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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?

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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.

After about an 8 month “sabbatical” from my Meeting, I am back worshiping regularly on Sundays. If you had asked me about it ahead of time, I think I would have denied the possibility of being “released” from worshiping with my faith community. Looking back on my time away, though, that is the best description I can come up with.

Before my sabbatical, I had attended Meeting faithfully for 25 years, and perhaps going to Quaker worship had become habitual for me, in danger of becoming just another dead structure? Perhaps this was God’s way of waking me up and asking me to be intentional about communal worship again? My individual devotions did continue during my sabbatical, and I had ample opportunity as a chaplain to pray with others and to have conversations about faith. 

For the first couple of months of my absence, I really wrestled with my strong antipathy to going to worship. I didn’t like being a person who doesn’t go to worship. I’ve always thought that Quakers “ought” to be active in a community and worship together with others. But after a while I realized I felt neither pushed away nor pulled towards, and so I decided to be faithful to the feeling of being released. I was still skeptical of myself, though, and kept checking to be sure that I wasn’t deceiving myself. After about 6 months away, I did begin to feel drawn to going to Meeting again but it took another couple of months before the pull was strong enough to actually compel me to go. Then one day it was time to go back.

I’m back, and not because anything dramatic happened within me or my Meeting. And I must confess that I am still strongly skeptical of the notion of being released from communal worship.

However, I can see that my time away had the effect of giving me the chance to choose Quakerism again. It feels a bit like a “renewal of vows” and commitment to my Meeting. During the last 6 months, I have considered my relationship with God, what participating in a spiritual community means, what being a Quaker means, and I choose to recommit myself to Salmon Bay Friends, and perhaps this time with fewer illusions and romantic ideals about my faith and the Religious Society of Friends.

Queries for further reflection:

Have you ever felt “released” from individual or corporate worship? How?

What does membership in the Religious Society of Friends mean to you?

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?

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?