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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.

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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?

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?  

(See my other blog for more general musings about prayer.) 

What I understand Quakerism to say about prayer is that we can encounter God at any time, in any place, or in any circumstance. I get that from the Quaker refusal to designate any particular time, place, or person as the primary conduit of the Holy. And I get that from my favorite quote in the banner above: “There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition.” What I understand this to mean is that we will be spoken to, whatever our condition. This means that there is no human condition in which God cannot speak to us. God can use any form – verbal and non-verbal, sensory and non-sensory, intuitive or tangible.

George Fox seems to me to be saying not that a mainline church service is necessarily wrong but that repetitive or required acts of worship have a tendency to dull our spiritual awareness. He disliked any priest who based his authority on something other than the Power of the Lord, but George absolutely believed that the Lord gave tremendous Power to the words and acts of someone who is animated by the Holy Spirit.

What this means for silent worship is that we can be in prayer when we sit in expectant silence, but that is not the superior way. Indeed, silent worship, too, can become a spiritually dead structure. Silent worship or prayer is not superior to other forms of worship and prayer.

What sets us apart as a denomination is that we are not surprised when we encounter God outside of the Meeting’s agreed-upon times and places of worship. As people who take the priesthood of all believers more literally than most denominations, we believe that any person or even any living being can be a “priest”, someone who draws us into an awareness of God’s presence.  

So although many of my deepest times of worship have occurred while sitting in expectant waiting in my Quaker Meeting, there are many other instances, too. Here are some of them:

Standing at the top of the Sears Building in Chicago, looking out on the city lights one night, I felt one of the most powerful urges to call upon God that I have ever felt.

A dozen Young Adult Friends were in the swimming pool one late night at Norway Yearly Meeting annual sessions, when quite spontaneously we fell into a deep worshipful silent communion.

While working at Swedish Hospital, an elderly Catholic gentleman asked me to give him communion and turned down my offer to call a Catholic chaplain. He said that being served communion by a Quaker would speak more powerfully to him of the nature of God, which is to transcend all human-made boundaries. When we both took the bread and wine in the name of Christ, the Spirit bound this woman, the gentleman, and Christ together with Eternity.

Listening to a sermon, when ideas that were separate suddenly come together or when an AHA! occurs – and new Truth is opened to my understanding.

During the World Gathering of Young Friends in Belgium in 1991, we had a silent meal at the centuries-old Catholic monastery where the gathering took place. I sat in the dining room, soaking in the presence of other Quaker men and women from all over the world, and tried to attune myself to my table companions in particular and know what they might need without them speaking or gesturing. We were One.

Tears of deep joy trickling down my cheeks as I understood the Christmas message in a new way in looking at my then two-month old daughter: The mystery of strength made perfect in weakness; salvation through giving oneself over to Life – both its joy and its suffering; and how God’s very essence can be revealed by human form.

Researching something in the Earlham College Library one day, I lifted my eyes up from the reference book to see a cherry tree in blooming pink splendor, and the Power of God filled my very core, so all words and thoughts fell away.

Sitting in private prayer one day, deeply remorseful over a mistake I had made, I suddenly was filled with the pride-stripping awareness that I was a human – neither better nor worse than a co-worker who had inhabited my thoughts for months because of her unrelenting insistence that I was a bad person. In prayer, I felt united with her in human-ness and was liberated so I could forgive her and attach my awareness to more wholesome projects.

Holding a dying woman’s hand, sadly being the only one to stand with her, I held her in the Light as her breathing slowed and then ceased.

Being a Quaker allows me not to be surprised – indeed perhaps to expect – that God may appear in any kind of situation and transform that moment into a moment of prayer.

Query for prayerful consideration:

What are my experiences of prayer? What is my understanding of prayer from a Quaker perspective?