Adventure with Pastor Aaron

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I have a confession to make. So, here goes. I love to eat. I do. There’s something very satisfying about a combination of high-quality ingredients prepared with excellence. It holds the same appeal and opportunity for delight that you’d experience in a sublime piece of music, played with excellence, or a work of art, appreciated for all of its nuance and expression. Food is good. Good food is even better.

And sometimes, even though my head knows better, I eat too much. I’ve heard enough of the statistics about nutrition, obesity, and health that I could even consciously know, in the moment, that taking another bite isn’t in my best interest. That I should probably eat only half of the over-sized portion the server puts in front of me and take the rest home. That I can still function with the mentality of my teenage years, when titles like “Bottomless Pit” and “Hollow Leg” were commonly applied to me.

But if I’m being honest, I know that’s not the case. Eating too much isn’t good for me. I can’t follow those patterns of excess that were common in my youth. I can’t rely on a high metabolism to zap every calorie I put into my mouth to smithereens. And if ever I forget, all I have to do is look back to my first year of college and what the infamous “Freshman 15” (or 25!) can do to a person. Too much food, without the exercise to balance it out, is unhealthy and unproductive.

The same is true for the Christian life. We need to eat good “food,” the Word of God, to sustain our hearts for the journey with Jesus. We need to have our physical bodies filled with the Spirit of Jesus and His promises as we take the Lord’s Supper, so He truly does dwell in us bodily. We need good, nutritious spiritual food. And gathering together to “eat” on the weekends, to gather as the church, to be filled with God’s goodness, is essential to solid community and the unity it needs to thrive. Eating during the week is also essential, spending time in the Word personally, listening for God’s voice between the rustling of the pages.

However (and this is the point), we are not called to be spiritually flabby. We eat to work. We feed our hearts to engage in the mission. We are filled with God’s goodness to have something to share. God puts food on the table not so that we can get fat, happy, and lazy. He bountifully provides for His family because He knows their work in His harvest fields is hard! We consume to produce. And what is a godly life to produce? Personally, it produces the fruit of God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). And in relationship with others, it produces a community of disciple-makers and -shapers.

The benefits of this are two-fold. First, we are much less inclined to be so concerned about whether we like the “taste” of the food than how it will fuel the mission Jesus left us: making disciples. We become less caught up in the consumeristic attitudes of our culture, much less concerned with having things our way. Jesus didn’t promise His disciples long stays in 5-star hotels. He called them to follow Him…to the cross and beyond. The same is true for us. Our culture says to us, “Your will be done,” but we say to God, “Thy will be done.”

Second, our view of what happens when we gather to eat changes. We gather to eat. We eat to be healthy. We consume to produce. We engage God’s Word not only to be found standing with God…which is important (we’ll talk about that this coming month). But we engage God’s Word to be saturated with His presence and truth, so that our lives produce good works that others can notice and praise God (Matthew 5:16).

So…eat! Drink! Enjoy the company of God’s people! It’s a GOOD thing to do so. But also remember why you eat. It’s not just for you. It’s for the people around you, too. The people that share their lives with you in everyday life. And the miracle that Jesus is still doing, two millennia after His ascension, is feeding millions (not just 4,000 or 5,000) with His very self. With simple bread and wine. And He uses His body, you and me, joined together and enlivened by His Spirit, to deliver this food to those around us. So here’s to a healthy, growing, well-exercised body…and the Savior who feeds it! Cheers!

Adventure is out there! Pastor Aaron

A Family of Immigrants - September 2019

A few weeks ago, we had our air conditioner break down. When we bought our house, we weren’t sure how well the unit would function, considering the home inspector couldn’t turn it on during the winter. Thankfully, a home warranty was included in the sale of our house, and the company covered the lion’s share of the replacement unit. It was a huge relief from a potentially massive financial burden, and a beautiful bit of evidence of God’s providential care.

The couple of weeks we were without air conditioning were some of the most hot, muggy weeks of the summer, and we frequently found ourselves sleeping over in the accommodating, hospitable homes of friends and family. We were thankful to have cool sleeping conditions, and the community and enjoyment we found in spending time with those who opened their homes to us was invaluable. However, you know as well as I do that Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz spoke some real truth about the human condition with these words: “There’s no place like home.”

We long for stability. We long for permanence. We long for a place to put up our feet at the end of the day, breathe a sigh of relief, and know that we’re in a good place. We long for a place of security and safety, where we can get the rest we need not just to survive, but to thrive. We long for home. It’s not just about comfort. It’s about having a place where you belong. Home is a fundamental human need.

So what do you do when your home feels less like home and more like a prison? When Egypt became more slavery than home, God’s people sought a way out…and God provided a way. When people of Jesus’ day felt the weight of the Law, condemning them in their brokenness, He went to the cross to free them from that brokenness and all its effects. He turned a lack of belonging to God’s family that came through the Law into a rekindled relationship with their Heavenly Father that could only come by a righteous sacrifice. God’s house became home again. God’s people found a place to belong again.

In my estimation, the word “immigrant” is a word that describes someone who is looking for home. For a place of belonging. For a place of stability and safety. A place that looks more like life and freedom than death and slavery. As human beings, then, and especially as God’s people, we are immigrants. We are a migratory people, moving from places of slavery and brokenness towards places of fullness, from Egypt to the Promised Land, from the tyranny of a killing Law to the City of God produced by the Gospel.

One of my favorite songwriters, Derek Webb, put it well in his song “A King and a Kingdom:” “Who’s your brother, who’s your sister/You just walked past him, I think you missed her/As we’re all migrating to the place where our Father lives/Because we married into a family of immigrants.” God’s people, the Church, the Bride of Christ, married into a family that moves.

My point, after all that, is this: you can’t hear the words of Jesus, “Come, follow me,” take them seriously, and stay stock-still, remaining motionless. His invitation and call is a call to movement. Movement means change…changing circumstances and changing scenery. Change is hard, but change is life! Movement is hard, but movement is godly, for our church and for you personally.

So where is Jesus calling you? How is he inviting you into places where He is already working, inviting you to join Him on the mission of loving and serving people, like He does. He might use a little bit of life change to spur you on to connect with new people. He might use a new interest or hobby. He might use a change of setting. Or, perhaps, he could even use something as mundane as a broken air conditioner to set you up for some really great conversations. He’s faithful, and He has meaningful things in store for those who walk with Him. Here’s to the journey ahead!

Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron

Rest is Godly - August 2019

As the summer starts to wind down and the minds of those involved in all levels of formal education start to drift, sometimes reluctantly, toward the classroom and its pursuits, it’s good to reflect on a simple truth: rest is a godly thing.

If Almighty God, who created the world in six days, rested on the seventh day, what should that tell us? That even the most powerful being in the world seeks to set an example, a pattern for His creation to follow. God Almighty doesn’t need to rest. In fact, Isaiah states very clearly that God “does not faint or grow weary” (40:28, ESV). Not only His love and affection for His creation is indefatigable, but His power is, as well. So the reason God rests on the seventh day of the week is to give us an example, a template to follow.

In many ways, the godly impulse to rest is not only written into our biological rhythms, but it also revives and enlivens us. You may have heard me say in my sermons that following God is becoming more human, and that sin is anything that makes us less human. Life without rest, without a break, without a vacation, dehumanizes us. I’m guessing you probably know what it feels like when you’ve been in a season that has sapped the energy out of you, taken away the zest of life, broken you down physically or emotionally, or made you feel like you’ve got nothing left. There are so many other ways of saying it, but the need for rest from work is an important part of following in Jesus’ footsteps. Even He, God Incarnate, Immanuel, took time away to recharge and reinvigorate Himself by being with His Father (which should probably tell us something, right?).

Our society was built upon the backs of hard workers, and in many ways, the American ideal of a hard day’s work has been retained to this day. However, you don’t have to be a certified workaholic to get tired and worn out. There is much conversation about having a solid awareness of work/life balance and being intentional about maintaining health between the two…and rightly so. The simplest way I can think to put it, at least right now, is that you will not have the fulfilling, meaningful life for which God created you if you have too much work OR too much rest. Having purpose demands work, but maintaining the energy to engage that purpose requires rest.

So as I sit here at my computer, just a couple of days after a week and a half of vacation myself, my prayer for you as the summer finishes up is that you would hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 11, believe them, and put that belief and trust into action: "'Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (28-30, The Message).

Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron

Preparing for Transformation - July 2019

If you’ve ever done a home improvement project of any scale, you’ve probably noticed that preparing for the project often takes just as long, if not longer, than actually doing the work. Purchasing supplies, examining plans and schematics, cleaning out areas that need space, ensuring all tools are available and at the ready - the list of preparations can be immense and often stall the beginning of the project, much less its completion. Yes, a project usually begins with a great deal of preparation.

The same could be said of spiritual transformation. God is constantly working on our hearts. Sometimes He uses blessings and victories to encourage us. Sometimes He allows brokenness and defeat to shape us. But whatever He sends us, it is with His express purpose of making us more like Him, teaching our hearts to beat with His, and gifting us with the tools we will need to do His work of redeeming things that are sad and ugly in our present reality. Whatever circumstances He uses, it often takes time. And we almost never understand why He’s putting us through the moments of shaping until they're past.

The apostle Paul encourages us in Romans 12, "Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (vs. 2, CSB). God is at work transforming us, making us into something different, not “just because” (even though…let’s face it…that reason would be enough!). He’s transforming us so that we can discern His will. And we know that God’s desire, and what would please Him most, is for "everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4, CSB). Yes, God’s plans, and the changes He is constantly making to us are never willy-nilly, purposeless, or unintentional. He has a plan to save the world, and He wants to prepare you and me to play a part in that mission. There is not a greater calling or purpose in this life.

I believe that Immanuel is in the midst of a transformation. God’s been working on our hearts for some time, preparing us for what’s next. And with that transformation comes a variety of outward evidence. It may feel like a boost in the openness or friendliness of the atmosphere of our gatherings. It may look like a new vitality and liveliness in our social gatherings and studies of God’s Word. It may look like new building projects getting underway (after a LONG period of preparation). And it may look like an influx of new people (or people who are coming back to our family after a long absence) who are curious to discover what God is up to here.

So my encouragement and charge to you is this: ask God to work internal, spiritual transformation in your life, so your life looks more like Jesus, who laid down His life for you. Enjoy the external evidence of His work that He gives you eyes to see, both in your own life and walk with God, and also in the midst of our congregation. But never neglect to listen to the voice of God, calling you to deeper relationship with Him, and deeper relationship with the people around you, people who are different than you…people Jesus died to save. Transformation is never easy, but God is a tireless worker, and promises complete, final transformation for all those who trust Him. May you find unexpected blessings pouring into your life from extraordinary places as you follow in the Master’s footsteps.

Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron

Respectfully Disruptive - June 2019

“When a new pastor comes to a congregation, things naturally change,” a friend once told me. While this statement is true, I think it’s safe to say that different people will respond to it in different ways. Some may approach the inevitable changes with apprehension or downright fear, while others may embrace the changes wholeheartedly and seek to encourage an attitude of moving forward. Some may mourn the loss of a beloved, longstanding pastor who had walked with them through many joys and sorrows, and become a part of their family. Others may look forward to the new ideas and fresh approach the newcomer brings. Please understand, I’m speaking in generalities, but I also can see the truth of these ideas playing out here among us, as I have before in other settings, and for brother pastors as I’ve had opportunities to hear their stories. Perhaps you have, too.

I believe that one of the most difficult dynamics in congregational life to navigate is how to preserve the historic treasures of our tradition without remaining stuck in the past. Or, inversely, finding a way to move forward, to pursue new avenues for the Gospel to spread, without losing or abandoning our base, our foundation. Our doctrine and traditions give us a firm place to stand, certainly, but we should be vigilant so that they never become cement shoes. On the other hand, we should never play fast and loose with the truth of God’s Word and His promises. It’s pretty clear to me that it’s easy to fall off the mountain on either side, and from there, it’s a slippery slope.

Both Jesus and Luther had to push up against the power structures of their day that had run far afield from the solid rock of the Gospel, God’s unconditional love for His people, even though their sin constantly put them outside His good graces. Jesus had to contend with the Pharisees and Sadducees, whose adherence to the Torah and its structure of institutional and political power left them little room to live out the freedom they had received from God. Jesus was incredibly disruptive to this system, pushing those around Him to embrace the Kingdom of a King who loves His people and would do anything for them. Even send His only Son to die for them. Luther, likewise, was disruptive to the power structure of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, challenging it to return to the truth of the Gospel. It almost cost him his life on multiple occasions.
Changes had to be made. But change is difficult. Especially when it hits so close to the things that people hold dear, and are foundational to their worldview.

I want to be like Jesus. I want you to be like Jesus, too. And if we’re going to take seriously His call to walk in His footsteps, it means we’re going to be disruptive to the world around us… in all the right ways! I’ve been struggling to describe what this looks like, and how I want to be. The best I’ve been able to come up with is that I will seek to be “respectfully disruptive.” Jesus was disruptive to the lives of everyone He met, challenging their assumptions and presuppositions, pushing them to reexamine what they believed. But He never sought to disrespect the basic human dignity of those around Him. In fact, He wanted people who met Him to become more dignified, more alive, more human, not less. I want the same for you.

All that to say: if I ever do something or say something that disrupts your assumptions or rattles your heart a bit, please understand that
I mean no disrespect. I’m just trying, as best I know how, to encourage you to be like Jesus.  Here’s to being more like Jesus, and embracing the life He gives!

Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron

Easter Joy & Next Steps - May 2019

“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” This is the great Good News that brings us joy as God’s people all throughout the year, but especially during the Easter season. Death has lost its sting, defeated by life and the One who brings it. Sin won’t be a permanent fixture in our existence as humans, but will be completely, finally wiped out one day. Our old evil foe, the devil, has only a short season to wreak havoc before he is completely powerless. These things give us hope in a broken world, and it’s appropriate to revel in Jesus’ victory during the season of Easter. Because He lives, we will live also. Praise God! Alleluia!

But here we are, still, living in a broken world. The victory is not complete. We still see what sin does to the world that God originally called “good.” It leads broken, bigoted people to commit acts of violence in houses of worship around the world, against Christian, Jew, and Muslim alike. It leads broken parents to commit the atrocity of ending their own child's life (The murder investigation of Andrew Freund has hit especially close to home for me, considering that he lived and died in the area where we used to live). It leads broken people to speak so negatively and harshly to some around them that it diverts their life down the path of despair, depression, and even suicide. It leads broken people to feel so overwhelmed and overcome by their circumstances that they turn to drugs, pornography, alcohol, gambling, or any number of other destructive behaviors, looking for some relief, and often finding something worse. Each of these evils is worthy of more discussion, certainly, but for the time being, let’s suffice it to say that living in a broken world is terribly difficult.

Jesus promises that the last enemy that will be defeated is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). It’s not a “maybe.” It’s a solid-gold, unshakeable promise. It WILL happen! But what to do we do in the meantime? We must live in the tension between a promise given and a promise fulfilled. Between the words of Jesus: the “It is finished!” and the “Go…make disciples.” Between the “now” and the “not yet.” The victory has been won; Christ is risen! Alleluia! What next?

If we are looking for some guidance for the next steps after our Easter joy, the book of Acts is a fitting, instructive story. It’s a picture of what it looks like after Jesus ascends, delivers the gift of the Holy Spirit, HIS Spirit, to live in and through the lives of His followers, and then scatters them to all points of the compass. There were certainly remarkable things that the leaders of the early church did in Jesus’ name, but many of them were distinctly unremarkable, simply human behaviors. They ate together in their homes. They invited others to “do life” with them. They did everything in their power to create spaces and opportunities for the Good News to be shared, for the story of Jesus to be told. So also with us, here in 2019, two thousand years later.

What are the next steps for us, here at Immanuel? I have some ideas. I’m sure you do, too. I don’t have it all figured out. But I do know that whatever circumstances in which we find ourselves - good, bad, and ugly - the Good News is still good, and I want everyone I meet to have a space and place to come into contact with the One who spread His arms open wide to hug the whole world…and died, for them! May God bless our efforts to shape our places and spaces into “soft landing spots” (more on that later!) for people to learn of His love for them.

Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron

Stay Hungry - April 2019

As I’ve shared in a few places recently, both in big spaces like public worship, and also in private, I LOVE…(yes, all caps!)…LOVE March Madness!  It is, in my way of thinking, one of the few unblemished arenas of athletic prowess and public competition. The Olympics are a close second, in my humble opinion. I know that some would be quick to debate with me on this fact, saying that the lackadaisical, passionless nature of professional sports has begun to leach down into collegiate athletics. I wouldn’t too hotly contest that point. Earning potential and scholarship considerations have certainly taken a toll on the desire of college athletes to win. But there is still nothing like the Madness!

And madness it is! Anything can happen! A team with the lowest seed, 16, can upset a #1 seed who has been highly touted as a potential champion. In 2015, my Michigan State Spartans were taken out in the first round by Middle Tennessee (who’s ever heard of Middle Tennessee? I wondered before the game. I know where it is now!). The Bradley Braves almost did the same thing this past weekend.

It drives people practically out of their minds!  They’re passionate for their team. They yell at the TV (and the refs, who remain unwavering, despite their outbursts). They stand up from the couch, sometimes upending refreshments, when a buzzer-beating 3-pointer goes up, hoping that it goes in…or that it doesn’t!  People are hungry, passionate for a win.

And God is passionate for us. He wants a win for us, a satisfying, long-lasting, wholesome win for us.  It’s His greatest desire for us. But He also knows that we only find the deepest level of fulfillment, the greatest “win,” when His Kingdom comes in our lives. When it is vibrantly alive in our relationships. When our hearts beat in rhythm with His, passionate about the same things He so desperately desires for us and for all human beings. He is hungry for YOU!

And so a deep part of His nature, played out in your life, is a deep hunger for Him. His Word.  For conversation with Him. For opportunities to serve sacrificially like He did on the cross. To give your life away to those around you, one tiny piece of attention at a time. To go into the places and spaces where the needs are the greatest. His passion, His hunger is for you, and for all. He wants your hunger to be for
Him and for all.

So, from one person who is eager and passionate about God’s Kingdom coming, to another, here’s my admonition to you: Stay hungry! Don’t get too settled or comfortable where you are! Be willing to listen to the voice of the Spirit, driving you to places He’s preparing for you. Find joy in the adventure of faith. I believe that God has put us together, this merry band of peculiar people (thanks again, Pastor Haney!), for a purpose. So let’s stay hungry! Here’s to passionately pursuing the Kingdom together…and everything God brings to us along the way.

Adventure is out there!  Pastor Aaron