Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Though I Walk Through the Valley

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff - they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

-Psalm 23

For those of us in Washington, DC, the earthquake last week revealed depths of anxiety that we had mostly avoided awareness of. The shock and surprise of the earthquake unveiled - if only for a moment - our denial of mortality. Under normal circumstances, we could go about our daily business; we could pursue our hopes and dreams with little thought for how this all must end. But the jolt of the earthquake - mistaken by so many of us for a terrorist attack - overwhelmed the anesthetic of routine and petty ambition. We were thrust into unknowing. For a brief moment, we were drawn into a story that was bigger than ourselves, a story in which we are not the protagonists, and not immortal.

I have a friend who works at a local market here on Capitol Hill. He describes the place as, "a 7-Eleven for yuppies." It is a convenience store with really good, really expensive food.

On the day of the earthquake, he told me that they were completely sold out. People were coming in and buying forty-dollar bottles of wine, little blocks of very expensive cheese, and other items fit for a celebration. That day, these men and women felt out of control. Forces beyond human jurisdiction were determining whether they survived or perished, whether the city they lived in stood or fell. They sensed that all of their plans, ambitions and money became absurd in the face of these forces - in the face of the reality of death.
It was eye-opening for me to hear my friend's story about the reaction of so many on Capitol Hill to the quake. This event forced us out of our comfort zones and into a very brief - yet very real - existential crisis. The tremors tore away the veil of the ordinary to reveal what we have built our lives on.

Given the reaction of the customers at the corner market that day, for many this revelation was traumatic. When our lives are built on career, consumerism and personal ambition, the encounter with death is a revelation of the absurd. We see the groundlessness of our lives, the lack of ultimate purpose for anything we do. If, in the end, the purpose of our lives is personal fulfillment, the reaction of shoppers on Capitol Hill makes perfect sense. In the face of meaninglessness and absurdity, we double down on our existential wager of hedonism. "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."(1)

For some of us, however, the earthquake revealed a different foundation. It is not that human life and the prospect of death made any more sense to us. Human beings are spiritual animals - but animals nonetheless. All things being equal, living creatures fear death and cling to life. Yet, in a moment when we were expecting imminent death, some of us discovered that we had an inward comfort. We turned inward, relying on the presence of God for guidance, and meaning. There was fear, but there was also a solid place where we could stand. There was a real and present Shepherd who was standing with us, even in the face of death.

This assurance - God's presence with us - transformed our response to crisis and the possibility of death. Rather than recoiling in terror from the absurdity of a meaningless life, we were empowered to respond in hope. We discovered that the Lord is indeed walking with us, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We sensed that we were a part of a Life bigger than ourselves. We knew that our lives, while precious, were not the end of the story.

Rather than fleeing the terror and absurdity of imminent oblivion, we prepared for transition. Knitted into God's life and power, we were able to experience the prospect of death not as the destruction of life and its meaning, but instead as the transition between one scene and another. The actors change, but the story continues to unfold. And God is in control.

For many years, I tried to make my own meaning without God. The outcome of that path was absurdity and despair. But what I experienced last week was not absurdity. Instead, as I faced what I believed was the real possibility of immediate death, I experienced a sense of purposefulness and quietness of spirit. I knew that God had placed me here for a reason. If I had to die there must be a purpose in that.

If I had made for myself the decision to live in Washington, I might have been angry that my plans had been thwarted and my life cut short. But I had not chosen to come here. I was directed here by God, and I felt a peace in knowing that if I died, I died to the Lord.(2)

I did not feel despair, because I sensed in the depths of my being that my Shepherd was walking with me and was guiding me according to his purposes. If that meant death, well, I would be frightened like any sheep would - but I knew I could trust in God's care. Death is something we all must face, but the Lord gives me purpose and comfort in life and in death. In this, I have experienced the meaning of the psalmist's words, "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long."(3)


1. See 1 Corinthians 15:32
2. See Romans 14:7-8
3. Psalm 23:6

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Apocalypse of the Earthquake

When the earthquake struck Washington, DC, I was sitting at my desk on the fourth floor of the William Penn House. I had been working on that day's blog post, and I was concentrated, in the midst of editing.

At first, I did not consciously notice the tremors. Our house regularly vibrates from the passing city buses and other large vehicles. The quake soon captured my attention, however, as the light hum transformed into shaking, and then into a violent rattle. Objects began to fall off shelves, and I could feel the four-story building twisting and straining underneath me.

My first reaction upon becoming aware of this strange and terrifying motion was: "Oh, God. We're going to die." We do not expect earthquakes in Washington. What we do expect are terrorist attacks. Irrationally, my mind flew to the possibility of an atomic blast.(1) Was this how my life was going to end?

Not sure what was happening, but still assuming a terrorist attack that threatened to end my life and the lives of many of those I love, my next reaction was to turn my mind and heart to God in prayer. I breathed deeply, drawing my attention to the presence of God in my heart. I asked God, "Is this it?" I opened myself to God and sought to be ready to face death.

I wondered what it would be like to have the building topple over, to be crushed by a collapsed wall or ceiling. I wondered whether it was going to hurt, and for how long. I wondered what dying itself would be like. To my surprise, I did not feel particularly frightened of dying per se - though I must confess that I was not looking forward to the pain. By instinct, I clung to life and looked for a way to safety; but I also felt an inward sense of calm, coupled with a strange sense of wonder. "Could this really be it?"

All of these reactions took place over the span of about ten seconds. By the end of this time, I had realized that what we were almost certainly dealing with was an earthquake. I had experienced quakes before, both in Mexico and in Indiana, though neither of those had been of this magnitude. I did not really know how to react to an earthquake, so I did what we Kansans are taught to do in the event of a tornado: I moved to the center of the building and took care to avoid windows that could shatter and injure me.

A few seconds more, and I was making my way downstairs. The earthquake was subsiding, and I rushed to find my wife, Faith. She had taken very good care of herself without me. She had gotten out of the building immediately when she felt the quake, directing guests at the William Penn House to do the same.

About a minute after the trembling started, all I could think of was how grateful I was that everyone was alright. It was just an earthquake and - despite the damage to buildings around the city, and even some minor damage to the interior walls of our house - no one was injured. What a blessing! Compared with the kind of event that we had suspected at first, an earthquake sounded mighty fine.

Things here have gotten back to normal very quickly. The earthquake gives us something to talk about besides the weather and politics. The event is already fading into icon status - like the "snowpocalypse" of 2009 that shut things down in DC for days. It is a shared reference point for folks here, and many years from now, I am sure that we will still ask the question, "What were you doing when the earthquake hit?"

This is all well and good. We need memorable events to reminisce about and to give us something other than Capitol Hill politics to talk about. And yet, I feel that this experience was something more than just an anomalous seismic event. I feel that it revealed something profound about the nature of life here in the US capital.
In the Bible, the Greek word for "revelation" is apocalypsis. Revelation is a good translation for this word, because apocalypsis refers to the revealing of hidden realities - unmasking the hidden nature of the world we live in. In the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, God reveals the hidden realities of life in the Roman Empire. Caesar claimed to offer peace and security, but God reveals how human empire rests on greed, exploitation and violence. God's act of revelation - of apocalypse - is to reveal the deep truth that lies behind life as we know it.

I experienced the recent earthquake here in DC as an apocalyptic event. It literally shook me out of my ordinary consciousness and forced me to face an urgent question that is easy to ignore: "Am I ready to die?" Perhaps more importantly, it revealed the reality that life here in Washington is contingent. That is to say, we cannot take for granted that we will be here tomorrow.
The earthquake revealed our state of mind as residents of this city. Everyone I spoke with here said that their first thought during the earthquake was that we were expriencing a massive terrorist attack. The idea that this might have been an earthquake came only later, after more reasonable possibilities had been ruled out. This event was apocalyptic, in the sense that it revealed the deep fear of violence we in this city live under.

What does this mean for us, in practical terms? In the biblical tradition, of course, the purpose of apocalypse is not to destroy us. Instead, apocalypse gives us a chance to see things for how they really are and to change our way of living and thinking. I believe that the unprecidented seismic event we experienced this Tuesday provides us with just such a opportunity for change.

I pray that we will take heed of this revelation - this apocalypse of the earthquake. We have been provided with an opening to examine ourselves as a society. Now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions. Why do we live in such fear? Is it inevitable, or are there things we could do differently that would reduce this fear? Are we, the residents of Washington, DC, ready to die? What would we be dying for?

What are we living for?


1. It was irrational, of course, because there had been no flash; not to mention that the shockwave from a nuclear detonation would presumably have leveled Capitol Hill before I had time to reflect on it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Radical Christian Community in the New Rome

"Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand..." - Isaac Pennington, 1667

During my studies at Earlham School of Religion, I was part of an intentional Christian community called Renaissance House, located in an impoverished area of Richmond, Indiana. There were five of us living there: The house's founder, me, and three other men, each of whom had physical or mental disabilities. We had an open door policy, inviting folks from the neighborhood to stop by and visit with us. Three nights a week, we hosted community meals, inviting folks from the neighborhood, and our friends from around town, to come and have dinner together.

These dinners were an amazing demonstration of what Christ's table looks like. A normal Wednesday night dinner at Renaissance House included seminary students and professors, area businessmen, the homeless, the mentally ill and physically handicapped. It included the young and the old, the middle class and the poor.

I was deeply affected by my experience at Renaissance House. The depths of community at Renaissance House were profound. We experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of life in community. It was beautiful. We relied on one another, chopping wood, remodeling homes, serving food and gathering around the Scriptures as a little church of misfits and outcasts.

The heart of Renaissance House was our commitment to being radically available to one another. We were not primarily concerned with advancing our careers or "getting ahead" in the world. Our main focus was caring for one another, sharing the gospel and breaking bread together. We bore one another's burdens and spent hours together every day. We prayed together.

Not everything was ideal. Life at the Renaissance House was very challenging much of the time. We were living on the edge in many respects, and the community was so intense that we had to work constantly on our interpersonal relationships. This was not always easy, and there were some pretty spectacular blow-ups while I was there. Nevertheless, on balance, these challenges seemed healthy. Though we were often uncomfortable and struggled with our human weaknesses, it felt like we were growing together in the Lord.

I wonder increasingly whether this kind of community might be possible here in Washington, DC. There are a lot of challenges here that we did not face in Richmond, Indiana. The biggest of these is the sheer cost of living. Unlike in Richmond, where houses were available in the low 10,000s, the DC housing market is intense. Life in general is more expensive here. Even living on the margins requires a serious income. Is there room in DC for the kind of radical Christian community that I experienced at Renaissance House?

I feel certain that there is. After all, just decades after Jesus' death and resurrection, Paul was writing to an established church in Rome. Life must have been difficult for the Roman church, living in the capital city of the pagan empire that ruled almost the entire known world. They were surrounded by a society that worshipped imperial power and reveled in the luxury that the might of caesar provided.

The Church in Rome must have had a particular role to play in bearing witness to Jesus and his Upside-Down Empire - an empire of love and justice that stood in contrast to the selfishness and violence of the wider culture. I believe that there is need for such a witness today in the new Rome. In a city that is so weighted down by the narrative of domination, power struggles and abusive privilege, there is a need for an alternative story.

Here on Capitol Hill, we witness the ways in which the narrative of Empire is expressed in the feverish scramble for control and power over others. This anti-gospel is a tangible reality in the offices of the many organizations that seek to gain influence here. In the face of this very real darkness, there is need for another story to be told, embraced and lived out. It is the story of a little baby who is born in a back alley, the Savior of the world. It is the story of the Messiah, tortured and executed by the imperial authorities for challenging the narrative of privilege and domination. It is the story of a community that serves a Risen Lord and is led by the Holy Spirit - a Spirit that reveals the falsehood of human empires and invites us into a life of sacrificial love and siblinghood.

I believe that there is a call for such communities here in Washington, DC. Despite the challenges that we face as residents in a wealthy center of imperial power, God is calling us to set aside our fear and our need for control. God is inviting us to live as the Body of Christ, not in a metaphorical sense, nor in a merely "spiritual" sense, but concretely. We are called into life together as a community, a life of mutual care and shared suffering for the Truth.

Surrender to Jesus in community will come in small, practical ways. We may be asked to surrender habits that upset our brothers and sisters. We may be asked to forgo career advancement that conflicts with the needs and mission of the community. We will most certainly be asked to give up some of the mobility that our present society so highly prizes.

During my time at Renaissance House, I learned that true Christian community is not a theoretical question. We can have all the right ideas about God and still fail to step out in faith. The Body of Christ only becomes a reality when we are willing to surrender control and live in community guided by the living presence of Jesus.

Are we willing to let go and become a part of something greater? Are ready for a life more grounded in community? It will be hard to let go of the individual freedom that the wider culture so cherishes. But the reward that we are promised is so much greater - the abundant life that we receive as we live into God's purpose for us.

Friday, August 19, 2011

From These Stones

"Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." - John the Baptist, Matthew 3:9

There are few things more dangerous than the comfort and hardness that overtakes a community with a proud heritage. The Saduccees and Pharisees of Jesus' day were infested with this kind of spiritual pride, though they manifested it in different ways. The Saduccees placed their faith in the Temple - the rites and rituals ordained by God for the expiation of sin and the preservation of the Hebrew nation. Any compromise, even collaboration with the Roman occupation, could be justified as a means to the end of preserving the holy legacy that had been handed down from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The Pharisees were reformers. They questoned the Saduccees' focus on the Temple rites, instead placing their emphasis on personal holiness. Israel's fidelity to the law of the Torah, in all its many details, was the path to salvation for the children of Abraham. By conserving every jot and tittle of the law, the Pharisees sought to maintain the rich heritage of the Jewish people.

For both groups, God's relationship with Israel was seen primarily in terms of things that God had already done. The Saduccees lifted up the ordinances that God had mandated at the establishment of the Temple. The Pharisees placed their focus on putting into practice the entirety of the Torah - especially the extensive code of rules and regulations revealed by God following Israel's liberation from Egypt. The objective of Saduccees and Pharisees alike was to preserve a pristine past - a holy tradition that had been passed down for generations. It was a question of lineage.

It was in this religious and political milieu that God raised up John the Baptist. John was a prophet, carrying out a ministry of spiritual preparation for the Messiah who was to come. Leading a hard life in the desert, clothed in camel's skin and eating locusts and honey, John proclaimed a message of repentance to those who ventured out to see him.(1) He invited those who were ready to change their minds and turn their lives around.

That is what "repentence" means. In the Greek, the word translated as "repetence" - metanoia - means to turn and change ones' worldview and way of living. Standing by the river Jordan in the Judean wilderness, this wild-eyed prophet invited women and men to be baptized - an ancient Jewish rite of cleansing - as a symbol of their willingness to hand their whole lives over to God.(2) Basically, it was a Jewish tent revival meeting.

John's ministry was different from the purposes of the Saduccees and the Pharisees. His mission was not to uphold the ancient rites of Temple worship and expiation of sin through animal sacrifice. Neither was he focused on detailed adherence to the hundreds of rules and regulations found in the Scriptures. Instead, John challenged those who gathered with him in the desert to change their entire way of seeing the world. Rather than seeing life as a set of ritualistic hoops to jump through - a venerable tradition to be upheld for the sake of the nation - John issued an invitation to practice simple justice and humility.

John's ministry shifted the focus from a pattern of religious egotism to a lifestyle based in justice and self-sacrifice. Rather than make an animal sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem, John challenged the people to share their possessions with their neighbors.(3) Rather than focus on accomplishing every detail of the rules and regulataions found in Scripture, John pointed to the importance of doing justice and not exploiting the poor.(4)

Slowly, subtly, John began the work of shifting the popular narrative of salvation. Most of his contemporaries were asking, "what rules must we follow in order to be in right relationship with God? What are the regulations we must adhere to to receive prosperity?" Rather than simply give an alternative answer, John's preaching suggested a new question: "How must we change our lives to embody the righteousness of God?" John's call to repentance was a radical departure from the legalistic worldviews of the scribes and Pharisees. It was no longer enough to go through the motions of a calcified tradition. Israel was being called into a radical, life-changing encounter with the living God - a God who would not be confined to the Scriptures or a religious tradition, no matter how venerable.

When Jesus arrived on the scene, he radically fulfilled and transcended John's message. John called for a shift in the predominant narrative, calling the people to lives of mercy and justice. Jesus started where John left off, and invited us much deeper. More than basic human decency, Jesus called us into lives of universal love, self-sacrifice and holiness. The Messiah called us to imitate him, laying down our lives for others - even and especially our enemies.

Jesus fulfilled the spirit of the law, as embodied by John the Baptist. He lived the law to the fullest extent possible, yet not in the way of the scribes and Pharisees. While the rule-following priests were fastidious in their administration of the Temple rites, sacrificing animals as the law commanded, Jesus went the extra mile. Jesus himself became the sacrifice. The Pharisees kept the details of the law, ensuring their own superficial righteousness. But Jesus bore the fruits of righteousness. The blind were given sight, the lame got up and walked, and the poor and outcast were welcomed into the banquet of God, which the high-status "holy men" had assumed was only for them.

Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection blew a hole in humanity's attempt to control God and hide our own brokenness through an elaborate system of rules and regulations. When the temple curtain was torn, exposing the inner sanctuary to the light of day, God vindicated Jesus' ministry of breaking down the claims of human tradition and ritual to give us access to God. God gave us notice: We are not in control. The Lord will not be confined to human constructions - mental or physical.

If only this were the end of the story! If only we had learned our lesson after witnessing God's only son, full of truth and grace!(5) Yet, even among those today who claim faith in Messiah Jesus, the old idolatry of tradition and lineage have crept back in. It seems that we would still prefer a God that we can predict and control.

In many cases, the Church has taken on the likeness of the Sadduccees and Pharisees. We imagine that we can limit God through strict applications of the law. We have often turned Christ's teachings into a new legal code, entirely missing the point of Jesus' incarnation and of the Holy Spirit that he sends us. Like the children of Israel, we children of Christendom often imagine that we have privileged status before God. Because of our orthodox doctrine and our rule-following lives, we imagine that we have earned God's blessing. Worse, we often consider ourselves (whether we admit it or not) worthy to judge others.

We clearly do not trust God very much. Rather than relying completely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we retreat into the false safety of human regulations. Truth be told, we prefer our relationship with God to be mediated - through the Scriptures, religious traditions, and a myriad of human philosophies and worldviews that vye for our allegiance.

When we place our ultimate faith in outward authorities such as the Bible or "Quakerism," we are not forced to be truly intimate with God. We can continue to relate to God as an object that we can control through appeals to our lineage or mastery of our tradition. We flee vulnerability. We fail to acknowledge our utter reliance on God's grace and guidance on a moment-to-moment basis.

This lack of trust and surrender costs us something. We may claim the title "Children of Abraham" (or, alternatively, "Children of George Fox"). But God does not care whose earthly children we are. The Holy Spirit pours out on those, "in every nation [who fear God] and [do] what is right."(6) God will be present with those who open themselves to be transformed by the encounter.

If we refuse to humble ourselves and live as branches of the True Vine, our life as a community will wither and die. God will choose other peoples to have relationship with. The Lord, "removes every branch... that bears no fruit."(7) If we rest in our own human wisdom and tradition - no matter how orthodox - and refuse to allow Christ himself to lead us, God will cut us off and graft new branches onto the rich root of the Olive Tree.(8)

We should not ignore it when - week after week, month after month - our gatherings as a church feel devoid of spiritual power and the presence of our Lord. This is a warning sign that we have succumbed to a false sense of religiosity, allowing our pride and limited imagination to crowd out the work that the Holy Spirit desires to do in our midst. Rather than accept spiritual dryness as normal, let us instead repent - changing our lives and worldviews so that we will be more fully receptive to God's surprising presence and purifying power in our life as a community.

  • What is holding you (and your community) back from deeper vulnerability to God's call on your life?

  • What ways of thinking, traditions and identities are separating you from intimacy with the Holy Spirit?

  • How are we being called to "prepare the way of the Lord?"(9)


1. Luke 3:8
2. Luke 3:3
3. Luke 3:10-11
4. Luke 3:12-14
5. John 1:14
6. Acts 10:35
7. John 15:1-2
8. Romans 11:17
9. Luke 3:4, Isaiah 40:3

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

God So Loves the World

In our emphasis on the life of the Spirit, we as Friends sometimes fail to give sufficient attention to the goodness of God's creation, and the truth that we are embodied creatures. We are created by God to be not only spiritual, but physical. Just as the Word was made flesh in the person of Jesus, we as the Church are called to embody Jesus, allowing the indwelling Word to fully permeate our lives. We are embodied beings - spiritual animals - and we must wrestle with what it means to lead the life of God's Spirit in the material world.

Our faith is that God originally created the entire natural order as a reflection of God's nature and will. In the case of humanity, God went so far as to create us "in their image."(1) Humanity, when in right relationship with the Creator, bears the very image of the invisible God. Yet, so often, we fail to embody God's love, joy, holiness and truth. Because of our choice to turn away from God and lead lives separate from God, the creation has been "subjected to futility"(2), and caught up in our sin. The natural world no longer reflects the character of its Creator. Humanity, through our decision to sin, has alienated the entire cosmos from God.

But this is not the end of the story. We abandoned God, but God never abandoned us. Instead, God has always walked faithfully beside humanity, attempting to draw us out of our selfishness and spiritual blindness. In order to rescue us from our own willfulness, God established a special relationship with Abraham and, through him, the Hebrew people. God developed a relationship with the Hebrews, using them as a special instrument of grace. Through Israel, God carried out the divine plan of cosmic redemption. Through Israel, God would save the whole world.

This plan came to fruition in Jesus. Humanity and the rest of the created world remained in rebellion against God, yet God performed an act of unconditional love. God's very self took up residence in the material world. Jesus - the long-awaited Messiah of the Hebrew people - became the new Tent of Meeting(3), the place where God's presence touched the earth. In Jesus, the image of God was once again imparted to the human race.

The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.(4) Jesus truly was the Word - in his very nature he was God, and when the world saw him, they saw who God really was. Yet, Jesus was also truly a man. He suffered. He was tempted. He thirsted and hungered. Jesus was fully part of the physical world, yet he never succumbed to the sin that had twisted the creation.

Instead, Jesus became the beachhead of a new creation. Through his self-sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus overcame the powers of sin and death once and for all. He re-introduced the image of God to the created world, and through his resurrection he cleared the way for a new order - a Kingdom - that would embody the true nature of God in creation.

Having prepared the way for this new order, Jesus inaugurated it by sending the Holy Spirit and creating the Church. The Church was a new community of women and men who would physically embody Jesus. Jesus was present in the lives of the faithful, and the Holy Spirit bound the community together as a cohesive body that existed for doing God's will and demonstrating God's nature to the whole world, just as Jesus did.(5)

In Jesus, the Word becomes a part of our daily life together as the Church. In the first chapter of John, the gospel writer uses the Greek word which means to encamp. "The word became flesh and set up its tent in our midst." With the coming of the Holy Spirit and the in-breathing of God's life into the community of disciples, God once again establishes the Tent of Meeting. Christ's Body, the Church, becomes the residience of God's Spirit. No longer is a special building needed to represent God's presence on earth; instead, we as the community of disciples have literally become the temple of God - God lives in us and through us!

God continues to strengthen the divine image in the creation, indwelling the life of the Church. God does not relate to the created world as a means to an end. Instead, God loves the world.(6) God loves the world like a faithful husband loves his wife. Such a husband loves his wife as he does his own body. "No one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the Church, because we are members of his body."(7) The Lord cherishes and identifies with his creation - the Church - just as a person with their own body.

Friends are at times tempted to identify God as being totally uninvolved with the gritty, historical, flesh-and-blood realm of human existence. But it is important for us to remember that the Word became flesh. He continues to dwell among us, fully and unconditionally invested in the world that he created. God loves the creation, in spite of the ways in which we have twisted it with our rebellion. And God will not rest until the cosmos is restored, redeemed to reflect God's original intention.


1. Genesis 1:26
2. Romans 8:20
3. Exodus 33:7-11
4. John 1
5. Acts 2
6. John 3:16
7. Ephesians 5:28-31

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Seeking God's Word Together - Ohio Yearly Meeting 2011

The past few days here in Barnesville have been eye-opening and challenging. We have begun the process of wrestling together with our understandings of human sexuality including homosexuality. There are clearly a variety of perspectives within Ohio Yearly Meeting regarding the rightness of same-sex relationships and human sexuality in general.  

All of our perspectives are rooted in our desire to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, and our understanding of how he is speaking to us through the Scriptures. We are united in the faith that it is Jesus who can bring us into unity, and that only his Holy Spirit can guide us to a proper understanding of the Scriptures. While we have differences of opinion, we recognize who our Authority is. This is a reason for hope. Though we struggle to find unity on this matter, we acknowledge that there is one, even Christ Jesus, who can lead us into the Truth.

Our shared commitment to Jesus and his Light keeps us in spiritual unity, even when we strongly disagree. Probably the most remarkable thing about this process of corporate discernment has been the spirit in which it has proceeded. It would be easy for Friends to retreat into camps and begin to question one another's motives, faith and relationship with the Lord. So far, that has not happened. Despite our differences, we have been gentle with one another, trusting that everyone here is seeking to be obedient to our risen Lord and takes seriously the witness of Scripture.

On Thursday, the gathered body of Ohio Yearly Meeting was able to come to unity on a minute regarding our present condition in regards to questions of human sexuality, including homosexuality. It was not an easy process to express our present condition as a body. We labored with this during three of our business sessions before we came to unity on the following minute:

Stillwater Quarterly Meeting reported on its deliberations regarding the "Salem Statement" on the topic of human sexuality(1), considered during our 2010 sessions. Their seven Monthly Meetings went through the important exercise of considering what God desires of His children, rather than simply airing personal opinions. Each Monthly Meeting forwarded responses to Stillwater Quarterly Meeting, which summarized them as reported below.

Friends of various perspectives are equally committed to the Lord, and we recognize that we need additional enlightenment, understanding of the underlying issues, and an openness to learning more in whatever way presents itself. The question was raised how further dialogue might take place so we can be drawn into unity. We ask the Friends Center Committee to consider planning one or more events during the coming year; additional considerations should take place locally or Friend-to-Friend. If we are faithful, it is worth the exercise.

We have struggled with questions about human sexuality for years, and we hope that waiting and listening to God, laying down our own agendas, will open a way for us to be rightly guided. We want to approach the Lord in worship with these deep concerns and hear His word for the way forward. Real Truth spoken lovingly comes with strength to bear it.

Despite the challenge of facing head-on our varied understandings of human sexuality, we were able to not only confess our disagreements in the matter, but also to agree to continue the work of corporate wrestling with what Christ is asking of us as his Church. This is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning. May we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

Thank you so much for your prayers. It is only through the power of prayer and obedience to the Word of God(2) in our hearts that we can be brought out of confusion and into the light of God's Truth. As we are gathered together in him, Jesus gives us peace - not the human peace that comes through domination of one party over another, but the peace of his heavenly Kingdom where all contention and rancor are set aside as we humble ourselves before our Lord and our God.

Please continue to pray for us in Ohio Yearly Meeting. May we be led into all truth, trusting Jesus to show us the way that we are to walk. Our life, our faith, our unity is in him.


1. A minute from Salem Quarterly Meeting, forwarded to Ohio Yearly Meeting in 2010, which suggested the revision of the OYM discipline to - among other things - define marriage as being between "one man and one woman."

2. That is, Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Slowing Down and Listening - Ohio Yearly Meeting 2011

I am in Barnesville this week for the annual sessions of Ohio Yearly Meeting. I have been looking forward to being at OYM sessions for about a year and a half. I was unable to attend last year, because I was serving as one of the leaders of the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage. This is my first time attending OYM as a member, and it feels very good to be here.

Since first coming to Barnesville, Ohio for the first QuakerSpring in the summer of 2007, I have returned frequently to the reassuring grounds of Stillwater Meeting House and Olney Friends School. Barnesville has become a place of comfort for me, a spiritual haven in a world where I often feel the need to keep my guard up. Somehow, among Friends in Barnesville I have always felt able to be myself, while at the same time being called into a deeper commitment to Jesus and the work of his Kingdom.

I need the peace I find in Barnesville now more than ever. Life in DC is accelerated, and I have been noticing lately that when I leave the city that I take this harried pace with me. I have allowed the busyness and stress of urban life seep into my bones. Returning to Barnesville is a good reminder to slow down. More than a reminder, being here provides me with a tangible opportunity to be re-baptized into the more deliberate pace of the discerning Body of Christ. Here, busyness is a vice, not a virtue. Listening, yieldedness and obedience - these things are valued more highly that any particular set of results that we might seek. The community of Friends gathered here in Barnesville embodies in our life-patterns and tradition a distinct sense of time and priorities.

While I do feel great joy to be here with my brothers and sisters at Ohio Yearly Meeting, I am also burdened by an unexpected spiritual heaviness. In the last year, long-standing differences within my Yearly Meeting have begun to come to the surface. I know that these wrestlings have been present for a long time, but for the first time over a decade, we are beginning to talk about it as a community.

As with many Christian bodies - Quaker or otherwise - Friends in Ohio are struggling over the question of how to understand God's work in the lives of gay folks. Is homosexual orientation to be understood as a temptation to be overcome? Does it represent a call to celibacy? Or is it, in fact, a gift from God that the Church is called to affirm? These are some of the questions that we in Ohio Yearly Meeting are wrestling with right now.

At last year's annual gathering, one of our Quarterly Meetings brought forward a proposal to amend our Book of Discipline (Faith and Practice). The suggested amendment would define marriage as being "between one man and one woman." There was clear disunity on the floor of the Yearly Meeting regarding this potential change, and so the question was forwarded to my Quarterly Meeting. Each Monthly Meeting in Stillwater Quarter was asked to consider the suggested change to the discipline and respond at our Quarterly Meeting in July.

The response at Quarterly Meeting was striking. Almost none of our Monthly Meetings had unity one way or another on this question. As a Quarterly Meeting, we drafted a minute to the Yearly Meeting encouraging Friends to wait in patience, holding this question in prayer and seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit. We expressed our trust that, if we open ourselves to his guidance, the Lord Jesus will show us how we are to walk together. He will bring us into unity in the truth.

Tomorrow, during our morning business session, we will be considering the response from my Quarterly Meeting. I do not know what the results of that discussion will be, but I would invite your prayers for us. Please pray for the intercession of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, that we may be opened up to the Truth and be brought into unity. We all acknowledge that we cannot be brought into true unity unless we are prepared to change our hearts and minds. It is a great barrier to Christ's work in our midst if we dig in our heels, resolutely asserting the rightness of our own opinions.
Yet, many of us do feel very strongly about this matter. Some of us feel very clear that homosexuality is a sinful pattern of relationship which should not be affirmed. Others of us are equally clear that God has created gay folks as they are, that this creation is good, and that our queer brothers and sisters should be treated just the same as those of us who are heterosexual. How are we to be united in the mind of Christ when our own minds are already so made up?

As many Christian bodies can attest, this is a very hard conversation to have. Many groups have already split over it, and there are others that will probably split over it in the future. I have been grateful that so far we in Ohio Yearly Meeting have been able to begin this conversation in a less contentious spirit. But we are still at the beginning, and there are more challenging days ahead. Please pray for us, that we in Ohio Yearly Meeting might meet this challenge with humility, compassion and submission to the will of God as revealed to us through the Holy Spirit.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Asking the Right Questions

If we want to share the gospel message, we have no other option but to leave behind the comforts of a community where everyone is asking questions to which we have established answers. We must come to understand the questions that the wider world is asking, rather than expecting non-Christians to have a Christian worldview.

Some of the central questions of the Christian faith include: "Why is humanity alienated from God?" and "What must we do to be reconciled to our Creator?" These are deeply important questions. They must be asked and answered. Yet, for these questions to be meaningful, we must believe in a personal and transcendent God who created the cosmos and cares about what happens to us.

For many Westerners, this worldview can no longer be assumed. Increasingly, a loving Creator is no longer the foundation of our worldview. Unmoored from this basic belief that has characterized Western thought for almost two thousand years, our society's basic questions change. Questions rooted in the Christian tradition no longer serve as a useful starting point for communication. If we love our neighbors - if we want to share the gospel with them - we must stop insisting that they answer our questions. We must come to understand how they see the world.

The undergirding worldview of the post-Christian West is a faith in the power of humanity to make sense of the universe without reference to the supernatural. The universe is viewed as entirely material and completely knowable by the human intellect. Complete mastery of the world is simply a matter of time and human effort. Combined with this great faith in the power of science to discover reality, there is a growing assumption that there can be no universal spiritual or moral truth.

Most of us, to the extent that we are engaged in the wider society, are caught up in this worldview that denies the Creator or any moral universals. In this spiritual vacuum, the individual is left to determine what is true. Nothing, of course, can be said to be universally true; but each person is left to develop their own code of values - their personal "truth."

This radically individualistic way of relating to truth leads to new questions. The questions of our culture are no longer about alienation from God and how to be reconciled. Our new questions are far more fundamental: "Am I alone?"; "What is truth?"; "How can I lead an 'authentic,' genuine life?"; "Why is there so much suffering in the world?";"Why do I feel empty?" These are some of the most pressing questions of the Western world today.

If we truly care about our neighbors, we as followers of Jesus are called to engage with these questions. We will never be able to communciate the gospel to our friends, family and co-workers if we continue to insist on starting from our own worldview rather than theirs. We must engage in the pressing questions of the world, trusting that all genuine searching for truth will lead to the Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Summer Travels - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #33

Dear Children of the Day,

Things have been moving along at a steady pace since I returned from my travels in the UK and East Africa. Each of my weekends have been very full - hosting our Quarterly Meeting, visiting Friends in North Carolina and Philadelphia, and receiving visitors from Rockingham Meeting and Wichita, Kansas. While things promise to slow down a bit this fall, the summer has been unrelenting in its demands. While this has been physically and emotionally tiring work, it has also been spiritually refreshing. I have felt well-used and blessed by the Lord in the work that he has laid before me this summer. What more can I ask?

I had a few days to recover from the return voyage from East Africa before Faith and I drove down to Harrisonburg, Virginia to help Rockingham Meeting host the gathering of Stillwater Quarterly Meeting. Stillwater Quarter is one of two Quarterly Meetings in Ohio Yearly Meeting. Our sister QM, Salem Quarterly Meeting, is the smaller body by far, comprising three small Monthly Meetings in eastern Ohio. Stillwater Quarter represents the rest of the Yearly Meeting - seven Monthly Meetings, including Stillwater Meeting, the largest of OYM's congregations.

Stillwater Quarter covers an immense amount of geographical territory. OYM has been growing recently, and all of this growth has taken place in Stillwater QM. Three new Monthly Meetings have been added in recent years in Michigan, eastern Pennyslvania, and western Virginia, as well as a maturing worship group near Atlanta, Georgia. Despite the distances involved, we had representation from every Monthly Meeting, as well Chattahoochee Worship Group in Georgia. It was a joy to see dear friends from across the Quarter, and it was especially good to be able to host them at Rockingham's meeting place.

Just a few days after getting back to Washington from Quarterly Meeting, I was on the road again; this time, to Wilmington, North Carolina, where North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) was holding its annual sessions. I traveled under a minute from Rockingham Meeting and Stillwater Quarterly Meeting. My concern to travel was one of gospel love. I felt drawn by the Holy Spirit to be with Friends in our sister Yearly meeting in North Carolina, and to be available for the Lord's service among them, as led. I made this visit without any agenda beyond a desire to be faithful to the moment-by-moment leadings of the Holy Spirit.

North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), along with Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) are the two remaining historical relatives of Ohio Yearly Meeting. Historically, Conservative Friends have conserved both the traditional outward practices of Friends (waiting on the Lord in silent expectation, giving corporate answers to the queries, etc.) as well as the Christian faith of Friends centered in the living presence of Jesus Christ as present Teacher, Lord and Savior.

In recent years, intervisitation between our Yearly Meetings has broken down to a great degree. While at one time there were many ministers regularly going back and forth between the Conservative Yearly Meetings, there is far less interconnectedness today. I was pleased to see one other member of my Yearly Meeting at NCYMc, as well as a member of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative). It felt good to to have the whole family together, even if in small measure.

I learned a lot on my visit among Friends in North Carolina. I saw that while our Yearly Meetings share a common history, as well as many beliefs and practices in common, we have also grown apart over the years. In particular, I noticed that while Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting speak very frequently of Jesus Christ and his role in our community, North Carolina Yearly Meeting Friends spoke primarily in terms of "God" or "the Spirit." This is a difference in language, certainly, but it seemed that our distinctive ways of speaking about our faith point to a different understanding of who Jesus is and what his role is in our life as a people.

I am grateful that I yielded to the Lord's prompting to visit Friends in North Carolina this year. I learned a lot about our brothers and sisters, with whom we share so much history and a great deal of commonality today. It is my prayer that we might find ways to strengthen the bonds between us, that we might be mutually enriched by our fellowship in the Lord. I feel certain that the Christ has a purpose for us, not just as individual Yearly Meetings, but as a wider body of Conservative Friends. I seek to remain open to how the Lord might use me in building up that body.

The following weekend, I had another opportunity to participate in the work that Christ is doing to build up his Church, traveling to Philadelphia to nurture Christ-centered Friends there. The Lord is doing amazing things in Philadelphia, and I feel privileged to have some small part in nurturing the new life that is developing there. Please pray for the seed of Christ in Philadelphia. May it blossom into a beautiful, fruit-bearing tree that is for the healing of the nations.

Finally, this past weekend we had the opportunity to welcome visitors to Capitol Hill. Over the weekend, we had guests from Rockingham Meeting who met with the core members of Capitol Hill Friends. It was good to strengthen the bonds between our two groups, and to explore how the Lord might be leading us together. We were also blessed to welcome Laura Dungan and Aaron Fowler of Wichita, Kansas. Laura and Aaron are clerks of Great Plains Yearly Meeting and Heartland Meeting, respectively. They are also amazing musicians, and we were grateful for their willingness to lead us in song at Capitol Hill Friends' meeting for worship on Sunday night.

Capitol Hill Friends is a very young group, and we are still in development as a Quaker church. For this reason, it is especially helpful to have seasoned visitors come and spend time with us. We grow as a fellowship by receiving the support of grounded individuals, and we gain a better understanding of who we are as a Meeting through our interactions with other Meetings. All this is to say: If you feel that the Lord might be directing you or your Meeting to visit or reach out to Capitol Hill Friends in some way, we encourage you to get in touch with us.

This coming week, Ohio Yearly Meeting will be having our annual gathering in Barnesville, Ohio. Please pray for us as we come together to discern the will of God for us as a people. And, of course, please continue to pray for the growth and strengthening of Capitol Hill Friends and of the ministry that Christ is calling us to as a community.

May the Lord bless you as you seek to live in Christ's reign, embodying his love and power in this world.

In the joy of Christ's easy yoke,

Micah Bales