A Finish Line

We gathered in the parking lot of Walmart for our final in-person Life Group activity of the Fall Semester. We were on a mission to buy Christmas presents for children in our area who struggle with poverty. It’s like a lot of churches who send shoeboxes full of supplies to the developing world, just more local. We’ve done this “Immanuel Project” for years. Still, this year’s version of the project felt extra-special. Because it was a relatively-normal ministry experience for this time of the year. And because it felt like a finish line for one of the most unusual seasons of ministry we’ve ever experienced.

I’ve been full of gratitude all week. Not just the perfunctory week-before-Thanksgiving, fake-it-’til-you-make-it, counting-my-blessings sort of gratitude — but real, deep thankfulness for having made it to this point in the semester. And, indeed, the Year 2020! There were many points where the challenges felt insurmountable. It felt impossible that Kent State University would be able to keep students on campus all the way to Thanksgiving Break. But here we are: on the eve of the same November 20th date that was announced back in the summer. It seems to be partly the result of good planning by the University’s leadership teams, partly the result of students largely doing their part to practice precautions, and partly the result of good luck with a virus that seems to assert itself at will.

Organizing our group at the front of the Walmart felt like a metaphor for the way ministry has gone all year. We wanted to keep people together. We wanted to keep people on mission. But we also wanted people to wear masks and maintain some distance from each other to prevent the spread of COVID. (I realize that these pictures make it look like everyone was constantly standing right next to each other, but I was doing my darnedest to keep the group mindful of the precautions — and they really did a pretty good job, except for when I had them pose for pictures).

In addition to our internal dynamics, we also wanted to minimize disruption to the rest of our community. So when the manager of the Walmart came over to say that their store was not supposed to be a hang-out for Kent State students, I had to explain our situation and translate her concerns into action for our group. A constant balancing act.

H2O has had a pretty successful semester, all things considered. We prioritized the physical well-being of students and the spiritual well-being of students. We had to improvise along the way. And even though we were lacking in some ways, we also managed to grow in other ways. I sincerely love the people in our little “Fellowship of the Hawk” region of H2O. I’ve loved watching the ways that God has worked in and through our Staff Team. We’ve stayed meaningfully engaged.

I’m probably oversimplifying and/or missing some key information. Still, I think we’ve managed to at least provide an opportunity for every “sheep” from our “flock” (plus, amazingly, a solid core of new little freshmen “lambs!”) to pursue God in community — without any COVID transmission on our watch (as far as I’m aware)! That’s really remarkable, I think. I’m really proud of that.

We are not Jesus. Still, this week I’ve thought a few times about Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper, where he said, “During my time here, I protected them by the power of the name you gave me. I guarded them so that not one was lost” (John 17:12). I don’t want to overstate our role, but I don’t want to understate it either!

Nobody wanted to leave the group at the end of our Walmart shopping expedition. We hung out in the parking lot for at least a half-hour. The temperature dropped. The winds whistled. The physical conditions were as uncomfortable as they’ve been at many other points throughout the Fall. But we lingered because we knew that this was a finish line. Video conference calls are fine, but we’re going to miss each other’s presence over the next couple of months. As I got in my minivan and pulled away — the rest of the group still intact and showing no signs of imminent dispersal — I thanked God for a good semester. We fought a good fight. We finished well.

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