Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Resolution: Seeking The Seed Within

Don’t you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.   - Romans 6:3-4

At the core of my being there lies truth, the reality of who I really am. In the silence, in fluid motion, in my breath, I discover an inward solidness that holds firm through all circumstances. Looking back over my life, the only constant is change. It is not only the world around me that shifts and evolves - over the course of time, I myself am rendered almost unrecognizable. I can hardly identify with the person I was fifteen years ago. My motivations, desires and worldview have all undergone a tremendous realignment.

And yet, there is something essential that does not move. It is an inward observer who has always been present and knows my true identity. All of my changeable states, ideas, desires and personality orbit around this deepest part of me. This thread of continuity runs through all of me - body, mind and emotions. It is the good seed that Christ has sown in my heart.

This seed is the source of all true growth and positive change in my life. It is the force that overcomes the self-centered, self-destructive patterns that I am prone to. It is the new name that God has given me. If I allow this seed to take root within me, it gives me power to be transformed, little by little, until I am remade in the image of Jesus.

The living presence of Christ within me offers a new way to change. Rather than being buffeted by the storms of the world, the seed of Christ within sinks its roots deep into the bedrock of God. As this new life grows within me, I find that I am changing in ways that keep me in sync with the Way, the Truth and the Life. My changing becomes increasingly a process of abiding in Jesus.

This involves dying. My old, rebellious ways of living must fall away, and the pruning is often painful. So many of my old assumptions and habits turn out to be inadequate for life in the Kingdom. I see how often I try to control my relationship with God and other people by creating my own set of rules, a law. Yet, the baptizing power of the seed tugs at me, inviting me to walk in relationship with Jesus. When I truly love him, there are no more rules - only living commandments spoken moment by moment. On this hangs the law and the prophets.

In this new year, I resolve to seek the seed within, to be open to transformation by the Holy Spirit. In a world that is always changing, I resolve to make the unshakable presence of Jesus my reference point. With his help, I will seek a way that goes beyond the law - the rules that I substitute for a living friendship with Jesus.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Are We A Book Club, Or A Church?

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. - James 1:22

I was raised in a family that prized education. Growing up, I viewed learning as an end unto itself, and my parents encouraged me to explore a wide range of subjects. I immersed myself in history, philosophy, vocal music and foreign languages. Later, I sang opera, studied abroad in Mexico and learned what it meant to be a historian. I graduated from college with a solid liberal arts education, steeped in the intellectual heritage of Western civilization.

While I am grateful for the training I received in my youth, it had certain weaknesses. Though I received a balanced and well-rounded education, I soon discovered that my liberal arts degree had not prepared me for any career in particular. If I wanted to become a historian, I would need to go back for a doctorate. If I wanted to teach Spanish, I would need to get an education degree. Most anything I could imagine doing would require more study.

Though I received a stellar education from grade school through seminary, I learned mostly theory rather than application. My training consisted mostly of learning how to do school rather than how to do life. At the end of the day, most of my practical knowledge came from outside the classroom.

My experience of religious education is similar. As a child, I learned Bible stories and heard sermons. Later, I was encouraged to read devotional pamphlets and books about Quaker history and theology. There was a Pendle Hill Pamphlet for every occasion. In retrospect, I can see that my formative religious experience mirrored closely the assumptions of the schools and universities that I attended.

This makes sense. In the Quaker church, many of us have spent most of our lives immersed in the wider educational system. Most of us have spent far more time in the classroom than we have in Christian fellowship. It should not be surprising that our assumptions about what constitutes knowledge, expertise, and experience bear great similarity to those of the schools and universities we have attended.

At worst, we have come to treat religion as yet another subject to become proficient in. Far too often, our faith becomes abstracted into a series of maxims - "there is that of God in everyone" - or behavioral codes - "we do not speak in the first fifteen minutes of meeting for worship" - that fit better into standardized testing than into the off-script, rough-and-tumble of everyday life. No wonder our faith is so often confined to an hour on Sunday morning! No wonder we often act like one person "at Meeting" and a different person at home, school or work: We have become trapped in a religious system that is only relevant at "test time."

How can we develop faith that has relevance beyond the Sunday-morning Quiz? How can our time together become occasions of mutual support and practical equipping for the work of the Kingdom in daily life? How might we as Friends adopt a more earthy, practical spirituality? When our fellowships often resemble book clubs more than a radical movement for peace and justice, how can we start applying the radical message of Jesus?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

An Anti-Racist Gentrifier?

Washington, DC is a city of contrasts. Like most large urban centers, DC encompasses the very wealthy and the very poor; the powerful and the disenfranchised; the descendants of slaveholders and the descendants of slaves. Washington is a city where the political elite of the United States gathers to battle for economic interests and position and it is home to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who are battling just to make it through the month.

Income inequality and de facto racial segregation is a serious problem throughout the United States, but my experience is that DC suffers from these ills differently from many areas. In Washington, there seems to be very little middle ground between the two main populations that characterize our city. The first group is DC's native-born population, largely made up of working class or poor African Americans. The other major group is the elite, wealthy, highly educated and mostly white population that has recently relocated to the region to work in a variety of federal programs, non-profit organizations and lobbyist groups.

These two populations occupy different physical and social space within the city. There is an invisible line running through DC, dividing East from West. The easternmost neighborhoods of the District are settled mostly by native-born, African American residents. The western regions of the city are largely inhabited by wealthy newcomers.

This racial, economic and cultural dividing line is rapidly moving eastward. While in the 1980s African Americans vastly outnumbered any other ethnic group in the District, black residents now make up only a slim majority of Washingtonians – and it seems likely that even this small edge may be slipping away. As the price of housing has skyrocketed, many longtime DC residents have been forced out of their neighborhoods – pushed farther east as the invisible line dividing our city advances.

There is growing fear that our city does not have room for both groups. Many areas that until recently were bastions of African American residence and culture have become the exclusive reserve of the very wealthy, and mostly white – and many other neighborhoods are headed in the same direction. If current trends continue, there is little doubt that the District of Columbia will soon become a city that is unlivable for anyone without a white-collar, professional income. Most working-class, African American residents may soon be displaced, forced to commute into the city they once called home.

What is my role in all of this? Whether I like it or not, I am a participant in the dynamic of class warfare that is playing out here in my city. I am a homeowner in an area that the last census recorded as being 99% African American. As a white person and a newcomer to the city, it is likely that my family represents the vanguard of a future wave of gentrification and forced removals of lower-income, non-white residents. We chose the home we did because it was located in one of the few areas of the city where we could (barely) afford to buy. It seems ironic that our presence might help fuel a process that makes housing unaffordable for others.

This destructive dynamic of rising prices and displacement is not something that I want to encourage, but I do not see a clear way that I as an individual can participate in a solution. Instead, I mostly just feel sad about it, all the while struggling not to feel defensive when some people suggest that my family – as white, middle-class people – are somehow a plague on DC. We all need a place to live, and I am convinced that God has called me to settle here in DC. What can I do?

I cannot change who I am, nor would I want to. But how can I be an ally to my fellow DC residents who are not of my same ethnicity or class background? As one of the few white residents east of the Anacostia River, how can I participate respectfully in my neighborhood's civic life without imposing my own norms and expectations? Are there ways that I can work to address structural injustice that is helping to precipitate this situation? What does it look like to be an anti-racist, anti-classist, white, middle-class homeowner in a rapidly-gentrifying city?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Grassroots Quaker Revival - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #49

Dear friends,

This fall has been a time of crisis, reflection and transformation, as we at Capitol Hill Friends have sensed God calling us to move outside the comfortable forms of 20th-century Quakerism and embrace the ways that the Holy Spirit is working and wants to work in this present generation. At the same time, we are being knit together into a wider community - the Friends of Jesus Fellowship - a dispersed yet cohesive community of like-hearted sisters and brothers who are committed to living and sharing the gospel in the world today.

In the past month, I have been able to participate in a concrete expression of this new movement, working with a number of fellow ministers to organize a revival meeting in Philadelphia. The decision to hold a public meeting for worship - and to call it a "revival" - was the result of a long period of discernment in community. Over time, it became clear that God was calling us to do this bold thing, inviting others into an opportunity to deepen our walk with the Spirit, and to open ourselves to the life of Jesus.

There were about eight of us on the team that helped to plan the revival, five local residents and three visitors from Michigan, Baltimore and DC. We laid the groundwork for the revival meeting in a series of weekly conference calls over a period of about a month, finally meeting together in person the night before the event. This process of planning, discernment and prayer was deeply beneficial for us as a network of like-hearted friends. Over the course of our preparation, we came to know one another better, and I sensed that new depths of leadership were being developed among us. The planning process was at least as worthwhile as the event itself.

We gathered for the revival meeting on a Thursday night, in a home in West Philadelphia. The evening began with a potluck dinner, and by the time worship worship started at 7:00, there were about fifty people present. The meeting commenced with a period of singing, led by a couple of the local planners. When the music concluded, it was announced that we would be entering into waiting worship, and that our three visiting ministers would be speaking out of the silence.

This ended up being really awkward for me, because the Lord gave me very little to say. My two fellow ministers delivered outstanding sermons, and it was clear to me that the Spirit had used them to take us in the direction that we needed to go. For a while, I thought that I would remain silent the whole meeting - which was uncomfortable, since I literally had people turning around and looking at me. They wondered when I would speak, since it had been announced! Mercifully, the Lord did give me a few words to deliver - totally unrelated to the message that God had been preparing within me for the weeks leading up to the revival.

This process was really hard on me. It took me days to recover from the raw sensation of being broken down in this way. Yet, this experience was a spiritual baptism for me, teaching me greater reliance on the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, weaning me away from my tendency to trust in my own strength.

Though the meeting was hard for me on a personal level, I felt that the revival was blessed. There were no big explosions, no apparent mass conversions, no gaudy altar calls. But I did sense that hearts were being moved and that the risen Lord Jesus was among us, teaching. As I said to a fellow worker immediately after the worship, I feel that we did the best we could with the faith, gifts and condition of all who were present. I believe that we were faithful, in measure.

Following the revival meeting, six of us from the Friends of Jesus Fellowship ended up attending a Christ-centered Friends gathering held at Manhasset Friends Meeting House on Long Island; four of us came up from the Philadelphia event, and two others traveled from New Jersey and New England. The time on Long Island was covered by Christ's presence. All of us felt that there was a "sweet spirit" among the group, and it was comforting to be able to rest in the Lord after such an intense effort in Philadelphia.

I was very impressed by the spiritual depth and grounding of Friends at Manhasset and the other Friends who attended the Christ-centered Friends gathering. We made many good connections over the weekend, which I hope we can continue to nurture as we move forward as Friends of Jesus.

It is phenomenal to feel how the Lord's work is moving forward at this time. Over the course of the last several years, we have experienced many setbacks. This ministry that we are engaged in is a marathon, not a sprint, and we know from experience that there will be highs and lows. But at this time, there is a sense of expansiveness and serendipitous blessing. Our spiritual ancestors would probably have named this experience as one of divine providence.

God is indeed providing for us, opening the way forward to be gathered together as Christ's body. On the big-picture level, we sense the Holy Spirit knitting us together as a new people in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. We are developing organic leadership remarkably quickly, and we are trying to stay adaptable as we incorporate new individual leaders and groups into our network. In Washington, DC, we are experiencing the Lord's grace in providing us with the faith, insight and spiritual gifts that we need to become a maturing community that bears the marks of Jesus' character.

The next several months will be crucial for our development as a community. The Friends of Jesus Fellowship is experimenting with ways to support one another at a distance as we seek to build strong local groups. Electronic tools - email, video chat and conference calls - help connect us between gatherings, and we make efforts to visit one another in person as often as possible.

Here in DC, we plan to launch a new program of small group(s) and monthly public worship beginning in the first quarter of 2013. By placing our emphasis on disciple-making and developing new leadership at the local level, we pray that God will unlock a grassroots revival of the Holy Spirit that goes far beyond occasional worship events.

We know that true revival does not consist in an evening of worship. Rather, we are being revived through ongoing transformation into the image of Christ. This extended process involves heart, soul, mind and strength, and it is through spiritually grounded and mature communities that we develop the capacity to be transformed and produce leadership that is transforming. This is the work of the coming year, and of the rest of our lives.

As we engage in this effort, I am so grateful for all of you who lift us up in prayer. Though I cannot explain it rationally, I am convinced that prayer has real power to change the course of events. Your prayers strengthen me, and all of us who are participating in this generation's great revival movement. I hope that you will continue to pray for us in the months and years to come, so that we may all be transformed by the renewing of our minds, knowing what the will of God is - what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.

Your friend in Jesus,

Micah Bales

Monday, December 17, 2012

Next Steps For Capitol Hill Friends

After months of discernment, we at Capitol Hill Friends have reached some clarity on how to move forward in 2013. For the past several years, we have been a small worship group, holding weekly meetings for worship which were consistently deep and spiritually powerful. Yet, despite these years of deep worship, our community never reached critical mass. We never made the leap from being a worship opportunity to being a worshiping community.

This fall, we concluded that our model of regular meetings for worship had not produced a growing and maturing community. For more than two years, our core group had remained constant, and there was no sign of any real change on the horizon. It became increasingly clear to us that, unless we were willing to let Capitol Hill Friends go, it would never bear fruit.

Change is hard, which is probably why it took us several years to be brought to this point. In the last few months, however, we have put everything on the table. Meeting time, location, format - even whether to continue as Capitol Hill Friends at all. As far as we have known how, we have laid everything at Jesus' feet. We surrendered our own ideas about what this community should look like. We invited the Holy Spirit in to re-form us and put us back on the right path.

As a result of this process of discernment, we are emerging with a very different vision of what kind of community God is calling us to be. Rather than a group that focuses on holding a worship service, we feel called to place most of our emphasis on developing mutually supportive community. We want to pray for one another, read the Bible together, and come to know one another as human beings.

We sense that as we come to know and support one another in our walk of faith, powerful worship will once again emerge at Capitol Hill Friends. But, this time, worship will be the fruit of deep personal relationships and vibrant community life. As we walk together in the light of God's love, we seek to become an organic whole, knit together in the Spirit.

What does this mean, practically? Our change of heart has resulted in a change of strategy. Let me provide an outline of what we expect the next few months to look like.

First, we will be kicking off the new year with a dinner party on Capitol Hill. We want to sit down and break bread with everyone who might be interested taking these next steps together with us. At this dinner (on Saturday, January 12th), we will lay out the details of our new strategy for developing into a community that can bless our city, the region and the world with the love of Jesus. While we hope there will be a lot of good discussion at the dinner, I will lay out here a brief sketch of how we see our strategy playing out in the next few months.

In February/March, we plan to launch the first cycle of small group. This group of 7-12 will gather once a week for six weeks, at a time and location that is mutually workable for everyone involved. Each of the weekly meet-ups will include personal check-ins, a shared exploration of the Bible, and an opportunity for worship and prayer. Each session should last no more than an hour and a half. At the end of the six weeks, the small group will do some discernment together about how they would like to proceed. We hope that many of the participants will want to do another cycle, and it is possible that the small group will have grown enough that it will make sense to establish new small groups in other parts of the city.

We know that not everyone will have the time, energy or interest to get involved in this first cycle of small group, and we think that having some opportunity for a larger gathering is important. For this reason, we plan to begin holding one public meeting for worship each month. The format for the public meetings will be different from before. As with the small groups, we hope to keep these meetings to no more than an hour and a half. We hope that by limiting the time commitment, we might make both our small groups and public meetings more accessible to everyone who would like to participate.

These are broad strokes, and there is a lot more to discuss! I hope that everyone who lives in the DC area and is interested in getting involved in this new evolutionary stage of our community will try to make it to the dinner this January. (For those of you living a bit further north, we know that some folks from Baltimore will be coming down - so let me know if you could use a ride.) Whether you can make it to the dinner or not, I hope we can be in conversation about how to move forward together.

There are signs of a grassroots spiritual awakening taking place across the United States, and I feel hopeful that 2013 will be a momentous year - not only for our community here in DC, but for an entire network of sisters and brothers who are committed to seeking peace, justice and reconciliation as we walk together in the way of Jesus.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

At The End Of My Rope

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. - Matthew 5:3 (The Message)

It is easy to think of Jesus as a winner. He faced down the religious and imperial authorities, calling them out on their injustice and hypocrisy. And, when all was said and done, his Father raised him from the dead, seating him at his right hand. Jesus won the victory over sin and death, opening the way for us to follow him into life. From our vantage point today, Jesus is the greatest success story of all time.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that Jesus' ministry was an abject failure in the eyes of almost everyone living during his earthly ministry. There is no doubt that, even after the resurrection, virtually nobody thought anything about Jesus. If they had heard of him at all, most folks knew him as just another failed messiah - crucified by the Romans, as usual. Jesus was a loser.

The mystery of Jesus' victory is that it appeared as defeat to the eyes of the world. He refused to take up the mantle of a military messiah who would exercise dominion through force. Nor did he embrace the power of the religious authorities, manipulating ritual and symbols to command submission. Instead, he took on the form of a slave, yielding his life and personal ambitions up to death.

In a world that was used to winners like Caesar and Pilate, Caiaphas and Herod, Jesus was a nobody. Jesus signaled his insignificance by his refusal to impose his will on others. Instead, he wandered about with a motley crew of disciples, preaching about a coming Kingdom in which all things would be restored to truth and righteousness.

Jesus is the anti-Caesar. While the powers of this world are busy pointing to themselves, Jesus directs his friends to the Father. While Caesar proclaimed himself God, Jesus lay aside the privileges of divinity in order to live in full solidarity with a rebellious humanity. While the imperial rulers and religious authorities lived in luxury and sat in places of honor, Jesus was stripped naked and nailed to a cross.

But there is more to this story. The humble, hidden Kingdom of Jesus has overcome the haughty grandeur of the kingdoms of this world. While Caesar's victories have been swallowed up in death a thousand times over, Jesus lives and reigns forever. How can this be so?

It does not make rational sense to me, but I can sense the truth of it in my bones. Real power lies in surrender. To grow in wisdom is to shrink in self. As I seek to walk in Christ's light, I am forced to recognize my own limitations. I am confronted by the reality that I am never going to change the world. But if I am willing to hand my life entirely over to God, to die to my own ambitions and desire for recognition, Christ in me becomes my hope of glory.

Am I ready to walk in the path of Jesus? Am I prepared to embrace the holy surrender that lies at the heart of his ministry? Do I have the courage to be a failure in the eyes of the world, so that I may share in Christ's victory?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Are We Revived Yet?

This past week, I traveled in the ministry among Friends in the Mid-Atlantic. Along with my companions from Michigan, Baltimore and Philadelphia, we held a revival meeting for Friends in the Philadelphia area, as well as attending a gathering of Christian Friends on Long Island. This was one of the more epic road trips I have been on, with four of us packed into my little '97 Corolla, navigating New York traffic while engaging in a passionate discussion of the challenges facing the Body of Christ at this historical moment of great crisis and opportunity.

Our journey began Wednesday afternoon. I picked Tyler Hampton up from the airport, and Dan Randazzo from his home in Baltimore; dinner was in Philadelphia, at the home of Helene Pollock, along with a number of fellow workers in the Truth. We went really deep over the dinner table, discussing the dynamics of doing ministry in a Philadelphia Quaker context. This conversation helped to prepare us for the work to come.

Thursday night, we held a gathering of around fifty people in a home in West Philly. Calling the gathering a Quaker revival, we sought to offer a space for transformation - a renewed encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. We were heartened to see that a wide cross-section of the Philadelphia Quaker community was in attendance. Locals told us that there was representation from many different Quaker sub-cultures that rarely talked with one another. Especially encouraging to me was that there were also some folks who were new to Friends who attended to get a better idea of whether this might be the community for them.

The meeting itself was not what anyone expected, including me. After a potluck dinner and a time of singing led by talented musicians from the Philadelphia area, we entered into a time of open worship. As visiting ministers, Tyler, Dan and I were explicitly invited to give vocal ministry during that time. However, the meeting flowed freely, with other Friends giving messages as they felt moved. Tyler and Dan both gave very powerful spoken ministry, articulating the depths of anguish and sense of abandonment that we may feel as we seek to follow Jesus. Though I had prayed for many weeks in preparation, and believed that the Lord had given me a message to deliver at the revival, I found that Tyler's visceral ministry was pitch perfect. Nothing that I had been given to speak seemed relevant any longer.

This was really hard for me. Before the meeting ended, I did end up speaking a few words, which I hope were faithful to the motion of the Spirit in our midst; yet, most of what I believed God had given me to say was stripped away. For almost a month, I felt that God was preparing me to deliver a particular message, but at the last possible moment, the sermon went through the shredder! It took me the whole next day to recover from my feelings of frustration and abandonment.

Though I personally struggled, I felt that the revival was held in the power of the Lord. I was very proud of Tyler and Dan for their faithfulness in preaching the word, and I felt thankful for the hard work that everyone put into planning logistics, preparing music, and opening their homes and hearts in order to allow this event to take place. I feel that we did the best we could with the gifts, faith, and spiritual condition of those who were present that night.

Are we revived yet? That is a hard thing to gauge. I can say that ministers were seasoned and empowered. I can report that around fifty Friends gathered together in Philadelphia to hear the word of the gospel. I know that, as a result of this effort, many individuals in the Philadelphia area have felt strengthened and supported in their walk of faith. And I have a sense that the Lord is gathering a people to himself. If revival means instantaneous transformation, then ours was a pretty poor example. But if revival means the steady work of planting and watering, inviting Jesus himself into our midst, then I would say that we can report some success.

The next day, a number of us traveled to Long Island, where we participated in a weekend gathering of Christ-centered Friends from across the New York City region. It was a joy to be present with these sisters and brothers, and to encourage one another in our shared walk with the Lord. I was deeply impressed by the Christian faith and warm hospitality of our hosts at Manhasset Meeting. It was also a joy to connect with other Friends from the New York City area who were in attendance. After the heavy lifting of the revival in Philadelphia, we were blessed by the sweet spirit and deep refreshment that we experienced among Friends on Long Island.

As we made our way back home yesterday, Helene, Dan, Tyler and I had ample time to debrief on our experience of the last several days. We shared lessons learned, and brainstormed about possible next steps. Even before the revival happened, we were already getting invitations to hold similar meetings in other parts of the country. At the same time, we are encouraged that there are several related movements among Friends to bring renewal and revival to the Body of Christ. With the Friends of Jesus Fellowship retreat in Ohio this April, QuakerSpring holding its annual gathering in June, and the Northeast Christ-centered Friends gathering taking place in September, it is clear that a fresh Jesus movement is afoot among Friends.

Recognizing these signs of Christ's work among Friends, how can we fan the flames of a movement that goes far beyond rekindling the flickering embers of Quakerism? What would it look like to be part of a movement of the Holy Spirit whose first motion was to bless the world, no matter the cost? What might take place if we were willing to be poured out in order to express Christ's love for the world? What if we released our grip on Quakerism and allowed the Spirit to flow through us, to do a new thing?

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Quaker Revival In Philadelphia Tonight

This evening, we will be holding the first revival meeting among Friends in Philadelphia in generations. Months of prayer, discernment and preparation have been directed towards this moment, and we feel clear in our sense of the Spirit's leading. It is good for us to be here.

It is also terrifying. As one of three visiting ministers who have been invited to serve at this gathering, I am convicted of the importance of tonight's meeting - and of my own personal inadequacy to be a vessel for the Living Water that Jesus offers us. I feel deeply the words that Simon Peter spoke when Jesus called him into this same ministry beside the Sea of Galilee: "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

I think that all of us who are involved in organizing this revival meeting are aware of our own frailty and weakness. Who are we to invite our brothers and sisters into a deepened experience of the Holy Spirit and a renewed commitment to following Jesus? And yet our hearts are convinced that God has called each of us to be a part of this evening, and to minister to others as the Spirit directs.

It is our prayer that the living Spirit of God will be in full evidence in our assembly tonight. It is our hope that Jesus will be present in the midst, as he promised he would be whenever we gather in his name. It is our strength and comfort to trust that though we are weak and insufficient, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. He has already won the victory, and he invites us to take up his ministry of reconciliation - to speak peace to the whole world.

If anything positive happens tonight - if there is any healing, any joy, any kindling of the heart and new commitment to following Jesus - it will be because of the living presence of God. This is my heart's prayer today: Holy Spirit, come! Lord Jesus, stand in the midst of your people and teach us!

Please pray for us here in Philadelphia, that we may be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and brought into a deepened commitment to walking in the way of Jesus.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Advent And The Empire Of This World

Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, a time of remembrance and preparation for the coming of Jesus into the world. Especially for those of us who do not attend liturgical worship services, it is easy to forget about this special period of hope and expectancy in the midst of darkness. Advent is mostly obscured by the Holiday Season that is so vigorously promoted by the profit-driven society in which we reside. Our practice of remembering the coming of Jesus groans under the weight of the prosperity cult that has emerged as our unifying national religion.

In the face of this consumerist onslaught, Advent stands as a mark of radical resistance to the Empire of this world. Together, we remember how God has entered into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, and we confess that it is only in his Empire (his Kingdom) that we may find true peace and fulfillment.

It is easy to forget how radical this season is meant to be. Advent is not about egg nog, Christmas carols and sleigh rides - it is an act of shared recognition that the true Lord and Love of our lives has entered into the world and has unmasked the powers that hold us in bondage. Joy to the world, the Savior reigns! He is here to unmask and put an end to the evil of sex trafficking, political corruption, environmental devastation and the dehumanizing attitudes that have infected every human heart. The Empire of this world is become the Empire of our Lord, and of his Messiah!

His coming is like a refiner's fire, which purifies and strips down everything that stands in the way of the abundant life that the Spirit is calling us into. Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when Jesus himself appears in our midst? As we endure this world's "Holiday Season," God calls us away from our selfish consumption and comforting rituals. Instead, we are invited to become agents of Christ's work of unmasking the powers and bringing healing to our broken society.

The coming weeks are a time for revolutionary boldness. Now is the time to remember that the true Light that enlightens everyone is coming into the world. This is a moment to radically reorient our lives and turn towards the the upside-down Kingdom. We are being offered an opportunity to (re)affirm our commitment to the loving Empire of Jesus, and to renounce the death-dealing Empire that so often seems unassailable.

For we know that Jesus has already overcome the world. What would it look like for us to participate in his victory? How might we change our whole orientation, seeing clearly the way that God is re-making the whole of creation? Are we ready to turn away from the darkness and confusion of this world and turn towards the light that we find in the face of Jesus? Are we prepared to tear away the veil of confusion and embrace the radical implications of the message that simmers just under the surface of the Holiday Season?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Should Quakers Be Laying On Hands?

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. - Acts 8:14-17

Have you received the Holy Spirit?

The Book of Acts describes how the first disciples in Jerusalem experienced the coming of the Spirit, and this outpouring quickly spread to thousands of others. It was not long before the Church in Jerusalem was scattered by persecution, but this just spread the gospel message more widely.

One of these scattered disciples, Philip, shared the good news in Samaria. The Samaritans were the red-headed stepchildren of the Jewish family. They were outsiders par excellence, widely considered untouchable heretics by their Jewish neighbors. Yet, perhaps because of their shunned status, Samaritans were eager to embrace the news about Jesus. They heard the message and accepted it.

The new believers in Samaria took the first step, being baptized with water as a symbol of their whole-hearted embrace of the message that Philip had shared with them. But there was still something missing. The leaders of the Church in Jerusalem knew in their bones that the people of Samaria needed more than human belief in the message about Jesus: They needed to experience Jesus for themselves. They needed to taste his very Spirit.

What does that even mean? Why weren't the apostles satisfied with the fact that the Samaritans had become "orthodox Christians"? What compelled some of the apostles in Jerusalem to venture out to Samaria and lay their hands on the new believers? And why did the Holy Spirit wait for the apostles' touch before indwelling the new church? If the Spirit blows where it will, what need is there of human intervention?

There is a reason that our spiritual ancestors used such rich, diverse language to describe the Spirit: A dove descending from the sky, rushing wind, tongues of fire, living water, the sound of silence. All of these words offer a window into the mystery of the Holy Spirit, the source of a Life and Power so magnificent that our faith is incomplete until we receive it.

It is my experience that the Spirit is beautifully mysterious and unpredictable. Any attempt to pin her down and force her to obey human regulations will fail. And yet, this story of human involvement in the work of the Holy Spirit rings true to me. It fits with my own experience of receiving the Holy Spirit into my life.

When I first became a Quaker in 2004, I did so because I was convinced at a very deep level, far beyond simple intellectual assent, that the testimonies of Friends were true. I could sense that there was a ground of truth that was solid and immovable. I sensed that God was real, and that my life needed to conform to that Truth. Yet, there was something missing. While I had begun to accept Friends principles and could sense God's hidden presence, I did not experience God as an actor in my life. In reality, I was still in the driver's seat. I was "exploring God," like the famous old blind men who could each feel a different part of the elephant.

But when the Holy Spirit came on me, it was as if that elephant reached out and grabbed me with her trunk! No longer was God an object of my personal study; I came face-to-face with a divine Presence and Personality that had plans for me, and who would guide me if I opened myself. I was shown, in a deeply personal way that can never be fully explained, that God is not an "it," but rather a "thou."

And how did I come to have this experience? What was the catalyst for this encounter with the divine Thou? While for me there was not a literal laying on of hands, the circumstances surrounding my reception of the Holy Spirit bore great similarities to the experience of the Samaritan church.

I was at the World Gathering of Young Friends, in Lancaster, England, together with hundreds of other young Quakers from around the world. During the gathering, we heard sermons from a variety of ministers. One of these, a fiery preacher from Philadelphia, challenged us to know who we were and to accept the mantle of prophecy that the Spirit was calling us into. Early on in her sermon she warned us, "you didn't ask me, but I'm about to give you a double portion of what I have." At one point - referencing the words of Jesus in John 15 - the minister exclaimed, "you're cleansed!" She spontaneously grabbed a container of water that was sitting up at the podium and began sprinkling those of us sitting closer to the front.

The sermon was riveting. It was the most explosive, powerful vocal ministry I had ever encountered. She spoke directly to our condition that evening, and the Spirit was palpably present in the room - though I was not consciously aware of it at the time.

It was later in the evening that it happened. I was sitting on a bench with another young Quaker, and we spontaneously fell into silent worship together. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit was upon us, bathing us with wave upon wave of light, power, love and tender mercy. There simply are no words. But every true word I have spoken since that night has flowed from this Source.

I am convinced that the presence of apostolic authority and blessing that night were instrumental in the work of the Holy Spirit. The faithfulness of this minister from Philadelphia played the same role for me as Peter and John did for the new believers in Samaria. It is enough to make me wonder whether we Quakers should put more emphasis on the importance of human participation in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Has this happened to you? Has someone laid hands on you - literally or figuratively? Have you received a blessing from another person that has allowed you to plunge far deeper into relationship with God than you ever had before? What do you think the role of human agency is in the ministry of the Holy Spirit? Could it be that we Quakers need to be more open to sharing the gift of the Spirit by the laying on of hands?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Atheist For God's Sake?

What if atheism were the most faithful response to the life and message of Jesus? What if, rather than an anomaly to be fixed or avoided, the felt experience of God's absence were at the heart of the Christian faith? What if Jesus' sense of abandonment by God on the cross were not merely a lamentable necessity en route to the resurrection, but rather a central part of what it means to live in the horrifying light of the gospel?

In his 2011 book, Insurrection, Peter Rollins argues that belief in an externalized, objectivized deity that "makes everything OK" is the path of religious escapism. Instead, he urges us to strip away the comforting veil that hides the naked truth from our eyes - the reality of pain, injustice and deep existential anxiety. To doubt, Rollins argues, is divine - because it is in the depths of despair that we can come into communion with the crucified Jesus who, as he hangs on the cross, cries out in desolation, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

This image of Jesus' utter brokenness on the cross is one that Rollins returns to time and again as he drives home his message: There is a god of our imagination that comforts us and makes our lives more understandable, but this god is more fiction than reality. It is a false savior, a security blanket that covers over our deepest anxieties. This god that we create is a projection of our own need to be observed and cared for, to live an existence that is ordered and purposeful, to know that everything will be alright in the end.

Rollins breathlessly invites us to cast aside these god-shaped idols that we cling to in the name of religion. Rather than fleeing our moments of anxiety and groundlessness, what if we allowed ourselves to feel the radical abandonment by God that Jesus experienced on the cross? What would happen if we confessed - first to ourselves, then to others - that we do not understand the universe that we live in, that it does not make sense to us? Paradoxically, Rollins insists that the only way to truly encounter God is to fully experience the desolation of God's absence.

Rollins urges us to strip away all the anti-depressants that we heap on top of the raw terror of human experience. Rather than wrapping ourselves ever more deeply in the security blankets of conventional religiosity, with its assurances of salvation "in the sky by and by," a genuine encounter with the living God invites us to dwell in the Desert of the Real. It is in this encounter that we experience the unvarnished reality of our lives, uncushioned by hope of heaven, fear of hell or illusions about a "nanny god" who will make everything better soon. We stand most truly in the presence of Jesus when we embrace the fullness of his suffering and his love for the world as it is, not as the human imagination would have it be.

This is particularly challenging for those of us whom God calls to proclaim the gospel. What is the role of existential doubt, despair and a felt sense of abandonment by God in this proclamation? Surely, all of us have experienced this sense of groundlessness and loss in our own lives. A sense of God's absence is certainly a regular part of my spiritual experience. Yet, it is not the whole of it.

The God of my own experience - and the God whom we encounter in Scripture - is one who is both near to us and far away. Here is a God who neither coddles us (depriving us of free will) nor abandons us forever (depriving us of hope). Peter Rollins has written a brilliant argument against the coddling, "safety blanket god." How do I integrate this critique? What does it look like to fully embrace the reality of the cross while witnessing to the life of the Resurrection? How can I acknowledge my own experience of divine abandonment while at the same time lifting up the life that lies on the other side. The grain of wheat must die if it is to bear fruit - but there is a joyous harvest awaiting us!

Rollins would have us believe that the resurrection life is nothing more (or less) than loving one another, dwelling in the love that makes God's reality present. It is unclear to me whether Rollins believes that God is an actor in history. For the most part, Rollins seems to view God as an impersonal force (agape love) that we humans can either choose to dwell in, or not. Because Rollins' focus is so intensely on the abandonment that Jesus experienced on the cross, at times I wondered whether he considers the experience of God's presence and guidance to be real. Or is all sense of security, groundedness and peace an illusion that separates us from real engagement with life as it really is?

If I had an opportunity to discuss these matters with Rollins, I feel confident that he would give me well-considered answers that demonstrate a balance between absolute despair and cheap theism that denies the cross. Yet, as the book stands, I wonder whether Rollins takes us a little too far from the reality of God's loving presence - the divine personality and will that is not our own, yet fills our lives with purpose, compassion and the pursuit of justice.

While there are parts of Insurrection that strike me as unbalanced, that is to be expected. A prophet does not give a fair and balanced view of all sides of an issue. The hallmark of prophetic witness is that it hits us exactly where we need to be struck. It may not be fair, but it provides the slap across the face that we need to wake up. Peter Rollins is speaking to a decadent, self-satisfied Western Church that has wallowed for far too long in a cheap gospel that celebrates selfish joy and ignores the poor.

We have sung too many cloying praise songs and heard too many peppy sermons. We have whitewashed our own experience of spiritual emptiness too many times. A church that is unwilling to face its own insecurities and anxieties is incapable of truly embracing those on the margins. This kind of church must shun those who cannot hide their brokenness, because it cannot stand to see its own spiritual condition reflected back. Insurrection urges us to look at ourselves in the mirror, perhaps for the first time. It is a reminder that we must face the reality of our own emptiness and anxiety. Another happy-clappy, "Jesus loves the little children," cheap grace sermon will not get us to the resurrection.

It is only as we enter into the experience of emptiness, futility and death that we encounter the beckoning reality of the resurrection. Rather than sparing us from crucifixion, true resurrection is only to be found as we pass through death into a deeper, truer existence. Peter Rollins writes about this in a way that I find very compelling, observing that even the resurrected Jesus bears the marks of his torture on the cross.

Our relationship with God and our fellow human beings looks very different depending on which side of the cross we stand. Do we bear witness to a post-crucifixion resurrection - or do we want to skip the terror of the cross and dive straight into the after-party? Are we truly ready to follow in Jesus' footsteps, taking on the suffering and despair of the world and offering our lives into the hands of a God who often seems absent? How do we bear the marks of the crucifixion in our own bodies, even as we proclaim the living joy and hope of the resurrection?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Why Quakers Should Celebrate Thanksgiving

One of the core teachings of the Quaker movement is that Christ is inwardly present in all times and all places. In seventeenth-century England, when holiness was restricted the tightly controlled religious rituals of an elite clergy, Friends made the bold claim that the real presence of Jesus was not to be found in the hocus pocus of wafers and wine. Instead, they testified that Jesus is risen in the very bodies of those women and men who follow him in spirit and in truth.

In a culture where religious ritual and narrow sacramentality was used to dominate common people, Friends insisted that Jesus is radically present in the lives of all people. Despite intense persecution by the religious and civil authorities, Friends clung to their conviction that God's power and mercy spills beyond the walls of the cathedral, and that the baptizing power of the Spirit is not dependent on water poured by human hands.

Along with other radical groups in their day (such as the Puritans), Friends denounced many of the customs that those around them took for granted. Because the names of the days and months were derived from pagan deities (Thor's Day, for example), Friends began using numbers instead (e.g. Today is Fifth Day, 11th Month 22nd, 2012). Friends also rejected holidays such as Easter and Christmas. This was not because they did not honor the spiritual significance of Christ's birth and resurrection; rather, they believed that they could best experience Christ's resurrected presence by following him each day. Every day should be Christmas. Every day should be Easter.

I feel that I understand why early Friends made these choices. They lived in an age where religious ritual had been largely co-opted by the civil and religious authorities. Christmas, Easter and saint's days; water baptism and priestly rites; bread and wafers treated as the literal body and blood of Christ - all these things had become tools of control and oppression by the elites. Rather than encouraging their flock to follow Jesus, the priests and the rulers abused their positions, putting themselves in Christ's place! In such circumstances, it was probably right for the early Friends to strip religion down to the bare bones and start from scratch.

But it has been three hundred and fifty years. Times have changed dramatically. Virtually our entire public consciousness, including our holidays and religious rituals, have been co-opted by the new empire of this world - unrestrained corporate capitalism. For most Americans today, Christmas is about Santa Claus and consumer electronics. Easter is about bunnies and brunches. And even Thanksgiving, long the least commercialized major holiday, is under siege by the "holiday shopping season." This year, Black Friday has become "Black Thanksgiving."

Ironically - but not accidentally - this wave of consumerism is rising precisely at the time that ordinary Americans are experiencing a crescendo of economic hardship and stress. With so many of us struggling to find meaningful employment at a living wage, it is difficult to resist the siren's call of consumer goods. Just as many people suffering from depression struggle with uncontrolled eating habits, our nation's frantic search for "the next best thing" is revealing. We are hurting so badly!

How is the Holy Spirit calling us to respond to the insatiable hunger, despair and emptiness that our culture is experiencing? What does it look like for us to challenge the systems of death that not only eat us alive, but seduce us into joining the feast?

Some Quakers might argue that our best option is to opt out of the "holiday season" entirely. Indeed, in light of the ways that corporate America has infested our holy seasons with glorified addiction, a strong argument can be made for total withdrawal. By refusing to participate in the wider culture's holidays, we might gain some protection from the corroding influence of the consumer cult. We might even be able to encourage others to opt out, strengthening the base of resistance.

While the case for withdrawal is strong, I am convinced that there is a better response. Rather than ceding the major holidays to corporate America, I believe that it is time to reclaim them. Starting with Thanksgiving.

We are a nation that is over-worked to the point of exhaustion. We are a people desperately in need of Sabbath. Sunday was once widely reserved as a time of rest and worship, but now it is considered fair game by many employers. Even those of us who are privileged enough to be exempted from working weekends have largely lost the rest that our ancestors once knew. If we do not spend our weekends putting in extra hours on our electronic devices, we are out shopping, chauffeuring kids around, and generally catching up on all the unpaid work that we had to defer during the week.

Might there be an opening for us to celebrate Thanksgiving, not as the fear-driven ritual of consumption that is it morphing into, but rather as a Grand Sabbath? Thanksgiving, at its best, is an opportunity to be still and know that God is faithful in providing for our needs. It is a time to focus on demonstrating our love and thankfulness for those with whom God has called us into relationship. Thanksgiving can be a time of rest from our labors, a time of gratitude for the gift of simply being.

While this sense of rest, thankfulness and belonging should extend out into our whole lives, celebrating Thanksgiving provides a special opportunity to concentrate on our intention to live this way in the world. It serves as a reminder of how life can be when we are resting in the loving arms of Christ our Savior.

If that is not radical, I do not know what is.


  • Are you longing for Thanksgiving music as much as I am? Here's a good candidate: