Thursday, September 27, 2012

Can You Hear Me Now?

More than any other place I have ever lived, Washington is a talking city, an environment where words are simultaneously the most precious and the cheapest commodity. Words serve as weapons of political warfare, badges of honor, markers of identity and demonstrations of expertise. Language is employed to build up and tear down. In a town like Washington, the exercise of power means framing the conversation. The real game here is about dictating the terms of the debate.

This is a very different relationship to words than the one that I have experienced in the Quaker tradition. For Friends, the primary goal of all words is to provide a pathway into truth that goes beyond our narrow attempts to define and control it. In this view, language is meant to direct us to the inward reality that we all have access to, the truth that will guide us and draw us into unity. In the Friends tradition, the spoken word is meant to be a tool of liberation, freeing us from bondage to falsehood. This truth that we encounter together sets us free and challenges us to reexamine our narrow interests and old assumptions.

From this perspective, the way that we often communicate here in Washington is questionable. If words are intended to provide a doorway into the truth that lies beyond us, what happens when we speak primarily to get our own way, so that our own perspective prevails while others are discounted? What is the spiritual effect of a culture that views language as a means to gain power over others, rather than as a tool to produce transformed lives that bless and surprise everyone?

If the United States' political climate is any indication, communication that cajoles, confuses and coerces leads us into division, alienation and violence. When our speech becomes simply one more method of waging cultural warfare against those we disagree with, we are left without means to find the common ground that could resolve our conflicts. A society that has stopped listening is not far from civil war.

I believe that God has called me to engage with the wider world, to work for justice and reconciliation in a culture that struggles to live within even basic forms of civility, much less mutual understanding and love. Yet, at the same time, I am convinced that it would be a mistake for me to accept the wider culture's destructive norms of communication. What might it look like to passionately participate in American society without buying into its patterns of verbal combat and battle-hardened talking points?

This question is alive for me as I work among my friends in the movement for economic justice. All of us have become accustomed to communicating in ways that are basically violent. We instinctively defend ourselves from attack and ensure that our point of view is spoken. We perceive (correctly) that if we do not barge in and say our piece, others who are more forceful will do all the talking.

This is hard for me, because I am used to the Quaker mode of conversation in which long pauses are normal. Stretches of silence provide time to reflect on what has been said, and to listen for the voice of the Spirit in our midst. Among Friends, there is an expectation that conversations provide an opportunity to listen collectively, and this shared openness to God and one another helps to develop trust and solidarity within the group.

When I first became involved in the Occupy movement, one of my great hopes was that I could help to introduce Quaker practices of deep listening and collective discernment into the movement. And during the first days of Occupy DC, we had some remarkable successes. But it soon became apparent that almost all of us were more familiar with the combative, self-asserting style of communication that we have inherited from the wider culture.

Even as we rise to challenge the domination of the 1%, we seem stuck communicating in ways that keep us fighting one another. It is hard to see how the 99% can ever be free so long as we continue to use the modes of discourse that have been thrust upon us by the wealthy elite and their corporations.

A real nonviolent revolution in this country cannot be simply about economic indicators; we must transform the very culture we live in, including the way we speak and make decisions together. It is truly a beautiful thing when we really hear one another and experience solidarity spreading throughout the room. Nevertheless, this way of hearing is much more difficult to achieve when we are all worried about whether we will get a chance to speak.

For my own part, I wrestle with how to stay grounded in the Quaker mode of deep listening and trust while still being able to speak to my friends who do not share this practice. How can I engage in our shared business in a way that invites the whole group into greater openness and depth? How can I keep my own grounding in the practice of patient waiting on God, even as all the cultural forces around me clamor for immediate reaction? How can I share this practice of trusting attentiveness with my friends and co-workers? What would it look like to hold open a space for shared exploration in truth?

Monday, September 24, 2012


The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. - Matthew 13:31-32

My life is very small. Of course, from my own perspective there is big stuff happening. Making friends, engaging in ministry, marriage, and settling into life in a new city far from my place of birth. I participate in a broader religious community that is in a state of great transition, and I do my best to be of service locally. I often imagine that I am an important figure in history, and that I am making a beneficial impact on the world.

But when I take a step back and look at my life from a broader perspective, my so-called achievements basically disappear. As far as the world is concerned, I am just another average person - a transplant from "fly-over country" living in the nation's capital. I do my jobs. I volunteer at church and in the community. I love my wife and stick up for my friends. That is about it. Nothing particularly remarkable in the grand scheme of things.

This can feel disappointing. Like many of us, I was raised to believe that I was remarkable. I, too, could be president - or an astronaut or best-selling author. I was raised with the idea that, in many ways, life was about me. If I were not the center of everything, I was at least an important supporting actor in the grand drama of human history. I grew up with an implicit understanding that my life was pivotal, and that I was destined to make a noticeable impact on society.

As I grow older, though, I notice that my ability to affect the world is far more limited than I thought. Is "impact" measured by fame? The ability to influence large groups of people? Relationships with the powerful? Access to great wealth? Judging by any of these standards, I am not leading a very impactful life.

Even by much more modest standards, my life's importance is questionable. It is hard to gauge what practical effect my ministry has on the lives of others, and my work for economic justice often feels quixotic in the face of massive and well-funded opposition. It is not always clear to me that, in the grand scheme of things, my life makes much difference.

Waiting on God in stillness, I ask, "Why have you called me to this work if I am just set up to fail?" By way of response, the Holy Spirit comes over me and shows me just how small I am, and just how big Christ is. His power is over all. I feel in my body just how perfect God's strength is made in my weakness. The Spirit reminds me, once again, that life is not about me. The results of God's leadings are not mine to judge. The question is, as always, "was thee faithful?"

"Well, yes, Lord, I think so - mostly. So why am I unable to see the fruit of my labor?"

"Perhaps there is still a problem with your sight," comes the reply. "If you will trust me, I have salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see."

And I remember Jesus. I see him hanging from the cross, an utter failure in the eyes of the world. I see him dying, leaving nothing behind of any apparent value. Just another failed messiah.

But that is not the end of the story. Like the mustard seed, Jesus' faithful "failure" allowed the fullness of God's love, power and grace to be revealed. On the day that Jesus died, the community of friends and disciples that he had gathered was left completely bereft, hopeless. But Sunday came, and that little Seed who had died became the Tree of Life in which all of his friends were able to take refuge. That which was sown in dishonor was raised in glory. Jesus was sown in weakness, but now he is raised in power, seated at the right hand of the Father.

In this, the Spirit lets me know that the true meaning and impact of my life is hidden in the depths of God. One day, it will be revealed for all to see. For now, however, Jesus sets before me a life that embraces smallness, weakness and apparent failure in the service of love. It is a life that places obedience to God before all else, including my own conceptions of success.

Have you experienced this "holy smallness" that I am describing? How do you make sense of the gap between your own expectations and the apparent failure that is so common in this life? How is God teaching you to trust and to love, even when everything feels out of control?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Growing Up in the Kingdom

Walk and talk and laugh with your friends. But behind the scenes keep up the life of simple prayer and inward worship. - Thomas Kelly, 1941

The majority of my life has been spent in formation. My childhood, the time I spent in college, and the three years I spent at seminary were all largely focused on shaping who I would become and what I would do. Though I may have accomplished some things during these years, and probably made an impact on some people's lives, the first quarter-century of my life was primarily oriented towards preparing me to become a full adult member of society.

In my experience, adulthood came in stages. Theoretically, we Americans are autonomous adults upon reaching our eighteenth birthdays; yet, in reality, the process of becoming a fully-formed member of adult society probably lasts from the early teens until the mid-to-late twenties. Despite the letter of the law that declared me an adult at age 18, I was probably not even half-way through my adolescence at that point.

From infancy to around age twenty-five, my parents, teachers and adult friends all put a lot of emphasis on helping me to discover my latent gifts and passions. They did their best to give me the skills I needed to function well in the adult world. Even seminary was a part of this process, giving me the background and tools I needed to be a well-formed adult Christian. There was a lot I did not learn in Sunday School.

In the last several years, however, something has shifted. The dynamic has changed. No longer am I primarily in the business of being groomed and nurtured. Finally, after decades of longing for it, I am an entry-level adult. For so many years, my job had been to get educated and prepare for the future, but now the future has arrived. Now it is time to put to good use all of the formation that I have been privileged to receive for the past quarter-century.

This transition is a wonderful one. For my entire adolescence, I was chomping at the bit to do great things in the world, to have a meaningful impact. I knew that I was in a formative phase, but I wanted nothing more than to skip formation and go straight into adult action! The time has come.

Yet, as delightful as this transition is in many ways, this new phase of action carries its own unique set of strains and challenges. The outward challenges are obvious: Finding meaningful employment in a collapsed economy; meeting a spouse and starting a family; managing household finances and investing responsibly for the future. Not to mention all of the work - paid or unpaid - that God calls me to in the wider world.

And these outward life changes have a deep spiritual dimension, as well. What is the impact of moving from a life that is primarily concerned with preparation to a new phase of existence that is primarily concerned with action? What is the deeper meaning of this shift from the "inward" to the "outward"?

For me, in practical terms, this transition has resulted in the busiest life I have ever known. I have so much to do every week, and the most important lesson I am learning is how to exercise discernment in what I commit myself to, and how to say "no" more frequently and effectively. It is precisely at this stage in my life that disciplined prayer is becoming more important than ever. If I am not intentional about setting aside time each day to focus entirely on Christ, all the tasks and burdens of this action-oriented life would threaten my equilibrium. It would be easy to get so wrapped up in action that contemplation dries up entirely.

If that happened, it would be a disaster. Taking time for contemplation has higher stakes than ever before. In this new phase of life, I have so much more capacity to do good - or harm - than ever before. As my activity in the world increases, it is all the more crucial that I remain grounded in the Spirit of Truth.

As I continue to explore what it means to live in this phase of heightened activity, I am holding a number of queries for reflection: In my present phase of life, how do I maintain the right balance between contemplation and action? What is the relationship between the inward and the outward life? What steps must I take to ensure that my activity is grounded in prayer, and that my prayer is informed by Spirit-led action? What must I do to maintain the singleness of vision that Jesus teaches us is so important for living in the Kingdom of God?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Growing and Adapting - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #46

Dear friends,

This week, Faith and I are out in Wichita, Kansas visiting my family. Since I moved out East, Faith and I have typically made a trip back to Kansas in the early summer and then again for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. This year, however, we are making the holiday trip early so that we can see my grandmother who is visiting from Newberg, Oregon. She turns ninety this year, but she has the energy and focus of a much younger person. I just hope those longevity genes got passed along to me!

Though we are out of town now, for most of the last month I have been able to stay put in DC. After a summer of constant travel, it has been nice to settle into a routine of work, home life and participation in my local communities. I feel like I have made more human connections in the past year than in the two that went before. This is due in large part to my involvement in the Occupy movement, which introduced me to hundreds of wonderful people and plugged me into the DC-area justice community.

Much of my activity this month has been organizing with Occupy Our Homes DC. We are partnering with two homeowners right now, Deborah Harris and Michael Vanzant, both of whom are struggling to stay in their homes after becoming disabled. Both Deborah and Michael have been pillars of their communities, with Deborah working as an EMT/Paramedic with the DC Fire Department and Michael serving Faith Temple Church - DC's first African-American, LGBT-affirming church - as a pastor.

Since becoming disabled, each of them has been forced into early retirement. Unfortunately, their disability payments are far lower than their salary was. Even more unfortunately, the banks - JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America - showed no interest in working with either of them. As we have seen time and again in this work, the banks are more interested in making a little extra profit than they are in ensuring that good, hard-working people can stay in the homes where they have lived for decades.

As we move forward, Occupy Our Homes DC is doing a lot of learning and growing. Our organization has only been in existence since January, and much of our work has had to do with developing the capacity to sustain long-term campaigns. Given that our efforts are entirely on a volunteer basis, this is a great challenge indeed. How can we expand our base and nurture the communications, relationships and expertise that we will need to truly challenge "business as usual"? As we labor slowly through this process, I am very grateful for your prayers, words of encouragement and support.

It has been a blessing to be consistently present in DC this past month. I am feeling increasingly grounded in all of the work that I do - including my grassroots organizing with Occupy Our Homes, my ministry with Capitol Hill Friends, and my employment with Friends United Meeting. Being in town week in and week out has allowed me to develop a somewhat regular routine, setting schedules for writing, web development and coordination with co-workers around the world. Working remotely has huge advantages, and with the help of web-based tools I am feeling increasingly integrated into the "virtual office" that I share with my colleagues in Richmond, Indiana; Kisumu, Kenya; and throughout the worldwide community of Friends United Meeting.

My complete job description with FUM encompasses electronic communications, web development and social media strategy. In these early months, however, my work is almost entirely focused on doing web development. I have been putting a lot of time into FUM's new website, which is scheduled for launch this month. It never ceases to amaze me what a protracted process web development is! Tasks that seem simple can often take hours to complete. For a big-picture person like me, building websites is a process of developing my own attention to detail.

Despite my natural tendency to shy away from this sort of detail-oriented work, I seem to be doing a lot of it. In addition to my paid work with FUM, I've designed and launched a new website for Ohio Yearly Meeting. It has sort of snuck up on me, but I seem to be developing a growing portfolio of web work. Maybe websites are a modern version of tents.

Capitol Hill Friends continues to gather for regular worship on Sunday evenings at the William Penn House. Attendance has been very low this month, which is predictable given the ebb and flow of the seasons. August is probably the worst month out of the year for any group, as far as attendance is concerned. Yet, at the same time we have been challenged by the loss of several dedicated members of our community. Lily Rockwell, an intern at the William Penn House this past year, left for graduate school in mid-July. Over the course of the last year, she brought so much quiet strength and depth to our fellowship, and it has been a major blow to lose her. Just weeks later, we said goodbye to two summer interns, Sammy and Ceress Sanders, who had been very active at Capitol Hill Friends. In a group as small as ours, the absence of these three is very keenly felt.

In the midst of all of this transition, the core membership that remains at CHF has been considering how the Lord might be leading us as we move forward. Faith, John Smallwood and I have been carrying this group for the last two and a half years, and the burden is becoming increasingly heavy. It has become increasingly clear that we may need to change in order for us to be faithful as a community.

This past week, Faith and I met with many of Capitol Hill Friends' regular attenders to gauge where people were at in terms of their relationship with the group. During these meetings, we considered several questions together, such as: What is working well at Capitol Hill Friends? What has life, and what might we consider dropping? Is Capitol Hill Friends a community where we feel God calling us to commit ourselves, or is CHF still primarily an "event" rather than a congregation?

As a result of our conversations, it does seem like some of our attenders feel a deep connection with Capitol Hill Friends, considering it their primary spiritual home. Many others get a lot out of attending CHF, but consider other congregations (whether Quaker or non-Quaker) to be their primary community. At this stage, it does feel like there is a core group emerging that desires to take responsibility for the life of our fellowship, as well as a number of others who feel less committed but who do want to participate on an occasional basis.

This feels hopeful for Faith and me. Though we started Capitol Hill Friends on our own, it was never our intention for the group to be simply an "event" that we hosted. We are encouraged to see that others may be feeling called to share the responsibilities of nurture, care and decision-making for the community.

In the months ahead, there are definitely some decisions to be made. There is a growing sense that we probably need to change the format and timing of our meetings. We also have continuing questions about who we are called to serve, and how to do so. It has been less than three years since Faith and I first invited Friends to join us for worship in the conference room of the William Penn House, and Capitol Hill Friends is still in its infancy. It feels like we are just at the beginning of the journey, discovering who God is calling us to be together.

As we continue this process of exploration, discernment and deepening in the way of Jesus, I am so grateful for the prayers that our wider community offers up to God for us. Please do not stop interceding on our behalf. We could never sustain this work without the daily guidance, strengthening and conviction of the Holy Spirit.

In the coming month, please continue to pray for Capitol Hill Friends, Occupy Our Homes DC, and Friends United Meeting. Pray that God's hand be on me, guiding and preparing me so that I may be a faithful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ in each of these communities where I serve.

May the love and peace of our Lord be with all of you.

Micah Bales

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Testing the Spirit of Libya - And America

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

I do not think of myself as being particularly nationalistic. Though I love my city, my region and my fellow US citizens, I am suspicious of national pride. I do want the nation in which I reside to be a model of justice and generosity for the international community, and I can feel proud of the United States when it demonstrates compassion, ingenuity and ideals worthy of emulation. And it often does.

This kind of national pride seems healthy to me. It is appropriate to appreciate the positive traits of myself, my family and my wider communities, and I can appreciate the many things that make America a good place to live. Self-esteem, in right measure, is a good thing.

But there is a kind of pride that goes beyond healthy self-esteem. There is pride that discounts the value of others, that lifts itself up by tearing others down. This is the kind of pride that goes before a fall. On the individual level, it can lead to selfish behavior that ignores the needs and concerns of others. On the international level, such pride can cost millions of lives - through war, famine, preventable disease and suppression of human rights.

Projected onto the world stage, this pride often passes as "patriotism." Under the banner of loving our country, we are encouraged to project all fear and darkness outwards. The unknown "other" becomes the focus of all of our hidden shame and anxiety. We begin to see ourselves as innocent and heroic victims, assailed without cause by people and nations that hate our way of life. In the United States, this form of fear-drenched pride was especially prevalent in the years following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Our government called us into a righteous "crusade" against an externalized evil.

I would like to believe that I am immune to such appeals. I was raised in a family with a very developed critique of patriotism and Empire. From an early age, I have been inoculated against the seductive battle cries and lies that politicians habitually tell when a nation is gearing up for war. Yet, despite my deep resistance to patriotic feeling, I must confess that the attacks on the United States' embassies in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have shaken me.

I was deeply affected by the news that the US ambassador to Libya was murdered, and I recognized a strange feeling emerging from somewhere deep inside. To my surprise, I identified this feeling as the exact sort of patriotism that I have resisted for so long.

I think about what this patriotic sensation feels like in my body. I experience a constriction in my chest, a gut-level shock that someone would strike me in Libya. Yes, me. Despite all my training, it feels like a personal attack. The ambassador was not just an individual. He represented me, my family, and all Americans. To strike him was to strike all of us. Somehow the fact that the killing took place within the embassy makes it even worse. In some strange way, I feel as if my home has been broken into.

In addition to these feelings of violation, I experience positive feelings, too. I feel drawn deep into the community of American citizens. Somehow, we are all made one in this event. Despite the terrible sensation of collective violation, I feel another emotion, even more surprising: Euphoria. This attack makes me feel strong, because it bonds me with 300 million others who are the object of this crime. Ironically, those who wanted to tear America down by murdering its representative in Libya have strengthened my own sense of being an American.

Shortly after learning of the death of the American ambassador in Benghazi, I began to see photos from the streets of Libya's capital, expressing the sorrow of ordinary Libyans. It was a good reminder for me that the attacks of a small group of extremists does not necessarily represent the feelings of the people of Libya as a whole. In the context of the intense emotions I am feeling, these apologies extended by ordinary Libyans mean a lot.

What am I experiencing when I am drawn into this kind of collective mourning and euphoria? While I have rarely experienced these feelings as part of a nation-state, I have felt them regularly in religious life. Paul talks about how when we are animated by the Spirit of Christ, we are drawn into one body. Outside of the community of faith, I have also experienced this sensation in mass social movements, particularly during the early months of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy DC.

In moments like these - whether in the context of the Church, broad social movements or the nation-state - it is clear that human beings are made for connection. We are built to be integrated into a whole that is greater than our individual selves. In the Christian understanding, this integration takes place on the "spiritual" plane. When groups of individuals are united together, there is "spirit" involved. For the Church, the spirit that unites us is the Holy Spirit of Jesus. But it stands to reason that there are other spirits that draw people together.

Here are some questions that I am chewing on: What is the spirit that animates nationalism? What kind of spirit am I being drawn into when I feel shared pain and solidarity with all Americans? What is at work when I sense that an injury to one is an injury to all? How can I remain aware of what spirit I am being caught up in at any given moment - and how can I avoid being seduced by spirits that lead to factionalism, hatred and violence?

Monday, September 10, 2012


To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you. - C.S. Lewis

Do we cherish a forgiving spirit, and strive to "walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us"? - from the 2nd Query of Ohio Yearly Meeting

Forgiveness is the heart of my faith. Throughout the Bible, God reveals a consistent character - one that is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God repeatedly forgives those who betray him and cause him anguish. In Jesus, I find the highest expression of God's self-giving love and forgiveness. In the face of humanity's hatred, cruelty and selfishness, Jesus suffers and dies to bring about reconciliation between God and humanity, and among all members of the human family.

By living in Jesus - partaking in his life, death and resurrection - I experience a foretaste of the consummation of God's forgiveness and love. There is a time coming when the Lord will "wipe every tear from their eyes" and unite humanity in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. I am invited to live into this reality now.

But I find many barriers to this new way of living. Suffering is real, and my natural reaction to affliction is to fight or flee. When someone wounds me, the urge to strike back or withdraw is almost irresistible. Despite all my experiences of Christ's love and his suffering witness on the cross, my first response is usually not very Christ-like.

When Jesus was accused unjustly, he did not defend himself. When he was beaten, he bore it. When he was nailed to a Roman torture device, he prayed for his tormentors. "Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing." In his time of greatest agony, Jesus was concerned about the well-being of his executioners.

If this is what is required, "who then can be saved?" Jesus' response to unjust suffering is so awesome; he demonstrates God's ultimate power in weakness. Unlike me, Jesus knows to the depths of his being who he is, and whose he is. Jesus has nothing to prove.

One of Jesus' greatest miracles is that he does not allow his own righteousness and the injustice of his suffering to distract him from the needs of others. Jesus did not deserve what happened to him; he would have been totally justified in defending himself. But instead, Jesus bore shame, taunting and torture, blessing those who persecuted him. He knew that his oppressors needed mercy far more than he did. If that is not power, I do not know what is.

My prayer today is that the living presence of Jesus will guide me into forgiveness for those who wrong me. Rather than succumbing to fight-or-flight mode, I pray for the power of Christ within to shine through me and allow me to bear suffering in a way that shows compassion for those who really need it. I pray for the strength to take my eyes off of my own anguish and to act with love and compassion towards those who hurt me. This seems impossible - but I know that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

What is your experience of forgiveness? To what extent does forgiveness depend on the repentance of the wrongdoer? What is the meaning of forgiveness when another person continues to behave in hurtful ways? Have you experienced unilateral forgiveness as being life-giving and empowering? How have you sensed the Holy Spirit within you, teaching you how to forgive?

Friday, September 07, 2012

Bank of America: Cease Your Evictions of My People!

Thus says the Lord God: Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and do what is just and right. Cease your evictions of my people, says the Lord God. - Ezekiel 45:9

Yesterday, Occupy Our Homes DC paid a visit to Bank of America's Home Loans Office in the historic African-American U Street neighborhood. We rallied on behalf of Michael Vanzant, pastor of Faith Temple Church, the first LGBT-affirming, African American church in the District of Columbia. For decades, Michael Vanzant has selflessly served others - opening his home to those in need, leading Bible studies, and shepherding a congregation that welcomes men and women who are often excluded from fellowship in other churches. Since the 1980s, he has been a pillar of his community.

During this time, Michael's home has served as a center of community life. It has been a place of study, prayer and hospitality for the stranger. His home is a refuge for for those seeking a deeper life of faith. Unfortunately, that is not how Bank of America sees it.

When Bank of America looks at a home, they do not see a residence, a place of sanctuary and a center of community. They see a property - an engine of percentage-based profit - and if by evicting the current owner they can produce a few percentage points more per year, they will do it. The human element does not even enter into it.

When Michael Vanzant became disabled in 2008, he had trouble making his full mortgage payment and he approached Bank of America for a loan modification. They flatly denied him. For Bank of America, an uninterrupted profit stream was more important than a disabled pastor's home, and the stability of his whole community.

Our job at Occupy Our Homes is to remind Bank of America that human lives are precious. We were not created to be bought, sold and thrown out of our homes because of circumstances beyond our control. Our mission is to help Bank of America see that there is a cost when they violate the basic dignity of individuals and families. When the banks intrude on the intimacy of our homes just to make a little more profit, there will be a response.

Bank of America is learning that when they attack our communities, our families and our faith leaders, we will no longer remain silent. Occupy Our Homes DC is part of a broad and growing coalition of grassroots organizations across the United States that is resisting the unrestrained greed and predatory lending practices of financial institutions like Bank of America. Together, we are insisting that the needs of our families, faith communities and neighborhoods take precedence over the endless thirst for bigger and bigger profits.

For me - and, I suspect, for members of Faith Temple Church - I am discovering that we stand in a rich biblical tradition of witness for economic justice. Those ancient Hebrew prophets - Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and so many others - are coming alive with freshness and meaning.

We are re-discovering that God stands with the poor and needy. God denounces the unchecked greed of the wealthy, those who devour the homes of the defenseless. The prophetic tradition reveals that God is not satisfied with pretty words and pious ritual. The true and living God demands justice and equity, mercy for the poor and liberation for those who are in bondage.

I stand with pastor Michael Vanzant, and with the brothers and sisters at Faith Temple Church, as we explore what it means to stand in the tradition of the prophets, to call Bank of America to stop evicting our people. Together, we stand in faith that the God of Israel is not sleeping, but is at work in this dark night that can be felt.

Will you join with us in shining a light on Bank of America's unjust lending practices? Will you stand in solidarity with Michael Vanzant as he fights to stay in his home and retire in dignity? How might God be calling you into the work of the prophets - naming and revealing the predations of the powerful, calling all of us into the Peaceable Kingdom where there is enough for everyone when we are willing to share? Can you feel the motion of righteous love within you?

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Refining Power of Suffering

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. - James 1:2-4

There is a simple lesson that I have had to learn over and over again. The lesson is this: Suffering really hurts. This statement is so obvious that it seems silly to write it, yet it has been a hard truth for me to internalize. In my experience, it is very easy to have romantic ideas about suffering that bear little resemblance to the actual fact.

This is an important thing for me to get straight, since the suffering of Jesus lies at the heart of my faith. Out of love for us, Jesus endured the fullness of suffering and death, revealing a doorway into redemption and unlimited life. His resurrection is so radiant that it can be tempting ignore the reality of the dreadful agony that preceded it.

Yet Jesus' life was deeply marked by anguish. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus retreated to the desert for 40 days, eating and drinking nothing during that whole time. He experienced the pain of starvation and prolonged solitude during his lengthy sojourn in the wilderness. At the end of that period of self-denial, Jesus had a breakthrough - a triumphant encounter with the dark powers that sought to undermine his mission. The Adversary believed that 40 days of starvation and isolation would make Jesus more vulnerable to attack, but in fact the experience of those days had only deepened his relationship with the Father. Suffering had focused Jesus on that which was truly important.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus endured suffering. Crowds drove Jesus to the brink of exhaustion, pursuing him from town to town, seeking miracles and healing. Ironically, at the same time he faced a real sense of isolation from his closest friends, who rarely seemed to understand who Jesus really was and what he was sent to do. Some of Jesus' greatest trials came the night of his arrest, when he felt abandoned by his disciples who did not have the stamina to stay awake with him while he prayed for strength and guidance.

It is easy to get so wrapped up in the glory of Jesus' resurrection and triumph over the powers of darkness and death that we fail to take seriously enough the reality of Jesus' agony. His hunger was real. His sense of isolation and betrayal was truly disheartening. The whips that scourged him and the nails that pierced his limbs nearly tore him apart. When Jesus hung dying on the cross, there was nothing triumphant about it.

I find it easier to face my own measure of darkness when I remember what Jesus has endured. He reminds me that suffering is not an aberration to be avoided, but rather an essential part of my journey as his disciple. Just as Jesus' crucifixion served as a doorway to the resurrection, the little trials that I face can provide a path to greater maturity and rootedness in the Rock of Life. Through daily baptisms of adversity, Jesus invites me into the humble joy of his unlimited life.

A great mystery that Jesus reveals to us is that this radiant life emerges not from outward victory, but from patient endurance in suffering. The height of glory is found in our lowest moments. It is only when a seed dies that it can sprout into new life and bear fruit. It is by embracing suffering that we come to know true peace.

How have you experienced the refining power of suffering in your own life? Where have you seen God at work in the difficulties that face your family, community, city or nation? How have you experienced the reality of the cross, and of the resurrection?