Saturday, June 30, 2012

QuakerSpring: A New Creation

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
- Isaiah 60:1-2

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
- Romans 8:22-23

God continues to surprise me. All the Holy Spirit has to do is blow through, and I am back to square one; the sand castles that I have built are swept away by the tide, and I am left without fortifications before God. I suppose it could be frustrating to realize that most of the things I had been worrying about for months do not really matter. But all I feel is joy. I see with stunning clarity that God is not like me at all. Though I am characterized by grasping and self-centeredness, God's character is one of self-giving, healing and mercy. God's presence is power to receive forgiveness, and to be remade in the image of Christ.

This presence and power was very much in evidence this past week at the sixth annual gathering of QuakerSpring in Barnesville, Ohio. QuakerSpring is a unique, Spirit-led retreat that was conceived as an alternative to the frantic programming of some other Quaker gatherings. Rather than planning the schedule ahead of time, each day's agenda is set out according to the group's sense of the Spirit's leading. Rooted in deep worship and shared discernment, QuakerSpring unfolds according to the community's sense of God's call.

I was surprised by the spiritual intensity we experienced this year. There was a palpable sense of connection to God, but also an awareness of spiritual darkness. At the heart of our time together was a deep sense of our human brokeness, and of Christ's presence within, calling us to deeper faithfulness. Our spiritual burdens felt like a heavy weight, but as we sat together in Christ's presence, much of this darkness was revealed, brought into the light, and purified in the Refiner's Fire. Both individually and as a group, we experienced real transformation.

During QuakerSpring, I personally became more aware of the burdens I had been carrying. I saw more clearly that I was struggling with a spirit of anxiety and confusion around issues of financial security and support. I was so caught up in worry about the future that I had lost sight of my present Ground and Source, Jesus Christ.

Fortunately, an elder was able to name what was happening. She expressed her sense that the Adversary was loose in our midst. When she said this, I knew immediately that it was true. I perceived the spirit of confusion and anxiety for what it was - a spirit that was not from God - and I felt an immediate release. In what felt like a miraculous moment of spiritual house-cleaning, the darkness, confusion and anxiety cleared out of me. I give praise to God for using this elder to name what was happening, and to reveal the dynamics at play that were keeping me in bondage.

One thing that struck me this week was the prominence of what I would describe as almost "charismatic" expressions of faith. The reality of darkness and evil emerged as major themes of our worship and conversation. At the same time, there was a deep sense of Christ's inward power that is breaking out of forms and structures and transforming us in ways that we could never have predicted. God is doing a new thing, though it is still unclear what this new creation will look like.

As someone who has been involved in QuakerSpring since the first gathering in 2007, this year felt like a turning point. I have always valued QuakerSpring as a chance to rest in the Spirit and grow in community. I saw QuakerSpring as a vacation from the hard work of ministry in the wider world. This year, however, I had a growing sense that God has a broader purpose for this gathering. What if QuakerSpring is more than a spiritual refuge? What if God is using QuakerSpring as an engine of renewal and rebirth for the Religious Society of Friends?

Everything in the Religious Society of Friends seems to be falling apart right now. Yearly Meetings are splitting, and old venerable institutions are in decline. Many of our Meetings are in states of crisis, and there is a general sense that we don't really know what to do. We are at a loss for how to respond to our present circumstances. At QuakerSpring, I experience a community that is grounded in the Spirit, listening and seeking to be obedient to the voice of Jesus Christ within. This is the kind of community that I want to be a part of. It is a kind of Quakerism that could truly be relevant for 21st-century post-modern America.

QuakerSpring represents the unique meeting of Christian (or Christian-curious) Liberal Friends and Conservative Friends who seek a more vibrant and flexible Christian faith. I learned in high school biology that hybrids are often much stronger than "pure breeds." Could this new community - this mutt of branch lineages united in the Spirit of Christ - find a voice and a witness that speaks to the needs of modern-day North America? How is God teaching us to contextualize the truth that early Friends re-discovered in our own - dramatically different - context? How might we move forward with our Guide?

There are no easy answers. While many of us wish there were some sort of "technical" solution for the challenges facing the Religious Society of Friends today, I am convinced that there is no quick fix that will produce faithfulness and awareness of God's presence and power. Rather than developing a technique or a process, God is gathering a people.

QuakerSpring is not an abstract model or process that can simply be exported. This is not something that we can manage or control. Rather, QuakerSpring is a people who are being knitted together in God's love and power. Based on my experience of QuakerSpring, I am more convinced than ever that rebirth within the Church will not be the result of our human plans and strategies. There is a new creation that we can sense, and Christ himself is creating it.

Have you experienced the Spirit drawing a new community together? What does it feel like on the growing edge of a faith tradition? Where is the intersection between what God is doing in each of us individually, and the ways that God is at work in the Body as a whole? How do we give this new creation space to breathe and develop, avoiding the temptation to suffocate it with our own ideas and agendas?

Sing and rejoice ye children of the day and the light; for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt: and the Truth doth flourish as the rose, and lilies do grow among the thorns and the plants atop the hills, and upon them the lambs doth skip and play. 
- George Fox

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Christ Is Within You... What Are You Going To Do About It?

For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. - 2 Corinthians 4:6

Quakers like to party. And when I say "party," I mean sitting in silence for long periods of time. When it comes to this kind of partying, there are few groups who are bigger carousers than Conservative Friends. This weekend in Barnesville, Ohio, we spent most of our time seated together on the long, time-tested wooden benches of the ancient Stillwater Meeting House. We quietly waited together, to see what God had to say.

Believe it or not, this often actually works. It seems that Jesus really meant it when he said that he would always be with us, present in our midst through the Holy Spirit that he sends. In our experience as Friends, when we gather together in his name, Jesus shows up. And let me tell you, crazy things happen when Jesus is in the house.

This weekend was one of those precious times of awareness not only of Jesus' sweet presence, but also of his continued teaching among us. The comfort and joy of the Holy Spirit laid a foundation for transformation, and over the course of the weekend it became clear to many of us that God had a particular lesson to teach us.

First, the Spirit reminded us that Christ is in us. We together are the temple of the living God. We bear within our bodies the presence and power of the Spirit. What an amazing gift this is!

But blessings come with responsibility. Christ does not live within us simply to make us feel good. The Holy Spirit has not been poured out on us to boost our self-esteem, or even to make us nicer people. God's presence inside us is not just God's breath; it is also a refining fire.

Throughout the weekend, it felt clear that God was pushing us to examine the implications of our amazing calling in Christ Jesus. It felt like the Spirit was demanding of us: If Christ is in you, what are you going to do about it? What are the concrete, practical implications of the indwelling presence of God? Of course, we wanted to dodge this very uncomfortable question. Change is hard, and there is nothing that will shake up our daily routine more quickly than really living into the transformative power of Christ's presence. But God would not stop pressing the question: Do I really live in Christ's life and power? How does my life demonstrate it?

Many of us are carrying this query back home with us. God is shining light in our hearts, revealing all the ways that our lives are timid, lukewarm, comfortable imitations of true discipleship. But Christ is within us, and so there is hope! With divine assistance, we are called to lives of breath-taking faithfulness. As we turn to face the beauty of his inward presence, our outward lives begin to reflect God's truth and mercy, patient endurance and steadfast love.

What is your experience of Christ's presence within? How has it changed the way that you live? Are there ways in which you sense God calling you in challenging directions? How have you experienced the Refiner's Fire?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Millennials: Shake Off the Shame!

The US Census Bureau recently released a report reveals that, since the beginning of the financial crisis, a growing number of Americans are living with roomates or relatives. The greater part of this increase has come from adult children living with their parents. Millennials, this is about you.

The fact that so many Millennial adults are living with their parents partially hides the fact that our generation has been plunged into a level of unemployment and poverty with no parallel since the Great Depression. If poverty status were determined by personal income, 45.3 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 34 would qualify as living in poverty. Clearly, we are living in a different economic age than the one that many of us were raised to expect.

So many of my generation know from experience how terrible it feels to be scraping by on an absurdly low income, unable to afford both student loan payments and groceries. What is even more demoralizing is that many of us have virtually no income, and millions are forced to rely on parents and relatives to provide even the most basic needs while we work unpaid internships or desperately search for work. No matter how you slice it, being broke is awful.

But lack of money is not the worst of it. The truth is, most people my age are coming to terms with our economic diminishment. We know that we will probably never be as materially prosperous as our parents were, but we know that this is not necessarily a tragedy. We are acutely aware of the environmental, social and health impacts of the consumerist binge of the late 20th century, and many of us do not feel deprived to not be able to participate. On the contrary, thrift is increasingly becoming a virtue, and care for the earth is a very real consideration in our spending choices. We are willing to pay more, and to live less luxuriously, if it means that we can inhabit a healthier, more sustainable world.

So, if many of us are content living with less, what is the problem? One word: Jobs. I am confident that my generation can thrive in a world where unrestrained luxury gives way to global responsibility and sustainability. That is the world that we want to live in. But being chronically jobless or underemployed is not sustainable. The prolonged drought of meaningful employment is tearing my generation down in slow motion. It is crippling us professionally, emotionally and spiritually. And we will bear the scars for decades to come.

In his new book, End This Depression Now!, economist Paul Krugman observes that, "People who want to work but can't find work suffer greatly, not just from the loss of income but from a diminished sense of self-worth." The youngest cohort of adults today are not simply facing a loss of income, we are facing a loss of meaning. Who are we? What is our purpose? What value do we offer a society that tells us repeatedly and simultaneously: "We don't need you," and "Why don't you grow up?"

There do not seem to be any easy answers to the challenges that we are facing on the level of economics and public policy. It may be many years before the job market returns to what was once considered "normal." In the meantime, however, we Millennials are going to have to make sense of our lives, often in the absence of meaningful employment. What might this look like? How can we shed the shame and feelings of personal failure that come with un(der)employment and begin to look for ways to empower ourselves, regardless of the economic outlook?

If anything is clear by now, it is that older generations are not going to provide us with systems of meaning. It might be tempting to go into a holding pattern, to cross our fingers and hope that our economy and sense of core values will eventually recover. But I do not think that is good strategy. Instead, how might we focus our energies to create the just, healthy, sustainable and meaningful society that we long for? The answer to this question will undoubtably involve a lot of tough, entreprenurial work - work that will go largely unsupported by the dying systems and institutions that are clawing for survival right now. Birthing a new society in the crumbling ruins of the old will not be easy.

But I believe we can do it. Time and again, older generations have asked us, "when will you grow up?" Now is the time to demonstrate that we are grown - but that our adulthood does not conform to 20th century assumptions. We can model a responsible, sustainable adulthood that produces the fruits of justice: A society in which the poor are not crushed, the earth is not ravished, and there is meaningful work for everyone who is willing to contribute. The time has come to shake off the shame that we have lived under for so long and to embrace the power that is latent in our generation, if only we will choose to exercise it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Reports of Occupy's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Over the last nine months, I have witnessed three phases of mainstream media coverage of the Occupy movement. Phase one was a near-total blackout. During Occupy Wall Street's first two weeks, the silence of the major news outlets was deafening. My social media networks were exploding with written and video coverage from alternative media about the growing uprising in lower Manhattan, but there was virtually no mention of the occupation by the for-profit news chains. During the media blackout phase, the few articles about Occupy Wall Street were either tiny blurbs that downplayed the seriousness of the uprising, or mocking stories that portrayed occupiers as silly idealists and spoiled brats.

At about two weeks in, the media environment changed considerably. The demonstrations in New York were beginning to spread to other cities, and it was clear that this was a movement that even TV news could not longer ignore. We launched Occupy DC around this time. In those early days at McPherson Square, we were swamped by reporters from around the world. Even then, the foreign press was far more interested in covering Occupy than US broadcasters were.

During this phase of rather intense coverage by the major news outlets, there was a consistent push to define the Occupy movement in terms of the existing two-party, corporate state. Some insisted that we were the Left's response to the Tea Party. Others claimed that we were the heirs of the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s. Still others insisted that we were really a radical wing of the Democrat Party, working to advance Obama's tepid agenda on Capitol Hill. Each time, we shook our heads: "No, it's not about that at all. We want to live in a world that none of the existing parties or structures are offering us. We seek a society where living communities are valued more than corporate profit." But most journalists refused to hear this. Perhaps they simply could not wrap their minds around a movement that was more interested in fundamentally changing our culture than in seizing political power. For whatever reason, most reporters are still trying to fit us into their constricted political landscape, into a narrow worldview that sees things primarily in terms of Red and Blue, Left and Right.

Once the Occupy encampments were either dispersed by police or stopped being sexy, the mainstream media's posture shifted once again. Perceiving that the end of the urban encampments was the death knell of the movement, the corporate news outlets have entered into the third phase of their narrative. They were unable to silence us by ignoring us, and they ultimately failed to shoehorn us into their narrow, two-party story. The corporate news outlets have now turned to the only tactic left in their repetoire: They are trying to bury us.

This is the only way that the for-profit media can restore order. The Occupy movement has challenged the binary political worldview that forms the basis of their reporting. But if the corporate-sponsored press can consign us to the past - declare us journalistically dead - then they can begin to mold our legacy into a shape that reinforces their assumptions. After all, if we are "dead," then they no longer have to even bother interviewing us. Dead movements cannot talk back.

This is ultimately about control. Who controls the narrative? What is the nature of the society we live in? Are there alternatives beyond the two-party binary that increasingly delivers the same result? Are we doomed to accept the evil of two lessers? If the corporate media has its way, it will reinforce the fractured of our nation: a country divided and conquered by corporate interests who would love nothing more than to see us bicker about partisan politics while they buy up both sides of the aisle.

Make no mistake about it: This is not over. The mass demonstrations of last fall were only the first phase in a new movement for economic justice and grassroots democracy. If "the Occupy movement" refers to the tactic of public encampments as a means of mass protest, then yes, that movement has had its time. But if by "the Occupy movement" you refer to a generation's cry against injustice - if it represents our desire to live in a society where the dignity and political voice of ordinary people is no longer trampled by elite interests - then I can tell you that the Occupy movement is alive and growing. If the Occupy tactic has passed its expiration date, the Occupy ethos is more relevant than ever.

How can we allow our passion for economic justice and grassroots democracy to infuse all areas of our lives? How can we transform our existing institutions - our workplaces, faith communities, unions and local governments - into structures that more fully embody the ideals of transparency, accountability, compassion and mutual respect? What would it look like to break out of the us versus them mentality that has infested our national consciousness? How can we walk forward, together?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My Day In Jail - And How I Got There

Yesterday morning, some friends and I attended the sessions of the Senate Banking Committee. We did not intend to get arrested; we just wanted to have a word with Jamie Dimon, the man who leads the corporation that is trying to throw our friend, Deborah Harris, out of her home. When Deborah learned that Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, was going to be in town to talk before the Senate Banking Committee, she felt that she could not pass up the opportunity to speak to the man who is responsible not only for the unjust foreclosure of her home, but of the devastated lives of so many families that relied on JP Morgan Chase's financial integrity. Several of us from Occupy Our Homes DC felt that we had a responsibility to accompany Deborah, and to stand with her as she spoke truth to power.

For me, accompanying Deborah in her visit to the Senate Banking Committee was not about "protesting." It was not about a cathartic release, nor did I feel much need to have my voice heard. But it felt deeply important to me that Jamie Dimon, a man insulated by immense wealth and privilege, be allowed to hear the voice of one woman whose life is being turned upside down by the predatory practices of JP Morgan Chase. I was there to hold Deborah in prayer as she bore prophetic witness to the abuse of authority and public trust that Jamie Dimon represents.

The consequences for our actions were swift. We delivered a message to those who sit in authority, and the hand of Authority was upon us immediately. We expected to be warned and asked to leave, but instead found ourselves roughly escorted out of the chamber and handcuffed. We spent the next seven hours being confined to small spaces - a police van, narrow benches, jail cells. We were moved between different rooms incessantly - in my case, I was probably transferred to a different location at least fifteen times. I was literally chained to the wall for much of my stay.

I was surprised by how traumatizing the experience was. Though I did not expect to be arrested, I assumed that this kind of "political crime" would result in a brief trip to jail and a quick release after paying a fine. Instead, we were held for most of the day. My case was particularly stressful, since the FBI computer mistakenly identified me as being a certain Mr. Perez. I was repeatedly interrogated by my jailers as to my real identity, threatened with prolonged incarceration and locked away for long periods of time while I waited to see if they would confirm that I was really me. It looked like I might face an extended stay in jail.

With my wrists locked in steel and my every movement controlled, my mind was drawn repeatedly to Paul's writings about powers, principalities, authorities, thrones and rulers. Without a doubt, I was in the power of the men and women of the Capitol Police. They could do anything they wanted to me, and I had no ability to resist. As someone who is accustomed to having some measure of control over his own life, this was a difficult experience for me. For most of the day yesterday, I was reduced to a number and an object, and my very identity was called into question by multiple interrogators. Added to this was a prolonged period of involuntary fasting. I felt numb, empty and increasingly distant from life beyond the jailhouse walls.

At about six hours in, the officers finally decided that I was indeed who I said I was. At that point, they started calling me "sir" and relating to me as a human being, rather than an object to be moved, recorded and stored. They also let me call my wife, which was a great encouragement. She told me how proud she was of me, and that the media was really covering our action at the Senate hearing. It was good to be reminded again that this was not about me; it was about Deborah and others who are being trampled by the super-rich and their machinary of insatiable greed.

Finally, I was released. To my amazement, it seemed like my jailers really wanted me to thank them. One of them remarked, "we treated you very well." I was too shell-shocked to respond, but I thought to myself, "I would hate to see what you do when you decide not to treat someone well." I did not have it in me to argue with them at that point, but by no means was I going to assuage what I interpreted as a nagging feeling of guilt on their part. Let them sit with it.

As I was leaving, several people called the station, asking about me and calling for my release. The officer in charge spoke to the last person saying, "could you please tell everyone that Micah has been released? We have been getting calls every minute!" I felt so grateful for the support that my friends showed - and to know that the pressure would have only increased if they had held me longer or transferred me to another facility.

But - once again - this is not about me! I would not have chosen to be arrested, but I hope that by telling the story of my ordeal I can once again draw attention to the plight of so many families that are being forced out of their homes by the Big Banks. If you have not yet, please learn about Deborah Harris' case, and consider how you might be able to take part in the movement for justice. If this incident can help build greater support around Deborah, I will be satisfied.

Finally, I must give glory to God. The experience of being incarcerated was an amazing opportunity to lean on Jesus. While other human beings had absolute authority over my body, the only freedom that remained for me was in my spirit. As I was chained to walls and locked in a cell, my connection to God was the only thing that could cut through the anxiety, claustrophobia and sense of helplessness that I was experiencing. I know that the Lord will not present me with any challenge that he does not also equip me spiritually to endure.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the rock of my
heart and my portion forever.
- Psalm 73:26

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Clearing the Ground - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #43

To my brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Faith and I arrived home in DC late last Thursday after spending a little more than a week in Nebraska and Kansas. During our trip, we attended Great Plains Yearly Meeting and visited family and friends in Wichita. GPYM was held this year in Central City, Nebraska - which was surprising, since just a few years ago it seemed as if the Meeting in Central City would cease to exist. Instead, Friends there seem to be gaining in strength, and they enthusiastically hosted yearly meeting sessions. I give thanks to God for the new life that the Spirit is breathing into Friends in the Great Plains region!

Besides the rather miraculous revitalization of Central City Friends Meeting, there were other signs of growth. To begin with, the Yearly Meeting is beginning a process of re-allocating funds towards local outreach. For decades, the GPYM Home Missions Fund has been used as a source of funding for distant Quaker organizations. Now, however, there is a movement within GPYM to begin spending the Home Missions fund on... home missions! After decades of mostly writing checks to Quaker organizations on the East Coast, money may soon flow to local projects that advance the gospel in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Another encouraging sign a proposal brought by Laura Dungan of University Friends Meeting (Wichita, Kansas). Laura would like to be financially released to work half-time for the Yearly Meeting. She would provide leadership development within the Yearly Meeting, especially encouraging Friends to see the big picture of God's mission for Friends in the region. Laura's work would seek to encourage local churches and leaders as the Yearly Meeting works to develop a vision and a plan for the future.

With all of these positive developments emerging in my former Yearly Meeting, I feel sad that I am unable to be of any direct assistance. With my commitment to ministry in the DC area, there is not much I can do for Friends in GPYM except pray and remain available for electronic correspondence. Yet, I dare to imagine that perhaps my earlier ministry had some positive impact on the Yearly Meeting. I planted, and Laura Dungan is watering - but it is God who gives the growth. To him be all glory, honor and praise!

Growth and change are not limited to Great Plains Yearly Meeting. This month has been a time of professional transition for me. After three years working for Earlham School of Religion coordinating communications and web strategy, I am transitioning to a new job with Friends United Meeting - a worldwide association of Friends congregations in North America, the Caribbean, Central America, the Middle East and Africa. Starting in July, I will serve as Interim Communications and Web Specialist, overseeing FUM's web and social media strategy. I am especially looking forward to exploring ways to make FUM's electronic content more accessible to our brothers and sisters in East Africa, who represent the majority of Quakers worldwide.

FUM's central office is located in Richmond, Indiana, but most of my work will be done remotely from DC. This is critical, since Faith and I continue to feel God clearly calling us to long-term residence in the capital. The ministry that we are engaged in here continues to be blessed, though we are learning that God's blessing is rarely the same as our own grandiose visions. The ground is hard, and there is a lot of tilling to do before we can hope for more obvious growth. Once again, I am reminded that it is God who gives the growth. I am not in control.

At Capitol Hill Friends, God has been teaching us what our collective mission is to be. During worship several weeks ago, we felt an especially powerful sense of the Holy Spirit's presence, and in the midst of the Spirit's ministry to us, I received something that felt like a mission statement for our community. My mind was drawn to Jesus' parable of the sower, and I was shown that our city is full of "weeds" - the cares of the world and the lure of wealth - that choke out the Seed, which is God's presence in our lives. The Lord made clear to me that our role as a radical community of disciples is to clear ground where the seed of God can grow. Our job is to prepare and hold a space of resistance and hope where individuals can sink their roots deep into this good earth and become part of a sustaining community in Jesus.

In recent weeks I have had an increasingly urgent sense that the Body of Christ is much bigger than our traditional ideas of what a "congregation" looks like. I am realizing that the old model of church does not necessarily work in our post-modern, urban context. Regular gatherings for worship are necessary, of course, but I am seeing that there are many other things that are equally crucial if we are to strengthen the Body. For example, teaching everyday spiritual practices that individuals can grow into, whether they "go to church" or not. Community is a complicated thing in this city, and the formal, weekly gatherings of the traditional congregation are not necessarily the best thing to lead with. I am becoming convinced at a heart level that I must meet others where they are at. I must let nothing - not even the beautiful traditions of the church - present a barrier to sharing the good news that we have found in Jesus.

Please continue to pray for us! I cannot repeat often enough how much your prayers matter, how much we feel them as we seek to be faithful to God's call in our city. We have experienced so many blessings that can only be the result of the prayerful intercession of God's people. We give thanks for the faithful presence of Lily Rockwell, of Stillwater Monthly Meeting (Ohio Yearly Meeting), who has been an elder to us since last fall. Her internship is ending in late July, at which time she will be moving to New Mexico to pursue graduate studies. We are sad that she must leave us, but we give thanks to God for all of the prayer and love that she has invested in our community.

We also give praise for Sammy and Ceress Sanders, missions students at Barclay College who are summer interns at the William Penn House. They are actively participants in Capitol Hill Friends, and they have added greatly to our fellowship - not only through their joyful presence and enthusiasm, but also through their helpfulness in set-up and clean-up, and their excellent cooking skills! With all the work that the Lord has given us to do and all the helpers that he has provided, we are truly blessed.

It is my hope that you, too, are living in awareness of Christ's presence in your lives. Thank you for your faithfulness in prayer and encouragement.

Your friend in Jesus,

Micah Bales

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Your Sons and Your Daughters Shall Prophesy

And may not the Spirit of Christ speak in the female as well as the male? Who is it that dare limit the Holy One of Israel? For the Light is the same in the male and in the female, and it cometh from Christ. . . . And who is it that dare stop Christ's mouth? - George Fox, early Quaker evangelist

Something that set early Quakers apart from many other Christians was their witness to the spiritual equality of women. Mindful of the scriptural admonition against quenching the Spirit, all Friends - young and old, women and men - were encouraged to preach the gospel as they were led. While the established Church singled out a smattering of passages that seemed to justify the subordination of women, Friends prayerfully examined the entire testimony of the Old and New Testaments and found that the Spirit was leading them to affirm the spiritual equality of women and men.

As one might imagine, the early Friends' insistence on the equal ministry of women stirred up trouble. Indeed, many Quakers were beaten, tortured and imprisioned; many more lost social standing or had their property seized. If the ministry of women had been a secondary concern, Friends might have understandably given way. Better to compromise on a non-essential than to see your friends and family attacked, even killed! So why were Quakers willing to suffer terribly to uphold the ministry of women? The answer is simple: The spiritual equality of women is not an "extra" that Christians can take or leave - it is one of the essential marks of a people who are being led by the Holy Spirit.

The foundational discovery of the Quaker movement is that Jesus Christ is literally present with us, and that he will change us from the inside out. At a time when most Christians believed that human sin and depravity were inescapable facts of life, Friends testified to their own experience of being inwardly transformed. As the Holy Spirit moved in their lives, these women and men found that their entire nature was being changed. As they grew in faithfulness, they experienced redepmtion from the fallen state of Adam, being re-formed in the image of Christ.

The Quaker experience is a profound reversal of the natural order. Where death once reigned, we are now abundantly alive; where we had previously been enslaved by hatred and selfishness, we find freedom. Quakers recognize that this amazing transformation is the fulfillment of God's intention for the creation. When we are in Christ, everything old passes away and there is a new creation. None of the old rules of sin and death apply.

One of the hallmarks of the old, fallen order is the subordination of women to men. Though in many places patriarchy is still the unquestioned status quo, Quakers believe that this social arrangement is a result of humanity's fall from grace. When human beings are living in the image of Adam and Eve, man rules over woman. Yet, in Christ we experience the first fruits of the New Creation. Our lived experience of transformation by the Holy Spirit is exactly what Paul described in Romans: Though "death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses," Christ has brought a new reign of life! Adam dragged humanity into the reign of death where male domination was the norm. But now Jesus is empowering his friends to resist the death-dealing culture of patriarchy.

It is because we have tasted this new life that we know a new day is dawning in Christ. As we are being transformed by the Holy Spirit, darkness loses its grip on us. We are re-born into a life of spiritual freedom that includes all of us. We find that we are living in the days when the Lord says:

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy...
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.

When the Lord is present, human distinctions fade into the background. It is not about us anymore. Instead, all our focus is on Jesus. When we are gathered in his power, we discover for ourselves that "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus."

Have you had this experience of Christ's transformative power? What are ways you have seen the Holy Spirit break through human distinctions? How can we participate in the abundant life and radical liberation that the Spirit brings?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Written On Our Hearts

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not posess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts... - Romans 2:13-15

When we are faithful, the Church has good news to share. But we are not always so faithful. Often, the gospel is crowded out by human ideologies. We proclaim a Liberal Jesus or Conservative Jesus, an Evangelical Jesus or Social Justice Jesus. The Church has bought into the false dichotomies of the "culture wars" hook, line and sinker. Our worldviews are often rooted in forms of black-and-white, us-versus-them thinking that has brought us to the brink of self-annihilation.

When we are captured in this way by our surrounding culture, we fail to proclaim the radical truth about who God really is. In Jesus, we encounter a God who is not like us. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. Instead, in Jesus Christ we come face to face with a Being whose love and justice transcend any of our normal catagories. In him, it is always "yes." God is strong and gentle, loving and just - blessing us with freedom and responsibility.

God is not boxed into our narrow frameworks. The Holy Spirit blows where it will, and it is present in each of us. All we have to do is listen to the gentle whisper that breathes in every heart. God is spirit, and those who worship him will worship him in spirit and in truth. God is not confined to temples or hierarchies or rigid belief systems. Who you are or what you call yourself presents no barrier to this relationship.

God is equally real in the heart of the illegal immigrant and the wealthy Anglo. The Word of God is alive and active in the innermost parts of the gay atheist and the straight Christian fundamentalist. The living witness of God is present in the Occupy activist and the Tea Partier. The Spirit blows where it will, and Jesus does not show partiality.

But will we listen? Are we awake to the Spirit's promptings in our hearts? Do we see Jesus in the poor and those that the wider culture chooses to ignore? Are we ready to offer up our lives and reputations for those who have the least? Do we recognize the voice of our Shepherd when we hear it?

My greatest joy and challenge is to see how God is active among other "flocks" - groups of people where I would not have expected to find God at work, guiding and blessing. One of my surprise encounters with the God of the Margins has been within the Occupy movement. Occupiers run the gamut of beliefs, from committed Christians to dogmatic atheists, but many are quasi-agnostic, "spiritual-but-not-religious" types. They can sense that there is deep truth out there somewhere, but they haven't determined yet what to call it, or how to relate to it. These are people of deep moral conviction who have rejected the rote religion of past generations and are seeking out the truth on their own terms.

Since they are involved in the Occupy movement, it is not surprising that most of these folks find expression for their commitment to truth and justice through social activism. They live out the light that they have been shown through their struggles for grassroots democracy and economic equality. Just like the Gentiles who do instinctively what the law requires, many Occupy activists act naturally out of their own interior sense of justice.

In the process, they fulfill the "law" far better than many Christians! Though the Scriptures call us time and time again to work for justice, many Christian congregations and organizations are more focused on preserving their own privilege and comfort. The Church is often the "hearer of the law." But many of those whom the institution has rejected obey the law that the Lord has written in their hearts.

This "law," the inward voice of Jesus that calls us to the work of justice and reconciliation in our society, is the Cornerstone that our religious builders have rejected. While we in the Christian Church have kept all sorts of superficial rules and regulations, we have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. We have strained out a gnat but swallowed a camel!

I want to walk with whomever is listening and obeying the inward promptings of God. Some of these people are Christians, and I praise God for their witness. But God is speaking through many who are outside the gates of the city, wandering in the wilderness following a pillar of cloud and fire whose name they do not know. I want to follow this wild, uncontainable God with them, even if it costs me security and my already tenuous sense of certainty. Will you walk with us?

Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. - Hebrews 13:12-14

Monday, June 04, 2012

The Seed That Dies - Great Plains Yearly Meeting 2012

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. - John 12:24-25

Great Plains Yearly Meeting has been thinking about dying for a long time. Back in 2001, Great Plains - a fellowship of Quakers in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma - had dwindled to only five local congregations, and Friends considered seriously whether GPYM's time was up. Yet, for some reason - whether a nudge from the Spirit or the lure of nostalgia (perhaps a bit of both) - Friends re-committed themselves to existence as a Yearly Meeting.

Over the nine years that I have attended GPYM, I have watched Friends wrestle with what continued existence would mean. Is GPYM primarily a family reunion - an assembly of "good people" who like one another? Does the Yearly Meeting primarily exist as a connection with Quaker institutions on the East Coast? Does GPYM have something unique to say to its own context in the American heartland? Could the Yearly Meeting be a base community for a shared life of radical discipleship and loving action for liberation and justice in the Great Plains region?

During my time attending Great Plains, it has seemed like the default mode for GPYM is to operate as a place of comfort, security and self-affirmation. The Yearly Meeting provides a sense of identity and connection with the wider Quaker world, a touchstone in a region with few Friends of like mind. Often, the posture of folks in Great Plains Yearly Meeting has been fatalistic - resigned to the sleepy decline of our Christian fellowship.

But we were not left without a witness. Over time, I have seen God prodding Friends to choose a path of renewed life and vitality as Christ's Church. God has raised up a number of prophetic ministers who have called the Yearly Meeting to a deeper engagement with our shared experience of Jesus Christ, and his call to be salt and light in the world. These prophets have not always been well-received, but their ministry has had a clear effect over the long haul.

This year, the clerk of the Yearly Meeting brought a proposal that she be financially released (Quakerese for "hired") for part-time service to the Yearly Meeting. She explained that she felt called to dedicate a substantial portion of her time to nurturing Meetings throughout the region and helping to spur the development of new leadership that could help to sustain the work of the Yearly Meeting in the years ahead.

In 2009, after a season of traveling ministry among Friends in the Great Plains region, I had laid a similar concern before Great Plains Yearly Meeting. At that time, however, Friends were not ready to provide support for such an out-of-the-box proposal. GPYM's Ministry and Counsel minuted, "Our Yearly Meeting simply is not yet at a place where we can corporately affirm an apostolic ministry" (M&C 09-17). Three years later, however, the ground seems to have been cleared enough that Friends are seriously considering supporting just such an apostolic call.

Jesus teaches us that the way to everlasting life is through apparent death, and that by clinging to what we already have, we deny ourselves the riches that are to come. Have we reached a place where we are ready to die to our comfort and nostalgia - to bury that which once was so that we can reap that which God is bringing into being? What does it look like for the Church to die to itself, and to be raised again, clothed in Jesus Christ? Are we willing to let go of the dirty rags that we cling to in order to put on the fine linen of Christ's wedding banquet? Can we embrace the self-death that leads to overflowing life in the Spirit?

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. ... - 1 Corinthians 15:42-44