Archive for January 2013

Connecting to the True Vine

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already cleansed [pruned] because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.– Jesus speaking in John 15:5

What does it mean to remain in Jesus? How can I abide in his love? What does it mean for me to bear fruit? These are some of the questions that arose for me as we considered John 15:1-17 as part of our base group meeting on Capitol Hill last night. I think that answers came differently for all of us. Some felt led to focus on gaining a deeper grounding in the Vine. Others of us have a deep need to be pruned, to have our lives pared down and focused on the core work that God is calling us to. For others, this feels like a season for bearing fruit.

Perhaps for some of us this Scripture just seemed confusing. Jesus uses intense mystical language to talk about his connection with the Father, and with us. At certain points in my life, this almost esoteric language might have seemed disconnected from the everyday matters that I needed to attend to.
Then again, maybe that is the point. If I focus only on the fruit – the tangible goodness that comes from God – I easily forget to stay rooted in Jesus. Ironically, my love for the good things God creates can actually become a barrier between me and the Creator.
How can I keep all my attention on Jesus? How might I develop a practice of moment-by-moment encounter with his Spirit within me? In the deepest part of me, there is a seed, a connection, a doorway where Christ stands and knocks. If I can keep my attention there and invite him in, I will be connected to the Vine. And as his life, power and goodness flow through me, I will bear fruit: Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Looking to the week ahead, I feel a personal challenge: What does it feel like for me to be connected to the True Vine? How do I stay open to the Spirit that flows through the Vine and into me, this little branch? And what are the unfruitful branches in my life that need to be cut back? How do I need to be pruned so that I can bear the fruit of love and justice?

This week, as I do my work, interact with my community, and share life with friends and family, I want to keep my eyes open to the ways that God is asking me to go deeper. This may mean taking on more responsibilities, or setting aside bad habits that pull me away me from my real purpose. God may need to remove clutter and distractions from my life.

Even more challenging, I may find that I must let go of even some of the good things that I do. Even those activities and attitudes that give me great joy must be laid aside if they get in the way of the person God is calling me to be right now. Am I willing to lay down goodthings in order to be fully present to the bestthing? Am I ready to follow Jesus without reservation?

Healing and the Kingdom of God

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. – Luke 9:1-2

I have a confession to make: When I read the Bible, I tend to focus on those parts that fit neatly into my pre-existing worldview. This has always been true. I remember in high school I always focused on the places where Jesus had “ethical teachings,” and talked about himself in more human terms. I glossed over the places where Jesus emphasized his uniqueness and divinity, and I pretty much skipped the gospel of John altogether!

This should come as no surprise. It is hard to learn challenging new truth without any familiar context to lean on. When I am struggling to grasp new ideas, it is reassuring to focus on the things I already know. Realizing this about myself, it makes me wonder about all the truth that I am still oblivious to! What obvious realities do I fail to see because they are simply too far outside my current understanding?

This question feels particularly relevant for me right now as I become more aware of a part of the Bible that I have always sort of glossed over: Jesus’ acts of miraculous healing and exorcism. Throughout his three years of public ministry, Jesus was constantly healing people of physical ailments and exorcising demons that held people in bondage. He cured people of physical, psychological and spiritual sickness. Quite frankly, Jesus did some crazy stuff.

It is almost impossible to miss this aspect of Jesus’ ministry if one is reading the gospels with any attention at all. Until recently, however, I was able to mostly bypass those passages. I did not intentionally ignore them, but I did not give them much weight in my reading. I read them metaphorically and focused more on the way Jesus’ actions revealed a “deeper meaning.” In a real sense, I sanitized part of what is the scandalof Jesus for modern readers. My Lord and Savior went around casting out demons, healing the sick and raising the dead!

It was a pretty big step for me to believe that these events really happened at all, but for years now I have accepted that Jesus performed all of these miracles. I have even come to believe that these kind of things happen today. The Holy Spirit is alive and active, at work in the world in ways we cannot understand. This whole thing about faith healing and demon possession is a little bit outside my comfort zone, but I can deal with it as a possibility.

As I continue to re-read the story of Jesus’ ministry, though, I am increasingly faced with the reality that these miraculous deeds of power are not simply a possibility, not merely a sideshow to the work of the Kingdom. Instead, it seems increasingly clear to me that Jesus viewed these acts of very literal healing as essential to life in the Kingdom of God.

What is truly challenging for me now is that Jesus did not simply perform these miracles himself; he commanded his followers to do the same. When Jesus sent out seventy of his disciples, his charge to them was to “cure the sick… and say to them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near you.’” Faith healing and casting out demons is not just special work that only the Son of God can do; it is the living demonstration of the proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom.

What am I to make of this? To my knowledge, I have never been used by God to perform a miraculous healing. Nor have I ever laid hands on someone and released them from mental illness or other forms of spiritual bondage. Am I missing something essential to the gospel of Jesus? Is this some of that truth I have been unable to perceive because it is so far outside my comfort zone? As someone who seeks to be a modern-day disciple of Jesus, should these be spiritual gifts that I seek after?
I do not know what form it should take, but I do feel convinced that wholeness – physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual – must be at the core of the gospel that we proclaim. There is an undeniable connection between the Kingdom of God and the restoration of wholeness to the entirety of creation, beginning with human beings. How am I to live this out? How can my life be so filled with the Holy Spirit that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them“?

Inauguration of the Kingdom

Today, the eyes of the country were focused on Washington, as President Barack Obama was re-confirmed in his position as commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. After the most expensive political race in history, Obama presides over a deeply divided country – a nation wracked by structural injustice, income inequality, endemic racism and institutional gridlock. A spirit of division hangs over our nation.
In times like these, it is not surprising that we cling ever more desperately to symbol and ritual. With the bonds of national unity so strained, there is comfort and reassurance to be found in observing familiar forms. That is a what today’s inauguration was all about: it reminds us that, despite all of the battles and vitriol, our society still functions.

Given our national circumstances, it is not surprising that President Obama chose to enlist the potent legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., being sworn in on the Bible that King carried on many of his travels during the civil rights era. As America’s first black president, Obama invoked the memory of one of our nation’s greatest African-American prophets.

This choice of symbolism fits with what we know about power. It is the usual move of those in authority to appropriate the charisma and integrity of the martyrs. And today, in a system that is collapsing under the weight of its own violence, greed and oppression, our rulers have all the more need of the mantle of the prophets.
But the prophets continue to speak. I heard one this morning. Cornel West, a distinguished professor and philosopher, explained why “his blood boiled” when he learned that President Obama was to be sworn in on Martin Luther King’s Bible.
Watch:

Can I get an Amen?
We must not tame the prophetic Spirit with our hand on that Bible. We must not quench the prophetic fire that Martin Luther King, Jr. and all of God’s witnesses have shown us. We must not allow the living gospel of Christ’s Kingdom to be appropriated by even the grandest of human kingdoms.
On this Inauguration Day, I will re-commit myself to the inauguration of the reign of the Way, the Truth and the Life. I pray that I will stay awake to the limits of human power, human government and human authority, looking always to the Prince of Peace as the only true leader of one and all. I look for the day that the Spirit who inspires the prophets will come to live and reign in this and every nation.

A New Year, A New Vision for Capitol Hill Friends – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #50

Dear friends,
Late December is a very special time for me. The churning of the holiday season crowds out my normal routines, and my attention shifts dramatically. In this season, personal transformation seems especially within reach. Between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, my life is put on lock down and the relentless silence of dark winter nights strips me bare. This fallow time takes a hold of me, forcing me to cease my constant activity and to reflect on the choices I have made.
It is also a season to become more aware of God’s faithfulness. As I recall everything that has happened in the last year – not to mention the last decade! – it is so clear to me that I could never have made it to this moment without ongoing divine intervention. With the 20/20 hindsight of late December, I see more clearly how the Spirit has been present with me throughout the highs and lows. Even in the times when I felt abandoned, God never left me.
The last year has definitely had its share of lows, both for me and for Capitol Hill Friends. For the last three years, we have operated under a model which focused on the weekly worship event as the heart of our community. Beginning in late 2009, we extended an invitation for those in the DC area to join us for waiting worship, Bible reading, singing and a home-cooked meal. Our times together were powerful, and the worship was almost always deep.

Yet, after almost three years of ongoing effort, Capitol Hill Friends never grew into the kind of sustainable community that we hoped for. Our attendance fluctuated according to the seasons, but never grew very large. The formal membership of our group held fairly steady, too – three core members, plus one Friend who sojourned with us for a year, and two others who sojourned for a summer. Despite the power of Christ’s presence in our times of worship, the community failed to gel.

We finally reached a crisis point this fall. Our attendance fell greatly near the end of the summer – a normal seasonal fluctuation – but it did not recover in the fall. At the time of year when we had come to expect renewed energy and vitality in our meetings, we were averaging 4-6 people. It was increasingly clear that our way of operating had become unsustainable.

What needed to change? Were we being unfaithful? Were we even still being called to engage in this ministry? We put everything on the table. More than anything, we wanted to be faithful to how the Lord was guiding us.
After extensive prayer and consideration, we felt clear that we had not been released from the work of planting a new Quaker community in the Washington, DC region. But we also saw that we would have to let go of many of our assumptions about how a Quaker Meeting was supposed to be. We were still clinging to many patterns that kept us in our Quaker comfort zone, but which held us back from speaking to the needs of our city.
We have emerged from this period of discernment with a commitment to do whatever it takes to emerge from the Quaker hedge* and reach the DC area with the love and power of Jesus Christ. We are convinced that God is more concerned with growing a community gathered in discipleship than with the purity of our Quaker pedigree. We feel that God is calling us into partnership with the work of the Holy Spirit, to become a living body in Christ – an organism that learns, grows and adapts as God shapes us to speak to the condition of our city.
God is blessing us. This Saturday, twenty-five of us gathered for dinner at the William Penn House to hear about the plan for the next phase of Capitol Hill Friends. We shared about the cell church model that we are experimenting with, and invited folks to participate in the first cycle of our base group (small group), which will be meeting from the last Sunday in January to the first Sunday in March.
Our base group meetings will last for about an hour and a half, and will focus on three main activities: personal check-ins and building community; reading the Bible and applying it to our lives in practical ways; and exploring how to experience the Holy Spirit through vocal prayer and silent waiting. The base group is meant to be a living organism – the basic unit of Christ’s body – that will multiply over time. Our vision is to establish a growing number of base groups in locations throughout the DC metro area, so that our community will be easily accessible to anyone who wants to participate.
Base groups will be the heart – the base! – of our community, with everything else we do flowing out of the life of these groups of 6-12. Yet, we also think it is important to gather together in larger numbers, and so we intend to hold larger worship events. As we begin this new experiment in community, we will aim to have one worship event every month or so. As we grow in numbers, energy and spiritual maturity, we may increase the frequency of our larger worship event, but once a month seems plenty for the time being.

It has taken some time, but I am hopeful that we are finding our way to be a healthy expression of Christ’s body in the Washington region. We know that it is the power of the Holy Spirit that gives life to the body, not human models of organization. Nevertheless, I see signs that this new model has the potential to remove barriers to the Holy Spirit’s work. I pray that we will remain open to removing all of the many barriers to God in our lives, so that Christ’s Spirit can flow freely.

Please keep praying for us. Please ask your church/meeting to pray for us. The next couple of months are going to be critical as we seek to raise up leadership and multiply this first round of base groups. Please pray for those who are providing leadership for this first base group cycle, and for everyone who participates. May the Lord draw us into authentic community in his name, finding the support and encouragement we need to lead lives of faithfulness and joy.
Your friend in Truth,
Micah
*The “hedge” is an old Quaker term, which refers to a whole complex of shared practices that help to distinguish and separate the Friends community from the wider world.

We Must Swim

A debate has erupted in the online Quaker world: How is God calling us to relate to the rich heritage of the Quaker movement? In a sharp essay for Quaker Life Magazine, David Johns argues that the purpose of our life together is not to be Quakers, but to live in the Spirit that gave rise to Quakerism in the first place. I followed David’s lead, arguing that Being Quaker Is Not The Point. This was followed by responses from Susanne Kromberg and Brent Bill, who shared their own perspectives on what the point is – or should be. There have also been many comments, on the posts and on Facebook.

I’m really grateful to everyone who has contributed to this conversation so far. Whether or not we share the same perspective, the very fact that we are willing to engage in this dialogue shows how serious many of us take the question of who we are called to be as Friends of Jesus. I hope to continue in that spirit.

Paul’s Shipwreck

I was recently reading in the Book of Acts, where Paul has been imprisoned and is being transported by sea to Rome. During the course of his journey, the ship that Paul is on gets caught in a hurricane-force storm, which ultimately destroys the vessel and forces everyone to swim ashore on a nearby island.


I had read this story many times before, and it had always been an exciting tale. A death-defying escape from a shipwreck in the middle of a storm – very cinematic! But this time around, I felt the text opening up to me in a fresh way. No longer is this simply an account of Paul’s survival at sea: It is an allegory for the challenge that we face today as communities gathered in Jesus.

The story goes something like this:

When the storm begins to overwhelm the ship, the crewmembers start throwing things overboard. First, they ditch their cargo. Next, in desperation, they toss the ship’s tackle into the sea. Still, the storm continues, and the crew loses all hope of being saved.

Finally, when all of their hopes are gone, Paul gives them good news: God has revealed to him that everyone is going to survive. The ship, however, will be lost – forced to run aground on some island.


Paul tells everyone to eat. They had all been fasting, but they will need all of their strength to survive. Once everyone has eaten their fill, the last of the ship’s cargo – their entire food supply – is thrown overboard.

Finally, the moment comes: The ship runs aground off an island. The vessel cannot be saved, but Paul promises that every person aboard will survive if they trust in God’s command: It is time for them to swim.

Facing Our Own Shipwreck

I believe that we – the North American Church in general, and the Quaker community in particular – are facing just such a moment of decision. The christendom ship that we have been sailing in for so long can carry us no further. In our desperation, we have tried throwing cargo overboard, ditching the tackle and trying creative tricks with our sea anchors. Despite all our efforts, however, the Lord has spoken: This old boat will not make it.


But this is not the end of the story. There is good news! The destruction of the ship – the loss of our old ways of being the Church – does not have to mean the destruction of the crew. Many of our institutions, structures, traditions and ways of viewing the world have run aground on the rocks of postmodern America. But there is hope. There is an island nearby – a fresh frontier with new people, new challenges – and yes, new boats. Are we ready to swim for it?

Good Food for Swimming

For me, personally, the most powerful image of this story from the Book of Acts is that of the ship’s crew breaking bread together amidst the storm. They filled themselves with the good grain that was available to them in the ship’s hold. They ate as much of it as they could, knowing that this nourishment would give them the strength they needed to make it to land.

The good grain of the Quaker tradition is essential for me as I prepare to plunge into the water. It is this wholesome bread, kneaded and baked by my spiritual ancestors, that is going to sustain my aching muscles as I swim for shore. Everything that comes next – new lands, new foods, new boats – all of it depends on the goodness that I receive in this holy meal.


But preparation cannot last forever. Whether swimming freestyle or using a piece of the ship for a flotation device, we must make it to shore. Whatever that new land looks like, whatever challenges await, it is there that Christ will continue to provide for us and guide us into the next steps we must take together.

Being Quaker Is Not The Point

Quaker Life Magazine just published an excellent article by David Johns, entitled Moving Forward, or Circling the Wagons? In his essay, David challenges the tendency of modern Friends to make Quakerism the center and focus of our faith. He writes:

All along the spectrum of Quakerism, from evangelical to liberal to everything in between and beyond, there is a dangerous conservative impulse at work which is crushing the movement. This has nothing to do with the old dichotomy of conservative verses liberal because even the most liberal Friends are conservative in this sense.

As a community, we Friends have a tendency to get bogged down, evaluating whether we are sufficiently Quaker instead of centering our lives in the ongoing revelation of Jesus Christ and his good news. In too many cases, preserving the distinctive traits of our 350-year-old tradition has become more important than listening to the living voice of the Spirit in our midst. Far too often, we demonstrate more concern with addressing the theological and organizational divisions within our denominational family than we do for expressing the love of Jesus in the world.

It does not have to be this way. What if, instead of endless squabbles over interpretations of George Fox, our center of gravity was in the ongoing work of God in our midst? What if, instead of posing the question, “Are we Quaker,” we asked instead, “Are we being faithful to the direction of the Lord among us, right now?” Again, David writes:

When we ask the question “What is God calling us to do and to be?” it ought to come from a deep engagement in the world and from knowing the joy and pain it holds. The question ought to emerge as a result of our mission, not as an exasperated effort to hold together an unraveling movement.

Quakerism is not going to save Quakers. Only obedience to the guidance of the Holy Spirit can do that. If we cannot embrace a mission that transcends the preservation of our own community and traditions, then the Religious Society of Friends has lost its vital purpose and is doomed to wither away. If we continue much longer this way, trapped in an endless cycle of morbid self-fascination, we will soon find ourselves without conversation partners.

As long as our primary questions revolve around how to be Quaker, how to practice Quakerism and how to preserve authentic Quaker teaching, we risk being no better than the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus lambasted. By favoring human memorials to past revelation over the living Word that is being spoken to us today, we risk missing the point altogether. Are we ready to loosen our grip on Quakerism so that the living faith of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Mary, Paul and George Fox can live again in us?

The point of our life together as Friends of Jesus is to embody the living presence of his Spirit. Tradition certainly has a part to play in this mission. The rich heritage of our spiritual ancestors can serve as a helpful instruction in our walk of faith. The witness of those who have gone before us is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. But tradition is not the God whom we serve. As David so eloquently puts it, “Quaker-ism as a thing we possess or a thing we are must die if the faith of Quakers is to live.”

Are we ready to die to Quakerism so that the gospel that Friends proclaim may find fullest expression? Are we prepared to lay everything on the table so that we may be faithful to the continuing revelation of Jesus? Are we ready to move forward together in faith?

Ambiguity And The Attitude Of The Knife

In his 1965 masterpiece, DUNE, Frank Hebert imagines a desert world in which water is the most precious substance and life is a constant struggle to survive. The indigenous inhabitants of this world, the Fremen, are a people totally adapted to scarcity. They are a people accustomed to hard decisions and brutal efficiency for the sake of the tribe.

Herbert explains that the desert planet “teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘now it’s complete, because it’s ended here.'” In their relentless struggle for survival, the people of Dune have no room for sentimental feelings, nor do they have the luxury of risk-taking and experimentation. The Fremen are a most deeply conservative society, a people who follow their traditions to the death – because disobedience could mean destruction for the entire tribe.

These fictional desert people are an extreme vision of what a scarcity culture looks like. In their almost cartoonish need for order, control and clarity, they are driven by the fear of losing everything. The Fremen are saturated with the awareness that any false step could lead them off the razor’s edge, from poverty to annihilation. In this society of generational survival instincts, the rules are black and white. There is no room for ambiguity.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Fremen. Like them, I prefer black-and-white certainties to the squishy ambiguity of change. I am often tempted to practice the attitude of the knife – severing projects, relationships and processes too quickly, before they have had a chance to play out completely. I want a clear answer, not the muddled groundlessness of transition.

But while Herbert’s fictional desert people have good reasons for their rigidity and conservatism, mine are mostly psychological. Despite my nervousness, I live in an abundant universe. There is so much love, beauty and goodness to share, and my relationship with Jesus gives me real security. If I choose to trust in the love and abundance of the world that God has made, I am freed from the shackles of scarcity thinking and the attitude of the knife.

The Holy Spirit invites me to live a fearless life. Grounded in the certainty of God’s love, presence and provision, I am released from the need to chop off that which is incomplete. Instead, I am given power to sit with the broken, painful and ambiguous parts of my life. I am given courage to look adversity in the face, rather than cutting and running at the first hint of conflict. When I know who I am in Christ, I am freed from the attitude of the knife.

When we as communities are able to live in trust and awareness of Jesus Christ in our midst, we are released from the need to quash uncertainty, ambiguity and change. We are encouraged to be innovative, risk-taking and experimental. When we open ourselves to the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding us as Christ’s body, our grip on life loosens, and we are given renewed minds and hearts, able to see and feel in striking new ways. In contrast to the callous defensiveness of the attitude of the knife, Jesus’ presence opens us from the inside out and sensitizes us to one another.

Where are the areas in your life where you are gripping tightly? What are the situations, relationships and dilemmas that you are tempted to cut off? What might it be like to sit in the tension with Jesus, allowing those relationships and situations to come to maturity in his presence, in his time? What does it feel like to live a life of creativity, fearlessness and abundance in the face of an unpredictable and changing world? Can you feel where your deepest certainty lies?