Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Re-clothed in Christ

The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. - Romans 13:12-14

I have been deeply impacted by the ministry of Jon Watts and Maggie Harrison, who are traveling among Friends, preaching a message of spiritual rebirth. They speak to us of God's call to spiritual nakedness, recapturing the unabashed intimacy that Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden, before the Fall. They urge us to stand in the light of Christ, allowing his presence to strip away all the layers of falsehood that we have accumlated over the course of our lives.

Our wounds and pride, our fears and fixations stand as barriers between us and God; between us and our fellow human beings. We tend to believe that these barriers protect us, but in fact they suffocate life and wonder, cutting us off from relationship and intimacy. These deadening habits and hang-ups can seem endless; each time we remove one article of fear-drenched clothing, we encounter another layer beneath.

Yet, as we yield to Christ's action within us, we come to experience moments of real nakedness before God. We stand before our Creator in awe and gratitude, knowing in some small measure the reality of Jesus' prayer that we might be one with him, just as he and the Father are one. We are left defenseless, together in the presence of the Spirit, and all false distinctions melt away. We find a hidden unity that runs deeper than all the masks we hide behind.

It is in this unity that Christ invites us to be re-clothed. Standing bare before our loving Lord, he heals our long-hidden wounds and dresses them with the leaves of the tree of life. We discover a new nature that we can be clothed in.

Taking off the old, tattered rags that we used to hide behind, Jesus invites us to put on the pure linen of his righteousness. As we clothe ourselves in his character, we find that we become more truly ourselves than ever before. This new covering reveals our true heart to the world. Trading our old garments for the new life that Christ gives us, we acquire an amazing transparency; the Holy Spirit shines brightly through us. The joy within us irradiates our surroundings, inviting our friends and neighbors into this breathtaking life of wholeness in the Spirit.

What has it looked like in your life to put aside the deeds of darkness and to put on the armor of light? What does it mean to be clothed with Jesus?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Revealing the Children of God

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God... - Romans 8:18-19

I am continually amazed at the unexpected people that God brings into my life. Christ's light shines through them, and the testimony of the Spirit permeates their character. Their presence fills my life with Christ's love. I am deeply impacted by these women and men, whom I never would have invited in on my own.

The Holy Spirit reveals these surprising individuals to me at moments when I have finally given up. As long as I am still striving to create the Kingdom myself, I cannot receive the free gift of God's children. When I am acting under my own power, I invariably pick the people that I like the best, those who make me the most comfortable. But the Lord picks his friends differently.

As one pastor here in DC said to me recently, "we spend so much time fly-fishing when the Lord is calling us to use a drag-net!" Jesus commands us to welcome everyone into the Kingdom - not to build a social club that reenforces our own biases and cliquish behavior. The sad truth is, my own tendency is to throw a party for the people that I have most in common with, but Jesus calls me to throw the doors wide open and invite everyone - including a lot of folks whose names would not have occurred to me. The Kingdom of God is not about assembling the people we like best; rather, it is about gathering together with those whom God loves.

Despite my human tendency to stick with people who make me feel comfortable, I am slowly learning to heed God's call to be part of a truly inclusive community. When I am able to let go of my need to create community in my own image, God unleashes the amazing power of the hidden Kingdom, in which the very people that I have always overlooked end up blessing my life. To my great astonishment, I find that my own salvation is tied up in the lives of those around me - whether they fit within my human criteria or not.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Hope Within Us

You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. - Colossians 1:5-6

This week, Faith and I are attending New York Yearly Meeting's annual retreat at Silver Bay - a beautiful, rustic camp located a couple of hours northeast of Albany. I will confess: The beauty and isolation of the site made me nervous at first. When we arrived at Silver Bay, I wondered whether we were just in for a week of Quaker-themed summer camp. Were Friends gathered here to listen to the inward voice of Christ and to be changed by what they encountered within?

Fortunately, we got here just in time for an afternoon plenary session led by Jon Watts and Maggie Harrison. Jon and Maggie have been traveling together in the ministry for the last year or so, delivering a message of transformation by the inward light of Christ. Using the image of nakedness as a spiritual sign, they are calling us to open ourselves to how God wants to reveal our fear, brokenness and darkness, placing our trust in the healing light of the Truth.

Jon and Maggie pushed really hard yesterday. They challenged New York Yearly Meeting to set aside the comfort of their false selves, to dive boldly into God's love. In one particularly intense moment, Maggie asked Friends why the reports from New York Yearly Meeting's local congregations rarely mentioned God. Isn't that what this is all about? You could have heard a pin drop as Friends took in what Maggie was saying. And then, someone yelled Amen!

Something is happening here. The ground is churned up, ready for planting. There is an openness here, a tenderness that cries out for the Seed to be lifted up. It feels like Friends here are sensing a call from deep within, inviting them into a new baptism of God's Spirit. Faith and I learned later that New York Yearly Meeting had already done some real wrestling before we arrived. In their business meeting, they openly and explicitly examined themselves as to whether they were indeed the spiritually grounded, inclusive community that they sought to be. As Friends here began to recognize the ways in which they fall short, they have also encountered a hope that urges them forward in faith.

God's word and life and power are filling the world, and we are being invited to participate in this story of transformation. We still catch only glimpses of this new life in Christ, and we often struggle to name it. But sometimes the truth is more complicated to describe than it is to live out. Do we have the courage to live into the hope that God has placed within us? This hope that God has set before us is real and true; indeed, it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world. Are we ready to be pruned so that we may grow into our full stature in the Truth? Are we willing to do the hard work that comes before the harvest?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Discovering Our Common Purpose

Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. - Philippians 3:15-16

I was sitting recently in a meeting of Occupy Our Homes DC (OOHDC), and things were getting rough. We were having an epic meeting in which we were airing a lot of the conflicts and struggles that had been quietly brewing over the past several months. The emotional intensity was palpable, and at first it seemed like the group was on the verge of ripping apart at the seams. Some of us felt the need for a broad ideological framework that could provide a basis for our shared labor; others of us just wanted to get busy with the work of stopping evictions and to dismiss wider philosophical considerations.

I was one of those who leaned towards focusing on action. I wanted to work on practical strategies for how we could prevent residents of our city from losing their homes. I did not see the need for anything much deeper than that. Let's get the work done, I thought, impatiently. Yet, there was something important being lifted up by the folks on our team who urged us go deeper in our shared understanding. They perceived that without vision the people perish; without a clear sense of what our shared purpose is, our group would have no cohesion.

We had a breakthrough when we realized that our shared purpose was not a cause, or an idea, or a program; rather, we were brought together by a person. We are working to ensure that one particular woman - Deborah Harris - is able to remain in her home. She is our basis for unity. As we gather together, to walk with her in the struggle to save her home, we find a concrete, human basis for our work together as an organization. With our focus on Deborah and her particular circumstances, we can allow everything we do be tailored to the goal of defending her home. Tactics, strategy, decision-making structures - all of these can be flexible as we adapt our community to focus on our singular goal, rooted in our commitment to a particular person.

Our life in Christian community is like this. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not primarily drawn together by a shared set of rules or values. We certainly share many of these things, but they are the fruit - rather than the root - of our common life. Our life as a community flows out of our shared relationship with a particular person, a loving Teacher who guides us and forms us as we choose to walk with him.

The ground and source of our life together is our shared commitment to a particular person: Jesus. Our allegiance is not primarily to a particular set of ideas about Jesus, nor even to a specific code of conduct that must be performed by rote. Instead, we are invited to give all our attention to Jesus himself, and to allow his very substance and character shape the direction of our life as a community. What we believe and what we do as a community flows out of our living relationship with him.

We will always find something to disagree about, and that is OK. Unity does not mean unanimity. As a matter of fact, superficial unanimity can sometimes mask a deeper disunity that is festering within the community. Our shared silence, rather than containing a rich vibrancy where the Spirit can move, can become a place of unspoken tension and deadness. Christ's light is the great Revealer, and we hestitate to approach God together when we are hiding our deeper feelings from one another.

When we are united in a particular person, we find the common purpose that allows us to break down the walls of niceness and to be real with one another. When we find our common ground in spirit and in truth, we are able to penetrate the walls of false courtesy that divide us. We are able to be true and honest, to really come to know one another in our common struggle for liberation.

As a Quaker, I find it deeply liberating to re-focus in this way. Rather than putting my energy into figuring out "what do Quakers believe?" or "what do Quakers practice?" I can instead set my sights on the most important matter at hand: "Who is this person, Jesus, and how is he calling me to live?" When I am gathered in a community that is actively asking this question, there is the real possibility of revolutionary transformation.

How do we find our common purpose in the concrete reality of another person? Do we allow ideas or rules trump the reality of the lives of those around us? How can we ground ourselves in the experience of the Risen Lord Jesus, allowing him to become the focus that orders and directs our lives as a community?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Drawn Into the Light - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #44

Dear friends in Truth,

This is turning out to be a summer to remember. The day after sending out my last ministry newsletter, I was arrested by US Capitol Police while attending a Senate Banking Committee hearing featuring Jamie Dimon - CEO and Chairman of JP Morgan Chase. Dimon was there to explain why his bank was engaged in risky gambling with billions of dollars, but some of us had other questions we wanted answered. I accompanied my friend, Deborah Harris, whose home has been foreclosed on by JP Morgan chase, and I held her in prayer as she got a chance to ask Jamie Dimon in person: Why don't you face the people that you foreclosed on?

As it turns out, the folks in charge do not like it when you publicly question them. For our thirty seconds of conversation with Mr. Dimon, we spent seven hours in jail. Last Tuesday, we were arraigned at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, where we were subjected to drug tests and ordered to return for a status hearing on August 13th. It is not yet clear what will happen with our case. Please pray for a speedy and just resolution to this matter.

About a week after this new experience on Capitol Hill, I was off to Barnesville, Ohio for the Wider Gathering of Conservative Friends and QuakerSpring. The Conservative Friends gathering was really deep, and there was a profound sense of Christ's living presence within us, calling us to respond in faith. I was left with the challenge: Do I really live in Christ's life and power? How does my life demonstrate it?

QuakerSpring was also a powerful experience, though it was harder in many ways. Over the course of the week-long gathering, I became increasingly aware of the burdens that were weighing on my heart. I saw more clearly that I was struggling with anxiety and confusion around issues of financial security and support. I had gotten so caught up in worry about the future that I lost sight of my present Ground and Source, Jesus Christ. I was grateful for this opportunity to retreat for a week with Friends in Ohio. It was an opportunity for me to re-dedicate myself to allowing Christ to work within me, revealing my hidden darkness and drawing me into the light.

God has good timing, because my life was about to get even crazier. A few days after returning home from Barnesville, I began my new job as Interim Communications and Web Specialist for Friends United Meeting. For the next several months, my primary focus will be the FUM website. The current website was originally set up in 1997, and though the site has had an amazing 15-year run, it is clearly time for an upgrade! Once the new site is up and running, I will be able to enlarge my focus to encompass other areas of our communications strategy.

It is an honor to be on staff with Friends United Meeting, which at its best represents my personal faith: passionately Christ-centered, deeply Quaker and committed to mission. I feel hopeful that we at FUM - our staff, our Yearly Meetings and our local congregations - can help to demonstrate what it means to be Spirit-led followers of Jesus in today's world.

Together with my new job at FUM, working as a technical writer for a national hospice newsletter, volunteering with Occupy Our Homes, writing for my blog and caring for the community at Capitol Hill Friends, I have got a lot on my plate! It has taken a little while, but at this point I have developed a weekly schedule that helps to bring together all the threads that make up my life's work. I feel deeply blessed to have a life that is so full of meaningful labor, and I pray that Christ will continue to guide me in finding the right balance between work and rest, study and play, solitude and community.

Summer is a fluid time for most people, and perhaps especially for Quakers. Summertime is Yearly Meeting time, and I still have several to attend in the next month and a half. Faith and I will be at New York Yearly Meeting from July 23 to 27. The next week, I will visit Baltimore Yearly Meeting for a few days to speak on a panel and deliver a workshop about how our faith as Friends intersects with movements for social justice such as Occupy Wall Street. From August 7 to 11, Faith and I will be back out in Barnesville, for the annual sessions of Ohio Yearly Meeting. With so much travel and so many opportunities for new connections, it can feel hard to keep my feet on the ground. I pray for inward stability and rootedness in the Spirit. May God will bless each of the gatherings that we attend.

Even as everything is up in the air with summer travels, courtroom proceedings and changes in employment, Capitol Hill Friends is going through a transition of its own. In the next few weeks, we are saying goodbye to three William Penn House interns who have been a real blessing for our community. Lily Rockwell of Stillwater Friends Meeting (Ohio YM) is leaving town this Saturday as she prepares to head off to the University of New Mexico for graduate studies in speech language pathology this fall. Lily has been a vital part of Capitol Hill Friends for the past year, and we will miss her quiet, steady presence.

Sammy and Ceress Sanders are two William Penn House interns who are just here for the summer, but they have quickly become an integral part of our community. They will be leaving in a few weeks, returning to Barclay College, where they have one year left in their undergraduate work. Sammy and Ceress' commitment to Spirit-led service and a Christ-centered engagement with those around them has been wonderful to experience, and I am praying that they might be able to come back to DC once they finish their college studies. I hope they have gained as much from their time here as we have gained from having them with us.

With Lily, Sammy and Ceress all headed back West, our fellowship at Capitol Hill Friends is bound to feel different. In our experience, spring and fall are pivotal times, moments when our community can really change in exciting ways. This will no doubt be all the more true this fall, as we adjust to the loss of a substantial part of our core group. I pray that God will gather together those people who have need of a community like ours, and teach us how to love one another as Christ first loved us.

Thank you for all of your prayers and words of support this past month - for me, for our work at Occupy Our Homes, for the ministry of Friends United Meeting and for Capitol Hill Friends. Though there have been great challenges, the Lord has stood with us through everything. With each passing day, I am more convinced that neither death nor life, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. May each of you be blessed, just as I have been blessed by God through you.

In Christ's peace,

Micah Bales

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Price of Dissent

Last month, I was arrested along with several of my colleagues as we sought to speak with Jamie Dimon before he testified to the Senate Banking Committee. We accompanied Deborah Harris, a DC homeowner who was unjustly foreclosed on by JP Morgan Chase, where Mr. Dimon serves as CEO and Chairman of the Board. We stood with her as she asked this powerful man a simple question: Why don't you face the people that you foreclosed on?

Jamie Dimon's answer was clear: Because you don't matter. Mr. Dimon never acknowledged Deborah's presence, and we were arrested and locked in jail for most of the day. We received a forceful response from those wealthy few who control our government and our economy: You will speak only when spoken to. You will learn who is in charge here.

This message continued to be delivered as we were arraigned at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on Tuesday morning. I was surprised by how much the court looked like TV courtrooms - think Judge Judy or The People's Court. The dominant image was a very large seal of the court, with flags - of the United States and the District of Columbia - on either side. These symbols of authority rested immediately behind the judge's seat, which sat far back, behind two long desks where about half a dozen clerks stood or sat, processing the perhaps fifty people being arraigned that morning.

The whole scene was purposefully crafted to elicit a feeling of reverence towards the authority of the court. The lawyers and those being arraigned sat in the forward part of the courtroom, on long, wooden benches that were very similar to pews in a church building. I leaned over to Deborah at one point and whispered, "I feel like we're in church." But I learned not to talk too much, as bailiffs regularly came by and sternly warned us not to speak or use our cell phones. Let all the earth keep silent before the authority of this court!

This sense of religiosity was no accident. When the judge entered the courtroom, one of the clerks pronounced a long string of official words, including, "God save the United States and this honorable court." This invocation of God's name - however shallow and formal - further emphasized to me the weight of the civil religion that permeated the court. Everything was mediated through ritual; all the details of the court's furnishings, layout, decorum and vocabulary evoked an atmosphere of solemn reverence. But who, or what, were we venerating?

I was not sure whether it was Law, or the State, or the Court, or some vague spirit of Authority that we were being not-so-subtly pressured to worship, but one thing was very clear to me: It was not God. One of the most disturbing things about our arraignment yesterday was this blasphemous liturgy of the State, whose message was clear and powerful: Submit. Fear. Forget who you are and become what we say you are.

It was essentially the same feeling that I got at the jailhouse last month. The point of the system is to instill order, always defined in the system's terms, regardless of the cost to human dignity. As we sat in our benches and were rebuked by the bailiffs for "talking too much," we got the message: While we were in that courtroom, we were to be in utter dread of Authority, totally attentive to its whims. Just like in the jailhouse, the physical and psychological space was purposefully engineered to break down individual identity and self-will, transferring all agency and power to the officialdom and bureaucracy of the court.

It is one thing to write about this environment, but it is another thing entirely to experience it first hand. I would not have imagined it to be so irresistible, so psychologically overwhelming; yet I found it extremely difficult to stay grounded in God and in my true identity as a child of the light. Having this personal experience of the terrifying power of the court system - with all its blasphemous ritual and pomp - I am beginning to understand how truly bold George Fox was when he dared to stand before a judge and admonish him to "quake before the power of the Lord." Fox knew better than anyone that the function of courts and judges and civil religion is not to tremble before the Lord, but to make others shake before human authority.

I was reminded of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes that there are indeed "many gods and many lords, yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." There are powers and rulers and authorities in this world, and we must decide which authority we are to place ourselves under. Will it be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or will it be some other authority?

The image of Christ as judge, holding court and delivering the ultimate verdict at the end of time, takes on new relevance for me now that I have experienced the dread of the human court system. For though human courts can be unjust, Christ rules with equity and impartiality; while human courts direct veneration and awe back to themselves, Jesus directs our attention, awe and worship back to the Father, our sovereign Creator.

I do not mean to suggest that human courts are essentially evil and should be done away with. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans that all authorities that exist have been instituted by God. The courts of the United States can only exist because God has created Authority itself; human institutions are intended to reflect this authority, which God created as a servant for good. Unfortunately, this God-given authority that was created to preserve life in human community has been twisted and corrupted by human sin - both individual and collective.

There is no doubt in my mind that our court system is deeply affected by the distorting effects of sin. Worst of all, our human institutions of authority often play a role in sustaining the fruit of sin: violence, injustice, dehumanization and fear. Probably the clearest example of this is the way our legal system perpetuates systematic racial discrimination. Except for most of our group, who had been arrested for a political offense, all of the other people being arraigned yesterday were African-American. We got to hear quite a few of their arraignment proceedings before our turn came around, and the great majority of them were charged with drug possession. Observing this process, I was more convinced than ever that the Drug War is being used as a tool of oppression, and racial and class discrimination.

Even for a case like ours, which has nothing to do with drugs, all of us were required to submit to a drug test. This did not sound so bad, until I learned that the test involved urinating into a cup in a room full of mirrors while a man stood by, watching me. This was really unnerving, and I had to try a second time before I could bring myself to do it.

Even after all of this, our case is still pretty much up in the air. We have been ordered to stay away from the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and we were assigned a status hearing for Monday, August 13th. We will not know anything more until then. In the meantime, I would ask for your continued prayers. I find the uncertainty that comes with being caught up in this legal machine very stressful, and I need all the support I can get to stay grounded.

I am so grateful for everyone who has reached out and shown support since the arrest. This whole process has really taught me the meaning of the word solidarity. Imprisonment and court proceedings are a special kind of distress, and having my community behind me is so important. Thank you for all the love and support that you have shown me. This would all be much harder if I did not have you to lean on.

Let me close with George Fox's epistle #237:

Dear Friends and brethren,

The Lord is with you all everywhere, who suffer for his name and truth's sake,
in all your bonds and afflictions be of good comfort, for the Lord is with you;
neither be dismayed at your sufferings, for if you suffer, Christ suffers;
and if you are persecuted, it is Christ who is persecuted;
and if you are not visited, it is Christ who is not visited;
and if you are oppressed, it is he who is oppressed.
And he will lay no more upon you than you are able to bear. [...]
[Christ] has a fellow feeling with you all, in all your bonds and afflictions;
and Christ who suffers, will overcome all his enemies.
He reigns,
and they must be his footstool to stand upon.
And so, be of good faith, and be valiant for the truth upon the earth.

George Fox 

Monday, July 09, 2012

Together in the Truth

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. - Hebrews 12:28-29

In my last post, I imagined what it might mean for a whole community to respond to Jesus' challenge to us as his disciples: to follow him without reservation and without safety net. I used the image of burning down a meetinghouse as a metaphor for what it might look like for us to surrender to God as a community, to lay down all of those things that get in the way of child-like faith. It turns out that this was really shocking imagery for some of my readers, and I got a lot of pushback from commenters here on the blog and on Facebook. Unfortunately, it seems that many people got so stuck on the image of a burning meetinghouse that they could not see through to the underlying message of renewal.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised that the image of a torched meetinghouse upset some members of my online community. Despite our insistence to the contrary, we Quakers are just as attached to our "stuff" - buildings, rituals, procedures and endowments - as any other religious group. This is not necessarily a bad thing. An important function of religion is to provide a stable community where we can grow deeper in the knowledge and practice of the love of God. That function would not be served by constantly calling every aspect of the community's life into question. Stability and unity within the Church are helpful.

All too often, however, stability gives way to hardness of heart, and unity degenerates into group-think. In our desire to maintain a conflict-free community, we may come to value conformity over prophetic witness. Our tendency can be to freeze the community at a particular point in time - whether past or future - and to seek to maintain that "perfect" moment indefinitely. But a living, breathing community cannot be perfect in this sense. True life is found in dynamic tension. Living communities change and grow; they reproduce themselves in a diverse array of shapes and sizes, suited to their own times and places.

Life depends on a vibrant dynamic between stability and change, the new and the old, creation and destruction. Neither a constant turmoil, nor frozen "perfection" present fertile soil for the work of the Spirit. How do we balance the need for corporate unity with God's call to radical faithfulness? How can we embrace the God-given stability that we need for our community to thrive while remaining open to new teaching from Christ?

Such questions are too complex and contextual for me to give firm answers here. These are questions for us to live into as a body. That being said, I do believe there are steps we can take to encourage the stable flexibility that our communities need if they are to be places where we grow together in maturity and love. One of these steps is to consider the generational dynamics that are at play in our religious society.

I write from my perspective as a 29-year-old man - a Millennial - who is pretty close to aging out of the "young adult" category. I speak out of almost a decade of experience of being a twentysomething among Friends - first as a seeker; then as a new member of a small Quaker Meeting in Kansas; later as a seminarian at ESR; and finally as a Friend doing ministry in the wider world. I have watched for years as so many in my generation have fallen away from Quakerism, sometimes to join another religious community, but usually drifting into the wider, secular culture. I carry a concern for these younger Friends who have not found a place within their religious community, and I have opinions about how we might change to become more relevant to our present context.

This is a place where I get into trouble a lot. Many folks - especially those of older generations - get very defensive when I start talking about generational challenges. And, it is true, I probably go a little too hard on the Boomer generation at times. I am sorry about that. But I would like to encourage Friends to keep things in perspective. Adult Friends under the age of 40 are an incredibly small minority in our communities here in North America. When I first became a Quaker, I was the only person under fifty in my Meeting, and was one of only two young adults who were active in my Yearly Meeting. In Ohio Yearly Meeting, where I am currently a member, I can identify only perhaps half a dozen Friends under the age of 40 who are active in the life of the Yearly Meeting.

I realize that I can come across to some older folks as an "angry young man" who blames all the challenges facing Friends on older generations. But take a moment to see the world from my vantage point. In my life in Washington, DC, I am surrounded by adults in their twenties and thirties. We are young professionals, activists, writers and intellectuals. We are energetic, earnest and hard at work throughout the city.

Yet, when I participate my Yearly Meeting, or other Quaker groups, my peers are nowhere to be found. I am surrounded by people who are decades older than me, with very different life experiences, assumptions and worldviews. I am too young to clearly remember when the Berlin wall came down, yet most of my brothers and sisters in the Quaker community had their worldviews shaped in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War! I love my older Friends, and I lean on a number of them for eldership, support and counsel. But, over time, it can also be alienating to be a part of a community where my different life experience is often unrecognized.

So, I apologize for anything I have written or said that has made my older Friends feel attacked or devalued. While at times I may say some things that feel like insults to our older members, I hope you will hear where my concern really lies: not in tearing down older Friends, but in lifting up the particular gifts, experience and concerns of younger Quakers. How can our religious community value and empower the gifts and ministries of younger Friends? How can all of us come together in the Truth?

Our God is indeed a consuming fire, and all of us - young and old - have dross to be melted away as we wait in that refining Presence. How must we change so that we can wait together as a body, receiving the teaching of the Holy Spirit? If all our forms and structures and buildings and finances are tools that God has given us for blessing the world, what does it look like for us to faithfully exercise those tools, those gifts? And how do we avoid making the tools and gifts our focus, rather than God? How can we live into these questions together, as an intergenerational community?

Friday, July 06, 2012

Burn Down the Meeting House

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.- Luke 12:32-34

A friend of mine recently suggested that perhaps the best thing that twentysomething Quakers could do would be to burn down a Yearly Meeting meetinghouse. What would happen if the young adults of the Yearly Meeting were to show up one evening with torches and openly burn that ancient, venerable, valuable piece of real estate to the ground?

Of course, the most biblical thing to do might be to sell the meetinghouse and give to the poor. If we had it in us to do such a thing, this would certainly be a powerful witness. But can you imagine an entire Yearly Meeting finding unity to sell the community's flagship real estate investment? I can already hear the objections. We would be admonished to be more responsible, more realistic. We would be reminded of the building's substantial history and the role that the property plays in outreach.

It is hard to imagine a Yearly Meeting selling one of its most visible symbols of establishment. I have an easier time imagining the twentysomethings of the community banding together to bear prophetic witness to the wider body. The Yearly Meeting as a whole may not be ready to release the dead weight of the past - the fear of losing money, status and security - but younger generations might call for a break with stagnation and decline. What would happen if we put the movement of the Spirit ahead of property management?

It would probably be premature for Friends of my generation to start burning down meetinghouses. As powerful as this sign might be, it would be an act of desperation rather than a first step on the path of prophetic engagement. What might these first steps look like? How could twentysomething Quakers serve a wake-up call to their Yearly Meetings in a way that older Friends can hear?

The image of burning down a meetinghouse is a powerful one, spurring me to think about what might happen if twentysomething Quakers decided that we were done sitting at the kids' table. Rather than waiting around for older generations to invite us into responsibility and leadership, the image of burning down the meetinghouse represents younger Quakers rising out of the silence and declaring God's truth as we have experienced it. Even when it makes the gray-hairs uncomfortable.

One thing is clear: The status quo has been failing us for decades, perhaps even generations. We find ourselves today in the midst of the greatest economic, technological, cultural and religious transition in human history - a momentous shift that virtually the entire world is participating in. This generation faces a stark choice. One option is to continue on as we have for many years, warming ourselves by the dying embers of an ancient tradition. We can huddle together in our creaky, historic buildings, drafting minutes and sinking deeper into irrelevance as our young people drift away to other communities that can provide a more satisfying framework of meaning. We can choose comfort over challenge, anesthetized death over the messy and sometimes painful business of life. This is what the meetinghouse represents.

Or we can change our minds. We can turn back to the same God who taught our ancestors how to lead lives of radical faithfulness. We can embrace the exhiliration and the riskiness that comes when we choose to walk beside Jesus on the water. This will mean venturing out from the safety of the meetinghouse - all of the beliefs, processes and possessions that we cling to for our sense of identity as Friends. The community that arises from the ashes of the meetinghouse will have the clear-eyed aspect of a person who has given up everything to fully invest in the present moment, walking in faith with our ever-present Guide. Burning down the meetinghouse is a metaphor for the true freedom that we find when we renounce all the things that we put before God.

What would it look like for younger Friends to take responsibility for leadership within our Yearly Meetings, not waiting for permission or validation? How can we invite our entire religious community, young and old, into a shared journey of radical transformation and openness to the new thing that God is doing in our time and place? What in us needs to die in order for new life to grow?

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

My New Job At Friends United Meeting

This month I begin work with Friends United Meeting (FUM), an international association of Quakers with member churches in North America, the Middle East, East Africa and Latin America. My official title is Interim Communications and Web Specialist. The "interim" part of this means that the job will last from July until December, and we will evaluate at the end of that time whether the position should continue in its present form. This job is in many ways experimental, which excites me; I am a starter, an entrepreneur and an innovator, and I am looking forward to pioneering a new chapter in FUM's role as a communicator on behalf of and among Friends.

The "communications" part of my job title means that I will be focusing on FUM's strategic outreach, especially online and social media communications. In addition, I will be collaborating on Quaker Life, one of the most prominent print publications in the Religious Society of Friends. As FUM's magazine for more than 50 years, Quaker Life is probably our most important tool for communicating across the entire association at the present time. This is especially true considering the limitations of internet access in East Africa, where the majority of Friends reside.

The "web" part of my job will be especially prominent in this interim period. I will be working closely with other members of the FUM staff as we roll out an entirely new and re-designed website. The current website was originally set up in 1997, and although the site has had an amazing 15-year run, it is clearly time for an upgrade! I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of this work.

It is an honor to be on staff with Friends United Meeting. My faith is deeply rooted in traditional Quaker faith and practice - including waiting worship, orthodox Christian belief, and Quaker business practice - and, for me, Friends United Meeting represents the beautiful diversity that is possible when we are gathered together in Jesus Christ. Like so many established Christian organizations today, FUM faces huge challenges. As a diverse and multicultural association of Friends, we are stretched almost the breaking point around questions of authority, our understandings of Scripture, our different levels of access to wealth and mobility, and our vision for what the Body of Christ looks like when we are faithful.

Despite these challenges, I hold out hope for Friends United Meeting. At its best, FUM symbolizes what a broad, diverse, flexible and generously orthodox association of Friends could look like. As a member of FUM's staff, I will be looking for ways to empower Yearly Meetings, local churches and individual members to live out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. As we are gathered together in the living power of God's Spirit - spanning nations, cultures, races and languages - I am hopeful that FUM can play a vital role in building up the Body of Christ.

In the months ahead, I want to hear from Friends about how FUM can be more vital and relevant, particularly among Friends in North America. For generations, the primary focus of Friends United Meeting has been on foreign mission fields, and we can see the rich fruits of these efforts among Friends in East Africa, Palestine, and the Carribean. Yet there is a growing sense that North America itself needs to be the recipient of a new missionary effort. What might that look like? 

How might the growing strength of Friends in the developing world contribute to a spiritual rebirth in North America? What role do we have to play in this time of great transition for the North American Church? How might Friends United Meeting be an instrument of Christ's work of renewal and transformation?

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
-Isaiah 43:19