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Faithfully Effective


I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
John 15:5

There is a phrase that I’ve heard, probably hundreds of times in conversations with folks in the Quaker community: We are called to be faithful, not effective. Some version of this statement is frequently invoked after discussing the difficulties that we face in seeking to live out the kingdom of God in a fallen world. At its best, the phrase is recognition that each of us can only control our own choices, and that we ultimately must surrender outcomes to God.

For a long time, though, I’ve struggled with the idea that faithfulness is somehow separate from and more important than effectiveness. How can these two be separated? Surely we worship a God who is powerful enough to produce practical effectiveness from our faith!

Which is better, love or justice? What is more essential, works or faith? Are we called to be faithful, or effective? To each of these questions the Spirit answers with a resounding YES! The God of Abraham unites love and justice an inseparable bond. The Lord Jesus calls us to demonstrate our faith through good works. The Holy Spirit gathers us as a people to bear fruit, becoming effective precisely because we are faithful.

Life is mysterious, full of paradoxes that are hard to sit with. It often seems easier to just pick one side of the coin. I’ll do justice, but leave the loving to someone else. Some dedicate their lives to work for justice in the world, with little reference to the gospel foundation of that work. Others pray up a storm and say beautiful words, but act as if it were un-spiritual to measure results. Sometimes faithfulness seems like it might be within reach, but effectiveness is just too hard.

But we go wrong when we try to separate out faith from works, love from justice, faithfulness from effectiveness. God created the universe as a whole – body, mind, and spirit. If we want to experience the abundant life that God created us for, we must embrace this whole. To live as Christ’s body on earth, we’re going to need a whole lot of loving-justice, works of faith, and effective faithfulness.

How does this play out in real life? Have you seen someone living faithfully but ineffectively – or effectively but unfaithfully? What does it look like for works and faith to go together, for love to give birth to the practical work of justice? What would it mean for us to be faithfully effective?

God’s Scattered People

One of the things that impresses me most about the Quaker community is the sense of connection that Friends have across geographical boundaries. With very few exceptions, I have found that if show up at a Quaker meeting on Sunday morning and introduce myself as a visiting Friend, there will be warm-hearted people who are ready to show me around their city and provide me hospitality in their homes. Quakers have a sense of belonging that goes beyond the local; I find family wherever I roam.

Yet, there is also a shadow side to this tight-knit community that transcends local connections. In my travels, I have experienced Quakers as being ravenous. We are often starving for support, connection, teaching, and pastoral care. Many of us feel inadequate for the task that God has called us to, and we don’t know where to turn for guidance. Lots of our communities, even the larger ones, feel isolated and unsupported.

In this context, a visitor can seem like a lifeline, an opportunity to make a connection with the larger body. For some communities, especially smaller ones, visiting Friends represent a chance to receive the nurture and encouragement that they do not necessarily experience otherwise. Simply by being present and sharing news, visitors open a window into the wider community of Friends; they provide a sense of access to the gifts of the larger body.

Life in diaspora is hard, living as we do in scattered pockets. We are presented with the challenge of being alternative communities in the midst of a dominant culture that does not reinforce – and often undermines – our desire to be friends and followers of Jesus Christ. We are tempted to turn inward, to seek refuge from the world, to become a cliquish subculture that promotes an ingrown sense of identity, even as we fail to reach out to others. We may even become proud of the fact that our neighbors and co-workers do not understand our faith!

Superficially, the choice to close ourselves off promises security and a sense of identity; but in the long run this path leads to ever increasing isolation, fear, and spiritual pride. Fortunately, there is an alternative to this seige mentality. Rather than walling ourselves off, what if we threw open the gates? Rather than waiting for visiting Quakers to nurture us, what if we looked to our friends, neighbors, co-workers? What gifts are already present in them to build up the body of Christ?

What would our communities be like if we welcomed every visitor with the same degree of joy and hospitality that we welcome visiting ministers? What would happen if we sought out the gifts, insight and enthusiasm of the people we are most connected to, whether they currently belong to our meeting or not? How might we be changed by seeking partnership with our neighbors, inviting them to walk together with us in discipleship to Jesus?

In many ways, this kind of life-giving engagement with our local communities is more challenging than the aching isolation that so many Friends meetings experience. The trials of diaspora are many, but they do not require the same level of work, self-examination, and flexibility that we must embrace if we are to become salt and light in our neighborhoods, homes, and workplaces. Making the kingdom of God visible in our world will be a challenge, but one that is preferable to the numbed yearning and isolation that so many of our communities are experiencing today.

Have we hit rock bottom yet? Are we convinced that the hard struggle to bear fruit is more life-giving than the easy slide into despair? Are we as Friends willing to be broken open, to be a seed that dies so that we can yield a harvest many times what anyone would expect? Are we ready to embrace our scattered and feeble condition as an opportunity for Christ’s power to shine through?

Wait in Patience

Art thou in the darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will feed thee more. But stand still, and act not, and wait in patience, till light arises out of darkness and leads thee. James Nayler (1659)

When we are facing spiritual darkness and despair, there are several ways that we can choose to react. One coping mechanism is denial. When confronted with realities that are too difficult to bear, we shut them out. We look away from the truth of our lives, and do our best to carry on as if everything were normal. Unfortunately, this veneer of normalcy is a lie. Our denial does not keep the darkness at bay, it merely covers it with another layer of untruth. The damage continues to be done, even if we refuse to see it.

Another way of dealing with the darkness is to wallow in it. Rather than covering up our pain, we accentuate it. We define ourselves by it. We come to think of ourselves as victims, tortured souls who blame the universe, other people, God himself, for the pain we feel. Yet, despite the fleeting catharsis of blaming others, we are unable to escape from t he darkness this way. The more we wallow, the more tightly it clings to us, defining our lives.

The early Quaker movement discovered that there is a third way to respond to the presence of darkness in our lives. Rather than denying its existence, the early Friends embraced the reality of darkness within the human heart and in society. They refused to hide from the truth. Yet, they also avoided the self-justifying fatalism of the wallowing soul. Blaming others would not solve anything. The Quaker movement insisted that the individual must take responsibility for his part in the darkness, and move toward the light.

This third way – neither denial of nor surrender to the darkness – is beautifully described in the words of James Nayler as waiting in patience. By standing still in the light of Jesus, consenting to see the darkness for what it was, early Quakers discovered the truth of their own fallen condition. And by acting not, waiting in patience, they were able to avoid the self-pity and blaming stance of the wallowing soul.

Today, just as in the days of the early Quaker movement, there is a light that arises out of darkness to lead us – the very presence and Spirit of Jesus Christ. In him, God gives us power to chart a course through through our self-destructive tendencies to blame and deny. Being led by the light of Jesus, we can face those things which terrify us the most, and be made whole.

 

Releasing Ministry – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #64

It’s always revealing to take an honest look at the way we spend our money. It exposes our true priorities. We spend money on the things that we truly care about. Money is a powerful sign of what we value. Everyone understands the phrase, put your money where your mouth is. It’s one thing to say you believe in something; it’s another thing give of our time, energy, and financial resources.

Friends of Jesus is growing and deepening as a community, and we’re having conversations about how we use all of our resources – time, money, energy and love – to make the kingdom of God visible, to become friends of Jesus in every aspect of our lives. As we seek to be faithful in these conversations, we’re coming to some exciting conclusions.

We feel that God is inviting us to use our financial resources to actively release ministry among us. To this end, Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area and the wider Friends of Jesus Fellowship are uniting to financially support the ministry that I am carrying out under their care.

This financially released ministry will encourage leadership development, creative outreach, care for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship as a whole, and a renewed engagement with the Religious Society of Friends. This is a ministry that calls us to lives of radical discipleship and love in the Spirit. In cooperation with the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, I will continue to encourage and seed new communities across the United States, and possibly beyond.

As we begin this journey together, Friends of Jesus has already made a substantial commitment to nurturing this ministry. In addition to creating the support structures necessary to provide logistical support and spiritual accountability, members of the Friends of Jesus community have already committed nearly 1/3 of the annual giving that will be required to sustain the ministry.

But we are still a small fellowship. In addition to the demonstrated commitment of our core communities, we need significant help from the wider body of Christ. We have faith that God will touch the hearts of many Friends as they become aware of the need to release this ministry from financial burdens. Are you one of those Friends?

Is the Spirit inviting you to become a supporter of this ministry? There are many ways to get involved, whether through prayer, participation in the community, outreach, or financial giving. We encourage you to:

I’m so grateful for those who have been supporting this ministry for years now with prayers, words of encouragement, and participation in our life as a community. Thank you for considering how you might be led to take part in the days ahead.

In hope and friendship,

Micah Bales

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Truth Behind the Headlines

We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. – Karl Barth

Every morning I wake up, make my tea, and sit down at the breakfast table with the latest edition of The Washington Post. I usually read the A Section, news about what is happening in across the nation and around the world.

Reading the paper might not be the most relaxing morning activity I could choose. As my wife Faith can attest, I frequently get into arguments with the Post. I notice editorial slants in supposedly fact-based articles. I observe the selection of where different stories are placed – and what news even gets coverage at all. I try to see the story behind the story, even when the storytellers get in the way.

When I read the newspaper, I know that I can’t simply accept everything I read at face value. Even when all the facts are correct, different parts of the story are highlighted with intention. What’s important to the writers at The Washington Post is not always what I consider most important. Sometimes, mere facts can be employed to hide the truth.

After I finish my tea and newspaper, I move to the living room for my morning devotions. This often involves reading the Bible. What a contrast to The Washington Post! Rather than reading with skepticism, I can let down my guard and engage the text with trust. Just like the Post, the authors of the Bible have an agenda. Different texts are edited and arranged in a certain order. Facts are presented in a particular way. Stories are told with the objective of communicating a certain worldview.

When I read the newspaper, I’m not always sure whose worldview I’m being fed. With the Bible, I can trust that it is God’s. The texts of Scripture have no veneer of journalistic objectivity. The writers of the law, the prophets, the gospels and the epistles never pretend that they are speaking from a neutral point of view. They want me to believe; and believing, to act.

Despite the undisguised agenda of the biblical writers, the story that they tell is true. The bias of Scripture is divine bias. When Jesus shows love to the outcast and the poor, this demonstrates God’s characteristic way of seeing the world. When John writes of a new heaven and a new earth, I am shown God’s intention for the healthy, fully mature society that we all long for – and which all human leaders promise on their rise to power.

This heavenly story helps me read The Washington Post without being enthralled to its earthly worldview. I read of wars and rumors of wars, of great empires vying for power and politicians jockeying for position. I read of the ambition of the rich, and occasionally of the struggles of the poor. The newspaper immerses me in the story of modern-day human achievement; the Bible tells me an alternative story, one which pulls back the curtain on the power-plays of this world and reveals the humble-yet-mighty reign of God that lies just behind the headlines.

The biblical story is a lodestone that allows me to engage with the stories of my culture without being taken in by them. God uses the Scriptures to break through the false objectivity of my present-day assumptions. It helps me to acknowledge that I do, in fact, live within a worldview – not some neutral zone of self-evident truth. The Bible reveals to me that I have to make a decision. Whether I choose the kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world, there is no neutral ground to stand on.

How do you find your place to stand? Are you able to tell the difference between mere data and truth that is worth taking risks for? What are ways that you find the truth behind the headlines?

It’s All About Discipleship

This past weekend I was up in Philadelphia for an East Coast Gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. The gathering was an excellent opportunity for me to deepen relationships with local leaders in Philadelphia. It also turned out to be a chance to clarify our core mission and values as a fellowship.

Early in our time together, Hoot Williams had all of us fill out a values audit. There were about thirty values for us to select from – things like justice for the poor, community, equality, and strong families. Each of us was asked to rank our top twelve personal values, and then to share which values emerged as our personal top five.

As a last step in this process, we went around again and took note of which values showed up the most in our personal top fives. It was amazing how much overlap there was for most of us, and it was pretty easy to determine which values were the group’s top five. Here’s the list we came up with:

  • 1. Discipleship/Servant-Leadership
  • 2. Creativity & Innovation
  • 3. Community
  • 4. Outreach/Evangelism
  • 5. “All People Matter to God”/Equality

If we had made a top six list, worship would have certainly been there, too.

Simply taking a look at these values was very enlightening for those of us present. It said a lot about our community that we made the choices that we did, and we felt a strong sense of unity around the values that God is calling us to live into together.

Over the course of the day, that sense of unity only deepened. By our last session, we were realizing that while each of these values are important to us, the value of discipleship is probably most core to who we are and the way we are called to be Friends of Jesus. In our commitment to creativity & innovation, our times of community, our efforts at outreach, and in our witness that all people matter to God, our objective is always to bring people into a relationship of practical discipleship to Jesus.

In all of our activities, we seek to be and make disciples who have the nuts-and-bolts training and encouragement to make the kingdom of God visible – showing God’s love to others, working for justice, and equipping others to walk in this way of Jesus. We share a strong sense that everything we do as a community ultimately points back to the path of discipleship.

What are your personal core values, and those of the communities you belong to? Is the work of making and sending disciples central to the mission of your church? If not, what is? And if so, how are you acting as a community to nurture the path of discipleship, teaching one another how to be friends of Jesus in all aspects of life?

What Am I Working For?

So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs. Hebrews 4:9-11

Sometimes taking it easy just isn’t an option. The circumstances of my life demand action, and it would be counterproductive, even unfaithful to sit on the sidelines. Though I sometimes yearn for a laid-back lifestyle, I feel clear that God has called me to a life of intense activity – at least for the time being. Not all activity is created equal, however.

There are times in my life that I am furiously engaged with work that consumes my entire attention; yet, despite an apparently overwhelming workload, I brim with energy. I find dynamic power in this work. This labor flows out of a life joyously surrendered to God.

But I’ve experienced another kind of activity. It’s just the opposite of the open-hearted, full-throated, life-giving labor of the reign of God. Rather than an expression of overflowing energy, this kind of work is powered by the clutching drive of ego. It is labor that consumes the laborer, a spinning wheel that keeps accelerating, never satisfied until it burns out.

There are always good reasons I give myself for engaging in this life-denying type of activity. It’s important work, I say. I’ll convince myself that I need the money, status, career advancement, recognition, or anything else conceivable that is external to the work itself. I keep going, not because the work itself is my purpose in life, but for some other reason – usually an imagined pay-off in the future. That’s the game, as Uncle Screwtape put it.

But it’s not a game I want to play anymore. I need to give myself fully to the work that God has created me to do. I want to act, not out of hope for gain or a desire for control, but rather for the sake of the adventure that comes from following Jesus with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength!

What would it mean to let go of all those activities that I perform out of fear, rather than hope? How does my life need to change to truly embrace Christ’s purpose in me? How would it feel to walk out of the open doors of the prison I’ve put myself in for so long?