Archive for August 2013

Beyond My Experience

Of all the billions of people in the world, each one of us is unique. Far deeper than fingerprints, appearance, or even personality traits, every person has a special story to live, and a personal relationship with God.

I forget this sometimes. It’s easy to expect others to be just like me – to laugh when I laugh, cry when I cry, to think as I do. If I am not careful, I may project onto others my own struggles and journey, my own personal relationship with the Creator.

Sometimes, we do this collectively, too. In our congregations and denominations, it can be tempting to judge the world according to our own standards, experience and traditions. At times, we may mistake God’s unique relationship with us for universal truth. Maybe we get fixated on our worship format, committee structures, theological statements or the work we do in the world; whatever the case, we project our own, special calling onto others. At worst, we may expect others to think and behave just like us before we acknowledge their relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

How often we make our faith about us, rather than about him! When we were lost in darkness and despair, Jesus spoke to our hearts and brought us into the light. He turned our lives upside down in the most amazing way. Yet, he did this without robbing us of our God-given individuality. On the contrary, his healing touch has made us more truly ourselves than ever before. Thanks to him, we are becoming the people God created us to be – a diverse humanity united in the Holy Spirit.

Rather than assume that everyone must have the same relationship with Jesus that I do, what if I took a step back and marveled at the rich tapestry God is weaving? Rather than seeking to make everyone the same, are my eyes open to the ways that Christ is expressing himself through difference – in personality, culture, tradition and generations? Will I choose to embrace the New Creation, even when it goes beyond my experience?

Want To Get Rich Quick?

I know, this is a pretty strange and spammy-sounding title for this post – not to mention quite out of character for the general focus of this blog. Let me explain.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what wealth really means. The line of thinking that has most currency (pun intended) in our culture right now is that being rich means having a lot of money. In the mainstream way of thinking about wealth, monetary assets – whether actual cash assets or holdings (such as real estate, stocks and bonds) that are convertible to cash – are the measure of a person’s standing. A good example of this is the Forbes list of billionaires, which ranks individuals by their total assets, measured in US dollars.

Lists like these point to the fact that our culture tends to view prosperity almost exclusively in terms of the individual, rather than in terms of communities or society as a whole. Forbes’ billionaires list doesn’t take into account the relative health of the cities and nations in which these individuals reside. For example, Carlos Slim is ranked number one for personal wealth, yet his monopolistic business activities have left his country – Mexico – a less-wealthy place than it might otherwise be. By singling out the individual earner, we miss the big picture of what constitutes real prosperity.

Might there be other ways of measuring wealth altogether? Whether for the individual or for society as a whole, could it be that there are more life-giving ways to discern prosperity than a one-dimensional cash figure? Many people at various times have suggested that health, a good family, leisure time, or emotional well-being could be considered effective gauges of wealth. Is it possible that many people today have very little money, and yet enjoy high quality of life?

IMG_8921The advantage of money as a measure is that it is so easily quantifiable. Rather than debate about intangibles – who lives in a more pleasant neighborhood, whose marriage is healthier, or whose co-workers are friendlier – we can mark our progress strictly by the numbers. If my house is valued at a higher level than yours, it must be better. If my assets and income are higher than yours, I must be more successful.

For all its advantages, however, money has a dark side. In his book, Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein argues that the expansion of the realm of money represents a systematic impoverishment of society. As money economies have grown, more and more things that were once free have become saleable items. He’s talking about things like drinking water, child care, home-cooked meals and social gatherings. In the last century, all of these treasures have been largely enclosed and commodified in the developed world. It turns out that the process of development is one of taking things that were once in the realm of non-monetary, gift economies and moving them into the money economy.

Most economic growth we hear about is actually a transfer of riches from the commons into private hands, where it can now be measured in dollars and cents. Take, for example, the music industry. Not so long ago, music was free to an extent we can hardly imagine today. Musicians were at liberty to perform, modify and share songs widely. Folk songs exist because no one copyrighted them. Today, however, music has become bound up in the money economy’s strict ideas of property and payment. No longer is the joy and beauty of song a gift; it is a proprietary holding that is subject to rent. Though in the past our ancestors were free to sing, modify and share any song they pleased, today musicians are being sued for performing songs that they do not own the copyright for.

Once awakened to this principle – that economic growth represents a transfer from the commons into the commodified realm of the money economy – one can begin to observe it everywhere. One example of this is AirBnB. This service allows individuals to rent out rooms in their homes to travelers, essentially serving as a bed and breakfast and charging a per-night fee. In Washington, DC, which has a lot of visitors and expensive hotel rates, this can mean serious money. It also represents a move away from a gift economy – receiving hospitality in people’s homes without the expectation of explicit, cash payment – and into the money economy, where services are rendered in exchange for currency.

In a similar vein is SideCar, a company that connects car owners with individuals who need a ride. With their slogan, You drive every day. Why not get paid for it? this company moves the act of sharing a ride out of the informal gift economy. If their model succeeds, ride sharing will no longer be an act of hospitality; it will become an economic exchange that can be measured as part of GDP. According to our current paradigm of economic growth, this represents an increase in our overall wealth as a society. But from where I’m sitting, it seems like an impoverishment.

Perhaps there are ways we can do the math differently. For example, how might we recognize that a parent leaving their paying job in order to care for children might actually be an increase in prosperity for that family and their community? How could we recognize the value of those gifts that are not necessarily recognized by the dominant economy with cash payment – musicians, artists, ministers and caregivers of all kinds? For all of us, regardless of our level of cash income, how can we increasingly embrace the economy of the gift, recognizing that every good thing comes from God, and is meant to be shared?

Could it be that the way to get rich might actually involve earning less money?

What Are You Working For?

Why do you work? Whether you are a school teacher, an electrician, or a volunteer at an animal shelter, what motivates you to give your time, energy and attention to projects and organizations beyond yourself?

For many of us, we work because we feel we have no other choice. Bills need to be paid, and the money has to come from somewhere. Millions of us feel trapped in jobs that seem purposeless, staying mostly out of fear of what could happen if we lost our income.

Surely this is not what God intends for us! Each of us is created with a unique set of gifts and a purpose for our lives. Our daily work is one of the main areas where we are invited to express those gifts and purpose. What would it look like for our work life to be oriented around God’s mission and plan for us, rather than the endless pursuit of paying bills?

In contrast to the fear-based economy that so many of us struggle in at present, we read in the Book of Acts that the first Christians were known for their radical generosity and freedom in community. These early followers of Jesus did not work for themselves, but rather for the good of the entire church, as well as the non-Christian communities where they found themselves. In a very real sense, they worked for God, not money.

Why did the early Church have such a different relationship to work and money than most Christians today? The answer may be found in the unique way that the early Christian community viewed the purpose of work.

Today, we tend to see work in terms of personal fulfillment. A job provides money for the individual to pay bills, and hopefully provide some entertainment and luxury items in addition. If we are lucky, our job may also provide a sense of identity and status. It is no coincidence that when we meet people we often ask, “What do you do?”

The early Christians saw things differently. Paul writes that we should “labor and work honestly with [our] own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” Here, just like in the Book of Acts, we see that the early Christian community viewed work in terms of giving rather than receiving. Through the power of Jesus’ resurrection, they lived in a world of abundance, trusting the Holy Spirit to provide. They engaged in a gift economy, where each person worked to care for the needs of others, knowing that others would care for them, too.

How would our lives change if we lived into this New Testament vision of work? What would it be like to see both our labor and our wages as property of God, meant to be poured out in the service of our brothers and sisters in Christ – and anyone who has need? How would it feel to know that our community stands ready to help anyone who gets hurt and can’t work – to provide real, tangible support for those who have fallen behind on their mortgage or water bill? Can we imagine this economy of love, where everything is a gift and the fruits of our labor are meant to be shared?

How Much Unity Do We Need?

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.Marco Antonio de Dominis

Despite being followers of the Prince of Peace, Christians have a long track record of fighting with one another. We Quakers, despite our history as a peace church, have always found plenty of ways to rip each other a new… theological perspective. The history of the Quaker church is one of seemingly endless schisms, and while I’ve heard it said that other groups “multiply by division,” Friends have mostly lost strength, numbers and spiritual wholeness with each split.

In light of our contentious past, and present, I was very pleased to read a recent article by Steve Angell of Earlham School of Religion, in which he makes a plea for openness to the variety of scripturally-based views of the atonement. He points out that there are actually several, scripturally authentic views of how Jesus’ death on the cross brings about reconciliation between humanity and God, and between human beings themselves.

Different groups within the Christian community emphasize one view or another. For example, Evangelicals strongly embrace the satisfaction and penal substitution theories of the atonement – commonly summed up with, “Jesus died for our sins.” Liberal Christians generally focus on the moral influence theory, which holds that Jesus’ selfless martyrdom on the cross is meant to serve as an example for his followers to emulate. There’s also the ransom/Christus Victor theories, which date back to the early Church but which lately have been overshadowed by other, more popular atonement theories.

I really appreciate Angell’s exposition of these issues, because he understands that these theories are not simply some esoteric mumbo jumbo, but are in fact central to how we understand our faith as followers of Jesus. He is quite clear that Jesus’ atoning work on the cross is essential to how we become citizens of God’s new world (the Kingdom). The atonement is no throw-away doctrine that we can take or leave. Jesus’ execution on the cross and his resurrection from the dead are fundamental to our Christian faith. It is through Christ’s death that we are reconciled to God and brought out of darkness and death. We participate in his resurrection insofar as we embrace his willingness to suffer for love.

Understanding the deep importance of the atonement, Angell pleas for a generous orthodoxy that allows these varying biblical perspectives to co-exist within the same community. For so long, Quakers – and Christians in general – have been screaming at one another over just exactly how Jesus’ sacrifice “works,” when Jesus himself calls us to the profoundly practical work of healing the sick, casting out demons and announcing good news (not just theories, but real, practical good news!) to the poor.

There are certainly times when God calls us to stand firm on theological questions. I was glad to see that Angell did not suggest that orthodoxy is unimportant. Yet, he draws our attention to the fact that the truth is complex, multifaceted, rich with meaning and nuance. While we all seek to follow Jesus and become baptized into his Spirit, there are many ways of understanding how that relationship works!

The work of distinguishing between what is merely metaphor and what is bedrock truth is very difficult. There are members of the Quaker community, for example, who think that Jesus himself is essentially a metaphor – that when I as a Christian say “Jesus,” it is essentially the same thing as when a non-Christian says “God” or “Truth” or “Spirit.” How can we embrace different perspectives without going this far? Where is the distinction between our human metaphors and the real, tangible relationship that we are called to have with the person of Jesus Christ?

How can we make room for differences in metaphor while staying faithful to the basic truths that we have received – in Scripture, through tradition and in our own personal experience of God’s action? How much liberty is healthy, and how much unity is essential? And in all of these questions, how can we maintain a fundamental compassion and charity for one another that reflects the face of our Savior?

Becoming Friends of Jesus – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #56

Dear friends,

Here in Washington, DC, August is a slow time. Historically, before the advent of air conditioned homes and office buildings, the heat and humidity of DC summers meant that very little business could get done. Rather than sweat it out, Congress took a recess, and most every government agency virtually shut down for the month of August.

These days, we don’t experience the kind of near-complete shutdown that was the norm in the early days of the city. Nevertheless, August definitely still brings a change of pace. Lots of folks are on vacation – and you’d better believe that Congress still takes their recess!

With this seasonal rhythm in mind, our community here in DC is doing our own August slow-down. This past Sunday we had the last meeting of our summer cycle, and we won’t be holding regular small group meetings again until September, when we begin our fall cycle.

This fall is looking to be very exciting for us, as we multiply our original small group into two new groups – one that meets out in Montgomery County, Maryland (serving the northern and western part of the DC metro area), and another that meets in the southern and eastern part of the city.

The multiplication of our first small group is an encouraging development for us on a variety of levels. First, it represents a multiplication of leadership, with a new leader and apprentice leader stepping up to organize the group in Maryland. Second, multiplication encourages us to take a more intentionally local perspective. With two groups instead of one, we will be freer to focus on the specific needs of different regions of our metro area, drawing people together who might not necessarily go for a weekly commute across town.

Finally, our pattern of multiplication positions us to invite more people into the community. Our first small group reached an optimal size almost immediately and stayed relatively stable over the course of the last seven months. By birthing these two new groups, we will be encouraged to look for new ways to reach out to our friends, neighbors and co-workers. We expect to adapt to the needs of our local communities, making us even more welcoming to new people.

As we enter into this new phase of our life together, it feels right to acknowledge our unfolding mission and vision by adopting a new name. For many months now, we have known that the name Capitol Hill Friends was not going to work for us in the long term. We sensed increasingly that our calling is to serve the entire DC metro area, not primarily the Capitol Hill neighborhood. We also realized that having a name that tied us to one neighborhood would be a hindrance as we begin to multiply our small groups across the region.

After months of discernment and prayerful consideration, we have come to unity that we should adopt: Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area. We feel that this name is a good representation of who we aspire to be, and one that gives a nod to our roots in the Quaker tradition without sounding sectarian. Going by Friends of Jesus has the added benefit of connecting us directly to the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, the wider network we are a part of.

I feel so grateful for the way that our community here is unfolding and growing stronger in depth, commitment and numbers as time goes on. There is no doubt in my mind that your prayers are essential to the work that the Lord is doing here in our midst. Please continue to lift us up in the light, love and power of Jesus.

Specifically, please pray:

  • For the Holy Spirit to bless, encourage and prepare the leaders of our two new small groups.
  • That God guide the planning and preparation for the retreat on spiritual gifts that Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area will be holding on September 1st.

In peace and gratitude,

Micah Bales

Love With Everything You’ve Got

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. – Mark 12:30

Growing up, I always assumed that my mind was the truest, most essential part of me. My thoughts, my memories, my conscious awareness – that’s who I always believed I was.

Many of my most basic understandings changed when I became a Christian, but this set of assumptions about my mind were left mostly unchallenged. Without really considering it too deeply, I continued to apply the logic of “mind over matter” to my relationship with God.

I assumed that a truly deep prayer life would be one in which I was constantly thinking about God, turning my conscious mind towards God. I figured that the point of a prayerful life was to remain mentally vigilant and, whenever I realized that my mind had slipped from awareness of God, to once again orient my mind towards God.

I still think that orienting the mind towards God is an important component of prayer, but lately I’m becoming convinced that this is only one part of being in relationship with God. Have you ever experienced the sensation of waking up from sleep with the feeling that you had been praying in your dreams? Times when your conscious mind was focused on other things, yet your body, your whole being was still somehow, mysteriously connected to God? Sometimes, although I am not mentally thinking about God, I am still loving God with all my heart, soul and strength.

For me, getting too fixated on the mental component can be a stumbling block to a deeper relationship with God. If I make the mistake of thinking that only my mental posture matters, I may miss the ways God wants to be in relationship with me through my heart, my strength, my entire being.

  • What are ways that you have shown love and devotion through parts of yourself other than your mind?
  • How do we show love through our heart, soul and strength, as well as through our mind?
  • Are we loving with everything we’ve got?

Getting Off The Treadmill

My life can get pretty over-scheduled. From the moment I wake up until late in the evening, many days it seems that there’s no real end to my personal work treadmill. If I’m lucky, there are at least pauses along the way for me to catch my breath.

This has become the new normal. Many of us live at 110%, constantly connected to work through smartphones and computers. The line between personal life and work has become blurred beyond the point of recognition. Just getting through the day without going totally crazy can seem like a real accomplishment.

As if this weren’t enough, Holy Spirit calls us to serve our neighbors in ways that stretch us and take us outside of our comfort zones. Loving Jesus means demonstrating his love for people – often people who, quite frankly, wouldn’t be my first pick if I were doing the choosing.

Living into this calling is hard enough when I’m fully rested and have a lot of time on my hands, much less at the end of a long day at work when all I want to do is go home, eat some ice cream and watch Netflix. After spending my day at 110%, where can I find the strength and energy to linger at the fence, talking to my next door neighbor? Where do I find the motivation to invite co-workers out to dinner, or to mentor someone in their walk with Christ? What could motivate me to sacrifice my precious me time and instead focus on the needs of others?

In my own life, I’m discovering that if I really want to follow Jesus, I may have to reevaluate my 110% lifestyle. When I am so keyed into the very important things that I am up to, it is hard for me to switch gears and stay open to the unexpected opportunities that the Holy Spirit offers throughout the week. The wind doesn’t blow through a house with closed windows; in the same way, I have a much harder time experiencing and responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit when my life is completely locked down with a full agenda of pre-determined commitments and projects.

How can I leave space in my life for those unscheduled moments of connection and service? What would it look like if I lived my life at, say, 80%? What kind of changes might start to happen my life if I was more intentional about leaving an open space for the Holy Spirit to move and play? This might involve making less money, slowing down my career. It’s not called sacrifice for nothing!

But I wonder, what kind of joy might I experience if I began to step off of the accomplishment treadmill? What relief might I find in leaving space for God to order my days, rather than the demands of all my self-driven projects? How might it feel to re-focus my life around human relationships, caring for others who are struggling just like I am?