Archive for July 2013

Practicing The Presence

I have long been inspired by Brother Lawrence, the 17th-century monk whose writings, compiled in The Practice of the Presence of God, demonstrate the kind of joyous living that is possible if we cultivate a posture of attentiveness to God’s companionship and direction in our everyday activities. Though he was never considered an important person during his lifetime, Lawrence encountered Christ’s real presence throughout the day, in tasks as mundane as washing the dishes.

In my own life, I have experienced periods when God’s presence has been intensely palpable. At times, the Holy Spirit has seemed just as tangibly real as any other person in my life – yes, and somehow realer! Then again, there have been other times when I have not experienced God as present at all, no matter how good my conscious intentions. Most of my life is spent in the space between these two extremes. In general, my awareness of Christ’s presence seems related to my moment-by-moment choice to stay attentive to his still, small voice.

Some days are more challenging than others. I often wake up with half a dozen projects buzzing in my head. My mind flits from task to task, fixated on due dates and the steps between the present moment and the future that I am working for. Yet almost always, if I choose to pay attention, I can hear a voice inviting me deeper. Paying attention to my breath, practicing awareness of my body and my surroundings, God reveals an open space where I can rest in him.

It always amazes me how life simply falls into place when I do choose to accept the invitation to rest in his green pastures. Worries fade, stress falls away, and deadlines somehow still get met – the ones that really needed to get met, anyway. This is the power of Christ’s easy yoke, when I yield to it.

  • How have you experienced Christ’s presence breaking into the midst of your daily routines?
  • Where does the Holy Spirit create space for rest, genuine depth and power in your life?
  • Are there ways that you could choose to become more intentional in practicing of the presence of God?

Is Money The Enemy?

For most of my life, I have related to money as an enemy. I viewed finances as a necessary evil, a barrier that had to be overcome somehow in order to live a life free from worry and drudgery. Lots of people wish they had more money; I’ve mostly wished that money did not exist at all.

As I grow older and become more settled into stable social and economic relationships, I have begun to question whether this is the healthiest way of thinking about money. Without a doubt, there are good reasons to be skeptical of the financial system we live in. We live in the midst of an economic obscenity, where billions of people live in destitution while a tiny elite controls most of the world’s wealth. Even in a rich country like the United States, our level of income inequality is breathtaking. Clearly, the system is being deliberately gamed by the powerful at the expense of the 99%.

But do these abuses justify my generalized aversion to money and markets per se? Jesus told his followers that we are to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. I think I’ve always been more comfortable with the innocent dove part of that phrase. I tend to desire a life outside of the corrupt systems that we have developed as a society. Rather than compromise with an unjust social order, I’d rather escape altogether.

While being as wise as serpents does not mean that we are to uncritically buy into the world’s way of doing things, it does require that we thoroughly understand these systems, and operate within them in ways that advance the kingdom of God. How can I be part of the kingdom of God – a radically new social order, based in an economy of love – while navigating the framework of human economies that are often based more in greed than in concern for the general welfare?

I’m not sure exactly what form it will take yet, but I’m sensing that I probably need to become a little bit wiser in the ways of the world. For most of my life, I’ve emphasized the dove part of this equation to the point of an unhelpful personal purity. Being all dove and no serpent may make me feel righteous, but it ultimately makes me less effective as an agent of God’s transformation in the world. In my experience, the more I try to opt out of the money system, the more enslaved to it I am liable to become. The things that I refuse to acknowledge and reckon with can pose the greatest threat to my growth as a follower of Jesus.

With all this in mind, I’m calling a truce with money. No longer will I relate to it as an enemy, an aggravating barrier to be circumvented. Instead, I am praying that God will open my eyes to how I can manage finances and do business in ways that bless others, build community and strengthen my ability to be released for the ministry that God is calling me into.

What is your posture towards money? Is it a friend, an enemy, or something in between? How do you personally navigate the moral dilemmas that our economic system poses? What does it mean, in your economic life, to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves?

Is Settled Ministry The New Traveling Ministry?

In the early days of the Quaker movement, Quaker evangelists swept through the British Isles, the Continent of Europe, across the Atlantic to the American colonies, and even as far as the Muslim lands of the Middle East. The Valiant Sixty went out from Swathmoor Hall, determined to spread the good news of the risen Jesus to the ends of the earth. They moved from village to village, preaching the gospel and connecting isolated communities into a new movement of the Holy Spirit. To be a public minister in this early movement meant, almost by definition, to be on the road.

This sort of itinerant ministry was revolutionary when originally practiced. In an age when local communities were often cut off from one another, a visit from a traveling Friend could break down barriers of communication and geography, connecting a movement across regions, or even continents. The traveling minister represented not just an inspired preacher of the gospel, but a living connection with a wider community.

Now, in the first quarter of the 21st century, our situation has changed dramatically. In stark contrast to the geographical settledness of 17th-century England, we live in a society where many of us travel vast distances on a regular basis. Even transatlantic travel, which would have been the journey of a lifetime even a hundred years ago, can now be undertaken almost casually.

Our living arrangements are just as fluid. Most of my friends, for example, do not live in the state where they grew up. We are encouraged to leave our hometowns for college, and then to travel wherever we find the most potential for career advancement. Where I live, in Washington, DC, many people are only here for a few years; they come to gain connections and work experience before moving on to another city when a better job offer arises.

This way of life wreaks havoc on community. As a young professional, it is hard to invest in relationships if you know that you will probably be leaving for another city within the next few years. Even for those of us who are more rooted, there is a great temptation to avoid investing in relationships with those who will probably be moving on. Why spend time and energy on someone who will likely be gone soon?

In the midst of such uncertainty of relationships and place, it may be time to reevaluate our models of ministry. It could be that the great need of the 21st century is non-traveling ministers: women and men who make themselves available to ground and nurture stable communities in a society deeply marked by transience. In a culture that practically worships keeping one’s options open, an intentionally settled ministry could be just as radical today as the traveling ministry was three and a half centuries ago.

Justice From The Inside Out

Recently, I have been apprenticing with an independent crafter, doing home renovations of all kinds. Whatever folks need taken care of – whether it’s carpentry or electrical work, HVAC or painting – we get it done. As an apprentice, I am growing in many ways. In addition to learning all sorts of useful skills, I am also receiving an entirely different perspective on my city. I’m getting a laborer’s-eye-view of how things work – and sometimes don’t.

I grew up believing that I lived in a generally fair society. My childhood experience – admittedly, rather sheltered – told me that people mostly honored their agreements, and that insurance would cover any major catastrophe. As an adult, I’ve learned enough to realize that this is not always the case. Yet, in the jobs I’ve worked, I’ve always been treated relatively fairly. At the very least, the letter of the law has been obeyed.

Lately, though, I’ve been seeing first hand that this isn’t everyone’s experience. Many workers are very vulnerable to those who decide, for whatever reason, not to follow through on their commitments. Just in my first few weeks as an apprentice, I’ve seen one person simply decide that he wouldn’t pay for labor. Another man left us hanging for days, without payment, after having us buy hundreds of dollars in materials for him, while we sweated in the worst summer heat Washington has to offer.

Watching all of this play out, I’ve been thinking a lot about how our culture could become more honest, more fair in our dealings. As someone for whom the system has often worked, my knee-jerk reaction is to desire a legal fix. Contracts should be honored, and those who cheat their workers should be held accountable! Perhaps with better laws, things would be different.

But state power can probably only address the most extreme abuses – and even then, government intervention often creates as many problems as it solves. As I witness the fundamental disorder of our culture, I am becoming more aware of our need for individual and societal heart change. New and better laws can coerce some citizens to behave themselves some of the time, but our real need is to move from law to grace, from the letter to the Spirit, from form to substance.

I don’t have an easy road map for how we get there. The church – the true, living body of Jesus being made flesh in the world – is the only durable solution. But I don’t have any lever to pull to cause this radically faithful fellowship to come into being. I do hope that my life can make some positive impact, cooperating with the movement of the Holy Spirit that we pray for. None of us, by our own efforts, can build the church. But I can plant, water, and nurture the tender shoots of God.

What are ways that you have found to nurture the seeds of justice and right relationship in your community? How can we open ourselves to the transforming power of Christ’s love? What steps might we take to lead lives of deeper integrity and love, and encourage others to do the same?

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In thanksgiving,

Micah Bales

Feeling Impatient?

I am used to instant gratification. When I get hungry, there is almost always food around. When I am curious about something, I search the internet and can find an answer immediately. And when there is a task that I want to complete, I can usually succeed in getting it done quickly.

I admit it: I like the quick win. I love the feeling of accomplishment when I can check something off my list and say, There, I’ve done it. My life feels so secure and purposeful when I can set my mind to a task and get immediate positive results.

Have you ever wondered why video games can be so addictive? Instant gratification again. As time has gone on, game makers have become increasingly skilled at creating environments where players are regularly given little doses of positive reinforcement. Whether it’s winning some points, accomplishing an objective, leveling up or getting some sort of shiny object, games succeed by letting us feel like we are succeeding at regular intervals.

These games can be so addictive precisely because they do not have the constraints of real life. For example, you can’t realistically expect to get a pay raise at work every month, much less every hour. Real life doesn’t give you moment-by-moment affirmation, but games can. No wonder so many of us choose to escape into the land of electronic amusement: It feels so good to be accomplishing things, even if our achievements are limited to racking up gold coins and farming imaginary crops.

For many of us, this is a particularly difficult time in history to feel accomplished at anything. Many of us struggle with joblessness or underemployment, while others are working jobs we don’t really feel passionate about simply to pay the bills. With a sluggish economy, rising income inequality and a dysfunctional, deadlocked government, it often feels like our whole society is stuck. In times like these, it’s hard to feel productive.

Despite the temptation to retreat ever deeper into glowing facsimiles of meaning and purpose, there is an alternative that offers genuine hope. It’s a challenging path, to be sure. It’s not easy to unplug from our distractions and stare life-as-it-is in the face. It’s hard to release our addiction to recognition and completed checklists. Re-sensitizing ourselves to the mundane, often uninspiring reality of daily life can seem like almost too much to bear.

But the desert of the real is not without its gifts. As those who seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we have been promised an entirely new way of living, a whole new creation that is coming into being! Though often we still can’t see this new reality, we sense it in our bones. We have hope in a new way of life where it doesn’t hurt so bad to simply rest in the moment, embracing the simple fact of being alive. We are called to live in hope that the apparent drudgery of modern life is not all there is. In this hope, we find liberation.

Living into this hope is going to require a lot of endurance on our parts. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Here, Paul is talking about the patience of the unemployed twenty-something who keeps applying for jobs, even after being rejected for so long that he is forced to move back in with his parents. It is the kind of patience we observe in those pursuing climate justice, who continue to work for sustainability despite increasing evidence that it may be too late. Paul is writing about the kind of patience that we must embrace if we are to undertake simple acts of care and appreciation for others – that is, love – even when we go unnoticed. Even when we don’t seem to accomplish anything.

The way of patience doesn’t seem like any match for the much more popular path of personal accomplishment and therapeutic distraction. In contrast to the regular boosts of endorphins promised by video games, the 24-hour news cycle, and a myriad of other distractions, the humble way of patience involves a fair amount of suffering. Abandoning distraction and seeing life as it really is can be painful.

Yet, there is a hidden blessing that comes amidst the pain. It is a gift that the mainstream culture’s way of thinking can’t comprehend. Paul explains it this way: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.

Rather than abandoning the mundane details of daily life for a fleeting sense of personal accomplishment, let’s seek the patient endurance to embrace each moment in God’s presence. As we show love to those around us, may God clear away any distraction or stumbling block that would hinder the glory that is to be revealed in us.

Time To Celebrate

This Fourth of July, I rode my bicycle across the Anacostia river to Capitol Hill, where I met up with some friends and enjoyed a rooftop view of the fireworks on the National Mall. DC’s Fourth of July display is always impressive and beautiful. There’s something special about the way the the Washington Monument and Capitol Building light up in reds, blues and greens.

I ended up getting an even more memorable show as I rode back roughly four miles through Capitol Hill, across the river and through my neighborhood on the east side of town. The closer to home I got, the more people I saw in the streets. The air was thick with the smoke of burnt gunpowder. At times I found it difficult to breathe. Block after block, it seemed like every man, woman and child had bought their full weight in explosives and planned to spend the whole evening igniting every last firecracker and projectile.

Passing through this mesmerizing scene, I sensed that this night’s festivities were significant in some profound way that is difficult to express in words. Somehow, this city-wide explosive display was breaking through all our normal routines. It drew us into a special moment in time where the rules were different. The smokey, burning night had become magical.

Celebration does this. It takes us outside the routine and makes all things seem possible. When we truly enter into celebration, the rules and assumptions we normally live by are broken down.

If the celebration of a patriotic festival can have this effect, how much more powerful could it be to celebrate the living presence of Jesus in our midst? What new possibilities might open up if we gave ourselves the freedom to celebrate the amazing fact of God with us? How might our lives change if we embraced this kind of awareness, gratitude and praise?