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I remember watching a girl, maybe 5 years old at the time, climbing high on play equipment at the local park. When her face was a few feet higher up than mine as I stood and watched, but still a few feet below the top of the climbing structure, she grew uncertain and looked at her mother for advice. Her mother said, “Listen to what you tummy tells you. If your tummy tells you it’s too high, you can come back down again.

I was at once impressed with this piece of advice, and also concerned. I don’t remember being encouraged to listen to my gut when I was a child, so I’ve been learning to trust my gut as an adult. Not an easy task. In that respect, I really appreciated the gift this mother was giving her child. At the same time I was concerned for the child. As we reach for new skills, abilities, and experiences, and try out new areas in life, isn’t it natural to feel fear in the pit of our stomachs? Is it good to follow the guidance of our feelings then?

Is there a general answer to that question? I suspect not. Still, since we as Quakers claim our faith to be based on the authority of God speaking within us, we would do well to have a way to ensure that we aren’t confusing our feelings with an authoritative message straight from God.

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I am a big fan of the Methodist quadrilateral, which was articulated in about 1954, but founded on John Wesley’s 17th century theology and church-building. The quadrilateral lays out four sources of authority for Christians. In Wesley’s mindset, these four sources were supposed to thought of as a fourlegged stool, which of course would be wobbly if the four legs weren’t balanced. In seeking to settle a theological point, conflicting advice, or perplexing choices, we should consider the Bible, tradition (or the cumulative wisdom of the church), our own experience of God, and the learning we have gained through our intellectual reasoning. Like early Quakers, Wesley believed that God does make the truth known to each and every one of us. Truth is not hidden from our sight, or revealed only through certain special people, such as priests or mystics. Each of these sources is considered authoritative, and the four should be expected to be confirm one another if they are truly representing God’s truth.

I find this tool helpful in conceptualizing how different churches and Christians can all be reasonable, faithful people, considering the same sources of information and still arrive at different conclusions – with integrity – on matters such as gay marriage, women in spiritual leadership, Middle East peace, and any number of other thorny issues.

I should also say that the quadrilateral helps me understand differences between churches. Methodists may seek perfect balance perfectly between these four sources of authority, but other don’t seem to do that. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches appear to me to put far greater emphasis on “tradition” than the other quadrants. That is their charism, for good and bad. Protestants tend to emphasize Scripture more strongly than the other three.

What about Quakers? I’ll be interested to hear what others think. My conclusion is that we as Quakers operate with a three-legged stool of authoritative, reliable sources of knowledge of God: Scripture, experience, and tradition.

Based on my reading of Robert Barclay’s Apology, I don’t think early Quakers considered reason to be authoritative. Considering reason to be authoritative was very popular in the 1600s. In those heady early Enlightenment days, many hoped and believed that our reason was given us by God, and that reasoning as a gift of God represented God’s essence and would lead us back to its source: God, who is Truth. Robert Barclay, though he hadn’t encountered Freud’s analysis, tells us that while reason can bring us into an understanding of God’s mind, we humans are also prone to using our reason to justify our own ideas and flights of fancy. Hence, Barclay concludes, reason is not an authority. Instead it is neutral. It is as likely to lead us to the right conclusion as to the wrong conclusion.

Quakers, with our emphasis on “inward, unmediated revelation” probably emphasize experience more than other denominations do as a source of authoritative knowledge of God.

Scripture? Our faith group split over how authoritative scripture is, so there may not be a unified understanding of the role of Scripture in Quaker theology.

Tradition? Quakers – in general – place a great deal of trust in practices of making decisions, clearness committees, the business meeting, and early Quaker texts. I would say tradition is considered authoritative, though the different branches might differ some on how much weight to attribute to tradition and scripture if the two appeared to be pointing in different directions. We don’t rate tradition as highly as the Roman Catholics do, who attribute ultimate authority to tradition, as represented by the Pope.

Emotion? Is there a Quaker response to a child who feels fear in the pit of her stomach as she climbs high? “Trust your gut!” or “Keep climbing, even if you are a little scared at first.” Further reflections in Part II.

Query for prayerful reflection: When have your emotions revealed God’s truth to you? When have your emotions obscured God’s truth from your sight?

Once again, QuakerQuaker is the medium for an important Quaker conversation. Quaker Pagan has a lovingly crafted an appreciation of liberal Quakerism’s openness to the work of the Spirit in its many forms. The blog post contains a plea about use of language, “Christian Friends must be particularly careful when they speak of Jesus, or when they speak from the Bible.” Thankfully, Quaker Pagan doesn’t hold different standards for different Friends. She suggests that all Friends should be “bold and low”, bold in speaking what the Spirit reveals, and humble in not making claims broader than the Spirit’s message.

Jim Wilson has a response on QuakerQuaker, and the comments to both blog posts are well worth reading. I very much appreciate Quaker Pagan’s care, concern, and careful wording. She makes her request as graciously and kindly as I think anyone could. And yet…

Those of you who know me will be aware that I didn’t come to my Christian faith easily. Until I was in my 20s, I considered Christianity to be a tool used by the powerful to justify oppression of the vulnerable. Apartheid-era South Africa was the place where I saw this dynamic in action most vividly, growing up as I did in neighboring Botswana. I didn’t gain the freedom to consider a relationship with God until I encountered South African liberation theology in the late 80s. From Black evangelical Christians in South Africa, I learned that the Bible in fact tells the story of God standing with the oppressed, and in the mind of these South Africans, Christianity is best summarized in Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Since then, I have continued on my spiritual journey of learning where God is in the midst of suffering. As an anti-apartheid activist initially, then a spiritual director with homeless persons (many of them working on becoming sober), and now a hospital chaplain, my spiritual compulsion is still to learn about God and suffering. There is much pain, despair, anguish, fear, tears, and feeling overwhelmed, of course. Nonetheless, I continue to be amazed when I see how often people who face oppression, addiction, illness, death, and grief talk about a God who empowers, gives joy in unexpected places, comforts, and permeates everything and breaks forth in the world with generosity, love, and spiritual abundance. The predominant theme of Christianity, as I continue to learn it, is freedom.

We Quakers tend to be quite aware of the ills of the world, the injustices, the wounds, the hurts, and we often express our outrage at the inequalities in the world, and take care not to offend. One of the things I appreciate most about Quakerism is the attention we give to this earthly life, not just the hereafter. I am an activist at heart, and I agree with the bumper sticker that says, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.” But precisely because there is so much injustice, pain, and war in the world, I think we need our Quaker Meetings to provide reminders of resilience, model generosity, and above all, to reassure each other that even when all seems dark and hopeless, God is not asleep, but is active in the world “working all things together for good”. I think we need reminders, even when things seem hopeless, that God still gives us complete spiritual freedom to act with love. No matter how desperate our circumstances, we always have the choice of being in right relationship with God, and uniting with God and humans in “those things that are eternal”. We are free now, and will know even greater freedom when we unite with God after death.

Sadly, I don’t encounter as much of this spirit of freedom and abundance in Liberal Meetings as I would like. There are the troubles of the world, of course. Also, there are so many among us who have been emotionally and spiritually wounded, and in response, we thoughtfully choose our words about God with care and caution lest we offend. It is good to be concerned about offending other, of course. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is very clear that our freedom should not come at the expense of others, and we must have concern for how our actions affect our brothers and sisters. We do not have the freedom to do and say things that harm, offend, embarrass, diminish, or confuse another person. And yet we need fearless, bold, and joyful abandon so we can freely speak about our experience of God, yes, even if we sound foolish in worldly terms.

I am concerned that in this environment, Quaker Pagan’s encouragement of caution and concern will further dampen our already-too-timid talk about God. Rather than guarding our words carefully, at this time, I think we need greater emphasis on freedom to shout and sing and dance to proclaim God’s presence in our midst, yes, especially in the midst of tragedy and despair.

The way I’d like to see us balance the concerns for freedom and compassion is in to err on the side of generosity. I would like us to remind ourselves that, provided we all are mindful of the power of words to hurt, we generously encourage each other to speak freely about our experience of God. I’d like to see us all claim responsibility for our own feelings, recognizing that in community, we will almost certainly be hurt at times, and cause pain to others, no matter how hard we’re all trying to avoid it. I’d like to see us commit to lovingly speak with any person who causes us pain, and commit to use the freedom to speak to that person about the effect of his/her words, educate if needed, and forgive or ask forgiveness as appropriate.

I’d love to hear you speak freely about your experience of the Divine!

Query for prayerful consideration:

How has God been present to you in difficult times?

Several Quaker bloggers this past week have been either asking or reflecting on Quaker identity, the Quaker movement’s calling, as it were. I recommend reading them all, and the comments the garnered, too:  my own, David Johns, Micah Bales, another Micah Bales post, and Johan Maurer (apologies if there are others I’ve missed). I find myself wondering, “What are we really trying to get at?”

In my post, I ask what is substance and what is trivia in what we know as Quakerism today, in any branch. May the authors have mercy on me for trying to capture their deep and rich blogs in one sentence each! In Micah Bales’ first post, he suggests that we shift our societal stance from being a response to threats to our society, to a trust-based openness to God’s leading. David Johns says that we should neither get too hung up in protecting a Quaker identity nor be too eager to be in touch with current popular culture, but focus on living like Jesus would have us live. In Micah’s second post, he continues David John’s theme of focusing on faithfulness as the key virtue. Johan Maurer draws our attention to the older branches of the Christian family, who look at Quakerism and wonder whether we have thrown out heritage, culture, richness, depth, and texture. 

I am heartened and inspired by these blog posts and heartily agree with the points made. Micah and David’s focus on faithfulness to the Living Christ and using Jesus as model and teacher seems true and right.  At the same time, I find myself wanting to mount a passionate speech in favor of Quakerism. Not as an object of worship, or for the purpose of venerating a tradition for its own sake, or heroes for the sake of hero-worship.

Quakerism is a means to an end – we all need some practical advice on how to live as Christians, and we need a community for encouragement and accountability. I wouldn’t claim  that Quakerism is a better way, objectively, than other approaches to God, but it is the way that God calls me and many others to be in. I’d like to suggest that we can and should be serious about our Quakerism, without giving it too much or too little weight.

The Bible suggests to me that there will be variety between groups of believers. Paul wrote letters containing distinctly different advice to several churches, based on their particular circumstances, culture, and the personalities within each church. The Book of Revelation contains the notion that churches have an “angel”, or a soul, with a distinct character. Walter Wink builds an analysis of human institutions (including churches) on Revelation. I find it helpful to my understanding of the role of Quakerism: Every human institution has three characteristics, and all are present at the same time: each one is created for a divine purpose; it bears within it the seeds of its own destruction; and it is redeemable. Churches, being human institutions, will all fall short of being the true representation of Christianity. Still, because of the divine purpose for which it is called, it is important for the church to try to find its calling. 

With the certainty both of our divine calling and of the inevitability of falling short of that calling, I draw several conclusions:

1. If we focus just on Jesus, not on the how-to of Quakerism, my experience tells me we are playing a high-stakes game. It means we dedicate ourselves to a high ideal, without much intentional evaluation of consequences, and without much ability to catch ourselves if there are undesired consequences. Sadly, a lot of harm is inadvertently done by well-intentioned people. I think a denomination does well not just to have high ideals, but also some stated intentions and practices, and also some practices for examining whether the outcomes of our actions affirm the original leading.

2. Assuming that all churches have a divine purpose, we can assume that other churches have wisdom in areas where we don’t. We carry within us the seeds of our own destruction, as Walter Wink would put it. We lack traditions, rich heritage, and a way to settle internal conflict. Here’s another: a Lutheran pastor once told me that Quakers are very elitist. She said, “Silent worship offers little to the many, many people who rarely or never have the dramatic kinds of openings, revelations, and mystical experiences Quakers are supposed to have. What about an everyday faith, for the regular days and regular people?” After I got over my initial shock, I conceded that she has a point. Either because of personality differences, stage in faith development, or experiencing a dry period, not everyone will have powerful religious experiences, or have them very often. Other churches offer ways to help people engage the divine using a variety of methods: through teaching, verbal reminders, smell, taste, imagination, sight, and rituals. I’m not suggesting that we change Quakerism, but I am suggesting we might be more aware of an area where we, perhaps, aren’t offering people support in something that may be difficult.

3.  The corollary is that we must be more aware of what our divine purpose as a church is? The possibility of  inward, unmediated revelation of God? That we can live in the Power that removes the occasion for war? That there is one, even Jesus, who can speak to my condition? The practice of waiting expectantly for God to speak to us? Emphasis on the fundamental spiritual meaning of many outward rituals and practices? Remind older churches not to take themselves and their rituals too seriously, and entertain the possibility that mistakes can and have been made, even by very holy people? (Whereas the testimonies may have seemed radical in the 1600s, ideas like equality, peace, and integrity are hardly unique in society today.) 

4. Our Faith & Practice is an important document. Do we submit to its authority? Do we train people to know what they are coming into when they become a member of the Religious Society of Friends? If we really do believe in the idea of “being faithful” as the main authority (rather than reason, Scripture, or our faith community), we should be very good at distinguishing between the pressure of personal emotions, our intellect, and divine leadings. Can we honestly say that we are very good at that? Do we teach it? Do we practice and model saying yes to some leadings, no to others? Or are we so eager to appear non-judgmental that we say yes to everything we can? 

In conclusion: Yes, Quakerism is worthy of our attention and study. But only as a means to Christian living, not as an end. We cannot worship it, we cannot make its preservation a goal in and of itself. Quakerism offers us a manual on how to be faithful. With attentiveness to the wisdom of other branches of Christianity, and the awareness of Quakerism’s divine purpose, we can learn from criticism from others, and become more faithful in our task of being faithful and teaching faithfulness.

How would you describe the “angel of Quakerism”? What is her calling? What are her character flaws? What are her prayer needs?

In one of the last scenes of Monty Python’s comedy “Life of Brian”, poor Brian is trying to escape a crowd of followers who think him a real prophet when he is only pretending to be one in order to escape the Roman soldiers pursuing him.  In Brian’s haste, he drops a gourd that someone had forced into his hands earlier. One of the women among picks up the gourd Brian drops, and excitedly proclaims it to be a sacred sign from the prophet. The crowd is ecstatic to have found this sacred relic, and pursues Brian again when his sandal falls off and and he continues his flight with one bare foot and one foot in a sandal. When the pursuing crowd finds Brian’s abandoned sandal, an argument immediately breaks out between those who continue to worship the gourd and those who adopt the sandal as the superior sign of the prophet. This second group fractures just as quickly, one arguing that everyone should wear just one sandal, like their prophet Brian, the other half arrogantly claiming a superior position, understanding the sandal merely to be symbolic of some deeper meaning, not in the literal, primitive sense of the first group.   

“Life of Brian” is to me one of the most astute critiques of the cultures of believers because it focuses on the human failings of those of us in the wider Romano-Judeo-Christian sphere – in its English way. Monty Python pokes fun at our human tendency to get caught up in trivia and lose sight of substance.

If we were to take a Monty-Pythonesque view of the four branches of Quakerism, what would we find? Believers who are focused on the the substance of faith, using the lens of Quakerism? Or people fighting with each other over the supremacy of the gourd or the shoe, and whether the shoe is to be understood literally or metaphorically? Imagine for a moment that most of what we do falls into the category of shoe or gourd, what are the few elements you absolutely would insist are essential to Quakerism, not just a practice you have grown attached to?

Query for prayerful contemplation:

If you were to start a Quaker worship group today, built on the essentials of Quakerism, what would it do? What would worship be like?

For some of us it takes quite a while to figure out why we do what we do, or to become clear on what we ought to be doing. I started blogging more than 5 years ago, and it has taken until today to come up with a model that captures how I moderate comments on my blog.

My husband Doug is a journalism professor and a passionate defender of freedom of speech, and I have misunderstood the concept all these years to mean that I had an ethical obligation to allow commenters to have free reign (within reason) on my blog. However, Doug helped me understand that freedom of speech is really for newspapers to be free from government interference. Newspapers themselves are quite free to fact check and edit anything that appears in their pages, and they certainly have the right to edit the “letters to the editor” section, which is the closest parallel to the comments on a blog.

Grasping the idea that comments on a blog are more like the “letters to the editor” section than articles in a newspaper, I had my great “Eureka!” moment: Rather than defining my goal as to intervene as little as possible, my goal can be to ensure that the conversation sheds Light on the matter that has brought us together (virtually). I usually write blog posts driven by hunger for particular knowledge or spiritual deepening in a specific area. I can moderate comments as if I were clerking a called business meeting about the topic I feel the need to explore with your participation.

The following two Advices and Queries from Britain Yearly Meeting seem particularly close to my understanding blogging, comments, and how to moderate conversations: 

5. Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.

15. Do you take part as often as you can in meetings for church affairs? Are you familiar enough with our church government to contribute to its disciplined processes? Do you consider difficult questions with an informed mind as well as a generous and loving spirit? Are you prepared to let your insights and personal wishes take their place alongside those of others or be set aside as the meeting seeks the right way forward? If you cannot attend, uphold the meeting prayerfully.

I intend to be as generous and loving as possible. I confess that I do like to stick to a line of inquiry, and if it seems like a comment is a distraction, I may try to steer it back on track. If I think comments are inflammatory or divisive, I will probably intervene, see my previous blog post, Rules of Verbal Engagement, for details. I will also edit if a commenter seems to be putting her- or himself at risk, or making others vulnerable. As in a Quaker business meeting, I encourage commenters to address their somments to the clerk, not participants in the conversation. Rules for their own sake have never interested me much, so I can easily promise to use as light and loving a touch as I know how to do.

Query for prayerful consideration: What are the qualities of good conversations on a blog? How can a moderator facilitate good conversations?

The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded on December 10 every year, and it’s an event I always pay attention to. Sometimes the choice of award winner leaves me scratching my head, but more often, the winner’s story is an affirmation of the possibility of reconciliation and peaceful resolution of strife. The award in 1947 is especially meaningful to me – that was the year the American Friends Service Committee and British Friends Service Council were recognized for their work among German civilians after “World War II” ended. These “enemies” were struggling to survive in their societies from which wealth had been extracted to fund Hitler’s war, and their cities were bombed and burned by the Allies. Friends worked with them to rebuild their homes, infrastructure, and industry. Also, Friends were committed to “humanize” Germans in the eyes of the world, and to ensure that Germans would not be thought of as “enemy” and “other”. The Nobel Committee rightly acknowledged that these actions build peace.

This is one of the stories that, for me, goes to the heart of what Quakerism is about. Every person is a beloved child of God, and God isn’t going to take one beloved child’s side against another. If there are “sides” at all, it’s because we’ve failed at loving each other the way we’re supposed to. If we do God’s will, we’ll reconcile and find out how to live peacefully together.

In similar fashion, when we discern God’s will for our Quaker Meeting on some issue or other, we should expect of ourselves that we resist the temptation to take sides on an issue, or to attribute bad motives to each other. We should assume that if there are “sides” in a discussion, that is a fairly good indication that the Meeting has not yet arrived at God’s will. It is also a fairly safe assumption that neither “side” reflects God’s will for the Meeting. God’s will is to be found where there is unity (not that reaching unity is a guarantee that the group has discerned God’s will).

So, how do we operationalize this theology? What are the characteristics of a conversation that follows this ideal?

1. Refrain from characterizing other Friends’ positions or attributing motives. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “Those who want restrictions on sex offenders’ participation are afraid and irrational.” “Those who welcome a sex offender without restrictions don’t care about the wellbeing of my children.”)
2. Refrain from claiming your position is morally superior. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “I want the sex offender to attend without restrictions, because that is inclusive, and Quakers are inclusive.” “Quakers care for those who are vulnerable, so there must be restrictions on the sex offender’s participation.”) 
3. Avoid personalizing. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “I have become convinced that it is safe for him to attend without restrictions. If you trust me, you will follow my advice.” “If you let him attend without restrictions, you’ve just said you don’t care about (named) survivor of sexual assault.”)
4. Refrain from making threats. (Examples of phrases to avoid: “Inclusion is so important to me that if he can’t attend without restrictions, I will leave the Meeting.” “If the sex offender attends without any restrictions, I will leave the Meeting.)
5. Avoid weighing some people as more important than others. Examples of phrases to avoid: “If survivors of sexual assault don’t feel safe worshiping with a sex offender and decide to leave – well, that’s their choice. Let them go.” “I wish the sex offender would just go away.”
 
And here are some thoughs about how the clerk or participating Friend might respond if those kinds of statements are made:
1. We are all on the same side – God’s side. Let us unite in seeking the best way forward for the Meeting.
2. All of us support inclusion and care for the vulnerable. We may have different ideas of what exactly that looks like in this situation. Let us seek answers together. 
3. I know we all care deeply about the people in this situation. However, we are drafting a minute – not with us or these individuals in mind – but a minute that could be used when none of us is present. Can we take a few moments to expand our considerations to go beyond those of us in the room and the people we care about here?
4. We do our best in discerning God’s will when we can operate in trust, without fear. Let us go into silent worship, and remind ourselves of God’s ability to care for all of us. Let us continue our discernment at our next meeting.
5. Let us trust that God can provide a way forward that meets everyone’s needs, even if we may be called upon to give something up for the sake of the community we love. There is a solution that encompasses all of us and we can’t settle for a solution that would mean someone has to leave. 
 

Query for prayerful consideration: What verbal practices do you propose to help build peace in our Meetings, especially in matters where emotions can run very high?

All humans make mistakes, and that includes Quakers. In the ideal Quaker Meeting, I imagine that a Quaker such as myself could do something wrong and a wise Elder would take me aside and say, “Susanne, I love you dearly. You made a mistake, and you have to stop doing what you’re doing. What can you do to make this right? And how can I help you in that process?”

This fantasy initially crystallized in my mind in 2002, when I first watched the Meeting I then belonged to tiptoe around Friends doing wrong. The facts of the following are all publicly known: Two Friends in leadership positions were having an affair. Most of the other Friends in leadership were aware of the affair and tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the unfaithful Friends to step out of their leadership positions until they had set things right at home. The unfaithful Friends refused, continued in leadership, and continued to try to keep their affair hidden from their Quaker spouses. These unfaithful Friends used their positions to preemptively discredit anyone they thought might expose their secret. Ultimately they were unsuccessful in keeping the secret. You can only imagine the harm that was done to the Quaker family members, especially when they realized that “everyone” in the Meeting knew of the affair. The discrediting campaign did damage in the Meeting as Friends took sides against one another and factions developed. 

My fantasy for dealing with wrongdoing emerged again during my Meeting’s deliberations this spring over a Level 3 sex offender who came to my Meeting, and several Friends’ insistence that he attend without any safeguards.

My Meeting actually did arrive at unity within a few months. From a results perspective, our process was a success. But mistakes were made within the Meeting, not by the sex offender, but by long-term Friends. One couple that was particularly determined that the sex offender be welcomed without conditions, threatened to leave Meeting if we didn’t reach the decision they wanted, used one spouse’s role on the Oversight committee (which was responsible for the process) to promote their position, including sending e-mails to the entire Meeting. As in the situation ten years ago, others in leadership in this Meeting tried to persuade this couple to act differently, but were rebuffed. I shamefacedly confess that I should have been eldered, but no Friend approached me. Thankfully, God convicted me directly in worship one Sunday, by bringing 1 Corinthians 13 to my attention. “If I have faith that can move mountains, but do have not love, I am nothing… Love is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs..” I was pierced by these words, and called everyone in leadership personally, and asked their forgiveness for being critical, instead of loving and supporting them, as I should have.     

At some point, the sex offender learned that we were working on conditions under which he could attend, and he withdrew his request from our Meeting. He now attends a Meeting that has received him without any conditions. My Meeting did reach unity on conditions for any future sex offenders who might wish to attend our Meeting, such as being chaperoned, not having access to directories, and attending only a few designated, publicized Sunday Meetings. As for our spiritual and emotional condition, I think it’s fair to say that almost every Friend felt bruised and battered by this process. Several Friends have officially resigned from the Meeting, and others are not attending much, if at all, while they discern whether to stay or leave in order to be in spiritual community.

Robert Barclay, in his Apology, dismissed the notion of “original sin”, but insisted that we have a “propensity to sin” and therefore that all humans will sin (with the possible exception of those who have been made new in Christ). So, if we accept that all of us will sin, why are our Meetings so ineffectual in dealing with sin in helpful and healing ways? Although I have spent some time above writing about mistakes that individuals made, my purpose is to outline that these mistakes were such obvious violations of Quaker process and values that the Meetings could and should have intervened. My belief is that the real failure was with the Meetings. All humans will make mistakes. It is entirely predictable that Friends will do what the unfaithful Friends in the first situation did, and the friends of the sex offender did in the second. We need to be prepared to lovingly bring each other back to good order.

What did Meeting leadership do in these situations? They observed the mistakes, tried persuasion, but allowed themselves to be rebuffed. In the first Meeting, I remember Friends saying “I’ve tried everything. I’ve talked to them, argued with them, but they won’t listen. There’s nothing more I can do!” In my current Meeting, Friends in leadership lamented lack of established models for handling this kind of situation, although they did have recommendations from several other Meetings with experience. 

In both settings, leadership felt they had taken things are far as they could when they attempted persuasion. When persuasion failed, these leaders believed themselves to be at the end of the road. I disagree, although I am the first to admit that it would not have been easy to go further. We no longer empower our leaders to take action without the wrongdoers’ consent in these kinds of extreme circumstances. I don’t think our leadership felt empowered to say with authority to the unfaithful couple, ” I love you dearly. You made a mistake, and you have to stop doing what you’re doing. What can you do to make this right? And how can I help you in that process?” Our leaders certainly didn’t feel empowered to say “You are on leave of absence from your leadership position until you have made things right with regard to your affair. What can I do to support you in this process, in addition to holding you and your family in the Light?” And we haven’t given our leadership any reason to think that, if eldered, we would gracefully accept the instruction given.

In short, I believe we must revive the practice of empowering our leaders to admonish us lovingly, and to gracefully accept discipline from our leadership.

Query for prayerful consideration:

Does our current liberal culture encourage Friends to accept limits set by Quaker leadership? Do we encourage leaders to set limits? What can we do to encourage a culture of accepting limit-setting?

I initially wrote the blog post below on March 4, 2012, but – for a variety of reasons – did not post it at the time. Eight months later, our Meeting has been through a lot of pain and difficulty. Attendance among the original group of Friends has fluctuated. We are about to embark on a process of healing and reconcialitaion – at least we are considering it. This seems like a good time to post my original post, unedited. I hope to write additional blog posts on how Meetings deal with sex offenders, how Friends deal with the spiritual dimensions of interaction with people who have committed serious crimes, and how Quaker process is able to – or not – to handle these challenges as they arise in the midst of our Meetings. Your prayers for our Meeting would be most welcome!

March 4, 2012: Once again, I feel called to deal with a difficult topic. I do not intend to be graphic and offensive in my writing, but this is a sensitive topic that may stir up difficult feelings. Dear reader, if you know this to be an area of potential pain for you, I encourage you to consider that you have the freedom to choose not to read this blog, or not to read it at this time. Please care tenderly for your needs.

I did not attend Meeting for Worship this morning. I feel sad about not attending, and my absence was not a protest against anyone or anything, nor was it a statement of any position. However, I was not ready to worship with the Level 3 registered sex offender who has recently started coming to our Meeting. I was surprised to discover that I am also not ready to worship with those Quakers whom I feel could have done more to prepare our Meeting for his presence among us. 

How does one prepare for worshiping with a Level 3 registered sex offender? I can’t imagine there is a one-size-fits-all answer to that. But it seems to me that there are several components one might expect. Ensuring everyone’s safety (offender and Meeting members); acknowledging the facts; dealing with the emotions that arise in response to the facts; seeking to know the Divine potential; and aligning one’s will with the Divine potential. I will share my process and where it seems to have worked or not, and I invite others to join in conversation with the idea that, between us, we may grow in the Spirit and come up with something that might be helpful to other Friends and Meetings that may be dealing with this kind of issue.

Our sex offender, whom I will call John Doe or just JD*, has raped a dozen women, served decades in prison, and now wants to attend my Quaker Meeting. A very cursory look online suggests that there may have been some legal sleights of hand that may not have been entirely fair to JD. Part of me wanted to dive into more research – I love gaining knowledge – and I think I was also hopeful that there were extenuating circumstances that would allow me to discover that JD’s actions and motivations weren’t as bad as they appeared at first sight. I did do a little additional reseacrh, but quickly concluded a) given the adversarial nature of the legal system, nothing I read was aimed at presenting the Truth, and b) the details of his actions have no bearing on the condition of my soul as I prepare to worship with him.

So the knowledge I am laboring with is that JD raped 11 women, and statistically the risk of him re-offending is high. What do I do with that?

I am disgusted, horrified, angry, griefstricken, sad, sad, sad, angry. I am grateful that, so far, I got away physically unharmed from three attempted rapes in my youth. I will not thank God  for sparing me, because that would imply that God abandoned the others. I am angry with God. I lament the fact that 1 in four or five women has been sexually assaulted. I am scared. Who knows if I’ll be as lucky next time? My mouth and throat go dry, tears well up in my eyes, my stomach knots as I think about my two daughters. Will they be among the lucky ones? I grieve for the many people I know whose lives have been changed by sexual assault, and I feel some shame at my passivity and powerlessness in the face of the many thousands of rapes that happen daily, and the sale of people for the purpose of sex. I am grateful for those who have survived, and I praise God for the healing that many of them have experienced. I am repulsed by the thought of sharing the intimacy of worship with someone who sexually assaulted so many women! I wish JD would just go away. I am angry with those members of my meeting who have encouraged JD to worship at our Meeting. I worry about those in my Meeting who have been sexually assaulted – what effect will JD’s presence have on them? Reopen old wounds? Will they leave?   

What do I do with all of these feelings? I acknowledge their validity. Yes, I am angry, relieved, scared, concerned, repulsed, and more. And that’s OK, and it is important to tend to my emotions. 

Equally clearly, my feelings are not a good guide for my actions. For that I look to my faith. What are the actions of a person of faith? What are faith communities to do? What does God say?

Early Quakers often got into arguments with their contemporaries about the power of God to conquer sin. I think it’s fair to say that this was the single most contentious issue between Quakers and Presbyterians – Quakers rejected the notion of Original Sin and insisted that God in a very literal sense can inhabit our being in such a way as to free us from the temptation to sin. My favorite book on the subject is Apocalypse of the Word by Douglas Gwyn. It stands to reason that if we allow The Seed to blossom within us, give “that of God” free rein in our conscience and soul, let “Christ Within” guide our words and actions, clearly we can all be transformed into new beings. It doesn’t get much clearer than Paul’s words: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:19-21 

Not only did the early Friends passionately believe this, Friends have been active in prison ministry from the earliest days until the present. In the early days, Friends were frequently jailed for their beliefs. As the centuries have gone by, our ministry has shifted to ensuring that conditions in prison were conducive to that kind of transformation in individuals. Prisoners were to be treated with respect and kindess so as to learn how to respect and be kind to others in turn. As psychology and sociology have developed, many Quakers have delevoped programs in the prisons to teach the social and interpersonal skills and sensitivities that would aid prisoners in being transformed. 

And of course I agree with this theology. My own faith experience is that “I am dead and Christ lives in me”. I support the ministries in the prisons that seek to bring about inner transformation. I believe in them. It makes sense to me that Quaker Meetings would offer a place for released prisoners to come and worship. They are far more likely to sustain any progress they have made if they are part of a community, and they most certainly can use the accountability and support of a Quaker Meeting. JD claims to be transformed by personal commitment to integrity. He says he is safe and does not present a threat to anyone in our community in his current state. 

And yet… I am not ready to worship with him.

In part, I think time will help. My feelings will gradually become less intense, based on past experience. Also, I think my meeting made some mistakes that make JD’s presence harder to accept. It would have been helpful if we had known about JD’s background before he started worshiping with us rather than learning about it after we had worshiped and interacted with him. Also, when a letter did go out to the meeting’s membership, it would have been helpful if it had acknowledged the distress some members might experience or offer compassion and resources to those who might be struggling. 

*I will not name anyone, and everything I say about individuals or our Meeting’s process is either a matter of public record or was said by someone in a official capacity. Nothing confidential will be revealed. However, I imagine some of those who appear in my blog may not be happy about my characterization. My intention is to say only enough to be able to grapple with the spiritual issues, and never with the intent to cause embarrassment. When I say something that sounds critical, please try to be generous with the individuals and consider the systems perspective.

I was invited to preach the Easter sermon at the Living Interfaith Church just north of Seattle today. Below, you will find the sermon I wrote. In fact, I didn’t actually preach this sermon. At the last minute, God told me to put my manuscript aside and speak the words the Spirit would give me in the moment. In the message I gave, I used John 4 and Robert Barclay’s words, “I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up”. That became the core of the message and the query I gave them for the open worship time. Anyway, here is the sermon as written:

Thank you for inviting me to come to your church this morning to talk about Quakers and Easter.

I have to tell you that this is a bit challenging. You see, traditionally, Quakers don’t celebrate special religious days and events according to the calendar. Instead, we throw ourselves into the spiritual event. What is the spiritual significance of Jesus’ death and coming to life again?

You may be wondering why we would neglect the external celebration, when all the other denominations in the Christian family make Christmas and Easter the centerpiece of church life?

Quakers look at passages like John 4 more literally than most. In John 4, Jesus is in Samaria and meets a nameless woman at the well. She understands Jesus to be a prophet, and asks him where people are supposed to worship, on a mountain in Samaria like her people do, or at the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus replies “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth… God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

 What Quakers have taken this to mean is that when we think of Christmas or Easter, we consider the spiritual meaning of Christmas and Easter.

 What do I mean by “spiritual Easter.” What is the spiritual significance, or spiritual event, of Easter, from a Quaker perspective?

 Let me read to you a quote from George Fox, one of the founders of Quakerism, from around 1650:  “I saw also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God.”  Death, evil, humiliation, do not have the last word: love does.”

And then there’s another sense in which the early Quakers talked about this Easter phenomenon: “it is the medium whereby we can rise in dominion over our earthly nature, as we feel [the divine] spirit rise in us to do away with sin, and to put an end to transgression; and this is a lesson of daily experience to all those who know by the powerful influence of his spirit working in us, raising the mind above all outward laws… James Bellangee, 1854

 So Easter is not just about Jesus dying and coming to life again, but every human being’s soul rising above the constraints of our broken, flawed, human nature.

 I’ve read these quotes to you from the words and lives of some Quakers from history. That’s good. Nothing wrong with that. We don’t have any creeds or official teachings of any kind from which I could draw to talk about Easter. Because to Quakers, creeds cause arguments, and no words can come close to describing the reality of God anyway. The Bible, when read literally, can be interpreted to mean any number of things. So, far more important than the words of the Bible, or the words of early Quakers, or any creeds, are God’s words straight into each heart.

 What is most important is what the divine reveals inwardly to each one of us. Because Quakers believe that God speaks directly into the heart of every one of us. It’s an absolutely fundamental part of Quaker faith. Here are the words of Margaret Fell, another one of our founders, in 1694.

 ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”

 So what’s important to Quakers is to “know the scriptures in ourselves”. We know what scriptures describe as our own experience.

The most authentic way for me to share a Quaker Easter with you is to invite you into your own encounter with the Divine. A lot of the Quaker experience is just sitting in silence, being still, listening, waiting, molding ourselves to God’s will. Some of us never have mystical experiences. But we do rely on the experiences we have in worship – mystical, an insight, a sense of peace, some words that come to us, an AHA! – as the most authentic source of authority I offer you today is the opportunity to know inwardly, to encounter the meaning of the resurrection in yourself.

I’m going to read the Bible passage to you again, in a slightly different translation, and then I’ll give you a few queries. Queries are open-ended questions for reflection. They don’t have answers, really, but are a way to give the mind/soul/spirit both focus and spaciousness to go wherever the Divine leads:

Luke 24:1-12

Queries:

1. Put yourself in Peter’s place. You’ve just buried your best friend and spiritual teacher, and now his grave is empty. You’re puzzled, shaking your head. What do you imagine Peter is experiencing? 

2. Think back to an incident in your life that started with seemingly insurmountable difficulty or pain, but eventually turned out OK or even life-giving in a way you couldn’t have imagined at the outset. How is that experience similar to or different from what you think of as “resurrection”?

3. What does “resurrection” mean to you? How is this different from earlier conceptions of what “resurrection” means? What brought about this shift?

Because the topic of forgiveness is so sensitive, and has so often been used to bludgeon, silence or guilt those who have suffered an injustice, I want to start off with a few caveats. I don’t think anyone has the right to demand that another person should forgive, or forgive on a certain time line. In my mind, God can give us anger at an injustice as a powerful force to drive personal and societal change. Forgiveness isn’t a more “worthy” or morally correct feeling than anger. Each emotion has its appropriate time and place. Please accept the following thoughts not as a general promotion of forgiveness, but theological reflections on forgiveness in its proper time and place.

My father-in-law Ray was the victim of medical malpractice when he was in his 60s, and the family believes his quality of life could have been better in his remaining years if things had been done right early on. Ray could probably have successfully sued his doctor – and since Ray is a lawyer, he could probably have done it without much cost to himself. But Ray chose not to, saying that he just didn’t want to spend his remaining years in the courtroom. He’d rather enjoy whatever time he had left with his family.

Ray’s decision came to mind after I heard the Norwegian Labour Youth Party’s response to the terrorist who killed 77 people, most of them teenagers, on July 22 this year. Eskil Pedersen, the leader of the Youth party, later said at the party’s official memorial gathering, “We have been changed and marked by what has happened. We will always be known as the July 22 generation. And that gives us power. Because we have the power to decide what the future will be.”

Neither one of these vignettes is about forgiveness per se, but my curiosity was awakened. What, exactly, does the famous Matthew 18 say about forgiveness? Matthew 18 contains the scene where Peter asks whether 7 is the correct number of times to forgive, and Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times”. Now, Jesus may simply have been saying, “Peter, you dolt, this isn’t something you can quantify. This is about soul and internal transformation, not a set of rules.” However, if he was saying something more generalisable, what could that be?

I started, as usual, by looking at the context. What is going on in the story before and after this particular scene?

The story with Peter is in a collection of parables and incidents that take place just before Jesus goes to Jerusalem and is killed. In terms of relative importance, we are close to the core of what Jesus’ wanted his disciples to know, the heart of what he wanted to accomplish in his life. Immediately before Peter’s question is the parable of the lost sheep, in which Jesus explains that each sheep (person) is too beloved and precious for God to allow him or her to be lost. Before that, the disciples bicker about who is greatest, and Jesus tells them that the greatest is s/he who is most like a child. Immediately after Peter’s question comes the parable of the unmerciful servant, who is forgiven a huge debt he owes his master, but follows up by refusing to forgive a smaller debt that is owed him, and harshly punishes the debtor. The master’s response is to withdraw the forgiveness he had previously granted. Jesus moves on to address divorce, essentially saying that a man can’t just divorce his wife because he feels like it. Then Jesus returns to the topic of children, saying that heaven belongs to children and those who are like children.

In looking at all these stories together, it looks to me like Jesus is addressing generosity, broadly speaking. What they all have in common is that the initiator of the parable is trying to impose some sort of judgment on others, dividing people into categories of greater/lesser or worthy/unworthy.  It is about turning away children, someone who owes money, or a wife one is no longer infatuated with. In each situation, it is the person with relative power in the relationship who rejects the one who has less worldly power. Jesus teaches the person who would judge or dismiss someone who comes to them that they should respond generously and with welcome.

What – the question of forgiveness belongs in the larger picture of generosity and welcome?!

I have always thought of forgiveness in the framework of justice, as an ultimate goal in a journey that involves the victim feeling healed, the perpetrator repenting, making amends, and choosing a better path. Maybe that’s why I could never articulate a theology of forgiveness?! As long as I looked at forgiveness in the context of justice, it seemed to tie the victim to the perpetrator in a relationship of sorts, and the humanly impossible feat of feeling peace about what had happened. It never felt right.

But what if forgiveness instead is about acts of generosity and welcome? Perhaps that is why my father-in-law Ray and the Norwegian Labor Youth’s actions made me want to read Matthew 18. Now, I can’t say anything about how any of them feel – that is not for me to say. They may feel badly done by, angry, and still hungering for an apology,  restoration, or wanting never to have anything to do with the perpetrator ever again. All of those would be very natural feelings. Perhaps they feel peace about it? I don’t know and I don’t think I’m entitled to know, and it belongs in their inner world and their relationship with God.

I do think I am permitted to reflect on other people’s acts. My father-in-law decided not to invest any more of his energy in the doctor and did not sue him. Instead he devoted himself to his wife and family and causes he believed in, creating a better life for all. The Labor Youth likewise decided to more or less ignore the killer. They have decided to put their energy into shaping the future. Their generosity and welcome of Muslims were the policies that got them into the crosshairs of the killer. After the killings, the surviving youth redicated themselves to that vision. Furthermore, they discerned that building social trust – creating a society that allows people’s spiritual, emotional, and physical needs to be met – is the best defense against violence. In other words, they are being welcoming and generous to all, in the hopes it might prevent future killings.  

That looks like forgiveness to me, the kind we read about in Matthew 18. Then we can leave feelings of anger, peace, despair or contentment where they belong, in the private conversations in the heart between the individual and God. 

Query for prayerful reflection: What stirs in you when you think of forgiveness within the framework of generosity and welcome? What do you think of the idea of distinguishing between feelings and acts when considering forgiveness?

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