Archive for October 2013

The Gods of the Market

For most of human history, religious faith has been central to the life, economy and government of virtually all societies. Babylon, Egypt, China, Greece and Rome, all of these empires explicitly traced their authority from heaven, the gods, or other transcendent concepts that can only be described as religious. Religious acts were political acts, and vice versa. To challenge the status quo of the ruling authorities was to call into question the religious authorities, as well. Expressions of faith were serious business.

For over a thousand years, Western Christianity was the theological glue that held European society together. We can still observe remnants of these former times in the civil religion of the United States. Even today, presidents invoke the name of God during speeches. Prayers are spoken before sessions of legislative bodies. New citizens and government employees are required to swear oaths of loyalty to the state. Our civil structures still bear traces of a time when Christian religious concepts were deeply intertwined with government.

For the most part, however, theistic religion is being pushed steadily out of our civic life. Sure, politicians still make vestigial reference to a non-descript, America-blessing deity; but theological considerations play almost no role in how our mainstream culture is shaped and our society is governed. Many Americans today believe that our civic society should be free of religious influences, allowing each individual to practice their own religion – privately. Many others are just as convinced that America was founded as a Christian nation, and that the rise of secularity is an enormous threat. Whatever side of this debate we find ourselves on, almost no one believes that America today is a society with a shared religious basis.

But what if we are missing the point entirely? Could it be that the ground has so shifted under our feet that we have failed to recognize that a new religious system has supplanted the old Christendom, uniting the whole Western world in its powerful mythology?

I would like to suggest that we are indeed living in a new religious order has that has nothing to do with Judeo-Christian ideas about the deity, but instead is grounded in another invisible power altogether. This power is invoked when our high officials talk about how the markets are reacting. We pay homage to this new religion when our economic and intellectual leaders speak of the need for economic growth. This religious system has its clergy and high priests, managing the inner sancta of stock exchanges, the Federal Reserve and central banks around the world.

This new faith provides meaning and orders the systems that affect our daily lives. Just as with the old religions, its dictates and logic are inextricably intertwined with the workings of government and the privileges of the elites. Only now, our civilization no longer even pretends to be ordered by a loving God of mercy and justice. Our society now orbits a different star altogether.

For decades, most of us – including much of the Christian community – have been quietly adapting ourselves to this new reality. We can sense that traditional religious faith no longer provides a useful intellectual framework for public discourse. Our faith convictions – whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or otherwise – have become a strictly private matter. Like practicing yoga, playing volleyball or holding membership at a gym, participation in a faith tradition is seen as a supplemental, optional enrichment activity. If it works for you, go for it – but don’t expect your faith to have any impact beyond your own personal sense of meaning.

The state religion of the economy, on the other hand, is inescapable. Whether you believe or not, if the Federal Reserve raises interest rates, you will be impacted. If the numbers flitting across computer screens in the New York Stock Exchange decline dramatically, you might lose your job. If your passion and giftedness lie in areas outside those which the money system values (for example: musicians, caregivers, ministers, community organizers, artists and creative writers), you can expect to pay much more than a tithe to gods of the market. In all these ways, and many more, we are directly impacted by the strictures of the new religious order.

In this context, what is the value of traditional religious faith? Has faith in the God of Abraham become so irrelevant that all it can provide, at best, is a secondary source of meaning – something on par with ethnic heritage or membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution?

Yes, it probably has.

It pains me to say this, since I myself have gained a lot from this traditional kind of faith. Though I mourn the mounting irrelevance of modern Christianity, it seems likely to me that Reformation-era religion is nearing its expiration date, if not already past it. When I am honest with myself, I can’t really blame most of my friends who do not go to church or participate actively in a faith tradition. Most of these traditional communities really don’t have much to offer beyond some inspirational thoughts and comfortable community. If that’s all there is to the Church, why not just check out an inspirational book from the library and then try to build community with people you already interact with on a daily basis?

Given what most of the Church has become, the gods of the market seem a lot more powerful than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. While the market gods seem to control life and death, prosperity and poverty, the God of traditional faith comes across as heartwarmingly trivial, at best.

Still, I haven’t lost hope. I have discovered in my own life that Jesus is more powerful than any of the prosperity gods that our mainstream culture offers. The gods of the market promise wealth and security based in fear, but the God of Abraham leads us into a true life of love and beauty, in community with others.

How can we embrace this life of beauty, justice and compassion in ways that speak directly to our present-day conditions? Rather than taking refuge in the dying structures of traditional religion, what would it look like to embrace a faith that directly challenges the gods of the market and offers an alternative way of life – an economy of love and a community based in gifts rather than barter? In an age that is obsessed with wealth, security and personal privilege, what would it look like for us to release everything – even our safe and comfortable religions – to follow Jesus?

The Power To (Not) Change

Change has always been easy for me. Whether a big change, like moving to a new city, or something as mundane as taking a different route on a walk around my neighborhood, I enjoy new experiences. Breaking out of my regular routines and habits gives me a sense of endless possibility – it feels as though I’m really accomplishing something!

Sustaining change is harder. The joyful intensity that I experience during a change begins to wear off. All the obstacles that at first didn’t seem so serious, begin to loom large. Starting is easy, but finishing well takes a lot more endurance.

In these times of diminishing energy and motivation, I really have to turn to God for guidance. God felt very present in that first moment of creation, but now the joy and clarity are diminishing. Does God still want me to continue? Should I move again? Find another project? Abandon relationships? Is there something else that God really wants me to be doing?

Sometimes, it really is time for a change in my life, and God gives me clarity about that. But more often than not, I my desire for change has more to do with my own impatience than with faithfulness. I want to see results and accomplishments now. When those aren’t forthcoming, it’s tempting to move on – to make a change that gives me immediate positive feedback.

Rather than take the bait and abandon the hard work God has called me to, I am frequently challenged to reconnect with the sense of call that guided me to where I am now. Even if I’m not feeling enthusiastic at the moment, I can remember the feeling of purpose and clarity that brought me to this place. I have to trust that the One who guided me in that time will provide the strength I need to persevere.

  • Do you like change, starting new things? Or are you more of a sustainer type who finds change difficult?
  • How does this play out in your relationship with God and your discernment about the work and relationships that God is calling you to?
  • How do you strike the balance between faithful stability in the call that you have already received, and an openness to the new work that God may call you to?

Is Jesus Too Exclusive?

I‘m definitely a child of my post-modern generation: I tend to recognize multiple valid perspectives on any question; I experience truth as dynamic, changing in its expression depending on context; and I am suspicious of black-and-white, either/or thinking. Yet, I also follow a man who makes some pretty black-and-white truth claims. I have faith in a God who acts in history to uphold a particular truth, a vision of social justice and personal holiness that has clear definition and is anything but relative. Despite my post-modern inclination to embrace nuance, paradox and gray areas, Jesus presents me with a yes or no decision: Will I follow him, or not?

The choice to answer “yes” is a direct challenge to the status quo. All of a sudden, I find that I can’t go along anymore with my culture’s competing truth claims. There so many things claiming to be the answer, from soda pop and luxury automobiles to political regimes and philosophical movements, but now I find myself in relationship to the one who truly is the real thing. Jesus has become not merely one option for my personal growth, nor just a great teacher whose wisdom I can mix and match with other teachers and paths. Instead, I am put in the uncomfortable position of following him as my Lord and my God.

By relating to Jesus as what Paul Tillich would call ultimate concern, I shine a spotlight on the inadequacy of all other, less-than-ultimate concerns. Family, country, community, wealth, peace and progress, all these things are good and necessary for our well-being, but they fall short of ultimacy. In Jesus, I discover that it’s not enough to be happy, healthy and wealthy if I’m not following the ultimate truth.

Rod White, founder of the Circle of Hope community in Philadelphia, recently wrote an excellent post about how much Jesus’ “exclusivity” challenges our wider culture. The very act of claiming sole fidelity to Jesus is deeply offensive to a perspective that says each of us has our own subjective reality, and that the only real truth is to be found in our personal experiences and relationships. Acknowledging Jesus as Lord blows open that whole worldview. It is an act that says, “there is someone far more beautiful, powerful and important than any of us can comprehend, and we must change our lives to follow him!” For a culture that prizes the individual’s freedom to define their own meaning, this is a slap in the face.

Despite how offensive and exclusive Jesus may seem to many, following him is ultimately the most inclusive, loving thing we can do. Rod White expresses this beautifully in his post, where he explains that our culture’s way of creating belonging is through shared affinity – for example, the kind of music we listen to, games we play, work we do, or pets we own. Our culture seeks to create unity through subcultures centered on shared consumption, rather than shared purpose.

These various subcultures – including many religious groups, I might add! – are an extremely exclusive way of forming community. They depend upon a group of people gathered around shared traits or interests. They gather around who we are and what we do rather than who God is and what God is doing.

Jesus does things differently. He draws us into community with people that we would not have chosen ourselves. Rather than coming together primarily out of shared hobbies, life experience or social/class backgrounds, Jesus calls people who are profoundly different. These folks might not even like each other; yet, in Jesus, they discover an irresistible love that unites them.

I’ve seen this play out many times: God draws together a bunch of misfits, folks who no reasonable person would have picked out, but who our unreasonable God designed to cohere in his Spirit. This is the kind of community I want to be a part of: a community that stretches me to love folks I don’t like, to grow beyond the normal bounds of human affinity.

No doubt, many will misunderstand this kind of community. They will perceive it as exclusive to build a spiritual family around such a narrow idea as that of following Jesus, and only Jesus. They may even assume that, because they have not chosen to follow Jesus, they are unwelcome in such a fellowship. While we can’t control the reaction of others, I do hope to be part of a community so radiant with Christ’s inclusive love that even those who are skeptical of our faith will be drawn to us. When we are dwelling in the Spirit, others may perceive that we want to be friends with them – not because we like them, and not because they say the right words or believe the right things, but because Jesus already loves them and accepts them. And as his friends, so do we.

A Change of Pace – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #58

Dear friends,

This last month has been a change of pace. During the past year, I’ve felt myself called to get much more local, to travel far less, and to focus almost exclusively on developing community in the DC area. That work has borne a lot of fruit, and we have grown substantially in both depth and numbers as compared with where we were at a year ago. But while I still sense that most of my focus still needs to be on nurturing and equipping our local community and leaders, this month I’ve felt an opening to forms of ministry that go beyond the local Meeting.

It started with a trip to the Midwest. In late September, I spent about a week in Richmond, Indiana, at the FUM Bridging the Gaps conference for youth and young adult workers. After that, I stayed in town for a few more days to participate in an FUM staff retreat. My time out in Richmond was invigorating. I was reminded that I am a part of a broader movement, and that we as Friends of Jesus are just one little cell in the worldwide Body of Christ.

Not long after getting back from a week away in Indiana, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship had its annual Fall Gathering right here in Washington, DC. Coming so close on the heels of my visit to Indiana, this was yet another reminder of the work that remains to be done in our wider network. I am feeling drawn to renew my commitment to encouraging the many groups and individuals who are either part of FOJF or who share a similar mission and focus. I don’t know exactly what this will look like yet, but I am trusting that God will reveal the ways in which I can be most faithful in the months ahead.

Believe it or not, I actually ended up taking another trip out to Indiana this month. The second one came immediately after the FOJF Fall Gathering, when I hitched a ride with Hoot Williams – an organizer for Friends of Jesus in Philadelphia. We attended the annual Pastors’ Conference held at Earlham School of Religion, and visited among Friends in Richmond. Despite the insanity of driving nine hours each way to spend a day and a half in Indiana, the trip was deeply refreshing and encouraging for me. The Pastors’ Conference inspired me to consider how to make the practice of Sabbath a bigger part of my life, and I was grateful to be able to spend time connecting with Hoot and Friends in Richmond.

As I continue to do discernment about my widening sense of spiritual concern, I am finding my conception of ministry broadened in ways beyond the geographical. For the first time in more than a year, I feel that God is once again inviting me into more proactive work for economic and social justice. While I’m not quite sure what this will entail, I sense it will be important for me to become active in gathering with a wide range of communities – variously secular and spiritual – to prepare ourselves for the many challenges that lie ahead. No great social change ever occurs without years or decades of groundwork, and I want to be part of a movement that advances the cause of justice and reveals the beauty of God’s kingdom for everyone to see.

As I explore these bubbling changes in my life and sense of calling, I hope that you will continue to unite with me in prayer. Here are a few specific ways that you might consider praying this month:

  • For God to guide me in being faithful to the specific work that he is calling me to. Let me be given wisdom to know what is mine to do, and humility to leave the rest to others.
  • That the Friends of Jesus communities have a deep awareness of the Spirit’s presence. May God raise up new leaders to equip us for the work that God is giving us.
  • For us to make the connections and strengthen the relationships that we need to share God’s love and open up new life in the kingdom.

In love and friendship,

Micah

Who Do You Love?

At one point in Jesus’ ministry, someone asked him what the most important rule to live by was. Jesus replied that there are two: First, love God with everything we’ve got, holding nothing back. Second, love others as much as ourselves. If we manage to do both of these things, we’re fulfilling the whole plan of God, from Abraham and Moses to the prophets.

As is usually the case with the teachings of Jesus, this lesson is at once extremely simple and deeply challenging. It’s easy to say that we should love God and other people, but how often do I fail to put this into practice! Each of these commands are the work of a lifetime.

How can I, with all my petty concerns and blindness, really learn how to love God? And how, with my selfishness and instinct for self-preservation, am I supposed to love others completely – looking out for their best interests just as much as I do my own? No doubt about it: This is a superhuman demand!

To make matters even trickier, these two imperatives often seem to be in competition. For example, maybe I’m inclined to spend much of my time seeking deeper friendship with God – through prayer, Bible reading, meditation, etc. – yet it’s easy to become withdrawn from other people. I can love God so much that I fail to make myself available to others. On the other hand, at times I can get so intent on making a difference and having a positive impact on those around me, that I lose sight of the underlying relationship with Christ that should be guiding me. I can put so much emphasis on doing that sometimes simply being with and listening to God falls by the wayside.

In reality, of course, there is no contradiction between loving God and loving others, between solitary, contemplative prayer and the kind of prayer that takes place in the midst of community-building and action for justice. Still, I often struggle. How do I connect the two, living into both of these paths of love, without losing my connection with either?

Have you experienced this tension in your own life? Which part of the Great Commandment comes more naturally for you? What would it look like to live more deeply in that life and power that allows us to love both God and neighbor, seamlessly reflecting back the love that we receive through Jesus Christ?

Getting Ready for the Next Occupy

It was bone-chillingly cold as we gathered for the first General Assembly of Occupy DC in McPherson Square. We endured relentless downpours and high winds that sliced through our layered clothing. Despite the miserable conditions, our shared excitement and sense of hope was enough to keep us coming back for more. Nothing – not even our own lack of preparation – would get in our way.

We had so much to learn – like how to stay warm and dry, and how to maintain sanitary conditions in a small public park that was in no way designed for hundreds of inhabitants. We were forced to develop basic urban survival skills from scratch, and many of us struggled to make the transition.

Developing these practical skills was only the beginning of our challenges. Even if we succeeded in staying safe and keeping the camp in good order – always a difficulty – we still had the task before us of confronting the economic, social and political structures of the 1%. Still, we were so full of hope and enthusiasm that half the time we really believed that we could do it.

To some extent, we did. In a matter of weeks, our national public discourse had changed irrevocably. Suddenly, journalists, prominent intellectuals – even the president – were talking about income inequality and economic justice. In a nation that had almost completely suppressed any consciousness of social/economic class, the idea of the 99% and the 1% was giving ordinary Americans a safe and empowering way to talk about the devastating dynamics that we are experiencing on a daily basis. To the extent that our goal was to raise popular awareness and change the trajectory of the national conversation, it would be fair to say that the Occupy movement experienced a great degree of success.

In other ways, though, Occupy definitely failed to live up to our highest expectations. We faced a number of challenges – far more significant than weather and sanitation – that eventually relegated Occupy to being an ideological victory, rather than a practical one. Our challenges were many: We got fixated on process and theoretical discussions that often took the place of real outreach and movement-building. Many of us made the mistake of thinking that the police were the enemy, rather than seeing them as fellow human beings. We sometimes turned direct action into a fetish, rather than one tool as part of an overall strategy. We were unprepared for the large numbers of unstable, narcissistic and extremely ideological groups and individuals who sought to turn Occupy into a chaotic playground. Trust broke down, and we lost the sense of unity and solidarity that made the first days of the movement so powerful.

By mentioning all this, I don’t mean to re-hash old arguments or open old wounds. I do believe that the Occupy movement was very sucessful in opening a conversation on class and economic justice in a country that has long been closed to such considerations. But it was also a tempest that we were unprepared for, though I feel hopeful that we have learned many lessons from the experience.

Two years later, most of us are back into a kind of stand-by mode. Just like before the Occupy movement, we are waiting for what the next big step might be towards a society where there is greater economic justice, more care for the earth, and deeper, healthier communities to be a part of. We yearn for a more beautiful, just world, but often we feel stuck. Occupy is over, but it’s unclear what comes next.

I want to suggest that now is the time for us to be laying the groundwork for whatever is yet to come. Most of us can sense that more such pivotal moments are on the horizon. The Occupy movement was just the opening scene in a much longer drama, and the choices we make right now about how to prepare (or not) will have an enormous impact on how things play out in years to come.

What might it look like to prepare for the next waves we can feel approaching? What are the practical skills we need to learn? How can we get rooted in communities and practices that will strengthen us for the challenges that are sure to emerge? How can we be consciously preparing for the next great opening?

If we neglect to do this work, no doubt we will be caught off guard again. A movement will form, but we will once again get tangled up in negative dynamics similar to those that we encountered during Occupy. If, however, we choose to do the work of preparation now, next time could play out very differently.

Imagine an opening like the one we saw with Occupy, except this time we have developed extensive networks of organizers and communities around the world that are ready to seize the initiative proactively. Imagine being part of justice-seeking communities that are conscious enough of our role in history that we recognize these pivotal moments, and act decisively!

This will be no simple feat. That kind of effort will require a level of coordination that we have not seen since the Civil Rights movement. It will demand a substantial investment of our time and resources – not to mention developing a collective attention span that is measured in years and decades rather than weeks and months. Such a movement – an enduring movement for social transformation – will mean a serious reorientation of our lives.

Does that sound like something you’re ready to sign up for? Is your yearning for a more peaceful and just world strong enough that you are ready to begin preparing yourself and others for the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead? How can we work together to make these dreams reality?

I highly recommend these two articles that helped spur me to write this piece:

Breaking Up With Occupy – by Nathan Schneider

A Revolution Comes In Stages – Occupy Or Otherwise – by George Lakey

Where True Love Happens

For a long time, I lived a life of avoidance. I sought refuge in my own ideals, in travel, and in all sorts of electronic media. Yet, in all my searching, I never encountered anything that could answer the deep hunger within me. I never found that perfect place or ideal community that I imagined. Despite all my attempts to fill the emptiness inside, it only grew.

After years of seeking, the Quaker community provided the prompting I needed to go deeper. Rather than searching for meaning out there, I discovered something amazing, hidden within – a life and power that drew me out of darkness and filled my emptiness with light.

This experience of God’s hidden power had effects that I never could have imagined. For so long, I had sought fulfillment in the perfect idea, community or place, but now I realized that I had never truly engaged life head-on. I wanted sweet without bitter, light without dark, pleasure without pain. I didn’t want relationship; I didn’t even really want the truth: I wanted satisfaction.

Lately, Jesus has been giving me an attitude adjustment. God is inviting me to experience life as it is, not as I wish it were. This world is both beautiful and full of pain; churning with energy and life, yet trapped in cycles of weariness and death. Before, I tried to avoid the bittersweet contradictions of our aching world. Now, though, I can sense the Spirit inviting me to participate fully in this messy, tangled web of relationships where true love happens.

  • What are ways that you try to avoid life’s pain and messiness?
  • Can you imagine accepting difficult people and situations with no strings attached?
  • What could it look like to practice the unpredictable beauty of Christ’s love?