You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2008.

I arrived late, so I may have missed it. It is possible the presenters talked about it and I just didn’t arrive in time to hear it. But I don’t think so, because the Quaker presenters on building peace talked about how easily peacemakers can become discouraged and then they led us into an activity designed to generate hope and joy. The source to which they led us to find joy and hope was our own accomplishments.

Sigh. I could get discouraged.

Friends, I agree that we often do wonderful things. And the presenters to whom I am referring gave a good presentation, and I found myself stirred to join in their efforts at the Air Force base an hour or so down the road – after spending an hour by myself in the woods to re-find my hope and joy following their presentation. So there is lots of good stuff happening. I do not wish to complain. And yet I have to ask, what happened to the joy of faith?

When I look back at my blogging and other writing and speaking during the past 6 months, I discover that I have started preaching. Me – preaching? I feel like I owe my liberal friends an apology: “Honestly, I swear, I didn’t mean to become a preacher of the joy I find in God. It just … happened.”

But seriously, here is the anatomy of my transformation to becoming a preacher of the Good News of faith in God:

The first movement was God lifting me out of the deep trough of depression in 1994. I had been passively suicidal for months following the end of an abusive relationship. And suddenly, after daring to yell angrily at God in a private prayer time, God filled me with love. I began to know the power of God for good, and I began to talk about God as our source of hope, just a little bit. But I still looked to prophetic, righteous anger as our source of energy for transforming the world. 

The second movement was attending worship at West Hills Quaker church whenever I was in Portland to visit my in-laws. I had Ffriends there from my seminary days. What I noticed was how little time attenders at the church spent expressing righteous anger over the shortcomings of the world around them and how much time they spent doing things like cooking meals together for homeless people.

The next step was in the days after September 11, 2001, when mental health counselors suggested that we limit our intake of bad news. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, when depression began to set in again at the hopelessness of everything, I heeded their advice for the first time. I took a few weeks off from intense reading of newspapers and only took in enough to be informed about the big picture. To my amazement, I found an upsurge of energy to be engaged in resisting the war!

At some point after becoming a Good News Associate in the summer of 2003, I noticed how joyful I usually feel after being with my fellow Associates, most of them evangelical Quakers, and how joyless liberal Quakers often seem to be.

While teaching Ignatian spirituality last fall to men and women in recovery from addictions, many of whom are homeless and have lost their jobs and family relationships as a result of their substance abuse, I noticed that many of them nonetheless expressed gratitude, time and time again. They were grateful for things like waking up in the morning; for being free from the dehumanizing effects of their addictions; for God’s love; for the kindness others showed them. Their gratitude stood in stark contrast to the fears, worries, and cautious planning I would hear at Quaker Meeting from all those of us who have houses, food, and family life.

My next step was a simple decision to be more joyful. I felt embarrassed to be spending time worrying and fretting about the stuff in my life when women and men who have nothing can be so grateful, generous, and compassionate. It was clearer to me than ever before that joy does not arise out of having a sufficiency – if that were the case, homeless people would be unhappy and liberal Quakers would be happy. My AHA! was that joy comes from entrusting one’s future to God. So yes, it is as easy as deciding to be joyful.

So, Friends, I decided to be joyful. I prayed to God that I would feel gratitude for all the amazingly wonderful things and people that surround me. I prayed that my worries and sadness about the problems of the world would simply fade away. I decided to tell people about my discoveries, and my early blog entries (look at October, November,and December entries) give more details about my journey to joy. It began to feel burdensome to listen to comfortably-off people worry and be sad.

Since deciding to be grateful, I keep discovering more and more reasons to be joyful. It is no longer merely a decision now. More and more, I feel it rising up within me. I still work in a hospital where I see death and illness, and I still work with homeless men and women whose material futures seem bleak, and I still read of conflict and troubles in the world. Suffering is still real. What’s different is that I now know hope and joy are not waiting for us on the other side of attaining world peace, eliminating physical pain, or eradicating poverty. Peace of mind is not waiting for us on the other side of securing the future for our children or securing work or our own retirement. Hope is not based on seeing the exact route to the happy ending at the end of the story. Trust in the future is not based on seeing the societal developments that will lead to a peaceful settlement between conflicting sides.

I can no longer keep myself from telling everyone who wants to listen that hope, joy, peace, and feeling safe arise out of being in the hands of a God who promises to be with us in whatever we encounter. How can I keep from proclaiming what I know to be true – that this God of ours has plans of peace for us? That God is actively at work, using even the bad things that happen for good.

The mystery of it all is that as I allow this joy and gratitude to bubble up within me, I can hardly keep myself from throwing myself into work for peace and justice. The more I trust God, the more I also see God at work in societal developments, too. It looks like peace, abundance, and safety are just waiting to be birthed into the world, and I want to be part of it!

Query for prayerful consideration:

What is the source of hope in my life?

Advertisements

One of the key parts of George Fox’s revelation was that religious structures can kill the free movement of the Spirit. That was one of the main reasons the early Quakers left their gatherings unstructured: to allow the Spirit to give worship its form every time. I think George Fox recognized how deeply embedded the human need for structure is: after we have found an experience we like, we try to recreate the experience with the use of structure.

My Ffriend R has advocated the practice of disbanding the Religious Society of Friends every 5o years. He believes that the spark of the initial vision and passion of religious groups only survives for about 50 years before developing structures start to choke the movement of the Spirit. Then expectations of “correct” practice take over, and the authentic fire gets doused. So R would disband the RSoF after 50 years, believing that a new RSoF (perhaps with a different name) would arise out of the ashes of the first group and be helpful for about 50 years, after which the structure would become harmful and the RSoF should be laid down again.  

I think R’s idea is a bit too radical, perhaps. And yet… 

Many Meetings around the USA have taken “sabbaticals” during the past decade or so. They needed a break from the weight of their committees and regular work. More recently I’ve heard that at least one Yearly Meeting (Pacific) and several Monthly Meetings (North Seattle Friends Church and University Friends Meeting here in Seattle) have decided to set aside a year to discern what the group’s needs are and what kind of a structure is most conducive to worshiping God and being faithful to God’s call in the world.

My own liberal Meeting, Salmon Bay, has just taken its own major steps. Despite worship being strong and deep for a while now, there is little life outside the hour of worship. Many members report feeling a sense of heaviness in relationship to Meeting, and our newcomers find it hard to get involved in the Meeting. Nominating Committee has struggled for years to fill all the committee positions and responsibilities for our Meeting. This year we were unable to put together a Nominating Committee: No-one wants the task of asking someone to take on yet another responsibility. Something had to be done.

First a little background: Our Meeting consists primarily of youngish families, with very few retired members with time to give to the Meeting. Most of our adult members have full-time commitments to family needs or very demanding paid work and have little energy left over for the Meeting structure. And yet there are almost as many offices to be held as there are adult members of our Meeting.

Now Salmon Bay’s Ministry & Worship Committee (on which I serve) has suggested to our Meeting, based on the model of our local evangelical church, North Seattle Friends Church, that we enter into a 6 month trial period of suspending as much of the old structure as we can. During that time we will put our focus on worship and fellowship. We will have a potluck on our regular business meeting Sunday, and if there is business that requires the full Meeting’s attention, we will have a short business Meeting, but only for matters of substance. Otherwise we will just eat together and talk with each other.  

We want to change the way we think about our role as a Meeting – rather than being there to test leadings and ensure that everything under the Meetings’s auspices happens according to “good order”, we want to be encouragers and cheerleaders when vision emerges or energy flows. We want to help the Fire burn stronger and hotter!

We have proposed that our clerk take care of correspondance and outside requests in executive fashion, consulting with members of M&W/Oversight when needed. M&W and Oversight would continue to meet, but only to care for worship and our members in the most immediate ways, not to do any seasoning/pre-discernment for business that will come before the Meeting as a whole. There would be childcare, but we aren’t sure whether there will be children’s education, or adult education for that matter. Perhaps we will just use that time for intergenerational fellowship? In the past we have only had 20 minutes for fellowship each week, and I think many of us feel like we are strangers to each other.

In other words, we don’t want to try to serve the structure Quakers created more than 350 years ago. We want to rekindle the flames and devote ourselves again to the Fire. Then, when our attention is on the Fire, we can create whatever structure is appropriate based on our condition.

Isn’t that what Quakerism is truly about – being attentive so that the Letter of the law doesn’t kill the Spirit?

Query for prayerful consideration:

What are the needs of the Quaker group in which I worship? Do other Quaker groups (in my own branch of Quakerism and in others) have creative ideas which we might borrow to help keep structure from killing the Spirit?

I recently had an experience of facilitating a women’s group’s retreat where it seemed like most of the women came with a deep thirst for God, and because their thirst was so strong, I knew almost before the day had begun that the event would be deeply transformative for some of the participants.  

I also think of events I have attended where it seemed many of us came with some trepidation, not quite sure of what might happen, not sure if we were there for the same reason others were there, waiting to see if it would be safe to open ourselves up. If there are too many cautious attenders, in my experience, a facilitator can be as spiritually grounded and prayerful and well prepared as anything – but it will be hard for him or her to create an atmosphere in which the Spirit will move the group.

I do not mean to say there are limits to God’s power, but I do mean to say that our beliefs and degree of openness sometimes make a difference to what God can do in our lives. 

As politicians try to increase our fear so we will give them more power, and as companies try to sell us new safety products for us to buy, and as the media increasingly focus on conflict and heighten our awareness of “adversaries” and things that may have an adverse effect on our lives, I sometimes wonder what this means for our Meetings, churches, and our worship?

When God knocks on our door, do we peer cautiously through the spy hole and challenge the visitor to prove his identity and good intentions before we allow the door to open a crack for further verification? Or do we throw the door open with a big welcoming smile and arms open for an embrace, trusting that the visitor means to love us and be good to us? 

Queries for prayerful consideration:

In worship, do I open the door to the visitor God sends? Do I listen with eagerness to everyone’s message, expecting from every speaker a Word from God? In encounters with my “neighbor” and my “enemy”, is my door sufficiently open to allow God to be in the interaction and transform me? How do I release any fears I have? How can I be more welcoming in Meeting? How can I be more welcoming of God’s Word to me in every interaction?

A Lutheran pastor once told me that most people don’t have mystical experiences, and the Quaker expectation that they would is elitist. Taking communion, singing hymns and listening to a sermon, though, those are things that everyone can participate in. That is truly democratic, she said. 

A Protestant friend of my husband once came along to Quaker meeting. It was a “covered meeting” with a very powerful experience of the presence of the Spirit. As they left Meeting, my husband’s friend said, “Oh my God, I don’t know if I could stand that kind of intensity every Sunday!”

In my series on Liberal Quaker heresies, I want to turn my attention to the claim that Quakerism is a mystical religion. I fear that claim may make us guilty of the heresy of creating a hierarchy of religious experience. 

Many Quakers have mystical experiences and many mystics feel drawn to Quaker worship because it provides a space for those kinds of experiences to happen. Once again, I need to confess that I define my own faith as being of the mystical variety and that if indeed we Quakers are committing a sin, I am as guilty as anyone else. Now, there is nothing wrong with mystical experience in and of itself. It only becomes a heresy if we claim that it is the only authentic experience, expression, or practice of faith, or that it is somehow superior to others.  

I don’t want to look at technical definitions of this because that is not my style of doing theology. Whether or not I or others understand the technical definitions of mysticism is not important. My style is the applied theology approach: I want to look at what actual people mean when we say that Quakerism is mystical and what this statement means for those who don’t identify themselves as having had mystical experiences.

Liberal Quakers like to think that unprogrammed silent worship levels the playing field and creates the opportunity for everyone to encounter God in their own way. We may think that is true, but what if others don’t see it that way? Many of the people I come into contact with as a spiritual director or chaplain or just conversation partner don’t claim to have had mystical experiences. Those who don’t identify themselves as having had mystical experiences tell me this in hushed tones, almost like a guilty confession. If they are Quakers, they often seem to feel like 2nd class citizens among Friends, or they express a sense of inferiority compared to Friends’ mystical faith. It is especially painful to me if they express a sense that I must be something special because of the  mystical experiences I have had.

When that happens, I know that – whatever the reason – the person I am talking with has been subject to the heresy that mystical experiences are somehow superior, and they have most likely been exposed to someone who has sinned by claiming superiority. I hope that someone wasn’t me.

I am convinced that God does not create some ways of practising faith than are better than others – provided we are engaged wholeheartedly in faithful living. I am convinced that God has not created a hierarchy of prayer and faithful living so that we might fight about the superiority of one over another – again, provided we are engaged wholeheartedly in faithful living. 

So how might we talk about mysticism in ways that make it just one among many other forms of faith, all of equal value? Isn’t the Quaker message fundamentally that faith is not a one-size-fits-all proposal? That would be my statement about Quakerism: It is a faith that recognizes the wide variety of ways in which we can know God.

I have already looked at issues of power gained by those who get to do the defining, see this post, so I won’t say more on that topic here, except to state that whether we want it to be that way or not, we can’t be naive about the fact that mystical experience has historically been defined as superior. We each need to examine our souls in prayer and be sure that we aren’t making use of an historical injustice in ways that feed our own egos. 

Let’s question the often unstated belief that spontaneous mystical experience is superior. Here follow some other ways of looking at mystical experience that I have found helpful to my own consideration. Some of these thoughts may make it sound as though mystical experiences are inferior, and I want to let you know that my intention is not start an argument about which is best. My intention is to say things that will give us pause, things to make us less sure of what we know to be true, and perhaps to come to a place of relinquishing evaluations of good-better-best to God, if they need to be done at all. My goal is to confuse my own and your intellect.  

Jesus said to the man we call Doubting Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Paul defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” My own understanding of my mystical experiences is that my atheism was so firmly entrenched that God knew I needed something radical to believe anything at all, and so God gave me a solid mystical “whack over the head” in a Meeting for worship I happened to be attending. In general, I would say that I have a hard time trusting in things unseen, though I am getting better at it. But I have a lot of respect for people who believe and commit to God without having been given that loving whack over the head.

My understanding is that open worship is for the purpose of allowing the Spirit to lead, not for us to expect something such as a mystical experience. We engage in idolatry if we set expectations that we expect God to fulfill. Then we have tried to put ourselves in God’s place.

Many faith development models hold that focus on the delight of spiritual experience often is a characteristic of a new or immature faith. These models see mystical experiences merely as the lure that God uses to draw us deeper into relationship. Mature faith, however, is about commitment and obedience.

The previous point about lure and delight makes me wonder whether we sometimes confuse delightful feelings with mystical experience? One of the things I know as a spiritual director is that a deeper relationship with God often frees and increases our range of feelings and our physical sensory range as well. Is it possible that we sometimes confuse our emotional and sensory experiences with mystical experiences?

Jesus did not say “feel me” or “experience my presence”, he said things like “sell all your belonging and follow me”.

Queries for prayerful consideration:

Do Quakers say directly or indirectly that mystical experience is the only authentic experience, expression, or practice of faith, or that it is somehow superior to others? When Quakers talk about mysticism in relationship to Quakerism, are we sensitive to the perception many people have of mystical experience as superior to others? When we talk about mystical experience in worship, are we sure we are distinguishing between mystical experience and delightful feelings? Am I sure I do not denigrate other forms of worhip, prayer, and faith commitment?  

As a companion piece to my recent post here on liberal Quaker heresies, I wrote about my understanding of the Quaker Peace Testimony on my other blog that doesn’t presume knowledge of Quakerism. If you’d like to check it out, here it is: The Quaker Peace Testimony