Archive for 2013 – Page 3

Are You A Consumer?

Over the course of my lifetime, it seems that consumer has become the most common word used to refer to individual members of our society. On television, in newspapers, and on the radio, we regularly hear stories about what consumers are doing and thinking. We are constantly being updated on how consumers are reacting to the market. Whether it’s that gasoline has gotten too expensive, or that the latest iProduct is in high demand, the habits and patterns of consumers are of great concern to the established media companies.

This morning at breakfast, I was reading an article in the newspaper about how the Affordable Care Act is negatively impacting some individuals – especially those who buy their own insurance, rather than receiving it through an employer. The content of the article was interesting, but what struck me the most was the way the problem was framed. Rather than approaching the story from a public policy angle, the article mainly focused on the reaction of consumers of health care goods and services. The crux of the article was whether some individuals should be required to buy a product they might not want or need so that other individuals could have affordable access to health care products they need desperately but might not be able to afford under the old regime.

This is the way they presented the dilemma: as a story of tension between healthier consumers and less healthy consumers, fighting to get the best deal for their health care dollars. But could there be another way of thinking about health care, and about our society as a whole? Is there a framework that would allow us to consider these questions in a way that assumed connection, caring and community between individuals, rather than the zero-sum competition of the market?

One framework that immediately occurred to me was that of citizenship. I have the impression (my older readers can tell me if I’m mistaken) that fifty years ago the word citizen was much more common in our public discourse, and that the word consumer much less common. How would our public conversation – not to mention public policy – be different if framed in terms of citizenship, rather than consumption?

The idea of citizenship could offer a positive antidote to the consumeristic worldview. While consumers have only unmet desires and (hopefully) means to pay for it, citizens have rights, responsibilities and a role within a larger community. What might change if we thought in terms of rights and responsibilities, rather than in terms of consumer desire and spending? In short, what would be the effect of a worldview that is primarily civic rather than hedonistic?

Such a renewed conception of citizenship could yield enormous benefits for our society. A nation that conceives of itself primarily as a union of citizens, rather than consumers, would be a much healthier, functional, and more prosperous one. Yet, there are definitely problems that this worldview based in citizenship would fail to address – in particular, our culture’s unbalanced focus on the individual. Even as a nation of citizens, it would still be easy for us to think in terms of my personal rights and my personal responsibilities. We would no longer be hedonists, perhaps, but we would still be individualists.

Rather than stumbling into single-serving citizenship, what if we learned to be a body together? In the New Testament, Paul talks about how those who live in God’s love are knit together as a single organism. No longer a mere collection of individuals, we discover that we are all deeply connected; that, in a certain sense, we are not separate at all. When one of us is happy, we rejoice together; when one of us is in pain, we feel it as a community. This experience of being a body together takes us far beyond the duties of citizenship. Deeper than individual rights and responsibilities, we are called to surrender our prerogatives and take on the burdens of others – not because we have to, but out of love.

What would it look like to consider the issues of our day with this mindset? How would we address one another in our conversations around affordable health care, military spending, gay marriage and genetic engineering? How would our whole way of living as members of the human family be changed by this awareness of ourselves as an interconnected society, a community of communities, whose health and prosperity depend deeply on one another?

The Gift of Rest

In the circles I run in, it is fashionable to be busy. Most folks I know juggle overfilled schedules, and the little bit of free time we do have is mostly dedicated to recovering from all the hours we spend working. It’s a real challenge not to get sucked into this dynamic of chronic busyness. I try to manage my time and energy in ways that leave me open to unexpected events, conversations, meals – the stuff of organic relationships. Still, more often than not I end up working six days a week and making appointments for most of my evenings, too!

None of these activities are bad; in fact, they’re usually quite beneficial. Each task I take on seems reasonable when I commit to it. Yet, when taken together, these various tasks can pile up to the point that they get in the way of my relationship with God, and my openness to other people. I can get so wrapped up in getting things done that I miss the whole point. It’s easy to forget who I’m working for in the first place.

It seems significant to me that God spent so much time teaching the Hebrews about Sabbath rest. In Genesis, after six days of creative work, God sets an example for us by resting on the seventh. In the law given to Moses, God lays out a regular schedule of rest from work, and full release to those who have the hardest work of all. Jesus, in his ministry, takes this theme to its logical conclusion, commanding his followers not to worry at all. Rather than imagining that our own labor is what provides for us, Jesus reveals that all of life is an unearned gift.

If one of the central teachings of our faith is that we should quit worrying and take the time to rest, why is it so hard to let go? What kind of joy could be possible if we accept the simple gift of the present moment? What would it look like to embrace the natural limits that God has gifted each of us with, allowing Christ’s strength to shine through our weakness?

  • How do you find the right balance between work and rest, action and contemplation?
  • Have you ever experienced your weakness as a gift, rather than a burden?
  • What are ways that you have seen God working through human limitations?

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?