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).