Blog Banner

Archive for mexico

When Do We Have Enough?

I recently read a sermon entitled, How Much Is Enough?, by Gordon Cosby, founder of the Church of the Saviour here in Washington, DC. The sermon, which dates from 1990, talks about the ways in which our lack of trust in God for our daily needs creates a barrier between us and other people in our lives – particularly between us and those in our society that are living on the margins – the homeless, the very poor, the outlaw. How can we, he asks, expect to imitate Jesus in his love for the poor and the outcast when our privilege makes us so uncomfortable around the very people that Jesus spent the most time with?

Crutches near Eastern Market, DCCosby’s questions convict me. Here in DC, I regularly encounter homeless citizens who linger in the places I frequent – on street corners and in parks, in front of the pharmacy and near the market. These folks serve as constant reminders of the material, social and other advantages that I have received, through no merit of my own. They also remind me of the injustice that my privilege props up; they, by their very presence, reveal my own complicity in the systems of oppression that allow our civilization to function.

And I avoid them. When I see someone begging on the street, I walk quickly and avoid eye contact. If they do manage to break through my defenses, I am quick to say, “no, sorry.” I put on a smile, a facsimile of compassion, and I keep walking. To some extent, I avoid homeless and marginalized people because of the way they reveal my own privilege and complicity in oppressive systems; but my deepest reason for avoiding contact is that I fear that if I make myself vulnerable to the poor, they will take advantage of me.

I remember when I lived in Mexico, I quickly learned to shut the beggars out. Only in the most extreme cases would I be moved to give money to any of the hundreds of pordioseros I saw every day. Even when I did occasionally give money, it was a false act of compassion: IMicah with a homeless child sought to assuage my guilt and disgust by buying an indulgence. I never felt I could really get close to the poor of Mexico for the same reason that I now feel so alienated from the poor of Washington, DC: I did not know how to have a real relationship with someone of such a vastly different social and economic class than me. I struggle to believe that I could ever have a relationship with a street person that was not ultimately based in the question of how much money or other assistance I might give. I want to be loved and respected for who I am, and I do not like the idea of being seen by others primarily as a source of income, rather than as a person.

Could I possibly develop a true friendship with a homeless or very poor person if we remained so starkly different in our financial and social situations? Would I not have a responsibility to share out of my relative abundance, lowering my standard of living to help my brother or sister who has unmet needs? As Jesus is quick to point out: My own fear of losing wealth, status and security is an almost insurmountable barrier to living in the Kingdom.

The Kingdom, after all, consists in loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. I do not truly love God if I am unwilling to lay down everything that gets in the way of total obedience to Jesus; and I do not truly love my neighbor if I am not willing to surrender anything that presents a stumbling block to loving relationship.

DC MetroWhat is the next step for me as I seek to live more fearlessly into the reality of Jesus’ Kingdom? How am I to connect with Christ’s presence within myself, and within all of those whom I share life with? I think it will be important to open myself to relationship with street people, and others who make me nervous. I think that God calls me to make eye contact, to stop and speak with those who ask me for money, to get to know each person on a human level.

I believe God calls me to step beyond the fear of being used, of being seen only as a pay day. Just as disparities of wealth make it hard for me to relate to the poor as brothers and sisters, I must see how these disparities make it hard for them to do the same. I cannot expect others to break through the social consequences of injustice if I am not willing to take the first step of treating others as if they were the Lord Jesus himself. If this means being treated like a meal ticket by those I am called to love, so be it – what is that suffering compared with what Jesus himself has carried?

All of us, rich and poor, are suffering from the alienation that comes when we try to be self-sufficient. In our lack of faith, we try to play God, storing up the resources we need for the future, not trusting that God will provide for our daily needs. If we are to break out of the spirit of defensiveness and scarcity, we must truly believe that God will stand with us no matter what happens – we must believe that we are truly safe, in the most profound sense, in our Father’s world.

Natividad and meIt is only from this sense of deep safety that we can be empowered to challenge the powers of darkness and oppression that keep us separated from our brothers and sisters. It is only through very tangible trust in the Lord that we can take the risks necessary to live in the Kingdom and invite others in. It is only through deep trust in the power of God that we can say with Peter, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”(1)

1. Acts 3:6

To Detroit, our Wedding, Mexico, and moving to DC – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #11

Dear Friends in the love of Christ,

The last month has been a whirlwind for me. I’ve visited Friends in Michigan; gotten married in Barnesville, Ohio; honeymooned in Mexico; and traveled halfway across the country as I moved out to Washington, DC to live with Faith at the William Penn House. God has been doing a lot of important work this month. In this letter I’d like to highlight God’s work among Friends and beyond, both in my life and in the lives of Friends in the United States and Mexico.

I felt that my time among Friends in Michigan was very fruitful. I was able to attend meeting for worship at Detroit Monthly Meeting (Lake Erie Yearly Meeting) and New City Friends Worship Group in Detroit, and Crossroads Monthly Meeting (Ohio Yearly Meeting) in Flint. I had precious times with each of these groups, and I am particularly grateful for the time that I was able to spend encouraging Friends from New City Worship Group as they deepen their walk together in Christ. I was also very grateful for the time that God allowed me to spend with some members of Detroit Monthly Meeting, and the opportunities that I was given to witness to my faith in Christ Jesus.

In addition to regular meetings with Friends in Detroit and Flint, New City Friends Worship Group hosted a regional gathering at which there were Friends in attendence from across Eastern Michigan and Northwestern Ohio. At this called meeting for worship, I felt the quickening power of Christ’s Spirit among us and was grateful to how He ministered to us as individuals and as a gathered body. On a personal note, I was very grateful for how Tyler and Ray opened their home to me. I was very much in need of some quiet time alone with God, and I was able to rest and wait on the Spirit during the time I spent with them in their home.

Following this blessed time in Detroit, I returned to Marysville, Ohio, and spent a number of days with Faith’s family. I accompanied Faith’s father and brother as they drove out to DC to pick up Faith and her sister, and a few days after that my father, grandmother and aunts picked me and Faith up in Columbus and took us to Barnesville, where we would be married that coming Saturday. It was a joy to spend time with my extended family – who I see so rarely because of geographic distance – and to have them get to know Faith.

Our wedding was all we could have hoped for. We were grateful for the presence of family and f/Friends from across the country and across the spectrum of Quakerism. The worship service for marriage was deep and rich, with many Friends sharing grounded messages out of the silence. There were many Young Adult Friends in attendence, which allowed for a mini-YAF-gathering during our reception on the front porch and lawn of the Stillwater Meeting House. As I understood, YAFs continued to meet together into the evening following the reception. Faith and I were pleased that our wedding could be a venue that brought together young Friends leaders and encouraged them to deepen their connections to one another.

Following our wedding, Faith and I spent two weeks together in Mexico. We spent most of our time in Mexico City and Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz. These two cities are both very special to me: Mexico City, because of the time that I spent working at the Casa de los Amigos in 2005; Xalapa, because of the time I spent there during college (in 2003) and returning on an continuing basis since then. I have many friends in both cities, and I enjoyed introducing Faith around. Faith and I didn’t get too involved in the Quaker community for most of the trip, but we were able to visit Mexico City Monthly Meeting, as well as meeting with Young Adult Friends in Mexico City and encouraging them in their walk. We pray for Mexico City Monthly Meeting, the Casa de los Amigos, the Friends who live and work there, and for the Church as a whole in Mexico – that they be strengthened and encouraged as they walk in the way of Jesus.

Faith and I flew back to Ohio, and the next day I flew to Wichita. I loaded up my belongings into our car and then spent a day driving out to Richmond, Indiana, for the Board of Advisors meetings at Earlham School of Religion. This coming year, I will be working part-time for ESR doing outreach to Young Adult Friends, helping to increase the school’s visibility as a resource for young Friends leaders who are feeling the call to deepen their life in Christ as they are called into a variety of ministries. I am looking forward to connecting with Friends from across North America in this coming year to talk about the value of theological education for the Religious Society’s emerging leadership and the important role that ESR is playing in this process of equipping servant-leaders for the work that the Spirit has set before us.

While in Richmond, Faith and I were able to attend the final meeting for worship of Fountain City Friends Meeting. In the past few months, they had made the decision to lay down at the end of September; when we found out about this at our wedding, we told them that we would be there for their last session. It was a touching final meeting, and few of us avoided crying. Though this meeting of the Church is being laid down, however, we are convinced that the Church of Jesus Christ is more alive than ever. We branches wither and die, but the True Vine is eternal and unbreakable. This assurance has been confirmed by the new ministry that we observed taking place in Fountain City.

A new group called “the Underground Connection,” has begun to meet in Fountain City’s meetinghouse on Sunday evenings for praise, teaching and worship in the name of Jesus. Describing themselves as, “a place where people can worship God freely,” their ministry is one of creating a space for seekers and believers to experience the freedom that comes in worshiping God in spirit and in truth. What Faith and I witnessed when we visited this past Sunday was a truly Spirit-led worship service consisting of praise music led by an Evangelical-style praise band, a sermon (that evening, delivered by a young child), and a time of open worship. The open worship was a time of great depth, a powerful sense of Christ’s presence, and grounded vocal ministry out of the expectant silence. We were greatly encouraged by what we saw, heard and felt while we were among the Friends of the Underground Connection. We are convinced that Christ is doing a new thing among this meeting of God’s people, and they are in our prayers as they continue to seek God’s will for them as children of light.

On Tuesday, Faith and I drove the rest of the way home, to Washington, DC. Faith has lived and worked at the William Penn House for the past two years, and I am joining her there. We have just gotten mostly unpacked, and this weekend I’m in Philadelphia to take part in a 50th anniversary celebration that ESR is holding at Arch Street Meeting House. This is the beginning of a lot of traveling that I will be doing for ESR as we work to raise the school’s visibility as a resource for Friends who are being called into servant-leadership. Next weekend, I will be traveling to Boston for a friend’s wedding, and I will also be meeting with area YAFs to share with them about my experiences as a recent graduate from Earlham School of Religion and to hear about the needs they have from an institution like ESR. Following that weekend, I will be flying out to Richmond, Indiana, to meet with folks at ESR and Earlham College to talk about how we can better engage with Young Adult Friends, both across North America as well as at Earlham College itself. I will also be attending the sessions of Friends United Meeting‘s General Board.

As I travel this month, I would be very grateful for your prayers – prayers for protection, and that God’s will be served in all that I do. I am at a moment of great transition in my life – a new marriage, a new home, a new city and a new job! I need your prayers that I be kept grounded in the Spirit of Christ and that I not be overcome by fatigue or a wandering mind.

Your friend in Christ Jesus,

Micah Bales

On to Barnesville!

On Wednesday evening, the 18th, Andrew and I made our way to Cancun, the (in)famous resort city best known for Spring Break debauchery. In addition to being a hotspot for big-dollar beach tourism, it is also the site of the principal airport in the region, where Andrew and I were flying out from. We made the best of it, linking up with some other backpackers who were looking to do their business (either arriving or exiting via the airport) and get out of Dodge. We went out on Wednesday night to the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) and sat on the beach together for a few hours, which was enough for me. There was no denying that the beach was beautiful, though the sand was course and rough on the feet and ended as it reached the water. It seemed somewhat dangerous to spend much time in the water, given that, in the water, just beyond the sand, was irregular, slightly jagged stone. We had a good time, though. Good company is good company, even in the strangest of circumstances.

The whole scene in Cancun was bizarre: Huge highrise hotels, massive chain restaurants from the US and elsewhere, enormous shopping centers, and nightclubs on every side. Teenagers, barely out of high school, if that old, roamed the streets, and the public bus system, with beer in their hands, wearing what looked like prom dresses (for the girls) and polo gear (for the boys). It seems that many parents give their children a trip to Cancun as a high school graduation gift. There were adults there, too – many of them bringing their children. Cancun is certainly a place where reality takes a vacation.

We went to the aiport as soon as we got up the next morning, not really wanting to hang around any more than necessary in the city, but we found that the airport was even stranger – and more expensive! We were greeted by six-dollar bottles of water in a facility where there were no drinking fountains, not to mention what we paid for breakfast. Andrew and I had the distinct sense of being fish in a barrel. I think we’ll need a pretty good reason if we decide to fly via Cancun again; and we certainly won’t plan on hanging out at the airport before our flight.

We flew back to the United States – me to Pittsburg and Andrew to Wichita – parting ways in Dallas. The whole Dallas airport was backed up, so both of our flights were delayed, and I got in to Pittsburg at about 12.30am. I was supposed to meet up with folks at the airport, but I didn’t know what they looked like, and we were not able to link up (I did find out this morning that they were there, and I feel awful that they drove up to give me a ride only for us to fail to connect). I eventually gave up and took a cab to a hotel near the airport. I’ll be hitching a ride with a carload of folks coming from Eastern Pennsylvania this afternoon, with whom I will make the hour and a half ride from Pittsburg to Barnsville, Ohio, where I will be attending the Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering of Conservative Friends this weekend, followed by Quaker Camp the following week. I am excited to meet with Conservative Friends at Barnsville, and am looking foward to the second year of Quaker Camp.

Yucatán, idleness and Quaker Monasticism

Since my last post, Andrew and I have gone from Mexico City to Xalapa, Ver., to Veracruz, Ver., and are now in Mérida, Yucatán. Ever since leaving Xalapa, the weather has been steamy, and these boys from Kansas are scrambling to adapt to the heat and humidity of the region. We’ve seen some concerts – Spanish-language hip-hop, Veracruz folk music, Cuban bands, serenades on classic guitar – walked on some beaches, visited some cafés. Muy tranquilo. Today, we are headed out to Chichen Itzá, to see some of the more impressive Mayan ruins that are to be seen here in Mexico. My main concern is to avoid getting too sunburned. I am unsure as to how successful I will be, after this afternoon.

This trip has been very relaxed, mostly just Andrew and me hanging out with Mexico as a background, and it has given me opporunity to do some thinking. I have been reflecting a lot on my own spiritual life and how connected it is to community and place. I am seeing in very concrete ways how much community and place impact my spirituality in the way that I feel spiritually off-balance traveling here in Mexico. Being here, largely disconnected from Friends and all of my familiar patterns of life, it is far more difficult to keep myself oriented towards God. I am more easily distracted, most easily confused. This trip has convinced me that, at least for the time being, travel for pleasure is not an activity that I should be engaged in. To be here in a foreign land without a sense of mission, without work to do, is dangerous idleness. In the future, I hope to be more conscientious about bringing all of my plans before God and listening very carefully before I commit, rather than assuming that I know the answer already. Just because a plan seems good and logical to me does not mean that that is how God wants to use me.

With all of this travel, I have also had the chance to think a bit about the Quaker tradition and how it relates to forming or joining more intentional community. I identify with the convergent tendency, wanting to move forward in radical, unexpected ways, but not at the expense of the important “check” of our tradition as the Quaker branch of Christianity. The place that this seems to become most difficult is in forming or joining intentional or new monastic communities that are composed of various types of Christians. Straight “emergent” makes sense when dealing with a bunch of people from different Christian backgrounds. It seems like in that case, you’re just looking for the lowest common denominator, so that everyone can be included. Unfortunately, it seems that in many if not most neo-monastic communities, the lowest common denominator is not, in fact, very congenial to Friends who want to remain in the Friends tradition. “Basic Christianity” almost always seems to include bread and wine communion and water baptism, as well as extensive spoken liturgy. Where waiting worship might come in here, I’m not sure; but there doesn’t seem to be much reference to it.

This is only a problem because we Quakers are such a small group, and, on top of that, a group that teeters between a significant minority that does not strongly identify with Christianity and another that does not strongly identify with the Quaker stream, often prefering to “just be Christian” (that is, Protestant). What I am personally hoping for, as a Friend of convergent orientation, is to see explicitly Quaker intentional and neo-monastic communities grow and show what a new Quaker monasticism could look like. The question for me is: will Quakers come to the banquet, or will we need to call in anyone and everyone, accepting the change (dilution?) of our corporate witness as Friends as our makeup becomes much more Protestant in flavor?

Do you feel led to more radical, intentional Quaker community? Let’s talk.

In Search of the Gospel

My trip to Ciudad Victoria and Mexico City for Earlham School of Religion’s Theology in Context course has proved extremely challenging for me on a personal level. It was not a difficult trip, not a hard experience at the time. I did not feel unduly challenged while I was in Mexico, beyond getting fatigued at interpreting at one point and getting a little sick in Mexico City. The truth is that this excursion felt closer in flavor to a ministry trip rather than a theology course. It felt almost like an extension of my supervised ministry, which involves a great deal of traveling ministry among Friends. I enjoyed very much our time with Friends in Ciudad Victoria, as well as our few days of adventure in Mexico City, and it was not this experience per se which was difficult. Instead, it was the ramifications for me, as one who feels called to evangelism, of the required reading for the course, Models of Contextual Theology, by Stephen Bevans and the reflection that this book demanded of me in order to attempt an answer to the question, “what is the kernel of the Gospel?” My wrestling with this question, along with at the same time observing various strains of Christianity in Mexico and interacting with an American Buddhist friend (via internet), has deeply challenged my own sense of what the core of my faith is, what is essential in my own life of faith and what is merely cultural, and what it is that I am called to communicate.

Before arriving in Ciudad Victoria, as I read Bevans’ book, I felt fairly confident that I had a basic idea of what the gospel kernel was: An essential Quaker vision of a loving and just God that speaks to us today in our hearts and who revealed Godself in the person of Jesus Christ. It was from this kernel that I felt any culture – religious or otherwise – could be judged helpful or harmful, correct or incorrect, true or false – or somewhere in between. In my interactions with Friends in Ciudad Victoria, I got to think a great deal about the interaction between “essential Quakerism” and the culture in which that Quakerism is expressed. Leaving Ciudad Victoria, I wondered very much, “is Quakerism a cultural phenomenon without any ultimate, universal value for all of humanity?”

As we arrived in Mexico City, I was very much struggling with the question of what the core of Quakerism was and whether that Quaker core was the same as the gospel kernel. At first, I believed that I had found both, and that they were one and the same. I wrote in my journal on 11, 1st month, 2008: “For me the most interesting and fecund part of our conversation [that afternoon, in ChapultepecPark] was discussing whether the Quaker expression of Christianity was universal, or whether it was not essential. That is to say, is the Quaker bare minimum (in my mind, sense-of-the-meeting decision-making, waiting worship, and a witness to the presence of Christ guiding and teaching us today) the universal Gospel, or is it a cultural “husk” that is not essentially true for all peoples, times and places? If it’s not core, then I as evangelist need to let go of proclaiming a Quaker vision and instead ‘know nothing but Christ and him crucified.’ If, however, the core of Quaker experience and testimony and practice is the everlasting Gospel – if Quakers’ experience of how God relates to communities is true for all people at all times – then I have a responsibility as evangelist to proclaim those core Quaker experiences and practices.

Of course, these core experiential-practices might look extremely different in different cultural contexts. For example, in an African cultural setting waiting worship might take place in a drum circle with those moved to give ministry shouting or singing out of the drumbeat, instead of out of the silence. Meeting for business might look much the same way. And Christ might be understood in ways that would seem very foreign to North American Friends. But those cores, the way the Friends experience God’s covenant with humanity, would be an essential reality of the Gospel: sense-of-the-meeting decision-making, waiting (not necessarily ‘silent’) worship, and the testimony that Christ has come to teach his people himself.” This very basic mix of orthodoxy (or “ortho-testimony”) and orthopraxy seemed to be the core not only of the Quaker faith, but also of the Christian Gospel, more broadly conceived. But this was not to be the end of the story. Though it was not a part of the course, I was not going to stay within the Christian, or even a theistic conception of Truth. With all of these questions still percolating inside of me, my engagement with my Buddhist friend from Boston was heating up.

The fact that the Light is shining in my non-theistic Buddhist friend in Boston made it impossible for me to restrict my search for the gospel kernel to the monotheistic faith tradition. It was the certainty with which I felt that I perceived in my friend the Seed of Christ – not as imprisoned Truth crying out for liberation, but as a sprouting branch of God testifying to Truth – which forced me to engage non-theistic Buddhism as a place where Christ is alive, at work, and proclaiming the Gospel even in the absence of any mention of God or Divine Intention. As I returned from Mexico City to Kansas and prepared to make a ministry trip to visit Friends at Hominy Friends Meeting in Osage country, I experienced a crisis of faith. I was unable to justify why Jesus – or even a conception of a God with intention – was essential to the universal Gospel. Any assertion I would make about the centrality of Christ or the importance of God as Lord and not as “emptiness,” would be easily dismissed by my friend, who seemed to be speaking from Truth, but simply had no use for the words I was using, nor for the concepts I was employing.

I am still wrestling with the question: What is the kernel of the everlasting and universal Gospel if even the concept of a God with intention is unnecessary for salvation/enlightenment/liberation? I feel deep inside of me that there is a DivineCenter that is beyond words and forms and theologies. Is there nothing that can be uttered that can be universal for all humans? While the Gospel is universal, are all words ultimately limited and, to some extent, futile? What does the Religious Society of Friends have to say to the world if the Gospel is beyond all words? More specifically, what is my mission as evangelist if the evangel is beyond any human expression or conception? Is there any meaning to proclamation of the gospel if the gospel is unutterable?