Archive for 2012

New Year’s Resolution: Seeking The Seed Within

Don’t you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.   – Romans 6:3-4

At the core of my being there lies truth, the reality of who I really am. In the silence, in fluid motion, in my breath, I discover an inward solidness that holds firm through all circumstances. Looking back over my life, the only constant is change. It is not only the world around me that shifts and evolves – over the course of time, I myself am rendered almost unrecognizable. I can hardly identify with the person I was fifteen years ago. My motivations, desires and worldview have all undergone a tremendous realignment.

And yet, there is something essential that does not move. It is an inward observer who has always been present and knows my true identity. All of my changeable states, ideas, desires and personality orbit around this deepest part of me. This thread of continuity runs through all of me – body, mind and emotions. It is the good seed that Christ has sown in my heart.
This seed is the source of all true growth and positive change in my life. It is the force that overcomes the self-centered, self-destructive patterns that I am prone to. It is the new name that God has given me. If I allow this seed to take root within me, it gives me power to be transformed, little by little, until I am remade in the image of Jesus.

The living presence of Christ within me offers a new way to change. Rather than being buffeted by the storms of the world, the seed of Christ within sinks its roots deep into the bedrock of God. As this new life grows within me, I find that I am changing in ways that keep me in sync with the Way, the Truth and the Life. My changing becomes increasingly a process of abiding in Jesus.

This involves dying. My old, rebellious ways of living must fall away, and the pruning is often painful. So many of my old assumptions and habits turn out to be inadequate for life in the Kingdom. I see how often I try to control my relationship with God and other people by creating my own set of rules, a law. Yet, the baptizing power of the seed tugs at me, inviting me to walk in relationship with Jesus. When I truly love him, there are no more rules – only living commandments spoken moment by moment. On this hangs the law and the prophets.
In this new year, I resolve to seek the seed within, to be open to transformation by the Holy Spirit. In a world that is always changing, I resolve to make the unshakable presence of Jesus my reference point. With his help, I will seek a way that goes beyond the law – the rules that I substitute for a living friendship with Jesus.

Are We A Book Club, Or A Church?

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. – James 1:22

I was raised in a family that prized education. Growing up, I viewed learning as an end unto itself, and my parents encouraged me to explore a wide range of subjects. I immersed myself in history, philosophy, vocal music and foreign languages. Later, I sang opera, studied abroad in Mexico and learned what it meant to be a historian. I graduated from college with a solid liberal arts education, steeped in the intellectual heritage of Western civilization.

While I am grateful for the training I received in my youth, it had certain weaknesses. Though I received a balanced and well-rounded education, I soon discovered that my liberal arts degree had not prepared me for any career in particular. If I wanted to become a historian, I would need to go back for a doctorate. If I wanted to teach Spanish, I would need to get an education degree. Most anything I could imagine doing would require more study.
Though I received a stellar education from grade school through seminary, I learned mostly theory rather than application. My training consisted mostly of learning how to do school rather than how to do life. At the end of the day, most of my practical knowledge came from outside the classroom.
My experience of religious education is similar. As a child, I learned Bible stories and heard sermons. Later, I was encouraged to read devotional pamphlets and books about Quaker history and theology. There was a Pendle Hill Pamphlet for every occasion. In retrospect, I can see that my formative religious experience mirrored closely the assumptions of the schools and universities that I attended.
This makes sense. In the Quaker church, many of us have spent most of our lives immersed in the wider educational system. Most of us have spent far more time in the classroom than we have in Christian fellowship. It should not be surprising that our assumptions about what constitutes knowledge, expertise, and experience bear great similarity to those of the schools and universities we have attended.

At worst, we have come to treat religion as yet another subject to become proficient in. Far too often, our faith becomes abstracted into a series of maxims – “there is that of God in everyone” – or behavioral codes – “we do not speak in the first fifteen minutes of meeting for worship” – that fit better into standardized testing than into the off-script, rough-and-tumble of everyday life. No wonder our faith is so often confined to an hour on Sunday morning! No wonder we often act like one person “at Meeting” and a different person at home, school or work: We have become trapped in a religious system that is only relevant at “test time.”

How can we develop faith that has relevance beyond the Sunday-morning Quiz? How can our time together become occasions of mutual support and practical equipping for the work of the Kingdom in daily life? How might we as Friends adopt a more earthy, practical spirituality? When our fellowships often resemble book clubs more than a radical movement for peace and justice, how can we start applying the radical message of Jesus?

An Anti-Racist Gentrifier?

Washington, DC is a city of contrasts. Like most large urban centers, DC encompasses the very wealthy and the very poor; the powerful and the disenfranchised; the descendants of slaveholders and the descendants of slaves. Washington is a city where the political elite of the United States gathers to battle for economic interests and position and it is home to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who are battling just to make it through the month.

Income inequality and de factoracial segregation is a serious problem throughout the United States, but my experience is that DC suffers from these ills differently from many areas. In Washington, there seems to be very little middle ground between the two main populations that characterize our city. The first group is DC’s native-born population, largely made up of working class or poor African Americans. The other major group is the elite, wealthy, highly educated and mostly white population that has recently relocated to the region to work in a variety of federal programs, non-profit organizations and lobbyist groups.
These two populations occupy different physical and social space within the city. There is an invisible line running through DC, dividing East from West. The easternmost neighborhoods of the District are settled mostly by native-born, African American residents. The western regions of the city are largely inhabited by wealthy newcomers.
This racial, economic and cultural dividing line is rapidly moving eastward. While in the 1980s African Americans vastly outnumbered any other ethnic group in the District, black residents now make up only a slim majority of Washingtonians – and it seems likely that even this small edge may be slipping away. As the price of housing has skyrocketed, many longtime DC residents have been forced out of their neighborhoods – pushed farther east as the invisible line dividing our city advances.
There is growing fear that our city does not have room for both groups. Many areas that until recently were bastions of African American residence and culture have become the exclusive reserve of the very wealthy, and mostly white – and many other neighborhoods are headed in the same direction. If current trends continue, there is little doubt that the District of Columbia will soon become a city that is unlivable for anyone without a white-collar, professional income. Most working-class, African American residents may soon be displaced, forced to commute into the city they once called home.

What is my role in all of this? Whether I like it or not, I am a participant in the dynamic of class warfare that is playing out here in my city. I am a homeowner in an area that the last census recorded as being 99% African American. As a white person and a newcomer to the city, it is likely that my family represents the vanguard of a future wave of gentrification and forced removals of lower-income, non-white residents. We chose the home we did because it was located in one of the few areas of the city where we could (barely) afford to buy. It seems ironic that our presence might help fuel a process that makes housing unaffordable for others.

This destructive dynamic of rising prices and displacement is not something that I want to encourage, but I do not see a clear way that I as an individual can participate in a solution. Instead, I mostly just feel sad about it, all the while struggling not to feel defensive when some people suggest that my family – as white, middle-class people – are somehow a plague on DC. We all need a place to live, and I am convinced that God has called me to settle here in DC. What can I do?

I cannot change who I am, nor would I want to. But how can I be an ally to my fellow DC residents who are not of my same ethnicity or class background? As one of the few white residents east of the Anacostia River, how can I participate respectfully in my neighborhood’s civic life without imposing my own norms and expectations? Are there ways that I can work to address structural injustice that is helping to precipitate this situation? What does it look like to be an anti-racist, anti-classist, white, middle-class homeowner in a rapidly-gentrifying city?

Grassroots Quaker Revival – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #49

Dear friends,

This fall has been a time of crisis, reflection and transformation, as we at Capitol Hill Friends have sensed God calling us to move outside the comfortable forms of 20th-century Quakerism and embrace the ways that the Holy Spirit is working and wants to work in this present generation. At the same time, we are being knit together into a wider community – the Friends of Jesus Fellowship – a dispersed yet cohesive community of like-hearted sisters and brothers who are committed to living and sharing the gospel in the world today.

In the past month, I have been able to participate in a concrete expression of this new movement, working with a number of fellow ministers to organize a revivalmeeting in Philadelphia. The decision to hold a public meeting for worship – and to call it a “revival” – was the result of a long period of discernment in community. Over time, it became clear that God was calling us to do this bold thing, inviting others into an opportunity to deepen our walk with the Spirit, and to open ourselves to the life of Jesus.

There were about eight of us on the team that helped to plan the revival, five local residents and three visitors from Michigan, Baltimore and DC. We laid the groundwork for the revival meeting in a series of weekly conference calls over a period of about a month, finally meeting together in person the night before the event. This process of planning, discernment and prayer was deeply beneficial for us as a network of like-hearted friends. Over the course of our preparation, we came to know one another better, and I sensed that new depths of leadership were being developed among us. The planning process was at least as worthwhile as the event itself.

We gathered for the revival meeting on a Thursday night, in a home in West Philadelphia. The evening began with a potluck dinner, and by the time worship worship started at 7:00, there were about fifty people present. The meeting commenced with a period of singing, led by a couple of the local planners. When the music concluded, it was announced that we would be entering into waiting worship, and that our three visiting ministers would be speaking out of the silence.

This ended up being really awkward for me, because the Lord gave me very little to say. My two fellow ministers delivered outstanding sermons, and it was clear to me that the Spirit had used them to take us in the direction that we needed to go. For a while, I thought that I would remain silent the whole meeting – which was uncomfortable, since I literally had people turning around and looking at me. They wondered when I would speak, since it had been announced! Mercifully, the Lord did give me a few words to deliver – totally unrelated to the message that God had been preparing within me for the weeks leading up to the revival.

This process was really hard on me. It took me days to recover from the raw sensation of being broken down in this way. Yet, this experience was a spiritual baptism for me, teaching me greater reliance on the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, weaning me away from my tendency to trust in my own strength.

Though the meeting was hard for me on a personal level, I felt that the revival was blessed. There were no big explosions, no apparent mass conversions, no gaudy altar calls. But I did sense that hearts were being moved and that the risen Lord Jesus was among us, teaching. As I said to a fellow worker immediately after the worship, I feel that we did the best we could with the faith, gifts and condition of all who were present. I believe that we were faithful, in measure.

Following the revival meeting, six of us from the Friends of Jesus Fellowship ended up attending a Christ-centered Friends gathering held at Manhasset Friends Meeting House on Long Island; four of us came up from the Philadelphia event, and two others traveled from New Jersey and New England. The time on Long Island was covered by Christ’s presence. All of us felt that there was a “sweet spirit” among the group, and it was comforting to be able to rest in the Lord after such an intense effort in Philadelphia.
I was very impressed by the spiritual depth and grounding of Friends at Manhasset and the other Friends who attended the Christ-centered Friends gathering. We made many good connections over the weekend, which I hope we can continue to nurture as we move forward as Friends of Jesus.
It is phenomenal to feel how the Lord’s work is moving forward at this time. Over the course of the last several years, we have experienced many setbacks. This ministry that we are engaged in is a marathon, not a sprint, and we know from experience that there will be highs and lows. But at this time, there is a sense of expansiveness and serendipitous blessing. Our spiritual ancestors would probably have named this experience as one of divine providence.
God is indeed providingfor us, opening the way forward to be gathered together as Christ’s body. On the big-picture level, we sense the Holy Spirit knitting us together as a new people in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. We are developing organic leadership remarkably quickly, and we are trying to stay adaptable as we incorporate new individual leaders and groups into our network. In Washington, DC, we are experiencing the Lord’s grace in providing us with the faith, insight and spiritual gifts that we need to become a maturing community that bears the marks of Jesus’ character.
The next several months will be crucial for our development as a community. The Friends of Jesus Fellowship is experimenting with ways to support one another at a distance as we seek to build strong local groups. Electronic tools – email, video chat and conference calls – help connect us between gatherings, and we make efforts to visit one another in person as often as possible.

Here in DC, we plan to launch a new program of small group(s) and monthly public worship beginning in the first quarter of 2013. By placing our emphasis on disciple-making and developing new leadership at the local level, we pray that God will unlock a grassroots revival of the Holy Spirit that goes far beyond occasional worship events.

We know that true revival does not consist in an evening of worship. Rather, we are being revived through ongoing transformation into the image of Christ. This extended process involves heart, soul, mind and strength, and it is through spiritually grounded and mature communities that we develop the capacity to be transformed and produce leadership that is transforming. This is the work of the coming year, and of the rest of our lives.
As we engage in this effort, I am so grateful for all of you who lift us up in prayer. Though I cannot explain it rationally, I am convinced that prayer has real power to change the course of events. Your prayers strengthen me, and all of us who are participating in this generation’s great revival movement. I hope that you will continue to pray for us in the months and years to come, so that we may all be transformed by the renewing of our minds, knowing what the will of God is – what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.
Your friend in Jesus,
Micah Bales

Next Steps For Capitol Hill Friends


After months of discernment, we at Capitol Hill Friends have reached some clarity on how to move forward in 2013. For the past several years, we have been a small worship group, holding weekly meetings for worship which were consistently deep and spiritually powerful. Yet, despite these years of deep worship, our community never reached critical mass. We never made the leap from being a worship opportunity to being a worshiping community.
This fall, we concluded that our model of regular meetings for worship had not produced a growing and maturing community. For more than two years, our core group had remained constant, and there was no sign of any real change on the horizon. It became increasingly clear to us that, unless we were willing to let Capitol Hill Friends go, it would never bear fruit.
Change is hard, which is probably why it took us several years to be brought to this point. In the last few months, however, we have put everything on the table. Meeting time, location, format – even whether to continue as Capitol Hill Friends at all. As far as we have known how, we have laid everything at Jesus’ feet. We surrendered our own ideas about what this community should look like. We invited the Holy Spirit in to re-form us and put us back on the right path.
As a result of this process of discernment, we are emerging with a very different vision of what kind of community God is calling us to be. Rather than a group that focuses on holding a worship service, we feel called to place most of our emphasis on developing mutually supportive community. We want to pray for one another, read the Bible together, and come to know one another as human beings.
We sense that as we come to know and support one another in our walk of faith, powerful worship will once again emerge at Capitol Hill Friends. But, this time, worship will be the fruit of deep personal relationships and vibrant community life. As we walk together in the light of God’s love, we seek to become an organic whole, knit together in the Spirit.
What does this mean, practically? Our change of heart has resulted in a change of strategy. Let me provide an outline of what we expect the next few months to look like.
First, we will be kicking off the new year with a dinner party on Capitol Hill. We want to sit down and break bread with everyone who might be interested taking these next steps together with us. At this dinner (on Saturday, January 12th), we will lay out the details of our new strategy for developing into a community that can bless our city, the region and the world with the love of Jesus. While we hope there will be a lot of good discussion at the dinner, I will lay out here a brief sketch of how we see our strategy playing out in the next few months.
In February/March, we plan to launch the first cycle of small group. This group of 7-12 will gather once a week for six weeks, at a time and location that is mutually workable for everyone involved. Each of the weekly meet-ups will include personal check-ins, a shared exploration of the Bible, and an opportunity for worship and prayer. Each session should last no more than an hour and a half. At the end of the six weeks, the small group will do some discernment together about how they would like to proceed. We hope that many of the participants will want to do another cycle, and it is possible that the small group will have grown enough that it will make sense to establish new small groups in other parts of the city.
We know that not everyone will have the time, energy or interest to get involved in this first cycle of small group, and we think that having some opportunity for a larger gathering is important. For this reason, we plan to begin holding one public meeting for worship each month. The format for the public meetings will be different from before. As with the small groups, we hope to keep these meetings to no more than an hour and a half. We hope that by limiting the time commitment, we might make both our small groups and public meetings more accessible to everyone who would like to participate.
These are broad strokes, and there is a lot more to discuss! I hope that everyone who lives in the DC area and is interested in getting involved in this new evolutionary stage of our community will try to make it to the dinner this January. (For those of you living a bit further north, we know that some folks from Baltimore will be coming down – so let me know if you could use a ride.) Whether you can make it to the dinner or not, I hope we can be in conversation about how to move forward together.
There are signs of a grassroots spiritual awakening taking place across the United States, and I feel hopeful that 2013 will be a momentous year – not only for our community here in DC, but for an entire network of sisters and brothers who are committed to seeking peace, justice and reconciliation as we walk together in the way of Jesus.

At The End Of My Rope

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. – Matthew 5:3 (The Message)

It is easy to think of Jesus as a winner. He faced down the religious and imperial authorities, calling them out on their injustice and hypocrisy. And, when all was said and done, his Father raised him from the dead, seating him at his right hand. Jesus won the victory over sin and death, opening the way for us to follow him into life. From our vantage point today, Jesus is the greatest success story of all time.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that Jesus’ ministry was an abject failure in the eyes of almost everyone living during his earthly ministry. There is no doubt that, even after the resurrection, virtually nobody thought anything about Jesus. If they had heard of him at all, most folks knew him as just another failed messiah – crucified by the Romans, as usual. Jesus was a loser.
The mystery of Jesus’ victory is that it appeared as defeat to the eyes of the world. He refused to take up the mantle of a military messiah who would exercise dominion through force. Nor did he embrace the power of the religious authorities, manipulating ritual and symbols to command submission. Instead, he took on the form of a slave, yielding his life and personal ambitions up to death.
In a world that was used to winners like Caesar and Pilate, Caiaphas and Herod, Jesus was a nobody. Jesus signaled his insignificance by his refusal to impose his will on others. Instead, he wandered about with a motley crew of disciples, preaching about a coming Kingdom in which all things would be restored to truth and righteousness.
Jesus is the anti-Caesar. While the powers of this world are busy pointing to themselves, Jesus directs his friends to the Father. While Caesar proclaimed himself God, Jesus lay aside the privileges of divinity in order to live in full solidarity with a rebellious humanity. While the imperial rulers and religious authorities lived in luxury and sat in places of honor, Jesus was stripped naked and nailed to a cross.
But there is more to this story. The humble, hidden Kingdom of Jesus has overcome the haughty grandeur of the kingdoms of this world. While Caesar’s victories have been swallowed up in death a thousand times over, Jesus lives and reigns forever. How can this be so?
It does not make rational sense to me, but I can sense the truth of it in my bones. Real power lies in surrender. To grow in wisdom is to shrink in self. As I seek to walk in Christ’s light, I am forced to recognize my own limitations. I am confronted by the reality that I am never going to change the world. But if I am willing to hand my life entirely over to God, to die to my own ambitions and desire for recognition, Christ in me becomes my hope of glory.
Am I ready to walk in the path of Jesus? Am I prepared to embrace the holy surrender that lies at the heart of his ministry? Do I have the courage to be a failure in the eyes of the world, so that I may share in Christ’s victory?

Are We Revived Yet?

This past week, I traveled in the ministry among Friends in the Mid-Atlantic. Along with my companions from Michigan, Baltimore and Philadelphia, we held a revival meeting for Friends in the Philadelphia area, as well as attending a gathering of Christian Friends on Long Island. This was one of the more epic road trips I have been on, with four of us packed into my little ’97 Corolla, navigating New York traffic while engaging in a passionate discussion of the challenges facing the Body of Christ at this historical moment of great crisis and opportunity.<

Our journey began Wednesday afternoon. I picked Tyler Hampton up from the airport, and Dan Randazzo from his home in Baltimore; dinner was in Philadelphia, at the home of Helene Pollock, along with a number of fellow workers in the Truth. We went really deep over the dinner table, discussing the dynamics of doing ministry in a Philadelphia Quaker context. This conversation helped to prepare us for the work to come.


Thursday night, we held a gathering of around fifty people in a home in West Philly. Calling the gathering a Quaker revival, we sought to offer a space for transformation – a renewed encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. We were heartened to see that a wide cross-section of the Philadelphia Quaker community was in attendance. Locals told us that there was representation from many different Quaker sub-cultures that rarely talked with one another. Especially encouraging to me was that there were also some folks who were new to Friends who attended to get a better idea of whether this might be the community for them.

The meeting itself was not what anyone expected, including me. After a potluck dinner and a time of singing led by talented musicians from the Philadelphia area, we entered into a time of open worship. As visiting ministers, Tyler, Dan and I were explicitly invited to give vocal ministry during that time. However, the meeting flowed freely, with other Friends giving messages as they felt moved. Tyler and Dan both gave very powerful spoken ministry, articulating the depths of anguish and sense of abandonment that we may feel as we seek to follow Jesus. Though I had prayed for many weeks in preparation, and believed that the Lord had given me a message to deliver at the revival, I found that Tyler’s visceral ministry was pitch perfect. Nothing that I had been given to speak seemed relevant any longer.

This was really hard for me. Before the meeting ended, I did end up speaking a few words, which I hope were faithful to the motion of the Spirit in our midst; yet, most of what I believed God had given me to say was stripped away. For almost a month, I felt that God was preparing me to deliver a particular message, but at the last possible moment, the sermon went through the shredder! It took me the whole next day to recover from my feelings of frustration and abandonment.

Though I personally struggled, I felt that the revival was held in the power of the Lord. I was very proud of Tyler and Dan for their faithfulness in preaching the word, and I felt thankful for the hard work that everyone put into planning logistics, preparing music, and opening their homes and hearts in order to allow this event to take place. I feel that we did the best we could with the gifts, faith, and spiritual condition of those who were present that night.

Are we revived yet? That is a hard thing to gauge. I can say that ministers were seasoned and empowered. I can report that around fifty Friends gathered together in Philadelphia to hear the word of the gospel. I know that, as a result of this effort, many individuals in the Philadelphia area have felt strengthened and supported in their walk of faith. And I have a sense that the Lord is gathering a people to himself. If revivalmeans instantaneous transformation, then ours was a pretty poor example. But if revival means the steady work of planting and watering, inviting Jesus himself into our midst, then I would say that we can report some success.

The next day, a number of us traveled to Long Island, where we participated in a weekend gathering of Christ-centered Friends from across the New York City region. It was a joy to be present with these sisters and brothers, and to encourage one another in our shared walk with the Lord. I was deeply impressed by the Christian faith and warm hospitality of our hosts at Manhasset Meeting. It was also a joy to connect with other Friends from the New York City area who were in attendance. After the heavy lifting of the revival in Philadelphia, we were blessed by the sweet spirit and deep refreshment that we experienced among Friends on Long Island.

As we made our way back home yesterday, Helene, Dan, Tyler and I had ample time to debrief on our experience of the last several days. We shared lessons learned, and brainstormed about possible next steps. Even before the revival happened, we were already getting invitations to hold similar meetings in other parts of the country. At the same time, we are encouraged that there are several related movements among Friends to bring renewal and revival to the Body of Christ. With the Friends of Jesus Fellowship retreat in Ohio this April, QuakerSpring holding its annual gathering in June, and the Northeast Christ-centered Friends gathering taking place in September, it is clear that a fresh Jesus movement is afoot among Friends.

Recognizing these signs of Christ’s work among Friends, how can we fan the flames of a movement that goes far beyond rekindling the flickering embers of Quakerism? What would it look like to be part of a movement of the Holy Spirit whose first motion was to bless the world, no matter the cost? What might take place if we were willing to be poured out in order to express Christ’s love for the world? What if we released our grip on Quakerism and allowed the Spirit to flow through us, to do a new thing?