By Paul Baxley
By any definition, these are very different days. Schools across the country are out indefinitely. Almost all congregations have suspended in-person worship gatherings. Some state and local governments are issuing “shelter in place” orders, placing varying levels of restriction on movement and interaction among people. Many businesses and nonprofit organizations that are able to do so have moved, as CBF has, to putting most of its employees on remote work status. Other employers are in serious jeopardy because they cannot carry out their work remotely. Hospitals and those who work in them face challenges unlike any they have seen.
Not only have dramatic changes occurred in our ways of living, the changes have happened in a matter of days and weeks, which means that we are all adjusting to dramatic difference that came quickly. The suddenness of these changes has created emotional, organizational, communal and spiritual challenges all of their own. So, in our communities, in our families, and in our congregations, we are finding our way in very different realities as we seek to respond in the healthiest ways to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
In this setting, the words Joshua spoke to the people of Israel right before they crossed into the land of promise resonate powerfully in a very different setting. He said to them: “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place. Follow it, so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before.”
Joshua’s setting was different from ours. He was leading the Israelites toward the Land of Promise. As Christians, as congregational leaders, and as human beings, we feel like we have just entered something very different from a Land of Promise. But we do have this sense that we have certainly not passed this way before. So, if we are to know the way we are to go, we need to stay close to the core of our faith, we need the basic practices of discipleship, we need to be able to draw strength from the places in our lives where God’s presence is most often available to us. We need to stay closer to Christ now more than ever, because we have not passed this way before, and we need the Risen Jesus to go before us.
How do we stay close to the core of our faith in a season of social distancing? How can we draw close to the places we most often experience God’s presence when we cannot be in physical proximity? Already, faithful congregational leaders are finding ways to gather congregations for worship, prayer and Bible Study using technology so that there is community across physical distance. Already, groups of pastors are finding encouragement and strength by drawing closer through all available forms of communication even when they cannot sit in the same room physically. How else can we help one another listen to the Scriptures, hear the songs of our faith, and find the deep places where we have always experienced God’s presence and power before? What would it mean for more and more of us to form communities in which we can read Scripture together so that we can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit showing us the way we should go since we have not passed this way before?
There are other questions that require even more closeness to the presence of God. What does it mean to offer God’s presence in this time to people who do not have access to the same technology some of us take for granted? What about congregations whose contexts in this country and around the world do not give them access to the Internet? What about places of extraordinary poverty where physical distance is not possible? What does faithfulness look like in such places? How do we keep our eyes open to needs of people whose experiences are different from ours when more and more of us are isolated by distancing? These urgent questions also require us to stay close to the core of our faith and the heart of a God whose concern is not confined to any one nation or culture or tribe or language.
But Joshua’s words to the people carry an even more powerful truth, contained in a word choice so simple we might miss it. Notice, he does not say: “We have not passed this way before.” He says: “You have not passed this way before.” This season may be unfamiliar to you. But it is not unfamiliar. It is certainly not unfamiliar to God. In the history of God’s people, there have been other seasons of distress and disaster. There have been natural and crippling political catastrophes. While we, in our generation, have not passed this way before, the church has. The Risen Jesus has.
Last week I shared a conversation with Carol McEntyre, pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo., and CBF Moderator-Elect. She told me that her church historian had reminded her that at the height of the Spanish Flu just over a century ago, First Baptist Church had suspended worship services for several months, because of the need for physical distance to fight the virus. While this way is new to us, it is not new to the church, and it is not new to the power and provision of the Christ who is Lord of the church. Just as Christ’s grace and power guided the church in Missouri and around the world through that pandemic, so Christ will lead us now.
Unless we were alive in those days, you and I have not passed this way before. But the Christ we served walked his own lonesome valley through distance and unbelievable pain. The Christ we serve has led his people through dark places through the centuries. So let us draw closer to him, and to one another in all the ways we can even in a time of physical distance, trusting that He will show us the way we should go.
Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley is Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has created a resource hub for the benefit of individuals and congregations in these uncertain times. Bold Faith Resources features original and curated resources for children, youth, adults, worship, missions, prayer, spiritual care, Spanish speakers and digital ministry resources for churches. This hub also includes all COVID-19-related news and updates for the Fellowship. Learn more at www.cbf.net/boldfaith.