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


State Accountable to Church?

A few years ago I was back in Norway at a national conference on separating state and church – Norway’s constitution declares the Lutheran faith to be the state’s religion. I entered the conference hall very clear in my own Quaker mind that the ties between state and church had to be severed. The conference hall was filled with representatives of all denominations and faiths and there were experts on constitutional matters and freedom of religion from all over Europe. Imagine my surprise when a researcher from England declared that after consulting Muslims all over the United Kingdom, they came out in favor of continuing the Anglican Church’s role of state church in their country! Followed by a representative of Norway’s Islamic Council expressed his support for keeping the Lutheran church as the state church in Norway! Their point was simple: they feared that breaking the ties between state and church would lead to a government and society that is not required to consider and justify its policies in a moral and religious framework.

Dear reader, I went home and rethought everything I thought I knew about state and church. To a Norwegian Quaker, and I think to most Americans, many of whom came to the USA to escape religious persecution, the very idea of a state religion is anathema. We think of the state or politicians using the church to achieve its political goals. But what if, as the thoughtful Muslim leaders at the conference saw it, the roles were reversed and the church were to hold the state accountable for moral decision-making?

As I went home in a state of confusion, I realized that they had a point. This conference took place in September 2003, soon after the US invasion of Iraq. As I looked back to the public debate in the USA, Norway, and in the UK leading up to the war, I realized there were striking differences in the way the discussion unfolded in the three places. I think the role of the church was an important factor in the ways these differences played out.

Before I start to characterize and compare the public debate and the church’s role in it in the three respective countries, I want to assure my reader that my conclusion is not going to be that Norway is superior to the USA or that the USA adopt a state church. Perhaps quite the contrary. What I do want to do (as Third Culture Kids like me are wont to do since we have lived outside several cultures and compare and contrast their respective solutions) is to see whether the state-church model can give us ideas on how the church is called to be present in politics in ANY country with a Christian history (I regretfully don’t know enough about countries with an Islamic or other religious history to try to draw lessons from those models). I also want to say up front that as a Quaker I am a pacifist, and my statements assume that war is the wrong answer to any problem. This comes from my religious convictions, not from a political stance. 

In the USA, the discussion on whether or not to go to war was about keeping the USA safe and the patriotic duty to rally behind the President and Commander-in-Chief during a time of war. Church leaders went both ways, some questioning war, but my impression was that more supported it either based on patriotism or “just war” theory. A majority of Americans supported going to war. Those who tried to question the ethics of war were labeled as unpatriotic, and so the cost to those church leaders who opposed the war was high. I stand in awe of their courage.

In the UK, safety was an issue, but my highly subjective impression of the way the discussion went was that there also was a strong note of pragmatism and a religious and ethical discussion of pre-emptive war and the cost of war to Iraqi civilians. The Archbishop of Canterbury, as leader of the Church of England, and most other churches came out against the war. I don’t recall “just war” coming into the discussion at all, and I’m quite sure that politicians didn’t use religion to promote the war. The majority of the population was against the government’s decision to ally with the USA and invade Iraq.

In Norway, it was all about the morality – or lack thereof – of pre-emptive war and the price civilians pay when a war is fought in their country. The government, the state church, the “free churches”, and the population were about as united as can be – publicly – about opposing the war. I later learned to my dismay that the Norwegian government had signed Norway up as an anonymous member of the Coalition of the Willing and provided night vision goggles, munitions, and other supplies to the USA and the UK for the invasion. So Norway cannot be said to have opposed the war, but due to pressure from the church and the population, Norway’s government could not openly support the war. Norwegian politicians do not use religious motivation for a political stance – that is simply not done. They do speak in ethical terms, but it would be considered a violation if they were to speak of God on one side or another of a political issue.

I think the state church and all the other churches failed in Norway, failed because they took the Norwegian government’s criticism of the Iraq war at face value (perhaps trusting the prime minister more than they should have because he was an ordained Lutheran pastor representing the Christian Democratic Party), rather than maintaining pressure on the Norwegian government and being suspicious of what might be happening out of the public eye. Given Norway’s history of alignment with the UK and USA and its pattern of supporting countries that can help keep the European Union’s power in check (Norway is one of only two western European countries not to join the EU), there was every reason to be suspicious that the Norwegian government might be saying one thing in public, yet doing something completely different in secret.

To summarize, in the European state church model, the church becomes in many ways a Fifth Estate (the media being the Fourth Estate). The model allows religious leaders to hold politicians morally  accountable – although religious leaders often choose not to use their power. This Fifth Estate model prevents politicians from using religion for partisan political purposes – politicians are banned from speaking for God, that is the exclusive domain of church leaders. 

Query for prayerful consideration:

How might my church find moral authority – in the absence of a formalized channel of influence – to hold politicians accountable to moral and ethical decision-making? How might my church claim religious language as its domain and remove religious manipulation from a politician’s toolbox? And how might my church be both “innocent as a dove and wily as a serpent” in ensuring that my government lives up to its professed values?   

As Sweet As Honey

(Quaker-specific musings are now on my new blog.) 

In the book of Ezekiel, God instructs the prophet to tell the rebellious Israelites to behave themselves. I like the part where God reassures Ezekiel that he is only responsible for speaking God’s words, but not for making the tribe hear them. As preparation for prophesying, Ezekiel is told to eat a scroll. The scroll has writing on both sides, words of “lamentation and mourning and woe”, and God tells Ezekiel to fill his stomach with it. As the story unfolds, we hear how Ezekiel eats the scroll and even what the scroll tastes like. 

I was sure as I read it, that lamentation, mourning and woe would taste bitter. After all, the Hebrew Bible is full of descriptions of the bitter taste of suffering. Part of the Passover meal consists of eating bitter herbs as a reminder of the Israelites’ experience of slavery. Even the name of Jesus’ mother, Mary or Maryam, means “bitter herb”.

Yet Ezekiel says “in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.”

How can it be that the scroll with words of lamentation, mourning, and woe taste as sweet as honey in Ezekiel’s mouth?

These words only make sense to me if they are about the sweet taste I have known in my soul when I knew I was being faithful to God. It was “easy” to sell my condo in Oslo, Norway, and move 5,000 miles away from my friends and family in Norway to go to a Quaker seminary in Indiana back in 1992 because I knew God wanted me to do it. The times when changes have been hard were when I didn’t know what God wanted me to do and I moved forward anyway. With the benefit of hindsight, I can also recognize several situations when it was hard for me to do seemingly simple things. It was hard because I was going against God’s desire for me, and I ended up in situations where I was initially harmed.

These words of Ezekiel also help explain why I feel fulfilled doing chaplaincy. I can’t help but grieve and be affected when I am with someone who is suffering. Yet because I am where God wants me to be, the taste in my mouth at the end of the day is, nonetheless, sweet as honey. This is what we can expect when we have discerned God’s will and follow it, even when we are in the midst of lamentation, mourning, and woe. This can include the times when we ourselves are the ones who are lamenting, mourning, and full of woe. Nelson Mandela, losing normal adult life to serve 27 years of hard labor in prison, emerged as a man who knows the taste of honey. I believe that Jesus, even when he went to his painful death, had the sweet taste of honey in his soul.

Query for prayerful consideration:

When has “lamentation, mourning, and woe” tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth?

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!

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?