Adventure with Pastor Aaron

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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 

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

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