Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: Challenges, Growth and New Life - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #26

Dear beloved friends,

Blessings on you as we observe the transition from one year to another.

It has been a good and challenging year, one in which I have been blessed to grow closer to the Lord and to my brothers and sisters in Christ. This has been a year of deep growth for me personally; God has done a lot of work on my own heart, humbling me and showing me how I need to change in order to grow more like Jesus. It has also been an important year in the development of a new movement of Quaker Christians that can meet the challenges of our rapidly secularizing, post-Christendom context.

This year, God has called me to pay more attention to the work that Christ is doing in the city and region where I live. As I have yielded to God's nudges to be attentive to the life of the Church in Washington, DC, much of my energy and focus has been directed towards nurturing a new worship group on Capitol Hill.
I have stayed engaged in the national Quaker scene, undertaking visits to Yearly Meetings, Friends gatherings, organizing the 2010 YAF Gathering, and serving as a leader for the 2010 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage. However, especially in the last half of 2010, I have been traveling less than in recent years. In order to be faithful to the work that God has given me where I am, it feels inevitable that I must reduce the amount of time I spend away from home.

A lot has happened this year, and I have kept you in the loop through my ministry newsletter. Rather than recounting in detail the events of the year, I would lift up some of the things that have been highlights in my service among Friends in 2010:

It's been a joyful and challenging year. Thank you for your prayerful support as I have grown deeper in my understanding of how GodMicah and Faith (taken five minutes before this was posted - thanks Suzanne!) wants to use me in a new city, job and marriage. While I am still seeking God's guidance day by day, I do feel that I have been placed where I belong. I pray that each of you may find the peace and inward assurance that comes with living into God's call for your life in this new year.

Yours in the light of the Day Star,

Micah Bales

Membership, Covenant and Engagement: Conclusion

Everything that God creates has a purpose; from the tiniest insect to the blue whale, all living beings are made to glorify God. And God creates not only individual creatures, but communities of living things, binding them together in organic systems that reflect the right order of God. Christ draws us into new, covenant relationships with others who are walking the same path of love and faithfulness to God's call. We find that, not only are we no longer alone, but that we have a shared purpose with our new-found spiritual brothers and sisters.

Jesus gave us a simple and sound answer to the question of what we are called to in this life: We must love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves(1). A simple purpose; but not an easy one. How are we to love in this way? How can we love God and neighbor when our natural inclination is so far from that which God demands of us?

To fulfill God's purpose for us, we must accept that we are incapable of doing so on our own. We are so limited, short-sighted, and self-centered, that the things Jesus ask of us are simply impossible for us when we act from our own strength.

But God loves us: Jesus asks nothing of us for which he does not provide power and strength to carry out. If we wait in stillness on the Holy Spirit, we will be filled by the love of Christ, and that love will show us what we are to do. The Spirit moves in us, prays in us, acts through us - if only we yield to its motion. Christ is present to act in us, making us into people who are capable of walking in his way of love and peace.

Are we ready to turn our lives over to Christ's direction? Are we willing to be filled and changed by the Holy Spirit? Are we prepared to surrender our own will, imitating Christ's submission to the Father?


1. Mark 12:28-31

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Membership, Covenant and Engagement: Engaging with the World

When we invite Christ into our midst, we can expect to be changed. As we open the door for Jesus to enter in, he transforms us inside and outside; God's refining fire works for our redemption as individuals and as communities. But that is not the end of the story. Christ's ministry of reconciliation will not be finished until all of creation has received his love and turned from darkness to light. We as followers of the Way are being refashioned for a purpose: to become partners in Christ's work of cosmic restoration.

As Christ's Light cleanses and redeems us inwardly, our outward lives will begin to reflect the radiant joy and peace of God. We become instruments of Christ's universal ministry of love and peace. The Holy Spirit re-orders our lives and prepares us so that we can be of service in the specific mission that God has for us, both as individuals and as communities.

Faithful in Context

As Jesus' modern-day disciples, it is not enough for us to know general truth; we must be faithful in applying it to specific contexts.Man holding flag at Obama inauguration, 2009 For example, we are all called to worship only God, rejecting anything else that demands our ultimate loyalty. However, Christ guides different communities to engage with their particular contexts in different ways.

Here in Washington, DC, the Quaker Christian community that I am a part of struggles with how to reconcile our faith in Jesus with the idolatrous demands that government, corporations and powerful interests place on us as citizens. In our context, we feel particularly led to wrestle as a community with how we relate to the structures of global power that are based in our city (and where some of us work!). We know that we are called to lead lives of undivided loyalty to God, even as we live and work in the heart of the greatest imperial power the world has ever known.

Other communities are led in different directions to be faithful to the same core commandment. For instance, one Christian community that I was a part of in Richmond, Indiana, placed its focus on reclaiming the things that the wider society threw away. Dumpster diving for food and renovating run-down houses was a large part of what God called us to; this was both a witness to the power of God to overcome the idolatry of materialism, as well as a basis of a new community, gathered in Christ from a wide variety of religious, educational and class backgrounds.

Though the specifics of our calling in Christ may vary from community to community, we can trust that God will always haveRenaissance House, Richmond, Indiana work for us to do. Wherever two or three gather together in the name of Jesus, not only will he be there among us, but he will also have a mission for us.(1) Christ gathers us not only so that we might find redemption in him as individuals and as a community; he also desires to forge us into a body that can serve the world in his name. There can be no faith without works,(2) and Christ is present with us to guide us in labors of mercy, restoration and justice that demonstrate the power and abiding love of God to the world.

Following Christ's Lead

As we wait on God as a community, opening ourselves up to whatever the Holy Spirit might ask of us, we will find the particular mission that we are called to, both as individuals and as a wider fellowship. Because of our overwhelming individualism, however, it is often easier for us to act individually than to unite as a community to act on a leading from the Lord.

Sometimes this is appropriate. Some leadings are meant just for the individual. An example of an individual leading is my decision toEarlham School of Religion attend seminary. I felt a firm sense that I should study at Earlham School of Religion, despite the fact that this would interfere with other goals and relationships that I had at the time. Though it demanded personal sacrifice, I yielded to the prompting I felt from God to pursue studies at ESR, and in retrospect I feel certain that this was God's will for me.

Even this leading was not totally individual - I still needed help in discernment from my church, as well as financial assistance during my time at ESR. However, the decision to attend seminary, and the responsibility to undertake the lifestyle changes necessary to fulfill this leading was ultimately my own. I, personally, had to make the decision and bear most of the burden to carry it out.

Engaging as One Body

There are many times, though, when God desires to use an entire congregation, or even denomination, for a specific purpose. SomeDistributing food in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, Mexico leadings are given not primarily to individuals, but to entire communities. As counter-intuitive as it is for us as western people, there are some leadings that only the body of believers can effectively respond to, no matter how passionately some individuals might feel. A good example is the abolition of slavery.

Not so long ago, slavery was regarded in most of the western world as not only legal and socially acceptable, but as ordained of God and authorized by Scripture. There was enormous resistance to any hint of abolition - not only from the slave traders and plantation owners, but from the Church itself. Most Christians - including Quakers - interpreted the Bible as allowing slavery, and this understanding was a powerful roadblock to justice.

There were many individuals who felt the Holy Spirit telling them that slavery was sin. These individuals divested themselves of theFriends at Ohio Yearly Meeting, 2009 slave trade, refusing to participate. But this was not enough. Individual non-participation in the slave trade would not end this great evil that permeated American life. It took decades of painful reflection and discernment, but, thanks to the prophetic witness of some individual Quakers like John Woolman, Friends eventually came to the conclusion that they could not permit slave-holding by any of their members. The Religious Society of Friends banned slavery for its members, almost one hundred years before a catastrophic war would bring an end to the practice throughout the United States.

It is important to note that the first instinct of these individual concerned Friends was not to lobby the government to end slavery. Instead, they brought their sense of conviction to the Yearly Meeting; they sought unity within the Body of Christ for this leading that was far too large for any individual to appropriately address. This was a case where Christ was calling upon the Church as a whole to take a stand.

A Justice-Seeking Church

Today, there are a number of issues that confront us that may only be confronted by communities acting under a sense of divine
Bicyclist at Earlham College leading. Care for the creation is a good example. The global ecological crisis that we are facing, including climate change, deforestation and loss of biodiversity, are a threat to all life and disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized. The systems involved in this crisis involve almost everyone living on earth, and the solutions must be equally far-reaching in their scope. While we are certainly called as individuals to change our lifestyles to confront this systemic sin, individual choices are simply not sufficient to address the problem. Many Christians today are convinced that the Church as a whole must take action in order to avert enormous suffering and irreversible damage to God's creation.(3)

As we come into real, living relationship with Jesus Christ, our previous sense of boundaries between the self, the Church, and the wider world is bound to change. Christ will not be limited to making demands only on the individual; he wants to reign in the Church as a whole, to guide us as a people. In order to respond to Christ's calling for us today, we must embrace a radical life of covenant community that listens and obeys together. It is in discovering God's mission for us as a community that we find our true identity - not merely as individual Christians, but as vital members of the Body of Christ.


1. Matthew 18:20
2. James 2:14-26
3. For examples, see: Christian Ecology Link, Quaker Earthcare Witness, and Evangelical Environmental Network

Friday, December 24, 2010

Membership, Covenant and Engagement: Receiving and Discerning Prophetic Witness

 As we discover the amazing presence of Christ that dwells within us and among us, we are witnesses not only to the love of Jesus, but also to the cleansing and guiding power of his Light. Like his early disciples, we experience him walking alongside us, our ever-present Guide and Friend. Like the early Church, we are witnesses to his ongoing power and teaching through the Holy Spirit.

When Quakers speak of having a living relationship with the Risen Lord, we do not say this as a euphemism for encountering Christ inDavid Johns singing hymns with Friends in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico the Scriptures. While we certainly are spoken to powerfully by Christ's witness in the Bible, our friendship with Jesus is not dependent upon any created thing - not even the Scriptures that he inspired. Faith in Christ must ultimately be based in a real relationship with him.

The inward witness of Christ is present in every heart, and Christ dwells in all who open themselves to his healing, cleansing power. When we submit ourselves to him, he dwells not only in individuals, but also in the Church as a whole. Because Christ is over all and within all, we can listen together for his will for us as a body. The Holy Spirit is present to lead us into all truth, if we will obey its promptings.


In practice, God's leadings usually emerge initially through an individual or a small group. While everyone is capable of hearing theGetting a call at Great Plains Yearly Meeting, 2008 voice of Christ in their heart, some of us are chosen by God to deliver certain messages. Paul was personally commanded by Jesus to deliver the message of salvation to the Gentiles. George Fox was called to preach the good news of the indwelling Christ to an unbelieving generation. God led John Woolman to expose the evils of slavery. All of these causes were eventually taken up by an entire community, but the initial spark came through one person who was called to prophetic ministry.

Prophecy did not cease with the closing of the biblical canon. On the contrary, one of the signs of the coming of Christ's reign is the prophetic witness of women and men.(1) Prophecy is not primarily about telling the future - it is above all about expressing God's will for us today. The individual shares Christ's message with the group, and this prophecy must be weighed by the entire community. If the message is truly from God, the present witness of the Holy Spirit will confirm it.

Testing the Spirits

While each person has access to the Light of Christ, we are easily confused. There are so many competing impulses within us, each vying for our attention, and it is easy for the still, small voice of Christ to be drowned out by a cacophony of other, louder voices. Selfishness, fear, pride, and other malevolent influences threaten to hold sway over our lives, even posing as the voice of God. It is crucial, therefore that we test the spirits, discerning whether the leadings that we feel in our hearts come from God, or from another source.(2)
We do well to test our sense of leading personally, waiting on God for greater clarity and searching the Scriptures for guidance. If,The Listening Committee at QuakerSpring, 2008 after a period of waiting and settling, we still feel clear that God has laid a concern on our heart that affects people beyond ourselves, we owe it to our brothers and sisters to bring the concern to our church community.

In community, we have a better chance of rightly discerning the will of God. There are more hearts to listen, and a wider variety of perspectives to bring to bear on the concern. The Church is the community in which we are covenanted to one another in submission to Christ; and, in this setting of mutual trust and commitment, we are able to see more clearly together than we could have own our own. By bringing the discernment of the entire community to bear on a question, we are more likely to determine the truth of the matter.

Scripture and Tradition

Unfortunately, despite all our good intentions and desire to serve God, we are still quite capable of twisting God's will in order to make it match our human expectations. Even as communities, we frequently get lost in our own particular set of group dynamics and shared assumptions. Because of our seemingly endless ability to misconstrue the voice of God within, we are greatly aided by outward checks to our inward discernment. These checks go beyond our particular community and connect us with the wider Church, both now biologically living, and throughout time.

One very important outward check is the Bible. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are foundational to our life as a Christian community,Registration at Great Plains Yearly Meeting, 2008 and we should test any sense of leading by the teachings of the Bible. For example, if a portion of the Church believed that God called them to participate in a military effort, we find in the testimony of Scripture a serious caution against accepting such a leading as genuine. Christ is very clear in his example of self-sacrificial love, and readers of the Sermon on the Mount will come away with deep reservations about engaging in any kinds of war or fighting under the pretense of Christian conviction.

Of course, though this interpretation of Scripture seems very clear to Quakers, Anabaptists, and some other Christians, it is - strangely enough - the minority viewpoint among professing Christians. Interpretation of Scripture varies a lot, depending on the tradition a community stands in. Furthermore, many of the hot-button issues that currently fascinate (and divide) the Church today are not specifically mentioned in Scripture; and many matters are not addressed at all. It has long been clear to Friends that the Bible cannot be used as a rulebook or a constitution. Ultimately, nothing can substitute for the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Coming to Unity

Carrying out our discernment in the context of the Church does more than make it easier for individuals to hear and obey Christ's leading: When we come together to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, we can be united for action as a body. While some of Christ's leadings are meant specifically for a certain individual, many are intended to be enacted by entire communities - and, in some cases, the Church as a whole. When we stand together in covenant with one another in Christ, we create an environment where God can be invited into our midst. And when we submit ourselves as a community to the prophetic witness that Christ sends among us, we will be united and empowered by the Spirit to do God's work in the world.


1. Acts 2: 17-21
2. 1 John 4:1

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Membership, Covenant and Engagement: Love One Another

The night before Jesus was to be tortured and executed by the religious and imperial authorities, he gathered one last time with his disciples, to break bread and to bless his beloved brothers and sisters who would soon become the first members of the Church. Jesus spoke not only to those gathered that evening, but also directly to us, the countless women and men who would follow him in the years and centuries to come. Jesus called us his friends, because he has revealed to us everything that he has learned from the Father. We are his friends, he told us, if we do what he commands: Love one another. As Jesus prepared to suffer and die on the cross, he summed up his teaching like this: Show love to each other, just as I have shown the Father's love to you.(1)

Our most basic mission as those who follow Jesus is to love each other, imitating the love of God that Christ reveals to us. The loveFolks in DC we are called to show is not our own, human love; rather, it is the reflected love of Jesus that lives in us and through us. It is the love described by Paul: It is patient and kind; it bears all things, believing in others and hoping for the redemption of all.(2) Jesus' love lays down its life for others, seeking wholeness and reconciliation with enemies, and suffering for truth.

Risky Love

The Church is a key proving ground for this holy love that is being born within us. The community of those who are following Jesus should be a place where we are especially encouraged to try out the risky, radical love of our Lord. Love like this is scary. Jesus suffered and died for love; and in him God became vulnerable to us. It is this vulnerability, exposing our most tender selves to others, that is most frightening of all.

We are called to imitate the risky love of Christ. We can only live into the New Covenant if we open ourselves to God and to ourGetting "Risky" over Thanksgiving fellow women and men. God has already come so close to us, dwelling among us and bearing our burdens - but to participate in relationship with God, we must move beyond our self-centered sense of security. To live into the covenant of intimacy that is possible in Christ Jesus, we must lower the gates of our hearts. This life of mutual love and surrender cannot just be a pretty idea, a theory. If we are to truly experience the covenant, we must embody Christ's love in our relationships with others.

The way we treat others reflects our inward spiritual condition: If we lead lives of false self-sufficiency and human wisdom, we not only elevate ourselves above our neighbors, we distance ourselves from our Creator. If, however, we are gentle and humble of heart, our relationship with God and one another will be transformed.

Embracing the Challenge

Being together as the Church helps us to live into the challenge of living and loving like Jesus. The community of faith is a place whereA friendly gathering in Oregon we can support each other in the practice of yielded intimacy with God and our fellow creatures. In true Christian community, we are empowered to take risks in love, generosity and vulnerability. We come together in Jesus' name, learning from him and growing more like him. We support one another in sharing with the world the love that God has shown us.

We can demonstrate love in a many ways. There are a variety of gifts within the Church, and so our expressions of love are bound to be diverse. One important way we show our love is through simple acts of kindness and generosity: Greeting others when they visit; providing hospitality to strangers; and taking the time to talk with those who are alone. Our love grows deeper as we move beyond simply giving charity out of our own abundance and begin to share dangerously in faith that our Heavenly Father will provide for our needs as we trust in him.

This is a big step, and few of us take it on a regular basis: Stepping out in faith that God will provide, releasing our need to controlEuropean Leaders, Quaker Youth Pilgrimage, 2010 future outcomes. So much of our life is dominated by the quest to accumulate more for the future, just in case. How much greater could our love be, how much deeper our dependence on God, if we truly obeyed the Lord's command to trust in God for our daily needs? What peace would we experience if we placed our attention on the day at hand, leaving tomorrow's troubles for tomorrow? The love and power of God is most clearly demonstrated when we offer all that we have, even if it means that we might not have enough for ourselves.

The wealth of the western Church in the face of widespread global poverty is an indictment of our lack of faith. We have refused to trust in God, instead relying on our own human wisdom - our economic theories, five-year plans and retirement packages. What would happen if we threw ourselves into the arms of Jesus and risked everything for love?

Money, however, is not everything. Love is also about how we spend our time and attention. As we experience God's infinite andQuaker Youth Pilgrimage, 2010 intimate love for us, we must allow that love to shine through in our interactions with others. We are all invited to share of ourselves - our time, our resources, our energy, our very lives.

Let us imitate Jesus, who set aside his infinite power and wisdom and became a suffering servant.(3) By humbling ourselves, making ourselves vulnerable to others and carrying their burdens willingly, we imitate our Lord and open the door to our own relationship with God. For it is in receiving the love of God into our own lives that we are empowered to share it with the whole world.


1. See John 15
2. See 1 Corinthians 13
3. See Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Friday, December 17, 2010

Membership, Covenant and Engagement: Living in Covenant

In the Bible, the primary way in which God has relationship with humanity is through covenant. A covenant is an agreement between two parties, traditionally formalized by the shedding of blood through animal sacrifice.(1) It was by covenant that God had a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants, and it was through covenant that God gathered the Hebrew people and made them into a holy nation. Covenant remains to this day at the heart of God's relationship with humanity.

The Mosaic Covenant

Nowhere is the importance of covenant made clearer than in the book of Exodus, which details the Hebrew's liberation from bondageMt. Concepción - Nicaragua in Egypt. We read that, after escaping Pharaoh, the Hebrews arrived at Mount Sinai, where Moses ascended the holy mountain to speak with God. When Moses returned to the people who were awaiting him at the foot of the mountain, he recited the Lord's commandments to the Hebrews: These were the things that God required of the people as their side of the covenant. He also revealed God's promise to Israel: If they were faithful to the Lord's commandments, God would lead them into the promised land and provide for their needs.(2)

The people agreed to be bound by the terms of the covenant, saying, "All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do."(3) The following morning, Moses arose early and set up an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses sacrificed oxen and gathered their blood into basins. He dashed half of the blood against the altar, representing God's promise. He scattered the rest of the blood onto the crowded assembly. This blood, sprinkled on the altar and the assembly, symbolized the unity and commitment of God and Israel in this new relationship.

The rituals involved in this ancient covenant may make us squeamish; most of us today aren't used to animal sacrifice or largeCow amounts of blood. However, although the outward rituals may no longer be relevant for us, the essential meaning of covenant is deeply important to our life as a community gathered in Christ.

Vulnerability and Commitment

How do we make sense of the idea of covenant today? I would like to suggest that the essence of covenant is mutual vulnerability andQuaker Youth Pilgrimage hears presentation reciprocal commitment. We make ourselves vulnerable to one another when we sacrifice that which is dear to us. By giving up our prized possessions, we admit that we need the Other more than we need our own strength. Moses sacrificed a bull; we today may sacrifice deeply held opinions and comforting habits - in either case, we give up that which makes us feel safe in our own strength in order to draw closer to the One in whom we have true security.

God desires intimacy and singleness of purpose with humanity, and this is indeed the result of true covenant: it brings about a union, a reconciliation of formerly estranged parties. Where we were once in rebellion against God, Christ brings us back into loving relationship. In covenant with God, we are reconciled not just individually, but also as a community. We were once warring factions, but now, in Christ, we are reconciled as partners in the Kingdom life.

This relationship of mutual vulnerability and love cannot, however, be sustained without mutual commitment. This is the other side of Crowd in Washingtoncovenant: We are not only drawn together in ecstatic union; we must also promise to live in ways that will sustain our relationship with God. Perhaps the most foundational commitment that God stipulated for the Hebrews was that they worship nothing except God.(3) Without Israel's commitment to this basic guideline, there was no hope for the covenant to endure; idolatry would make intimate relationship with God impossible.

Just as God called Israel to specific commitments as conditions of the covenant, we today must pledge ourselves to a new way of living in Christ Jesus. If we are faithful in our commitments to God and one another, the covenant will lead us ever deeper into a life of joy and peace. But to be true to our calling, we must embrace a life of responsibility to one another in Christ.

Living the Covenant Today

Just how does this play out in our Christian communities today? Far from being an outdated concept, covenant is at the heart of anyFriends in Brussels, Belgium human community that seeks to serve God and experience more abundant life. When we encounter Jesus in our midst, we are drawn into his new covenant: a life of union with God and transformation as children of light. We must be ready to make ourselves vulnerable, just like the ancients sought to through ritual sacrifice. Instead of sacrificing animals, we must sacrifice our selfish ambition, our self-loathing, our hopes and our fears - anything that gets in the way of the deep, risky relationship that God wants to have with us.

And our vulnerability to God must move beyond the theoretical and touch the daily realities of our lives. Covenant with God and the people of God must have practical effects, reflected in shared commitment on the part of individuals and communities as a whole. Israel's covenant at Sinai made them very different from the peoples around them. They experienced the presence and power of God among them, and they waited on the Lord to be shown which direction to travel. Israel became a people set apart; their dress, dietary regulations and unusual dedication to one God distinguished them sharply from their neighbors.

How have we experienced God together in our community? Do we feel the presence of Christ in our times of worship, fellowship andSitting on the porch at William Penn House service? How does this experience invite us to live differently? What are the ways that we are being called to commit ourselves to a new way of living - one which will at once draw us closer to one another and to God, as well as challenging our ability to blend into the wider culture and lead ordinary lives? What specific steps are we being asked to take - both as individuals and as communities - to signal our acceptance of this new covenant, our living relationship with Jesus Christ?


2. Exodus 23
3. Exodus 24
4. See Exodus 20

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Membership, Covenant and Engagement: Membership in the Body

Transformation in Community

As we accept the Good News that Jesus is present with us today, we are called to make radical changes in our lives. These changes goQuaker Youth Pilgrimage visits Freedom Friends Church far deeper than any that we could effect on our own, touching not only our outward behavior, but also our inward life. And the Holy Spirit is active not only in the individual human heart, but flows throughout all relationships. God works in groups as well as in the solitary heart. In fact, because human beings are social creatures, a great deal of God's work on the individual is done in the context of community.

If we are to experience the kind of transformation that characterized the early Church, we must seek God's face together, not only as a loose collection of individuals, but as a body. Quakers use the term "body" to refer to united communities of Friends, because we have a sense that a group that is brought into unity under the headship of Christ is no longer merely the sum of the individual members; these individuals have become something more, something that includes but transcends all of our unique personalities. When we are living together in the Spirit, we find that we have truly become the Body of Christ.

The early Christians discovered this miraculous development on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came with power andAnnual Gathering of Illinois Yearly Meeting gathered the Church together as a spiritual communion. Jews who were visiting Jerusalem from across the Mediterranean were swept up in this movement of the Spirit, and rapidly became a body of thousands (Acts 2). The same thing happened in the early days of the Quaker and Pentecostal movements, as large numbers of people were knitted together in the bonds of love and devotion to God.

The Spirit continues to move. Christ continues to gather his people today. There are congregations, intentional communities and mission groups around the globe that are daily being brought into unity through Christ's Spirit. In the presence of the Risen Lord, we discover that we have become members of one another.

The Individual and Membership

Membership means coming into relationship with others who are committed to following Jesus, placing our lives in the context of hisSharing fellowship at Warrington Quarterly Meeting (Baltimore YM) Life. In a world that values competition, Christ shows us how to bear one another's burdens and share our joy. In a society that is often hopeless, the Holy Spirit reveals the hope of transformation and justice. In a culture where the individual is regarded as the supreme measure of what is to be valued, our Heavenly Father shows us that his plan flows through neighborhoods and families, organizations and nations. We find that we are members of one other; together we are reorienting our lives to serve God and embody the love and justice of Jesus Christ.

We do not select the membership of the Church. Membership is a spiritual reality that we as human communities can acknowledge - but we cannot create it. It is God who draws us together and unites us in the Spirit. When we are open to God's power among us, we will find ourselves drawn into community with an unlikely assortment of people. Christ invites all people into his abundant life, gathering us and forging the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood in our Meetings.

While it is Christ alone who can gather us together as a body, there is value in recognizing his unifying work. By recording the gift ofA work day at Pipe Creek Meeting House membership as a community, we recognize the reality of the Church; and we commit ourselves to submitting to one another in Christ. Just as two people are united by God in the bond of marriage, communities can also be united under the headship of Christ. And, just as we formally recognize and support marriage as a community, so should we also acknowledge and support membership.

When we formalize the marital union of a couple, we promise to be available to them, to counsel them, to care for them as their relationship matures, deepens, and goes through inevitable rough patches. At the same time, we promise to hold the couple accountable to their promises before God and the Church. If there is trouble in the relationship, we as witnesses to the marriage have a responsibility to offer aid and counsel. By formalizing the marriage, we take responsibility for it as a community.

Just as we have a responsibility to nurture and care for marriages, so too must we care for membership, which is a fundamental building block of a healthy congregation. By formally recognizing membership, we have the opportunity to commit ourselves to a shared life of discipleship, holding each other accountable and submitting ourselves to Christ and one another. This mutual submission in Christ is at the heart of covenantal community.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Membership, Covenant and Engagement: Introduction

The Search for Depth and Meaning

There is a hunger in western society today for a sense of purpose and belonging that goes deeper than the daily grind. We live in aWorkers at Eastern Market, DC world that is overwhelmingly focused on profit and appearance rather than service and substance. While some of us are fortunate to have paid work that to some degree satisfies our need for meaningful labor and community, there are many others for whom their professional life is mostly a burden to be endured - a transaction of time and energy for a paycheck.

Even for many of those with a satisfying professional life, something is still missing. Despite financial success and career advancement, there remains a subtle emptiness in our lives that we cannot shake. We attempt to address this void in a variety of ways: Volunteering at charitable organizations; taking up hobbies; or numbing out with television, music, internet, shopping, alcohol and drugs. In a world where we are consistently told that we are responsible for our own happiness, we find that we are incapable of producing purpose. The depth of life that our hearts desire remains out of reach.

The Myth of the Rugged Individual

The myth many of us have been raised with is: "If you are smart and hard-working, you can have anything you want. It's up to you."Shoppers at open-air market in DC Despite the optimism of this creed, many of us have found that our new national myth is false on multiple counts. To begin with, no matter how much we have educated ourselves and no matter how hard we have worked, real depth of purpose eludes us. The Western dream of endless prosperity and opportunity is revealed to be shallow and selfish; we are spiritual orphans listening to ipods in air-conditioned offices. We can have anything we want, perhaps, if all we want is soul-numbing entertainment.

Furthermore, we discover that we as individuals are not capable of accomplishing anything. We depend upon a web of interconnected relationships and social conditions, many of which are harmful and hold us back from growing to our fullest potential. Though we were brought up to believe that our destiny depended primarily on our own personal decisions, we come to see that our decisions are only a small piece of the overall picture. We cannot exist - much less achieve our goals - except in the context of community.

And some communities are more conducive to peace and fulfillment than others. Most of the subcultures in our society focus on goalsWorkers at Eastern Market, DC other than serving God and neighbor. In many of our offices and barracks, schools and nonprofits, competition and self-interest are valued above compassion and self-sacrifice. Nation-states demand loyalty and support even as they routinely harm others in the pursuit of greater wealth and power - developing horrible weapons and dominating neighbors. We abuse the earth, hideously disfiguring God's creation, all in the name of "growth and development." Clearly, there are many human communities today whose ends and means are starkly at odds with the Reign of Christ.

But there is an alternative. There is a community in which each person can find the deepest wholeness and purpose, in which the human family as a whole can experience love and peace, showing respect for God's creation in all its grandeur and beauty. The Church - the community of those who follow Jesus and participate in his life, death and resurrection - is this community. When we live in Christ, we find that our entire worldview shifts; instead of having our character and destiny dictated by the prevailing human culture, we are transformed by the living presence of Christ in the community of his friends. We participate in him, and his life becomes the setting for our own. In him alone we find true freedom, experiencing the depth and purpose that we have longed for all our lives.

Emigrating to the Kingdom of God

Think about it this way: If a person relocates to a foreign country, they are not simply changing locations - they are fundamentallyVendor at Eastern Market, DC altering their entire frame of reference. This change may not be clear at first, and the emigrant may cling for a long time to the way of life left behind in their home country; they may continue to eat their country's food, speak their native language, and relate to others as they would in their home environment. However, over time, the emigrant slowly but surely absorbs the local culture of the country to which they have relocated.

Over the course of months and years, the emigrant's life is reoriented around the language, assumptions and way of life of their adopted country. Eventually, when the emigrant returns to their country of origin for a visit, they feel out of place in the land they used to call home. Their transition into a new frame of reference is complete - they are now more adapted to their new country than they are to their homeland.

When we commit to following the guidance of Christ's Spirit over all else, we have effectively emigrated. We were once members of theWalking up stairs dominant society, but when we began to follow Jesus we forfeited citizenship in our earthly nations. Our process of growth in Christ is one of naturalization into the Church. As we are reoriented to the language, assumptions and way of life of our new community in Christ, we are transformed - not merely by our conscious, personal choice, but by our ongoing participation in the Church.

Making it Through Customs: Membership, Covenant and Engagement

In the essays that follow, we will explore what it looks like for us to change our spiritual nationality. We will consider the role of the individual, the Church, and the wider society as we transition away from being primarily participants in the dominant culture, becoming citizens of the Kingdom of God. We will examine the concepts of membership, covenant and engagement, looking at the ways in which individuals are nurtured and sustained by the community of disciples. Then, we will consider the role of communal decision-making, and how discernment takes place at all levels of the Church. Finally, we will look at the fruits of corporate discernment: the shared work that we as the Church undertake to make the love of Jesus visible to everyone.

As we explore the meaning of membership, covenant and engagement, we discover the way that Jesus is alive and active, showing love and mercy to the individual, the community of faith, and the world as a whole.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Church Is Not Facebook

The Steady March of Progress - And Alienation

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, those of us in the industrialized West have become increasingly isolated from one another as we have grown in wealth, technological prowess and personal mobility. Our small towns and rural areas have been drained of their population, especially young people, and today we witness the process of urbanization reaching its natural conclusion. It is common for Americans to live in a different region of the country from that which they grew up in, and the vast hinterland is mostly consigned to resource extraction, whether in the form of factory-style agriculture or the extraction of resources, such as oil, natural gas, timber and coal.

As we become more and more alienated from the land and from fixed human communities, many of us have lost the strong senseDowntown DC of place that has characterized most of human history. The internet, along with cheap fossil-fueled long-distance travel, makes it possible for like-minded individuals in vastly different geographical, social and cultural contexts to form a sense of community, and to maintain that sense of community through ongoing communication and collaboration. For many today, there is a stronger sense of affinity with a group of friends and acquaintances scattered across the globe than there is within the local neighborhood.

The Church Used to Be Facebook

What implications does this have for our life as the Church? Traditionally, the local congregation formed a hub of relationships that permeated the wider society. In many places, especially in rural areas and small towns, being a member of a church was practically equivalent to being a part of the community as a whole. Codified in practices such as infant baptism, churches functioned as a sort of old-school Facebook: Most everyone was a part of a church, and churches served as an important common ground for a culturally Christian society.

But a lot has changed in the last centuries, decades. Small towns and rural life appear to be on the edge of extinction, and theA church building Church has become increasingly marginalized. The Church is still mostly a social club, an old-fashioned social network. But now, Google is a far more universal point of contact. And, for the majority of us who have come to live in a diverse metropolis, it makes a whole lot more sense for our social networks to be digital - and secular. The churches worked well enough as a general purpose "social network" when we lived in communities inhabited mostly by people who were at least nominally Christian. But the realities of the 21st-century urban West are quite different. We live in a multi-cultural, interfaith society, and Christian churches seem of little value as a place to meet our neighbors when most of our neighbors are Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or Humanist.

The Humble Way of Jesus

So, what should the role of the Church be today, in our cosmopolitan, inter-religious, and increasingly secular society? If the Church continues down the route of inertia, insisting that we are still at the center of western culture, we will only compound our irrelevance and inability to share the gospel with our neighbors. In fact, if we decide to maintain the illusion of our own centrality and importance, we have probably missed the point of Jesus' message altogether. The end of this path is stagnation, insularity and, ultimately, death - for all things die eventually when they have outlived their usefulness.

I would like to suggest that there is another way in which we can walk together as the Church, the same one that Jesus followed:Walking in Richmond, Indiana The way of humility and self-sacrificing love, valuing the wholeness and restoration of others over our own privileges and assumptions. If we are ready to follow in the humble way of Jesus, recognizing that we as Christians are no longer (and never should have expected to be) the center of the universe, we may be ready to start down the path of engagement with our culture from the perspective of the margins.

Engagement from the Margins

Once we recognize and accept that Christianity is no longer the dominant cultural force in our society, we are freed to engage with the whole of society without needing to defend our privileged position. We can form relationships with all of the religious and non-religious communities in our towns and cities; we are free to integrate our lives, inviting our Muslim co-workers and atheist neighbors to share our lives with us. We can let go of the burden that we have carried for so long, of deciding who is in and who is out - because we're not in charge anymore.

On the contrary, we are once again in the position of the early Church, which shared the gospel as a small minority in a vast, Eastern Market, DCcosmopolitan, pagan Empire. Just like in the early days of the Jesus movement, we today can only share the Good News of Jesus if we humble ourselves and learn to speak to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and worldviews. When we acknowledge that we are not in control of our society, we are freed to be humble witnesses to the power of God. We can share the gospel freely with all who have ears to hear it as we learn to communicate the message to people in the vast variety of conditions in which we find them in our pluralist, post-Christendom society.

Have no doubt: The overthrow of cultural Christianity in the West is a blessing. As time passes, it is becoming increasingly clear to everyone that Christians no longer govern our society, and Christians are increasingly powerless to impose an interpretation of Christian faith on their non-Christian fellow citizens. As Christianity becomes visibly marginalized as a political force, we as followers of Jesus have a great opportunity to bear witness to the life and power of Christ. We can reveal the true nature of the gospel, which relies not upon outward power and coercion, but instead invites all people into a loving Parent-child relationship with God, and into a brother-sister relationship with our fellow men and women.

The Church is not Facebook. We are no longer insiders, nor the center of attention. But we do have work to do. Let us be like Paul, who explained his ministry to the Corinthians like this:

"...I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God." (1 Corinthians 2:3-5)

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Word is Near to You

But what [do the Scriptures] say? "The word is near to you, on your lips and in your heart." - Romans 10:8

Last night I attended a Bible study in Congress Heights. Those in attendance were from different Christian backgrounds. Besides me, there was a Methodist, a person who grew up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting and is now attending a Roman Catholic church, as well as several people who are members of a local Churches of Christ congregation, including their pastor. This evening, the pastor was leading our Bible study.

At the previous Bible study, I had gotten into a fairly lively discussion with the pastor about the role of Scripture in relation toMy Bible the role of the Holy Spirit, the scriptural basis of women in ministry, and other rather intense topics that should not be discussed over dinner. So, I braced myself when the pastor announced that our study that evening would be on the authority of Scripture.

He guided us through about a dozen Bible verses from the New Testament, explaining the scriptural basis for the supremacy of the Bible as the rule for Christian life. In his understanding, the Bible - the Old and New Testaments together - is the written Word of God. As a Quaker, my understanding of the role of Scripture is different from his, and I struggled with how to engage with his (and his fellow churchgoers') understanding of the Bible.

In my reading of Scripture, I see the term "word of God" used in two ways. First, it is used as a name for the Son of God, JesusImage of Jesus Christ on Reformation Lutheran church building, Capitol Hill, DC Christ, who is the creative force behind the universe (For examples, see Revelation 19:13; John 1; 1 John 1:1-3). Most Christians - including my brothers and sisters at the Bible study - would not deny that Jesus is the Word of God. They can read the plain meaning of Scripture just as easily as I can, and it's hard to deny the textual evidence for giving this title to Jesus, the creative power behind all of creation.

But there is indeed another sense in which the term "word" is used in Scripture. The Word of God can, without a doubt, mean Jesus; but it is also used to mean the commands and teaching of God. A prime example of this usage of "the word" is found in the Torah, one of the foundational texts of Judaism (and, by extension, Christianity):

Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. - Deuteronomy 30:11-14

In this passage, Moses explains that the commands that the Hebrews have received from God are not simply a code ofHebrew Scriptures regulations that are written down on scrolls. On the contrary, God's law and teaching are available to every person and every community. The teaching of God is not a once-and-for-all event; instead, God continues to guide each one of us through the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our midst as the Church. The Word of God never changes - Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) - but we, God's people, do change. Our needs change; our context changes; our challenges are different from day to day. God, in great mercy and compassion, continues to walk beside us and show us how to live in our present context.

The apostle Paul remarked on this phenomenon of Christ's direct guidance within the human heart, pointing out that following God is possible without having any knowledge of the Scriptures or of the Christian tradition. He explained, "When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law unto themselves. They show what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness..." (Romans 2:14-15). Though the Scriptures and the Judeo-Christian tradition are of great help in walking in the Way of Jesus, the ultimate foundation of our faith and life in Christ is our inward experience of Christ's presence, God's law written on our hearts.

I was saddened to hear one of the members of our Bible study say that she was envious of the people she read about in the OldEden Testament, who had full access to God. Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in Eden, and Abraham and Moses had regular conversations with the Almighty. She wished she had a similar "direct line" to God. How I longed for her to experience the living presence of God today, and that continual, personal relationship that each of us can have with our Creator! I wondered whether her church's teaching that the Bible is the "written Word of God," presented a stumbling block to her having that kind of intimate, direct relationship with Christ. How could it not be a barrier to have your religious community tell you time and time again that all connection with God must be mediated through the Scriptures?

I struggle with how to communicate the centrality of Christ's inward presence with my non-Quaker brothers and sisters. The Scriptures are very precious to me, and I would never want to denigrate their usefulness in helping us grow in our relationship with Jesus. Nevertheless, I question this over-emphasis on the perfection, completeness and God-like authority of the Scriptures. I fear that many of my brothers and sisters risk losing sight of the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the Living Word, and substituting a dead letter - "holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:5).

I pray that we discover the living, inward presence of Christ, so that we can say with Paul: "...I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is theLiving the Word power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith..." (Romans 1:16). The true gospel is not merely the words that have been written under divine inspiration; Jesus and his gospel cannot be fully captured by any text (see John 21:25).

Rather than seeking to assure ourselves that we have pinned Christ down, let us humbly confess that we understand now only in part, but that as we continue to be led by the Holy Spirit we will be brought into the fullness of Christ's Kingdom (1 Corinthians 13:12). I pray that the eternal, living gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ may come to you, "not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction..." (1 Thessalonians 1:5).