Adventure with Pastor Aaron

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Seeing AND Speaking

I recently asked a couple of friends how they would describe hope. Not surprisingly, they had to think about it for a bit. I have, too. Most specifically, I've wrestled with how to describe the difference between faith and hope. The best way I can think to describe the dynamic between these two words that are connected by solid trust in God is that faith is a solid place to stand in the present, but hope is what empowers us to step boldly, bravely into the future reality that God is bringing to us.

 

Hope is a powerful force. Many thinkers and writers have expressed the strength of the human spirit that God has placed in each of us to varying degrees, and how integral hope is to facing the suffering that naturally accompanies human life in a sin-broken world. G.K. Chesterton put it this way: “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate.” The Roman statesman Cicero put it quite succinctly: “While there’s life, there’s hope.” The English novelist George Eliot said, "What we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.” And much to my point, the well-known preacher Charles Spurgeon proclaimed, “Faith goes up the stairs that love has built and looks out the windows which hope has opened.” It seems to me that both committed followers of Jesus and secular thinkers alike would probably have a hard time disagreeing with St. Paul's assessment in 1 Corinthians: "Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love" (13:13, CSB).

 

Many of you may have noticed a conversation that has been occurring quietly in little pockets of our congregation, in connection with the social media hashtag #seehope. Essentially, it's a simple reminder to all of us here at Immanuel to have our eyes peeled for how God is bringing hope to our lives during the continually-unfolding situation with the pandemic, and even to notice ways in which God may be leading us to bring hope to people that we meet, whether well-known or just encountered. When you slow down a bit and intentionally observe the world around you, it's not hard to see the work of Jesus, bringing the Kingdom, and the people to whom He is bringing it, sometimes through people like you and me. It starts with seeing opportunities for hope to break in.

But hope is also expressed most poignantly in the work and person of God Himself in the flesh, Jesus. You can place your hope in a lot of things. Like an economy or government. A March Madness team. A bank account. Your own ability to figure things out. But at the end of the day, when human ingenuity and power have exhausted themselves and lie lifeless on the floor, it's only the resurrecting power of Jesus that can pick dead, lifeless things off the floor and make them come alive. It's not a fairy tale. It's a promise, bought with a sacrificial death on Good Friday and sealed with overwhelming evidence of resurrection victory on Easter. It's our mission, our duty, our joy as Christians not just to see the hope of this great story, OUR story, but also to speak about it.

 

So as we all bask in the glory and joy of Easter during the season immediately following it, we're going to have a conversation about how we can raise our competency in not only seeing hope, but also speaking up about it. Jesus gave us plenty of metaphors to describe Himself and what He does, and learning to have those words on our lips regularly so we can naturally speak them into the lives of others will help us accomplish the mission Jesus gave us. Even in the midst of a great deal of death and mourning the loss of both people and patterns we treasure, we want to embody the hope we have, not to grieve like others do who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). The truth is, this hope is for everyone. We just have to get the Word out.

 

Ironically, Sir Frances Bacon, the English philosopher and statesman, expressed a truth about hope in this way: "Hope is good for breakfast, but it is bad for supper." I know that some will argue with me that bacon is not just a breakfast food, but neither is hope. My prayer this Eastertide is that God gives us eyes to see His work in the world, and that spring gives us plenty of reminders of His resurrection power to make all things new. May we be so well-fed by the feast of hope that is the Easter season that we are able to express the great news of Jesus' triumph over death, not just at breakfast, but whenever we break bread and celebrate the eternal life He gives us. The journey's not done yet, and our Savior gives us abundant provision for the road. There's plenty of hope to go around, and plenty of ground yet to cover before we reach our Father's House, because...

 

Adventure is out there!

Pastor Aaron

A View from Inside & Outside - March 2021

Which way does the church face? Taken one way, this is mainly the provenance of those who practice geography, cartography, architecture, and the like. Does it face toward the main road? East, west, north, or south? With the sun rising to throw light through the stained glass window in the morning? These and other questions like it deal with which way the physical structure of the church building faces.

But to me, this question has resonated in a different way as of late. Which way the church faces is not about a direction on the compass. Rather, it is an expression of which way the church faces relationally: inwardly or outwardly. How is the church positioned in relation to the community? What does the community outside look like through the doors and windows of our church building? From the safe places where we gather and find comfort in the word of God? And on the other side, what do people see when they see it from the outside? How do they perceive us? More importantly, how does it represent the King we serve, Jesus?

I think it's easy to admire the outside world from the places that we know are safe. Here's a picture of the area outside my office window from inside.

I'm comforted and encouraged by the beauty of the stained glass hanging there, and the symbols lead me to remember the things that are most important. The Triune God who created, redeemed, and grows me. The amazing, sacrificial love of Jesus that saves me. The ship that reminds me that God has placed me in the holy ark of His church to be transported through the flood of this life to eternal life with Him. To me, these symbols are comforting.

But how do those things appear to those outside the church? Do they bring them comfort and hope? Do they point them to God? Or do people outside the church see a place where they won't be accepted or understood, where they won't understand what is going on, or where they will be judged for whatever choices they've made that don't meet the standards and approval of God and his people? Here's a picture from outside my office window, looking in.

I often think about the contrast between these two views of the church: from inside and from outside. It's the same thing, the same building, the same symbols, but it means two different things to two different groups of people. This leads me back to the initial question: which direction does the church face? Does it face inward and look mainly to its own interests? Or does it face outward to the world and look for ways to love the community, people broken by sin (just like us!), and draw them closer to the heart of the father?

We've talked quite a bit in the past year or so about the 1-2-3's here at Immanuel, what's going to be important to us as we move forward. 1 Mission: making disciples. 2 Places where it happens: Temple spaces and Table spaces. And we're called to engage in 3 Key Relationships: with God (UP), with people who know and love Jesus (IN), and with those who don't yet know how much He loves them (OUT). In His ministry, Jesus spent time with His Father (when He could sneak off for a few brief moments), but He spent a great deal of His time with people.

With regard to people, Jesus faced both inwardly toward His disciples, spending a great deal of His time and energy with them, and outwardly, loving and feeding and healing the crowds, proclaiming the Kingdom to them. Matthew 13 is a beautiful expression of this dynamic. Jesus tells the crowd the Parable of the Sower (OUT), then spends time unpacking it with His disciples (IN). He was facing both inwardly and outwardly.

My point is this: if we're going to be faithful followers of Jesus, we also must be both inward-facing AND outward-facing. To neglect one over the other is a terrible error, and the history of the church is littered with the wrecks of those who didn't hold them in faithful tension. My prayer is that we always find comfort in the Temple spaces God has given us, and encouragement and inspiration to keep following Him. But I also pray that the time we spend there helps us see those outside in a new light. As people for whom Jesus died. As dearly loved by Him, even though they may not know it yet. As eternal beings made in His image, being called closer to Him. Which direction does the church face, inward or outward? The answer is BOTH. And when we embrace and even enjoy that tension, we can find delight in the fact that...

Adventure is out there!

Pastor Aaron

Practicing Christians - February 2021

I caught myself doing it the other day. Something I had told myself I wasn't going to do anymore. A habit I thought I had kicked. I was looking down at my feet. Now, I could absolve myself by saying that I was deep in thought or that the sharp January wind made it difficult to look up, but we all know that those would just be excuses. I had once engaged in the practice of holding my head up while walking from place to place, with the intent of paying more attention to my environment and especially the people in it, but the habit of that practice had slipped. It was time to re-engage that practice and rediscover its value.

I've met quite a few people in my travels who could be considered "nominal Christians," in-name-only Christians. They do "Christian things" (sometimes). They would lightly express their fealty to the Christian church, if asked. But when their lives are examined, there is little to no evidence of their travels with Jesus, or that His life has had much impact on theirs.

It would be far too easy to contrast "nominal Christians" with "practicing Christians" and place ourselves comfortably on the "right" side of that line. But even those of us who are heavily involved in the life and operations of the church can be shown at times to present evidence that our priorities don't line up with God's. That's a pretty good definition of sin. Or idolatry. "I want what I want" versus "I want what God wants." We all have the propensity to pay God lip service. Thank God that He doesn't just talk about things...He does something about our sin, by bearing it all on the cross. The Word made flesh shows us what a life with the Father looks like (John 1). The Word sacrifices Himself so that we can live, and He challenges us to give our lives each day, just like He did.

How do we live like Jesus? Well, it takes practice. You never get good at something overnight. It takes some experience. It often takes some failure...sometimes a lot. But it takes practice. So what kinds of things should we be practicing? What kind of spiritual practices should we engage in to walk more closely with God?

Two that come immediately to mind are the two "sides" of a conversation with God: Word and Prayer. Reading God's Word and insights into it through devotional books or other resources is a way that God can speak into our lives. And one of the most important responses we can give is simply to respond through language, spoken or thought. Prayer. While God knows us intimately, through- and-through, and knows all the words in our hearts before any of them leave our lips (Ps. 139:4), He still invites us to approach Him in prayer as a dearly-loved child (Luther's Small Catechism - Lord's Prayer Introduction).

During the season of Lent, I'd like to invite you to take a journey with me into a deeper life with God through a new practice of prayer. We'll be using the book, Prayer: Forty Days of Practice by author, songwriter, and pastor Justin McRoberts and illustrator Scott Erickson, to excavate what God is doing in our hearts and lives. We'll learn to convert those thoughts, feelings, and impulses into prayers that honor God and grow His Kingdom in our hearts and lives. We'll learn to convert those thoughts, feelings, and impulses into prayers that honor God and grow His Kingdom in our hearts and lives. I'll be inviting you all to join me for a brief, 5-minute foray into this conversation each day of Lent at 10 AM online (FaceBook Live & YouTube), and these brief conversations with some of you and other guests will also be available afterward to guide you in your engagement with the book.

I really appreciate the perspective that Justin and Scott present at the beginning of the book, that the illustrations and short prayers are not "content," but that our lives and God's Word connected to it are the real content. "They are excavation tools that help dig toward and into the real content: the ongoing, ever-present conversation between us and the Divine." The words on the page and the simple but poignant pictures are meant to open us up to recognize how God is at work in our lives, "messing with us," gently nudging us (sometimes not so gently!), trying to get attention that He is living and active inside us, shaping us for love and service. This approach follow beautifully in line with how John presents Jesus at the beginning of his Gospel: "The Word became flesh and took up residence among us" (John 1:14a). Indeed, if God had only remained in words on a page, His power would have never been expressed through all the powerful miracles in Scripture, especially the matchless miracle of our God dying and rising again. God invites us to walk with Him, to allow His Word and His Spirit to spur us into godly action, to love and forgive like Him. We participate in the Word made flesh when we live like our Savior did. 

I'm still working on my walk with Jesus. I'm still learning to pray. I practice everyday, but I still have much to learn. I'm grateful for fellow travelers on the road, and I'm thankful to count you as one of them. I pray that our individual and congregation-wide practice of prayer will lead us all into deeper relationship with God and shape our hearts to be more eager to follow where He leads.

So, I'll plan to see you out there on the "road." And hey, if you ever happen to catch me looking down as I walk by, please feel free to flag me down with a gentle, "Hey! I'm up here!" I'm still learning to enjoy and embrace the gift of the people that God puts in my path. And I'm often delighted to be reminded that...

Adventure is out there! 
Pastor Aaron

In the Bleak Midwinter - January 2021

Like many people, I studied a fair amount of poetry in my literature class in high school. I wouldn’t consider myself a lover of poetry, and it’s not what I gravitate towards generally. But there are a few poems that capture my imagination and my heart in ways that have taught me to cherish the beauty that such life-giving words can bring. “All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter“ from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is one. John Donne‘s “Death Be Not Proud" is another. And most recently, Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" has taught me to see Jesus in those around me, in their eyes and in their actions. 

Around Christmastime, the beautiful poem "In the Bleak Midwinter" by Christina Rossetti tends to occupy my imagination. It doesn't hurt that the plaintive but magnificent musical setting by Gustav Holst magnifies the beauty of the simple but powerful juxtaposition of heaven and earth. All of heaven finds its joy in and focus on a little child in a manger, and we're invited to come to the manger in awe and worship, too. Most people (I myself included) enjoy Rossetti's observation in the final stanza that the best gift we can give in response to God's amazing generosity is everything we are: our hearts. But what really caught my attention this year was the second to last verse: 

"Angels and Archangels/May have gathered there,/Cherubim and seraphim/Thronged the air;/But only His Mother/In her maiden bliss/Worshipped the Beloved/With a kiss." 

All the company of heaven leaned in to be close to the baby Savior, but the one who got to interact with him by kissing Him and loving Him in a very physical, human way was His mother. A mother's tender kiss on the cheek or forehead is a beautiful act of love even in normal circumstances. But in this case, Mary is also kissing the face of God Himself. Heaven touches earth, and earth responds.

My prayer for you, in this seemingly bleak midwinter, as we journey where God leads us, is that He would give you eyes to see where His presence, love, and care are breaking into this world. The Lord knows we need these reminders at a time like this. And He is faithful. He always provides. In fact, His abundance to us is so vast that it overflows from our lives into the lives of those around us. With eyes to see His working and arms open wide to receive His plan, you can respond the same way that Mary did to Gabriel's announcement that she would be the mother of God Himself: "I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, ESV). So recognize God's presence and generosity to you this year, and let it overflow to others by your presence with them. In a tiny way, God's Spirit working in you will make heaven touch earth in the same way that Jesus received His mother's kisses and embrace. 

Adventure is out there! 
Pastor Aaron 

We Need A Little . . . - December 2020

“We need a little Christmas right this very minute...” With Advent and Christmas right around the corner, it’s not uncommon to see many people getting ready for that special holiday season a bit early. And if there ever was a year when everybody needed a little bit more cheer, encouragement, reasons to be merry, and opportunities to boost their spirits, 2020 has been that year! 

I firmly believe that God created us to enjoy life in all of its goodness, to find reasons to celebrate the good things that He places in our lives, the mountain of blessings that He piles into the landscape of our journey, the overflowing abundance of goodness and healing balm that He pours into the deep wells of our often discouraging circumstances. We were made and designed by God to enjoy life. Whether circumstances are terrible... and they have been, many times, in this world... there is a dauntless spirit embedded deep into the core of every human being that longs for reasons to celebrate. The "joy of every longing heart" (as the line from the hymn "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" goes) may look different than God intends it to, because the object of that joy is meant to be Jesus. But even if a person doesn’t know which direction God intends that impulse to be pointed or where to find the object of that joy, all people, even people who don’t follow Jesus, have that impulse to seek goodness and life and celebration. 

Mary certainly knew the focus of her thanks and praise and joy. Drawn into the story of God's people in such a central but unexpected way, with no certainties of the future except that God would guide, direct, and protect her, Mary walks with God through unimaginable circumstances...in the same way that many of us are now during a pandemic. The path for Mary leads to the welcoming arms of her relative Elizabeth, whose recognition of God's plan and the immensity of Mary's honorable position and opportunity to serve Him brings Mary to this moment of realization. After the dizzying announcement by Gabriel and days of wondering how this will be, how it will affect her life, it finally clicks. Mary sees. And her response is an inspiration to us all, especially in these troubled times. Mary celebrates! "And Mary said: 'My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior, because He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and His name is holy'" (Luke 1:46-49, CSB). 

Regardless of their circumstances, Christians through the ages have always celebrated the birth of the Messiah, the King of the world, their Rescuer from sin, death, and the power of the devil, and the One who breaks the darkness of this world with His marvelous light. We celebrate the birth of a Baby, and what’s more, a King. We watch His hero's journey begin with awe and wonder, knowing full well that in a few short months we will look on with a similar reverent awe mixed with ponderous sorrow as He faces the cross. But we will also celebrate with overwhelming joy the actual power in which we find our salvation... Resurrection! Rebirth! Renewal and everlasting life promises! This is a message so good that every human being on the face of the planet needs it. We need a little Christmas, certainly, but we also need a little good Friday and a whole lot of Easter, too.

My prayer for you during this joyous season, which may not feel as enjoyable in its celebrations and family connections as it usually would be, is that you would see God's hand of blessing providing all you need, from a little Christmas to a little cup of holiday cheer. I pray that the tiny Child of Bethlehem, in whom all the power of God dwells, protects you and your loved ones from COVID and all other bits of sin's brokenness that may come your way. May God bless our advent journey to the manger, and find us ready to run with the shepherds and tell everyone about what He has done for us. In Advent, at Christmastime, during COVID, this still holds true... 

Adventure is out there! 
Pastor Aaron 

A Cloud of Faithful Witnesses - November 2020

Fall is one of my favorite times of the year, and with it comes the beginning of some of the most special celebrations throughout the year. As October winds to a close, most people are feverishly preparing for the way they will embody a superhero or a pop superstar, a musician or a historical figure. Others will stock up on candy (whether they get to hand it out this year or not) and fill their yards with spooky artifacts and tableaus filled with the mysterious and strange. “This is Halloween, Halloween, Halloween!" as the song goes. 

But is that what Halloween is really about? The world may not give it much notice, but during this time the church, the family of God's people, quietly prepares to celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us in faith. I’m sure you’ve heard that Halloween is simply All Hallows Eve, or the day before All Saints' Day, and it is an important moment each year in the life of the church to celebrate those who have finished their course in faith and now rest from their labors. 

When I was in high school, I remember being shocked to hear of the tragic death of Rich Mullins, whose music I did not particularly enjoy when I first heard it, but who grew to become one of my favorite Christian songwriters of all time. Mullins captures the essence of what All Saints' Day is about in one of his best songs, "If I Stand." A portion of the chorus goes like this: “If I sing let me sing for the joy/That has borne in me these songs,/And if I weep, let it be as a man/Who is longing for his Home." It’s my most sincere desire that all of God’s people would have a similar longing for their heavenly Home, and diligently work while they have time to bring others along to that perfect, extraordinary place where sin will be no more and tears will be a thing of the past.

The truth is, we have SO many examples of people who put their absolute and complete confidence and trust in God. It’s one of the main reasons we read God's Word. The saints who have gone before trusted God completely, were hoping and longing for a land better than the one they already inhabited and found the love of God in the company of His people during their earthly journeys. This has been the focus of our conversations in church as of late, as we seek to cultivate and encourage an atmosphere of faith, hope, and love. Hebrews 11 is affectionately known as the Hall of Fame of Faith, a biblical who's who of those who walked with God by faith. It truly is an extraordinary list, when you look at the lives these simple, godly people lived. But God put them in extraordinary circumstances, and they trusted Him. My guess is that you probably have a few names to add to this Hall of Fame that are unique to you. Parents. Grandparents. Sunday school teachers. People who loved you like Jesus and challenged you to follow His example. 

In the very next chapter, the author begins with this encouragement and challenge: “Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the Source and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:1-3). If you look through your own story at both those you have known personally, and those who are the ancient members of God’s family recorded in Scripture, you will quickly see that you too are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who encourage you to run your race by faith. And by God's grace, as you invest in the lives of others, He is adding you to their personal Hall of Fame of Faith. Day in and day out He uses your example, as you love like Him, express a beautiful hope in the homeland to come, and trust God to walk with you in life and death. The race is long and often difficult, but it’s a tremendous blessing always to have a cheering section present. May God strengthen your heart and spiritual legs for the road ahead, because as all who look see and discover...

Adventure is out there! 
Pastor Aaron

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