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A Deeper Unity – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #45

Dear friends,

Every year, I imagine that this time around my summer will be a little less crazy. And every year, Yearly Meeting season makes that an impossibility. This month, I spent most of my days out of town, attending Quaker gatherings in New York, Maryland and Ohio. These Yearly Meeting sessions have taken most of my time and attention, leaving me feeling a bit disconnected from my community in DC. The balance between local work and the wider fellowship is delicate, and I anticipate that the coming month will be a time for me to pivot and refocus on local concerns and more sedentary work. Though it has been enriching to dive deeply into the wider world of Friends, I am looking forward to being home for a while.

My first trip out of town was to New York Yearly Meeting, at the Silver Bay YMCA camp on Lake George in upstate New York. Gathering on Lake George meant that when we were not engaged in Yearly Meeting business, we were free to go kayaking or sailing, or to go hiking in the surrounding woods. Though I had attended Yearly Meeting sessions in a variety of beautiful locations, this resort atmosphere was something new!

I felt particularly blessed that Faith and I were able to be present with a number of other visiting Friends, including Jon Watts and Maggie Harrision, who are engaged in a sustained ministry of calling Friends to spiritual nakedness. Jon and Maggie really challenged New York Yearly Meeting during an evening plenary session, urging Friends to set aside the suffocating comfort of respectability and to dive boldly into God’s love. In one particularly intense moment, Maggie asked Friends why the reports from New York Yearly Meeting’s local congregations rarely mentioned God. Isn’t that what this is all about? You could have heard a pin drop as Friends took in what Maggie was saying. And then, someone yelled Amen!

After New York Yearly Meeting, Faith and I drove down to Virginia for a wedding. I had a day back in DC before I was on the road again, this time to Baltimore Yearly Meeting – a fellowship of Quakers in Virginia, Pennsylvania, DC and Maryland. BYM holds it annual gatherings at Frostburg State University, out in the western panhandle of Maryland. Getting there was easy, though, since I routinely travel out that way en route to Ohio and points further west.
Baltimore Yearly Meeting felt familiar. Because I live within the geographical territory of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, I run into BYM Friends a lot – whether visiting their local Meetings, attending their events, or welcoming them at Capitol Hill Friends. Though I am not a member of BYM, visiting their annual sessions did feel like something of a homecoming to me.
The theme of BYM’s gathering this year was “Spirit-led Social Action,” and I had the opportunity to speak with Friends about my experience of God’s leading me to participate in the Occupy movement when it first erupted in the fall of 2011. I spoke as part of a two-person panel during BYM’s Tuesday-night plenary session, sharing what it felt like to be led by the Holy Spirit into social witness that is outside my comfort zone. I would never have chosen to become an organizer for the Occupy movement on my own, but I am so grateful that I was obedient to the promptings of Christ within!

Because I yielded to the quiet but persistent nudges of God in my heart, I am now connected to a broader community of those who are working for economic justice. I have met so many amazing people who have changed my life for the better, and I am hopeful that my presence has a positive influence. During the plenary, I shared how God opens opportunities for me to bear witness to Christ’s love and power within the economic justice community. Most crucially, I spoke about the spiritual dynamics of activism and community organizing, and about the need to stay rooted in the Spirit of God. There are so many other forces that would shake us from our Foundation; if we do not take great care, it is easy to get caught up in a spirit of chaos rather than the Spirit of love, order and peace that Christ sends.

I hope that I was faithful in communicating to Friends that our social witness must be, first and foremost, a testimony to the love, life and power that we experience in the Spirit of Jesus. Specific outcomes are important – sometimes we are called to “win” – but the highest objective must always be to remain faithful to the witness that God desires to bear through our lives. This takes great discernment, a practice that we as Friends of Jesus can bring to these movements.

Following my visit to Baltimore Yearly Meeting, I was only home for a few days before Faith and I were back on the road. Once again, we drove out through western Maryland, but this time our destination was Barnesville, Ohio – the gathering place of Ohio Yearly Meeting. After visiting so many gatherings this summer, it was a blessing to finally come home to the Yearly Meeting where we are members. Visiting among other bodies of Friends is wonderful, but there is a particular joy that comes when we gather with our particular covenanted community. Our care and responsibility for one another guides and sustains me in a special way.

I was really struck this year by the way in which my Yearly Meeting handles disagreement. We had several opportunities to engage in prayerful discernment around hard issues this year, and I felt like we were generally able to keep our conversation grounded in prayer and loving concern for one another. There is a sense in Ohio Yearly Meeting that our unity runs deeper than opinions about particular issues. While outward agreement is ultimately important, I am grateful to experience an inward, spiritual unity that allows us to wrestle with disagreements in a manner that ultimately draws us closer to God in Jesus Christ.

I envision Ohio Yearly Meeting as a circle with Jesus Christ standing at the center. Individuals in our Yearly Meeting stand at various points around the circle; we emphasize different things, and there are places where we are not in full agreement. There were several explicit points of tension this year – including our relationship with Olney Friends School; our testimony against the consumption of alcoholic beverages; and our shared understanding of human sexuality. Each of these are places where we could fall into destructive division and mistrust. But God is teaching us a better way.

As we gather around Jesus and draw nearer to him, we come closer to one another. Submitting ourselves to Christ’s light, we find our individual perspectives relativized (though not invalidated), and we are able to see how God is speaking through those with whom we strongly disagree. There is a deep faith present in Ohio Yearly Meeting that, if we wait together in the light of the Holy Spirit, we will be shown the way forward together.

It is probably safe to assume that all of us will be surprised by what “way forward” looks like. I am learning that having a variety of perspectives in my community can be a sign of good health, despite the fact that, at first glance, it may seem like chaos and disunity. We read in Scripture that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Yet, we know that we ourselves do change, and that our individual human viewpoints are often too limited to embrace the truth that Christ desires to reveal to us.
When we come together as a community in prayer, seeking after the Lord’s will, I experience the Spirit guiding us into greater understanding and unity as a body. We continue to have our own individual perspectives, but they are tempered and refined in the fire of Christ’s light. When we hold our disagreements in loving prayer, the Spirit intercedes within us and binds us together in a deeper unity that surpasses opinions.

At the conclusion of our time together in Barnesville, I felt hopeful for the future of Ohio Yearly Meeting. I had a strong sense that Christ is at work in our midst, and that we are being invited into the new (yet ancient) way of Jesus. God is giving us an opportunity to embrace Jesus’ example, laying down our lives for one another and surrendering our need to be correct. I am learning that the true meaning of strength is to bear the burdens of others – not only physically, but spiritually.

I pray that my life will serve to lighten the burden of those around me, that I may lay aside my own need to be vindicated, remembering that Jesus lay aside every honor and privilege that were rightfully his, bearing the cross for his friends. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name. I pray that we in Ohio Yearly Meeting will find this scripture fulfilled in our hearing, that through our shared submission to Jesus we be brought into the fullness of his truth, unity and love.

I anticipate that the next few weeks will allow me to stay closer to home. After so much time away, it will be good to re-connect with my community here in DC. I am also looking forward to making progress on the new Friends United Meeting website, which we plan to roll out around the end of the summer. I must say that although there are many benefits to travel in the service of the gospel, it is not particularly conducive to web development!

One last item before I close: You may recall that this June I was arrested by the US Capitol Police for accompanying my friend Deborah Harris to speak to Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, during his visit to the Senate Banking Committee. I did not expect to be arrested, much less to be jailed for most of the day and accused of falsifying my identity! It also came as a surprise when I learned that my arrest could theoretically be punished by up to six months in prison. But I give praise to God that my co-defendents and I accepted a deal on Monday which will allow the charges against us to be dropped, assuming we do not get re-arrested in the next six months!

I have no idea how prayer works, but it is my experience that there is nothing more powerful than the prayerful petitions of God’s faithful people. I know for a fact that I have a small army of prayer warriors who are interceding on my behalf. Thank you so, so much. Your prayers are making a huge impact on my life. Please do not stop!

In the month ahead, please pray that I be grounded more deeply in the Holy Spirit as I seek to be a faithful worker in my roles with Friends United Meeting, Capitol Hill Friends and Occupy Our Homes DC. I would also ask for you to pray specifically that our community at Capitol Hill Friends be built up in Christ’s power this month. In recent weeks, several active members of our fellowship have moved away to pursue educational opportunities; we need God’s strength and guidance as we continue to serve as a spiritual sanctuary in the midst of our city.
May the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be with you all.
In his light and love,
Micah Bales

Can We Disagree?

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God… – 1 John 4:1
For me as a Quaker, summertime is Yearly Meeting time. For those who are unfamiliar with Friends organization, the Yearly Meeting is the closest thing that we have to a “denomination.” Gathering together annually for business and fellowship, Yearly Meetings are a collection of local congregations that are drawn together under the same faith and practice, committing themselves to mutual accountability and shared discernment.

The Yearly Meeting is for congregations what the local church is for the individual. The Yearly Meeting provides opportunity to be strengthened by the wisdom and perspective of a wider fellowship; the larger body is able to provide stability, support and, at times, loving correction to local Meetings that face difficulty. In the ideal, the Yearly Meeting is enriched and informed by the gifts, passion and discernment of the local Meeting, and the Yearly Meeting exercises loving care of the local Meeting.

Unfortunately, we frequently fail to live up to our ideals. In both the local church and the Yearly Meeting, Friends often lose the delicate balance between the understanding of the individual and the discernment of the wider body. Sometimes we err on the side of individual autonomy, refusing to involve ourselves in the struggles of our sister Meetings. On the other hand, we as Yearly Meetings can also slip into a paternalistic mindset, quenching the prophetic voice of our local communities with demands of conformity to the broader consensus.

Unlike many Christian groups, Friends do not make decisions by voting, but rather through a united sense of God’s will. Though this practice has many strengths, its weaknesses can be crippling. At worst, we may abuse our tradition, coming to believe that unity is something for us to impose, rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit. In our quest for outward unity, we sometimes risk silencing a genuine prophetic voice.

With division looming in Indiana Yearly Meeting and many other Yearly Meetings struggling with deep disagreements, how do we understand the role of dissent within our communities? Under what circumstances is it acceptable for an individual or a local church to be openly out of unity with majority understanding of the Yearly Meeting? To what extent are Friends with minority perspectives expected to keep their views quiet? When does conscience demand that dissenters resign their membership?
These questions are very alive for me as we in Ohio Yearly Meeting continue to wrestle with our understanding of human sexuality, including same-sex relationships. There are faithful Friends in our Yearly Meeting who sincerely believe that we who affirm our gay brothers and sisters should silence our witness – or leave the fellowship altogether. For these Friends, it is a question of corporate solidarity and integrity: If we are not in line with the majority view of the Yearly Meeting, why would we insist on raising our perspective within the body? Why not accept that we simply do not fit within Ohio Yearly Meeting and leave?
This makes me wonder: How much (and what kind of) conformity is necessary on the part of dissenting individuals and congregations? How do we gauge to what extent our disagreement represents a healthy, prophetic witness, and how can we tell when we have veered into un-loving, divisive activity? Though there are forms of dissent that tear down community, I have also observed that there is such a thing as healthy tension and faithful disagreement.

This is all so tricky, because there are certainly false teachings that can rip the church apart. There are many perspectives that, if accepted, would undermine our testimony as Friends. Yet, it is possible to become overly sensitive. If we allow fear to take over, we may stop trusting that God can work through our disagreements. It is important for us to have faith that the Holy Spirit is present with us now, ready to teach us “even greater things.”

As communities gathered in the Spirit of Jesus, how do we practice discernment together? How do we know which matters of faith and practice are essential, and which can be safely held in dynamic tension within our local and Yearly Meetings? How do we manage passionate disagreements within our community, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?

Discovering Our Common Purpose

Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. – Philippians 3:15-16

I was sitting recently in a meeting of Occupy Our Homes DC (OOHDC), and things were getting rough. We were having an epic meeting in which we were airing a lot of the conflicts and struggles that had been quietly brewing over the past several months. The emotional intensity was palpable, and at first it seemed like the group was on the verge of ripping apart at the seams. Some of us felt the need for a broad ideological framework that could provide a basis for our shared labor; others of us just wanted to get busy with the work of stopping evictions and to dismiss wider philosophical considerations.
I was one of those who leaned towards focusing on action. I wanted to work on practical strategies for how we could prevent residents of our city from losing their homes. I did not see the need for anything much deeper than that. Let’s get the work done, I thought, impatiently. Yet, there was something important being lifted up by the folks on our team who urged us go deeper in our shared understanding. They perceived that without vision the people perish; without a clear sense of what our shared purpose is, our group would have no cohesion.
We had a breakthrough when we realized that our shared purpose was not a cause, or an idea, or a program; rather, we were brought together by a person. We are working to ensure that one particular woman – Deborah Harris– is able to remain in her home. She is our basis for unity. As we gather together, to walk with her in the struggle to save her home, we find a concrete, human basis for our work together as an organization. With our focus on Deborah and her particular circumstances, we can allow everything we do be tailored to the goal of defending her home. Tactics, strategy, decision-making structures – all of these can be flexible as we adapt our community to focus on our singular goal, rooted in our commitment to a particular person.
Our life in Christian community is like this. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not primarily drawn together by a shared set of rules or values. We certainly share many of these things, but they are the fruit – rather than the root – of our common life. Our life as a community flows out of our shared relationship with a particular person, a loving Teacher who guides us and forms us as we choose to walk with him.
The ground and source of our life together is our shared commitment to a particular person: Jesus. Our allegiance is not primarily to a particular set of ideas about Jesus, nor even to a specific code of conduct that must be performed by rote. Instead, we are invited to give all our attention to Jesus himself, and to allow his very substance and character shape the direction of our life as a community. What we believe and what we do as a community flows out of our living relationship with him.
We will always find something to disagree about, and that is OK. Unity does not mean unanimity. As a matter of fact, superficial unanimity can sometimes mask a deeper disunity that is festering within the community. Our shared silence, rather than containing a rich vibrancy where the Spirit can move, can become a place of unspoken tension and deadness. Christ’s light is the great Revealer, and we hestitate to approach God together when we are hiding our deeper feelings from one another.
When we are united in a particular person, we find the common purpose that allows us to break down the walls of niceness and to be real with one another. When we find our common ground in spirit and in truth, we are able to penetrate the walls of false courtesy that divide us. We are able to be true and honest, to really come to know one another in our common struggle for liberation.
As a Quaker, I find it deeply liberating to re-focus in this way. Rather than putting my energy into figuring out “what do Quakers believe?” or “what do Quakers practice?” I can instead set my sights on the most important matter at hand: “Who is this person, Jesus, and how is he calling me to live?” When I am gathered in a community that is actively asking this question, there is the real possibility of revolutionary transformation.
How do we find our common purpose in the concrete reality of another person? Do we allow ideas or rules trump the reality of the lives of those around us? How can we ground ourselves in the experience of the Risen Lord Jesus, allowing him to become the focus that orders and directs our lives as a community?

Together in the Truth

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. – Hebrews 12:28-29

In my last post, I imagined what it might mean for a whole community to respond to Jesus’ challenge to us as his disciples: to follow him without reservation and without safety net. I used the image of burning down a meetinghouse as a metaphor for what it might look like for us to surrender to God as a community, to lay down all of those things that get in the way of child-like faith. It turns out that this was really shocking imagery for some of my readers, and I got a lot of pushback from commenters here on the blog and on Facebook. Unfortunately, it seems that many people got so stuck on the image of a burning meetinghouse that they could not see through to the underlying message of renewal.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised that the image of a torched meetinghouse upset some members of my online community. Despite our insistence to the contrary, we Quakers are just as attached to our “stuff” – buildings, rituals, procedures and endowments – as any other religious group. This is not necessarily a bad thing. An important function of religion is to provide a stable community where we can grow deeper in the knowledge and practice of the love of God.That function would not be served by constantly calling every aspect of the community’s life into question. Stability and unity within the Church are helpful.


All too often, however, stability gives way to hardness of heart, and unity degenerates into group-think. In our desire to maintain a conflict-free community, we may come to value conformity over prophetic witness. Our tendency can be to freeze the community at a particular point in time – whether past or future – and to seek to maintain that “perfect” moment indefinitely. But a living, breathing community cannot be perfect in this sense. True life is found in dynamic tension. Living communities change and grow; they reproduce themselves in a diverse array of shapes and sizes, suited to their own times and places.

Life depends on a vibrant dynamic between stability and change, the new and the old, creation and destruction. Neither a constant turmoil, nor frozen “perfection” present fertile soil for the work of the Spirit. How do we balance the need for corporate unity with God’s call to radical faithfulness? How can we embrace the God-given stability that we need for our community to thrive while remaining open to new teaching from Christ?

Such questions are too complex and contextual for me to give firm answers here. These are questions for us to live into as a body. That being said, I do believe there are steps we can take to encourage the stable flexibility that our communities need if they are to be places where we grow together in maturity and love. One of these steps is to consider the generational dynamics that are at play in our religious society.


I write from my perspective as a 29-year-old man – a Millennial– who is pretty close to aging out of the “young adult” category. I speak out of almost a decade of experience of being a twentysomething among Friends – first as a seeker; then as a new member of a small Quaker Meeting in Kansas; later as a seminarian at ESR; and finally as a Friend doing ministry in the wider world. I have watched for years as so many in my generation have fallen away from Quakerism, sometimes to join another religious community, but usually drifting into the wider, secular culture. I carry a concern for these younger Friends who have not found a place within their religious community, and I have opinions about how we might change to become more relevant to our present context.

This is a place where I get into trouble a lot. Many folks – especially those of older generations – get very defensive when I start talking about generational challenges. And, it is true, I probably go a little too hard on the Boomer generation at times. I am sorry about that. But I would like to encourage Friends to keep things in perspective. Adult Friends under the age of 40 are an incredibly small minority in our communities here in North America.When I first became a Quaker, I was the only person under fifty in my Meeting, and was one of only twoyoung adults who were active in my Yearly Meeting. In Ohio Yearly Meeting, where I am currently a member, I can identify only perhaps half a dozen Friends under the age of 40 who are active in the life of the Yearly Meeting.

I realize that I can come across to some older folks as an “angry young man” who blames all the challenges facing Friends on older generations. But take a moment to see the world from my vantage point. In my life in Washington, DC, I am surrounded by adults in their twenties and thirties. We are young professionals, activists, writers and intellectuals. We are energetic, earnest and hard at work throughout the city.


Yet, when I participate my Yearly Meeting, or other Quaker groups, my peers are nowhere to be found. I am surrounded by people who are decades older than me, with very different life experiences, assumptions and worldviews. I am too young to clearly remember when the Berlin wall came down, yet most of my brothers and sisters in the Quaker community had their worldviews shaped in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War! I love my older Friends, and I lean on a number of them for eldership, support and counsel. But, over time, it can also be alienating to be a part of a community where my different life experience is often unrecognized.

So, I apologize for anything I have written or said that has made my older Friends feel attacked or devalued. While at times I may say some things that feel like insults to our older members,I hope you will hear where my concern really lies: not in tearing down older Friends, but in lifting up the particular gifts, experience and concerns of younger Quakers. How can our religious community value and empower the gifts and ministries of younger Friends? How can all of us come together in the Truth?


Our God is indeed a consuming fire, and all of us – young and old – have dross to be melted away as we wait in that refining Presence. How must we change so that we can wait together as a body, receiving the teaching of the Holy Spirit? If all our forms and structures and buildings and finances are tools that God has given us for blessing the world, what does it look like for us to faithfully exercise those tools, those gifts? And how do we avoid making the tools and gifts our focus, rather than God? How can we live into these questions together, as an intergenerational community?

My New Job At Friends United Meeting

This month I begin work with Friends United Meeting (FUM), an international association of Quakers with member churches in North America, the Middle East, East Africa and Latin America. My official title is Interim Communications and Web Specialist. The “interim” part of this means that the job will last from July until December, and we will evaluate at the end of that time whether the position should continue in its present form. This job is in many ways experimental, which excites me; I am a starter, an entrepreneur and an innovator, and I am looking forward to pioneering a new chapter in FUM’s role as a communicator on behalf of and among Friends.

The “communications” part of my job title means that I will be focusing on FUM’s strategic outreach, especially online and social media communications. In addition, I will be collaborating on Quaker Life, one of the most prominent print publications in the Religious Society of Friends.As FUM’s magazine for more than 50 years, Quaker Lifeis probably our most important tool for communicating across the entire association at the present time. This is especially true considering the limitations of internet access in East Africa, where the majority of Friends reside.
The “web” part of my job will be especially prominent in this interim period. I will be working closely with other members of the FUM staff as we roll out an entirely new and re-designed website.The current website was originally set up in 1997, and although the site has had an amazing 15-year run, it is clearly time for an upgrade! I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of this work.
It is an honor to be on staff with Friends United Meeting. My faith is deeply rooted in traditional Quaker faith and practice – including waiting worship, orthodox Christian belief, and Quaker business practice – and, for me, Friends United Meeting represents the beautiful diversity that is possible when we are gathered together in Jesus Christ. Like so many established Christian organizations today, FUM faces huge challenges. As a diverse and multicultural association of Friends, we are stretched almost the breaking point around questions of authority, our understandings of Scripture, our different levels of access to wealth and mobility, and our vision for what the Body of Christ looks like when we are faithful.

Despite these challenges, I hold out hope for Friends United Meeting. At its best, FUM symbolizes what a broad, diverse, flexible and generously orthodox association of Friends could look like. As a member of FUM’s staff, I will be looking for ways to empower Yearly Meetings, local churches and individual members to live out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. As we are gathered together in the living power of God’s Spirit – spanning nations, cultures, races and languages – I am hopeful that FUM can play a vital role in building up the Body of Christ.

In the months ahead, I want to hear from Friends about how FUM can be more vital and relevant, particularly among Friends in North America. For generations, the primary focus of Friends United Meeting has been on foreign mission fields, and we can see the rich fruits of these efforts among Friends in East Africa, Palestine, and the Carribean. Yet there is a growing sense that North America itself needs to be the recipient of a new missionary effort. What might that look like? 

How might the growing strength of Friends in the developing world contribute to a spiritual rebirth in North America? What role do we have to play in this time of great transition for the North American Church? How might Friends United Meeting be an instrument of Christ’s work of renewal and transformation?

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
-Isaiah 43:19

All Things To All People

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. – 1 Corinthians 9:21-22

The ancient society where Christianity emerged consisted of a wide variety of local cultures, all united under Roman rule. Greeks and Jews mingled, and the cities of the Empire allowed a cosmopolitanism that had rarely existed before in Western history. The early followers of Jesus were challenged to share the gospel message in a context where all truth was relativized under the coercive power of the Roman state. In that society, people could worship whatever gods they chose – so long as they also worshiped Caesar.

I also live in a society where people worship a variety of “gods” and participate in many subcultures and lifestyles. Yet, just as was the case in ancient Rome, the modern-day empire I live in is held together by a set of common assumptions. Although no one is required to literally worship the State or its rulers, this society is held together by the veneration of wealth and the exercise of political power. All of us, from smallest to greatest, are caught up in an economic and political system that demands our allegiance just as surely as Caesar ever did.

The God whom I worship, and the gospel that I proclaim, stands in stark contrast to the worship of wealth and human power that lies at the center of American society. The “upside down Kingdom” of Jesus reveals the weakest to be the strongest and that those who put themselves first may find themselves left out. The good news of Jesus represents a direct challenge to the core assumptions of this present age.
This is scary stuff. It is not accident that the rulers and authorities of ancient Rome brutally tortured and executed Jesus, and continued to persecute Jesus’ followers for centuries. When we directly confront the foundations of Empire, we should expect a response that is in keeping with Empire’s way of doing business.

Despite all of the persecution, torture and summary executions that the early Christians faced, the early Church did not condemn the whole of Greco-Roman society. On the contrary, the early Christian community made great efforts to communicate the good news in terms that would speak clearly to the wide variety of cultures and experiences that made up the ancient world. Rather than insisting that everyone become a Jew, the disciples proclaimed a new way that was open to all people, regardless of their ethnic or cultural affiliation.

As Paul explained in his letter to the Ephesians, the mission of the early Church was to proclaim a gospel that reconciled women and men from all sorts of backgrounds, whether Jew or Greek, uniting them into one new humanity. This new spiritual community did not have the effect of eliminating cultural differences; on the contrary, the cultural diversity of the ancient world remained, but it was placed on a new foundation. Rather than worshiping the wealth and power of Caesar, all the nations of the earth would now join in worshiping the one true God!

How can I share the good news in ways that affirm the diversity of culture, language, identity and experience that I encounter in my city? How can I lift up that which is good in my cosmopolitan society, while at the same time challenging the harmful foundation of greed and pride that has taken us captive? How can I model and preach a gospel that, rather than eliminating our differences, places all of us on a new foundation in Jesus?

Gathering in the Spirit – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #42

Dear sisters and brothers,
I have been given many opportunities this month to travel in gospel service to a variety of communities, both among Friends and in the wider ecumenical Church. In all of my travels, I have joined with my brothers and sisters in asking hard questions: As followers of Jesus, how are we called to work for economic justice and the practical liberation of all people? As disciples of the enfleshed Word, how are we to understand our lives as sexual beings? As a people who have been transformed by the love and authority of the Lord Jesus, how do we lead lives that proclaim him – his joy, his power, his peace?

The lengthiest trip I took this month was to visit Friends in Pendleton, Indiana. Several months ago, I was contacted by the clerk of Whitewater Quarterly Meeting in Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, inviting me to speak at their gathering in April. I could speak about whatever God laid on my heart – though he mentioned that Friends would be very interested to hear about my experiences as a Quaker in the Occupy movement.

I felt clear to accept the invitation, traveling under a minute from Rockingham Monthly Meeting and Stillwater Quarterly Meeting (Ohio YM). During the afternoon session, I spoke out of the silence, and it was opened to me to speak about God’s call for us to emerge from our addiction to comfort and pride. I invited Friends to embrace the radical worldview of Christ’s Kingdom, which challenges us to engagement in a broken world. Grounding my sermon in Christ’s words to the Church in Laodicea, I felt moved to encourage those present to pursue the passionate commitment and humility that our faith demands. If we open ourselves to the transforming power of the Spirit, we can emerge from lukewarmth and fear, embracing the prophetic faith of Jesus.
The word I was given did encounter some resistance from some Friends present. Nevertheless, I was encouraged to see that others received the word with joy. Some were deeply moved by the message, feeling directly addressed by the Lord.
A couple of weeks later, I had another opportunity to speak, this time as part of a panel discussion at Virginia Theological Seminary, one of the premier Episcopal seminaries in North America. I was invited to speak alongside several weighty leaders in the Episcopal Church, including a retired bishop turned activist and the current rector of Trinity Wall Street – a very prominent parish in lower Manhattan. I was thankful for the opportunity to address an assembly of seminary students and professors, representing a significant portion of the present and future leadership in the Episcopal Church.

I was able to speak about my experience as a Christian occupier, working for economic justice in the name of Jesus Christ. I felt that the Spirit was present with us in the gathering, and it was opened to me to exhort those present – especially the seminary students – to dare to question the moral assumptions of the present culture, which relies more on laissez-faire capitalist philosophy than on the loving example of our crucified Savior. Though much of the Church has been seduced by these human philosophies, we were reminded that our authentic witness as followers of Jesus will seem like foolishness to the world.

The last major trip that I took this month was to a retreat held by Ohio Yearly Meeting on the subject of human sexuality. For almost two years now, Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting have been openly wrestling with our shared understanding of God’s intention for human sexuality, and what this means for us in practical terms as a fellowship. Last summer, the Yearly Meeting directed a committee (which I served on) to organize a gathering where Friends could hold these concerns in the Spirit together, sensing how God might be guiding us.

For my part, I was very nervous about this event. This is hard stuff for Friends to talk about, and at times I wondered whether anybody was even going to show up. To my surprise and joy, there were around fifty Friends who traveled from almost every Meeting in the Yearly Meeting to practice shared discernment. This in a Yearly Meeting with an active membership of maybe two hundred!

Even more important than the number of people present, the Holy Spirit was there with us. The whole gathering was grounded in worship, and we were able to largely avoid the caustic back-and-forth the so often characterizes conversation around sexuality. Speaking largely arose from a place of vocal ministry or intimate sharing of personal experience, rather than debate. I felt that we emerged from this gathering with a greater sense of love, trust and fellowship – praise God!
The biggest single insight that I perceived to emerge from our time together was this: We in Ohio Yearly Meeting have significant areas of unity in our understanding of human sexuality, though there are also major areas of disunity. There was a shared sense that we would do best to proceed in love, examining first those areas where we sensed unity, and gradually working our way into the harder areas, those subjects where there is serious disagreement. Our understandings of homosexuality are, as one Friend put it, “the deep end of the pool.” We know that there is a large range of opinions about the rightness of gay and lesbian relationships, and we will need to proceed tenderly – and deliberately – as we seek the Lord’s will in these matters.
I left the gathering with a sense of unity in the process of discernment that we are engaging in together. I felt that despite our serious disagreements on some subjects – particularly our understandings of gay and lesbian relationships – that everyone involved is acting in good faith and seeking the Lord’s will as best they know how. This goes a long way towards reconciliation between individuals, and eventual unity within the Body as a whole. If we can stay humble and grounded in the Spirit, I dare to hope that the Risen Lord will draw us together in one mind and the same love.

Back in DC, the work continues. Capitol Hill Friends continues to grow in spiritual depth, as well as in numbers and vitality. I give thanks for the amazing sisters and brothers whom God has sent to help ground this little church in the midst of the city. I continue to pray that the Lord will send more workers into the field of his harvest. My work in the wider community is moving ahead, and I continue to be active in foreclosure resistance with Occupy Our Homes. In all of this, I am learning how to practice self-care and not over-do it. I am finding that a life grounded in prayer and the study of Scripture is essential to the kind of public ministry that God is calling me to, among Friends and in the wider community.

We are now a third of the way through May, and it looks to be a beautiful summer. I am so thankful for the many blessings that God has poured out on me and my fellow workers here in DC. Thank you for your support and encouragement. Your prayers have real effects that are felt here. Never doubt it.

In Christ’s love,
Micah Bales