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How Can I Ever Measure Up?

How Can I Ever Measure Up?
Early Quaker leader George Fox taught that each person has been given by God a certain measure, or portion, of life from God. Not everyone has the same abilities. Some of us are stronger or weaker, smarter or less intelligent, possessing greater or lesser faith.

Because human beings are not equal in our abilities, Fox taught that God expects different things from each of us. A small child is not expected to get a job and provide for the family, but an adult parent is!

This teaching is perhaps best summed up in the words of Jesus found in Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

This a very challenging concept, especially for those of us who have received a great deal of privilege in our lives – safety, family, education, wealth, job opportunities, and so many other factors that benefit us. From those of us who have received much, a great deal will be required.

But I am also finding these words of Jesus to be liberating. Because there is another side to this coin. While I am responsible to use the gifts I have received, there are so many things I am not responsible for. There are so many ways in which I am weak, lacking in talent, and deficient in understanding. In these areas, less may be required of me.

Jesus shows me that I don’t have to grip so tightly to my own sense of self importance. I don’t have to volunteer for every good project. I’m not responsible for the outcome of the human race. Because that stuff is way bigger than me – way beyond my measure. Like the servants in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, I will be held accountable for the gifts that God has given me. Not for the fate of the whole world.

For an overachieving control freak like me, that’s really good news. It’s good news that challenges me to examine myself. What are those few talents that God has given me to steward, and what are the many other important matters that I can lay aside? After all, God has other servants to take care of those.

I’m used to taking on more than is truly my responsibility. But when I release those things that are beyond my measure, I discover the easy yoke that Jesus promised. It’s a life of challenge, but not burnout.

What are the talents that God has entrusted you with? How do you distinguish between the many good things, and the few necessary things in your life? What does it look like to live your life in measure?

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How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?

How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?
This past weekend the Friends of Jesus Fellowship gathered in Barnesville, Ohio. Our theme was “Stay Awake” – drawn from the teachings of Jesus to his sleepy disciples.

Even 2,000 years before cell phones, streaming music, cable news, and video games, it was hard to stay awake. The original Jesus community struggled to stay conscious, aware, and focused on the things that matter. Even when Jesus was with them in the flesh, teaching and leading them, it was a challenge to stay grounded. Peter, James, and John couldn’t even stay awake with Jesus for one hour while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane!

When Jesus was arrested and hauled off to be executed, every single disciple fled for his life. Just hours before, they had all insisted they would die rather than abandon Jesus. Now where were they?

The first disciples struggled to stay awake and responsive to Jesus’ voice, but it seems like we have an even greater challenge. While the twelve apostles knew Jesus as a man, we today only know him through the Spirit. It’s easy to lose track of who Jesus is in our lives. It’s easy to forget that he’s even real. In the midst of so many worries, comforts, and distractions, most of us operate in a state of practical atheism.
Friends of Jesus Fellowship Spring Gathering 2017
This is certainly true for us in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. We’re all tired. We get get our priorities mixed up. We lose track of who Jesus is and where he’s calling us. Like Martha, we are worried and distracted by many things. But we need only one thing.

Our time together in Barnesville was a reminder of that one Life that gathers us together. We reconnected with the still, small voice of Jesus who speaks to us when we’re ready to listen. We are part of a Spirit-led community that draws us out of distraction and into a more true and beautiful world.

It was a joy to have several families at the gathering, and to care for one another’s children. We watched them play together as friends in the family of God. Our young ones reminded us that we are all part of a larger community of friends. We’re knitted together in the love of Jesus. I’m very grateful for the grounding and sense of place that I find as part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

Coming back home to Washington, DC, I need to remember that sense of connection and purpose. The distractions have not gone away. I spent four days unplugged from electronics, but my screens were waiting for me as soon as I left the gathering.

It’s easy to wish for a simpler, more innocent age. People have always longed for that, regardless of their circumstances. But I’m not called to that kind of nostalgia. I’m wondering how I can embrace an abundant, Spirit-filled life in the midst of urban America.

My challenge now is not to remove distractions, but rather to repurpose them for good. How can I use technology to foster greater faithfulness, connection, and resilient community? Rather than distract myself, how will I connect and focus? I need more signal and less noise. How do I get there? More importantly, how do we get there together?

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What if my Religion is just Self Help?

What if my Religion is just Self Help?
I came to religion for selfish reasons. I was often depressed. I felt empty. I couldn’t find meaning in life. I explored faith because I wanted to receive, not to give. I was looking for a spiritual solution to my lack of direction and purpose. I wanted a faith that would make me feel good.

I did a lot of religious exploration before I became a Christian. I engaged with philosophical movements like existentialism. I went deep with political ideologies like democratic socialism and anarchism. I even explored Buddhism, Islam, and other non-western faiths.

My motivations were very human and self-centered. I wanted a faith that would fix me, that would make me happy and fulfilled. I wanted a system that could give me the right answers and make my life easier.

If I’m honest with myself, most of my faith journey has been a path of self help. My religion was like those books that promise rapid weight loss, financial prosperity, or success in love. Everything was about what I needed, wanted, and craved.
What if my Religion is just Self Help?
Even my experience of God was a product to be sought after. Buddhist books written for westerners promised me inner peace and clarity. Quakerism offered me ecstatic, mystical experiences that took place in meetings for worship. That sense of presence and power made me feel special, purposeful, and loved. I wanted more of that.

I felt like these religious experiences were making me better. Throughout my twenties I would say, “every day is better than the last.” And it was true. The more I got into spiritual practices and religious devotion – meditation, Bible reading, worship, prayer – the more mature and grounded I felt. Other people seemed to think so, too. I had objective evidence that religion was making me a better person!

My faith was fun and gratifying. It was fantastic to feel successful. My life was filled with meaning and purpose in a way that I had never experienced before. I still had periods of darkness and struggle, but I came out of each one feeling more triumphant than before.

Until I didn’t.

My thirties have been a hard decade. I had my whole sense of mission and purpose called into question. The ministry that I’d been focusing my whole life on fell apart. It was hard to know what to do. I felt so clear about what God had called me to do. And then there was nothing left. Where was God in all this?

At the same time, my life turned upside down. After years of ministry, I started working full-time in non-church-related jobs. We also had our first child, which changed my life and outlook in ways that I never imagined. Life got busy. Full with comings and goings, work and responsibilities. I didn’t feel able to be present to God in the way I used to. I felt that emptiness again.

This new dry season is very different from the one I experienced in my teens and early twenties. This time, I’ve already committed to a religious path. I know that I want to follow Jesus. I’ve met him. I’ve seen that he is the Messiah. For me, he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

And yet I’m so burned out on religion. I’m so exhausted by church, theology, and all the human stuff that goes with being in faith community. Religion doesn’t feed me in the way it used to.

As hard as this is, I’m wondering whether this might be a good sign.

What if I’ve been mis-using religion this whole time? What if my relationship with God isn’t about making me a better person? What if it’s not about giving me purpose, identity, or comfort? What if my faith in Jesus isn’t about me at all?

Maybe these questions seem obvious to you. “Of course, Micah. What, you thought it was all about you?” In truth, I’d have to answer in the affirmative. That’s the whole narrative I’ve received about faith. It’s about self-improvement. Growing in maturity. Becoming a better man, able to help and teach others because I’ve got it together. That’s what I thought “sanctification” was all about.

But now I’m thinking there might be a different story. To put it in Paul’s language, what if I’ve been a baby drinking milk this whole time? What if God gave me what I needed in my very immature state, but it’s not the main course? What if the meat and potatoes of discipleship is less about improving myself and more about forgetting myself? Could it be that, by seeking life improvement – even by desiring to be “a better person” – I’m avoiding the real journey that Jesus wants to take me on?

What is that journey?

Honestly, I don’t know. I think it has to do with looking at Jesus rather than myself. I suspect it’s about learning to focus on the needs of those around me rather than my own dreams and desires. Even good dreams and desires. It might be that the kingdom of God isn’t about what I experience. It’s not focused on how I grow, or what I do. Instead, it’s unlocked when I lose track of myself. When I become yielded to the light of Christ. Even when that light feels like darkness.

This is a scary path. It’s frightening because I have no idea where it leads. To walk down it is to surrender my ability to steer. This is what it means to get past “self-help religion.” When I get into the strong meat of faith, the overwhelming sensation is that of being out of control.

Yet there is also the hope here. Hope that, in the midst of it all, I am loved and guided. There is a presence and power beyond my narrow understanding and selfish desires. She will direct me.

I want to trust this Spirit. I want to trust that this path will lead me through green pastures and beside still waters. Even if I’m thirsty most of the time.

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Do You Think You’ll Age Like Wine?

Do You Think You'll Age Like Wine?
Christianity is a wine-soaked religion. My teetotalling Quaker ancestors did their level best to rid the world of alcohol. Still, the pages of the Bible are full of references to the drink.

Jesus’ ministry began and concluded with celebration. He kept a wedding party going strong into the night when he transformed water into wine. And when his time on earth was almost up, Jesus enjoyed a simple passover meal with his disciples. He offered them bread as his body, and wine as his blood.

The Hebrew scriptures say that the life of a creature is its blood. What is wine, that Jesus would offer it to us as his life?

Wine is a mysterious drink. It breathes, ages, and develops over time. Even before Jesus made it a centerpiece of the Christian faith, wine has always held a religious significance. It has a life of its own.

One very interesting thing about wine is the unpredictable way it ages. It is well known that good red wine can improve dramatically over the course of several years in a cellar. What’s less commonly known is that this improvement is not always linear.

A young, bold, and aggressive wine can mellow into a refined, coordinated vintage. But open it too late, and it may have turned to vinegar. Open it too early, and it may not have the qualities you expected at all.

In the midst of all this change, there is often a “mute” period. Between the boldness of youth and the sophistication of age, the wine falls silent. If you happened to sample it during this time, you would certainly be disappointed. But wait a little longer, and you may experience a masterpiece.

Jesus himself is like wine. We experience the boldness of his teaching, healing, and rebuke to hypocritical leaders. We witness the glory of his resurrection, the power of his triumph over sin and death. And Jesus also passes through a mute period. Between the last supper and the resurrection, Jesus falls silent.

As he stood before the High Priest, he said almost nothing. Only enough for the religious tribunal to condemn him. Then he was taken before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who was astounded at how little Jesus had to say. It was as if Jesus’ fierce boldness and righteous anger had slipped away.

As he hung dying on the cross, the silence was deafening. There was no dynamic action. No sermons or healings. Angel armies did not come to the rescue. Instead, Jesus turned inward and directed himself to the God who felt so absent right then. He showed love to a fellow condemned prisoner. He consoled his disciples and his mother.

Jesus’ whole life was churning in the vortex of this “mute” time. Jesus had been faithful, and something amazing was about to happen. But as Jesus drank the muted wine of that moment, all he could taste was gall and vinegar.

In both wine and human life, this muted space is awful, mysterious, and necessary. Wine must lose what it once was in order to become what it is meant to be. Our lives must pass through brokenness and surrender. The loss and emptiness of the cross is the only path to a resurrected life.

You may be living through a muted moment in your life right now. You feel empty, shorn of the enthusiasm and excitement that once propelled you. There’s a gentle brokenness in you. It invites silence. Grounded humility comes unbidden as you repent in dust and ashes. There is peace here.

Now is a time to wait. There’s no need to open that bottle before it’s ready. Like any good wine, your life is breathing, opening. You are an unfolding mystery.

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Millions Marched. What Comes Next?

Millions Marched. What Comes Next?
This Saturday I was out in the streets in solidarity with my sisters across the country. We marched together for the freedom, safety, and health of all women. We marched in the context of a nation where a vile misogynist has recently ascended to power, whose regime threatens the freedom and well-being of women (and pretty much everyone else, too!).

It was an amazing thing to see this demonstration blossom into probably the largest single day of protest in American history. It’s estimated that there were roughly 500,000 people in the streets of Washington, 750,000 in Los Angeles, and well over 100,000 in several other large cities. What is perhaps just as impressive is that there were sizeable protests in small towns, rural areas, and mid-sized cities in deeply “red” states. The women of the United States have shown that opposition to the proto-fascist Republican agenda is strong, broad-based, and in a state of mobilization. 

In the wake of this incredibly successful march, there has been some legitimate criticism. Some have pointed out that the Black Lives Matter movement protests have been just as peaceful as the Women’s March. Yet BLM participants have been subject to police harassment, intimidation, and demonization by the corporate media. When people of color march, they’re often labeled “thugs.” Sometimes it seems like only white people are permitted to have their political disagreements heard without an immediate – and often violent – rebuke from power. 

These critiques are valid, and they need to be taken seriously. White Americans like me and my family need to do better at hearing the voices of our black and brown brothers and sisters, even when those voices disturb our comfort. White folk like me have a long way to go as we seek a movement that truly embraces the leadership of our black and brown sisters and brothers. May God inspire white Americans with a spirit of repentance and reconciliation. May the Holy Spirit break down barriers that keep us from embracing the vision and leadership of people of color.

It is critical that we lament and acknowledge these racial divisions, and our shortcomings as white people in the movement for justice. At the same time, I believe it is good and appropriate to be joyful. This weekend we witnessed a powerful upswelling of hope and resistance in the face of oppression. The Women’s March was one very important step in the mobilization of a new movement for human rights, democracy, and the restoration of the Republic.

For me, and for many of us, the biggest question now is: How do we move forward? How do we build on the gains of the past week and focus our energy towards grassroots movement-building? Because we are in this for the long haul.

During the Occupy movement, many of us came to understand that our role was to plant a seed. We couldn’t predict the long-term changes that would come as a result of our public witness. We couldn’t control how others reacted. We simply made the decision to declare the truth boldly, trusting that a power greater than ourselves was at work in the world.

The fruit of Occupy is sprouting, and new seeds are being planted. Millions of people took their first steps into the movement this weekend. Organizations large and small are finding new life and strength in this important moment. Across our nation, the friends of Jesus are being drawn deeper into a path of radical discipleship that challenges the false claims of Empire and the 1%.

Here in Washington, DC, we are gathering in homes. We’re sharing food and praying together. We’re listening together for how Jesus is directing us into concrete action for justice. This weekend, in preparation for the Women’s March, some of us took part in active bystander nonviolence training. We will continue to meet together for fellowship in homes and shared spaces. We will continue to gather for prayer, teaching, and the breaking of bread. As crisis accelerates, we are being drawn closer together in discipleship to Jesus.

We have the momentum now. In the midst of challenge, we are discovering faith anew. We welcome you to join us. Whether here in DC, or in another little community of Jesus followers, join us. Experience the fellowship that Jesus is gathering. Embrace the joy that he gives us as we seek his justice, his mercy, his kingdom.

Whatever you do, don’t stop organizing. Don’t stop gathering. Don’t stop dreaming, speaking, writing. It has taken decades – and, in some ways, centuries – for our nation to reach this moment of crisis. There is no quick and easy way out. But together we can find it. Together, we can be the light.

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How Can I Resist the Age of Trump with the Love of Jesus?

How Can I Resist the Age of Trump with the Love of Jesus?
Denial is giving way to harsh reality. This is really happening. Donald Trump is going to be the President of the United States for the next four years. A Trump presidency threatens the safety and well-being of women, religious and ethnic minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community, and the poor. With its belligerent denial of climate change, the Trump regime represents a potentially catastrophic threat to the future of all life. Thanks to the increasing militarization and surveillance of our society under presidents Bush and Obama, this new administration is positioned to carry out a reign of fear and oppression.

When I contemplate where we’re at as a country, and what is likely to come in the months ahead, it’s hard to avoid the twin opiates of panic and denial. Each of us has our own personal favorite, but both of these reactions are a dodge from the hard work of looking reality square in the face. We are soon to be living under a Trump presidency. The level of brutality and injustice in our country, already at danger levels, are about to soar.

The reasonable, respectable voices of denial assure us that “everything will be alright.” But we know that’s not true. Things never were alright, and this election has made this reality plain for anyone with eyes to see. We have the dubious fortune to be alive in a moment of national and planetary crisis. We have every reason to be alarmed.

There are other voices – those of panic and despair –  that are ready to insist that Trump is already virtually invincible. Fascism is ascendent, they say, and the only way to defeat it is with a show of brute force. Few are making overt calls for revolutionary violence yet, but the dog whistles are already blaring on social media. Many on the Left and the Right are gearing up for armed conflict. Their caustic rhetoric ramps up a sense of dread and terror. It prepares us for violence.

This road is a tempting one for me. When I am pushed, I naturally want to push back. And the proto-fascist supporters of Trumpism are pushing very hard right now.

As a follower of Jesus, however, I am committed to a path of nonviolent resistance to evil. God has given us the example of the suffering servant Jesus, who faced humiliation and death at the hands of Empire. He spoke the truth fiercely. Jesus stood with the weak, the outsider, the poor. But when it came time to choose the manner of his revolution, Jesus renounced the sword and took up the cross. Through his death and resurrection, God reveals his power to redeem the evil of this world. Through the cross of Jesus, we discover a path that transforms enemies. God heals the world through the blood of the martyrs.

The way of Jesus is not merely one of embracing unjust suffering. In a way, that would be easy. We could accept the blows of evildoers, all the while feeling ourselves superior. We would not physically attack our enemies, but spiritually we would murder them.

The way of Jesus is so much more powerful than a smug pacifism that judges enemies while refusing to dirty its hands with fighting them. The way of Jesus is a struggle; it’s a very real warfare. It’s a war for our own hearts, and the hearts of those who oppress us. As insane as it may sound – as much as it goes against my own natural tendencies – we are called into a path that seeks the redemption and wholeness of our enemies. That includes Donald Trump, his evil counselors, and his millions of deceived followers.

The way of Jesus never cedes ground to evil. Just as Christ openly defied the Pharisees and the priestly rulers, you and I are called to put our lives on the line. We’re called to disrupt the systems of oppression that hold back grace and healing from the “least of these” in our society. We are also called to pray for those who persecute us. We are tasked not only with justice for the poor, but simultaneously with steadfast prayer and supplication for the salvation of oppressors.

Maybe this sounded like a more “realistic” path a few months ago, back when many of us assumed that Donald Trump could never actually become president. Maybe loving our enemies seems more palatable when our enemies are already defeated. But that’s a cheap gospel of personal convenience and comfort. It is precisely in this moment, as evil rises and our freedom and safety come under threat, that it is most critical that we obey Jesus when he tells us to love our enemies.

We have real enemies now. We know who they are, and their evil plans are clearer than ever. And we must love them. Even as we hold them accountable. Even as we stand against their brazen attacks on our liberty and safety, we are commanded to love them. This means speaking to the inward witness of Christ within Donald Trump, his regime, and the millions of ordinary Americans who have put their trust in him. We are called to love them, even as they mock us, hurl insults, and threaten us.

We are called to love our enemies as we resist them. In Christ the aim of resistance is to bring about healing and redemption for the whole of the creation. This creation includes even those who are most visibly twisted by evil. Our warfare – the Lamb’s War – takes no prisoners. Each and every one of us is to be redeemed and restored in the light and power of Jesus.

This is a challenging path, to put it mildly! The most difficult part for me at this moment is discerning what specific, concrete actions God is calling me to take to resist the spread of white supremacy, misogyny, and destruction of the earth. How do I work against the spread of this culture of death, while never allowing myself to use death’s own weapons? How do I fight fire – not with fire, but with the cleansing water of Christ’s love?

These are no longer theoretical questions, if they ever were. The time has come for us to make the reign of God visible in bold, radical, faithful ways that shake us out of the stupor of panic and denial. What does it look like to invite others into the fiery, prophetic, and loving way of Jesus?

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Under a broken electoral college system, and in the context of widespread suppression of black and brown voters, the United States has chosen an openly racist, climate-denying, misogynistic, alleged sexual predator as its executive leader. With the appointment of racist zealot Stephen Bannon to Trump’s cabinet, white nationalism (for some reason referred to as “populism” by the establishment press) has been catapulted to the highest levels of our government. These are dark days indeed.

Since the election, I’ve been trying to reject despair and look for positive next steps that I can take in the midst of this nightmare scenario. One thing is for certain: Trumpism is not normal. It is essential that we not allow ourselves to get used to a world that embraces overt racism and xenophobia. These are times that call for faithful resistance to manifest evil that is emerging across our nation and planet.

It is also time for repentance. For those of us who have opposed Trump’s rise to power, we must acknowledge our own complicity in the economic systems that have fueled his rise. Income inequality, disastrous trade deals that benefit primarily the 1%, and a political system that is governed by big money and elite interests – all of these have been fully embraced by leaders in both parties. As we heed the call to resist this new, very dangerous administration, we must never forget the decades of elite bipartisan collusion that led us to this point.

Nothing has been more bipartisan than the creation of the military/industrial complex that is about to pass into the hands of the Trump regime. The drone-equipped surveillance state that Trump will inherit has been most fully developed and refined under the eight years of President Obama’s administration. Democrats polished the gun that is about to be placed in Trump’s hand.

For all of us who have been willing collaborators – or even just sullen bystanders – in this process, it is time for repentance. We must recognize and repent of of our willingness to tolerate endless war, unlimited spying, and repression of people around the globe. Even under the leadership of our first African American president, this state-sponsored terror has mostly targeted people of color – both within the United States and beyond its borders. For those of us who are white people, this calls for an extra layer of awareness and repentance.

As challenging as these times are, there is going to be a temptation to fall into one of two traps: Despair, and panic. On the one hand, we may become so overwhelmed by the loss and horror that we are witnessing that we choose to zone out and try to retreat into our own personal bubbles. This strategy is already being openly advocated by people like Garrison Keillor, who plans on withdrawing from public life and abandoning America to the wolves of Trumpism. This is a move only possible for the most privileged among us, who choose to ignore the struggles of people of color, women, and LGBT folk, and hope that the Trump regime won’t come for them next.

Besides despair and resignation, the other temptation we face is panic. Many of us are only half-joking when we talk about fleeing to Canada. There’s a sense that Trump’s regime will reshape the face of America overnight. But our answer must be: “Not if we have anything to say about it.”

And we do. We live in a perilous moment, but the friends of freedom, compassion, and justice are not without resources. The United States government and civil society still contain many checks and balances to slow the rise of authoritarianism in our country. Trump’s election has awakened millions of us to the threat that we’re facing. The time has never been more ripe for a real, positive change in our nation. 

We must have the courage to be agents of that change. Unbowed by fear of the unknown, by the threats and hatred being spewed by the white nationalist right, we are called to stand with the least of these our brothers – all those who are threatened by the rise of Trump.

Now is the time to stand up, organize, and resist. Not next month. Not after the inauguration. Today. As we speak, the Trump administration is planning out its strategy for the first 100 days of the new regime. So must we.

For all of us who seek to be friends of Jesus, now is a time to live out his commandment that we be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” I ask that you join me in prayer that leads to courageous action. May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ guide us into faithful witness in the face of darkness and oppression.

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