October Letter 2020

Dear Friends in Christ,
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven, so writes the author of Ecclesiastes. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up… Everything has its season. If this is so, what are we to make of this season we are in?
As we settle into fall, so much of the landscape looks different to us—no rumble of school buses down our street on weekday mornings, no Pac-12 football on Saturdays, no getting dressed up for worship on Sundays. In many ways, this seems to be a season of disruption. Our normal routines have been turned upside down, as the pandemic dictates the rhythms of our work, school, and leisure. This is hard to bear. It may even seem like life will never go back to what it efore the pandemic.
But what if these days are a harbinger of a new season, one that abounds with renewal and joy? What if we are experiencing now is like the breaking of the soil in preparation for planting. Maybe this present suffering will, in God’s time, lead to renewed purpose. As the Psalmist writes: May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:5-6).

September 2020 Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,

For my study leave last month, I traveled to Michigan for a week of sermon and worship planning with Dave Ramage, one of my closest friends from seminary. Our days were full of scripture discussions, outlining sermons, sharing worship ideas, and commiserating about the challenges of ministering in the era of the coronavirus. These were fruitful and stimulating, but apart from this work, the most rewarding part of the weekwas probably the time I spent each morning canoeing on the lake where we were staying. In those moments gliding along the still waters of North Lake I could feel my heart rate calm, and a sense of peace come over me.

Paddling along the lake—it is a small lake with a strict no wake policy during the evening and morning hours—gave me a different perspective. Out on the water, I was out of my element. Unlike being on dry ground, I could feel the canoe list and sway each time I shifted my body weight—canoes don’t seem to be built for guys my size—which initially caused sparks of anxiety for fear of capsizing. As I adjusted to this sensation, I began to notice that even the slightest breeze would alter the course of my canoe. As I became more accustomed to all of this, I paddled to different spots to observe the flora and fauna, and to pray as I beheld the beauty of that little slice of God’s creation

Among the lily pads, I could see small fish darting in the shallows. Frogs and turtles would dart under water as I approached. And in the stillness, the sounds of the birds flitting about was amplified; songbirds rustled through the trees in search of breakfast, the call of a single loon echoed magnificently across the glassy waters, and a woodpecker tapping on a birch stump sounded like someone was chopping wood in the distance. In this space, I found myself in a place that has been hard to find since the outbreak of the coronavirus: in the quiet stillness of the presence of God.

August 2020 Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,

As the coronavirus pandemic has stretched into its fifth month, and with it the many disruptions to our daily lives, I have come to a new realization: we are in it for the long haul. In other words, things like mask wearing, social distancing, and advisements on limiting contact with others, will be the norm and not the exception, at least for the foreseeable future (though hopefully not for too terribly long). I may be late in coming to this conclusion, but the idea has settled upon me like fog rolling in on a summer day. I know that sounds depressing, but at the same time I am beginning to see new possibilities, and even glimmers of hope. Let me explain:

The confluence of global pandemic, social unrest, economic recession, and hyper-partisanship have certainly caused a great deal of distress and anxiety. All this upheaval has exposed the shortcomings of worldly institutions and brought our attention to the plight of the poor, marginalized, and oppressed in our society. We see ever so clearly the frailty of human life. While this is certainly discouraging, I believe our heightened state of awareness has had the positive effect of bringing out new contours in God’s word and opening the Good News to us in so many new and wonderful ways. I am sure someone has come up with a fancy name for this, but let’s just call it the exile phenomenon.

In the Bible, whenever the people of God have found themselves in distress or exile their relationship with God always seemed to grow—even if that growth was of the “two steps back and one step forward” variety. Consider how God used forty years of post-exodus wandering in the wilderness to form a nation; or how the Babylonian exile turned out to be a renaissance of faith and worship for the Jews; or how the early church thrived even during a time of persecution which began with the stoning of Stephen; or how imprisonment could not stop Paul from writing so much of what we find in the New Testament today. These times of turmoil were not just bumps in the road, but major upheavals that God still managed to use for good.

July 2020 Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,

As the story goes in Exodus, the Lord led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt via two unmistakable signs: a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22). This lasted throughout their journey through the wilderness and on to the Promised Land. For 40 years, the Lord offered such clear guidance through many challenges. When the pillar moved, they moved. When it stayed, they stayed. Wouldn’t it be nice to have such clarity, especially in times like these?

Looking back at the experience of the Hebrews, we must be careful to not over-romanticize God’s guiding presence in their lives. In fact, the story of God and the Hebrews during their time of wandering was complicated. The people still complained (see Exodus 15-17) and tried to turn away from God on several occasions (Exodus 32 and Numbers 14, for example) even though God was clearly there. And then there is the reality that the very first place the pillars of cloud and fire took the people was to the edge of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit. It is one thing to know God is present, it is another thing to follow. It is yet another thing to wait upon the Lord when we think ourselves ready for action.

I find myself reflecting on such things as we contemplate reopening the church building for in-person worship. On one hand we have clear guidance from local and state public health officials that we may resume worshiping in person, provided we follow social distancing and sanitizing protocols, wear masks, and only congregate for worship (and then promptly exit the building). But is it safe enough? Is it worth the risk? Will it even feel like worship? It will remain to be seen how these questions are ultimately answered, but session has decided to press on toward the goal of reopening so that we can see one another, pray together, and enjoy God’s presence together.

June 2020 letter

Dear Friends in Christ,
As the coronavirus was spreading through the Seattle area in early March, Corey Schlosser-Hall, our executive presbyter, set up a video conference call for pastors in our presbytery. With things changing daily—and even hourly—the call was designed to help pastors catch their breath, share their thoughts, catch up on the latest news, and support one another through the pandemic-fueled chaos. That call was so helpful that Corey set up a second one… and then a third …. It has now become a weekly event and a vital support for me and many of our presbytery’s pastors. (It has even inspired a bi-weekly call for church administrators.) About three weeks into these calls, Corey invited everyone to check-in. We went around the virtual room as people put positive spins on their experiences, sharing how they were managing and talking about all the new and creative ways they were transitioning to online worship and virtual gatherings.

Then came one pastor who said something along the lines of: This really stinks and I hate it! I miss everyone and being online is no substitute for seeing everyone in person. Plus, the technology curve is so steep that I’m exhausted. I was immediately struck by this pastor’s honesty and how many of the things he said resonated with me personally—I found a kindred spirit. Since then we have exchanged emails, texts, and calls to check in on one another from time to time. We began by mostly commiserating but soon transitioned to talking about how to use the new streaming video cameras our churches have purchased. We’ve shared all kinds of things we’ve discovered and compared notes about producing and sharing worship in electronic form. The point is we went from misery to creativity by stumbling along in the COVID-fog together—and even finding ways to embrace the reality of what our new normal will be like for a while.

MAY 2020 LETTER

From the Heart
Dear Friends in Christ,

A few months ago I picked up a new pair of glasses and had the frames adjusted for me in the store. Everything seemed fine for distance and reading, but there was a slight blurriness in my peripheral vision which I figured was par for the course with a new prescription. It was not until I had left the store and began to drive home that I realized something was terribly wrong. I had trouble reading the gauges on the dashboard and when I looked out at the oncoming traffic's headlights, everything in my field of vision was blurry such that the headlights looked like fuzzy stars—I had to put my old glasses back on just to make the drive home. It was quite an unnerving experience.

Looking out at the world today makes me feel just as unsettled. Things seem out of focus, our family’s schedule is turned upside down, and it is sometimes hard to keep track of the days. Yet, there is enough of what seems normal on the surface that hides a deeper sorrow. As I write, the sun is shining, and I hear the gentle hum of a lawnmower in the distance. Sometimes life seems normal at first blush—just like I could see fine sitting in front of the optician in the store—but the closer we look, the fuzzier things become, even to the point of being unrecognizable at times. What are we seeing? Is this a bad dream that will just go away? Will things ever clear up, and if so, will the world look the same when things come into focus? We do not know the answer to these questions, and this is the hardest part about our lives today. There is so much that we do not know.

As I ponder these questions, I am reminded of the story of Jesus and the blind man at Bethsaida from Mark 8. In the story, Jesus and his disciples are passing through Bethsaida along the Sea of Galilee when some people bring a blind man to him to be healed. Jesus took the blind man out of the village, put saliva on his eyes, and laid hands on him. Then he asked the man to tell him what he saw. The man replied that he could make out people, but they looked like walking trees—it was an improvement, but this was obviously not the right prescription!

April 2020 Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,
Don’t forget the little things. In this unprecedented time of practicing social distancing, and with so many weighty matters facing our world, it is easy for some of us to neglect the little things. By “little things” I’m talking about small acts and practices that form the basis of bigger, more consequential, things. For example, while we focus on big things like tracking the spread of Covid-19, we might set aside our own feelings. It is easy to think that our inconveniences pale in correlation to the world’s problems, but what I want to explore is how attending to our own feelings or fears is actually an essential part of maintaining a foothold for hope in the Lord during these anxious times.

A few years ago I underwent surgery on my left foot to reattach some tendons I had damaged when I stepped on a couple of nails. The doctor assured me that it was a relatively straightforward procedure whereby he would reattach the tendons with a pair of surgical screws. The surgery went just as planned and there were no complications whatsoever and the doctor was pleased with the results, but next came the hard part: recovery and rehab. As it turns out my toes had to relearn how to be toes, and that process took time and hard work.

Once the surgical site had healed, my doctor referred me to a physical therapist. The therapist had me do a series of movements and stretches to determine my baseline. He then prescribed a regimen of exercises that I could do at home to strengthen my toes and the muscles in my left leg that had atrophied in the six months between my injury and surgery. The exercises were simple enough: a few stretches and exercises several times a day, no big deal. In fact, I grew frustrated that I wasn’t doing more—wasn’t there a faster way back to normalcy?

March 2020 Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,
As we embark on our journey of discovery and discernment as part of the Vital Congregations Initiative, I am reminded of an improvisational exercise we did at our presbytery’s leadership summit last fall. Yes, you read that correctly: Presbyterians doing improv! It was very different than what you would expect at a presbytery meeting, but it was illustrative of a key component of Vital Congregations* that will be a be a guiding factor for us over the next two years.

First, the exercise. Presbytery commissioners were to pair off and imagine they were planning an outing. Person A would start the exercise by suggesting an idea of how the two would spend their time together. Person B would then offer a reply, at which point Person A would reply, and so on. We did this in two rounds. In the first round, Person B was to respond to Person A’s suggestion by saying, “No, let’s . . .” It might go something like this:

A: Let’s go to the movies.
B: No, let’s stay home and order Chinese.
A: No, let’s go shopping.
. . . and so on

. After a bit, we went to round two where Person B was to respond to Person A’s idea by saying, “Yes, and . . .” The second round might go like this:
A: Let’s go for a hike. B: Yes, and let’s pack a picnic!
A: Yes, and let’s get sandwiches from that new place in town!
. . . and so on.

Can you see the difference? The second time around was so much more engaging because we were affirming one another and building off of the other person’s suggestion. By the end of this exercise we had some awesome adventures planned! Conversely, the first round was quite deflating and disjointed—every idea was shot down and nothing got accomplished in the end. Maybe you’ve experienced something along these lines in real life!

February Letter 2020

Dear Friends in Christ,
If you see something, say something. You’ve probably heard the expression before, or seen the message posted in public places across the country. It was the brainchild of Allen Kay, a New York advertising executive who jotted the phrase down on a note card on September 12, 2001. A few months later, Kay offered the catchphrase to the Metropolitan Transit Authority for use in public service announcements to build situational awareness among mass transit users. It has since become the defining motto of post-9/11 America. That slogan alone has done much to raise our awareness about potential threats—unattended backpacks, packages, or luggage; suspicious persons; and vehicles parked out of place.
The argument could also be made that If you see something, say something has also made us more paranoid. When sitting at airport gate areas, I keep an eye out for items without people. Walking down the street, I notice my heartrate jump when I encounter people in long jackets. I give unoccupied idling vehicles wide berths, just in case. My concern is that somewhere along the way vigilance crosses into suspicion, and suspicion is the breeding ground for fear. Fear furthers the divide between people. Fear is not the message of Jesus Christ.

December 2019 Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,
I am on a mission—a mission to save Advent. Now before I continue, I should point out that this isn’t about putting Christ back in Xmas. (If anything, I’m all for putting the X in Xmas! Did you now that the Greek letter X is the first letter in Christ [Χριστός] as it is found in the original New Testament Greek?) Furthermore, my mission is not to be confused with the fight against the commercialization of Christmas. Saving Advent is about reclaiming a season of waiting and preparation for God to enter our world.

It is a tough sell. Most folks don’t have time for waiting this time of year. The same goes for slowing down, reflecting on ancient prophecies, or contemplating the Incarnation. These things don’t have much to do with the traditional trappings of Christmas—the lights, the presents, and the pageantry. Why wait? Why even think about waiting?

Quite frankly, I’m not sure I have a good answer other than to say that waiting is an important part of being a follower of God. Read through the Bible and you’ll find it is full of people waiting—waiting for answers, waiting for justice, for peace, for salvation, and for Christ to return. Whether we like it or not, waiting is an integral part of our faith, so learning to wait well is a good skill to develop. And this is why I’m on a mission to save Advent.