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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?

A Crisis of Faith

In times of crisis, all the rules change. Before, we might have stuck to routine, but crisis demands our full attention. We are forced to break habits, get out of the comfort zone of everyday life, and engage with a situation that will not be deferred.

There is a sense of reality and aliveness in these times. Even when what we are experiencing is terrifying and painful, in times of crisis we know in our bones that the present moment really matters, and that our decisions make a difference. While crisis is not necessarily redemptive, it is always full of potential for transformation.

The early church lived in such a time of immediacy. When Jesus came to the seashore and called his first disciples, he invited them out of the safety of the family business and into a life of adventure, to be about his Father’s business. When he was raised from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit to guide the new community, all the old patterns broke down: people sold what they had and shared their resources; women and men worked side by side to inaugurate a new reality that they had never imagined possible before. Soon, thousands of Spirit-filled disciples made their way throughout the ancient world, sharing the good news of God’s victory over sin and death in Christ Jesus.

I have experienced such times of crisis in my own life. I remember the call to ministry that ripped me out of my holding-pattern job at a bank and sent me off to study in Indiana. I had no idea where my life was headed, but I had a strong sense that God was in control. I remember the spring that I lived in the Renaissance House community, living and breaking bread with the poorest of the poor, keeping an intense discipline of community prayer, and gathering resources from the trash heap of empire. I remember those days in the fall of 2011 when it seemed like anything could happen. The world was changing, and I was able to participate in a dramatic shift in public consciousness.

God has felt most real and present in my life in these unexpected moments. The movement of the Spirit has been palpable, her guidance unmistakable. Jesus is present with us when we lose control.

It’s been a while since I’ve gone off the deep end. I’ve had stresses and challenges, of course; there have been times when I’ve not been sure how I’d make it through a particular obstacle. But I haven’t often felt the radical newness that comes with surrendering past, present and future to the control of the sovereign Lord. I have hunkered down in routine, busied myself with good activities, given myself a safe pattern to live in.

But I don’t feel safe. I often feel anxious. I yearn and thirst. I feel the sense of divine immanence nudging me to once again drop all of my cobbled safety nets and walk the tightrope in confidence. Do I have the desperate courage necessary to trust God to catch me when I fall? Am I willing to have my life broken open once again, transformed in ways that terrify me? Am I ready to live in a space of divine crisis?

It is only in surrendering my own safety, the false systems of control that I construct for myself, that I can hope to experience the true freedom of the gospel. It is a rest that I can enter only when I am ready to lay down my own works and allow God to guide me in directions I never saw coming.

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… Hebrews 4:9-11a

 

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?