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Burn Down the Meeting House

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.– Luke 12:32-34

A friend of mine recently suggested that perhaps the best thing that twentysomething Quakers could do would be to burn down a Yearly Meeting meetinghouse. What would happen if the young adults of the Yearly Meeting were to show up one evening with torches and openly burn that ancient, venerable, valuable piece of real estate to the ground?

Of course, the most biblical thing to do might be to sell the meetinghouse and give to the poor. If we had it in us to do such a thing, this would certainly be a powerful witness. But can you imagine an entire Yearly Meeting finding unity to sell the community’s flagship real estate investment? I can already hear the objections. We would be admonished to be more responsible, more realistic. We would be reminded of the building’s substantial history and the role that the property plays in outreach.

It is hard to imagine a Yearly Meeting selling one of its most visible symbols of establishment. I have an easier time imagining the twentysomethings of the community banding together to bear prophetic witness to the wider body. The Yearly Meeting as a whole may not be ready to release the dead weight of the past – the fear of losing money, status and security – but younger generations might call for a break with stagnation and decline. What would happen if we put the movement of the Spirit ahead of property management?

It would probably be premature for Friends of my generation to start burning down meetinghouses. As powerful as this sign might be, it would be an act of desperation rather than a first step on the path of prophetic engagement. What might these first steps look like? How could twentysomething Quakers serve a wake-up call to their Yearly Meetings in a way that older Friends can hear?

The image of burning down a meetinghouse is a powerful one, spurring me to think about what might happen if twentysomething Quakers decided that we were done sitting at the kids’ table. Rather than waiting around for older generations to invite us into responsibility and leadership, the image of burning down the meetinghouse represents younger Quakers rising out of the silence and declaring God’s truth as we have experienced it. Even when it makes the gray-hairs uncomfortable.

One thing is clear: The status quohas been failing us for decades, perhaps even generations. We find ourselves today in the midst of the greatest economic, technological, cultural and religious transition in human history – a momentous shift that virtually the entire world is participating in. This generation faces a stark choice.One option is to continue on as we have for many years, warming ourselves by the dying embers of an ancient tradition. We can huddle together in our creaky, historic buildings, drafting minutes and sinking deeper into irrelevance as our young people drift away to other communities that can provide a more satisfying framework of meaning.We can choose comfort over challenge, anesthetized death over the messy and sometimes painful business of life. This is what the meetinghouse represents.

Or we can change our minds.We can turn back to the same God who taught our ancestors how to lead lives of radical faithfulness. We can embrace the exhiliration and the riskiness that comes when we choose to walk beside Jesus on the water. This will mean venturing out from the safety of the meetinghouse – all of the beliefs, processes and possessions that we cling to for our sense of identity as Friends. The community that arises from the ashes of the meetinghouse will have the clear-eyed aspect of a person who has given up everything to fully invest in the present moment, walking in faith with our ever-present Guide. Burning down the meetinghouse is a metaphor for the true freedom that we find when we renounce all the things that we put before God.

What would it look like for younger Friends to take responsibility for leadership within our Yearly Meetings, not waiting for permission or validation? How can we invite our entire religious community, young and old, into a shared journey of radical transformation and openness to the new thing that God is doing in our time and place? What in us needs to die in order for new life to grow?

QuakerSpring: A New Creation

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
– Isaiah 60:1-2

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
– Romans 8:22-23

God continues to surprise me. All the Holy Spirit has to do is blow through, and I am back to square one; the sand castles that I have built are swept away by the tide, and I am left without fortifications before God. I suppose it could be frustrating to realize that most of the things I had been worrying about for months do not really matter. But all I feel is joy.

I see with stunning clarity that God is not like me at all. Though I am characterized by grasping and self-centeredness, God’s character is one of self-giving, healing and mercy. God’s presence is power to receive forgiveness, and to be remade in the image of Christ.

This presence and power was very much in evidence this past week at the sixth annual gathering of QuakerSpringin Barnesville, Ohio. QuakerSpring is a unique, Spirit-led retreat that was conceived as an alternative to the frantic programming of some other Quaker gatherings. Rather than planning the schedule ahead of time, each day’s agenda is set out according to the group’s sense of the Spirit’s leading.Rooted in deep worship and shared discernment, QuakerSpring unfolds according to the community’s sense of God’s call.

I was surprised by the spiritual intensity we experienced this year. There was a palpable sense of connection to God, but also an awareness of spiritual darkness. At the heart of our time together was a deep sense of our human brokeness, and of Christ’s presence within, calling us to deeper faithfulness. Our spiritual burdens felt like a heavy weight, but as we sat together in Christ’s presence, much of this darkness was revealed, brought into the light, and purified in the Refiner’s Fire. Both individually and as a group, we experienced real transformation.

During QuakerSpring, I personally became more aware of the burdens I had been carrying. I saw more clearly that I was struggling with a spirit of anxiety and confusion around issues of financial security and support. I was so caught up in worry about the future that I had lost sight of my present Ground and Source, Jesus Christ.

Fortunately, an elder was able to name what was happening. She expressed her sense that the Adversary was loose in our midst. When she said this, I knew immediately that it was true. I perceived the spirit of confusion and anxiety for what it was – a spirit that was not from God – and I felt an immediate release. In what felt like a miraculous moment of spiritual house-cleaning, the darkness, confusion and anxiety cleared out of me. I give praise to God for using this elder to name what was happening, and to reveal the dynamics at play that were keeping me in bondage.

One thing that struck me this week was the prominence of what I would describe as almost “charismatic” expressions of faith. The reality of darkness and evil emerged as major themes of our worship and conversation. At the same time, there was a deep sense of Christ’s inward power that is breaking out of forms and structures and transforming us in ways that we could never have predicted. God is doing a new thing, though it is still unclear what this new creation will look like.

As someone who has been involved in QuakerSpring since the first gathering in 2007, this year felt like a turning point. I have always valued QuakerSpring as a chance to rest in the Spirit and grow in community. I saw QuakerSpring as a vacation from the hard work of ministry in the wider world. This year, however, I had a growing sense that God has a broader purpose for this gathering. What if QuakerSpring is more than a spiritual refuge? What if God is using QuakerSpring as an engine of renewal and rebirth for the Religious Society of Friends?

Everything in the Religious Society of Friends seems to be falling apart right now. Yearly Meetings are splitting, and old venerable institutions are in decline. Many of our Meetings are in states of crisis, and there is a general sense that we don’t really know what to do. We are at a loss for how to respond to our present circumstances. At QuakerSpring, I experience a community that is grounded in the Spirit, listening and seeking to be obedient to the voice of Jesus Christ within. This is the kind of community that I want to be a part of. It is a kind of Quakerism that could truly be relevant for 21st-century post-modern America.

QuakerSpring represents the unique meeting of Christian (or Christian-curious) Liberal Friends and Conservative Friends who seek a more vibrant and flexible Christian faith. I learned in high school biology that hybrids are often much stronger than “pure breeds.” Could this new community – this mutt of branch lineages united in the Spirit of Christ – find a voice and a witness that speaks to the needs of modern-day North America? How is God teaching us to contextualize the truth that early Friends re-discovered in our own – dramatically different – context? How might we move forward with our Guide?

There are no easy answers. While many of us wish there were some sort of “technical” solution for the challenges facing the Religious Society of Friends today, I am convinced that there is no quick fix that will produce faithfulness and awareness of God’s presence and power. Rather than developing a technique or a process, God is gathering a people.

QuakerSpring is not an abstract model or process that can simply be exported. This is not something that we can manage or control. Rather, QuakerSpring is apeople who are being knitted together in God’s love and power. Based on my experience of QuakerSpring, I am more convinced than ever that rebirth within the Church will not be the result of our human plans and strategies. There is a new creation that we can sense, and Christ himself is creating it.

Have you experienced the Spirit drawing a new community together? What does it feel like on the growing edge of a faith tradition? Where is the intersection between what God is doing in each of us individually, and the ways that God is at work in the Body as a whole? How do we give this new creation space to breathe and develop, avoiding the temptation to suffocate it with our own ideas and agendas?

Sing and rejoice ye children of the day and the light; for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt: and the Truth doth flourish as the rose, and lilies do grow among the thorns and the plants atop the hills, and upon them the lambs doth skip and play. 
– George Fox

Who is “We”?

In my writing, I use the word “we” quite frequently. I sometimes make statements about what “we” believe, and I ask questions that are for “us” to answer. Though I have known instinctively that there are times when it is appropriate to say “I” and other times when I feel it is right to say “we,” I had not really thought about this distinction in a systematic way until recently.
Much of the conversation around my writing takes place on Facebook. One recent discussion of a post involved almost one hundred and fifty comments, and became a wide-ranging discussion about the nature of Truth and personal experience. Over the course of this conversation, it became clear that several individuals were offended by my use of the word “we.” They did not agree with some of my statements, and they felt that I was attempting to speak for them. “Use ‘I’ statements,” they insisted.
This exchange gave me an opportunity to reflect on why I use the word “we” at specific times, rather than couching all of my writings exclusively in the language of personal narrative. I have come to a deeper understanding of why I use the words that I do, and for this I am grateful.
It seems that some individuals – particularly UniversalistLiberal Quakers – interpret my use of the word “we” to include them personally. When I say that “we believe thus and so,” they feel affronted. How dare I speak for them? If you are one of these Friends, let me assure you: I do not presume to speak on your behalf.
The English language, like most European languages, has only one word for “we.” It is an ambiguous word, because it does not indicate whether the addressee is included as subject. There are many languages in which there are two different words for “we.” The first word means “we, including you.” The second word means, “we, not including you.” I find that those who are upset by my writing often assume that “we” includes them as the addressee.

I have realized that my writing often relies on this ambiguity. As a matter of fact, I do not want to make a firm decision about whether “we” includes the reader, or not. Instead, my use of the word “we” is meant to be invitational. The reader, I hope, will feel free to judge for herself whether or not she is included in this “we.” At best, I am inviting others into an emerging community of those who are being saved by the love and justice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though I am aware that many who read my blog may not yet wish to be a part of this particular community, I seek to leave the door open. “We” can include you, if you so choose.

I am clear, though, that I do not merely speak for myself. I speak out of a tradition, out of a community, and out of the worldwide Body of Christ. I am articulating a way of discipleship that is rooted in our (including you?) faith in Jesus as risen and present Lord and Teacher, Savior of the world. This is not something I made up. It is not merely my personal experience. I seek to express and embody the witness of the universal Church of Jesus Christ.

I get it wrong sometimes, without a doubt. And I rely upon my brothers and sisters in faith to correct me when I stumble. But this correction happens within a framework of love and trust in the risen and present Savior, to whom we (including you?) have dedicated our lives. It is because of what Jesus has done for us – because of his Holy Spirit – that we are able to care for one another, and to hold each another accountable.

If you have not had this experience of Jesus – if you have not been personally convinced of his love, presence and authority in your life – I hope that you will take my use of “we” as an invitation. Rather than a statement about your personal experience of God, it represents the witness of a confessing community that has taken refuge in Jesus. We (including you?) know from experience that he stands at the door and knocks, waiting to include us all in his unlimited life and beauty. More than anything, he wants to make us a part of his holy “we.”

Abolishing the Laity

One peculiar feature of the Quaker tradition is our insistence on the role that each individual has in the discernment of the Holy Spirit’s will for the community. The entire membership of the church is called upon to exercise the authority that in many Christian traditions is held by a small group of ordained leaders. Quakers reject the clergy-laity distinction as unscriptural and spiritually damaging. All of us are called to be fully invested and involved in the life of Christ’s Body. Each one of us has a special and equally valuable role to play in the life of the community.

I think that Friends sometimes fail to recognize what an awesome responsibility is implied by our understanding of spiritual equality. We can be glib in our assertion that every believer is called to a particular ministry. Yet this insistence that all Christians are called to some form of ministry and leadership is deeply radical – and at odds with the way that most of the Church does business.

The Friends tradition demands a great deal from the average member. Each of us is called to be a leader. Depending on our spiritual gifts each of us will provide leadership in different areas of our life together. Some are called and gifted to focus on pastoral care and counseling. Others for evangelism. Some teach, and others give vocal ministry in the meeting for worship. Everyone has a part to play, and many of us have more than one role that we are gifted for.

While we are leaders in a variety of areas, the Friends tradition does not acknowledge a special class of Christian, set apart from the rest of the body. Rather, we are all set apart for the Lord’s work. In this, the testimony of Scripture is proven true: We are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.”(1) Every Christian is called to a life of holiness and commitment that outshines the superficial purity of religious officialdom.

As followers of Jesus, we are all called to holiness; to leadership; to lives totally devoted to God’s service. We are also invited to participate in the decision-making of the Church. Gathered together in the Spirit, our lives – as individuals and as congregations – come to reflect God’s will and character.

How does this affect our understanding of membership? Perhaps the top-down leadership model of many denominations lets the bulk of the membership off the hook. There may be a different standard for ordained clergy than for the average woman or man in the pew. As Friends, however, we have no such release valve. The entire weight of Jesus’ call falls on each and every one of us, with all of its ecstasy and agony. We are left with only the tender care of the Holy Spirit and the loving arms of our community to sustain us in the Way.

How do we empower each sister and brother to live fully into the leadership that God is calling them to? How do we hold one another accountable as fellow learners in the school of the Spirit? How do we show the unconditional love of Christ Jesus, even while upholding the integrity of the community?

1. 1 Peter 2:9

2011 in Review – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #38

Dear friends,
This has been a year of major transition and growth for me. Some of the change has been personal – such as my involvement in the Occupy movement, and Faith’s and my decision to purchase a house in DC. Other change has been more corporate, such as the increasing maturation of Capitol Hill Friends, and developments within Rockingham Meeting, Stillwater Quarterly Meeting, and Ohio Yearly Meeting as a whole. For me, 2011 was a year of reality checks. At many points, I have been brought low. I pray that these experiences will produce a lasting groundedness in me.
The big adventure this year was my summer travels to England, Kenya and Rwanda. The voyage began with a week-long layover in London, which allowed me to visit a number of British Friends connected with Ohio Yearly Meeting, as well as some others whom I knew through the 2010 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage. I believe that these opportunities were a blessing both for me and for those who welcomed me, and I was grateful for the chance to become better acquainted with the context of Friends in the UK.
Following this, I joined my colleagues from ESR on a tour through East Africa. We saw Nairobi, went on safari, and visited Friends in Kenya’s Western Provence. Then, we flew to Rwanda, where we were able to meet Friends from Rwanda Yearly Meeting. I was very impressed with the faith of African Quakers, and saw how Friends there hold many pieces of the radical Quaker faith that we in the United States often miss.
At the same time, I witnessed some of the effects that poverty and a history of colonialism have had on our African brothers and sisters. Above all, I was convicted of my own society’s ingratitude for the wealth and privilege that we possess. How do we as citizens of post-colonialist nations take responsibility for our luxury, which to a great extent has been purchased with the blood of non-European peoples? This is a question first and foremost for the Church, which claims faith in Jesus Christ, who proclaimed good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed.
I brought these concerns back home to DC, realizing that our spiritual barrenness in the developed world is perhaps an even greater burden than the material poverty of those in the global south. Together with Friends at Capitol Hill Friends, I feel called to be a light in the darkness, an embodiment of Christ’s love in a culture that has largely turned away from him.
A big part of this calling has found expression through the continued development of Capitol Hill Friends. In February, we had a major shake up when two of our five core people felt the need – for a variety of reasons – to withdraw from the community. This was a major blow, which knocked the wind out of us for a little while. It forced the three remaining core people to get even more serious about the direction our group was headed in. It was at about this time that we made the decision to switch our worship time from the 2nd and 4th Wednesday evenings to Sunday nights.
Along with a new meeting time, we also began to gather much more regularly as a core group. Starting in the fall, the core group has been meeting once or twice a month for prayer, discernment, decision-making and mutual support. As the year went on, we became clear that Capitol Hill Friends is actually a little church, not just a worship opportunity. We recorded three members, and incorporated Capitol Hill Friends as a legal entity. In the fall, Lily Rockwell of Stillwater Monthly Meeting (Ohio Yearly Meeting) came and joined us as a sojourning member of our fellowship. She has been invaluable in helping to nurture the church, and we are very grateful for God having sent her to us.
At this point, Capitol Hill Friends has three regular members, one sojourning member, and approximately a dozen attenders. Our normal attendance on Sunday nights is about eight. While these are not huge numbers, we have experienced a remarkable shift from 2010, when Capitol Hill Friends was primarily a worship opportunity but had no real core or sense of identity. Now, Capitol Hill Friends is an independent church in the Quaker tradition, albeit a small one.
As such a tiny group, relationships with a wider fellowship of believers is crucial. We have found most support in our relationship with New City Friends, another new Quaker church in Detroit, Michigan. Late last year, we adopted a shared set of Advices and Queries with them, and each of our communities has been answering them on a monthly basis. Also, we met twice this year for joint retreats; the first taking place in Washington, DC in April, and the second occuring in Detroit, in November.
At our November meeting, Friends from New City Friends and Capitol Hill Friends felt clear to continue to deepen our relationship as an extended fellowship. We agreed to make slight revisions to our Queries (to render them more straightforward to answer), and we were in unity to hold two joint retreats in 2012. The exact dates have not yet been set, but we plan to gather together in a central location in the spring and early fall. We hope that other Friends, worship groups and Meetings of like mind will join with us and explore what it means to live a faith of radical discipleship to Christ Jesus in the early 21st century.
There is, however, a sad subtext to these exciting developments. I feel very pleased with the growth in relationship between New City Friends, Capitol Hill Friends, and others Friends of like mind; and I believe that this new association has the potential to offer a vibrant alternative for Friends in North America. However, we had hoped that we would not be forced to go independent.
Both New City Friends and Capitol Hill Friends were turned away by pre-existing Friends bodies. Some Friends are uncomfortable with our uncompromising commitment to shared Christian faith. Others are put off by our clear affirmation of our gay, lesbian and transgender brothers and sisters. Despite our best attempts, there seems to be no existing body that has room for all of who we are. This has been a source of great sadness for us; however, we must be faithful to the witness of the Holy Spirit in our midst, even if our sister Yearly Meetings cannot embrace us.
Please pray for Capitol Hill Friends, New City Friends, and for the many Friends today that find nowhere to fit in within existing Yearly Meetings. Pray that God will strengthen us in our faith and in our fellowship, and that the Spirit will draw together other individuals and groups who are being called into this new thing that Christ is doing today.
Before I conclude, I cannot fail to mention the immense impact that the Occupy movement has had on me these last few months. I got involved early in this movement, because I felt the Lord’s hand on me, urging me forward. I was in New York during the second week of Occupy Wall Street, and I was one of the original organizers of Occupy DC. Now, I feel that the movement has reached a turning point. Phase one is over, and something new must emerge for us to continue to have an impact. I do not know what exactly this next phase will look like, but I am praying that it might have the effect of empowering ordinary working Americans to re-assert their rights and responsibilities as citizens, taking power back from the corporations and monied interests that have so undermined our democracy.
The experience of being and organizer for the Occupy movement has changed me. During college, I became totally disillusioned with activism, and since that time have not thought of myself in those terms. It was a great surprise when I sensed God calling me to participate in this movement. Much more so when I realized that God was leading me to be one of the main people to get things going in DC!
This movement has radicalized me. I can no longer sit on the sidelines while billionaires and their servants transform our democracy into a corporate state. I can no longer keep silent while the rich grow richer at the expense of the most vulnerable. I can no longer maintain neutrality while the middle class is obliterated. In recent months, I have been awakened to the radical implications of Jesus’ jubilee proclamation(1). I must stand with the poor and oppressed. I must witness to the damage being done to women and men – and to the whole of creation – to satisfy our greed and idolatry. I can no longer preach a spiritualized gospel, reduced to personal spiritual growth. God’s justice and salvation must be embodied among the poor, in our prisons, in the oil-soaked Gulf of Mexico, and in the halls of power.
Thank you for walking beside me in this journey. This year has been a wild ride, and I have no doubt that 2012 will be at least as full of surprises. Just before Faith and I left DC for the holidays, we bought our first house, located in Northeast DC. Please pray that we be blessed in our new home and that our affordable movers will not break any of our stuff; and for our life together as we deepen our commitment to our city, our church and our extended community of friends.
Your friend in Truth,
Micah Bales
1. See Luke 4:14-28

The Occupy Movement Needs A Prophetic Church

In many ways, Jesus was alone in his mission to a confused and rebellious world. Even his own disciples did not understand his purpose. Jesus provided guidance and direction for his disciples; but he himself had no one to rely upon except his Father(1). Jesus had none of the advantages we enjoy today. As the pioneer of our faith, he blazed all the trails for us, showing us his new Way.

Since Pentecost, when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to unite and guide us, we have been able to draw on the shared wisdom, faithfulness and experience of the Church – the community of faithful believers in the world. While no longer physically with us, Jesus is present in our midst.
Weeks of intense involvement in Occupy DC have reminded me of my own need of his presence. Just as Jesus withdrew on a regular basis for prayer, I have been careful to make space for time alone with God. I seek to continously wait on the Holy Spirit to direct my steps throughout the day. But I know that I am not as strong as Jesus was. I need more than solitary prayer – I need the support of Christian community.

The Occupation is a broad movement that brings together individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, faiths and worldviews. The goals of the movement are couched in largely secular terms, and decisions are typically made based on human wisdom rather than a search for God’s guidance.

It would be easy to lose perspective in such an environment. I could easily start believing that I am in the streets to promote “democracy,” demonize the rich, or oppose capitalism. In order to stay grounded in the Truth, I need help from the community of disciples here in DC. The Church and our witness need to be the primary reference point in my life.

There are many Christians involved in Occupy DC – I discover more all the time. Nevertheless, the overall culture and worldview of the Occupy movement is a lowest-common-denominator, generally left-wing set of assumptions. So far, almost all of the discourse at Occupy DC has been about “restoring democracy,” “building power,” or the plight of “the 99%.” I have not heard anyone – including the folks whom I know are Christians – talking about the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ mission to liberate the poor and oppressed.

I pray that the Body of Christ might rise up – not only through the hidden faithfulness of thousands of individual Christians, but also through the explicit engagement of our local congregations and denominational bodies. I, and the countless other individual Christians who are already engaged in this movement need the support and guidance of the rest of the Body of Christ.

How long will we as the Church take refuge in our respectable Sunday services and lukewarm sermonizing? How long will the Church wait before we have the courage to risk our comfort in this struggle for justice? What will it take to unleash the prophetic voice of the people of God?

1. For a good example of Jesus’ isolation and reliance on his Father, see Matthew 26:36-46

Radical Christian Community in the New Rome

“Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand…”Isaac Pennington, 1667

During my studies at Earlham School of Religion, I was part of an intentional Christian community called Renaissance House, located in an impoverished area of Richmond, Indiana. There were five of us living there: The house’s founder, me, and three other men, each of whom had physical or mental disabilities. We had an open door policy, inviting folks from the neighborhood to stop by and visit with us. Three nights a week, we hosted community meals, inviting folks from the neighborhood, and our friends from around town, to come and have dinner together.

These dinners were an amazing demonstration of what Christ’s table looks like. A normal Wednesday night dinner at Renaissance House included seminary students and professors, area businessmen, the homeless, the mentally ill and physically handicapped. It included the young and the old, the middle class and the poor.

I was deeply affected by my experience at Renaissance House. The depths of community at Renaissance House were profound. We experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of life in community. It was beautiful. We relied on one another, chopping wood, remodeling homes, serving food and gathering around the Scriptures as a little church of misfits and outcasts.

The heart of Renaissance House was our commitment to being radically available to one another. We were not primarily concerned with advancing our careers or “getting ahead” in the world. Our main focus was caring for one another, sharing the gospel and breaking bread together. We bore one another’s burdens and spent hours together every day. We prayed together.

Not everything was ideal. Life at the Renaissance House was very challenging much of the time. We were living on the edge in many respects, and the community was so intense that we had to work constantly on our interpersonal relationships. This was not always easy, and there were some pretty spectacular blow-ups while I was there. Nevertheless, on balance, these challenges seemed healthy. Though we were often uncomfortable and struggled with our human weaknesses, it felt like we were growing together in the Lord.

I wonder increasingly whether this kind of community might be possible here in Washington, DC. There are a lot of challenges here that we did not face in Richmond, Indiana. The biggest of these is the sheer cost of living. Unlike in Richmond, where houses were available in the low 10,000s, the DC housing market is intense. Life in general is more expensive here. Even living on the margins requires a serious income. Is there room in DC for the kind of radical Christian community that I experienced at Renaissance House?

I feel certain that there is. After all, just decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul was writing to an established church in Rome. Life must have been difficult for the Roman church, living in the capital city of the pagan empire that ruled almost the entire known world. They were surrounded by a society that worshipped imperial power and reveled in the luxury that the might of Caesar provided.

The Church in Rome must have had a particular role to play in bearing witness to Jesus and his Upside-Down Empire – an empire of love and justice that stood in contrast to the selfishness and violence of the wider culture. I believe that there is need for such a witness today in the new Rome. In a city that is so weighted down by the narrative of domination, power struggles and abusive privilege, there is a need for an alternative story.

Here on Capitol Hill, we witness the ways in which the narrative of Empire is expressed in the feverish scramble for control and power over others. This anti-gospel is a tangible reality in the offices of the many organizations that seek to gain influence here. In the face of this very real darkness, there is need for another story to be told, embraced and lived out. It is the story of a little baby who is born in a back alley, the Savior of the world. It is the story of the Messiah, tortured and executed by the imperial authorities for challenging the narrative of privilege and domination. It is the story of a community that serves a Risen Lord and is led by the Holy Spirit – a Spirit that reveals the falsehood of human empires and invites us into a life of sacrificial love and siblinghood.

I believe that there is a call for such communities here in Washington, DC. Despite the challenges that we face as residents in a wealthy center of imperial power, God is calling us to set aside our fear and our need for control. God is inviting us to live as the Body of Christ, not in a metaphorical sense, nor in a merely “spiritual” sense, but concretely. We are called into life together as a community, a life of mutual care and shared suffering for the Truth.

Surrender to Jesus in community will come in small, practical ways. We may be asked to surrender habits that upset our brothers and sisters. We may be asked to forgo career advancement that conflicts with the needs and mission of the community. We will most certainly be asked to give up some of the mobility that our present society so highly prizes.

During my time at Renaissance House, I learned that true Christian community is not a theoretical question. We can have all the right ideas about God and still fail to step out in faith. The Body of Christ only becomes a reality when we are willing to surrender control and live in community guided by the living presence of Jesus.

Are we willing to let go and become a part of something greater? Are we ready for a life more grounded in community? It will be hard to let go of the individual freedom that the wider culture so cherishes. But the reward that we are promised is so much greater – the abundant life that we receive as we live into God’s purpose for us.