Adventure with Pastor Aaron

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2020 Vision Revised - June 2020

“Quarantine life/quarantine life/Can’t lose weight, but I’m losing my mind.” That’s the first line of the chorus of a silly song by Christian musician Matthew West that’s been playing in my house pretty frequently. In fact, it’s become a bit of an ear worm, you might say. It’s a silly little ditty that makes fun of some of the “first world problems” we have to deal with while we’re sheltering in place in an attempt to make us feel just a tiny bit better about the whole thing. When the song is done, I usually have a smile on my face and a song in my heart…but the problems haven’t gone away. 

And that’s a pretty good analogy for the Christian life in general, right? We have some harsh realities to face, like an enemy whose dearest goal and take-no-prisoners mission is to destroy any bit of creation he can get his hands on. The broken world and our broken natures, coopted with him, don’t help much either, either. And yet, we have a God who was willing to humble Himself, die on a cross, rise from a grave, and stand triumphant over all creation so that we could join Him in His resurrection victory! This is what it means to be followers of Jesus, and joyous Easter people, even as we head into the season of Pentecost. Broken world, victorious Jesus, church family. Not much has changed on that account…and it’s good news!

If you’ve been keeping up with my vlog, you’ll know that we’ve been reading through the book of Acts together, using its lessons on being the church to inform and enliven our faith community in this age. I’ve had some great conversations with my daughter Natalee about the nature of doing creative work in community, and we’ve both grown through our reading and discussions of Andrew Peterson’s book Adorning the Dark. My son Jarred and I have been contemplating the book of Proverbs in a similar pattern to the one my dad and I used to use, and now Leeann and I are starting a conversation about slowing life down as we read John Mark Comer’s The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. There’s plenty there to think about and digest if you’re looking for something.

As we look to a new month, we’re going to start a conversation by way of a sermon series about how our 20/20 vision has necessarily been adjusted in the light of the events of these past few months. We all may have been starting to develop a picture of what we believed God was calling our church family to become. We celebrated the work that He was doing in our midst on that Celebration Sunday that feels like so long ago now. And we collectively leaned into what would come next. We could not possibly have imagined what our church and our society would look like at this time. Not even close. And yet, as I will continue to maintain, I firmly believe that God is up to something extraordinary here. Even if we can’t see it yet, there is a bit of good news that I won’t stop pointing out to you: God’s got the situation under control. While the world seems endlessly out of control, our God, who created and still sustains all things, is in control. Like the Psalmist, I encourage you and exhort you with good words: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken” (Psalms 55:22, CSB).

And here’s another bit of good news: while our vision for what being the church will look like in days to come must be adjusted and revised, the lens through which we see our mission and world has not changed. We still have our 1-2-3’s. We still have just ONE mission to complete: making disciples of all people, anyone who is growing up into the image of God, who desire the character and competencies of Jesus. We still have TWO places where that work happens, even though one of them (our Temple space) has temporarily become unavailable to us. I trust that wherever people gather around God’s promises and His goodness, especially in our Table spaces, He is powerfully at work. And we still have THREE key relationships in which to invest our hearts, our time, our love, our effort…our whole being (Mark 12:30). We still have a God who wants to be in conversation with us through His Word and prayer (UP). We still have other Christians in our midst with whom we can connect and share life, even sheltered in place (IN). And we still have people around us who don’t yet know how much Jesus loves them, and just might be able to see Him through us and the way we love them (OUT). May God continue to richly bless us as we lean into His vision for Immanuel, as shockingly different as it may be from what we expected. After all, we’re in good company, right? Following Jesus always brings out something unexpected, but unexpectedly beautiful because…

Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron

Gathered and Scattered - May 2020

If you’ve been keeping up with my vlog on YouTube, then you have a pretty good idea of where my head space and “heart space” is right now. I’ve walked with many of you through the end of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. I’ve given my insights into Joining Jesus, which I’d continue to encourage you to read (and even re-read!), and especially to start implementing the 5 Missional Practices as you’re able. Remember, you become what you practice! As of late, I’ve been reading through a Bible reading plan zeroing in on Biblical Hospitality and making room for others in our hearts, homes, and lives. It connects very well with our Joining Jesus conversation. I’ve also started working through Andrew Peterson’s book on creativity, community, and artistry, Adorning the Dark, and offering up my thoughts each day, chapter by chapter. All that to say, if you’re looking for insight into the things God has been putting before me to wrestle with, noodle on, and put into practice, you can head over to YouTube and search for Immanuel Mokena.

In addition to those musings, there’s a great big conversation that I think we’re all trying to come to grips with in this new reality forced upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it can be summed up in the following question: What does it mean to BE the church? The church, the saints, the community of God’s people has always been both gathered AND scattered. We gather around God’s gifts, His precious Word and Sacraments to be filled up, fueled up for the mission of God, His work of redeeming all creation back to Himself through us. Then we scatter to the places where we live, work, play, and go to school, carrying the gifts of God’s promises with us, embodying the coming Kingdom to those around us, a picture of the Good News that we know as Easter people: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” The church of all ages has constantly been in that pattern of being gathered and then scattered out. Right now, we are more scattered than gathered. While we wait for the restrictions to be lifted from our society so we can be fully present with one another, the only windows we may have into one another’s lives are through a computer or phone screen. But I don’t want you to miss this unshakeable fact in the midst of so many confusing changes: We are still the Church, the bride of Christ, the beloved ones He died to save, and the ones whose lives are bound to His resurrection promises.

So, can you do me a favor? Make a short bullet-point list right now of 3 things you’ve learned about being the church during this quarantine. If you’d like you can shoot them to me via email, but the more important thing is to actually engage in the process of reflecting on how this quarantine has changed your perception of the church, and how it may lead you personally and us all collectively to use our gathered AND scattered time in the most effective, meaningful ways possible. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of this saga, and I pray you are, too, because…

Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron

Adaptive Immigrants - April 2020

I don’t think I’m understating the point that American life has had to adopt a great number of adaptations in the past couple of weeks. A disease as quickly-spreading as COVID-19 has put a halt to many practices and patterns that we often take for granted. While going to see family and friends used to be a harmless and welcome activity, it comes now with an added layer of risk and concern. If you’ve been paying attention to the world from whatever view you have, it’s pretty clear that people are still trying to be relationally present with one another, and sometimes in ways they didn’t used to be. 

The truth is that God created us to be relational creatures, to have relationships both with Him and with one another. And while we all have different levels of interest in social interaction, it’s pretty hard to function as a human without other people. We need one another. If that means we have to adapt to survive, not just to provide for our spiritual needs but also our mental, emotional, and spiritual ones, we’ll do what we need to do.

God made us to be adaptable creatures. Scripture has some beautiful examples of this. Consider the children of Israel and their journey from Caanan (while Jacob was still alive) to Egypt to the Exodus to the wilderness wanderings to the Promised Land. This entailed a high level of adaptation to circumstances, and it wasn’t always pleasant. But God was faithful. He sustained and delivered His people. 

And how about the Early Church? Gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, the followers of Jesus exploded in numbers in the wake of the Spirit falling on the disciples. But not too long after, that great gathering of Jesus-followers were persecuted right out of a place of sweetness, family, and connection. God pushed them into new places, and wherever they went (Judea, Samaria, the ends of the Earth - Acts 1:8) the great good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection power went with them. Even the words they used had to adapt to linguistic and cultural barriers, and that work continues even to this day through the work of groups like Lutheran Bible Translators.

Now, we must be careful not to allow ourselves to lose our “saltiness” and “lightness.” Jesus warns us of this in Matthew 5:13-16 in the Sermon on the Mount. If salt has no taste, it has no worth. A light covered by a bowl loses its ability to affect the surrounding space with illumination. So we should not adapt to every whim of culture…far from it! We should stand out in the way that we cling to the timeless truths of God’s Word that cross cultural and geographic boundaries. Sin is sin. We shouldn’t accept every cultural idea that flies in the face of what God says. But at the same time, how we express that truth will communicate to those around us if the love of God is truly a part of who we are. Ask anyone who’s been blinded by a bright bathroom light after just waking up, or a person who’s been served a savory dish that amounts to not much more than a salt lick what they think of light or salt in excess, and I guarantee you’ll get a negative reaction.

Immigrants have to be adaptable. The best definition of an immigrant that I’ve been able to formulate for myself is “a group of people on a journey, looking for a home.” Now, stripping away all of the cultural and legal commentary we have about the nature of immigration in our country, I think this idea has much to tell us about where we’re going as a church. Like the children of Israel in the desert, we’re on a journey. Like the Christian families in Jerusalem who fled the persecution there with the few meager things they could carry in order to find a new life in a place where the Gospel could thrive, we’re in search of a home. And even when we do discover the sweetness of something that looks and feels like our best idea of “home” in this life, it’s still not perfect. It still lacks…something. Even when we tweak our surroundings to within an iota of perfection, it’s never going to be quite right. The fact is, we will never find our true Home until our journey of this life ends with a joyous homecoming into the Household of our Father, the King. Only in His presence will be truly, completely, and finally HOME.

So, the journey continues! We’re not home yet…but our Father has given us a beacon to follow in the imitatable example of His Son, Jesus. His Spirit leads and guides us from the inside, making us long for our final rest in the halls of our Father, and pushing us to keep moving, keep immigrating, keep seeking the Kingdom even now. Will we have to adapt to continue this missional journey? Absolutely! Is God teaching us what it means to be the Church, scattered? I think so, even though we long for the sweetness of being together. Is He training us to be faithful in our Table spaces as much as our Temple spaces, and reminding us that we are temples ourselves of His Spirit? He is! Is this temporary hardship a catalyst for growth in the aftermath? I fully trust God’s plan to use this for His glory and our good, using us to be salt and light in new and unexpected ways. 

For now, I pray you are well, that God continues to provide for all of your needs, and that you still have opportunities to love people like Jesus. Even though you’re probably stuck in one spot for the foreseeable future, don’t forget…

Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron

Confessional Lutheran or Missional Lutheran?

MARCH 2020

Symbiosis is defined by Webster as 1) "the living together in more or less intimate association or close union of two dissimilar organisms” and 2) "a cooperative relationship (as between two persons or groups).” Two Greek words shoved together create a word that means “living together.” In biology, this can be seen in two primary ways, either as mutually beneficial (mutualism) or one organism living off the other one (parasitism). The former is positive, the latter is negative. Even the human body, made up of many members who excel at some things and do not excel at others, works best when all our organs work harmoniously. This is precisely why St. Paul uses the body as such a powerful metaphor for God’s people, the body of Christ, in 1 Corinthians 12. We function best when we work together, even those of us who excel at seemingly opposing tasks and gifts.

There is a conversation in Western Christianity, especially among those of us who claim the name of Luther, about being “confessional” versus being “missional.” One person might say, “I am a confessional Lutheran.” Another might say, “I’m a missional Lutheran.” Maybe you’ve heard snatches of this conversation here and there. Someone who would lean toward the side of “confessional Lutheranism” might sprinkle their conversations with phrases like “biblical inerrancy,” “faithfulness to the Confessions” or “doctrinally sound.” Those on the opposite end of the spectrum as a “missional Lutheran” might use words like “Jesus' heart for people,” “reconciling all creation to God,” or “Spirit-led fulfillment of God’s redemptive mission.”

Now, let’s start to get this all out in the open, if it isn’t already. All of these things sound like good, solid parts of a Christian worldview, right? Nobody who has begun to know the heart of God would argue against faithfulness to God and His Word on one side or engaging in His redemptive mission to draw all creation back to the heart of the Father. So why the divide? Why the polarization and politicization of two things that are both critically important to the life of God’s family? 

I think a big part of it is that both are clearly under attack in our season of the church (and maybe they always have been). Furthermore, our enemy has always used the most elementary military tactic in his war against us: divide and conquer. If he can get us to quibble over one matter or the other, the infighting saps our energy: the strength, power, and authority that Jesus gives us in abundance both to stand on His Word and to be about His mission. 

I like to think about these often polarizing points like shoes. A good, heavy set of boots makes it easy to stand firm, to stay put…but they’re terrible for running. And shoes that are designed for speed are not usually also designed for finding a solid foothold in uncertain terrain. Some Christians might say we Lutherans have cement boots. Then again, we might look at them and think them too footloose-and-fancy-free for their own good. 

Or maybe we go with a quote often attributed to Billy Graham, that the Lutheran church was a “sleeping giant” that needed to “wake up.” Whether this quote is an urban legend or not, the sentiment rings true: the theology we stand on, that we believe, teach, and confess, makes us a giant in the American church. How is it that we allow ourselves to doze off and not enjoy the adventure of following Jesus into a broken world, to participate in His redemptive work? 

So, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had asked yourself the following question as you’ve read this article: I wonder which “kind” of Lutheran my pastor is? Which “team” does he play for? Is he a confessional Lutheran or a missional Lutheran? And I hope it doesn’t surprise you too much to hear my (whimsical) answer: yes! Or, more clearly, both! Will these two live in tension, both in my inner wrestlings with God, and also externally as we seek to follow Jesus as a confessional, missional church? Absolutely! Is it a good idea to forsake either our confession or our mission in favor of the other? Not a chance! What I believe God wants is a healthy symbiosis of these two frames of reference. From what I can see, our confession drives us into the world to represent Jesus, and our mission is to call people back to the conviction, the confession that God is for us, comes to save us, and loves us to death and beyond. 

Jesus has given us a perfectly sound vehicle for our voyage through this life: the ark of the Church, complete with its confessions. He’s also given us a mission and purpose, to seek and save the lost. This isn’t a pleasure cruise. So the question I have for you is, how far out of the boat are you willing to lean to save someone who’s drowning? Do you trust the other people in the boat to stabilize you? And what happens if you fall out of the boat in that attempt? I sometimes worry about that. But I also know a Guy who can walk on water. So do you. His power to rescue is unbeatable, and He alone can lead us to be solid in our confession and passionate about the mission He left us. So lean out of the boat! Trust that it’ll support you! Find the life you were designed for you as you Join Jesus in the world. After all…
Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron

Honesty - February 2020

There’s an old Billy Joel song for which the lyrics of the chorus go like this: “Honesty is such a lonely word/Everyone is so untrue/Honesty is hardly ever heard/And mostly what I need from you.” SO true, right? In an agreeable society like ours, honesty can be a rarity. On the positive side, it’s good that we’re paying attention to the lessons of our history, lest we doom ourselves to repeat them. The story of God’s people is littered with chapters and whole volumes in which our spiritual ancestors exchanged the beauty of a relationship with God for a counterfeit identity. Jesus saw it in the fanatical devotion of the Pharisees to the temple and the Sabbath. The Crusades were a dark blot of misdirected religious fervor toward geographic expansion instead of fishing for people’s hearts. Luther and other reformers had to valiantly oppose the economic machine of the medieval church/state that ran roughshod over the Gospel on its way into people’s pockets. Yes, the story of God’s people has its dark chapters of misfires and failures. Not much better can be said for the broader society in general, either, if we’re being honest. We all struggle with honesty, whether it’s as blatant as actively promoting lies in court or fudging our age or the speed we were driving. And heaven help the husband whose wife asks him, “Honey, do I look fat in this?"

So honesty is NOT generally very popular. It can be rather painful to be brutally honest. But we have to be honest with God and ourselves to admit when we’re wrong, and taking an honest look at our own lives can be mighty uncomfortable. If we say we have no sin, we’re fooling ourselves and not allowing the truth to lead us to a right relationship with God; only in honesty and through contrition can we find forgiveness and restoration (see 1 John 1:8-9). Looking at the lives of those around us with a gracious but appraising eye is a dangerous enterprise, and even with pure motives of helping another grow in faith and love, our ability to communicate it with the right balance of grace and truth is near-impossible to get right. And while we DO live in an amazingly good society that provides us with manifold benefits, it has its issues. That’s the truth. But are we willing to address those issues honestly and openly?

When we are willing to start an honest conversation about the current state of the church, one of the easiest things to do is to criticize the wider society. “The reason the church has seen such a precipitous downturn in our time is the shift of culture away from Judeo-Christian values, or a prosperity that keeps people from spiritual pursuits, or the breakneck speed of our society…take your pick.” And while each of those concerns could be accurately described as a legitimate factors the church must address, it doesn’t get at the heart of the matter, the disease that is underlying it all: a slow but steady abandonment of biblical, relational discipleship, the kind of spiritual formation Jesus practiced. 

I know I must be honest about what I’m seeing and experiencing.  It may not be popular. It may provoke some frustration or anger. It may break some hearts (as it has mine, on occasion). So here’s my moment of honesty: sometimes God’s people have lost their collective focus on the things that really matter, and start chasing after things that are poor replicas of the life He longs to give them. I don’t think it’s often intentional; in fact, most of the time I believe it’s done with the best of intentions. I have participated in some of these misguided efforts myself, as I’m guessing you have as well, and found myself just as frustrated and empty at the end as you may have felt. It doesn’t feel good. It feels a lot like failure. If we’re all honest, we have fallen into patterns in which it was easier to simply go with flow than fight for something meaningful or valuable. And yet, I cling to the promise that God doesn’t allow His Word, sown in the hearts of people, amount to nothing (see Isaiah 55:9-11). I am confident that by the power of Jesus’ Spirit that still lives on in each of us, we can reclaim the healthy patterns of biblical, relational discipleship that Jesus modeled for us. I know it’s going to take some work. It won’t always be easy. But I am confident that with some intentional shifts in our focus, being willing to allow God to shape our lives so that they reflect both the character and competencies of Jesus, the tide will turn. But we can’t do it alone. We have to be on the same page…all of us. 

These simple but powerful shifts will be part of the conversation at the Church Chat 2.0 on February 22. I really hope to see you there because we’ve got some important, life-giving things to talk about, and there’s a seat at the table for you. It’s about being ready to go where Jesus calls us, to take on the adventure of spreading the story that He’s already won the victory for us. And that’s some beautiful honesty that is hardly ever heard in this world, but mostly what we need from God, what we need to hear from one another, and what a broken world is dying to hear. Good honesty. Life-giving honesty. Good news!

Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron

1-2-3 (Part 3) - January 2020

“FOMO” is a pretty common concept in our culture these days. The “fear of missing out” is strong, especially during a season flush with opportunities to celebrate, enjoy, even indulge. The one-two punch of Christmas and New Years can have a dramatic effect on our wallets and our waistlines, and yet, we may still feel like we missed out on some treat or trinket along the way. “I mean, who really just takes ONE bite of their (new) favorite Christmas cookie…and throws out the rest?” Or “Who in their right mind could possibly resist buying just ONE more little toy, for the opportunity to watch a child’s/grandchild’s eyes brighten with delight? The cost is insignificant compared to that feeling!”    

So we eat the whole cookie, before finding a new favorite. We buy the toy and are surprised how quickly that twinkle of delight dissolves from the child’s face. Did we miss out on something? Was it worth the cost? We’ll never know. Then again, we won’t wait to find out. On to the next thing!

While the concept of FOMO, developed by Harvard MBA Patrick J. McGinnis, was originally aimed at companies that overreach in their desire to capture a part of their market, it certainly developed a life of its own in popular culture. FOMO has been used to justify any kind of consumerism or hedonism imaginable. Similar to YOLO (“you only live once”) in its sentiment, the fear of missing out on life, REAL life (whatever that looks like) drives us to consume, consume, consume, both goods and experiences.

And where do we find ourselves, at the end of this way of thinking, believing, and behaving? Some have put it this way: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” It’s a pretty bleak outlook on life, and pretty closely echoes the nihilism that seems to echo throughout most of the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon had access to all the goods and experiences of his day, and he found it all to be “futile, a pursuit of the wind” (1:14, CSB). And the truth is, if we’re just looking for our next material “fix” with which to satisfy our cravings, our lives will be quite meaningless, indeed.

But you and I know that that is NOT the life for which the Father created us! It’s not the life that Jesus died for…He died not so that we could carry on in meaninglessness, but could pursue the meaning of following Him, imitating Him in loving others like He did. That life, the full, abundant life that God desires for us (and that we desire deep down inside, even if we’re unwilling to admit it) is living in complete and full harmony with the Spirit of Jesus in us. It’s not a life of “stuff” or “me.” It’s a life of relationships, an everyday investment in connections that are begun here in time and continue on into eternity. Now THAT’s meaningful! Something that never dies! 

It turns out that if we’re feeling like we’re missing out on something good, the answer is probably that there’s a relationship in our life that needs more intentionality and focus. So that we don’t miss out on the fullness of being human, even in a broken world, Jesus shows us the way by His pattern of life. He has a strong relationship with His Father, and makes Him a priority. He invests the fullness of His life in a close group of followers, His disciples, to whom He gives a fuller picture of the Kingdom as they journey each day together. And He makes Himself accessible to the community at large. He engages in three key relationships: with His Father, with His disciples, and anyone who was looking for Him.

If we’re observant of Jesus’ patterns and intentional about following Him, then our treasured relationships will follow a similar template. We’ll spend time with God. We’ll invest in the lives of people who know Jesus and follow Him. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, we’ll be on the lookout for people to whom God is sending us, people who don’t yet know how much Jesus loves them. By investing in these three key relationships, we’ll be following the two Great Commandments Jesus gave us: love God, love people.

Many people search despairingly for a life devoid of FOMO, when what they’re looking for can genuinely be found in the patterns of intentional relationships that Jesus demonstrated in His own life. I can tell you from personal experience that in the moments when I feel least fulfilled in life, one of these key relationships has faded into the background. I’m guessing you’re not much different from me. But the great thing about relationships is that by God’s grace, and through the power of Jesus’ resurrection, they’re eternal, begun in time, going on forever. The Spirit perpetually mends, renews, and grows these relationships. He’s even capable of placing people in our paths to whom God is sending us, to love like He does. My prayer for us all in 2020 is that we have eyes to see God working in the world, strengthening old relationships and creating new, and that He inspires and encourages us to join Him where He’s already working.

Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron

P.S. Keep your eyes peeled for more information on Joining Jesus…a journey we’ll take together during Lent 2020.