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Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #14 – Sowing Seeds at Home and Further Afield

Dear Children of Light,

The past weeks have been quite eventful, and we have had a sense that God’s work is being advanced. Both here in DC and further afield, God has been very generous in placing us in a position to share the message of the Lord’s indescribable love and peace, available to each of us as we open ourselves to it. Faith and I were grateful to have the opportunity to visit Friends at Takoma Park Meeting (Preparative), a short metro ride away – right on the northeastern border between DC and Maryland. Takoma Park is a sweet little Meeting, with perhaps fifteen in attendence when we visited. We felt very honored to be asked to stay after Meeting and share with a group of Friends about our experiences traveling among Friends. It was a joy to share some of our observations with them, as well to hear their perspectives on a variety of issues. We pray that God continue to bless Takoma Park Meeting, calling it into ever-greater spiritual depth as the work of the Holy Spirit brings Friends there into maturity, bestowing all of the gifts of the Spirit upon them.

We have spent a lot of time away from home in the last weeks, and we have felt blessed by those whom we have encountered in our travels. Faith and I spent most of the week of Thanksgiving in Ohio, visiting her family. On our way back to DC, we were able to attend Sunday morning worship at Stillwater Friends Meeting, in Barnesville, Ohio. After worship, Fran Taber and Richard Simon invited us to have lunch with them; we greatly enjoyed their hospitality and warm company, before hitting the road again.

On December 4-6, we flew to Wichita, Kansas, to take part in a planning meeting for a Young Adult Friends gathering. This gathering, which will take place over Memorial Day weekend, 2010, seeks to bring Friends together from across the United States, Canada, and possibly Mexico. This was the full planning committee’s first in-person meeting, and I was very pleased with how well we worked together. Almost a dozen of us spent the weekend worshiping, getting to know one another, and seeking God’s guidance to make the initial decisions that would guide the rest of our planning process. We were led to adopt the theme: “Bearing Witness to the Word Among Us – Witness, Testimony and Transformation.” The accompanying scriptural passage that we felt directed to was 1 John 1:1-3.

I was very excited to see the kind of broad participation that we are getting from YAFs in the Evangelical Friends world early on in the process. Of the twelve members of the planning committee, four are from Evangelical Friends Church; with two from Eastern Region, one from Mid-America Yearly Meeting, and one from Northwest Yearly Meeting. One of our number is from the Conservative Friends tradition (Ohio Yearly Meeting), another is from the Beanite/Independent branch of the Liberal-Unprogrammed tradition (Pacific Yearly Meeting), and another is a member of an FGC Yearly Meeting (Lake Erie Yearly Meeting). Three of us are from the FUM branch of the Orthodox tradition – Great Plains Yearly Meeting, North Carolina Yearly Meeting, and Wilmington Yearly Meeting; and two of us are members of University Friends Meeting, which is dually affiliated with Great Plains Yearly Meeting (FUM) and Mid-America Yearly Meeting (Evangelical Friends Church).

With this kind of diversity on our planning committee, I feel very hopeful that the gathering we are planning can be an inviting space for Friends of all backgrounds – particuarly for pastoral and Evangelical Friends. In the coming months, the planning committee will be doing extensive outreach to Friends across the continent, in a wide variety of Yearly Meetings, seeking maximum participation by Friends from all backgrounds. We would be very grateful for your prayers as we work on the event planning and outreach work that will be necessary to bring together Young Adult Friends from across our geographical, cultural and historical landscape. I am confident that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. I have already seen what a great group of people the Lord has brought together to work on this project, and I am convinced that if we are obedient we will serve God’s purposes in the months to come.

Here at home, Faith and I have been doing a bit of local organizing. This past Wednesday, December 9th, we had the second meeting of the Christian worship group that we have been hosting on Capitol Hill. We had a good turnout, with nine individuals in attendence; and our time together was blessed with a sense of joy. Dinner was provided, following which we sang hymns together and read the first two chapters of Luke aloud. Following this time of preparation, we entered into open worship. After about an hour, and several vocal messages, an advice was read aloud. After another short period of silence, the meeting for worship ended with the shaking of hands. I felt very encouraged by the spirit that was present among us as we worshiped together and shared fellowship after worship. Of the nine of us, seven of us were in our mid- to late- twenties, while the other two participants were Baby Boomers. It is my hope that this worship group will serve as a place of spiritual refreshment and encouragement to seekers of all ages and life stages. I also hope that it can be a group in which all attenders are loved and accepted for who they are, even as Christ calls us to go deeper and be transformed in His purifying light.

After our positive experiences hosting this time of worship and fellowship, Faith and I feel clear to begin holding this worship group on a regular basis starting in the new year. Beginning on Wednesday, January 13th, the worship group will meet every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. It is our hope that a solid group might develop over a period of sustained and regular meetings for worship. Please pray for the worship group as it takes its first halting steps. Pray that the group grow, gain in strength and maturity, and be raised up as a body that can be of service to God and our neighbors in the District of Columbia. Please also pray that God spiritually ground and actively teach every person who attends our meetings for worship, that we may all be brought into maturity and empowered to instruct others in the Way of the Gospel.

God bless each of you who read this letter, and may the Lord bless the ministry that God has called you to.

Your co-worker in Christ’s labor of love,

Micah Bales

Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #8

Dear brothers and sisters in Truth,

My travels among Friends this summer are now underway as Faith and I visit Eastern Region Yearly Meeting at their annual sessions in Canton, Ohio. It might be fair to say that Eastern Region Yearly Meeting is the flagship of Evangelical Friends Church in North America. Eastern Region (formerly Ohio Yearly Meeting [Damascus]) was the only one of the Orthodox Yearly Meetings to decline membership in the Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting) when it was formed in 1902. Eastern Region felt that FYM’s statements of faith were not sufficently Evangelical. They were certainly uncomfortable with some aspects of FYM’s corporate statement of faith – the Richmond Declaration – which denied the use of outward signs of sacrament, such as water baptism and bread and wine communion. Since the late 19th century, Eastern Region has held that there should be “freedom of conscience” with regard to outward signs of sacrament. Since the 19th century, some churches in Eastern Region have celebrated these rituals, but they are optional: No one is required to be baptized with water or partake in bread and wine communion in order to be a member of the Friends Church.

Over time, a number of other North American Yearly Meetings became disaffected with the insufficiently Evangelical stance of the Five Years Meeting. Oregon (now Northwest) Yearly Meeting broke away from FYM in the 1926 after FYM would not acknowledge the Richmond Declaration as a creed. Kansas (now Mid-America) Yearly Meeting withdrew in 1937, and most of Nebraska Yearly Meeting‘s monthly meetings withdrew and formed Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting in 1957. Evangelical Friends Alliance (now Evangelical Friends Church) was formed in 1965, and Evangelical Friends Church in North America now includes Southwest Yearly Meeting (formerly California) and Alaska Yearly Meeting.

But Eastern Region is the original. Here, ever since the Revival experience of the mid-1800s, Friends have greatly emphasized the tradition of Evangelical Protestantism, often at the expense of Friends heritage. The attitude among Friends in Eastern Region might be described as: “hold onto what is essential, jettison everything else.” And for most Friends in Eastern Region, what is essential is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, fidelity to the Bible as the Word of God, and an actively missional stance in the wider world (see Matthew 28:19-20). And, by and large, the Evangelical Protestant tradition has all of these things.

The Friends tradition, except as it directly supports these three emphases, is not seen by most Friends in Eastern Region as being necessary. It is worth noting that the Friends tradition is often referred to as “Friends distinctives” by members of Evangelical Friends Church: They are the things that make Friends “distinctive” from other Evangelical Protestants. But the Evangelical Protestant tradition – the story of Luther and Wesley – is normative. As a Yearly Meeting, Eastern Region is Protestant first, Quaker second – if at all. It is worth noting that most Friends here do not identify as “Quaker,” as that word is associated with liberal, non-Bible-based Friends branches. Friends here are very careful to distinguish between the Friends Church and Quakers.

Attending Eastern Region Yearly Meeting has been a “cultural experience” for me on a variety of levels. The first worship service I attended was a three-and-a-half-hour-long Spanish-language service. There were around 200 Spanish-speaking Friends in attendence to hear many individuals and groups perform music, to sing congregationally, and to hear a number of speakers, including a guest preacher who spoke for around an hour. He was an impressive orator who alternated between stand-up comedy and fire-and-brimstone screaming. Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more warning and judgment, he made us laugh. I enjoyed seeing the vibrancy of the Spanish-language Friends at Eastern Region, though I was a bit concerned at how segregated the Spanish-language and English-language sub-Yearly Meetings were. Most of the Spanish-speakers only stayed for the weekend, leaving the English-speakers to do Eastern Region’s business on Monday and Tuesday. It was as if there were two Yearly Meetings, and the English-language Yearly Meeting was where the business was done.

The English-language portion of the Yearly Meeting was just as much a cultural experience. The worship services were made up of three primary elements: Congregational singing; performing artists (from Hungarian Gypsy musicians to a teeny-bop Christian rock band); and preaching. Friends applauded after most of the songs and sermons, and there were rarely even a few seconds of silence between events. I had difficulty with how prepared and managed everything felt; and the congregational singing and preaching was often triumphalist in nature.

Another challenge for me was the almost exclusively male leadership of the Yearly Meeting. Eastern Region has no female senior pastors. One younger Friend who I spoke to said that she had female Friends who had left the Friends Church to join the Mennonites in order to be able to engage in pastoral ministry. They did not feel that they could do so in Eastern Region. It was noteworthy that this year the Yearly Meeting recorded one of their long-time missionaries as a minister of the gospel – but not his wife, who has been co-missionary with him for decades. No one publicly questioned why this should be so. Throughout the time here at Yearly Meeting, I have heard statements that underscored the role of women in Eastern Region: For example, when one leader prayed that God would, “raise up new missionaries and missionaries’ wives.”

Another thing that I must mention is that Eastern Region Friends vote. I had known this before I arrived, but knowing that Friends in this Yearly Meeting vote could not entirely prevent me from having my breath taken away when I first witnessed it. Most of Eastern Region’s business is done without discussion: A report is presented and approved (they say “favor” to indicate approval). However, a vote is taken on “motions” – that is, on any action item.

Voting seems to be especially important for cases when there is a question from the floor about the decisions that the leadership has presented to the body. The only vote where I heard any “noes” came after one individual questioned whether it was in right order to freeze for the coming year the Yearly Meeting’s “minimum wage” for pastoral ministers. After this man had spoken, the clerk called for a vote on the matter without hearing further discussion. The vote was taken by voice, and I would guess that it passed by a margin of at least ten to one. It seems that voting in this particular case served the function of allowing some Friends to “stand aside” on the decision. But I was disturbed that no time was given to discernment of the matter; Friends were not encouraged to wait on God to provide further guidance. There was a schedule, and Friends intended to get on with it – so a quick vote took care of the voice of dissention.

Eastern Region had its good points, of course. I was impressed with the fact that the Yearly Meeting took half a day to do service projects in the community. I went with a team of Friends that weeded the grounds of a local Jewish community center, and a dozen other teams served the local community in many other ways. One team visited a man in very poor health and cleaned up his yard. Another team visited the local fire station that had just lost a fireman and cleaned their vehicles and prayed with them. Yet another team worked with children. I thought that many Friends could learn from Eastern Region’s very practical service orientation.

I was also deeply impressed by Eastern Region’s cross-cultural emphasis. While I am concerned by the de facto segregation of the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking sections of the Yearly Meeting, I am very excited about the development of that relationship. Eastern Region also has a Chinese-language congregation, and “ethnic ministry” is a stated emphasis of the Yearly Meeting. I am excited to see how greater partnership might develop between Friends of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Eastern Region bears witness to Friends’ Testimony of Unity: to the power of Christ’s Spirit to unite us across cultural, class, and linguistic barriers.

The emphasis at Eastern Region is on church-growth, foreign missions, and Evangelical Protestant theology based in the authority of Scripture as the Word of God. I did not detect much interest in engaging with other (non-Evangelical) Friends. Nevertheless, I believe that Friends would do well to reach out to Eastern Region Yearly Meeting, inviting them to share fellowship with the wider Religious Society of Friends. Despite our doctrinal differences, we are all children of one Heavenly Father, and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. I pray that the Holy Spirit will permeate all of the churches of Eastern Region Yearly Meeting and that Friends will be responsive to the Inward Light of Christ as it seeks to lead them in His Way.

This coming week, Faith and I will be visiting Northwest Yearly Meeting, also a part of Evangelical Friends Church. I was blessed to visit Northwest Yearly Meeting last year, along with Tyler Hampton, and I am looking forward to being among Friends there again.

I pray that the Spirit of Christ is richly dwelling in each of you, leading you in the way of truth and mercy, justice and love.

Your friend in the Way of Jesus,

Micah Bales

Northwest Yearly Meeting

On the 15th, I flew from Greensboro, North Carolina to Portland, Oregon and spent a number of days with my cousin, Ben, who lives in the city. It was a blessing to be able to stay with him, relaxing for a few days without any responsibility beyond waking up at a certain point in the day, reading, and working on my backlog of email. Within a few days, Tyler Hampton, an attender at Detroit Monthly Meeting, arrived in the city and spent a couple of days with Ben and me, before Tyler and I made our way together to Northwest Yearly Meeting. It has been a pleasure to have Tyler as a traveling companion on this leg of the journey. We have been able to support one another as we experience a new Quaker culture and mingle with hundreds new people. I am grateful for his presence here this week.

On Sunday morning, we attended West Hills Friends Church with my aunt, Thea. It was an extremely friendly meeting, with a simple service, which began with a few people gathering early in the meeting room and holding silent worship for about fifteen minutes in anticipation of the arrival of the rest of the congregation. The programmed service consisted of several hymns, led by an electric-guitar-playing man at the front, rock and roll style, a brief message brought by a missionary couple who were back in the United States from the Middle East, a very humorous sermon by the pastor, and then a period of open worship, which was followed by a time of prayer requests and announcements. The sermon was full of humor, often seeming more like a stand-up routine than the usual message delivered in many churches, and the congregation was very responsive, clapping, cheering, and slapping the benches. Quite a different way to do church!

That afternoon, we rode down to Newberg, Oregon, where Northwest Yearly Meeting held its annual sessions on the campus of George Fox University, and that evening Tyler and I were able to attend a gathering of Northwest’s Young Adult Friends at the home of Bruce Bishop, former youth/YAF leader for the yearly meeting, and present director of communications for the yearly meeting. It was a good time to meet with younger Friends, tell them about why I am traveling this summer, and invite Friends into conversation with me.

That evening, Colin Saxton, Northwest’s superintendent, spoke to the body of the yearly meeting. He spoke on the subject of repentance, reminding us of Jesus’ message that we are to “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Colin reminded us of the very real presence of Christ with us and of our need to repent and accept Christ’s call to complete obedience and discipleship, learning of him and taking on his easy yoke. He reminded us again and again of the real presence and leadership of Christ among us today in the Church, emphasizing that Christ’s presence as Friend and Lord is, “no peripheral doctrine – this is at the core of a Friends understanding of the teachings of Christ.”

I was very impressed by Colin’s message, and I was blown away by the fact that he spoke on repentance, a concern that had been weighing so heavily on my heart for weeks, becoming rather a theme of my travels among Friends from the Conservative, FGC, FUM and EFCI traditions. The wind of the Spirit is blowing through the branches and it is shaking every leaf. The Lion of Judah has roared, who can but tremble? The Word of the Lord has issued from Zion, who can but prophesy? Repent, Friends! Repent and turn from your waywardness and return to the bosom of Christ, the safety of your God’s care. Fall on your knees, hear and obey that which God has in store for us as a people.

Colin spoke for the Sunday night evening session, but the primary speaker for the week was Tony Campolo. Campolo was quite an impressive speaker, speaking three evenings in a row, and getting better each night. The first evening, I felt that he was laying the groundwork for the subsequent nights, pulling some of his punches, making us laugh, and preparing us for the lashing that he intended to give us in the two sermons to follow. The first evening, he focused on God not merely as a notion or idea, but as a transforming power that enters into us and changes us. He said that joy and love are signs that Christ has entered into us and saturated our being. He challenged our ideas of success, reminding us, in the words of Francis of Assisi, that “the poor and oppressed are sacramental,” and he told us that “the way to build the Church today is the same way that they built it in the first century: by people loving people and accompanying them into the household of faith.”

The second evening, Campolo took us deeper and laid greater challenges before us. The primary message of that night’s sermon was the distinction between power and authority. Power, he said, is the ability to coerce. Authority, on the other hand, he defined as, “commanding obedience through loving sacrifice. Jesus, he reminded us, had great authority (see Matthew 7:28-29), but he rejected power (see Matthew 4:1-11). The “Constantinian Heresy,” Campolo explained, was when the Church began to exercise power, rather than the authority that comes from sacrificial love. He drew our attention to Philippians 2:5-11, as an exposition of Jesus’ sacrificial love. The love of Jesus on the cross is the heart of the Gospel, the message: it is through sacrificial love that we gain authority. The Church does not speak with authority, explained Campolo, because it has not paid the price. It is not living sacrificially. The phenomenon of politicized religion is a case in point: we resort to power when we have no authority. Campolo went on to call us to a commitment to social justice, saying that “Jesus never allowed the second commandment to be separated from the first.” Campolo ended the evening with a direct call for concrete action on the part of those in attendance. He issued a call for everyone there that evening to begin to support a child in the Third World through Compassion International, and he called on young people to give him their name and address, to commit to a year of service among the poor.

For the last evening session, Campolo began with an explanation of Jesus’ saving work on the cross, explaining that Jesus reaches out through all time and both forgives us of our sin, and cleanses us of our sin, liberating us from it. He then went on to talk about how the term “fundamentalism” was once a respectable term, but soon became tied up in a lot of things that it was never meant to be about. He went on to say that the term “Evangelical,” a word that was to replace the word “fundamentalist,” has now taken on many implications that are more political in nature than religious. He suggested another term, “Red Letter Christians,” to denote Christians who take the teachings of Jesus as their guide and baseline.

During the previous evening’s session, Campolo had briefly touched on homosexuality, condemning “the oppression of gays,” but on this final evening he engaged us extensively on this very sensitive issue. Campolo explained that he is a “conservative” on the issue of homosexuality, believing that it is contrary to the intention of God for the human creation. But, he pointed out that his wife held an opposing view on the subject, and that they occasionally debated the issue publically, “to show that it is possible to differ on this issue and not get a divorce.” He said, “it’s crazy to split over this issue,” insisting that it is important that Christians not break unity, but instead hold together and keep wrestling. Furthermore, Campolo decried “the horrible oppression of gays” as “unacceptable,” even though he “disagrees with the lifestyle.”

To conclude, Campolo reminded us of the story of the rich young man and challenged us to accept the full implications of the Gospel, not just the parts that we think we can fit into our lives without completely giving ourselves over to Christ. “We’re all willing to be Christians up to a point,” he said, “but tonight Christ is going to call you to go beyond that point… to the cross.” Campolo urged us to give over everything to service to God, saying that scripture condemns retirement (citing the parable of the rich fool). He called retired people to account for being, “an enormous waste of the Church’s resources,” and called upon those who no longer worked for money to give everything they had, treasure and time, to the work of the Church of Jesus Christ. Addressing the other end of the age spectrum, Campolo encouraged parents to instruct their children, not being afraid to “tell their kids what to do.” As he explained that “everyone else is telling your children what to do with their lives – school guidance counselors, teachers, MTV,” and called on parents to give firm guidance to their children, I heard several high school aged Friends behind me say, “amen!” Every youth, he concluded, should feel that he or she is on a mission from God. All of us must be obedient to the teachings of Jesus and live out the call of the Church in the world.

The remarkable thing about all of Campolo’s sermons was the sense that, by and large, he was preaching Quakerism to Quakers. It occurs to me that it is probably a very good thing for us to hear true, inward Christianity preached to us by outsiders from time to time. But Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting are most certainly Quakers. Indeed, it has been refreshing to find such an intensely Quaker body: both Christ-centered and distinctively Quaker. Friends here seek to live and preach the “whole gospel,” which I heard described as, “not only the verbal witness of Jesus Christ, but also peacemaking and social justice.” Friends of all stripes, pastoral and unprogrammed, could learn a great deal from the way in which Friends in Northwest hold together the tensions of the Quaker understanding of the Gospel of Christ Jesus. They recognize “that of God in everyone,” but at the same time are strongly missional, seeking to liberate the oppressed Seed of God in their own hearts and in the hearts of seekers outside of their fellowship. They are firmly biblical in their worldview, but avoid to a great extent the pitfalls of placing the written word, interpreted legalistically, as a higher authority than the Spirit of Christ, which inspires us to rightly interpret the Scriptures and be changed by them. They are committed to social justice and peacemaking, but do not separate that from a clear witness to the saving power of Messiah Jesus, whose Spirit takes away all occasion for war.

I was pleased to see that the character of Northwest’s business sessions were mature, grounded, and centered in the Spirit of Christ. While I was in attendance, I saw the approval of a minute condemning torture, as well as the approval of a series of amendments to their Faith and Practice, which is under revision currently. There was approval of a section of the Faith and Practice which allows local churches, with permission from the yearly meeting, to forgo using the name “Friends” in their “common name,” that is, what the church is referred to as in everyday conversation and on the meetinghouse’s sign. There was also discussion of a minute calling on the governing authorities of the United States to correct the present situation in which illegal immigrants are being separated from their spouses and children, breaking up families through deportation. There was discussion on this minute, but as there was not enough time to come to unity on it, it was laid over for a later meeting. The sense that I felt rising in the body was that Friends should be addressing, first and foremost, the question of how we ourselves are feeling called to act to ameliorate the present situation. How are Friends called to reach out to our Latino brothers and sisters in Christ?

The worship style at Northwest’s annual sessions was interesting. Each evening session was begun with several songs, led by a group up on the platform, with lyrics projected onto a large screen hanging above. Following these songs, we would hold about five minutes of silence, before that night’s speaker rose and presented. There were other times, too, where there was music and brief open worship, including during the business sessions. I found it quite nice to have time for musical worship in the midst of business meeting.

Apparently there was a yearly meeting reorganization that was completed last year, the most remarkable result of which is that Northwest’s missions and peacemaking are now organized into one function. Evangelism and peacemaking/social justice are not separated. For example, both Christian Peacemaker Teams and a new meeting-planting mission in Russia are under the care of NWYM’s Board of Global Outreach (Friends in Northwest use the term “board” to refer to what many Friends would call a “committee”).

To sum up, I have had a wonderful time at Northwest Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions. I am very impressed with the vibrancy, rootedness, friendliness and strong character of this body of Friends, and I look forward to continued contact with them in the future. I am particularly excited to think about ways in which my own yearly meeting, Great Plains, might move into closer relationship with Friends in Northwest. With all that we have in common, I hope that way will open for us to deepen our ties and come into greater partnership in living out and sharing the Good News of Christ Jesus.