Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Spirit is Moving!–Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #31

Dear Friends of Truth,

This month has been one of optimism for me and Friends on Capitol Hill, as we prepare for a busy summer. For some years now, summer has been a time of intense travel, visitation among different Friends bodies, changes in routine, and transitions in lifestyle. Above all, summer for me has been about cross-pollination, coming into contact with a wide variety of people, places and cultures. Summer is a special time to learn about how Christ is at work across the country and even the world.

This summer looks to be no different. Travels have already begun with a visit to the annual sessions of Great Plains Yearly Meeting. About a week and a half ago, Faith and I took Amtrak out to Wichita, Kansas. It was a blessing to spend a few days with my family in Wichita. I was also pleased to spend some time with area Friends. We visited Heartland Friends Meeting, where I was a member until I transferred to Rockingham last October. Faith and I were pleased to spend some time catching up with Charity Sandstrom, who gives pastoral leadership to Emporia Friends Church, as well as her husband Richard. We also got the chance to Great Plains Yearly Meeting 2011participate in a small gathering of Friends from both Heartland and University Friends Meeting. I was encouraged by the evidence of the Holy Spirit's work among Friends in Kansas. I am left with a concern to be in prayer for their continued faithfulness and growth in the Lord.

After these days in Wichita, we caught a ride down to Osage County, Oklahoma, where Hominy Friends Meeting was hosting the 104th annual sessions of Great Plains Yearly Meeting. This gathering of Friends from across Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma was a rich time of learning, business, worship and prayer. I perceived two main threads that ran through the weekend. The first was based in our theme from John 4:14, "streams of living water." Throughout the sessions, we were reminded that Jesus offers us spiritual sustenance, refreshment and healing for our souls. If we are willing to open ourselves to his life-giving power and love, he will fill us with his Spirit and show us how to be his people together.

The other theme that ran through out time together was that of the relationship between European-descended Friends and Native Americans. This felt especially relevant to us, as two of the five Yearly Meetings in Great Plains are predominantly Native American. For Great Plains to understand its own identity, Friends there must grapple with the relationship between Indian language, culture and identity, and what it means to be a Christian in the Friends tradition. We were repeatedly reminded that Christianity and Native American cultures are no more incompatible than Christianity and European cultures. Friends on the Great Plains continue to explore what it means to be empowered to Arbiter of the Osage Hand Gamelive fully into our historical, cultural and ethnic identities, while at the same time being united with others through our shared trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. (I explore this topic further on a recent blog post for Earlham School of Religion's Learning and Leading.)

It was truly a blessing for me to see the way that the Holy Spirit is raising up fresh leadership in Great Plains Yearly Meeting. GPYM is clearly stronger than it was only a few years ago. Laura Dungan, who began her second year as presiding clerk of the Yearly Meeting, is one instrument that the Lord is using in the spiritual renewal of Friends in Great Plains. Through her prayerful, daring and disciplined guidance, GPYM is growing in its ability to listen deeply to the Spirit and ground its decision-making process in prayer. The business sessions this year were of a particularly worshipful character. We took time in worship before, during and after our business sessions. It should come as no surprise that business got done faster than anticipated. As Friends laid their concerns at Jesus' feet in the silence, it was easier to determine what was truly important and what was human chatter.

Great Plains Yearly Meeting is growing. The spiritual stature of the Yearly Meeting has enlarged dramatically in just a few short cycles. GPYM is demonstrating vision, planning to host a clerking and leadership conference in Wichita, November 4-5, 2011. GPYM is demonstrating renewed leadership, with energetic engagement emerging in Dean and Laura, DiscerningHominy, Wichita and central Nebraska. Only time can tell how Friends will respond to this fresh blowing of the Holy Spirit, but this could be the beginning of an entirely new chapter in the history of Friends on the Great Plains.

I feel it important to bear witness to the fact that God is the one who is effecting this change in Great Plains Yearly Meeting. The Holy Spirit is raising up new leaders and granting new strength and vision to seasoned leadership. Jesus Christ is clearly present in the midst of his people, teaching and guiding them. I give thanks to our Lord and Father for the ways I see God moving in GPYM.

Faith and I got back to DC yesterday, but I am due to leave again shortly. On Thursday, I will be traveling to the United Kingdom to visit Friends there. I will be visiting some of the scattered Conservative Friends in the UK, as well as catching up with some of those who were with me on the 2010 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage. Even now, I still do not have all of the details of this trip ironed out. I am flying by the seat of my pants, but I pray that the Fellowship at Great Plains Yearly Meeting 2011Lord will guide my steps and place me where I am most needed.
After about a week in England, I will be continuing on to Kenya and Rwanda. The faculty of Earlham School of Religion is taking a trip to sites in Western Kenya and Kigali, and as a member of the administrative faculty of the school, I have been invited to participate.

Having never been to Africa, I am at once intrigued and intimidated. I do not know what to expect from this trip, but I am sure that I will be in good hands among Friends. I pray that the Lord will use this trip to tender my heart to the life of the Church in East Africa, and to deepen my understanding of the Religious Society of Friends in this part of the world.

It is hard to believe that I will be out of the country for almost a month. I have not even flown in an airplane in a year and a half. This has been intentional. I have felt and do feel a concern of the Lord to take veryHominy Friends Meeting Room at Great Plains Yearly Meeting 2011 seriously the ecological costs of my lifestyle. Air travel is particularly damaging to God's creation, and I am painfully aware of my personal role in the environmental destruction caused by the irresponsible use of fossil fuels. I pray that God will bless these travels in such a way that they will be worth the damage inflicted on the Creation.

Please hold me in prayer, dear Friends, as I travel among Friends abroad. Let me be a blessing to those whom I encounter, and let me receive with a grateful heart the blessings that our brothers and sisters across the seas have in store for me. Above all, grant it dear Lord that I be made humble and teachable!

In the love of Jesus Christ,

Micah Bales


Brief Video From Great Plains Yearly Meeting:

Friday, June 03, 2011

Many Nations, One Body

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. - 1 Peter 2:9-10

I recently came across a thought-provoking article in the online magazine Missions Frontiers entitled "Jesus Movements." In this essay, Gavriel Gefen describes what he sees as an emerging movement of people in a wide variety of religious and cultural settings who are becoming followers of Jesus. Rather than leave their birth communities to join western-style church communities, these new followers of Jesus continue as part of the religious and cultural communities of their birth, serving as witnesses to the life Friends from three continents in Mexico Cityand power of Jesus in their Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and other religious communities.

Overall, I liked this article. I appreciated the author's recognition that Jesus is alive and active, both within and beyond the established Christian community. Friends have long held that Jesus Christ is directly available to every person and every community, and I was glad to see this perspective lifted up by a brother from a different Christian tradition. Nevertheless, there were some aspects of Gavriel Gefen's article that gave me pause. In particular, I was skeptical of the idea that one could, "[accept] Jesus without converting to Christianity and without joining churches."

The underlying question is this: Is Christianity (and the Christian Church) primarily a cultural institution, or is it primarily a spiritual communion that transcends any particular culture? I would propose that the Christian faith consists of a living relationship with Jesus Christ though the Holy Spirit. This relationship draws us into discipleship with Jesus and into fellowship with our brothers and sisters in the Lord. True Christian faith can only exist as we areFriends Unloading a Truck in Tamaulipas, Mexico gathered together by the Lord Jesus himself. It does not depend on any particular cultural institution.

That is not to say that culture is irrelevant. Human culture can serve as either an aid or an impediment to the work of the Spirit. In Christ, we are called to transform our culture. Just as we as individuals are redeemed and made a new creation in Christ Jesus, so too must our corporate life and culture be brought into the Kingdom of God. This is not something that can be imposed by human regulations, but must emerge from a living experience of the Holy Spirit.

We have often tried to establish the Kingdom of God under our own strength, of course. Since the legalization of Christianity within the Roman Empire by Constantine in 313 AD, the Christian Church has often been wedded to state power, and has used coercion to influence the wider culture. Inevitably, however, the Church's collusion with imperial power had at least as much affect on the Church as the Church did on the surrounding culture. In general, the witness of the Church was compromised. Rather than serving as a prophetic voice on the margins of Empire, the Church took a Northwest Yearly Meeting, 2009seat at the right hand of the Emperor, often taking part in the injustice and coercive power of the state.

This blasphemous union of Christian faith and imperial power, which is only now losing its grip on the western world, is known as Christendom. Christendom is a constellation of beliefs and institutional structures that maintain (and enforce) "Christian nations." Priests and cathedrals, inquisitions and popes, crusades and government-enforced tithes - these things have formed the basis of a supposedly Christian western civilization. But, as the Anabaptists and Quakers revealed through their prophetic ministry, suffering and martyrdom, Christendom is not the Church. On the contrary, Christendom is the means by which a sinful culture captures and subverts the very Body by which it should be critiqued.

Western Christendom cannot be equated with Christianity. The Christian Church is so much broader than the Western context where it has historically been most dominant. The Church has always been present in a wide range of cultural contexts, from the Mediterranean to the British Isles, from Ethiopia to India and China. Today, there are indigenous Christian communities in every nation on earth, and the gospel is coming to life in an ever wider variety of cultural contexts. In the absence of the suffocating state control and power politics of Christendom, the gospel message andFriends in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico Christian community is flourishing throughout the world as never before.

Certainly, as the Church continues to develop and grow into new contexts, it will be essential that we contextualize the gospel into those cultures. There is a desperate need for culturally relevant expressions of the gospel in the post-Christendom West, where the spiritual needs of the culture are at least as great as those of the non-Western world. As Jesus draws together women and men in local cultures across the planet, we will need to re-discover how to be the Church together. Just like the early Church, we must re-articulate and re-enflesh our witness to Christ's presence and work in our lives. In this, we become connected to the worldwide Body of Christ.

When we accept the Good News of Jesus, receiving the Holy Spirit in joy and transforming love, it is not a question of "joining a church" or "converting to Christianity." Through faith, we become the Church. When we experience the power of the Holy Spirit, Christianity becomes a living reality in our own culture and context. We are simultaneously drawn out of the fallenness of our native cultures, while at the same time being sent out as change agents to the local context. We are called neither to abandon our communities, Bible Study in Ciudad Victoria, Mexiconor to conform ourselves to sin. We are to transform the culture just as we ourselves are being transformed.

We should not imagine that lone followers of Jesus can continue to be Buddhists or Muslims. When a person receives the Holy Spirit and makes the decision to follow Jesus, they have become a part of the worldwide Body of Christ. They have become a Christian. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that these new Christians remain engaged in their native cultures - whether these have historically been part of Christendom, Islam, Buddhism, or other cultural heritages.

Just as important, it is crucial that we recognize that life in Christ is not primarily an individual affair. Our commitment to Jesus changes not only our relationship to God, but also to our fellow women and men. As we live into the Kingdom, we are called out to be God's own people, living in unity with others who have accepted Christ's light and truth. An essential aspect of our walk with Christ is to become part of a wider body of disciples. These communities - local meetings of the Church - must be adapted to particular contexts. Our communities will look very different in culturally Muslim regions than they will in culturally Buddhist or post-Christendom cultures. If
P1010108(cropped, scaled) these communities are united in the Holy Spirit, however, they will all form part of the Church of Jesus Christ.

As Christ's Body continues to grow organically throughout the world, we should expect to encounter new and unexpected expressions of the Church. The early Church adopted many Hellenistic philosophical ideas and Greco-Roman cultural traditions, allowing them to contextualize the gospel in the ancient Mediterranean. In the same way, the Church today will take on the flavor of the Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Animist, and secular Western cultures where we are emerging into new life in Christ. For Jesus' sake, we must be willing to become all things to all people so that by all means some might be saved. (1)

As we undertake this radical, apostolic ministry across language and culture, let us take care not to lose sight of the unity of Christ's Body. Rather than a scattered collection of individual followers of Jesus, we are to become one people. Though outwardly diverse and rooted in a rich variety of cultures, languages and historical memories, we are united through Christ's atoning work in our lives. Praise God the Father, who through his Son, Jesus Christ, has called us out of all the nations of the world to be his people!


1. See 1 Corinthians 10:33