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A Deeper Unity – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #45

Dear friends,

Every year, I imagine that this time around my summer will be a little less crazy. And every year, Yearly Meeting season makes that an impossibility. This month, I spent most of my days out of town, attending Quaker gatherings in New York, Maryland and Ohio. These Yearly Meeting sessions have taken most of my time and attention, leaving me feeling a bit disconnected from my community in DC. The balance between local work and the wider fellowship is delicate, and I anticipate that the coming month will be a time for me to pivot and refocus on local concerns and more sedentary work. Though it has been enriching to dive deeply into the wider world of Friends, I am looking forward to being home for a while.

My first trip out of town was to New York Yearly Meeting, at the Silver Bay YMCA camp on Lake George in upstate New York. Gathering on Lake George meant that when we were not engaged in Yearly Meeting business, we were free to go kayaking or sailing, or to go hiking in the surrounding woods. Though I had attended Yearly Meeting sessions in a variety of beautiful locations, this resort atmosphere was something new!

I felt particularly blessed that Faith and I were able to be present with a number of other visiting Friends, including Jon Watts and Maggie Harrision, who are engaged in a sustained ministry of calling Friends to spiritual nakedness. Jon and Maggie really challenged New York Yearly Meeting during an evening plenary session, urging Friends to set aside the suffocating comfort of respectability and to dive boldly into God’s love. In one particularly intense moment, Maggie asked Friends why the reports from New York Yearly Meeting’s local congregations rarely mentioned God. Isn’t that what this is all about? You could have heard a pin drop as Friends took in what Maggie was saying. And then, someone yelled Amen!

After New York Yearly Meeting, Faith and I drove down to Virginia for a wedding. I had a day back in DC before I was on the road again, this time to Baltimore Yearly Meeting – a fellowship of Quakers in Virginia, Pennsylvania, DC and Maryland. BYM holds it annual gatherings at Frostburg State University, out in the western panhandle of Maryland. Getting there was easy, though, since I routinely travel out that way en route to Ohio and points further west.
Baltimore Yearly Meeting felt familiar. Because I live within the geographical territory of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, I run into BYM Friends a lot – whether visiting their local Meetings, attending their events, or welcoming them at Capitol Hill Friends. Though I am not a member of BYM, visiting their annual sessions did feel like something of a homecoming to me.
The theme of BYM’s gathering this year was “Spirit-led Social Action,” and I had the opportunity to speak with Friends about my experience of God’s leading me to participate in the Occupy movement when it first erupted in the fall of 2011. I spoke as part of a two-person panel during BYM’s Tuesday-night plenary session, sharing what it felt like to be led by the Holy Spirit into social witness that is outside my comfort zone. I would never have chosen to become an organizer for the Occupy movement on my own, but I am so grateful that I was obedient to the promptings of Christ within!

Because I yielded to the quiet but persistent nudges of God in my heart, I am now connected to a broader community of those who are working for economic justice. I have met so many amazing people who have changed my life for the better, and I am hopeful that my presence has a positive influence. During the plenary, I shared how God opens opportunities for me to bear witness to Christ’s love and power within the economic justice community. Most crucially, I spoke about the spiritual dynamics of activism and community organizing, and about the need to stay rooted in the Spirit of God. There are so many other forces that would shake us from our Foundation; if we do not take great care, it is easy to get caught up in a spirit of chaos rather than the Spirit of love, order and peace that Christ sends.

I hope that I was faithful in communicating to Friends that our social witness must be, first and foremost, a testimony to the love, life and power that we experience in the Spirit of Jesus. Specific outcomes are important – sometimes we are called to “win” – but the highest objective must always be to remain faithful to the witness that God desires to bear through our lives. This takes great discernment, a practice that we as Friends of Jesus can bring to these movements.

Following my visit to Baltimore Yearly Meeting, I was only home for a few days before Faith and I were back on the road. Once again, we drove out through western Maryland, but this time our destination was Barnesville, Ohio – the gathering place of Ohio Yearly Meeting. After visiting so many gatherings this summer, it was a blessing to finally come home to the Yearly Meeting where we are members. Visiting among other bodies of Friends is wonderful, but there is a particular joy that comes when we gather with our particular covenanted community. Our care and responsibility for one another guides and sustains me in a special way.

I was really struck this year by the way in which my Yearly Meeting handles disagreement. We had several opportunities to engage in prayerful discernment around hard issues this year, and I felt like we were generally able to keep our conversation grounded in prayer and loving concern for one another. There is a sense in Ohio Yearly Meeting that our unity runs deeper than opinions about particular issues. While outward agreement is ultimately important, I am grateful to experience an inward, spiritual unity that allows us to wrestle with disagreements in a manner that ultimately draws us closer to God in Jesus Christ.

I envision Ohio Yearly Meeting as a circle with Jesus Christ standing at the center. Individuals in our Yearly Meeting stand at various points around the circle; we emphasize different things, and there are places where we are not in full agreement. There were several explicit points of tension this year – including our relationship with Olney Friends School; our testimony against the consumption of alcoholic beverages; and our shared understanding of human sexuality. Each of these are places where we could fall into destructive division and mistrust. But God is teaching us a better way.

As we gather around Jesus and draw nearer to him, we come closer to one another. Submitting ourselves to Christ’s light, we find our individual perspectives relativized (though not invalidated), and we are able to see how God is speaking through those with whom we strongly disagree. There is a deep faith present in Ohio Yearly Meeting that, if we wait together in the light of the Holy Spirit, we will be shown the way forward together.

It is probably safe to assume that all of us will be surprised by what “way forward” looks like. I am learning that having a variety of perspectives in my community can be a sign of good health, despite the fact that, at first glance, it may seem like chaos and disunity. We read in Scripture that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Yet, we know that we ourselves do change, and that our individual human viewpoints are often too limited to embrace the truth that Christ desires to reveal to us.
When we come together as a community in prayer, seeking after the Lord’s will, I experience the Spirit guiding us into greater understanding and unity as a body. We continue to have our own individual perspectives, but they are tempered and refined in the fire of Christ’s light. When we hold our disagreements in loving prayer, the Spirit intercedes within us and binds us together in a deeper unity that surpasses opinions.

At the conclusion of our time together in Barnesville, I felt hopeful for the future of Ohio Yearly Meeting. I had a strong sense that Christ is at work in our midst, and that we are being invited into the new (yet ancient) way of Jesus. God is giving us an opportunity to embrace Jesus’ example, laying down our lives for one another and surrendering our need to be correct. I am learning that the true meaning of strength is to bear the burdens of others – not only physically, but spiritually.

I pray that my life will serve to lighten the burden of those around me, that I may lay aside my own need to be vindicated, remembering that Jesus lay aside every honor and privilege that were rightfully his, bearing the cross for his friends. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name. I pray that we in Ohio Yearly Meeting will find this scripture fulfilled in our hearing, that through our shared submission to Jesus we be brought into the fullness of his truth, unity and love.

I anticipate that the next few weeks will allow me to stay closer to home. After so much time away, it will be good to re-connect with my community here in DC. I am also looking forward to making progress on the new Friends United Meeting website, which we plan to roll out around the end of the summer. I must say that although there are many benefits to travel in the service of the gospel, it is not particularly conducive to web development!

One last item before I close: You may recall that this June I was arrested by the US Capitol Police for accompanying my friend Deborah Harris to speak to Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, during his visit to the Senate Banking Committee. I did not expect to be arrested, much less to be jailed for most of the day and accused of falsifying my identity! It also came as a surprise when I learned that my arrest could theoretically be punished by up to six months in prison. But I give praise to God that my co-defendents and I accepted a deal on Monday which will allow the charges against us to be dropped, assuming we do not get re-arrested in the next six months!

I have no idea how prayer works, but it is my experience that there is nothing more powerful than the prayerful petitions of God’s faithful people. I know for a fact that I have a small army of prayer warriors who are interceding on my behalf. Thank you so, so much. Your prayers are making a huge impact on my life. Please do not stop!

In the month ahead, please pray that I be grounded more deeply in the Holy Spirit as I seek to be a faithful worker in my roles with Friends United Meeting, Capitol Hill Friends and Occupy Our Homes DC. I would also ask for you to pray specifically that our community at Capitol Hill Friends be built up in Christ’s power this month. In recent weeks, several active members of our fellowship have moved away to pursue educational opportunities; we need God’s strength and guidance as we continue to serve as a spiritual sanctuary in the midst of our city.
May the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be with you all.
In his light and love,
Micah Bales

The Hope Within Us

You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. – Colossians 1:5-6

This week, Faith and I are attending New York Yearly Meeting‘s annual retreat at Silver Bay – a beautiful, rustic camp located a couple of hours northeast of Albany. I will confess: The beauty and isolation of the site made me nervous at first. When we arrived at Silver Bay, I wondered whether we were just in for a week of Quaker-themed summer camp. Were Friends gathered here to listen to the inward voice of Christ and to be changed by what they encountered within?

Fortunately, we got here just in time for an afternoon plenary session led by Jon Watts and Maggie Harrison. Jon and Maggie have been traveling together in the ministry for the last year or so, delivering a message of transformation by the inward light of Christ. Using the image of nakedness as a spiritual sign, they are calling us to open ourselves to how God wants to reveal our fear, brokenness and darkness, placing our trust in the healing light of the Truth.
Jon and Maggie pushed really hard yesterday. They challenged New York Yearly Meeting to set aside the comfort of their false selves, to dive boldly into God’s love. In one particularly intense moment, Maggie asked Friends why the reports from New York Yearly Meeting’s local congregations rarely mentioned God. Isn’t that what this is all about? You could have heard a pin drop as Friends took in what Maggie was saying. And then, someone yelled Amen!
Something is happening here. The ground is churned up, ready for planting. There is an openness here, a tenderness that cries out for the Seed to be lifted up. It feels like Friends here are sensing a call from deep within, inviting them into a new baptism of God’s Spirit. Faith and I learned later that New York Yearly Meeting had already done some real wrestling before we arrived. In their business meeting, they openly and explicitly examined themselves as to whether they were indeed the spiritually grounded, inclusive community that they sought to be. As Friends here began to recognize the ways in which they fall short, they have also encountered a hope that urges them forward in faith.
God’s word and life and power are filling the world, and we are being invited to participate in this story of transformation. We still catch only glimpses of this new life in Christ, and we often struggle to name it. But sometimes the truth is more complicated to describe than it is to live out. Do we have the courage to live into the hope that God has placed within us? This hope that God has set before us is real and true; indeed, it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world. Are we ready to be pruned so that we may grow into our full stature in the Truth? Are we willing to do the hard work that comes before the harvest?

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 #15 – Young Adult Friends in Baltimore and New York; Christmas in Kansas

Dear Friends,

Greetings to you in the love and peace of Christ Jesus. In the month since my last newsletter, Faith and I have visited Young Adult Friends in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, traveled to Kansas for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, and attended New York Yearly Meeting’s Circle of Young Friends, in western New York state. In our travels, we have felt blessed by an abiding sense of God’s love in our lives, and we have sensed that God is at work through us.

Just before Christmas, Faith and I were able to attend the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Young Adult Friends retreat. The weekend event was held at Stony Run‘s meetinghouse, in the city of Baltimore. We camped out in sleeping bags throughout the building, cooked in Stony Run’s large kitchen, and watched as a blizzard covered the Mid-Atlantic in a thick blanket of snow. It was good to connect with Friends from BYM that we had known before, and to make new connections. We spoke to the group about the upcoming YAF gathering in May, and we hope that many of them will decide to make the journey to Wichita.

Just a couple of days later, we were on a plane out to Wichita, to spend Christmas and New Years’ with my family. Being back home for the holidays was a real change of pace. I don’t think that I had relaxed so much in at least two years. My first instinct is to say, “I did nothing,” for a week and a half. But, the truth is that I did quite a bit; but none of it was work. My brother gave me a guitar, and I began to teach myself how to play; I read several books and watched several movies; and I got to have some important time with my parents, who I don’t see very often anymore. It was blessed time.

Returning to Washington, though, I had a tough time getting back into my normal routine of ongoing, purposeful work. I felt very behind, having set everything aside for almost two weeks. I felt somewhat adrift after such a long stretch of fallow time. Fortunately, I would soon be given the opportunity to re-engage.

This past weekend, Faith and I drove up to the Beloved Community House, near Ithaca, New York, to attend the New York Yearly Meeting Circle of Young Friends retreat. The Beloved Community House is the site of NYYM’s new Young Friends in Residence program, which consists of three (eventually, four) Young Adult Friends who are released by their Quarterly Meeting to live together in intentional spiritual community. The biggest piece of their service to area Friends will be developing and sustaining a Quaker youth program, focusing on middle school and high school aged youth. This program will be modeled to a great degree on the programs of Powell House, but will also develop its own distinctive characteristics as Friends discover the particular needs and gifts of Friends in their region.

We spent the weekend in the house with around thirty other young adult Quakers, guided by Christopher Sammond in a program of listening deeply and intentionally opening ourselves to the Divine. Some of the young people present were not comfortable with the word “God,” let alone a Christian understanding of God; however, over the course of the weekend, many hearts were touched by God’s Spirit, and great advances were made by the Truth.

The joy of God’s presence was palpable among us, and though not all of us acknowledged God in Christian – or even theistic – terms, it was clear to me that we were indeed sharing in communion with Christ through His Holy Spirit. The outpouring of Christ’s Spirit that came over us created a space for me to share about the Gospel with a number of individuals, and I was grateful to have a number of those attending approach me and thank me for my presence and contribution during the weekend. One young Friend expressed his thankfulness that I was there to express our experience in Christian terms, “which we in New York Yearly Meeting often shy away from.”

When we talked to Friends in New York about the YAF gathering in May, we received a very energetic and enthusiastic response. One Friend’s first reaction was to say, “I can fit seven people in my Suburban – let’s go!” By the time the retreat was over, there was some talk of whether it might be a good idea to rent a bus. Faith and I were amazed and grateful for the energy and tenderness of spirit that we experienced with these Young Adult Friends. We look forward to seeing many of them in Wichita, in May.

Finally, this Wednesday, Capitol Hill Friends had its first meeting for worship in 2010. We had a good turnout, with nine people showing up for dinner, Scripture reading, singing, and waiting worship. I feel very heartened at the way that the group is developing, and I believe that a core is starting to emerge. I encourage any of you who are able to make it to our worship to attend, and we would be very grateful to host traveling ministers who feel a burden for building up the Church. Come, and share the Gospel with us! Whether or not you are able to visit us, please pray that God will build us up numerically and spiritually as we dedicate ourselves to the work that the Lord has for us in the city of Washington.

I pray that God bless each of you with an abiding sense of Christ’s presence within you, leading you to boldness and freedom in the Truth.

Your friend in our brother Jesus,

Micah Bales