Tag Archives: Micah Bales

Getting ourselves out of the way…

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that in all things God works for good for those who love [him], who are called according to his purpose.

(Romans 8.26-28 NRSV (alt. rdg.))

Sometimes religion appears to be presented as offering easy cures for pain: have faith and God will mend your hurts; reach out to God and your woundedness will be healed. The Beatitude ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted’ can be interpreted this way too, but the Latin root of the word ‘comfort’ means ‘with strength’ rather than ‘at ease’. The Beatitude is not promising to take away our pain; indeed the inference is that the pain will remain with us. It does promise that God will cherish us and our wound, and help us draw a blessing from our distressed state.

S Jocelyn Burnell, 1989 – Quaker faith & practice 21.66

For some, this may seem an odd or even offensive way of looking at things, to speak of finding a blessing within suffering, or of being blessed through suffering, especially at a time when the news is bad enough already without the media’s perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths. But just suppose, for a moment, that the apostle Paul and the astrophysicist Jocelyn Burnell both have a point. Suppose that I am not kidding myself when I recall that even, or even especially, at the times when I have been most bereft of human comfort, most at risk of harm and loss, I have felt God closest to me, and I have been most conscious of his blessed and indefatigable love. (I could go into details, but this is, as I’ve said before, not a confessional blog!) What would make the difference between a brokenness that surrenders itself to fear and pain, and one that surrenders itself to God? Let me suggest that it might be, at least for me, trust.

The Catholic philosopher and theologian, Peter Kreeft, writes:

God’s remedy for our mistrust is his infinite and all-powerful mercy, which is stronger than all our sins. God’s mercy makes holiness easy because it makes our basic task not hard penances but joyful trust. Our joy (in the form of trust) brings down God’s joy (in the form of mercy). Saint Faustina writes: “the graces of [God’s] mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only, and that is – trust. The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive.”

Hope’s intellectual component is belief that God will fulfil all his promises. Its volitional component is the choice to believe that and the choice to hold despair at bay. Its emotional component is joy, which naturally results from the belief that God will give us all good.

Trust and surrender seem almost to be the same thing. To abandon myself to divine providence is to be freed from the need to preserve myself and my means of livelihood, or, conversely, as Micah Bales wrote recently, “I don’t need to stress out about winning the struggles of this life – whether my personal worries or the grand concerns of planetary survival. Instead, I am invited to receive ‘that peace which the world cannot give.’ Offering my whole life to God, I am freed from the need to change the world…”

This trust, this surrender, of course doesn’t come just by deciding to do it. In fact, it doesn’t come by deciding to do it at all. It comes by prayer. Peter Kreeft again, writing this time of the Jesus Prayer:

In saying it brings God closer, I do not mean to say that it changes God. It changes us. But it does not just make a change within us, a psychological change; it makes a change between us and God, a real, objective change. It changes the real relationship; it increases the intimacy. It is as real as changing your relationship to the sun by going outdoors. When we go outdoors into the sun, we do not move the sun closer to us, we move ourselves closer to the sun. But the difference it makes is real: we can get warmed only when we stand in the sunlight…

When this happens, it is not merely something we do but something God does in us. It is grace, it is his action; our action is to enter into his action, as a tiny stream flows into a great river.

His coming is, of course, his gift, his grace. The vehicle by which he comes is also his grace: it is Jesus himself. And the gift he gives us in giving us his blessed name to invoke is also his grace. So, therefore, his coming to us in power on this vehicle, this name, is also pure grace. Even our remembering to use this vehicle, this name, is his grace. As Saint Therese said, “Everything is a grace.”

Prayer, trust, grace, mercy, surrender – these have to be written down as though they were separate things, contingent one upon another. But they’re not, really. They are one movement, one verb that is God – for we humans, the whole discipline consists in nothing more than getting ourselves out of the way…

The Desert in the City

Micah Bales has an interesting blog post, published today, entitled Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

He writes:

Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness? … Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

For me, the best introduction by far to the subject of desert spirituality is Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the DesertDiscussing the often misunderstood theme of flight into the desert, he says:

Certainly the desert monks and nuns are in flight from the social systems of their day, from the conformity and religious mediocrity of what they find elsewhere. But they are clearly not running away from responsibility or from relationships; everything we have so far been considering underlines that they are entering into a more serious level of responsibility for themselves and others and that their relationships are essential to the understanding of their vocation.

The desert nun did not grant herself the luxury of evading her own or the world’s problems simply by running away, nor by immersion in human company and conviviality. It was the direct encounter with God in prayer that was the heart of her vocation.

Micah Bales wrote, in another recent post, of the necessity to be prepared to “like Jesus… let go of every guarantee, every promise – even the promise of God’s presence and protection – in order to live in the naked reality of God’s kingdom.” It is this encounter with naked reality, I believe, that lies at the heart of the desert vocation, as it does at the heart of the original Quaker vocation, as Isaac Penington explained:

The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ’s righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness.

For myself, the answer is always found in prayer and stillness. I cannot ever begin with thought, or with my own emotional reaction to a situation, or to another’s words, or I am lost before I begin. (Incidentally, this is I think where political debate so often goes wrong!) When we fall silent before God, knowing our own unknowing, our own inability to say or do anything from a pure heart, then we are in position at last to recognise the truth of Thomas R Kelly’s words:

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

Our lives as Friends, or indeed as anyone who attempts to live out the contemplative life, will tend inevitably towards the desert, it seems to me. The more we place stillness at the centre of not only our worship, but of our own prayer, the more open we are to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Meister Eckhart put it best, as I quoted, via Barbara Brown Taylor, yesterday:

Leave place, leave time,
Avoid even image!
Go forth without a way
On the narrow path,
Then you will find the desert track.

Is Gratitude a Scam?

I tend not to reblog others’ posts here, for some reason, but Friend Micah speaks my mind so clearly I felt I had no alternative!

Is Gratitude a Scam? by Micah Bales

Gratitude has always seemed like a scam to me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a heightened awareness of what’s wrong in the world. In the 3rd grade on the school bus, I was reading Newsweek, learning about all of the great challenges facing us. All of the wrongs that needed righted.

In the context of so much evil, feeling grateful made no sense. How could I let myself be satisfied with the unacceptable, grateful for a world in which there is so much brokenness?

Sometimes people told me I should feel grateful. Focus on all the good things you have in your life, they said. But that seemed like a cop out. Sure, there are plenty of things that are wonderful about the world, but those aren’t the things that need my attention, that need fixing.

I even saw the language of gratitude abused. I saw how those in authority could threaten those who weren’t grateful enough for the status quo. Workers who weren’t grateful for starvation wages might get fired. Activists who weren’t grateful for the military industrial complex of our country should love it or leave it.

Despite all the problems I’ve seen with gratitude, I also know that I’m in deep need of it. When I refuse to practice gratitude for all of the beauty and wonder in my life, my heart becomes hardened. Before long, I don’t have eyes to see anything but the darkness. Gratitude is essential for my spiritual health, my sense of groundedness and peace, my relationship with God.

My almost insatiable hunger for a better, truer, more just world is a God-given orientation. I’m stuck with it, and I’m to bless the world with it. But there’s no way I can sustain any kind of Spirit-led witness if I refuse to ground my critique of unjust systems in a deeper awareness of the beauty, love, and power of this life.

Is this a contradiction? How do I hold together both my sense of gratitude and my burning desire for a just and fair world? How can my deep sense of gratitude be the soil in which a prophetic challenge to this world’s darkness takes root?

Despite my concerns, I’m realizing that gratitude is and must be the foundation of all my work for justice. The very fact that I notice that there’s evil in the world, that I find it out of place and disturbing, is a sign of the underlying goodness of God’s creation. Evil is an aberration; goodness is the norm. My grateful awareness of this life that God made and called good is the basis for any challenge I might bring to the brokenness of our fallen existence.

The gratitude is there, waiting for me in the midst of disappointment and wrong. It is nourishment in the wilderness I live in. Just as the Hebrews found manna in the midst of the desert, I am fed by God in the midst of an unjust and unfair society. It is by the strength of this gratitude that I am sustained and empowered to seek a truer, more beautiful world.

I am grateful to God for the presence of his grace and power, inspiring and equipping me to take the next step in faith.

Trust?

Micah Bales is a founding member of Friends of Jesus, a new Quaker community in Washington, DC. A communications and web strategist by trade, he is employed by Friends United Meeting.

Micah has written a most interesting post, very much of course conditioned by the US experience, but applicable directly across the capitalist, industrial, wealthy, developed countries, as well, to a degree, to pretty much everyone else in the globalised society. His thesis, that the trust on which society depends for its viability is increasingly under threat, is as relevant in the UK at the moment as it is across North America. He writes:

Because I can trust others, I generally don’t sweat every detail of life. I am able to focus on my most important tasks, rather than worrying about whether the mechanics did an adequate job repairing my car, or whether the mail will arrive on time and in good condition. Because I trust my mechanic and the postal service. Because I trust them to do their jobs to the best of their ability, I can do mine.

But what happens when trust breaks down? How will it affect me if I no longer feel confident in the safety of the food I buy at the grocery store, or the quality work of my mechanic or postal delivery? I’ll worry more, for one thing. If I can afford it, I’ll probably also pay extra for assurance that those I depend on will come through for me, if only out of a sheer profit motive. A world without trust is one filled with contracts and lawsuits, high fees and deposits; it is a world of constant stress and second-guessing.

Micah’s conclusion – that in God we can trust – is one that we liberal Quakers in Britain Yearly Meeting, and perhaps also in Friends General Conference, may find hard to accept at face value. But I would suggest that trust is at the root of who we are as Quakers, whether we self-identify as liberal, evangelical or conservative. We sit in the Light, and we trust that we receive in the silence vastly more than we could ever give. The very first of our Advices and Queries (1.02) reads:

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

Our lives are not our own: they are far more than that, and ultimately our very breath is trust. We came into this world, and we shall leave it, anything but under our own steam, and the processes that keep us alive for our few years on earth are far from fully under our own control. By trust is our very existence made possible, however we may explain to ourselves the recipient of that trust…