Adventure with Pastor Aaron

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Living the Story

Good stories… Told well. Whether it is book, a movie, or a TV show, my interest in narrative is always guided by that principle. It must be a good story. It must be told well. Authors who use beautiful, engaging words. Screenwriters who understand the power of a substantial story and well-written dialogue. The cast and crew of a show or film that know how to bring the story to life and delve into the deepest parts of human existence, even touching on a relationship with God. What it means to love. To serve. To sacrifice everything for the sake of goodness and life and healthy freedom. If a bit of media is going to capture my attention and hold it, it has to be a good story, told well.

While I enjoy hearing the stories of other people's lives, God continues to nudge me in the direction of living a beautiful story myself. I may not have the adventurous life of some of my favorite characters and heroes, both fictional and historical, but God has given me a story to live, and He has a story for you to live, too. It’s all a part of His greater, overarching narrative by which He is constantly calling all of creation back to Himself. When we have eyes to see and hearts to perceive His action in the midst of ours, it can be a stunning revelation or a place of deep-seated comfort and rest. Your story may not be as exciting as the lives of others, but God has given you a part to play in His story, and He’s a screenwriter, producer, and director who will never allow your story to fall flat.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live my life by proxy. I don't want to live vicariously through others. I keep on getting a nudge from God (sometimes a quite forceful one!) to get out there and live the adventure to which He has called me. To put my fears of failure aside. To trust that He is capable of making inconsequential actions and decisions into powerful moments of His kingdom breaking through. To dare to live a life worthy of imitation, one worth remembering and telling about in years to come.

We all look for ways to leave something of worth behind for those who come after us. We want to be remembered in positive ways. With our lives connected to the life of Jesus, by the power of His Spirit living in us today, we can touch the lives of people around us in ways that are significant and lasting. It’s not always going to be easy because the way of Jesus always leads to the cross, but we can find deep comfort in the promise from Him that we'll never go it alone. The disciples who follow Jesus in His earthly life couldn’t have possibly known the adventure story they were about to embark on when they responded to Jesus' calling to follow Him. Not much has changed in that respect. If we are to follow Jesus fervently and faithfully wherever He leads us, it’s going to be a life worth living and a story worth telling.

I firmly believe that every corner of creation was designed by the Creator to point us back to Him. The first few verses of Psalm 19 express this beautifully: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world" (Ps. 19:1-4, CSB). Every part of the story reveals His providence and His plan to restore everything that sin and death destroys.

There are certainly some strange and peculiar parts of God's story that are recorded. A few of them we might be surprised to find in Scripture. But God has left them there on purpose to get our attention and draw us back to His heart, to teach us things we need to understand, but more importantly to drive us to follow in His footsteps. To take the adventure He sends us. To live a story worth telling under His grand narrative of redemption. I pray that as we examine some of these peculiar stories and connect it back to the heart of God and the great good news of Jesus' death and resurrection, you will be inspired to live the powerful story that God has for all who venture to follow in Jesus' footsteps.

Am I always ready to embrace that story wholeheartedly and dive in headfirst? I’d like to think I am. Some days I feel more confident than others. God is still working on me, nudging me. But I’m confident that He will work even through my weaknesses and doubts to bring about a story worth telling, because…

Adventure is out there! Lead on, Master Adventurer!

Pastor Aaron 

Christians Lament

As a fan of the Chicago Cubs, I know a thing or two about lament...and I haven't been following them as long as some people I know. But before that, growing up, I was a fan of the Detroit Tigers, so I guess that does qualify me to speak into the agony of following a sports team just a little bit. There are a whole slew of emotions connected to rooting for a group with whom you identify, and sports is one of the most overt ways we show it in our culture. We are incensed when a call doesn't go our way. We groan inwardly or emphatically express it outwardly when a respected, dependable player makes an avoidable error. We chafe at the coach or manager who fails to implement what we see as the optimal and winning strategy, and fault them loudly when the outcome of their choice leads to the failure we could have obviously predicted. We feel like things are right in the world when our team is at the top of the league or division, but fall into an emotional funk when our team's name falls to the bottom of the list. It's not easy to be a Cubs fan (or any fan, for that matter), and "at least we have next year" simply doesn't calm the notion that we could have done better this year.

Being a part of God's family isn't much different. God has placed us together, for better or worse, to fulfill His mission, and we all play a part on His team. We function as a body (1 Corinthians 12). There's no such thing as "Lone Ranger" Christians, I always say. We need each other. However, I've also been known to remind people of this fact: Family is messy. Family is good, but family is messy. Things don't always go as they should, and sometimes they're just downright hard and sharp and broken. Sin and death does a pretty effective job of throwing God's family into discord and urging them to deny their identity as His very much-loved children by their actions. And so whether it's Christian leaders highlighting the moral failings of their people or members of the family pointing out the shortcomings of its leaders, there is plenty to lament about what happens in the church. And let's not even get started with what happens out in the world...there's plenty more to lament there!

My point is this: we all experience losses, and we may often feel ill-equipped as God's people to handle the big emotions that go along with those losses in a way that honors God and leads us closer to healthy relationships with Him and others. Does sin's brokenness find a way to slither into the church and cause trauma and divisions in God's family? Unfortunately, yes. Does this world and its leaders often make choices for all of us that makes us feel like we don't belong and that our beliefs are antiquated?  Yes. Are some of the parts or formats of our life together as God's people that we hold dear and have been strongholds in our lives as long as we can remember slowly (or sometimes strikingly quickly) passing away? It's almost physically painful to admit that they are. Are there big emotions attached to these developments? Of course there are! Anger? Sorrow? Indignation? Disgust? Frustration? Fury? Groaning? Discontent? Check, check, check...and the list could go on. If you've felt some of these big feelings in the church before, I'm with you. I've experienced them too. Being a follower of Jesus often involves engaging the wide spectrum of human emotion. But how are we to start finding our path toward a healthy expression of these big feelings...and maintain our integrity all the while? We know we've been called to orthodoxy ("right belief"); how do we also move toward orthopathy ("right feeling")?

I firmly believe that it begins and ends with the two most important events in Jesus' life: His death and resurrection. These two events should inform and encapsulate our approach to the complex art of Christian lament. It starts with a firm resolve to lament the only thing in this world that truly deserves an outpouring of sincere lament: the unjust death of the only God-Man who didn't deserve it. We don't just mourn our own sins on Good Friday. We also mourn the results of them, and our complicity in this genuine tragedy. If Christian lament starts with the laser-focused sorrow over the death of God's own Son, we'll be starting down the right path. The Greek word for "sin" is properly used as an archery term, and expresses the idea "missing the mark." Not only do our actions, words, and thoughts miss the mark or fall short of God's intent and glory (Romans 3:23), but even our lament over the things we have lost are often untargeted and unintentionally wound those around us. But Jesus' death on the cross and the great love He showed in those moments lead us not only to lament the effects of sin in this world, but also to be eternally grateful that we have a God who handles them, full-force, no holding back.

When we truly lament Jesus' death, we'll also be in the right posture to celebrate with unfettered joy what came after it: the resurrection of God's Son. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! No more lament! The great destroyer is destroyed! "Death has been swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:54d-55). Mourning and weeping at the cross of Jesus gives us all the emotional fuel we need to dance at His empty tomb, to celebrate the victory He has won for us.

This side of heaven, separating out these complicated mix of emotions will never be easy. But we have Jesus' promise that one day, in the new heavens and new earth, all lamenting tears will be wiped away (Isaiah 25:8), and the only thing left will be the joy of knowing God, living always in His presence. That will come to pass. We have God's Word. But until that day, we look to God to lead and direct our path through lament and sorrow, giving us glimpses of Easter joy, because...

Adventure is out there!

Pastor Aaron

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 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