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.

November Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,

In his final comments to the Thessalonian church, the Apostle Paul exhorts them to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). Those are all such tall orders! While this might seem like hyperbole—Really, who can be joyful, prayerful, and thankful 24/7?—the essence of Paul’s appeal is that he wants our daily living to reflect the very nature of heaven where joy, prayer, and thanksgiving are ever-present. If we can bring more of heaven into our days, our lives become leaven for the world to see and experience the glory of God.

Remembering to rejoice, pray, and give thanks can be difficult. Life isn’t always joyful, there are times when our prayers seem to go unanswered, and it can be hard to be thankful when hardships come. Paul knew this, and he knows what he is saying is not easy. Paul experienced hardship, setbacks, and rejection, but he still found ways to give thanks to God despite the rough roads and seas he encountered time and again. So, how can we do the same?

I think the first step is to make a conscious effort to practice joy, prayer, and thanksgiving wherever we might find them. Sometimes the opportunities come in small packages, like the joy of seeing a brief patch of blue sky in an otherwise cloudy day. Prayers can be said on the go while we are driving from place to place or under our breaths as people and circumstances come to mind during the day. And we can express our gratitude to God or to others with simple thank-yous to people who serve us in stores, restaurants, and other places.

We can also take a cue from Paul’s teaching in Romans 12:15 where he encourages his readers to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. If we are not experiencing joy, chances are someone we know is—we can share in their joy! When we hear a siren in the distance, we can take this as a call to pray for circumstances that affect people we may not even know.

The fact is that God is present in this world and therefore joy, prayer, and thanksgiving are never far away. In this season of thanksgiving, may our eyes truly be open to the opportunities the Spirit presents us to express a bit of heaven in our world. For, as Paul writes, this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us. Rejoice, give thanks, and pray! Godspeed,.

Godspeed, 

matt sig 

October Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,

I hope you’ve noticed the number of opportunities there are this fall at FPCA for fellowship, discipleship, spiritual growth, and mission. There are opportunities to study the parables, to gather for an old fashioned cider pressing, to tutor in the schools, to take part in a small group for prayer, to discover your spiritual gifts, to join a Bible study, and so many other possibilities. It is really pretty awesome that a church of our size can support so many ways for people to connect with one another and with God. But with so many choices, how does one decide? It might be overwhelming, but it also might be easier than you think.

Here’s an example. A friend of mine was telling recently that he just started work-ing with a group of tweens—older elementary kids—at the church he has been attending for the last 18 months or so. I was intrigued by this because while I had known him to be active in worship, music, small groups, and mission, I had never envisioned him working with kids (though he’s quite at ease with them). When I asked him how this all came about, he said that someone had asked if he’d help with the tweens and he took it as a sign God was calling him to do something new. He’s just getting started, but so far he says he’s real-ly enjoyed it!

Can knowing how to get involved be that simple? It sure can be! God is speaking to us all the time with subtle reminders, little nudges, and even the direct ask through people we know. Sometimes what we hear from God makes sense, as it fits with what we’ve done before. Sometimes what we hear from God is something completely new, taking us in a direction we’d not considered.

Please take a look through the many opportunities we are offering this fall to grow closer to God and one another in Christian fellowship, study, and practice. Ask God to di-rect you to a fruitful path. And listen. You never know where God might be calling. And you never know when an invitation from a friend is actually an opportunity from God.

Godspeed,

matt sig

September Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,
God has a way of repurposing old pathways. This thought came to mind the other day as Arie and I explored Railroad Bridge Park. As we rode our bikes over the old trestle and looked down upon the Dungeness River, I could envision the days when the path beneath our tires was a bustling railway ferrying freight between Port Townsend and Port Angeles. The place where trains once chugged through forests, past farms, and along the scenic shoreline, is now home to cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, and bird-watchers. What a transformation!

This is not to say that such a transformation was an easy task to undertake. I am in awe of the foresight, logistics, and cost that went into transforming the Milwaukee Road to the popular trail so many enjoy today. I imagine it was probably a long journey in and of itself. Thankfully there were people with the vision and resourcefulness to make the plan a reality; breathing new life into a vital aspect of our region’s history

. New life in old paths is a theme we see in Scripture time and time again. Jacob and his family ventured to Egypt to escape a famine in Canaan. Four-hundred years later, Jacob’s descendants took the reverse journey on their way to becoming a nation. On that journey, God provided for them in the harsh wilderness and provided a law to guide them in their life as God’s chosen people. Paul traveled the road to Damascus as a persecutor of the church of Jesus Christ. Along the way, his life was transformed by a vision he had of Jesus. Later, Paul, now an apostle of the Lord, would venture to Jerusalem along that same road, armed with a vision for bringing the Good News to the Gentiles.

Similarly, God has a way of transforming the passages of our lives. For instance, the experience of loss can yield unexpected blessings over time. Scarcity can beget gratitude and generosity as faith in God’s provision overcomes the fear of not having enough. And the times when God seems so distant are often the ones, in retrospect, in which we realize how close God really is.

What journey do you find yourself on right now? What does the path beneath your feet feel like? Is it level and wide? Is it steep and narrow? Do you feel like you’re marching off into the wilderness or are you running home to the arms of a loving God? Know that whatever path you are on at the moment, God’s will is to breathe new life into our journeys and to make sure we are never alone as we undertake them.

Godspeed,

matt sig