Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: An Opportunity For Trust

I was away in Houston this weekend as it became increasingly clear that a storm developing in the Atlantic would impact my home community in Washington, DC - not to mention virtually the entire northeastern seaboard! As more information came in, predictions grew increasingly dire. I began to receive a steady stream of emails and phone calls from my mother in Wichita. Her anxiety was coming to a boil as she sat for hours, watching the Weather Channel. She wanted to know: Were we getting ready? Did we have batteries? Bottled water? Had we topped off the car's gas tank?

Of course, I was a thousand miles away out in Texas, so what could I do? Nothing but worry. Faith was still back home, so she spent her weekend running around town, collecting supplies, filling gas tanks, and biting her fingernails. By the time my flight touched down at National, we were both a bit of wreck.

I have never worried about a storm like this. But, then, I have never been a homeowner in the path of a hurricane before. Add to all this that our house has some serious drainage issues that we have been trying to resolve for the last several months, but which still require some serious work. A perfect storm for anxiety.

As I write this, the long-awaited weather is just beginning to arrive. Rain has begun to fall, and the sump pump is running once every few minutes. The streets near our house have been transformed into creeks, with gentle waves flowing down into the nearby thoroughfare. I suspect that these waves will not stay gentle for too much longer. I am praying that the electricity will stay on, that the basement will not flood, and that no trees will fall on our house or car.

I am also reminded of those who live along coastal areas - particularly in southern New Jersey - many of whom are being forced to evacuate ahead of the storm. My worries are pretty minor compared to the immanent threat to life and property that they are facing. So what if our basement floods and we lose power for a week? We will still likely have our home, more or less intact, at the end of the day.

Yet, whether our home is destroyed or left in one piece; whether we are comfortable throughout the storm or plunged into darkness and wet and cold; regardless of what happens to us in the coming days, I believe that we are being given an opportunity to trust in God's loving care and sovereignty.

The uncontrollable strength of this storm serves as a reminder to me that the whole earth belongs to the Lord. I cannot exempt my house, property, or even my life, from God's disposal. The truth is, I own nothing. The more I attempt to cling to the human fiction of ownership, the more desperately I seek to control a world that I have neither the right nor ability to govern.

For me, this hurricane is an opportunity to trust in the sovereign God who speaks out of the whirlwind. This unstoppable force of nature is a sign to me that no matter what human contrivances we may develop to create an illusion of self-sufficiency and control, we are profoundly at the mercy of a wild universe that is created and sustained by a fearsome and mighty God.

This is terrifying. It is also liberating. When I accept that God is truly in control, I can let go. I can relax into humble acceptance and trust in the ultimate resolution of all things. I am free to perform the work that the Lord has given me to do. I am empowered to love those whom the Spirit has commended to my care. And I can rest, leaving the results in God's hands.

When my focus shifts away from myself and onto Christ, I encounter true yieldedness and peace. I turn away from those things that I insist must happen, the demands that I make of God, as if I could dictate terms to the Creator! Instead, I am drawn into the truth, life and power that is being revealed by the indwelling Word. Releasing my need to control outcomes, I am brought into the easy yoke of Christ.

Let the words of the old hymn be my prayer today, and always:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Letting Go

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? - Matthew 6:25-27

What would it look like to really have confidence in Jesus' promise that God watches over us, providing for our needs? Nowhere in the scriptural witness is there any indication that we need to justify our own existence. The whole of the cosmos, down to my silly little life, is a pure gift. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks - and God's heart is nothing if not abundant. The word of the Lord is joy and peace and fullness of life. The Spirit blows where it will; and the trees grow.

Yet how often I try to control the flow of this everlasting life! I constantly reveal how little I trust God, seething with anxiety about the future. When God provides me what I need for today, I cannot help asking, "but what about tomorrow?" I am like the Hebrew children who wasted their time and energy gathering up extra manna only to see it rot the next day. God's gifts are not meant for hoarding. Love is for sharing. Right now.

More often than I would care to admit, I am like those that Jeremiah railed against, who trusted in their own anxious ways rather than in God's selfless giving. Instead of putting my faith in the spring of living water, I build my own broken cisterns that cannot hold water. I fool myself into believing that I can make myself secure by saving up enough of God's goodness so that I will never have to be vulnerable again. Jesus tells me to wait on the Lord day by day for the things I need - but I want guarantees!

Jesus does not give guarantees, but he does make promises. Long ago, he promised that he would be with us always, even to the end of the age. He teaches us to forgive our debtors and trust in his Father to provide for our daily needs. His word is one of radical trust and generosity. I have seen the way Jesus fulfills his promise in my own life, and in the lives of others. He walks with us, guides us and cares for our needs. Why is it so hard to trust this?

One stumbling block is my own future orientation. His promise is here now, but I want to know what is going to happen six months from now, a decade from now. Seriously, Jesus: What does your retirement plan look like? I want details.

The root of my refusal to trust in God's abundant love and care is my own need to control. Truth be told, I want more than my daily bread. I want barns and cisterns - insurance and retirement plans. I want to feel like I am in charge of my life. I want to be the one behind the wheel.

But control is overrated. Who really wants to control the sunrise? Who would dictate the laughter of a child? What would we gain if we could control the autumn leaves and the mysterious power of human love? When we encounter real beauty, when we stand in awe, caught up in connection with the whole of God's creation, the need for control falls away.

What if I could allow myself to encounter life as one long sunrise? To receive each moment as a precious, inexplicable gift? How might my life be different if my primary experience were awe and wonder? How cheap and petty my need for control would seem then!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Who Are We Called To Serve?

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

There are up-sides to being in crisis, not the least of which is the way that desperation focuses one's prayer life. If you have been following this blog recently, you know that we at Capitol Hill Friends are wrestling with how to move forward in the face of low energy and the apparent lack of the critical mass necessary to become a self-sustaining community. As you might imagine, God and I have been having some serious conversations lately!

I am learning that I should never underestimate the power of desperate prayer. God truly does draw near to those who are humbled and broken, and coming to the end of my rope has done wonders for my willingness to rely more fully on the Lord's guidance. In the midst of this soul-searching, I have been amazed at how clearly the Spirit has responded to my prayers. I have asked for direction, and God is providing it.

For years now, one member of Capitol Hill Friends has always been asking, "Who are we called to serve?" Virtually every time we have met together, John has raised this question, to the point that it has become almost a joke among us.

To be quite honest, the question has often annoyed me. I never felt I had a good answer for it, except to say that Capitol Hill Friends is a community for anyone who wants to go deeper in their walk with Christ. I do not not like the idea of picking out a specific market demographic and "selling" God to them. Would we try to be a hipster church for urban twenty-somethings? A family church for couples with small children? A white, middle class church? A multi-racial, inter-class church? To me, "Who are we called to serve?" sounded a lot like, "What is our market niche?"

I am not very interested in viewing the church from a marketing perspective. I do not believe that faith communities are a commodity to be bought and sold. While I understand the need to present the gospel in a way that is culturally appropriate to the place we live, I do not want to pre-determine what demographic our fellowship is aimed at. This commodification cheapens the very idea of the Church. Instead of aspiring to be the body of Christ, our fellowships risk being transformed into little more than social clubs where people of similar class, race and subculture can talk about Jesus.

And yet, the question has nagged at me. Who are we called to serve? What is our particular mission here in the city? There are thousands of local congregations spread out across our region; what use does God have for one more? These questions are not ones of sales pitches and market analysis. These are basic issues of call and spiritual gifts. What is are the specific ways that God wants to use our particular fellowship to reflect the love of Jesus?

As I have prayed about the future of Capitol Hill Friends, God has shown me that there is indeed a particular people that we are called to serve. This people is not a demographic group in any traditional sense. It is not a group bounded by class, ethnicity, sub-culture or political persuasion. Rather, our common experience at Capitol Hill Friends is that we do not match the expectations that the wider culture has of us. In some profound way, we do not quite fit in. We are looking for the city that is to come, not this present one where we reside as sojourners.

In a city that worships power and thrives on appearances, we feel God calling us into friendship with those who are marginal, unimpressive in the eyes of the world. In a culture that glorifies displays of wealth and consumption, we sense God's invitation to lead lives of simplicity and creativity. In a society that values facts, figures and formal education, we long for God's true wisdom, which seems like foolishness to the world. In a nation that places a very high value on strength and self-sufficiency, we know that we are weak and in need of God's help.

Capitol Hill Friends stands in solidarity with those who do not fit into this world's conceptions of wisdom and power and wealth. We are called to serve those who stand outside the gate of the city, rejected by polite society. Rather than playing dress-up and pretending to be successful, God calls us to stand with the misfits. Because the truth is, we are misfits, too.  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Discerning the Way Forward - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #47

Dear Friends in Truth,

As a church planter, I have noticed that there is a certain rhythm to each year. The very beginning of the calendar is a key time, when everyone begins to re-focus after the bustle of the holidays. In January through March, new things happen in congregations, and unique growth is possible. The fall provides a similar window of opportunity. September and October are pivotal months in the life of new churches. Folks are reorienting after the craziness of summer and - just like after New Year's - everyone is looking to establish routines and make new connections. This is an ideal time to launch initiatives, do outreach to our neighborhoods and invite seekers into the community.

For the last three years, our ups and downs at Capitol Hill Friends have followed seasonal patterns. The fall and New Year have brought new energy, opportunities and numerical growth. The summer and winter holidays have been accompanied by lower energy and reduced attendance. Over time, we have learned to roll with the punches, coming to anticipate these natural swings. We have adapted our programs and outreach to the rhythm of the seasons.

It came as no surprise when attendance and energy at Capitol Hill Friends plummeted in July and August. Not only is this time of year generally characterized by decline, but we had also had three of our core members move out of town in July. These were major losses, but I figured that the usual seasonal pattern would help cushion the blow. Things would pull together in September/October. The fall boost would rescue us.

But this fall has not stuck to the script. Energy has not risen. Attendance has not recovered. The summer slump has largely continued. This year is different.

This unexpected challenge may be good for us, in the same way that cod liver oil is beneficial - it tastes awful, but it has lots of vitamins. This fall's "tough medicine" has caused us to seriously reevaluate our life as a community at Capitol Hill Friends. Who are we called to serve? What mission is God calling us to here in the city? What is our model for being a deeply rooted community in a highly transient urban area? How is God asking us to change in order to adapt ourselves to the needs of the culture we live in? Is God still calling us to plant a Quaker Meeting here in DC? These are questions we have held and considered all along, but they are taking on a new urgency.

I know that, to be faithful, I must be open to laying down this entire venture. Capitol Hill Friends does not belong to me, or even to the membership as a whole - it belongs to Jesus Christ. We must rely on him to show us the way forward. Whether we lay down this ministry, radically change our orientation as a group, or simply keep walking forward in faith, we must do it because Jesus calls us.

It is possible for an individual or small group to keep a project going for a while under their own strength. But not forever. After two or three years, fatigue sets in. Our enthusiasm is gradually replaced by bone-weariness. Everything seems to depend on us. Each step we take in our own strength is crushed by the weight of responsibility.

I suspect that the three year mark is a critical moment for a new community like Capitol Hill Friends. The honeymoon period is definitely over. We have had plenty of chances to see our own weakness and limitations. I know that I have gained a much fuller view of my own personal failings after three years of service to this community. The daily grind of local ministry has been powerful in exposing my true character. Of all the prayers I ask, one that God always answers with devastating immediacy is: "Lord, humble me."

I hope that you will continue to lift me up in your prayers, and to ask that our Heavenly Father speak clearly to us at Capitol Hill Friends. We need guidance for how to move forward with our calling to be faithful witnesses for Christ's Kingdom in Washington, DC. What form that should take, I do not know. But God does. I am counting on that.

In the love and mercy of Jesus,

Micah Bales

Monday, October 15, 2012

Community: What is the Point?

Quaker musician and minister Jon Watts published another provocative blog post on Friday, entitled Support A Minister. Sell Your Meetinghouse. In his characteristically passionate style, Jon is calling on the Quaker community to step up to the plate and support the ministry that God is raising up in our midst. He insists that genuine, Spirit-led ministry requires real commitment, not just on the part of the minister, but also from the wider community.

For many Quakers, the idea that we should financially support ministry is a radical concept. The truth is, we often struggle with providing even basic counsel and spiritual care for our budding young ministers. Rising generations have a deep need for mentoring, love and guidance - a need that often goes unmet for a variety of reasons.

In some cases, our communities may not have the spiritual depth to provide this kind of care. Other times, we might shy away from providing explicit guidance for the lives of others, fearing the appearance of hierarchy or rigid dogma. So often, our capacity to guide and care for the emerging gifts in our midst is simply overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

If providing basic spiritual care and oversight for ministry is often challenging for us, providing financial support can be even harder. We are caught in the economic stranglehold of the Great Recession, and most of us are looking for ways to reduce costs and hold on to the little bit we have left. Even in more prosperous times, financial support for ministry could be a hard sell. Now is a particularly unfavorable moment to make a pitch for financially released ministry.

Yet the crisis facing the Quaker community today is not primarily financial. As a group, North American Quakers have all the money we need. Scarcity - at least for the time being - is not the issue. The real question facing us has to do with what it means to be a community in the 21st century.

For Quakers, the definition of community has been unraveling for at least 150 years. At one time, Friends lived under a tight code of community discipline, similar in many ways to the modern-day practices of the Amish or Conservative Mennonites. Being a member of a Quaker Meeting meant submitting to a strict code of dress, behavior and speech. It also meant participation in an intense form of solidarity with the other members of the community. If the Meeting determined that a minister had been led by God to travel in the service of the gospel, Friends would financially support that minister and her family for the duration of her travels. Ministerial trips frequently lasted for months - even years.

Our way of life has changed dramatically in the last century and a half. At this point, "community" is a vague term that can mean almost anything, and even the most traditionalist Friends come nowhere close to the level of shared commitment, discipline and solidarity that once characterized our Meetings. Indeed, the basis of our congregations has become so weakened that in many places the very idea of formal membership is being challenged. What is the point of formally joining a Quaker Meeting?

This is a legitimate question. In most cases, our communities are a pale reflection of the robust network of relationships, mutual support and obligations that once characterized our fellowships. When formal membership no longer represents significant commitment, it is quite reasonable to ask: What is the point?

I think that we as Friends would do well to sit with this question, without seeking to answer it too quickly, because it strikes to the heart of our shared crisis today. Clearly, the structures of historic Quakerism do not work the way they once did. The Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meeting no longer have the same power to draw us in and command our attention. Why is this?

Jon Watts writes about the ministry of prophetic music, saying, "I want to say that I don't see it as my ministry. It is yours. You tell me what to do with it." Who is Jon talking to? Who is the community that Jon is seeking to be accountable to? As best I can tell, Jon is speaking to "all Friends everywhere." In his desire to be faithful, answerable and supported, Jon has reached out to everyone.

But "everyone" is not a community, in concrete terms. In the Quaker tradition, members of communities make concrete commitments to one another, and stick to them even when it is uncomfortable; even when there is fierce disagreement. Members of Christian communities love one another, not merely because of momentary passion, but because we sense that God has knit us together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. We become a body. The body of Christ.

We all long for this. Our hearts ache for this true community - the fellowship we find when we are drawn together into something bigger than ourselves. This experience of unity, love and shared purpose in the Spirit is the basis for all support, shared discernment and accountability. It is the foundation upon which sustainable ministry is built.

Do our centuries-old systems of Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings still serve as useful containers for this experience? Is formal membership, as it functions in many of our local congregations today, an aid or a hindrance to the uniting power of the Holy Spirit? Do the ways that we gather together amplify the voice of Christ within, or do our inherited forms threaten to block the continuing revelation of Jesus?

Jon Watts suggests that we should sell our meetinghouses and use the proceeds to support Spirit-led ministry. That is an exciting idea. But we may need to go even further. What would it look like to re-imagine our formal structures as Friends? What would a 21st-century understanding of membership look like? Of gospel ministry and eldership? Of mutual support and accountability under the direct leadership of Christ?

What if selling the meetinghouse is just the beginning?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Get a Job, Minister!

Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk? For it is written in the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our own sake? 

It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share of the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? ... Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. - 1 Corinthians 7-11, 12b

In the Quaker community, there is a huge amount of tension around the spiritual significance of money, paid work and ministry. The Quaker movement rose up in part as a reaction against the abuses of a privileged clergy that treated the Church as a source of revenue. In George Fox's day, the clergy represented an abusive, landed elite that lived in luxury and defended a corrupt political and economic system.

To this day, we harbor a deep reticence to financially support ministry. Our healthier communities are generally open to providing some sort of financial assistance - covering some of the direct costs of ministerial travel, for example. For many Friends, however, the idea of financially releasing an individual for full-time gospel ministry is almost unthinkable. In every other area of life, we understand that depth, quality and dedication in service requires a financial basis. But when it comes to ministry, we often insist that it remain strictly volunteer. Our livelihood must come from somewhere else.

Although the majority of Quakers today hire pastors, we still retain a deep skepticism of paid ministry. Even among Friends congregations with paid staff - whether they call them "Meeting secretaries," "pastors," "youth coordinators" or "Friends in residence" - the pay is very, very low. Frequently, our pastors and other released ministers are forced to live at a subsistence level, find additional employment, or rely on a spouse or loved ones to make ends meet. The wages of sin may be death, but the wages of ministry are often not much better!

Our refusal to financially support the gifts of ministry in our midst can be devastating. God gives spiritual gifts to our communities that are meant to strengthen and transform us into people who bless the world, but if we refuse to embrace and release the gifts that we receive, we cannot grow. Our unspoken dogma of spiritual bootstrapping - expecting each individual to make their own way in the world, never asking help from others - may be one reason for the present demographic and spiritual crisis that Quakers are facing.

Though many Quaker ministers would love to get a full-time paycheck for the vital work that God has called them to, most of us do not ask for that. We generally pay our own way, grateful for God's miraculous provision by other means. Finances are important, but we know from experience that the Lord will take care of these logistical details. The deeper question is one of solidarity. Do our Meetings truly embrace the ministry that arises in our midst - regardless of whether we ultimately feel led to financially release it?

In many of our Meetings, when someone experiences a transformative call to ministry, we simply do not know how to respond. As Friends, we have certain rather rigidly defined boxes that we use to organize our religious life. You can be a clerk, or serve on a committee. Perhaps you are feeling a leading to serve as a pastor or work as an employee for a Quaker non-profit. Wonderful. We can handle that. But what happens when God calls us to something really weird?

What do we do when a sister feels God is directing her to travel to visit other churches, without a pre-set agenda? What happens when one of our brothers comes to us and explains to us that God is leading him into full-time ministry as a prophetic musician? How about when someone is feeling called into a missionary effort right here in our own city? What is our posture towards the new things that Jesus is doing in our life together?

Money is an important symbol of our commitment. Our spending represents where we as individuals and communities are willing to put our limited resources. It represents our real priorities. When we examine how we spend our money, we get a better idea of what we truly value.

Queries for congregations:

  • Do we truly value gospel ministry?
  • Do we believe that God's work in the world is worth the cost?
  • Do we place our love for our brothers and sisters above our fear of not having enough?
  • How do we live in solidarity with those who are called into a ministry that demands their primary focus and makes paid employment challenging?

Queries for ministers: 

  • Do we trust that God will provide for our needs, even if this providence looks very different from what we would prefer?
  • Do we keep our hearts and minds rooted in the love that God has for his people, even when they disappoint us?
  • How do we avoid bitterness that can sour our ministry?
  • If God requires it of us, are we willing to work twice as hard, earning our own living while preaching the gospel?
  • Are we willing to "endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ?"

Monday, October 08, 2012

Who Needs Religion, Anyway?

In the Quaker community, we engage in regular hand-wringing about why younger generations are largely disengaged from our congregations. Generation X mostly dropped out of the Quaker Church a long time ago without anyone making too much of a fuss; there were still enough solid older Friends to keep the torch aloft. But in the last decade, the problem has grown only worse. Not only are younger people mostly not joining Quaker congregations, but the older generations that have been the spiritual and financial foundation of our communities for decades are actively dying off. As these demographic realities become too fearsome to ignore, we are waking up to the massive decline of the 20th-century Quaker model. Something is broken and we do not know how to fix it. And if we continue this way much longer, we will not survive as a living faith tradition.

Quakers are not alone in this. Virtually all of the "mainline" religious traditions in the United States have been suffering serious decline in the last two generations. We used to live in a society where practically everyone belonged to a Christian denomination as part of their cultural identity. There were Methodist families and Lutheran families, Congregationalists and Episcopalians. Besides the standard flavors of Protestant, there was also a visible (if marginalized) minority of Roman Catholics and Jews. Denominational and religious identities were to a great extent heritage markers. You were a Lutheran because your family was Lutheran; Quaker children were born to Quaker families. Going to church on Sundays was the norm, an unquestioned ritual of an all-American lifestyle.

That world is gone now. Most of the United States has exited the cultural Christianity that had been the norm since its founding. Despite the attempts of some politicians and religious leaders to roll back the clock, America no longer even pretends to operate based on "Christian values." The point of reference is the State, the Market and the American Dream - not any particular ideas about Jesus Christ or the nature of God. While the United States is not a secular society like much of Europe has become, we are increasingly living in a post-Christian, pluri-religious society in which each individual is expected and encouraged to make up their own mind on the subject of religion.

Faith has become a matter of personal preference and individual identity. Religion is increasingly viewed as a form of self-expression - like tastes in music, art or fashion - or as one of many options for personal enrichment and relaxation - like yoga, meditation or membership at a gym. For many of us, our spirituality is primarily focused on helping us to interact with and get along better in a pluralistic society that is focused on the pursuit of wealth, status and personal achievement.

When viewed in this light, the "spiritual-but-not-religious" phenomenon makes a lot of sense. "Spirituality" has become code for the benefits that faith has for the individual: reduced anxiety, wisdom, centeredness and expanded awareness. "Religion," on the other hand, represents those aspects of faith that make demands on the individual and require wrestling with a community that may not always affirm and de-stress us.

In this environment, it is not surprising that the phrase "church shopping" has become a part of our lexicon. Faith communities easily become just one more consumer choice, with individuals picking and choosing based on where they feel most "fed" - where they get the most benefits for themselves and their families. It is also not surprising that many churches have succumbed to a strange sort of religious capitalism, explicitly viewing their congregations like businesses, competing for "market share" in a voracious consumer religion market. In retrospect, the rise of the mega church - the big box store of American religion - was virtually guaranteed.

It would be easy to decry the changes that we have witnessed in American culture over the last 75 years, and I will admit that I have sometimes longed for an imagined past. I dream of an era when finding genuine Christian fellowship was easier, a society that was more focused on the community as a whole, rather than mostly on the particular desires of each individual. Sometimes I am tempted to long for the days of cultural Christianity.

But I do believe that these yearnings are a temptation. I see all around me the consequences of yielding to it: Individuals and congregations that obstinately ignore the wider culture, opting out entirely rather than risking "infection" by the world. Many Christian communities are becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of touch with the real conditions and concerns of their neighbors. We can and do become so caught up in recreating a perfect miniature replica of an imagined "Christian nation" that we make ourselves useless in communicating the gospel in the context of post-modern America.

I see this in our North American Quaker community, which has imploded over the last 50 years and which is poised to enter into catastrophic decline as the Boomer generation moves into elderhood. We have not yet discerned a way out of the cycle of decay and irrelevance that is striking almost all traditional religious groups today. Instead, we habitually shift the blame onto others. "Quakerism is a challenging path; it is not for everyone," we tell ourselves with a strange mixture of resignation and self-congratulation.

Many of us have convinced ourselves that our decline as a religious community is primarily due to a failure on the part of the wider culture. They have failed to understand us! This is the way religious movements end: With us - the religious insiders - dismissing and feeling superior to those on the outside - the very people that Jesus teaches us to seek out!

I long to be part of a community that is radically engaged with our pluralistic, post-Christian society, ready to speak the truth in love while at the same time listening deeply and understanding the concerns and conditions of our historical moment. I want to break the artifacts of our faith out of their display cases and see how we can adapt them to our present circumstances.

I am grateful that our spiritual ancestors were able to find a living relationship with Jesus Christ in centuries past - but we cannot benefit from their example by simply mimicking them and repeating their words by rote. What we need now are not the forms of the past - all our structures, processes, vestments, liturgies and worship styles. We need the Spirit that inspired them in the first place! All of our time-tested religious traditions are useful when they teach us to walk more faithfully in the Spirit's teaching - but they cannot substitute for the living presence of the Holy Spirit here and now.

What does it look like to radically engage with our surrounding culture, neither condemning the world nor accepting wholesale its assumptions? How can we discern when we are being called to adapt our religious practice to better share the good news of Jesus in this new culture that we live in? How can we honor the Spirit that inspired our religious forebears while avoiding the false safety of human absolutes that keep us cut off from the living work of Christ in our midst? What would it mean for us to lay everything at Jesus' feet, allowing him to guide us in what we picked back up?

Friday, October 05, 2012

Staying Sane While Fighting Insanity

In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." - Mark 1:35-38

This Saturday, I will be helping to lead a contemplative skills training for folks in the DC area who want to deepen their spiritual lives and explore contemplative practices that help ground us as we engage in social witness. This day-long retreat will be held at the William Penn House, just blocks away from the US Capitol, the Supreme Court, and many other centers of power.

It is, perhaps, a bit ironic for us to hold this retreat on Capitol Hill, in the geographical heart of the very system that often threatens to overwhelm us. Would it not make more sense to hold our retreat outside the city, in a more secluded and idyllic locale?

Maybe. But the reality is that most of us do not have that luxury. While many of us occasionally escape from the pressure cooker of life in Washington, these times away are generally too short and infrequent to form the basis of a healthy lifestyle. Washington is simply too big, and there is too much work to be done. If we are not able to make a sustainable life here where we live and work, this city will eat us alive.

In preparation for this retreat, I have been meditating on Jesus' prayer practice, and the way that he alternates between engagement with the world and retreat to places of safety and solitude. Jesus models a pattern of action and withdrawal that allows him to remember who he truly is, even as he is constantly pursued by friends, enemies and the ever-present crowds.

Jesus' practice of cultivating inward groundedness and equilibrium is crucial, because he has nothing else to lean on. Jesus has nowhere to rest his head - literally or figuratively. He is chased from one place to another and rarely allowed much time to simply breathe and settle. Those few moments where Jesus can retreat and remember his mission are truly precious - like oases in the desert.

The two places where Jesus seems to feel most at home is in the solitude of deserted places and in the company of his intimate friends. Jesus demonstrates a deep affinity for deserted places and time alone with God. Before beginning his ministry, Jesus spends 40 days fasting and praying in the wilderness before finally being tested by the devil. It is only after this time of solitude, prayer and preparation that he is ready to take the plunge into a three-year ministry that will cost him everything. Throughout those intense years, Jesus withdraws as often as he can, taking opportunities to be alone in prayer with his Father.

But these opportunities are limited. Jesus is always on the go - teaching and caring for his friends; speaking prophetically to those who oppose him; and attending to the needs of the crowds that pursue him relentlessly. Everyone seems to want a piece of Jesus - whether seeking a cure to illness, hope in the face of death, or forgiveness and release from sin. Jesus is even busier than most of us here in DC!

Yet, though Jesus is rarely permitted to be totally alone, it is clear that he finds solace among his inner circle of friends. He does not retreat with them only in order to teach and lead them more effectively - it seems that he also draws strength from their presence. Perhaps the prime example of this comes on the night he is betrayed. Jesus has retreated along with his disciples to the Mount of Olives, as usual. This night, however, is different from the others, and Jesus spends an extended period in fervent prayer, asking God to take away the cup of suffering and death that he sees before him.

At this time of greatest vulnerability, Jesus turns to his most trusted disciples. He asks them to stay awake with him and pray through the night. The fact that he asks this of the disciples demonstrates how Jesus relies on his friends for support and a sense of "home." The fact that the disciples fail to stay awake with him reveals just how homeless Jesus truly is.

Another, perhaps less well-known example of Jesus' practice of taking refuge among his friends is his habit of retreating to Bethany. During Jesus' ministry in the city of Jerusalem, it seems that he does not normally spend the night there. Jerusalem is the site of Jesus' most intense, confrontational ministry, and after Jesus cleanses the Temple and drives out the moneychangers, he makes a point of leaving the city, spending the night in the nearby town of Bethany.

Why Bethany? That is where Lazarus, Mary and Martha live. It is a place of safety, comfort and support. It is one of the few places on earth where Jesus knows he will be accepted and welcomed in as a friend. Jesus knows that he will never experience that kind of reception in Jerusalem. The capital city is a place of public praise and hidden plots - not friendship. It seems significant that when Jesus does spend the night in Jerusalem it is the very night that he is betrayed and handed over to death.

How does all this relate to our modern lives as people working for justice and mercy here in a different capital city? What can we learn from Jesus' cycle of retreat and engagement? What are we to make of his pattern of withdrawal into solitude and engagement with the masses, taking refuge among his closest friends while directly confronting the powers that be? How can we develop a similar practice, one that keeps us centered and ready to receive guidance from God?

God knows we need it! Jesus' ministry was of the most intense variety, but it only lasted for three years. What kind of intentional practices does it take to labor for decades in America's fallen Jerusalem, constantly irradiated by the spiritual energy of a city that is founded on the raw exercise of human power? What could it mean to find our own little Bethany, an intimate and supportive community of friends who remind us of who we truly are and encourage us to greater depth and boldness? 

Monday, October 01, 2012

Remembering Occupy DC - And Taking the Next Step

It was one year ago today, a cold and rainy October morning, when that first small band of us gathered in McPherson Square in downtown DC. We were young professionals, students, activists and organizers. Some of us had long experience in political action and organizing; many others had practically no background. But no matter how inexperienced or battle tested we were, no one had ever done anything like this before.

Just two weeks before, Occupy Wall Street had erupted in the financial district of lower Manhattan, starting a process that would galvanize untold thousands of young people across the world. The wave of transformative energy that we in the United States witnessed from afar during the Arab Spring had finally reached American shores. All of us felt the question rising within us: What might "regime change" look like in North America? What would it mean to break the power of the one percent, to bring human needs and ecological sustainability into the forefront of our collective consciousness?

Those of us gathered in McPherson Square that day did not come together to form a political party or endorse a candidate, nor did we assemble in order to promote a platform or a unified political philosophy. Instead, we discovered together that the genius of our movement was to create space to begin asking deeper questions. As Slavoj Žižek observed in those early days at Zucotti Park in New York, we live in a society that greatly limits our social imagination. "In technology and sexuality, everything seems to be possible. You can travel to the moon... But look at the field of society and economy. There, almost everything is considered impossible."

Though at first many of us - myself included - were baffled at Occupy's apparent lack of concrete demands, we soon discovered that this was a sign of collective genius. By refusing to make a narrow list of demands, we instead fulfilled our true mission: to ask the right questions. Why do we live in a society where the wealthiest one percent of our citizenry controls most of the material resources and political power? What does it mean for the sustainability of a democratic society when the middle class is systematically decimated, swelling the ranks of the working poor and unemployed? What does it say about our society when public services for the most vulnerable are attacked as wasteful dependency, while welfare for giant corporations and the super-rich is regarded as an economic necessity?

What would happen if we refused to play by Wall Street's rules?

The Occupy movement has played a vital role in awakening the prophetic imagination of my generation. By creating a space where we could ask the essential questions, Occupy Wall Street has catalyzed a chain reaction whose ultimate effects are still unfolding. We will probably never know how many tens of thousands of new leaders were baptized into the work of economic justice and peace-building in the final months of 2011. And our work is just beginning.

I join many others today in remembering the amazing, surprising movement that we experienced in those early days last fall. The electricity of the moment was palpable in the autumn air. There were times when we were gathered up into a sense of collective power that made us feel larger than life. Everything seemed possible. We had no idea what might come next.

We still don't. On this, the first anniversary of Occupy DC, I will tip my hat to those glorious early days. I will indulge briefly in nostalgia for what once was. But then I will turn my face once again to this present moment, and to the future that remains mysterious, unwritten and full of holy surprises.

Today, I recommit myself to the calling that I felt last fall. I give thanks for the work of the Spirit in our midst. It is this living Presence which gives me courage to trust that although today does not look like yesterday and tomorrow is unknown, we will be guided together if we continue to gather in hope, faith and love. Returning once again to Žižek's impassioned speech to those gathered in Zucotti Park last October:

What is Christianity? It's the Holy Spirit. What is the Holy Spirit? It's an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other, and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense, the Holy Spirit is here now. And down there on Wall Street, there are pagans who are worshiping blasphemous idols. So all we need is patience. The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer, and nostalgically remembering “What a nice time we had here.” Promise yourselves that this will not be the case.

Holy Spirit, come. Fall on us once again and give us the strength to follow your leading, regardless of how different it might be from what we once imagined. Give us courage and power, patience and humility to become poor and submit ourselves to suffering for the sake of your love. Make us like your son, Jesus, who out of love for us endured the cross and whom you have raised with power to your right hand. Help us to remember the ways you have already guided us, and then inspire us once again to step out in faith, into the hidden horizon of your next great surprise.