Faith in a VUCA World

This past summer, I learned a new acronym.  VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. I first heard the term at my niece Olivia’s high school graduation ceremony in June.  The speaker had worked in the field of socially responsible investing and was accustomed to a close analysis of the future based on current trends.  He shared with this group of high school graduates, “you are heading out into a VUCA world.”  “Amen,” I replied.

Up until March of 2020, I had loved planning ahead – and felt like I actually could.  I would typically schedule the scripture texts and themes for worship services some six months or more in advance.  I made summer travel plans in the fall.  And my list of home maintenance items to tackle would often stretch years ahead.  When it came to the future, I felt I could stand on a mountaintop, look out on the terrain before me, and map a solid course forward.

Then COVID hit.  And nobody knew for sure what the next week might hold.  Would deaths to COVID reach new heights, or begin to decline?  Would a vaccine arrive in weeks, months, or years?  Would such a vaccine be widely adopted?  Would churches, schools, and businesses be able to re-open their doors next week – or next year?   And once they were allowed to re-open, would it be safe to do so?   And if not, when would it be safe?

VUCA named this new reality for me.  Today, we face not merely the challenge of addressing new variants and surges (volatility) and an uncharted post-pandemic future (uncertainty).  We face complicated decisions about the best way to achieve multiple and sometimes conflicting goals at once: safety, concern for neighbor, economic opportunity, social connection, and personal freedom (complexity).  And it is hard to find simple answers everyone can agree on (ambiguity).  It has been a long time since I felt I could survey the terrain ahead from a high mountain.   Instead, I often feel I am navigating a boat through a storm.  It is hard to chart a course forward through churning waters, shifting winds, and poor visibility.

So I have often called to mind the Gospel boat stories in recent months.  I imagined embarking with other disciples to “the other side” – as Jesus had directed us.  And then, as Mark 4:35-41 tells the story, I saw how “a furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat so that it was nearly swamped.”   I recalled on another occasion (Matthew 14:22-34), how Jesus’ followers set out by boat – at Jesus’s direction.  And by evening, their vessel was “battered by the waves, far from the land, and the wind was against them.”

Following Jesus into the future, as the Gospels describe it, is often a VUCA-filled enterprise.  And we – like those first disciples – can wrestle with fear and exhaustion on the journey.

But there is good news in those boat stories.  In the middle of that “furious squall,” the presence and power of God in Christ was revealed – a power greater than even the wind and waves (Mark 4:39-41).  The disciples are amazed, by the story’s end, that the power God had been with them in the boat the whole time.  In Matthew 14, it is just as the disciples were “battered by the waves” and straining against an adverse wind that Jesus shows up as the very presence of God – one with the power to walk on water.  And as Jesus prepared to “pass them by,” the language recalls the divine appearance to Elijah at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:11-13). God appeared to the disciples in the storm – in the form of the very one who had called them to follow Him.  Days of VUCA, we read in the Gospels, point not to God’s absence. Such times invite us to attend to God’s guidance, presence, and power with us in the storm. I have noted something else in these boat stories: none of the disciples faced that adverse wind alone.  Not only was the presence and power of God revealed to them.  But the disciples had one another to lean on too.   How good it has been these past eighteen months to lean on one another for support, wisdom, friendship, and faith.  As your pastor – and one blessed to serve alongside such an extraordinary band of disciples at Knox – I can say this in VUCA times especially: it is good to be on the boat with you.

Wishing you the grace and peace of Christ on the voyage,

Pastor Matt