Thursday, November 29, 2012

Should Quakers Be Laying On Hands?

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. - Acts 8:14-17

Have you received the Holy Spirit?

The Book of Acts describes how the first disciples in Jerusalem experienced the coming of the Spirit, and this outpouring quickly spread to thousands of others. It was not long before the Church in Jerusalem was scattered by persecution, but this just spread the gospel message more widely.

One of these scattered disciples, Philip, shared the good news in Samaria. The Samaritans were the red-headed stepchildren of the Jewish family. They were outsiders par excellence, widely considered untouchable heretics by their Jewish neighbors. Yet, perhaps because of their shunned status, Samaritans were eager to embrace the news about Jesus. They heard the message and accepted it.

The new believers in Samaria took the first step, being baptized with water as a symbol of their whole-hearted embrace of the message that Philip had shared with them. But there was still something missing. The leaders of the Church in Jerusalem knew in their bones that the people of Samaria needed more than human belief in the message about Jesus: They needed to experience Jesus for themselves. They needed to taste his very Spirit.

What does that even mean? Why weren't the apostles satisfied with the fact that the Samaritans had become "orthodox Christians"? What compelled some of the apostles in Jerusalem to venture out to Samaria and lay their hands on the new believers? And why did the Holy Spirit wait for the apostles' touch before indwelling the new church? If the Spirit blows where it will, what need is there of human intervention?

There is a reason that our spiritual ancestors used such rich, diverse language to describe the Spirit: A dove descending from the sky, rushing wind, tongues of fire, living water, the sound of silence. All of these words offer a window into the mystery of the Holy Spirit, the source of a Life and Power so magnificent that our faith is incomplete until we receive it.

It is my experience that the Spirit is beautifully mysterious and unpredictable. Any attempt to pin her down and force her to obey human regulations will fail. And yet, this story of human involvement in the work of the Holy Spirit rings true to me. It fits with my own experience of receiving the Holy Spirit into my life.

When I first became a Quaker in 2004, I did so because I was convinced at a very deep level, far beyond simple intellectual assent, that the testimonies of Friends were true. I could sense that there was a ground of truth that was solid and immovable. I sensed that God was real, and that my life needed to conform to that Truth. Yet, there was something missing. While I had begun to accept Friends principles and could sense God's hidden presence, I did not experience God as an actor in my life. In reality, I was still in the driver's seat. I was "exploring God," like the famous old blind men who could each feel a different part of the elephant.

But when the Holy Spirit came on me, it was as if that elephant reached out and grabbed me with her trunk! No longer was God an object of my personal study; I came face-to-face with a divine Presence and Personality that had plans for me, and who would guide me if I opened myself. I was shown, in a deeply personal way that can never be fully explained, that God is not an "it," but rather a "thou."

And how did I come to have this experience? What was the catalyst for this encounter with the divine Thou? While for me there was not a literal laying on of hands, the circumstances surrounding my reception of the Holy Spirit bore great similarities to the experience of the Samaritan church.

I was at the World Gathering of Young Friends, in Lancaster, England, together with hundreds of other young Quakers from around the world. During the gathering, we heard sermons from a variety of ministers. One of these, a fiery preacher from Philadelphia, challenged us to know who we were and to accept the mantle of prophecy that the Spirit was calling us into. Early on in her sermon she warned us, "you didn't ask me, but I'm about to give you a double portion of what I have." At one point - referencing the words of Jesus in John 15 - the minister exclaimed, "you're cleansed!" She spontaneously grabbed a container of water that was sitting up at the podium and began sprinkling those of us sitting closer to the front.

The sermon was riveting. It was the most explosive, powerful vocal ministry I had ever encountered. She spoke directly to our condition that evening, and the Spirit was palpably present in the room - though I was not consciously aware of it at the time.

It was later in the evening that it happened. I was sitting on a bench with another young Quaker, and we spontaneously fell into silent worship together. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit was upon us, bathing us with wave upon wave of light, power, love and tender mercy. There simply are no words. But every true word I have spoken since that night has flowed from this Source.

I am convinced that the presence of apostolic authority and blessing that night were instrumental in the work of the Holy Spirit. The faithfulness of this minister from Philadelphia played the same role for me as Peter and John did for the new believers in Samaria. It is enough to make me wonder whether we Quakers should put more emphasis on the importance of human participation in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Has this happened to you? Has someone laid hands on you - literally or figuratively? Have you received a blessing from another person that has allowed you to plunge far deeper into relationship with God than you ever had before? What do you think the role of human agency is in the ministry of the Holy Spirit? Could it be that we Quakers need to be more open to sharing the gift of the Spirit by the laying on of hands?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Atheist For God's Sake?

What if atheism were the most faithful response to the life and message of Jesus? What if, rather than an anomaly to be fixed or avoided, the felt experience of God's absence were at the heart of the Christian faith? What if Jesus' sense of abandonment by God on the cross were not merely a lamentable necessity en route to the resurrection, but rather a central part of what it means to live in the horrifying light of the gospel?

In his 2011 book, Insurrection, Peter Rollins argues that belief in an externalized, objectivized deity that "makes everything OK" is the path of religious escapism. Instead, he urges us to strip away the comforting veil that hides the naked truth from our eyes - the reality of pain, injustice and deep existential anxiety. To doubt, Rollins argues, is divine - because it is in the depths of despair that we can come into communion with the crucified Jesus who, as he hangs on the cross, cries out in desolation, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

This image of Jesus' utter brokenness on the cross is one that Rollins returns to time and again as he drives home his message: There is a god of our imagination that comforts us and makes our lives more understandable, but this god is more fiction than reality. It is a false savior, a security blanket that covers over our deepest anxieties. This god that we create is a projection of our own need to be observed and cared for, to live an existence that is ordered and purposeful, to know that everything will be alright in the end.

Rollins breathlessly invites us to cast aside these god-shaped idols that we cling to in the name of religion. Rather than fleeing our moments of anxiety and groundlessness, what if we allowed ourselves to feel the radical abandonment by God that Jesus experienced on the cross? What would happen if we confessed - first to ourselves, then to others - that we do not understand the universe that we live in, that it does not make sense to us? Paradoxically, Rollins insists that the only way to truly encounter God is to fully experience the desolation of God's absence.

Rollins urges us to strip away all the anti-depressants that we heap on top of the raw terror of human experience. Rather than wrapping ourselves ever more deeply in the security blankets of conventional religiosity, with its assurances of salvation "in the sky by and by," a genuine encounter with the living God invites us to dwell in the Desert of the Real. It is in this encounter that we experience the unvarnished reality of our lives, uncushioned by hope of heaven, fear of hell or illusions about a "nanny god" who will make everything better soon. We stand most truly in the presence of Jesus when we embrace the fullness of his suffering and his love for the world as it is, not as the human imagination would have it be.

This is particularly challenging for those of us whom God calls to proclaim the gospel. What is the role of existential doubt, despair and a felt sense of abandonment by God in this proclamation? Surely, all of us have experienced this sense of groundlessness and loss in our own lives. A sense of God's absence is certainly a regular part of my spiritual experience. Yet, it is not the whole of it.

The God of my own experience - and the God whom we encounter in Scripture - is one who is both near to us and far away. Here is a God who neither coddles us (depriving us of free will) nor abandons us forever (depriving us of hope). Peter Rollins has written a brilliant argument against the coddling, "safety blanket god." How do I integrate this critique? What does it look like to fully embrace the reality of the cross while witnessing to the life of the Resurrection? How can I acknowledge my own experience of divine abandonment while at the same time lifting up the life that lies on the other side. The grain of wheat must die if it is to bear fruit - but there is a joyous harvest awaiting us!

Rollins would have us believe that the resurrection life is nothing more (or less) than loving one another, dwelling in the love that makes God's reality present. It is unclear to me whether Rollins believes that God is an actor in history. For the most part, Rollins seems to view God as an impersonal force (agape love) that we humans can either choose to dwell in, or not. Because Rollins' focus is so intensely on the abandonment that Jesus experienced on the cross, at times I wondered whether he considers the experience of God's presence and guidance to be real. Or is all sense of security, groundedness and peace an illusion that separates us from real engagement with life as it really is?

If I had an opportunity to discuss these matters with Rollins, I feel confident that he would give me well-considered answers that demonstrate a balance between absolute despair and cheap theism that denies the cross. Yet, as the book stands, I wonder whether Rollins takes us a little too far from the reality of God's loving presence - the divine personality and will that is not our own, yet fills our lives with purpose, compassion and the pursuit of justice.

While there are parts of Insurrection that strike me as unbalanced, that is to be expected. A prophet does not give a fair and balanced view of all sides of an issue. The hallmark of prophetic witness is that it hits us exactly where we need to be struck. It may not be fair, but it provides the slap across the face that we need to wake up. Peter Rollins is speaking to a decadent, self-satisfied Western Church that has wallowed for far too long in a cheap gospel that celebrates selfish joy and ignores the poor.

We have sung too many cloying praise songs and heard too many peppy sermons. We have whitewashed our own experience of spiritual emptiness too many times. A church that is unwilling to face its own insecurities and anxieties is incapable of truly embracing those on the margins. This kind of church must shun those who cannot hide their brokenness, because it cannot stand to see its own spiritual condition reflected back. Insurrection urges us to look at ourselves in the mirror, perhaps for the first time. It is a reminder that we must face the reality of our own emptiness and anxiety. Another happy-clappy, "Jesus loves the little children," cheap grace sermon will not get us to the resurrection.

It is only as we enter into the experience of emptiness, futility and death that we encounter the beckoning reality of the resurrection. Rather than sparing us from crucifixion, true resurrection is only to be found as we pass through death into a deeper, truer existence. Peter Rollins writes about this in a way that I find very compelling, observing that even the resurrected Jesus bears the marks of his torture on the cross.

Our relationship with God and our fellow human beings looks very different depending on which side of the cross we stand. Do we bear witness to a post-crucifixion resurrection - or do we want to skip the terror of the cross and dive straight into the after-party? Are we truly ready to follow in Jesus' footsteps, taking on the suffering and despair of the world and offering our lives into the hands of a God who often seems absent? How do we bear the marks of the crucifixion in our own bodies, even as we proclaim the living joy and hope of the resurrection?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Why Quakers Should Celebrate Thanksgiving

One of the core teachings of the Quaker movement is that Christ is inwardly present in all times and all places. In seventeenth-century England, when holiness was restricted the tightly controlled religious rituals of an elite clergy, Friends made the bold claim that the real presence of Jesus was not to be found in the hocus pocus of wafers and wine. Instead, they testified that Jesus is risen in the very bodies of those women and men who follow him in spirit and in truth.

In a culture where religious ritual and narrow sacramentality was used to dominate common people, Friends insisted that Jesus is radically present in the lives of all people. Despite intense persecution by the religious and civil authorities, Friends clung to their conviction that God's power and mercy spills beyond the walls of the cathedral, and that the baptizing power of the Spirit is not dependent on water poured by human hands.

Along with other radical groups in their day (such as the Puritans), Friends denounced many of the customs that those around them took for granted. Because the names of the days and months were derived from pagan deities (Thor's Day, for example), Friends began using numbers instead (e.g. Today is Fifth Day, 11th Month 22nd, 2012). Friends also rejected holidays such as Easter and Christmas. This was not because they did not honor the spiritual significance of Christ's birth and resurrection; rather, they believed that they could best experience Christ's resurrected presence by following him each day. Every day should be Christmas. Every day should be Easter.

I feel that I understand why early Friends made these choices. They lived in an age where religious ritual had been largely co-opted by the civil and religious authorities. Christmas, Easter and saint's days; water baptism and priestly rites; bread and wafers treated as the literal body and blood of Christ - all these things had become tools of control and oppression by the elites. Rather than encouraging their flock to follow Jesus, the priests and the rulers abused their positions, putting themselves in Christ's place! In such circumstances, it was probably right for the early Friends to strip religion down to the bare bones and start from scratch.

But it has been three hundred and fifty years. Times have changed dramatically. Virtually our entire public consciousness, including our holidays and religious rituals, have been co-opted by the new empire of this world - unrestrained corporate capitalism. For most Americans today, Christmas is about Santa Claus and consumer electronics. Easter is about bunnies and brunches. And even Thanksgiving, long the least commercialized major holiday, is under siege by the "holiday shopping season." This year, Black Friday has become "Black Thanksgiving."

Ironically - but not accidentally - this wave of consumerism is rising precisely at the time that ordinary Americans are experiencing a crescendo of economic hardship and stress. With so many of us struggling to find meaningful employment at a living wage, it is difficult to resist the siren's call of consumer goods. Just as many people suffering from depression struggle with uncontrolled eating habits, our nation's frantic search for "the next best thing" is revealing. We are hurting so badly!

How is the Holy Spirit calling us to respond to the insatiable hunger, despair and emptiness that our culture is experiencing? What does it look like for us to challenge the systems of death that not only eat us alive, but seduce us into joining the feast?

Some Quakers might argue that our best option is to opt out of the "holiday season" entirely. Indeed, in light of the ways that corporate America has infested our holy seasons with glorified addiction, a strong argument can be made for total withdrawal. By refusing to participate in the wider culture's holidays, we might gain some protection from the corroding influence of the consumer cult. We might even be able to encourage others to opt out, strengthening the base of resistance.

While the case for withdrawal is strong, I am convinced that there is a better response. Rather than ceding the major holidays to corporate America, I believe that it is time to reclaim them. Starting with Thanksgiving.

We are a nation that is over-worked to the point of exhaustion. We are a people desperately in need of Sabbath. Sunday was once widely reserved as a time of rest and worship, but now it is considered fair game by many employers. Even those of us who are privileged enough to be exempted from working weekends have largely lost the rest that our ancestors once knew. If we do not spend our weekends putting in extra hours on our electronic devices, we are out shopping, chauffeuring kids around, and generally catching up on all the unpaid work that we had to defer during the week.

Might there be an opening for us to celebrate Thanksgiving, not as the fear-driven ritual of consumption that is it morphing into, but rather as a Grand Sabbath? Thanksgiving, at its best, is an opportunity to be still and know that God is faithful in providing for our needs. It is a time to focus on demonstrating our love and thankfulness for those with whom God has called us into relationship. Thanksgiving can be a time of rest from our labors, a time of gratitude for the gift of simply being.

While this sense of rest, thankfulness and belonging should extend out into our whole lives, celebrating Thanksgiving provides a special opportunity to concentrate on our intention to live this way in the world. It serves as a reminder of how life can be when we are resting in the loving arms of Christ our Savior.

If that is not radical, I do not know what is.


  • Are you longing for Thanksgiving music as much as I am? Here's a good candidate:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Quaker Revival in West Philadelphia

...Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect. - Romans 12:1b-2

The Body of Christ stands today at a crossroads. Western society is in the midst of a worldview shift like nothing since the Renaissance. Like both the early Church and the first generation of Quakers, we live in a world that is being turned upside down.

For fifteen centuries, western society took Christian truth claims for granted, at least on a superficial level. Today, however, we can no longer lean on the wider culture to back up our fundamental assumptions. This represents a deep challenge. After more than a thousand years of privileged status, we have mostly forgotten how to live as a people on the margins. We have gotten by as loyal citizens of Empire for so long that our life together has taken on Roman hues.

Though Friends aspire to be an egalitarian community, our structures are geared toward centralized management. While we acknowledge that the gospel is about loving relationship, we still tend to retreat into tidy propositional statements. Whether our favorite line is that "there is that of God in everyone," or that "Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world," these statements of belief, by themselves, cannot save us. We mistake the form for the substance.

Our world hungers to see a community that lives in the life and power of Jesus. Our great need today is not more information about God, but rather to witness the Word made flesh. All our proud traditions, fantastic ideas and noble acts of service are empty if we are not filled with the dynamic energy of the Holy Spirit. If we are to live into the great adventure that we sense God calling us into, our very lives must become the sacramental presence of Jesus.

This call to transformation is the centerpiece of any genuine movement of the Spirit. The call to turn toward God and away from darkness, lies at the heart of the message and ministry of the first Quakers, the early Church, and Jesus himself. If we are to live together in the life and power of Jesus Christ, our basic motion must be one of turning towards God, and away from the seduction of Empire.

In many branches of the Christian Church, there is a developed tradition of holding periodic revival meetings. A revival meeting is a special gathering for worship, which is focused on turning away from darkness and embracing the light. We are invited to cast aside the ways in which we separate ourselves from God, and to allow Jesus to embrace our hearts. Revival meetings operate on the principle that miraculous things can happen we hand ourselves over to the Lord and allow him to transform us in body, mind, heart and spirit.

Sensing the deep need that we in the North American Quaker community have for this kind of deep change, transformation and total surrender to Christ, several other Friends ministers and I have felt God leading us to hold a public revival meeting in West Philadelphia next month. We are inviting Friends - and anyone who is seeking a deeper relationship with God - to gather together to wait upon the living presence of Jesus, opening ourselves to what it would mean to truly surrender ourselves to his radical leadership.

Are we ready to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, being transformed by the renewing of our minds? What would it feel like to see the world through eyes unstained by hatred, fear, greed or pride? Are we ready to hold our structures, institutions, traditions and ideologies in the refining light of Christ's presence? What would it mean to take the first step in turning away from the systems of death that enslave us and accepting the gift of abundant life that Jesus offers us?

Thursday, December 6th, you are invited to join us at 4718 Windsor Ave Philadelphia, PA 19143 for an evening of prayerful waiting on the Spirit of God. Together, we will offer up our lives for transformation and re-orientation in the service of love and truth.


Details for the Revival in West Philly:

Thursday, December 6th
Potluck at 6:00pm & Worship at 7:00pm
With visiting ministers from DC, Baltimore and Detroit
Check out the event on Facebook!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Stripping Down and Building Up - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #48

Dear friends,

After a period of uncertainty and reflection, new paths are emerging for our work of seeding the Kingdom here in the District of Columbia. For Capitol Hill Friends, this month has been one of major reorientation. Over the past three years, we focused on our regular worship service as the centerpiece of our community. Yet this month, to my great surprise, we reached clarity to lay down weekly worship. Instead, we will direct our energy into the development of vibrant small groups centered around Bible study, prayer and mutual support.

On November 4th, we held our last regular meeting for worship in the old format - a two and a half hour service including Bible reading, singing, waiting worship and a potluck dinner. While we hope to re-launch a regular worship service someday, we feel clear that we should not do so until we have developed a solid core of small groups that serve as a mature and mutually supportive basis for our community in Jesus.

This January, we plan to begin holding small group meetings once a week. We have not ironed out all the details yet, but we sense that our new small group format should center on prayer, reading the Scripture together, and sharing our journeys with one another. The format of the small group should be simple and broadly accessible. We expect that it will last no more than an hour and a half. For folks in our city, that seems to be the maximum duration people feel comfortable committing to on an ongoing basis.

In addition to tightening up the small group time, we want to make sure that people do not feel trapped or guilted into attending. We are considering how to offer small group in bite-sized sequences - for example, we might offer a six-week study of the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than asking our friends to commit to attending small group forever, we are looking to present it as a medium term commitment, measured in weeks rather than in months or years.

While our number one focus will be on our small groups, we are also looking at sponsoring events that would be of interest to our wider communities, featuring compelling guest presenters (Jon Watts, I am looking in your direction). When I imagine these events, I envision something like a very spiritually grounded house concert. Not exactly a worship service, but a space in which folks are invited to be spiritually engaged and come away with a deeper sense of connection with God in Jesus. In the end, everything we do must be about him; yet we want to engage in ways that strike a chord with the people of our city.

We have a growing sense that God is calling us to throw off anything that gets in the way of sharing the good news of Jesus here in DC. Though the members of Capitol Hill Friends are deeply steeped in the Quaker tradition, we are questioning whether many of our traditional forms, language and practices are serviceable in our present context.

Insofar as there has ever been a Quaker model of evangelism, it has generally been one that assumed that outsiders would need to change or discard their culture, dress, language and symbols before they could become part of the Body of Christ. For the last 300 years, Quaker communities have largely developed along the lines of homogenous clusters of people who share the same politics, class, race, dress codes, insider language and cultural assumptions.

We are convinced that this is not only a losing strategy, but that it is ultimately at odds with the example that Jesus gives us. As we move forward in our mission to embody and share the love, mercy and justice of Jesus Christ, we are examining ourselves closely. How are we ourselves called to change, adapting ourselves to the needs of the city we live in, so that we might more effectively share the good news?

The truth is, I loved Capitol Hill Friends just the way it was. Our weekly worship service, with its combination of Bible reading, singing, waiting worship and food, was basically my ideal format. Unfortunately, we have seen that my ideal does not work for most people in our city! If this ministry is to be about more than my own preferences - if it is to draw all people into deeper relationship with Jesus - then I will need to sacrifice my desires and preferences so that the gospel may be most effectively received.

What needs to be stripped away so that we can all see Jesus? What is the most effective vehicle for delivering the gospel message among the people whom we have been called to serve? How are we called to respond when faithfulness demands effectiveness?

For a couple of stodgy old Conservative Quakers like Faith and me, asking these questions feels revolutionary. From time to time, we ask ourselves with some anxiety: Are we ditching the Friends tradition altogether?

In a word, "no." Clearly, the needs of our present context are different from those of Friends 300 years ago - or even fifty years ago. Yet we are also convinced that the essential truths of the gospel that were re-discovered by the early Quaker movement are the same foundation that we stand on today. The forms change, but the substance remains steady. Christ is come to teach his people himself, and we seek to be a people that is attentive and listening, ready to follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

As we wrestle with all of these questions, I am so grateful for the consistent prayers of all our sisters and brothers across the country and the world. Most everyone seems to agree: Washington is a very tough place to be. The ground here is hard, and we know that we cannot plow it up under our own strength. But through the fervent petitions of the saints and the mercy of the Holy Spirit, we know and have experienced that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Your brother in our Lord Jesus,

Micah Bales

Monday, November 12, 2012

Holy Anger

Have they no knowledge, those evildoers,
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon God?
...they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them.
- Psalm 53:4-5

This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a conference sponsored by Project No One Leaves - a gathering of attorneys, organizers and activists who are working together to address the US housing crisis. Representing both the "shield" of legal defense and the "sword" of grassroots direct action, practitioners from around the country came together at Harvard Law School to connect and strategize for building a broad-based movement to keep residents in their homes and defend our neighborhoods from the abuses of predatory banks and investors.

I was particularly excited to get to know folks at City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), an established community group that organizes around issues of housing justice. CLVU is an inspiration for many of us in this movement - a case study in what success looks like, and a model to be replicated in other city regions. City Life/Vida Urbana has pioneered a "sword-and-shield" approach to housing organizing, pairing legal education and counseling by lawyers and students with the power of direct public pressure brought to bear on banks and investors.

The highlight of my time in Boston was Sunday, when I was able to participate in CLVU's campaign to challenge the dirty dealings of City Realty Group, which has bought up over a hundred properties across Boston and is systematically evicting tenants and imposing brutal rent increases to drive out working-class residents. We spent time Sunday canvassing properties owned by City Realty, talking with tenants about their rights, and encouraging them to come to CLVU meetings to get free legal counsel and organize with others in their same situation.

It was a powerful experience to witness the human cost of City Realty's business practices. One woman we talked to had her rent raised by $150 dollars when City Realty bought the building. She had been living in the building for five years and never missed a rent payment, but when her rental check was one day late she woke up to find an eviction notice on her door! I met another man who lost his home to foreclosure and tried to buy it back from the bank for $230,000. At the last moment, City Realty group swooped in and bought his home out from under him for $233,000. Then, they let him know that he could have it back, but it would cost him $490,000!

While we were canvassing, we actually ran into a couple of folks who apparently worked for City Realty. From what we could tell, the tenants of the building had been evicted, and these men were getting the property ready for new, higher-rent tenants. As we tried to engage them in conversation, they were intensely defensive. These men knew that they were up to no good.

Door-knocking in west Boston, we saw both sides of this story. We met those who had been struck, and those who were delivering the blow. We saw the working-class women and men of color who wanted to stay in their homes, and the wealthy investors who saw their homes purely as business opportunities. I was outraged at the gangster-like character of these real estate investors, whose business model relies on pushing families out of their homes. It was almost enough to make me want to move up to Boston and get involved in the fight. I was mad as hell!

Later on, I had the opportunity to debrief my experience with a friend. I told him about what I witnessed, how furious I was, how wrong the men at City Realty were, and how we had to fight back. My friend was clearly concerned about the way I was talking. "What about 'that of God' in the real estate investors?" he asked me. "Aren't we called to love them, too?"

This question surprised me. I had just described a grave injustice occurring - evictions, dispossessions, the livelihood of ordinary folks being gobbled up to line the pockets of a few crafty men - and my friend's first reaction was to talk about "loving" these perpetrators of structural violence?

Of course, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am called to love my enemies. But that does not mean I do not have enemies, nor that I need to be nice to those who plot evil and eat up my people as if they were bread. Jesus knew how to call a fox a fox. He knew a den of vipers when he saw one. I looked into the face of evildoers yesterday, and I am not going to sugar-coat what I saw. I am not going to play nice with those who steal from orphans and widows.

It has never been clearer to me that there are times to bind up a whip of cords and chase out the moneychangers. Real love refuses to allow injustice to stand. If "loving" the oppressor means assuming the best about their motivations, I don't. If "loving" them means treating them with gentleness, allowing them to continue doing evil unchallenged, I can't.

Real love gets furious in the presence of oppression. Real love sees that the only way to freedom - for all of us, regardless of our station in life - is to work for justice for the widow and the orphan, the foreigner and the poor, those who are most marginalized in our society. We will be judged based on how we treat the least of these.

Too often, we religious people try to suppress anger. We want to skip over it, and go straight to joy, tenderness and healing. We want the resurrection without the crucifixion. I fear that, all too often, we worship a God who lets us off the hook, rather than a holy, righteous God who expects us to be transformed - who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Anger is a gift from God. It is an alarm bell, alerting us to the presence of conditions that we should not accept. Before we can even consider how to speak tenderly to those who are taking advantage of our people, we must first know that wrong really is wrong. We must hear the wake-up call of anger, letting us know that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. We have to feel in our bones that dispossessing the poor is evil, that pushing families out of their homes for profit is a despicable business.

For a middle class person like me, it is easy for me to treat this kind of injustice as an abstraction, but I cannot do that anymore. Holy anger has woken me up. This struggle is real, and I have to be a part of it.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Can Strategic Planning Be Spirit-Led?

Throughout the gospel accounts, Jesus tells us that good works are an essential demonstration of faith. Good trees cannot bear bad fruit, and every branch that is connected to the True Vine will bear fruit. We know that bearing fruit involves a process of pruning, transforming all those things that get in the way of our faithfulness to God's leading. In ways both small and dramatic, our lives must change substantially before we are ready to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

But what does this process look like? As a people who trust in the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, we face a tension in our faith: On the one hand, we are responsible to act in ways that bear the fruit of repentance and righteousness. Yet at the same time we recognize that we can accomplish nothing lasting without the grace and inspiration of the Spirit. We are called to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth, but we are ultimately incapable of inaugurating this Kingdom through our own efforts.

As Quakers, our emphasis has long been on the quietistic, passive side of faith. By stripping away our own thoughts, ambitions, rituals and programs, we have sought to be radically open to the moment-by-moment inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We embrace a religious culture that downplays human understanding, effort and planning. Sometimes, we border on fatalism: "If it is meant to happen, God will make it happen; there is nothing we can do except to wait on God."

Of course, it is possible to go too far in the other direction. The excesses of the church growth movement give a good example of how human metrics of success can skew our discernment. It can be easy to identify what "success" looks like - whether growth in membership, fund-raising, entertaining worship services or popularity - and to ignore the gentle nudgings of the Spirit to act in ways that seem "unsuccessful." We humans have a long track record of preferring our own wisdom to God's direction.

Seeing these two extremes - quietism on the one side, and a sort of technocratic human wisdom on the other - how can we as Christian communities chart a balanced course? How can we maintain openness and awareness of the continued leading of the Spirit while at the same time acting on the guidance that we have already received? What is the role of our human faculty of reason? Is there such a thing as Spirit-led strategic planning?

We as Quakers are acutely aware of the dangers of placing too much stock in human reasoning. So often, the Spirit acts in ways that surprise us and confound our limited understandings. We know that we need to stay open to the moment-by-moment guidance of Christ in our midst. Yet the Spirit calls us into work that spans years, decades and even generations. God draws us into labor that requires long-range planning and evaluation.

How do we know when we are being faithful? How do we evaluate the fruit that we are bearing as individuals and as communities? The Quietist might respond, "No one but God can judge the fruit of our lives." The Technocrat, on the other hand, might reply, "We know we are faithful if we develop X number of programs, feed X number of people, or gain X number of new members." Both of these perspectives offer glimpses of truth, but neither one fully captures the complex reality of how God works in our life together.

As creations of God, we are finite, limited beings. We cannot see the big picture, and we must rely on God's grace and hidden power to guide us into lives of faithfulness. Yet God also purposefully created our human faculties of reason. God leads us, yes; but God clearly expects us to do our own share of the heavy lifting. God has given us all manner of gifts - including the ability to do strategic, long-term planning - so that we might be the tangible presence of Jesus in the world.

What are the implications of this in your life? Do you tend to lean quietistic, or technocratic? How about your local community - which way does it lean? How might we find a balance together, neither ignoring the inward promptings of the Holy Spirit nor abdicating our own responsibility to ensure that we are bearing fruit worthy of repentance?

Monday, November 05, 2012

Do We Need An Internet Sabbath?

As a professional web developer and social media strategist, I spend a huge amount of time online. Whether blogging, connecting on social media, developing websites or conducting research, the internet is an integral part of my daily life. Thanks to my smartphone, I am connected pretty much anywhere I go.

In general, I like things this way. I marvel continually at the power of electronic media to bridge time and geography, allowing me to communicate and maintain relationships with people throughout the world. Never, since the invention of the printing press, has our ability to share information been so dramatically amplified. We are living in a moment of great opportunity.

But these advances in communications have a shadow side. Social media can empower and extend real-life social interactions, but they can just as easily result in a world where most of our life is mediated by glowing screens, our conversations limited to 140 characters or less. At worst, electronic communication can objectify our relationships, cheapening our friendships and fostering one-dimensional conversations. There is a real risk that web and social media, improperly used, can increase alienation rather than deepening connection.

There is a balance to be struck between cyberspace and in-person relationships. For me, it feels important to heavily weight real-life interactions over the connections I build and maintain via electronic media. As important as web and social media is to both my personal and professional life, I view the social web as a supplement to my in-person relationships, not as a substitute for them.

My experience is that spending too much time online actually distances me from reality. When I have someone over to my home for dinner, or spend time walking around downtown with a co-worker, there is a rich mix of dynamics at play: Body language, tone, subtle pauses in the conversation and the felt sense of connection with another living presence. Contrast that with an email. I have nothing to go on but text on a screen.

There is a tipping point beyond which I can easily lose my grip on the real world. After sitting in front of the screen for long enough, it is easy to forget the colorful, complicated, surprising world that I live in. Without fully realizing what is happening, I can become disconnected from my surroundings, from my own body, and from my awareness of God's presence within me. I risk "losing myself" in the screen.

Particularly because I spend so much time digitally connected for my work, it is important for me to create boundaries for my use of electronic media. For example, I exclude screens from my morning routine. I do not engage with email, social media - anything screened - until after I am through with breakfast and morning devotions. That means the first hour and half of my day is screen-free.

I have also thought about having a cut-off time in the evenings; say, no web after 10:00pm. I have not had as much success implementing this boundary. I am usually on my computer in the hours before bed. Ideally, though, I think it would probably be best if I had at least an hour un-plugged before bed.

One new practice that I have been experimenting with is the idea of internet sabbath - blocking out entire days where I intentionally unplug. Think of it as a "digital detox." These sabbaths tend to happen organically when I am away at spiritual retreats (usually in a Quaker context). I always notice how much clearer my mind and body feel after a day or two away from the land of constant status updates - and constant work.

Recently, I have been attempting to set aside Sundays as a day of rest from my internet labors. Most Sundays, I have actually pulled it off - not turning on my computer or tablet, and not using my smartphone for anything except unavoidable phone calls and texts. This seems to have a positive effect. Even being able to take one day off each week, to truly disconnect from cyberspace in all its forms, feels healing for me. It gives me the strength to re-engage in a healthy way the other six days of the week.

What do you think about this? Is your relationship with the web a healthy one? How do you maintain balance between the internet and the rest of your life? What role does your professional work play in keeping you plugged in, and where are the places that you might choose to disconnect? Are you in need of an internet sabbath?

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Restarting A Quaker Church Plant

Do you remember blowing on Nintendo cartridges? Most folks who are around my age will remember the original NES game system. I spent hours playing Nintendo, and I can still hum pretty much the entire soundtrack from Mario Brothers. As much fun as those games were, the thing I remember best is the physical experience of Nintendo. I remember the feel of the controls and the clap of the plastic hood. Above all, I remember the cartridges.

They did not always work. The longer you owned a Nintendo, the more likely it was you were going to have issues with dust collecting on the sensitive electronics at the opening of the cartridge. If the sensors were not clean, the game was liable to have errors that made it unplayable. Blank, white screens and garbled text were common. In order to get games working right, we often resorted to blowing across the sensors. Most of the time, that did the trick. We re-inserted the game and things worked as they were supposed to.

Though we did not realize it at the time, this process of cartridge cleaning taught an important lesson. In Nintendo and in the rest of life, there are moments that call for blowing on the cartridge and starting over. Sometimes, there is nothing we can do but clean the sensor and restart the game.

At Capitol Hill Friends, we have been noticing dust in our system for some time now. Despite a serious and energetic effort over a period of three years, Capitol Hill Friends has not gained the critical mass it needs to ignite a self-sustaining congregation. We have gotten quite good at putting on a weekly event that nurtures those who attend, but we have failed to develop an expanding circle of community.

After an extended period of prayer and corporate discernment, we feel that our present model is no longer an adequate container for the work that God is calling us to do in our city. We sense that our most faithful move at this point is to take a step back and re-evaluate of our entire way of operating as a community. It is time to take the cartridge out and blow on it.

We have been meeting in roughly the same format for almost three years now: We have gathered for Bible reading, singing, worship and a potluck meal. These meetings have generally been very deep, spiritually, and have provided a lot of nurture to those who have come. Yet, the core group of CHF has not substantially changed in the last two years. Probably for a variety of reasons, we have not grown in the way that we need to in order to be a sustainable community.

It feels clear that our present model is not working. The lack of growth over the last few years is equivalent to the White Screen of Death on the old Nintendo. It is time to pull out the cartridge and restart the system. The big question is, what does it look like for Capitol Hill Friends to restart?

Here is what we know right now: The last regular meeting of Capitol Hill Friends for 2012 will be this Sunday, November 4th. For the rest of November and December, the members of Capitol Hill Friends will be doing some intensive visioning and strategizing for the next phase of our life together as a community. We will be doing a lot of praying, and we will continue to listen together to how the Holy Spirit wants to guide and shape us as a community of disciples.

We have a great awareness right now of our deep need for Christ's life and power in our midst, and we are asking God to clarify our calling, vision and structure as a fellowship. Who are we called to serve? What are we called to teach, and how are we called to teach it? What structures are we called to adopt in order to facilitate the spiritual, emotional and physical thriving of our community, and of the city where we live as a whole? With great awareness of our own weakness and failings, we are seeking God's way forward for us.

In many ways, the past three years has been a course in what not to do. For my own part, I see that there is a lot of dust on my own sensors - all the illusions that I live in; all the denial that I indulge in. I desperately need the Holy Spirit to blow away the dust so that I can see clearly, and be a faithful vessel of Christ's love and justice. I have learned a lot in the past three years, both about myself and about some of the realities of organizing a new Christian fellowship in Washington, DC. In many ways, the past three years have been "Seminary: Part 2." This second dose of ministerial education, though, has been entirely focused on practice, and sometimes the theory has gotten in the way.

Moving forward, I hope to find out what it means for us to be a community of Christian practitioners. What does it mean to practice our faith in ways that tangibly bless the communities where we live? All the teaching in the world is of little use if we are not learning how to live as Christ's body in the world.

As we continue to engage in this process of discernment, we do have some clarity about how God is calling us to reorganize our meeting format in the coming year. Beginning in January, Capitol Hill Friends plans to adopt a new model that we hope will encourage the development of more bonded community and deeper spiritual practice. Our new format will feature two main components: A weekly small group, and a monthly gathering.

The small group will be a place where each of us can be nurtured in our walk with Jesus, and get equipped for the work that Christ is calling each of us to. This group will be a fellowship for nurturing the spiritual gifts of each person, and developing our capacity to share the good news of Jesus with others in our communities. We will seek to make this an intimate space, where each individual can feel safe bringing their full selves and find support for the journey that Jesus is calling each of us into.

Our monthly gatherings will be creative and energetic programs that engage people from a wide variety of backgrounds and invites them to experience the power of Christ's living presence in our midst. Each month's program will be different, and we hope to invite outside presenters to lead our time together. We hope that these monthly gatherings will be a time of edification for our broader community - including Quakers from other Meetings in the area; Christians from other churches; seekers without a faith community; and secular people who are curious about encountering a spiritual faith that is directly dependent on God's power.

We still have a lot of discernment to do, but these are the basic contours of what our restart looks like: Creating a space for our broader community to creatively explore spiritual teaching and worship, while at the same time nurturing the ongoing development of a smaller core that wants to be part of a mutually supportive community, rooted in Jesus Christ.

As we embark on this next stage of our journey together, please pray for us. If you are living in the DC area, consider whether the small group or our monthly gatherings might be a place for you to plug in and get the support you need for your walk in faith.

Holy Spirit, come blow on us. Clear away all the dust that holds us back from growing in you.