Saturday, January 30, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Offended by a Compliment

Aunt Dorcas and Whistler's Mother

Dear Aunt Dorcas--

What is the difference between compliments, praise, and flattery? A friend arrived at our house and I complimented the dress she was wearing. She didn't say anything, but several weeks later before communion she called me saying she had to let me know that my flattery really bothers her. I was stunned and asked for an example and she brought up my remark of how I had said "I really like your new dress." I had really liked it. It has made me doubt myself, wondering if it's ever okay to compliment anyone? I've never made any that weren't sincere. Should I keep them to myself or is it okay to speak?


Dear Caroline—

I’ve been circling your question in my head like I would circle a hornets’ nest. Where do I make the first poke at this tidy wrapping that surrounds a swarm of troubling elements?

[Please note, Readers: This question is pretty specific to the Amish/Mennonite culture, in case you are bewildered by it.]

Caroline, I’m guessing you know this is not actually about compliments vs. praise vs. flattery.

I think it’s really about three things:

1.       Life without grace.

2.       Weaponizing communion.

3.       A denial of beauty.

Some conservative Anabaptists, in pursuit of good things like righteous living and obeying the Bible in all things, have become obsessive about doing everything right. Every word they say must be parsed and analyzed and judged. Every action is observed under the neighborhood microscopes, and motives are duly assigned. Much energy is spent on making the most minor decisions.

[Before you write to me and say, But my church isn't like this, please note that I'm talking about the ones that are.]

Communion services twice a year become the apex of this desperate trying to be good. “So let a man examine himself,” the Bible says. All right then. People, including myself at age 15, lie awake at night trying to decide if they were actually angry last week, or not, and is not wearing black nylons actually a sin, and what if they were black but not quite 30 denier? They stand up in church and confess small lapses in judgment, cringey personal sins that should not be aired to a crowd, and attitudes that speak of weariness and humanity, not sin.

[The actual heinous sins that are never spoken out loud are a subject for another day.]

Not only is the air at the “counsel meeting” beforehand heavy with the burden of trying to be good enough to take communion, it also reeks of judgment, because not only are those of tender conscience frantically examining themselves, but others are grimly noting the sins of everyone else.

“Approaching” someone with a “concern” and saying, “I’m not sure I can take communion with you next month because of this and this,” takes shame and manipulation to Olympic levels.

When I lay awake in agonies, my sins parading across the movie screen of my mind, I wanted most of all to atone. So I did it the only way I knew how. Shortly before communion, I would write notes of apology. People at church that I had talked about unkindly, kids at school I’d been annoyed at, family members, and many others.

My conscience would be briefly satisfied, but the humiliation was intense, and communion was still torture. I knew Jesus had died on the cross for me, but this had no effect on my current situation.

I recall other examples of trying to be good enough:

--A sweet little sixth grade student of mine who was constantly afraid she was lying. “Oh, Teacher. Remember yesterday I said that we went to my aunt’s house and made donuts? Well, it was mostly my mom. I didn’t work on the donuts myself very much. I’m sorry. I just wanted to make sure I was telling the truth.”

--The elderly woman I spoke with who was facing the end of her life. “I just think and think—is there anything I’ve done that I forgot to confess? I just want to be ready to meet the Lord, and I just try so hard to remember if there was anything I did that I still need to make right. It worries me."

--A guy in a church in my past who was always making sure everyone else kept the rules. “What are we going to do about John? He’s been parting his hair on the side. I don’t think he should take communion until he repents.”

That was the thing—there were so many rules that if you had it in for someone, you could always find a rule they were breaking.

Somehow, a long time later, I discovered the Gospel that had been waiting for me all along.

We are sinners. We cannot be good enough to meet God’s standard of holiness, to save ourselves, or to keep ourselves saved. We cannot scratch and claw our way into Heaven--but we don't need to! The work has been done for us.

That was the whole point of Jesus coming to earth, dying for us, and rising from the dead. He loved us and did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He changes our hearts. He saves us when we believe. He keeps us saved. That part is important for Anabaptists to know. I had gotten saved and baptized, but it sure seemed like it was up to me to keep myself saved, hence the agonies and apologies. I was endlessly and fruitlessly trying to atone. Eventually, in a moment of recognizing my helplessness to love a certain enemy, I realized that if Jesus didn’t do the saving for me, I was toast.

It changed everything. The Holy Spirit was more than happy to take on the burdens I had been carrying. I began to let go of the endless trying to be good enough. Paradoxically, that was when my heart and attitudes really began to change. 

Living without grace brings heavy burdens and a twisted reality. You don’t have permission to make mistakes, get tired, have limits, say no, or not know. Everything is suspect and potentially sinful—beauty, fun, talents, blessings. If you don’t shame yourself for something you said or did, someone else will be happy to do it for you. Everyone around you gets to decide if you’re good enough, or not.

Grace is different. You’re allowed to be human and normal. You can make a mistake, laugh at yourself, and try again. You can have a growth mindset, where you understand you can’t get from here to maturity without a share of mistakes. You can live with tension and not knowing what to do. You can enjoy God’s gifts. You’re covered, held, loved, and kept. You learn to recognize what's important and where your energy is best invested.

I mentioned God’s gifts. There’s a specific swath of conservative Mennonites that has a problem with beauty.

I once heard a darkly scowling Mennonite minister preach about thinking through why we do what we do. Well, so far so good, Brother. But. “Let’s say one of you sisters wants to buy a purse, and you find one you want.” His frown deepened. “Now, WHY do you like that particular purse You need to ask yourself that question."

The implied message was: you like it because it’s pretty, don’t you? I knew it! You know very well that’s wicked.

The women in this minister’s life have some of the saddest and strangest notions I’ve ever seen regarding femininity, nice things, and likes. Pretty is ugly. Beauty is sinful. Ugliness is virtue. There’s a strange gaslighting effect in this sort of denial of normal opinions and preferences, where pretty soon you don’t trust your own mind. Caroline, you said, “It has made me doubt myself. . .” and ". . . is it okay to speak?" No wonder, when you’re met with such a response to a perfectly normal compliment.

Years ago, I visited my sister in Yemen and attended a baby party. For forty days after the birth of a child, all the ladies in the family and neighborhood gather every afternoon to celebrate.

Except you have to be careful how you celebrate. “Don’t say that the baby is beautiful,” my sister instructed before we left. “The fear is that that will put the evil eye on it.”

There’s an Arabic phrase that sounds like mah-sha-LAH. It means “what God has willed,” and it seems to be the one comment that’s never inappropriate. I heard my sister say it in all tones of voice—shocked, alarmed, amazed, bewildered. This time, she stepped over to the new mom, smiled at the baby, and said, “Awww, mah-sha-LAH,” in crooning, admiring tones.

It was funny but sad. Didn’t God create beauty for us to enjoy and appreciate, and aren’t babies the crowning touch of his creativity? Why can’t you just say it out loud?

Your friend would no doubt agree with me, in word at least, and write off the Yemeni custom as heathen ignorance.

And yet, there she is, so uncomfortable with you noticing a pretty dress that she is filled with fear that it is all sinful and wrong, so she brings up communion, the ultimate weapon of shame, as a way to make you shun such foolishness.

I’m sure a part of her is hungry for kind words, but she can’t let herself enjoy them.

These are gifts and blessings from God: kindness, encouragement, beauty. Joy, colors, babies. Laughing at yourself, resting in Jesus, letting the little stuff go.

My advice is to enjoy God’s gifts, immerse yourself in his grace, and don’t let this woman’s threats or harsh words shame you into a fear of getting it wrong. She’s obviously watching your life, and maybe someday she’ll ask you for “a reason of the hope that is in you.”

That's what I think. I wish you courage and joy.

Aunt Dorcas

P.S. Since you asked:
a polite expression of praise or admiration.

Praise: express warm approval or admiration of.

Flattery: excessive and insincere praise, given especially to further one's own interests.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Thirty Years Later

Do you ever wonder how far you've come? You know, or at least you hope, you've grown in faith, empathy, and maturity as the years have passed. But how much, and in what ways?

Most of us have memories that may or may not be accurate, but if we wrote things down and kept them, we have documentation. 

Our son Matt posted a quote by Ed Latimore on Twitter some time ago: "You know you've grown when you look back at your old self with a bit of embarrassment. If your old behavior doesn't make you cringe, did you really even mature?"

Matt said, "My old journals got a lot easier to read once I realized this."

Matt was also the one who suggested digging out old letters to see what we were doing thirty years ago. I wrote monthly form letters back then and kept copies of most of them. Amazingly, I was able to locate my stash without any deep digging.

Browsing through this stash refreshed old memories, both good and bad. I saw how some things were still the same, but many things were not. I had changed, my children had grown up, and social media had connected people in astonishing ways.

This letter was written 30 years ago, when we had three children aged 4, 2, and 7 months. We lived in a remote village and First Nations reserve in Ontario, Canada, called Weagamow or Round Lake. Paul was a teacher at a Christian school. I wrote this on our first computer and printed it on a dot-matrix printer.

I'll add comments in italics.

Paul and Amy in front of our house.


February 1, 1991

Dear Family and Friends,

The temperature soared up to 40 above today after hovering around absolute zero for about two weeks. One morning the official temperature was 45 below zero, but private thermometers ranged down into the 50s-below. We're staying reasonably warm, especially since Paul piled snow around the house. It's still too cold for Emily to be on the floor much.

The cold sure doesn't slow things down. The other evening I walked about half a mile to our ladies' Bible study when it was about 25 below, and there were lots of people out walking or skidooing. Even on the coldest days the school children go outside for breaks and P.E. I guess it's all what you're used to. I've heard several people, including the pastor, say they really don't care for summer—it's just too hot. Paul told Gary (pastor) that summers here seem nice and mild to us, and that in Oregon you can expect a spell of 100-degree weather every summer. Gary: "I suppose everything shuts down then?"

I'm sure most Oregonians think surely everything would grind to a halt at 30 below, so you see what I mean that it's all what you're used to.

As I recall, I used Fahrenheit figures here because most of the recipients were from the U.S. I also recall how I used to walk home from Bible studies and stop in the dark and cold to admire the Northern Lights--great bands of green and blue and white lights sweeping and hissing through the sky. I've always said I could hear them, and recently scientific articles have validated me.

 We're all recovering from bad colds. One day last week I wiped 48 noses in 2 hours. Amy got bronchiolitis, Emily got an ear infection, and I still have a cough, but I think we'll make it.

 I tell you, we were always sick. Colds, fevers, infections, vomiting, chickenpox, and all kinds of maladies. Was it the lack of fresh fruit? I just remember this constant battle to stay healthy.  

Since we have our car here we've gone visiting more. One evening last week we went to visit a family whose four children go to the Christian school. They are very interesting. James was telling us about how they met. He was 26 years old, living alone, and praying for a wife. So one day his dad called to Kingfisher Lake, another reserve just up the bush, and asked if there were any marriageable young ladies there. Sure enough, one of the next planes brought young Julie Sakakeep, who was puffing on a cigarette, and poor James, who was a staunch Christian, wasn't sure what to think. But they were married a week later and apparently he loved her to the Lord because a year later she became a Christian too. "And we've had a good marriage," said James. "With God's help," said Julie.

[Names changed]

 Arranged marriages were traditionally the norm but the custom is almost gone. Gary was telling us that in his family there were 5 arranged marriages and 3 "modern" marriages, and the arranged marriages have been more successful. This makes for some interesting study on our society's system of courtship and marriage.

 These observations are interesting to me now in their arm's-length detachment and "othering." It was like we had left one universe and entered another, and the two would never cross. I was fascinated with the customs and culture, and I had no qualms about writing a form letter about what I observed, because I didn't think the two worlds would ever connect enough for people to see what I had written.

Social media brought these separate planets together in ways I had never imagined. I sit at my desk in Oregon and see posts from my Weagamow friends—the sunrise over the lake, people at work, activities in the gym, new grandbabies. They read what I write and sometimes we message, the "otherness" changed by 30 years and the great equalizing of the Internet.

Matthew has been playing outside a lot with Gokum's 3-year-old grandson, Sty. They were getting along fine until a few weeks ago they started fighting all the time. So we really worked with Matthew on that—but since Sty wasn't getting the same teaching, plus he idolizes Hulk Hogan, we had problems. Matthew was constantly coming in crying because Sty had hit him or pushed his face in the snow, and I was at my wits' end. Then one morning I heard crying and found Matthew backed into a corner of our entry with Sty waving a stick of firewood in front of him. That did it. With Mom and her antipathy for veeshty glenny boova [Pennsylvania German—bad little boys] coming out all over me, I waved the stick in Sty's face and told him in graphic terms what I would do with it if this ever happened again. He howled all the way home, Gokum let him inside, and I suddenly reconsidered my rash move.

 At noon Nita [granddaughter and translator] called me up. "My Gokum says (my stomach turned to water) that Matthew and Sty were playing in the garage so you should wash Matthew's hands good before he eats." (My stomach returned to normal) Since then Sty has been no trouble, either outside or in, and he seems to bear me no ill will.

 Later . . . I guess I shouldn't worry about threatening to spank Sty. Matthew told me this evening that today when they were outside, Gokum spanked them both for playing on the skidoo. He says she spanked him with a mitten on the bottom of his foot, and no, it didn't hurt.

This was a common scene. Gokum is kneeling, Matt is next to her, and Amy is over on the left.
Gokum used that metal post to stab the ice and keep the water hole open. One of these kids later
 tried to push Amy into the hole, and Matt saved her.

 Her name was Clara, but we called her Gokum (Grandma) because that's what her many grandchildren called her. I think Sty is now a musician and a responsible adult. Difficult neighbor children were an ongoing issue for us. The whole village belonged to everyone, so kids wandered all over the reserve and played wherever they pleased, often in our backyard. So if our kids wanted to play outside, I couldn't close a gate and keep them isolated from the others. Often, I got to know children long before I knew their parents, so I couldn't talk to a mom if the kids were stealing our toys or hitting people with hockey sticks. A few of these now-adults have told me they have good memories of playing at our place, which is good to know, because we were certainly making it up as we went along.

We have these buttons on our phone that you can program to call a certain number just by pressing one button, so I'm teaching Matthew and Amy how to call Paul at school, just in case I ever get locked in the outhouse again* or something. Amy thinks she's the cat's pajamas now that she can call Paul all by herself to tell him supper's ready. She likes to throw around big words like "actually" and she's good at sitting meditatively on her potty and remembering all kinds of events I'd completely forgotten. "Mom, were you brushing Maffoo's teeth? And then he dropped your toothbrush in the bucket of water? And then it got all wet? And then you said 'GWOSS'? And Maffoo laughed and laughed?" Several of the 9 and 10 year old girls at school are totally in love with her and practically fight over her. She just soaks it up.

I'm still amazed at how well Amy talked at two years old.

*Yes, one Sunday morning. The wind blew the little stick-revolving-on-a-nail and locked me in. Paul rescued me after about 10 minutes.

Emily, I am delighted to report, is getting over her food sensitivities and colic. She's working at scootching around like Hillary does, but she doesn't quite have Hillary's singleminded curiosity. Right now she's into chomping paper, exploring in her walker, yanking hair, and tasting real People Food. I can't say I blame her for not being real excited about baby cereal. Last week one day I sat at the table holding her when she turned around and touched the woodstove behind me. She got three heart-wrenching little blisters on her hand. (They're healing nicely.) Fortunately, our stove has an extra enclosure around the fire box, so the sides don't get hot enough to burn a child bumping into it. (The stove at school is just like it except the stovepipe comes out the side and it gets very hot. One morning before school Paul backed into the stovepipe wearing his nice navy blue polyester pants. Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.)

 Hillary was my niece and two months older than Emily. She appears in a later paragraph as well. As an adult, she goes by Romy.

Hillary and Phil, Emily and Paul
At my parents' place in Minnesota. Christmas, 1990.

Wisdom from the mouths of babes:

Matthew: Play this animal game with me!

Me: I don't know what to do. You want me to play. Amy wants me to read. Emily is fussing. I don't feel very good. I need to wash dishes. What shall I do?

Matthew: Thank God!


Matthew: Look at me! I got all dressed! I'm being responsible!!

Me: Wow! You're being so responsible, I just can't stand it.

Amy: (stands up on a chair) Mommy! I can stand it!!

 Next weekend we plan to be at Stirland Lake for some R&R. Now that the winter road is open it's like a superhighway compared to the first time we drove in. The first week in March is "spring" (wishful thinking) break and also the ACE Administrators Seminar in Chicago. The children and I plan to stay with Mom and Dad while Paul goes to the seminar with Joe Chupp.

 The winter road went across ten miles of lake and 16 miles of bush. It connected the reserve to the nearest road, but traveling it was not for the fainthearted.

Everybody is wondering if we're getting cabin fever. So far, by God's grace, the answer is no. But winter is far from over (the ice doesn't leave the lake till toward the end of May) so the battle isn't over yet.

Matthew is still asking thousands of questions a day. If I ever face a Communist interrogator I'll feel right at home. I have a picture of Philip and Hillary up on our bulletin board. "Is that your brother and his baby, Mom? Did you tell Nita that was your brother and his baby? Why is that your brother and his baby? Is that Uncle Philip holding Hillary? Does he like to hold Hillary? Are they standing by the ocean? Why are they standing by the ocean? Huh Mom? Why is that the ocean? Did Geneva take the picture? Why did Geneva take the picture, Mom?"

 Funny that I resurrected this quote so soon after the post about how much my children talked when they were little. Also funny how accurately I recalled this conversation. This is why I tell moms to write things down. If you don't, you forget many of the specifics.

I never quit jotting down quotes from my kids, and I still do it today. Someday they'll thank me.

 There have been two more suicide attempts recently. Both survived but were flown out to the hospital for a while. Sometimes it's so hard to know what to think and how to pray. It's a very very tragic situation.

 I decided not to include most of the above paragraph. I had contrasted the government-program responses to suicide, which saw these young people totally as victims, to my own solid Amish/Mennonite conclusions that were simplistic in the extreme. It seemed to me that if the young people would do some really basic things like listen to their elders and not get high, these tragedies wouldn't happen. (Duh!) It was naïve and cringey. Years later, when I lost someone to suicide, I finally began to understand the pain of being a survivor, which I knew was minor to the accumulated grief in Weagamow of multiple suicides and violent deaths.

In recent years, I finally did the math and found that some of my own illogical and bizarre reactions to life were responses to childhood incidents out of my control that evoked grief, terror, and a sense of abandonment. Studying that field, including some of the new research on trauma, helped me understand a small piece of the enormous, multi-generational pattern of grief and loss in the First Nations people.

I've come a long way in my own healing and in empathy for others in 30 years—just enough to see how far I still have to go.

My comfort is that I don't think I expressed my easy answers to very many people. Mostly, I served tea and cookies, and tried to communicate with people whose first language wasn't English.




 What hasn't changed: I'm still fascinated by cultures and my clever kids. I still like to write it all down. 

When we lived in Weagamow, I felt like all of my natural talents were buried and I was asked to do all kinds of things I was terrible at.

Today I look back and see a thread running through my life and taking a loop through the North. God was working, and I had no idea. One example: those monthly form letters turned out to be great practice for a newspaper column and a blog.

If you are isolated and overwhelmed among people who don't speak your language--even though you might both speak English, if you get what I'm saying--please know that you are not abandoned and this is an important piece of your story.

Four months after this letter was written.


Saturday, January 16, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Fearing What They Fear

Aunt Dorcas and Uncle Paul

Dear Aunt Dorcas--

What to do, how to respond, and what not to do when friends and even family embrace things like conspiracy theories. They adamantly defend something they believe with, “I read it online!” For example, they believe doctors have long had the cure for cancer but refuse to use it because it would rob them of our money. Technology and the era of Covid has exacerbated this problem a million-fold. Like, early on, the theory that Covid was only a coverup by government in order to stage a mass arrest. (I’m not hearing any acknowledgement now that they realize they were wrong.) They believe that ventilators and hospitals kill. When one of our own was hospitalized with COVID, one quavered, “You don’t think a nurse will slip him a pill that will kill him, do you?”  What to do when those who “watch for our souls” embrace this kind of mentality? Where does critical thinking come from and where, oh where, has it gone?


Dear Sharon—

Your questions are universal right now, I think. We are all appalled at family members, at fellow church people, at community members, and at humanity in general.

They horrify us because they’re flag-waving Trump supporters, or because they drank the Liberal Kool-Aid and supported the demonstrations in Portland. They make embarrassing scenes in grocery stores, refusing to wear a mask. Or they are so overly conscientious about Covid that they miss family reunions and funerals. Maybe they won’t give their kids any vaccines at all, or they insist on every vaccine available and won’t let Grandma visit because she didn’t get the flu shot.

And you think, “Oh. My. Word. Who are these people that I thought I knew?”

We are all a bit off the rails in someone else’s perspective. I believe in God and a literal Creation, for instance, which puts me in some people's "wacko" category. I remember how the Canadian news media made fun of Preston Manning, head of the Reform Party, for believing in the imminent return of Jesus.

Let’s look, though, not only at beliefs we consider a bit flaky but also at the alarmist theories and ideas that people embrace. There’s a terrible undercurrent of nefarious plans going on in high places, they say. People know this, but they are silenced, because we aren’t supposed to find out. In some way or other, the bad people are coming for us. We are powerless unless we band together and get the word out in spite of opposition.

You can’t argue with this, because every “fact” you bring forth from science, history, or the newspaper is shot down with, “Well! That’s what they want you to think, but you can’t trust them. They’re lying to us.”

So there you are, knowing good and well that the nurses at the local hospital, who took such good care of you when you had gallbladder surgery, would never slip someone a pill to kill them.

It’s tough being in your shoes. If you speak up and try to change their minds, you are likely to get eviscerated. The level of antagonism in current discourse is frightening.

So here is my perspective. As always, I could be wrong. But this has helped me tiptoe across the broken glass of my current world and take a longer view.

Conspiracy theories and “calamity howlers,” as my husband calls them, have been around for a long time. You might remember when Communism was going to come here, and with it, great persecution and the collapse of life as we knew it. It might come via a massive nuclear attack from the USSR, with a mushroom cloud in every big city. Or it might grow from within, like a mushroom on a damp bathroom floor. Preachers and books warned about this. The word “cells” came up often. I recall a preacher stating confidently that the Communists were working to develop an array of cell groups in Mexico. They were going to sneak across the border, little by little, and infiltrate the Hispanic population, which would then overthrow the US government.

We were all afraid. I know I wasn’t the only little girl who lay awake at night wondering how I was going to endure being tortured for Jesus.

In the mid 80s we heard that the New Age Movement was filtering into American society and particularly into the church. Care Bears, with the rainbows on their tummies, and Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, with their Indian-sounding names, were lures to entrap our children. Yoga was doing the same to adults. We watched films of bearded swamis in India teaching confused American young people. I remember wide-eyed discussions about this at sewing circle.

When the Rajneeshees took over a compound in Oregon, we all got really really nervous. As it turned out, we had reason to, because they were evil people who would stop at nothing to take over the town. But the idea of them spreading their religion all over the land? That was kind of ridiculous.

So these threats never materialized, maybe because God answered our prayers, or maybe because the threats were a lot bigger in our minds than in real life.

What we didn’t see was that there were actual conspiracies and creepy agendas going on right under our noses. Catholic priests were preying on children, the American government was involved in terrible, unethical intervention in other countries such as Nicaragua and Iran, pharmaceutical companies were plotting to addict us to painkillers, cigarette companies hid research on addiction, and city planners were deliberately keeping non-whites from buying houses in decent neighborhoods. 

Chances are, we are even now freaking out about the wrong things.

Not that we should be freaking out, obviously. Scripture tells us how to respond:

Isaiah 8:12-13

Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.

You mentioned that technology and Covid have made the situation a million times worse.

I think conservative Anabaptists are at a distinct disadvantage in today’s world. We were in many ways contained in our safe little bubbles for generations. “We keep sin and worldiness out of the church,” as a local woman said confidently to a friend of mine, conveniently ignoring the fact that her husband was an abusive miser. She meant, I’m sure, that everyone at church adhered to a visible system of rules. It seemed safe and secure.

I’m painting with a broad brush here, but in general we were well versed in the basic 3 R’s, but we didn’t learn logic or academic processes. “Why does my daughter need to learn geometry?” a frustrated mom asked me recently. I told her someday it will help her articulate why she believes what she does. If this and this are given, then this conclusion must also be true. If not, then not.

We were not taught moderation or discernment, only abstinence. Don’t watch TV. Don’t listen to the radio. Don’t mix with the world. Don’t go to movies. Don’t listen to non-religious or instrumental music. They are all bad.

For the most part, we didn’t learn to spot scams, to figure out who was trying to make money from their message or how they were persuading us, or to sift truth from lies in popular culture. We didn’t know how to define the underlying message of a program or advertisement or song and compare it to Scripture. We never learned to check the purported facts with actual verified sources. We didn’t learn who was trustworthy and who wasn’t. We were naïve and susceptible.

Meanwhile, as those who “watch for our souls,” as you put it, Sharon, were at the front door with pitchforks in hand keeping those pesky televisions and radios at bay, the back doors quietly opened to the wide world of the Internet, and all the church people filed out, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, into that magical universe.

We hadn’t learned discernment. We fell for a multitude of messages from hundreds of convincing, confident voices. The fallout shows itself in Trump banners on Amish buggies, your friend’s fear of a nurse slipping a patient a lethal pill, and capable adults afraid of getting a RFID chip inserted into their arms via a hypodermic needle.

Granted, plenty of non-Anabaptists fell for plenty of schemes and stories at the same time. I don’t know all the factors involved. But I am Anabaptist, and I’m especially concerned about the trends among my own culture and people.

We should have known Jesus’s teachings well enough to respond to the world and its events as he did, and we should have studied Hebrews and Paul’s epistles to learn good logical thinking.

1 Corinthians 15:12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

One piece of advice I’d have is to engage in dialogue, if you can. Ask questions. “I’m curious why you feel this way?” “How did you reach this conclusion?” “What are you doing about it?” “How does it affect your life?” 

This serves several purposes. They might have a sensible reason for thinking or doing as they do. Your questions help to preserve the relationship, despite your differences. And making them articulate their reasons might help them see the holes in their reasoning.

Last summer, someone confronted me about wearing a mask at my son’s wedding. “Confronted” is not a strong enough word, but I’ll keep it. I was deluded and deceived and maybe even of the Devil. Oddly, they never asked me why I wore one. If they would have asked, maybe they would have understood that no matter what your normal practices are, if there is finally a wedding in the family, and your son and his sweet little bride ask you to wear a mask to talk to people, you happily do it. Goodness, I would have done and worn a lot more than that--whatever they wanted. Plus I had made a mask to match my dress and I was proud of it.

But this person never asked, so they didn’t change their minds or understand.

Which brings me to my next bit of advice, and that is to be kind. These are hard hard times. Kindness will get us through. Also, kindness will change my mind more than harsh condemning words that attempt to set me straight. 

Another bit of advice is to compare the adamant, hard-line people with those who say, “It depends.” I’ve found that the more someone knows on a subject, the more nuanced their answers are. Beware of the person with no experience on the subject who is absolutely sure of one specific view.

So find someone you trust who has formal training or experience in a specific field. Your niece who’s a nurse, your family doctor, your cousin in law enforcement, your neighbor who works for the newspaper.

For instance, the debates about logging and forest fires in Oregon tend to be really binary, polarized, and heated [heh heh]:

"Forest fires are caused by logging and climate change."

"Forest fires are caused by not logging enough, and there’s no such thing as climate change."

Our son Ben, who has studied forest combustion extensively at Oregon State, had a different perspective. “It depends,” he said, “on so many factors. The terrain, the height of the canopy, the wind, the species of trees, the weather, the amount of undergrowth.” He said that climate change affects forest fires a little bit, but that catastrophic fires are actually regular occurrences in Oregon’s history.  They occur when there’s a combination of factors—lack of rain, lightning, lots of dry undergrowth, and so on. 

He said a lot more besides. It was fascinating.

Then there were the debates about whether or not the fires in September were started by Antifa. After I posted a news article on the subject, someone from another state called me up to make sure I knew that that article was wrong. Antifa had started the fires. That was the fact, and it was important that I knew it. 

In contrast, our son Steven, fire engineer at a local station, said that yes, a number of fires were started by people. It wasn’t important to him to know who they were or what they stood for. He left that to law enforcement. “Fire danger always brings out the crazy arsonists,” he shrugged.

The debates about Covid were equally heated. Masks are of the Devil. Masks will save us. Covid was a government conspiracy. No it was not. And so on.

I found it interesting to get our son Matt’s perspective. He spent seven years working for the Federal government. “Anyone who thinks this was a government conspiracy highly overestimates what the Federal government is capable of,” he said. True, the CIA manages to work out some complicated schemes, but Matt has seen what an enormous tangle of bureaucracy is in DC and how hard it is to get different agencies to work together or anything of substance to get accomplished. 

In his current job, he works on ways to inventory and keep track of items on a future moon mission and advocates for using RFID chips, consulting with one of the world’s leading experts on the subject. He isn’t nuanced about this. There is no possible way those things could get inserted into you via a hypodermic needle, he says. And even if they would put one in your arm, you have to have a scanner within a few feet of the chip to pick up a signal. There’s no way they could track you from across the country.

I admit I trust him more than that lady on YouTube who found an RFID chip in her bra and was sure that that was how “they” were tracking us.

My sister is a nurse who has seen the worst of Covid’s devastation in Chicago. Somehow I expected her to have insistent opinions on all aspects of Covid and be eager for a vaccine.

Her answers were more nuanced. She thinks masks are a good idea, since we have so few options, but she’s seen Covid take so many weird twists that she’s not sure what the answers are. And she’s seen new medical treatments get rammed through and then turn out to be terrible, so she was hesitant about the vaccine. She ended up choosing to get the vaccine for the sake of her vulnerable patients.

Oddly, she was less sure of herself than many many people I know who have no medical credentials and no experience with dying patients.

Somehow, I find her cautious answers more trustworthy than a hundred Facebook people's emphatic and unflinching statements.

 In conclusion:

Teach your children to think.

Pray for discernment.

Study and apply Scripture.

Be kind.

Ask good questions.

Find experts you can trust and talk to, rather than online sources.

Be comfortable with nuance, mystery, and not knowing for sure. We might all be wrong about many things.

Wait for history to unfold. Chances are good we are not taking seriously what we ought to be afraid of, and we are freaking out about things that will wash out with the tide and never come to pass. 

Most likely, we are not aware of the actual alarming conspiracies simmering below the surface as we speak. 

That’s what I think. I wish you grace for these troubled times.

--Aunt Dorcas

Saturday, January 09, 2021

To Know or Not to Know; That is the Question

 When I was between five and ten years old, we lived in the hills of southeastern Ohio, near Zanesville. It was beautiful there, with hills, creeks, farms, and huge maple trees.

There were also snakes, particularly black snakes, impossibly long and black. We would see them when we went blackberry picking back on the “North Mountain,” as we called it, behind our house. Mom once saw one slide across her path, and, for an alarming length of time, both ends were hidden in the bushes on each side, and there was only this black rope, sliding across.

My parents loved to go to auction sales, milling with crowds of country people and buying tools or cheap furniture.

One day Mom and I went to a sale not far away. I have no memory of how we got there, or if anyone else in the family was along--probably my sisters, though. I do recall the usual farm-sale atmosphere, with piled household items and people milling everywhere. Englisch people, of course, that exotic species, with laughing, confident girls my age, with their long ponytails tied with the thick, colorful yarn bows that were in style then.

A Brady Bunch character, I think.

I also recall a two-story white farmhouse with a porch.

I stood beside Mom in the yard, watching the auctioneer, who was standing in front of the porch. Suddenly, people started murmuring and pointing. The auctioneer turned and looked behind him. From the corner of the porch roof a black snake was emerging. It kept coming, slowly, down down down the post as we all watched, mesmerized.

A few men approached it, looking ready for action. One of them stepped up close, reached out, and grabbed the snake right behind the head. Instantly, it wrapped tight around his wrist.

A collective gasp. I’m sure Mom and I were popeyed.

The man hurried out to the road. We saw him flick his wrist, several times over, cracking the snake like a whip. The head hit the pavement and soon that very long and very black snake was dead.

The man walked back into the crowd, the hero of the day.

I wondered about the people in that house, and what it was like.

If you had a snake living in the attic of your porch, would you want to know?

If you didn’t know, you could go blithely on your way, innocent and carefree.

Knowing would bring a heavy weight, especially if you were a child like me, terrified of snakes but powerless to do anything about a large snake hidden in the ceiling of the porch.

Maybe it would be better to not know. But then, what if you were reading on the porch and suddenly it came sliding down a post?

I still ask myself that question, quite often, about other information: would I rather know, or not?

Before Paul had surgery on his neck last week, I looked up articles and videos about the procedure. How, I wondered, do they access the vertebrae from the front of the neck?

I found out.

They separate muscles, avoid the aorta, and clamp all the essential tubes off to one side. They poke in a knitting needle sort of instrument and take an x-ray to make sure they’re at the right spot. Then they cut precisely, ease out what doesn’t belong there, ease in replacement parts, and affix little metal plates with screws.

Think of it, screws into bone.

Knowing is reassuring, until it isn’t.

When I was a little Amish girl, we communicated in person or by letters that took hours to write and days to arrive.

When I began to write, publishing was an unbelievably laborious process of typing up manuscripts, mailing them out, and hoping for publication in a magazine.

Social media and the internet brought instant communication and easy, free, self-directed, widely-accessible publication.

You probably have to be my age or older to truly appreciate both of those.

Unfortunately, this helpful technology also brought a flood of information, much of it about people, and a lot that I don’t really want to know. All I want to see is a tidy white farmhouse. I don’t want to know about the snake in the porch roof.

The worst example, recently, is Ravi Zacharias’s sins, coming to light after he died. Wouldn’t I be happier if I hadn't heard? I could read his books and watch his old videos explaining deep truth in a precise but humble voice. I wouldn’t have the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, or the nausea of knowing.

I would like to think that the world is a peaceful, predictable place where Agnes is still with her husband, Jeffrey from a long-ago church is still a non-violent Anabaptist, and Marilyn still believes the earth is round like I taught her in fourth grade.*

And yet, I know otherwise, because they have freely informed all of us on social media.

Of course, some information still comes as it always has, even in the Amish days, directly from other people in words that replace your happy ignorance with harsh truth.

I want people to be as they appear. I would like “Harold” to be the solid, upstanding citizen he seems to be, not the angry, troubled person his wife describes in a private heart-to-heart over tea. It pains me to know that Katie, the funny teenager, is shockingly disrespectful and risk-taking. I want that well-known, articulate Mennonite preacher to be all that he says he is, and not the abuser of women and power as divulged in stories that filter into my inbox.*

In these cases, I carry the weight of knowing because it’s the right thing to do. Listening transfers some of the weight from them to me. That’s what we fellow believers and friends are here for.

But I think: what if I didn’t know? Wouldn’t that be better?

And yet, what if I were sleeping peacefully in a farmhouse and a black snake was crawling slowly in the porch attic only two feet away? Surely awareness is a good thing.

What do you think? Is it better to know or to be ignorant? And how do you make peace with knowing the complicated truth about someone who is not what they appear to be?

*All composite examples, of course.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: The Chatty Child

This picture kind of says it all.


Dear Aunt Dorcas,

      I could use some advice on how to relate to an intensely talkative and inquisitive five year old. How do I help her learn manners and an awareness of others that's appropriate for her age? These are some examples of things we need to work on: dominating adult conversations, constant interrupting, answering for her younger brother when questions are directed his way, and talking so fast that she's skipping words and difficult to understand. 

     I don't want her to feel as if I'm shutting her down. Neither do I want her to grow up feeling insecure and self conscious about her personality. I don't want her to feel labeled as "too intense" or "talks too much". I don't want to suppress her natural excitement and vivacity for life. 

     I do want her to know that she has a great personality and that it's a wonderful thing to love interacting with people so much. How do I help her cultivate the art of quietness and what are some reasonable social expectations? Especially when a group of adults is having a conversation.

     Along the same line is all the questions. There are days I don't feel questioned, but interrogated. The ones that particularly make my brain feel like it's shorting out are questions about the future, questions that assign motive, absolute questions that include "never" and "always", and questions that don't have a definitive answer. 

     "Why is the baby crying?" "Why is the baby not crying?" "Did you ever, ever in your whole life do xyz?" "What did your mom say when you were a little girl like me and did xyz?" If we read a story she often has questions about other things the fictional characters thought or did.

     I've wondered before if she actually wants to know all this stuff or if at least some of these questions are placeholders in a conversation because she thrives on the connection the back and forth brings. How do I respond positively to this instead of giving short frustrated answers or "I don't know's" and feeling like I could weep some days because my brain has no space to think? Ironically, I'm a very talkative person, have been called "intense" many times, and am fairly analytical myself. Yet I can feel a little overwhelmed by it all some days. 

      Some things I think about: Is it ever ok to tell your child to stop asking questions for a little while or should a parent always try to answer to the best of their ability? Do we encourage our children to be this way because conversations with little ones tend to be adults asking them a lot of questions? Do I encourage her to make statements and observations instead of framing everything as a question?

 Did I ask enough questions? Ha! The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Here's one more; an overarching question which probably could have been the extent of my letter in the first place. How does a parent train and shape a child's personality in a way that honors their God given uniqueness and encourages healthy self esteem and confidence?

- A young mum 


Dear Young Mum,

Your letter took me back in an instant and I laughed and laughed. Oh my word. A few of my children were JUST LIKE YOURS. Questions and chatter all day long. In church, in adult company, at bedtime, first thing in the morning, in the car, unceasingly.

When our oldest, Matthew, was three or four years old I kept track and in one day he asked 118 questions that began with “why?” Not whiny why’s like “Why do I have to take a nap?” but “Why did Uncle Philip hold the baby?” [referring to a photo on the wall] and “Why am I a boy?” There were also plenty of who, what, where, when, and how questions that day, but I counted only the why’s.

We had a guest one day who was helping me in the kitchen. At one point she said, “Don’t you get tired of the interrogation?”

I said, “Interrogation?”

It turned out that I had been answering a stream of Matt's questions with my mouth while I was concentrating on cooking, and I wasn’t even aware of what I was saying.

I’m an introvert, and some days the constant talking nearly drove me off the edge. I would tell myself to be thankful--at least I wasn’t in prison for my faith like Christians in China. But then I’d envy those people in prison, because they had time to THINK.

Our second child was Amy, who thought by thinking instead of talking. She would observe silently for a long time, and then when she opened her mouth, a concise and well-planned sentence came out.

I don’t want to label them better and worse, but I’ll just say that Amy was often a blessed relief.

Our third child was Emily, who began talking enthusiastically the second she got out of bed and kept it up all day. She asked lots of questions too, often hypotheticals like your child’s. “Mom! What if you had NINE children and three of them were trimplets and two of them were spilling cereal and one was unrolling toilet paper and three of them were splashing in the bathtub!? What would you do?? Wouldn’t that be a DISASTROPHE??”

I am happy to say that they all grew up into functional, brilliant, successful adults. They don’t recall feeling squelched.

I was a talkative child as well, since my dad used to say that my sister and I were “glenny Mattie", “little Matties,” [name changed of course], referring to a very talkative person in his past.

However, unfortunately, my memory is mostly of disgusted parents and siblings wanting me to just shut up before I embarrassed them off the face of the earth, and of me not having a clue what was actually appropriate, or why that was a wrong thing to say. There was a constant mix of this urge to say out loud what I saw and thought, a love of any kind of attention, and a deep sense that everything I said was usually wrong somehow. 

I think that’s the key for you and your children. The point is not to silence them or to communicate an exasperated “Will you just shut up??” Instead, they need to be taught what’s appropriate, and when. It will be a relief to both them and you to have those skills in hand.

Here’s some advice:

1.       Teach them that everyone has equal value. I got this from Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo’s teaching, and I want to give credit where it’s due, even though I don’t endorse their child-training courses.
That means you talk to your child about taking up time and space in a conversation. She has things to say, and they neeeeed to be said. But everyone else also has things to say! God made them with thoughts and words too! So you need to give everyone an equal chance to talk.
This also relates to answering for a sibling. No, Michael has his own thoughts and ideas. Aunt Linda asked HIM. We need to wait while he answers.
Show them that conversation is like tossing a ball back and forth. You don't hold the ball in your hands for fifteen minutes straight. You toss it to your sister, who tosses it to your dad, who sends it back to you, then it's your turn to talk again.
Eventually you want to work on asking good questions and listening to the answers.

2.       Teach them to defer to adults. This sort of contradicts the above statement about everyone having equal value, but I feel that respect for elders is a good thing to teach. Let’s say your sister Linda made the effort to come to your house to have coffee and talk with you. If the adult conversation is constantly interrupted and bombarded with chatter from a 4-year-old, the cuteness of it will wear off real fast and Linda will feel disappointed with her investment of time and resources. You need adult relationships, and your children shouldn’t ruin them. But keep in mind:

3.       Try not to put your children in situations they don’t have the maturity to handle. If your daughter doesn’t have the self-control to entertain herself while you catch up with Linda, try to find an alternative. Can you meet Linda at a coffee shop? I used to pay Matt to occupy the younger siblings when my sister came to visit. It’s not fair to a child to punish/shame them for how they behaved in a situation they weren’t taught how to navigate.

4.       Teach your child how to “reach” you. The Ezzos teach the technique of having your child squeeze your hand silently if you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone else. It says, “I need you,” or “I want to say something.” Then you squeeze back, and it means, “I hear you. I’ll be with you soon.” This prevents some of the “Mom. Mom! MOM!!” desperation when you’re on the phone. Just don't make them wait too long before you turn to them and hear what they want to say.

5.       It won’t hurt them to learn that there are times for talking and times to be quiet. Emily reports that when she used to ask me questions in church like, “Does Nancy have a baby in her tummy or is she just fat?” I used to whisper, “Ask me after.” She found it frustrating because she always forgot her question by the time church was over, but she didn’t find it shaming.
Also, it’s ok to use a timer. I would often set a timer for five or ten minutes when I needed to write a note or make a grocery list. They knew they could talk after the timer beeped. We were traveling in the van one day and Matthew was talking non-stop in the front seat. I told him he needs to be quiet for five minutes, just to rest my brain. The five minutes passed and the chatter didn’t resume. How could this be? He had fallen asleep.

6.       Turn the question back to them. This advice is from Emily, who enjoyed it when people did it to her and has often done this with children. Their questions come from the wild, colorful swirling in their heads. If you turn it back to them, it helps to process the chaos into words and ideas. Say, “What do YOU think?” “Why do YOU think Dad went to work today?” “Do YOU think a horse or a helicopter would be better for going to the warehouse?” This puts some of the work of thinking back on them instead of you. That is a good thing.

7.       Don’t frame their talking in terms of bad or good. I feel like I did this with my children, to some degree, as I mentioned, in that Amy was good because she was quieter and didn’t exhaust me so much. Instead, think in terms of skills, kindness, and consideration. A child who always dominates a conversation will be handicapped socially. Teaching them to listen to others will benefit them the rest of their lives.

8.       Teach them to read. Once they can satisfy some of that curiosity on their own, the incessant questions will lessen until you can think at least one or two thoughts of your own in between. In Matt’s case, being able to read changed everything, and he devoured the newspaper, all the encyclopedias, and everything else within reach, resulting in long periods of blessed silence. Those inquisitive minds will be satisfied at last with a river of knowledge that Mom can’t begin to match.

9.       Remember that they will grow up, and they will astonish you. It takes a long time and a lot of work to raise a child and teach appropriate interactions, but it can be done and I’m sure you have what it takes.

I wish you much grace and wisdom for this stage.

--Aunt Dorcas