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My Easter and resurrection reflections have drawn my attention once again to one of the peculiarly American liberal Quaker/Christian heresies: we are prone to making an idol of “sensitivity”, taking our desire to avoid hurt feelings to an unhealthy extreme. This idol has a companion sin: we commit acts of verbal violence against people if we think they are hurting another’s feelings. We feel justified and righteous in verbal attacks even when it flies in the face of our peace testimony and our belief in ”that of God’ in every person. We seem to think we shouldn’t be loving of people who have hurt another’s feelings or are intolerant. We are tolerant of everything, except intolerance.
I write this with fondness and humor, Friends, because I am, ahem, intimately acquainted with this particular heresy and sin. I could write this as a confession of the times when I have been out of balance in my own understanding of what justice required me to do. “Balance” is the key word here: I am absolutely in favor of sensitivity and clearly naming the injustices we see. Quakers are good at being sensitive and speaking truth to power, although as with most groups, there are a few injustices we ourselves commit, to which we are still blind! I’m proud of our commitment to justice, incomplete as it is in some areas, and though we take it a little bit too far in others.
We love and desire justice, and that is good. But these good things can become idolatrous and harmful when taken too far. They become demonic when they arise from an inability to accept the flaws of humans, human institutions, and the world in which we live.
And oh, what joys we miss out on when we put too much emphasis on achieving complete justice instantly! So let me write about the theological components that I believe could bring our desire for justice into balance and give us a taste of God’s own sweet consolation. I came to these conclusions reluctantly. Resisting, kicking, and screaming, to be precise. All of the following statements used to offend my sense of justice. But much as I disliked them, I have found a deeper joy, greater sense of purpose, and more energy for action in accepting them! I encourage you to meditate on each one of these statements:
1. Life is not fair. In fact, as Buddhists would say, “life is suffering”. I think we have an easier time accepting this when it comes to earthquakes and sickness and death. Unfortunately, I suspect this to be the case with human-made injustices, too. No sooner have we done away with one injustice than another arises in its wake, oftentimes as a result of an over-correction in addressing the first injustice (examples: excessive penalties placed on Germany after World War I may have led to the social conditions that laid the foundation for the rise of Hitler and World War II; the UN’s good desire to create a safe haven for Jews after WWII led to excessive demands on Palestinians, whose land and homes were taken away). God still requires us to do justice and love mercy, so acceptance of the inevitability of injustice is not an excuse for inaction. Acceptance of injustice as the way of the world merely allows us to be generous and merciful as we seek to eradicate injustice.
2. We humans are all fundamentally flawed, and God seems to be able to work with us anyway. Robert Barclay, in his Apology, challenged the theology of original sin and formulated a Quaker theology that says we aren’t sinners until we have sinned. Still, he claims that humans have “the propensity to sin” – not a one of us will avoid sinning. Knowing that God only has flawed human beings to work with is liberating! We don’t need to be perfect, nor do we need to insist that others be perfect. We know God’s work will get done with whatever raw material God has to work with. Jesus routinely despaired at the limitations of his disciples, yet they were his beloved companions and founded the church. Saul was a persecutor of Jesus’ followers - until he was blinded, turned around, and became a leader of the church! So we can be kind and merciful with a person who falls short, knowing it is only a matter of time until we ourselves fail and want to be met with kindness and forgiveness.
3. Brokenness, sin, and death can be sources of new life. When someone suffers, God finds a way to redeem the suffering and bring forth new life. I recently wrote about my daughter’s experience of injustice on the basketball courts here. Not a major injustice in the grand scheme of things, but to me a small-scale illustration of how character and compassion grow forth out of adversity. In my own life, I became deeply depressed and miserable when I learned I was pre-diabetic, but made changes in my life that ultimately made me healthier, more energetic, and more respectful and appreciative of my body than I was when I thought I was healthy. Sometimes we can even do damage if we insist on justice before the process of resurrection has come to completion.
4. We are just sojourners here on earth, visitors in a strange land. Our true home is in God. As long as we wander on earth, we should expect previews and foretastes of heaven, yes. But we cannot expect that we will see the divine order fulfilled here and now. Walter Wink has done a tremendous service in proclaiming that every human institution is 1) created for a divine purpose, 2) fallen, and 3) redeemable. Rather than berate leaders of institutions when their fallen nature is visible, we can call forth the Divine purpose for which they were created and invite them to strive for redemption. But true joy and peace lies in knowing that we can never be fully satisfied with anything or anyone here on earth, and not to place our hopes in institutions or organisations that cannot truly satisfy our deepest longing.
In all of these statements, our good desire for justice becomes idolatrous when we seek to push outside the true nature of Gods’ creation and intentions, when we want people, institutions, or the world to be something they cannot be.
Query for prayerful consideration:
How do I know when my pursuit of justice becomes idolatrous?
The last time I saw my Norwegian grandfather, Bestefar, alive I had a big argument with him. He criticized someone I love, and as a passionate 18-year old, I rose to the defense of that someone. Bestefar and I exchanged harsh words and parted in anger.
About a week later, the call came from my grandmother, Bestemor, telling us that Bestefar was in the hospital and she thought he might not survive. My mother and I ran to the car and drove the 25 miles to the hospital. I loved my Bestefar and wanted him to live. If he was going to die, I desperately wanted a chance to make things right again between us first!
Bestemor was standing outside the hospital when we arrived so she could be the one to break the news to us: Bestefar died. Then she took me aside and told me that before he died he had said that he loved me and and had no hard feelings about anything. It was such a relief to know that he had forgiven me, and that relief made my sadness over his death more bearable. My heart and mind have sought out the sweetness of that relief many a time.
Many years later, as a hospital chaplain, I learned enough about what happens when people die from massive heart attacks to suspect that Bestefar wasn’t able to say anything at all before he died. In fact, I am quite certain that Bestemor made up those “dying words” in order to spare me the pain and regret over arguing with Bestefar the last time I saw him alive.
And yet the sweet relief of forgiveness is just as strong in my heart and mind as it was before I knew. In true Quaker style, I have the experiential confirmation from my own life of the Truth told in the Bible about the mystery of God’s forgiveness of humans and what was accomplished by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
It is truly a mystery to me that, even now that I know that Bestemor was probably saying something that was untrue, I still know in the depths of my being that he would have forgiven me if given the chance - because that is the kind of man he was. And I know even more deeply how much Bestemor must have loved me and cared about me in order to tell that lie – she who had been a stubborn truth-teller all her life, no matter what the cost to herself. In her wisdom, she knew I might be tormented with the ‘if only”s that so often plague the bereaved, and so she gave it, even though it wasn’t really hers to give.
I was forgiven and loved because of who THEY were, my Bestefar and Bestemor, not because of who I am or anything I did.
Whenever I try to explain the how and the why of this situation, I fail. It makes no sense to me. But it has Truth written all over it. And perhaps precisely because it makes no logical sense that I would feel forgiven by Bestefar, this experience tells the larger Truth about God’s forgiveness? Perhaps they are – in fact – the same story? God’s love and forgiveness are above, below, around, and within our human failings and efforts at reconciling.
In the language of soul, I know that we are all loved and forgiven by God, and Jesus’ death and resurrection are the reason. Because of who THEY are, not because of who you and I are or anything we did to deserve it.
Don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t.
Query for prayerful consideration:
In the language of the soul, how have I come to know God’s love and forgiveness?
(See my other blog for more general musings about prayer.)
What I understand Quakerism to say about prayer is that we can encounter God at any time, in any place, or in any circumstance. I get that from the Quaker refusal to designate any particular time, place, or person as the primary conduit of the Holy. And I get that from my favorite quote in the banner above: “There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition.” What I understand this to mean is that we will be spoken to, whatever our condition. This means that there is no human condition in which God cannot speak to us. God can use any form – verbal and non-verbal, sensory and non-sensory, intuitive or tangible.
George Fox seems to me to be saying not that a mainline church service is necessarily wrong but that repetitive or required acts of worship have a tendency to dull our spiritual awareness. He disliked any priest who based his authority on something other than the Power of the Lord, but George absolutely believed that the Lord gave tremendous Power to the words and acts of someone who is animated by the Holy Spirit.
What this means for silent worship is that we can be in prayer when we sit in expectant silence, but that is not the superior way. Indeed, silent worship, too, can become a spiritually dead structure. Silent worship or prayer is not superior to other forms of worship and prayer.
What sets us apart as a denomination is that we are not surprised when we encounter God outside of the Meeting’s agreed-upon times and places of worship. As people who take the priesthood of all believers more literally than most denominations, we believe that any person or even any living being can be a “priest”, someone who draws us into an awareness of God’s presence.
So although many of my deepest times of worship have occurred while sitting in expectant waiting in my Quaker Meeting, there are many other instances, too. Here are some of them:
Standing at the top of the Sears Building in Chicago, looking out on the city lights one night, I felt one of the most powerful urges to call upon God that I have ever felt.
A dozen Young Adult Friends were in the swimming pool one late night at Norway Yearly Meeting annual sessions, when quite spontaneously we fell into a deep worshipful silent communion.
While working at Swedish Hospital, an elderly Catholic gentleman asked me to give him communion and turned down my offer to call a Catholic chaplain. He said that being served communion by a Quaker would speak more powerfully to him of the nature of God, which is to transcend all human-made boundaries. When we both took the bread and wine in the name of Christ, the Spirit bound this woman, the gentleman, and Christ together with Eternity.
Listening to a sermon, when ideas that were separate suddenly come together or when an AHA! occurs – and new Truth is opened to my understanding.
During the World Gathering of Young Friends in Belgium in 1991, we had a silent meal at the centuries-old Catholic monastery where the gathering took place. I sat in the dining room, soaking in the presence of other Quaker men and women from all over the world, and tried to attune myself to my table companions in particular and know what they might need without them speaking or gesturing. We were One.
Tears of deep joy trickling down my cheeks as I understood the Christmas message in a new way in looking at my then two-month old daughter: The mystery of strength made perfect in weakness; salvation through giving oneself over to Life – both its joy and its suffering; and how God’s very essence can be revealed by human form.
Researching something in the Earlham College Library one day, I lifted my eyes up from the reference book to see a cherry tree in blooming pink splendor, and the Power of God filled my very core, so all words and thoughts fell away.
Sitting in private prayer one day, deeply remorseful over a mistake I had made, I suddenly was filled with the pride-stripping awareness that I was a human – neither better nor worse than a co-worker who had inhabited my thoughts for months because of her unrelenting insistence that I was a bad person. In prayer, I felt united with her in human-ness and was liberated so I could forgive her and attach my awareness to more wholesome projects.
Holding a dying woman’s hand, sadly being the only one to stand with her, I held her in the Light as her breathing slowed and then ceased.
Being a Quaker allows me not to be surprised – indeed perhaps to expect – that God may appear in any kind of situation and transform that moment into a moment of prayer.
Query for prayerful consideration:
What are my experiences of prayer? What is my understanding of prayer from a Quaker perspective?
There were two reasons I left the anti-apartheid movement in Norway in the late 80s, soon before Nelson Mandela was released from prison and apartheid was dismantled as South Africa’s form of government. The most obvious reason was that apartheid’s days clearly were numbered. There was another reason, too, that evolved as I grappled with my own White South African heritage, changing who I understand myself to be, how I understand God to be at work in this world, and what it means to me to accept God’s invitation to participate in birthing the new Creation. Because of what I learned, I felt personally called away from working by political means and instead started to seek spiritual solutions, and the Religious Society of Friends became my home.
As it became clearer that apartheid was coming to an end, I started to hear more anger and judgment of Whites in South Africa. Some of my Norwegian buddies in the movement (not so much the South Africans) seemed to joyfully anticipate a time of reckoning for Whites in South Africa, when Whites would pay for what they had done.
Although I had a lot of anger with the South African government myself, my feelings when considering White South Africans were much more complicated. My father, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is a White South African who left his home and family because of his resistance to apartheid. I thought of his parents, my Ouma and Oupa, and the time when they stood on the South Africa side of the soundproof glass wall at Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg. On the other side, the international transit side of the glass wall, stood my father, my mother, my brother and myself when I was about 7 years old. On either side of the glass divide we stood, pressing our hands against the glass, mouthing words that we hoped those on the other side might understand, until it was time for us to get on the plane to Botswana. The South African government did not allow us into South Africa until Oupa died, almost 20 years after my father left his home country.
All these years later, as apartheid was drawing to an end, I thought about my divided South African family, about half of them supporting apartheid and benefiting financially from it, and the other half opposing it, at some personal cost to themselves. The separations, conflicts, and emotional costs to my family was, of course, of a different order of magnitude than the price that Black families paid. Nonetheless, apartheid was not a good thing for my father and anyone who loved him.
I also remembered my times together with my South African grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc when they came to visit us in Botswana or Norway, and ultimately in South Africa itself. Many stories come to mind to convey the many layers of how at least some White South Africans functioned within the apartheid system, but I will simply summarize my knowledge in this way: my (White) family members in South Africa are not very different from most people I know.
Most people I have ever met are the same - we are all trying to do the right thing, and we are all limited by our experiences and surroundings. Depending on our personality, character, and God’s grace, we are more or less able to transcend the limitations of our circumstances. People just don’t wake up in the morning trying to figure out how they can do the most harm to some other person. No-one does that – not even those who inflict the greatest damage. I say this not to excuse or diminish the importance of the damage that is done, damage that people I love have done, or damage that I myself have unwittingly done to others. Quite the contrary. I say this because of what it means for how we do the vital work of repairing the wounds that are inflicted and how we can succeed at preventing future diminishment, injury, or death of any child, woman or man - every one of us God’s Beloved.
But I didn’t feel I could talk about the humanity of White South Africans to my Norwegian buddies. While I saw humanity in White South Africans, I also hated them at some level, and that hatred included my own self. I grew up painfully self-conscious about my white skin because it made me different from everyone else as a child in Botswana. In Norway my skin made me look like I should belong there, but I didn’t feel at home in Norway. I wished my skin would declare to everyone that my insides were African, not Norwegian. I rarely confessed to my South African ancestry out of tremendous guilt at being associated with what White South Africans had done over the centuries. I disliked my own white skin, and I think I was afraid my anti-apartheid buddies would dislike my Whiteness as much as I myself did.
Amazingly, forgiveness and a warm welcome into a better future were promised to me and all my White South African relatives by Black South African liberation theology and church leaders like Desmond Tutu and Frank Chikane. I could never expect or require any Black South African to love and forgive after what they have experienced, and yet many do. They were the ones who gave White South Africans our humanity back. Can you imagine how sweet their forgiveness is, and how deliciously humbled I feel to have been given my soul’s freedom back by the ones who suffered so much?
Understanding myself to be both a victim of apartheid and a beneficiary, I was strongly drawn to the Quaker belief of “that of God in every person”. I was drawn to the Quaker way of reaching out to the “enemy” in which we work for peace and change by seeking to nurture the Seed of God in those we seek to change. My experience tells me that even those who have more power have some knowledge of suffering, and this knowledge gives hope. Their suffering is a potential source of compassion for those whom they have harmed. Nurturing the Seed, to me, is just another way of stating Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemy”. Knowing the sweetness of being forgiven and accepted, it was clear to me that my pro-apartheid family members would be far more likely to change if they could trust that they would be forgiven and be given a chance to do the right thing. It is a truly amazing thing to be able to promise to wrong-doers that they, too, will get a taste of the same sweet forgiveness and delicious humility that I have known, if they will just lay down their resistance to Truth. This approach to peacemaking is one of the more powerful aspects of Quakerism for me and hold the keys to the Truth about God. This love and forgiveness can only be the workings of God’s amazing grace and it brings me to my knees. Can this be what Jesus’ death and resurrection are about?
Query for prayerful consideration:
What were the forces at work within me as I was drawn to Quakerism?