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In recent weeks I have written several posts about some of the troubles of liberal Quakerism, which are actually not very different from the problems in most of liberal Christianity. For my own sake, if not for yours, it’s time to remind myself what I love about liberal Quakerism. This is my highly subjective list based on how I experience Quakerism. Even when I say “we” and “our”, please understand that I merely mean to capture my experience of who “we” are, it is not an attempt to present these beliefs as representative of others’:

* Form of worship. I no longer call it silent worship because I want to remind myself that silence is just the means by which I worship, not the goal. What is important is waiting expectantly together with others, trusting God will reveal Godself to us during worship, in images, words, or just silently drawing us into God’s own heart.

* Reliance on inward and unmediated revelation. Just as with George Fox’s quote in my banner above, I believe that each one of us can hear the Voice that speaks to our condition. The Word comes to us in the way in which we are able to recognize it, varying from person to person because of the particulars of our own culture, language, and experience. And the Word may be wordless, deeper than language. Yet it is not individualistic – it is the same Word, drawing us to Oneness with each other in God.

* Focus on the potential for living up to the Light God has given each human, rather than on our “propensity to sin”, as it is described in Barclay’s Apology. We can still acknowlegde the reality of sin, but that’s not where Quakers tend to direct our attention. Just like a good driver doesn’t look at the oncoming car (because then the cars would crash into each other), but allows the white line along the side to guide the car. In similar fashion, we focus on the Light, believing that as we look at it, it shapes and forms us and takes us where we ought to go. 

* Understanding of decision-making that tells me that, after we have gathered the facts, all we need do is open the ears of our hearts to know what to do. As George Fox said, Christ has come to teach His people Himself. I no longer speak of our decision-making as a consensus model, because consensus is not the goal. To me, reaching consensus is just one of several possible indicators that we may have united with God’s will. Instead I speak of the Quaker model or a theocratic model, which helps me remember that the purpose is to discern the Godly way for our group. We don’t go to church polity books or Robert’s Rules of Order for rules and regulations, but can use Faith and Practice for ideas and others’ experiences on what helps us to come to unity on a course of action.

* Understanding that God’s Spirit can be present in every person, every being, every part of creation. No exceptions. We expect to live accordingly, and this has far-reaching implications for how we live. Every time we speak or act, in big things and in small, we are given the opportunity to proclaim the second Garden of Eden and bring it into existence. 

* Quaker faith is experiential – so I don’t need to have an explanation for everything. If I don’t have experience with some matter of theology, I don’t need to speculate or theorize about it but can just wait for the time – if there is one – when God does open my understanding to it. Nor do I need to dismiss something because I don’t understand it. So it is quite alright to let something be and NOT to know or understand.

* Reliance on community, both current and past, for assistance in growing ever closer to God. The community of the past includes the Bible and religious figures whose wisdom has been passed on in stories and “Faith & Practice”. The community of the present includes those with whom I worship, “Faith & Practice”, any book I read or person I encounter who accompanies me for a while in spirit. The community is the most important test of any leadings I may have, and it is the place where my soul is polished and smoothed in the same way the way a river polishes a stone. Even if the sensation at times is of little pebbles and sand scouring me, the outcome – rough places made smooth – is dependable and desirable.

* Religious structures are neutral: they can be helpful or spiritually deadening. So we are required to question our structures (while supporting those who take on responsibilities) all the time, take a fresh look, and expect that God may be encountered anywhere and anytime. Everything is potentially an icon, something that opens my soul to God. Although Quakers don’t incorporate outward rituals into our own structures or expectations, I am free as a Quaker chaplain to give communion and baptize, and expect that I may encounter God in doing so.

Let me point out what I did not say: I did not mention freedom of belief, for two reasons: 1. By choosing to join a denomination, I think we also voluntarily accept as our own its history and characteristics, locally and globally. We may agree or disagree with parts of it personally, but we haven chosen to accept the denomination’s definition of itself, broadly speaking. 2. Freedom of belief among Quakers is not very different from what is practiced in most other churches these days. Denominations either take a normative approach (you don’t have to believe the dogma or creed exactly, as long as your beliefs are close enough or you’re accepting of them as a statement of the group’s faith even if it’s not your own) or the Catholic approach (the Church believes the creed or dogma, and I, as a member of the Church, believe it by extension even if I don’t believe it personally).

I also did not mention diversity or broad range of beliefs, because we are actually more homogenous than many other denominations and certainly more homogenous than secular society. Our range is narrower – we have created a sub-culture which provides a safe haven from the mainstream. At the same time, I suspect that being a “safe haven” is incompatible with being experienced as a warm and welcoming place for those (actually the majority of people, by definition) who don’t reject the same aspects of mainstream culture that many liberal Quakers do. But that’s the topic for another blog post.

Now you know why I’m a liberal Quaker.

Query of prayerful consideration:

What draws me to liberal Quakerism?

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I want to celebrate a funny incident with you, dear reader.

A friend of mine, S,  asked yesterday whether I could help her figure out the story behind Muslim youth rioting in Denmark after a newspaper there reprinted an old cartoon illustration of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). I explained it as best I could and later told my husband about the conversation I’d had with S. As I was telling him about it, I realized that her questions would have elicited something other than my matter-of-fact response not too many years ago.  

Friends, I realized at that moment that I had reached a milestone in my life in the USA – I have found freedom from the pain I used to experience when I listened for and expected Americans to reveal bias. In the past, I would probably have been offended that S asked me about Denmark, when I am mostly Norwegian. It would have fit the pattern of Americans not knowing the difference between the three Scandinavian countries and failing to remember which one I am from once they knew me. Or thinking that the three countries are so similar that whatever is true of one country is also true of the two others.

One of the ugly fights my husband and I had early on in our relationship was over the question, “Is Finland part of Scandinavia?” This may sound hilariously trivial to you, but it wasn’t to me. What was at stake was the power to define and name. Who defines what Scandinavia is or isn’t, someone from Scandinavia or someone from the USA? Scandinavians and Finns do not consider Finland to be part of Scandinavia, and my position was and is that he as an American ought to defer to me on this. This was at a time when I experienced discrimination against foreigners as very painful and demeaning. For me, the right for myself as a Scandinavian to define Scandinavia was close to being a life-or-death issue.

And now, my husband and I tell the story of our first big fight as one of the funny stories about our relationship. And S can ask this Norwegian about Denmark without me taking offense.

The truth is that as a Norwegian I do know more about Denmark than most Americans, and S knows that. And S knows perfectly well that I am Norwegian, not Danish.

I don’t hear anywhere near as much prejudice as I used to, and I humbly confess that much of the difference is in me, not in what people say. When I was sensitized to prejudice, I heard a lot of it. Each time I heal a little more, I hear a little less prejudice and am wounded just a little less even when I do. And so I find myself a little more able to forgive when someone does make a discriminatory statement. It is also clear to me that, as I heal and find the ability to forgive, it is because of God’s grace, not my own accomplishment. I know experientially that, left to our own devices, there probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of forgiving going on in this world.

At the same time, it is still true that many Americans seem remarkably unknowledgeable of the world when you consider how much power this country wields in that same world. Another factor is that during the run-up to war and during election season, this Norwegian suffers through daily doses of media communication to the effect that the USA is the best country in the world, is the most free, the most democratic, has the best constitution, the best education system, and has sacrificed the most for the rest of the world, is the best country for women to live in, etc. The funny thing is, many Americans – including some of those close to me or in my community – also seem to feel perfectly free to tell me about an aspect of American life that they consider superior, knowing full well that I am not American. Since my experience is that Americans in most other respects are among the most socially graceful people I know, I can only presume that they are unaware that to citizens of other countries, almost all of whom DO love and miss our home culture, history, family, and traditions (whether we miss the socio-economic and political structures or not varies widely), those statements can be insulting – and we are exposed to them through one aspect or another daily.

In the spirit of “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”, I think internal US criticism of the war in Iraq has helped my wounds to heal. It is a paradox for me to lament the war and yet see that others’ resistance to the war gives me relief. As I heal, I am aware that I can’t neglect the suffering of others, even though my healing is not the cause of their suffering.

So I celebrate my new freedom, recognizing that part of it has to do with actually being subjected to fewer discriminating statements, and part of it is that God’s grace works to release me from the pain I might so easily experience. In the same way that I have freely received God’s spirit, I become responsible for doing what I can to bring God’s spirit to others who suffer. God’s Spirit makes me one with them.  

Query for prayerful consideration:

How does pain I experience in my life affect what I hear? Are there signs of improvement externally in areas of pain for me? Are there any paradoxes in that situation – is new suffering arising as one group’s situation improves? What implications does any of this have for me as I consider injustices in the world, in the Religious Society of Friends, and lowering the barriers that currently exist?

This is my blog with Quaker-specific musings, while musings on liberal Christian faith more generally continue on my other blog.

As a little girl, I remember listening to a song Pete Seeger sang, Little Boxes. It was composed by Malvina Reynolds on her way to an FCNL meeting (Friends Committee on National Legislation is the Quaker lobby organization), and it is about conformity, especially the White suburban kind of conformity.

During one part of my Botswana childhood, I was one of 2 White children in a school of about 500 Black children. At other times in Botswana, I didn’t stick out quite as much, but I didn’t fit in. Back in Norway at 11, my parents refused to pay what it would cost for the Levi 501’s with the red tab that I needed to be OK in one of Oslo’s finer suburbs, where we now lived. My parents would only get inexpensive orange tab Levi’s for me, and I knew that anyone could spot the orange color and my “uncoolness” from a mile off. And indeed, the other kids did think I was very uncool and they frequently told me about this truth, just to make sure I didn’t forget.

So I longed to conform. I could think of nothing more wonderful than living in a little box on the Norwegian hillside, indistinguishable from all the other little boxes. If only the verse about the children could have been true about me:

And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,…
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

As a kid who grew up between 3 cultures but not at home in any one of them, being “the same” as all the others sounded heavenly to me. 

About at this point in my blog post I usually ask a rhetorical question along the lines of “What does this have to do with …?” After blogging since October, I’m discovering that this is how I write a blog on faith: I start with the personal (not private) story that informs my faith, then I engage in theological reflection on what I learnt from my experience in ways that I hope will speak to others, and I conclude with a query that encourages my reader to explore that aspect of faith based on your own life experience. This particular story will hopefully tie in with lowering barriers to worship and how we work for a just world.

In my teens, I found rebellion. I came to terms with the fact that I was doomed not to fit in, and by then the cruelty of some of those kids was making me think that – if that was what fitting in meant – I wasn’t sure I really wanted it. As class focus in history and social studies started to move outward from Norway to include more of the reality of other parts of the world, I saw that my classmates really were clueless. I say that as a sympathetic statement of truth now, but at that time it filled me with rage. They were born into astonishing levels of material comfort, and they seemed neither to have any awareness of how lucky they were nor the compassion and sense of moral responsibility that a comfortable person – in my mind – has to have in relationship to those who live a life of material deprivation.

Friends, I am ashamed to say that I became the bully. My anger gave me the strength to make “being different” my trademark. I put on a face of pride and I became the one who mercilessly reminded other kids of their cluelessness. And when I came at it from a place of certainty that I was right, some kids joined my “team”, and my days of friendlessness were over.

Still, my inner drama of desiring a little box on the hillside hadn’t changed one bit. But it was a different kind of “box” and “sameness” I was looking for: not sameness with the clueless kids, but sameness with “enlightened” people. Before I had my first kiss, I was deep into feminist literature, which seemed like a good avenue to community with other enlightened people.  

Speaking of kissing… The objects of my desire didn’t consider this angry teenager to be very kissable, but since we as teenagers were all eager to kiss, I did eventually came by one. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s really clear to me that the reason I got a little ahem, mature, before I married, is that while I was still an angry person, I wasn’t really good relationship material, either. My daughters don’t know to be grateful to have an older and less angry mother.

So, now I get into the “applied theology” part. Fellow Quakers, my desire to be in a box on the hillside may be extreme, but I don’t think it’s unique. We all long to belong somewhere, although each person’s ideas of what the group will look like in which s/he will want to belong may vary. I think many of us come to Quaker Meeeting, bruised and bloodied from the culture wars, and we seek a safe haven where we can lick our wounds and be among people with whom we agree. I also think many of us have finally concluded that “the others” in this culture war are clueless, and we can be a little bit brutal with those with whom we disagree. And finally, in our anger we aren’t very desirable company. 

Friends, we say we want our Meetings to be diverse, and I believe that we are speaking with integrity when we say that. But I suspect that we treasure the “safe haven” of likeminded people more. I am convinced that if we got a little more carefree with disagreement and opinions and words, people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and opinions would feel more welcome among us. God calls us to temper our justice with mercy. I think a little humor would be helpful, too.

Query for prayerful consideration:

How can we as Friends temper our desire for justice with mercy and humor?

My father was well into his twenties before he left South Africa for the first time, and he tells me that even now, some 50 years later, there are still mornings when he wakes up in his home in Norway to a snow-covered landscape and his gut reacts with a “What the ….? Where the h**l am I?”

My reactions are usually not quite as strong as his, because the area of North America where I now live, is about as similar to the southern Norway of my adolescence and early adulthood as any place I’ve ever seen. But I still have my moments of culture shock, even after 14 years in this country. They are often followed by homesickness for Norway and then the sad recognition that Norway never really felt like home, either, since I spent my childhood in Botswana. Nor was Botswana home, because we knew we were just guests. So then I do another round of grieving that no place has ever felt like home to me. I’ve always felt lonely, homeless (though not without a physical structure called “home”), like an outsider. This is a common feeling for people who grew up the way I did – raised between cultures, but not in one. (Professional literature refers to us as Third Culture Kids, TCKs.)

What does this have to do with Quaker musings? I just had a “waking up to snow” experience among liberal Quakers. 

Since I was 6 months old, I have lived among people working for a more just society. In Botswana, I always lived in an international mix of people, Batswana, South African refugees, Peace Corps and aid workers from a variety of countries and cultures. In Norway, when I was with my anti-apartheid buddies or just dancing the night away at the Club Tropicana in Oslo with people from every part of the globe, I was made to feel welcome. Mainline Norwegian culture was harder to adjust to, and part of what brought me to Quakerism was that Quakers were the first group of regular Norwegians that didn’t look down on me because I didn’t have the right label on my jeans. The sense of healing was powerful!   

Among people working for change, I have almost always felt welcome. Simply showing up to do the work was enough to gain me acceptance, and I didn’t even have to say that I was friendly to the cause. That was understood. I wouldn’t have been there otherwise. People working for justice are often quick to recognize the gifts of the TCK – if the TCK isn’t too damaged by living in a constant state of spiritual and emotional homelessness. At our best, we have the ability to see things from everyone’s point of view and we don’t take any social structure or custom for granted. We can imagine a better way of doing things, and change is relatively easy for us. We can be change-makers and bridge-builders between groups. (Barack Obama is an example of what a TCK can be at his best. Thomas Merton is another.)

Here in the USA I have been accepted with complete warmth in the homeless community and among the mentally ill whom I serve as a spiritual director, chaplain, and advocate. Just showing up to do the work seems to be all they and other spiritually based activists need to know about me to accept me into their movement towards a better society.

My “waking up to snow” experience has been that, among liberal Quakers, showing up to work for a more inclusive and diverse society and/or Religious Society of Friends is not enough. I had a taste of it when I first came to the USA at the Earlham School of Religion. I would talk about “Black” people and “White” people, because that was the terminology I grew up with in the anti-apartheid movement. After a few months, I accidentally discovered that some people had determined that my use of language was evidence to them that I was racist. In their minds, I should have been using “People of Color”. Having grown up within the anti-apartheid movement, you can imagine my bewilderment! If they had talked with me and given me more information on how things are done in this country, I would have welcomed it. Instead, they talked about me and made their decisions about me without engaging with me. There have been other situations since then among liberal Quakers, when I felt rejected as “not good enough” to join in the movement towards a free and just society. In each of those situations, I would have welcomed a friendly conversation and some suggestions. But instead, it seemed to me that they made their decision about me and who I am based on a few words I said, without trying to get to know me. I have had the experience of being found unworthy because I ask the kinds of open-ended, conversation-stimulating questions TCKs like to ask (to be worthy, I hear that I am supposed to ask questions that establish the justice agenda). When I am found unworthy by American liberal Friends – of all people – it is hard. Yesterday it finally amounted to a “waking up to snow” experience for me. It makes me want to go home. Except I have no home.

I want to make it clear that, as a survivor of an abusive relationship and as a chaplain, I know the power of naming one’s experience and telling one’s story to heal. That was my mode of healing and is my mode of healing ministry. I am also very much aware of the power to do great harm by labeling people as inferior and discounting their experience. I understand the importance of building trust beween people, especially for those of us who have been harmed by being labeled or defined as inferior. It’s appropriate to look carefully at someone’s use of language if they want to run a support group for survivors of a particular injustice or to work as a chaplain. So I’m not suggesting that we discount language. Nor am I saying we should be accepting of Apartheid, Neo-Nazi, or White Supremacist words.

But consider this: the anti-apartheid movement in Norway welcomed everyone who showed up, without question, knowing full well that some of them might be South African government spies who would endanger the lives of some of the South African refugees in the group. At least once, a regular participant in our meetings did later turn out to have been a spy. Those South African refugees didn’t give out their phone number and address, but they did welcome anyone who showed up to paint banners, write for the newsletter, go to rallies, and petition the Norwegian parliament to boycott South Africa. No questions asked.

I worry, too, that as wonderful as the internet community can be, all we have by which to know each other is words. And not everyone who uses it is North American. I had forgotten that myself, as joyful as I was in my first few months of discovering the joy of the QuakerQuaker community and putting my joyful energy into trying to fit in, as community-hungry TCKs usually do. George Bernard Shaw once said that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. I’d like to see us use language to build bridges, not as a tool to judge Friends’ worthiness.

Query for prayerful consideration: How important is it for liberal Friends to assess people who show up to work for the kind of society Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed about? Is colloquial American use of the English language the best reflection of a person’s character? How does this relate to the Quaker concept that each one of us is to be accountable to Christ at work within us, not to human customs and conventions?

One of the reasons I am proud of being a Quaker – indeed, an important reason why I became a Quaker – is our history of asserting the equality of all persons, our work to attain peace, prison reform, compassionate care of people with mental illness and disabilities, ending slavery, and gaining voting rights for all adults.

I have a poor memory for Quaker history – my interest as a Quaker has always been care of the soul and how our faith community helps or hinders care for the soul – so I talk about our history with some trepidation, and I welcome corrections and clarifications when I delve into the past for insights into how we live out our faith, as I intend to do now.

Although the dignity of each person as the bearer of the Divine Spark was always the foundation for Quaker engagement, I learned from John Punshon that the spiritual core (as opposed to the practical desire to avoid being confused with the treasonous 5th Monarchymen) of the Peace testimony was as follows: concern for the soul of the person who committed violence. Fox and Margaret Fell (who wrote an earlier version of the testimony) believed it is wrong to use violence, and that a person who does so will harm his or her relationship with God. They thought of our actions in this world as having an impact on the battle between Light and Darkness in the spiritual realm, and the use of violence would strengthen the forces that oppose the Light. In this Lamb’s War way of thinking, the potential death or injury of the victim of violence were not the main concern. In the 1650s, of course, illness, maiming, and premature death were not uncommon occurrences, and many Quakers voluntarily undertook faith-based actions that resulted in severe physical suffering. Fox’s chosen method was to try to talk people out of using violence, out of concern for their soul, and I’m not aware that he spent much time ministering to victims of violence or demanding restitution for them.

When John Woolman set off to end slavery, his chosen method was to visit with slave owners and try to persuade them that their immortal souls were endangered by denying slaves their full humanity and dignity. He didn’t accept food, drink, or a bed in the homes of slave-owning Quakers, because he was worried for his soul if he were to derive any physical comfort from the “fruits” of slave labor. To the best of my knowledge, Woolman did not spend much time being with slaves or encouraging them to rise up against their owners to end the injustices under which they were suffering.

There is also a long tradition of Quakers being present with and ministering to those in prison (Elizabeth Fry) or mental health institutions, and as a chaplain and spiritual director, I identify strongly with that strain of Quaker activism. But in the case of working for peace and ending slavery, being present and ministering to the victims of injustice don’t seem to have been the chosen mode. As someone who walks alongside people who are suffering in a variety of ways, I confess to feeling a bit uncomfortable with the seeming lack of attention given to those who suffered under the injustices Fox and Woolman were seeking to abolish.

I wonder, would a slave working in a field, watching John Woolman walk past on his way into the big house, have any reason to trust Woolman or believe that he was sincere? Perhaps he or she might have thought something along the lines of “Woolman, if you really cared and wanted to ease my burden, you’d come and take my hoe and do some of my work”. And that seems like a perfectly natural thought to me. If it had been safe for the slave to do so, I can even picture him or her angrily denouncing Woolman’s approach.

At the same time, I see the success of Woolman’s method, and I have been deeply moved when I read the accounts of Quakers defusing potentially violent situations by expressing concern for the person about to commit violence against them. Fox and Woolman are among our heroes, the ones many of us try to model our lives after and aspire to be like.

Query for prayerful consideration:

Does God call me to be present with and minister among victims of injustice? Or to be with those who are doing wrong, gently and firmly calling them to be in right relationship with God? Am I sometimes called to do one, sometimes another? How do I support the leadings of those who are called to respond to injustice in a different fashion than I am?

Welcome to my new blog.

I like to play with theology and faith and make it be relevant to life. Everything I know about God gets put to the test by my experiences in the real world, and everything I experience in the real world affects how I understand God to be present to us. Although I am a spiritual director and chaplain, I am also an activist by nature, and when I see something I perceive to be a problem, I like to engage it and come up with ideas for solutions. In this blog, I will wrestle with issues of Quaker faith, practice, and culture, and I’ll write about the condition of liberal Quaker Meetings as I see it. 

Even if your heart beats most passionately for Quakerism, you may also find things of value in my other blog, Susanne Kromberg’s Musings on Faith, where I look more broadly at life as it intersects with liberal Christian theology. Those musings will be informed by my Quaker experiences and written from a Quaker perspective, even though they aren’t explicitly about Quakerism.

I look forward to meeting you on one or both sites.