I almost can’t believe it’s been a year since we were last together—and yet so much has happened in all our lives!
I hope each of you is doing well. I’ve kept up with you as much as possible, as much as was reasonable and appropriate. I’m always glad to hear about new relationships and new career opportunities, new schooling. I still grieve with you over losses and struggles. Above all, when I hear about your lives I am eager to know how you are walking with the Lord.
From what I can gather, most of you have found churches to call home. From what I have heard, the process was harder than you expected. Making new friends, choosing to serve in a new place, even getting up in the morning for a different service time—these were all challenges. It warms me greatly to know how many of you have overcome those challenges. Has the process of choosing church for yourself—of embracing the hard work to make it all real—has that enriched your faith, I wonder?
If you’re curious, the family and I are doing well. We’ve been settling in to our new fellowship piece by piece. It is very different, of course—I too have to grow new relationships, get new familiarity, and oh my heavens do I have to learn a lot of new names! It was hard enough working out the tangled mess of a Vietnamese family tree, and that was only with about 100 people. Imagine what it’s like with a group of over 300!
I know it hasn’t been easy for all of you—it hasn’t been easy for me, either. I took the month of April off from working and rested (it still wasn’t enough rest!). I forced myself to go to church that first Sunday after our last and, I’ll admit, it was difficult. There was sadness in my heart about our ending that made it hard to worship. I wonder if you felt that sadness, too? Many times I wanted to continue to encourage and coach you into deeper faith, but the circumstances near the end of our time together made that difficult. On several occasions I have thought about trying to reach out to all of you, but didn’t feel like the timing was appropriate, nor that there was a place appropriate for the exchange. I’ve chosen today, the one-year mark. I hope you don’t mind.
I want to tell you some things that I miss especially about you all. First of all, I miss you. Over our five years together I came to really love and enjoy you—your faces, your stories, your lives. It was an incredible privilege to know you and get to watch God work in your lives. I also miss our lunches. My pho intake has significantly reduced this past year! But it wasn’t the food so much as the company—from our very first lunch years ago with Shane (who coached me on the proper Sriracha injection), to our many lunches that followed, I came to enjoy your fellowship as much as anything. I also miss your energy and youthfulness—not that Chinese people have less energy than Vietnamese!—but there was a certain quality to your lives that kept things fun. Perhaps it was our poverty, and the need to make games out of nothing, and have fun with the little we had. Whatever else we can say about our time together, we had a great deal of fun. Speaking of fun, I miss the youth group, and the youth committee, and our board meetings, too. How many people get to say that they miss board meetings? With you, I do.
There are things I don’t miss as well. I don’t miss the mice. I don’t miss the poverty—specifically I don’t miss not really knowing if I’d be able to provide for my family month by month. I don’t miss running the youth group on a budget of $0. I don’t miss being a bizarre hybrid church/church-plant/English ministry. I don’t miss the confusion and frustration of our last months. And, to be perfectly frank—I don’t miss empty Sundays.
I’d like you to know that since we were together last year I’ve written a book about my New Hope experience. Note well that it is a book about my experience. In it I name no names, and attempt to lay no blame—I talk mostly about what was going on in my heart at the time, and how God was dealing with me. Still, it’s a place where I speak about what went wrong. The book is called A Minister’s Lament, and although it’s written specifically with other ministers in mind, it’s possible that you also might find it illuminating and encouraging. I know for a fact that several of you have read it already. Perhaps you can ask them what they think of it?
While working on this letter I read back over the last sermon I preached to you on March 31, 2013. I had talked about the disappearance of Jesus at the end of his ministry, and how that pressed on us the need to really develop our faith in the absence of Jesus. I closed with the following paragraphs:
Friends, I am not Jesus, by no means am I Jesus, but I also am leaving you. And my leaving, while also an ending, is not the end. Our relationship will change, but not your faith. I will be absent, but you will continue with Christ. And the lessons the disciples had to learn, you must learn as well. You have been taught, now you must act. I have instructed you in faith these past five years, now it is time to put that information to the test, to make it real, to make it stick. Now is the time of the examination, when I become silent, and your faith must be proved. In the same way, I have led you and you have followed in my wake. You have depended on me to nag you like a parent to perform the spiritual duties to which God has called you. But I will nag you no more; now you must mature, and choose for yourselves to awaken, to pray, to read, and to grow your spiritual lives. But through this all you are not alone. Through this all, if I have done my job well, then you will know that Christ is in you by His Spirit, living, working, changing, adjusting, challenging, enlivening, making you holy. If I have done my job, then you know that while I am leaving you, in Christ you will never be alone.
It is an ending, but it is not the end. And perhaps this, once again, helps us to see why the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting is so good, a final lesson in Jesus’ life for us. All things experience endings. All relationships come to a close. You will lose parents, friends, and family. Some of you and people you know will see your own children die before you do. Friendships close, churches fade, ministries die, all relationships come to an end. But at each and every ending we are prompted to remember the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting; we must remember that though it is an ending, it is not the end; that there is life after death; that although one kind of relationship has ended, another, built upon the eternal life of Christ, is in store for us. And because of that, we have hope.
Dear New Hope, I love you, and have loved you. Now it is my time to move on. It is an ending, but it is not the End. We have built a good foundation together. Use it. You have learned what it means to love Jesus, keep loving him. And remember always that although we may part company here, we are bound together for eternity. I believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Life Everlasting. Amen.
New Hope Friends, you possess, and will always maintain, a special place in my heart. May God continue to bless you, to call and to guide you, to lead you into His plan and pleasure; may He plant you in fellowships where your faith can not merely grow, but thrive; and may He use our common experience together to show you the struggler in your midst, the real meaning of Church, and the power of new life in Christ.