an open letter to a beloved church

A little over three years ago we were marooned.

Having moved across the country for a meaningful job [ben] and graduate school [kaile], I was suddenly let go from my job. And it wasn’t just me, it was five of us staffers at City Church in SF. Big changes in the church budget that year meant big changes for us.

Several exhausting interviews later, I was on the phone with two incredible, gifted leaders: first Suzanne Magno, then Susan Van Riesen. Instead of battling me on the complicated theological issues of our day, they listened and asked a few honest, relevant questions to assess the journey I/we were on, and how following Jesus was going.

Early on, I had the sense that God might well be leading us into a new community. Palo Alto Vineyard Church was ostensibly a strong, united, convicted, God-honoring, Christ-centered, Spirit-led community of faith.

The past three plus years have proven that to indeed be the case.

Today I am taking some much-needed time to reflect on exactly how I/we have been shaped during these delightful, tiring, exhilarating, nerve-wracking several years of growth and formation in the way of Jesus. First I will share a few aspects of our church that have shaped me the past few years. Then I will share some parting comments, observations – even some exhortations – to a few select groups within our community with whom I have been in close touch.

So first, some observation on how I have seen how God has uniquely called our church.

Palo Alto Vineyard Church, in my experience, has been:

1. A spiritually optimistic community

By spiritually optimistic, I mean our basic prayer ethic is simple and unapologetic:

boldly ask God what is needed.

A lot of Christians, and I count myself in this group, are a teensy bit hesitant to boldly ask  the Holy Spirit to direct a decision, to heal a wound, to change a heart. Why? There is a fear that we might not get an answer, that we might not see the healing we want to see, that we might not experience the transformation we desire.

Ah, but to get just slightly theological here, there’s a strong emphasis in the Vineyard on the already and the not yet. Eventually God is eventually making all things new, so not everything is yet complete; but on the other hand, the kingdom of heaven has arrived!

I have learned [and continue to learn!] how it’s okay to be bold with our requests. Sure, there are times when the answer is no. For reasons we may never understand, God does not always prevent pain from descending into our lives: sickness, loss, death [though we will never know how much tragedy God prevented us from experiencing!]. And yet, we can trust in the God who works all things together for the good of we who love God and who are called according to the purposes God has for us.

Warm feelings of gratefulness cascade over me as I recount the many ways I have seen God answer prayer in this community. And I have seen too how the Spirit will sometimes carry along different ones among us when the perceived lack of response is palpable.

2. A robustly diverse and welcoming community

The whole from all backgrounds phrase is not a slogan. It’s who we are, and who we aim to be more deeply at each turn. Anchored in the good news of a Jesus who ransomed us and now calls us to the path of love, we have been on a communal journey to find ways to celebrate the goodness of our backgrounds, confront the foibles and sins, and newly connect with others from similar and different cultures in the journey God has called us to walk together, in step with one another.

I know it’s stretching sometimes. Or maybe that’s just me!? I guess I’ll let you make the call. I won’t lie though, I have learned an awful lot about East and South Asian culture, and much of it is pretty new. The Bay Area is special in terms of the demographic mix. No part of the country or world is quite like Silicon Valley.

It will be impossible to forget some of the conversations I have had regarding race and the experiences various individuals have had. I remember sitting at an All Church Weekend a couple years ago when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a Chinese American woman asked me about my cultural and ethnic formation.

The fact that she asked was in and of itself healing. I am not sure how I responded, probably something about being from a rural community that had its own set of values, some of which are really life-giving, some of which I now have called into question. Questions and conversations such as these allow us to genuinely share parts of ourselves with one another, and I am grateful for having participated in a community that, at very least, attempts to create safe space for this kind of connection.

i-FFntWBD-O

When we get back to Grand Rapids, we’ll be in a black, white, and latinx kind of neighborhood, and I am looking forward to that new mix of people. But sadly, given the demographics in that part of the world, I doubt whether I’ll have too many Asian neighbors, and I’ll really miss that. In knowing so many of you here in this community, I have come to know a new facet of the heart of God.

Whatever new individuals and communities God brings to PAVC, I am confident you all will gracefully receive them, listen to them, and affirm their place in the kingdom. I trust the Spirit will continue to grow your sense of unity and inclusivity as you are carried along in God’s grace.

3. A mission-driven community

People of Palo Alto Vineyard, you may have noticed how our church adheres to a mission. Maybe you’ve heard phrases like, everyone gets to play or come as you are but don’t stay as you are! or come Holy Spirit. Those Vineyard phrases form a culture, and as people cultured in the way of Christ, you even get some specifics at the Palo Alto branch.

Intimacy with God.
Influence for the kingdom.
People from all backgrounds.
Empowerment. 

I realize that’s not how it’s phrased in the graphic, but these bullet points illustrate how this church has sought to follow Jesus not only in general, but to also get specific with precisely how we’re doing that.

Some months ago, I and the missions board were called on to refine and refocus our missions emphasis. Susan organized a meeting to connect not only the missions board but also the pastoral leadership team, the church board, and staff. We dug deep, processed together, listened. It was no perfect display of organizational leadership, but it was a beautiful picture of the Holy Spirit working through human personalities and thought processes.

We came to the conclusion that we should really dedicate intentional support to just a few key organizations. It is now in your hands, dear church, to work in step with the Spirit to continue this work that God has stirred in this time and in this place. Continue praying, loving, serving, and giving of yourselves.

As a church we don’t just check the follow Jesus box. A missional, outward-looking passion is at the heart of this community’s identity. We seek to live out what we are called to do and who we are called to be.

Keep going, church!

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Now, a few brief exhortations & encouragement to folks with whom I’ve been closely connected.


To youth:

Continue following Jesus, generation Z of Silicon Valley, even when it feels like you’re the only Christian you know! You are participating in a beautiful, sacred community of people devoting their lives to a Jesus who promotes love, justice, generosity, kindness, patience, and self-control. He tells us to love our neighbor – but also our enemy! He confronted religious leaders [like me] about their hypocrisy [I too am often guilty of this] while he affirmed sinners, the sick, prostitutes, greedy tax collectors all alike [though he also prompted them to follow him and change their lives!].

Some of the youth and Ben

I realize you will likely continue hearing angst and criticism regarding the church as a whole and certain Christians in particular. We deserve a lot of that criticism, for once one makes the decision to submit to Jesus, sin remains, even as the Spirit works in a person to loosen the grip of darkness. it’s easy to critique to the point of disassociation. I urge you, however, to press closer to Jesus when these feelings arise. sometimes this may require borrowing faith from a friend – the very reason we are created for community. it may mean you allow God to take apart the faith as you once understood it thereby making space for something entirely new.

Jesus found me when I was a heaped mess of uncontrolled anger, rage, lacking in compassion or care for others; but in grace he opted not to leave me in that sad state. Jesus has found many of you in a place of need as well, and though your needs were different, he loves you just the same. I now feel compelled to love others with something that vaguely shadows the kind of love our Savior has shown me over many years. I pray you can share the love of Christ in the ways the Spirit leads you to share it.

I’ll close with what I said at the goodbye Zoom, how I am abundantly confident that God will keep working in you, in your leaders, in our church. And I do thank God when I remember each of you – which is quite often.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 1:3-6

To the youth core team:

You all probably already know this, but I will go ahead and remind you:

YOU’VE GOT WHAT IT TAKES!

Your ministry is vital. the energy of tweens and teens has been a life source for me over many years, as it has for many of you, and for many of you that has kept you energetic yourselves, youthful and passionate.

Growing in the soil of God’s infinite grace, my prayer and hope for each of you is that you would listen to Alphaville’s Forever Young from time to time, keeping in mind your wisdom and insight, love and exhortation, affirmations and encouragement, are the point, not necessarily staying young [even if this sometimes happens by default!].

When leading is exhausting, disappointing, unfulfilling, or downright maddening, keep in mind the words of the prophet Isaiah:

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. 

To PAVC staff:

Your work matters, when it’s unseen.

Your work matters, when you don’t see the eventual effects of your labor.

Your work matters, when you’re unsure whether you said or did exactly the right thing.

God is at work through you, and you have a vital role as leaders in this ministry. Did I mention your work matters? I say this because in ministry, there are so many moments when we find ourselves asking, did I make a difference in that event? that song? that sermon? is anyone listening? does anyone care? 

if you do feel those angsty vibes, be encouraged and know that you/we stand in excellent company – company such as Moses, Rahab, Abraham. Some of great saints in the history of redemptions never quite found what they were looking for, though they did remain faithful: These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect [Hebrews 11:39-40]

The PAVC church staff messing around

God has good things in store right now, and even better things in store for the future. So remain faithful to the cause of Christ. your work matters. Yes, sometimes we get to see the fruit of our labor. Other times not so much.

And then there’s what God is eventually at work doing!

To the missions board:

You already know your is unique. you’re setting a vision for what, God willing, might eventually happen in and through our church. You’re both establishing and continuing praying relationships with other individuals, families, and organizations serving our community and the global community.

From my own experience, this careful, methodical work can sometimes feel incredibly relevant, an immediate solution for an immediate need [money for wildfires! rent relief! in-person prayer with a missions partner!].

However, aspects of your work can also seem tedious, abstract, removed [tracking the budget, policy decisions, ]. 

Regardless of how it feels at any given moment, know that your commitment to God’s purposes in our church are absolutely irreplaceable. No one else holds the vision that you hold, so hold on tight!

Keep discerning, maintaining the pulse of needs in our community, listening for the Spirit’s guidance, pursuing the way of Jesus in all things:

And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

To worship leaders and musicians:

COVID-19 has affected music and worship ministry especially hard, possibly the hardest of all of our church’s efforts toward spiritual formation.

Do you feel the effects of that digital distance we now are somewhat accustomed to?

Do you remember the joy of connecting the hearts of people to God and God’s heart to people?

I do. And I miss it.

My guess is we all miss that connection. I miss being led in worship, singing my heart out in the congregation. I miss leading worship in youth group and in the larger community, seeing folks experience the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Hands down, Zoom and YouTube won’t be the same. And yet, God is unchanging, and works through these pixels, these lines of code, these computer speakers.

The technologies that so many of you have dedicated your careers to expand are the very technologies that have allowed us to stay devoted to the unchanged Jesus we still follow!

I remember trying to pipe into Zoom church a couple months ago, maybe it was the first Sunday of May? Anyway, our kids were as energetic as ever, and it was really difficult to connect to much of what was being shared. But when you, Terence, and you, Suzanne, led the church in a couple songs toward the end of our time, I couldn’t help getting out my guitar and worshiping with you.

My heart and my soul felt connected in that moment, united with folks all over the Bay Area seeking to worship God despite strange circumstances. It was nothing short of defiance: we said a soulful yes to the way of Jesus when everything around us is telling us we are isolated, alone, trapped, vulnerable.

God’s gift of music gives us the tools to fight back against these stories. The counter narrative of a hopeful gospel – repentance, forgiveness, and transformation – confronts darkness with a surprising hope.

So sing on, my friends. And when heaven and earth are finally made one, we will be singing together for a very long time. Between now and then I will miss the special connection we have had for these precious years.

And, my dear friends, know this: know that I, Kaile, and our littles too, will be singing with you.

Psalm 150

Praise the Lord.

Praise God in his sanctuary;
    praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
    praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
    praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
    praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
    praise him with resounding cymbals.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.

To the entire church:

The nice thing about the work of a pastor is we never have any shortage of God-given wisdom to reflect on. It’s hard to improve on the Bible!

As the excellent writer of Hebrews exhorts the early church, so I exhort you:

KEEP GOING!

There is no other source for our faith than the triune God. Consider what Jesus endured when God asked much of him – and, with the strength of the Spirit, follow him, with the support of all the saints above and below [and even the ones in Grand Rapids, Michigan who will miss you all very dearly]:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

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