A Milestone Interfaith Event

On Tuesday, October 26th we held a dedication of the Reflection Room at Swedish/Edmonds, where I work as hospital chaplain. It has been a two-year process to get the room built, decorated and dedicated as “A place to worship, reflect, meditate, pray, seek, or just be.” I could write page after page about everything that’s in the room and why that particular item is there – a driftwood sculpture, a wall fountain, worship supplies, a memorial book,and a book for prayer requests – but I’d rather have you come and visit the room to see it for yourself.

Right now I want to share with you the impact the event had on me. As I start to get a little perspective, I realize this will be a milestone event for me. During this time of political, social, and religious polarization, I was privileged that an imam, a rabbi, a Christian minister, a Humanist celebrant, and priests from the Buddhist and Hindu traditions were willing to come together for this ceremony. I would like to say something profound, but don’t have the words.

Instead, try to imagine the 6 celebrants, each of them offering from their own tradition: the Tekbir (Allahu Akbar, call to prayer); Vedic chanting at an altar set up with flowers before Lord Ganesha (with the elephant head); intercessory prayer according to the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions; reminders to live compassionately from the Buddhist and Humanist traditions. 

Afterwards, I invited everyone present to give a symbol of their compassion. Each person was given a polished river rock to take into the Reflection Room. The rock was to symbolize something they thought that future users of the room might need, for instance strength, faith, love, celebration, peace, comfort, laughter, consoling tears. I love looking at the collection of rocks, thinking of the compassion that has been offered.

Another purpose of the celebration was to dedicate it to the memory of a kind and popular physician, Peter Kruger, who died very young in 1983. Peter Kruger’s widow and daughter honored us with their presence and and they were able to have conversations with hospital staff who had worked with Peter back in the 70s and 80s. I pray that was meaningful to them.

Generosity – that is the word that arises as I think of the event. The generosity of spirit of the celebrants from all the faith groups, the financial generosity of those who donated money to create the Reflection Room, and the generosity of love as we steeped the Reflection Room in compassion.

I am deeply grateful for the generosity I witnessed, and I rededicate myself to the belief that we are given life for the purpose of developing our capacity for compassion and love.

Query for prayerful reflection:

How will generosity of spirit be made manifest in your life?

How will you foster a spirit of generosity among those you know who may not be in agreement with each other?

Reflection Room Art

Spirituality and Discernment

Newly returned from the 1st annual Leadership Institute on Group Discernment, I am filled once again with the awareness of how hard it is to do discernment right if we aren’t grounded in God when we begin. Discernment is defined as “separating apart” – distinguishing between God’s movement within us and movements that aren’t of God. In my own mind, I have come to equate discernment with decision-making. My belief that every decision I make has an effect in the world – it furthers God’s love of it works against God’s love. This, I think, is what is meant by the concept of the Lamb’s War – we see every action in this world as affecting the spiritual state of the world.

For the purposes of group discernment, it is clearer to me after the conference that we can and should hone our skills and learn techniques for guiding a group towards unity on an issue. It is even clearer to me that achieving unity is crucial to Godly decision-making, simply because voting or any other way of making group decisions sets up a situation where one group gets what it wants at another’s expense. Since God loves us equally, I find it hard to believe that God would favor one group over another. Also, I believe that God has ONE plan for a group (God isn’t giving different and opposing ideas to different groups of people) and I believe that God does tell us what that plan is and that we can learn to hear God’s invitations towards the right thing.

Occasionally God does speak to us through burning bushes and pillars of fire – in ways that allow for no contradiction or confusion. More often, however, I think God speaks more softly and gives us choices. Those who want to know God’s mind can hear it, and those who don’t can ignore it.

In my own experience, ultimately, it does boil down to how much we want to know God’s mind and how much we are willing and able to hear the Godly things through the clamor of cultural expectations. It never ceases to amaze me just how often God does something unexpected and suprising – in fact that is often a sign to me of God’s handiwork. But if our expectations are too rigid, our “prec-conditions” on how we think God works may limit our ability to hear. Here are some of the pre-conditions I sometimes notice:

If we expect “the right way forward” to be expressed through the voices of resourceful, educated, or “hardworking” people, we are likely to miss God’s voice speaking through or on behalf of those who have less strong a voice in society, be they children, minorities, people who suffer with mental illness, uneducated, unemployed, etc.

If we expect God to require us to pick up our cross daily and for it to be a hard thing to do, we are unlikely to hear God whispering to us that we are his beloved with whom God is well pleased, and any joyful and fulfilling calls God offers.

If we haven’t learned how God speaks to us – and God does speak in different ways to each one of us – or we believe that we have flaws that keep us from hearing God, we may miss God’s tugs and nudges.

So an important part of decision-making is to continually strip away our own notions of how God does and doesn’t act in the world, and let God speak for God-self.  

Query for prayerful consideration:

What are beliefs I hold that may get in the way when I seek to know God’s way?

Worship without Sacrifice

(The conversation on how we can lower barriers to faith communities continues on my other blog.)

Mohandas Gandhi made a list of 7 deadly social sins that I got from Sojourner’s Magazine. 

1. Politics without principle; 2. Wealth without work; 3. Commerce without morality; 4. Pleasure without conscience; 5. Education without character; 6. Science without humanity; and 7. Worship without sacrifice.

I “get” the first six, but how could worship possibly be sinful?

Regular readers of my blog will know that I tend to dive straight into the parts that I don’t immediately understand, and this tendency is a gift of my Quaker seminary education. I know I have nothing to fear, but can look forward to spiritual insight and growth in my relationship with God. So I took the challenge.

In order not to deprive myself of the opportunity to encounter Truth, I decided to presume that when he says “worship”, Gandhi means a true encounter with God, not empty rituals or mindless recital. I also decided to presume that when he talks about sacrifice, Gandhi means voluntary giving of something valuable. He is neither talking about somebody taking something from another against their will that s/he can’t afford to lose nor about giving a tiny something – he is talking about voluntarily giving something of real value.

I also noticed what Gandhi isn’t saying. He is not saying that we should give because people are in need, although that would probably be true, too. Presumably Gandhi would want us to sacrifice even if there was no unmet need anywhere in creation. And since Gandhi was a Hindu, not a Christian, I also know he is not talking about the importance of sacrifice just as an expectation of followers of Jesus, who gave his life for us.

Knowing about Gandhi’s sense of responsibility for assisting Hindus to become better Hindus, Christians to become better Christians, etc, I’m guessing Gandhi says that giving is good for us. Necessary, even. I think he is saying that the act of sacrificial giving turns us into better people. It helps us to become the persons God wants us to become.

But there’s more. If true worship – a genuine encounter with the Divine – can nonetheless be made sinful by the absence of sacrifice, sacrifice must have something to do with the very nature of worship and even the nature of God! Not just for Christians, but for Hindus, Muslims and all other kinds of worshipers, too. 

This mindbending exercise leads me to Matthew 10: 8, “Freely you have received, freely give.” We must give, because in worship God has given to us. And indeed, all of chapter 10 has to do with giving and sacrificing, neither counting on a reward nor fearing punishment, but because giving things of great value is the truest expression of who God is and who we are as worshipers.

Also, I thnink giving something of value safeguards us from the temptation to worship because it makes us feel good. It does feel good to worship, and it is good to enjoy the delightful aspect of worship, but it would be a sin to worship for the purpose of feeling good.

I had an experience recently that helps me understand what all of this might mean. Not so long ago, I had the heartbreaking privilege of supporting someone through a lengthy panic attack. It had gone on for a long time and he had taken his medication without getting much relief. This physical fear still held him in its grip. Soothing touch did not help much either. We prayed together for the lessening of his fear and it did help, but not very much. He told me that part of his anxiety had to do with his powerlessness to help someone he knew who was hurting more than he was, and so I suggested that we pray for her. We held her in God’s loving Light, and within seconds, my anxious friend had relaxed and fallen asleep. It was in giving that he received. In trying to pass God’s love on to another, he was filled with it himself.    

So the nature of God is “giving”, and when we give, it not only makes us better people, but it makes us feel good, too. Isn’t that an inviting way of thinking about tithing and giving away material and societal valuables in order to achieve justice?!

Query for prayerful consideration:

How is giving good for me? How does my giving affect worship? What do I wish to give sacrificially?

Fighting Against, Standing With, or Building Bridges?

I promised earlier that I would talk about steps we can take towards making our faith communities more welcoming of people who don’t fit the majority profile, whatever that may be in a particular community (I was talking specifically about liberal Quakers and class when I said that, but now I want to broaden it out a bit because I think these issues are neither unique to liberal Quakers nor that the exclusionary dynamic applies only to class). This line of spiritual musing started for me in my January 22 blog on Faith and Class. In blog posts or comments since then, I’ve mused about the privilege of education, and touched on race, economic disparities, citizenship, and cultural belonging, too. Those are just some of the guises privilege can take, and there are others, too. 

Before I write a blog about steps we can take, I want to let you know that – to the best of my ability – all the steps I promote will be of the bridge-building or standing-with variety. One of my growing religious convictions, based on my own experience, is that a “conflicting interests” or adversarial mode rarely changes anyone’s mind. Quite the contrary, the adversarial mode just gets us all more firmly entrenched in our particular positions. My approaches will assume common cause.    

Right now you may be asking, “Why is Susanne writing about overcoming privilege? I thought this was supposed to be a blog about faith?” To me, this is very much a matter of faith, because I believe that one of the ways we show our love of God is by treating each person as a beloved child of God. The Bible tells us that God requires it of us. And societal privilege distracts from the Beloved-of-God view by drawing our attention to things like skin color, language, or style of clothing.

My belief in bridge-building rather than conflicting-interest approaches also arises out of my faith. My faith tells me that there is a Divine Order that creation strives towards, a second “Eden.” It will be a place of harmony where every person will have what they need and no-one’s needs will be met at the expense of another. It will never be fully achieved in this life, we will only know complete peace and rest when we are re-united with God after death. What this means in terms of addressing privilege is that that ultimate goal, whether we have one skin color or another, a large or a small amount of money etc, is the same. God’s will doesn’t contain goals that are different and conflicting. What is good for one is good for all.

So my presumption is that the person with more privileges will feel better when they have given them away. God will stop pricking their conscience all the time, and he or she (or me) will finally be in the place of freedom that we accomplish when we live in accordance with God’s desire for us. The emotion I try to draw upon when dealing with someone I perceive to have more privilege is compassion, not anger. A large task of doing away with injustices is to lovingly convince people with more privilege that it is in their own self-interest to let go of them. So I seek to stand with people with more privilege as well as standing with those with fewer and trying to minimize the suffering of the latter.

I can imagine a few of my readers saying, “Wow, is she naive?!” Perhaps I am. Yet I have arrived at this understanding after being an activist type for over 20 years. I started my activist life working within a conflicting-interests mode in the anti-apartheid movement in Norway, and it’s only in fairly recent years that I have adopted the bridge-building approach. When I take a step back to assess when I have been most effective in addressing injustices, it is clear that – for me – bridge-building is by far the more effective approach! I also think of South Africa’s way of transitioning out of apartheid as one of bridge-building and assuming common cause, and that South Africans were far more effective in righting wrongs than countries like Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Israel/Palestine. It gives me hope that Quakers in Kenya are trying to build an understanding of common-cause among the parties in that conflict. See their pastoral letter to their political leaders and the open letter to the Kenyan people.

As a chaplain and spiritual director, I also am drawn to standing-with. And praying. Many of my posts from previous months talk about that side of my ministry, so I won’t go into that now.

I make no claim to be an expert on conflict resolution. All I can do is go where God leads me, and as I seek to address injustices these days, I am drawn to bridge-building rather than “fighting-against.”

Queries for prayerful consideration:

In what way(s) does God call me to take on injustices: Fighting against, standing with, or building bridges? How about praying?

Crucifixion Faith Is Incomplete

The last three months of my blogging life have turned out to be an exploration of different facets of abundance. In November, I explored it from the individual perspective and concluded that a person’s ability to experience abundance doesn’t seem to have much to do with how much money or “stuff” we have at our disposal. In December, I looked at whether our communities of faith support us in feeling abundantly taken care of by God and encourage us to share of this abundance with others beyond our faith community. This month, I’m drawn to looking at whether our beliefs and religious culture contribute to a sense of abundance and joy in life or whether they promote a feeling of scarcity and worry. My own experience is that my particular brand of liberal theology – Quakerism – seems to foster heaviness and a sense of hopelessness about the ills of the world.

What’s the point of considering what emotional state our faith leads us to, the gentle reader may wonder. As a Quaker, don’t you believe that faith arises out of each individual’s encounter with God? It’s not as if a person can just decide to change their faith, is it? Growth and development in faith would arise from an inward experience of God that was different from past experiences, would it not? And that would be up to God, not up the individual, yes?

Yes and no. What I have learned about discernment is to expect that if I am on the right path, on God’s path for me, I will experience the “fruits of the spirit” – a sense of peace and “rightness” at a deeper level than personal emotions of joy, anger, or sadness. If I feel heavy, worried, and that nothing I do can make a difference in the world, it makes me think I may inadvertently have wandered off God’s path.

So when my crucifixion vision (see 1/10/08 blog entry) led me to feel burdened and heavy at a deeper level, and then later to feel drawn toward the joy and hope of evangelical Quakers or a homeless woman (whose experience I wrote about on 1.8.08), I had to conclude that there was something about my past experiences that was, if not wrong, then incomplete. So I asked God if there was something more God wanted to show me, something that was missing or incomplete in my experience. I asked God that I would experience abundance, and only 4 days passed before God answered my prayer and gave me experience of abundance (see 12/11/07 entry), which only went away with the gluttony of Christmas (note to self: I need to do more discernment with my husband and children on how we do Christmas)!

I do think that we can participate in bringing about a change even in an experientially-based faith – if we genuinely desire God to reveal more of the Truth. My presumption is that it isn’t God’s doing if my faith has taken a depressive and hopeless turn. Instead, I probably got “ahead of my Guide” and at some point started listening more to myself than to God. I am sure God is pleased when I remember that I am a follower of Jesus, and that a follower’s place is behind the Guide. When I follow, the Guide will  show me the fullness of Life.

Prayer:

God, is there something new you would like to show me?

Gratitude Is An Attitude

We chaplains and spiritual directors are supposed to maintain strict confidentiality, and this rule has come about so that we may protect those we serve. At the same time there are groups of people whose voices are rarely heard, and part of their disenfranchisement and suffering arises from being voiceless.

Part of my calling to empower and give voice to the marginalized has to be to show the giftedness of these sons and daughters of God and to give them an opportunity to speak and be heard. As we listen, I pray that our hearts may be opened to the content of their message. I pray also that we would become aware of how we are wasting potential when anyone has to put all their energy into fighting to survive. Just think of how our society might benefit if the talent that today goes to waste instead could be put to use for the good of all.

The following are the words of a homeless woman as she talked about something for which she is grateful. Please read her words slowly and allow them to speak to the depths of your soul:

“Every night when I get ready to sleep at the shelter or under a bridge, I crawl into my sleeping bag and pull it over my head. I have to pray quietly because I have learned that some people will get really angry if they hear me praying. So I pull the sleeping bag over my head and speak softly so no-one can hear me. First I pray that God would protect me so I don’t get beaten up or assaulted during the night while I sleep. Then I pray that even if I do get assaulted I would know that it is only my body that is being harmed and that no-one can harm my soul. And then I pray that God would anoint me. The thing I am grateful for is that wonderful feeling – I can almost feel God’s hands put the warm oil on my face – and I am comforted and feel so blessed.”

Gentle reader, God filled my heart with a deeply consoling shame as I listened to her. She showed me that gratitude has more to do with how we choose to live than on the security of things. It has to do with faith.

Query for prayerful reflection:

Is my heart truly open to experiencing God’s blessing, anointing and comfort?

Does Church Matter?

As I have come to experience God’s abundance this past month, I have also sensed that my faith community, my Quaker meeting, isn’t a natural place for me to explore abundance. (In fact, I almost wrote a piece entitled “Would someone please give my Meeting some Prozac?” before I determined that my musings on that belonged in a different forum.) As I talk to people from other churches, too, I hear that they don’t feel supported as they experience God’s abundance overflow into care for the marginalized, either.

Does it matter whether I and others feel supported in this by our faith communities? Yes and no.

It doesn’t matter in the sense that I am a resourceful person who can find like-minded people for spiritual sustenance and accountability on my journey. Even more importantly, as I wrote in my previous post, God speaks to me without intermediary and abundantly provides all the sustenance and accountability anyone could ever need! Hallelujah!

However, it does matter in the sense in which George Fox, the man who is credited with founding Quakerism around 1650, saved a special kind of rage for the priests of his time because he felt they didn’t teach people the things that were really important about religion. George read all the passages in the Old Testament and New about sheep and shepherds, perhaps especially John 10 in which Jesus weeps over the “hired shepherd”, who when he sees the wolf coming, leaves the sheep and runs away, leaving the sheep to be snatched or scattered by the wolf. George really had it in for priests who were only in it for the paycheck…. 

“My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place.” Jeremiah 50:6 (NIV)

So what is this thing that is at the core of Christianity that the church should be teaching? Jim Wallis often talks about one of his professors in seminary telling the class to take a pair of scissors and cut out of the Bible every story and passage that has to do with God requiring people to show special concern for the marginalized. The class did as they were told, and discovered there was almost nothing left when they were finished!

In my mind, a faith community that does not evoke the sense of God’s abundance is not doing its job. A church/Meeting that doesn’t put care for the marginalized at the center is “letting its sheep stray”. Like George Fox, I can tap into a whole lot of anger on this topic, and maybe that’s why I am called to ministry as a chaplain and spiritual director.

What does this stir up in you, gentle reader?

Query for prayerful consideration:

Does my faith community put at its center the things that I believe are at the heart of my faith? Does it matter whether or not it does?