By Seth Hix
CBFNC Associate Coordinator
In a noble attempt to engage a group of CBFNC pastors in yet another zoom call, the facilitator asked each person to offer one word to describe the past few months. As predicted, CBFNC pastors have some of the best words! Disoriented; unsettled; adaptable; improvisation; resilient; uncharted. Each of these words accurately reflect our shared experiences of life and ministry in a global pandemic. Yet, the word bubbling up for me was, wave.
The wave, as you know, has become somewhat of an art form in recent days. Every zoom call seems to end with an awkward assortment of pre-rehearsed waves. And since our faces are covered and we can’t smile at people we pass in the grocery store, we wave. Can’t shake hands? Want to maintain social distance? How about a half-hearted wave?
There have also been a flurry of celebratory waves from cars and minivans during homegrown birthday or graduation parades, often hanging out of a window or sunroof. I even saw one person waving from on top of a car roof dressed in a superhero costume! (I do not condone or endorse the last one.) Several of our congregations have even welcomed new church members and ministers through in-person, drive-by events. Perfecting the art of waving is one of the new skills required to successfully navigate life in the midst of COVID19!
Waving has also played an important role in pastoral care. When it is not safe to physically touch our high-risk loved ones, we share an empathetic wave through a window or door, from across the front yard or from the front porch.
Waves of Emotion
Figuratively, the emotion of this pandemic has come in waves as well. The initial waves of shock quickly turned to grief for so many. For people of faith the sudden stop of Sunday morning worship was just as jarring as missing basketball and sports. Our routines were completely upended.
Fortunately, many have discovered occasional whitecaps of energy and enthusiasm amidst the deeper waves of uncertainty and fear. For some, family hikes, bike rides, game nights and zoom connections with extended family and old friends have provided a sense of balance to the lost time with classmates and the empty pews of the sanctuary.
A couple of weeks ago my newsfeed was full of photos of families who were fortunate enough to get away for a few days to enjoy sandy beaches and the ocean waves. The sounds and feel of these waves often bring renewal and relaxation. Yet, the beauty of these waves is only matched by their power.
A familiar story from Matthew 14 finds Peter and the disciples in a boat, battered by waves, far from land with the wind against them. Anxiety is high. They are in uncharted territory. So disoriented that they don’t even recognize Jesus! Who could have anticipated Jesus would show up in such an unexpected, dangerous place? Yet that’s exactly where Jesus meets them.
The story of the disciples in the boat feels familiar. The past six months – maybe the entire year of 2020 – we’ve all been in the boat with the disciples. We’ve feared for our physical safety, and the health of our loved ones. Our anxiety is high, particularly concerning the future of our beloved churches. Our ministry and lives are disoriented. Yet, whether we recognize him or not, Jesus walks toward us through the storm. We may not recognize Jesus’ presence in our churches in the midst of COVID. We have so many more questions than answers. How can we be God’s church without a building? How can we be disciples when we are stranded in a boat? How can we best be God’s Church in 2020? What will the Church of the 2020 decade look like?
It must have been just the right mixture of fear, anxiety, adrenaline and faith, but Peter makes what must have seemed like an impulsive decision. At best, it’s a moment of pure and total faith in Jesus. At worst, it’s an act of desperation. Yet, for a brief moment Peter steps out of the boat on top of the waves. This short-lived act of faith only lasted a few steps. And it changed everything.
As the waves begin to overtake him again, Jesus reaches out a hand, pulls him in the boat and questions why he ever doubted in the first place.
Eyes on Jesus
Like Peter, our CBFNC congregations have shown a great deal of resilience in their response to these new challenges. Our church leaders have absorbed the waves, caught Jesus’ eyes through the storm and stepped toward Him without hesitation. I am continually amazed as I speak to pastors and church leaders and hear faithful stories of innovation and creativity in sharing the gospel in a strange land.
A series of church leader focus groups held in July confirmed for us the significant impacts of COVID on congregational worship, discipleship, outreach and the sense of community. Yet, despite over 70% of our churches reporting a positive COVID case within their congregation, our church leaders decisively stated that the overall mission of their church has NOT been negatively affected. This is indicative of the hopefulness of our clergy and the faithfulness of our laity.
We know that the waves have not calmed. There are tidal waves on the horizon in the form of racial justice, global pandemic and political tension amid a fierce national election cycle. My hope is that our CBFNC congregations will continue to boldly step toward Jesus.
Uncharted territory requires new skills and structures. Unprecedented times call for holy improvisation. Like Peter, may we look for Jesus’ presence in the midst of the storm. May we take time to catch our breath in between the waves, and test the resiliency of our faith. Stepping onto the waves is only reckless if we take our eyes off Jesus.