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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?

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For the past 25 years or more, I’ve attended Meeting on a Sunday if I could. Even in my twenties, I would get up and go to worship no matter how late I had been up the night before. It’s ironic that now, after raising kids and losing the ability to sleep past 9 am, I wake up every Sunday morning feeling that I can’t go to Meeting for worship. It’s been almost five months since I did feel drawn to go to worship at my meeting.

I carefully avoid thinking about next Sunday and the Sunday after that. I hope that I will be able to go to my meeting as soon as we get past Easter. For Easter, though, I already know I’ll go to North Seattle Friends Church so I can get a joyful celebration.

The missing joy factor is one of the reasons I am finding it hard to go to Salmon Bay, my liberal Quaker Meeting. I’m so hungry for joy these days, and we seem so hung up on the problems of the world, and seem to conceive of God mostly as a personal problemsolver or some sort of life coach who helps us with our attitude. I long to be with people who trust that God is working all things together for good, yes, that God works even after earthquakes and wars and heals people and transforms our hearts! I long to celebrate that even in the deepest, darkest places, God brings hope of better things to come. Perhaps God is precisely in those places of pain and suffering, working to bring new life and strength and joy!

Imagine that…

For a while, I did bring that kind of ministry to Meeting, myself. Working as a hospital chaplain, surrounded by crisis and death, has made me more convinced than ever that God is present. God is healing, mending, easing burdens, and promising laughter, joy and bliss.

 So I spoke about hope, joy and trust in Meeting because my heart and soul were full. Sometimes I spoke in worship about the joy I experienced as I learn to turn things over to God, sometimes in business meeting about my trust in God’s guidance in our discernment. For a few Friends, this talk about trust and joy seemed to be tremendously provocative. Remember the bumpersticker, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention?” The pushback I got was so vehement and sustained, even if it was just from a few individuals, that I ultimately stopped going to worship at my Meeting.

I don’t feel like a victim. I can ensure that a pushback discussion is respectful, and I feel comfortable describing the experiences from which my joy and trust arise. But I don’t want to. That’s not what Meeting is for. There’s a strong feeling of “Blah” when I imagine myself going to Meeting. So, for now, I’m not going to Meeting. One of these Sundays I will probably wake up feeling that I can go back to Meeting for Worship. Probably not because anything has changed, but because my heart is hungry for sitting in expectant waiting and God will tell me it’s time to go back.

Query for further reflection:

What role does joy play in worship? What does Meeting for Worship mean to you?