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Is the Gospel Just a Fairy Tale?

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of college students about the idea of Christian nonviolence – or as Quakers would call it, “the Peace Testimony.” I was encouraged by how receptive they were to the message that the heart of the gospel is peace. We talked about how Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate example of how God brings peace to earth – not through violent conquest, but in a humble life that surrenders itself in order to show unconditional love to others. We considered together what it means to live our lives in Jesus’ way of peace, and how that impacts all our other commitments.

Though I had been specifically invited to speak about the Christian peace witness from my own perspective as a Quaker, I was surprised by what a wide-ranging conversation we ended up having. As our discussion deepened, it became clear that the real question was not whether the gospel is nonviolent (clearly, it is – Jesus is our peace). The deeper, more urgent question was how we might live into the radical life of discipleship that we have read about in Scripture – particularly the Book of Acts. What would it mean to live like the New Testament church today, in 21st-century America? 

I was both excited and dismayed to hear this question. Excited, because this is exactly the question we should all be asking ourselves. Christianity isn’t meant to be a dull habit, but an acute fever. If we as the modern-day followers of Jesus aren’t on fire with the passion of the gospel, just as the first Christians were, something has gone wrong. I was happy to hear that these college students were asking some of the same questions that have been at the heart of my journey for the past decade.

So why was I dismayed? Simply put, I was convicted that I had nothing to offer or invite these passionate young disciples into. After years of seeking, praying, yearning to be part of a movement of “primitive Christianity revived,” I still haven’t found it. If anything, I feel farther than ever from the life of power and beauty in community that I see in the Book of Acts. In my years of ministry, I’ve seen glimpses of the kingdom; I’ve experienced moments of power and transformation in community. Yet I had no good answer to the question, “What should we do to experience the power of the New Testament church today?”

On a personal level, I’m convicted that my own life does not demonstrate the world-shocking presence of the living Christ. I’m a pale shadow of the Spirit-filled women and men I read about in Acts. I’m also convicted on behalf of the North American church as a whole. In my long search, I’ve rarely witnessed communities that are truly living into the full gospel that Jesus invites us into. At times, it’s tempting to wonder whether the whole story of the New Testament is just a fairy tale – a beautiful story, but not applicable to everyday life.

Where is the Spirit-filled, earth-shaking, radical church of Jesus Christ today? I want to see it. I want to participate in it. I want to point others to it. I want to sacrifice for it and be deeply challenged by it. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!

It breaks my heart how little I have to offer to the young disciples who are coming up today. Their passion and faith makes me want to be a more faithful disciple, someone who can point them to Jesus and invite them into a faithful community where they can be challenged in their discipleship. Where can I go to find this circle of disciples? What must I do to change my life so that I can be a more faithful brother to those who are coming along in the way of Jesus?

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Who Are the Heroes of Faith?

Can We Learn Faith Like A Child?

Making Prayer Flags
Faith and just got off a plane, coming back from the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Spring Gathering near Indianapolis. I’m exhausted from the trip, but I’m so excited about what God is doing in our community. I want to share with you about what we experienced this weekend.

From Thursday night to Sunday morning, we came together with friends from across the country – coloring, composing, coloring, discussing, worshiping, singing, and exploring. It was a truly intergenerational gathering. We had folks ranging from toddlers to retirement age, and every generation in between. There was very little need to divide ourselves by age; even the very youngest in our community were able to participate fully in most of our activities.
Playing at Friends of Jesus Spring Gathering 2016
For this year’s Spring Gathering, we made a very conscious effort to be family-friendly, and it paid off in a big way. I was delighted with how our son, George, was able to connect with the children of two other families during the gathering. It was fantastic to watch our little ones become friends, and learn more about God in age-appropriate ways. We we adults learned so much from them, too. The children provided their own unique energy that shaped the gathering into something richer. Our community felt more organically whole than at any other time I have experienced. I am hopeful that this is just the beginning of a process in which Friends of Jesus becomes infused with the joy, energy, and simple honesty of children – who Jesus says we must emulate if we want to participate in the reign of God.

We are learning to see the world through child-like eyes that encourage creativity, an openness to discovery and wonder. This weekend we practiced praying in color, wrote collaborative prayer-poetry, sang together and played instruments, went for a nature walk, and created prayer flags to decorate our worship space. We ate together and shared in deep worship. We met together in in small groups to support one another as we seek to be faithful and joyful in the way of Jesus.
Worship Space at Friends of Jesus Fellowship Spring Gathering 2016
This gathering had a gentle beauty. It was the quiet, slow beauty of flowers opening and roots growing deeper. It was the blossoming of faith in the midst of challenge. We felt a deepening of commitment to face the darkness that we all experience, and a hope that God will provide us with child-like hearts to support one another in this journey.

This weekend, we re-discovered what it means to live in the image of God. Honoring the God-created child within each one of us, we are growing in compassion, joy, and the calm reassurance that God loves us and will care for us. We don’t have to be afraid anymore. We don’t have to bend to the world’s way of intimidating and distracting us. We can become children of light.
Friends of Jesus Fellowship Spring Gathering 2016 Group Photo
I’m feeling such gratitude for my brothers and sisters in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship – both those who were able to be with us this weekend and those who couldn’t make it this time. I’m encouraged by the movement that I see the Holy Spirit gathering. Little by little, the seed of God is being sown and little sprouts of life are rising from this good earth. Thank you, Jesus. And thank you, friends.

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A Quiet Power in Our Midst

A Baptism Into Courage

What is Next for Friends of Jesus?

Whats Next for Friends of Jesus?

This weekend, the core leaders of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship will be gathering in Washington, DC. This is a special retreat, to consider how God is calling us to move ahead as a community in the months and years to come. This gathering comes at an pivotal moment for Friends of Jesus, which has grown and evolved in exciting, surprising, and sometimes uncomfortable ways over the course of the last several years.

Since our early days gathering in Barnesville, Ohio, we’ve expanded beyond our original communities in Detroit and DC. We are now made up of disciples from across the eastern United States – including hot spots like Philadelphia and New York City. At the same time, we’ve struggled to really gather momentum in any one location. All of our local communities remain quite small, and we struggle to find the critical mass that is required to develop sustainable congregations.

We’ve all learned so much in the last few years together. We’v gained so much insight into both what to do, and what not to do. We’ve grown in our gifts as individuals, and we’ve bonded deeply as a scattered band of brothers and sisters in the way of Christ. Together, we have begun to learn what it means to live as friends and followers of the risen Jesus, and how we are called to live that out in our daily lives.

Last September at our Fall Gathering, there was a growing sense that God is asking something new of us. We’ve come a long way together in a very short time, but the journey ahead is going to look different. Our faithfulness to the Spirit will require that we move in new directions, ones that perhaps never occurred to us when we first started gathering as Friends of Jesus. The next steps forward for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship will be different from those that brought us to where we are today.

“What got us here will not get us there.”

Change isn’t easy, but it’s coming for us whether we choose it or not. The challenge before us this weekend is: Are we ready to re-order our lives in the radical ways that the reign of God demands of us? Are we prepared to make Jesus and his new order of love our top priority, even if it shakes the foundations of our comfortable existence? Are our eyes, ears, and hearts open to the terrifying and exhilarating next steps that the Spirit is inviting us to take together?

Jesus teaches us that we cannot love two masters. We will love one and hate the other. Please pray for us this weekend that we would find the courage and joy that comes with choosing our master wisely, embracing the humble way of Jesus as our path of salvation. Ask the Holy Spirit to be with us, guiding our worship and discernment, so that we can see clearly how we need to change our lives. Help us to be faithful to the next steps that God is calling us to. Holy Spirit, come.

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A Baptism Into Courage

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A Baptism Into Courage

Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering

It’s easy for your faith to become just another obligation, a set of rules to fulfill and a standard that you struggle to live up to. But every once in a while, you catch glimpses of what it could feel like to be part of a community where heaven and earth come together, when everyday life becomes saturated with meaning and authenticity. In such times, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Life takes on a whole new smell, because you are living it on purpose.

In moments like these, you know who you are. You know where you belong.

This weekend has been one such moment for me, a time of power, presence, and life. I’ve been at the annual Fall Gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, held this year in Lebanon, New Jersey. Our theme this weekend has been Fully Human, focused on the ways that we can live into the love-saturated life and power that Jesus promises us in the Holy Spirit.

Together, we’ve been experiencing the living presence of Jesus. We’ve been hearing his invitation to truly abundant life. What he offers us has more depth and reality than the false promises and illusions of the dominant culture: consumerism, materialism, and the soul-numbing myth of the autonomous individual.

We were made for more. We can feel it our bones.

Every gathering of God’s people has its own flavor. Some are raucous affairs, whipped hard by the winds of the Holy Spirit. At this gathering, though, we’ve experienced a sweet spirit of reassurance and gentle challenge. We’re being invited to take a realistic look at our lives, and to consider how we can take the next steps into deeper discipleship with Jesus.

This weekend has been a baptism into a deep reservoir of courage. It’s the kind of bravery that can only be lived into over a period of months, years, decades. It’s not the thrill of the quick decision or the decisive battle. We’re being called into the gentle, relentless faithfulness of water – slowly wearing down the path that God desires to walk in us.

There is a stream of living water that is flowing through our lives as friends of Jesus. We’re encountering an invitation to turn away from the many ways that we burden ourselves. The Spirit is calling to us, inviting us to take up the easy yoke of Jesus. Together.

It’s not clear what the next steps will be, though we’ve gotten some hints. It’s going to involve slowing down and really being present with one another. It’ll mean taking big risks over long periods of time, preparing ourselves for those kairos moments when God will use us to take powerful and transformative action, in ways both seen and unseen by the world.

The path we are being called into calls for patience, discipline, and steadfast love. There will be few quick victories, no easy answers. Nevertheless, Jesus has promised to walk with us along the way, and we already experience his child-like joy accompanying us. We are learning to trust him, and to take him at his word. He is faithful.

I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.

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The Spicy, Subversive Kingdom of God

How to Do Ministry Like Jesus

How to Do Ministry Like Jesus

For a long time I’ve looked to the apostle Paul as a model for what my ministry should be like. Paul was an itinerant preacher who was immensely gifted at crossing cultural barriers. He toured the ancient Mediterranean, publicly debating with scoffers and establishing new communities of disciples. He founded countless local assemblies based on the sheer power of the gospel message.

And then he left. Whether after days or months, Paul moved on. He appointed elders to care for the newly called out body of Christ in that city, and then he continued onward, to lay a foundation in the other cities and towns that had not yet heard the word.

Paul’s ministry is deeply compelling to me. He’s an heroic figure who endured incredible hardship and violent opposition in order to share the gospel widely and establish new church communities wherever he went.

I’ve often felt uneasy and disappointed with how little my own ministry so far has mirrored that of Paul’s. After all, I’ve done quite a bit of traveling in the last decade, but I haven’t done any miracles like Paul did. I haven’t started many new congregations. Measuring myself by Paul’s example, it’s easy to feel like a failure.

But then, I ask myself: Why have I been so fixated on Paul as a model for my ministry? Without a doubt, Paul was an amazing minister, but there is an even better example for me to look up to: Jesus!

Yeah, I know, it’s pretty obvious that I should look first to Jesus for inspiration. He is the founder of this whole God Movement, isn’t he? But, for a variety of reasons, I’ve often clung to Paul. I guess it feels safer to compare myself to him than to Jesus. Amazing as he was, he was still just a regular person like me, not the son of God.

It feels overwhelming to think about my ministry in relation to the life of Jesus. That’s like getting on my old touring bicycle for a casual ride and comparing my performance to Lance Armstrong. Totally inappropriate. I’m not even in the same league!

But it also makes a sort of sense, doesn’t it? If I’m trying to follow Jesus, why wouldn’t I seek to emulate him, first and foremost? Jesus was the central focus in Paul’s life and ministry. Shouldn’t it be the same for me?

This puts Jesus in a whole new light. Rather than looking at Christ’s ministry as exclusive and one-of-a-kind, what if Jesus is actually inviting me into his own journey? What if I embraced the kind of ministry that he modeled? As crazy as it sounds, Jesus himself said that in the power of his Holy Spirit we can do even greater things than he did during his time on earth.

That’s phenomenal, isn’t it? We can’t just leave the heavy lifting to Jesus. He invites us into the same work that he did.

With this in mind, I’m going to be studying Jesus’ life and message with new eyes. How did he carry out his ministry? What was Jesus’ model? 

Right off the bat, I notice a few things:

Jesus didn’t plant churches. He gathered a tight circle of friends into a counter-cultural community that traveled with him wherever he went. In addition to this inner circle of itinerant Jesus groupies, he cultivated a dispersed network of friends and supporters throughout Judea.

Jesus developed a movement, not an institution. The disciples never set up a fixed headquarters, but rather moved from house to house, often in a clear attempt to avoid confrontation with hostile authorities. Jesus did not attempt to build up a stronghold in a single location, but actively dispersed emerging leaders to spread the movement in their own social networks. (For examples of this, see the Samaritan woman and the Garasene demoniac.)

Jesus healed people. This was a huge part of what Jesus did. In fact, it would probably be accurate to say that Jesus’ job description was healer and teacher, in that order. During the three years of his ministry, this seems to be what he did all day long. When was the last time you saw someone healed at church?

Jesus prophetically confronted injustice and corrupt institutions. As a result, he came under deadly attack by the powers that be. Defying the death machine, Jesus refused to compromise with the status quo. Instead, he taught his disciples a new and living way, completely at odds with the dominant culture.

There’s a lot more to be said here, but I’d like you to join me in this conversation. What do you see as the marks of Jesus’ ministry? How can we as modern-day disciples follow in his footsteps, orienting our lives around the reign of God that he proclaimed and inaugurated?

Related Posts:

Is Jesus Too Exclusive?

Following Jesus is Quite a Workout

What’s the Point of Worship?

Worship is a big deal for Quakers. And it most definitely has been for our community here in DC. Between 2009 and 2013, I’d say that we spent upwards of 90% of our time and energy organizing worship meetings, spiritual retreats, and other events with a spiritual, contemplative focus. It would have been fair to describe us as a worship group.

Our focus has changed significantly in the past year. Rather than emphasizing Quaker meeting for worship, we’ve spent much more of our time getting together in small groups, having discussions, throwing parties, and reaching out in our neighborhood. We still worship, we still pray together, but I’m not sure that worship group would be the right label.

It’s a matter of priorities. For us, the most important order of business right now is to develop vibrant Christian community here in our neighborhood. Weekly worship meetings haven’t seemed like the most effective way to do that. Honestly, worship gatherings present a lot of barriers to the people we most want to be in relationship with. There are lots of folks who will go grab some tacos with us or come to a game night who just wouldn’t feel comfortable showing up at something labeled worship. At least, not yet.

So, instead of spending all our energy organizing worship activities, we’re trying to open up our lives in ways that speak to where our neighbors are actually at. Instead of expecting the world around us to come join us in our little Quaker dance, we’re exploring what it looks like to really incarnate the gospel into daily life in our city.

This isn’t to say that worship gatherings aren’t important. They’re deeply meaningful and necessary. But we’re discovering that the greatest gift we can offer as a fellowship is not a rockin’ worship service – it’s a genuine life in community, where we really come to know and support one another as friends.

Times of explicit worship and prayer are absolutely part of that mix, but it’s more like the beating heart of our shared practice together as a community, rather than the entire experience of what it means to be a friend of Jesus. We’re discovering that it’s helpful for real, human relationships to come first. We want to know one another as human beings, not just spiritual beings.

Lately, Friends of Jesus in DC have begun holding a monthly worship gatherings in addition to the activities of our local missional communities. We come together from across the whole city to celebrate the presence of Christ in our midst. We participate in a shared reorientation of our lives, pointing ourselves towards the living way of Jesus. We grow in a shared life of wholeness, joy, and overflowing love for the people around us.

Our purpose in these times of worship is not to convince anyone of anything. Instead, we are invited to become ourselves more deeply convinced of the meaning and power of our shared experience of God. We are baptized into the living Spirit of Jesus, discovering a communion that goes beyond our human comprehension – a power that vastly exceeds our finite human strength.

What is the role of worship in your life and in your community? Does worship complement and enliven your efforts to grow as a community? How does it energize and equip you to reach out and bless the world?

Related Posts:

Can Worship Be Taught?

Do We Really Need Church?

The Lamb’s War is Dead. Long Live the Lamb’s War!

I launched The Lamb’s War as a way to express my own experience of Christ’s amazing presence. Like the early Quakers, I was astonished at the ways that Christ’s light was convicting me of my darkness and healing me from it. My life changed in ways that I could hardly believe. This blog allowed me to share some of these experiences as they were happening, and to be in conversation with others who were having similar experiences.

As I began my public ministry among Quakers, The Lamb’s War became my preferred means of sharing what I was seeing and hearing in my travels among the various branches of the Religious Society of Friends. Thanks to the vigorous Quaker blogging community that existed in the late 2000s, especially the QuakerQuaker.org platform, I made connections throughout the Quaker world.

These exchanges both sharpened and broadened my understanding of the Quaker tradition. I grew more thoughtful, less reactive, and more considerate of viewpoints that are very different from my own. In many ways, participating in the Quaker blogosphere has helped me figure out who I am – as a man, as a Quaker, as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

As the years have gone by, my writing has become less sporadic, more disciplined, and increasingly focused on serving my readers. While I began this blog as a way to express myself and share my observations, today I am mostly focused on encouraging and equipping a growing movement of radical disciples.

A Bigger Mission

The Lamb’s War is no longer just about me, or even just about Quakerism. Over the course of 2014, it’s become increasingly clear that this blog has grown into a ministry that is far wider and deeper than anything I ever imagined when I first set up that Blogger account eight years ago.

This is no longer just a blog. With the switch to micahbales.com, I hope that this website will become a resource to encourage you and your community as we discover together the life and power of Jesus Christ. Today’s transition to a new name and address represents a natural next step in the evolution of this ministry. This site is about supporting and equipping you as you build a movement of radical discipleship in our generation.

A New Resource

As a first step in this equipping ministry, next week I will be releasing my first ebook: A Guide to Quaker Worship.

This ebook is a nuts-and-bolts how-to manual on how anyone – Quaker or not – can explore the contemplative spiritual practices of Quakers to gain a deeper experience of the life and power of God. This resource will help equip you and those you serve to discover Spirit-led worship as a gateway into deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

Is this a resource that would be valuable to you and your community? If you’re already signed up for my email list, just hang tight. You’ll get access to it via email the moment it is released.

Not signed up for my email list yet? No worries. Just go to the right-hand sidebar of my website, give me your name and email address, and I’ll make sure that you get a copy of the ebook on ASAP. As a bonus, you’ll get regular updates from this site sent straight to your inbox.

A Way Forward

The coming year is going to be a big one for the development of this digital ministry, with more encouragement and resources that can help equip you in your own journey of radical discipleship. I’m looking forward to walking alongside you as we all learn from our teacher and friend, Jesus.

What do you think? Is this ministry an encouragement to you? What are some practical ways you would like to see me provide support as you explore radical Christian community and discipleship in the way of Jesus?

Leave a comment below, or shoot me an email!