Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Lamb's War Has Moved!

Dear friends, After more than six years of being hosted on the Blogger platform, The Lamb's War has moved to its own domain:
I hope you'll join me there, subscribe to the new site, and continue to be in conversation with me at this new digital location. Thanks for all your support. I'm looking forward to the next six years!

In gratitude,


Monday, June 10, 2013

Where Am I Going?

As a Quaker, I belong to a community that experiences the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. Through this shared spiritual experience, we have discovered that Jesus Christ is not merely an historical figure that we can read about in the Bible. Like the first disciples, we are witnesses to his resurrection. We know from practical experience that he is alive and present to show us the way. 

I can see how the Friends doctrine of the Inward Light of Christ could lead to spiritual arrogance. If I believe that Jesus speaks to me directly, why listen to anybody else? This is a real temptation, especially for those of us who live in a culture that exalts the individual above almost all else. 

But this kind of pride cannot survive long in the real presence of Jesus. In him, I encounter a God who is far beyond my own narrow ways of imagining the world. The revealing power of his light forces me to see how self-interested and feeble my attempts at love really are. All of my hopes, dreams and lofty ideals are brought low in his presence.

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Monday, June 03, 2013

Give It All Away

This week at Capitol Hill Friends, we looked at Luke 12:13-34, where Jesus lays out some of his radical teaching about money. He tells the story of the rich fool who stored up all kinds of riches for himself, not caring for the needs of others or thinking beyond his personal comfort. Jesus reveals that the God Movement has nothing to do with accumulation or self-protection. Instead, we should take our cue from the ravens and the flowers: These creatures don’t have bank accounts or pensions, but God provides for them and cares for their needs. If God takes such good care of the birds and the grass, how much more is he going to take care of us, his human children?

In case there was any confusion, Jesus concludes with this startling bit of encouragement:

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.

OK, Jesus! I could get on board with the whole no hording thing, and I could embrace the whole birds and grass thing as a nice metaphor about trusting God to provide. But what’s this about selling my possessions and giving to the poor? And what kind of crazy are you talking about heavenly bank accounts? You don’t expect me to take this literally, do you?

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Friday, May 31, 2013

God So Loved The Cosmos

This weekend, I am with Great Plains Yearly Meeting, who are gathering for their annual sessions in Wichita, Kansas. The theme of the gathering is ecological stewardship, and in our Bible study we are exploring Paul’s vision of cosmic restoration in Jesus Christ. Especially because many Christians still associate the environmental movement with New Age spiritualism, it is good for us to engage with the ample biblical witness that calls on us to care for God’s creation.

How could we ever have missed it? From start to finish, from Genesis to Revelation, God has consistently revealed that the wages of sin is death – not just for us, but for all life. We learn in the story of the Fallthat humanity’s choice to turn away from God is directly connected with the twisting and destruction of the creation. Throughout the Old Testament God repeatedly reminds humanity that the earth belongs to him, and that we are merely tenants in the land. And in the Book of Revelation, we are warned that God will destroy those who destroy the earth!

God has so much more love than we usually imagine possible. Not only does God love each one of us, and all of humanity, with unceasing faithfulness; he loves the whole of his creation just as much! 

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I Surrender All

Desire is endless. There are so many things in my life that I have wanted, yet when I obtained them, the satisfaction was fleeting, at best. So many times the thought has passed through my mind, If only I had this thing, I would be completely satisfied. How many times must that line of thinking prove to be untrue before I am able to completely root it out?

It would be easier if this cycle of desire and disappointment only applied to bad things. If this were so, I could focus on only desiring the good things, and then I could be satisfied. Instead, I have found that some of the most insidious temptations come clothed as angels of light. Even the things of God – the Bible, the Church, works of mercy and justice – can all too easily become idols. Anything that takes my eyes off of Jesus leads me astray, and that can include the very ministry that I believe he has given me to do!

It is easy to be deceived. When a person is addicted to drugs, alcohol, pornography or ostentatious wealth, the problem – and its solution – is often clear: Get sober; stop watching; share your resources with others. But how about when my addiction is the approval of the church community, or the good feelings I get from feeding the hungry? What if the warm fuzzies I get from worship become a habit-forming dependency? How will I recognize when the good things in my life become a stumbling block in my walk of discipleship to Jesus?

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

I Must Decrease

When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I was pretty miserable most of the time. For years, I flailed around in search of meaning and purpose for my life. I explored and studied, seeking to find meaning in some philosophy, political system, or great idea. I thought I was willing to sacrifice anything for the truth. Yet, throughout my experience of darkness, loss of meaning and despair, I never let go of the illusion that I was in control of my own destiny. The fortress of my life may have been burning down around me, but I was king of the castle!

When I made the decision to follow Jesus, I encountered a whole new kind of fire. I began to perceive that my choice to surrender my life to God would involve a kind of agony I had never allowed myself to experience before. Startlingly, when I told Jesus that he could have control over my life, he took me up on the offer!

One moment that drove this reality home for me was a conversation that I had shortly after committing to become a disciple. I had done something thoughtless. I was careless with the feelings of another person. I acted selfishly. And when they confronted me about how my actions had been hurtful, I wanted to shrug it off. It wasn’t such a big deal, really, I told myself.

Then came the words I’ll never forget: You talk so much about Jesus, yet you act this way!

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Monday, May 20, 2013

A Gospel For Hungry People

This Sunday at Capitol Hill Friends, we looked at Luke 10:1-24, the story of when Jesus sends out 72 of his disciples to go ahead of him into Samaria and share the good news: The kingdom of God has come near to you.

 Jesus sends his followers out in utter vulnerability. He instructs them to take nothing with them for the journey – no money, no supplies, not even shoes! We know from the previous chapter that Samaria is not a safe place for the Jewish disciples. Rejection – possibly even violence – is a realistic expectation for these missionaries being sent into cross-cultural ministry. Jesus sends them out in pairs, so at least they have each other, but they’re basically defenseless.

 As disciples of Jesus who find ourselves called to live in the midst of Empire, there is a great temptation to look for ways to protect ourselves. We live in a culture that is constantly retelling the story of domination: Money makes the world go ’round. Might makes right. You get what you deserve. It is an enormous challenge to remain open, to see the signs of the kingdom of God in our midst. And even when we can see it, the way of peace that we find ourselves called into by Jesus is so intensely counter-cultural that we have to wonder: Does following Jesus mean becoming a social outcast?

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Do You Believe?

I belong to a faith tradition that highly values action. Drawing on the broad witness of Scripture, Quakers are convinced that the sign of true faith is that it is lived out in daily life. Reciting a creed, affirming a statement of faith, or even reading the Bible, is no guarantee of faithfulness. We can say, “Lord, Lord,” all we want – but if our lives do not demonstrate the content of our faith, our words ring hollow.

For many of us, this begs the question: What is the point of having shared beliefs at all? If the whole point of the gospel is right action, could it be that intellectual beliefs are superfluous at best – and, at worst, even harmful? In a world with numerous competing belief systems, holding firmly to a particular set of beliefs – for example, about who Jesus is – might seem exclusive or narrow-minded. In this environment, why not just focus on loving others as best we can, without all the barriers that belief often seems to present?

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Eyes To See

Human beings are amazingly imaginative, inventive creatures, and nowhere do we demonstrate more creativity than in our quest to impose a sense of meaning, order and control over our lives. We eagerly develop worldviews that help us understand our existence, seeing the world through our assumptions and systems of meaning.

Some of our ways of perceiving the world are helpful; others are harmful. But all of our worldviews have the potential to become destructive when we make the mistake of placing them at the center, in the place of God. Rather than allowing our worldviews serve as a lens that makes it easier for us to see what the Spirit is doing the world, we often begin to worship the lens itself. We begin to assign ultimate meaning to the eye rather than to the light that allows us to see.

One of the most powerful worldviews we find ourselves enmeshed in today is that of the money economy. Even 2,000 years ago, Jesus taught of the dangers of pursuing and accumulating wealth. The lure of wealth, power and security is immense, yet Jesus warnsNo one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

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Thursday, May 09, 2013

Are You Lonely?

I recently read a post by Suzannah Paul, in which she reflects on her own experience of living in a culture of isolation. She describes the present era as one in which our common experience is intense loneliness, where genuine community seems always out of reach. Of course, most of us have become quite adept at hiding our anguish. Judging by photos on Facebook, one would imagine that almost everyone has dazzling social lives! The illusion that everyone else is doing great only intensifies the alienation we feel. Paul writes:

I suspect that there’s more of us [lonely, isolated folks] than we realize. Digital connection bridges some divides while camouflaging–and widening–others. Is loneliness the ironic, invisible thread connecting so many?
In my city, we are constantly surrounded by people, and yet the social emptiness can be almost palpable. Most of us self-medicate, in one way or another – typically with a burnout-enducing cycle of overwork and substance abuse. It doesn’t help that many DC residents are transient professionals who expect to be in the region for only a few years. Why bother putting down roots if they’ll all be ripped up the next time you switch jobs?

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Disciples Beyond the Classroom

By the end of my first semester in college, I was convinced that learning a foreign language was out of my reach. Though I had done alright in high school, my first college-level Spanish course knocked me flat. It got so bad, in fact, that I ended up taking it pass/fail, and I barely squeaked by with credit. Clearly, I was no good at learning languages!
The following year, however, I spent seven months living and studying in Mexico. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life, exposing me to a culture totally distinct from my own. I fell in love with the people, places and heritage of Mexico, and I will always carry them with me.
Not to mention that my Spanish language proficiency improved dramatically. My semester abroad began with several weeks of intensive language instruction to bring me up to a passable conversational level, and for most of my seven months abroad I spoke almost exclusively in Spanish. By the time I returned for the fall semester in Kansas, I was ready to take – and pass! – Spanish literature classes. I realized that I was actually quite good at learning languages!
So what changed? 

Friday, May 03, 2013

Growing In Any Weather – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #53

Dear friends,

Spring took its time arriving this month in DC. We experienced several major shifts in weather – from the high eighties several weeks ago, down to the forties more recently. The climate here has shifted back and forth: We have seen hot and cold; muggy and dry; overcast days and others full of light. Sometimes, when things got really cold, misty and gloomy, it was hard to believe that we were in springtime and headed towards summer.

The trees knew, though. Despite all the ups and downs of an increasingly unpredictable weather cycle, the plants knew the signs of the times. Even in the midst of bitter cold, the trees began to bud; flowers bloomed and leaves slowly began to emerge. While I entertained doubts about whether we would ever see spring, the trees lived in hope.

The quiet hope and determination of the trees serve as a sign to me. This is how I am called to live: not being blown about by every change of conditions, but instead rooted in faith that God is sending the rain, sun and temperature I need to grow and thrive, even if I can’t quite imagine it yet.

Just like the trees, Capitol Hill Friends is a living, growing organism. As a community following Jesus, we live in hope. Though the outward conditions of life here often run counter to the loving relationships that we sense God calling us into, we persist in trust that the rain will fall, the sun will shine and the Spirit will blow among us.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Apocalypse Now!

What comes into your mind when you hear the word apocalypse? Most of us think of us think of the total destruction of the world, or at least life as we know it. Think zombies roaming the streets, feasting on brains. On the other hand, my sarcastic generation is doing a pretty good job of using apocalypse as a silly word. I remember a few years ago when we had a large winter storm here in Washington, DC; it was instantly dubbed Snowpocalypse!
The English word apocalypse derives from the ancient Greek apocalupsis, which is the original title for the infamous Book of Revelation. Revelation involves a lot of fire, smoke, battles and things generally blowing up, so it’s understandable that today we would associate apocalypse with end-times battles. However, the word apocalypse contains a much deeper meaning. Far more profound than the long-awaited zombie hordes – or even the end-times prophecies of some churchgoers – this ancient, misunderstood word is an essential tool for comprehending the world we live in.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

We Can't Have It All

As anyone who has lived here for very long can tell you, DC is a very intense place. It is a city full of passionate people – big-picture idealists who are intent on making a lasting impact on our society, culture and government. Thousands of people move here every month for jobs at non-profits, think tanks, government agencies, lobbyist groups and educational institutions. The focus of the city is on high-level policy, and many of us seem to live in real-time sync with the political theater of Capitol Hill and the behind-the-scenes machinations of K Street.
In my experience, Washington is a place where the line between work and personal life is often virtually non-existent. This is a city where the office never sleeps. 60-hour work weeks seem to be the norm, and I have no doubt that much higher hour counts are common. And in the age of smart phones and wireless internet, many of us never truly unplug. It is easy for our job descriptions to creep into every area of life and every waking moment; but if we love our work, what’s the problem?

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Leaders: Can We Grow Our Own?

As a new Quaker, whenever I had a question about my faith, more experienced Friends at my Meeting would recommend a book or pamphlet I should read. I was inspired by stories about the profound awakenings and prophetic ministry of my spiritual ancestors, and over time I came to trust my sense of spiritual intuition, developing an increasingly deep relationship with God. I grew a lot just by waiting in the silence and listening for the inward voice of the Spirit.

Yet at the same time, I felt something was missing. There was this yearning that could not be filled by pamphlets, nor even the weekly training of silent worship. What could answer this aching need to lead a life of faithfulness like the ones I read about? What did I have to do to live in the light, life and power that I saw glimmers of in worship?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Last Quaker Standing

Not too long after becoming a Quaker, I remember hearing an inspiring story. I was told that there was once a Friends Meeting that had at once been a vibrant community. The meetinghouse was built to hold several hundred people, and at some point – perhaps a hundred years ago – it had been filled to overflowing.
But times changed. For a variety of reasons, the community shrank dramatically, and by the turn of this century, there were only a few elderly members left. Finally, even these last few members died or moved away to retirement communities, leaving only a single old man as an active member!
Not so inspiring, huh? But wait – there’s more! While most people would have given up and found somewhere else to worship, the last remaining member of this Meeting made a different choice. Rather than joining some other community, he just kept on attending, all by himself. Each week, he drove down to the meetinghouse, opened up the doors and sat for an hour of silent worship. Alone.
Here’s the inspiring part: After a while, things began to change. Week after week, the last elderly member of this Friends Meeting sat alone on the facing bench, holding a silent vigil, but one Sunday morning, a young family arrived. They appreciated the hour of silence, a respite from their busy lives. To the old man’s surprise, the family came back the next week. And the next. Somehow the word seemed to get out about this little meetinghouse and its unique style of silent worship. Soon, there were several families and individuals attending.
The triumphant conclusion of the story, as I remember it, is this: Today, the meeting has thirty or forty attenders, and is an active part of the Yearly Meeting.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Can Quakerism Become A Mass Movement?

I was talking recently with a friend about the possibilities for growth and outreach at Capitol Hill Friends, and he made a comment that struck me. He said that he did not view Quakerism as having much potential for being a mass movement, since it can be such a demanding, austere path. It was his opinion that many of the core disciplines of the Quaker path – such as silence, waiting, and group discernment – are simply not accessible to most people in our culture.

Is this true?
Without a doubt, the simple commitment to follow Jesus runs counter to many of the assumptions of mainstream society. In many ways, it is a hard thing to be a follower of Jesus and a citizen in Empire. Yet, many churches are growing today; a community of 150 people is not generally considered to be extravagantly large. Being a Christian is deeply challenging, but I know that there are many people in our city who would prefer a purposeful life of challenge to the meaningless rat race of consumer society.
All that being said, there is a certain reality to the claim that the Quaker path is simply not appealing to most people. The truth is, Quakerism has not been a mass movement for centuries. Based in my own personal experience, I would say that most North American Quaker congregations today have fewer than 50 active participants, and many – probably a majority – have far fewer than that.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Friends of Jesus in Barnesville

This past weekend, Friends from across the United States gathered in Barnesville, Ohio, which has been a key site of Quaker activity for well over a century. Much more recently, this little Appalachian town has become a meeting place for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.
The event this weekend was our Spring Gathering, one of two regular get-togethers that FOJF puts on each year as we explore what it means to be a community gathered by the Holy Spirit. We had folks make the drive from Detroit, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Jersey, NYC, New England and St. Louis – and one Friend even flew in from Seattle! It was inspiring to hear what is happening in the communities that are organizing themselves in many of these cities, as well as a new virtual group that has begun to meet via Google Hangout.
The theme for this gathering was John 11:14-26, particularly Jesus’ declaration, “I am the resurrection and the life.” This scriptural focus was helpful for us as we listened together for where the Christ’s life is emerging in our life together. All of us face great challenges to living as children of light in a world that so often embraces the darkness, yet we found courage and strength in one another, and the ways in which the Spirit is preparing us for the work of love, justice and compassion.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Love Of Money

In our modern society, it is almost impossible to survive without money. The use of money has become an inescapable aspect of our daily lives. To secure food, shelter, utilities, clothing, transport or recreation – for just about anywhere we want to go and anything we want to do – a monetary exchange is involved. Whether by cash, check, credit card or online payment, most aspects of our lives are now regulated by transactional currency exchange.
What is the problem? Well, according to many public thinkers, there isn’t one. Common wisdom is that money is merely a placeholder for economic value; it simply serves as a technical fix that allows our modern economy to function. With the help of a regulated currency, goods and services can be exchanged in an orderly, efficient manner. Money is a fantastic invention that allows individuals to store and exchange the value of their labor.
But money has become so much more than that. In the thousands of years since the invention of standardized currency, money has consistently shown its ability to twist human behavior. Instead of serving as a means of exchange, we turn it into an end goal. Instead of seeing life as it really is – a pure gift from God – our monetary systems ensnare us in a worldview that reduces the majesty of creation and the details of human life to numbers on a balance sheet.

Monday, April 01, 2013

My Inner 23-Year-Old – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #52

Dear friends,

God has a way of sneaking up on me. For the last decade or so, a constant theme of my life has been amazement and surprise. Ten years ago, I never could have guessed that not only would I become a Christian, but that I would go to seminary and dedicate myself to a path of ministry. When I first came to live in Washington, I did not imagine that Faith and I would end up settling down and buying a house here. When we started Capitol Hill Friends, we did not suspect that God would call us to a form of community life that is very different from that which we originally envisioned.

In every step along this journey, God surprises me with the way he gentles me, slows me down and humbles me. In a slow process of transformation, the Spirit is mellowing me out. She is balancing me, making me less erratic, less swept up in every high and low of my personal experience. The Spirit is softening me while at the same time deepening my constancy. I am being re-formed into someone who can be relied upon by a local community.

Just a few years ago, my self-image was almost entirely based in moving around – “traveling in the ministry” as it is fashionable to call it. I definitely did some ministry, and I might have even been helpful sometimes, but the traveling part was at least as much about my need to explore and personally develop as anything else. And, at a certain point, it becomes clear that travel can be a way of escaping certain uncomfortable facts: I cannot do everything. Commitment is required (even not committing is ultimately a commitment). People, places and things change – relentlessly. Sooner or later, I am going to die.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Supreme Court Debates Same-Sex Marriage – Should We?

I was raised in a household that was openly affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered folks long before that was commonplace in American society. In the early 1990s, I joined my parents in gay rights rallies and parades in Wichita, Kansas. I grew up with GLBT folks in my community, and my parents encouraged me to watch movies and read books about the devastation that was being caused by a deadly combination of a virulent AIDS virus, and an equally virulent homophobia that permeated much of our culture. I was raised to be an ally.

Marriage equality has always been a no-brainer for me. As a child, I got to see my father and another important leader in my church have their ministerial credentials revoked by the Quaker Church because of their openly expressed conviction that gay relationships were not inherently sinful. The fact that they came to this conclusion out of a process of prayer and serious engagement with what the Bible says (and does not say) about homosexuality did not seem to matter. They were run out of my childhood church like heretics.

So why do I feel so conflicted about the current debate happening at (and outside of) the Supreme court?

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pastor? Community Organizer!

As long as I have been a Christian, I have been skeptical of the pastoral system. Though I am not critical of pastors themselves, I do have a fair amount of discomfort with the idea that one person should be singled out as "the minister," with the rest of the church relegated to support roles. You could say that I am especially committed to the concept of the priesthood of all believers, the responsibility that each one of us has for living as disciples of Jesus.

Though there are certainly dangers in the single-pastor model, I have also observed that when leadership is everyone's job, it often becomes no one's job. In my experience, a lack of explicitly recognized leadership can be a mask for hidden and informal structures that, when dysfunctional, cannot be questioned. It is extremely difficult to critique faulty leadership in a community that does not admit to having leaders! I have been part of communities where the refusal or inability to recognize and empower Spirit-led leadership has resulted in conflict, dysfunction and stagnation.

In spite of the risks that I see in the traditional pastoral model, I cannot deny the advantages of designating particular individuals as leaders within the community. At the same time, the single-pastor pattern of many churches just does not seem to work very well in our present situation, if it ever did. The work of the church is simply too great a burden for any one person to carry.

I am increasingly convinced that we need a way forward that is trapped neither in the informal power structures that can suffocate and stagnate our communities, nor in a pastoral system in which all responsibility and decision-making is vested in one person. What might an alternative model look like?

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Friday, March 22, 2013

A Church In Recovery

I just read a really solid blog post from James Tower, a seminary student at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Oregon. He writes about his lifelong experience of recovery from addiction, and gives us a glimpse into his journey through Alcoholics AnonymousCelebrate Recovery (Rick Warren’s version of AA), and the Quaker Church. He takes a look at the strengths and weaknesses of both AA and the Christian Church, and he provides some perspective on how we as followers of Jesus could learn from the guiding principles of the recovery community.
For me, Jame’s post comes as a lighting strike. Just a couple days ago, I had a long conversation with folks from Capitol Hill Friends about AA and how we might incorporate some of its principles into our life together. We felt that the 12 Steps of AAwere deeply resonant the Christian faith, encouraging real confession and practical transformation. I began to think about what it might look like to use the 12 Steps as a basis for our group’s curriculum. I wondered if there was a way to bring the powerful principles of AA back into the Church.
How amazing that less than 48 hours later Jame’s post shows up in my RSS feed! Just as I begin consider what it might look like to engage with AA principles from an explicitly Christ-centered perspective, I am handed this seasoned set of reflections grounded in an experience of both the recovery community and the Quaker Church.
I will not try to re-hash Jame’s post here. I encourage you to read it for yourself. Having read it, I would like us to engage in a conversation about how we might move forward together asa people in recoverywith Jesus as our Higher Power. Could we come to a place where we recognize the need of every person to be freed from addiction, “turning our lives and wills over to the care of God”? Could we have the courage to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” and “admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”? What power might be released into our lives if we “humbly asked God to remove all our shortcomings” and “made direct amends [to those whom we have harmed] whenever possible.”?
What a compelling and life-giving gospel that would be! Of course we would want to “carry this message to others and practice these principles in all our affairs”!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Get Out Of The Way!

In the Quaker tradition, knowing when and whether to speak during worship is an important practice. Sometimes, for example, as I wait in silent worship, a good idea comes to me. It might be a great thought, but if it is not something that God is calling on me to share with the group, I need to let it go and leave space for someone else who is inspired by God to speak.

In the old days, Friends called this phenomenon damaging another’s service. The greatest risk in ministry is not that we will say the wrong thing, but instead that we might prevent another person from delivering the inspired, God-breathed message for that particular moment.

We all mess up sometimes, of course, and occasionally a person will rise and speak when they really should have remained silent. Usually, this poorly-discerned contribution in worship is not particularly harmful. A spiritually grounded group of worshipers can handle unhelpful speaking quite well, without it unduly affecting the quality of the worship.

The most important reason that we must have discernment when speaking is not the risk that our speaking might upset the group; instead, it is because our poorly-timed words might get in the way of the true message that God wants us to hear. For example, there have been times that I have had a clear message from the Lord to share, yet just as I was about to deliver it, another individual stood up and shared a good idea. Though it was certainly not their intention, they unknowingly blocked the work of the Spirit in the group.

The traditional Quaker meeting for worship is sort of like a spiritual fire drill. It is a rehearsal in discernment, learning when to speak and when to be silent; when to act and when to be still. These same principles of discernment apply in the rest of our lives, in the work that we do out in the world and in the roles and relationships that we live in. Do I take care to be discerning about how both my action and lack of action impacts the life of my community?

Am I damaging another’s service by taking on tasks that are not mine to do? Do I block the work of the Holy Spirit by interjecting my own ideas when it would be better to listen?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis: A Social Justice Pope?

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that we are observing a pivotal moment in church history. Benedict has self-consciously acted as a transitional pope, living to see his own successor. And for the last few weeks I and millions of others have wondered: Where does this transition lead?

That is still an open question, but the answer began to take shape yesterday when the assembled cardinals emerged to announce, habemus papam. The newest pope is Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina.

The new pontiff is a groundbreaking figure. He is the first pope from the New World, and the first in a millennium to be born outside of Europe. He is also the first man from the Jesuit order to be elected to the papacy. Finally, he is one of the few popes in recent centuries to take a totally new name: Francis.

This name captures my attention the most. Bergoglio is a deeply conservative leader, doctrinally speaking. He has stood resolutely against any liberalization of abortion laws in his native Argentina, and he has spoken out against gay relationships. As a cardinal appointed by Pope John Paul II, none of this is very surprising. Neither John Paul nor Benedict were in the habit of appointing progressive cardinals.

What is intriguing is that Bergoglio has a reputation for being concerned with social justice. The journalistic coverage so far has told a story of a cardinal who has forgone many of the privileges associated with his rank in the church hierarchy. During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he reportedly chose a modest apartment rather than the palatial quarters to which he was entitled. It is said that he cooks for himself, though it is normal for a man of his station to have a private chef. Rather than taking a chauffeured car, it is said that he regularly rides public transport.

And he has chosen the name Francis, naming himself after a man who embraced total poverty, living in solidarity with the poor, marginalized and outcast; a man who sought a fraternal relationship with all of creation and, it is said, bore the marks of Jesus' crucifixion in his own body. This is a startlingly radical name for a pope!

At this stage, it is hard to know what, precisely this name might signal. Does Bergoglio aspire to lead his church into an imitation of Francis' radical poverty and submission to Christ's suffering? Is the new pope as concerned with communion and care for the creation as Francis of Assisi? Could Pope Francis be a pivotal figure in the history of the Church, helping to guide the Church to an understanding of our faith that is more deeply rooted in dedication to social and environmental justice?

The very fact that Bergoglio is doctrinally conservative could make him the right man to lead this transition. In this deeply divided age, liberals are not expected to care about personal morality and conservatives are not expected to concern themselves with social justice and environmental stewardship. But what if this pope has the courage and faith to embrace both concerns at once? What a powerful leader he might be!

As Pope Francis ascends to the papacy, I dare to hope for a man who will unite many of the warring tendencies within the Roman Catholic Church. I pray for a man who can, with humility, tenderness and love, uphold the Church's teaching on the sanctity of life, the obscenity of war and the importance of personal holiness. At the same time, I dare to dream that this pope might also use all of the power and influence at his disposal to make the Church a prophetic voice in an age of global empire, standing firm against the powers of economic injustice, militarism and environmental destruction.

So much remains to be seen, and I am aware that in a year's time I may look back at this blog post and grimace. But for the time being, it feels right to nurture hope. I will pray for this new pope, that he will live up to his namesake and bear the marks of Christ's suffering poor in his body. And I will pray that we will have the courage to join him in bearing that burden.

Monday, March 11, 2013

God Is More Than A Feeling

Quakers sometimes have a tough time knowing what to do with emotions. For most of our history, we have been highly suspicious of anything resembling emotionalism. Still today, when we make decisions together, the presence of strong emotions is sometimes taken as a signal that we are not yet fully submitted to Christ's will.

Our ingrained reticence towards emotion may seem surprising, since Quakerism is among the more experientially-oriented expressions of the Christian tradition. At the core of the Quaker movement is a conviction that the only solid basis of mature Christian faith is a lived relationship with the Holy Spirit. It is through a direct encounter with the risen presence of Jesus that we come to understand the meaning of the Scriptures and tradition that have been handed down to us from previous generations of disciples. For Friends, to be a Christian is to literally become a follower of Jesus - experiencing him as Teacher in our daily lives.

But what does experience mean? It is easy to imagine that Friends' emphasis on experiential faith would lead to emotionalism. When we talk about having an experience of Jesus, we might mean having an emotional response to a sermon, a Scripture reading, or another - perhaps more mundane - event in our lives. Experience might just a code word for the human emotional response.

But in reality, emotionalism is generally frowned upon in Quaker circles - especially in our decision-making process. When we gather in meetings for worship and business, our goal is to set aside all personal opinions, emotions and desires, and to allow the Holy Spirit to move and guide us.

So how do we experience this presence of the Holy Spirit without emotionalism? Certainly, we can experience God through emotional responses. We can also have an encounter with the Spirit through an intellectual eureka moment. And there are times when we experience the presence of Christ in our very bodies - in a sensation of physical oneness with him that transcends emotions or conscious thought. All of these are ways to encounter the present guidance and love of Jesus.

But to locate God in any of these - thoughts, emotions or sensory experience - would be a mistake. Though we experience God through our emotions, God is not a feeling. We encounter Jesus in our minds, but he is not an intellectual idea. The Holy Spirit is not material, but when we dwell together in love and truth, she finds concrete expression in our bodies.

For centuries, Quakers have been on a trajectory of stripping away everything that is not God, and at this point we tend to be cautious about all outward expressions. We have surrendered emotions, intellect and the sensory experience of the body, all in the pursuit of the essential, spiritual encounter with Jesus - beyond words, beyond feelings, beyond flesh and blood. For 350 years, Friends have pursued the via negativa, saying "not this" countless times.

It may be that we have gone too far. We have discovered that God is not in the wind, not in the earthquake, nor in the fire - but are we alert to the ways in which God speaks to us through body, mind, soul and spirit? Are we receptive to how Christ wants to be enfleshed, re-minded and emotionally felt in our lives? Having walked the path of negation for so long, are we able to embrace the continuing incarnation of Jesus through his Holy Spirit? Are we ready to be his body, with all faculties intact - brain, heart, hands and feet?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Learning to Shine

Gathered in the heart of the capital of the greatest empire the world has ever known, Capitol Hill Friends is a community rooted in a unique time and place in history. Many of us work for governments, non-profits, and other institutions that seek to influence the course of national and international events. All of us live within a cultural space where busyness is touted as a virtue, overwork is the norm, and transience is a fact of life. I often refer to our environment here in DC as being a pressure cooker, and the description seems accurate to our experience. Whenever I describe our city this way, my friends and neighbors nod their heads in agreement.

Over the long-term, many of us cannot withstand the pressure. There are many reasons people leave the DC area, but the unrelenting intensity of our city has to be a factor. To live in Washington is to partake in an atmosphere of driven ambition, power games and unrelenting busyness. This is true regardless of your job is or your general attitude towards life. The heartbeat of Empire resounds, and it is nearly impossible to avoid being infused with some of its rhythm.

In this context, we at Capitol Hill Friends have a special role to play. We dwell in the epicenter of power, but we feel an invitation to focus on the margins. We are hearing the cry of those who are buckling under the stress of this unsustainable way of life. We are responding to the longing of those who want justice but are often forced to settle for expedience. We are creating a space for transformation - open ground where we can gather together in the name of Jesus.

As unlikely as it may seem, I sense that our calling is to carve out a space of refuge in the heart of Empire. We are called to create and expand a dynamic, life-giving, encouraging environment where we can grow together and slowly break the habits of our over-burdened, anxiety-filled lives. In a city that can often be filled with so much darkness, we are called to be light.

It only takes a little bit of light to push back the darkness, and as we help others to shine, the radius of our radiance will only grow wider. What does it look like to become a community where we equip one another to shine? How can we inspire hope, joy and peace in one another? Are there ways that we can be training so that the peace and love that we have experienced together becomes infectious? How can we spread the light of Christ throughout our families, social circles, workplaces and neighborhoods?

Monday, March 04, 2013

Gift-Based Community

I used to feel alone in the world. I felt cut off from the kind of human relationships that I wanted - a group of people who would love me for who I really was, and not simply because I conformed to their expectations. I yearned to be part of a community. I had all sorts of ideas about what this imaginary community should look like and how it would fulfill and complete my life.

Something remarkable about my early visions of community is that none of these fantasies required me to change at all. I wanted others to fulfill me as I was, not to transform my perceptions, actions and character. I could not see it at the time, but my ideas about community were largely an idol. I had turned community into a product that would fulfill me as I was, rather than shake me to the core.

Idols die hard, and I clung to this one for many years. Slowly, however, I started to see that my own attitudes, habits and ways of treating others were keeping me outside the circle of community. I began to understand that I was not going to find a magical solution out there unless I was willing to be changed in here.

It is no wonder that I clung to my ideas of the perfect community for so long. With my false images of community firmly in hand, I demanded that the world love me, even though I was doing very little to show love to the world. The truth was, I often hated others - hated them for not giving me what I wanted, for not loving me, for not seeing me for who I was. In the height of silliness, I blamed them for not loving me, when I hated them. How could I ever have expected others to return love for my hatred?

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus did for all of us. Though we hated him, spit on him, tortured and murdered him, he loved us with every fiber of his being. He was secure enough in his Father's love that he could return good for evil, love for hate.

In this, we discover the secret to authentic community. Real community requires me to make myself vulnerable to others, even when I have no reason to expect to receive anything good in return. Genuine relationships are built on the foundation of the self-giving love that is a pure gift from God. We cannot produce it, we cannot sustain it - we can only allow this abundant life and power to flow through us and fill our lives and relationships.

Is this all sounding too mystical, too theoretical? In practical terms, true community demands that we make ourselves available to people that we do not always like. It means renouncing the right to shut down the conversation. These kinds of relationships are made possible because our trust is not primarily in other people, or even ourselves, but in the living presence of Jesus in our midst. In a mature community, we love one another because Christ loves through us.

Without the presence of Christ in the midst, community cannot endure, because our relationships are based on fulfilling the needs of each individual through transactions. When we try to live in relationship through our own strength, community ends up becoming a marketplace for unfulfilled desires. This marketplace-community breaks down quickly when some of its members have nothing to sell.

The Kingdom of God stands in sharp contrast to this brittle, transactional style of community. In the kingdoms of this world, we haggle and trade; but in the Kingdom of God, we share gifts. In merely human communities, we each seek our own fulfillment; but when we are gathered by Jesus, we become capable of laying down our lives for each other.

What challenges do we face in a world where most of our communities are based in the idea of exchange, commerce and transaction? What might it look like for us to live in the gift-based community of Christ? Where can we find the encouragement we need to start giving to others without thought of being paid back? How can we speak to the deep loneliness and anxiety of our neighbors, freely giving the love that we have received from God? What would it be like to create a loving environment where real transformation can begin to take place?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Our Words & The Living Word

One of the greatest strengths of the Quaker tradition is that each of us is encouraged to discover the risen presence of Jesus for ourselves. It is not enough to read about Christ in the Bible, or to recite theological statements. Our faith is not based in our ideas about God, but in our lived relationship with God. This kind of faith is an encounter that comes through the daily practice of dwelling in God. We learn to say together with the apostle, "No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us."

Through this lived experience of Christ's indwelling love - and through the practical application of his love in community - we come to know who God really is. Through this process of growing and maturing in faith, we come to believe and share the core teachings of the New Testament. As we grow in love, we are drawn together in the reading of Scripture, the retelling of the gospel story, and the application of biblical principles to our lives.

But the experience of the risen Jesus, and the power of his love in our lives, must come first. We love because he first loved us, and we trust his words in Scripture because he first spoke his word into our hearts. When we claim to believe certain ideas about God, this is not simply because we have been told these things or read about them in the Bible. Instead, our starting place is this living experience of God. Our intellectual beliefs are simply an outgrowth of a life lived in relationship to God and the community of those who are seeking to follow Jesus and love one another.

Our beliefs are testimony to those things that we have experienced first-hand - that which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and touched with our hands. The words that we speak and the beliefs we hold are meant as a reminder of and invitation to the full-bodied experience of God's Spirit. Such beliefs are the fruit of a life lived in God's love. How could we not want to share that kind of beauty, grace and power?

Are there weaknesses to this approach? Absolutely. Individuals and even whole communities often deceive themselves. We easily become too subjective, allowing our personal feelings, assumptions and interpretations to dominate when we should be listening to the reasoned witness of others. This is why it is so important for each of us to live in relationship with a rooted community, and for each community to be in humble conversation with the wider body of Christ.

Despite the dangers of subjectivity, Friends believe that the lived experience of Christ's power must be the foundation of our faith. Without his presence and love, all our religious rituals, all our beautiful words, charitable actions and correct beliefs are nothing but empty forms. We trust that, as we dwell in the love of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will move within us and among us, gathering us together into lives of faithfulness that fulfill the New Testament witness - not according to the legalism of words, but by the grace of the Spirit.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Settling Down and Growing - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #51

Dear friends in Truth,

The daylight hours are getting longer, and I am beginning to feel hopeful that spring is on its way. Though the days are still mostly very cold, I feel a sense of hopeful expectation as the earth begins to wake up. This pairs nicely with the joy and hopefulness that I feel in the rhythms of my own life and in our community here in the DC area. As the weeks pass and the days grow steadily brighter, my experience of work, ministry and life in community are all deepening and becoming more vibrant.

New life is already blooming at Capitol Hill Friends. This Sunday, we gathered for the 5th session of our 6-week small group series. We have averaged about 14 participants at our meetings, out of 17 individuals who have been regularly involved. Pretty good for a small group that envisions itself as being a community of 6-12!

The spiritual depth and sincere seeking we have experienced together has been life-giving. We are learning how to pray together and read the Bible in ways that speak directly to our lives as residents of one of the world's most powerful and high-pressure cities. We are learning to laugh together, to let down our guard and really see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. As one who is sometimes overly serious, this ability to laugh and be silly together has been very powerful for me.

Serving as small group leader for this first six-week series has been a rich experience. I have grown so much through working with my apprentice each week to prepare for the meeting, and my prayer life has deepened as I have become more intentional about lifting up each person in our community. With each week that passes, I feel more knit into the new community that is forming here, and I am heartened to see signs that others are feeling similarly drawn into this new life.

More than ever, I am feeling called to stability and rootedness in place. In previous years, I traveled extensively and got involved in events and communities around the country, and even beyond. Though in recent years I have felt a growing longing to settle down and focus in my home region, I have continually felt called elsewhere - whether to activities in the Ohio Yearly Meeting community, other ministerial travels or visits to family and friends in Ohio and Kansas. Whether I liked it or not, for many years I felt compelled to be away from home much of the time.

This year feels different. In the last two months, I have only left the DC area a couple of times, and both of these trips were to visit friends in Virginia. No grand mission, just nurturing relationships.

As I look ahead, I feel called to stay put. There are places I would like to go and people I long to see. There is so much important work to be done out in the wider world. But now, more than ever, I am feeling like a shepherd, or a gardener, tending this little flock, this little garden. I need to be here, with my people. I need to get to know my city better, to care for my friends, to make myself ever more available to my neighbors in a city where busyness is a status symbol and a spacious life is almost unheard of.

Ironically, as I seek to promote this spaciousness in the life of my community, I am probably busier than I have ever been. There is so much to be done, and I am increasingly aware of the limits of my energy. But this, too, I see as part of God's revelation to me. Christ is teaching me to recognize those things that are most essential, and he is calling me to release everything else. I must let go of anything that is not central to God's purpose for me, no matter how worthy and beneficial it may seem. It is so easy to drown in good things.

The call is becoming increasingly clear and simple: Care for the community, nurture and equip new leaders, pray for my brothers and sisters, seek justice and the well-being of my city. It is not complicated at all, but I have never felt so challenged.

Thank you for your prayers for me and for the work we are engaged in here in DC. All of the love and prayer that you are directing towards us is having a big impact. In the month ahead, please pray that our community here will continue to be built up - in numbers, in spiritual depth, and in healthy community that empowers us to be God's people in the midst of Empire.

Your friend in Truth,

Micah Bales