.

The kids are all self-taught bicycle riders. We live on a hilltop, so teaching yourself to roll down is pretty easy. They all start with the off-road tricycles their very kind grandmother bought for them from Lehman’s Hardware in Kidron, and graduate to two wheels whenever they want. But the bicycles are strictly recreational. They don’t work in the snow, which can be considerable, and the problem with hills is that every time you whiz down one going away, you have to chug back up to get home again. And the kids all know that going to see the neighbor kids is at least two or three miles, and while I’m not at all averse to telling them to hoof it, my lovely wife is more gracious and takes them in whatever excuse for a car we currently drive.


We consume cars out here, because our life is not gentle to them. Our roads are gravel, mud, dirt, and snow, and to leave our house in two directions you must drive through the creeks to get out (unless the water is too deep). The third direction is a long exposed ridge, about the highest place in the county. There’s no water up there, but after a snowfall the road may be as much as a foot or two deep in powder. The only way to take it then is with speed and dedication, but once you learn where the road is under the featureless blanket of snow on the hilltop, it’s actually not bad. While the snow is actually blowing and the windshield is blank, you have to steer slowly along the road by looking out an open side window and gauging your distance from the fence that parallels the road on one side. This is important, because if you stray too far to the other side, you tumble down a forty-five degree slope into the holler and won’t be found until spring.


The fresh summer road gravel sandblasts the car’s undercarriage, and the winter salt corrodes anything that can oxidize. We have a useful little minivan right now, and the sheet metal has holes in various places underneath where the gravel has eroded the metal away. In the summertime when the roads are dusty, the car fills with clouds of silt that get sucked into the unibody through the holes, and then is blown into the interior through the inner body vents thoughtfully provided by designers who obviously didn’t live in the country. When I drive, I steer with one hand and hold the door open with the other to let the slipstream suck the dust back out as it comes in. I have to open the door because the designers also equipped the car with power windows, which of course don’t work anymore and cost hundreds of dollars to fix. (The used ones I bought from the junkyard didn’t work any better than the used ones they replaced. I have never been able to learn that simple lesson. Oh, well.)

Tires are a problem, too. We don’t buy high-quality tires, because the sharp limestone and cinders the township uses for road metal shred them too quickly. Shawna doesn’t even have the replacement wheels mounted on the car anymore. When another one starts to leak or shows too much wire in the tread area, she goes down to Joe’s Tires and has Joe or his brother put on a new one and lift it into the back, behind the rear seat. Then when the tire blows, she changes to the new one on the roadside and has the next new one mounted and thrown into the back in turn. I asked her the other day if it would be easier just to bungee the new tires onto the roof, but I got the impression she was concerned by what people would say.

We have a few other vehicles kicking around. The old one-ton market van is sitting down by the warehouse, waiting for me to do something to it. It has a rear axle that howls and it needs valve seals, but since we don’t go to the Farmer’s Markets to sell beeswax and honey these days there isn’t much incentive to fix it. Besides, with the 4:11 rear end it only gets six or seven miles to the gallon, and though it holds all the kids legally and groceries too, it really isn’t economical. But it has lots of useful parts that can easily be adapted to other deteriorating vehicles we might end up with, so I keep it around. Besides, it's a cheap place to store things that the raccoons might otherwise make away with.


The two bee trucks are more useful, potentially, anyway. We used them to move us and our bee business from California when we came east to join up with Ohio Yearly Meeting. The little one-ton flatbed dually is four-wheel-drive, and can get in and out of the property on days when the snow or the creeks are too deep for anything else. When the well goes dry in the summer, we also use it to haul water from town, because the 4000-pound water tank is too heavy for anything else and the county won’t let us fill it from the nice new fire hydrant just two miles up the road. Currently it’s parked like the market van, because the front end has a frightening way of shaking its head violently on smooth roads, and we don’t have the thousand or so dollars it will undoubtedly take to fix. It’s only got about 40 or 50 thousand miles on its fourth engine, so we’re going to keep it until the rust makes it disintegrate.

The two-ton flat bed is parked out by the old carriage house. We bought it when I rolled the last one in California. Ever seen 15,000 pounds of honey spilled out over the road? Not pretty, especially when you’re hanging upside down from the seat belt. It has a nearly new Payne beehive loader on the back, but runs on propane. A propane truck is a good idea in some places and times, and when agricultural propane was cheap it made good sense to run it, even though it only gets 3.7 miles per gallon. A two-ton is a critically important tool to use if you’re running a 900-hive bee outfit, like we did in California, but out here in Ohio it seems less useful. But since we couldn’t get any money for it if we sold it, we leave it parked there, for the time being. I miss keeping bees, and running a few hundred hives is not a really time-consuming sideline if you can be there at the right times. Not right now, while I’m working as Billy Big Rigger.

And of course, there’s my ancient Triumph Bonneville, kept down in the warehouse. I’ve had that old motorcycle seventeen years longer than I’ve had my wife, and while that’s not a value-for-value comparison, I have no intention of relinquishing my relationship with either one. Motorcycles make excellent sense out here, although a four-wheel-drive ATV would be more useful in the woods. I’d like a sidecar for it, but that’s a low priority plan.

I’d trust the kids on an ATV sooner than I’d trust them on a motorcycle anyway. The two oldest can drive a car now that they’re tall enough. We start them out when they’re ten or eleven to get them used to the machine. They both need lots more practice, but where we live it’s not like there’s any traffic to worry about. We just don’t want them dropping off the road into the ravines by mistake. Or on purpose. There’s no such thing as traffic cops anywhere near where we live, now that the sherriff’s deputy and the nice young lady just up the road have apparently parted company, so there’s no societal issues involved in letting a ten year-old get behind the wheel on a public road.

But maintaining all these machines costs money if you use them, and I’m also getting more and more fed up with the aggravation and hassle of depending on internal combustion engines and machinery for transportation. A typical Amish buggy is about as low-tech as you can get and not be walking, and in our neighborhood you don’t need the electric lights and hydraulic brakes that the modern buggies a few counties north of us all come with. As fuel becomes more and more expensive, our lifestyle may be approaching a point where the regression lines cross, and suddenly animal traction begins to make more sense. We’ll need to modify our household economy, and not having the community infrastructure that the Amish have will mean that we’ll never be rid of the family car completely, but it’s becoming a more attractive alternative every day.

And since driving in a buggy means exposure to cold winter weather, we’ll need something nice and warm to spread out across our knees. We don’t have any buffalo here to make robes with, but I happen to know where there’s a fair-sized donkey that I could skin out in a jiffy. Besides, I hear that donkeys make excellent sausage, and I’m the only vegetarian in the house.

Maybe I could work something out here.

13 December 2009

Quakers in the Country: The Wife

Proverbs 31:10-12 Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
Living in the country and trying to make ends meet and keep things from breaking presents a lot of challenges to people, and one of the things that I recommend to any potential Husband who is contemplating a life spent on dirt roads far away from town is to work out a deal with a Wife. Not just any Wife, because not just any Wife will do. There are very specific and very difficult aspects of this sort of lifestyle, and yoking to just any Wife that comes along and expresses a desire to live forever with an outdoor toilet is likely to result in unforeseen incompatibilities. I have discovered a formula for solving this problem, and while I admit that it may not be applicable to every Husband’s situation, it certainly provides some general guidelines, which I am happy to share with you now.
Wives, please sheath your various implements of destruction. I have no experience with locker room conversations about Wives and their characteristics in that venue, and mean no disrespect to those of us with those extra X chromosomes. I merely have some basic knowledge to impart to potential Husbands, and if it doesn’t apply to you, please don’t hold it against me.
First and foremost, Husbands, find yourself a Wife with whom you are functionally compatible. By this I don’t mean that you must share political views or possess identical tastes in foreign food. But if you plan on moving towards a subsistence household economy with an agricultural substructure, don’t bother to begin negotiations with a potential Wife who hates soil and dislikes plants and animals. Find yourself someone who likes to grow flowers, especially one who likes the idea of growing plants and then eating them. Plants can be pretty, but a Wife who knows that good-looking plants can be eaten as well is what you’re looking for.
Functional compatibility takes on other aspects, too. Living in the country requires an intimate relationship with dirt and mud, so investigate the preferences of any potential Wife in these areas. In my own case, I discovered an instant combination of an agricultural predisposition and a high tolerance for mud when I noticed sunflowers sprouting from discarded seeds in the impressive layers of mud packed into the carpet of one potential Wife’s otherwise shiny red pickup truck. “Hmmmm,” I said. “This one bears further looking into.”
Of course, a pickup truck is itself a good sign. It doesn’t need to be impressive, or large, or have extra levers in the floorboards. But if your potential Wife drives a pickup truck, rather than, say, a Vespa, then you’re on the right track. Nothing wrong with Vespas, for people who live in town, but a pickup truck is more suited to carrying goat feed, pieces of pipe, very large dogs, and other country necessities. Your potential Wife doesn’t need to actually be doing these things when you spot her—owning the pickup is a pre-adaptation to country life that is already a useful indicator of compatibility.
Another thing to look for in an appropriate Wife is a willingness to give up large portions of financial security for an almost inevitable helping of uncertainty and a lowered level of income. Country life is like that. You ain’t going to be rich, and it’s important to look for a potential Wife who is tolerant of a similar downsizing of financial goals. It helps to locate one who isn’t really interested in expensive possessions, foreign vacations, or decent clothing and shelter. Instead, find one who is willing to wear rags, live in houses condemned by the county, and will spend her time looking over potential farm property in places like Oregon, for instance, or Ohio. If she can do this all alone without you being there, so much the better.
Resourcefulness is a desirable characteristic that varies among potential Wives, and a high degree of resourcefulness will pay you many times over when things break and you can’t be there to make them right again. I am fortunate enough to have a Wife who is willing to tackle any repair job she encounters, armed with nothing more impressive than packing tape and pushpins. She can patch sheetrock, install room partitions, seal blown out windows, and perform many other tasks using only these mundane miracle tools. I once proudly told her that the Titanic would never have sunk if she had been on board with a large enough supply of packing tape and pushpins, but I’m afraid she didn’t see it as a compliment.
Resourcefulness is important in larger ways, too. On occasion, our ancient fire-breathing coal furnace under the house will burn out its shroud and begin to puff coal smoke into the house through the vents. When the temperature is only a few degrees above zero Fahrenheit, this presents a dilemma. Should we freeze to death, or perish from asphyxiation first? A Wife with a sufficient amount of resourcefulness will ascertain that a chimney flue can be satisfactorily repaired with aluminum foil and wads of fiberglass batting from the auto parts store. A few pushpins are helpful, too.
A hard-headed sense of financial priorities is something that makes a certain type of Wife extremely valuable in hard times. When money is tight, a financially-competent Wife will know that it is more important to pay the electric bill than the garbage bill. Of course, it would help to tell the garbage people to come and get their dumpster rather than just letting the bills stack up, but you can’t expect everything. An understanding of financial priorities when raising five children alone is important too. When faced with purchasing groceries or making sure that the kids have the supplies for their upcoming Christmas parties at public school, a financially-competent Wife will realize that while an eight-year-old will not long remember eating fried dough for a week, she will remember the trauma of being unprepared for her class party for the rest of her life. Besides, fried dough is actually not too bad. In John Steinbeck’s epic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Ma Joad’s family learns to eat fried dough in California’s agricultural Central Valley. And so did I, in the company of a Wife who knew her business.
A lack of squeamishness is very important to look for. Of course, giving birth at home to five children under conditions reminiscent of the motion picture How the West Was Won would tend to erase squeamishness in most people, but it still helps to have as little as possible going in. Having a high squeamishness threshold is helpful to a Wife who needs to regularly empty the bathroom bucket that a house with five small children and no indoor plumbing will find essential. And occasionally lifting dead 120-pound Rottweilers out of the van and burying them is a task that many lesser Wives might quail at. Living with a sink full of dirty, smelly dishes that must sit for a week because the well has gone dry again requires a tolerance for grossness as well, as does the accompanying infrequency of taking a bath. And of course, cats, dogs, and children seem to collect portions of eviscerated wildlife that squeeze softly under your bare feet when you step outside the kitchen porch in the pre-dawn. (What is this, now, another short-tailed shrew or just a length of deer intestine? Do I want to turn on the light or just hope the dogs eat it before I find out what it is?)
But aside from skills such as these, the kind of Wife you should be looking for is one who has a sense of proportion, coupled with humor, because if you can’t laugh at the tragedies and misadventures of living in the country, you won’t last long out here, no matter how competent you are in other ways . I have been particularly blessed with a Wife who can see the humor in many of my beliefs and activities, and who doesn’t hesitate to assist me by frequently pointing out the amusing stupidity of one or another of my actions, and always offers useful corrections for me to undertake. This is of immense value, of course, and I pay strict attention to every detail and invariably take her advice.
There are also apparently minor characteristics that seem to take on added importance during various encounters with fate and fortune in a country-based lifestyle. I heartily recommend seeking out a potential Wife from among the very small but very significant pool of blonde left-handed belly dancers with degrees in English Literature, preferably no more than five feet two inches tall. Of course, your own situation may be different, but these characteristics seem to provide a foundation for making a good Wife that is hard to further identify, even though it seems to be important. The five-foot-two stature cannot be overrated, because there is no better technique for deflecting a devastating point in debate than to approach the Wife closely so that the top of her head is located directly beneath your chin, and then to ask, “Did someone say something?” as you look blankly around the kitchen.
Finally, a common interest in spiritual matters is a key to life-long compatibility and a functionally successful relationship. Such a Wife will not only provide great value to a household economy, but will also perceive strategic avenues in making a relationship with God a matter of growth and improvement, rather than stasis and stagnation. This common focus also manages to bridge over the low points and inevitable compatibility crises that any marriage to a temperamental, hot-headed, and immensely stubborn Wife will occasionally present, especially when the money and food is gone and the coal pile is scraped down to the underlying snow. In the final analysis, this is probably the most important aspect of the relationship to consider, once you establish that you both speak the same language.
Then again, in my own relationship with my own Wife, I realize that we really don’t speak the same language, at least not always, and sometimes not very often. Yet it seems to work anyway, so perhaps that isn’t as important as I had thought.
So, Husbands, I hope some of these pointers will prove useful to you in your seeking after a compatible and complementary Wife, and I wish you good fortune in the search. I’m not looking anymore, and you can’t have mine, but I will indeed hold my own Wife up as the example that all of you should look to in your own search.
Best wishes and may Providence bless you as it has blessed me.
Proverbs 31:29-31 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.


Matthew 6:22 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

Try just repeating it to yourself: simplicity. The word itself sounds so, well, simple.
Why is it that we Friends are so concerned with simplicity? We seem to write about it a lot. I’ve thought about it a lot, too, and as I see it, simplicity is not as easy as you might think. Simplicity means very different things to different groups of Friends. Most Friends’ books of Discipline or Faith and Practice will address the issue somewhere, either under “Testimonies” or the category of “Advices and Queries,” if they still maintain them. In the older Disciplines, it won’t appear as “Simplicity,” but will show up here and there under “Temperance and Moderation,” “Plainness,” and the like. We don’t know where to put it, but we manage somehow.
In general, the recommendations fall into two categories. First, the pursuit of simplicity calls upon Friends—and everybody else, too—to avoid superfluous possessions, expenditures, and consumption, so as to simplify our responsibilities and impacts as stewards of the creation. That’s commendable and pretty straightforward. Second, it calls upon people to avoid activities, occupations, and excessive attention to anything that might result in a lack of attention being devoted to more eternally significant spiritual matters.
My own Ohio Yearly Meeting’s Discipline section on “Simplicity” follows our traditional practice of never stating anything clearly when oblique and vague alternatives are available. (You gotta love us.) “Simplicity” is talked about in several places, but never defined. The best we can do is to state this much about simplicity:
The heart of Christian simplicity lies in the singleness of purpose which is required by the injunction to seek first the Kingdom of God. As men seek to express the spirit of God in the daily lives they realize the necessity of putting first things first . . . . The call to each is to abandon those things that clutter his life and to press toward the goal unhampered. This is true simplicity.
Actually, this isn’t so bad, for Conservative Friends, anyway. We also mention it in other places, too, here and there, without really going into why simplicity is less distracting than complexity. After all, having too much of something is sometimes less distracting than having too little of it. Food, for instance. Or shelter. Many years ago, George Orwell wrote that the only people who didn’t think about money were people who had lots of it; people who had very little money thought about it all the time.
And is there a point where the pursuit of simplicity becomes a distraction? Can simplicity itself become a notional pursuit that enslaves, rather than frees, the follower? What about Zen and the art of archery, or Lao Tzu and his impossible parables? And voluntary poverty, and those annoyingly persistent Franciscans?
It turns out simplicity is actually sort of complicated.
In my own case, the pursuit of simplicity has been a calling that I have pursued all my life, consciously, actively. With greater and lesser success in different ways, at different times. When choosing between two tools to add to my inventory, I generally choose one that solves the problem with the fewest unnecessary features. Features are the enemy of simplicity, the mission creep of non-necessities that whittle away at our attention. When selecting a new pocket knife, for example, I avoid the all-in-one tools with a gadget for every purpose. My pocket knives all have a single blade, one that locks in place so that it won’t fold shut on my fingers, and a design that can be opened with one hand. That’s it. I used to carry switch blades because they satisfied all these conditions admirably, but that particular tool makes me unpopular in some circles, so I don’t carry them anymore.
There are other examples. In automobiles, I prefer cheap and easy standard transmissions to automatics, windows that crank open without a motor, rubber mats rather than carpets, and mechanical actuators and control systems rather than hydraulic, electric, or solid state. I also prefer carburetors to fuel injection, and no, I don’t care if it’s just a throttle body. In kitchen tools, I avoid anything with a power cord, and when I cook (rarely now that I live in my truck) I generally cook from scratch. (Ask me sometime about how I discovered that you can buy cornbread mixes in a box—I hadn’t a clue that you could do that.)
I bought a used motorcycle when I was in school, years ago. It worked okay for me, and so I’ve kept it for the last 33 years. It works better now than it did when I bought it, and I don’t see the need to replace it with something else. It’s not as quick or as fast as a newer, more complex machine, but I know every single part inside it personally and if I twist the throttle it will still double the legal speed limit.
And I’ve ditched televisions sets for many years now, and almost completely abandoned radios, too. I don’t have a lot in the way of recorded music, and I don’t pursue a lot of time-consuming entertainments: motion pictures, sports, politics and so on. Let’s not talk about books. I’m no good at getting rid of books, and besides, I don’t have to. God regularly destroys the books I accumulate in traumatic ways, so I try not to worry about them much anymore.
In a previous life, I used to consciously try to add to the complex of data available in my head. For instance, I made it a point to learn to identify all the species of mammals in my state, all the genera in my country, all the families in the world. Not so hard with mammals, actually, as there’s not very many of them, and most are my favorites anyway: bats and rats. I can still identify most of the canids in North America (wolves, coyotes, and various foxes) by nothing more than isolated lower jaw bones. But I’ve mellowed on mammalogy, and while I still enjoy the critters, now I’m not so intense. I’ve mellowed on a lot of things, actually, as I’ve learned that spreading myself too thin with interesting but distracting matters lessens the time I have available for each one of them. I try to limit my attention to fewer but more important things, and work on deeper understandings of each of them.
There are exceptions to this pattern, of course. I accept necessary complexity in aspects of my life that require more of it. I dress in the manner generally referred to as plain, and it adds complexity to my life that clothing myself more simply would avoid. It’s hard to get certain types of clothing in certain places, for example, and often more expensive. But I don’t dress the way I do as a witness to simplicity, I do it as a witness to other things. And living as I do out in the country with a wife and five kids, a four-ton pile of coal for heat, a twenty-four foot hole in the ground for intermittent drinking water, and a four-foot hole in the ground for a toilet, also adds complexities to my life that just living in town would remove. But I do that for other reasons as well.
I consider it distracting to have to relearn the same things over again unnecessarily, if obsolescence or progress renders a satisfactory system unviable. I recognize that my time is limited, and so is the attention that I can afford to devote to mastering duplicate additions to my mental chores. There are things that I want to know, and things that I want to become better at, and things that I want to understand. But there are also lots of intrusions into my sphere of simplicity that I reject out of hand, even if they might make something easier, quicker, or even cheaper. Like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, I believe that I have reached the point where I don’t learn something new without forgetting something that I learned before—I can’t become better at certain things without sacrificing time and mental energy to them that I might want to devote to other things that I think are more important.
I’m not always successful. I once spent most of a day experimenting with an electric fan and plastic airfoils mounted on the tops of toy cars, proving to myself that it was actually possible to sail a boat into the wind in the way my lovely wife patiently explained. I had never really believed it, but now I know it’s true. Could I have done something more spiritually useful to my life that day? Maybe. The problem with simplicity is that sometimes it’s not really obvious what things are actually distractions, and what are thresholds to new ways of looking at something important. There’s lots of things that still continue to clamor for my attention. Gyroscopes (try holding a spinning bicycle wheel by the axle), and mixing colored light, and how music works, and why salmon swim up into little creeks to breed, and the different types of woven textiles. Maybe I’ll have time to figure them out someday, or maybe not.
I choose simplicity, in the end, mostly for the reasons described in my meeting’s Discipline. I choose it because it frees me from distractions, and allows me to spend my energy, time, and thoughts pursuing other aspects of life that I find more important, rather than catering to the ephemera of transient complexity. I spend a lot of my time now thinking about God, and thinking about how other people have thought about God, and trying to get better at thinking about God. At least in the sense that I’m trying to get better at doing the things he wants me to do, and being the kind of person he wants me to be.
And I actually do end up with more time for reflection about God, and trying to understand more of what I’m to do in my life here in that context. By reducing distractions, I do find that I have been able to concentrate more on spiritual issues, and applying them to my life. So it does work, when I let it. But I have a very long way to go.
The problem is that these other various other topics are so interesting. But maybe some of them will turn out to be important to the way I think about God, and need to be added to the short and simple list of things that I pay more attention to.
Did you know that there are only 130 species of ferns in the whole world? Why did God do that? Ferns represent the only major biological group of organisms that a single systematist can ever hope to master in a lifetime. And there’s two species that I know of right down by the creek. I could start right there. Just a few months. How hard could it be?
You know, simplicity just isn’t easy.

26 September 2009

The Words of the Preacher

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. --Ecclesiastes 1:4

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Spoken and written a long, long time ago. I think about those words from time to time, and what they meant to him, and to me.

What are the constituents of a life? Are they the plans we make for tomorrow, or for next year, or for many years to come? Are they the endless re-thinkings of the many yesterdays that have passed behind us along the path, the might-have-beens, the if-onlys?

The Preacher had much to say about a lifelong search for meaning, and of the generations that came, and the generations that passed by, day after day, year after year, century after century. What was it that they looked for, and what was it that they found? What did they take with them when they stepped through the door?

As a child, many years ago now, I came to a conclusion about life that has never left me:

There is no Past. There is no Future. There is only Now.

The past is an illusion, and exists only in the present, only in the re-living in the current moment of a different moment, one already gone by. There is no stepping back to the past, no chance of re-directing the flow of our life stream into another channel of the river that we have passed by, because the current that carries us only moves forward. Every moment spent in contemplation of yesterday is a moment stolen from today.

The future, for us, has no existence at all, no information that we are privy to of the plans of God. Our actions today certainly affect our course as we journey into the future, but when the future arrives, we discover that it is only the present, again and again. My five-year-old son once awoke early one morning and asked me about it.

“Kevin,” he said sleepily as I buckled him into the van in the pre-dawn for the two-hour drive to the city. “Kevin, is this tomorrow?”

We live our lives along the razor-edge between a past that exists only in our memory, and a future that never comes. A long, long series of
nows; of momentary and unique assemblages of emotions and smells, sights, and sounds, each unique and each adding together to create what we will call a life, what we call our experience of this earth.

“Well, Hoss, what do you think?”

My uncle leans back on the bank in the cool shade, the bamboo fishing pole held over his faded blue overalls and then arcing over the water. The wind rustles the leaves of the black willows above him and then dances out across the surface of the pond, the ripples blurring the perfect reflection of the cumulus clouds drifting quietly across the blue sky. A mile away, the thumping and sputtering of the pump jacks sounds an irregular drumbeat, the soft popping and backfiring filling the distance every day, all day and all night.

I don’t answer immediately.

Instead, I watch the surface of the pond, picking out the occasional black points of the turtles surfacing to breathe. The barn swallows hurtle silently out of the sky and skim the water, darting down to within inches and then rolling off into the blue sky again, their forked tails clipping the air like scissors as they disappear.

I step across the concrete monsoon drain from the hot and crowded street under the covered arch of the sidewalk, then into the rank darkness of the open storefront beyond. As my eyes adjust to the dimness, the thick smell of animal life fills my nostrils: fur, urine, musk, decay. A marmoset no bigger than my hand looks up at me from inside a welded wire cage, its miniscule face a wizened parody of humanity. Tiny jungle finches flutter from side to side along one cage against the wall, above the rolled-up bird snares hanging on hooks. I walk slowly along the wet concrete down the narrow aisle, past cages of monkeys and parrots, past the cages with the huge black and yellow monitor lizards, around a golden pangolin, its scaled body coiled into a loose circle. On a back shelf above is a large, empty cage, higher up at eye level. I can see nothing inside it. I tap the mesh and instantly five small black cobras rear up above the bottom tray, spreading their hoods as they stare directly back into my face.

“Vanity of vanities. All is vanity,” the Preacher said. “There is no new thing under the sun.” But the Preacher was wrong, because every moment of every minute is new, every second the first second of all that are yet to come, and the only one that will be lived, because the future exists only in the now. “Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new?” he asked. “It hath been already of old time, which was before us.” But he spoke of knowing things that had not been his to know: the moments he claimed were those of another, of a life that he did not live himself. Vanity it was indeed, futile it was indeed, but not in the way he thought. His error lay in the arrogance of assuming that knowledge of the past was the same as the experience of it, that hearing of someone's journey on the river was the same as piloting the boat through the current himself. The Preacher was wrong.

I lean over the starboard rail, the stiff wind cool in my face as the mud boat pitches through the swells, the bow heaving and falling under my feet in a perfect circle that I compensate for by shifting my weight from foot to foot, left to right, left to right, all day, every day. I look ahead into the lighter gap between the dark gray ceiling of the storm clouds and the eternally busy surface of the sea to the source of the cool air, the wall of cloud immediately ahead of us stretching across the world from one end to the other.

Beneath the thunderhead, a blue snake appears, and gently feels its way through the band of lighter sky to the water, thousands of feet below. As it does, it transforms into an immense funnel that slowly turns white as it touches the surface of the sea. Next to it, another snake slowly slips out of the cloud bank to the surface. Together, the two funnel clouds begin a slow-motion dance across the band of light, curving and swinging from side to side together.

I look up behind me to the wheelhouse, where the helmsman has stepped out and leans against the upper rail, swinging from side to side himself as he looks across the bows into the future. I point to the funnels, and he nods briefly, unimpressed. I turn back to watch the slowly gyrating funnels. The first of the rain drops slap my face, heavy and cool.

I lean forward and rest my weight against the oncoming wind, the dry desert air at 100 miles per hour supporting me like a solid cushion. The sound of the motorcycle engine is also solid, the packed roar of pistons, pushrods, and valves reciprocating beneath me filling my ears and then radiating outwards across the desert evening in my wake. I fly down the road, riding a thundering Pegasus, aimed at the vanishing point far in front of me, past the juniper thickets and the pinyon pines which appear, slowly grow, pass by me, and recede. Forty miles ahead the basalt cliffs that ring the mesa tops remain motionless, their slow approach only perceptible after minutes at the same speed, the vertical fractures gradually becoming faintly visible and then finally clear. My hands wrap around the grips, twice their normal diameter as they vibrate in time with the machine, and I wind the throttle back to a steady 90 miles per hour. In front of me small tarantulas the size of a teacup appear on the tarmac, slice by me and are gone. I thread my way through them at 130 feet per second as the mesas slowly grow over the headlamp shell.

We live our lives like passengers on a train, always in motion, always seeming to hurry on to somewhere else, but in truth never leaving our compartments, riding along to our destinations in the company of those who stepped aboard with us at the beginning of our journeys. The scenery through the windows changes constantly, but it’s the world passing by us that really moves, while we actually remain still in the eternal now, in the present. At each station, older passengers leave the train and newer passengers step aboard to take their seats. The mix of people and stories changes at every station, but we’re all on the same train, all of us on the same tracks. All of us have stepped aboard when our turn came, and sooner or later, all of us will step off.

I stand on the hot gravel in front of the metal warehouse, listening to the high-pitched whine far in the sky above me. I can’t see them, but I can hear them coming. As I look up into the blue, suddenly the first bees drop within my range of visual acuity, popping into existence thirty feet above my head as they approach close enough to see. The first of the scouts descend at random, and then thicken into a spiraling cloud, circling and circling, finally focusing on a small twig in the blooming almond tree by the old flatbed. I watch from within a growing cloud of honey-colored insects as the bees begun to cluster on the branch, landing and falling, recovering and returning, a small brown waterfall intensely concentrated on one twig amid the pink flowers.

I walk to the branch, peering closely, and eventually locate the larger wasp-waisted queen walking on the branch, surrounded by workers. I reach into the cluster and gently grasp her by the wings, then tuck her headfirst into the tiny wooden cage from my pocket. I put my fingertip over the hole and hold her out at arm’s length. After a few seconds the cluster on the branch disintegrates, and I am again surrounded by bees, swirling and singing, closer and closer to me. Then the cluster re-appears, centered on my hand, and one after another, the swarm coalesces, bee after bee, until my arm is buried in a mass of excited insects from fingertips to elbow, more and more landing every second from out of the blue sky.

I sit on a dark brown wooden bench in the back row of the meeting house, one of a silent cloud of witnesses. I look down at the rear of the bench in front of me. The initials and doodling scratched into the varnished poplar testify to the generations that have sat in the same seat as me, for the same reasons, every First Day, thousands upon thousands of witnesses, for thousands upon thousands of First Days. The room is full of people, and full of a quiet anticipation that connects us together, a linkage of joint expectancy that we all share.

Slowly I become aware of a thought forming in my conscious mind, a string of symbols that swirls into the shape of an intelligible idea, that itself gradually takes on the structure of words and sentences. As I wait for minute after minute, I feel the tension appear, and I recognize that I have been selected to deliver a message. Another member of the meeting rises and speaks briefly, and I feel the living tension in me build. She sits, and for a few minutes more I wait, until finally the beginning of the message is made clear and my heart suddenly begins to pound violently against my ribs. I lean forward, grip the seat back in front of me and stand up into the silent and waiting room, watched by those in this world and the next one. Instantly I feel my heart rate fall to a slow idle, a steady tick over, and the tension disappears, leaving the message with me. I pause a few seconds, feeling the silence, and then begin to speak.

22 August 2009

Quakers in the Country: You Can't Get Here From There

We live on the edge of civilized world, or maybe just a little beyond it. I know this because there are certain signs that I can interpret. Where I live, for instance, I have no neighbors. Well, actually, I do have neighbors, but they usually visit either in a pickup or drive in on an ATV, because none of them lives less than two miles away. There used to be a school at the foot of our property, next to the Lampville blacksmith, down by the creek. It’s still there, but hasn’t had any students for nearly 100 years, so we don’t have any kids walking by. When my wife tethers the donkey, as often as not he stretches his rope across the road to eat on the other side, and we hear about it every week or so when a car blows its horn trying to get him to cross back. And of course, the dogs sleep in the middle of the road on sunny days, because such has been the right of dogs in the country since time immemorial.

But these are minor indicators of our distance from civilization, and aren’t strictly deterministic. Lots of people have animals loose around here, after all. Cows and bulls occasionally wander down the road, sometimes followed by their owners later on, sometimes not. Sheep are a real annoyance, because when sheep break loose, they don’t know what to do about it. And when they see you, they run up and mill about your legs, bleating piteously for mercy, because they hope you’ll be able to figure out where they’re supposed to go. So loose animals don’t do it, alone. And lots of places don’t have neighbors, at least residents, in the warehouse districts on the edges of big cities.

So how do I know that I live on the edge of the world? Because if you’re trying to use modern technology to pay me a visit, you can’t get here, from wherever you are, at least not the first time. In most places in 21st century America, you can use a road map to get to where you want to go. But where I live, a modern road map will take you into the woods and abandon you there to die.

I first became aware of this peculiarity while trying to use the county map to go from Barnesville to my house, after meeting one First Day, soon after we moved here. The county map is very detailed, and showed a clear route along Cat Hollow Road from Warren Township to Goshen Township, where we live. But as we drove along Cat Hollow, we came to an old steel cable stretched across the road to stop traffic. Cat Hollow Road petered out in the woods just beyond the cable in front of us, although the map showed it headed straight home. Curious, I thought.

Later on, I tried to get to town along Township 192, which the map showed heading straight east to Barnesville after it crossed the blacktop two miles over on the next ridgeline. But when I got to the ridge, the crossroads on the map turned out to be a T-junction instead, and my road didn’t exist. In front of me was a more or less endless cow pasture.

I asked about this from one of the members of my meeting.

“Ahh,” he said. “The roads on the map aren’t the same as the ones on the ground.”

“Say that again.”

“The maps show the roads the way they were before the strip miners came in and changed the topography. Lots of those old roads don’t exist anymore, or go somewhere different from what it shows on the map.”

“Then why are they on the map that way?”

“In case the county wants to put some of them back in. As long as they stay official roads, the county still has legal right of way. So they keep them on the map.”

This was brought home to me clearly one day while I waited for a garbage company from another town to deliver a dumpster out to our beekeeping warehouse. When he finally showed up, he came from the south, not the north, which was a long and difficult detour from what he should have been doing.

“Is this the right place? My map is confusing.”

“Show me your map.”

I looked at his map. It happened to be an old map of my county before any of the mining, and I couldn’t even find my own road. Now, I’m professionally trained in map reading, and I can find my way cross-country at night by looking at the stars. But his map was 25 years old and might as well have shown the surface of the Moon. I located my township (36 by 36 miles), then the blacktop five miles north, but that was it. I looked for my road in the southeast quarter of the southeast quarter of Section 8, and it wasn’t there. And my house has been here over a hundred years.

“Throw your map away and take this one, or you’ll never get out of here.”

“Thanks. Where do you want your dumpster?”

The next time I was in the city, where they have internet broadband, I asked a friend to let me into Google Earth. I punched in the data for where I lived, hit enter, and was greeted with a white screen. In the middle of it were three words: “No data available.”


Since then we’ve gotten used to living out where there is no data available, and I suppose there might even be data available now, if I were to go into town and check. But then, maybe not. Our road has a characteristic valued by country dwellers who like quiet: there is nowhere you can go on it that you can’t get to quicker and with less hassle by going a different way. Two roads out of here force you to cross streams running over the road, and the last one is three feet deep in snow regularly during the winter.

As part of a recent career change to steering semi trailers cross-country, I bought a GPS unit at an Ohio truck stop. You know, a Global Positioning System machine. For a truck driver, they’re great, as I spend a lot of time going to obscure destinations at night, where messing up means a 20-mile circle finding somewhere to turn around. The GPS shows me in advance whether I can get back onto a highway if I take a particular exit, and leads me through difficult truck routes in difficult towns.

My first experience with GPS was over 30 years ago, when I worked summers as an air gun mechanic on seismograph boats in the Caribbean. Back then, a state-of-the-art GPS looked like a line of refrigerators, and you were delighted to get a position within 3000 feet of actual. Mostly we used old WW II-era SHORAN sets, instead. But this little job that I bought for the truck is the size of a Prince Albert can, and even talks to me while I try to steer the trailer around the countryside, letting me know when I take a wrong turn, and showing me the best way to fix it. It works great, except when I try to use it to get home.

Yesterday I stuck it on the windshield of the car while we drove back from the lake, after giving the kids what will probably be their last chance to swim until next summer. We got to the last town, and Emma calmly directed, “Just ahead, turn left.”

I said that now the GPS units talk to you. I prefer to listen to “Emma,” a sophisticated Briton with a low, sexy voice, who I might actually like to meet someday.

The kids all hollered, “Go home the long way,” so my lovely wife turned the car right, against Emma’s advice. Not a problem, as the street turned round and we would meet up with the secondary road on the other side of town. We’d hit the right road again in a few blocks. But Emma had other ideas, because, you see, Emma was using a map.

“Just ahead, bear right,” Emma directed.

“Go right?” said Shawna.

“Sure. Let’s see she how she does,” I replied. Emma is designed to instantly compensate for a wrong turn by finding the next alternate route, and directing you to it. This would be a good time to see where she would take us.

Emma headed us out on a string of tiny roads that wound through the countryside like a snake, and gradually took us to a heading that would take us home. She was looking pretty good. And then, Emma calmly intoned, “Just ahead, turn right.”

“What? Here?” says Shawna.

“She’s going for the road where the church used to be,” I said, a sudden suspicion growing in my mind. I knew now where we were going. It was one of the old strip-mined sections. A dead zone. Goshen Township’s Bermuda Triangle. Emma was headed straight for it.

More miles went by, and then I was sure. We came to a fork, and Emma calmly intoned, “Just ahead, turn right.”

Shawna stopped the car. “Chestnut Level is just up this road to the left,” she said. “I won’t do it.”

“Emma is headed for the creek road. You remember? It’s that old road that used to go from here to Lampville, down by the first ford. She thinks it’s still there.”

Of course, to a computer, the fact that the creek road appears on every county map in existence is sufficient proof that you can drive somewhere on it. You have to live here to know that the road has been gone for 30 years.

A mile farther on, and Emma’s folly is clear. The little yellow arrow on the screen directs us to drive straight west to our house, but the view through the windshield shows an old sign that reads, “Dead End.” Now, around here, you take signs like that with a grain of salt. One of the main roads to my house has more or less permanent “High Water” signs on it all the time, not because the creek is really high, but because the road falls into it so often that the township workers just leave the signs up permanently to scare the tourists away. But I know our Bermuda Triangle, and around there a “Dead End” sign means what it says. Emma had met her match.

Shawna turns the car around and we head up the previous fork to the ridge top. Emma objects gently for a while then reconciles herself to the new route and calculates a new set of arrows that actually do take us home, this time. As we pass by the road to the last creek crossing, the little map in the GPS unit shows a set of imaginary roads converging on the ford from the northwest, the direction from which Emma would have preferred us to have arrived. But out the car window in that direction I see nothing but 80-foot maple and locust trees.

So, if you ever decide to visit us out here in the country, don’t bother to use a high-tech GPS to get to the house, because you likely can’t get there from wherever you are. And don’t bother to use a map, either, because it won’t do you much good if you get lost.

Call ahead, instead, and I’ll give you directions from the real world:

“From town, go right at the third T-junction. Then left at the next fork, right at the next fork, right at the next fork, left at the next fork, and head for the top of the hill. Stop when you see the donkey in the road. You can’t miss us.

Among the Dirty Men

I’ve done a lot of things in my life, been to a lot of places, and seen a lot of different things. I’ve re-invented myself a number of times as well, according to one friend of mine. Of course, he was a Presbyterian cowhand who believed in the transmigration of souls, so I’m still not quite sure what to make of some of his opinions of me.

The most recent change has been from technical copy editor to over-the-road flatbed driver. I used to edit (and re-write) manuals about oil field development and secondary recovery, or perhaps textbooks on implementing cybernetic feedback systems in designing efficiency plans for businesses. Then God said it was time for a change. Now I drive very large vehicles very long distances, and park them in absurdly small places.

Driving a combination vehicle is interesting and honorable work. I’m not expected to lie to people like I was when I wrote computer manuals in Silicon Valley, and I’m not expected to make hundred thousand dollar decisions after three days without sleep, the way I had to as a geologist in the West Texas oil fields. What I do have to do is take a 71-foot machine that weighs 80,000 pounds and pilot it cross-country to a place I’ve never been, across a maze of roads I’ve never seen, into strange and mysterious nooks and crannies of industrial civilization that most people in the dominant culture know only on a theoretical basis.

And I do it among the dirty men. You see, among truck drivers, there are different classes of driver, so to speak. Not upper and lower, because truck drivers are very egalitarian, but different flavors, different styles. There are the dry van drivers, who steer the big silver boxes with loads of paper plates, rolls of newsprint, bottled water, corn and beans, and so on. There are the tanker drivers, carrying diesel, milk, corn syrup, honey, and LPG. The day cabbers drive the doubles and triples for UPS and FedEx, moving packages and mail. And so on. Cranes, dumps, et cetera.

And then there are the flatbedders, like me. The dirty men. You see, all these other guys have one important thing in common. In general, they can stay clean. They don’t usually touch the freight, and often don’t even know what’s inside the locked trailer except by reading the bill of lading when they hook to it and take off. They drive up to the warehouse with an empty, drop it where they’re told to, hook to a loaded trailer and go. Then it’s time to crank up the stereo, turn on the CB, and start peeling miles off the schedule, 500 to 600 yard sticks a day, every day that you can until you run out of legal hours and have to stop and let the world catch up with you.

And while they’re driving off with that clean and locked-up trailer, I’m staring at a 48-foot flat loaded with 27,000 pounds of copper telecommunications cable, in five eight-foot reels. I have to calculate the weight, choose between straps and chains, decide how many to use and where to hook them, crank them down, and make sure nothing is about to come off. By the time I’m done just securing the load, those other guys are 120 miles down the road, or better.

And they’re still clean. I, on the other hand, have just threaded eight rusty and dirt-covered chains through the reels, cranked down on the boomers with my equally rusty cheater pipe, and now look like a monument to iron oxide in the shape of some sort of broad-brimmed Quaker. Or maybe I’ve tarped it. I once delivered 44,000 pounds of smelting minerals from Baltimore to a steel mill in Kentucky, tarped. I arrived in the rain, and pulled the wet tarps across the thick dust in the unloading sheds. Now, folding up and loading a 24 by 30-foot tarp that weighs 150 pounds requires the sort of intimate calisthenics that in notion pictures merits adults-only ratings. By the time I was done with my three tarps in that mill, the tarps, the ground, and me were all covered in a monochromatic mix of dust, rainwater, sweat, and general grime. A typical load for a dirty flatbedder.

We don’t like being dirty, but there is often not much in the way of washing facilities at lumber yards, steel mills, hay fields, chemical plants, foundries, factories, and so on. We drive as far as we can, then try to pull in at a truck stop that has showers. (The showers are generally nice, but cost about ten bucks unless you have enough recent fuel credits.) Where there aren’t showers, we fall back on our trusty Plan B: very large quantities of baby wipes. Did you know that dirty truck drivers are among the greatest fans of baby wipes there are? It’s true. I prefer the unscented styles, myself, but each to his own.

The dirt is inevitable, and we are known for it. I was once talking with my dispatcher in his neat, carpeted and air conditioned cubicle, full of high-tech machinery designed to help him keep track of 30 drivers without going insane. I had delivered a stack of trailers (two 48-foo flatbed trailers stacked on top of a third) in the Wisconsin winter. I had to crawl up underneath each one and attach and tighten the chains while sliding back and forth in four inches of snow on the trailer decks. So all my clothing was covered in dirt and melted snow on the outside, and covered in sweat and melted snow on the inside. I apologized to him for coming in looking like yesterday’s wet mop, and he said, “You look like an typical flatbedder to me.” Which of course was true, and I hear it from other drivers as well.

In the winter, the flatbedder wallows in snow-covered mill yards, and bangs the ice off the winches with the winch bar before they will work. The straps are frozen and won’t roll, and the tarps are so stiff with cold that they’re like folding pieces of plywood. The work is wet, cold, and dirty. In the summer, on the other hand, the dust is thick in the staging and loading areas, and you end up the same color as the 24-foot straps you had to drag through the dirt and roll up. You’re not cold anymore, but the dust sticks to the sweat. The work then is wet, hot, and dirty. Winter or summer, the truck stop shower is the first place I look for after loading.
When there is one, anyway.

But the lifestyle has surprisingly wonderful moments. Did I mention that aluminum van trailers in the truck stops sing to each other like gigantic aeolian harps when the wind blows across their roofs? Another time, perhaps. Or that driving cross country in the spring means that I hear half a continent's variety of frog and toad choruses at night in the sloughs behind the truck terminals? Today it's Bufo valliceps, tomorrow Pseudacris triseriata. And when I drive west across the Appalachians of Pennsylvania and New York, I see the entire history of continental collision, orogeny, deposition, and subsidence spread across the country like a textbook cross section.

Being a dirty man has its advantages.

21 August 2009


And now for something completely different. Perfection.

Perfection is a concept used frequently by the first generations of Friends to speak of the foundations of the Quaker revelation of Christianity, both in the usage that we choose today, and in several other senses. Where a modern speaker might restrict the use of the term “perfection” to mean flawless, unblemished, or without error, a speaker from the 17th century would also use it to denote the related ideas of being complete, blameless, mature, unspoiled, repaired, and so on. In the Authorized Version, the English word “perfect” is translated from several corresponding Greek terms, including teleios, katartizō, holoklēria, epiteleō, artios, and plēroō. All mean approximately the same thing, but the two terms used most frequently in the NT are forms of telios and katartizo. In the first, “perfect” means “complete,” indicating maturity, something of final stature, a finished work. In the second, “perfect” indicates the state of something that had been broken and is now mended.

The Friends’ understanding of perfection was foundational to their beliefs, and was one of the unique aspects of the Quaker revelation of Christianity that got the early Friends into hot water with the Reformed Protestants and Anglicans of 17th century Britain and America. To Friends, perfection was the end-product of sanctification, of becoming holy. Friends’ understanding of perfection was closely tied to their belief that genuine, internal righteousness was a requirement imposed by God in order to justify a human and grant salvation. Perfection was the ultimate state that the Friend hoped to attain, the degree of sinless immunity to temptation assigned to them as his or her unique measure of the Light.

On the other hand, the Puritan interpretation of grace was that God imputed righteousness to you, and accounted you justified, while in life you remained depraved, a helpless prisoner to sinning “in thought, word, and deed.” The Friends’ view was vastly more optimistic and generous. The function of the Light was not to impute a forced righteousness, but to lead to a life of genuine righteousness, to a real state of inward holiness. George Fox regularly accused his opponents of “pleading for sin” when they cried that earthly righteousness was beyond man’s reach. Fox countered with the words of Paul from Ephesians 4:13 that “a measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” is not only attainable but an essential step in the Christian walk of faith. In his Epistles, “perfection” comes up frequently:

“Now what value, price and worth have they made of the blood of Christ, that cleanses them from sin and death, and yet [they] told people that they would bring them to the knowledge of the son of God and to a perfect man, and now tell them that they must not be perfect on the earth, but carry a body of sin about them to the grave?” Fox, Epistle 222.

But were the early Friends always “perfect?” Did they exhibit a state of complete sinlessness, of mended completeness, of total spiritual maturity? It doesn’t seem so. They feuded at times, and were unquestioned backsliders at times. What does this mean?

Robert Barclay provides the concise Quaker answer in the Apology for True Christian Divinity. For most of us all of the time, and for all of us some of the time, “perfection,” “completeness,” or “maturity” is not a static event, but a benchmark in a process. Just as all of us have been granted different measures of the Light, all of us have been assigned different levels-- and schedules-- of expectation. What is “conformed to the image of his Son” may be different for one believer than for another, and it may be a lesser value at one time in the life of a believer than it may become for him later in the process. Barclay is very careful to emphasize that this is what he usually means by “perfection:”

“. . . by this we understand not such a perfection as may not admit of a growth, and consequently mean not, as if we were to be as pure, holy, and perfect as God in his divine attributes of wisdom, knowledge and purity; but only a perfection proportionable and answerable to man’s measure, whereby we are kept from transgressing the law of God and enabled to answer what he requires of us . . . “ Robert Barclay, Apology

Barclay states that Christian perfection is exactly parallel to the perfection of the “good and faithful servants” in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In that example, the servant who did his best with only two talents was just as justified as the servant who did much better with ten. It isn’t the amount of the Light that we have that is important, for all of us have enough. Rather, it is important that we are completely faithful to the measure of grace with which we have been blessed.

Fox puts it clearly: “Therefore comes Christ, the first and the last, to destroy the devil and his works in men’s hearts and sanctify them by his blood, his Life, which was the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world and destroys the devil and his works through death . . . and sanctifies and washes men and women, and presents them back again to God perfect . . . .” Epistle 232.
Barclay devoted the whole of his Eighth Proposition to this subject in the Apology: “Yet we do believe that to those in whom Christ comes to be formed and the new man brought forth and born of the incorruptible seed, as that birth and man in union therewith naturally doth the will of God, so it is possible so far to keep to it as not to be found daily transgressors of the law of God.” Apology.

And in his writings, John Wilbur refers repeatedly to sanctification as the endpoint of the workings of grace. In his second letter to George Crosfield, for example, he refers to the workings of the Holy Spirit within men and women, in order to keep the opportunity presented by Jesus Christ’s atonement from being wasted:

“. . . for without [the mediation of Jesus Christ], man could not so much as be brought to repentance, and much less, to that which is the hardest of all attainments; the forsaking and ceasing from sin . . .”

And later, “And here we see the supreme excellency of the light and grace of this provision; that if observed, is able to keep us from a state, out of which the atonement itself is not designed to redeem us—even that of sinning against the Holy Ghost.”

A very important additional point is often forgotten, which is that achieving Christian righteousness is a gradual process, and not one of instantaneous, permanent salvation based on a snatch from the hands of the devil. It is achieved by steps, accompanied by works of faith performed through grace, by being faithful to one’s measure of the Light. And next, by receiving more Light and being faithful to that increased responsibility as well. Fox described his own first steps in his Journal:

“Now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, so that I say I was come up into the state of Adam which he was in before he fell. . . . And the Lord showed me that such as were faithful to him in the power and light of Christ, should come up into that state in which Adam was before he fell . . .”

Even though the initial event lasted no more than a few minutes, it impressed Fox so singularly that it became the turning point of his life. Similarly, when the Apostles were granted the infilling of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), this state of sinless grace didn’t persist uninterruptedly for the rest of their lives. The tongues of fire went away, after all. But the Holy Spirit didn’t leave them, and it returned again and again, working within them again and again.

And it can do the same for you. Have you ever experienced a moment, a minute, an hour or two, when you felt the Light so strongly influencing you to the good that all thought of sin passed away? A time when your soul was so perfectly in time with the rhythms of God that unfaithfulness was not even conceivable? Were you “sinning in thought, word, and deed,” even as God breathed the power of the Holy Spirit into you? Or were you experiencing the workings of the Light: perfection, sanctification, holiness, during that time, however long it was? The Friends’ message was that these moments were possible, and should be expected, if we remained faithful. And that they would continue, and continue to build holiness within us. Because over and over, Jesus Christ commands us to live without sin, and if this command is not achievable, then the Gospel is false.

Barclay is quick to point out that it would be presumptuous to pronounce himself sinless, and denies that he has achieved the state. “Others may perhaps speak more certainly of this state, as having arrived to it.” But perfection is the goal for Christians to pursue, as they work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (Philomen 2:12), the life of holy righteousness that Jesus told us to live when he said, “You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you,” (John 15:14). Friends of the 17th century died in prison for making this command of Jesus their goal.
Freedom from sinning in this life is a traditional goal of the Society of Friends, and perfection in this life can be expected to arrive in steps and stages, as events, rather than as a full-blown conversion. This is encouraging, as small steps to a goal are more easily accomplished than attempts to leap a giant chasm all at once, and more easily attained for most of us. But history repeats itself. Just as the Puritans denied this to be possible in the 17th century, the Gurneyite Orthodox Friends would deny it to be possible in the 19th. What has been the belief of our own tradition, of the Wilburite Ohio Yearly Meeting Conservative?

There are various journals and records available to us. One such is a treatise entitled An Appeal for the Ancient Doctrines of the Religious Society of Friends, originally published in Philadelphia in 1847, and officially adopted by OYM in 1848. In that Yearly Meeting, clerked by Wilburite Benjamin Hoyle, the Meeting for Sufferings directed that 1500 copies were to be printed and distributed among the Ohio quarters in 1848, as representing the sound doctrine of the Society.

This lengthy treatise expresses the sentiments of OYM prior to the Gurneyite departure in the 1850s. It is hard-core Wilburite in tone, emphasizing the primacy of the Spirit over Scripture as the chief guide to faith and practice, the fallacy of imputed righteousness, and the Wilburite interpretation of the crucifixion as only the first step in the salvation process. It refers repeatedly and at great length to the writings of Robert Barclay. Sanctification in this life is mentioned repeatedly as a point upon which the Wilburite Friends differed from Protestants, and from those following the Gurneyite path that would soon lead to the second separation. The OYM opinion on perfection is concisely summed up in the introduction, which ends with this criticism of the non-Wilburite Friends: “Accordingly, under a high profession of religion, but in an intolerant spirit towards those who differed from them, they denied the possibility of being made free from sin in this life, at the same time that they considered themselves justified by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So Friends, when you feel the Holy Spirit filling you with Light, when the grace of God commands you to rise atop of sin and overcome it, when you feel both the call to be perfect and the strength to achieve it, don’t reject these gentle promptings in your heart. Receive them, keep them, live them, but never view them as unattainable. The belief that perfection in this life is the goal of the Christian is one of the founding beliefs of the Society of Friends, and one of the points upon the Wilburites divided from the old Orthodox Friends, creating Ohio Yearly Meeting. In the words of the Apostle:

“But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.” (1Peter 5:10).