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!

May Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,
As we read on Easter Sunday, it was in the breaking of the bread that two disciples realized that the stranger they had invited for dinner was Jesus! Up until that moment, he was just some traveler who happened to be in the same direction. As Cleopas and his friend reached their home in Emmaus they invited their traveling companion to join them for dinner. Inviting a stranger to dinner no small thing, but it was that decision that set the stage for their epiphany.
Hospitality is risky business, it involves opening your personal space to others, it means being generous, and it means being vulnerable. These are all reasons why Paul lists hospitality as one of the true marks of a Christian disciple (Romans 12:9-21). Welcome strangers as family takes practice, patience, and the ability to recognize the needs of others.
On Easter, our hospitality was put to the test as we hosted breakfast between services. Would there be enough for everyone to eat? Would we have enough room at the tables? And one circumstance we were not expecting: would we be able to welcome someone experiencing an apparent psychotic episode? And would we be able to balance the safety and comfort of everyone else who sat down to break bread?
Perhaps you noticed that one our guests fit that last category. If you encountered this guest, you may have felt uncomfortable and even a bit threatened. You may have wanted this person to leave, but you may also have felt that doing so might cause more harm than good. Believe me; all of these thoughts crossed my mind. There was one other thought: maybe God had brought this person to us to demonstrate the risky hospitality we read about in the Bible. Maybe this was an opportunity, not a threat. As I said, all of these things crossed my mind as I spoke with and observed our guest.
What I found helpful and comforting is that we have people in our church who have the gifts and training to interact with people in the midst of psychotic episodes and other mental health crises. I spoke with several of them at breakfast, and they offered sound advice on how to establish firm, non-threatening, boundaries for our guest. They also agreed to help maintain those boundaries and strike a balance of comfort and safety. Their approach was grounded in kindness, compassion, and a concern for the wellbeing of all—the very essence of Christian hospitality. It was an epiphany all its own.
If this story strikes a chord in your heart, please consider joining me and others from the FPCPA family at the Mental Health First Aid training in August. God brings many people to our doors—some of them with delicate needs, and all of them seeking comfort in the house of the Lord. Together we can make our church home a space of welcome, comfort, and safety for all.

Godspeed,

matt sig

March Letter

Dear Friends in Christ,
Last month's snowy weather was a reminder of how important it is to be connected with one another. When the forces of nature bear down on us as they did in our February Snowmageddon we realize how vulnerable we are to the forces of nature, particularly out here on the Olympic Peninsula. Streets were impassable for days, schools and businesses were forced to close, grocery store shelves were left bare, and some were left homebound for well over a week. Yet out of that chaos emerged an abundance of stories of people reaching out to help one another ... and later wondering why we don't do this more often.

The importance of being connected is one of the reasons I cherish life in the community of Christ, particularly as we practice our connectionalism as Presbyterians. We Presbyterians hold as central to our existence a commitment to life in covenant with one another. Theologically speaking, we believe that we cannot be faithful followers of Jesus Christ apart from one another. Practically speaking, we understand there is so much more we can do together than we could ever hope to accomplish on our own. Beyond that, our hearts tell us that life in community is good for the soul as it provides opportunities for sharing, learning, and bearing one another's burdens.