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God’s Strength is in Weakness. Could My Success Be in Failure?

God's Strength is in Weakness. Could My Success Be in Failure?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/20/18, at the Berkeley Friends Church in Berkeley, California. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Ezekiel 37:1-14 & Acts 2:1-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Pentecost Sunday. It’s a big day. The birthday of the church. The day when we remember how the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, came and moved across the face of the waters once again, transforming confusion and mourning into rejoicing, power, and boldness. This is a day that reminds us that the resurrection is real. The kingdom of God has come near, and Christ is come to teach his people himself.

We need this life that comes from God. We need the Spirit to breathe in us, transforming our dry bones and making us a people of praise, of love, of justice. The Christian life is impossible without the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter who lives in us and reminds us of everything that Jesus has taught us. This is the Spirit that, as Jesus promised, leads us into all truth.

The triumph and salvation of Pentecost is foreshadowed the Lord’s promise to Ezekiel, that God would soon redeem his people Israel out of the land of Babylon and return them to Jerusalem. God promised to rebuild the fallen city and make Israel a holy nation once again. By the power of the Spirit, Israel would become a nation that displayed the character of God – love, mercy, and justice.

The fact of the resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit is greater than the restoration of Israel to Jerusalem. It’s greater than the rebuilding of the Temple and the law of Moses observed. At Pentecost, we get a glimpse into some of the “even greater things” that Jesus promised we would do in his name and by his Spirit.

2,000 year ago, in the streets of Roman-occupied Jerusalem, we witness the loving action of God to redeem the whole world – starting with the children of Israel and extending to all the peoples of the earth. God would leave no one behind this time. Those who had been lost in spiritual darkness, outside the household of faith, are welcomed in. People of every tongue, race, and tribe. Jew and Greek. Male and female. Clean and unclean.

Many who are last will be first, and many who are first will be last. The arrival of the Holy Spirit comes as a surprise to those who thought that the kingdom of God was only for them, those who thought they could control the word of God, and draw human boundaries around God’s grace. All our religious bigotry and fearful self-protection is challenged by God’s universal love and inconvenient grace.

Pentecost is a day of royal power. It is about the establishment of a kingdom. Our king is the broken and crucified one, Jesus. Through his death and resurrection, he has conquered the powers of darkness and death. He has overcome hatred and fear. He has established a whole new social reality.

This isn’t some other-worldly, pie-in-the-sky promise. The kingdom of God isn’t merely about going heaven after we die. On the day of Pentecost, we discover heaven for ourselves. It’s a physical reality. It’s about life in community and our shared journey with Jesus. The kingdom of God shapes us and transforms our whole existence. The kingdom of God makes us inconvenient to the powers and principalities that govern our world.

God’s empire stands in stark contrast to the rule of Caesar and Herod. The mainstream culture of the ancient world was one of domination and submission, patron and client, honor and shame. But through the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God revealed another way. A new community. A culture based on love, where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. A world where the mighty are brought low and the humble are raised up. On the day of Pentecost, the spirit of love is revealed to be lord of all, and the crucified one reigns as king.

A new world, new community, new culture – the reign of God. I get excited just thinking about it. Yet, like so many parts of the Bible, the day of Pentecost is often taken out of context, proof-texted, and turned into a mandate for triumphalist ideologies that see the gospel as just another way of exercising control over the people and cultures of the world. Along with a few other passages – like the Great Commission, for example – Pentecost is often used to fuel a vision that is primarily about church growth, organizational replication, and success in the eyes of the world.

I’ve been down this path. I have been deceived by the idol of success.

My wife, Faith, and I met planning the Young Adult Friends gathering held at Earlham School of Religion in the spring of 2008. She was living out in Washington, DC, at the time – working at the William Penn House. I was a student at ESR, in my second year as a Master of Divinity student. The planning committee asked the two of us to serve as co-clerks. They told us that by appointing us clerks, they hoped that I would speak less and Faith would speak more.

I think we did a pretty good job as co-clerks. But, you know, good clerking requires a lot of planning, prayer, and deliberation. And well, those clerking calls just started getting longer and longer, and more focused on personal matters rather than strictly business. We hit it off. By that summer, we were formally “seeing” each other, and over Christmas we got engaged.

After Faith and I got married in September of 2009, I moved out East to live with her in DC. I had recently started working for Earlham School of Religion doing outreach to young adults, but location was flexible.

When I got to DC, I was on fire for the gospel. I had only become a Christian a few years before, coming out of a profound experience of God’s presence at the World Gathering of Young Friends in England. Wherever I went, I was seeking ways for God to use me in sharing the good news, building up the church. During seminary, I had traveled widely among Friends, and so when I arrived in DC I continued that pattern, visiting a number of meetings in the Mid-Atlantic region.

As I got to know Friends in the DC area better, I became very aware of the fact that there was no local Friends meeting that was corporately Christian. That is to say, there were individual Christian Quakers in the area, but there was no organized group that could say that their shared mission was to follow Jesus.

This was a problem for Faith and me. As much as she and I loved Quakers, it was important for us to be part of a clearly Christian community, and there really wasn’t one available to us in the existing DC Quaker scene. So, in my mind, we had a choice: We could either attend a non-Quaker church, or we could try to start a new Quaker meeting, one rooted in a desire to follow the risen Jesus.

Faith and I talked it over, and we decided to start holding meeting for worship in the William Penn House, where we were living. As we were looking around in the Quaker world for models of how to start a new meeting, the common wisdom seemed to be that the way to do such a thing was just to start holding worship, invite people, and see who showed up. So that’s what we did. We had a Field of Dreams mentality: “If you build it, they will come.”

And, you know, things went really well for a while. We started small, but soon we had a solid group showing up – reading the scriptures together, singing, and practicing waiting worship. Our gatherings were small, but God’s power was there. It’s amazing to think back on how consistently God showed up. The Holy Spirit was present, teaching us and strengthening us to become more fully disciples of Jesus.

But planting a new Quaker church is harder than Faith and I ever imagined. Holding worship was relatively easy, but establishing a new community that could sustain itself over the long term was another story. Over the course of the five years that Capitol Hill Friends was meeting, our attendance varied quite a bit – between two and twenty, but probably averaging more like half a dozen. Yet the core of committed people, the folks who took a personal responsibility for the meeting, never expanded beyond Faith, me, and one other person.

Now, I was only working part-time for Quaker institutions during this time, so I was able to dedicate a lot of my energy to writing, outreach, and pastoral care of people who attended the group. I did everything I knew how to encourage our attenders, build community, and invite all of us to go deeper. Yet, despite the powerful worship, despite the transformation that we could see happening in people’s lives as a result of our fellowship, people rarely stuck with the group for longer than six months. They came, they had a powerful experience of God, and then they left.

We went through several of these cycles – gathering a core group of attenders, nurturing them, inviting them into the mission of growing a new meeting, and then watching attendance drop off. It was really demoralizing, and it was hard not to take it personally. Eventually, Faith and I decided that we needed to take a break. We stopped holding regular worship at our house, and eventually started attending a local Church of the Brethren congregation where we’ve found opportunities for ministry.

How does all of this relate to Pentecost? Well, you see, as an ambitious, fired-up young follower of Jesus, I looked to Pentecost as one of the key texts that told me what a “successful,” faithful church should look like. I read about the Holy Spirit coming with obvious displays of power, an effect so intense that the neighbors all assumed that people at the prayer meeting were drunk! Peter is preaching to masses of people in the streets of Jerusalem, exhorting them to repent and turn to Jesus. Thousands of people are brought into the way of Jesus on a single day.

Vitality. Conviction. Spiritual power. Numerical growth. These are some of the marks of the New Testament church that I learned from Acts 2. And in the context of my own failure to gather even a small community that could cohere without my constant encouragement, I couldn’t help but wonder – what am I doing wrong? Where am I being unfaithful? Why isn’t God blessing my work, the work that I truly believed that God had called me and prepared me to do?

I still feel sad about how things went – or didn’t go – with Capitol Hill Friends. I wish there were a Quaker church in Washington, DC, and I don’t know why there isn’t. But even in this failure, there have been blessings. Our ministry during those years had a big impact – some of which we are aware of, and much of which we will probably never know. And it had a big impact on me. I’ve gotten to know God in ways I never expected – and, frankly, never wanted to learn. But I needed to learn. I needed to learn what it looks like to follow Jesus in the midst of failure, to trust Jesus like he trusted his Father.

That’s the perspective I was often missing in my church-planting ministry with Capitol Hill Friends. I was so focused on the success of this new Quaker community that I didn’t want to see the whole picture of the early church. The glory of Pentecost was only possible in the context of failure. The joy of the resurrection is impossible without the suffering and loss of the cross. And, as we see very soon as we continue reading the Book of Acts, the health and growth of the church is only possible through the “failure” of the apostles’ vision of what the Christian community ought to be.

One of my mistakes was reading Pentecost as a story about how the church ought to be, rather than a story about who God is. The transforming power of Pentecost is not an outcome to be achieved. It’s not a reward for good behavior or hard work. The coming of the Spirit happens amid failure, pain, and loss. Like the disciples experienced on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus often appears to us in our confusion and mourning. He is present with us because we need him, not because we are doing well.

Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones speaks directly into this experience. Ezekiel encounters God in the context of national failure, the humiliation of exile, and the longing for restoration. Ezekiel has no power to restore the fortunes of his people, but in the midst of his sorrow, the Spirit of God comes to him.

What’s interesting here is the interplay between God and Ezekiel. It’s the same as that between God and Peter. God is the life and power. God gives the Spirit. But God also asks for our cooperation. Just like Peter, who preached before huge crowds and kindled the faith of thousands, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy in the presence of the Spirit. It is through the act of prophesy that the dry bones come to life, filled with the breath of God.

This was the heart of the early Quaker movement, too. The first Quakers knew the importance of prophesy. The word of God is alive and active. It wants to be spoken and enacted in our lives. To speak the words of the Spirit is to cooperate with the healing and transforming power of God. To speak truth into the world, especially out of a position of weakness and risk, is to walk in the way of Jesus, who spoke the truth in love, right up until they nailed him to a cross.

Our failures along the way are painful, but they don’t have to dismay us. If we aren’t as big or successful as we think a Pentecost church ought to be. We shouldn’t be shocked if our ideas, rooted in the gospel of Jesus, don’t carry much weight in the debates of this age. We shouldn’t lose heart if our trust in God looks like foolishness and failure in the eyes of the world. We don’t need to be discouraged, because we know that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. We have seen how the light of Jesus breaks into this world through the cracks of failure.

The challenge of failure never ends. As we read in scripture, and experience in our own lives, God is continually breaking through our false strength in order to reveal the true life and power of the Spirit. Pentecost isn’t the end of the story. Through the power of the Spirit, Peter and the early church are continuously challenged in their beliefs about who belongs in the church. The Jewish disciples are shocked to realize that that God is welcoming all nations into the body of Christ. For people like Peter, who had scrupulously observed the law of Moses from his youth, this must have felt like a great failure, the loss of a certainty he had held precious.

For us here today, we face a similar challenge. God has changed the playbook once again. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in our rapidly shifting culture. Those of us who are faithful to the letter of the law – like Peter was – may have a tough time keeping up. The growth of God’s kingdom may feel like failure to us.

Fortunately, we are not left without a witness. The scriptures are full of stories about what it looks like to follow God even in the midst of radical, uncomfortable change. The Spirit is present with us, guiding us into all truth, even in times of challenge and confusion. The story of the church did not end with the writing of the scriptures. It didn’t end with the early Quakers. Jesus is alive. He’s here to teach us and lead us. Are we listening?

Like the people of ancient Israel, we look at our weakness and are tempted to despair: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But God responds with the spirit of Pentecost. He says, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

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Why sometimes Failure is the greatest Success

Rocket Launch

It was five years ago this month that Faith and I first held a meeting for worship on Capitol Hill. There were four of us, all twenty-somethings, gathered together in the conference room of the William Penn House. In the silence of that time of Quaker worship, I couldn’t imagine the kind of journey I was embarking on. I had no idea how this simple idea of starting a Quaker Meeting would change my life forever.

The last five years have been deeply challenging. There have been many points when I’ve wanted to give up more than anything. We’ve seen this community flicker and almost wink out several times. Yet, through it all, the dogged voice of the Spirit has always been present with us. Like a little terrier that chomps down on your leg and won’t let go no matter what, that still, small voice within has stubbornly refused to release us from the call to this work, this place, our people.

It turns out that the hound of heaven knows what he’s barking about. There’s power in persistence. There’s a quiet dynamism in endurance. Something incredible is unlocked when we commit ourselves unreservedly to the mission Christ gives us – no matter how crazy, unrealistic, humiliating, or even boring it seems.

There is a hidden power that comes to our aid when we patiently endure. This power doesn’t guarantee success; it promises nothing, in fact, but our daily bread and the chance to do it all over again tomorrow. And when the call is unrelenting and success seems far off, that quotidian bargain just has to be enough.

Amazingly, it is. For the past five years, we’ve experienced just-in-time delivery of the spiritual and material support that we’ve needed to sustain this work. There have been so many moments when I’ve felt like I couldn’t go one step further, but when I nevertheless put one foot in front of another, a way appeared out of no-way. The waters part, and I have what Deborah Saunders calls a Red Sea experience.

I recently read an article about a startup computer game company that crashed and burned. The project was a total failure; the product, a flop. The team mostly disbanded, except for a few core folks who sensed that there might still be potential in some of the material they had worked on together.

The game was still definitely dead in the water; they had no hopes about salvaging that project. Yet, there was something of value that remained intriguing for these developers: a tool that they had created to facilitate communication within their team. This tool, called Slack, is now a billion-dollar company that’s re-defining online business communication.

Slack’s story inspires me. It feels like our story, too. In this journey to develop a new kind of Quaker-Christian community, we’ve failed a lot. I’ve personally crashed and burned more times that I’d like to admit. But each time, there has been something worth saving. I’ve learned something very valuable from every challenge.

In five years of repeated disappointments and re-doubled efforts, I’ve acquired a deepened sense of realism, sobriety, and flexibility. I’ve gained a patient endurance I never knew I was capable of.

I’ve also learned to be really dumb! What smart person, after having fifteen rockets blow up on the launch pad, keeps trying to fly to the moon? But that’s just what Friends of Jesus are doing. We just keep designing new rockets to see what will fly. At the end of the day, we may just end up with a more colorful explosion, but we learn a lot in the process.

That’s the exciting part. Just like the makers of Slack, we’re discovering that the next big thing is probably going to be found along the way. The project is not always about what we think it is. The thing is not the thing. At the end of the day, what’s most important is the ethos of dynamic shared learning, collaboration, and off-the-walls innovation that we’re developing together.

We’re assembling the tools that help us do the work. We find ourselves drawn into a network of friends and allies that the Holy Spirit is gathering to accomplish something new. We’re invited into an adventure far greater than anything we ever imagined when we were first starting out.

You are invited. We want you to be part of this learning, growing, crashing-and-burning process. We need your participation, your gifts, your insight and vision. The Friends of Jesus Fellowship is just a little seed beginning to sprout. There’s lots of room for new shoots and branches, audacious little leaves seeking the sun.

We’ll keep failing. Our rockets will continue to explode in mid-air. And we’ll watch it together. We’ll take notes, and next time we’ll blow up differently.

Do you want to be a part of this launch team? Do you want to participate in the dynamic collaboration, shared learning, and experimentation that we share in together?

You are important. Your gifts are important, and they’ve been given to you for a reason. How is the Spirit calling you to use these gifts to create a flourishing community that can grow like mustard seed and bless the world around us? How can we learn and grow together?

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Finding the Balance – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #57

Dear friends,

After what we hope was the last round of sizzling summer weather this week, temperatures and humidity have fallen dramatically here in DC. The crispness in the air and distinctive clarity of daylight tells us that fall has arrived. Faith and I have been excited to put on an extra layer, open the windows and embrace the new season.

This seasonal change is invigorating, and not only in terms of the weather. As we move into fall, the Friends of Jesus community also enters into an exciting new phase of its life. Last week marked the beginning of our first-ever fall cycle. From now until early December, we’re coming together to explore the scriptural focus, “Look, I am making everything new!” We’ll be gathering around good food and deepening friendships, and through Spirit-led worship and exploration of Scripture we’ll seek to open ourselves to the ways that God wants to remake and renew us – and use us as agents of positive change in our city.

This fall cycle is special in many ways. Not only is it our first fall cycle, it is the first time we have organized a cycle around an entire season, rather than just a six-week period. It also marks the first time that we will be holding a cycle in multiple small groups. We have one group meeting out in suburban Maryland, with another gathering in the homes of participants in the District.

Now that we have more than one small group, we’re experimenting with how to be one body with many parts. One way way to accomplish this is having more than one kind of meeting. Starting this month, in addition to our weekly small groups we will also gather monthly to share worship and strengthen connections across our whole community. Our first monthly gathering will be on Sunday, September 29th. Through this rhythm of local weekly small groups and city-wide monthly gatherings, we are developing a model for growing a community that lives out the gospel across the physical geography and human diversity of our city.

Just as this is a time of growth and experimentation for Friends of Jesus as a whole, so it is for me, on a personal level. I have spent a lot of my time this month exploring what it means to be a full-time minister who also raises his own financial support. As a bi-vocational minister, it can be quite a balancing act to feel out how much of my time and energy God is calling me to put into unpaid ministry, and how much focus I should place on work that is paid.

This summer, I have begun apprenticing with a local carpenter named Scott. He’s been doing an amazing job of teaching me the basics of the trade. In the past couple of months, he’s taken me from a state of almost complete ignorance and developed me into a fairly serviceable helper. We’ve done a lot of different projects together, and we are currently in the middle of doing the biggest one so far: gutting and completely remodeling a basement bedroom. Together, we are turning a space that used to be a health hazard into a safe, pleasant living area. And we’re having a blast while we’re at it.

I’ve learned so much working with Scott, and not just about carpentry. He’s helping me to see how much time and effort goes into every room I walk into, every street I drive down, every skyline I observe. As human beings, we are made in the image of God – and I am seeing more clearly than ever that one of those marks is the care and hard work we can put into the world that surrounds us. This new awareness helps me to appreciate how precious our world is, especially when I recognize the work of a craftsman who took the extra time, sweat and energy to make things beautiful.

Working with Scott is also providing a helpful reminder about my own limitations. I have enjoyed this work so much that I have sought out as much of it as I could get. As the summer has gone on, I’ve spent more and more time on the job with Scott, to the point that recently I have effectively been working full time as an apprentice carpenter. This is in addition to my two other paid jobs, unpaid ministry and life with my family and friends. I’ve loved the work – all of it – but it’s been a lot.

I knew it already, but I am experiencing with greater clarity than ever that I am a finite being with very real limits on my time, energy, attention and strength. How can I best steward these resources to strengthen the body of Christ and bless the world? What is the best balance of paid activity, unpaid service, and time spent off the clock with family, friends and neighbors?

I’ve learned one thing for sure this month: It is not sustainable for me to work full time as a carpenter, part time as a web developer, part time as a writer, be responsive to the work God has for me with Friends of Jesus, and be present to my family and friends. As much as I want to do every good thing full time, my human limitations just won’t allow it. Though this can be deeply frustrating for me, I am also learning to see the blessing in it. In my own weakness, I get to witness God’s strength. My frailties and limitations help to focus me on the work that God is most especially calling me to right now.

It takes a lot of humility to let God set my priorities in this way – the kind of humility that is closely related to humiliation! I have to confess, I still find it challenging to trust God to provide for our material needs, but it is absolutely essential if I am to avoid choosing paid work over unpaid work by default. I know that I don’t have this kind of courage or wisdom on my own, but I pray that the Holy Spirit will give me the grounding and guidance I need to live joyfully into whatever labor God has for me.

I am deeply grateful for everyone who holds me, our family and Friends of Jesus up in prayer. I ask that you continue to pray for us, and in particular ask prayers for:

  • The Spirit’s blessing on this new season of Friends of Jesus in the DC Metro Area. May we fully embrace our scriptural focus, finding that God is indeed making everything new – in our lives, and in the life of our city.
  • Courage and guidance for me as I seek a faithful balance of different kinds of work – paid and unpaid.
  • Openings for me, and for all of us in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, to demonstrate the new and abundant life that we have found in Christ Jesus. May God give us strength, wisdom and courage to invite others into the exhilarating and deeply challenging way of Jesus.

Your friend and brother,

Micah Bales

Blessed, And Thankful – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #55

Dear friends,

Here in DC, we’ve entered into the most blisteringly hot days of summer, with daily temperatures in the nineties and our city’s trademark humidity intensifying the effect. Imagine our delight when Faith and I arrived home yesterday afternoon to find our house sickly warm, with the thermostat reading system malfunction! At present, I’m huddling in the basement, where the temperatures are still bearable, and definitely looking forward to a visit from the repairman.

Despite our present discomfort, I’d say that overall the summer is going quite well. Capitol Hill Friends is now half-way through our summer cycle, during which time we’ve been meeting in each other’s homes. This new approach has seemed to facilitate a more laid-back feeling to our meetings, and we’ve made a point to share potluck dinner as part of our time together. In the short time that we have been meeting in homes, it has felt to me that we have drawn closer as a community. There’s something about breaking bread together, seeing one another’s home space, and moving around in the city that helps remind us that we’re in this together.

There’s a good deal of excitement in our community right now. This Sunday, we had the joy of welcoming our friend, Tim, into committed membership. We laid hands on him and gave thanks for his desire to walk together with us in the way of Jesus. We feel grateful for his willingness to make a commitment to become a living member of this little part of Christ’s body. We are blessed by the growth we are experiencing together as God adds to our fellowship, both in numbers and spiritual depth.

We are also excited about the opportunities that are opening for us to have a positive impact other parts of our city. For the last six months, we have been meeting in a single small group on Capitol Hill. As we look towards the fall, we are preparing to multiply this initial small group into two new groups that will serve particular parts of the DC area. One of these will serve Northwest DC and Montgomery County. The other group will be based in the eastern part of DC, positioning us to serve the southern and eastern parts of the metro region.

As we prepare to multiply, our hope is that we can progressively become more specific in our geographical focus. With two small groups, we can give better attention to the unique needs of two of our city’s major regions. We are praying that God will work through this greater specificity to invite those looking for a deeper expression of spiritual community, but who aren’t able to sustain a long-distance commute. We sense that we are just getting started, and that God is guiding us to become a disciple-making community that blesses our city.

For my own part, I am personally being blessed in this process. It has been a real joy this month to work with Bill and Tim, who are apprenticing with me as they prepare to organize a new small group in Montgomery County. Their dedication, intelligence, and joy in serving the Lord are deeply inspiring to me. I’m grateful for the work of the Spirit who is drawing together such an amazing group of people for the mission of Jesus in our region.

I’m profoundly grateful for each individual who is participating in our community. As our life together continues to unfold, I grow ever more aware of how limited each of us is, and how much we depend on one another. No one of us has all the gifts necessary to accomplish the mission that God is drawing us into. We can’t go it alone. But when we all contribute according to our gifts, we discover that we have everything we need.

So, that’s where I’m at. As a friend of mine says whenever he’s asked how he’s doing: I’m blessed, and thankful. There are up days and down days – days when there’s no AC and days when Faith and I get to eat a banana split the size of our heads – but at the end of every day, there is the fact of this amazing community that Jesus is gathering together here in our city. There is the fact of the lives that God is changing through the practice of prayer that we are learning together. There is the fact that the living water of God’s Spirit is being made available to the people of our city. And we are just getting started!

Add to all of that the fact that it is God who is accomplishing all of this, and I’m mighty blessed indeed. If I have learned anything from the last four years of ministry, it is that my own efforts can’t accomplish anything on their own. I can plow and sow and water all day long with little effect, but if God blesses the work, the flowers bloom.

As we continue our work of developing Spirit-led community here in the DC area, please pray for us:

  • That Christ be present to teach us and give us deepened clarity about our mission and vision as a community that blesses our city.
  • That God prepare us for the new challenges of becoming a united community made up of multiple small groups, meeting in a variety of locations throughout the region.
  • That the Holy Spirit fill us with boldness and power to share the good news of Jesus with our friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members.

I am so grateful for your support and encouragement. May the Father of Lights illuminate your heart, and give you strength to live into his mission of love and reconciliation in your local context.

In thanksgiving,

Micah Bales

Unleashing Our Spiritual Gifts – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #54

Dear friends,

This past month has been very full! I’ve visited friends in Philadelphia, and family and friends in Kansas, on top of my usual work routine. I have also felt called into an increasingly intense schedule of visitation with individuals and families here in the DC area. I have often been tired lately, but I feel great joy in the work, and I have a sense that I am generally on the right track.

Early in May, we got a visit from Hoot Williams, a fellow minister who is helping to organize a new community of disciples in Philadelphia, as a part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. I was very glad that Hoot was able to get a first hand look at what we are up to here in DC, and his visit encouraged me to think more about when I might get the chance to visit friends of Jesus in Philadelphia again.

I got my chance later in the month, when I was able to attend an evening worship event held by the emerging group in Philadelphia. I was deeply impressed by the faith and dedication of those who helped to organize the event, and I felt that we in DC had plenty to learn from their efforts. I was particularly pleased with the way that friends there seem to be gathering local leadership that is responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. The group in Philadelphia looks somewhat different from Capitol Hill Friends, which I see as an indicator of good health! Different soils are suited to different kinds of growth, and it is a mark of faithfulness when we respond to the possibilities of the soil where we are planted.

Here in DC, things are proceeding along steadily. We are nearing the end of our third six-week cycle, which has been focused on the Gospel of Luke. In particular, we’ve been looking at Jesus’ counter-cultural Jubilee message, which challenges our ordinary relationship with money, status and power. Instead of seeking to be the greatest, the richest, the strongest, we are invited into a life of humble service – even laying down our lives for others! Rather than looking up to those who are considered most successful in our society – presidents, CEOs and billionaires – we are instead directed to focus our attention on the ravens and the lilies, who depend on God for all their needs.

We at Capitol Hill Friends are very much like a wild flower, growing in the diverse field of the Washington metro area. All around us are the weeds of greed, lust for power, distractions and workaholism; nevertheless, as we sink our roots deeper into this good earth, and lift our faces higher towards the sun, Christ is giving us the light we need to grow. We are learning how to develop as his disciples as we keep our focus on him and the blessings he wants to pour out on our city.

This spring, I have been focusing my attention on nurturing relationships, with a particular eye for unlocking the spiritual gifts of each individual. There sure are some magnificent gifts in this group that has begun to gather on Capitol Hill. We have teachers and prayer warriors, evangelists and healers, administrators and prophets. God has poured out the Spirit abundantly on this little band!

Increasingly, I am coming to understand that my role is something like a hybrid between a pastor and a community organizer. Like a pastor, I feel a sense of responsibility for the spiritual health and well-being of this fellowship. I try to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks, and to nurture an environment where everyone can have access to genuine community centered in a living engagement with the risen Jesus.

There is definitely a pastoral aspect to my ministry, but I feel even more affinity with the role of community organizer. I sense that my primary mission is not to be the one leader who does everything; instead, I feel called to play midwife to an expanding team of leaders, all of us operating in our spiritual gifts. I want to see the teachers begin to teach; pastors to nurture; evangelists to spread the word; prophets to unveil the truth; and apostles to break new ground for the gospel! When I look at my brothers and sisters at Capitol Hill Friends, I see people whom God has given a startling array of gifts. I see a community of disciples whom Jesus is inviting into lives of deeper faithfulness, joy and peace.

How can I facilitate the unleashing of these gifts? How can I help to start a chain reaction of disciples who in turn make disciples? Despite spending years in seminary and attending Quaker gatherings of all kinds, I have to confess that the dynamics of leadership and discipleship are still a bit of a mystery to me. What does it take to empower others to step into their spiritual gifts, using them to build up the body of Christ and bless the world?
I know one thing for sure: I don’t have what it takes to do this on my own. The more I observe the gifts that God has poured out on others in our community, the more I realize how limited my own abilities are. There are some things that I’m really good at and passionate about; but most things, I’m not. In my experience, there has been nothing like planting a church to teach me that I am not self-sufficient. I can’t do much of anything alone. If I am unwilling to rely on my friends, I’ll fall flat on my face!

I am grateful to be able to lean on you, my spiritual family, as I seek to be faithful in the work that Christ has given me. Your prayers and support are indispensable! For the coming month, here are a few ways you could focus your prayers:

  • On June 15th, Capitol Hill Friends will be gathering for a day-long retreat to do discernment around our sense of mission and vision. We hope that this retreat will clarify our focus and set our general direction for some time to come. Please pray that God bless our time together, granting us a clear sense of direction and shared purpose together as we look for ways to be his hands and feet in the world.
  • Pray that God would raise up new leaders, according to each one’s particular gifts.
  • Pray that the Holy Spirit open the way for multiplication of new groups meeting in different parts of the city, so that we can grow in numbers and depth, and become more accessible to seekers across the metro area.

In love and friendship,

Micah Bales

A Gospel For Hungry People

This Sunday at Capitol Hill Friends, we looked at Luke 10:1-24, the story of when Jesus sends out 72 of his disciples to go ahead of him into Samaria and share the good news: The kingdom of God has come near to you.

Jesus sends his followers out in utter vulnerability. He instructs them to take nothing with them for the journey – no money, no supplies, not even shoes! We know from the previous chapter that Samaria is not a safe place for the Jewish disciples. Rejection – possibly even violence – is a realistic expectation for these missionaries being sent into cross-cultural ministry. Jesus sends them out in pairs, so at least they have each other, but they’re basically defenseless.

As disciples of Jesus who find ourselves called to live in the midst of Empire, there is a great temptation to look for ways to protect ourselves. We live in a culture that is constantly retelling the story of domination: Money makes the world go ’round. Might makes right. You get what you deserve. It is an enormous challenge to remain open, to see the signs of the kingdom of God in our midst. And even when we can see it, the way of peace that we find ourselves called into by Jesus is so intensely counter-cultural that we have to wonder: Does following Jesus mean becoming a social outcast?

If Luke’s story is any indication, walking with Jesus will not make us popular. Our society’s mainstream is defined by those in the center – those who possess the most money, social influence and intelligence. These are the somebodys who run governments, direct economies, lead educational institutions and program the computers. Most of us want to be these people – to feel important and respected by the culture we live in.

Yet as followers of Jesus, we are called to move away from the shiny, important center and instead to inhabit the margins of our society. Our God scatters the proud and brings down the mighty from their thrones. He fills the poor with good things but sends the rich away empty. We follow the homeless Messiah who was born in a barn with animals and was rejected and murdered by all the important people of his day. We worship the God who pronounces woe to the rich, self-satisfied mockers who live at the center, but who announces blessing on the poor, hungry and those who mourn.

One of us at Capitol Hill Friends recently asked if our community is destined to be a fringe group, or whether there is a way for us to communicate the good news in a manner that appeals to the broader society. I think that this is a very good question, because there is a real tension about this in Scripture.

On the one hand, Jesus says clearly that his way is a narrow path that few will choose to walk in. Jesus models a hard-core prophetic ministry that few of us have the stomach for. On the other hand, Jesus calls us to share the good news with the whole world. He commands us to make disciples of all nations and to invite others to participate in the community that the Holy Spirit gathers in his name. So, which is it? Is the kingdom for a few, or for many?

The upside-down kingdom of Jesus is hard for a lot of folks to accept, especially those of us who who identify more with the prestigious center of our culture. Yet, despite the barriers that hold us back from accepting Jesus’ counter-cultural message, all things are possible with God. Even in the face of our natural tendency to shy away from his disorienting challenge, the Holy Spirit is working on our hearts and changing our lives.

As a community gathered around the radical teaching of Jesus, is Capitol Hill Friends ever going to be mainstream? From the perspective of the prestigious center, the answer is clearly no! As friends of the crucified Messiah, we are called into the margins and abandoned places where Jesus heals the sick, casts out demons and teaches the people. As followers in his way of gospel nonviolence, we are inevitably led to join him outside the gates of the city.

As friends of Jesus, we will necessarily be marginal from the perspective of the big shots in our society. Many respectable, mainstream people will consider us fringe. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we cannot have a big impact. The early Church in Jerusalem was a group on the margins – and it was also a thriving community of many thousands of people!

Then again, numerical growth is out of the question for a radical group like ours if we choose to play into the narrative of the mainstream culture. The good news of Jesus usually doesn’t sound very appealing to those in the center. But, to those on the margins, it is a breath of fresh air! How can we take this message to those who are ready to hear it?

We encounter hungry people everywhere we go. In every neighborhood and workplace, in every classroom and restaurant, there are those who are aching for the love, justice and power that Jesus offers us. Are we awake to it? How can we become more attentive to the signs of spiritual hunger and curiosity in those that we meet? How can we demonstrate the inexplicable love of Jesus to those around us, inviting them to come and see? What would it look like for us to get out of our comfort zone and take the good news to those who are ready to receive it?

 

Growing In Any Weather – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #53

Dear friends,

Spring took its time arriving this month in DC. We experienced several major shifts in weather – from the high eighties several weeks ago, down to the forties more recently. The climate here has shifted back and forth: We have seen hot and cold; muggy and dry; overcast days and others full of light. Sometimes, when things got really cold, misty and gloomy, it was hard to believe that we were in springtime and headed towards summer.

The trees knew, though. Despite all the ups and downs of an increasingly unpredictable weather cycle, the plants knew the signs of the times. Even in the midst of bitter cold, the trees began to bud; flowers bloomed and leaves slowly began to emerge. While I entertained doubts about whether we would ever see spring, the trees lived in hope.

The quiet hope and determination of the trees serve as a sign to me. This is how I am called to live: not being blown about by every change of conditions, but instead rooted in faith that God is sending the rain, sun and temperature I need to grow and thrive, even if I can’t quite imagine it yet.

Just like the trees, Capitol Hill Friends is a living, growing organism. As a community following Jesus, we live in hope. Though the outward conditions of life here often run counter to the loving relationships that we sense God calling us into, we persist in trust that the rain will fall, the sun will shine and the Spirit will blow among us.

Rather than being dismayed by every change in the weather, God is calling our community to steady perseverance – the patient endurance of the saints, as it says in Scripture. We are called to lead lives that are oriented towards the summer that is coming, rather than the winter that we are emerging from.

For my own part, I find it very easy to get bogged down in wintry thinking. I can get stuck in a mindset of scarcity, fear and timidity, thinking more about how to protect myself from failure than about how to prepare myself for success. Like the servant in the parable of the talents – oftentimes, it is tempting to bury my gift in the ground rather than risk losing everything!

But we have received a greater calling than the cautious self-preservation of the status quo. God is inviting us to be more than a leafless tree, forever in a wintertime mode. Instead, we can flower and bear fruit that blesses the world.

This is scary. Flowering means being vulnerable. It means investing a lot of effort and energy into something that, ultimately, might not even work. It means being open to the possibility that we might fail.

Even bearing fruit can seem risky. Will we be bearing apples? Bananas? Kiwis? How will this fruit taste, and will we even like it? Bearing the kind of fruit that John the Baptist talked about involves letting go of our control-freak tendencies and living in the power of God. Bearing fruit means allowing ourselves to be swept into God’s mission rather than dictating our own terms.

Somehow, this whole letter has turned into an extended horticultural metaphor! But that is, I believe, where we are at here in our ministry in Washington, DC: We are gardeners, and we are the tree. We are pruning, and we are blossoming to bear fruit. We are preparing for the harvest that is coming, and there is a lot of growing to do along the way. Pray that the Lord of the garden will call more gardeners!

In the weeks ahead, here are some ways in which you can be praying for us:

– That God would fill us with a spirit of boldness and enthusiasm to share the good news with our friends and neighbors, inviting others into our family in Christ.

– That God would activate and empower the spiritual gifts that are present in our community, raising up leadership, discernment, evangelism, pastoral care and teaching, among other gifts.

– That Christ would reveal to us with ever greater urgency and specificity the fruit that he is preparing us to bear.

We are so grateful for your ongoing prayer support. We could never have come this far without you, and we are counting on you to help us walk the next leg of this journey. Thank you for your faithfulness, friendship and love.

In Jesus,

Micah Bales