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

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Love and Sacrifice. Or Self-Donation?

“Five years or fifty, when people have sweated, suffered, and shed blood together, there can be no hesitation: If one calls, the other responds.”

This is how Laurie R. King’s heroine in the mystery novel “Justice Hall” explains why she is going off to help a friend in distress when she is really to tired to stir. And I have to agree: sacrifice is fertile mulch for love and commitment to grow. Yes, sacrifice even makes us better people – that’s what I took from musing on a quote from Gandhi (see my previous post).

I heard the phrase “self-donation” as another way of talking about sacrifice, and that seems like a better name for the phenomenon I’m addressing. “Self-donation” makes it clear that I’m not talking about a coercive or manipulative situation where there is an inequality of power.

I know that part of my love for my children arises out of the ways in which I gave of myself. The times my night sleep was interrupted and I dragged myself bleary-eyed and exhausted through the day. I love my daughter more because of the time I wiped her vomit off my face, clothes, the floor, the walls, my daughter and her sister, and both their beds – learning that the top bunk is a bad place for a child with the stomach flu.

It is only partly true that I gave freely. When the entire bedroom and its crying occupants were covered with vomit, I didn’t really have the option of walking away. (My husband was in a bus stuck in a snow drift somewhere on the other side of town.) 

This love is a mystery to me. It’s not because sacrifice gives me ownership. It’s not that my children owe me something now. It’s just that my heart is more deeply anchored in them. It helps to reveal another dimension of God’s love for me and what it means for me to love God and God’s creation. It deepens my worship.

This love is not a warm fuzzy feeling, but a sacred duty that draws me deeper into the heart of God. And I dissolve into God’s heart of love in the precise moment when I do something I would have preferred not to do, go to a place I’d have preferred not to go, love my enemy, and forgive someone who has done me wrong. 

Query for prayerful consideration:

When have I given of myself in a way that drew me into the heart of God?

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?

The Spirituality of Privilege

I want to start my blog today with a confession about class and privilege. As I followed the discussion on Quakers and class via www.quakerquaker.org, I said that I find it hard to place myself in any particular class or culture. My mea culpa (or confession) today is that I didn’t see at first how much of a privilege it is to be in the educated class and have one physician parent and one with ministerial education (though he never worked as a minister). The truth I see today is that education on its own is a tremendous privilege that allows me to transcend many of the other challenges my life might have given me. I can navigate around the hurdles of being a non-citizen because of my education, and making my way in the world without a “network” was possible because of my education. I am a privileged person, and I think I can attribute 90% of that to my education. As with most confessions, it feels wonderful to let go of the deceit I have been involved in.

So….. What do we do about educational privilege? Those of us with privilege need to be willing to give it up. Unfortunately there is no such thing as “un-educating”. But we can do something to level the playing field for the next generation. In fact, part of my discovery that education indeed is such a privilege, has come about as a result of my experiences of trying not to take advantage of privileges my daughters could have had in the Seattle School District. Part of the reality of privilege has become apparent to me in the resistance and emotional intensity I met as I tried NOT to use it. 

In a nutshell, the Seattle School Board last year proposed a change that would give high school students greater access to their local schools, thereby limiting their freedom to go to a high school of their choice. The result of this would have been that the high-performing schools in the north of Seattle would take about 900 fewer students from the Rainier Valley in the south, which tends to be poorer, has a much higher percentage of African American students, and where the schools tend to perform less well academically. Although my own children would have benefited from the proposed plan – we live in the north and this would have guaranteed them better access to the good schools closer to where we live – I could not in good conscience accept this at the expense of the kids in the Rainier Valley. As I spoke up at community meetings about how those of us with privilege should refrain from trying to get more privileges for ourselves, I was amazed to see how upset some of the parents became at my description of us as “privileged”. 

What did I learn about privilege by trying to give it up?

Firstly, that the privilege of education is real. I am convinced that I would not have been met with as much emotional intensity otherwise.

Secondly, when we are privileged, we tend not to recognize it. That reinforces for me that we need to be in mixed groups so that others can help us to see our privilege, thereby setting us free to join in God’s movement towards justice by giving up the privilege we have. It’s a huge problem that 90% of liberal Quakers are college graduates: unless the non-grads speak very loudly, it is hard for the college-educated among us to see ourselves clearly! 

Third, I think part of the reason people with privilege don’t recognize our own privilege is that we don’t feel good. Our culture teaches us that we should pursue privilege (wealth, possessions, education, etc) because those things will make us feel safe and good and virtuous. There is some truth to that – we do feel good if we are not worrying about how to feed our children or find shelter for the night. But if we have more than we need, if we have stuff that came to us unfairly, or if our privilege keeps other people from having what they need – we can’t possibly feel good! God will be pricking our consciences all the time. What do we do if we don’t feel good? Our market-economy-run-amuck has a one-size-fits-all-solution: try to get more stuff, more privilege! Our society – our churches in particular – fail in that we don’t speak enough about the fact that many of us would feel better if we gave something away. So when people with privilege feel bad, all we know how to do is seek MORE privilege. It is a very, very sad vicious cycle.  

Fourth, I think many of us who decide to take on the injustices of privilege presume that people with privilege know they are privileged. During the school assignment discussion, it honestly never occurred to me that people in my predominantly wealthy, highly educated neighborhood would be upset with me for describing us as privileged. Even though I know better, I made the mistake of buying into the idea that people with privilege feel good and I expected that they would know they can afford to give up their goodies. But people with privilege don’t feel good, and consequently don’t think they have any goodies they can give up! They are scared that, as badly as they feel, they’ll feel even worse if they give something up.

Fifth, when we combat injustice, I think we often fail to understand just how miserable and scared those with privilege are. We don’t have much compassion. But what I have learned as a chaplain is that a person who is afraid is often to all intents and purposes deaf: only compassion can reach a scared person, and only promises of something good can open the frightened heart. Jesus told us to love our enemies for good reason. We need to speak about how good it feels to give up privilege. And it DOES feel good!

Sixth, my experience is also, if we are privileged, it is easier to accept the fact of our privilege if we are offered both forgiveness and concrete suggestions for steps to take to correct the situation. For most people it is harder to leave the relative comfort of what we know if we don’t know what the next step will be. When parents at our children’s school were offered an opportunity to go into a partnership with a school with fewer privileges than ours, there was immediate and enthusiastic involvement. I think we like to be generous and helpful if we only know how! 

And finally, I think to redress the privilege that education can be, we need to make it a little less lopsided. Today it is geared primarily towards academic knowledge. That hurts us all because it makes for competition. It makes education into an idol. In addition to academic knowledge, our schools ought to teach how to achieve economic justice, compassion for the marginalized, that the important things in life are not things but relationships, and that we can’t feel good unless everyone in the world has the basics of education, food, shelter, and the resources to be productive.  

Rich Liberals In an Age of Hunger

One of the more startling things to me during 2007 was the discovery that evangelicals give much more to charity than liberals do. This came from my favorite book about faith approaches to combating poverty in the world, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”, by Ron Sider.

After hanging out with liberals (both ideological and religious), as a Seattleite is bound to do, I had been led to expect that liberals of both kinds give more. Liberals tend to think quite highly of their capacity for compassion and insight into world affairs, and presume that translates into also being more generous. That’s obviously not true. How can that be?

Let’s presume for a moment (whether or not it is actually true) that liberals actually are more aware of world affairs and more sympathetic towards poor people and less likely to see poverty as the result of one’s own choices. Why would liberals still give less to charity?

1. With the changes in theology, “liberal” Quakers seem to have loosened our expectation that God interevenes to transform the world. Because our compassion isn’t accompanied by trust in God’s transforming action in the world, we think change depends on us. That is a heavy burden, and yes, our liberal spirits are often heavy! Have you ever felt more discouraged about the world after being with liberal Quakers?

2. Because we think achieving economic justice all depends on us, it can be hard to forgive ourselves and others when a mistake is made. So much is at stake that we can find it pretty hard to be charitable with each other. After all, people’s lives depend on our intervention!

3. At least among Quakers, great numbers of liberals are in the helping professions (or retired). We are chaplains, social workers, counselors, teachers, writers, or work for non-profits. We are a little bit proud of our efforts and don’t have much energy when Sunday comes around for doing even more – we suffer a bit from compassion fatigue when we come to Meeting/church. The last thing we want to do is hear about the ills of the world or do more of the things we do Monday through Friday. Perhaps all we really want is to pat ourselves on the back a little bit and then rest a little bit in the silence?

4. Liberals tend to think that it is important to be critical of authority and question leadership. Perhaps we are so diligent in questioning people who take on leadership that we inadvertently discourage anyone from taking the intitative? How often do you hear someone be praised in a liberal setting? And criticized?

5. Because we like our own thinking capacity and feel so insightful, we like to analyse and understand. Criticizing others is an easy way to get to feeling superior, and we liberals do love that feeling of superiority!

6. The concept of “sin” has fallen out of favor among liberals. Unfortunately, when the concept of sin disappears, forgiveness is likely to disappear, too. After all, no-one has done anything wrong, right? So in our liberal environment it’s pretty risky to take the initiative to act. Perhaps we suspect that if we accidentally did something wrong, we wouldn’t be received with much grace and understanding?

All of these things, in my experience, contribute to passivity and lack of generosity in some of the Quaker Meetings I have known. The antidote to all of these things is in my experience, once again, to steep ourselves in awareness of God’s abundance 

Queries for prayerful consideration:

What blocks generosity in my church community? What is the antidote?