Adventure with Pastor Aaron

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A Worthwhile Challenge - October 2020

It is clear to me that our world is going through a challenging season right now. A global pandemic. Civil unrest. Tension in government during an election year. A hard-hit economy and rising unemployment. The list could go on, it doesn’t even begin to encompass all of the personal challenges we face on a daily basis, most of them known only to us.

On one hand, it would be overstating the fact to say that we are living in unprecedented times. On the other, in the broad span of history, the challenges we face today are nothing new. There have been plagues and depressions before. There has been civil unrest and outright war. Nations have risen and fallen, and whole ecosystems have been shaped by forces beyond human control. In fact, if you look closely enough, all of these events are found in biblical times, and many of them happen directly to God‘s people, the people that He has loved with an everlasting love and drawn close to His heart with a persistent kindness and grace. You don’t have to read through too much of the biblical narrative to come across plenty of challenges that God’s people have faced.

So while there are some challenges that no one in their right mind would choose for themselves, and can’t be controlled by human power or initiative, there are some challenges that we can actively step into for the sake of health and growth. And I believe there are some challenges that our Savior Jesus actively encourages us to pursue, knowing that our life with Him will be enlivened and enriched beyond measure when we trust His leading. In fact, Jesus had a masterful way of inviting people into His life, then challenging them to be people who would grow the Father's Kingdom by their obedience to His commands. He loved every person exactly as He found them, but loved them too much to allow them to stay the same. He graciously ushered them into relationship with God, which is the essence of the Gospel, then challenged them to seek the Father’s heart and change their ways to look more like His, which looks like a picture of His righteousness and His good law. Jesus invited His disciples to come and follow Him, to join their life to His, to be on His shoulder and observe how He walked through the world. But in the same breath, He pointed to the cross, His destination and a symbol of theirs, and gave them a glimpse at what discipleship would cost them all.

My friends, some of the challenges we are facing aren’t ones we would willingly choose, and we trust God to bring peace, health, and resolution in His time and His way. However, I firmly believe that God is challenging us to step into new patterns of spiritual growth and maturity. Most notably, I desperately want to see Immanuel become a community of people who know the heart of God and pray earnestly for His kingdom's coming in our midst, wherever we go and wherever we are found.

I know we all have our challenges. But I've found that when we lean into the challenges God sends us, we find unexpected blessings, and we will all be better off. We will be more alive. We will be more fulfilled. Our lives will be running over with meaningful experiences, rich with God’s goodness. I pray you hear good news from God in Temple spaces, and find plenty of opportunities to minister to your friends, coworkers, and neighbors in your Table spaces, and find joy along the way, because…

Adventure is out there!

Pastor Aaron

Prayer is Practiced - August 2020

For any of you who are looking for insight into how God has been forming and shaping me, with a view to gain some insight and fuel for your personal walking with Jesus, I’d direct you to the vlog I’ve been keeping since March. The newest entries are under “Pastor’s Vlog”. 

As of late, I've been looking at the book of Psalms through the lens of C.S. Lewis' devotional writing Reflections on the Psalms. His insight from the perspective of a professor of English literature has been very helpful in getting to the heart of these beautiful poems that express the depth and breadth of human emotion so well. If we want to learn to seek God's heart, to call out to him in trouble, to pray faithfully during difficult circumstances, there is no better guide than the Psalms. They are reminders that the challenges we face today are nothing new, and that as God has been faithful in the past, He'll be faithful to care for us today.

Leeann and I have also been reading through the book The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. It was recommended to me by a friend, and even a few short chapters in, it's been enlightening and encouraging to know that there are other Christians out there who are putting words to the struggles we are collectively feeling. It's life-giving to express the reality of those struggles, but even better to know that we serve a God who has always been faithful to lead His people to places of health, abundance, health, growth, and salvation.

One other note (and the reason for the title of this post): I recently heard another pastor say something about preaching and prayer that was notable. I'll paraphrase as best I can: preaching is something that involves a certain amount of native skill, but prayer is something that is only deepened and grown through long seasons of practice. All of us are called by Jesus to share good news with those around us (preaching). Perhaps not publicly, in front of a group of people, but certainly in our private conversation. It takes work to hone that competency, but we have Jesus' promise that He won't leave our side as we try, stumble, fall, and get back up to try again. We have his authority to share good news by virtue of our baptism into His family.

All of us are also called to pray, and this too is something that is especially honed by long seasons of practice. But here's the rub: it's not about rehearsing the right words (flowery, poetic words or more common words). It's about spending time with God. Knowing His heart through HIS Word. Patterning our words after those who have gone before us in faith. Trusting that He hears and answer in better ways than we can ask or imagine. That takes practice. That takes being willing to fail. It takes an open, moldable heart.

So that's my prayer for you, for me. That as we seek the Kingdom, in God's Word, in the world around us, in our everyday interactions, that God would shape and mold our hearts to be more inclined toward His. That we would lean into the challenges He gives us, not away from them. That He would encourage us to keep going when we get weary, and to step forward faithfully when we feel afraid. Above all, that we would trust Him and His promises. That the blessings of His Word would never be lost on us. "Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us — to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen" (Ephesians 3:20-21). Blessing on your journey.

Adventure is out there!
Pastor Aaron

Orthopraxy - July 2020

For any of you who are looking for a window into where my heart and mind have been recently, I’d direct you to the vlog I’ve been keeping since March. The newest entries are now under “Pastor’s Vlog” (as opposed to "COVID-19 Pandemic Vlog”). For those of you who don’t have access to those forms of communication, to summarize, I’ve been focusing on a couple of crucial topics. First, we’ve been working our way through the book of Acts, the story of the early church, paying special attention to the way Peter, Paul, and other church leaders handled the difficulties they faced. I am convinced that their struggles can be helpful and instructive to us as we seek likewise to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as the 21st-century church. Second, Leeann and I have been reading through and commenting on a book by John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. It’s analysis of our culture’s breakneck pace and a godly, practical response has been life-giving for us as a couple, as a family, and (we pray) for those who have been journeying with us on the vlog.

Aside from those insights, I have just one other to point out here, and it follows closely on what I just said about Comer’s book. It offers practical ways to engage in being less hurried and, as a result, more intentional about a meaningful life lived with and for God. Now, the word “practical” can be used in both trendy, unhelpful ways, or it can be used in ways the lead us to the life Jesus intended for us as a reflection of Him and His Father. At its worst, the “practical” Christian life can be an unfaithful substitution for justification by faith alone and become a desire for works-righteousness (sanctification over justification). To be clear: Jesus died on a cross for wretched, hell-bound sinners like you and me. Period. Full stop. No equivocation. But Jesus saved us not just from sin, death, and hell. He saved us for a life to be lived with God, walking in His ways. A life of practicing the ways of Jesus. And this is where we find a helpful, healthy, Father-honoring definition of the “practical” Christian life.

Jesus Himself summed it up pretty well in His famous parable in Matthew 7 (of Sunday school song fame): “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. It collapsed with a great crash” (vss. 24-27). The critical difference between the two men and the two houses? It wasn’t a failure to hear God’s Word. It was a failure to put it into practice

My point is this: many of us know more than we need to know to follow Jesus. Many of us understand more than we need to understand to follow Jesus. So the way forward as a 21st-century church is not knowing or understanding more, but it is found in putting into practice what we ALREADY know or understand. A friend of mine recently debunked a serious myth about discipleship by putting it this way: “Discipleship starts on Day 1 of a relationship with Jesus.” SO true.

Jesus says, “Come, follow me.” So we follow. We certainly listen to His voice and learn from His teaching, don’t get me wrong. But our lives are shaped to look more like His by following closely in His footsteps. Put another way, we are called not only to orthodoxy (“right belief”), but also to orthopraxy (“right practice”). May God richly bless you and me as we seek to follow the Jesus we know, who lived and died and rose for us, and still urges us to follow Him into a world that desperately needs His presence, light, and life. Don’t be afraid. He’ll lead the way into places where He’s already working, because…

Adventure is out there!
Pastor Aaron

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