Thursday, August 30, 2012

Organizing the Church

My involvement with the Occupy movement this year has given me a lot of insight into the way groups of people unite around a common set of concerns. In my work with Occupy Our Homes, I have seen the power that can be unleashed when a small group of people focus their passion to work together for justice. And in recent months I have spent time studying and testing models of community organizing that could forge our organization into a more effective instrument of empowerment for the 99%.

As I have begun to explore the practice of community organizing, a whole new world has opened up for me. I am particularly inspired by the pioneering strategic philosophy of Saul Alinsky and his successors. While by no means do I agree with the whole of Alinsky's ideology (especially his abysmally cynical view of human nature), I know in my gut that his model, which has been refined and enriched by successive generations of organizers, is of great value. I feel the need to integrate the wisdom of this tradition into my own life and work.

This will involve integrating my "religious" concern as a gospel minister and my "social" concern as a budding organizer for economic justice. Looking to Jesus, I see that his "spiritual" mission was never separated from his "social" mission. Spiritual liberty and material emancipation from social and economic bondage have always been two sides of the same coin. I serve the Savior who brings not merely an invisible, "spiritual" rebirth, but a genuine refashioning of the whole human community. As Jesus revealed when he was nailed to a cross for sedition against the Roman state, the gospel is dangerously practical!

Is my own faith similarly practical? Does the life of my community reveal the messianic Kingdom of Jesus - the visible, redeemed network of social relationships that God created us for? Does the life of the Church bear witness to the wholeness, justice, mercy and love of the God of Isaiah?

As a Christian in the United States, these questions challenge me. I see how many of our Christian communities have far too little to do with the living power of Jesus' gospel. So often, we fail to combine the inward work of spiritual transformation with the outward labor of making the Kingdom of God visible.

Rather than dividing the work of spiritual transformation and social justice between religious and secular institutions, how could we embody the dynamic inward/outward tension that Jesus demonstrates? What might the practice of community organizing teach us about building healthy congregations that exist to serve our neighbors?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Community Organizing and the Gospel

As I get excited about community-based organizing here in DC, I cannot help but notice the parallels between the work of the organizer and the labor of the gospel minister. When I reflect on the work of Paul, Margaret Fell, George Fox and so many other servants of the gospel, it seems clear that their ministry did not consist of simply delivering a verbal proclamation about Jesus and demanding intellectual assent to certain propositions.

Nor did they limit their ministry to individuals. Christ's apostles throughout the ages have clearly seen their role as being to challenge and nurture entire communities. The gospel is not merely limited to some sort of interior heart-change; everywhere that the good news of Jesus is authentically proclaimed and received, the Holy Spirit unleashes a wave of counter-cultural activity, transforming communities in the very practical details of their lives - spiritual, social and economic.

Throughout the Scriptures and the history of the Christian Church, there is a strong connection between sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and empowering local communities to work for justice. Faith without works is dead and, in the grand scheme of things, works without community are limited, at best.

When I recognize that Jesus founded his ministry on a proclamation of debt forgiveness and human liberation, the implications are clear. No longer can I let myself off the hook, imagining that the purpose of faith is to make me feel good, or even to make me personally righteous. Instead, I must face the reality that my own salvation is bound up in the groaning of all creation, and that I have a role to play in the story of cosmic liberation.

At the same time, my role in this grand narrative usually does not seem "cosmic" at all. Organizing for justice is some of the most brutally earthy work I know. What could be more tangible than walking into a neighborhood where you do not live, knocking on the door of someone you do not know, and asking whoever answers, "What are your deepest concerns? What do you and others in your community feel passionate about? What is the change that you wish to see?" Community organizing is all about particular, personal relationships. We often only see the transcendent once we have taken the plunge into the terrifying work of being human.

What is the connection between gospel ministry and community organizing? When I go canvassing in DC neighborhoods, my goal is not to convince those whom I meet to accept the gospel as I understand it. Instead, I am focused on practical human needs, obstacles that have been placed in the way, and the tools that we need to get our community's needs met. The immediacy of the human precedes the transcendent. If we see God, it is only from behind.

But that does not mean that there is no divine connection. As I understand it, the goal of community organizing is to draw out the hidden creativity, passion, energy and thirst for justice that lies latent in all human communities. For me, that hints at something even deeper. Where does that hidden power come from? Who is the source of our hunger and thirst for structural justice and personal righteousness? Who inspires the love that allows a community to unite around its weakest members and see an aggression against one as an attack on everyone?

I believe that this Source Jesus Christ. If I can be an instrument to call out the secret power that lies waiting in every human community, I believe that I am nurturing the life of the gospel. If I can help equip a community to draw nearer to the source of all justice, righteousness and love, I know that I am participating in the process of drawing people to Jesus through the power of his Holy Spirit. I trust that, through this process, the Lord will provide me openings to share about the source of my passion and joy. If I am ready to give an account of the hope that is within me, some may be encouraged to explore a deeper, more explicit relationship with Jesus.

How have you seen God at work in your community? What has been your experience of being part of a community that is lovingly challenged and nurtured - whether by explicit gospel ministry, Spirit-led eldership, or apparently secular community organizing? How have you experienced God calling you to organize in your community, to lift up the hidden life and power of God?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hitting the Streets with Occupy Our Homes

In the last eight months, I have become deeply involved in the work of Occupy Our Homes DC (OOHDC). Our goal is to prevent unjust foreclosures and evictions of homeowners and tenants in our area. We have taken a multifaceted approach that brings pressure to bear on the people and structures that are bullying our friends: We engage public officials, conventional news reporters, social media campaigns, and - of course - the banks themselves. These are areas where we are strong, and getting stronger.

But our toolbox is still missing a screwdriver or two. In my view, our most critical "growing edge" is the way we engage with the neighborhoods where our homeowners and tenants live. Our media campaign is surging; we are figuring out where the banks' pressure points are; and we have a strong base in the DC activist community - but so far we have mostly neglected the real source of grassroots power that will make or break us as an organization.

Last week, we had a community barbecue at the home of Deborah Harris. The idea was for Deborah's neighbors to come have a hot dog and learn about the details of her case. We hoped to develop awareness within the community where the foreclosure is actually taking place, because if this could happen to Deborah, it could happen to any of us.

In preparation for the barbecue, we spent our evenings canvassing the area. We went door to door, asking folks to sign a petition to Freddie Mac; we followed up with an invite to the barbecue. These nights out in the neighborhood were the highlight of my summer! It was so amazing to get into the streets and talk to other DC residents about the issues affecting the neighborhood. By the time the barbecue rolled around, we had collected a lot of signatures and convinced some people to show up for the cook-out. Even more importantly for me, I had gained a much better understanding of the character of Deborah's neighborhood, and of the concerns that local residents share.

It turns out that foreclosures are not limited to Deborah's house. When we were canvassing we met other individuals who were being thrown out of their homes by the banks, and many others knew someone who had been foreclosed on. Some of Deborah's neighbors viewed these foreclosures as being part of a system that is pushing older, African-American residents out of the neighborhood, making way for the next wave of gentrification. There was a lot going on in Deborah's part of town, and I felt sure that if we dug just a little deeper we would learn even more!

In my mind, getting out into the neighborhood was our first serious step into community organizing. Previously, we had largely been operating out of an advocacy model, seeking to create change "on behalf of" affected communities. This is not what we wanted of course, but so many of us have professional backgrounds in advocacy work that it is hard to break the habit. But now I see an opportunity for us to explore models that place our local neighborhoods and community networks at the center of the process, encouraging the whole community to express their needs and to determine what is necessary to achieve their goals.

As these developments have unfolded, I have been deeply inspired by conversations with veteran organizer Laura Dungan - founder of Sunflower Community Action in Wichita, Kansas. She has taken time out to take me under her wing, nurturing me with her wealth of experience, as well as acquainting me with the example of her own mentor, Shel Trapp. I am catching a vision for what grassroots, people-centered organizing might look like here in DC.

As I begin to explore what this all means, I have a lot of questions: What is the relationship between my calling to gospel ministry and this new opening to grassroots organizing in an apparently secular setting? How can I bear testimony to the life and power of Jesus Christ, while deeply respecting and working closely with those who do not necessarily profess faith in him? What is the right balance of action and contemplation, engagement with the wider society and grounding within the Church? What steps can I take to be sure that I ask in every moment and situation: "Lord, show me where you are at work. Use my life to reveal your hidden power and love."

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Easy Yoke

Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my is burden light. - Matthew 11:28-30

I take a lot on myself. At present, I am working two part-time jobs, helping to found a grassroots community organizing group, and nurturing a new Quaker Meeting on Capitol Hill. Taking into account my commitments to Ohio Yearly Meeting, my marriage, and all the practical duties that come with being a householder, it is amazing that I sleep.

Not only do I sleep, I dream. Despite all of my existing responsibilities and projects, I continue to envision what the next steps might be. What is the next action? What will be the next project? How might my community be further energized and equipped? Even as I busy myself with the present work, my mind races ahead to next steps. I keep my eyes on the big picture.

This is good. I have learned by now that part of my role in community is to help cast vision. We sometimes get so caught up in the details of what we are already doing that we miss out on the new possibilities that God is opening up. We can get so fixated on technique that we lose the sense of overarching purpose that originally inspired us. Dreams are important in reminding us why we agreed to work so hard in the first place, and they often call us into new areas of growth and struggle.

But it is possible to dream too much - or in the wrong way. For me, the danger in dreaming comes in the form of delusions of grandeur. Because I am gifted to see the big picture with great clarity, I am often fooled into imagining that I can guide and direct the flow of history. I almost inevitably write myself into the script as an heroic figure, looking back to the great heroes of my faith - Paul of Tarsus, George Fox, Margaret Fell and James Nayler, for example - and seeing their high-profile examples as models for my own life.

This puts a lot of pressure on me. Though identifying with past heroes can be empowering, it can also lead to burn-out. This is probably because the heroes that I look up to represent something far bigger than themselves. In a sense, these high-profile men and women embody the witness of an entire community. When I look to Paul of Tarsus, I am really admiring the early Christian Church. When I am inspired by George Fox, it is actually the entire constellation of early Quaker leaders that influence me.

While it is tempting to fixate on an historical rock star like Margaret Fell, the reality is that she played an important, but limited role in an extended community that, as a whole, carried out an heroic mission. She did not do everything herself; rather, she used those gifts that the Spirit gave her to play the role that God assigned.

In my experience, this is at least part of why Jesus counsels us not to worry. He instructs us to focus on "today's trouble" - the tasks, situations and people that we have been given to care for in this time and circumstance. Keeping our eyes on Jesus, and on the particular work he calls us into, there is freedom from the sense of helplessness that comes when we imagine that we have to do everything.

The easy yoke of Jesus is knowing that we are responsible to only one Master, and that God has given each of us particular gifts and responsibilities in this life. His easy yoke is knowing that true heroism consists not of doing everything, but of faithfully playing our part in a broader community. Our Savior's burden is light because he frees us from the myth of the rugged individual, with its assumption that each of us must be self-sufficient. We come to experience that we were each made for a purpose, and that God is ultimately in control.

What has been your experience of Jesus' easy yoke? Can you relate to the burden that I have described, the pressure to do everything? What are other ways that God is liberating you from those burdens that you do not need to carry? How is the Holy Spirit revealing your particular calling, and empowering you to live into it?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Many Generations, One Body

The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body we think less honorable we bestow greater honor... - 1 Corinthians 12:21-23

We live in a world that seeks to divide us at every turn. From our political affiliations to our preferences of music and computer hardware, we are encouraged to lump ourselves into a myriad of mutually unintelligable sub-cultures. We have become a society that does not know how to have a real conversation, a culture in which public discourse has increasingly become a place of symbolic violence, rather than (com)passionate debate. And in a society as fundamentally divided as ours, it is a small leap from the world of soundbites and images to the concrete expression of that violence.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, it is my experience that there is a power capable of breaking down the walls that divide us, bringing true reconciliation. Through the amazing power of Jesus' self-giving love, I am being healed of the brokenness of this present age, and gathered into a Body that is greater than any human divisions.

One division that I have explored a lot in recent years is that of generational divides. There are real differences between us, depending on when each of us was born. For example, Baby Boomers (Americans born between roughly 1943 and 1960) have a huge amount of shared experience that bonds them together as a unique cultural group. The same is true of Generation X (Americans born roughly between 1961-1981) and Millennials (1982-2002?). While each of these generations is comprised of tens of millions of individuals with a huge array of experiences, personalities and individual life choices, we exist within a broader generational context.

As a rising Millenial, it was empowering to realize that I was part of a new generation which had a distinct way of doing things from our Boomer parents and our Xer mentors. I saw that our differences weren't simply a rebellion against "the way things are"; rather, we as a generation share a unique set of experiences and assumptions, a special perspective that is just as legitimate as those of prior generations.

Yet, the spirit of division did what it always does: It took hold of these places of aliveness and difference and twisted them into something that divides us. Rather than understanding our generational differences as a source of mutual empowerment and respect, there are many forces in our society that have pitted one generation against another. Whether a "Pepsi Generation" or a "Joshua Generation," marketers and ideologues work night and day to make our generational differences grounds for division and hatred rather than the basis of strength and cooperation. Instead of recognizing our differences as a gift from God, we have often been lured into a false narrative of generational competition.

This fits with what our consumerist culture tells us about everything else. We are taught from an early age that other people exist to be used and exploited, that life is a battle to be won and that our fellow human beings are our opponents. We have been seduced by a worldview that sees domination as the prerogative of the strong and grinding poverty the rightful fate of the weak. No wonder we live in such a violent, divided society! How can we trust anyone if the purpose of life is to maximize personal profit and minimize personal pain, regardless of the consequences to those around us?

There is a Spirit that I feel, inviting us into something more life-giving and true than this twisted vision of the cosmic order. There is a Life and Power that is grounded in indescribable love, a Love that lays down his own life for the benefit of his friends rather than seeking his own narrow pleasure. It is this Truth that binds us together, breaking down the dividing wall and making one where there were once many.

What if we understood our different generations as being vital and necessary members of the same body? What would happen if we saw our generational differences as gifts to be used for blessing all generations? What if Xers offered up their hard-minded expertise and common sense for the good of our whole society? How might the world change if Boomers put forth their deep spirituality and vision as a gift to those who follow in their footsteps? What if we Millennials demonstrated our love to older generations by exercising our emerging gifts of collaboration and team-building? How might we all be transformed if we embraced God's gifts to our generations and were made one in the Holy Spirit?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Deeper Unity - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #45

Dear friends,

Every year, I imagine that this time around my summer will be a little less crazy. And every year, Yearly Meeting season makes that an impossibility. This month, I spent most of my days out of town, attending Quaker gatherings in New York, Maryland and Ohio. These Yearly Meeting sessions have taken most of my time and attention, leaving me feeling a bit disconnected from my community in DC. The balance between local work and the wider fellowship is delicate, and I anticipate that the coming month will be a time for me to pivot and refocus on local concerns and more sedentary work. Though it has been enriching to dive deeply into the wider world of Friends, I am looking forward to being home for a while.

My first trip out of town was to New York Yearly Meeting, at the Silver Bay YMCA camp on Lake George in upstate New York. Gathering on Lake George meant that when we were not engaged in Yearly Meeting business, we were free to go kayaking or sailing, or to go hiking in the surrounding woods. Though I had attended Yearly Meeting sessions in a variety of beautiful locations, this resort atmosphere was something new!

I felt particularly blessed that Faith and I were able to be present with a number of other visiting Friends, including Jon Watts and Maggie Harrision, who are engaged in a sustained ministry of calling Friends to spiritual nakedness. Jon and Maggie really challenged New York Yearly Meeting during an evening plenary session, urging Friends to set aside the suffocating comfort of respectability and 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!

After New York Yearly Meeting, Faith and I drove down to Virginia for a wedding. I had a day back in DC before I was on the road again, this time to Baltimore Yearly Meeting - a fellowship of Quakers in Virginia, Pennsylvania, DC and Maryland. BYM holds it annual gatherings at Frostburg State University, out in the western panhandle of Maryland. Getting there was easy, though, since I routinely travel out that way en route to Ohio and points further west.

Baltimore Yearly Meeting felt familiar. Because I live within the geographical territory of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, I run into BYM Friends a lot - whether visiting their local Meetings, attending their events, or welcoming them at Capitol Hill Friends. Though I am not a member of BYM, visiting their annual sessions did feel like something of a homecoming to me.

The theme of BYM's gathering this year was "Spirit-led Social Action," and I had the opportunity to speak with Friends about my experience of God's leading me to participate in the Occupy movement when it first erupted in the fall of 2011. I spoke as part of a two-person panel during BYM's Tuesday-night plenary session, sharing what it felt like to be led by the Holy Spirit into social witness that is outside my comfort zone. I would never have chosen to become an organizer for the Occupy movement on my own, but I am so grateful that I was obedient to the promptings of Christ within!

Because I yielded to the quiet but persistent nudges of God in my heart, I am now connected to a broader community of those who are working for economic justice. I have met so many amazing people who have changed my life for the better, and I am hopeful that my presence has a positive influence. During the plenary, I shared how God opens opportunities for me to bear witness to Christ's love and power within the economic justice community. Most crucially, I spoke about the spiritual dynamics of activism and community organizing, and about the need to stay rooted in the Spirit of God. There are so many other forces that would shake us from our Foundation; if we do not take great care, it is easy to get caught up in a spirit of chaos rather than the Spirit of love, order and peace that Christ sends.

I hope that I was faithful in communicating to Friends that our social witness must be, first and foremost, a testimony to the love, life and power that we experience in the Spirit of Jesus. Specific outcomes are important - sometimes we are called to "win" - but the highest objective must always be to remain faithful to the witness that God desires to bear through our lives. This takes great discernment, a practice that we as Friends of Jesus can bring to these movements.

Following my visit to Baltimore Yearly Meeting, I was only home for a few days before Faith and I were back on the road. Once again, we drove out through western Maryland, but this time our destination was Barnesville, Ohio - the gathering place of Ohio Yearly Meeting. After visiting so many gatherings this summer, it was a blessing to finally come home to the Yearly Meeting where we are members. Visiting among other bodies of Friends is wonderful, but there is a particular joy that comes when we gather with our particular covenanted community. Our care and responsibility for one another guides and sustains me in a special way.

I was really struck this year by the way in which my Yearly Meeting handles disagreement. We had several opportunities to engage in prayerful discernment around hard issues this year, and I felt like we were generally able to keep our conversation grounded in prayer and loving concern for one another. There is a sense in Ohio Yearly Meeting that our unity runs deeper than opinions about particular issues. While outward agreement is ultimately important, I am grateful to experience an inward, spiritual unity that allows us to wrestle with disagreements in a manner that ultimately draws us closer to God in Jesus Christ.

I envision Ohio Yearly Meeting as a circle with Jesus Christ standing at the center. Individuals in our Yearly Meeting stand at various points around the circle; we emphasize different things, and there are places where we are not in full agreement. There were several explicit points of tension this year - including our relationship with Olney Friends School; our testimony against the consumption of alcoholic beverages; and our shared understanding of human sexuality. Each of these are places where we could fall into destructive division and mistrust. But God is teaching us a better way.

As we gather around Jesus and draw nearer to him, we come closer to one another. Submitting ourselves to Christ's light, we find our individual perspectives relativized (though not invalidated), and we are able to see how God is speaking through those with whom we strongly disagree. There is a deep faith present in Ohio Yearly Meeting that, if we wait together in the light of the Holy Spirit, we will be shown the way forward together.

It is probably safe to assume that all of us will be surprised by what "way forward" looks like. I am learning that having a variety of perspectives in my community can be a sign of good health, despite the fact that, at first glance, it may seem like chaos and disunity. We read in Scripture that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Yet, we know that we ourselves do change, and that our individual human viewpoints are often too limited to embrace the truth that Christ desires to reveal to us.

When we come together as a community in prayer, seeking after the Lord's will, I experience the Spirit guiding us into greater understanding and unity as a body. We continue to have our own individual perspectives, but they are tempered and refined in the fire of Christ's light. When we hold our disagreements in loving prayer, the Spirit intercedes within us and binds us together in a deeper unity that surpasses opinions.

At the conclusion of our time together in Barnesville, I felt hopeful for the future of Ohio Yearly Meeting. I had a strong sense that Christ is at work in our midst, and that we are being invited into the new (yet ancient) way of Jesus. God is giving us an opportunity to embrace Jesus' example, laying down our lives for one another and surrendering our need to be correct. I am learning that the true meaning of strength is to bear the burdens of others - not only physically, but spiritually.

I pray that my life will serve to lighten the burden of those around me, that I may lay aside my own need to be vindicated, remembering that Jesus lay aside every honor and privilege that were rightfully his, bearing the cross for his friends. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name. I pray that we in Ohio Yearly Meeting will find this scripture fulfilled in our hearing, that through our shared submission to Jesus we be brought into the fullness of his truth, unity and love.

I anticipate that the next few weeks will allow me to stay closer to home. After so much time away, it will be good to re-connect with my community here in DC. I am also looking forward to making progress on the new Friends United Meeting website, which we plan to roll out around the end of the summer. I must say that although there are many benefits to travel in the service of the gospel, it is not particularly conducive to web development!

One last item before I close: You may recall that this June I was arrested by the US Capitol Police for accompanying my friend Deborah Harris to speak to Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, during his visit to the Senate Banking Committee. I did not expect to be arrested, much less to be jailed for most of the day and accused of falsifying my identity! It also came as a surprise when I learned that my arrest could theoretically be punished by up to six months in prison. But I give praise to God that my co-defendents and I accepted a deal on Monday which will allow the charges against us to be dropped, assuming we do not get re-arrested in the next six months!

I have no idea how prayer works, but it is my experience that there is nothing more powerful than the prayerful petitions of God's faithful people. I know for a fact that I have a small army of prayer warriors who are interceding on my behalf. Thank you so, so much. Your prayers are making a huge impact on my life. Please do not stop!

In the month ahead, please pray that I be grounded more deeply in the Holy Spirit as I seek to be a faithful worker in my roles with Friends United Meeting, Capitol Hill Friends and Occupy Our Homes DC. I would also ask for you to pray specifically that our community at Capitol Hill Friends be built up in Christ's power this month. In recent weeks, several active members of our fellowship have moved away to pursue educational opportunities; we need God's strength and guidance as we continue to serve as a spiritual sanctuary in the midst of our city.

May the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be with you all.

In his light and love,

Micah Bales

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Can We Disagree?

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God... - 1 John 4:1

For me as a Quaker, summertime is Yearly Meeting time. For those who are unfamiliar with Friends organization, the Yearly Meeting is the closest thing that we have to a "denomination." Gathering together annually for business and fellowship, Yearly Meetings are a collection of local congregations that are drawn together under the same faith and practice, committing themselves to mutual accountability and shared discernment.

The Yearly Meeting is for congregations what the local church is for the individual. The Yearly Meeting provides opportunity to be strengthened by the wisdom and perspective of a wider fellowship; the larger body is able to provide stability, support and, at times, loving correction to local Meetings that face difficulty. In the ideal, the Yearly Meeting is enriched and informed by the gifts, passion and discernment of the local Meeting, and the Yearly Meeting exercises loving care of the local Meeting.

Unfortunately, we frequently fail to live up to our ideals. In both the local church and the Yearly Meeting, Friends often lose the delicate balance between the understanding of the individual and the discernment of the wider body. Sometimes we err on the side of individual autonomy, refusing to involve ourselves in the struggles of our sister Meetings. On the other hand, we as Yearly Meetings can also slip into a paternalistic mindset, quenching the prophetic voice of our local communities with demands of conformity to the broader consensus.

Unlike many Christian groups, Friends do not make decisions by voting, but rather through a united sense of God's will. Though this practice has many strengths, its weaknesses can be crippling. At worst, we may abuse our tradition, coming to believe that unity is something for us to impose, rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit. In our quest for outward unity, we sometimes risk silencing a genuine prophetic voice.

With division looming in Indiana Yearly Meeting and many other Yearly Meetings struggling with deep disagreements, how do we understand the role of dissent within our communities? Under what circumstances is it acceptable for an individual or a local church to be openly out of unity with majority understanding of the Yearly Meeting? To what extent are Friends with minority perspectives expected to keep their views quiet? When does conscience demand that dissenters resign their membership?

These questions are very alive for me as we in Ohio Yearly Meeting continue to wrestle with our understanding of human sexuality, including same-sex relationships. There are faithful Friends in our Yearly Meeting who sincerely believe that we who affirm our gay brothers and sisters should silence our witness - or leave the fellowship altogether. For these Friends, it is a question of corporate solidarity and integrity: If we are not in line with the majority view of the Yearly Meeting, why would we insist on raising our perspective within the body? Why not accept that we simply do not fit within Ohio Yearly Meeting and leave?

This makes me wonder: How much (and what kind of) conformity is necessary on the part of dissenting individuals and congregations? How do we gauge to what extent our disagreement represents a healthy, prophetic witness, and how can we tell when we have veered into un-loving, divisive activity? Though there are forms of dissent that tear down community, I have also observed that there is such a thing as healthy tension and faithful disagreement.

This is all so tricky, because there are certainly false teachings that can rip the church apart. There are many perspectives that, if accepted, would undermine our testimony as Friends. Yet, it is possible to become overly sensitive. If we allow fear to take over, we may stop trusting that God can work through our disagreements. It is important for us to have faith that the Holy Spirit is present with us now, ready to teach us "even greater things."

As communities gathered in the Spirit of Jesus, how do we practice discernment together? How do we know which matters of faith and practice are essential, and which can be safely held in dynamic tension within our local and Yearly Meetings? How do we manage passionate disagreements within our community, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?

Monday, August 06, 2012

Confession of an Addict

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. ... Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? - Romans 7:15, 24

I am addicted to fossil fuels. I am a slave to them, and I cannot break free. I have tried cutting back; for a period of years I avoided air travel, and I consider carefully how to get from one place to another. But carbon is always lurking, waiting for an opportune time.

It sneaks up on me. I make commitments, promises that I can only keep by drinking deeply from offshore oil rigs. I travel across the country - and occasionally beyond it - in the service of a calling that I believe comes from God. What sense does it make that my addiction should be fueled by what I believe is faithfulness to Christ?

I have often beaten myself up over my carbon abuse. Even as I watch the seas rise, the ice caps melt and droughts afflict whole continents, I continue to burn the very toxins that cause this destruction. What kind of person am I, who cannot break his habit when he sees the pain and suffering he is causing to those around him? I have often hated myself for the ways that my addiction affects the people and other living things that I love.

I have tried to quit so many times. It has become a familiar cycle: I swear off fossil fuels for a while, but soon I succumb to a binge. There is always some trip I need to take that seems so important. And then another, and another. The worst of it is the feeling that I should be able to beat this thing. If I only had more will power! If I were just more spiritual, I would not be in bondage like this. If I were a better person, I would not hurt those around me through my craven use of carbon.

This morning, however, I no longer feel guilty. I am done with beating myself up. I am ready to take the first step out of denial and confess: I am powerless over my addiction, and my life has become unmanageable. I see that I am incapable of overcoming this addiction on my own, that no amount of personal effort on my part will be able to release me from it.

As those familiar with the 12 Step program will know, there is a next step. Now that I recognize that I am out of control and powerless in the face of my addiction to fossil fuels, I am invited to "believe that a Power greater than myself can restore me to sanity." And I do believe this. In other areas of my life, Jesus Christ has liberated me from bondage, such as the eating disorder and deep depression that I suffered from as a teenager. I do believe that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

But if I am brutally honest with myself, I have to confess that I am not sure whether I am ready to let God heal me. This addiction feels bigger than most other challenges I have faced in my life. Being released from other forms of darkness have actually had the effect of making me a more successful, better integrated person. I get along better in society because I am not depressed, for example. But breaking my addiction to carbon would almost certainly diminish my ability to fit in. How can I seek sobriety when our entire civilization is founded on intoxication?

I know what needs to be done. I know that my lifestyle is unsustainable. Yet I cannot bring myself to break with it. I simply do not know how to live any other way. This is where I am stuck: aware of my brokenness and need for divine intervention, but unable to take the next step. Lord Jesus, help me take the next step.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Occupying Our Faith

And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. - John 1:14

One of my most distinct memories of Occupy DC is sitting in the Prayer Tent in McPherson Square one day in late October. Over several weeks, the encampment had grown to take up most of the park. As I sat in the midst of our little tent city, I felt moved to open my Bible and re-read the final chapters of Exodus, which describe the early days of the Hebrew's sojourn in the wilderness.

The twelve tribes of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years. It was a time of purification - transitioning from their old life under Pharaoh to a new life under the direct reign of God. They were accustomed to having human rulers boss them around and give structure to their lives, but in the desert God began to teach them a new way.

In this new order, God taught the Hebrew people to rely directly on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God drew nearer to them than the Hebrews ever thought possible - or even desirable! Indeed, one of the major themes of Exodus is the plea of the people that a human leader - Moses - play go-between for the congregation and God. Our spiritual ancestors were too afraid to approach the Lord themselves; they much preferred to have a human ruler to mediate divine authority.

Nevertheless, God found ways to interact directly with his fearful people, and over time the Hebrews learned to follow him in trust. We read at the very end of Exodus how the Lord gave the people a visible sign of his presence - a cloud during the day, and fire at night. The Hebrews learned that when God's tent - the Tent of Meeting - was covered with the cloud, they were to stay where they were. But when the cloud rose from the Tent of Meeting, the people knew that God was calling them to move on, to explore new territory.

Eventually, the Hebrews settled down in the promised land, and after a while they insisted on having a human king. They did not trust God to lead them directly, preferring old Pharaoh's system to God's direct reign. Though God warned them that a human monarch would make their lives miserable, the people insisted - they wanted to be like the other nations, having a human king to fight their battles for them.

As predicted, this did not go well for Israel. Though there were some good kings, the legacy of human monarchy was appalling. Over the generations, Israel came to be dominated by its neighbors. The people of God were repeatedly conquered and cast into exile. Most of the Hebrews were scattered abroad by foreign conquerers, never to see their homeland again. By the time of the New Testament, Israel was a backwater province under the iron fist of Rome, the most powerful human empire the world had ever seen.

In first-century Judea, there were many groups vying for supremacy. Preeminent among them was the Herodian puppet government, driven by selfish greed and subservience to Rome. There were also the Sadducees, who sought to maintain the Temple cult at all costs. Then there were the Pharisees, who believed that national restoration would only come through a strict, legalistic application of the Torah. And there were the Zealots, who looked back to the Maccabees for inspiration; they were committed to fomenting a violent revolution which would break the Roman yoke and restore the Davidic kingship. Yet, despite their claims, none of these groups presented a real alternative to Empire. At best, these groups offered a Hebrew Pharaoh in place of a Roman one.

It was in this period of national humiliation and despair that the Lord once again provided Israel an opportunity to experience his direct rule. God would once again dwell among the people, and this time God would go one step farther than before. Rather than revealing his presence in a burning bush, a cloud of fire, or within a tent made with human hands, God would take an inconceivable step to show his solidarity with us. He would be conceived.

The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. God dwelled among his people in human form, submitting to our struggles and limitations. In this consummate act of solidarity, God demonstrated once and for all that he would not stand aloof while his children suffered; he became one of us, sharing our human experience and demonstrating in his own body the way to true liberation. Even today, through his resurrected presence, we experience God as dwelling immanently among us, guiding us directly. Because our world has been occupied by the grace and truth of Jesus Christ, we are freed to walk in his life and power, rather than in bondage to the empires of our day.

Which brings me back to the encampment at McPherson Square. Though Occupy Wall Street was a human movement, there are ways in which it reflected God's character. It was particularly striking to me how the Occupy movement sought to incarnate new life and expanded imagination in the streets of our cities, which had previously been the exclusive domain of Empire. Sitting in the Prayer Tent at Occupy DC, I could not help but remark on how the Holy Spirit continues to move among the people, inspiring us to imitate the God who pitches his tent among us.

What does this mean for us as Friends of Jesus? How do we make sense of our heritage as the people of the God who encamps in our midst? How is the living Spirit of God moving among us today, calling us into risky action and shared sacrifice? How do we know when the cloud has lifted, that the Lord has called us to take up our tents and follow him through this desert? Are we ready to trust him, to love him, to honor him as our only King?