Some people find out that I’m a Quaker and begin looking around for my horse and buggy. Why people think we’re Amish is beyond me. Well, not really, if all they know about us is the guy on the oats box. And if you look at him at all he’s not dressed anything like the Amish – way too stylin’ for them.
Now two hundred years ago, the Quakers did sorta dress like the Amish. And they did use horses and buggies. But then so did everyone else, as Henry Ford still hadn’t come up with the Model T (which only came in the Quakers’ favorite color – black!). We also didn’t use electricity – like the Amish. But that’s only because Thomas Edison hadn’t figured out how to get into people’s houses so we could stop watching television by candlelight. Quakers, unlike the Amish, have kept up with the times. Unlike them and their living totally off the grid as a testimony to God and as a spiritual discipline of simplicity, we have moved into the 20th century. Some of us have even moved into the 21st. And we’ve brought our testimony of simplicity with us.
Quakers have been practicing simplicity almost since we began. Sometimes we’ve done it very well. Sometimes, not so. Early Quakers spoke and dressed plain. For them, plain language meant calling the days of the week by numbers instead of their common names – First day for Sunday, for example – as a way to avoid pagan influences (Thor for Thursday!). They did that with months, too, since they had incorrect names (December was no longer the 10th month). And they wore simple clothes in basic colors as a witness against the fancy dress and classism of their day.
The not so well came in when they allowed these things to become a badge of distinction – setting themselves apart in a way that drew attention to themselves not as classless people of God but as a non-humble people. Which is just another example of why there is not just one way of being simple.
One of gifts that even a bad Quaker like me appreciates about the Friendly way is that is always evolving and asking current questions about what it means to be a person of faith. And the issue of simplicity in a modern, consumerist society is one of the things that keeps us growing. And one thing we’ve discovered is that that we have to continually wrestle with what does it mean to live simply?
And what it means for me is not what it’ll necessarily mean for you. Our faith is not a one size fits all faith. At least in how we live it out. We are all unique – and created by God to be so. Which means, when Paul says we have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, I think he should have added something such as “and likewise about living it out!” We need to work out what it means to live simply.
And, despite all the land and stuff I have, even at my worst I’m doing better than I used to.
One reason I say that is that it’s in no small part a matter of attitude. Why do we have stuff? I admit that have often acquired because I could and I wanted to. I didn’t grow up the richest kid on the block – or even the third richest. So when I had my first allowances and then summer jobs I bought stuff I wanted (much to the dismay of my dad who wanted me to buy stuff I needed, like shoes, jeans, etc). I acquired because I could.
While that still occasionally occurs, usually I’m buying now because it’s something I need or makes a statement about my values. The first is the easiest to understand, I suppose. It takes a lot of stuff to live simply on fifty acres. That expanse of land does not take care of itself.
The second is harder to understand perhaps. After all, rarely do we think about how what we own says something about what we believe.
The fact of my changing in this regard came on a trip to Texas a few years ago. My sister Kathleen and her husband Paul lived there then. I stayed with them when I was an a speaking tour related to one of my books. A book in which I talked some about Quaker simplicity. I flew in and needed to borrow one of their cars to get to the speaking gig at the Catholic Campus Ministry center at Southern Methodist University. My choice was between their Mercedes and their BMW. This presented me with a bit of dilemma. Here’s why --
I love cars. I admit it. Especially foreign cars. Especially British or European cars. I’ve owned a couple (the MG I still have, an Austin-Healey Sprite in my early 20s, various Volkswagens, and … well, too many cars to mention). I dreamt of owning a Jaguar saloon (sounds better than a 4-door sedan, doesn’t it?) with wood dash, leather seats, and pop-up picnic tables affixed to the back of the front seats. I would have made do with a Mercedes or BMW, but a big Jag was my dream car as young man. Once I had it made financially, one was going to be in my garage.
Now I’m gonna say right here, that I still love Jags, even if they’ve lost a bit of their mystique for me. But I couldn’t own one anymore – even though I could afford at least a used one. The reason is the way the Quaker way of urging us to live simply in the name of Jesus just won’t let me. I would be concerned, if I owned one, what people would think of me. And in a good way.
I mean, I’ve already admitted to being a bad Friend. I wouldn’t want to confirm that in the eyes of others. A Jaguar, to me, says wealth, class, and elegance. There is nothing wrong with any of those, per se. I was delighted that Kathleen and Paul could enjoy such fine automobiles. But for me to own one would play into my own weaknesses regarding those things – especially wealth and class (and the classism and privilege that they can engender and/or maintain). The weird thing is I don’t really feel deprived by not driving a Jag. The Buick I have now is better built, better engineered, has more bells and whistles than the first Jaguar 420 I contemplated buying in 1971. It doesn’t have those picnic tables, though!
And so I felt really awkward about driving either of those cars – what would it say about Quakers and our values (including simplicity) to have their guest speaker arrive driving a Beemer or a Benz?
I chose the Benz.
And enjoyed it immensely.
It was black. Simply Quakerly.