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Cut to the Heart

On the day that the Holy Spirit comes on the followers of Jesus for the first time, it causes quite a stir. The whole community begins to speak in different languages, allowing them to communicate to the thousands of pilgrims from around the world that have ventured to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. This miracle of speech catches people’s attention, and soon there is a crowd of thousands gathered, hearing the good news as told to each one in their own native language.

This freaks people out, and some begin to speculate that the disciples must be drunk on wine! In the midst of all this confusion, Peter stands up and began to address the people. He explains that the disciples are not drunk, but rather that this gift of language is a sign of a new era. It is an age inaugurated by Jesus, who has sent the Holy Spirit to everyone, regardless of gender, age, class, ethnicity, or any other human barrier. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, immersed into this new life and power that is flowing in the streets of Jerusalem that morning.

The Holy Spirit is so palpably present, that three thousand people are immediately convinced of the truth of Peter’s testimony. The Bible records:

Now when they heard [the message that Peter preached], they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” (Acts 2:37)

The thousands present for Peter’s speech are cut to the heart, because they realize that they have executed the promised Messiah, God’s son. Even though most of them were not in Jerusalem when this occurred, they accept personal responsibility. We did this; we humans killed the one whom God sent to us in mercy. We have become killers of love, murderers of God himself. Where can we turn for help?

Peter answers this question, calling for an immediate response: Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit. This is God’s promise for everyone, now and forever: If we turn from our selfish ways and offer ourselves to God, we will receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus will turn our lives upside down and fill us with his amazing life.

Have we heard this message – really heard it? Can we wrap our minds around the fact that we have nailed Jesus to a cross, and yet he returns to us in love and mercy? Are we ready to turn from our selfish, ignorant, murderous ways and embrace the same posture of humility that God has taken with us? Are we ready to be cut to the heart, feeling the wounds of our own violence, committing ourselves to become peacemakers? Are we ready to repent – to be filled with the Spirit that makes real change possible? It’s never too late to turn it all around.

Taking Our Faith Into The Streets – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #59

Dear friends,

This month has felt like a chance to take a wider view of the work that God is calling me to. It’s easy to get bogged down in tasks and details, but recently I’ve had some great opportunities to break out of my regular routine and engage in ministry that is outside of my comfort zone. At the same time, I’m finding new opportunities to reflect on my service, exploring how my particular call and gifts fit into the life of our community as a whole.

The highlight of November was a visit among friends in Philadelphia. The purpose of my trip was to encourage the Friends of Jesus community that is emerging there, but I think that they encouraged me more! I got to see the Spirit’s power at work again and again, as friends lived into their calling as children of light, sharing their faith with boldness.

I arrived first in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where a group of friends were holding an evening meeting for worship in one family’s home. The hosts and organizers of the meeting were Conservative Quakers, and folks from the West Philly Quaker community at the Friends of Jesus Fellowship added to their numbers. It was a beautiful assembly of God’s people, all united in our desire to draw near to one another in the life we find in Jesus. Both before and after worship, I was able to connect with many different individuals, some of whom I knew well already, and others who I was pleased to get to know on a deeper level. This precious time really gave me the sense of being re-connected with the life of some of God’s faithful workers in the Philadelphia area.

This was good preparation for the following day, when I accompanied Hoot Williams as he led a street outreach event in downtown Philadelphia. If the evening meeting for worship in West Chester provided the spiritual depth and grounding, the outreach event made room for a living expression of that life and power in the world. We spent the day together, holding a public meeting for worship within sight of Independence Hall.

As we worshiped, several of us took an active role in reaching out to the many people who were passing by. We invited folks to take a red diamond as a symbol of the power of love in the face of adversity. For those who were willing to talk longer, we were able to share about our community and the sense of hope and joy that compelled us to stand outside all day on a Saturday and strike up conversations with strangers.

This was a really powerful experience for me. I had not done this kind of street outreach since the Occupy movement, and I had never done street outreach as a way to invite others into conversations about faith. In many ways, this was a scary thing to do, but it was helpful to have the red diamonds as an icebreaker. It also helped to let those we talked to set the terms of the conversation. If they wanted to talk about deep things, learn more about our community, or talk about their own faith, we were ready for that. If they just wanted to take a red diamond and move along, that was OK, too.

It was amazing to see a variety of brothers and sisters from the Philadelphia Quaker community turn out for this outreach event. It blessed me to see spiritual gifts being used, watch individuals wrestle with leadings and explore what God’s call might be for them in the days ahead. In some way that is hard to describe, taking our faith into the streets had the effect of making it more real, immediate and concrete. I experienced in a fresh way the meaning of Jesus’ words: “The Kingdom of God has come near.”

Out of this experience, I am hungry for more opportunities to do both the hidden, spiritual work of deep worship and the concrete, visible labor of incarnational ministry in our city streets. I need both the inward and the outward journey, and I want to be part of a community that is engaged with great passion and joy on both of these levels. I see that our brothers and sisters in Philadelphia are finding ways to do this, and I hope that this gospel fire will spread and ignite the hearts and minds of the rest of us across our many local communities. It is time for us to live and preach the good news of Jesus with boldness!

On a personal level, I am grateful to report that I am receiving some additional assistance in walking this path. This past month, Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area appointed a support team to work with me as I seek to be faithful to the public ministry that God has called me into. This team will provide help in my discernment process, serving as spiritual advisers and encouragers for me.

I’m blessed that FOJ-DC Metro Area is embracing my ministry as being integral to its own. Together, we will continue to tease out how I can best serve as an integrated member of the body, rather than flying solo. I am grateful for friends’ willingness to accompany me in this ministry, seeking to build up the gifts and ministry of whole community.

In other news, our dog, Austin, continues to be sweet and adorable. He’s a wonderful addition to our family, and his presence encourages greater connections between us and our housemates and neighbors. I don’t think I really expected this beforehand, but I am discovering that dogs can be remarkable community-builders. I am grateful for the ways that each of us – including our non-human companions – bring our own special gifts to the life we share together.

I hope that you are beginning to sense the deep joy of the Christmas season. In spite of the dimmer days and longer nights, we are reminded that the living presence of Jesus is coming to birth in our midst. May you experience his awesome, loving presence this Advent.

Your friend,

Micah Bales

Am I a Stumbling Block?

I used to find the message of the cross totally off-putting. The idea that God would suffer and die for me was bizarre enough, but far scarier was the implication that I was called to imitate Jesus’ suffering and death. It’s one thing to be nice to other people, but loving my enemies and blessing those who curse me? What kind of crazy religion is that?

During his three years of public ministry, Jesus pointed out time and again that most would not be able to handle his message. In the end, even his closest friends deserted him rather than suffer his fate. They had expected a victorious Messiah-King, not a resolute prophetic witness who bore all the hatred and violence that the system could muster.

The resurrection changed everything, of course. Suddenly, the once reluctant disciples were filled with boldness. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they began to share the good news of Jesus throughout the ancient world, and many more became disciples. Yet, even in these early years of growth, the message about Jesus and his cross was still a stumbling block for many. The apostle Paul explains that the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are wise by human standards. It’s always a hard sell to invite others to come and die.

The truth about the gospel is challenging enough, but today we also face countless other stumbling blocks to faith: Emotionally abusive religious communities have made untold millions afraid to approach God. National leaders make war in the name of Christianity. Historical atrocities justified by religion – such as the Crusades – are remembered vividly and held out as evidence that Christianity is a religion of death rather than life. In many cases, Jesus has been deeply discredited by those who claim to follow him.

The message of the cross is hard enough to accept on its own terms without my own failings providing an additional reason to disregard it. With so many factors pushing my friends and neighbors away from the good news, I feel a responsibility to examine myself closely: Does my life radiate the kind of love and joy that makes others curious? Do my speech, body language and lifestyle communicate openness, acceptance and hospitality? I can’t control how others react to me, of course – but am I doing everything I can to reflect the love and mercy of Jesus? With God’s help, I know I can do better.

News Flash: Christians Don’t Have All the Answers

This week, the leadership team of Friends of Jesus DC began an eight-week process with the Tangible Kingdom Primer, a resource that helps small groups reorient around being sent to our local communities, modeling what it means to be a follower of Jesus, adopting a posture of humility and openness to folks who don’t share our core convictions. The Tangible Kingdom is basically about getting out of our churchy mindsets and to begin thinking more like disciples. In a world where religion is usually about rules and purity codes, we’re seeking to learn how to be more like Jesus and his early followers, who regularly upset the respectable church folk through acts of love, justice and mercy that didn’t fit into the standard lists of dos and don’ts.

In this first week of the TK Primer, we are delving into what it means to be missional. Missional is a fairly new, rather trendy church word that comes from the Latin, missio – which means, to be sent. The idea is that, rather than sitting comfortably in church buildings and patting ourselves on the back for how good and saved we Christians are, followers of Jesus should be actively developing relationships with those who are not Christians. Rather than seeing Christianity as a fortress, the missional movement conceives of life with God as being a constant sending into new, unfamiliar, and often uncomfortable places. Being missional means getting out of our safe spaces and comfortable mindsets and allowing ourselves to be in genuine relationship with the world around us.

Being missional demands that we embrace the fact that Christians get a lot of stuff wrong, and non-Christians have a lot to teach us. It means getting off our high horse and allowing our lives to be changed by the wisdom we find in others, especially those who haven’t made a decision to follow Jesus. It means respecting the culture and worldview of those around us, and that we really seek to know others rather than just cramming our Christian worldview down their throats. Being missional involves releasing all of the cultural shoulds that come with our faith and allowing the Spirit to lead us into a gospel that is contextualized to the culture and worldview of those to whom we are sent.

It’s a tough concept for many of us to wrap our heads around: Jesus is the Way, but there are many ways to walk with him. Jesus is the Truth, yet there are many ways to understand him. Jesus is the Life, but his presence changes each of us uniquely, in ways that can’t be reduced to a cookie-cutter theology. Just because we’re trying to follow Jesus doesn’t make us more spiritually advanced than those who haven’t made that decision yet. We can’t judge how the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of others. At most, we can invite others to walk with us and help us learn more fully what it means to be a friend of Jesus.

Even this act of inviting, though, is tricky. It’s generally not the first step in developing a relationship with another person! We’re learning that we really need to take the time to grow in friendship and honor the unique experience of each person we meet. It doesn’t make much sense to talk to others about Jesus unless they’ve had the chance to see his love reflected in our lives.

The good news about the missional mindset is that none of us need to have all the answers to start practicing it. In fact, recognizing our own weakness and limitations is the first step towards relating to others as Jesus relates to us: With gentleness and humility.

This is challenging. We all like to think we understand the world and have most of the answers. It can be hard to admit how often we feel lost and struggle with doubt. We are seeking to give our lives over to Jesus, but we’re still very limited, fallible human beings. How can we walk with Jesus without needing to be right all the time? What does it look like to lead lives so filled by God’s love that people want to know what’s going on? What would it mean for us to trust the Holy Spirit to do the convincing, rather than putting that burden on ourselves?

We’ll Need More Than Church Signs

During my morning walk today, I must have passed at least half a dozen church buildings, each one with its own sign facing the road. Most of these were the backlit type with replaceable plexiglass letters that could be rearranged to spell out a new message each week. It was interesting to read each sign as I passed. I felt like it gave me a glimpse into the character of each congregation – or at least of the person who was in charge of updating the message!

There was a pretty wide range of expressions on these signs, both in length and tone. One simply said, GOD CARES. Another warned that SECRET SINS ARE ONLY SECRET TEMPORARILY. The longest of the messages I saw was triumphal: THE HISTORY OF TOMORROW HAS ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN: EVERY KNEE MUST BOW AT THE NAME OF JESUS.

Passing each of the buildings and their signs, I felt uneasy, though at first I had a hard time figuring out why. After all, I didn’t disagree with any of the statements I read. I, too, believe that God cares deeply about us, that secret wrongdoing will be brought to light, and that Jesus has overcome the world. So why did these signs leave me feeling cold – even skeptical?

One of the key discoveries of the Quaker movement is that it is not enough to say the right words and believe the right doctrines. A statement can be true, yet spoken in a way that does not give life. The church signs I observed this morning were filled with insider-language, veiled threats and even statements that could be interpreted as self-congratulatory. These were messages designed – whether intentionally or not – primarily for the benefit of those who already believe, rather than as a genuine form of outreach to a world that does not follow Jesus.


Unfortunately, even if the messages displayed on these signs were pitch-perfect to the experience and needs of those outside the Church, the very format of church signs may be problematic. Take, for example, the sign that I considered the most accessible: GOD CARES.

This is a message that our hurting, lonely world needs to hear. Yet, we increasingly live in an age that does not take these kind of statements very seriously. After all, what does it mean that God cares? Who is God? What does it mean to care? A simple statement like God cares actually carries a huge number of hidden assumptions. In a society like ours, where universal understandings about religious truth are increasingly a thing of the past, such a statement demands a conversation.

This is challenging, of course, because conversation takes a lot more time and energy than simply putting up a pithy statement on a church sign. It also requires vulnerability. Conversations are two-way streets, and when we authentically engage with the world around us, we have to expect that our own worldview will be changed. Just because Jesus Christ is the Truth doesn’t mean that all of our beliefs are! Are we willing to do the kind of honest searching that real conversation will demand of us?

What are ways that we can be engaging in genuine conversations with our neighbors, friends and co-workers? What does it look like for us to be open to the truth that the Holy Spirit is revealing to those who have not yet chosen to follow Jesus? Are we ready to have our lives, our communities, and the Church as a whole changed by the experience, needs and insights of the world that God so loves? One thing is for sure: We’ll need more than church signs.

A Gospel For Hungry People

This Sunday at Capitol Hill Friends, we looked at Luke 10:1-24, the story of when Jesus sends out 72 of his disciples to go ahead of him into Samaria and share the good news: The kingdom of God has come near to you.

Jesus sends his followers out in utter vulnerability. He instructs them to take nothing with them for the journey – no money, no supplies, not even shoes! We know from the previous chapter that Samaria is not a safe place for the Jewish disciples. Rejection – possibly even violence – is a realistic expectation for these missionaries being sent into cross-cultural ministry. Jesus sends them out in pairs, so at least they have each other, but they’re basically defenseless.

As disciples of Jesus who find ourselves called to live in the midst of Empire, there is a great temptation to look for ways to protect ourselves. We live in a culture that is constantly retelling the story of domination: Money makes the world go ’round. Might makes right. You get what you deserve. It is an enormous challenge to remain open, to see the signs of the kingdom of God in our midst. And even when we can see it, the way of peace that we find ourselves called into by Jesus is so intensely counter-cultural that we have to wonder: Does following Jesus mean becoming a social outcast?

If Luke’s story is any indication, walking with Jesus will not make us popular. Our society’s mainstream is defined by those in the center – those who possess the most money, social influence and intelligence. These are the somebodys who run governments, direct economies, lead educational institutions and program the computers. Most of us want to be these people – to feel important and respected by the culture we live in.

Yet as followers of Jesus, we are called to move away from the shiny, important center and instead to inhabit the margins of our society. Our God scatters the proud and brings down the mighty from their thrones. He fills the poor with good things but sends the rich away empty. We follow the homeless Messiah who was born in a barn with animals and was rejected and murdered by all the important people of his day. We worship the God who pronounces woe to the rich, self-satisfied mockers who live at the center, but who announces blessing on the poor, hungry and those who mourn.

One of us at Capitol Hill Friends recently asked if our community is destined to be a fringe group, or whether there is a way for us to communicate the good news in a manner that appeals to the broader society. I think that this is a very good question, because there is a real tension about this in Scripture.

On the one hand, Jesus says clearly that his way is a narrow path that few will choose to walk in. Jesus models a hard-core prophetic ministry that few of us have the stomach for. On the other hand, Jesus calls us to share the good news with the whole world. He commands us to make disciples of all nations and to invite others to participate in the community that the Holy Spirit gathers in his name. So, which is it? Is the kingdom for a few, or for many?

The upside-down kingdom of Jesus is hard for a lot of folks to accept, especially those of us who who identify more with the prestigious center of our culture. Yet, despite the barriers that hold us back from accepting Jesus’ counter-cultural message, all things are possible with God. Even in the face of our natural tendency to shy away from his disorienting challenge, the Holy Spirit is working on our hearts and changing our lives.

As a community gathered around the radical teaching of Jesus, is Capitol Hill Friends ever going to be mainstream? From the perspective of the prestigious center, the answer is clearly no! As friends of the crucified Messiah, we are called into the margins and abandoned places where Jesus heals the sick, casts out demons and teaches the people. As followers in his way of gospel nonviolence, we are inevitably led to join him outside the gates of the city.

As friends of Jesus, we will necessarily be marginal from the perspective of the big shots in our society. Many respectable, mainstream people will consider us fringe. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we cannot have a big impact. The early Church in Jerusalem was a group on the margins – and it was also a thriving community of many thousands of people!

Then again, numerical growth is out of the question for a radical group like ours if we choose to play into the narrative of the mainstream culture. The good news of Jesus usually doesn’t sound very appealing to those in the center. But, to those on the margins, it is a breath of fresh air! How can we take this message to those who are ready to hear it?

We encounter hungry people everywhere we go. In every neighborhood and workplace, in every classroom and restaurant, there are those who are aching for the love, justice and power that Jesus offers us. Are we awake to it? How can we become more attentive to the signs of spiritual hunger and curiosity in those that we meet? How can we demonstrate the inexplicable love of Jesus to those around us, inviting them to come and see? What would it look like for us to get out of our comfort zone and take the good news to those who are ready to receive it?


Flowing With The Kingdom

In the ministry I am engaged in – fomenting new community rooted in a living experience of Jesus – I have a strong sense that I should be careful not to grasp too tightly. I must allow my effort to flow like water, slipping past all the places of resistance and confusion and allowing myself to engage whole-heartedly with each moment as it comes.
Each day, I have to make the choice: Will I engage in prolonged, theoretical disputes? Will I allow myself to get tangled up in arguments that have more to do with vying human egos than with truth? Or can I find a way to flow past these blockages? Is there a way to continually roll downhill, flowing through the cracks and tender places? Can I recognize those places of least resistance to what the Holy Spirit is doing right now?
This “easy” path is a lot harder than it sounds. This resolution to flow past the tangled places in my life and communities requires that I surrender everything that is not absolutely core to God’s mission for me. It means that I have to be willing to surrender a lot of things that I like in order to be faithful to the One whom I love. It means trusting that the Spirit knows the best way forward, regardless of whether the end result looks like what I was expecting or desiring.

My calling is not to create a “perfect world,” a world that meets my personal expectations. My job is not to tell the world how it ought to be. Instead, I am feeling invited into partnership with the work that the Holy Spirit is already doing – regardless of whether it matches my personal assumptions. How is Christ at work in the hearts of those around me? Where are the openings for divine love in our life together? What would it mean to flow with the Spirit to wherever life is happening, rather than insisting that the world come to me?

Communicating the good news of the risen Jesus requires me to get out of my comfort zone. Love demands that I hold loosely to my own sense of self and identity, entering wholeheartedly into the experience of others. I feel a deeper understanding of what Paul meant when he said, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
The good news is not that others should be more like me, but instead that all people, all communities and all nations, in the great diversity and differences that we display, can be infused with the living image and character of God in Jesus Christ. Our mission is not to produce cloned followers of a certain religion, but instead to connect every individual, language and nation with the True Vine whom we experience in Christ Jesus.
Jesus told us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast that a woman put into a mass of dough. As she kneads the dough, the yeast comes to permeate every bite. God has filled the world with the yeast of the good news: The living presence of Jesus is within us and among us! How are we called to knead the dough?
How is God directing us to create the conditions where the Way, the Truth and the Life can infuse every aspect of our lives, our society and our global community? Rather than striving to conform the world to our own image, assumptions and culture, how does the Holy Spirit call us to participate in the infusion of Christ’s life and image into the vast diversity of life and culture that God has created?
What would it be like to see the whole world leavened with the first-hand, experiential knowledge of God’s living presence? What does it mean to knead the dough, and how must we ourselves be transformed in order to do this work?