Archive for October 2014

Who Are You Comparing Yourself To?

There’s always going to be someone who is smarter than you. Richer. More successful by whatever metric you choose to employ.

Does that bother you?

As a friend of Jesus, you are invited into an entirely different way of measuring your life.

Rather than comparing yourself to the greatest, look to the smallest. Instead of trying to fit in with the wealthy, become a friend of the poor. While others are seeking more, more, more – listen! There is a quiet invitation to go deeper, deeper, deeper.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not talking about mediocrity. You don’t get closer to God through a drab and joyless existence. On the contrary, there is nothing more ambitious than the way of Jesus.

When you lead a life framed by Jesus’ upside-down example, you find true fulfillment for the first time. Rather than being enslaved by the drive to be the richest, the smartest, the most respected, you are freed to live as exactly the totally human being that God created you to be. After a lifetime of comparing yourself to others, what a relief that is!

Who are you comparing yourself to? How’s that working for you?

I’m in Crisis. Will the Church Judge Me?

Have you ever experienced a setback so devastating that all you wanted to do was hide – from family, from friends, from the communities you’re a part of? One of the reasons we become part of church community is the promise of a space where we can be fully ourselves and find support when we need it. That’s the theory, anyway.

As most of us know, however, the reality is a little bit stickier. Ironically, it is precisely in our moments of greatest challenge – those times when we need the support of our friends the most – that we withdraw and isolate ourselves. It could be you’ve relapsed into addictive behavior. Maybe you’ve hurt someone close to you with your words or actions. Or perhaps it’s something that’s hard to explain, like a creeping depression that darkens every waking moment.

Running Away

For my friend Katie, the crisis was divorce. She describes in a recent blog post how she chose to run away from her church community during a time when her marriage had fallen apart. When things came to that point, she wasn’t sure that she could trust her community with her sense of devastating loss. She went looking for a church where no one would know what she had been through. She sought anonymity in a different crowd.

Have you ever experienced a situation like this? Why is it that we so often retreat from those around us at precisely the moment that we need loving care the most?

The Church that Judges Together…

I suspect a lot of it has to do with the fear of being judged. In every community, and Christian communities are no exception, there are certain types of crisis that are more acceptable than others. If my house burns down or I get in a car accident, for example, that’s probably something I’m going to feel comfortable taking to my community. I know they won’t look down on me for something that is outside of my control.

There are other types of trauma that I’ll be less comfortable sharing with others. Divorce, bankruptcy, addiction, criminal behavior, or any other way in which my life may be spinning out of control. It takes real courage to bring these challenges to my community, because there is always the risk that, in addition to all the heartache and shame I already feel, my friends will reject me, too. It can seem safer to avoid that risk altogether, to find a new community where no one knows my past. Or to drop out of community altogether.

Cracking the Shell of Despair

It can be hard to see it in the moment, but often these times of deep crisis are opportunities for the kind of growth that just isn’t possible until our lives are shattered. Just like a seed can only grow by breaking and sprouting, you and I can only experience transformation when our old lives are visibly exploded.

The same is true for our communities. We cannot grow as a people until we embrace our shared brokenness. If there is not room in the church for the expression of darkness and doubt, where could there be? Aren’t we followers, after all, of a man who cried out on the cross, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We are brothers and sisters of the crucified savior, the wounded healer, the broken messiah whose new life comes to us through the experience of shame, loss, and defeat.

Judgment-Free Community

What will it take for us to become communities where the hurting, the ashamed, the doubting, the confused – that is to say, each one of us – is welcomed into a space of transformation without human judgment getting in the way?

  • Trust God. In Jesus, God has experienced every pain, temptation, and loss that we have – and then some. We’re not alone, we’re not abandoned, we’re not forgotten. The Spirit is especially present with us when we are at the bottom of the pit. We are lifted up precisely in that moment when we cry out in our pain: Abba, Father!
  • Trust yourself. When you trust God, you have no choice but to trust yourself, too. God created your whole life as a vessel of the Spirit’s life and power. Know that Christ dwells within you, and that his healing love can overcome any challenge, no matter how painful or shameful it may seem at the moment. Stand still and wait for Christ’s power, and he will shine in your heart and show you a path forward, straight and clear. It won’t be an easy, quick fix; but it will be a path that heals and transforms.
  • Trust the community. As a fellowship in Christ, we’re still human. We’re going to make mistakes. Really bad ones, sometimes. Yet, it is through fallible little bands such as ours that God has chosen to carry out the restoration of the world. I still can’t fathom how the Spirit could use people like me to heal the world, but we have learned that God chose that which is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are. God is working in us and through us, even when it seems highly unlikely.

Be the Change

Do you want to be part of a community that is loving, open, and humble enough to welcome those who are facing the deepest struggles of their lives? These kinds of fellowships do exist, but they don’t happen by accident. If we want to be a people who can welcome the brokenhearted, we must first face our own brokenness.

We all know it’s a bad idea to wait until a hurricane hits to begin weather-proofing your house. In the same way, it is important that we develop the habit of sharing our lives with one another – both joy and grief – even when it would be more comfortable to keep things to ourselves. Authentic community is only possible when we are up-front with our whole selves, even those parts that make us uncomfortable.

Everyone can feel the difference between an open and honest community and one where we wear masks. Many groups feel stuffy and closed, like the air hasn’t circulated in a long time. It’s easy to suffocate there. Other communities have opened up the windows of their lives, letting the breeze flow through.

When times are good, it can often make sense to participate in stuffy communities. There are advantages to closed windows, after all. Climate control provides a certain stability. But we all know where we want to be when we’re gasping for air.

If your life began to fall apart, would your community be a place where you would feel safe staying and working through it? What would it look like to encourage the free expression of struggle, doubt, and crisis in your community? Are you ready to open up your life, being transparent in your own struggles?

Please share in the comments below:

  • What has been your experience of facing crisis in community?
  • Do you feel like your fellowship has a culture of embracing struggle, or burying it?
  • What steps could you take to encourage raw authenticity and spiritual/emotional hospitality in your life?

We’re Gathering Momentum – Are You In?

Dear friends,

The Friends of Jesus Fellowship has been holding regular gatherings in Barnesville, Ohio – one in the fall and another in the spring – for several years now. These gatherings are times for encouragement, equipping, and to be reminded that we are all part of a greater whole. We are members of the living body of Christ together, and wherever we gather is a beachhead of his kingdom. Small and scrappy as we may be.

Something amazing is emerging. A new life and energy is bubbling up. New possibilities beyond what we can see now. We’re being broken open to God and one another, creating space for real transformation.

At our Fall Gathering this month, the power of the Holy Spirit was active and present with us, causing stirrings the likes of which I had never seen among Friends before. We experienced an atmosphere of deep worship and prayer, facilitated through shared meals that we prepared together, singing in a variety of styles, and teaching on our theme, Go and Make Disciples!

The question of how to make disciples was a timely one for us. We are beginning to dig deeply into the practical work of inviting, accompanying, and equipping others to walk in discipleship to Jesus. Holding beliefs about God is relatively easy, and having transcendent peak experiences even more so, but steadfastly choosing to follow Jesus through the highs and lows, through assurance and doubt, is a tall order. Yet, for those of us who are being drawn together as Friends of Jesus, this is a challenge we feel compelled to embrace.

We are not alone. Jesus walks with us in a tangible way. He is teaching us to be a supportive fellowship, sustaining one another in this life of adventure and holy surprises. We come alive as we accept the challenge. The power of the Spirit fills us with joy and peace that can transform lives.

We have heard the message that we can only baptize others if our own lives are cups running over, splashing those around us with love and grace. It is only when we are being filled by the whole-grain goodness of the living gospel that we can share it with others. When we die to ourselves, we discover a way to new life in Jesus.

We can invite others into this new life.

I want to personally invite you to attend the next Friends of Jesus Gathering, which will take place this coming March. If you’ve been thinking of Friends of Jesus as a community out there that doesn’t include you, think again. Something new and exciting is happening here, and everyone is invited to participate.

Are you ready to be part of a movement that rekindles the fire of the early church? Do you long to be filled with the same audacious joy and power that the early Quakers (or Methodists, or Pentecostals…) lived in? Do you feel the Spirit’s call to participate in this new thing that is emerging in our time?

You are invited.

More details soon.

In hope and peace,

Micah Bales

Want To Experience Real Power?

For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. – 1 Corinthians 4:20

Since childhood, we’ve been told a story about what power means. Powerful people can have whatever they want. Powerful people command respect. They sit at the head of the table. They chart the course. Power means having your way; the weak must pay the price.

This is a lie, of course. But such a lie, told often enough, takes on its own sort of reality. Most of us have heard this ancient lie so much that we no longer realize we ever heard it. It’s become obvious, unremarkable. Of course the powerful exploit the weak. That’s just the way life is.

Yet, there is an alternative to this culture of falsehood that we’ve been raised in. There is a definition of power that defies the seduction of domination. Hidden in the hearts of children and fools, there is a weakness that is stronger than human strength.

When we dwell in this weakness that overcomes the world, we suddenly see life as it truly is. Despite all odds, we discover that love triumphs over hate, truth over falsehood. We know in our bones that Jesus’ death on the cross was no accident. He demonstrates the greatest love, laying down his life for us, his friends.

The power of God undermines all our false systems of human power. The cross of Jesus exposes the structures that dictate who is the greatest, who commands the resources, who calls the shots.

To live in this subversive power, we must first acknowledge that we are not in control. We live in God’s power precisely because we are weak. By owning our frailty, by acknowledging our pain, we reach a rock bottom; we tap into a common well of authentic humanity that draws us repeatedly into the loving arms of the Spirit.

It is here at the bottom of our messy lives that we find our brother Jesus waiting for us. We instinctively recognize the marks on his hands and the wound in his side because we, too, have been pierced by this world. We discover that every trial we’ve endured is but an echo of his own suffering. We dwell in the life and power of Jesus because we are baptized into his cross.

This baptism of power brings us into direct conflict with the twisted powers-that-be. Like grass growing up through cracks in the pavement, Jesus’ way of humility and love emerges in conditions that are anything but ideal. War zones. Outbreaks of infectious disease. Oppression. Atmospheres of hatred, fear, and greed. The green shoots of true life are all the more brilliant as they emerge amidst the gray of concrete. And as we face the fury of this culture’s powers, we root ourselves ever deeper into the rich soil of Christ.

The kingdom of God does not consist in the empty words of politicians and magnates, seeking a veil for their selfish interests. It doesn’t emerge in the ways that our culture recognizes as significant. But for those with eyes to see, the kingdom of God has come near. This kingdom exists wherever the little ones of the earth speak the truth plainly, love the poor frankly, and announce the good news that the mighty ones have been toppled from their thrones.

This is the power that James Nayler knew when he said:

There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations.

As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind.

In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoices but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.

Is this the power that you live in?

When We Pray, It Boils

Stand still in that which shows and discovers, and then does strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone. And then contentment comes. – from George Fox’s Epistle X

At our Fall Gathering this past weekend, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship had a pretty amazing experience of prayer. The quality of it was different from anything I had ever experienced before. It was as if we were sitting together in a frying pan, and the spiritual temperature was steadily rising. Simmering. Boiling.

The only way I knew how to describe it afterwards was to say, It felt like the lid was about to come off. The room was literally shaking with the prayers of those present, our bodies and voices trembling under the power of the Spirit.

As a Quaker, this intensity of feeling makes me suspicious. It’s hard to know sometimes whether our emotions are being stirred up for human reasons, or divine ones. Yet, from everything I witnessed, I believe that our time of fervent prayer bore the marks of the Holy Spirit. There was real healing taking place as hidden hurts and heartbreaks came to light.

It has taken me a while to begin processing what I saw and felt this weekend. It was an awesome thing to watch the Spirit of God reach down into our depths and dredge up mercy out of the darkness. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But also beautiful. Cleansing and healing.

I am so grateful for Christ’s presence in our midst this weekend. I am blessed to be part of this community where we approach God together, and receive a clear response. It’s a pure gift, and I’m thankful.

Are You Ready to Join Sinners Anonymous?

Hello, my name is Micah, and I’m a sinner.

When I say that I’m a sinner, what I mean is that I’ve been fighting with God all my life. I choose my twisted version of the world over the truth and beauty of the Creator. I prefer empty idols to the whole grain bread of life that Jesus offers. I want to be in control, rather than accepting that I am powerless to overcome life’s challenges without God’s help.

Like a lot of people, I became a Christian because I had reached the end of my rope. I’d hit rock bottom, and there was nowhere left for me to go but back to God, or to a place of deep darkness, despair, and death.

In the years since I acknowledged God and invited his presence back into my life, things have changed for the better. I’m more whole and healthy than I have ever been.

It would be easy for me to get complacent at this point. It would be easy for me to think that I’ve been cured of my tendency to rebel against the truth, to put myself first rather than loving others as Christ first loved me. But the reality is, I’m just one moment of weakness away from being back where I started.

In my walk of recovery, God has gradually weakened my desire to sin. I’ve learned that I can trust the Spirit, that I don’t have to give into fear, despair, or selfish pride. Nevertheless, I know that the seeds of alienation remain within me. They lie in wait for moments of fatigue, life setbacks, and spiritual dryness. All I have to do is yield to the darkness, and these seeds will bloom their hideous flowers in me once again.

It’s so important that I stay awake to the truth. I must stay conscious of the fact that I am nothing more or less than a (relatively new) member of Sinners Anonymous. I am not better than anyone. I haven’t achieved anything. I’m just one man on a daily walk of recovery with Jesus. By the grace of God, I am being saved day by day as part of the body of Christ.

There is no essential difference between me and my neighbor who has not made a decision to follow Jesus. We both struggle with darkness, despair, and misdirected priorities. We both know beauty, and also carry within us the seeds of evil. We both are capable of terrible thoughts and deeds, but also loving-kindness. We share a common condition as human beings in a fallen world.

But when I choose to follow Jesus, I find the evil in me weakened and the good raised up. I am able to confess that, solely by God’s power and grace, I am on the path of recovery from addiction, narcissism, alienation, and death.

Are you ready to take the first step – whether for the first time or the thousandth? Will you admit that you are powerless over your addiction, alienation, sin – that your life has become unmanageable? Are you prepared to open your life to a power greater than yourself that can lead you in recovery? Have you heard the voice of Jesus, who can speak to your condition and make you whole?

Why Every Christian Should Walk a Dog

So often I feel like it’s my job to create outcomes in my life. I want to see certain results – whether it’s success in my work, happiness in my family, or deeper connection with the people around me. I often burden myself with the idea that I should be in control of how things turn out.

The terrifying and liberating reality, though, is that my only choice is how to respond to the Spirit’s grace on a moment-by-moment basis. God is the one making the connections, opening up possibilities. I’m not the decider, but I am invited to be a faithful responder. It’s just a matter of staying awake.

Take, for example, a recent walk I took with our dog. Austin was feeling the call of the wild, and I was looking forward to a quiet walk through our neighborhood. But as I headed out, I noticed a man walking down the alley, headed my way. He was a neighbor from down the street who I’d never spoken to, but today he clearly wanted to connect.

I had a decision to make: I could be polite but keep walking, or I could change my plans.

Instead of taking the solitary walk I had envisioned when I stepped out the door, I came alongside my neighbor and accompanied him on the way to the corner store. We didn’t talk about anything profound – the dog, mostly – but we made a connection. We know each other’s names now.

After leaving my new friend at the corner store, I looped back around the block. The dog and I ended up playing fetch in our yard. Austin was having a great time, running up and down the lawn, growling and spinning playfully. That’s when I heard laughter from the group home across the street. One of the nurses who works there was out on the front porch, watching us play.

At first, I stayed in our yard, yelling back and forth with the nurse. But was soon obvious that our conversation was more than a courteous wave across the fence. Once again, I had a choice to make: Would I respond to the opportunity for connection that God was putting in front of me? Austin and I crossed the street and spent some time talking with our neighbor on her porch.

I didn’t create either of the opportunities that afternoon. I didn’t leave the house planning to connect with my neighbors. In fact, I was surprised to find that they were reaching out to me! But I had a choice as to how I would respond. I could take the time, make myself available, and go deeper. Or I could be pleasant and courteous… and keep walking.

Have you been presented with opportunities and choices like this lately? What decisions did you make? In the comments below, I invite you to share about your own experience of these kinds of holy openings.

Where in your life do you experience opportunities to connect with others in unexpected ways? How do you practice awareness and readiness to embrace these openings as they emerge?