June 5, 2022
John answered them, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Luke 3:16
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline. II Timothy 1:6,7
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16
Are We Stoked for the Lord?
At about the time you are reading this, Pam and I will be participating in Friends United Meeting’s annual “Stoking the Fire” conference at the Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana. My memory is insufficient, but I think the event was started several years ago as a gathering for young adult Friends to help them consider God’s call of every Christ-follower to ministry, regardless of how they earn money. The fact that FUM’s North American Ministries director invited us to be part of this year’s program suggests that they have significantly adjusted their definition of “young adult.” (And the fact that I am writing this piece focused on the same general topic as the conference’s should give you a clue about the difficulty I find in reading, thinking, and writing deeply on more than one subject at a time!)
The FUM staff who put together this year’s “Stoking the Fire” event chose Mark 4:21-23 as their organizing theme. Those verses make the same basic point as Matthew 5:14-16 (above), that God does not impart his Spirit’s Light to our sin-darkened souls just to be buried or hidden, but so that his Light can be shared for the benefit of all who are willing to see it. As I understand it in advance, the gathering’s first plenary will focus on the inward spiritual life which the Spirit’s Light makes possible and available to each of us. The second plenary (the one we’ll help present) deals with the way a dynamic inner life leads naturally to outward lives of witness and service to address the spiritual and human needs of others. We anticipate we’ll end up talking about the Lord’s leading us into years of work with war refugees in Africa, with jail and prison inmates in this country, with FCNL’s advocacy effort to speak Friends’ spiritual values into the formation of public policy, with years of work through the food pantry to mitigate poverty and hunger in our community, and perhaps other involvements as well. Sunday’s plenary will explore the importance and value of living that inward life of devotion and outward life of service together in community with others who are committed to the same Lord. We feel very privileged – stoked, as the West Coast kids say — to have been included.
The Fire Metaphor Far back in the Old Testament, God’s living presence was represented by fire. When Moses was called to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land, God spoke to him out of a burning bush that miraculously did not burn up (Exodus 3). After Moses persuaded Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave, God guided them by his presence in a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day (Exodus 13). After they arrived at Mt. Sinai, God called Moses up to a meeting. Exodus 19:18 states that Sinai was covered with smoke “because the Lord descended on it in fire,” and Moses miraculously didn’t burn up. Years later, when Moses retold the Israelites the Law and challenged them to obey God and faithfully follow Joshua into Canaan, he stressed to them that the Lord “is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). Centuries later, the writer to the Hebrews chose to quote that advice to his readers to encourage them to worship God with reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28,29). It is this understanding of the living, infilling presence of God that John the Baptist referred to when he contrasted Jesus’ baptizing with the Spirit and fire at Pentecost to his own baptizing with water to express repentance.
Fire as Light Given its Mark 4:21 theme, the “Stoking the Fire” gathering almost certainly will center its attention on the Divine Fire’s light-emitting qualities. The major point of Jesus’ teaching there was that just like an oil lamp we fill and light with fire, the spiritual life resulting from union with the Creator cannot and must not be hidden. John introduced his Gospel (1:4-9) by stating that in Jesus (the Word) “was life, and that life was the light of people,” light that dispelled the terrifying darkness of God’s absence, light made available in Christ to every person created in God’s image. Jesus told his disciples he was the Light of the world whose main purpose was to make God knowable and known, visible and understandable. That Light is the light of Truth to teach us what God is like, and the way God created us to live in order to attain the most meaningful, satisfying earthly lives possible. It is the light of revelation to let us see ourselves as God sees us, to experience conviction for our failures to cooperate with Truth, and to see his invitation to be redeemed and renewed. Christ’s Light is the light of guidance, like the Exodus pillar of fire showing us one day at a time the way we are to take through life’s wilderness of hardships and challenges, opportunities and choices. It is the light of hope that keeps us progressing away from the world’s darkness and ever closer to the promise of life in the eternal City of Light. And it is the light of loving witness, not hidden under a bowl or bed, but gladly shared with others who have lost their way and are stumbling in darkness. Jesus filled his disciples with the fire of his life, then told them, “You are the light of the world…. Let your light shine before people.” He still expects that.
Fire as Cleansing and Healing Fire – both the physical and the spiritual kind – has many other valuable functions besides giving off light. The prophet Malachi wrote that when the Lord appears, “he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver….” (3:2,3). Israel’s silversmiths knew that heating silver until it melted would burn off all the impurities, leaving only the purified precious metal and increasing its integrity, value, and beauty. Leviticus 13 tells of the instructions given to Israel’s priests for controlling outbreaks of mildew and some diseases by burning clothing and other contaminated household items. In my long-ago college microbiology classes, we grew cultures of bacteria in petri dishes in order to learn how to stain the microbes and identify them under a microscope. Some of those bacteria were ones that could cause illness in humans. After we transferred infected material from the “control” test tube onto our petri dishes using a wire instrument, we held that wire in a Bunsen burner flame until it glowed red with heat. Doing so destroyed any bacteria that remained on the wire so that it could not contaminate other samples or infect us with disease. In that same manner, the “fire” of the Holy Spirit with which Jesus baptizes us cleanses our souls and heals the selfishness that can ruin our earthly lives and threaten our eternal one.
Fire as Spiritual Warmth and Passion Shortly before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, he answered questions from his disciples about how they could recognize signs of his ascension as Israel’s king, and of the end of their present age (Matthew 24). He spoke of wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, false prophets, and persecutions and desertions of his followers. And then he said, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved” (24:13). Absent the fire of God’s presence in the soul, we are incapable of obeying the greatest commandment to love God and his ways sacrificially with everything we are and have, and to love one another as Christ loves us. Without that love, it will not be our passion in life to join Jesus in making God knowable and known, visible and understandable. John’s visionary letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2,3) conclude with his warning to Laodicea of God’s displeasure with their spiritual lukewarmness, apparently the result of self-driven effort to appear to be – rather than actually being — on fire with God. It is only when the Spirit’s fire blazes in our souls that we can join Paul in “considering everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” (Philippians 3:8). That’s passion.
Fire as Energy and Power The steam engine is often called the key invention of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. The heat energy released through burning wood or coal was transferred into water to convert it into steam, which was then used to power engines which drove trains, ships, and the massive machinery used in manufacturing. As Jesus prepared to return to the Father, he instructed the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for baptism with the Spirit’s fire, promising that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:4-8). When that promise was fulfilled several days later, the disciples heard a rushing wind and saw tongues of fire that settled on each of them. By awaiting and welcoming the Spirit’s arrival, they received the energy needed to spend the rest of their lives traveling to unimagined places to advance Jesus’ goal of making God known and knowable to all who would listen. That energy helped them endure great hardship and to persist through opposition and danger. They also received power like Jesus had – to speak and understand languages they had not studied, to heal human frailties and diseases, to understand and proclaim Truth, and to deny self in favor of obeying God, making sure God got credit for any good they accomplished. The mark of the Spirit’s fire was and is energy for lifelong faithfulness, and power for humility, unselfish sacrificial service, and godly love.
Stewarding the Fire of God The still-burning huge forest fire in New Mexico (started as a controlled burn) is a reminder that fires not carefully tended will either go out or do great harm. Most often with spiritual fire, it is the former that happens. The fire of the Spirit may smolder in someone for a little while, but not forever — it must be tended. That is both Paul’s instruction to Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God that is in you….” (II Timothy 1:6), and to the Thessalonians not to extinguish the Spirit’s fire (I Thess. 5:19). Stoking a fire means arranging quality fuel for its best exposure to oxygen so the fire can burn efficiently and brightly. The fuel must be stirred regularly to expose unburned fuel to flame and air. Stoking also means adding fresh fuel in that same manner when it is needed. The same is true for the fire of the Spirit in our souls – quality fuel, thoughtfully arranged, and regularly stirred and replenished. Christianity is not a static membership card, but a dynamic, growing relationship with the risen Christ. His presence at the center of our lives brings all these qualities of the Holy Spirit’s fire to our living – Light for Truth, guidance, revelation, vision, hope, and witness; cleansing for refinement and healing; warmth for spiritual passion and priorities; and energy for spiritual perseverance and power to be like Jesus. The earliest Church in Jerusalem stoked the fire of the Spirit by giving themselves fully to the apostles teaching, fellowship with one another, breaking bread together, and prayer (Acts 2:42-47). That’s a good place to start in 2022 as well.
Two thoughts to ponder. God’s call upon the Church is to carry and share the Spirit’s fire to advance Jesus’ ministry of making God known and knowable, visible and understandable. Its calling is not to make itself known by being able to build a bigger, more spectacular bonfire than “the other guys,” whoever they might be. And God’s call upon each one of us is to carry and share the Spirit’s fire with others helpfully and unashamedly for the same purposes, to make Christ known. I often think of a question posed to me as a youth group kid a long time ago – “If you were hauled into court this week and charged with being a fire hazard for being on fire for the Lord, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
I pray there would be. Just to make sure, let’s all carry the Spirit’s fire openly for others’ good. Let’s be Friends.
–Ron Ferguson, 5 June ‘22
Queries for Worship-Sharing and Reflection
1) What have you found to be the best ways in your life to “fan into flame the fire” of discipleship and devotion to God?
2) How have you experienced God as some of these qualities of fire during your life as a Christian?
3) Is spiritual power more about physical miracles and exorcisms, or about humility, self-denial, and service? Why?
4) Why is it so easy for people to be passionate about sports teams, but not about knowing Christ who gives them life?
Winchester Friends Ministry & Oversight
State of Society Report – Annual Report for 2020-2021
June 2021/ October 3, 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?