Go ahead and take a deep breath, my friends. Now exhale. Repeat as necessary.
2020 is now behind us, and my guess is that very few of us are shedding any tears. It was a year like no other, that much is sure. Words like “normal” and “typical” were rarely used. I think it is safe to say that “we’ve never done it that way before” was heard less frequently during 2020 than in any other year in recent memory, based on the simple fact that doing life and ministry in new and different ways was no longer the exception but the rule.
When it comes to our local, regional and international ministry initiatives as Evangelical Friends, the past year was one series of “holy experiments” after another: online services in place of onsite gatherings, video conferencing in place of face-to-face conversation, giving portals in place of offering plates, etc. Many things that were once considered supplemental have now become central to everyday life and ministry. My good friend, Mike Clifford, executive director and lead facilitator for Capacity Ministries, likes to refer to this process as “rapid prototyping.”
My guess is that neither Merriweather Lewis nor William Clark would have been familiar with the term “rapid prototyping” when they accepted Thomas Jefferson’s invitation to lead The Corps of Volunteers for Northwest Discovery back in 1803. I am confident, however, that they grasped the concept better than most by the time their mission was finally accomplished in 1805.
In his book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory, author Ted Bolsinger draws heavily upon the experiences of Lewis and Clark during their epic expedition across the American frontier while searching for what they hoped would be a natural waterway that would carry them all the way from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Among the many challenges they faced along the way, there was one completely unexpected and seemingly insurmountable obstacle that rose far above them all: The Rocky Mountains.
Imagine what must have been going through their minds as Lewis and Clark and the rest of their bedraggled crew slowly approached the Continental Divide. The Missouri River – which had carried their custom-made, 55-foot keelboat across so much of the vast, unexplored territory then known as the Louisiana Purchase for nearly a full year – was now dissipating rapidly behind them even as the snow-capped peaks of the Bitterroot Range were looming larger and larger on the horizon before them. They were exceptionally well-trained, but there was no way they could have prepared for this. They could not even have imagined it, not in their wildest dreams. If there was ever a time to employ “rapid prototyping,” this was it.
Thanks in great part to the timely wisdom and time-tested experience provided by Sacagawea, their Native American travel guide, Lewis and Clark made the painful yet essential decision to ditch their boats and buy horses. Eleven long and excruciatingly difficult days later, after enduring frostbite, hunger, dehydration, exhaustion and treacherous terrain, the pitiful party finally arrived safely on the other side of the mountains. After they had recovered, with critical assistance once again from their Native American friends, the Corps built dugout canoes, left their horses behind and launched fearlessly into the rapids of the Clearwater River, which led to the Snake River, which fed into to the Columbia River. And the rest, as they say, is history.
While very few of us may have aspirations of following in the footsteps of extreme adventurers like Lewis and Clark, I have no doubt that we will all need to continue on the pathway of holy experimentation out of necessity for quite some time yet. In fact, while it may be considered a “new normal” for some, one could easily argue from both Scripture and church history that this is the path that was actually intended to be “the normal Christian life” from the very beginning.
A quick review of the pivotal events that followed the birth of Christ certainly bears this out. Simeon and Anna, for example, were not invited to be part of the manger scene in Bethlehem, but they were both led clearly by the Holy Spirit to embrace the young Messiah in the temple courtyards of Jerusalem (Lk 2:22-38). The Magi were led by a mysterious celestial epiphany on an arduous, long distance pilgrimage to find Christ the King, only to discover that he was not residing in an auspicious palace but in a very ordinary guest house, and then they were led in a dream to return home by a completely different route (Mt 2:1-12). And let’s not forget Mary and Joseph, who were called to follow the Lord into new and unchartered territory every single day of their lives, beginning with a series of dreams that led them to carry the Christ child all the way from Palestine to Egypt and back again (Mt 2:13-23).
In contrast to so much of the conventional wisdom that dominates our western world these days, faithful followers of Jesus are called to reject rampant materialism, with its insane attachment to things and its false claims to satisfy us with the temporal treasures that we seek, in favor of a vibrant Christian spirituality, a holy hunger for nothing more and nothing less than to hear and obey the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:14-16; Lk 11:28).
To borrow from The Mandalorian, one of my favorite television shows, “This is the way.”
As we enter into a new year together as an extended family of Friends here in Mid America, it is my earnest hope that we will not lay aside the many painful yet priceless lessons we have learned in recent months regarding the vital importance of remaining receptive to new and unpredictable movements of the Holy Spirit in our personal lives, and the necessity of incorporating fresh expressions of Spirit-led creativity and innovation in our public ministries, even when things do “settle down” a bit. And it is my fervent prayer that we will be empowered from on high to embrace the unexpected twists and turns along the way with more anticipation than trepidation, viewing them less and less as dead ends and more and more as divine detours. If so, we can have great confidence that, whether we turn to the right or to the left, we will hear a voice behind us saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Is 30:21).