Winchester Friends Ministry & Oversight
State of Society Report – Annual Report for 2020-2021
Lives That Speak
Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone…. –Friends founder George Fox
As the Ministry & Oversight began discussing the state of spiritual life at Winchester Friends at the close of the 2020-2021 church year, it was nearly impossible to think about the past twelve months in any framing other than that of the changes caused and necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Each M&O member offered reflections on what they have observed and sensed about our life together in the past year, and their hopes for the days yet to come. The following is a summary of their thoughts.
Trials of 2020-2021 For all of us, the past year was one of significant losses and profound sorrow. At least fifteen participants in our faith community tested positive for coronavirus infection and experienced various degrees of illness. A number of our Friends lost close or extended family members to COVID or other causes during the year and often did not have the comfort of gathering to mourn together. Added to that was the sadness of watching the number of pandemic deaths in the US steadily climb past half a million. It was a year of lost chances for close fellowship, handshakes and hugs, a long period of isolation and loneliness. One M&O member compared it to the pupae stage of a butterfly’s life when the caterpillar “shelters in place” inside the chrysalis to await favorable conditions outside. It was a year without the encouragement of singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs together” (Colossians 3:16). Many ministry activities had to be suspended, meaning lost inertia and momentum. In some cases, people who may have had only minimal interest in participating in the Meeting simply withdrew and have not reappeared. Because the pandemic changed so many things in our lives, we all were required to expend large amounts of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy to accomplish in different ways what used to be fairly simple, routine tasks. Work, school, social, travel, and meeting schedules were disrupted, with resumption in many cases still uncertain, making planning very difficult. In the community and society beyond the Meeting (and potentially within as well), economic stress and civil unrest have led to fraying of the social fabric in ways that make many relationships tenuous.
Encouraging Surprises of 2020-2021 The M&O clerk pointed out that none of us should be surprised that the pandemic has not changed God. For those who have remained engaged and have continued seeking the Lord, the pandemic has provided a new or renewed sense of God’s identity and character. Technology was adopted and adapted to our Meeting’s unique needs in a way that has allowed us to maintain relationships and a surprisingly deepened sense of community. In the butterfly analogy, meeting by Zoom has helped break open the isolation of the chrysalis stage to make new life possible. The shift to a worship-sharing format on Sunday mornings has found encouraging success in nudging Friends to be participators rather than spectators, and it has taught us to listen more carefully for “that of God in others.” Meeting via Zoom has made it possible to welcome local newcomers, distant former Friends and family members, and other faraway friends into our fellowship in meaningful, delightful ways that none of us had imagined before the pandemic necessitated these changes. Despite the financial uncertainties and hardships that the pandemic has imposed on so many people and organizations, the Meeting’s finances have remained healthy due to the faithful generosity of so many of our Friends. That consistent support has given us confidence to continue sharing resources from the Best Trust to help “make Christ’s love tangible and visible” in the community and world around us.
Outcomes of 2020-2021 The past year has given us – and all in the Meeting, we hope – a deepened sense of Christ’s faithful presence with us and care for us, no matter how dire our circumstances might get. Worship in a more semi-programmed manner than before has shown many Friends the importance of giving verbal witness of God’s love and Truth within our fellowship when the Spirit prompts them. That hopefully has strengthened and improved their ability to do the same in their relationships beyond the Meeting. Our meetings for worship online have shown the importance of engaged participation by everyone, whether verbal or not – the things said by many Friends on Sunday mornings are most meaningful when heard and absorbed by everyone. Hopefully we will move into 2021-2022 with a new realization of the importance of showing up consistently, whether we end up sharing what we have learned, or we listen deeply to the helpful words of other Friends. Each of us has learned many things about ourselves and our calling to daily ministry during the “inactivity” of the pandemic months. If we’ll let it, that knowledge should equip us for effectiveness in the new environment of the upcoming church year. Returning to the butterfly analogy, the caterpillar-transformed-into-a-butterfly hangs in the opened chrysalis, gaining final form and strength to prepare for flight. That is the hopeful picture of Friends being readied to begin “walking cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone” – letting Christ’s light shine through us, letting our lives and our living speak (Luke 8:16) in the world that the pandemic has left for us to inhabit.
Hope for 2021-2022 The Ministry & Oversight members are determined to learn and grow from the hard lessons of 2020-2021, and not to squander the unexpected blessings and opportunities that have come out of the unprecedented church year just completed. We desire to remain highly attentive to the Lord’s constant, consistent presence. We acknowledge that although we do not yet know everything we will need to understand for effective ministry in the post-pandemic world, we know we cannot just go back to what was “normal” before. We acknowledge that it will require the input and participation of every Friend in the Meeting if we are to successfully fulfill the Lord’s desires for our faith community. We gratefully recognize that the blessings we have enjoyed during the difficult past year are due in large part to a core of Friends who have remained committed to the Meeting and its ministries. They have done so because of their love for the Lord who has saved us, their love for one another in this community of believers, and their dedication to our shared spiritual life. Moving forward, we hope to find relevant new ways of letting Christ’s timeless light of love and Truth shine through us. We long to help the minimally involved to renew their seeking. We desire to welcome the uninvolved to discover the benefits of living by faith – especially young adults and families in this overly secular era for whom the pandemic has been a rude awakening to human frailties and mortality. Like the butterfly that has been protected and nurtured inside the chrysalis, we know we must in faith release our grip on the refuge of “what has been” and fly into the unknown future in order to fulfill God’s calling and purpose for us.
We invite every Friend in the church to join us in that journey. Like Paul appealing to the Corinthians (I Cor. 2:1), we cannot depend on eloquent words or superior human knowledge (or slicker technology and flashy entertainment). We welcome you just to let your daily lives speak, both in words and actions, of God’s love, Truth, and presence. As George Fox discovered, it’s the way God enables us to “walk cheerfully” throughout our lives, and to forge rich connections with others who desire to know and live for the Lord. In the world’s present turmoil, he needs every one of us to get involved. Thank you for letting your lives speak in ministry through Winchester Friends.
Winchester Friends Ministry & Oversight, June 2021: Cleo McFarland, clerk; Sharon Reynard; Dave Longnecker; Linda Groth; Doug Baker; Ellen Craig; Marsha Kritsch, ex officio; Pam Ferguson, ex officio; Ron Ferguson, ex officio
Lives That Speak — Lives of Resilience and Hope
The king said to Daniel, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery (of the king’s dream).” –Daniel 2:47
Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.” –Daniel 3:28
Let your light shine before people, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
–Jesus, Matthew 5:16
Today is World Quaker Day, an initiative of the Friends World Committee for Consultation to remind Friends that in every time zone around the world on the first Sunday of October, Quakers will gather in the presence of the Spirit of Christ. We meet to worship the Lord who unites us in a global community of faith, and to pray for one another’s effective witness in the challenges and opportunities we face. Clearly with the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises in mind, FWCC selected “Resilience and Hope: Drawing Strength from our Faith” as the theme for World Quaker Day 2021. As in the past several years, Winchester Friends’ Ministry & Oversight has chosen to present their State of Society Report for the recently-completed church year during worship on World Quaker Day. The theme of their report (“Lives That Speak”) turned out to dovetail almost seamlessly with FWCC’s focus, and with the past week’s Through the Bible chapters centered in the Book of Daniel.
Daniel was one of Judah’s young “best and brightest.” He and hundreds of other skilled and educated Hebrews were exiled to Babylon in 605 BC after the Babylonian army forced the surrender of Jerusalem, helped themselves to Judah’s treasures, and turned Judea into a client state. Part of Nebuchadnezzar’s strategy for keeping conquered nations weak was to deplete their human capital as well as their treasury. Daniel and three other young Hebrews featured in the first half of the Book of Daniel – Hananiah (Babylonian name Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach), and Azariah (Abednego) – were chosen to undergo three years of language and other training to become servants in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace (Dan. 1:3,4). As part of that assignment, they were fed rich food and wine from the king’s own table, food that had been offered to idols and included things that violated the dietary instructions of Moses’ Law. Rather than follow orders and spiritually defile himself, Daniel resolved to obey God and requested permission from their Babylonian boss to eat only vegetables and drink only water. The Babylonian feared he would be blamed for underfeeding the Hebrews, but he reluctantly agreed to a test. After ten days, the Judeans looked and performed better than their counterparts who ate the rich food. Their diet was switched, and at the end of their training years the king found them superior to all his other wise men and advisors. Their lives spoke.
When I was around five years old, I watched “Popeye the Sailor Man” cartoons on TV each Saturday morning. My brother and I became convinced that if we ate enough canned spinach, we too could get strong enough to rip the top off a can and eat the contents like a beverage. We got our mother to fix us some spinach. After I had choked down a couple of spoonsful, I went outdoors to play and saw our neighbor Mr. Carmichael working on his lawn mower in his driveway. I ran over and told him I had eaten some spinach and was now as strong as Popeye. I asked him if he wanted to see. He didn’t reply right away, so I flexed my skinny biceps for him, then slugged him on the shoulder. I was only five, but I’d bet it hurt a little. I am horrified every time I remember that incident. It makes me wonder how many parents persuaded little kids to eat canned spinach by telling them they’d be strong like Popeye. They probably should have told us more about the virtues of Olive Oil. I’m pretty sure that my siblings and I were told the Bible story of Daniel and his friends a few times, too, to persuade us to eat our vegetables and stay away from wine.
Daniel 2 tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar’s troubling dream, and his demand that his advisors tell him both what he had dreamed and what it meant. When the advisors had no idea what the dream had been, the king ordered them all killed (including Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). Daniel was given a chance to plead his case with the king and was allowed time to seek the Lord. After the Hebrews prayed, the Lord revealed the complicated dream and its meaning to Daniel. When he laid that all out to Nebuchadnezzar, the king acknowledged the sovereignty of Yahweh (Dan. 2:47, above) and spared the lives of his wise men. Daniel 3 tells us of Daniel’s three friends’ courageous refusal to bow in worship to a statue of Nebuchadnezzar, even on the threat of death. After the Lord miraculously accompanied them through the fiery furnace and enabled them to emerge unscathed, the king again praised Yahweh’s omnipotence (3:28, above). Several years later, following the Medo-Persian conquest of Babylon, their ruler Darius made Daniel one of the most powerful administrators in his kingdom (Daniel 6). Other officials, jealous of Daniel’s power and friendship with Darius, fooled the king into signing a decree sentencing to death in a lions’ den anyone who prayed to any deity other than Darius. Daniel’s life had spoken. They knew he prayed three times daily towards Jerusalem — the City of Zion where the presence of Yahweh dwelt — and would not cease doing so. He was arrested and thrown into the lion’s den, but God “sent his angel and shut the mouths of the lions.” Darius witnessed Daniel’s miraculous survival and issued a decree praising Yahweh as the one true God (6:26,27).
In young adulthood, Daniel and his three friends were forced into a horrible situation they never would have chosen. Rather than giving in to Babylonian cultural religion and surrendering their deepest identity as children of the Living God, they held tenaciously to their faith and made the best of their difficult circumstances. They were resilient. In faith, they never gave up hope that God would allow the Hebrews to return to Jerusalem and Judea, and would help them live more faithfully than the people had whose disobedience and idolatry led to Israel’s captivity. Their determination to obey the Lord in all things first, then deal with whatever consequences resulted, spoke volumes about God and about themselves to anyone who was paying attention.
We in 2021 face a combination of challenges – pandemic, climate crisis, economic upheaval and disparity, armed conflict, social and racial injustice — that may add up to nearly equal those which faced the Hebrew exiles. And due to modern communications technology, a lot more people are now paying attention. The Lord’s message to us today through Daniel’s examples is that the resilience, hope, and resolve to “seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness” which they displayed 2600 years ago are still available to all who wish to live lives that speak to others of God’s holiness, loving compassion, and eternal promise. All he needs is our invitation to allow his Spirit to live fully in us. Let’s help one another to let our lives speak for God in all we are, in everything we do.
–Ron Ferguson 3 October 2021
Queries for Worship-Sharing and Reflection
1) What have been your greatest trials or discouragements of the past 18 months? How has God helped you with them?
2) What do you think “spiritual resilience” and “spiritual hope” will look like in 2021 and beyond?
3) What encouraging surprises or positive changes have you experienced in the last 18 difficult months?
4) Why is it important to consider what others will conclude about God and faithful living when they watch how I live?
5) What are your most fervent hopes as the world and our community slowly emerge from these months of pandemic?