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.

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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!

***

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

***

 

 

Destination: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Over the past couple months, I’ve been slowly sharing with friends here in Silicon Valley about the decision Kaile and I have made about moving back to Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Here is a bit more about that decision-making process.

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the Willard avenue home. Kaile is holding Silas

Taking a look back at our 2016 move to the Bay Area, it was probably the best decision we have ever made. It was so clear we were supposed to be here, a God-directed step. A meaningful job was available for me, a graduate program in therapy for Kaile. On top of that, we put our house [pictured here] on the market during a February, 2016 apartment hunting trip to San Francisco. It sold within 24 hours after a brief bidding war, and we downsized to a 450sq foot apartment in downtown San Francisco.

Once we arrived, it was joyfully challenging. Culture shock was one aspect, sticker shock another. Urban energy, pacific breezes, and incredible views of the city and bay from our 15th story window inspired us. Meaningful interactions with folks at the church I served confirmed how we could make San Francisco home. Bike rides and walks I’d take with Silas and Kaile made me feel like at least a portion of every day was vacation. We made more, spent more, felt like imposters some of the time, and gradually adjusted to our new setting.

The grit and grind of city life felt right. No longer living in the shadow of Detroit or Chicago, we now lived in one of the country’s best-known cities, with all its opportunities and pain, all its beauty and all its brokenness. We were so palpably aware of our newness yet so ready for whatever awaited us. Continue reading “Destination: Grand Rapids, Michigan”

restraining my judgments: pandemic version

A few days ago I found myself at a new park, Calabazas, a city park in Cupertino just south of Apple’s famed headquarters.

I had been up since just after 6am with our two rowdy preschool boys. Having already coached them through a short hike at a nature preserve, this was my second stop of the day. My face held the emotional and physical exhaustion from the full day with the littles; my forehead was a knot.

As we explored the park, a small remote controlled vehicle approached, followed by a man. From behind his mask, he appeared to be within a few years of my age. Soon, another man appeared, manning the controls of another dust-spewing vehicle.

Naturally, the boys were fascinated. What 3 or 5 year old kid wouldn’t be?

I had to make sure the boys didn’t get hit; the vehicles were fairly large. As I coached the boys on avoiding them, I also had to explain that they needed to stay in a certain area – an island made up of a large tree and its roots. There was some struggle for them to listen, but for the most part we seemed to be getting along ok, the boys happily watching the small trucks as they sped around, tumbling over rocks, hopping over berms.

There was some mumbling, a sense of discontent that I began to pick up from the two men. As another joined, I could hear a few of the complaints. They were unsure whether to speak directly to me or confront my kids, but internally I realized they felt some claim over this place and that we had unknowingly impinged on a remote controlled ritual.

“Buddy, come on, that’s the only jump in the neighborhood!” one of the drivers said brusquely through his face mask, barely looking my direction. This was the first comment that clearly marked out their position.

“I understand” was my terse response.

Walking down to where the boys were, I let them know it might be a good idea to find a new place to play. It was dusty, loud, and I was feeling the awkwardness of getting in the way of their fun, their afternoon activity – driving little remote controlled cars.

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As I walked out with Silas and Maelin, part of me was still perturbed at the man’s comment. The one jump in the neighborhood? Really? Glancing around, I noticed countless places to drive the little vehicles – and we were there first! For heaven’s sake, it’s virus season and I have three kids to raise, a marriage to maintain, and a full time job.

You’re a grown man driving a remote controlled car, and you can’t let a tired dad soak in the afternoon with his kids without verbally staving him away from your precious racetrack? 

Amidst those thoughts, I tried to imagine their situation. What are their lives like? And what is their experience amidst the pandemic?

Maybe, even though this clearly isn’t the only jump in the neighborhood, it’s the best one. 

Maybe rc cars is the primary – or only way – these guys connect as friends. 

Maybe they have no idea what it’s like to raise kids. 

Maybe they’re fighting depression, anxiety. 

Maybe they’re single.

Maybe.  

I could be totally off. Maybe they’re just jerks. But whatever made that guy want to come take over my spot at the park, they had a high value for driving their little cars.

COVID-19 related challenges also fit squarely into this interaction at Calabazas Park. If those gentlemen do indeed lead single lives, the pressures [and joys] of parenting are simply unknown to them. If my experience is, in fact, entirely outside theirs, no wonder there is confusion.

My faith tells me I’m supposed to bear with other people’s burdens. It’s right there in Galatians chapter six, go look it up. In this case, I found myself the one who needed to assess the needs of the car guys and parent accordingly.

One chapter earlier in Galatians, Paul speaks to how we can sum up God’s call on us with one simple concept: loving others as we love ourselves. Jesus takes it a step further and calls us to love even our enemies. 

Enemy love was the tipping point for me, but my spiritual guides leave me with no excuse, so I yield [even if I’m a bit resistant as I do!].

Drive on, remote controlled car guys.

***

 

 

 

5 Lessons the Pandemic is Teaching Me

Not many of us were planning on waiting out a pandemic, but here we are. And here’s what I am learning.

1. No person is an island [even in quarantine]

The illustrious English poet John Donne penned these words several hundred years ago. The exact phraseology fit with the time but is no less striking all these centuries later: “no man is an island entire of itself.”

Paul wrote to the church in Rome, …none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 

Ultimately, we belong to God. And God has entrusted us to one another, each of us with different roles to play.

It’s impossible not to witness the myriad ways we depend on one another for virtually everything. Several weeks ago I discovered, to my delight, that Jester D, a garbageman who has taken to Twitter, was honestly and defiantly letting the world know how he was sticking to his post, continuing his job, serving his city.

Everyone supports this kind of dedication. In the same way, we are all noticing how much we depend on the stockers, managers, and cashiers at our local grocery stores; our nurses and doctors; our mail delivery people; our church communities; our pastors; our families and dear friends.

My prayer and hope is that the pandemic we are experiencing allows us to humble ourselves, practice gratitude for all people and all things, and establish new patterns of interdependence that we needed all along – though we mightn’t have known.

2. Being a good neighbor really counts [and not just when things are rough!]

It’s hard to list the support my family and I have received over the past six weeks. Of course some of the care was because of Junia’s entrance into our family, but much of it was strictly virus-related.

Suddenly the topography of human relationships matters just a little more. 

I have imagined what it might be like months or years from now if a pandemic were to hit the planet but with a higher casualty rate. What if human lives on the planet were taken not in the tens of thousands but in the tens of millions? What if economies were not only challenged or shaken, but leveled entirely?

On a podcast I listened to a few days ago, the guest – a survivalist – shared how his fellow survivalists maintain a saying that seems to promote zeal for their cause: “America is 9 meals away from anarchy.” That’s about what we have in the fridge right now, to be honest, and beyond that we depend on farmers, grocers, truck drivers, and everyone else in the supply chain. If things got desperate, the scenario could be really frightening.

These awful thoughts occasionally haunt me.

At the same time, there is much to celebrate. Supply chains are holding steady [though on a personal note, I still haven’t found toilet paper], people are getting creative, and there are some good signs of resiliency coming into view.

However the pandemic is playing out for us, the place we live has become all the more important. Neighbors have become vital – much more so than before. I pray and hope this becomes a new normal, especially for those of us with a stubborn sense of independence [read: me].

3. Being informed is good [binging on news is not]

That pretty much says it all. It’s easy to scroll away through articles and social media feeds. We are all looking for answers, for hope, for an end to this strange quarantined existence.

My mom said it this way: “I haven’t kept up with the news as much recently. I mean, I can’t change anything!” 

True, mom. At the same time, she is making a difference!

She and my dad are doing all the same things any other responsible person is doing: hand washing, masks, distancing practices, limited trips, only the essentials. That’s what most of us are doing.

And the sum of our efforts, we pray and hope, is making a difference.

Watching the news is helpful to the extent that we gain information about how to care for our neighbors. Beyond that, it can become an obsession, and it can lead to anxiety and unhelpful fears. It can even be, simply, an unhelpful distraction.

Get the facts, and get on with your best life possible right now.

4. Good parenting seems about 1000% as important as before [and every minute is an opportunity to grow]

I have had several bad moments recently, moments of impatience with my sons. There are some big ways I can improve my parenting, before the pandemic – but more so in the present, since there is even more time with the littles.

My wife has really impressed me with her skills. She has all three kids on her own several days every week, allowing me to quarantine in my office and crush the work I have to do.

What I am doing isn’t terribly complicated. I’m listening to Kaile’s insights, breathing deeply, getting down at their level, putting a hand on their arm as I speak to them, using some Love and Logic ideas, and making sure they know my rules are for their good.

There are lots of moments when I hear myself wonder – almost out loud – whether things will suddenly click, fall into place, work out. It’s when they’re both crying, when they run out of the gate against my order, when things are rough. Other moments are quite the opposite – an unexpected kiss on the cheek from Silas, a special toy or drawing that Maelin makes for me. There is a lot of good to celebrate.

I am doing my best to follow through and be consistent, and trying to have fun. I love my littles a lot, and parenting strategies are all the more useful during this unprecedented time we are experiencing.

The parenting strategies help me love them more.

5. Grace is more important than ever [for myself as much as for others]

God’s grace seems exceptionally generous right now.

Whatever failures, foibles, sins large or small, God forgives. Jesus showed up on planet earth and took grace so seriously that he was willing to die to ransom us from evil [see the New Testament!].

Of course this doesn’t mean we abuse the grace – by no means! Grace leads us to gratitude, and gratitude leads us to action. It’s a response.

But back to grace.

As many of us come up against the limits of our own resiliency, it is family and friends and God who often grant us grace.

Yet there is also the need for we ourselves to accept the grace.

Too often we know, cerebrally, that there’s grace. But we don’t always grant ourselves the grace we cognitively know is available.

I wrote more extensively on this grace thing recently. Grace a gift God is giving us that we need to receive, unwrap, and begin to use

about every day, by my estimate.

***

speaking to our soul amidst chaos

For several thousand years, the Jewish community and, was time has gone on, people from all faith backgrounds have resonated with the Hebrew Psalms.

It’s hard not to connect when we hear how ancient people interacted with a living God. Every emotion, from love and longing to pain and loss, finds its expression somewhere in the corpus.

The beginning of Psalm 42 has really connected for me recently:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.

2My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?

Growing up in West Michigan, I saw my fair share of these creatures; the local species is the whitetail variety. On many occasions I have witnessed deer licking up fresh water from a stream or still pond. The text here recognizes the subtle difference between these creatures and myself, at least as far as I could comprehend, for I had and still have more than enough water and food; but I long for a larger sense of connection to my maker, not just the next meal. Maybe that’s true too for the creature too; but I suppose for now, at least, I cannot know.

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Also, seemingly unlike the woodland creature, I am sometimes crushed with sadness and acquainted with loss. Virtual church, for all our efforts, isn’t the same as the sustaining gift of person-to-person connection. Virtual hugs are not real hugs, as nice of a gesture as they are. FaceTime is nice, it’s just not quite face time. For all our talk of health, I do think we should consider our mental and spiritual health alongside our hand washing habits; it’s not an either-or but a both-and. No apology for that digression!

Returning to both our physical, spiritual, and mental health, it is impossible not to wonder where God is in all aspects of our wellness.  Continue reading “speaking to our soul amidst chaos”

the meaning of home

Every weekend since we moved to Silicon Valley, we notice moving trucks in our neighborhood.

The San Francisco Bay Area is transient. There is so much here! It’s incredible! There are few places in the world where one can make hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, yet drive a half hour or less to surf. Or hike. Or check out an amazing museum. Ir have a world class meal. Drive a couple hours and you’re in the Sierra Nevada mountains – Lake Tahoe has limitless fun [though it typically comes with a hefty price tag].

The Bay Area has its challenges, to be sure, but one look at the topography is enough; it’s drop dead gorgeous.

GettyImages-1091926356-16fe7d3eddbe4a82808b0917efa982a7
one of Lake Tahoe’s beaches [credit: benedek/Getty Images]
There is a reason people stream from across the country to live here. It’s an amazing place to live, pure and simple.

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Pearl 6101 [credit: Patricia Chang]
skyscrapers
San Francisco skyline from the west looking east [credit: Unsplash/Hardik Pandya]
Once they get here, however, the difficulties can be intimidating for people from any station in life. A couple years ago, 46% of Bay Area residents were planning on leaving within a few years. But why leave?  Continue reading “the meaning of home”

baby #3: Junia’s dramatic birth story

For about as long as Kaile was pregnant with our third child, we have fielded the question, “where will you guys go for delivery?”

Our answer would begin with our hopes to be at the Nightingale Birth Center in San Mateo, the most relaxing setting for Kaile. She has given birth naturally without any medications twice already, and apart from low iron and uncomfortable feelings in abundance, she hasn’t experienced significant pre-natal problems.

The truth was, we didn’t know how it would all work out. We put together our plan, made backup plans, and waited. In the modern world, this is certainly not always the case, but birth, in our limited experience, involves a lot of unknowing.

When Kaile began to feel strong contractions on Tuesday of this week, we dutifully headed to the birth center, knowing her body was preparing for delivery. We were aware that there could be a journey ahead. After about seven hours of labor, things slowed down and we headed home.

Those hours spent pacing the room, breathing deeply through each surge of her uterus, leaning on balance balls, and relaxing in the birth pool were meaningful for me; I was able to genuinely support Kaile during this taxing time.

I realize the pictures aren’t great, but they at least offer a taste of the experience! 

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pacing during act I of labor

She was so joyful throughout, surprising our doula, Dasha, and all the midwives with her overwhelmingly positive attitude.

Heading home Tuesday evening was the right move. After a quiet night’s rest, we got up feeling refreshed. I took the boys to preschool and headed home to help Kaile relax.

By this point, anyone reading is probably falling on one side or the other of a spectrum; on the one side, it’s the natural birth crowd, the granola people – maybe the term hippie even applies! On the other side, it’s folks who rely heavily on the standard medical system.

No judgment here regarding what feels comfortable for any other individual or family, but we are definitely on the natural side of the spectrum, not militantly, but with conviction. We recognize the gift it is for Kaile not to have experienced any of the myriad pre-natal challenges common to pregnancy, and we do not take that lightly. Continue reading “baby #3: Junia’s dramatic birth story”

my new [tech] rule of life:

Life in 2019 is complicated, and I bet 2020 will be too.

Maybe you’ve felt it? A barrage of information floods us constantly, even if we’re trying to be intentional about how we live. A notification from my news app will inform me about political protests in Hong Kong. Friends ping me on Snapchat or iMessage as I peruse a Twitter feed.

I recently had to turn off the sound on my work computer because the email notifications were coming in so alarmingly fast. Sometimes I close Apple mail for that same reason.

Sometimes I literally lose my train of thought because of some kind of notification, and I need to re-center by shutting down all devices and entering into prayer. This is not a good sign! Our devices should serve us – not we them!

Alas, our psychology often cripples us. Facebook did not always have the *like* button. Of course now we can slide our finger for a love, laugh, or cry emoji, and even an anger option. These little digital affirmations from others get at the parts of our neurology that seek social approval. The effects are staggering. Some of us do almost anything to get noticed, to gain approval, to earn *likes*.

A few months ago I read Andy Crouch’s Tech Wise Family. I recommend that little book, and it inspired to begin a few new practices:

1. Putting my phone to bed. Literally, my phone sleeps in the kitchen now next to the family iPad and Kaile’s phone.

2. No screens in our main living space. My iMac, which used to camp out in our living room, is now my work computer.  Continue reading “my new [tech] rule of life:”

the cycle of hope: parenting edition

Parenting, much like the rest of life, seems much like trying to cook five separate foods on a four burner stove. It’s remarkably difficult to know how to prioritize the many moving parts of which family and work life consist.

In my family, like so many others, my partner Kaile [pronounced Kay-lah] and I both work. She’s also finishing graduate school. We live in a small, two-bedroom apartment, and she’s pregnant with our third child – due in February of next year.

Oh yeah – and I work full time!

Recently Silas [4], our older son, has been acting out – regressing – for the past couple weeks. He’ll yell, tantrum, throw something, hit Maelin [2], or lash out at his daddy. Part of it, I think, is the intensity of upcoming change [they both began preschool this week] and his need for structure [which we hope for preschool to provide].

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For most of Silas’s life, change has more or less been a constant. Born in Grand Rapids, he moved right after he turned one to San Francisco where he lived in our walk-in closet. Six months later we found another place on the west side of SF where we lived for a year. Next, we packed it up and headed to the Silicon Valley, and have been in the same apartment for a record-breaking two years [except we did move downstairs to a different unit in the same building; does this officially count as a move?].

My love for him is strong. My hopes for him are high. And yet, I realize I am simply not some perfect parent who does the right thing every time. My skills are still growing as I get impatient, as I catch myself being inconsistent, as I’m sometimes too relaxed yet other times too strict. Consistency is supposed to be good, but it’s not easy to maintain!fullsizeoutput_1468

Now where does that leave me as I continue to seek the best ways to do what I sense God has called me to do [husband-ing! pastoring! parenting! friend-ing! neighbor-ing!]?

There seem to be a couple paths. I’ve written about this elsewhere from a different life experience if you’re interested. Anyway, the first path is what I call the cycle of cynicism, with a few key markers:

1. lack of control over one’s life
2. consistent feeling of overwhelm
3. overstating or hyperbolizing one’s challenges [sometimes called catastrophizing].

On the other side, there’s the cycle of hope, characterized by a hopeful sense that God* will preserve and encourage – even in the challenges [or most especially amidst the challenges!] there are opportunities to transform and grow.

Honestly, there have been seasons where my faith has pressed me to do new things, times when being connected in a relationship with Jesus and sensing the Spirit’s guidance has pushed me to take new risks and do really challenging things. But presently, my faith is an incredible resource that gives me a whole lot of hope [that whole *cycle of hope* thing].

Some clever pastor said Jesus afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.

Saint Ignatius, father of the Jesuit order, refers to seasons of consolation and desolation, getting at the same idea.

That is certainly the case in the New Testament, and it has proven to be true in the lives of many people around me. And it’s proved true in my own life. When things are easy, I tend to tune into the ways my faith challenges me; when things are more difficult, I tend to emphasize the comforts. And it all seems to happen internally – I just need to pay attention to where the Spirit is guiding me.

Here are some words from Jesus that have often served as a spiritual on-ramp back toward that cycle of hope. Maybe they will serve to encourage you today:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. [Matthew 11:28-30 MSG]

I am leaning on this invitation as I look to stay on that cycle of hope.

May we all experience these unforced rhythms of grace.

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*For other faiths and philosophies this can vary to some degree; I’m speaking as a Christian.

old self: dying / new self: rising up

If you happened to read my last post, you may have noticed an emphasis on death.

Well, I’m at it again!

This post contains darkness too, but [spoiler alert!] also finishes with a whole lot of hope.

***

Flash back to Good Friday [April 19th of this year]. I found myself in tears as I reflected on one of the stations of the cross we had for Good Friday worship that evening.

The station was really simple: wheat grass seeds in a bowl, a tasteful piece of art, a handout to read, and some bright green sprouted wheat grass growing. A dear woman named Daniela at our church put it together, and I sensed her wisdom as I began to read the handout.

Reading it, I felt all these connections coming on strong. It was a short reflection from the vantage point of a seed being buried under deep soil. The seed lamented being placed underground, cried out as it was cracked and broken apart; the tiny seed protested its experience.

Then came the hopeful turn: the seed realized its death meant new life for the plant she was becoming. Having grown up helping my dad in our big Michigan garden, seeds are not foreign to me; the analogy is a familiar one, an image my heart fathoms and my experiences recount.

Speaking of Good Friday [an attempt at a segue?], Jesus spoke a number of times about seeds. In his agrarian world, these images would certainly have made sense. In reference to his own death he said this:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. [John 12:23-26a / NIV]

There isn’t much to add here: Jesus insinuates [it’s fairly clear to us now, but was it so clear to them back then?] that he was going to die, but through death he would produce many seeds, and it’s probably best to interpret this as followers.

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Relating to the experience of the seed – and of my Savior – touched a part of my journey that I had not yet reflected on deeply: the past five years.

Ever since August 17th, 2013 I’ve been a proud husband to Kaile; and ever since January 31st, 2015 I’ve been a proud dad to Silas. We were prouder still to welcome in another son, Maelin on September 30th, 2016.

Amidst all this change, I finished an MDiv program, we also sold our first home, moved across the country, Kaile was accepted into and has since started [and now has nearly completed] grad school, moved again, I lost a job, we moved yet another time as I got another job, and Kaile has begun private practice therapy work in the Bay Area. The changes have kept coming and my ability to honestly reflect on them has been limited.

With the shifting seasons and new frontiers, my job has recently been rather challenging. Prioritizing youth ministry can be no easy task for a busy family in a buzzing metropolis. At the same time, I am indeed responsible for shepherding the young people in our church as well as, in some ways, their families. I’m also tasked with leading a missions board. We work to activate people to invest in our various local, domestic, and international missions partners, and we help to manage about $150k/year.

It’s good work, but it’s work that requires real attentiveness to timing. It’s work that I feel called to and passionate for, but it has pushed me in a lot of new ways.

One part of my job right now is helping support some seniors as they graduate not only from high school but also from our church context. Yes, they’ll always be loved and supported, but they’re off to new things. One of them, Laurel, is singing a song with me on June 2nd on the Sunday we’re praying the seniors into their next season in life.

Laurel is talented, thoughtful, and really loves Jesus. Her faith is strong yet tested; she’s been through a lot, especially considering her youthfulness. And she suggested singing this song, Seasons, on a day we’re celebrating the change and transition to something new.

It’s better to just listen to it on YouTube, but the lyrics are also below. Seldom do I find a piece of art that so perfectly connects the narrative of Jesus and the powerful promises of God to the everyday scenes of nature and of human experience. Despite my occasional allergy to megachurchy kinds of vibes, this song, with its authenticity and organic imagery, strikes me quite differently.

____________________________________________________________________________________________
Seasons
[Verse I]
Like the frost on a rose
Winter comes for us all
Oh how nature acquaints us
With the nature of patience
Like a seed in the snow
I’ve been buried to grow
For Your promise is loyal
From seed to sequoia
[Chorus] 
I know
Though the winter is long even richer
The harvest it brings
Though my waiting prolongs even greater
Your promise for me like a seed
I believe that my season will come
[Verse II] 
Lord I think of Your love
Like the low winter sun
And as I gaze I am blinded
In the light of Your brightness
And like a fire to the snow
I’m renewed in Your warmth
Melt the ice of this wild soul
Till the barren is beautiful [Chorus] 
[Bridge]
I can see the promise
I can see the future
You’re the God of seasons
And I’m just in the winter
If all I know of harvest
Is that it’s worth my patience
Then if You’re not done working
God I’m not done waiting
You can see my promise
Even in the winter
Cause You’re the God of greatness
Even in a manger
For all I know of seasons
Is that You take Your time
You could have saved us in a second
Instead You sent a child [Chorus] 
[Verse III] 
Like a seed you were sown 
For the sake of us all 
From Bethlehem’s soil
To Calvary’s sequoia 

____________________________________________________________________________________________

fullsizeoutput_94bIn the context of the song, it is not difficult to make the myriad connections between the text from John 12. From death, at least from Jesus’s perspective, comes new life. That’s meant literally and as metaphor.

Flash back to that moment getting married at Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and indeed the months leading up to it! It was almost six years ago, but that was the death of my single self. Those moments ushering Silas – then Maelin – into the world, that was the death of our childless selves. Kaile and Ben became “they,” a little family with all the joy and busyness of family life. That moment we sold our house and moved 2400 miles away, that was the death of our comfortable, anchored selves.

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I haven’t had much time to lament those losses, honestly, because the next steps in life have been successively faster and more intense. I don’t have the time I used to, the mental wherewithal I remember having ten years ago. The faces of people I knew and loved in high school, college, even seminary, are getting blurrier; sometimes they allude me entirely. Often I’m bone-tired, aching sore from lifting kids, walking 12,528 steps in a day, emotionally worn out from the cycle of kids-work-church-marriage [and… repeat].

IMG_7713The song, the student’s life experiences, and the story about the seed losing its old self struck me at a deep, emotional level because of the many levels to which I find myself relating. My parents and some of their friends, in their late 60s, have spoken from time to time about how difficult their 30s were.

Maybe it’s winter for me right now; maybe it’ll be even more intense with each successive decade. At this point I just don’t know.

Now let me just pause to say this: I know every human being goes through challenges and struggles; and mine are so common. They are not unique – but they are my own. Comparing my story to someone else may put my experiences into perspective, and it’s indeed helpful. Counting my blessings and practicing gratitude is an enormous aspect of my spiritual growth [you can even ask my spiritual director – he will vouch for that!]. But it’s simply dishonest to pretend things are easy by saying, perennially, “there’s someone else going through something worse!” That will always be the case! There will always be someone doing worse and better than me – and that goes for all of us. Except, maybe, the 2 people out there are really are at the *top* and *bottom* which requires too much mental calculus to determine anyway!

And so, I am trying to acknowledge what parts of me have died. At the same time I’m observing how God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is bringing new things to life in me.

My married self, though exhausted, is more patient, less self-absorbed, more loving, humbler. My parental self is more compassionate, more generous, sacrificial in new ways, loving in imperfect way yet still more loving than I was before. My working self is is less self-seeking and more open to correction and accountability. My faith has moved from a set of unquestionable beliefs to a journey with a loving and supportive friend – and the emphasis has shifted much toward spiritual practices, less so on the list of unquestionable things to believe.

Just like a seed, God is putting to death so much in me. But as Paul teaches us in Romans 6, I was buried with Christ in baptism, and I am being raised to new life with him.

Like Jesus dying then being raised to new life, God is bringing out new things from the ashes of what perished.

Goodbye, old self. You’re buried. Hello new self! You’re being raised with Christ! The kingdom of heaven is coming, even in the cracks and corners of my little life.

I’m making the lyrics my prayer:

Melt the ice of this wild soul
Till the barren is beautiful

*** 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d welcome any thoughts or comments or reflections. My email is benvidetich@gmail.com or you can leave a public comment below.