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The Grass Grows Beneath the Snow

When I first became a part of the Religious Society of Friends, I remember wondering whether I was joining a dying tradition. One of the first Quaker elders I encountered after my convincement admitted to me that she did not know whether the Quaker tradition had a future as a living body of believers and practitioners. As a new convert, I believed (and still do believe) that the Friends tradition and community have something unique and precious to offer the world, and so I have spent the last six years steeping myself in both.

On the one hand, I have dedicated myself to disciplined study, both independently and in the form of completing the Master of Divinity program at Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary. I have also invested very deeply in the living community of faith, traveling Trees in Winterthroughout the United States to visit Quakers from a wide variety of backgrounds and contexts. My travels among Friends across the continent have deepened my understanding of the state of Quakerism in North America.

I have seen much that gives me cause for alarm. I have encountered deep divisions among Friends – over belief, practice, politics and ideology, as well as over the many mundane matters that have a way of cropping up in our life together in community. I have seen groups of Friends where process and structure are more esteemed than faith and discipleship. I have seen Meetings – of all theological stripes – where the risen presence of Jesus is no longer welcomed and the continuing teaching of the Holy Spirit is resisted.

Meanwhile, the active membership of the Religious Society of Friends in the United States is extremely low. For example, I learned recently that the average Sunday-morning attendance for the oneFallen Sapling hundred and three local Meetings of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was 2,847 adults and 624 children in April, 2010. This is arguably the largest body of Friends in the United States!

In our Meeting, my wife and I represent one third of the full membership, and our Yearly Meeting probably has an active membership of under two hundred. Most of the Meetings that I have visited in recent years have largely consisted of folks over the age of fifty. Despite recent Young Adult Friends gatherings, the Religious Society of Friends seems to be failing to speak to most Gen-Xers and Millennials.

Despite the decrepitude of the modern-day Religious Society of Friends, I do see signs of hope. There is a movement gatheringThe Grass Grows Beneath the Snow online, and increasingly in local communities, to bring the best of our rich Quaker heritage to bear on our present-day context. The international (though still mostly American) blogging community that orbits around QuakerQuaker is a major organ of this steadily percolating movement, as Friends are being drawn together from across the historical branches to discover how Christ Jesus is still at work in our midst, gathering a people together in his Spirit. The term “convergent” has emerged as a short-hand for this ongoing conversation about how we can live out our ancient Quaker Christian tradition in a post-modern world.

In recent years, there has been a remarkable emergence of new worship groups and Meetings that embody the creative edge of the Friends tradition: Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon; New City Friends in Detroit; Capitol Hill Friends in DC; a new Hispanic Friends church in Indianapolis; Old Town Friends Fellowship in Baltimore; the West Philly Worship Group in Philadelphia; and the Underground Connection in Fountain City, Indiana – to name a few. Most of these groups are characterized by an openness to experimentation with the wealth of tradition and experience represented by the several branches of Emerging from the IceQuakerism – especially the Conservative tradition. There is also some openness to learning from and incorporating elements of Protestant and Liturgical traditions.

These are hopeful signs for the future, especially when we remember that the early Quaker movement was a confluence of a variety of Christians streams – especially the Seekers, Independents, and Puritans. Quakerism was born out of a froth of experimentation and the discovery of new life given to previously dead forms through the immediate life and power of the Holy Spirit. We find ourselves once again living in a time when the old forms no longer seem to fit, and we are seeking ways to connect more authentically with Emmanuel.

The big question in my mind is: Will the existing structures of institutional Quakerism cooperate with this fresh movement of theGrowth in Winter Holy Spirit? Will the old wineskins of our Religious Society humble themselves to be emptied into new vessels – new communities, structures, networks and worship styles? Will this generation pour its resources into the building up of this new movement, or will it resist – vainly struggling to extend the relevance of our arthritic and deadening committee structures, constipated worship styles, and irrelevant organizations?

The winter has been long for Friends in North America. The long night began, perhaps, in the early days of the Quietest period and became acute in the twentieth century. The Religious Society of Friends is now at a point of extremity: Something must change, or our community and tradition will not survive. Will we choose the abundantTender Shoot life we receive when we let go of our own expectations and paradigms? Will we lay down our nets, leaving behind the boats of our forebears to seek another shore, walking humbly beside Jesus?

The winter has been long, and snow still covers the ground. But I see signs of life – little shoots of green poking their way out from beneath the numbing blanket that threatens to smother us. Let us nurture the tender shoots of life that God has planted. As we set aside our own expectations and embrace the infinite love and wisdom of God, we will find our way forward in unity, love and justice.

Nurturing a Movement at Home and Abroad – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #25

Dear Friends of Jesus,

Greetings from Capitol Hill, where we are still enjoying relatively high temperatures despite being at the end of November. My father, whoThanksgiving on Capitol Hill was here with us for the Thanksgiving break, commented many times on how mild our weather was, and I feel grateful that we have not yet begun to get the wintry conditions that I hear are now developing in much of the country.

This past month has been one of many blessings in our work here on Capitol Hill, as well as in the wider world. Early this month, FaithYoung Adult Friends at Quaker Hill and I were able to attend the Young Adult Friends Intervisitation Consultation, held at Quaker Hill in Richmond, Indiana. The event was jointly sponsored by Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting. I felt blessed to be able to connect with a number of fellow gospel laborers who were also in attendance. I continue to benefit from the wider community of Friends, which helps me to understand my place in our tradition. I hope that my service is of some benefit to the wider Religious Society of Friends.

Following the consultation, I was able to meet with the planning committee for the 2010 YAF Gathering, which took place this past May. This was our last meeting, six months after the end of the conference, and it was good to debrief as a committee and finish the last bits of business that we had before us. Overall, we felt that we had been faithful in our service as organizers for the 2010 YAF Gathering, and we were grateful for the leading and opportunity to serve in this way.

We were grateful for the ways that we as a planning committee were able to connect, and the ways in which we experiencedYAF 2010 Planning Committee in Richmond Christ’s presence in our midst, both in our planning and during the conference itself. We were saddened by the fact that some participants did not feel welcome at the gathering. As we invited Friends to attend, we found that Liberals often felt that they were being invited to an Evangelical gathering, and Evangelicals often felt they were being invited to a Liberal gathering. It is indeed a hard thing to stand in the middle in the diverse and heterodox tapestry of communities that make up North American Quakerism.

The following weekend, we on Capitol Hill were blessed by the arrival of Tyler Hampton of New City Friends in Detroit. Tyler visited amongTyler Hampton us under a minute from his worship group, and participated in a called meeting for worship of Capitol Hill Friends. We traveled with him to visit Rockingham Friends Meeting in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and later to Old Town Friends in Baltimore. Our sense was that Tyler was of great service in his ministry among us, and in our region, and we are thankful to New City Friends for sending him to us.

Tyler is among a growing number of Friends who are feeling a call to take part in a movement of engaged, missional Quaker faith. WithIMG_1124 his and others’ encouragement, I have recently written a series of essays on my blog that give a rough sketch of what such a movement might look like among Friends and beyond. The response to this series has been great, and I am pleased to see how much enthusiasm exists for a more vital, Christ-centered, justice-seeking Quaker witness. I hope to continue to encourage Friends to join me and others in listening for how Christ is leading us today, and to live into the mission that he is calling us to.

There is no doubt that we are being called. In recent months, I have been contacted by Friends across the United States and Europe who are hearing Christ’s call to lead transformed lives that embody the Gospel and serve the “least of these” in our society. I am astonished by the work of the Spirit, and am constantly reminded of how little this has to do with me; God is doing a new thing, and I pray that I may be faithful in playing my own small part in this fresh movement of the Holy Spirit. And I hope that you will join me, finding your part in Christ’s work in this generation.

Locally, I have been encouraged by my recent interactions with two Christian communities in the DC area. To begin with, I have becomeWoman with Stroller in DC increasingly involved with the community of one of the attenders of Capitol Hill Friends. This attender lives with three other twenty-somethings in the Congress Heights neighborhood, which is predominantly low income and African-American. The folks at her house have some Quaker background, but do not have a shared spiritual practice as a community; their main goal is to be good neighbors in their area and to be involved in the wider community. I have begun attending Bible study there, which includes the residents of the house, as well as some other folks from the neighborhood. In addition, I am getting involved with the organizing of a new Food Not Bombs group, which seeks to serve the Congress Heights neighborhood.

I have also been blessed to come into relationship with some Friends in Frederick, Maryland who are eager to go deeper in aFrederick, MD missional expression of their faith as Quaker Christians. These Friends also hold a Bible study, and I am hopeful that we might be able to eventually attend at least some of their meetings, though Frederick is about an hour and a half away from us with heavy traffic, which renders the journey a bit difficult. Especially the single mothers with no means to public transport, it’s not everyone that can afford top rated baby walkers to go on long journeys safely with their children.  In any case, I hope that we can continue to encourage each other as we seek to walk in Christ’s Way.

It feels good to be getting more deeply involved in the wider community here in DC. For much of my first year here, my attentionE Capitol Street SE was mostly focused outward, on my work organizing among Young Adult Friends nationally. Now, however, I feel that God is calling me to focus more of my attention on developing relationships locally. I hope that, as I become more integrated into the city’s communal life, I might become a more effective witness to the grace and peace of Christ that has so transformed my own life.

Paradoxically, while I am seeing such amazing growth and opportunity in my life and work, I also struggle at times spiritually. I am often challenged to see the willfulness that still exists in my heart; I want things to happen after my own fashion, and it often takes me a long time to come around to accepting God’s will when it runs counter to my own assumptions and desires. As Christ calls me deeper into his Kingdom-life, I face the prospect of ongoing spiritual baptism. Just like the crucifixion that leads to resurrection, these inward baptisms can be truly confusing and agonizing, especially when I insist on resisting to the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart.

I am deeply grateful for my wife, Faith. God uses her so beautifully to keep me on track and to strengthen me when I pass through theFaith inward darkness. I am also grateful for the support and counsel of my Meeting, and of my fellow workers and elders scattered across the distances, who help keep me balanced and give me an outside perspective. I am who I am, and am released to do the work that I do, because of the faithful example and care of many good friends in Christ.

I pray that God establish in your life the relationships of support and guidance that you need as Christ calls you deeper into his challenging way of engagement with the world and his mission to share the Gospel with all people. I look forward to laboring alongside you in his name.

Your friend in Truth,

Micah

Missional Quaker Faith Series:

Are We Ready?

Most of us, at one time or another, have put a lot of energy into trying to preserve long-standing forms and institutions. In my own case, I have been drawn to seek revitalization in my local Meeting and in my Yearly Meeting, as well as in wider bodies, like Friends United Meeting. These are institutions that have been around much longer than I have, but, though it is easy for me to take them for granted, they cannot continue to exist and operate without our time, energy and financial resources.

And it is right that we give these time-honored institutions some of our attention. We should seek the Young Quakers Plotting Goodnessrevival of our established fellowships and institutions. These churches and organizations have nurtured so many of us, given us a place to learn to listen to the still, small voice of Jesus in our hearts and, in obedience to him, to translate our faith into action. Our established institutions have  benefited, and continue to benefit the spiritual growth of so many. There are still many hearts to be reached within the frameworks of our established fellowships, and lives can be changed by engaging in the struggle for growth and forward momentum in the religious communities and structures that we belong to.

At the same time, I believe that if we focus most or all  Hip-hop in Quaker meetinghouseof our energy on resuscitating stagnant or dying institutions, we risk failing to re-contextualize the Gospel to emerging generations. Just as in Jesus’ day, there are many of us who have the form of righteousness – who follow all the procedural rules to be “church people” – but who are not radically submitted to Christ.

The truth is, if we are under Jesus’ present leadership, we are in for some radical changes. He has new wine for us that will burst many of the old wineskins that sustained and strengthened prior generations. We are in a new cultural context in the post-modern West, and we are being called to engage with this new situation.

We can’t yet say what form these new, contextualized expressions of the Gospel will take; they will come in  many different Sign at New City Friends, Detroit, MIshapes and sizes, based on local circumstances and the purposes  of the Holy Spirit. For our part, we must make a decision to be obedient to Christ’s guidance, even if it shakes things up, threatening the established way of doing things.

Are we ready for radical faithfulness?

A Few of God’s New Creations:


Capitol Hill Friends (Washington, DC)
Freedom Friends Church (Salem, OR)
New City Friends (Detroit, MI)
Old Town Friends Fellowship (Baltimore, MD)
The Underground Connection (Fountain City, IN)

Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #17 – Growing Roots in the City and in the Soul

Dear Children of the Day,

Greetings in the love of Christ. The last month has been full of work and blessings, and there is much to report. After being able to spend some weeks at home in DC, travel has reemerged as a signature feature of my life and work. In the months ahead, my schedule looks to grow only more intense as I work to strengthen Friends throughout my region and in North America as a whole.

In the DC Area


William Penn House I have been mostly settled in DC for the past month, and I’ve had the chance to focus more on ministry within the local region. Capitol Hill Friends continues to meet, and Faith and I attend the nearby Takoma Park Meeting on an increasingly regular basis. We have also made two visits this month to Old Town Friends in the neighboring city of Baltimore. I have enjoyed getting to know the Friends at these two Meetings, and I hope to work with them to nurture the life of the Spirit in our midst.

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Most of this month has been a time of slow, quiet development. I am frustrated sometimes at how slowly my roots seem to be growing here in the District of Columbia. However, I know that building relationships takes a long time, and that it may well be years before I truly feel connected with my new hometown. The challenge is deepened by the fact that my professional life is largely unconnected to DC, and calls for frequent travel to other cities. Though I am impatient to go deeper in developing relationships where I live, I seek to trust in God’s timing, which is often very different from what I would prefer. I recognize that friendships do not develop overnight.


Travels to New Jersey and Philadelphia


In contrast to most of the month, this last week has been one of intense activity and travel. To begin with, Faith and I traveled to New Jersey and Philadelphia to meet with Friends there and encourage participation bymartinfamily young adult Friends in the Memorial Day YAF gathering in Wichita. We were honored to stay with Martin Kelley and his family at their home in New Jersey. It was good to re-connect with them over pizzelle, tea, pizza, and late-night card games. They were kind enough to let us use their house as a base of operations while we visited Friends in the city.

Our time with Friends in Philadelphia felt good. We met with Emily Stewart and Sadie Forsythe (young adult Friends coordinators at FGC and Philadelphia YM, respectively) and heard from them about how their communities were feeling about the upcoming YAF conference in Wichita. It was helpful to hear their sense of the communities where they serve as leaders. Following our time with them, we were able to have lunch with most of the YAF staff members of Philadelphia-based Quaker organizations (FGC, PYM and AFSC, in particular). It was a blessing to be able to share about the Wichita gathering and to address questions and concerns that Friends had about the event. The meeting left us feeling hopeful that we were developing good relationships with Friends in Philadelphia.
philadelphia
We felt grateful for the chance to spend time with Julian Brelsford, who works for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and has spent a great deal of his personal time and energy doing work in Haiti, where he was present during the recent, devastating earthquake. Faith and I appreciated his spirit, and we are grateful for the work that we see God doing through him.
We were also able to visit Betsy Blake, a fabulous Quaker minister and entrepreneur (her laundry detergent is amazing!) who is living as Pendle Hill‘s artist in residence this year. It was a joy to be with her and to share with one another what we have been experiencing in the last weeks and months, as well as to connect with some other YAFs who were present for a concert.

FWCC Section of the Americas Annual Meeting


pearlstone retreat center That evening, we drove to the FWCC Section of the Americas annual meeting site outside of Baltimore, and I attended the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage working group the following morning. I will be serving as a leader for the program this summer, which will take place in Oregon and Washington state. The pilgrimage will bring together Quaker youth (aged 16-18) from across the FWCC Section of the Americas and the European and Middle East Section, to spend a month together exploring our heritage as Friends and deepening our relationship with God. I have not had much experience with youth work before, but I feel that God is leading me to serve in this way. I trust that God will work through me, despite my sense of personal inadequacy for the task.

Ministers Retreat in Ohio


friends center sign After an evening back in DC, I was off again on Friday morning to a ministers retreat at Friends Center, in Barnesville, Ohio, facilitated by Brian Drayton, author of the widely-read “On Living With a Concern for Gospel Ministry.” The gathering included almost thirty ministers from throughout the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. There was a very strong showing from Ohio Yearly Meeting – I was informed that most of Ohio’s active, recorded ministry was present at the event – and there were a number of Friends from Baltimore, Illinois and Ohio Valley yearly meetings.

stillwater meeting house Our time together was well-spent. The weekend was a time of almost constant worship and deep, expectant waiting on the Lord. It was a blessing to be among so many Friends who shared a concern for Gospel ministry, and I felt that my relationships in the Lord were deepened with a number of individuals. Perhaps most importantly, I had the opportunity to connect with other ministers from the DC area, two of whom I had never met before. I am hopeful that we might seek ways to support one another in our Gospel labors in the region.

Looking Ahead


Faith and I will be traveling again to New York state this weekend, to attend a gathering of Young Adult Friends and encourage them in their engagement with the Spirit. Then, on April 3rd, we will be hosting a regional YAF gathering at the William Penn House, for young adults in the DC/Baltimore area. Please pray for these events: May God pour out the Holy Spirit on us and deepen our commitment to Christ’s work in the world. Also, please pray that God prepare us for the challenges and the blessings that will come to those who gather in Wichita this Memorial Day weekend.

Blessings to all of you in the name of our Lord, who longs to gather us under his wing like a mother hen does her chicks. May we be brought into peace and unity in Christ’s name.

Yours in the love and hope that is in Christ Jesus,

Micah Bales