Archive for April 2014

Can Worship Be Taught?

When I first became a Friend, something I heard a lot was that Quakerism is caught, not taught. For many Friends it is a point of pride that our faith is acquired through osmosis rather than instruction.

I picked up most of my Quaker etiquette in this intuitive way. I noticed and imitated the tone of voice and forms of expression that were acceptable in meeting. I learned, both through my own mistakes and those of others, that you could break the unwritten rules of the meeting if you wanted to; but if you did, no one would take you seriously. You would not be a weighty Friend.

As a new Quaker, I learned that the silence of worship is intended to be a time of shared communion with God, and that sometimes the Holy Spirit inspires one or more individuals to speak. More experienced Friends encouraged me to pay attention to whether God might be giving me a message to share during this time. If I felt led, they told me, I should rise and share the message with the gathered body.

For a form of worship that is often referred to as unprogrammed, there sure were a lot of rules to learn! Here are some that I picked up quickly, mostly through observation: Never take photographs during silent worship. Do not sit on the facing bench – where recognized ministers and elders traditionally sat – without being invited first. When giving a vocal message out of the silence, stand first. In an hour-long meeting for worship, do not speak during the first fifteen minutes. Do not respond to or comment on messages that have already been given. Messages should be as long as necessary, but as brief as possible. Do not speak twice.

I learned these rules over the course of years in the community. I got tips and hints from established members, but I never encountered a handbook to unlock the unofficial rules of the game. Fortunately, most folks were pretty gentle with me, both because of my age and how new I was to the community. I could have gotten myself into a lot more trouble than I did.

Strangely, I find that most of Quaker etiquette has little to do with the actual process of encountering Christ in the silence. It is possible to obey all the outward norms of Quaker worship and still be speaking entirely from ego and self-will. The path to truly surrendering ourselves to the Holy Spirit is something that I have rarely seen explicitly taught in our communities. Why is this?

There are historical reasons for this lack of direct instruction. For centuries, Quakers were a sectarian group, with most Friends growing up within the community. The lived experience of participating in the life of the body, attending meeting, and reading Scripture together was enough for many to get the knack of being a Quaker without systematic teaching. If it tooks decades for the lessons of the community to sink in, that was not a problem. Nobody was going anywhere, and few outsiders were joining.

The times have changed. Most Friends today were not raised in Quaker families, and even those of us who grew up among Friends have been influenced far more by the wider culture than we have by our religious community. In more cases than we might care to admit, our meetings have lost the thread of the tradition altogether. Many of us don’t know how to practice our faith anymore. We were never taught.

As a new Quaker community, Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area is keenly aware of the importance of having a fresh encounter with our faith. Our meeting has been around for a few years, not centuries; we do not have institutional momentum to fall back on. If we are going to thrive and multiply, we must learn how to embody and transmit the gospel order of the church. Osmosis isn’t going to be enough.

With this in mind, our DC-area small groups are embarking on a new experiment. For the next six weeks, we are attempting to teach the process of worship itself. Through guided meditation, we will be explicitly training ourselves how to center down – calming mind, body, and spirit – and learning to pay attention to the inward presence of Christ in our hearts. Rather than alluding to rules of etiquette, we will be teaching a process by which we may make ourselves more aware of and receptive to the motions of the Holy Spirit.

Our goal is ambitious: In six weeks, we hope to teach a process that takes many Friends decades to unravel: a way of drawing near to the light of Christ within. For those who are thirsty, we will point to where the water is, and provide a shovel to dig the well. We recognize that it is only through God’s sovereign action that we can receive this abundant life, joy, and power. Nevertheless, we hope that by learning to practice greater awareness and wait on God, we can increase our likelihood of faithfulness.

What is your experience of learning and sharing our faith? Do you think that there are ways that we can be teaching the process of centering and waiting worship in our meetings? Are there times that you have seen this done effectively? How can we teach and encourage one another to seek the living guidance of Jesus within?

Unjustifiable

And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. Genesis 2:2

Do you feel productive today? Will you reach the end of the checklist? Will you finish up the week with all your tasks completed, your existence justified? I don’t know about you, but these kinds of questions haunt me most days. They come unbidden, a nagging sense of uneasiness amid an otherwise beautiful day. On some level, I feel like I need to earn the sunshine.

I remember when I got my first real job. I worked as a bank teller. After some months at work, I remember feeling surprised and frustrated that I still did not feel justified. I now had well-defined tasks to accomplish each day, and most days I did well. Yet, something was missing. I needed more: A feeling that my life was productive enough to justify my existence.

Now, almost ten years later, I have become more comfortable with the fact that my life is unjustifiable. I can’t repay the fact of my existence. Nobody can. No amount of work, earnings, accomplishments, or merit can possibly justify the simple gift of life.

I still find it hard to rest, though. Deep down, a part of me believes that I can earn my daily bread, rather than receiving it as a gift from God. It is a challenge to surrender to the gift, to truly accept that God has created me out of love and creativity, not to get a return on investment. It is mind-boggling to me that my life, my world, this universe exists for the sake of love, not outcomes.

Even God takes a break sometimes. We read in Scripture that God rested on the seventh day of creation, and he taught our ancestors to observe the Sabbath. Traditionally, rest has been central to our faith as Jews and Christians. God doesn’t simply allow us to take a day off for rest each week, he commands it. Yet for many of us in 21st-century Western society, rest is the one luxury we do not permit ourselves.

Does this ring true for you? Do you notice the urge to justify your own existence? To prove that you matter? To demonstrate that you are a productive member of your family, workplace, society? What would it be like to surrender to God’s sabbath rest? How would it feel to accept that our accomplishments – or lack thereof – do not define us?

Pruning Time

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean [pruned] because of the word that I have spoken to you. – John 15:1-3

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADid you know that spring is the season when grape growers prune their vines? This seems counter-intuitive to me at first glance. After all, the months of March and April are when life is bursting onto the scene. After the bleakness of winter, green shoots are covering the ground. Why on earth would someone want to cut off this new growth?

Yet, that’s exactly what vintners do. Not only do they prune their vines, they prune them drastically. Each plant will have around 90% of the growth from the previous year uncermoniously snipped off. Plants that had grown a rich network of shoots and buds will be hacked down to a single shoot and just a few buds. Compared to the impressive, multi-branched vines that existed before, these new stumpy shoots look pretty sad.

Yet this remnant will become the permanent shoot, lasting the entire life of the vine. It is through this one shoot, chosen out from all the others, that the vine will grow and bear fruit over several seasons. As unfathomable and heartless as the deep cuts of spring may seem at the time, by summertime the vineyard will be flourishing.

This spring, I’m feeling like the bushy vine that needs to be pruned. So much important growth has taken place over the past year, and I’ve gained a lot of shoots that feel very important to me. Yet, I can sense that in order to be faithful to the work that God has for me, I am going to have to face the loss of many of my most precious projects. Jesus is here to do his pruning/cleansing work. Which is the single shoot in my life that God wants to act through? Which are the handful of buds where the Spirit wants to bear fruit?

As we enter into the joy and growth of springtime, are you experiencing this call? Are there ways that the Spirit is inviting you to refocus your life? Are there activities, relationships, or other responsibilities that you are being asked to set aside? Is there a new sense of direction emerging that might require quite a bit of clipping to make room for? Are you willing to be pruned?

Is It Urgent?

As a child of the digital age, I have been trained from a tender age to conflate urgency with importance. If the phone rings, pick it up. If there is an email, read it; reply to it. And if there is a video of adorable cats, or a courageous young person, or an analysis of the latest political crisis – I just have to watch it.

In imitation of Twitter, my life often feels like an endless stream of very urgent items. Each one demands my attention intensely, and briefly. It is easy to spend my days flitting from one urgent task to the next, never stopping to even notice that I am alive, or that there are other living people around me. I adapt myself so completely to the demands of my devices that I become machine-like in the way I pay attention.

Sometimes I long to get off the merri-go-round of task orientation. I imagine how peaceful it might be to simply focus on one task, one experience, one person for an entire day. Or nothing at all. What would it feel like to simply be, without a need to produce or achieve anything?

There have been days that I’ve sat aside for the purpose of having no purpose besides being present with God and other people. No agenda, no objective; just presence. It’s always lovely for the first hour or so. I drink my tea. I read a book. I look out the window and think about the world.

But then I get to thinking. There is so much to get done! I begin planning what I will do once this time of restful being is completed. I start making checklists. And before I know it, I’m busy planning the future and organizing tasks on my sabbath day.

Have you had this experience? Do you find it difficult to go a whole day without any kind of agenda or goals? How do you avoid turning rest into yet another activity, another mountain to be climbed? How can we find our way into hours, days, even weeks, of unhurried presence and wakefulness before God?

Gathering Crowds – Or Making Disciples?

Playing AroundWhat is the basis of real spiritual community? A large number of people showing up on Sunday morning? Having a deep spiritual experience, whether in a worship service or in personal devotions? Or is it a dedicated commitment to live a certain way and follow the rules?

All of these elements show up in the story of Jesus. Lots of people certainly showed up to hear him preach. At times, Jesus seems like some kind of homeless mega-church pastor. So many people come to hear him that he often has to run away or get in a boat just to find some breathing space! Yet, it seems clear that Jesus’ most important ministry is not with the crowds.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, there are regular signs and wonders, healings, and deep times of spiritual reflection and religious experience. Yet, as important as these dramatic moments are, personal experience for its own sake does not seem to be the most essential part of Jesus’ message.

Jesus asks very hard things of his followers. He tells them that for a person to enter the kingdom of heaven, their righteousness will have to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees – those best known for following all the commandments of Torah down to the letter. Yet, Jesus is not slave to rules and regulations. He and his disciples regularly break the Sabbath in order to accomplish their mission of love. Jesus challenges the ruling authorities, and is eventually executed as an outlaw.

Jesus is neither a crowd-pleaser, experience-addict, nor a legalistic rule-follower. What is he? What lies at the heart of his ministry?

Jesus’ ministry is not about breadth of numbers, but depth of commitment. It is not about highs of ecstasy, but patient endurance and willingness to suffer for truth. The model that Jesus offers is not a list of rules that makes me feel safe, but rather a dangerous invitation to become his disciple, his friend. He calls me to become like he is and walk as he did.

As a friend of Jesus, my work is not to gather crowds; I am to make disciples. Jesus calls me to break my addiction to religious experiences, to move beyond the fluctuations of hormones and emotion and embrace true love. I can no longer justify myself through head-knowledge and checklist morality. Instead, the Spirit invites me to embrace the mystery of who Jesus is, allowing him to humble me and fill me with his character.

What would it look like to live in communities where this kind of disciple-making could take place? Instead of measuring our faithfulness by numbers of worship attendance, what if we focused on the people that we are able to actively mentor and partner with in discipleship?

As an alternative to the rule-book mindset we find in much religion, what if we emphasized the radical power of a living relationship with Jesus? (He’s risen from the dead, not entombed in a book!) What would it look like to be part of a community that honored spiritual experiences, but valued the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – even more?

Spring Is Here – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #63

Dear friends,

It’s over. The darkness, the ice, the cold, the wondering whether winter will ever give way to spring; it’s all over. Just when we thought we couldn’t take any more, the sun came out, a warm breeze blew and the blossoms began to open with the promise of a new beginning. This is what spring feels like: a new year; another chance to play, learn, grow.

This is what spring feels like: A convergence of like-hearted friends from across the eastern United States – Indiana, Tennessee, Detroit, DC, Philadelphia, Missouri, and parts of Ohio. A gathering bubbling with hope for the new thing that we sense the Holy Spirit doing in our lives, our communities, and our neighborhoods. A circle of friends who are ready to take risks together. We’re embracing failure as a chance to learn, and watching for opportunities to multiply the ways we get it right.

At the Spring Gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship this past weekend, we explored the ways in which we are called to live in the power of the Spirit. We faced our fears and need for security, our busyness and obligation, and the relationships that we are so afraid we might lose if we take the radical steps that we sense Jesus calling us to. We took a long look at the challenges before us, and then turned to God to show us the way of faithfulness, peace, abundant life in the Spirit.

A door is opening. We are arriving at a new moment of fresh possibilities. This is a time when the positive change and renewal that, though even a few years ago seemed impossible, are now emerging as the holy work of our time. Where the old structures have become empty forms, the Spirit is inviting us to imagine new ones. Where the last century’s ways of seeing, feeling, thinking, doing are breaking down and no longer seem to function, God is empowering us to look with new eyes, to have our minds renewed and our hearts filled with wonder and creativity.

We are entering a time period where God is making all things new, and will do so in outward ways that no one can miss. It is a time for the culture wars to cease, as we labor together in the way of Jesus, which breaks down the dividing walls between “Right” and “Left.” It is time for the pitched battle between generations to come to an end, as well. The opportunity of this key moment demands the full gifts, personality, and keen imagination of every generation – Boomers, Xers, Millennials, and those younger and older, too. We’re all in this together.

This is the invitation that we are experiencing as God gathers the Friends of Jesus, across geographical boundaries, (non)religious backgrounds, and generational identities. It is an invitation to speed up our experimentation and slow down our lives, to be present to one another and to the living presence of Christ among us. Emerging from an age of big words and timid action, we sense an opportunity to allow our actions to speak louder than words.

We are just beginning to awaken to this new opening. Jesus is once again gathering a people, a community that will have an out-sized impact on the world around us. Like leaven in the dough, light on a lampstand, or salt in a meal, we are being invited to make a little count for a lot. We can participate in the new creation that Christ is accomplishing. This kingdom is established through his love for us, our love for one another, and the love that we demonstrate to the people we encounter every day.

These are the first days of spring. It is a tender time, and we don’t always know what we are doing. But we are trying to stay humble, adaptive, and attentive to the gentle nudgings of the living Spirit of God. Trusting in her, we long to be the grass that emerges from beneath the snow, eager to greet the light.

Can you sense this new season? Is the snow melting where you are? How can we join together, to partner in this new time of growth in the Spirit?

Your prayers are an important way that we are connected together in this time of great change. Crisis and opportunity seem to go hand in hand, and prayers for both are greatly needed! In this season, please pray that:

  • God will kindle the hearts of women and men throughout our land to take up the work of establishing new communities and ministries that demonstrate the emerging kingdom. Let us be the tender shoots of Christ’s love that emerge in these early days of spring.
  • The Friends of Jesus Fellowship will be strengthened and knit together in the Holy Spirit. May each of our existing communities be built up and taught how to become fellowships that make disciples, not religious consumers.
  • Our communities be connected to and supported by the wider Religious Society of Friends, and the Body of Christ as a whole. May our efforts as Friends of Jesus have a positive impact in catalyzing renewal within the wider Body, as well.

How God is drawing you into this work of restoration and rebirth? Let us know how we can be praying for you in this time of new hope and promise.

In love and friendship,

Micah Bales

Hindsight Is 20/20

There’s a fine line between perseverance and stubbornness. Sometimes, painstaking work over time can be an investment that yields benefits in the long term. I’m thinking of the civil rights leaders who spent decades offering up their own blood, sweat and tears before seeing any real substantial movement in their struggle for human dignity. Whether or not they lived to see it, these faithful women and men had set their sights on a goal that would change the world.

Not all of our objectives are so worthy of sacrifice. If I need proof of this, all I have to do is read back through my journals and papers from years past. I recently came across a sheet of notebook paper, on which my high school-aged self had written a list. The list’s title was: Things that will be accomplished this year. Some of these very-important things probably did get accomplished that year. Most did not.

Still, this to-do list from high school serves an important purpose: It reminds me of how limited my understanding is of what is truly important in any given moment. After all, in my senior year I changed my diet, began to exercise and shed 70 pounds in three months. This was the greatest joy of my teenage years. Yet, nothing about weight or health appears on my list of things to accomplish.

This is easier to see in retrospect. It’s hard to say which things that seem so important to me now are actually of enduring significance. Mostly likely, many of the areas of my life today where I stress myself out the most will seem, in ten years, fairly trivial. On the other hand, there will almost certainly be matters that I don’t give much thought to now, but that with hindsight are revealed to be the most pressing questions of my life. If only I could see these things now, rather than in retrospect!

Yet, there may be a blessing in my blindness. Knowing that I cannot see clearly, I find encouragement to turn my life over to the care of God. Rather than relying on my own sense of sight, I can seek the guiding light of Jesus. I have learned from experience that he will shine on the path that I am called to walk, whether I fully understand it at present, or not.

How do you discern when your personal priorities are in line with truth? Are you able to experience the present as a gift to be offered up to God, rather than as a problem to be solved by your own determined will? What are some ways that the Spirit has guided you in directions that you would not have chosen for yourself, yet which turned out to be precisely the way you were meant to go?