April 2021 Letter

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122:1)
Dear Friends in Christ,
These words, which are found in a selection of psalms known as Psalms of Ascent, were recited and sung countless times by generations of pilgrims traversing the road up Mt. Zion. They were on their way to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. For some, this was a once in a lifetime experience, and they savored every moment of the journey.

Reading the psalm, I can imagine a mountain road clogged with travelers from every corner of Israel. As they make their way in quiet determination, I can hear a voice calling out, “I was glad when they said to me…” And then, a chorus of fellow wayfarers responds with a full-throated, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” I imagine their hearts lifted, their steps lightened, accompanied by laughter, joy, tears, and deep gratitude.

This is how I have felt in recent days as I eagerly await the return of in-person worship, which will resume on April 11. It has been a long journey. So, when Session discerned—after so faithfully wrestling with the matter for many months—that it was indeed time to return to worship, my heart soared with gratitude and with relief. It was as if I found myself among the throng of pilgrims on a sacred journey!

While the long wait to return to worshipping together in person nears an end, I do not want us to forget the journey it has taken to get here, nor lose sight of the road ahead. While it may feel as though this past year was a lost one, I am beginning to wonder whether it was actually a gift. It has been a time of waiting, but also a time of preparation.

March 2021 Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,
For my Lenten observance this year, I have chosen to fast social media. I am not sure how I arrived at the decision to give up social media for forty days, though it may have been influenced by a Facebook post I saw on Shrove Tuesday which read, “What are you giving up for Lent?” When I saw that post, I immediately thought of social media, though I did not make a firm decision on it until Ash Wednesday—after which it was too late to tell my Facebook friends, “I’m fasting social media!” Now, on top of social media withdrawal, I also have this nagging fear that I am offending people on Facebook on account of my silence to any of their posts or messages. Sheesh, it is going to be a long Lent.

At the same time, I am learning a thing or two by fasting. First of all, although I am less than a week into my fast I am already discovering how much time and attention social media eats into my daily life. For instance, one of my go-to moves when I find myself with idle time on my hands is to scan my phone for messages and email. I then scroll through social media posts on social media where I get sucked into watching cat videos and sharing humorous memes. Little did I realize how much time and energy I spend going down these rabbit holes. I know this because now, when I check my phone, I still read texts and email but when my thumb reflexively opens a social media app, my brain kicks in and immediately sends the command to close it.

It is a good example of how unhealthy habits can grow unbeknownst to us. Not that social media is inherently bad, but how many cat videos does a person have to watch? The ability for social media to suck time out of our days is immense, and it gives new meaning to Hebrews 12:1-2 for me:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin [or social media] that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

February 2021 Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,
When I was eleven, my dad and I traveled to Europe to visit my sister in England and to visit his family in Holland. It was my first trip to Europe and one of the only times I ever met some of my dad’s family—apart from when I was first born, which does not really count—so I was excited and nervous at the same time. I remember the trip having two distinct components: England where my sister was and where people spoke a language I understood, and Holland where I met relatives I had never seen before and where I could not understand anything anyone was saying. The exception to the language barrier in Holland was my cousins. They spoke English but were all much older—so I did not exactly have anyone to play with. It was a difficult adjustment at first, but then I began to feel a connection with my relatives that transcended the barriers of language and culture. This strange place began to take on an air of familiarity.
This image comes to mind as I consider the path ahead in a post-pandemic world. We have grown so accustomed to self-isolation, interacting online, and conversing through masks from six feet apart that when “normal” life resumes, we may find ourselves in a foreign land of sorts. I imagine it like going home to a place where we have never been—sort of like my first trip to Holland.
The biblical correlation to this is the return of the exiles from Babylon. In most cases, the Israelites were returning home to a place they had never been. They knew of Jerusalem and the temple from the stories they had heard and the memories that had been passed down, so in that sense it was home. Still, after fifty years of exile, Babylon was the only home most of the people ever knew.

January 2021 Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,
When I first sat down to write this pastoral letter (for the January Highlights) I thought to myself: What a perfectly gloomy day to reflect on 2020. Outside the sky was heavy with moisture. A steady rain fell, transforming gutters into tiny torrents that spilled out onto the streets. Midday was as dark as twilight, which was quite fitting for the winter solstice. It was the shortest, darkest, dreariest, day of a particularly dark and dreary year. What better way to sum up 2020? Then something happened…it began to snow. The soggy landscape began to brighten as the snow accumulated. A rather confused hummingbird settled down for a moment on the tree outside my office window, scanning the landscape to take it all in. The transition to snow was like a changing of the guard—a blanket of snow relieving the gloomy rain for the next watch. The scene reminded me that the shortest day of the year is also the first step in the long march to summer.

Fast forward a day: after dealing with a bout of writer’s block, I am resuming my letter. This time, however, my window is full of blue skies and sunshine. The scene is so startlingly different that I can hardly comprehend that I am in the same place. How is it possible that the sun that so brightly shines today was also there yesterday when cloud and precipitation conspired to hide it from the earth?

These thoughts fill my mind as I reflect on the many sorrows and hardships of 2020 and ponder them along with my hopes for 2021. I think of how our family had planned to gather for two graduations and a wedding in 2020, only to have those plans thwarted by the pandemic. Yet even still, Willem and Arie completed their respective degrees and graduated, and Becca’s

December 2020 Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,

When I was a kid, one of the highlights of this time of year was the arrival of the toy catalogs from places like Sears, JCPenney, and Montgomery Ward. I loved looking through them and imagining all the wonderful toys that might appear under the Christmas tree. I would dream about getting some of those really big LEGO sets, the latest action figures with the Kungfu grip, Tonka trucks, Hot Wheels cars and accessories, or maybe a Los Angeles Rams helmet or jacket. I look back at those days with such fondness because as a kid everything about Christmas seems so big and wonderful: the presents, the toys, the food, the gatherings…all of it!

Advent is about dreaming big. A glance at the traditional Advent Scriptures reads like a Christmas wish list. Savior, check (Luke 2:8-20). Peace, check (Isaiah 9:2-7). Reconciliation, check (Isaiah 11:1-10). Hope, check (Titus 2:11-14). New beginnings, check (Psalm 96). God with us,
check (John 1). What a glorious list it is—and just creating it warms my soul.

But this Advent season is different. The big spiritual dreams are still there—and we can add to that list a vaccine—but in just about every other aspect of life we are encouraged to think small this year. Empty engagement calendars that would otherwise be full of yuletide events, empty places at the Christmas table, empty pews on Christmas Eve. But this is not all bad, because we know that all our big Advent dreams are fulfilled in the tiniest of places: a manger.

To help us adjust to the smallness of this Advent and Christmas, I encourage you to think of how even the tiniest of things can make a big difference during a season of loss and upheaval. For example, we will have more time on our hands for prayer and reflection, which is a good thing. We also have time to consider those dearest to us and reach out to them with a call, a card, or a virtual hug.

November 2020 Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,

“On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” (Acts 16:13, NRSV)

This rather mundane verse from the Book of Acts has taken on new meaning for me in recent days. In it, Luke describes going to worship one sabbath day, along with Paul and Silas. They were new to Philippi, a town that did not have a Christian church, so they figured their best bet would be to go down to the river where people tended to gather for worship. Their search led them just outside the town gate and to a group of women who had congregated to worship God. No big deal.
This same scenario has taken place countless times over the millennia. We have all been in similar circumstances, whether passing through on vacation or moving to a new town. The methods for finding a church may have changed—by word of mouth, the Yellow Pages (remember those?), Google search, or the GPS in your car—but going to church has been fundamentally the same since that day so long ago when Luke and his companions ventured to the riverbank. Perhaps, that is, until now.

I spoke with a pastor friend the other day who predicts he may be losing a number of members for good. No, he was not referring to people leaving his congregation, but to church members staying home to worship. Since their fellowship went to virtual worship back in March, their members have been able to “do church” anytime they want, dressed in their jammies, and in the comfort of their own homes. They have grown so comfortable, he said, that they may never come back…even when the pandemic is over. If he is right, looking for a church and going to worship may be forever reduced to a few mouse clicks and keyboard strokes.

October 2020 Letter

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.