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Several Quaker bloggers this past week have been either asking or reflecting on Quaker identity, the Quaker movement’s calling, as it were. I recommend reading them all, and the comments the garnered, too:  my own, David Johns, Micah Bales, another Micah Bales post, and Johan Maurer (apologies if there are others I’ve missed). I find myself wondering, “What are we really trying to get at?”

In my post, I ask what is substance and what is trivia in what we know as Quakerism today, in any branch. May the authors have mercy on me for trying to capture their deep and rich blogs in one sentence each! In Micah Bales’ first post, he suggests that we shift our societal stance from being a response to threats to our society, to a trust-based openness to God’s leading. David Johns says that we should neither get too hung up in protecting a Quaker identity nor be too eager to be in touch with current popular culture, but focus on living like Jesus would have us live. In Micah’s second post, he continues David John’s theme of focusing on faithfulness as the key virtue. Johan Maurer draws our attention to the older branches of the Christian family, who look at Quakerism and wonder whether we have thrown out heritage, culture, richness, depth, and texture. 

I am heartened and inspired by these blog posts and heartily agree with the points made. Micah and David’s focus on faithfulness to the Living Christ and using Jesus as model and teacher seems true and right.  At the same time, I find myself wanting to mount a passionate speech in favor of Quakerism. Not as an object of worship, or for the purpose of venerating a tradition for its own sake, or heroes for the sake of hero-worship.

Quakerism is a means to an end – we all need some practical advice on how to live as Christians, and we need a community for encouragement and accountability. I wouldn’t claim  that Quakerism is a better way, objectively, than other approaches to God, but it is the way that God calls me and many others to be in. I’d like to suggest that we can and should be serious about our Quakerism, without giving it too much or too little weight.

The Bible suggests to me that there will be variety between groups of believers. Paul wrote letters containing distinctly different advice to several churches, based on their particular circumstances, culture, and the personalities within each church. The Book of Revelation contains the notion that churches have an “angel”, or a soul, with a distinct character. Walter Wink builds an analysis of human institutions (including churches) on Revelation. I find it helpful to my understanding of the role of Quakerism: Every human institution has three characteristics, and all are present at the same time: each one is created for a divine purpose; it bears within it the seeds of its own destruction; and it is redeemable. Churches, being human institutions, will all fall short of being the true representation of Christianity. Still, because of the divine purpose for which it is called, it is important for the church to try to find its calling. 

With the certainty both of our divine calling and of the inevitability of falling short of that calling, I draw several conclusions:

1. If we focus just on Jesus, not on the how-to of Quakerism, my experience tells me we are playing a high-stakes game. It means we dedicate ourselves to a high ideal, without much intentional evaluation of consequences, and without much ability to catch ourselves if there are undesired consequences. Sadly, a lot of harm is inadvertently done by well-intentioned people. I think a denomination does well not just to have high ideals, but also some stated intentions and practices, and also some practices for examining whether the outcomes of our actions affirm the original leading.

2. Assuming that all churches have a divine purpose, we can assume that other churches have wisdom in areas where we don’t. We carry within us the seeds of our own destruction, as Walter Wink would put it. We lack traditions, rich heritage, and a way to settle internal conflict. Here’s another: a Lutheran pastor once told me that Quakers are very elitist. She said, “Silent worship offers little to the many, many people who rarely or never have the dramatic kinds of openings, revelations, and mystical experiences Quakers are supposed to have. What about an everyday faith, for the regular days and regular people?” After I got over my initial shock, I conceded that she has a point. Either because of personality differences, stage in faith development, or experiencing a dry period, not everyone will have powerful religious experiences, or have them very often. Other churches offer ways to help people engage the divine using a variety of methods: through teaching, verbal reminders, smell, taste, imagination, sight, and rituals. I’m not suggesting that we change Quakerism, but I am suggesting we might be more aware of an area where we, perhaps, aren’t offering people support in something that may be difficult.

3.  The corollary is that we must be more aware of what our divine purpose as a church is? The possibility of  inward, unmediated revelation of God? That we can live in the Power that removes the occasion for war? That there is one, even Jesus, who can speak to my condition? The practice of waiting expectantly for God to speak to us? Emphasis on the fundamental spiritual meaning of many outward rituals and practices? Remind older churches not to take themselves and their rituals too seriously, and entertain the possibility that mistakes can and have been made, even by very holy people? (Whereas the testimonies may have seemed radical in the 1600s, ideas like equality, peace, and integrity are hardly unique in society today.) 

4. Our Faith & Practice is an important document. Do we submit to its authority? Do we train people to know what they are coming into when they become a member of the Religious Society of Friends? If we really do believe in the idea of “being faithful” as the main authority (rather than reason, Scripture, or our faith community), we should be very good at distinguishing between the pressure of personal emotions, our intellect, and divine leadings. Can we honestly say that we are very good at that? Do we teach it? Do we practice and model saying yes to some leadings, no to others? Or are we so eager to appear non-judgmental that we say yes to everything we can? 

In conclusion: Yes, Quakerism is worthy of our attention and study. But only as a means to Christian living, not as an end. We cannot worship it, we cannot make its preservation a goal in and of itself. Quakerism offers us a manual on how to be faithful. With attentiveness to the wisdom of other branches of Christianity, and the awareness of Quakerism’s divine purpose, we can learn from criticism from others, and become more faithful in our task of being faithful and teaching faithfulness.

How would you describe the “angel of Quakerism”? What is her calling? What are her character flaws? What are her prayer needs?

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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.

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?

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?  

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?