Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in Review - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #38

Dear friends,

This has been a year of major transition and growth for me. Some of the change has been personal - such as my involvement in the Occupy movement, and Faith's and my decision to purchase a house in DC. Other change has been more corporate, such as the increasing maturation of Capitol Hill Friends, and developments within Rockingham Meeting, Stillwater Quarterly Meeting, and Ohio Yearly Meeting as a whole. For me, 2011 was a year of reality checks. At many points, I have been brought low. I pray that these experiences will produce a lasting groundedness in me.

The big adventure this year was my summer travels to England, Kenya and Rwanda. The voyage began with a week-long layover in London, which allowed me to visit a number of British Friends connected with Ohio Yearly Meeting, as well as some others whom I knew through the 2010 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage. I believe that these opportunities were a blessing both for me and for those who welcomed me, and I was grateful for the chance to become better acquainted with the context of Friends in the UK.

Following this, I joined my colleagues from ESR on a tour through East Africa. We saw Nairobi, went on safari, and visited Friends in Kenya's Western Provence. Then, we flew to Rwanda, where we were able to meet Friends from Rwanda Yearly Meeting. I was very impressed with the faith of African Quakers, and saw how Friends there hold many pieces of the radical Quaker faith that we in the United States often miss.

At the same time, I witnessed some of the effects that poverty and a history of colonialism have had on our African brothers and sisters. Above all, I was convicted of my own society's ingratitude for the wealth and privilege that we possess. How do we as citizens of post-colonialist nations take responsibility for our luxury, which to a great extent has been purchased with the blood of non-European peoples? This is a question first and foremost for the Church, which claims faith in Jesus Christ, who proclaimed good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed.

I brought these concerns back home to DC, realizing that our spiritual barrenness in the developed world is perhaps an even greater burden than the material poverty of those in the global south. Together with Friends at Capitol Hill Friends, I feel called to be a light in the darkness, an embodiment of Christ's love in a culture that has largely turned away from him.

A big part of this calling has found expression through the continued development of Capitol Hill Friends. In February, we had a major shake up when two of our five core people felt the need - for a variety of reasons - to withdraw from the community. This was a major blow, which knocked the wind out of us for a little while. It forced the three remaining core people to get even more serious about the direction our group was headed in. It was at about this time that we made the decision to switch our worship time from the 2nd and 4th Wednesday evenings to Sunday nights.

Along with a new meeting time, we also began to gather much more regularly as a core group. Starting in the fall, the core group has been meeting once or twice a month for prayer, discernment, decision-making and mutual support. As the year went on, we became clear that Capitol Hill Friends is actually a little church, not just a worship opportunity. We recorded three members, and incorporated Capitol Hill Friends as a legal entity. In the fall, Lily Rockwell of Stillwater Monthly Meeting (Ohio Yearly Meeting) came and joined us as a sojourning member of our fellowship. She has been invaluable in helping to nurture the church, and we are very grateful for God having sent her to us.

At this point, Capitol Hill Friends has three regular members, one sojourning member, and approximately a dozen attenders. Our normal attendance on Sunday nights is about eight. While these are not huge numbers, we have experienced a remarkable shift from 2010, when Capitol Hill Friends was primarily a worship opportunity but had no real core or sense of identity. Now, Capitol Hill Friends is an independent church in the Quaker tradition, albeit a small one.

As such a tiny group, relationships with a wider fellowship of believers is crucial. We have found most support in our relationship with New City Friends, another new Quaker church in Detroit, Michigan. Late last year, we adopted a shared set of Advices and Queries with them, and each of our communities has been answering them on a monthly basis. Also, we met twice this year for joint retreats; the first taking place in Washington, DC in April, and the second occuring in Detroit, in November.

At our November meeting, Friends from New City Friends and Capitol Hill Friends felt clear to continue to deepen our relationship as an extended fellowship. We agreed to make slight revisions to our Queries (to render them more straightforward to answer), and we were in unity to hold two joint retreats in 2012. The exact dates have not yet been set, but we plan to gather together in a central location in the spring and early fall. We hope that other Friends, worship groups and Meetings of like mind will join with us and explore what it means to live a faith of radical discipleship to Christ Jesus in the early 21st century.

There is, however, a sad subtext to these exciting developments. I feel very pleased with the growth in relationship between New City Friends, Capitol Hill Friends, and others Friends of like mind; and I believe that this new association has the potential to offer a vibrant alternative for Friends in North America. However, we had hoped that we would not be forced to go independent.

Both New City Friends and Capitol Hill Friends were turned away by pre-existing Friends bodies. Some Friends are uncomfortable with our uncompromising commitment to shared Christian faith. Others are put off by our clear affirmation of our gay, lesbian and transgender brothers and sisters. Despite our best attempts, there seems to be no existing body that has room for all of who we are. This has been a source of great sadness for us; however, we must be faithful to the witness of the Holy Spirit in our midst, even if our sister Yearly Meetings cannot embrace us.

Please pray for Capitol Hill Friends, New City Friends, and for the many Friends today that find nowhere to fit in within existing Yearly Meetings. Pray that God will strengthen us in our faith and in our fellowship, and that the Spirit will draw together other individuals and groups who are being called into this new thing that Christ is doing today.

Before I conclude, I cannot fail to mention the immense impact that the Occupy movement has had on me these last few months. I got involved early in this movement, because I felt the Lord's hand on me, urging me forward. I was in New York during the second week of Occupy Wall Street, and I was one of the original organizers of Occupy DC. Now, I feel that the movement has reached a turning point. Phase one is over, and something new must emerge for us to continue to have an impact. I do not know what exactly this next phase will look like, but I am praying that it might have the effect of empowering ordinary working Americans to re-assert their rights and responsibilities as citizens, taking power back from the corporations and monied interests that have so undermined our democracy.

The experience of being and organizer for the Occupy movement has changed me. During college, I became totally disillusioned with activism, and since that time have not thought of myself in those terms. It was a great surprise when I sensed God calling me to participate in this movement. Much more so when I realized that God was leading me to be one of the main people to get things going in DC!

This movement has radicalized me. I can no longer sit on the sidelines while billionaires and their servants transform our democracy into a corporate state. I can no longer keep silent while the rich grow richer at the expense of the most vulnerable. I can no longer maintain neutrality while the middle class is obliterated. In recent months, I have been awakened to the radical implications of Jesus' jubilee proclamation(1). I must stand with the poor and oppressed. I must witness to the damage being done to women and men - and to the whole of creation - to satisfy our greed and idolatry. I can no longer preach a spiritualized gospel, reduced to personal spiritual growth. God's justice and salvation must be embodied among the poor, in our prisons, in the oil-soaked Gulf of Mexico, and in the halls of power.

Thank you for walking beside me in this journey. This year has been a wild ride, and I have no doubt that 2012 will be at least as full of surprises. Just before Faith and I left DC for the holidays, we bought our first house, located in Northeast DC. Please pray that we be blessed in our new home; and for our life together as we deepen our commitment to our city, our church and our extended community of friends.

Your friend in Truth,

Micah Bales


1. See Luke 4:14-28

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holy-Spirit Whiplash

Have you ever had Holy-Spirit whiplash? Have there been times in your life when you have felt God directing your life down a certain path? Steadily. Unrelentingly. It goes on for months or years until, all of a sudden, the call shifts dramatically. The new sense of direction is clear, and it feels right, but it takes some time to wrap your mind around it.

In the last month or two, I have been experiencing a big shift in God's call on my life. In late 2005, God set me aside for full-time preparation for ministry. God called me out of my job working at a bank in Wichita and directed me to study at Earlham School of Religion. I did some paid work during the course of my studies, but virtually all of my time and energy was plunged into study, prayer and preparation for ministry.

After completing the MDiv program, God continued to call me into full-time ministry. I spent the spring of 2009 traveling in the Great Plains, ministering among Friends in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas. While I hope that there was some benefit to those I visited, this work probably had more to do with my own preparation for ministry than it did with any gift I had to offer. I was out of seminary; but in many ways I was still in school.

In the fall of 2009, I married and moved to the District of Columbia. I also began work for Earlham School of Religion, doing web strategy and outreach to Young Adult Friends. This new job fit very well with my own sense of call, my leading to travel among Friends in a variety of theological and geographical contexts. It was work that called me to venture across the United States, developing networks that would strengthen both ESR and the Religious Society of Friends as a whole.

My role with ESR has dovetailed very well with my own sense of God's call on my life; and the work has been part-time, allowing me sufficient space to be faithful to a life of dedicated ministry. I have had the best of both worlds - both gainfully employed, and released for gospel ministry.

Apart from my work at ESR, my main focus in the last two years has been the development of Capitol Hill Friends, a new Quaker church in DC. It started out with just Faith and me inviting folks to come and worship with us, and it has blossomed into a small church with four members and around a dozen attenders. With my other "part-time," I dedicated myself to strengthening and supporting this new community; and it has been a blessing to see our development as a Meeting, especially in the last year.

Given this little bit of history, you can see how it came as a shock to me when I realized recently that God no longer seemed to be calling me to full-time ministry. It was not that God had revoked my calling or spiritual gifts (though these have certainly evolved over the years). It was not that Capitol Hill Friends or the work of tending the flock became any less important to me. If anything, these things have become only more central in my awareness. Yet, in recent months, I have felt God calling me into a new life stage, with its own set of blessings and responsibilities.

Up until now, I have primarily conceived of my call in terms of the itinerant ministry modeled by the early Friends. This sort of ministry - that of Fox and Burroughs, Nayler and Pennington - was not firmly rooted to a specific place. On the contrary, it was a missionary faith in constant motion, publishing the truth far and wide. These Friends preached to all sorts of people in many different lands. They were nothing if not mobile.

In the past few months, however, this vision has come to ring hollow for me. While God may have called me to this sort of itinerant ministry in previous years, I have become convicted that God brought me to DC for a different kind of service. While I have long avoided commitments that would bind me to one place, I now feel compelled to embrace them. Before, I looked down my nose at the stable shepherd in the local church, tending to the day-to-day needs of God's people. I longed for more exciting work; the fiery preaching of George Fox and the mass conversions of the Valiant Sixty. I thought I was special.

But now, in the spicy-sweet irony that carries the mark of the Holy Spirit, I sense I am being called into the steady endurance that I once despised. Maybe God has decided that it is time for me to grow up - or, at least, to move a little bit further down the path of maturity in Christ. My mind is still reeling from the whiplash, but my heart can sense the truth.

Friday, December 23, 2011

I Am a Christian. I'm Sorry.

This evening, I read an essay in Friends Journal entitled, "I Beg Your Forgiveness," by Eden Grace, a seasoned Quaker missionary in East Africa. Eden explained that she felt prompted to ask forgiveness on behalf of her people - Christians - for the ways in which we have not lived up to the faith that we profess. She faulted the Church for our judgmental attitudes, spiritual pride and failure to act for justice. She concludes her essay with these words: "On behalf of myself and my people, I beg your forgiveness."

A short time later, I came across a video of Chris Tse - a spoken-word artist from Canada - reciting a piece which begins and concludes with the words, "I'm a Christian. I'm sorry." In his spoken word poem, Tse goes even further back than Eden Grace, alluding to the Crusades and New World genocides carried out by men who professed Christian faith. 

The video by Chris Tse was posted by a friend of mine on Facebook, and by the time I saw it there had been one comment. The commenter suggested that Tse, if he was truly sorry for the things done in the name of Jesus, should stop being a Christian.

This is what I was afraid of.

While I can resonate with many things that both Eden and Chris expressed in their own unique ways, it makes me nervous when Christians start making apologies to the non-Christian world for the historical and present-day sins that are committed in the name of Jesus. While no one can deny that horrible things have been done in the name of Christianity, I wonder whether it is a good idea to accept all of the blasphemies of Western Christendom as being legitimate expressions of the Church that we are now responsible for as Christians.

This is a tough question, I know. The truth is, whether or not Pope Urban II or Christopher Columbus were really disciples of Jesus Christ, they propagated death and misery under the banner of Christianity. Just as atheists must grapple with the historical fact of Stalin, Mao and other secularist dictators, we as Christians must take seriously our responsibility to clarify - and demonstrate - the true nature of the Christian faith. We must renounce evil, not only as we see it in historical figures, but also in all the ways it is manifested today in the Christian community. We must turn away from greed, hypocrisy, racism and homophobia.

But does that mean taking responsibility for every criminal empire that has justified itself through a twisted interpretation of the Christian tradition? How about the many today who justify war, systemic injustice and oppression with the name of Jesus on their lips? Whose conduct am I responsible to apologize for? At what point do we say; "No. I am not with them; never have been."

This is a very personal question, but also one that we might consider wrestling with together as Christian communities. What response can you give? How might your church respond? What do we have to apologize for?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Occupy: Phase Two

Since the eviction of most of the major Occupy camp sites, including the original Occupy Wall Street encampment in lower Manhattan, many of the most cogent thinkers within the movement have come to the conclusion that the original manifestation of the Occupy movement - sleeping in public spaces, maintaining encampments twenty-four hours a day - is increasingly nonviable. In the month since the eviction of Occupy Wall Street, along with many other sites around the country, this sort of 24/7 camping has become impossible in most locales.

One city that still stands as an exception to this trend is Washington, DC. Occupy DC is one of the few major occupations that has been allowed to maintain a public camping presence. In some ways, this has been a real blessing. We have not suffered the trauma that many of our brothers and sisters in other cities have been forced to endure. Police violence has been almost completely absent.

Nevertheless, there are downsides to the relative ease with which we have been able to camp in McPherson Square. As many predicted in the first weeks of the Occupation, the lifestyle of urban camping has at times threatened to overshadow our real mission as a movement: challenging corporate power and preeminence in our political discourse. At times, internal camp politics has been a barrier to moving forward as a cohesive movement for change.

To mention just a small example of this, we in DC have had to struggle with our relationship to our city's pre-existing homeless population. Does our mission include providing social services to those with the most desperate needs - both material and, often, psychological? Or does our inexpert attempt to play social worker distract from our core mission, to address the roots of systemic injustice? Trying to deal with everything, we have often failed to accomplish much of anything.

Even in DC, where authorities still allow us to camp out, many of us have come to the conclusion that this form of protest no longer advances our primary goals as a popular force for justice. Outdoor camping as a form of protest was incredibly effective in the early days of the movement; but many of us - even here in DC - believe the time has come for a new strategy.

What might this be? How do we translate our initial surge of energy, fueled by inchoate indignation, into a sustainable movement for broad political reform? How can we promote a national paradigm shift away from greed and towards a love-based economy? So far, we have only identified the problem. We have not yet clearly demonstrated solutions.

One possible way forward would be to focus our efforts on establishing local general assemblies. Rather than seeing the General Assembly as an event that only takes place in a single park in each city, what if every neighborhood had its own general assembly? What might it look like to have workplace general assemblies? Whatever the specifics, it is clearly crucial that the Occupy movement transcend the relatively small numbers that are presently gathering in parks, bars and coffeeshops.

Though we seek to give voice to the outrage of the 99% of Americans who are left without a say in how our country operates, we have by no means become as broad-based as we ought to be. If the movement is to grow and gain momentum, it will need to open its embrace to the whole of the 99% - not just those who have the time, energy and physical stamina to spend their days in frost-bitten parks. We young radicals have done our job, and done it well. But the needs of the movement are evolving. It is no longer enough to be enthusiastic and vigorous. We must be strategic, working alongside the millions of women and men who quietly support us but have no interest in playing fort.

This will mean reaching out to individuals and institutions that seem decidedly non-revolutionary. Labor unions; civic organizations; all manner of non-profits; faith-based groups; and neighborhood associations - we must reach out to any group that is willing to walk with us as we take the next steps towards greater political transparency, economic justice, and peace. In this process, we must be willing to be changed. Rather than striking a belligerent pose while our movement falls to pieces, we must be willing to adapt and grow as the movement expands. This will call for us to operate at our best, bravest and most creative.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Golden Calf for Congress

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ - Exodus 32:7-8

Yesterday morning, I helped deliver a golden calf to Congress. Starting off at the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square, we bore a shining paper-maché bull approximately two miles to the US Capitol Building as a sign of our spiritual condition as a nation that worships greed rather than God; a society that values profits over people. This demonstration brought together people of faith - especially Christians and Jews - who bore witness against the unjust economic systems that have taken root in our nation.

The image of the golden calf is an ancient one, shared by the three Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It represents the fearful worship of money; the denial of God in the rush for man-made security and prosperity. Human society is always a struggle between our tendency to worship the golden calf of our own frightened selfishness and our true calling as children of the God of mercy, justice and truth.

Unfortunately, our nation is caught in a downward spiral of Wealth-worship. We live in a country where billionaires and giant corporations pay little or no taxes; yet this same nation is cutting social services for the mentally ill, homeless, disabled, and working poor. We live in a society where working families are being evicted from their homes while the banks that dreamed up their bad loans have been rewarded - bailed out from a mess that the poor and middle classes have been left to clean up.

Today, as we stood before the halls of power in the wealthiest country in human history, we proclaimed God's righteous anger; anger against an economy and government that oppresses the poor so that the rich can inflate their already obscene wealth. We sought to remind lawmakers of God's judgment against those who abuse their positions of authority, abandoning the most vulnerable in our society and instead taking sides with those who have the most.

For me, this public witness was an outgrowth of my faith in the Lord Jesus, who began his ministry with a sermon from the sixty-first chapter of the prophet Isaiah. As we stood before the Capitol Building in prayer for our nation, I read aloud a portion of that passage of Scripture:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, 
   because the LORD has anointed me 
   to proclaim good news to the poor. 
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, 
   to proclaim freedom for the captives 
   and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a] 
  to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor 
   and the day of vengeance of our God, 
to comfort all who mourn, 
   and provide for those who grieve in Zion— 
to bestow on them a crown of beauty 
   instead of ashes, 
the oil of joy 
   instead of mourning, 
and a garment of praise 
   instead of a spirit of despair. 
They will be called oaks of righteousness, 
   a planting of the LORD 
   for the display of his splendor.
   They will rebuild the ancient ruins 
   and restore the places long devastated; 
they will renew the ruined cities 
   that have been devastated for generations. - Isaiah 61:1-4

I pray that this Scripture will be fulfilled in your hearing. I pray that we as a nation will receive the grace that the Lord gave to Nineveh. I pray for God to fill our hearts with the spirit of repentance, inspiring us to put the needs of the poor and marginalized first. Let us imitate the Lord Jesus, who laid aside all honor and glory so that he could become a servant to all.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Longing is a Gift

The last few months have been jam-packed: Full of tasks to be accomplished. Full of worry. Full of demands, deadlines and stress. My life has been so overloaded that oftentimes there has been little room for contemplation. Even when I have taken time to pray, my heart has often not been engaged. I know intellectually that God is always present with me; but at times it has been a challenge to experience it viscerally.

I know by now that I cannot will myself to feel God's presence. It a pure gift when we experience the joy of Christ's love in our lives, and sometimes that gift is not given. Sometimes, God lets us experience spiritual drought. There are times when we can do nothing but ache for God, knowing how far we fall short.

Blessed are those who mourn

This longing for God is a gift in and of itself. I give thanks for the awareness of my need for God. It is God's grace that allows me to recognize the heaviness of my life; to become aware of the burdens that I stubbornly carry, despite Jesus' promise to lift them from me if I trust in him. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

The life of discipleship is not a simple linear progression towards inward peace and joy. As I take halting baby steps towards becoming more like Jesus, I share in some measure of his suffering. As I seek to live as a child of the light, I must bear the sight of my own darkness. Only by facing my own brokenness can I ever hope to be healed.

Sometimes, the Truth can seem like darkness. But I pray that God will continue to grant me the grace to see that the darkness I experience lies within my own heart. Christ's light reveals it, if I am willing to see; and he will heal me, if I am ready. 

Dear Lord, remind me daily of my need for you, and grant me the faith to receive the transformation your Light brings.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Deepening and Growing Roots - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #37

Dear friends,

Last month, it felt like my life was about to explode with the intensity of my involvement in Occupy DC. This month, I have been intentional about taking a step back from the Occupation, no longer spending most of my time out at the encampment. Yet, the feverish pace of my life has not diminished one bit. If anything, it has sped up. There was plenty of work to fill the void.

To begin with, I took several long trips this month, including to participate in a gathering held in Detroit. This was an opportunity for Capitol Hill Friends to gather together with our sister church - New City Friends - and consider our way forward as a fellowship. Friends in Detroit were wonderful hosts, and it was a blessing to get to know the newest members of their group, as well as some Friends from the wider region who joined us for the retreat.

It feels like our little network - which includes Capitol Hill Friends and New City Friends - is growing in depth and unity in the Spirit. We sense something new happening in our midst as the Spirit of Jesus gathers us and shows us how to walk. As a sign of this deepened sense of commitment and shared purpose, we agreed to begin holding regular gatherings. We will meet two times in the coming year, once in April and again in September. Please pray for us as we seek God's guidance as an emerging expression of God's people.

Back in DC, our life as a church has also shown signs of development. In addition to worship, Capitol Hill Friends has been meeting regularly to conduct business and to pray together about how God wants to use us here in our city. We are growing closer together as we seek the Lord's will, and we are being given some weighty discernment to do together.

This past Saturday, Capitol Hill Friends sponsored a contemplative Advent retreat. The goal of this event was to create a space for reflection and contemplation, for grounding ourselves in Christ's love in the midst of a hectic holiday season. The retreat went all day, and concluded with a meeting of Capitol Hill Friends in the evening. We were pleased that some folks who have not been involved with our Meeting were able to attend the retreat. We benefited very much from their participation, and we hope they will continue to take part in our community.

We at Capitol Hill Friends continue to reach out to friends, co-workers and neighbors, inviting them into our lives. We hope to provide an ongoing invitation to a life of deeper listening, love, and faithfulness in community. This invitation is desperately needed in our city, where so many are over-burdened with work, anxiety, and a busyness that tends to stifle the inward life. As a Quaker church on Capitol Hill, we seek to hold a space where all who are weary can come and take up the easy yoke of Jesus.

This is something that I need, too! I have been frequently overwhelmed in recent months, and I feel the call to slow down and be truly present with the people who surround me. I sense God nudging me to settle, to become a steady, grounded presence with those who are rushed and uprooted, carried along by the streams of frenetic energy that flow so freely in Washington. I recognize that I, too, am often caught up in this frenzy. I pray for Jesus to liberate me more fully from the heaviness of self-centered living, so that I may be more present to the suffering of others.

One reason that I have been feeling so burdened lately is that Faith and I have been looking for a house. For a little more than two years, we have lived together in a room on the top floor of the William Penn House. In recent months, we have felt called to settle down in the city - and a part of that is looking for a more permanent residence. This month, we have spent a large amount of time and energy searching for a home that we could afford and which would meet our needs. In a housing market like the one we have in the DC metro area, this was no small task. This process of house hunting has been fascinating, educational, and thoroughly stressful.

Fortunately, it seems we may be nearing the end of the ordeal. As of yesterday, we have a ratified contract on a house here in DC. While nothing will be certain until we close on the property, it looks likely that we have found the house that we will be living in for the foreseeable future. It will be a great relief to complete this process, and a real joy to finally be rooted here in our adoptive city.

I am grateful for all of you who hold me, Faith, and Capitol Hill Friends in your prayers. We give praise to God for you and the support that you provide us. Please continue to hold us in prayer as we look forward to a new year of labor for Christ's kingdom. May his peace be with your spirit.

In love and friendship,

Micah Bales

Friday, December 02, 2011

Giving Birth to the Light

The days are growing very short now, as we get closer to Christmas. The day that Christians celebrate the birth of our Savior is nearly the shortest day of the year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. We choose the darkest day to remember how the True Light came into the world to liberate us from slavery and death.

Yet, I do not personally experience December as a time of liberation and joy. As daylight hours diminish, I am burdened by the gloom of the darkened days and the cold winds that discourage me from venturing outside. And I know that this is only the beginning. I can expect months more of darkness and cold. If anything, the Christmas season is an introduction to the darkness, not the end of it.

The winter, with its lack of light, warmth and energy, is a time of purgation for me. During these days - starting around Christmastime - I am stripped down. All my ambitions are laid bare and I am forced to look at the naked truth of my life. Gone is the self-forgetfulness of summer. Winter is a time when I feel compelled to gaze unsentimentally at my life, and the wool I pull over my own eyes. Like the leafless trees, I am laid bare.

Perhaps this is the experience of Advent after all. The reality of Christ's coming, of his arrival into our everyday world, is startling. Jesus' light turns everything upside down. He reveals that many of the things we considered important are, at best, distractions; and he uncovers the hidden, neglected parts of our lives that are precious beyond all expectation.

Christ's coming can be painful. For me, his advent in my life has often been fearsome. The light of Christ can soothe and comfort when received by those who are gentle and humble of heart. But I am not always gentle, and I am often proud. When Christ's light dawns in my heart, I often experience it more as a consuming fire than as a gentle comforter.

As I receive Christ into my life this dark December, I feel a kinship with Mary, who carried our Savior in her womb. There is new life inside me, too; and my old body cannot contain it. Jesus is stretching me, changing me, kicking inside me as I am prepared to deliver him into the world. Like Mary, I am called to bear my Savior, and this delivery will require nothing less than total transformation on my part.

I could try to resist God in this process. I could refuse to cooperate with this new life growing within. I could decide to stay the same, to ignore the hard truth that Christ reveals. But there is a better way, this winter and always. With God's help, I will embrace the searing light of Christ. I will seek to be transformed into a worthy vessel for Christ's coming.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Love That Carries A Whip

We all enjoy warm feelings and positive emotions; but we should not confuse these things for love. Love goes far deeper than affection or desire. Love does not affirm us when we do wrong. Love does not overlook our selfishness, cowardice and hatred. Love challenges us - firmly, persistently - to be transformed.

A parent who truly loves a child establishes boundaries. No lying. No hitting. No disrespect. And, when necessary, the loving parent disciplines. Not to punish, but to correct.

This is the true love that we see in Jesus as he overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. This is the genuine love of God that we see in Jesus as he binds chords to make a whip and drives the merchants out of the holy place. Sometimes love demands anger.

When does love call us to stand against cynicism, cruelty, greed and injustice? How do we stay humble even as Christ calls us to hold others accountable? How do we prepare ourselves to be transformed by the no-nonsense love of God? Are we ready to be called out? Are we ready to change?

Friday, November 25, 2011

I Will Buy Nothing

Today is Black Friday, the unofficial holiday immediately following Thanksgiving. Today, businesses open very early, offering reduced prices on all manner of consumer items. Customers are encouraged to flood the aisles in search of a good deal on all kinds of things - from DVDs to appliances - but, above all, electronics.

Black Friday apparently got its start back in the late Sixties, but it came into increasing prominance in the last decade, as the economy deflated and retailers became ever more desperate to sell their wares. In the past, stores would open around 6:00am; in recent years, however, this has not been considered early enough. The retail industry has been involved in an arms race, vying to see who could open the earliest. This year, a number of big box stores opened at midnight. Walmart, not to be beaten, decided to start their sale prices at 10:00pm on Thanksgiving Day.

This new move to open at midnight or earlier on the evening of Thanksgiving has elicited a response from some quarters. Some folks, perceiving that Thanksgiving is under attack by out-of-control consumerism, have started campaigns to resist this trend. Many are aware of the burden that this pseudo-holiday places on low-level workers: If stores open their doors at midnight, workers have to show up much earlier than that, depriving them of sleep, and the chance to enjoy the evening of Thanksgiving with their families. Black Friday, and its recent escalation, is squeezing out one of the few annual sabbaths that the working class could once count on.

Yet, even if Black Friday were not so terrible for working families, and even if it did not threaten to steamroll Thanksgiving under the weight of Christmas-season merchandising, I would still be opposed to it. Black Friday is the Anti-Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving holiday is traditionally a time to gather with family and friends and practice gratitude for our blessings. It is a time to cultivate awareness of all the ways in which God provides for us, and to pay special attention to providing hospitality to others who are hurting. Black Friday, on the other hand, is a celebration of greed, unbridled consumerism and disregard for others.

Thanksgiving is, at its best, a fleeting incarnation of the peaceable kingdom, where we can all come together in peace and mutual respect. Black Friday, on the other hand, is an intensification of the hyper-capitalist, corporate order that already dominates most of our lives. Rather than gratitude, it promotes greed; instead of cooperation, competition. While Thanksgiving fosters brotherhood and peace, Black Friday is a celebration of self-centeredness and bickering.

If you need evidence of this, examine the fruits of the Black Friday rush for the latest consumer items. There was gunfire in a shopping mall. And at a Los Angeles Wal-Mart, the "competitive shopping strategy" of one woman involved the pepper-spraying fellow customers. Amazingly - though perhaps not surprising - the Wal-Mart remained open through the entire incident, and the woman was allowed to buy her merchandise and leave the store. Nothing, not even outright violence, was allowed to stop the flow of consumption.

How can we resist this violent culture of materialism and selfishness? This is a hard question to answer. The problem goes far beyond individual choices, involving as it does a manufactured culture of scarcity and greed. There are forces at work that are bigger than any one of us.

But I must start with myself. I must change my own life before asking others to join with me to seek broader solutions. As I hope and pray for more systemic change, how can I be changed? To begin with - and, I confess, it is a modest beginning - I commit myself to resisting Black Friday. I will not participate in this anti-holiday. Today, I will buy nothing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Love, Community and Good News for the Poor

I recently came across an extraordinary video titled, "The Revolution is Love." In this short clip, Charles Eisenstein shares his view that a foundational cause of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations is the unmet human need for love, connection and meaning. He identifies the Occupy movement as being a response to the profound alienation that we experience in a world economy where people are, for most practical purposes, interchangeable and expendable. "It's really hard to create community," he observes, "if the underlying knowledge is, 'we don't need each other.'"

Eisenstein points out that much of what passes for community in 21st century American society is little more than shared consumption. Rather than mutual self-giving and reliance on others, we meet together in our supposed self-sufficency. But this kind of interaction does not bring us into true community. "Joint consumption doesn't create intimacy," he concludes. "Only joint creativity and gifts create intimacy and connection."

Eisenstein believes that the Occupy movement represents an awakening on the part of many: That we exist not in order to consume, but instead to give, create and love. He suggests that we have the opportunity to participate in a society-wide shift in consciousness. This change could include not only the ninety-nine percent, but also the one percent, who are just as trapped in this life-denying system as the rest of us.

This is good news to the millions of Americans who are suffering from loneliness and depression. It is good news to the office workers who spend their daylight hours in windowless buildings working to keep their underwater mortgages afloat. This is - amazingly enough - good news to corporate executives and wealthy financial speculators. It is good news, even if many of us cannot recognize it yet.

Above all, it is good news to the poor. It is good news that we are being invited to recognize the gifts of all people - including the jobless, the homeless, and those living with disabilities. We are awakening to the good news that there is a place for all of us. Each one of us has a precious gift to offer the world.

How does this all play out, though? A friend recently asked me what good this movement does, in practical terms, for the poor and oppressed. It is great, she said, if your heart is full of love - but how does this make any difference for those who are suffering the worst abuse and neglect that our society is capable of dealing out? Is this, after all, just another spiritual trip for privileged people - or is it truly good news for everyone?

These are essential questions. Will this movement be mostly about venting our anger at the increasing marginalization of the middle class, or will we take this opportunity to stand in true solidarity with those who have been suffering the burdens of poverty for decades - even centuries? Will this be primarily a bourgeois movement of band-aid reform, or will we have the courage to push for total liberation? Does the life of the homeless person matter as much as that of the bankrupted middle class family or indebted university student?

If we are to be a movement that truly embodies a call for liberation for all people, we must learn how to love. We will need to learn how to be vulnerable, putting people before convenience. We must re-discover genuine community, where everyone is valued for the gifts that they bring. Sociability and similar patterns of consumption are not enough.

Are we ready for a world in which people are valued for who they are, rather than what they can buy? Are we prepared to humble ourselves and provide for the needs of the poor and marginalized, sharing our gifts freely with others? Can we learn to trust that God will bless us through the poor; that they, too, have something priceless to offer?

Are we ready for a love that trumps our convenience and comfort?  

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Long Haul

Mike McKinley, pastor of Guilford Baptist Church, writes, "Young men tend to overestimate what they can accomplish in the short term and underestimate what they can accomplish in the long term." This has certainly been true in my own life.

I am a very passionate person; and when I set myself to a project, I want to see immediate results. When Faith and I founded Capitol Hill Friends, I imagined that we might get the Meeting up and running within a year or two. By year three, surely, the church would be ready to stand on its own, whether Faith and I could stay or not.

I can see in retrospect how much my expectations and imagined timeline revealed both my impatience and my ignorance of how human community actually works - or, perhaps, how it does not work - in 21st-century urban America. I thought that with a little determination and elbow grease I could start a new church and move on in just a few years. If George Fox or the Apostle Paul could do it, why not me?

It is easy to see now how naïve I was. I believed that the needs of post-modern America were essentially the same as those of 17th-century England, or the 1st-century Roman world. What I did not understand was that the ministry of Paul and George Fox took place in an environment where people were already organized into organic communities. These communities needed to hear the truth; but no one needed to teach them how to live as members of a community as such.

Our situation today in the post-industrial West is different. Most of us are locked into a society that is so intensely individualistic that our ability to live in community is severely hindered. Extended family networks and friendships are strained and broken through the unceasing quest for more money, status and personal well-being. Most of us no longer have any concept of what real community might look like; or, if we do, we are repelled by it. Community can seem like poverty when we are used to being autonomous individuals, ruled only by our appetites and our need for money.

In such an environment, simply sharing the good news of Jesus is not enough. The evangelist must demonstrate a new way of living that draws women and men into stable, committed community. In a society such as ours, genuine community is a striking witness to the power of the gospel.

This witness requires a different model of ministry from that of Paul or George Fox. I believe that the work that God is calling me to has far more in common with that of Benedict of Nursia. Benedict is considered the founder of Western Christian monasticism. He lived and ministered during the collapse of the Roman Empire, when civilization was falling apart and human community was in great danger. In this context, Benedict offered a new way of life - a disciplined community in which women and men could live faithful Christian lives. In the midst of social chaos and confusion, Benedict held a space for community rooted in obedience to Jesus Christ.

In many ways, Benedict provides a more helpful model of ministry for my historical context. However, I must admit, it is a tough pill to swallow. Frankly, I find the ministry of Paul and George Fox to be far more exciting than that of Benedict. I would rather hop from place to place, preaching and helping to gather a far-flung movement. Benedict's discipline, on the contrary, terrifies me with its admonition to stay in one place indefinitely, cultivating faithful community year after year, decade after decade. Frequently, however, God teaches me and helps me grow through those things which most challenge my natural inclinations. Though I find Benedict's model less appealing, I sense that it fits better with what God is calling me to.

I am convinced that the work that is needed here in Washington, DC is not primarily the fast, mobile ministry of George Fox or Paul. Instead, I believe Christ is calling me to the slow, patient work of cultivating the vineyard of God's people. I am here for the long haul. As long as it takes. As long as God requires.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Are You a Pastor?

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. - 1 Peter 5:2-3

Much of my work recently at Occupy DC has been related to the ecumenical Christian presence at McPherson Square. As I have been engaged in this publicly Christian effort, folks have often asked me whether I am a pastor.

I struggle with how to answer this question. What do people mean when they say, "pastor"? Do they want to know if I am a "professional Christian"? A member of the "clergy"?(1) An authority figure in my congregation? A certified graduate of a divinity school? It feels hard to answer this question authentically without engaging in a long discussion, so I usually dodge the question with a response like, "I'm a church planter." Yet, I remain unsatisfied with this answer. The mainstream Church has a very particular set of boxes that it puts ministry into, and it is a challenge to live into ministry that does not fall neatly within the predominant model.

Lately, I have been doing a lot of soul-searching about what God is calling me to in my work with Capitol Hill Friends. I need to learn to better explain the broader conception of ministry found among Quakers. If we do not embrace the mainstream Protestant model of pulpit ministry, then what alternative are we modeling?

Over the course of centuries, the word "pastor" has come to signify a very narrow vision of church leadership. "Pastor" has become synonymous with positional leadership, institutional authority, one-sided lecturing and monarchical control. At its worst, the pastoral system can usurp Christ's role, getting between us and our true leader.

But this has not always been so. The word "pastor" is a translation of the Greek word poimen, which means "shepherd." Throughout the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, God is referred to as a shepherd, caring for the flock. God is imaged as a strong, gentle caretaker; a loving herdsman who watches tenderly over his sheep.

Jesus declared that he is the good shepherd. He cares diligently for us, and we - his sheep - know his voice.(2) Jesus has taught us to model ourselves after him, becoming caretakers of one another. If we love Jesus, we will feed his sheep.(3) This is a responsibility for all of us, not just a small group of "clergy."

I have never thought of myself as a pastor in the popular sense of the word. I have a tough time with the idea being the one man in the whole local congregation who is charged with preaching, teaching, visiting with people and providing leadership for the church. I believe this model to be damaging to the congregation, teaching them to look to a human leader rather than Christ's immediate presence in our midst. I believe that the "head pastor" model can create a dynamic of dependency and spiritual sloth.

Not only can the pastoral system set up an unhealthy dynamic within the congregation, but it is also frequently unhealthy for the pastor herself. It is unfair to put the spiritual burdens of the entire congregation onto one person. Only Jesus can carry that load.

Despite my skepticism of the pastoral system, I am convinced that God is calling me to be a shepherd to this little flock. Just one shepherd of many, but a shepherd nonetheless. I feel inadequate to the task in many ways. I feel that I lack many of the gifts that are so important to good shepherds - especially patience. I know that I cannot be a shepherd alone, because the church needs far more gifts than God has gifted me with. Nevertheless, I will share the gifts that I have. With the Lord's blessing and assistance, I will do my best to be a shepherd to God's people.

I pray that God will continue to raise up shepherds for his people. If God can use me for this work, I am convinced that the Lord can use anyone he calls: Women and men, aware of our weakness and inadequacy, nonetheless called into the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Working side by side, we can become co-laborers with our head shepherd, Jesus.


1. Can someone provide a scriptural basis for the "clergy/laity" distinction?
2. John 10:11
3. John 21:15-17

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nonviolence: Our Path to Victory

Since the Occupy movement began almost two months ago, we have been under steady pressure. From the beginning, in New York, we suffered unprovoked violence on the part of the police. In recent days, these attacks have only increased in severity as the Occupation spreads across the country.

The good news is, the attempts to neutralize the Occupy movement with force have failed. Every time the police have unleashed violence upon us, we have grown in numbers and resolve. The world is indeed watching, and the people know injustice when they see it. One lesson of the past months is clear: violence against unarmed, peaceful demonstrators only strengthens the movement for change.

So far, we have stood our ground as a movement committed to the practice of nonviolence. Despite vicious provocation by security forces, there have been remarkably few instances of violent acts on the part of demonstrators. Given how angry many of us are, and how intense the repression has been in some places, this is a major accomplishment.

But this is just the beginning. The various police agencies in this country are led by intelligent, calculating people. The police are well-aware of the power of mass nonviolent resistance, and they are working skillfully to undermine it.(1)

The enemies of the Occupy movement want nothing more than for us to abandon our commitment to nonviolent direct action. They want us to try to defend ourselves from the brutality of the police; they want us to hit back. They want us to break windows and spraypaint grafitti. They need this desperately, for as long as we refuse to fight on their terms, they are powerless to stop us. Only by provoking us to violence can they assume the mantle of "law and order," tamping down on our "anarchy."

We must not allow the violence and calculated provocation of the security apparatus lure us into retaliation. Police around the country are beginning to shift tactics, and their ultimate goal is to get us to hit back. They know that, if we give into fear by striking back, they can crush us without mercy.

Nonviolent resistance is the hardest road there is. It requires incredible courage, discipline and faith. It requires a depth of hope and imagination to be able to see that receiving violence is more powerful than inflicting it. We must call upon deep reserves of spiritual strength and mental fortitude in order to stay calm in the midst of savage behavior by the authorities. This will continue to be a deep challenge; but it is the only way we can win.

Let us recommit ourselves to the path of nonviolent non-cooperation with evil. Let us pray for the strength to look our enemies in the face and show love to those who are beating us. Let us trust in the power of love to overcome the brutal power-plays of hate. There is a love that says "no" to the darkness, that refuses to be seduced by hatred and violence. This love, if we have the courage to stand in it, will be our path to victory.


1. For example, view this video in which police in California attempted to provoke students into retaliatory violence:

Occupy DC Discusses Nonviolence:

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Occupying My Life - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #36

Dear friends in Truth,

This month, I have been deeply involved in the Occupy movement here in Washington, DC. We launched Occupy DC at the beginning of October, and the following month has been one of strengthening, developing, and seeking to unify the movement into an effective force for change. My role in this process has changed over time. Early on, my focus was primarily on the work of facilitation - ensuring that our decision-making process was functioning properly. Once we got the facilitation team stabilized, I shifted my energies to outreach. I worked to develop ongoing efforts to reach out on behalf of Occupy DC, especially through direct leafleting on city streets.

In recent weeks, my role has shifted again: I have become increasingly involved in outreach to people of faith, especially Christians. This began in collaboration with Brian Merritt, a Christian pastor who was involved very early on in developing space for people of faith to gather and support one another. We hope that people of faith will help ground the movement in the peace and stability that only God can provide.

We have participated in gatherings of religious leaders who are seeking ways to be supportive of the Occupy movement. I have also begun to give talks to Quakers in the DC area about the nature of the Occupation, and how Friends can get involved. This looks to be an ongoing effort, as these grassroots efforts for change are only intensifying.

Perhaps the most visible thing that we Christians at Occupy DC have done is to erect the Prayer Tent. Complete with an altar, religious art and furniture, we have established a small chapel in the midst of the camp, which serves as the base of operations for the ecumenical Christian presence in the camp. We have begun to hold weekly worship services on Saturday afternoons, and we are doing our best to be available on a daily basis to our fellow occupiers. The Prayer Tent presents a great opportunity to practice a ministry of presence and listening.

A big priority for us is getting folks to take a shift sleeping in the chapel at night. This is extremely important given that the Prayer Tent has been abused repeatedly in our absence. We need a continuous presence to preserve the space, and would welcome anyone who feels able to come out, whether for a few hours or to spend the night. For my part, I plan to sleep out this Wednesday night with another member of Capitol Hill Friends.

While the Christian presence at Occupy DC is still struggling to take its first steps, the Occupation as a whole is growing up fast. With perhaps thousands of individuals participating on some level, and many hundreds showing up for actions, Occupy DC has reached a delicate moment in its development. While most of the occupiers are people of good will, there is a small minority that is more concerned with expressing pent-up rage and aggression than with advancing the cause of truth. This is a huge challenge for us as a movement, since we have no centralized leadership to impose order on the various tendencies that are now found under the Occupy DC umbrella.

On Friday night, we had a very successful march and demonstration at the Washington Convention Center, where the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity was holding a gathering for their supporters. The action overall was solid, but there were some individuals who were taking actions that were more aggressive than most of us were comfortable with. While we were able to mitigate their impact to some degree, we had a number of people who were behaving rudely, even aggressively.

To be clear, Occupy DC committed no acts of violence or vandalism. On the contrary, the only violence Friday night was that which was perpetrated on us by others. Nevertheless, it is clear that some of our people overstepped the bounds of civil discourse. This saddens me on multiple levels. As a supporter of this movement, it seems tragic that the good work of so many might be undercut by the lack of discipline on the part of a few. As a Christian, it is disappointing that some of us are not yet ready to return love for hate, forgiving those who sin against us.

The Occupy movement is not perfect. It is made up of a huge assortment of individuals, some of whom hold worldviews that I find false and life-denying. Nevertheless, I still believe that the Occupation on the whole is coming from the right place. We have the opportunity to stand as a prophetic voice in a country that for too long has ignored our own arrogance and greed. Yet, we must be wary of the temptation to give ourselves over to our own arrogance and short-sightedness.

My prayer for this movement is that we might move beyond the need to prove ourselves with blustery words and grandstanding. Instead, I hope that we will stand humbly, with a simple message of repentance for a proud nation. This is all I have to offer.

With all the energy I have poured into Occupy DC, I have grown increasingly aware of the need to take extra time out to focus on nurturing Capitol Hill Friends. In the last week or so, I have been re-orienting my life to balance the needs of both the Occupation and of Friends in the local church.

I feel like I am reaching an equilibrium. After a month and a half of disorienting novelty and change in my daily routine, a new "normal" seems to be emerging. It is a life in which my attention and energy are split between family, the Church and the Occupation. Fortunately, there's a fair amount of overlap. My understanding of ministry has been greatly enhanced by the organizing I have done for Occupy DC, and I value greatly the new relationships I am building with church leaders here in DC.

Perhaps the hardest thing for me to balance so far is my need for ongoing study and prayer. While I have kept up my usual prayers and Scripture reading, I often feel very accelerated and unfocused. It is hard to stay grounded and aware of the Lord's presence when there is so much to do. Especially in a movement like this, where the details unfold at the speed of Internet. Sometimes, I just have to unplug.

I have been grateful for all of you who have been praying for me during this very exciting, stressful time. I feel like my life is in a momentous transition; everything is changing. I need God's help to stay rooted in that life and power from which all positive change emerges. Please continue to pray for me, and for all of the brothers and sisters here in DC.

Your friend in our Lord Jesus,