January 1, 2014

Being known by being vulnerable

In the meeting where I attend occasionally, during the last few minutes of a recent worship, we were invited to share anything that was on our hearts but hadn't risen to the level of speaking out of the silence.  It's a smaller worship in an otherwise large urban meeting, and reserving the last portion of our time together for this type of sharing is often a precious time.

This past First Day, I unexpectedly started thinking about occasions when a few Friends had talked with me individually about the justice work I was doing at the time.  I had invited them to participate in some of the events and activities I was organizing among Friends, and their reply quite plainly was, "Well, I'll think about it but I'm not an activist like you are, Liz."

I held those words and that memory, wondering what their message was for me on this First Day morning.  I kept circling back to the word "activist." ...It felt to me like that word created a separation between us, as if one group of Friends--"activists"--were set apart from and unreachable by all other Friends.

The more I reflected, the more misunderstood I felt:  my experience of stepping into justice work was about making the simple choice to get involved.  Staying disconnected from my sisters and brothers in the Divine Family had become intolerable for me.

I chose to get involved in the lives of people who were suffering at the hands of those in power.  I chose to get involved and share how a proposed measure by the state's legislature would hurt me personally. I chose to get involved in the hopes that my friends, neighbors, and fellow worshipers would also get involved.

At the moment, back in the meetingroom, I didn't feel clear to share any of this.  It felt more like a memory and reflection that I was to hold and sit with on my own for a while. There was no message for the gathered community, no sense of prayer, no internal quivering or indication of the Still Small Voice compelling me to say something.

And then a Friend spoke out of the silence, inviting messages forward that remained on our hearts but weren't weighty enough to be considered messages arising from the waiting worship.

A petite woman across the room from me stood and spoke about the coming of the New Year.  She explained how she and her adult daughters and son have a tradition of sitting down with one another, and as the mom, she asks each one what she could do to have a better relationship with them in the coming year.  The Friend asked for prayers as the time approached to be with her kids again.

She finished and sat down.  I sensed something shift in me.  I waited a few minutes and offered what had been on my heart.

"I too want to know what I could do to have a better relationship with you, as a meeting.  And I also know that there are times when I have to share with you something that I am holding back..."  I take a breath and explain how Friends' use of the word "activist" to describe me and simultaneously to describe themselves as "not-them" had caused a separation for me; that I wasn't feeling understood; that all I was doing was choosing to get involved in an issue that was important to me.  "Wouldn't we all do that for something we cared about...?" I wondered aloud with them.

Then the message left me and I sat down again.

Another few minutes ticked by.  A young man stood and cautiously started to speak.  He spoke of never having felt like he belonged anywhere.  He has been worshiping at this large urban meeting for five years and he still felt like an outsider.  He didn't know what he had to do to be on the inside of the meeting, though he yearned to be there...

But something in the messages that he heard this particular morning allowed him to share the shame he had felt at not feeling like he belonged, and at the rise of meeting, I noted that a few Friends were speaking with him.  A few others of us commented to one another--and I later shared with him as well--that most of us in our Liberal unprogrammed meetings feel like we're outsiders, and many of us are searching for that sense of belonging, even for those of us who have been among the same meeting for two decades.

And yes, a few Friends approached me and said that they would feel complimented if they were called an activist.  I quietly explained that the words we use impact each of us differently, and we need to share the impact of those words (and actions), regardless of the very good intentions that were attached to them. It's one way how we become Known to each other.

I think that particular worship brought the 30 of us closer to the Living Presence among us.  It's a bit of a paradox, that the more vulnerable we are with one another, the more at home we are; the less we fear each other.


P.S.  Martin Kelley and others have suggested over the years that the single most important thing we can do to offer hospitality and welcome to newcomers among us is to invite them to join us for coffee or a meal.

P.P.S.  In a conversation with a Friend who missed worship and is a sort of spiritual companion to me, she and I spoke about what might happen if we affirmed one another's gifts and ministries, instead of labeling one another as "this sort of Friend" or "that sort of Friend"?  What if we started inviting Friends to share the gifts that we see in them: would they feel a greater sense of belonging? What responsibility do we have to stop excluding ourselves and instead to start inviting ourselves into the life of the meeting, to see ourselves as already belonging?

November 19, 2013

Transfer of membership

Last month, I submitted a transfer of membership request. I have come to understand myself to be a Conservative Friend for a number of reasons and based on a variety of experiences.

Here's the text of my letter, with links included here for easy clicking:

29 Tenth Month 2013

Dear Twin Cities Friends Meeting,

After much prayerful and tender consideration, I am requesting a transfer of membership to Bear Creek Meeting in Iowa, part of Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative (IYMC). Like TCFM and other meetings in the Northern Yearly Meeting region, IYMC also practices unprogrammed worship and is socially progressive. (The word “Conservative” refers to the intention of conserving some of the original disciplines of Quaker tradition.)

I’ve attended a number of IYMC’s annual and midyear meeting sessions over the past handful of years, and I have come to understand myself to be a Conservative Friend. In addition, just two years ago, Laughing Waters Friends Preparative Meeting, where I currently serve as its clerk, became formally affiliated with IYMC. When we minuted our affiliation plans, Laughing Waters made special note in the minute that we treasure and intend to maintain our personal connections with NYM Friends.

For me personally, I will continue to worship occasionally at TCFM. I also plan to participate in adult education presentations at this and at other meetings in the metro area.

What is of some concern to me, though, is: What if I am in need of support or care, which is far easier to coordinate among nearby fFriends? I hope that I can still turn to TCFM and its Ministry & Counsel if such a need arises. Regardless of my request to transfer my membership, I see myself and each of us as part of the wider Quaker community, with fFriends near and far, all of us held in God’s loving hands, as part of the same spiritual Family.


May 16, 2013

Social justice and getting off the Quaker porch

A week ago my spouse Jeanne and I boarded a bus with about 20 Jews and headed into Cedar Rapids, Iowa to stand in solidarity with the immigrant workers whose lives were disrupted in May 2008 when the kosher meat-packing plant, Agriprocessors, was raided in Postville.

It was a 4-1/2 hour bus ride each way, with a 30-minute march and a 90-minute worship service before turning around and heading back home.  On the way down, we watched on the bus' video system the documentary abUSed: The Postville Raid.  Toward the end of the video there were a few minutes of footage that included information of how one Jewish organization from Minnesota got involved and navigated the important work of standing with the immigrant families while also laboring with the rabbis behind Agriprocessors' illegal hiring of immigrants and children.

During the nine hours of travel, there were conversations about additional Jewish involvement with the people and workers of Postville since the raid; the history of Quakerism (with those who were sitting near Jeanne and me); learning about White privilege; talking about oppression based on social class; and sharing stories of our own ancestry, of how our families and European ancestors made their way to the United States and under what conditions.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Since May 2011, my interaction with people of faith beyond my Quaker community has grown rapidly, mostly due to the work to prevent amending the state's constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. I've experienced much joy in the new connections. Seeing humble and active religious people engaged in meaningful, hands-on social justice work makes me realize how much more we as progressive Quakers could be doing.

As Friends, we often tell ourselves--and one another--that we must wait to be led by the Spirit before acting.  But what I'm continuing to awaken to is that the intention to wait for such a leading has a harmful impact on entire communities that are suffering at the hands of oppressive bureaucratic systems--systems that are founded on unexamined privileged based on skin color, social class status, sexual orientation, etc.

More than once I have been reminded by White people engaged in social justice work, by people of color, by working-class people, that it is part of the privilege that White, well-educated, well-off people have, to take time--lots of time--to sit and think, talk about, thresh, plan, discuss, and minute what we believe and what we might do.

We call all of that activity part of our work to witness to equality and justice; I worry that our brothers and sisters of color would call it empty, less than helpful, and an example of a system that favors people like ourselves who have the luxury of time rather than working in solidarity with the communities who have a day-to-day urgency for action.  For all the time that we take to "wait to be led," African Americans are being stopped and frisked without justification, Muslims are being unfairly profiled for terrorism, and young students who are perceived to be gay are being bullied to the point of suicide, with few adults intervening on their behalf.

So it is that recently, I have begun questioning certain elements of our Quaker faith.  Some of our best-known stories are lifted up to demonstrate the importance of waiting to be led. It certainly appears that way when we learn about John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and Bayard Rustin. But these days, can we know if they were compelled by the Spirit all at once to take a stand against an oppressive system? or were they simply living their lives, taking up the Cross, and acting out of conscience and the promptings of the Inward Teacher on a day-to-day basis?

Perhaps the Way was simply open to them, similar to how it has been for me, to speak up, raise questions, and get involved.  The Way was open and they simply stepped onto the Path and tested each step as they went.

I tell you, Friends, my life has been Opened because of the new connections I have made, because of the stories I have heard from people whose lives are so very different from most of our own.  I no longer view my upbringing as I once did; I no longer view Quakerism as I once did.

I hope to write a companion post to this one, going into details about how our own practices as Friends might be perpetuating oppression and unknowingly reinforcing White privilege.


April 24, 2013

IYMC Midyear Meeting 2013: The Bible In Our Midst

20-21 Fourth Month 2013

During my years among Friends, I often have shied away from topics that are explicitly Bible-focused or Christ-centered, given my Jewish upbringing and the more recent baggage I have accumulated about how "right-wing Christians" have co-opted Christianity in recent years.

But it has been Conservative and Conservative-leaning Friends whose comfort with Scripture--and how they use it to guide or affirm their spiritual lives--that has made me curious to understand more deeply why they value the Bible as much as they do.

A few months ago, I saw that Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)'s Midyear Meeting session was going to focus on the Bible. Then when I saw that the session's usual three-segment format was going to break the topic into "The Bible among Friends," "What the Bible has to say about sin," and "What the Bible has to say about love," I felt my heart soften, and Way seemed to open for me to attend.

The evening before the Midyear session was to begin, I joined a group of local Friends and a few early arrivals for supper at a nearby restaurant. Some of these Friends I've known now for six or seven years, and their kindness, friendship, and spiritual hospitality is something I treasure.

At the meal was also the presenter for the sessions, Doug Bennett, past president of Earlham College. First things first, I greeted my friends with warm hugs, broad smiles, and hearty handshakes. Then I looked over to Doug, and introduced myself. He smiled when he heard my name: "Are you the Liz Opp who blogs?!" he asked excitedly. I was humbled to think that after such a long lapse of my own activity online, my name and blog are still recognized by some beyond my local Quaker community...

And when I said that a presentation on the Bible was not something I ever would have thought I would attend, Doug chuckled and nodded, adding that it wasn't a presentation he ever would have thought he would give!

I settled in that night with a good feeling, being among these fFriends again.

Opening questions

On Seventh Day, Doug started off addressing the gathered Friends by saying he was no scholar or expert about Scripture; that he had little or no knowledge of ancient Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew; that he didn't have a clear understanding of just what he was to share over the course of the weekend, so he would be taking some of his cues from us.

His humility seemed genuine, and I appreciated that. I saw a few other Friends nodding in appreciation, too.

In each of the segments of his presentation that I was able to attend--I was with the children during the final one on First Day morning--Doug began by sharing some of his own thoughts, then allowed Friends to ask questions, make observations, and otherwise add to the discussion. Doug closed the first two parts by asking Friends to write on an index card one or two "honest sentences" in response to a question he posed. I include those questions below.

(Overall, I'd say Doug raised more questions than he offered clear answers.)

Questions from Part 1: The Bible among Friends

Should we think of the Bible as having authority among us? Why or why not?

How should we make use of this important Book?

To what extent do we as Friends talk with one another about Scripture; or if we don't, why not?

What does the Inward Light have to do with the Bible?

Doug didn't just give us questions to consider, he also shared with us some of his own thoughts that he's wrestled with or wondered about:
Since the New Testament wasn't available all the time, what parts of Scripture did folks wrestle with way back then?

The issues of slavery, the role of women in the Church, and homosexuality [sic*] are part of this book's unpleasant history that we need to be honest about. The Bible has been the source of division, wars, and religious schisms.

The Bible can pull us apart, so why do we need the Bible if there's an indwelling of the Spirit?

Doug answered that last question by offering us this:
Because it's the best source for learning about Jesus that we have. And because the Hebrew Scriptures are the only source that Jesus considers and uses as teaching texts.

Part 2: What does the Bible have to say about sin?

Doug started us off by reading some of the things that Friends wrote down regarding the authority of Scripture, and then began Part 2 by offering this:

There is a reciprocal relationship (my word) between the concept that "The Light Within helps me make sense of Scripture" and the concept that "Scripture helps me make sense of the Light Within."

Doug also suggested that Friends generally are more tolerant about our views on the authority of Scripture than we are about how sin is defined and what behaviors are considered to be sins. He suggested we only have to look at recent developments within Indiana Yearly Meeting and the issue of homosexuality [sic].

We then reviewed together a few of the "lists of sins" that are enumerated in the Bible, such as Exodus 20, Proverbs 6:16-19, Galatians 5:19-21, and Galatians 3:5-6.

During the discussion portion of that part, a respected Friend stood and offered a story of an interaction he had had with a rabbi quite some time ago. The rabbi pointed out that Exodus 20 itself isn't about enumerating sins against God: it's about how to live in community. By telling the truth; by honoring our parents; by not killing or stealing...

On a related note about Exodus 20, for my time with the children at Midyear Meeting, I was preparing to tell them the Godly Play story that's based on how God gave the Ten Commandments to the people. It's a story called The Ten Best Ways To Live.

These are the questions that Doug lifted up, for Part 2: What does the Bible have to say about sin?
What makes something a sin?

Should we rely on the lists of sins that are in the Bible? Or are there some general characteristics of sins that help make sense of why they are sins?

Does the Bible tell us all we need to know about sin?

Since I wasn't present for the final section, I am offering here what was on Doug's handout, and then will wrap up with additional remarks and thoughts I was able to capture.

Part 3: Scripture references and questions on What does the Bible have to say about Love?

Matthew 22:34-40
1 Corinthians 13

What does loving your God "with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" have to do with loving your neighbor as yourself"?

How do we know that "loving your neighbor as yourself" means in specific circumstances? Should we always do what our neighbor wants us to do? If not, what makes an act loving?

Does the Bible tell us all we need to know about love?

Other remarks

Earlier in the weekend, Doug spoke on a long tangent about the nature of divine inspiration. He ultimately asked--and this is my Most Meager Attempt To Paraphrase--"Is that which inspired a beloved Friend of mine who offered precious vocal ministry the same thing which inspired people to write long ago what is now known as Scripture? Did such inspired writing emerge from a community gathered in worship?"

Our experience with the Bible today is that it was already codified into a whole, into a "closed book," which we received without question and without understanding that it arose out of a context of community... There are layers of inspiration out of which the Bible emerges, but the initial power of divine inspiration that was available back then simply isn't believed to be available today.

...To which I say: Friends don't believe this! Doug and I (and other Friends) seem to unite with the belief that the original inspiration of the Bible--the Living Spirit--is still available to us today.

Doug brought up an important excerpt from Robert Barclay's third proposition of his Apology, reminding us not to mistake Scripture as the Source; that Scripture only points to the Source; that the Spirit is the primary rule of faith.

Doug compared the Bible to "starter yeast" for Friends: It helps connect us back to the original inspiration, the inspiration of the Divine.

Doug also ties in Woolman and his ministry and witness to abolish slavery. "Woolman doesn't argue with the existing verses in Scripture that were used to justify enslaving human beings," Doug offers. "Instead, Woolman looks for a deeper message of Providence that would point to how slavery wasn't Gospel Order."

Hmmm, yes: much of our work for social change in which we rail against religiously conservative brothers and sisters who rely on individual verses of Scripture will hear from us the larger arc, narrative, and theme of the Bible, lifting up concepts like love, redemption, liberation, and reconciliation.

To close this blog post, I'm including below what I wrote and submitted on the index cards in response to the questions Doug asked:

From Part 1, about the Bible among Friends:
Q. Should we think of the Bible as having authority among us? How should we make use of it?

My A. The Bible has authority for me when someone with whom I have a meaningful relationship tells me how the Bible--or a part of it--has spoken to her or his condition. It's a relational authority, not a creedal one.

From Part 2, about what the Bible says about sin:
Q. What makes something a sin?

My A. Anything that breaks a relationship--with God, with oneself, with another person, with a community (or with the earth--added later)... especially after a person/individual tells us that our "good intentions" are harmful or are part of a harmful system and we don't look at it critically from that person's perspective, or we don't change our behavior, knowing it is causing harm.


*In 2011, I stopped using the word "homosexuality." To me, that word is loaded with history of a time when members of the dominant group regularly pathologized and stigmatized an oppressed minority group of people.