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Growing and Adapting – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #46

Dear friends,
This week, Faith and I are out in Wichita, Kansas visiting my family. Since I moved out East, Faith and I have typically made a trip back to Kansas in the early summer and then again for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. This year, however, we are making the holiday trip early so that we can see my grandmother who is visiting from Newberg, Oregon. She turns ninety this year, but she has the energy and focus of a much younger person. I just hope those longevity genes got passed along to me!

Though we are out of town now, for most of the last month I have been able to stay put in DC. After a summer of constant travel, it has been nice to settle into a routine of work, home life and participation in my local communities. I feel like I have made more human connections in the past year than in the two that went before. This is due in large part to my involvement in the Occupy movement, which introduced me to hundreds of wonderful people and plugged me into the DC-area justice community.

Much of my activity this month has been organizing with Occupy Our Homes DC. We are partnering with two homeowners right now, Deborah Harris and Michael Vanzant, both of whom are struggling to stay in their homes after becoming disabled. Both Deborah and Michael have been pillars of their communities, with Deborah working as an EMT/Paramedic with the DC Fire Department and Michael serving Faith Temple Church – DC’s first African-American, LGBT-affirming church – as a pastor.
Since becoming disabled, each of them has been forced into early retirement. Unfortunately, their disability payments are far lower than their salary was. Even more unfortunately, the banks – JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America – showed no interest in working with either of them. As we have seen time and again in this work, the banks are more interested in making a little extra profit than they are in ensuring that good, hard-working people can stay in the homes where they have lived for decades.
As we move forward, Occupy Our Homes DC is doing a lot of learning and growing. Our organization has only been in existence since January, and much of our work has had to do with developing the capacity to sustain long-term campaigns. Given that our efforts are entirely on a volunteer basis, this is a great challenge indeed. How can we expand our base and nurture the communications, relationships and expertise that we will need to truly challenge “business as usual”? As we labor slowly through this process, I am very grateful for your prayers, words of encouragement and support.
It has been a blessing to be consistently present in DC this past month. I am feeling increasingly grounded in all of the work that I do – including my grassroots organizing with Occupy Our Homes, my ministry with Capitol Hill Friends, and my employment with Friends United Meeting. Being in town week in and week out has allowed me to develop a somewhat regular routine, setting schedules for writing, web development and coordination with co-workers around the world. Working remotely has huge advantages, and with the help of web-based tools I am feeling increasingly integrated into the “virtual office” that I share with my colleagues in Richmond, Indiana; Kisumu, Kenya; and throughout the worldwide community of Friends United Meeting.

My complete job description with FUM encompasses electronic communications, web development and social media strategy. In these early months, however, my work is almost entirely focused on doing web development. I have been putting a lot of time into FUM’s new website, which is scheduled for launch this month. It never ceases to amaze me what a protracted process web development is! Tasks that seem simple can often take hours to complete. For a big-picture person like me, building websites is a process of developing my own attention to detail.

Despite my natural tendency to shy away from this sort of detail-oriented work, I seem to be doing a lot of it. In addition to my paid work with FUM, I’ve designed and launched a new website for Ohio Yearly Meeting. It has sort of snuck up on me, but I seem to be developing a growing portfolio of web work. Maybe websites are a modern version of tents.
Capitol Hill Friends continues to gather for regular worship on Sunday evenings at the William Penn House. Attendance has been very low this month, which is predictable given the ebb and flow of the seasons. August is probably the worst month out of the year for any group, as far as attendance is concerned. Yet, at the same time we have been challenged by the loss of several dedicated members of our community. Lily Rockwell, an intern at the William Penn House this past year, left for graduate school in mid-July. Over the course of the last year, she brought so much quiet strength and depth to our fellowship, and it has been a major blow to lose her. Just weeks later, we said goodbye to two summer interns, Sammy and Ceress Sanders, who had been very active at Capitol Hill Friends. In a group as small as ours, the absence of these three is very keenly felt.
In the midst of all of this transition, the core membership that remains at CHF has been considering how the Lord might be leading us as we move forward. Faith, John Smallwood and I have been carrying this group for the last two and a half years, and the burden is becoming increasingly heavy. It has become increasingly clear that we may need to change in order for us to be faithful as a community.
This past week, Faith and I met with many of Capitol Hill Friends’ regular attenders to gauge where people were at in terms of their relationship with the group. During these meetings, we considered several questions together, such as: What is working well at Capitol Hill Friends? What has life, and what might we consider dropping? Is Capitol Hill Friends a community where we feel God calling us to commit ourselves, or is CHF still primarily an “event” rather than a congregation?
As a result of our conversations, it does seem like some of our attenders feel a deep connection with Capitol Hill Friends, considering it their primary spiritual home. Many others get a lot out of attending CHF, but consider other congregations (whether Quaker or non-Quaker) to be their primary community. At this stage, it does feel like there is a core group emerging that desires to take responsibility for the life of our fellowship, as well as a number of others who feel less committed but who do want to participate on an occasional basis.
This feels hopeful for Faith and me. Though we started Capitol Hill Friends on our own, it was never our intention for the group to be simply an “event” that we hosted. We are encouraged to see that others may be feeling called to share the responsibilities of nurture, care and decision-making for the community.
In the months ahead, there are definitely some decisions to be made. There is a growing sense that we probably need to change the format and timing of our meetings. We also have continuing questions about who we are called to serve, and how to do so. It has been less than three years since Faith and I first invited Friends to join us for worship in the conference room of the William Penn House, and Capitol Hill Friends is still in its infancy. It feels like we are just at the beginning of the journey, discovering who God is calling us to be together.
As we continue this process of exploration, discernment and deepening in the way of Jesus, I am so grateful for the prayers that our wider community offers up to God for us. Please do not stop interceding on our behalf. We could never sustain this work without the daily guidance, strengthening and conviction of the Holy Spirit.
In the coming month, please continue to pray for Capitol Hill Friends, Occupy Our Homes DC, and Friends United Meeting. Pray that God’s hand be on me, guiding and preparing me so that I may be a faithful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ in each of these communities where I serve.
May the love and peace of our Lord be with all of you.
Micah Bales

Occupying Our Faith

And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14

One of my most distinct memories of Occupy DC is sitting in the Prayer Tent in McPherson Square one day in late October. Over several weeks, the encampment had grown to take up most of the park. As I sat in the midst of our little tent city, I felt moved to open my Bible and re-read the final chapters of Exodus, which describe the early days of the Hebrew’s sojourn in the wilderness.

The twelve tribes of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years. It was a time of purification – transitioning from their old life under Pharaoh to a new life under the direct reign of God. They were accustomed to having human rulers boss them around and give structure to their lives, but in the desert God began to teach them a new way.
In this new order, God taught the Hebrew people to rely directly on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God drew nearer to them than the Hebrews ever thought possible – or even desirable! Indeed, one of the major themes of Exodus is the plea of the people that a human leader – Moses – play go-between for the congregation and God. Our spiritual ancestors were too afraid to approach the Lord themselves; they much preferred to have a human ruler to mediate divine authority.
Nevertheless, God found ways to interact directly with his fearful people, and over time the Hebrews learned to follow him in trust. We read at the very end of Exodus how the Lord gave the people a visible sign of his presence – a cloud during the day, and fire at night. The Hebrews learned that when God’s tent – the Tent of Meeting – was covered with the cloud, they were to stay where they were. But when the cloud rose from the Tent of Meeting, the people knew that God was calling them to move on, to explore new territory.
Eventually, the Hebrews settled down in the promised land, and after a while they insisted on having a human king. They did not trust God to lead them directly, preferring old Pharaoh’s system to God’s direct reign. Though God warned them that a human monarch would make their lives miserable, the people insisted – they wanted to be like the other nations, having a human king to fight their battles for them.

As predicted, this did not go well for Israel. Though there were some good kings, the legacy of human monarchy was appalling. Over the generations, Israel came to be dominated by its neighbors. The people of God were repeatedly conquered and cast into exile. Most of the Hebrews were scattered abroad by foreign conquerers, never to see their homeland again. By the time of the New Testament, Israel was a backwater province under the iron fist of Rome, the most powerful human empire the world had ever seen.

In first-century Judea, there were many groups vying for supremacy. Preeminent among them was the Herodian puppet government, driven by selfish greed and subservience to Rome. There were also the Sadducees, who sought to maintain the Temple cult at all costs. Then there were the Pharisees, who believed that national restoration would only come through a strict, legalistic application of the Torah. And there were the Zealots, who looked back to the Maccabeesfor inspiration; they were committed to fomenting a violent revolution which would break the Roman yoke and restore the Davidic kingship. Yet, despite their claims, none of these groups presented a real alternative to Empire. At best, these groups offered a Hebrew Pharaoh in place of a Roman one.

It was in this period of national humiliation and despair that the Lord once again provided Israel an opportunity to experience his direct rule. God would once again dwell among the people, and this time God would go one step farther than before. Rather than revealing his presence in a burning bush, a cloud of fire, or within a tent made with human hands, God would take an inconceivable step to show his solidarity with us. He would be conceived.

The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. God dwelled among his people in human form, submitting to our struggles and limitations. In this consummate act of solidarity, God demonstrated once and for all that he would not stand aloof while his children suffered; he became one of us, sharing our human experience and demonstrating in his own body the way to true liberation. Even today, through his resurrected presence, we experience God as dwelling immanently among us, guiding us directly. Because our world has been occupied by the grace and truth of Jesus Christ, we are freed to walk in his life and power, rather than in bondage to the empires of our day.

Which brings me back to the encampment at McPherson Square. Though Occupy Wall Street was a human movement, there are ways in which it reflected God’s character. It was particularly striking to me how the Occupy movement sought to incarnate new life and expanded imagination in the streets of our cities, which had previously been the exclusive domain of Empire. Sitting in the Prayer Tent at Occupy DC, I could not help but remark on how the Holy Spirit continues to move among the people, inspiring us to imitate the God who pitches his tent among us.

What does this mean for us as Friends of Jesus? How do we make sense of our heritage as the people of the God who encamps in our midst? How is the living Spirit of God moving among us today, calling us into risky action and shared sacrifice? How do we know when the cloud has lifted, that the Lord has called us to take up our tents and follow him through this desert? Are we ready to trust him, to love him, to honor him as our only King?

The Price of Dissent

Last month, I was arrested along with several of my colleagues as we sought to speak with Jamie Dimon before he testified to the Senate Banking Committee. We accompanied Deborah Harris, a DC homeowner who was unjustly foreclosed on by JP Morgan Chase, where Mr. Dimon serves as CEO and Chairman of the Board. We stood with her as she asked this powerful man a simple question: Why don’t you face the people that you foreclosed on?

Jamie Dimon’s answer was clear: Because you don’t matter. Mr. Dimon never acknowledged Deborah’s presence, and we were arrested and locked in jail for most of the day. We received a forceful response from those wealthy few who control our government and our economy: You will speak only when spoken to. You will learn who is in charge here.

This message continued to be delivered as we were arraigned at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on Tuesday morning. I was surprised by how much the court looked like TV courtrooms – think Judge Judy or The People’s Court. The dominant image was a very large seal of the court, with flags – of the United States and the District of Columbia – on either side. These symbols of authority rested immediately behind the judge’s seat, which sat far back, behind two long desks where about half a dozen clerks stood or sat, processing the perhaps fifty people being arraigned that morning.

The whole scene was purposefully crafted to elicit a feeling of reverence towards the authority of the court. The lawyers and those being arraigned sat in the forward part of the courtroom, on long, wooden benches that were very similar to pews in a church building. I leaned over to Deborah at one point and whispered, “I feel like we’re in church.” But I learned not to talk too much, as bailiffs regularly came by and sternly warned us not to speak or use our cell phones. Let all the earth keep silent before the authority of this court!

This sense of religiosity was no accident. When the judge entered the courtroom, one of the clerks pronounced a long string of official words, including, “God save the United States and this honorable court.” This invocation of God’s name – however shallow and formal – further emphasized to me the weight of the civil religion that permeated the court. Everything was mediated through ritual; all the details of the court’s furnishings, layout, decorum and vocabulary evoked an atmosphere of solemn reverence. But who, or what, were we venerating?

I was not sure whether it was Law, or the State, or the Court, or some vague spirit of Authority that we were being not-so-subtly pressured to worship, but one thing was very clear to me: It was not God. One of the most disturbing things about our arraignment yesterday was this blasphemous liturgy of the State, whose message was clear and powerful: Submit. Fear. Forget who you are and become what we say you are.

It was essentially the same feeling that I got at the jailhouse last month. The point of the system is to instill order, always defined in the system’s terms, regardless of the cost to human dignity. As we sat in our benches and were rebuked by the bailiffs for “talking too much,” we got the message: While we were in that courtroom, we were to be in utter dread of Authority, totally attentive to its whims. Just like in the jailhouse, the physical and psychological space was purposefully engineered to break down individual identity and self-will, transferring all agency and power to the officialdom and bureaucracy of the court.

It is one thing to write about this environment, but it is another thing entirely to experience it first hand. I would not have imagined it to be so irresistible, so psychologically overwhelming; yet I found it extremely difficult to stay grounded in God and in my true identity as a child of the light. Having this personal experience of the terrifying power of the court system – with all its blasphemous ritual and pomp – I am beginning to understand how truly bold George Fox was when he dared to stand before a judge and admonish him to “quake before the power of the Lord.” Fox knew better than anyone that the function of courts and judges and civil religion is not to tremble before the Lord, but to make others shake before human authority.

I was reminded of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes that there are indeed “many gods and many lords, yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” There are powers and rulers and authorities in this world, and we must decide which authority we are to place ourselves under. Will it be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or will it be some other authority?

The image of Christ as judge, holding court and delivering the ultimate verdict at the end of time, takes on new relevance for me now that I have experienced the dread of the human court system. For though human courts can be unjust, Christ rules with equity and impartiality; while human courts direct veneration and awe back to themselves, Jesus directs our attention, awe and worship back to the Father, our sovereign Creator.

I do not mean to suggest that human courts are essentially evil and should be done away with. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans that all authorities that exist have been instituted by God. The courts of the United States can only exist because God has created Authority itself; human institutions are intended to reflect this authority, which God created as a servant for good. Unfortunately, this God-given authority that was created to preserve life in human community has been twisted and corrupted by human sin – both individual and collective.

There is no doubt in my mind that our court system is deeply affected by the distorting effects of sin. Worst of all, our human institutions of authority often play a role in sustaining the fruit of sin: violence, injustice, dehumanization and fear. Probably the clearest example of this is the way our legal system perpetuates systematic racial discrimination. Except for most of our group, who had been arrested for a political offense, all of the other people being arraigned yesterday were African-American. We got to hear quite a few of their arraignment proceedings before our turn came around, and the great majority of them were charged with drug possession. Observing this process, I was more convinced than ever that the Drug War is being used as a tool of oppression, and racial and class discrimination.

Even for a case like ours, which has nothing to do with drugs, all of us were required to submit to a drug test. This did not sound so bad, until I learned that the test involved urinating into a cup in a room full of mirrors while a man stood by, watching me. This was really unnerving, and I had to try a second time before I could bring myself to do it.

Even after all of this, our case is still pretty much up in the air. We have been ordered to stay away from the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and we were assigned a status hearing for Monday, August 13th. We will not know anything more until then. In the meantime, I would ask for your continued prayers. I find the uncertainty that comes with being caught up in this legal machine very stressful, and I need all the support I can get to stay grounded.

I am so grateful for everyone who has reached out and shown support since the arrest. This whole process has really taught me the meaning of the word solidarity. Imprisonment and court proceedings are a special kind of distress, and having my community behind me is so important. Thank you for all the love and support that you have shown me. This would all be much harder if I did not have you to lean on.

Let me close with George Fox’s epistle #237:
Dear Friends and brethren,

The Lord is with you all everywhere, who suffer for his name and truth’s sake,
in all your bonds and afflictions be of good comfort, for the Lord is with you;
neither be dismayed at your sufferings, for if you suffer, Christ suffers;
and if you are persecuted, it is Christ who is persecuted;
and if you are not visited, it is Christ who is not visited;
and if you are oppressed, it is he who is oppressed.
And he will lay no more upon you than you are able to bear. […]
[Christ] has a fellow feeling with you all, in all your bonds and afflictions;
and Christ who suffers, will overcome all his enemies.
He reigns,
and they must be his footstool to stand upon.
And so, be of good faith, and be valiant for the truth upon the earth.

George Fox 

Reports of Occupy’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Over the last nine months, I have witnessed three phases of mainstream media coverage of the Occupy movement. Phase one was a near-total blackout. During Occupy Wall Street‘s first two weeks, the silence of the major news outlets was deafening. My social media networks were exploding with written and video coverage from alternative media about the growing uprising in lower Manhattan, but there was virtually no mention of the occupation by the for-profit news chains. During the media blackout phase, the few articles about Occupy Wall Street were either tiny blurbs that downplayed the seriousness of the uprising, or mocking stories that portrayed occupiers as silly idealists and spoiled brats.
At about two weeks in, the media environment changed considerably. The demonstrations in New York were beginning to spread to other cities, and it was clear that this was a movement that even TV news could not longer ignore. We launched Occupy DC around this time. In those early days at McPherson Square, we were swamped by reporters from around the world. Even then, the foreign press was far more interested in covering Occupy than US broadcasters were.
During this phase of rather intense coverage by the major news outlets, there was a consistent push to define the Occupy movement in terms of the existing two-party, corporate state. Some insisted that we were the Left’s response to the Tea Party. Others claimed that we were the heirs of the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s. Still others insisted that we were really a radical wing of the Democrat Party, working to advance Obama’s tepid agenda on Capitol Hill. Each time, we shook our heads: “No, it’s not about that at all. We want to live in a world that none of the existing parties or structures are offering us. We seek a society where living communities are valued more than corporate profit.” But most journalists refused to hear this. Perhaps they simply could not wrap their minds around a movement that was more interested in fundamentally changing our culture than in seizing political power. For whatever reason, most reporters are still trying to fit us into their constricted political landscape, into a narrow worldview that sees things primarily in terms of Red and Blue, Left and Right.
Once the Occupy encampments were either dispersed by police or stopped being sexy, the mainstream media’s posture shifted once again. Perceiving that the end of the urban encampments was the death knell of the movement, the corporate news outlets have entered into the third phase of their narrative. They were unable to silence us by ignoring us, and they ultimately failed to shoehorn us into their narrow, two-party story. The corporate news outlets have now turned to the only tactic left in their repetoire: They are trying to bury us.
This is the only way that the for-profit media can restore order. The Occupy movement has challenged the binary political worldview that forms the basis of their reporting. But if the corporate-sponsored press can consign us to the past – declare us journalistically dead – then they can begin to mold our legacy into a shape that reinforces their assumptions. After all, if we are “dead,” then they no longer have to even bother interviewing us. Dead movements cannot talk back.
This is ultimately about control. Who controls the narrative? What is the nature of the society we live in? Are there alternatives beyond the two-party binary that increasingly delivers the same result? Are we doomed to accept the evil of two lessers? If the corporate media has its way, it will reinforce the fractured of our nation: a country divided and conquered by corporate interests who would love nothing more than to see us bicker about partisan politics while they buy up both sides of the aisle.
Make no mistake about it: This is not over. The mass demonstrations of last fall were only the first phase in a new movement for economic justice and grassroots democracy. If “the Occupy movement” refers to the tactic of public encampments as a means of mass protest, then yes, that movement has had its time. But if by “the Occupy movement” you refer to a generation’s cry against injustice – if it represents our desire to live in a society where the dignity and political voice of ordinary people is no longer trampled by elite interests – then I can tell you that the Occupy movement is alive and growing. If the Occupy tactic has passed its expiration date, the Occupy ethos is more relevant than ever.

How can we allow our passion for economic justice and grassroots democracy to infuse all areas of our lives? How can we transform our existing institutions – our workplaces, faith communities, unions and local governments – into structures that more fully embody the ideals of transparency, accountability, compassion and mutual respect? What would it look like to break out of the us versus them mentality that has infested our national consciousness? How can we walk forward, together?

My Day In Jail – And How I Got There

Yesterday morning, some friends and I attended the sessions of the Senate Banking Committee. We did not intend to get arrested; we just wanted to have a word with Jamie Dimon, the man who leads the corporation that is trying to throw our friend, Deborah Harris, out of her home. When Deborah learned that Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, was going to be in town to talk before the Senate Banking Committee, she felt that she could not pass up the opportunity to speak to the man who is responsible not only for the unjust foreclosure of her home, but of the devastated lives of so many families that relied on JP Morgan Chase’s financial integrity. Several of us from Occupy Our Homes DC felt that we had a responsibility to accompany Deborah, and to stand with her as she spoke truth to power.
For me, accompanying Deborah in her visit to the Senate Banking Committee was not about “protesting.” It was not about a cathartic release, nor did I feel much need to have my voice heard. But it felt deeply important to me that Jamie Dimon, a man insulated by immense wealth and privilege, be allowed to hear the voice of one woman whose life is being turned upside down by the predatory practices of JP Morgan Chase. I was there to hold Deborah in prayer as she bore prophetic witness to the abuse of authority and public trust that Jamie Dimon represents.

The consequences for our actions were swift. We delivered a message to those who sit in authority, and the hand of Authority was upon us immediately. We expected to be warned and asked to leave, but instead found ourselves roughly escorted out of the chamber and handcuffed. We spent the next seven hours being confined to small spaces – a police van, narrow benches, jail cells. We were moved between different rooms incessantly – in my case, I was probably transferred to a different location at least fifteen times. I was literally chained to the wall for much of my stay.

I was surprised by how traumatizing the experience was. Though I did not expect to be arrested, I assumed that this kind of “political crime” would result in a brief trip to jail and a quick release after paying a fine. Instead, we were held for most of the day. My case was particularly stressful, since the FBI computer mistakenly identified me as being a certain Mr. Perez. I was repeatedly interrogated by my jailers as to my real identity, threatened with prolonged incarceration and locked away for long periods of time while I waited to see if they would confirm that I was really me. It looked like I might face an extended stay in jail.

With my wrists locked in steel and my every movement controlled, my mind was drawn repeatedly to Paul’s writings about powers, principalities, authorities, thrones and rulers. Without a doubt, I was in the power of the men and women of the Capitol Police. They could do anything they wanted to me, and I had no ability to resist. As someone who is accustomed to having some measure of control over his own life, this was a difficult experience for me. For most of the day yesterday, I was reduced to a number and an object, and my very identity was called into question by multiple interrogators. Added to this was a prolonged period of involuntary fasting. I felt numb, empty and increasingly distant from life beyond the jailhouse walls.

At about six hours in, the officers finally decided that I was indeed who I said I was. At that point, they started calling me “sir” and relating to me as a human being, rather than an object to be moved, recorded and stored. They also let me call my wife, which was a great encouragement. She told me how proud she was of me, and that the media was really covering our action at the Senate hearing. It was good to be reminded again that this was not about me; it was about Deborah and others who are being trampled by the super-rich and their machinary of insatiable greed.

Finally, I was released. To my amazement, it seemed like my jailers really wanted me to thankthem. One of them remarked, “we treated you very well.” I was too shell-shocked to respond, but I thought to myself, “I would hate to see what you do when you decide notto treat someone well.” I did not have it in me to argue with them at that point, but by no means was I going to assuage what I interpreted as a nagging feeling of guilt on their part. Let them sit with it.

As I was leaving, several people called the station, asking about me and calling for my release. The officer in charge spoke to the last person saying, “could you please tell everyone that Micah has been released? We have been getting calls every minute!” I felt so grateful for the support that my friends showed – and to know that the pressure would have only increased if they had held me longer or transferred me to another facility.

But – once again – this is not about me! I would not have chosen to be arrested, but I hope that by telling the story of my ordeal I can once again draw attention to the plight of so many families that are being forced out of their homes by the Big Banks. If you have not yet, please learn about Deborah Harris’ case, and consider how you might be able to take part in the movement for justice. If this incident can help build greater support around Deborah, I will be satisfied.

Finally, I must give glory to God. The experience of being incarcerated was an amazing opportunity to lean on Jesus. While other human beings had absolute authority over my body, the only freedom that remained for me was in my spirit. As I was chained to walls and locked in a cell, my connection to God was the only thing that could cut through the anxiety, claustrophobia and sense of helplessness that I was experiencing. I know that the Lord will not present me with any challenge that he does not also equip me spiritually to endure.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the rock of my
heart and my portion forever.
– Psalm 73:26

Written On Our Hearts

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not posess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts… – Romans 2:13-15
When we are faithful, the Church has good news to share. But we are not always so faithful. Often, the gospel is crowded out by human ideologies. We proclaim a Liberal Jesus or Conservative Jesus, an Evangelical Jesus or Social Justice Jesus. The Church has bought into the false dichotomies of the “culture wars” hook, line and sinker. Our worldviews are often rooted in forms of black-and-white, us-versus-them thinking that has brought us to the brink of self-annihilation.

When we are captured in this way by our surrounding culture, we fail to proclaim the radical truth about who God really is. In Jesus, we encounter a God who is not like us. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. Instead, in Jesus Christ we come face to face with a Being whose love and justice transcend any of our normal catagories. In him, it is always “yes.” God is strong and gentle, loving and just – blessing us with freedom and responsibility.

God is not boxed into our narrow frameworks. The Holy Spirit blows where it will, and it is present in each of us. All we have to do is listen to the gentle whisper that breathes in every heart. God is spirit, and those who worship him will worship him in spirit and in truth. God is not confined to temples or hierarchies or rigid belief systems. Who you are or what you call yourself presents no barrier to this relationship.

God is equally real in the heart of the illegal immigrant and the wealthy Anglo. The Word of God is alive and active in the innermost parts of the gay atheist and the straight Christian fundamentalist. The living witness of God is present in the Occupy activist and the Tea Partier. The Spirit blows where it will, and Jesus does not show partiality.

But will we listen? Are we awake to the Spirit’s promptings in our hearts? Do we see Jesus in the poor and those that the wider culture chooses to ignore? Are we ready to offer up our lives and reputations for those who have the least? Do we recognize the voice of our Shepherd when we hear it?

My greatest joy and challenge is to see how God is active among other “flocks” – groups of people where I would not have expected to find God at work, guiding and blessing. One of my surprise encounters with the God of the Margins has been within the Occupy movement. Occupiers run the gamut of beliefs, from committed Christians to dogmatic atheists, but many are quasi-agnostic, “spiritual-but-not-religious” types. They can sense that there is deep truth out there somewhere, but they haven’t determined yet what to call it, or how to relate to it. These are people of deep moral conviction who have rejected the rote religion of past generations and are seeking out the truth on their own terms.

Since they are involved in the Occupy movement, it is not surprising that most of these folks find expression for their commitment to truth and justice through social activism. They live out the light that they have been shown through their struggles for grassroots democracy and economic equality. Just like the Gentiles who do instinctively what the law requires, many Occupy activists act naturally out of their own interior sense of justice.
In the process, they fulfill the “law” far better than many Christians! Though the Scriptures callus timeand timeagain to work for justice, many Christian congregations and organizations are more focused on preserving their own privilege and comfort. The Church is often the “hearer of the law.” But many of those whom the institution has rejected obey the law that the Lord has written in their hearts.
This “law,” the inward voice of Jesus that calls us to the work of justice and reconciliation in our society, is the Cornerstone that our religious builders have rejected. While we in the Christian Church have kept all sorts of superficial rules and regulations, we have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. We have strained out a gnat but swallowed a camel!

I want to walk with whomever is listening and obeying the inward promptings of God. Some of these people are Christians, and I praise God for their witness. But God is speaking through many who are outside the gates of the city, wandering in the wilderness following a pillar of cloud and fire whose name they do not know. I want to follow this wild, uncontainable God with them, even if it costs me security and my already tenuous sense of certainty. Will you walk with us?

Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. – Hebrews 13:12-14

Gathering in the Spirit – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #42

Dear sisters and brothers,
I have been given many opportunities this month to travel in gospel service to a variety of communities, both among Friends and in the wider ecumenical Church. In all of my travels, I have joined with my brothers and sisters in asking hard questions: As followers of Jesus, how are we called to work for economic justice and the practical liberation of all people? As disciples of the enfleshed Word, how are we to understand our lives as sexual beings? As a people who have been transformed by the love and authority of the Lord Jesus, how do we lead lives that proclaim him – his joy, his power, his peace?

The lengthiest trip I took this month was to visit Friends in Pendleton, Indiana. Several months ago, I was contacted by the clerk of Whitewater Quarterly Meeting in Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, inviting me to speak at their gathering in April. I could speak about whatever God laid on my heart – though he mentioned that Friends would be very interested to hear about my experiences as a Quaker in the Occupy movement.

I felt clear to accept the invitation, traveling under a minute from Rockingham Monthly Meeting and Stillwater Quarterly Meeting (Ohio YM). During the afternoon session, I spoke out of the silence, and it was opened to me to speak about God’s call for us to emerge from our addiction to comfort and pride. I invited Friends to embrace the radical worldview of Christ’s Kingdom, which challenges us to engagement in a broken world. Grounding my sermon in Christ’s words to the Church in Laodicea, I felt moved to encourage those present to pursue the passionate commitment and humility that our faith demands. If we open ourselves to the transforming power of the Spirit, we can emerge from lukewarmth and fear, embracing the prophetic faith of Jesus.
The word I was given did encounter some resistance from some Friends present. Nevertheless, I was encouraged to see that others received the word with joy. Some were deeply moved by the message, feeling directly addressed by the Lord.
A couple of weeks later, I had another opportunity to speak, this time as part of a panel discussion at Virginia Theological Seminary, one of the premier Episcopal seminaries in North America. I was invited to speak alongside several weighty leaders in the Episcopal Church, including a retired bishop turned activist and the current rector of Trinity Wall Street – a very prominent parish in lower Manhattan. I was thankful for the opportunity to address an assembly of seminary students and professors, representing a significant portion of the present and future leadership in the Episcopal Church.

I was able to speak about my experience as a Christian occupier, working for economic justice in the name of Jesus Christ. I felt that the Spirit was present with us in the gathering, and it was opened to me to exhort those present – especially the seminary students – to dare to question the moral assumptions of the present culture, which relies more on laissez-faire capitalist philosophy than on the loving example of our crucified Savior. Though much of the Church has been seduced by these human philosophies, we were reminded that our authentic witness as followers of Jesus will seem like foolishness to the world.

The last major trip that I took this month was to a retreat held by Ohio Yearly Meeting on the subject of human sexuality. For almost two years now, Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting have been openly wrestling with our shared understanding of God’s intention for human sexuality, and what this means for us in practical terms as a fellowship. Last summer, the Yearly Meeting directed a committee (which I served on) to organize a gathering where Friends could hold these concerns in the Spirit together, sensing how God might be guiding us.

For my part, I was very nervous about this event. This is hard stuff for Friends to talk about, and at times I wondered whether anybody was even going to show up. To my surprise and joy, there were around fifty Friends who traveled from almost every Meeting in the Yearly Meeting to practice shared discernment. This in a Yearly Meeting with an active membership of maybe two hundred!

Even more important than the number of people present, the Holy Spirit was there with us. The whole gathering was grounded in worship, and we were able to largely avoid the caustic back-and-forth the so often characterizes conversation around sexuality. Speaking largely arose from a place of vocal ministry or intimate sharing of personal experience, rather than debate. I felt that we emerged from this gathering with a greater sense of love, trust and fellowship – praise God!
The biggest single insight that I perceived to emerge from our time together was this: We in Ohio Yearly Meeting have significant areas of unity in our understanding of human sexuality, though there are also major areas of disunity. There was a shared sense that we would do best to proceed in love, examining first those areas where we sensed unity, and gradually working our way into the harder areas, those subjects where there is serious disagreement. Our understandings of homosexuality are, as one Friend put it, “the deep end of the pool.” We know that there is a large range of opinions about the rightness of gay and lesbian relationships, and we will need to proceed tenderly – and deliberately – as we seek the Lord’s will in these matters.
I left the gathering with a sense of unity in the process of discernment that we are engaging in together. I felt that despite our serious disagreements on some subjects – particularly our understandings of gay and lesbian relationships – that everyone involved is acting in good faith and seeking the Lord’s will as best they know how. This goes a long way towards reconciliation between individuals, and eventual unity within the Body as a whole. If we can stay humble and grounded in the Spirit, I dare to hope that the Risen Lord will draw us together in one mind and the same love.

Back in DC, the work continues. Capitol Hill Friends continues to grow in spiritual depth, as well as in numbers and vitality. I give thanks for the amazing sisters and brothers whom God has sent to help ground this little church in the midst of the city. I continue to pray that the Lord will send more workers into the field of his harvest. My work in the wider community is moving ahead, and I continue to be active in foreclosure resistance with Occupy Our Homes. In all of this, I am learning how to practice self-care and not over-do it. I am finding that a life grounded in prayer and the study of Scripture is essential to the kind of public ministry that God is calling me to, among Friends and in the wider community.

We are now a third of the way through May, and it looks to be a beautiful summer. I am so thankful for the many blessings that God has poured out on me and my fellow workers here in DC. Thank you for your support and encouragement. Your prayers have real effects that are felt here. Never doubt it.

In Christ’s love,
Micah Bales