Archive for September 2013

Addicted to Empire

I’m a big fan of the Book of Revelation. I know a lot of people aren’t as enthusiastic about this part of the Bible, and there are lots of good reasons for this. First of all, Revelation has probably been abused more any other part of Scripture. It seems like everyone with an apocalyptic ax to grind goes immediately to Revelation and concocts an elaborate theory of the end of the world – and why those who disagree with them will face the brunt of it.

And even if we look past all the misuse of this book, the text itself is pretty bizarre. You’ve got beasts rising out of the sea, dragons fighting angels, and heavenly creatures almost beyond description. It’s easy to get so confused and bewildered that it might seem wiser just to ditch the whole thing. Better to accept that we’ll just never really understand Revelation than to try to decode all its mysterious imagery.

I know that I’m a little strange, but rather than finding Revelation’s psychedelic imagery off-putting, I am captivated by it. Even before I became a Christian, I was fascinated by the powerful images of this apocalyptic text. In terms of its beauty and dynamism, Revelation has always seemed to me nothing less than the Sistine Chapel of the Bible.

More recently, I’ve become aware of the deep resonance between Revelation and other parts of the Bible – particularly in the Old Testament. I’m reading through the prophet Ezekiel right now, and I feel like I’m catching glimpses of Revelation at every turn. (Turns out the writers of the New Testament were pretty well-versed in the Old Testament. Go figure.)

I’d like to lift up one particular common thread I’m finding in Ezekiel: The lament for the fallen city. In the course of his prophetic ministry, Ezekiel describes how Tyre – an extremely powerful city with a vast commercial empire – would be destroyed. As part of his pronouncement, he describes how the local rulers and merchants of the coastlands are going to react to the city’s destruction:

In their wailing they raise a lamentation for you,
and lament over you:
“Who was ever destroyed like Tyre
in the midst of the sea?”
When your wares came from the seas,
you satisfied many peoples;
with your abundant wealth and merchandise
you enriched the kings of the earth.
Now you are wrecked by the seas,
in the depths of the waters;
your merchandise and all your crew
have sunk with you.
All the inhabitants of the coastlands
are appalled at you;
and their kings are horribly afraid,
their faces are convulsed.
The merchants among the peoples hiss at you;
you have come to a dreadful end
and shall be no more forever.

Ezekiel 27:32-36

This passage reminds me of a similar one from Revelation, when the merchants of the earth mourn the fall of Babylon (symbolizing Rome):

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.
For all the nations have drunk
of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.

Revelation 18:2b-3

In both of these passages, we find a depiction of people addicted to empire. Though both Tyre and Rome were oppressive powers that crushed all opposition and imposed their will on vasts territories, those who were under their power came to rely on them. In fact, their whole way of life became dependent on the stability, luxury and entertainment that their rulers provided.

This ancient dynamic sounds familiar. In my life today I see so many ways that I have become dependent on the very things that hold me and my community back from a more beautiful, just and loving world. Consider, for example, the innumerable aspects of my life that are dependent on the use of fossil fuels. Even though I know that the extraction and use of these resources are severely damaging to the environment and serve as a trigger for violent conflict and war, I feel unable to stop participating.

Though intellectually I know that my way of life is in many ways unsustainable and harmful, I’m sure I would mourn if I could no longer fly out to see my family in Kansas. I’d raise a lament if I could no longer afford to fill up our gas tank, even though I recognize that this might be healthier for my community and the earth as a whole. Most troubling of all, this is only one area, of many in my life, where I am addicted to the very powers that oppress the earth and its people.

The biblical witness, especially in writings like Ezekiel and Revelation, remind me of my own participation in structures and systems that do immense harm. Yet, the writers of Scripture do not leave me there. On the contrary, the writer of Revelation exhorts me to break the addiction to empire altogether: Come out of her, my people! Though it often feels impossible, I am challenged to reorient my lifestyle and become a part of a community that rejects dependency to luxury, violence and systems of oppression.

What might this look like? Are there ways that we can reduce our reliance on the systems and powers that enslave people and tear at the Creation? Are there areas in your own life where you have become not only comfortable with, but reliant upon injustice? What might be a first step we can take together in seeking greater wholeness, justice and liberation?

Working Together for Good

This weekend, I was out in Indiana for Friends United Meeting‘s Briding the Gaps conference for those who work with youth and young adults. It was an opportunity for Friends from a wide range of Yearly Meetings to gather and explore our shared work as friends and nurturers of the youth and young adults in our communities.

The conference went deeper than I had expected. During our workshops and sessions, we were able to really share out of our own experience of ministry to the younger generations of our communities. We learned that much of the work we do is the same, regardless of what Yearly Meeting we come from, and that we have a lot to learn from one another. By sharing stories, statistics, best practices and insights from years in the field, we strengthened each other as fellow workers in Christ’s ministry.

Probably the greatest lesson I received from this weekend was the reminder that we can find profound and unexpected unity in our shared mission. As Friends United Meeting, we are not a community merely because we like one another, nor are we simply a club for people who are fans of God. Instead, this weekend we rediscovered that our deepest unity is found in being doers the word. As we learn to follow Jesus together – by caring for our youth, energizing young adults, and encouraging the development of truly intergenerational community – we discover that the same Spirit working in us is at work across our whole worldwide community.

At our best, this is what Friends United Meeting is all about. We are a people gathered in Christ, in community and for mission. As we move forward together, I pray that we will continue to discover our common mission – not just in words, but in the very practical details of shared ministry. We are being invited into a life of power, peace and unity with God and with one another. How can we look for ways to embrace this calling?

We’ll Need More Than Church Signs

During my morning walk today, I must have passed at least half a dozen church buildings, each one with its own sign facing the road. Most of these were the backlit type with replaceable plexiglass letters that could be rearranged to spell out a new message each week. It was interesting to read each sign as I passed. I felt like it gave me a glimpse into the character of each congregation – or at least of the person who was in charge of updating the message!

There was a pretty wide range of expressions on these signs, both in length and tone. One simply said, GOD CARES. Another warned that SECRET SINS ARE ONLY SECRET TEMPORARILY. The longest of the messages I saw was triumphal: THE HISTORY OF TOMORROW HAS ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN: EVERY KNEE MUST BOW AT THE NAME OF JESUS.

Passing each of the buildings and their signs, I felt uneasy, though at first I had a hard time figuring out why. After all, I didn’t disagree with any of the statements I read. I, too, believe that God cares deeply about us, that secret wrongdoing will be brought to light, and that Jesus has overcome the world. So why did these signs leave me feeling cold – even skeptical?

One of the key discoveries of the Quaker movement is that it is not enough to say the right words and believe the right doctrines. A statement can be true, yet spoken in a way that does not give life. The church signs I observed this morning were filled with insider-language, veiled threats and even statements that could be interpreted as self-congratulatory. These were messages designed – whether intentionally or not – primarily for the benefit of those who already believe, rather than as a genuine form of outreach to a world that does not follow Jesus.

bad-church-signs-11th-hour1

Unfortunately, even if the messages displayed on these signs were pitch-perfect to the experience and needs of those outside the Church, the very format of church signs may be problematic. Take, for example, the sign that I considered the most accessible: GOD CARES.

This is a message that our hurting, lonely world needs to hear. Yet, we increasingly live in an age that does not take these kind of statements very seriously. After all, what does it mean that God cares? Who is God? What does it mean to care? A simple statement like God cares actually carries a huge number of hidden assumptions. In a society like ours, where universal understandings about religious truth are increasingly a thing of the past, such a statement demands a conversation.

This is challenging, of course, because conversation takes a lot more time and energy than simply putting up a pithy statement on a church sign. It also requires vulnerability. Conversations are two-way streets, and when we authentically engage with the world around us, we have to expect that our own worldview will be changed. Just because Jesus Christ is the Truth doesn’t mean that all of our beliefs are! Are we willing to do the kind of honest searching that real conversation will demand of us?

What are ways that we can be engaging in genuine conversations with our neighbors, friends and co-workers? What does it look like for us to be open to the truth that the Holy Spirit is revealing to those who have not yet chosen to follow Jesus? Are we ready to have our lives, our communities, and the Church as a whole changed by the experience, needs and insights of the world that God so loves? One thing is for sure: We’ll need more than church signs.

Finding the Balance – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #57

Dear friends,

After what we hope was the last round of sizzling summer weather this week, temperatures and humidity have fallen dramatically here in DC. The crispness in the air and distinctive clarity of daylight tells us that fall has arrived. Faith and I have been excited to put on an extra layer, open the windows and embrace the new season.

This seasonal change is invigorating, and not only in terms of the weather. As we move into fall, the Friends of Jesus community also enters into an exciting new phase of its life. Last week marked the beginning of our first-ever fall cycle. From now until early December, we’re coming together to explore the scriptural focus, “Look, I am making everything new!” We’ll be gathering around good food and deepening friendships, and through Spirit-led worship and exploration of Scripture we’ll seek to open ourselves to the ways that God wants to remake and renew us – and use us as agents of positive change in our city.

This fall cycle is special in many ways. Not only is it our first fall cycle, it is the first time we have organized a cycle around an entire season, rather than just a six-week period. It also marks the first time that we will be holding a cycle in multiple small groups. We have one group meeting out in suburban Maryland, with another gathering in the homes of participants in the District.

Now that we have more than one small group, we’re experimenting with how to be one body with many parts. One way way to accomplish this is having more than one kind of meeting. Starting this month, in addition to our weekly small groups we will also gather monthly to share worship and strengthen connections across our whole community. Our first monthly gathering will be on Sunday, September 29th. Through this rhythm of local weekly small groups and city-wide monthly gatherings, we are developing a model for growing a community that lives out the gospel across the physical geography and human diversity of our city.

Just as this is a time of growth and experimentation for Friends of Jesus as a whole, so it is for me, on a personal level. I have spent a lot of my time this month exploring what it means to be a full-time minister who also raises his own financial support. As a bi-vocational minister, it can be quite a balancing act to feel out how much of my time and energy God is calling me to put into unpaid ministry, and how much focus I should place on work that is paid.

This summer, I have begun apprenticing with a local carpenter named Scott. He’s been doing an amazing job of teaching me the basics of the trade. In the past couple of months, he’s taken me from a state of almost complete ignorance and developed me into a fairly serviceable helper. We’ve done a lot of different projects together, and we are currently in the middle of doing the biggest one so far: gutting and completely remodeling a basement bedroom. Together, we are turning a space that used to be a health hazard into a safe, pleasant living area. And we’re having a blast while we’re at it.

I’ve learned so much working with Scott, and not just about carpentry. He’s helping me to see how much time and effort goes into every room I walk into, every street I drive down, every skyline I observe. As human beings, we are made in the image of God – and I am seeing more clearly than ever that one of those marks is the care and hard work we can put into the world that surrounds us. This new awareness helps me to appreciate how precious our world is, especially when I recognize the work of a craftsman who took the extra time, sweat and energy to make things beautiful.

Working with Scott is also providing a helpful reminder about my own limitations. I have enjoyed this work so much that I have sought out as much of it as I could get. As the summer has gone on, I’ve spent more and more time on the job with Scott, to the point that recently I have effectively been working full time as an apprentice carpenter. This is in addition to my two other paid jobs, unpaid ministry and life with my family and friends. I’ve loved the work – all of it – but it’s been a lot.

I knew it already, but I am experiencing with greater clarity than ever that I am a finite being with very real limits on my time, energy, attention and strength. How can I best steward these resources to strengthen the body of Christ and bless the world? What is the best balance of paid activity, unpaid service, and time spent off the clock with family, friends and neighbors?

I’ve learned one thing for sure this month: It is not sustainable for me to work full time as a carpenter, part time as a web developer, part time as a writer, be responsive to the work God has for me with Friends of Jesus, and be present to my family and friends. As much as I want to do every good thing full time, my human limitations just won’t allow it. Though this can be deeply frustrating for me, I am also learning to see the blessing in it. In my own weakness, I get to witness God’s strength. My frailties and limitations help to focus me on the work that God is most especially calling me to right now.

It takes a lot of humility to let God set my priorities in this way – the kind of humility that is closely related to humiliation! I have to confess, I still find it challenging to trust God to provide for our material needs, but it is absolutely essential if I am to avoid choosing paid work over unpaid work by default. I know that I don’t have this kind of courage or wisdom on my own, but I pray that the Holy Spirit will give me the grounding and guidance I need to live joyfully into whatever labor God has for me.

I am deeply grateful for everyone who holds me, our family and Friends of Jesus up in prayer. I ask that you continue to pray for us, and in particular ask prayers for:

  • The Spirit’s blessing on this new season of Friends of Jesus in the DC Metro Area. May we fully embrace our scriptural focus, finding that God is indeed making everything new – in our lives, and in the life of our city.
  • Courage and guidance for me as I seek a faithful balance of different kinds of work – paid and unpaid.
  • Openings for me, and for all of us in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, to demonstrate the new and abundant life that we have found in Christ Jesus. May God give us strength, wisdom and courage to invite others into the exhilarating and deeply challenging way of Jesus.

Your friend and brother,

Micah Bales

Way Closes

Recently, my community held a retreat to explore our spiritual gifts. We mostly examined our strong points, those areas where God is especially equipping us for works of mercy and justice, love. For example, we were encouraged to learn that every person who attended the retreat had the missionary gift (as described by Natural Church Development). As it turns out, our core community is made up of people who are gifted by God to show love to those who are very different from ourselves, to reach across the cultural and social barriers that often keep us divided. As a new community seeking to make a positive impact in a diverse city region, this is indeed a gift!

As helpful as it is to look at these areas of strength, there is another side to spiritual gifts. If we are especially equipped, empowered and called in certain areas, it follows that there are other areas where we are not. At this point in my life, I am finding myself drawn to examine the ways that I am not strong, not gifted. In some ways, my areas of non-giftedness and non-calling are even more illuminating.

I have always liked the Quaker phrase, Way opens. It means that we may not always understand how God is working in our lives, but if we trust him, he opens up paths, opportunities and relationships that will allow us to grow deeper in love and service. It holds the promise that there will always be an open door for me to walk through.

In my own experience, though, I have found that the opposite can be just as true: Way closes. Many of the most important decisions of my life have been made not out of a sense of way opening, but instead in the context of doors being slammed in my face. Sometimes, I discover God’s plan for me in the midst of failure, rejection and pain. Sometimes a lot of doors have to close before I am willing to walk through the one that the Spirit has appointed for me.

There is beauty in my human weakness, though it seems so ugly to my self-will. Limitations help to focus my attention. By discovering where I am not called, not gifted, our faithful options narrow. Way opens when I am ready to acknowledge all the closed ways and welcome them as a gift, too.

  • Have you explored what your spiritual gifts might be? Are there areas where you do not feel gifted?
  • How do your gifts – and lack of gifts – help to focus your time and energy?
  • Can you remember a time when way closed for you? How did you respond?

The Peace of the City

…Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. – Jeremiah 29:7

As far back as I can remember, even in earliest childhood, I have always had a nagging sense of separation from the world around me. I felt it in my bones: Something is not right here. This world is not as it was meant to be.

For a long time, I drank deeply from the bitterness of alienation. I believed that goodness consisted in separating myself from the world altogether. I looked for ways to construct an entirely different kind of society. I dreamed of a community that would be entirely off the grid of ordinary life, untarnished by this pervasive sense of deadness, ugliness and compromise.

But I couldn’t grit my teeth and stiff-arm the world forever. Absolute resistance is absolutely exhausting. Eventually, I had to start lowering my standards; letting others in; opening myself to a world that is incomplete, struggling and in pain. I opened the gate – just a crack – to the world.

To my astonishment, I feel increasingly connected to this broken society I was born into. In spite of all my apprehensions and resistance, I am settling down into this land of where God has sent me. I still struggle with this stubborn sense of alienation. The world is still not as it should be. But there is also amazing beauty here – light radiating from the smudged face of Creation.

Despite all the world’s pain and brokenness, how can I open my eyes to beauty and wholeness? What are ways that I can be a blessing to this city where God has placed me, even when I feel like an exile? What does love look like here?

Who Are The Prophets?

I just finished reading Representations of the Intellectual, by Edward Said. In this slim volume, a collection of six lectures weighing in at 121 pages, Said explores the role of the public intellectual in our post-industrial society.

Said argues that it is the sacred charge of the intellectual to uphold universal principles that must be applied regardless of who is in power or what special circumstances arise. The intellectual holds friend and foe alike to the same standard – relentlessly inviting, persuading and confronting the principalities and powers to acknowledge their limits and moral responsibility. He or she reminds today’s rulers that their authority is contingent, and that they are ultimately accountable to a standard beyond the dictates of realpolitik.

For Said, a true intellectual is one who does not allow herself to become so compromised by loyalty to a cause, ideology, nation or party that she is no longer able to speak openly and truthfully to the pressing issues of the day. Said argues for a fearless class of intellectual who remains always an amateur. He laments the rise of pervasive professionalization that has rendered so many public thinkers mere employees. When considerations of personal advancement, reputation and loyalty become more important than the truth, a person is no longer an intellectual in the truest sense.

I find in these lectures a resonance that goes back much farther than the modern Arab and European intellectual traditions in which Said was so steeped. For me, Said’s vision of the fearless public intellectual reads as a riveting exploration of what it means to be a prophet in our (post)modern world. In all fairness, Said might have cringed at this take on his work. A self-described agnostic, Said comes across as gently dismissive of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet I am impressed with how, despite his negative view of the biblical witness, he ultimately came to express a vision of the intellectual that in many ways mirrors the rather unpleasant, thankless, and often dangerous work of the Hebrew prophets.

Certainly, there are important differences – most fundamentally in the realm of authority. Said chooses to make abstract, philosophical values (for example, that racism is wrong) the touchstone for his ideal intellectual. For the Old Testament prophets and those who have followed in their footsteps, the point of reference must always be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Functionally, however, Said’s intellectual serves the same purpose as the biblical prophet. Using whatever symbolic means at his or her disposal – words, music, poetry or public performance – the intellectual/prophet exposes the heart of the matter, the way things really are, whether those in power like it or not.

We know from the stories of the biblical prophets, as well as from the many prophets/intellectuals who have shaped our world in the last two thousand years, that there is often a high price to pay for carrying out this work of truth-telling. To publicly display truth can have serious consequences when those in power depend on the cover of darkness to maintain their grip on society. The true prophets/intellectuals are often beaten, killed, exiled – anything to shut them up and keep the deceitful dance going.

Despite the violent reaction that they inspire, however, the prophet/intellectual is truly a friend to the whole of society – even, ultimately, the elites that silence them. Neither Said’s intellectual nor the biblical prophet is against the rulers. In fact, a society that heeds the words of the prophet/intellectual will be healthier, more just, and generally avoid catastrophe. That’s good news for everybody, whether presidents or fast food workers.

Unfortunately, we generally choose to follow gods of our own making rather than acknowledging the inconvenient truth. Said spends a lot of time in these essays talking about humanity’s false gods. Whether political ideologies, tribal loyalties or the simple lure of wealth and acclaim, there are so many things that have the appearance of ultimacy, but which are not, in fact, ultimate. We worship them at our own peril.

Just like the biblical prophet, Said’s intellectual exists to call us out of our idolatry and back into an honest, soul-searching encounter with life as it really is. This divine encounter rejects the false certainty of fundamentalism, whether religious or secular. Instead, the prophet/intellectual invites us to embrace a risky faith that remains open to doubt, dialogue and change.

Said writes that the true intellectual is a secular being – secular in the sense that the his words and actions are firmly grounded in the concrete realities of life as it is really lived. Static, propositional ideology – whether the Nicene Creed or the Communist Manifesto – can never be the starting place for real faith. Christ is revealed when we encounter him in the midst of our everyday lives – in our work for greater health, prosperity, reconciliation and justice in our neighborhoods and on the international stage.

In her work, the prophet/intellectual has no room for canned dogma that takes precedence over the real, urgent concerns of living individuals and communities. Of what value are platitudes about freedom and democracy when our foreign policy destroys lives, families, nations? What do we gain by parroting cheap stock phrases about Jesus while denying the resurrection through our hardness of heart, our unwillingness to open our lives and share with others?

As prophets, as intellectuals in the sense that I believe Said meant to use the word, the first step is to see the truth about ourselves. Are we ready to recognize the false gods that we are serving? Will we face the ways in which we compromise the gospel in order to get along, avoid conflict and ensure our own comfort? Only acknowledging the truth about our own lives will prepare us to serve as clear-eyed truth tellers in our communities, our nations and beyond.