Friday, July 29, 2011

Report from the Field

 "...the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, becasue it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built upon the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer a loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire." - 1 Corinthians 3:13-15

In late 2009, my wife Faith and I invited Friends in the DC area to join us for dinner and worship at the William Penn House. From the beginning of 2010 onward, we gathered under the name of Capitol Hill Friends. This was both a natural and a supernatural process for us. It was natural in that it made sense for us to start a new, Christian worship group in a city where no clearly Christ-centered Quaker Meeting existed. As isolated Quaker Christians, we felt the need for such a group.

The decision to start this group was supernatural in the sense that its impetus went far beyond simply fulfilling our own needs. Shortly after Faith and I got married, we began attending Rockingham Meeting in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It is about two and a half hours away, so we are only able to attend once a month. Nevertheless, Rockingham met our need for a church home. We did not have to start Capitol Hill Friends in order to be a part of a Quaker Christian community.

We started Capitol Hill Friends because we sensed that this was what the Lord was asking of us. While it would have been easier in many ways to simply attend Rockingham Meeting each month and leave it at that, God was asking us to go a step further. As we began to gather regularly and articulate a vision for a new Quaker Christian Meeting in the DC area, we felt inward confirmation that we were doing what was required of us. Perhaps even more significantly, whenever we contemplated leaving Washington or discontinuing the group, we had a clear sense that this would be unfaithful.

Over the course of the last couple of years, the group has changed a lot. It went from being a tiny group of seekers to, in the fall of 2010, being a very lively gathering of fifteen to twenty Quakers from around the region. Things felt like they were developing very rapidly. Yet, despite a relatively high attendance and very powerful worship at our gatherings, Capitol Hill Friends was ungrounded. While the visible part of the plant was growing very quickly, there was almost no root structure.

This all became clear in the first months of 2011 when our attendance crashed. At the same time, we lost about half of the members of our leadership team - folks who were committed to overseeing the CHF church plant. Within just a few months, we went from being a group with apparently rocketing growth and vitality to being back almost at square one. This was a really dark time for me, personally. It felt like everything we had done thus far had been a waste.

Eventually, however, I was able to see more clearly what had taken place. I realized that the explosion of activity in the fall of 2010 had been just a first phase in our development as a church community. Lots of local Quakers who were interested in Christ-centered worship came in and gave it a shot. And Jesus showed up, as he promised he would. But our worship gatherings were more like special events than like the regular meetings of a church. Capitol Hill Friends felt more like a worship opportunity than a worship group. The fact that we met only two Wednesday nights a month added to this feeling.

We had a lot of really great people come and worship with us at our Wednesday night gatherings, and Christ was present in our midst. However, following the winter holidays, very few of those folks were coming anymore. For whatever reason, Capitol Hill Friends had ceased to be a hot event for area Quakers. It was at this point that we - the remnant of the leadership team - decided to move our meetings to Sunday nights. We would meet more regularly, and on the day that most people associate with gathering as a church.

This made a difference. Our attendance did not increase dramatically when we started our Sunday night gatherings; however, the group steadied. We soon developed a regular attendance of about half a dozen folks who showed up faithfully each week. While this was a much smaller number than what we had experienced in the fall of 2010, the character of the group was vastly changed. There were fewer people, but those who did come were regulars. Rather than being an event, Capitol Hill Friends began to transform into a bonded community.

As things stand now, we are still a small group. If CHF were a sapling tree, we would perhaps only see a thin, tender stalk and a few leaves showing above the surface. Yet, we are experiencing a lot of development below ground. As we gather regularly in the name of Jesus, he sends his Holy Spirit to strengthen us and bond us together as a community. As we become friends of Jesus, we discover that he has made us friends of one another.

This entire process has been very humbling for me, personally. In my naïveté and enthusiasm, I expected things to develop a lot faster than this. This was an easy trap for me to fall into, since many of the spiritual ancestors I look up to were men whose ministry was associated with explosive numerical growth in the Church.(1) I see now more clearly than ever that all of these periods of meteoric growth were grounded in a deep root structure that the Holy Spirit had prepared long in advance. The development of the Church is not something that we can measure in months and years, but rather in decades, generations and centuries.

I give thanks to God for the way that the Holy Spirit has guided us. We are still in the earliest stages of this new life that is being revealed to us as a church. Because so much of our growth is happening under the surface, it is impossible to understand yet what is really happening. Yet we do witness positive change in our life as a community. We are growing in our walk with Christ; in our relationships to one another in him; and in our understanding of what God's call is for us as a community.

Throughout this whole process, we have been blessed by visitors whom God has sent us to encourage us at the right time. We are thankful for visiting ministers who have come and lent us encouragement, guidance and spiritual nurture. We are also aware of the many brothers and sisters who lift us up in prayer. This hidden service of spiritual support is incredibly valuable. Thank you!

Please continue to pray for us. This hidden travail of growing roots is painful work, and we can easily become discouraged if we look only at the plant we see on the surface. May God teach us to take heart in the process of growing, knowing that the Spirit blesses and is present with the Church in all stages of development. May we live into the plan that God has for us at this time, trusting Christ to guide us steadily forward as we seek to live as his disciples.


1. Paul and George Fox, for example.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Blessing my Enemies in Congress

"But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." - Jesus in Luke 6:27

"Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord." - Romans 12:19

At the William Penn House, where I live, we take the Washington Post. Every morning, it is waiting for me on the kitchen table, and reading it has become a part of my morning routine. As time as gone on, this has become an increasingly stressful ritual. I have found my blood pressure rising as I read about the refusal of top US leaders to work together for the good of the nation. The present question of the national debt ceiling, and the possibility of the United States defaulting on its loans, has brought into even sharper relief the bitter divisions in our country. It has revealed the John Boehner Finishes Response to President's Speech on 7-25-11way in which a determined minority can threaten the well-being of the entire nation for selfish ends.

As I sat in front of the Post this morning, I became fully conscious of my anger and bitterness towards members of Congress who are placing my country - and, indeed, the world - in jeopardy for the sake of political grand-standing. I was so angry, I prayed that God would punish those in the government that are willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of the poor and middle classes to uphold the privilege of the super-rich.

I did this in the tradition of the Psalms, which feature many prayers for God to punish wickedness. A good friend of mine calls these the "Get 'Em, God!" prayers. This morning, I could really relate to the angry psalms.
Yet, as I prayed for vengeance, the Lord called to my attention the words of Deuteronomy, which Paul cites in his letter to the Romans: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay" (1). I sensed these Capitol Steps at Sunsetwords as a response from God. With them, the Lord asked me: "Have you forgotten your calling and my promise?"

As a disciple of Jesus Christ, my calling is to bless those who curse me and to love my enemies. This morning, I was reminded in a very visceral way that I do have enemies, and while I do believe that the Lord is a God of justice, I also know that Jesus has called me out of the business of setting the world straight. Instead, he calls me into a life of unconditional blessing. I am even called to bless those who are threatening my own well-being, and the security of billions of others.

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is indeed a God of justice, but as a child of the New Covenant, I am released from the business of settling scores. While I do believe that there are, and will be, consequences for the selfishness and brazen recklessness of our elected officials, these consequences are not mine to dole out. I am not even called to ask for them from God.

I realized this morning that praying for vengeance is just a way for me to try to control a life where I am profoundly not in control. By asking God for vengeance, I am presuming upon a special relationship with God, where I (a righteous man) can call down punishment on sinners. But I am not a righteous man, and my special relationship with God exists only in and through God's son, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died rather than inflicting vengeance on his enemies. Jesus did not appeal to his Father for vengeanceThe Mall against those who tortured and murdered him. On the contrary, he forgave them even as they nailed him to the cross.(2)

I, on the other hand, am a lot like James and John, who did not yet understand that following Jesus was about receiving cruelty rather than inflicting it. Luke describes how, after being treated rudely by the people in a Samaritan village, the disciples asked Jesus, "'do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?' But Jesus turned and rebuked them."(3) Jesus did not come to condemn.

John records Jesus explaining that he, "did not come to judge the world, but to save the world." Instead, Jesus left the final word to his Father, saying, "There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day."(4) There is judgment coming , but it is not for any human - even the son of God - to execute it. Our calling is to bless.(5)

I ask for God's forgiveness for my failure to love my enemies and bless those who curse. I ask for a heart remade in the image of God and indwelled by Jesus himself. Let me love, Lord, as you love. Let me be a blessing to all, even those who are indifferent to the consequences of their abuse of power. Give me faith to lay aside my desire for vengeance and to give over all power, glory and dominion to you, Lord God Almighty.


1. Deuteronomy 32:35
2. Luke 23:34
3. Luke 9:54-55
4. John 12:47-48
5. I am aware that this is a complicated issue, and that Scripture does say that, "the Lord's people will judge the world" (1 Corinthians 6:2). Nevertheless, while the Church may have some role in the final judgment, I believe that we as individual Christians in this present age are not entitled to participate in God's judgment.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Why Suffering?

I have been gaining great inspiration and insight recently from reading a biography of Mary Teresa of Calcutta. In her letters, Mary Teresa writes with profound intensity and a singularity of gospel commitment. At the same time, she demonstrates incredible humility and self-denial. Teresa is an inspiration to me for the way in which she was so passionate Mary Teresa of Calcutta holding a childand yet so amazingly yielded to Jesus and the work that he gave her, both interiorly and in the world.

I would like to emulate Mary Teresa's witness. Though I must admit that I have no desire to bear the inward cross of spiritual desolation that she did, I see that this intense darkness (and her continued faithfulness in it) was the highest mark of sanctification and union with God. She truly got a taste of Christ's spiritual desolation as he suffered and died on the cross! It was not that God was not present with her. Rather, God was powerfully present in her life, but she could not feel God's love and peace in her soul. She was left desolate, even while living a life of saintliness and union with God. How amazing. How true to the experience of Jesus!

I see that this is what I fear and flee: the dreadful reality of death on the cross. It brings about the resurrection, laying the groundwork for rebirth in Christ. The suffering of the cross is central to God's plan of cosmic redemption. Yet, it is so dreadful to my soul. Terrifying! It represents the death of the willful self, the "old man." But I can see the blessedness of this self-dying in the witness of Mary Teresa. While I cannot bring myself to long for the agony of the cross, I do pray to die to self so that I can live For God So Loved the World...fully in Christ - so that Jesus can come to live fully in me, just as he seems to have done in Mary Teresa.

In the suffering and spiritual anguish of the saints, I see the truth that is incomprehensible to the modern-day western consciousness: I see that God's plan is not centered around human desires, individual fulfillment or happiness. Mary Teresa saw that her suffering could be cosmically redemptive, perhaps different only in degree from Christ's suffering and death. Indeed, as Christ's body, we participate in his atoning (reconciling) sacrifice.(1)

This is radical stuff. I was raised to focus on my own personal fulfillment and advancement. Individual happiness was always the name of the game. But what if happiness is not the point at all? What if suffering is not, in fact, tragic? What if suffering is actually an integral part of the divine plan? This impacts the question of Way Forwardtheodicy. Because, of course, while theodicy technically means "why evil?" in practice it tends to mean, "why suffering?"

While it is certainly right to say that evil results in suffering, it does not necessarily follow that suffering is evil. What if suffering is like an antibody that God has created to combat evil? What if suffering is a God-given part of the cosmic "immune system"? What if suffering is the only path to healing? What would the implications be for those of us (the vast majority, I imagine) who avoid suffering whenever possible?


1. See 1 Colossians 1:24

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Called to be God's Temple - Visit to North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative)

This past week, I visited Friends at North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), held this year at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. This gathering was a blessed time to share worship and fellowship with Friends from across the South and experience the active movement and teaching of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

I had originally planned to attend the Friends United Meeting Triennial (which, interestingly enough, will be held in Wilmington, Ohio next week!). However, as I began to solidify my summer travel plans, it became clear that God was not calling me to attend the Triennial. As much as I personally thought I should be there, there Friends at North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative)was a heaviness in the idea of making the trip. My sense that God was calling me to lay that trip aside was confirmed by the lightness and peace I felt when I gave up and cancelled my plans.

At first, I thought that the Lord had simply asked me to cancel the trip to the FUM Triennial. Soon, however, I felt clear that I was being asked to undertake another trip instead. I experienced the Lord drawing my heart to Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Though I had not previously considered a visit to North Carolina, the call felt clear and grounded in the love of Christ.

I approached my Monthly Meeting and requested release to travel on this concern. This was granted, as well as being endorsed by my Quarterly Meeting. With the blessing of these Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting, I undertook the journey as a labor of gospel love.

I am so glad that I yielded to the Lord's guidance in this matter. My time among Friends in North Carolina was blessed with a deep sense of Christ's presence in ourFriends Singing at North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) midst. Jesus was present, teaching his people, and I was blessed to take part in the labor.

I also learned a great deal about our spiritual cousins in NCYMc. I saw that we hold many things in common. While we do our business in slightly different ways and have developed slightly different structures, Friends in Ohio and North Carolina are strikingly similar in the way we operate. In both bodies, there is a strong emphasis on expectant waiting and reliance on the present-moment guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Historically speaking, it makes sense that Friends in North Carolina would share many similarities with Friends in my Yearly Meeting. Ohio Yearly Meeting has a long history of relationship with Iowa and North Carolina Yearly Meetings (Conservative). In 1912, the Conservative Yearly Meetings issued a joint statement of faith, and during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a rich culture of intervisitation and exchange of ministers between the bodies of Conservative Clerk's Table - North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative)Friends in North America. However, in recent decades, there has been a marked decline in the traveling ministry between the Conservative Yearly Meetings.

In many ways, the living connections between our Yearly Meetings are in danger of being lost. Ever since the emergence of the Conservative Friends tradition, the primary way that we have recognized one another is through the formal exchange of epistles. In continuance of this tradition, the Yearly Meetings in Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio all exchange personalized epistles with one another. Yet, the organic and relational connections between our bodies have become so tenuous that it is no longer clear to many Friends why these epistles are exchanged. One well-meaning Friend in North Carolina last week posed the question of whether NCYMc should adopt the practice of composing only one epistle - "to all Friends everywhere."

This Friend was not trying to make a negative statement about Friends in Iowa and Ohio. She simply did not understand the deep historical connection between our Yearly Meetings. There were plenty of Friends present, of course, who had more background knowledge, and it was soon explained why the personalized epistles are important. The three Conservative Yearly Meetings will, I suspect, continue to formally correspond for the foreseeable future. But the fact that this question could even be asked speaks to the lack of spiritual and relational unity among Friends in the Conservative tradition.

This trip convinced me that, if we continue down the course we are on as Conservative Friends, our exchange of epistles will soon be a formality - a fiction that masks a lack of real community. I do notChildren at North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) believe it is too late to revitalize these relationships, but it will not happen without care and effort on the part of concerned Friends.

Christ calls us into unity with one another, and I pray that Friends in the Conservative tradition will consider how it is the Lord might be calling us to reach out. I believe that Jesus has a purpose for us as a wider body of Conservative Friends. If we are willing to submit ourselves to one another in his Holy Spirit, I do believe that God could use our witness in fresh and powerful ways.

We were reminded in our worship last week that we are the temple of the living God(1). Just as the Temple in Jerusalem was purified by fire from on high(2), we, too, must be purified and made ready for the work that God has for us. If we will open ourselves to this Fire, the Holy Spirit will heal the pain and indifference that divide us, drawing us together to be a light to the world.


1. 1 Corinthians 3:16
2. 2 Chronicles 7:1

Friday, July 15, 2011

Being the Body in the Age of Facebook

This week I am visiting the sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), sister body to my own Ohio Yearly Meeting. During my brief time among Friends here in North Carolina, I have noticed that one area of commonality between our groups is our sense of corporate witness. Friends in both OYM and NCYMc understand our faith as being not merely a matter of individual conscience, but instead a question of corporate commitment, faith and practice.

This was made clear during the business sessions this morning, when Friends here in North Carolina considered the question of their Yearly Meeting's presence on Facebook. It turned out that an individual, years ago, had created a Facebook group for NCYMc, which most members of the Yearly Meeting had never heard about. This revelation presented an North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) on Facebookopportunity for Friends to consider how they as a Yearly Meeting might relate to this new form of communications technology.

Many Friends wondered whether this Facebook page might be misconstrued as being an official expression of the Yearly Meeting, and they discussed how the page might be brought under the administration of the Yearly Meeting as a body. Friends hoped that NCYMc could find a way to administer the page in a manner that would positively affect the visibility of the Yearly Meeting. At the same time, Friends wanted to ensure that the message presented on Facebook would reflect the sense of the body.

There were also questions about the open commenting feature on the group. How would these comments reflect on the Yearly Meeting? While many Friends felt that it was not in right order to restrict public statements by individual Friends, they wondered how care and oversight might be extended to the Facebook group. In the future, might the elders of the Yearly Meeting be charged with administering the body's Facebook presence?

I am heartened to see that Conservative Friends in Ohio and North Carolina(1) Yearly Meetings share the conviction that our Christian faith as Friends is not merely a matter of personal experience and expression. As Friends in North Carolina minuted today, "ours is an experience of aWebsite of a Conservative Quaker Worship Group faith community, not an individual." This is a belief and a way of life that I believe Conservative Friends hold in common.

Customs and technology change, but Friends here in North Carolina seem convinced that discernment and action based in community are worth conserving, despite the pressures of Western individualism. The new power that the internet grants for individuals to express themselves does not mean that we as Friends should abandon our tradition of waiting together as a community to find and act on the will of God. Conservative Friends are embracing new opportunities, but with a cautious eye towards preserving the unity and integrity of Christ's body. I give thanks to God for this witness.


1. Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) may share this as well, but I do not feel as qualified to speak about them, as I have not visited them in some time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Prayer Without Ceasing

Two friends recently passed along this article from the New York Times, which describes a charismatic megachurch in whose focal point is a chain of prayer, praise and worship that has been unbroken since 1999. At their meeting place in Kansas City, Missouri, the International House of Prayer has maintained Prayer Room at International House of Prayerongoing worship services, day and night, for more than a decade. They intend to keep it up until Kingdom come.

As my friend Martin Kelley points out, perpetual adoration has been practiced by Roman Catholics for centuries. Indeed, continual prayer has been a feature of many Christian movements throughout the history of the Church. In particular, it has been a staple of Christian monasticism. The International House of Prayer, however, is anything but monastic in character.

Something I like about International House of Prayer is its outward focus. IHOP is not primarily a contemplative community, but is oriented toward mission to the wider world. Even if I am uncomfortable with some of the directions that this mission takes, I do appreciate that it sees the fruit of prayer as being a sent into the world. IHOP embraces a view of prayer and holiness that changes both the individual and the Church, equipping women and men for ministry. IHOPInternational House of Prayer - Kansas City does not see prayer as primarily a private practice. Instead, prayer is seen as a springboard into Spirit-led action for Christ's Kingdom in the world.

I will confess that I am very skeptical of the ideological basis of IHOP. At the core of the movement lies a fundamentalist, even "dominionist"(1) worldview, with an intense focus on the "end-times." The major reason given for this movement of prayer and worship is to "hasten" the Lord's coming, to usher in the visible return of Jesus Christ to the earth and to establish a visible Kingdom of God.

I myself do long for a final consummation of history and the final victory of the Lamb over the powers of sin and death. I do believe that God is raising Jesus up so that, "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."(2) However, I tend to view this process as inward and spiritual. Rather than primarily awaiting the visible return of the Lord, my hope and experience is mainly of Christ's inward revelation and presence, here and now.

Besides the hyper-literalist reading of the apocalyptic portions of Scripture endorsed by IHOP, I am also hesitant about their focus on emotion. God can certainly speak to us through our emotions, but Worship Service at International House of Prayerthese feelings should not be confused for the Holy Spirit. While the emotional highs induced by skillful preaching and beautiful music can be conducive to deepened faith, they should not themselves be confused for faith or the movement of the Holy Spirit.

The presence of God humbles the proud and gives comfort to the oppressed. The movement of the Holy Spirit inspires humble courage, not bravado. As Christ's presence purifies us and draws us deeper into the Kingdom life, we find ourselves not rising higher on the wings of emotion, but instead plunging deeper into the tender, unselfconscious love of our Risen Lord.

Recently, I have been reading "Come Be My Light," a spiritual biography of Mary Teresa of Calcutta, including many personal letters between her and her confessor. The depth and humility ofMary Teresa of Calcutta Teresa's prayer life has challenged me to re-evaluate my own minor efforts at maintaining a connection and conversation with the Lord. Teresa's life was bathed in prayer, and it is clear that this prayer was the foundation of her life and ministry.

I am particularly impressed at the way that Teresa's deep devotional life led her neither to set herself above others, nor to cut herself off from the suffering of the world. Instead, she was led to such a deep engagement with suffering that she seems to have shared in Jesus' thirst(3), and his sense of abandonment by God on the cross(4). For Teresa, rather than serving as a form of escape or emotional catharsis, prayer allowed her to venture more deeply into the suffering of her crucified savior. From this profound, first-hand knowledge of Christ's suffering, Teresa could embrace the poor, sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta. Intimacy with the Tortured Savior gave her intimacy with the tortured lives of the poor and oppressed.

True prayer is done in the power and humility of Jesus' cross. The purpose of prayer is not to exalt us, but to humble, purify and prepare us for lives of servanthood and friendship with those who are poor - either spiritually or materially. As disciples of the CrucifiedPrayer Room in Kigali, Rwanda Yearly Meeting Messiah, prayer empowers us to embrace the suffering of Christ's body.

The life of prayer and holiness that we are called to as God's people is not a matter of establishing Christ's outward rule over the earth. Instead, we are to be inwardly transformed, letting Jesus Christ live fully in us. If we open ourselves to him, he will shine through. Through unceasing prayer, we can become his body. Through our humble lives of self-sacrifice, suffering and service, the Word can once again become flesh. Jesus returns to reign each day in the lives of those who truly love him. As friends of Jesus, let us embrace the mission to which we are called, "completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church."(5)


1. For IHOP's explanation of their "Dominion Theology," among other things, click here and scroll down.
2. Philippians 2:10-11
3. See John 19:28
4. See Matthew 27:46
5. Colossians 1:24

Friday, July 08, 2011

Who's Afraid of Prayer?

One thing I noticed while traveling among Quakers in Kenya and Rwanda was how frequently Friends there prayed. There were prayers of thanksgiving when we arrived to be with a group of Friends. We prayed before sharing meals. There wereEtienne and John in Kigali, Rwanda songs and worship services awaiting us most places we went, and Friends often offered prayers of blessing as we went on our way.

I will be honest in saying that the prayer did not always feel alive to me. Sometimes, it felt as though Friends were just saying words. At worst, there were times when so-called "prayers" turned into short sermons on one subject or another. There was a lot of preaching and praising. I confess that at times I longed for the silent, receptive prayer that allows for God's Spirit to come and fill us, providing the words for vocal prayer.

But we did pray. On a regular basis while visiting Friends in Kenya and Rwanda, God was explicitly invited into our midst. We affirmed our love for and trust in Jesus Christ. We addressed the Spirit and called upon it for guidance. When we were together with our African Friends Dancing and Singing at Village Meeting near Gisenyi, Rwanda Yearly Meetingbrothers and sisters, we verbally acknowledged Jesus Christ as an actor, a participant in our conversation, a patient and loving guide to our deliberations.

This level of explicit acknowledgement of God's role in our life together stood in stark contrast to the way that I have experienced most of my communities in the United States. While perhaps some East African Friends are a bit too eager to fill the silence with words, my experience is that the temptation for many Friends in the United States is to neglect acknowledging God's presence altogether.

In many of my North American communities, our prayers tend to be based in silent waiting. Vocal prayer emerges, if it does so at all, out of the silence. When it does, there is a sense that the Holy Spirit is actually praying in us and through us. Prayers that emerge this way often feel genuinely Spirit-led, in-breathed and directed by Jesus Christ within us and among us as a community. At its best, Jim Higginbotham, Steve Angell at Friends Theological College, Kaimosi, Kenyathis type of prayer expresses the heart of the silent prayer that we are all sharing as a community. It expresses the sense of the Meeting towards God.

Yet, while I often experience prayers based in silence to be deep and Spirit-led, there are drawbacks to this form of prayer. One disadvantage is that it can be compartmentalized. Because there is not always vocal prayer offered - perhaps not even a majority of the time - it is easy for silent prayer to become individualized prayer.

Without anyone vocally expressing the sense of the gathered group, it becomes easier for us to conceive of our prayer as being many individual prayers offered up to the Lord, rather than being the gathered prayer of the entire group. This problem becomes most apparent in groups where prayer at meals is left to personal initiative. Frequently in Quaker (and other Christian) gatherings and events, prayer takes the form of each
ESR Faculty at Friends Meeting House, Kigali, Rwanda Yearly Meeting individual (or sometimes small groups at one end of a table) taking time out to pray silently.

Clearly, this is better than no prayer at all, but the corporate aspect is lost. In extreme cases, silent prayer can degenerate into "moments of silence." Rather than being an opportunity for expressing thanksgiving to our Creator, the silence becomes merely a time of meditation, reflection, or "centering down." Vocal prayer would seem inappropriate, emerging from such a moment of silence.

Why is corporate prayer so hard for us? I have a few ideas:
  • Prayer means making ourselves vulnerable. While some of us are getting used to the idea of being vulnerable before God, making ourselves vulnerable with other human beings feels like an even bigger challenge. What changes need to occur in our Christian communities so that we can feel safe enough to open our hearts to one another, exposing our most tender selves in the presence of God and our brothers and sisters?
  • We often perceive prayer as being personal, and potentially offensive. Many of us - regardless of our theological orientation - have bought into the idea that religion is a private matter. While silent prayer - especially in its individualized varieties - does not step on the religious toes of others, vocal prayer presents a greater challenge. When we offer vocal prayer, we may say words that do not fit with the beliefs of every individual present. Someone might get upset. How can we as Christian communities - and as Christians living in a non-Christian society - open a space for genuine, corporate vocal prayer?
  • We fear looking foolish. Let's face it: Prayer can be pretty silly. The prayers that we offer to God are essentially love-talk, the simple words of children to our Heavenly Father. We do not like feeling like children - especially not in the presence of other adults! How can we become humble enough, as individuals and as a community, to be little children in the presence of God and of one another?
Are there other reasons that genuine, unguarded prayer is so tough for us? What can we do as Christian communities to break out of our fear of looking silly, offending others and making ourselves vulnerable? What stands between our present condition and a life of child-like trust expressed in unfeigned love and simple prayer?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Encountering the Face of Christ in Africa - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #32

Dear Children of Light,

Air travel is an amazing thing, and it took me only about forty-eight hours to get from Gisenyi, Rwanda back to my home in Washington, DC. The ride from Gisenyi to Kigali, and the flightsKisumu Airport from Kigali to Nairobi to London to Washington were very tiring, however. By the time I arrived home on Sunday afternoon, I was ready to sleep for a week. Nevertheless, in the couple of days since I have been home, I have been trying to maintain a regular schedule so as to re-adjust to the US Eastern time zone.

As I sit down to write this letter, I am still loopy from jetlag. I am also feeling rather intimidated at the prospect of encapsulating this month's experiences into a brief missive. So much has happened in the last three weeks. I hope you will forgive me for being a little longer than usual.

It started in England. On 10 June, I arrived in London and spent the night with Friends in Greenwich. I stayed with Simon Watson and his family. I was grateful for the generosity of their hospitality, as they were kind enough to host me for several nights during my trip. I sense that my visit was encouraging for Simon, and I was gratefulRipley Friends for the time that we were able to share together.

The next day, I took the train up to Derbyshire (the English pronounce it "darby-sheer") and visited Friends connected with the Ripley Quaker Meeting, which meets weekly at a local community center. It was a blessing to be with these faithful Friends. I had connected with many of them already through Facebook and Skype, but it was a real gift to spend time in the home of the Lomax family, and to see them face-to-face for the first time. On Sunday morning, we had a favored meeting for worship, with the power of the Lord Jesus being felt clearly in our midst.

This is the way I would describe the whole of my time in England: covered with a profound sense of the presence and power of Jesus Christ. I had many doubts about taking this trip, primarily due to concerns about the ecological damage caused by air travel. Nevertheless, I could not deny the way the Lord's hand was
QYPers and John Punshon at Friends Library in London present in my visits among Friends in the UK. Where the Lord sends his servants, he makes the rocky paths smooth and the way straight!

While in England, I was able to link up with the two British leaders from last Year's Quaker Youth Pilgrimage, as well as several of the pilgrims who live in the London area. It was great to catch up with these Friends and see them in their "natural habitat." I was also able to visit Ben Gosling - another affiliate of Rockingham Meeting - and his wife Libertad at their home in Lavenham (in Suffolk). It was lovely to spend time with these Friends, and to get a tour of the historic village they live in, which preserves many buildings from the medieval period.

Overall, I believe that my travels in the United Kingdom were a blessing, both to me and to those whom I was able to visit. For my own part, I feel better informed about the situation that our affiliates in England are facing at this time. The last years have been very hard for the community of Conservative Friends in the UK, and I feel great sympathy for them as they struggle to be faithful in trying circumstances. More than sympathy, I feel conviction that I must examine how God might be calling me to lend support and encouragement to British Conservative Quakers. I sense that this may be a question that Friends in my Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meeting may wish to continue to consider together.

Feeling very blessed by the opportunities the Lord had opened for me in England, I took my leave of British Friends to continue on to Africa. Earlham School of Religion, where I work as Coordinator of Young Adult Engagement, was holding a faculty retreat in Kenya and Rwanda. As member of the administrative faculty, I was invited to participate. In addition to the opportunity to spend more time with my colleagues at ESR, I was grateful for the chance to become acquainted with Friends in East Africa. Kenya is home to the largest population of Friends in the world, and I was excited to learn more Lionabout the breadth and diversity of cultural expressions that exist in the modern-day Friends Church.

The first few days of the trip were not business-like at all. We flew into Nairobi and, after a night at the Mennonite Guest House, rode down to the Masai Mara game reserve to spend a couple of days on safari. The safari was a good way to begin the trip, and it was impressive to observe in their native habitat so many animals that I had only ever seen in zoos. Lions, cheetahs, elephants, hippos, and many other species were present in abundance. I took lots of pictures.

As fun as all this was, my own personal priority was to connect with the people of East Africa - especially Quakers. I was elated when we flew out to Kisumu (Western Kenya) and began to visit Friends there. They were not hard to find. In Western Kenya, Quakers are the largest single denomination and ESR Visits Kaimosi Hospitalhave a larger membership than all the Yearly Meetings in North America put together. It was quite an experience to be in a place where the Quaker Church is normative.

While in the area, we visited several important locations. We were able to see the famous Kaimosi Hospital, which I had been hearing about for years as a member of the Friends United Meeting General Board. We also spent several days at Friends Theological College, which is the single most important center of theological education for Friends in East Africa. I greatly enjoyed my time at the school and would like to return some day, as the Lord permits. I was particularly impacted by a visit the house where the first Friends missionaries to Kenya came and began preaching the gospel in 1902. It was amazing and inspiring to stand in the historical epicenter of African Quakerism.

When we had completed our visits in Western Kenya, we flew to Kigali, Rwanda. Rwanda surprised me with how different it felt from Kenya. In Kenya, there were unavoidable signs of intense poverty everywhere; in Rwanda, however, it was a little bit less obvious. The city of Kigali, in particular, felt very developed. Clean, orderly, and apparently relatively prosperous, Rwanda's capital felt similar in Genocide Memorial, Kigali, Rwandamany ways to what I had experienced in the urban areas of Mexico (which is quite a developed country by world standards).

During the week we spent in Rwanda, however, I began to learn about the dark side of Rwanda's apparent prosperity. When I started asking prying questions about the government, I learned that all is not as idyllic as is immediately apparent. One citizen informed me that she felt afraid to make any statement about the government that might be considered negative. However, because we were not in the company of other Rwandans, she helped explain why things look so nice in the cities and along the major roads in the countryside.

Apparently, the Rwandan government requires that buildings be made in a certain style using certain materials. Tile roofs, brick and cement walls - solid, high-quality construction. Expensive construction. I learned that apparently the government not only requires this for new construction, but also has an active program that requires homeowners to upgrade their houses to the new code, especially if their homes are along major thoroughfares that might be seen by tourists. I was told that those who are unable to upgrade their houses to meet government criteria are evicted and have their land confiscated (frequently without any compensation). Jay and EmanuelThe properties are re-sold to those who can afford to improve the land.

The strong hand of the Rwandan government is felt in the life of the Church, as well. Rwanda Yearly Meeting is perhaps the only Friends body in the world that requires water baptism for membership. They do this because the central government will not recognize (or, it seems, tolerate) any church that does not meet certain criteria. One of those criteria is performing water baptism. As an outsider, and a very uninformed one at that, it would have felt wrong to criticize the Friends Church in Rwanda for ceding Friends testimony on this point. However, it is clear that religious freedom is limited in Rwanda in ways that I find difficult to accept.

Our time with the brothers and sisters in Rwanda Yearly Meeting was lovely. They are an amazing group of Friends, who in only a couple of decades have developed a network of sixty churches across Rwanda, as well as an impressive system of schools and programs to give relief to widows and orphans. We were blessed and humbled by Friends' warm hospitality to us. Despite Rwanda's apparent national wealth in comparison to Kenya, it is clear that the common people of Rwanda still live in extreme poverty by most standards. In spite of this, we were welcomed with open arms and treated to lavish hospitality. It was a humbling Friends Meeting House in Rural Rwanda (near Gisenyi)experience to see Friends in Rwanda minister to us out of their material poverty.

By the end of this trip, I was coming to see that it was I who was impoverished. I have had the luxury of so many material and educational advantages by virtue of my family of birth and country of origin. I live at a standard that would be almost unbelievable to most people in East Africa. And yet, I see that I and the society that I live in are poor in the things that matter most. I see more clearly than ever that my own spiritual condition has been that of the church at Laodicea, of which Jesus said, " say 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.' You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor blind and naked."(1)

Guilty as charged. I pray for God's mercy, knowing that I have lived so long in material comfort and luxury that I have become blinded to the needs of the poor, marginalized and oppressed. Living in urban North America, it is hard to conceive of what material wealth truly is. Material wealth is having running water and electricity. It is having an educational system that is available to all. It is eating protein every day and having access to a variety of foods. Being rich is owning a cookbook and being able to purchase the ingredients forRural Village Meeting Near Gisenyi, Rwanda any recipe. I have often failed to realize what amazing blessings these truly are. These are things that should not be taken for granted.

I have also seen more clearly what spiritual wealth is. Spiritual wealth is cooking up the best food that you have - even if it is just feed corn, casava bread, rice and beans - and serving it to guests who have traveled from far away to see you. It is only the spiritually wealthy who can show true love by giving generously, wrecklessly - not out of their own abundance, but out of poverty. True, spiritual wealth is welcoming guests, caring for orphans and widows, and seeing that the next generation gets a decent education.

On this trip, I saw the face of Jesus Christ in his Church. I saw the way that our brothers and sisters in East Africa love the Lord, not just through words and easy gestures, but through self-sacrifice Etienneand hospitality that costs something. I saw the radiant joy that comes from holding nothing back, from acknowledging that life is a gift from God that we can never own, only hold in trust.

I have seen so much in the past weeks that has convicted me of my own spiritual shallowness and of the failure of the North American Church to take seriously Christ's call to take up the cross. I am still processing these experiences. I am unsure of where this all leads. One thing is for certain: I am a lot less far along in my walk with the Lord than I would prefer to imagine.

Yet, I also feel a great sense of hope. Among Friends in East Africa, I have seen that the yoke of our Lord Jesus is truly easy, his burden light. If only we here in the North American Church would surrender our own privilege and sense of control, we could share in the easy burden of Jesus. I see more clearly now that I must lay down the burden of control, of self-protection, and of "having David Johns with Childrenenough." I want to follow Jesus, and now more than ever I see that I cannot serve two masters.

Clearly, though this letter has been much longer than usual, there is a lot left to process. I do suspect that I will do a lot of this processing in the coming weeks on my blog, The Lamb's War. I encourage you to subscribe to my blog if you have not already, or just check in from time to time. These experiences will definitely take some time to sort through, and I would welcome your accompaniment on this journey.

Thank you so much for all your prayers as I have been traveling. I have felt safe in my journeys, knowing that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ watches over me and has a plan for my life. I am unutterably grateful for the way God has provided for me thus far, and for the way God continues to teach and guide me. I pray that each of you may experience this same blessing.

Blessings and peace to you in the Lord Jesus,

Micah Bales


1. Revelation 3:17