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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.

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.
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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

Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #13

Dear beloved sisters and brothers in Truth,

The past few weeks have been a time of getting settled into a new way of life. I have begun to adjust to life in the District of Columbia, at the William Penn House. I have taken time to be present with my wife, my housemates, and my neighborhood; and I have spent a good amount of time alone seeking God’s guidance for me in my next steps in this new chapter of my life. As I have sought to be intentional about giving myself time to develop roots here in DC, I have also spent some time exploring my relationship with the wider Mid-Atlantic region. This month has been a time of rest, renewal, spiritual growth and deepening relationships.

Life at the William Penn House is good. It has been a joy to be present on an ongoing basis in the community where my wife has lived and worked for more than two years. I have been impressed with the professionalism and good management that I have observed at the House, and it has been a particular joy to see Faith at work, exercising her considerable gifts of administration and hospitality. I feel that I am able to participate in the community life of the house to a great degree, but I appreciate that I am also given the space I need to focus on my own work and recreation.

I have attended a couple of Friends Meetings in the DC metro area. The first was Friends Meeting of Washington, part of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. I attended this Meeting alone, because Faith had work that day. Friends Meeting of Washington has three worship services on Sunday, two of them concurrent. Of these two simultaneous services, there is the larger one held in the main worship room, as well as a smaller one held in an adjacent building. I had already attended the larger service a number of times, so this time I tried out the smaller one. It was, as advertised, a quiet worship service. There was only one spoken message, and I gathered that most Sundays are either entirely silent or with very few spoken messages.

On another Sunday, Faith and I attended the Friends Meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, also a part of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. Faith and I had visited this Meeting once before, and we were pleased to be among them once again. Friends in Alexandria are a very sweet community of seekers, and we felt very welcomed among them. Faith and I felt blessed that each of us were called upon to deliver vocal ministry during the meeting for worship. We pray that our visit was profitable in building up the Body of Christ in Alexandria.

On the first Sunday of this month, Faith and I visited Friends near Harrisonburg, Virginia, at Rockingham Friends Meeting, part of Ohio Yearly Meeting. We had been excited to visit this Meeting for months, and it was a joy to be with them for worship, followed by a meal. We were honored to join them for their monthly meeting for business, and we were very impressed by the gospel labor of spiritual nurture and evangelism that this small Meeting is involved in throughout the world. This tiny group of Friends has care of a worship group outside Atlanta, Georgia, as well as serving a large number of affiliate members throughout the world.

Rockingham Meeting is two and a half hours South of DC. Despite the distance, Faith and I hope to return on a regular basis. We sense a deep spiritual affinity with these Friends. Of all of the Meetings that either of us have experienced in this region of the United States, Rockingham is the one that we feel most akin to. This feeling of affinity was further confirmed when I visited the Stillwater Quarterly Meeting of Ohio Yearly Meeting the following Saturday, in Bird-in-hand, Pennsylvania. I was very impressed by the ministers and elders of Stillwater Quarterly Meeting, to which Rockingham belongs. Their dedication to the gospel of Jesus Christ as understood in the Friends tradition is inspiring to me, and their emerging focus on evangelism is in line with my own concern to share the good news across borders, cultures, languages, national identities and ethnicities.

Almost one week after traveling to Pennsylvania for Stillwater Quarterly Meeting, my work with Earlham School of Religion took me North again, to the city of Philadelphia. I spent the better part of a week meeting with Friends in the Philadelphia area. I met with a number of young Quaker leaders, talking up the YAF gathering that will be happening in Wichita next May and hearing their questions, concerns, and feedback about the event. This was a very valuable experience for me; I felt like I learned a lot about the needs and perspectives of Young Adult Friends in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. I was made more sensitive to how to work more effectively with Philadelphia YAFs as we seek to share the love of Christ with all people.

While in the Philadelphia area, I was also able to travel to Pendle Hill, where Betsy Blake spoke about her experience of Jesus. (She was magnificent!) In addition to the blessing of being present for Betsy’s witness, it was also a delight to be present with the wide array of Friends who attended the lecture. It felt great to connect with many Friends that I had not seen in months or years, as well as to make connections with Friends I had not previously met. After all of this, I drove from Pendle Hill to New Jersey to have a brief but blessed late-night opportunity with Martin Kelley and his family.

I feel very blessed by all of the work that God has been doing in my life these past weeks. I have experienced times of spiritual darkness and desolation, but I have been repeatedly delivered and built up in Christ. I praise God for the spiritual baptism that the Holy Spirit is working in me as I pass from darkness into light, from death into new life in Christ. I thank God for every single person and event that has been placed in my life and for the way that God works through all things for our transformation and reconciliation to God in Christ.

May each of you know the tender love of our blessed Savior. Pray for me as I pray for you. Peace and grace be with you in the Lord.

In brother- and sisterhood,

Micah Bales