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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?

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?

Dear reader,

I spent a large portion of the day yesterday (Saturday May 31) at a neighborhood meeting where we discussed the plans for some surplus military land that hopefully will be turned over to the city of Seattle. One of the federal requirements is that this land be used in part to serve the needs of the homeless. Many of my well-to-do neighbors in Seattle are not pleased with the prospect of having some 300 new units of housing added, about 30% of them subsidized/affordable, and I have felt called as a Quaker to be a pastoral presence in the discussions. In this hostile environment, I feel called to be 

  • a calm, loving, and non-anxious presence to my neighbors to let them know that we have nothing to fear
  • an affirming and encouraging presence to the facilitators and presenters when they are met with hostility from my neighbors
  • someone who encourages listening, discussion, and persuasion (as opposed to hostility and name-calling)
  • someone who speaks about the beloved-of-God nature of the men, women, and children who are at a financial disadvantage

And I CAN do and be all these things, and I can do it effectively, but I have discovered over the years that it comes at a high personal cost. It’s not so much that I feel hurt by being called names and being yelled at. The part that does damage to me is that I seem to soak in the energy of the room, and my mind gets tangled up in trying to figure out how people so casually can put others down, call them names, twist, and distort their intentions, and actively try to make another person look bad. I don’t sleep well, I become sad and my thoughts about the interactions and the situation race on at uncomfortable speeds. My world as a Quaker, chaplain and spiritual director is lived in environments where most people commit to seeking to hear, acknowledge, affirm, and respect the validity of another’s perspective. I don’t have much exposure to adversarial environments. I know in general that I am not called to participate in those kinds of adversarial political processes – the personal cost to me is too high – but since I bear the Quaker mark, this is my neighborhood, and no-one else from the neighborhood seems to be willing/able to take on this role now, it falls to me to do it.

So I ask for your prayers for my spiritual safety and protection at these meetings, dear reader. 

The next neighborhood meetings are scheduled for

  • Monday June 2, 6.30 pm – 8.30 pm Pacific Daylight time (GMT + 9 hrs)
  • Monday June 16, 6.30 – 8.30 pm
  • Saturday June 21, 9.00 am – 1.00 pm
  • Saturday July 12, 9.00 am – 1.00 pm
  • Saturday July 19, 9.00 am – 1.00 pm

My Meeting is already holding me and my neighbors in prayer, and I ask you to join in and hold us in the Light.

Query for prayerful consideration:

What does prayer mean in this context?

In my description of the purpose of my blogs, I write that “everything I know about God gets put to the test by my experiences in the real world, and everything I experience in the real world affects how I understand God to be present to us”. As a chaplain, I have a test for my theological beliefs: whatever I believe is something that I would not be embarrassed to say to someone who is in crisis and sees no hope for the future.

The post I wrote on 4/29 could on the surface look like it might fail my own test, and so I want to write some more about the idea that the source of the joy that sustains us comes not from the good we see in the world or ourselves, but from God. And from that I concluded that we can decide to be joyful. I see joy as the result of entrusting ourselves and our future to God, rather than an emotional response to a happy experience.

How might this sound to someone who is suffering from depression, who lives with chronic pain or a terminal illness, someone who is watching their child die, or someone who is in a destructive setting of abuse, violence, starvation, or oppression, or has lost everything they own?

This question came to me with renewed urgency as I considered the Austrian woman who recently was freed from the basement where her father had held her imprisoned for more than 23 years. During those years she was repeatedly raped by her father. She gave birth to 7 children, one of whom died, and three were taken away from her to live upstairs with her father, where they were molested, too.

The descriptions are so horrifying that it is well-nigh impossible to imagine what it can have been like to be her. And yet that is the test that I feel my faith must pass – that I could speak about it without embarrassment, even to a woman in her circumstances. Please understand that this is a hypothetical exercise – when as a chaplain I visit a person in distress, my theology is usually not the topic of discussion. In a pastoral visit, we usually talk about how the person I’m with creates meaning based on his or her experiences.

I hope it is apparent that the joy I am talking about finding in God is not the funny-ha-ha kind, but the fruit-of-the-Spirit kind. I am talking about the kind of joy that is like a safety-net underneath the emotions a person may be aware of at a given time. I am talking about what I experienced when my beloved grandmother – who embodied unconditional love – died. Walking out of the hospital room in which her body lay was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I was overcome with grief during her funeral service. But then, when I walked out of the church afterwards, I was struck by the sudden insight that I had not seen my grandmother for the last time. Even as I continued to mourn my grandmother’s death, there was that deep assurance underneath – I will see her again some day! I could call it joy, or perhaps hope is a better word for that Fruit of the Spirit?

I think of the week I spent about a year and a half ago between the time when the doctor found a lump in my breast and the ultrasound that revealed it – thankfully – to be something completely benign. It was at once the scariest week of my life and the most joyful week of my life. Facing the prospect of losing my health and considering the hardships my young daughters and husband would face – it was torture! And at the same moment that tears were filling my eyes and fear gripping my gut, I was seeing the beauty of life with a crisp clarity unlike anything I had ever known: I could almost touch the essence of my husband and our love, the Life bursting in and around my daughters, the fulfillment I was fortunate to feel in my core in being a chaplain and spiritual director! It was all so precious to me, and the most mysterious part was the sense that cancer and illness and death could not possibly touch the essence, the life, the core of me and them. I knew at a very deep level that something like cancer couldn’t make any of these things less precious, less vibrant, less amazing. I could hardly hold it together to sing my daughters to sleep, and yet I was safely floating on the vast ocean of God’s Light and Love.

The deep joy I felt was a gift – it was grace – not something I can claim credit for. And yet I talked earlier about a decision to be joyful, as if it were my choice, as if it were something over which I have control… In that amazingly paradoxical way of faith, there is some truth to the choice aspect, too. The truth in that statement arises out of having fought my way to believe it was possible to experience that deeper Fruit-of-the-Spirit-Joy. I already had decided that the world would be unacceptably unjust if oppression, suffering, pain, illness, and death were the final word – if they got to define the value of a life.

This is the story of that fight: In looking precisely at the points of greatest suffering – of starvation, deprivation, unseasonal death -I initially was terribly depressed. But I wrestled and wrestled and wrestled with the meaninglessness of that image of the world. The words from Jeremy Irons’ character in “The Mission” have echoed in my soul since I first saw the movie as a teenager: As a Jesuit priest, he watches some of the brothers take weapons in hand to try to save a mission in the jungle from being destroyed. The mission was created as a safe haven in Christ for men and women to be safe from slave catchers. The Jeremy Irons character decides not to defend the mission, but to stay there, even if he is sure that he and anyone else who stays there will be killed. He will not abandon the men and women who came to the Mission. These are his words to his religious superior as he defies the order to leave: “If might is right… then love has no place in the world. It may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that.”

My struggle in the face of suffering was much like the Jeremy Irons line: If a person with power not only can make people suffer at will, but also gets to define that person’s life, then I can’t find the desire to be alive in this world. I may very well be wrong, but I’m not sure how I would deal with the suffering in the world if death or suffering do define a life.

The fruit of my wrestling ultimately became a KNOWING in my heart that God would not create a life that could have no hope of joy or meaning, even in desperate circumstances. Because God is a God of love, and because Jesus suffered pain and death in the ultimate demonstration of love, I decided there has to be more to Life than those external physical circumstances. 

So I fought, long and hard, to find how life might be meaningful and joyful, even in the face of suffering. Ultimately I have found a way to understand and conceive of joy in the midst of suffering. In part it arose from hearing the wisdom of patients and family members in crisis, in part it came from God’s free gifts of joy even in the midst of pain. And yet another part was my own persistence – my need to understand. That is the sense in which I speak of a decision to be joyful: the choice to believe that joy is possible, and if I don’t know how, I won’t quit until I do. Perhaps “commitment” or “drivenness” are better words than “decision”?  

This is also one of the areas where I feel most strongly the absence of preaching and teaching of theology in liberal Quaker Meetings. The fact is that the insight that I had to work so hard to arrive at, is a pretty basic tenet of Christian theology. Through Jesus death and resurrection, life and love conquered death and darkness forever. An important part of my insight came from the Bible and Christian preaching and teaching, and most of what I learned in that respect, I heard from other Quaker groups and other faith groups, not my liberal Quaker Meetings. 

And so I am back to the starting place of my previous post: When in my Meeting/Church do we talk about finding our joy in God? Is there a place in my Meeting/Church for accompanying others as they struggle to find hope, joy, and purpose when meaninglessness and suffering threaten? For those who don’t relate to traditional Christian theology, what is your source of hope and life, and how do you speak of it to someone who suffers?

Welcome to my new blog.

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

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

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