Remembering Aaron

I remember the feeling in my gut as I walked through the student union at BGSU. I was anxious. I was scared. Not the horror movie scared but the fear of rejection and humiliation scared. I felt unprepared and unqualified for what I was about to do. I had done it a handful of times before, but somehow the intimidation and awkwardness of it never subsided. I was looking for someone with whom I could start a spontaneous conversation. A conversation about Jesus. You know, the type of outreach that receives equal skepticism (if not disapproval) from believers and nonbelievers alike.

I saw a guy reading the school newspaper. He was sitting by himself. He dressed like me. He had short hair like me. He seemed clean-cut like me. He wore cool glasses (not like me, much to my dismay). I remember thinking “I can talk to this guy.” I led with “Hi, I’m Matthew from h2o, the church on campus. Would you mind if I asked you some spiritual questions?” He agreed. I was noticeably relieved by his willingness to talk with me.

What happened in the thirty minute conversation that followed makes sense only if there is a God above who is spinning this world with a purpose and plan for us all. I learned that my new friend Aaron had been raised in an unashamedly Baptist home in Missouri. He could remember a time when, as a young boy, he invited Jesus into his heart. In high school, he went through the religious motions- church, youth group, summer camps, and Christian concerts. Yet as he sat telling me about his life with an openness and rawness that still amazes me to this day, he admitted that those days were a thing of the past. He was living as a prodigal far from home- in northwest Ohio of all places. He had unintentionally become the stereotypical college guy- went to the parties, chased the girls, drank the beer, ditched the classes, etc. And he was left feeling lost and lonely.

I told him a bit of my story. I had been a prodigal, too. Much more prodigal than him, actually. Then he said something striking: he told me God was answering a prayer as we spoke that day. You see, the reality of his brokenness had hit him that same morning. He prayed to God for the first time in a while. His prayer was simple, as I recall him telling me. Aaron asked God to show him that He was real. He wasn’t convinced anymore. He wanted to believe, to be sure. But he wasn’t sure he could. Something had happened since moving off to college. But somehow, as our Creator orchestrated this divine intersection of our two lives at a table on the second floor of the BGSU student union, his doubt disappeared. His prayer had been answered. God was real after all. Hours after his prayer was uttered a nervous guy trying to be a missional Christian asked him if they could have a conversation. And both of our lives would be forever changed. To claim coincidence here would be an offense to the sovereignty of the One who dreamed this interaction from eternity past.

We became close friends over the next few years. Our lives were inextricably intertwined. We shared life. We did ministry together. We had those rare life-changing conversations. We had a depth and realness to our relationship that came so naturally. I remember when he told me he had feelings for Ali, a girl in our Bible study group. I remember a few years later praying with him in a small back room at the church just moments before he married Ali. Then I moved to Kent to plant a church. Our friendship changed. But our love for each other remained. The awe over how we first met that day in the student union never faded, and it created in us a bond that couldn’t broken by distance.

I was sitting in a seminary class when I got the text telling me that Aaron was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s ironic that I was sitting in a place that is supposed to give answers to questions about faith and life. Yet there are no token answers for why a 26-year-old would get cancer. No amount of theological precision offers hope in the midst of the reality of disease. Persistent headaches brought Aaron to the doctor and tests were run that revealed the devastating news. It was cancerous. It was in an advanced stage. It was largely inoperable. His prognosis was staggeringly bad.

As much as I remain amazed at how we met, that memory will fade long before the memory of saing goodbye to Aaron. His fight with cancer ended a year ago. On that day he met face-to-face the God who orchestrated our friendship and rescued him from the emptiness of this world. The day before he died I visited him with my dear friend Rob- Aaron’s closest friend in Bowling Green. With the door closed and Aaron unresponsive on a hospital bed situated in his bedroom, Rob and I told him how much we loved him and how he had impacted us. Not once had he questioned God in the midst of his disease. Not once had I heard a complaint or a curse. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such faith- it was innocently childlike and incredibly mature at the same time. We talked about old memories- as many funny ones as serious. And we talked about the glory that awaited him. When I spoke, Rob cried. When Rob spoke, I cried. It was both incredibly sad and entirely beautiful. Even my words here can’t approach the weight of what happened in that room.

Aaron’s legacy far exceeds his years on this earth. There are so many ways he has impacted me. Let me share just one.He has helped me to grow up. I live in a world of college students. A world where tears are typically the result of romantic break-ups. Where tragedy exists only in film. Where death is a fairy-tale. Where faith is stifled by the comfort and ease of our lives. Where desperate need for Jesus is a mystery. Yet today as I think of Aaron, I remember that there is a reality beyond what I see each day . And while I am called to this place, I must live beyond its borders. And I must invite others to this new place of depth. To journey beyond the superficiality and immaturity that, though unavoidable, is not insurmountable. To a place where we must painfully reckon with the tragedy and evil of this world in order to taste of the goodness and power of Jesus.

The ending of Aaron’s life is no less appalling to me today than it was a year ago. His death, any death, is a primal offense to our very being. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that “God has set eternity in the human heart.” My tears attest to this fact. When all the token phrases and comforting words have been said, death remains no less unnatural to us. We long for eternity. We long to live in a reality where life and all things good go on forever in all their beauty and power. C.S. Lewis once said, “If I find in myself a desire that this world cannot fulfill, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” We are made for another world, meant to enter another reality and live another story. A reality entirely different from the one we now experience. Where everything good is forever. Where love and relationships will have no end. Pain no more. Suffering no more. Tears no more. Oppression no more. Disease no more. Death no more.

Only Jesus gets us here- to this place we long for. He rose out of the grave victorious over the evil, sin, and death that reigns in our world. In Jesus we are ushered into this reality now. And though we experience it only in part now, it will one day be all we know.

(This post is an updated and expanded version of a similar post I wrote in the fall)

On becoming a pastor

A confession: being a Christian is still unnatural to me. Ten years of walking with Jesus has not yet eroded the bewilderment I feel over my own conversion. There is still an enduring and awkward astonishment I feel about my journey to faith. From the vantage point of this world, I am an unlikely believer. I remember, as a new campus missionary meeting with potential donors from my hometown, I needed to spend as much time legitimizing my own conversion as sharing about the ministry to which I sensed God calling me. The people weren’t rude. They were just surprised (like me). I wasn’t from the right family. I didn’t have the right church background. I didn’t have the proper training or education. What I had instead was a story.

I had a story of God meeting me in pages of Scripture as I read the New Testament over and over as a lost and restless high schooler. A story of God showing me the emptiness of my pursuits as a college freshman. A story of God giving me the words to say as I prayed a prayer of surrender beside my bed- a prayer that I knew would change the trajectory of my life. A story of God leading me to exchange my dreams of status and significance for a calling to obscurity and servanthood (in ministry). All I had was a story.

On Sunday night, during our worship service, as I watched a video of my wife and closest friends affirming my calling to be a pastor, and I heard godly men speak of my qualification for the role, the shock and bewilderment rose up within me again. I thought: “Really? Me? A pastor? I don’t have the right past, the right training, the right pedigree.” A part of me wanted to resist the affirmation, deny it, explain it away. And so as I sat there I struggled to embrace the encouragement as coming not primarily from these people but from God himself.

Then I remembered the story. I thought back to the undeniable work God has done in my life. I recalled the transformation of my soul that has unfolded over the last ten years. And I remembered that I lay claim to none of that work. That change was not precipitated by me and it is not sustained by me. From eternity past God wrote the story of my life. He shares none of my bewilderment and shock and awkwardness. The decision to follow Christ. The decision to join h2o church as a college senior. The decision to join staff. The decision to join a church plant to Kent State. It all was orchestrated by God before any of it came to pass. So why do I feel what I do? Here is my best answer: Because the call to follow Christ is a call to become like Christ, the tension will always remain. What I am becoming is not what I am (or was). It’s something (actually, someone) outside of myself, utterly different. God’s aim is not to clean me up and make me look a little more presentable to Him; it’s to make Jesus come alive through me. This is why Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”

Jesus said that to find life, you must lose it (Matthew 10:39). Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:10, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed through our body.” As long as the Father is making me like the Son by the power of the Spirit, the awkwardness and tension will remain. I am daily dying to myself so that Jesus may shine through. This will always be unnatural, for though I am new in Christ, the remnants of the old persist. The in-breaking of the new (Jesus) will always be a shock (and an offense) to the old. The extent of the transformation God wants to work is so great that it will always be unnatural to us. We, who are mortal and broken and sinful, are called to become like the One who is immortal, perfect, and glorious.

God gets glory when He looks at us and sees his Son- even if in incomplete and broken fashion. I felt appropriately humbled at my ordination service as I remembered that it is Christ himself who has written the story of my life. And he hasn’t just written it. He is it. In the end it’s not a story about me; it’s a story of a God who humbly shares himself with us. For now, we are like him in only a fractured, not-yet-finished way, but someday in a complete and glorious way… the day we see him face-to-face. (1 John 3:2).

2011: what I will most remember

Remembrance is a biblical mandate. The people of Israel were instructed to remember the mighty and providential work of YHWH- even to construct monuments and memorials so as to not forget what He had done for them. The Psalms are littered with recitations of God’s action in human history. Jesus broke bread with his disciples at the Last Supper and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

We are prone to forget. To forget the work of God in our midst. And our forgetfulness is not harmless in God’s sight. Forgetfulness breeds discontentment and dissatisfaction. And somewhere deep in our hearts there’s a battle raging between the humble choice to remember (and thus be content) and the selfish choice to forget (and thus be discontent). In Psalm 78, the author gives a laundry list of ways God intervened miraculously for Israel, but laments that the men of Ephraim “forgot what He had done, the wonders he had shown them (v.11). As this psalm attests, Israel would remember and worship, only to forget and be disobedient, then remember again, only to forget again. The remembering always led to right worship; the forgetting always led to rebellion and divine judgement. The relationship is clear.

We remember, that we might worship. Is not the essence of worship the act of remembering God’s work in the past and present and his promise to redeem all in the future? So I’ve been asking myself this question: what will I remember from 2011 that leads me to worship? Here goes:

  • I’ll remember being with my dear friend Rob Warren as we sat next to our dying friend Aaron. We shared our love for him, our sorrow for what cancer took from him, and our confidence in the redemption that awaited him. Never before had I experienced such depth of emotion and the visceral presence of Jesus as I did in that room that day. Aaron died the next day and my faith is still being tested and transformed because of it. I have written a longer post about Aaron here.
  • I’ll remember learning to be a father to Mason alongside an amazing woman- my wife Tiffany- who teaches me daily the joy of giving away your life. I’ll remember moments where God transformed my selfishness, frustration, and impatience into something that resembles- even if just slightly- the heart of the Father toward me. I’ll remember laughing with Tiffany at the crazy faces our son makes and the way he dances with his arms more than his legs, his insatiable desire to have books read to him, the way he says “momma” and “dadda” and the way he looks at me as I rock him to sleep at night.
  • I’ll remember watching our church plant drop the word “plant” and become simply a church. I’ll remember being in the pool with Justin Hendricks and a whole bunch of people as they publicly proclaimed their new faith in Jesus. I’ll remember the group of people who hung out in our cabin at Colorado LT to discuss theology and life. I’ll remember having the realization that our church wasn’t just led by staff anymore but by an amazing group of college students who are naive enough to believe Jesus for big things.
  • I’ll remember realizing that saying goodbye is an unavoidable reality of God’s Kingdom. I had big dreams for Brian Regueiro. He and I were going to do a church plant and do life and ministry together for years. Then God called him to the work of justice in DC. I’ll remember the journey God took me on to a place of joy and excitement in dying to my own dreams for sake of Christ’s Kingdom. I’ll remember realizing that the scope of God’s mission is so much larger than collegiate church planting, important as it may be and confident as I am that it’s my calling for now. I’ll remember learning that the mark of my discipleship is not just in how many people stay part of our ministry but also how many are sent out to labor for Christ elsewhere.
  • I’ll remember learning all over again what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I’ll remember being enamored again by the person of Jesus and the mission to which he calls us. I’ll remember doing teachings and hearing teachings from the Sermon on the Mount that reminded me of the inescapably exhaustive work of redemption Jesus wants to work in my life, the life of my friends, our church, and this world.

Foolishness to the Greeks, Part III

Today I finish my series on Lesslie Newbigin’s book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Eerdmans, 1986). I introduced the series with this post and covered the first three essentials here. I will cover here the final four of Newbigin’s “seven essentials” for a gospel engagement with Western culture.

  • A critique of the theory and practice of denominationalism: Newbigin was a ecumenist; he worked to bring together people from varying theological dispositions for the sake of mission. He was not one to bash denominations wholesale. What he does here, then, is critique a type of denominationalism that does little more than reveal a privatized faith with no ability to impact on the larger culture. Here is what he means: we tend to treat denominations as the means by which we choose what beliefs best suit us as individuals. We shop around, looking for a group that holds tight to what we deem most critical. Not all bad. But it’s subtly consumeristic. The unintentional result is a Christianity that is highly privatized. It’s what is best for me. It’s what I like best. it’s what most connects with me. Denominations house those who’ve come to the same decisions by themselves. Newbigin says, “Denominations cannot confront our culture with the witness of the truth since even for themselves they do not claim to be more than associations of individuals who share the same private opinions.” While still retaining denominational affiliation, Newbigin argues for a truly ecumenical movement that brings together the array of denominations “in one place in order to create a more coherent and credible Christian witness to the whole community in that place.”
  • An understanding of and respect for non-Western Christianity: One of the saddest realities of church history is the fact that Christian mission was not able to shake off Western hegemony. Missionaries heralded not only the gospel but Western culture as they spread the world. We made converts not only Christians but also Westerners. What happened in the process was catastrophic: we robbed the gospel of its inherent capacity to inhabit (and transform) a culture, any culture. Yale Divinity professor Lamin Sanneh, a convert from Islam, has written about the “infinite translatability of the gospel”- that the proclamation of Christ as Lord can and should be expressed distinctly in the mosaic of world cultures. The gospel does not create one world culture- it redeems and brings to fullness every culture. I recommend Sanneh’s book Whose Religion is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West (beware- he is not easy to read, but who from Yale is?). Back to Newbigin now: “The fact that Jesus is much more than, much greater than our culture-bound vision of him can only come home to us through the witness of those who see him with other eyes […] We need their witness to correct ours, as indeed they need ours to correct theirs.” If Western Christianity is to impact post-Christian Western culture, it must recognize its place within the broader scope of God’s work within the world, and it must seek to listen to the voices of Christian leaders from other places.
  • A humble boldness to proclaim the truth of Christ as Lord: here I must simply quote Newbigin:
The gospel is not a set of beliefs that arise, or could arise, from empirical observation. It is the announcement of a name and a fact that offer the starting point for a new and life-long enterprise of understanding and coping with experience. To accept it means a new beginning, a radical conversion. It has always been the case that to believe means to be turned around to face in a different direction, to be a dissenter, to go against the stream. The church needs to be very humble in acknowledging that it is itself only a learner, and it needs to pay heed to all the variety of human experience in order to learn in practice what it means that Jesus is the King and Head of every human race. But the church also needs to be very bold in bearing witness to him as the One who alone is that King and Head.”
  • Praise: I love how Newbigin beautifully ends his reflection with a call for praise. How are we to have this humble boldness to speak truth to our culture? Newbigin says it is not the product of human heroism but rather the “spontaneous overflow of a community of praise.” Reflecting on his own experience of being involved in two very different churches- Orthodox and Pentecostal- Newbigin says, “they have this in common: their life is centered in the action of praise- praise that is literally “out of this world” and is by that very fact able to speak to this world. Where this is present, the radiance of that supernatural reality is enough to draw men and women into its circle.” A missionary encounter with our post-Christian culture will always begin with praise. Our witness to our world is at the heart the overflow of a gift, says Newbigin. If we are not repeatedly astounded by the magnitude, reality, and cost of that gift, our missionary work will not endure.

Foolishness to the Greeks, Part II

This post is a follow-up to my previous post, which you can read here. You’ll need to read it in order to make sense of this one. Here are the first three of Newbigin’s “seven essentials” for the church engaging culture and bearing witness to Christ and His inbreaking Kingdom in a modern/postmodern world.

  • A recovery of the doctrine of eschatology: The “eschaton” means “the last things,” so eschatology is the study of the “last things”or the “last days”- themes prophesied about in the Old Testament and discussed directly in the New Testament. Most people mistakingly believe eschatology refers only to the events surrounding Christ’s second coming. However, since the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we have been living in last days. All the NT authors believed this, and so should we. Christ’s Kingdom on earth is both a present and a future reality. Theologians call this the ‘already but not yet’ nature of the Kingdom. What Newbigin is saying here is this: As Christians, we must resist the temptation to travel to the extremes. The first extreme so rejects the ‘already’ of the Kingdom that it causes people to “opt out of the struggle for a measure of justice and freedom in public life” and instead only focuses on personal piety in preparation for final judgment. In other words, people say things like, “This world is going to hell and I’m just holding on until Jesus comes back.” Here there is no passion to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. This perspective is entirely unbiblical and Newbigin is alerting us to its danger. The other extreme so embraces the ‘already’ of the Kingdom that it mistakingly equates all political and social advance as God’s reign, grossly de-emphasizing the uniqueness and fullness of the Kingdom that is reserved only for Christ’s second coming. This has been the classic belief (and mistake) of mainline Protestant denominations. Newbigin reminds us that “even the best social order is- in God’s sight- an organization of sinful men and women and therefore always prone to corruption.” No amount of social advance can remedy or reverse the disease of the soul- sinful nature. We must live in the tension between these two extremes. A proper eschatology will propel us into a type of work for justice and compassion that is not an end in itself but rather a sign and foretaste of what is to come when Christ returns. We do not engage in social justice because it’s “the right thing to do;” we do it because we are called to enact today what someday will be the only reality. In a sentence, we must embrace an eschatology that thrusts us into God’s redemptive work now rather than sitting on our hands awaiting our own personal redemption later.
  • A biblical view of freedom: Newbigin argues here for a freedom that simultaneously upholds the truth of the Gospel while reserving the right for others to dissent. We’ve all been nurtured in an Enlightenment understanding of freedom that defines it as the ability to make our own decisions about what is good and true. Newbigin points out that is is precisely the opposite of biblical freedom. That type of “freedom” leads to destruction. Newbigin concludes, “True freedom is a gift of grace  given by the one who is in fact Lord; that gift, freely given, can only be received in freedom. It follows that the church cannot bear witness to that gift unless there is freedom to refuse it. Yet the church must still bear witness that this is the only true freedom: to belong wholly to the One by whom the space of freedom is created, and whose service is perfect freedom.” If the church is to engage our culture, we must do so without an arrogance that belittles or a forcefulness that manipulates.
  • A de-clericalized theology: I think Newbigin’s pastoral brilliance emerges here. Though a scholar with a robust academic pedigree, he refuses to disconnect theology from real life. He laments the relegation of theology to scholars without input from the laity (everyone other than the pastors/leaders). Newbigin boldly states, “We are in a situation analogous to one about which the great Reformers complained. The Bible has been taken out of the hands of the layperson; it has now become the professional property not of the priesthood but of the scholars.” To engage in a world that is increasingly secularized, Newbigin reminds us that we must foster conversations where “real-world” people wrestle with the meaning and application of the Gospel. What I love and find insightful is his realization that the Gospel is not a “toy” for academic play but the pronouncement Christ’s Lordship in every human realm and place. It can and must speak to every person where they live, work, and play. Church leaders need to be instructed by those who are speaking and embodying Christ on the ground, in the midst of the messiness and darkness of a lost world. When this happens, Newbigin says, the fatal divide of the public and private will be brought back together.