Archive for June 2013

Taking The Plunge

I often wonder what it would take to develop communities that live up to the Quaker ideal of being a gathered people. What if we truly prioritized our life together as disciples of Jesus? Rather than assuming that we would move to another city if offered a higher paying job, what if we submitted that decision to the community’s discernment? Maybe we could consider moving to live closer to one another, so that we’d see each other more easily during the week. We might even become more transparent about how we spend our time and money. Imagine what it would mean for us to truly be one body in Jesus! That’s the kind of community I want to live in.

Increasingly, however, I am convinced that this kind of radical, gathered community can only be established through the patient endurance of individuals who make the unilateral, unconditional decision to put the community first. These women and men dedicate themselves to the community before the community is even aware of itself, much less able to reciprocate this self-sacrificial commitment.

Often I have waited, longing for others willing to join me, to take the plunge into covenant community. I’ve thought, If there were just a few other people who were willing to help me start, then I’d go for it. But leadership means being willing to jump first, trusting that others will meet me in mid-air, and that God will direct our landing.

Have there been times when you were waiting around for others to take initiative on the work God was calling you to do? What gave you the courage to take the leap of faith first, trusting in God to provide? Have there been individuals in your life whose patient endurance and courageous leadership enabled you to join them in growing community in Jesus?

Letting The Light In

Last week, we cut down a big mulberry tree in our backyard. After it had been brought down, sawed into logs and stacked neatly against our back fence, I realized that I was feeling a little guilty. I stared at the huge stump that remained and asked myself, “What right did I have to chop down that tree?” This mulberry had occupied our backyard far longer than we had. In fact, the tree was probably at least as old as my parents.

It was precisely the tree’s size that inspired us to remove it. Its broad canopy dimmed the entire area behind our home, making gardening difficult. With this massive, hydra-branched tree casting such a shadow, it was hard for anything else to grow. We decided that if other plants – including our vegetable garden – were going to have their day in the sun, the ancient mulberry tree had to go.

We had good reasons for chopping down that grandfatherly mulberry. We asked around before we did it, and several people whose opinion we trust encouraged us to proceed. And it seems to have paid off. Now, the sun shines down on the whole yard, and there are almost endless possibilities for what might grow in the years to come. Still, I mourn the emptiness where that big old mulberry stood for generations.

Are there areas of my life where old growth – relationships, habits, institutions or assumptions – might be crowding out the light, preventing new seeds from sprouting? How can I embrace God’s invitation to make space in my life for the new things he is doing, even when it means facing the loss that comes with change?

The God Taboo

As a follower of Jesus, I feel called to share the good news that I have experienced. It’s news of a whole new way of living and being in relationship with God and other people. It’s a message of an upside-down kingdom, where all the supposedly important people of the world are humbled; meanwhile, the outsiders and misfits get invited to the party.

This is good news that I just can’t keep to myself. It’s a social reality where a life and power bigger than ourselves inspires us to joy, peace and action for justice. This good news is a reality that has to be experienced in community. It must be shared with others, or not experienced at all.

But I have a conundrum. I live in a society that is emerging out of many centuries during which the religious language and symbols of Christianity have been used to conquer, dominate, subvert and oppress. Far too often, the message of Jesus has been twisted. Jesus died homeless, penniless and alone on the Roman version of an electric chair, but he has suffered even more dreadfully over the last 2,000 years as his name and image have been co-opted to support the very types of domination systems that nailed him to the cross.

After two millennia of abusive, false religion, many of us are often afraid to talk about God at all. So much evil has been done under the banner of religion; why not just leave it alone?

In the circles I run in, religion is mostly considered a private matter for each individual to figure out on their own. Bringing our faith into public conversations often feels taboo. Better to talk about your sex life than your prayer life. Safer to invite your friends to go out drinking than to a prayer meeting. Some things are just too personal.

I’m one of those weird ones who regularly talks publicly about God, but even for me it often feels risky to share about what God has done for me. What if they think I am judging them? What if they think I am one of those Christians who hates gay people and supports war in the Middle East? What if they hold a different perspective and my faith experience offends them?

With such a potential minefield awaiting any public expression of faith, flying under the radar can seem like the best option. Maybe I’ll say, I’m thinking about you instead of I’m praying for you. Perhaps instead of speaking out of my own experience of Jesus in my life, I’ll tone it down and make vaguely spiritual statements. Everything happens for a reason.

I notice that vocal prayer is especially daunting. As our public conversations increasingly become no-God zones, it can even feel scary to speak openly about God within our Christian communities. As a newer Christian, learning how to pray out loud for others has felt really risky, and I’m still amazed when we pray for one another in our meetings at Capitol Hill Friends. To explicitly ask the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, heal our woundedness and equip us for positive action? That feels pretty radical!

And it is. Every time we invite God to work in our lives, we are participating in a fundamental restructuring of the cosmic order. But how much more radical would it be for us to take what we have learned in our little disciple community and apply it to the rest of life? If prayer is powerful in a meeting for worship, how much more impact might prayer have if I dared to practice it in my daily life? If the good news is worth sharing in the company of others who are seeking to be disciples, what impact might it make if I shared it with those who would benefit from it, even if they don’t go to church?

I want to acknowledge how intimidating this is for me, and for most of the people I know. I don’t want to be laughed at like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon missionaries. I want people to feel comfortable around me, to think I’m a nice, normal guy. I certainly don’t want to make anyone feel oppressed, or triggered, or excluded. It’s really tempting just to focus on being a good person and leave God out of it.

But then I remember the kind of hell I was living in ten years ago, surrounded by nice people. I remember how desperately I needed to see demonstrated the good news of God’s transforming love, power and justice. In that place I was in, miserable and spiritually desolate, just being nice to me wouldn’t have been very nice at all. I thank God for those who went beyond decorum, who spoke to my soul, shared the message I needed to hear, and invited me into a new family in Jesus.

What has been your experience? Have you noticed a similar private/public divide when it comes to expressions of faith? Do you feel comfortable talking about God with strangers? Praying with friends in a restaurant? Inviting a co-worker to Bible study? Why or why not? Whether it is socially acceptable or not, how can we best be faithful as followers of Jesus?

God Beyond My Experience

So often in my life, I have told myself that I was working for a righteous cause, justice, or even God, but far more often than I would care to admit, my most compelling motivation has been the surge of energy and affirmation from taking a stand, leading the charge or doing the right thing. In the end, my good deeds were more about me than about anything transcendent.

I must confess that this has even been true in my devotional life. The object of Christian worship is to direct one’s own attention away from one’s self and towards God, yet how many times have I judged whether or not we had good worship based on the way I felt emotionally, or was nourished intellectually? I believed I was worshiping God, but clearly I was far more focused on my own satisfaction!

Though it is painful to admit it, I behave this way in all areas of my life. Even when I think I am selflessly serving God and neighbor, I still evaluate my thoughts and actions based on how they make me feel. As if the value of love and compassion came from making me feel noble and giving my life a sense of meaning.

Lord, teach me how to seek you – not for the gifts that you give or the feelings that you provoke, but only for the simple fact that you are God, the lord and love of my heart. Come, Lord Jesus, and be greater even than my own experience of you. Transform me and use me for your purposes, even if I am none the wiser.

Why Conflict Is Good For Us

As a teenager, I always loved a good fight. I got a huge adrenaline rush from hashing out Very Important Issues with peers and elders alike. More importantly, I believed that having honest, open, and sometimes brutal discussion was the way to find the truth. My preference for direct speech was near-absolute, even when it alienated and hurt others. I could not understand why most people were not eager to have these kinds of conversations, why they shied away from open conflict in the pursuit of truth. Fact was, I judged most people pretty harshly for their lukewarmth and refusal to face interpersonal conflict.

I have grown a lot in the last decade. I’ve learned that my penchant for directness can be off-putting, even terrifying for a lot people. I’ve reflected on the ways that my personal intensity can damage relationships, and I’ve toned it down. As surprising as it may seem to many people who haven’t known me that long, the Micah you have come to know and love is a truly mellow creature compared to ten or fifteen years ago. I’ve come a long way in developing that filter between thinking something and saying something. I’ve gotten a lot more gentle.

And – surprise, surprise! – I have a lot more friends now. Turns out, people are more likely to want to spend time with you when you’re not constantly calling them out on their failings and inconsistencies. It also turns out that my need to speak truth to power all the time had at least as much to do with my own brokenness as it did with anyone or anything I happened to be critiquing at the time.

In my late twenties, I chilled out a little bit; I stepped back and took it easier on others – and myself. Taking the log out of my own eye has been good for my soul. I’m a much less furious, judgmental person than I used to be. With God’s help, I hope to be healed and humbled even more.

Years in the Quaker community have taught me many ways to communicate indirectly, rather than my natural style of full-frontal truth-telling. I have learned that, quite often, it is appropriate for me to take a step back and moderate myself so that I do not frighten people with my personal intensity.

Often, this less-direct way of communicating has worked out very well. I resolved many disputes without leaving anyone feeling attacked or judged. Yet, there were times that I over-corrected; I sometimes even found myself veering into passive aggression. At other times, in order to avoid stepping on others’ toes, I failed to engage in healthy leadership that would benefit the community. As hard as it was to believe, given my adolescent disposition, I was becoming increasingly conflict-avoidant!

Why? I had a lot of reasons. To begin with, my experiences in several Quaker communities had taught me that being too assertive was dangerous, and that I could get more done through passive influence than direct argument. The Quakers I was hanging around with put a great value on being nice and conforming to a general image of harmony. I had to learn how to make change without directly, openly challenging the status quo.

Perhaps a better reason for avoiding conflict has been that as I have grown to love other people more, I am more sensitive to the fact that conflict can be painful. Why upset my friends if I don’t have to? Even worse, conflict has the potential to severely disrupt our relationships. When conflict and disagreement make the atmosphere of our community uncomfortable, it is very common for people to simply leave rather than face that discomfort. I have been a part of many small, fragile groups, and I haven’t wanted to unleash a dispute that would destroy the whole community!

Despite all of the risks involved, though, I am increasingly convinced that healthy conflict is an essential ingredient to growing, vibrant relationships. Without open discussion, disagreement and ruffled feathers, it is very difficult for us to be broken open and made tender to how God is calling us to live together. As immature as I was, I think that my teenage self was basically right about at least one thing: Conflict is a matter of truth, and when we refuse to engage openly in honest disagreement, we risk losing the ability to face reality together.

This is my challenge going forward, and I offer it as a challenge for all of us who desire to live in loving communities that are rooted in the truth: How can I embrace those times when I find myself at odds with others, welcoming conflict as an opportunity to speak the truth in love and listen deeply to where the Holy Spirit is leading us together? What would it look like to release my own need for control and safety so that Christ-in-me can come to live and reign in our midst? How can I invite Jesus to take risks through me, in spite of me, engaging the difficult conversations with the healing and uniting power of God?

Where Am I Going?

As a Quaker, I belong to a community that experiences the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. Through this shared spiritual experience, we have discovered that Jesus Christ is not merely an historical figure that we can read about in the Bible. Like the first disciples, we are witnesses to his resurrection. We know from practical experience that he is alive and present to show us the way.

I can see how the Friends doctrine of the Inward Light of Christ could lead to spiritual arrogance. If I believe that Jesus speaks to me directly, why listen to anybody else? This is a real temptation, especially for those of us who live in a culture that exalts the individual above almost all else.

But this kind of pride cannot survive long in the real presence of Jesus. In him, I encounter a God who is far beyond my own narrow ways of imagining the world. The revealing power of his light forces me to see how self-interested and feeble my attempts at love really are. All of my hopes, dreams and lofty ideals are brought low in his presence.

I often fail to comprehend what God is doing in my life. Though I am good at coming up with elaborate narratives about what God is up to – why I am being moved in a certain direction – these convincing guesses of mine are usually wrong. God’s ways are often mysterious and unpredictable! But if I can find the courage to let go, I know that the Spirit will work through me in beautiful and surprising ways.

I am comforted by the words of Thomas Merton, who writes out of his own encounter with this humbling power:

My Lord God I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

What is your experience of Christ’s presence within? How have you been humbled, delighted, surprised?

Unleashing Our Spiritual Gifts – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #54

Dear friends,

This past month has been very full! I’ve visited friends in Philadelphia, and family and friends in Kansas, on top of my usual work routine. I have also felt called into an increasingly intense schedule of visitation with individuals and families here in the DC area. I have often been tired lately, but I feel great joy in the work, and I have a sense that I am generally on the right track.

Early in May, we got a visit from Hoot Williams, a fellow minister who is helping to organize a new community of disciples in Philadelphia, as a part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. I was very glad that Hoot was able to get a first hand look at what we are up to here in DC, and his visit encouraged me to think more about when I might get the chance to visit friends of Jesus in Philadelphia again.

I got my chance later in the month, when I was able to attend an evening worship event held by the emerging group in Philadelphia. I was deeply impressed by the faith and dedication of those who helped to organize the event, and I felt that we in DC had plenty to learn from their efforts. I was particularly pleased with the way that friends there seem to be gathering local leadership that is responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. The group in Philadelphia looks somewhat different from Capitol Hill Friends, which I see as an indicator of good health! Different soils are suited to different kinds of growth, and it is a mark of faithfulness when we respond to the possibilities of the soil where we are planted.

Here in DC, things are proceeding along steadily. We are nearing the end of our third six-week cycle, which has been focused on the Gospel of Luke. In particular, we’ve been looking at Jesus’ counter-cultural Jubilee message, which challenges our ordinary relationship with money, status and power. Instead of seeking to be the greatest, the richest, the strongest, we are invited into a life of humble service – even laying down our lives for others! Rather than looking up to those who are considered most successful in our society – presidents, CEOs and billionaires – we are instead directed to focus our attention on the ravens and the lilies, who depend on God for all their needs.

We at Capitol Hill Friends are very much like a wild flower, growing in the diverse field of the Washington metro area. All around us are the weeds of greed, lust for power, distractions and workaholism; nevertheless, as we sink our roots deeper into this good earth, and lift our faces higher towards the sun, Christ is giving us the light we need to grow. We are learning how to develop as his disciples as we keep our focus on him and the blessings he wants to pour out on our city.

This spring, I have been focusing my attention on nurturing relationships, with a particular eye for unlocking the spiritual gifts of each individual. There sure are some magnificent gifts in this group that has begun to gather on Capitol Hill. We have teachers and prayer warriors, evangelists and healers, administrators and prophets. God has poured out the Spirit abundantly on this little band!

Increasingly, I am coming to understand that my role is something like a hybrid between a pastor and a community organizer. Like a pastor, I feel a sense of responsibility for the spiritual health and well-being of this fellowship. I try to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks, and to nurture an environment where everyone can have access to genuine community centered in a living engagement with the risen Jesus.

There is definitely a pastoral aspect to my ministry, but I feel even more affinity with the role of community organizer. I sense that my primary mission is not to be the one leader who does everything; instead, I feel called to play midwife to an expanding team of leaders, all of us operating in our spiritual gifts. I want to see the teachers begin to teach; pastors to nurture; evangelists to spread the word; prophets to unveil the truth; and apostles to break new ground for the gospel! When I look at my brothers and sisters at Capitol Hill Friends, I see people whom God has given a startling array of gifts. I see a community of disciples whom Jesus is inviting into lives of deeper faithfulness, joy and peace.

How can I facilitate the unleashing of these gifts? How can I help to start a chain reaction of disciples who in turn make disciples? Despite spending years in seminary and attending Quaker gatherings of all kinds, I have to confess that the dynamics of leadership and discipleship are still a bit of a mystery to me. What does it take to empower others to step into their spiritual gifts, using them to build up the body of Christ and bless the world?
I know one thing for sure: I don’t have what it takes to do this on my own. The more I observe the gifts that God has poured out on others in our community, the more I realize how limited my own abilities are. There are some things that I’m really good at and passionate about; but most things, I’m not. In my experience, there has been nothing like planting a church to teach me that I am not self-sufficient. I can’t do much of anything alone. If I am unwilling to rely on my friends, I’ll fall flat on my face!

I am grateful to be able to lean on you, my spiritual family, as I seek to be faithful in the work that Christ has given me. Your prayers and support are indispensable! For the coming month, here are a few ways you could focus your prayers:

  • On June 15th, Capitol Hill Friends will be gathering for a day-long retreat to do discernment around our sense of mission and vision. We hope that this retreat will clarify our focus and set our general direction for some time to come. Please pray that God bless our time together, granting us a clear sense of direction and shared purpose together as we look for ways to be his hands and feet in the world.
  • Pray that God would raise up new leaders, according to each one’s particular gifts.
  • Pray that the Holy Spirit open the way for multiplication of new groups meeting in different parts of the city, so that we can grow in numbers and depth, and become more accessible to seekers across the metro area.

In love and friendship,

Micah Bales