Thursday, June 11, 2009

Micah's Ministry Newsletter #7

Dear Children of Light,

I write to you from Richmond, Indiana, home of Friends United Meeting's North American office. This week, FUM's General Board is coming together for its three-times-per-year business meeting. As I write to you about the way God has been working in my life and in the life of Friends in the Great Plains region, I ask you to take a moment to pray for Friends United Meeting. I further request that you continue to hold FUM in prayer. FUM as an organization and as a fellowship of Friends is severely tested at this time, with financial, spiritual and intercultural difficulties that threaten to overwhelm the tenuous unity that Orthodox Friends do have after almost two centuries of schism and contention. We on the General Board need your prayers this week, as we come together to discern the future of FUM. Please pray that Christ's presence be keenly felt here among us, and that we be receptive to our Present Teacher and Lord.

Before I dive into the depths of discernment with Friends in Richmond, I would like to update you about the events of the past few weeks among Friends in the heartland of the United States. Three main events have taken place since I last wrote you: A visit among Friends in Saint Louis; a visit to the Meetings of Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence, and Kansas City; and Great Plains Yearly Meeting, which met this past weekend at University Friends Meeting, in Wichita. This has been a time of intense activity, spiritual preparation, and discernment.

St. Louis Friends Meeting

I spent Sunday, 24 May, with St. Louis Friends Meeting, part of Illinois Yearly Meeting. I enjoyed my visit among Friends in St. Louis, staying with a lovely family from the Meeting who opened their home to me for several days. I was very grateful for their graciousness as hosts and their eagerness to share about their lives and their experiences among Friends in the St. Louis area. My interaction with the Meeting as a whole was limited to a few hours on Sunday morning. Despite the brevity of my visit, I felt that I received some sense of those who were gathered. Their meetinghouse was lovely. It seemed to have been converted from something else, but I was not sure what. I appreciated the meetingroom, which had soaring ceilings and enormous windows that bathed the space in light. The meeting for worship itself was quite grounded ("more than usual," a local Friend told me) and fairly large (by Great Plains standards, anyway). I estimated that there were probably thirty or so in attendance that morning. I was grateful for the chance to visit Friends in St. Louis and for the hospitality that I was shown.

The I-70 Corridor

The following weekend, I made another trip to be with Friends in Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence, and Kansas City. I am always astonished by the joy which I feel when I am among Friends along the I-70 Corridor. I tell them that they are the closest the Great Plains comes to being like "out East" - in this little strip of Kansas-Missouri, Meetings are less than an hour apart! But my joy at being with Friends here comes not from blessings of geography, but instead from the quality of their fellowship and their hunger for God's presence. Friends in Manhattan are doing well, despite the recent loss of two key members who have moved to Virginia. They are presently exploring Quaker understandings of marriage, as two sojourners from the Kansas City area have asked to marry under the care of the Meeting.

I was delighted to see new faces everywhere I went during this trip, and my visit to Topeka was probably the prime example of this. I spent most of my time in Topeka with several members who I had not met before. They gave me a tour of the scenic Potwin neighborhood in Topeka, and we sat together on one family's porch in that neighborhood, getting to know each other better. We talked a great deal about the history of Topeka Meeting, and Friends noted how it had been in decline in terms of membership and energy for the past decade or more. Friends expressed their hope that the Meeting might recover the vitality that it once had, but there was uncertainty as to what form that recovery might take.

I spent Sunday morning with Friends at Oread Meeting, in Lawrence, and I went out to lunch with three Friends from the Meeting after the service. I was sad that more Friends did not feel able to meet with me and share about their Meeting, though I was grateful for the few who did. In Kansas City, at Penn Valley Friends Meeting, quite a few Friends turned out to share a potluck dinner with me at their meetinghouse, and I was very encouraged by our conversation during and following the meal. Friends at Penn Valley Meeting are very earnest and have a hunger to learn more about the wider Quaker world. I was encouraged by their enthusiasm and their thirst for the things of the Spirit. I pray that I may be able to visit them, and all of these Meetings, again in the near future.

Great Plains Yearly Meeting

As I mentioned in my previous newsletter, I have sought to spiritually prepare myself during these past weeks for the annual sessions of Great Plains Yearly Meeting, which took place 4-7 June. It is as if my entire year had been inclining towards this moment, the yearly meeting being to my year what Sunday meeting for worship is to my week. Yearly Meeting time is a moment to pause and discern with the wider body of Friends what God is calling us to in the coming year. I went into the sessions holding before God my ministry among Friends in this region, and asking God to guide me and Faith as to the next steps in our walk in Christ. As a part of this discernment, there was a review of the past year's ministry with GPYM's Ministry and Counsel. We heard from my Oversight Committee, as well as from representatives from each Monthly Meeting in the Yearly Meeting about how they had experienced my ministry.

Finally, Ministry and Counsel considered the future of my ministry in the Great Plains. It quickly became clear that some Friends in the Yearly Meeting were out of unity with my ministry. Some were uncomfortable with their perception of my theology. Some did not see how my work fit into our current model of ministry - there's really not an easy "job description" for what I am engaged in. Some were uncertain of how they felt about free gospel ministry - witness to the Seed of Christ in all people, in the tradition of the Apostle Paul and George Fox. A visiting Friend pointed out that Great Plains Yearly Meeting had a choice: We could stick to our status quo of routine and ritual; or we could embrace an apostolic ministry, which would not fit our current plans, but which would shake us up and call us to deeper faithfulness as a Church. The road that we were on, this Friend insisted, would lead ever downward into stagnation; but the apostolic ministry builds up, even as it challenges our feelings of self-satisfaction and safety.

Ministry and Counsel concluded by drafting the following minute:

Friends are deeply grateful for Micah's faithful service among us this past year. Nevertheless, we do not feel able to lend the kind of support that would enable Micah to continue as a released Friend. Our Yearly Meeting simply is not yet at a place where we can corporately affirm an apostolic ministry. With needs so great and laborers so few, it grieves us not to be able to fully take advantage of Micah's willingness to serve among us.

We are encouraged that Micah continues to feel a burden for Friends in the Great Plains. As we look to the future, we hope that opportunities will present themselves for Micah to continue in service to Friends in the Great Plains. We thus authorize the preparation of a general travel minute to facilitate his continued ministry as way may open. (One Friend stood aside on the authorization of a general travel minute.)

I was initially saddened by this outcome, because I had hoped that Friends would feel led to release me to continue ministry in the Great Plains region. But as it became clear that there was not unity for this, I felt an unexpected joy in my heart. I knew that I had been faithful, and that that was sufficient. I did not (and do not) know what the future holds for me and Faith, but I felt deep certainty in that moment that God's purposes were being worked out in me and that God would provide for tomorrow, just as God is providing for today.

Most of the rest of GPYM was fairly routine, but Saturday evening was remarkable. "The future of GPYM" had been on the agenda for business meeting and was supposed to have been up for discussion during the second-to-last business meeting on Saturday. However, there was so much other business, including the approval of the long-awaited Yearly Meeting Handbook, that business was about to close without discussing our future at all. As the clerk was about to close our sessions, visitor Jonathan Vogel-Borne asked, "what about the future?" The assistant clerk looked at his watch and said, "well, we have two minutes left. Would anyone like to talk about the future?" I was on my feet and at the front of the assembled Body before I knew what I was doing.

I was so grateful for those Friends who were holding me in prayer in that moment, because I was quite disoriented. I just knew that I had to speak to the Body. I tried to calm myself, praying for guidance before I spoke. I told Friends, "I'm going to speak for myself, and I hope that some of God comes out." I told Friends that I was disappointed with them for letting annual sessions slip by without wrestling with our future as a Yearly Meeting. I told them that I was concerned that we have become as formal as the Pharisees or the Christians of George Fox's day, mistaking routine for virtue and form for substance. I told them that I loved them all, and I begged them to humble themselves and open themselves to the presence of Christ in their hearts, to follow that inward guidance. Because the status quo hasn't been working for a long time.

This led to a time of open worship. It was a remarkable time of deep prayer out of which some Friends spoke, encouraging Friends in Great Plains Yearly Meeting not to give up the race, but to press forward in faith. Immediately following that, Friends reassembled downstairs to hear Jonathan Vogel-Borne speak for the third time. Jonathan spoke with reference to Ezekiel and the dry bones, and there was a palpable covering of the Holy Spirit among us, which continued as we returned to open worship. Some gave vocal ministry out of this silence that was distinctly Spirit-led and prophetic. Following this time of deep worship, we continued worship as we sang hymns together.

This was, without a doubt, the most spiritually-active session of Great Plains Yearly Meeting that I have experienced since I first attended in 2004. The air was thickened at times with God's presence, and it was clear that the Holy Spirit was working on us, calling us to greater faithfulness and vision. I do not know what the future holds, but I am at peace. The Day Star shines in the darkness and exposes our strongholds of rebellion. The Lamb's War is underway and Christ's victory is assured. I only pray that we will turn, that we will yield, that we will allow God to shape us into what we were meant to be - a holy people, set apart to do the work of Love in the world.

Next Steps

My summer is looking to be quite intense. I will be in Richmond all this week for General Board meetings. The week after next, I will be helping out with Quivering Arrow Camp, a Friends summer camp for children in Northern Oklahoma, headed up by Brad Wood, pastor of Kickapoo Friends (Mid-America YM). Shortly thereafter I will be leaving Wichita to travel throughout the United States for most of the summer, up until my wedding on September 5th. Among my intended travels are: Evangelical Friends Church - Eastern Region, Northwest Yearly Meeting, and Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative). I also hope to visit Friends in Michigan, and may visit other Friends as way opens.

As for after September 5th - God only knows. Faith and I are in active discernment about where we are going to land after the wedding, but this has still not been made clear to us. We hope that God will let us in on the secret soon. We can wait, though; we know God is at work and has a plan for us, even if we can't see it yet.

I pray that you experience the peace of Christ in your midst and in your hearts as we strive together in the work that God has laid out for us.

Your friend in Christ,

Micah Bales