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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

Seeking God’s Word Together – Ohio Yearly Meeting 2011

The past few days here in Barnesville have been eye-opening and challenging. We have begun the process of wrestling together with our understandings of human sexuality including homosexuality. There are clearly a variety of perspectives within Ohio Yearly Meeting regarding the rightness of same-sex relationships and human sexuality in general.  

All of our perspectives are rooted in our desire to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, and our understanding of how he is speaking to us through the Scriptures. We are united in the faith that it is Jesus who can bring us into unity, and that only his Holy Spirit can guide us to a proper understanding of the Scriptures. While we have differences of opinion, we recognize who our Authority is. This is a reason for hope. Though we struggle to find unity on this matter, we acknowledge that there is one, even Christ Jesus, who can lead us into the Truth.
Our shared commitment to Jesus and his Light keeps us in spiritual unity, even when we strongly disagree. Probably the most remarkable thing about this process of corporate discernment has been the spirit in which it has proceeded. It would be easy for Friends to retreat into camps and begin to question one another’s motives, faith and relationship with the Lord. So far, that has not happened. Despite our differences, we have been gentle with one another, trusting that everyone here is seeking to be obedient to our risen Lord and takes seriously the witness of Scripture.
On Thursday, the gathered body of Ohio Yearly Meeting was able to come to unity on a minute regarding our present condition in regards to questions of human sexuality, including homosexuality. It was not an easy process to express our present condition as a body. We labored with this during three of our business sessions before we came to unity on the following minute:
Stillwater Quarterly Meeting reported on its deliberations regarding the “Salem Statement” on the topic of human sexuality(1), considered during our 2010 sessions. Their seven Monthly Meetings went through the important exercise of considering what God desires of His children, rather than simply airing personal opinions. Each Monthly Meeting forwarded responses to Stillwater Quarterly Meeting, which summarized them as reported below.
Friends of various perspectives are equally committed to the Lord, and we recognize that we need additional enlightenment, understanding of the underlying issues, and an openness to learning more in whatever way presents itself. The question was raised how further dialogue might take place so we can be drawn into unity. We ask the Friends Center Committee to consider planning one or more events during the coming year; additional considerations should take place locally or Friend-to-Friend. If we are faithful, it is worth the exercise.
We have struggled with questions about human sexuality for years, and we hope that waiting and listening to God, laying down our own agendas, will open a way for us to be rightly guided. We want to approach the Lord in worship with these deep concerns and hear His word for the way forward. Real Truth spoken lovingly comes with strength to bear it.
Despite the challenge of facing head-on our varied understandings of human sexuality, we were able to not only confess our disagreements in the matter, but also to agree to continue the work of corporate wrestling with what Christ is asking of us as his Church. This is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning. May we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
Thank you so much for your prayers. It is only through the power of prayer and obedience to the Word of God(2) in our hearts that we can be brought out of confusion and into the light of God’s Truth. As we are gathered together in him, Jesus gives us peace – not the human peace that comes through domination of one party over another, but the peace of his heavenly Kingdom where all contention and rancor are set aside as we humble ourselves before our Lord and our God.
Please continue to pray for us in Ohio Yearly Meeting. May we be led into all truth, trusting Jesus to show us the way that we are to walk. Our life, our faith, our unity is in him.
1. A minute from Salem Quarterly Meeting, forwarded to Ohio Yearly Meeting in 2010, which suggested the revision of the OYM discipline to – among other things – define marriage as being between “one man and one woman.”

2. That is, Christ Jesus.

Revival in Barnesville

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed
all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
-Romans 8:35-39 (NRSV)
 
This weekend, I had the honor of attending a weekend at the Young Friends of North America (YFNA) reunion, in Barnesville, Ohio, where several dozen Friends gathered to remember their experiences as young adult Friends as a part of the YFNA, as well as to look toward a future revitalization of the North American young Friends movement. This gathering, as of this writing, is still taking place, and will be continuing until the end of the week. I speak to my experience of what I took part in between Friday evening and early Sunday afternoon. During the weekend, there were two primary focuses that were programmed into the gathering: Celebration of the past YFNA movement, and a chance for current young adult Friends to meet together and discern the will of the Spirit for us as Quaker youth.
 
It was in this context that the Risen Christ created space for the power of the Holy Spirit to be felt amongst us and to guide our gathering to dare to speak aloud our greatest hope and to be broken open to our tenderest wounds. In addition to the twin roles of this gathering as a place for YFNA nostalgia and discernment of way forward for North American young Friends, the Holy Spirit gave us two additional, complimentary charges this weekend: We were called into radical discipleship in the Way of Christ Jesus, and we were moved to wrestle with how the Holy Spirit is leading us into integrity in our sexuality.
 
On Friday evening, during our first group session, there were in attendance mostly older YFNA “alumni” as well as a dozen or so current young adult Friends. After spending a full hour and a half on introductions, the evening was moseying along primarily as an opportunity for the older folks to indulge in a fair bit of nostalgia. However, about two hours into the meeting, an older Friend from Ireland stood up. This drew our attention immediately, as everyone previously had been speaking from their seats. This Friend, thanks be to God, called us out of a secular trip down memory lane and heralded the arrival of the Holy Spirit in our midst. His message seemed really out of place in the flow of the previous conversation that Friends had been engaged in – which, in that context, seemed like a good sign that his ministry was indeed from God. Friend spoke about the growing tide of darkness in our world and our need to stand up and take seriously the implications of following Jesus, though it be unto imprisonment or death. This message, accompanied by a covering by the Holy Spirit, led the group into a half an hour of open worship, out of which more ministry was given.
 
On Saturday morning, we broke into small groups, and most of us used that small group time to share about our own experience as being (or having once been) both young Friends and sexual beings. How does God call us to live our sexuality? What romantic and sexual practice leads to more abundant life and which ways of living lead to death? Many Friends felt that they and others had not received the guidance, support, care, and discipline that they needed from their community, which led to much suffering in many cases. While we certainly did not come to unity on any particular vision for Quaker sexuality, there was general feeling that the serious consideration of a “Christian sexual ethics for the 21st century” would be a positive step forward in strengthening our community.
 
By the end of the weekend, one Friend felt strongly enough about the past mistakes of her own young Friends community that she felt led to write a minute apologizing for the hurt that the unfaithful sexuality of some Friends caused in her generation. While the larger group was not in unity to approve the minute as a corporate statement, the fact that such a document was written by an individual and presented to the group is an indication of the seriousness with which Friends are taking the question of sexual ethics. I was very pleased to see this kind of serious engagement of sexuality on the part of Friends in Barnesville this weekend. If all Friends were opening themselves up to the admonishing and healing power of the Light as Friends were this weekend in Barnesville, our religious society would be far closer to living the kingdom-life in our romantic relationships.
 
I must admit that the aspect of this gathering that most surprised me was the amount of Christian language that I heard from so many Friends, accompanied by a deep Quaker understanding of the centrality of the Risen Christ in our midst. At the risk of unfairly maligning some of my brothers and sisters: I did not expect this from liberal-unprogrammed Friends. I know that a small gathering cannot speak for an entire branch of Quakerism, but I must say that the liberal-unprogrammed branch does indeed have its fair share of grounded, weighty – and Christian – Friends! I do think, however, that the Spirit had to make some moves, so to speak, before that reality was able to come to the surface. Two Friends in particular, as I recall, were instrumental in creating a safe space for overtly Christian language – and, in that space, a fellowship blossomed that felt far closer to the radical, Spirit-led Christianity of early Friends than I ever expected to find. I give praise to God for that.
 
I also praise God for the opportunity that I was given this weekend to experience more deeply the reality that I am not a lone individual, nor even a member solely of my own generation. I am an extension of my parents, and they are an extension of me; my generation is an extension of past generations, and they are extensions of us. When one of us lives in that Life and Power, it affects us all. When one generation sins, it affects all generations. We are not individuals. I am thee, Friend, and thee is me. Our faithfulness or lack thereof resonates between us, yes, throughout the entire Church. We are not individuals, not even family. No, we are something different, something more. We are the Body of Christ. We are the Children of the Light.

We’d Better Get Clear

I spent most of this past weekend with young adult Friends from Baltimore Yearly Meeting and also had the privilege to attend a Quarterly Meeting within Baltimore YM, where Silvia Graves, the General Secretary of Friends United Meeting, spoke. The conversations with young adult Friends before that meeting, the conversations with older Friends at the QM and more conversations with young adult Friends later on today often returned to the question of FUM, and, implicitly, its current institutional stance on homosexuality. Saturday evening, other young adult Friends and I attended a gay pride parade near my home in Washington, DC, and I experienced what I felt was an opening from the Lord.

Watching the parade, I saw several local Christian groups – Episcopals, Seventh Day Adventists, Unitarian Universalists, and others – going along in the procession. Sitting there, I felt a movement of the Spirit, and as I bowed interiorly, I was struck – again and again and again – with a two-second soundbite from Deborah Saunder’s first sermon at the World Gathering of Young Friends. She had been mocking us young Friends for being so unfocused in our faith journey, and she suddenly became deathly serious: “You’d better get clear,” she warned us. This memory, this soundbite of Deborah Saunders saying, “you’d better get clear,” repeated in my mind as if fired by an automatic weapon.

You’d better get clear. Accompanying this message was a great sense of compassion for all of the people I saw before me at this parade, reveling in their sexuality and identity as legitimate human beings. I was struck with the sense that the Church was losing these people. At the recent FUM board meeting in Kenya, as Friends were engaged in debate as to whether or not to re-affirm the Richmond Declaration of Faith, a Kenyan Friend reportedly admonished the board members, saying, “my people are perishing while you squabble.” This is no less true in North America than it is in Africa.

While we, the Church, bicker about the very existence of homosexuality, we fail to address the terrible brokenness and unfaithfulness that so many of us find ourselves caught up in with regards to our own sexuality. While we squabble, many Friends deny homosexuals the covenant of marriage. While we scream back and forth about how right or wrong homosexuality is, we seem to be ignoring the lack of integrity with which we carry out our heterosexual liaisons. While we bicker about whether or not to “accept” homosexuality, we avoid doing the important work of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to those whose sexual orientation is not our own, yet who want to live the fullness of the Christian life.

We’d better get clear. I am increasingly aware of how the question of homosexuality in the Church is allowing Friends to ignore so many other more substantive questions that face us as a community. It is a lot easier to focus on nailing down points of doctrine – be it liberal or orthodox doctrine – than it is to take a real look at whether we ourselves are glorifying God with our sexuality. Are we all, hetero- or homosexual, living out our God-given sexuality with integrity and submission to the yoke of Christ? Are we all, gay or straight, engaged in wholesome, committed, honest relationships with others? Do Friends respect the sanctity of the God-given bond of marriage? Perhaps once we get the log out of our own eye, we might see where the root of our struggles as a Church lies.

We’d better get clear.