Archive for August 2016

Theology is Great, But What I Really Need is Jesus

Theology is Great, But What I Really Need is Jesus
When I was in seminary at Earlham School of Religion, I was able to spend all my time studying and pondering the nature of God, Jesus, and the community gathered around him. I considered deep questions of meaning, reflected on Quaker history, and came to a more settled understanding of the Bible and Christian spirituality. I visited a wide diversity of Quaker churches and gatherings, gaining greater insight into who we were as a whole.

Since completing my time at seminary, my life has changed. Slowly, gradually, my life has shifted away from the kind of full-time reflection I enjoyed at ESR. I got married, had a child, and took on full-time employment. Life is very full. I don’t have the mental, physical, or spiritual space to live the kind of deeply contemplative, studious life that I experienced in seminary and in the years immediately following. I hope I will again someday, but I suspect it won’t be soon.

As my life has shifted in a less contemplative direction, my existential curiosity and angst has not diminished at all. If anything, the press of daily life, work, and child-rearing has made issues of meaning, purpose, and legacy even more urgent. I’m growing in my experience of what it means to support others as a husband, father, and resident of the city where I live. It’s full-fledged adult life in all its freedom and responsibilities, joy and stress.

And after a decade of asking hard questions and drinking deeply from the Quaker tradition, I’m convinced of this: All I really need is Jesus – a real, intimate relationship of discipleship with him amidst the noise and clatter of everyday life. I need him to guide my day, even as I’m in the midst of it and can’t see where I’m going. I need him to make my responsibility clear to me, even when it’s inconvenient. I need him to bear God’s love to me, even when I feel lost and unworthy.

For me, any theology beyond Jesus’ death & resurrection is a luxury – something that, while nice to have, I probably don’t have time for most days. I can’t live without Jesus, though. I need his cross to engage with tragedy. I need his resurrection to overcome it.

I need to experience Jesus’ sacrifice first-hand, in my daily surrenderings. I need his resurrection to hold me together when the confusion and pain seems like too much to bear. I need his guiding hand, giving me faith in a victory beyond the compromises and losses of daily life in this world.

I don’t have God figured out. I don’t have the Bible memorized. I can’t tell you how the Trinity works or explain the systematic theology of the great theologians. Probably never will. But I do know I need Jesus. I need him to heal me, hold me together, and guide me in the little steps I must take to be faithful amidst the day’s work.

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Do You Have the Courage to Face the Horizon?

Micah y el Horizonte
When I was a young man, I didn’t worry about the things I do today. I had a whole different set of concerns. As an adolescent and early-20-something, I was anxious about whether I’d ever make it to real, independent adulthood. There was so much unanswered. Would I marry? Would I have children? What would my vocation be? Most of all, I worried about finding my place in the world. What was the purpose for which I was born?

Maybe there’s never a complete and final answer to some of these questions. But over the course of the last decade, I’ve gotten a much better idea of what my life is to be, and who I am to spend it with. My longings and questions have been answered in strange, surprising, and marvelous ways. I’d be a fool not to realize how much I’ve been blessed. This life is fantastic.

Yet these blessings have not come without a price. I’ve found a community, a family, and a home. I’ve also discovered a whole new set of anxieties. As a young man, I was focused almost exclusively on what I could experience and discover. But now that I’ve gained so much, my attention is increasingly centered around the possibility of loss. Rather than an adventure to be risked, I’m tempted to treat my life as a fortress to be defended. Instead of embracing the gifts I’ve received, I often grip them tightly, guarding them from every threat (real and imagined).

That’s no way to live. I know this, because my 19-year-old self reminds me. I remember how he laughed in the face of challenge. For him, it was all about the adventure, the possibility. (Of course it was – he didn’t have anything!) My adolescent self was so alive, and vibrant, and fearless. It’s almost painful to remember having feelings that strong, hopes and dreams so ardent and bright.

Of course, my adolescent self also had a tendency towards selfishness and poor impulse control. He didn’t play well with others, and he came across as a know-it-all. These days, I may burn less brightly, but I have some perspective that makes me less difficult to live with.

Still, I yearn for the fire and passion I experienced when the world was just one wide-open horizon. I wonder, could I live with that kind of fearlessness again? With all the experience I’ve gained, with all the blessings I’ve received, how would it feel to live with nothing to lose? What would it mean to let go of my need to preserve and defend my comfortable lifestyle?  How would it feel to fully trust God, to release my grip on life and trust that he will provide for whatever comes next?

I’m sitting on the cliff’s edge with my 19-year-old self, looking out at the horizon. Anything is possible, if I’ll just relax, take a breath, and let go. Here I am, Lord. Where do you want to send me next?

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There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses

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There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses

There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (8/14/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon deviates a fair amount from the written text.)

Sermon Audio


Listen to the sermon on SoundCloud

Sermon Text:

This passage from Hebrews that we just heard: It’s got to be one of the most frequently referenced parts of the Bible. I’ve heard it preached from the pulpit many times. It’s been the theme Scripture for church conferences and events. And it’s been the subtext for so much of church life.

This idea that we are surrounded by this “cloud of witnesses,” that we are a part of a long line of spiritual family. That the struggles we engage in today are part of a bigger picture. It’s a powerful, comforting image.

Back in 2010, Faith and I helped to organize a gathering of young adult Quakers in Wichita, Kansas. It was a gathering that would bring together Quakers from across North America, and across many of the theological and cultural barriers that divide modern-day Friends (and, as I understand it, modern-day Brethren, too).

Most of the gathering took place in a large church sanctuary. The space was ornate and cathedral-like, at least by plain Quaker standards, and it was far bigger than either we in the gathering or the local congregation had need of. In addition to the ample seating in ground level pews, there was also a large, wrap-around balcony – a gallery filled with empty seats.

I remember standing in the sanctuary with one of the members of the pastoral care team for the gathering, and older woman from New England. It was a quiet moment in the church building, before most of the participants had arrived. We were taking a deep breath before the heavy spiritual lifting that would come in the next few days. She looked up into the balcony level and said very seriously. “I can feel them. I can feel the cloud of witnesses.”

It was a comforting idea, but also a challenging one. That cloud of witnesses wasn’t just there to affirm whatever we decided to do. They had an agenda. If those Quaker saints who had gone before us were indeed present, they would be watching to see whether we could bridge the divisions that had developed over the last two centuries. They would be present to encourage us – but also to spur us towards hard conversations and spiritual risk-taking.

I think that this passage from Hebrews is easy to take out of context. We often stretch and bend the idea of the “cloud of witnesses” until it becomes something that is primarily about our own comfort. I don’t know if any of you remember that movie from the mid-90s – Angels in the Outfield? Honestly, don’t really either. I think I saw it once back in 1994, and I don’t remember a lot of detail. But here’s the basic idea of the film:

In the movie, the Los Angeles Angels are the worst team in Major League Baseball. But there’s a little boy who loves the team, and he wants them to win so badly that he prays and asks God to help them win the championship. To his surprise and amazement, God sends angels to miraculously catapult the team into first place. Only the little boy can see the angels, but the effects of their work is clear to the whole world as the Los Angeles Angels go from being the worst in the league, to the best.

It’d be nice to have a cloud of witnesses like that, wouldn’t it? A group of angelic figures that could carry us to glory, even if we’re not at all ready for it. If the “cloud of witnesses” were like the angels in the outfield, we’d always have these invisible cheerleaders – spiritual support for us when times are tough and victory seems impossible. The cloud of witnesses would become an angel army. They’d exist to reinforce our own dreams, our own wishes, our lives as they are. They’d give us strength to make our dreams come true.

And sometimes this might be the right idea. If we’re experiencing hard times, if we’re suffering for our faith and paying the consequences for following Jesus, we need the presence of this encouraging cloud of witnesses more than anything. We need to know that we stand in a line of courage, endurance, and victory in the cross of Jesus. Knowing that, by the grace of God, many others have run this race and been faithful, we’re encouraged to persevere, even when it feels impossible.

But most of the time, at least for me, I experience the cloud of witnesses as a challenging presence in my life. These are people who, as the scripture says:

“…were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

This cloud of witnesses are no “angels in the outfield.” They’re not here to give me victory without suffering or pain. They are witnesses to the full cost of discipleship. They demonstrate the kind of hope that is only possible through bearing the cross of Jesus in this world. These are people who inspire us, people who challenge us, whose lives confront our own compromises and give us courage to do what is right.

I think we all have our favorite members of the cloud of witnesses, our own personal gallery of saints that have come before, who spur us to greater faithfulness. One of these witnesses for me is a man named James Nayler. James was one of the most visible leaders of the early Quaker movement in the 1650s. He was a gifted evangelist, spreading the gospel across England. His campaign of preaching in London had a powerful impact, growing and solidifying the Quaker community there.

The 1650s were a time of tumult and upheaval in England, and Quakers were often arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for their faith. James Nayler had a rougher time than many. He was charged with blasphemy by Parliament, and he narrowly escaped the death penalty. But honestly, he might have been better off if they had hung him. His punishment was grotesque: He was given a public flogging of hundreds of lashes. After that, they branded his forehead with “B” for “blasphemer” and bored his tongue through with a hot iron, so that he could never preach again with his renowned eloquence. After that, he was imprisoned until he was physically ruined.

When he finally did get out of prison, he tried to make his way back to Yorkshire, to see his family for the first time in years. On his way, he was robbed and beaten severely. He was found by passersby and died the next day in the home of a Quaker physician.

I mention James Nayler this morning, because I believe he is a prime example of what the author of Hebrews referred to when he spoke of the cloud of witnesses – this heritage of saints who have run the race and endured the cross as an example and encouragement to us.

And I think that Hebrews 11 and 12 were on James Nayler’s mind, as he lay dying in the north of England. Those who attended him recorded his final words, which included this description of what it meant for James to be a living member of that cloud of witnesses – to find himself in communion with them through his own suffering and martyrdom:

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God.

Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”

The cloud of witnesses that James experienced were no “angels in the outfield.” They did not save him from suffering, nor give him victory in the eyes of the world. Rather, he encountered a spirit that walked with him through that dark valley of shame and defeat. This spirit gave him the power to love, even those who flayed the skin off his back, branded his face, and mutilated his tongue. Through his suffering and baptism into “love unfeigned,” James Nayler found fellowship with the lost and forgotten saints of God – who through death, obtained resurrection and eternal holy life.

Our gospel reading today reminds us that the kingdom of God comes through challenge. It causes division wherever it emerges, because it challenges our basic ideas about what is right and fair. The truth is, none of us want to experience the cross. Not even Jesus did! The most natural thing in the world that we could do is seek to avoid death, suffering, and shame.

But what Jesus reveals and the cloud of witnesses repeats, is that beyond the cross lies resurrection. On the other side of suffering, and torture, and shame lies the eternal holy life and love unfeigned that James Nayler and so many saints before him discovered. The cloud of witnesses bears testimony to each one us through the Holy Spirit, spurring us on to greater courage in the face of heartbreak, death, and loss of identity.

Unlike the angels in the outfield, this cloud of witnesses is not about helping us win the “game” of this world. Instead, they walk beside us, encouraging us as we learn how to lose in such a way that we experience the resurrection life in the midst of struggle, so that we ourselves become part of that cloud of witnesses, reflecting Christ’s self-giving love to others who need it.

Before I close, I want to take us back to that church sanctuary in Wichita, Kansas. I want you to stand with me on that lower level, amidst the pews. Look up with me into the gallery. Who are the witnesses that you see there? Who are the saints who have gone before you that encourage you even in the midst of confusion and pain? Can you see the faces of the people who have carried their cross with courage and joy? Can you see them smiling on you with love?

Where are they calling you? What parts of your life need to change so that you can embrace the kind of courageous living that they did? Even in the face of resistance and division, where are we being called to change so that we can bear the cross of Jesus, and become a cloud of witnesses to the world around us?

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Register Now for Friends of Jesus Fall Gathering: Oct 7-10, 2016

Confessing Jesus in a Chaotic World

What are you doing the first weekend in October?

As a reader of this blog, I want to extend you a personal invitation to join me and the Friends of Jesus Fellowship for our Fall Gathering in Silver Spring, Maryland. Experience food, fun, fellowship, and Spirit-led worship with a group of like-hearted followers of Jesus. This October, we’ll listen for how God is calling us to live as disciples in these chaotic times. Not by might. Not by power. But by his Spirit.

Fall Gathering will be a family-friendly event, with children’s programming and a playground on-site. Faith and I will be bringing our son, George, and other families will be there as well. We hope that you’ll bring your little ones to play together with us, and grow in Christ’s love.

Register Now to Reserve Your Spot!

Location & Accomodations:

The Peach Orchard Christian Retreat Center’s address is 15712 Peach Orchard Rd, Silver Spring, MD 20905. There is both a limited number of hotel-style rooms and plenty of dorm rooms. If you have a preference please let us know and we will try and accommodate them.

Family and those with other specific needs will be given priority for the hotel-style rooms. Those staying in dorms will need to provide their own bedding and towels. There is no wifi at the retreat center. There are a variety of hotels nearby for those who would like that kind of lodging.

Sign Up Today and Join us in Silver Spring!

There’s never been a better time to experience the Friends of Jesus community. In these times of darkness and confusion for our nation and world, I hope that you will join us as we discover what it means to be the light.

Have questions? Feel free to email me: micah@micahbales.com

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What Does it Mean to Follow Jesus in the Age of Trump?

What Does it Mean to Follow Jesus in the Age of Trump?
Racism. Xenophobia. Misogyny. Calls for violence and bullying behavior. A rejection of the international rule of law and of the most basic protections for those who fall outside the bounds of white America. None of this is new. This has been the undercurrent of American culture and government since colonial times.

We’ve been taught to aspire to the American Dream, but we rarely speak of the nightmarish cocktail of blind hatred and self-satisfied privilege that exists alongside it. Most of us have wanted to pretend it wasn’t there. We wanted to believe that our nation, our culture was basically good – and getting better. We told ourselves that all of the bigotry and violence were merely wrinkles to be ironed out of the garment of “American exceptionalism” – our nation’s unique role in human history.

The rise of Trump reveals this to be wishful thinking. The age of Trump is one apocalyptic revelation. For anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, the veil of denial has been torn away. Trump has come to personify the hatred and selfishness that has always simmered beneath the surface of American society, ready to burst forth in mob violence, lynchings, calls for war, and suppression of dissent.

It would be easy to focus our rejection on Donald Trump and his immediate supporters. It would be easy to name them as everything that is wrong with this country. It would be easy, and it would be a terrible mistake. Trumpism is a presenting symptom of our condition as a nation, but the disease runs much deeper. The spiritual reality that Trump’s candidacy is tapping into includes every single one of us, especially for those of us who are part of white America.

In a way, we should almost be thankful for Donald Trump. He has made visible that which was once hidden to many of us. While you and I have spoken only in polite euphemisms, Trump spews his vile hatred openly. We’ve hidden our bigotry in the shadows, but Trump has dragged white supremacy out into the light of day. It’s amazing how God uses twisted, evil people to accomplish his purposes.

The rise of Trump is an invitation to repentance. It’s a moment to take stock of our own racism, greed, childish entitlement, and easiness with state violence. We have an opportunity to see our own complicity in systems of injustice that oppress black Americans, native Americans, the poor, women, and so many others. Ultimately, we are all enslaved by these principalities and powers, and only Jesus Christ can free us from their grip.

I have seen some snark on social media that “Donald Trump is the candidate of the apocalypse.” I don’t think it’s a joke. The Greek word “apocalypse” means to unveil, or reveal. The Trump candidacy is a great revealing for us as a nation, and a moment of decision for those of us who seek to follow Jesus. Will we walk in the way of the slaughtered lamb, or will we join forces with the raging Beast who seeks to conquer the people of God?

Let’s not kid ourselves. Undocumented families in the United States – they’re the people of God. African Americans, who have been and continue to be so brutalized by white America’s criminal justice system – they are the people of God. You and I can be the people of God, too – but not if we refuse to bear the cross of Jesus in times of trouble.

It’s not enough to resist the hateful movement that Donald Trump represents. It’s time to go deeper than that. For centuries, we’ve tried to solve this country’s problems by pointing to enemies outside of ourselves, insisting that if only we could purge them from our midst, we would have peace, freedom, prosperity. It’s a lie. The kingdom of God will be among us only when we ourselves are changed, and all our hidden hatred is brought out, and transformed.

This is a call to action. It’s an invitation to transformation. Will you and I embrace the chaos of this moment to embrace our calling as peacemakers, earth-shakers, little children in the way of Jesus?

There’s no such thing as neutrality in the face of evil. Even inaction is a decision. The good news is that Jesus offers us a path of active love that overcomes hatred. He has defeated the powers of death and division, and we can participate in his victory. We can become part of a transformed world, the kingdom of God.

Are you ready to confess Jesus as Lord in the midst of this chaotic world? Will you walk in his way, even if it gets you into trouble? Are you ready to hear where the Spirit of truth is calling us in these dark days? If so, I want to walk with you. Together, we can become the light.

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