Ups and Downs and Hope

One of the stories I like to tell is the Biblical account of the life of Joseph (Genesis 37-50). I especially like to use this story when I’m with someone who suffers with depression, whose life seems to have lost meaning, or who is feeling overwhelmed at the hardship of their life.

Here is his story in a nutshell: Joseph is his daddy’s favorite child, and he gets all kinds of special treats. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph and to feel so loved.

Unfortunately Joseph likes to brag to his brothers about how special he is and how he is going to lord it over them. Not surprisingly, the brothers decide to kill him (after all this is the Bible, with stories of great passion and drama!) One of the brothers manages to persuade the others that they should spare Joseph’s life. Instead, they sell him off into slavery in Egypt. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph now.

When he arrives in Egypt, things are actually better than they might have been. He gets a decent job for someone close to the Pharaoh and becomes quite successful in his service! Imagine what it is like to be Joseph now. 

Then things take a turn for the worse again: Joseph’s employer’s wife makes a pass at him, and when he does the honorable thing and rejects her, she gets back at him by accusing him of rape. Joseph is thrown in prison. Imagine what Joseph is feeling now.

Fortunately for Joseph, he spends his time in prison together with two men who are very close to the Pharaoh. Joseph helps them out by interpreting their dreams correctly. One of them is later in a position to bring him in to interpret two dreams for Pharaoh himself, and Pharaoh gives Joseph a very important position in Egypt. Imagine what it is like to be Joseph now.

Pharaoh’s dreams, which Joseph interpreted, help the Egyptians to be prepared when a 7-year long drought struck the Middle East. Eventually 10 of Joseph’s brothers come pleading for food and they beg his forgiveness. He forgives them, feeds them, and is able to bring his entire family and tribe to safety and comfort in Egypt. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph now.

After Joseph dies, the descendants of all the 12 brothers end up as slaves in Egypt, until Moses comes along and liberates them after centuries of toil and suffering. Imagine how Joseph would have felt if he had known the plight his descendants would end up in.

What I like about this story is that it shows the ups and downs in a person’s life in great detail. At each change in Joseph’s life, I ask my listeners what they think Joseph might be feeling. Many can relate to what it is like when Joseph is carted off into what must be a bleak-looking future in Egypt, or is thrown in prison.

Then I ask my listeners whether those hardships in life mean that God is punishing Joseph. Every one so far has said, “No, of course not”. I love the moment when my listener says that. That moment is almost always followed by a swelling of hope: Hope that the hardship in the listener’s life does not mean that God is punishing him or her. Hope that God loves him or her. Hope that hard times will be followed by good times. Hope similar to what Joseph knew when he could say to his brothers in Genesis 50:19-21: “Though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

For prayerful consideration:

Though bad things happen in my life, God will use all things for good. I need have no fear; God will provide for me and my little ones.

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Lowering Barriers to Worship: Culture

The poll I recently did on class and faith, as well as what I’ve learned from similar conversations elsewhere (links) pointed out culture (not theology or practices) as the primary barrier for someone with fewer privileges. I expect to write 4-5 blogs on various aspects, and will start with social interactions, then address practices, and end with thoughts about theology/faith/beliefs and how we talk about them.  

In this post I’ll talk about some of the practical steps we can take regarding social interactions to lessen the impact of privilege in our faith communities, and in my next post I’ll talk about assumptions many of us make that contribute to making cultural differences into barriers (differences could be enjoyable or just dispassionately interesting).  

Steps for individuals to consider 

1. During coffee hour, look around the room. If someone is standing alone, go and visit with him or her if you think he or she wants to talk. (Thanks to John Punshon for reminding me that some people actually prefer to be alone.)

2. In conversations with someone you don’t know well, try to seek balance in how much each person listens and each person talks because this can be an important signal about privilege and power. In a relationship between equals, your conversation partner will know as much about you as you about him/her when you walk away from each other. (In my experience, well-meaning liberals ask too many questions and don’t  reciprocate with information about themselves. Talk about your denomination, but be aware that giving unsolicited information can seem condescending.) 

3. Talk about the things that tend to matter to all people, regardless of class, ethnicity, culture, education, skin color, sexual orientation, etc. As I mentioned in an earlier post (link), this is often about family and relationships, but be prepared to move on gracefully if this turns out not be a safe subject! For some people it may not feel safe to talk about it (e.g sexual orientation), and/or it may be painful (e.g infertility, divorce, death, being unmarried), and this topic may actually belong in my next category.

4. Avoid subjects that presume something on the part of the listener, such as education, work, or political leanings, shared culture.  

3. Read the article about inessential weirdnesses (thanks to Jeanne for drawing this to my attention). Let each of us examine whether there are things we can change in the interest of lowering barriers for people who might otherwise want to worship with us. (Example – at the risk of giving you too much information about me: Norwegian women don’t usually shave their legs, but I changed my habits to meet American expectations after moving here.) Though this article is about class, many of the same things seem weird to people from other cultures, too. (I plan to write a blog post on “inessential weirdnesses” in religion soon. For now, look at #6 below.)

5. By all means speak about the things that are important to you, and even voice some disagreement with something you disagree with if you must, but speak respectfully of the view with which you disagree and the people who hold them. For instance, criticize the lack of good health care insurance in the USA if you must, but don’t speak disparagingly about Republicans who favor the current system. The person you’re talking to may be a Republican and think the USA has the best health care system in the world.

6. Do talk about your faith from an experiential perspective, after all, this is a faith community, so we can presume a shared interest in faith. However, stick to YOUR religious experience, and  avoid comparing beliefs or using religious language that has negative connotations. (Liberal Quakers have an unfortunate habit of describing our faith in terms of what we don’t believe.) The person you’re talking with may hold the very beliefs you’re being negative about. Don’t use language that could place you on one or the other side of the American “Culture Wars”. Jim Wallis says “Don’t go left. Don’t go right. Go deep”, and that works well here. (More on this in a future post when I address theological barriers to worship.)

7. Avoid denomination-specific jargon during social hour and announcements. Do not use alphabet combinations (FGC, FWCC, AFSC, FCNL, EFI, FUM to name a few Quaker things) without explaining what they are. Don’t talk about denominational events or places without explaining what they are (e.g “I just got back from Pendle Hill, it was wonderful!” Instead, insert, “a Quaker study and retreat center.”) Denomination-specific language can have a place in committee and decision-making meetings, but even then it might be helpful to explain what we mean in lay person’s terms.) 

Ideas for and/or about committees

8. Don’t conduct committee business during the social hour. That can keep long term members from interacting with newcomers or people who might be feeling left out.

9. I wish it weren’t so, but the reality is that one of the best ways of being included in the life of liberal faith communities is by joining a committee (I’ll pick this theme up again later when I get to muse about theology). Since that is the sorry truth about us, make sure there are committees that are open to newcomers. In my overburdened small faith community, our members are so overstretched that we have laid down every non-essential committee. The unfortunate side effect is that the committees left are the ones on which only members with longish insider experience can serve (Oversight, Ministry & Worship) and we have no intermediate steps for people who are getting more involved in the life of the community.  

10. Put on regular events like “Stump the elders” or “Stump Ministry & Worship” – opportunities for new people and more long-term participants to ask questions without feeling like they are drawing atttention to their lack of knowledge. 

11. Have a variety of pamphlets and literature available. Too often, literature places us solidly on the “liberal” side of the Culture Wars rather being neutral. If they had been more neutral, they could be more inviting and contribute to peace-building in the American Culture Wars.

Queries for prayerful consideration:

Do I, in my heart, mind, and actions, really seek a peaceful end to the American Culture Wars? Is it possible to take one side AND expect people from underrepresented groups feel welcome in my group? What sacrifices am I willing to make in order to end the American Culture Wars?

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?

Poll on Class and Faith

The ongoing conversation on class/education and faith in the Quaker blogosphere makes me curious about WHY something like 9 out of 10 liberal Quakers have college degrees when only roughly 1 in four Americans in general has a college degree (I’m basing this on information from Jeanne’s blog).

Can you help me out by letting me know what you think?   

My questions are:

1. Is there something about Quaker theology that makes it more appealing to the kind of people who get college degrees? Is there something about Quaker theology that makes it unappealing to the kind of people who don’t get college degrees? If so, why?

2. Or is it something about current liberal Quaker culture? If so, why?

3. Or is it something to do with current liberal Quaker practice? If so, why?

4. Or do you think it is just a coincidence? If so, why?

5. Optional: Are you a college graduate? Do/es one or more of your parents have a college degree?

Needless to say, the purpose of asking these questions is to get ideas for what we can do in our liberal Quaker Meetings to make them more genuinely accessible. Stay tuned!

More Thoughts about Faith and Class

As I have read and pondered the question on class and faith (see yesterday’s post for links), I have also thought about my own background and how it might influence my perspective. I don’t know how to answer more than a couple of questions in the various questionnaires that try to place a person in terms of privilege, so here’s the quick background on my “class” in bio form. 

My father is South African, my mother Norwegian. I grew up in Botswana with two Batswana foster siblings, one of whom died of “witch craft” as a teenager. I spent 10 years in Botswana, then 16 years in Norway, and have been here in the USA now for more than a decade. My life has been lived being tugged between opposites. Who knows what my culture or class was or is? Not Norwegian, not South African, not Tswana, not American. I belonged to the rich elite by Botswana standards, but was poor by Norwegian standards. Here in the USA I’m a “legal resident alien” with few legal rights, but I’m privileged by virtue of education. My profession gives me status, but let me advise you not to go into chaplaincy or spiritual direction if you want to earn enough to pay your bills. 

I spent decades in painful identity struggles, feeling like an outsider no matter what setting I was in. In 1996, I became a hospital chaplain, and here’s what happened: 

One of the reasons I think I do well as a chaplain and spiritual director with the mentally ill is that their pain is real to me, even when the cause for their pain may be a delusion. When a woman believes that the man she loves is trying to kill her, she is in agony, and it makes no difference to her whether it is factually true or not. She is in agony one way or the other. My spiritual responses to that woman are quite similar, whether the man is trying to kill her or not: I address the sense of betrayal, the fear, and the heartbreak in similar ways. The difference in my response would lie in whether or not I call the police and other support services, and how much I would involve her reasoning capacities in my support of her (hardly at all if her fear stems from mental illness).

Another gift of chaplaincy is that I have learnt what is important in life and what is not. Whether I listen when someone looks back on their life as they approach death, or I listen to a grieving family talk about what made their loved one important, what I have noticed over the years is that they rarely talk about work, success/failure, or income levels. Unless, of course, those things caused conflict or estrangement between family members. Because relationships with loved ones seems to be the most important thing to everyone, and the extent to which they lived honorably and/or lived in accordance with their faith can also be important.

Suffering comes in many shapes and forms, and what I have learned is not to judge whether or not it has merit, but to accept each form of it as real, to respond with love and compassion, and to offer hope that the suffering will end one day. The hope I offer is something like this: there is no life without death, no love without loss. I borrow from Ecclesiastes with an added emphasis of my own: there is a time to mourn, which WILL be followed by a time to dance, there is a time to weep and it WILL be followed by a time to laugh. And God promises over and over again that no matter where we are in this life, God will be with us in it. When we mourn, God mourns with us. When we laugh, God laughs with us. 

“I thought this was supposed to be a post on class and faith?!”, you may be wondering. Bear with me a little longer, dear reader.

I said that it was a privilege to be a hospital chaplain because I have learned what is important and what is not. I need to add that that privilege came at a high price. The price I have paid is that I have been with parents holding their dead newborns in their arms. Sometimes it is a wealthy family, sometimes it is a poor family. The agony is no less real either way. It takes me weeks to recover each time I am present in a situation like that. Each visit I make to the hospital is a reminder of just how fragile my happiness is, because I know how easily I could lose everything I love in life. In the midst of privilege, I hurt.

Although I have lost my innocence, I feel I have ultimately gained far more than I have lost. What I see is that the basic human drama is the same, no matter what our class, culture, ethnicity, nationality, faith, or other background. This doesn’t mean culture, faith, etc are unimportant. There was a time in my life when a friendly question of “Where are you from?” was enough to make me burst into tears. So I’m not trying to say that class doesn’t matter. Class matters, as do other identifiers, because they are part of who we are and how we understand our world and how we understand God. And God uses the particulars of our language, culture, ethnicity, nationality, and faith to speak to us. And identifiers like class can be used to include or exclude, they can be used to give or withhold privilege. When that happens it is wrong. And I think my denomination and others ARE guilty in this regard.

Even more importantly, it REALLY matters if someone is starving or suffering any other kind of physical deprivation. 

My musings today are about the solution, and to me the solution to the problem of exclusion and privilege lies in going together to a deeper, more fundamental level, the level at which all human beings are united.   

What we all share is this, as I see it: When we mourn, we need God’s words of comfort and promise of hope. When we rejoice, we need to be reminded of those who suffer. When we are close to giving up, we need to be reminded to persevere. When we are feeling hopeless, we need to hear words of encouragement. When we are wealthy, we need to be reminded to share. When we are poor, we need to know we will be cared for. When we are hungry, we need food. When we are afraid, we need to be made safe. When we feel we are boxed in, we need to hear of God’s freedom. When we stand before a daunting task, we need be reminded to tap into God’s strength so we can survive. We need to be loved and respected.

I refuse to accept the idea that one denomination speaks to the faith condition of one class more accurately than another class, one nationality better than another, one culture better than another, one income bracket better than another. If a denomination addresses one group more than another, I think it has failed.  

Faith, for me, is ultimately about God’s love for every single human being in his or her particularity. Our calling is to be a conduit for God’s love into every person’s life, whatever their condition may be.

Query for prayerful consideration:

What is God stirring up in me with regard to these issues?

Class and Faith

An important discussion is taking place in Quaker blogs these days regarding whether (liberal) Quakerism has become elitist, making it hard for people from a working class or poor background to feel included. Unfortunately I think this conversation has applications in many other denominations, too. www.quakerquaker.org has links to these posts, many of which are truly thought-provoking and prophetic. They are speaking Truth to me, my Quaker faith community, and to many other faith communities, too. I recommend that you check them out.

So, if my faith community appeals primarily to people with certain social characteristics and huge sections of the population feel unwelcome among us, where did we go wrong? We must have gone wrong, because Jesus meant his good news to be available to everyone, not just to a certain social set. And I’m sure George Fox, the man credited with founding Quakerism, also intended his preaching to be the good news for everyone, regardless of social class. In fact, I would argue that most reform movements in the history of the church were intended to make the good news accessible to more people than before.

If we need to have commonalities in social background and life-style in order to function together, has the worshiping body become more like a social club than a faith community?

Some of the directions this discussion has taken in the Quaker blogosphere is to consider how we talk about ourselves, whether Quaker language has become a barrier, and whether different faith approaches simply appeal to different kinds of people. These are all valid discussions. However, I think the solution to the “social club” phenomenon is at a deeper level. It has to do with what is at the core of our faith. When Jesus first introduced himself and his purpose, here’s what he said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV)

Would differences in social background matter as much if, after worshiping together, members of the faith community rolled up their sleeves and went out together to release the unjustly imprisoned, care for disabled people and free people from oppression, and spread the good news to all? My belief is that, when we as a community are more focused on ourselves than on the reason for our existence, differences can break us apart or become used to exclude. If, on the other hand, our worshiping community focuses on joining forces with God to care for the marginalized, I believe social differences would feel like natural variations on creation. People would still have their natural temperamental preferences for form of worship and Quakerism would still probably be a small sect. But provided everyone feels they would be welcome, the problem would have gone away.      

Queries for prayerful consideration: 

Is my faith community more accessible to people with certain social characteristics than to others? What does this say about our faith?