Friday, August 21, 2009

Health Care and the Cross

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under
the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."

-Philippians 2:5-11

Yesterday afternoon, president Barak Obama gave an online press conference for his supporters. The "town hall" style interaction and Obama's remarks were designed both to allay fears and to rally the energy and support of those who are in favor of health care reform and who have been disoriented by the right-wing offensive against any kind of reform that we have witnessed in the media and online in the past couple of weeks.

What the president said did reassure me. As far as his remarks yesterday were concerned, he displayed a stance that indicated an enduring support for a public health care option and a desire to push this legislation through, even if it's ultimately along party lines. I was pleased to see him re-affirming his support for the public option and his unwillingness to put up with obstructionism on the part of the Republicans who only seek to destroy the president and the emergent progressive political wave in the United States. He and members of Congress still need to be pressured on a regular basis and not allowed to forget why we elected them - but it was reassuring to hear him say the things that he said.

In my relief, I began to reflect on the extremely negative reaction that I had to a New York Times report a few days ago, which suggested that Obama was possibly backing down on providing a public option for health care. This afternoon, it has occurred to me that while my position on the issue is to some extent based on righteous indignation and a demand for justice, there is also an element of personal fear and defensiveness in it. I am afraid of what might happen to me and my family should our present system of for-profit medicine continue.

It came to me in a flash that, if I allow myself to act out of this fear and instinct for self-preservation, I will deny the cross. If I try to defend myself - or even those I love - from the injustice of the for-profit health care system, I will take the way of the zealot instead of the way of the cross. The way of the zealot, lashing out defensively against injustice and seeking to defend myself and other through force or evasion, is the way that comes naturally to me; but I know that I am called to follow the example of my crucified Lord.

I must not put my trust in chariots or high walls, nor in human rulers. As a Christian, I am called to speak and witness prophetically to those who are powerful in our society - to civil authorities, powerful organizations and elite families - but my prophecy cannot be from a position of power or defensiveness. On the contrary, it must be from the position of one who is willing to endure the punishment of the powerful and the consequences of their sin. I as a son of God must be prepared to be crucified just like our Lord. I cannot hang onto any pretentions of self-defense.

So, yes, I am called to witness to those who are seated on the thrones of human power. I am called to announce the year of the Lord's favor, the setting free of the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and healing for all, regardless of economic condition. I am called to appeal to the imprisioned Seed of Christ in the hearts of temporal authorities. But if these powerful people are unmoved by my testimony and proceed to trample the children of God with their wickedness and greed, I am called to suffer.

Instead of feeling indignant at those who value profit more than my life and health, I am called to witness to them, seeking their redemption that they may be turned from darkness to light and made sons and daughters of God. I am called to witness to them in my suffering; even my death. I am called to bear witness to Christ's unspeakable love for them through my willingness to die for them to bring them this message.

The Kingdom I am called to live in is one in which perfect love has cast out all fear. Where the fear has gone, all that remains is loving concern for those who despise and persecute the innocent lambs of God. I trust my Good Shepherd to see me through all suffering. My focus is not to be on my own trials but on the terrible spiritual danger of my fellow men and women who oppress the Seed of Christ with their greed, ambition and fear.

I am called to be life, a giver of life and true love - a love that confronts evil, even when evil threatens to kill it. I am called to lay down my life for my friends, yes, and for my enemies as well. When I am in Christ, I am free to lay down my life because I have been given so much more. Eternal life. Unlimited life. Unbounded, indescribable, free life. When I am in Christ, those who seek my life can have it: for all I desire is their entrance into the true life of our beautiful Savior, Jesus Christ.

I see in the Spirit of Christ how we are called out of all war and strife, and into the blessed peace of the cross. All contention is silenced because we have been nailed to the cross, put to death, and raised to new life in our Lord and Redeemer. When I know this love and life, I am ready to lay down my life so that the insurance executive or member of congress might be brought into the Truth of Christ and out of their wickedness and greed. The Seed of Christ struggles within them to bring them into true peace and the mercy of God. May I be an instrument of that salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Micah's Ministry Newsletter #10 - Ohio Yearly Meeting

Dear Children of Light,

Following Northwest Yearly Meeting, Faith and I flew back to Ohio. She soon returned to the William Penn House, in Washington, DC, while I made my way to the sessions of Ohio Yearly Meeting, in Barnesville. I was pleased to return to Barnesville after being away for the past year. I feel a special peace and tenderness to the Lord when I am among Friends in Barnesville, and I was grateful for the sense of homecoming I felt at Stillwater meetinghouse after what had been in some ways an emotionally and spiritually difficult summer. I arrived fairly early, so I had about a day to settle in before the business began. I had a good time shucking corn, cutting up fruits and vegetables, and catching up with friends.

I had experienced Conservative Friends' business the previous summer, when I visited Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and also sat in on a small bit of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Having had that experience, business at Ohio Yearly Meeting was familiar. I was again impressed by the Conservative tradition of having the clerk both preside and record. I found it particularly good practice the way in which Conservative Friends prepare their minutes during meeting for business, presenting the wording of each minute for approval at the time it is being discussed. This way, there is no need to go back and review minutes and approve them at a later time. Each minute is composed and approved then and there. Friends worked together to guide the body's discernment and come to Spirit-led decisions; and most of the time it seemed like there were many clerks, not just the one at the clerk's table.

Business at OYM is slow. Sometimes breathtakingly so. There are long stretches of silence between items of business, allowing the clerk time to compose a minute to be approved then and there by the body. One thing that particularly struck me about the business I observed at OYM was the way in which the clerk would wait and ask questions of the body to ensure that there was indeed clarity of God's will for Friends. Even when Friends were in easy agreement, the clerk would wait and encourage Friends to seek clarity from Christ. I believe this is valuable. It was recently pointed out at a clerking workshop at Northwest Yearly Meeting that the times when we are in most danger of making a mistake is when all are in agreement from the beginning. I respect the way in which OYM takes the time to sit with questions that they think they know the answers to, leaving room for God to work and overturn their assumptions.

A great amount of the business this year had to do with queries. OYM takes a great deal of time answering queries: First on a Monthly Meeting level; then synthesizing these answers at their Quarterly Meetings. Finally, at the Yearly Meeting, the Quarterly Meeting responses to the queries are read and synthesized into a single response for the Yearly Meeting as a whole. This year, in addition to answering the queries as a body, the Yearly Meeting also undertook to revise one query which speaks to oaths and gambling/speculation. The query had read in a way that admonished Friends not to sign statements "under penalty of perjury," nor to "affirm." Some Friends pointed out that signing a statement "under penalty of perjury" or "affirming" a legal statement is not equivalent to swearing an oath. Instead, signing or affirming such statements is a statement of agreement to be held legally liable for falsehood. Friends accepted this correction and amended the eighth query accordingly.

Seeing how much time and energy OYM Friends devote to them, I came to appreciate what the queries have to offer us as Friends. Friends at OYM discussed why the queries were important to them, and their reasons included the importance of the queries in: establishing and maintaining Christian identity and spiritual understanding as a corporate body; teaching us how to live as Christians and helping us be accountable; and encouraging Meetings to have a corporate relationship with Christ and to be established as a Christian body. They also spoke of how the queries were useful for individuals: challenging us to greater faithfulness; calling us to accountability to one another and to Christ; and providing a sense of connection between (affiliate) members who live at a distance and correspond with their Monthly Meeting, giving their individual reponses to the queries.

Overall, I was very impressed by Ohio Yearly Meeting. I am comforted to see a Friends body that is unreservedly Christian and clearly committed to the Friends tradition, including waiting (unprogrammed) worship. I think that Friends in Ohio often feel compelled to over-state their Christianity as they seek to distinguish themselves from other bodies of Friends that disregard the centrality of Christ Jesus. While there is sometimes a certain rigidity in their stance, there is also undeniable truth in it. This truth attracts me to Ohio Friends. I appreciate their unwillingness to water down their theology or their practice.

And I'm not the only one who is attracted. Ohio Yearly Meeting, after more than a century of decline, is growing once again. It is growing numerically, spiritually and in terms of morale. This year, Friends celebrated as they welcomed Crossroads Friends Meeting into full Monthly Meeting status. This was the second Monthly Meeting to be added to OYM in two years. The last time that two Meetings were added to OYM in such a short period of time was in 1866. This growth is due in large part to a new wave of evangelism undertaken by OYM Friends in the past years. Friends are laboring to encourage new Conservative worship groups across their region, throughout the United States, and even in other countries. If the Lord wills it, we can expect to see continued growth among Friends in the tradition of Ohio Yearly Meeting - Meetings that bear witness to the Quaker understanding of the gospel of our Risen Lord, Jesus Christ.

During this period of new growth and vitality, there seem to be two primary tendencies or streams in the body of Ohio Yearly Meeting: The first is those who are of an Evangelical bent, but who appreciate waiting (unprogrammed) worship. It is important to them to be clear on the fundamental doctrines of Christian faith, as well as practicing a listening spirituality. The other significant group is those who are attracted to the hyper-traditionalism that OYM allows room for. Of those in attendance at OYM this year, I would guess that roughly half were in some form of plain dress - that is, they wore clothes that visibly marked them as separate from "the world." This ranged from those whose dress was remarkably simple to those who wore Quaker attire that would probably be suited for historical reenactment of eighteenth century Friends. Many men wore suspenders, broad-brimmed hats, buttoned-up shirts, non-descript slacks, and black shoes. Many women wore bonnets or other head coverings, as well as a simple dress and simple black shoes. Many Friends, both plain-dressed and not, used plain speech ("Thy fly is unzipped, Friend"). I enjoyed the plain language, and used it myself often. It serves as a form of intimate address among spiritual brothers and sisters.

After Ohio Yearly Meeting, I caught a ride with Tyler Hampton and a couple of folks from New City Friends in Detroit. At this time, I am staying with Tyler and Ray at their home in the city of Detroit. I praise God for allowing me this time of rest and reflection as my wedding approaches. In the past weeks, I have been increasingly feeling that God is calling me to prayer and rest from labor. I pray that I may be faithful in resting, just as I have sought to be faithful in laboring. In many ways, resting is harder.

I appreciate the correspondence that I have received from Friends, and I hope that you will continue to write to me as the Lord leads. I hope to see many of you at Faith and my wedding on September 5th, at Stillwater Meetinghouse. All are invited. (Click here for details.)

God bless you. May each of us continue to be brought more deeply into the Way of Jesus.

With love,

Micah Bales

Monday, August 03, 2009

Micah's Ministry Newsletter #9

Dear Friends of Truth,

Faith and I were pleased to be with Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting during their annual sessions this year in Newberg, Oregon. Northwest Yearly Meeting is a group of Evangelical Friends churches in the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho. I have personal connections with Northwest Friends, as my father grew up in this Yearly Meeting, and my grandmother and aunt are still active members. I had visited them last year, and I was very pleased at what I observed and experienced among them. I feel confident in saying that they are one of the healthiest Yearly Meetings in the United States, standing firmly in the Quaker tradition while also embracing their Evangelical heritage.

Colin Saxton, NWYM's superintendent, gave the opening sermon on Monday night. It was an impactful message, calling us to greater faithfulness in our spiritual lives as we prepare for the inevitable spiritual storms that threaten to tear us apart as individuals and as the Body of Christ. Colin said that the word that God had kept giving him as he prepared for that night's message was, "deeper." Colin emphasized that, as important as "bigger and better" can be, all of our efforts are for nothing if they are not built on the Solid Rock. He encouraged us to get serious about our spiritual disciplines and to pay attention to the ways we are called to deepen our lives in Christ, to become a holy people fit for God's work. Colin called us to be a people focused on being what God means us to be - not just on good works and achievement based on our own goals and expectations. It seemed that God was using Colin to call Northwest Yearly Meeting to prepare spiritually for the difficult times that are coming.

This year's sessions were mostly easy. Last year, there had been a minute brought by a couple of the local churches regarding immigration and the US government's response in curtailing illegal immigration. The minute was not ultimately approved, as Friends did not feel clear that they understood the issue sufficiently to approve a statement. This year, instead of trying to pass a minute, the Yearly Meeting approved forming an Immigration Taskforce. This working group will focus on three areas: 1) Providing accurate information to the churches about the realities of immigration to the United States and the injustices faced by many visitors in this country; 2) Carrying out advocacy to influence more just legislation and governmental policies towards visitors in our midst; and 3) Engaging in direct action to help immigrants in local communities, providing assistance and aid to those in greatest need. I was impressed with the way that NWYM moved forward, not trampling the concerns and perspectives of Friends on of this hot-button issue, but engaging with it in a way that will hopefully allow the Yearly Meeting to gain greater clarity and unity as they move forward in the ways that God is calling them.

I was pleased to meet with Ángel and Hernán Díaz, two leaders of the Spanish-language Friends Church movement in the Pacific Northwest. Ángel is pastor of a Spanish-language Friends church in Newberg, Oregon, and Hernán is a pastor in Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. Together, they are helping to develop an energetic Christian ministry among Spanish-speaking Friends in their areas. I was very impressed by them and the work that they are engaged in, and I pray that God will continue to guide them as they build up the Church in their communities. I also pray that God will continue to open ways for Spanish-speaking and English-speaking Friends to work together more closely as time goes on. This is an acknowledged concern of Friends in NWYM, and I hope that they will be encouraged as they seek to make their Yearly Meeting more integrated across cultural and linguistic barriers, so that the world may witness the Truth of Christ that breaks down all barriers of class, culture, race, nationality and gender.

The main speaker for Northwest Yearly Meeting this year was Bob Adhikary. Bob has previously spoken to Friends in Eastern Region, Mid-America Yearly Meeting, and at Barclay College. At these two last, there were widely publicized reports of spiritual outpourings that overwhelmed those present to hear him speak. Many came to Northwest Yearly Meeting wondering whether Bob would bring Revival with him, though we were cognizant that it is only God who can bring Revival, and that Bob could at best be an instrument of God's work among us. Unfortunately, Bob's style and message were uncomfortable for many of those gathered in Newberg, and deeply offensive for some. A hint of this is present in NWYM's 2009 Epistle, which cites the Senior High Epistle, saying that, "The meeting was encouraged by [Bob Adhikary's] passion for evangelism and the excitement in his message, but some of his statements caused a difference of opinion among the members of our group." Adhikary's statements included that the September 11th attacks and the Hurricane Katrina disaster were God's Wrath on the United States for accepting sin - in particular, homosexuality.

The intensity of Bob Adhikary's rhetoric led to some amount of response from the gathered body over the course of the week. During open worship in business, near the end of the sessions, several Friends stood up and reminded us of God's universal love for all people. While Bob emphasized God's anger at sin, some Friends felt led to encourage us to focus on God's love and mercy. They reminded us that we are judged by God for how we treat the outcast and marginalized.

Colin Saxton's message near the beginning of the sessions, calling us to go deeper and to make sure that we are truly grounded in Christ before the storm comes, was surely prophetic. Northwest Yearly Meeting is likely headed into a period of stretching and difficult discernment around the question of homosexuality in the Church. One of the local churches in the Portland area recently adopted a minute which states that they do, "not judge a person’s ministry and leadership on the basis of any incidental characteristic. It is our experience and testimony that God works through people without regard for race, age, gender or sexual orientation." It seems inevitable that in the coming years Northwest Yearly Meeting will be challenged with divergent understandings of God's work through people of differing sexual orientations and gender identities. I am confident in the human leadership of Northwest Yearly Meeting to guide the Yearly Meeting through these birth pangs. I pray that the one true Leader and Guide of Northwest Yearly Meeting, Jesus Christ, might be present with all Friends as they seek together the will of God and learn to walk together in Christ's Way.

I have great love for Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting. They feel like family to me. To be fair, that may be because much of the Yearly Meeting literally is family, to greater or lesser degrees. I hope to be able to continue to visit Northwest Yearly Meeting in the years to come. I pray that they will stay low and open to God's present guidance in the way I have seen them be receptive these past two years, especially as they encounter greater challenges as a Yearly Meeting. I see God at work in Northwest Yearly Meeting, and I have greater hope for the future of Friends because of it.

Next, I'll be visiting Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative), in Barnesville, Ohio. I am looking forward to spending some quality time with what is, in many ways, the most traditionalist of our Yearly Meetings. I am particuarly interested to see how business is conducted among them, and I pray that we will experience a palpable covering of Christ's Spirit as we gather together this week.

Finally, please pray for Western Yearly Meeting. I am receiving reports that they are having very difficult sessions this year and could use our spiritual support. Please pray that they may be covered with the uniting and healing power of Christ.

Your brother in Christ Jesus,

Micah Bales