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Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #16 – North Carolina and FUM General Board

Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Despite signs earlier this month that spring might be upon us, the Mid-Atlantic has been slammed during the past couple of weeks by blizzards that crushed all past records of snowfall in the DC area. From our perch on top of the William Penn House, Faith and I looked on as foot after foot of snow fell on Capitol Hill. All told, our neighborhood received somewhere upwards of three feet in one week. Despite the inclement weather, I have been able to make two major trips this past month as I serve Friends in North America.

Long before the advent of arctic storms, I took the train down south to visit Friends in Virginia and North Carolina. My first stop was in the city of Richmond, Virginia, to see Jon Watts. Jon Watts is a Quaker musician who grew up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, attended Guilford College as a part of the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program, and later spent time as a student at Pendle Hill. He is perhaps most famous for his song, “Friend Speaks My Mind,” which depicts his experience growing up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting‘s youth program, and which has drawn both intensely positive and intensely negative reviews from across the Quaker world.

It was a real privilege to meet with Jon and stay with him in his home. I felt like our relationship was deepened a great deal, and we both gained a deeper understanding of how each of us is seeking to be faithful to God’s guidance in our lives. Jon and I will be looking for ways we might collaborate in the future as we seek to share the good news that Christ is come to teach his people himself.

Moving on from Richmond, I took Amtrak to Greensboro, where I participated in Earlham School of Religion‘s 50th anniversary celebration, which took place at Centre Friends Meeting House. I enjoyed being with Friends in North Carolina and touching base with a number of folks from ESR. It was a joy to be a part of the ongoing celebration of ESR’s 50th year of service to the Religious Society of Friends, and I am looking forward to taking part in the celebration in Wichita, Kansas, this April.

Last week, I was on the road again, this time for the Meeting of the Friends United Meeting General Board at Powell House, in Old Chatham, New York. I felt lucky to get there at all. Several fellow board members were hearing predictions that another snowstorm was about to hit the Mid-Atlantic and make travel very dicey. So, at the last minute, we decided to drive up a day early. We arrived at Powell House around two in the morning, which left me feeling jet-lagged for the next couple of days. We arrived very early, so I had a couple of days to settle into life at Powell House, including to learn the ropes of being the resident “butler,” assisting with the dining room and kitchen work during the board meetings.

Our time together as a board felt good. On Friday night and Saturday morning we looked at who we are as FUM, what our mission is, and how we should operate as a Christian association of Yearly Meetings. While the conversation began as a look at restructuring the organization, it soon became clear that structure was not our fundamental problem: We need a change in our ways of relating with one another, as well as with our projects around the world. Recognizing that our difficulties come largely from the way we relate to one another and from our collective attitudes and habits as a body, we changed our focus. We began to look more deeply at who we are as FUM, and who God is calling us to be.

One of our biggest tasks as a group has been and continues to be learning to trust one another despite all of the cultural and theological differences between us. I felt that we continued to make progress on this important work at these meetings. Unfortunately, because of the weather, we were missing many of our board members. Those of us who were able to attend the meetings in New York feel a responsibility to help those who were not present understand the work that we were able to do together. Little by little, we are developing a healthier relationship between us as representatives of our Yearly Meetings; and I pray that we continue on in this slow, but vital, work.

This is hard, painstaking labor. If I came in with any illusions that FUM would be transformed overnight, I have been relieved of them. What is left for me is a recognition of the beautiful and maddening reality of Friends United Meeting: We are the largest, most diverse Friends body in the world. Some of us are Friends who are not sure how to relate to the Christian tradition in light of the evils done in Christ’s name. Others of us are Friends who are so deeply embedded in the mainstream Christian culture that we question whether Quakerism is even relevant. We are Friends who worship in expectant silence for an hour; and we are Friends whose worship services last for many hours and include singing and long sermons. We are Republicans and Democrats; we are Kenyans and Jamaicans, Arabs and Cubans. We are members of the Body of Christ, seeking our way to serve our Lord in a world that is dying in misery and sin. We are committed to energize and equip Friends, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved and obeyed as Teacher and Lord.

I am Friends United Meeting. Many of you are, too. You may agree with the personnel policy or disagree with it. You may like the Richmond Declaration or feel uneasy about it. You may think that some of FUM is too liberal, or too Evangelical. But we are Friends United Meeting. We are the middle ground, caught between two polar visions that would divide us out of fear. We stand in the middle, at the heart and soul of the worldwide Quaker family.

As those of us gathered in New York considered together what it meant for us to be FUM, we acknowledged that there is a deep hunger in our Meetings to hear the Gospel message, to hear about how God is working in our lives and transforming us into a new creation. We also acknowledged that FUM plays a vital role for Orthodox Friends in the United Yearly Meetings (Canadian, New England, New York, Baltimore and Southeastern), encouraging them in a sense of Christian identity in bodies that do not always affirm a sense of corporate Christian faith. We felt clear that God is calling us to continue to be in relationship with one another, to encourage one another in Christ’s call for us: that we be salt and light in a flavorless and darkened world.

I encourage each of you to pray for Friends United Meeting. Pray for our office staff in Richmond, but not only for them. Pray for our diligent workers in East Africa, Israel/Palestine, Belize, Jamaica and Cuba – but don’t stop there. Pray for our released leaders – meeting secretaries, youth workers, pastors, traveling ministers, general secretaries and superintendents. And go further still: Pray for the local Meetings across the world and throughout North America. Pray that we hear the still small voice of God’s Word in our hearts, and that we respond – as individuals, as local churches, as Yearly Meetings, and as Friends United Meeting as a whole. Pray for strength and courage for this journey that we are on, which we know will be arduous, but which we know will be rewarded by our Heavenly Father with the wonders of God’s power and the peace of God’s presence.

Blessings to each of you. Peace in God our Father and in the holy love of Christ our Lord. Amen.

Micah Bales

Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #12 – New Hope at FUM

Dear children of light,

I write you from my new home, the William Penn House, just blocks from the United States Supreme Court, the US Capitol Building, the White House and many other monuments to civil authority. Since I moved in almost a month ago, I have been on the road a great deal. I’ve begun my work with Earlham School of Religion, and have made trips to Philadelphia and New England. October 12-17, I traveled to Richmond, Indiana, for the three-times-annually meetings of Friends United Meeting. This year, there were actually four meetings – the usual three in February, June and October, and and one more, a called meeting held at Stony Point, New York, late this September. I was not able to be present at this called meeting, as Faith and I had just returned from our honeymoon and I was moving my belongings out East from Kansas. The mood of our last regular meeting in June had been troubled, and a special meeting was called for board members to thresh out our shared difficulties and help us come to a clearer place in our ongoing discernment about God’s will for Friends United Meeting as an organization and as a fellowship.

As Friends began to arrive at our meeting this October, I realized that some serious work had been done at Stony Point. In June, many board members had been uncertain about the value of continuing FUM in its present form, suggesting that a “redemptive separation” might be necessary. Now, however, the board was united in love and respect for one another. I saw evidence of a deep willingness to bear one another’s burdens and seek the will of God together, even as many of us have sharp disagreements. I experienced the presence of genuine love among the board members, calling us into greater patience and humility.

There were some important affirmations made at Stony Point, that were re-stated at our meetings this October. The first, and most foundational, is that we are convinced that God still has a purpose for FUM. At the Stony Point meeting, Friends came together and openly examined whether it might be time for FUM change drastically in composition, or to be laid down entirely. Friends waited together to hear whether God did indeed have “a hope and a future” for Friends United Meeting as an organization and as a Christian fellowship. The answer that they heard was, yes. We sense a call to continued work together and to continued relationship with one another as Friends United Meeting.

Another important affirmation that came out of Stony Point and was re-stated this October is that FUM is a Christian association. For many years, the question had been held up: “What is FUM?” The alternatives that I usually heard given were: “Are we a denomination? An association? A non-governmental relief organization?” This fall, the FUM General Board has reached clarity that we are a Christian association, which, “does not have the ‘right’ to impose an authoritative will or doctrine upon constituent members.” Whatever pretensions FYM/FUM ever had to be a decision-making body for its constituent Yearly Meetings, any such notions have now been definitively set aside. The FUM General Board does not pretend to impose itself in the decision-making process of Yearly Meetings.

My sense from this meeting is that there has been a breakthrough in FUM this fall. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the General Board has been freed from the spirits of division, suspicion and enmity that have for so long plagued this body. While we acknowledge that there are still deep differences in understandings both within and between the Yearly Meetings of FUM, the Lord has opened the hearts of those on the General Board and granted us the Spirit of love and unity. Praise God for the work of Christ in our midst!

I ask that you continue to pray for Friends United Meeting. Now that God has given the General Board the gift of mutual love and spiritual unity, it is more important than ever that we pray for FUM. May we be completely healed as a society of the Body of Christ, not for our own sake, but so that the Good News might be proclaimed to the poor and the testimony of Jesus witnessed to among the peoples of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Belize, the United States, Canada, Jamaica, Cuba, Israel/Palestine, and the whole world. Pray that God will continue to make us one, united in Christ Jesus, so that the world may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.

Love one another, and let there be no divisions among you. I send my loving greetings to you in the Name that is above all names.

Your brother in Christ,

Micah Bales

Fear Revealed in the Light of Christ – Friends United Meeting General Board, February, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, Cliff Loesch of University Friends and I traveled together to Richmond, Indiana for the Friends United Meeting (FUM) General Board meetings. We gathered together with representatives from yearly meetings and associations from across the United States and Canada to do the business of FUM and to share in fellowship and deep listening to the voice of our Teacher, Jesus Christ. The present situation of FUM is not an easy one. There are forces on all sides that seek to divide the body based on longstanding cultural, theological and historical differences and disagreements.

Despite our divisions and suspicions, the Spirit of Christ was present with us; God brought our doubts and fears into the light of day and held them before us to be examined. As we waited on God together in open worship, it was clear how deep the hurts and fears were among many of us. Judging by human standards, it would be easy to believe that our wounds could never be healed. But the mind of Christ in me knew better. As we un-bandaged our wounded hearts in the light of Christ and were held in the revealing, healing and purifying light of God, I saw that God could redeem even us. God wants to use us in ways that we have yet to imagine. But we must let go of our fear.

Early on in the long weekend, I had the privilege of talking with John Smallwood of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. John is a passionate evangelist for Jesus Christ; he is also a man who has a lot to teach me about how fear and judgment of others separate us from God. At one point, John asked me what I thought the cause of sin was. I gave him some sort of seminary answer, but he told me I was making it too complicated. Fear, he said. Fear is the cause of sin. The instinct to self-preservation, he told me, brings us to “defend” ourselves from God. In seeking to preserve ourselves, our own will, our own way, we cut ourselves off from God’s self, God’s will, God’s way.

This really convicted me. I saw more clearly how my own fear of truth caused me to judge others. While I like to believe that I judge others out of a sense of truth and righteousness, I see more clearly now that when I judge others I am in fact setting up barriers between myself and that person, because I am afraid that I might be overcome by that person – I am afraid that person will undermine the things that I hold to be true. But this betrays the fact that I do not really trust God as sovereign; I do not really believe that the power of the Lord is over all. If I did, I would fear no man or woman, because the Truth stands on its own. I don’t need to defend it. Anything that I must defend is probably from me, not from God. I must surrender everything I have, laying all at Jesus’ feet – including my beliefs, my way of life, my most cherished dreams. If all I seek is to serve Christ and his kingdom, I need not fear anyone, ever. And I need not judge others: God is the one and only Judge. Judging isn’t my job. My job is to focus on nothing but being loving and truthful with every single person who enters my life.

In the book of Matthew, when Jesus is depicted as returning to judge the world, the men and women of the world are not judged based on whether they were members of the right church or associated with the right kind of people. On the contrary, the world is judged based on whether we display loving-kindness towards the hungry, the foreigner and the prisoner, towards the disadvantaged, towards those whom our society frequently judges and excludes (Matthew 25:31-46). Thanks to John Smallwood’s ministry to me, I was reminded of my own fear and defensiveness towards others, and of my need for forgiveness and God’s grace in helping me love others, not condemning them. And in seeing my own need for letting go of fear and judgment, I felt also the need for Friends in FUM to open ourselves to those whom we fear. We must risk being hurt. We must risk being changed. We must risk these things knowing that God will not lead us astray, no matter how much we open ourselves to those who we consider to have wrong ways of believing and behaving. On the contrary, we will only be led astray if we wall ourselves off from the Seed of Christ that is present in all people, crying out for liberation.

We must be about our Father’s work: the work of life-giving, joy-inspiring liberation. This is the God who sets the captives free! This is the Savior who lays his life down for his friends! Can we still be so concerned about keeping those we disagree with at a distance when we remember that the tomb is empty, that our Savior lives, that we are reconciled to God and to one another if only we will heed the oft-repeated angelic instruction: “be not afraid”? If all of us can trust the Truth to defend itself – knowing that Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever – we can be liberated from the self-imposed burden of judgment. We can be freed to share the good news of Jesus Christ and to share in communion with our brothers and sisters in faith. Will we dare to lay down all our defenses at Jesus’ feet? Will we risk reckless engagement with our brothers and sisters? This is my prayer for Friends United Meeting, for the entire Church, and for the whole of creation.

This, I believe, is the only way forward for Friends United Meeting. So long as we shout at each other, issuing statements from our high walls and fortifications, seeking to defend ourselves from others, we shout down God; we wall ourselves off from Christ. Only by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, trusting in God to be our only Fortress and Pillar, can we find the Truth together. That is where unity is. That is where love is. That is where the future of Friends United Meeting lies. Do we have the courage to take up the cross?

As a final note, I should mention the more mundane – but very serious – details of life in community: Friends United Meeting is not only a fellowship of Friends across the world, but also an organization that oversees Friends programs around the globe. Just as the fellowship of Friends in FUM is struggling, FUM as an organization is also in dire shape. At our meetings this month, the General Board approved to cut another $18,000 from the last five months of this fiscal year; we don’t know where the money will be cut from yet, but it’s simply not there to spend! At this point FUM is hard-pressed to keep up the skeleton crew in Richmond and the programs that Friends oversee in Kenya, Palestine, Jamaica, and Belize. This is a time of financial constriction for virtually everyone, but FUM had been experiencing severe financial problems before the economy fell through. This present global economic predicament comes at an especially bad time for Friends United Meeting. Please pray for FUM, and consider a donation to FUM’s General Fund.

Friends United Meeting General Board, October 2008

This past week (October 7-11) the General Board of Friends United Meeting met here in Richmond, Indiana. I had the privilege of attending the sessions as a Young Adult Friend representative. I must admit that, leading up to this first meeting of the General Board, I felt a great sense of anxiety. What would these sessions consist of? To be honest, I feared that the General Board would be a very dour place, a meeting characterized by great contention, great division, clear battlelines, and old grudges. Thank God, I was wrong. On the contrary, I was very impressed with the spirit that prevailed at this, our first gathering as a board for this triennium, as well as with the quality of the individuals who served as representatives for Friends from across the Orthodox** Quaker world.

For me, the week began with a long meeting of the North American Ministries Committee. This was a special meeting of the committee, as there were serious questions about whether it was serving a function at this point in FUM’s development. Given the serious limits in FUM’s financial and staff resources, most of our energy is currently going into sustaining our work in overseas missions sites, such as East Africa, Ramallah, Jamaica and Belize. The question was frankly put forward, “does this committee have any work left to do?” The answer that we heard was that the North American Ministries Committee does indeed still have work to do, and must be transformed from being merely an “idea committee,” where dreams are tossed around but little is done, to being an engine for action. Those of us there for this meeting identified four priorities that FUM would do well to concentrate upon in the next triennium: 1)Publications; 2) Curriculum; 3)Traveling Ministry and Intervisitation; 4)Nurturing Ministry and Leadership

Recognizing that FUM’s staff is already overworked, we did not propose any additional obligations for folks at the Richmond office. Instead, we suggested that the North American Ministries Committee could serve as an oversight body for four taskforces, one for each of the areas where we felt FUM was being called to labor in North America. Each of these taskforces would be open to individuals (both board members and others) who felt a concern to work in this area. If there were not energy to do the work, then the taskforce would remain inactive until there was. Speaking for myself, I feel a concern for traveling ministry and intervisitation, and I expect to volunteer for that taskforce. Each of these areas are important, and I pray that the Lord will raise up those who have gifts appropriate to the work that we are being called to as the Church in North America. (If you personally feel a leading to serve in one of these taskforces, please email me at micahbales AT gmail DOT com)

The North American Ministries Committee met a day before the rest of the General Board sessions, so once the bulk of the board had arrived, I was already done with my committee work. This was advantageous in that it gave me the opportunity to take part in some very passionate and tender discussions among the board members while others were in committee meetings. There were set topics for any given time period, including “The Richmond Declaration of Faith,” “The Christian Faith of Friends,” and “Friends views on the Bible.” I was very impressed with the vulnerability of those present in these discussions, and the tenderness, openness and love with which we were able to speak.

I felt that Friends were trying to hear and understand, not to judge or dismiss others. We did not always agree, but there was a genuine lovingness and openness to hearing truth from one another that pleased me very much. I, of course, was not the only one who caught on to this. There were Friends who expressed during our conversations, “there is a really wonderful spirit here,” and remarked at the way Friends were really listening to each other, having the courage to be non-defensive and stand together in the Truth.

This courageous openness towards each other and groundedness in who we are in Christ despite our differences extended beyond our discussion times; this same spirit of trust in each other, in ourselves and in Christ’s present guidance carried over into our meetings for business. There were some fairly tense moments, especially around the notorious personnel policy, but also around some other things that hadn’t occurred to me beforehand. Nevertheless, in that tension it was clear that we were all seeking way forward. As far as I could tell, no one was trying to make things difficult for the sake of making them difficult. The questions that we as a board are faced with are simply difficult and we are walking together in God’s Light as best we can, praying that we will be shown way forward as we wait on the Holy Spirit. It was clear to me that we were family, brothers and sisters in Christ, and that we were diligent to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Far from being the tension-laced snipe-fest that I thought it might be, I am very impressed with the caliber of those who have been selected by Friends to serve in the governance of Friends United Meeting. This has been my first experience of being able to sit down with Friends from across the Orthodox spectrum, breaking bread and sharing spiritual communion together with Friends from Baltimore, Indiana, New York, North Carolina, Canada, California, Iowa, and everywhere in between. What a blessing it has been to share fellowship with these Friends from such disparate geographical, cultural and theological backgrounds and to know that we are one body in Christ! At these meetings I have known it experientially and not just as a concept. We have felt it together. Some of us may not even like it, but we know that we are knitted together in the Spirit of Christ and that we are called to work for God’s Kingdom together.

**A note on language: I use the word “Orthodox” to refer to Friends bodies that are part of Friends United Meeting – for example, Indiana and Baltimore yearly meetings. I understand that some yearly meetings that have chosen not to be part of Friends United Meeting are characterized by highly Orthodox Friends; on the other hand, some yearly meetings that are part of Friends United Meeting contain a large number of individual Friends who would probably not think of themselves as Orthodox. Nevertheless, despite our sometimes vast differences, I consider all yearly meetings that form part of FUM to be a part of the venerable “middle way” of Quaker Orthodoxy. We have been brought together as a body, committing ourselves to energize and equip Friends through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved and obeyed as Teacher and Lord.