May 2024 update from Aaron Levenhagen.

by Aaron Levenhagen on May 15, 2024


Dearest Friends in Christ,

On April 23, 2024, I received a Call to serve as the next pastor of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Elgin, Illinois
in the LCMS Northern Illinois District. Elgin is a beautiful and historic community located along the Fox River approximately thirty five miles northwest of Chicago. St. John's is the historic "mother church" of the LCMS in the area, with many of the other area Lutheran congregations planted by it throughout its history. I've only seen images of the historic building and its stunningly beautiful chancel area; I can't wait to see it in person in a few weeks. St. John's boasts strong lay leadership that has been evident from my first interactions. They have an energy and commitment for the work of the church in the broader community that has, by the grace of God, been strengthened during their recent period of pastoral vacancy. The congregation, like all others, has faced challenging times in recent years—especially in the aftermath of the pandemic—as worship attendance and school enrollment have declined. And yet they face the future, and I with them, in the sure confidence that we belong to Christ.

As I write this final letter for this, my final academic year, it is in the small hours well past midnight. The house that we've rented for these last four years is still and quiet, the rest of the family sleeps. I have four classes left over the next three days and two major papers yet to be completed (be honest: yet to start). Caught in a swirling vortex made up of academic demands; of the lingering effects of illness and the resulting physical weakness and limitations; of the already-present and pressing needs of the congregation whose pastor-elect I now am; of the stresses of relocation, budgets, and househunting; of the imminent relief of commencement; and of the gut-wrenching farewells that will begin before we even remove our graduation regalia and, one last time, turn away from the Main Quad and the gothic beauty of the campus lit by the rapidly fading sunlight. I can't quite wrap my head around everything
that's happened during my time here. But this I know: I belong to Christ.

Four years ago, on Sunday, July 5, 2020, at the height of the pandemic, I somewhat anxiously joined an online class orientation for the summer Greek language intensive that would begin the next day. I had no idea what I was in for the next morning. I arrogantly thought that after twenty-five years of working in pretty demanding high-pressure positions in the corporate world that I had this whole Seminary thing under control with only one hand on the wheel. How foolish I was! It wasn't long … probably about the time I first heard the word "declension" or "aorist passive participle" or "optative moods" or "periphrastic construction" or something of that sort that I came face-to-face with the fact that I was well and truly in over my head. And I haven't stopped feeling that way for a single day sense. What's more, there's a sinking feeling in me that this might not have been an accident; this was the way it was always supposed to be and the way I was always supposed to feel: in over my head. I don't have this under control. I might know what I need to know, but I don't know all that I want to know. I don't know how to do this. I need help. And so I cry out in the face of my inadequacy, fear, and believing unbelief: I belong to Christ.

I've felt soaring highs here, and I've felt soul-crushing lows. I've stood, inspired, and awe-struck, on the summit of Mount Arbel in Galilee where the Great Commission might have been spoken, thinking about what it really means to be called to proclaim the Gospel. I've wept on my knees more than once in the Chaplain's office confessing my sins (and they are many) and I've felt his hands on my head announcing Christ's forgiveness in the words of the Absolution. I've been complimented on a sermon I had just delivered, and I've been thanked for my message on a Sunday when I didn't even preach. I've sat, worn out and broken, across from a faculty mentor with the papers to withdraw from the Seminary in my hand just waiting for a signature and it would all be over. And God graciously picked me up, dusted me off, and sent me back into the game. And now, at the end of it all, I've heard the Church speak my name and Call me to serve God's people with Word and Sacrament and to live my messy, flawed life in their midst. There will be difficulties there too, so I am grateful to know I belong to Christ.

So far, this doesn't read much like a recruitment brochure to attract able-bodied men to head off to the seminary. The English evangelist, Charles Spurgeon, once said: "When God wants to do an impossible task, He takes an impossible man and breaks him." Think about that. There's no question that I am an impossible man. Just ask my wife, Jill. In the midst of all my fears, anxieties, uncertainties, and feelings that I'm in over my head and am not up to the task before me, God is more interested breaking me. This could point to several places in Scripture where we see God severely test someone who he intends to uniquely use for His glory and
purposes. Abraham … Joseph … Moses … David … Elijah … Jeremiah … Simon Peter … Paul, to name just a few.

David wrote of his experience of brokenness in several places, but for the moment let us focus on just two: Psalms 34 and 51. In his great psalm of confession in the face of the prophet Nathan holding him accountable for his sins committed to cover up his adultery with Bathsheba by effectively murdering her husband, Uriah. After his heartfelt confession and a plea for forgiveness and a clean heart before his God, David reminds himself: "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Psalm 51:17, NRSV). And In Psalm 34, David reminds himself that "Yahweh is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit" (v. 18, LSB).

The Hebrew word translated as "broken" comes from the root shabar, which in addition to its common meaning of "broken," can also be translated "crushed," "demolished," "destroyed," "shattered" or "smashed." All of these so-called "spiritual giants" listed above were very weak and sinful men. Even so, every man who "covers" his sin with the white robe or surplice and steps into the pulpit is a weak man. I certainly am. Indeed every one of us is frail, feeble, and apt to faint. It is not until the pride of our hearts is shattered, destroyed, crushed, etc., by the shattering, devastating weight of the Law that we see how very much our God longs to draw near to save through the healing promises of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the waters of our Baptism to "forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, RSV). And then Holy Spirit continues His work in our hearts and lives using, among other things, the fellowship of God's people in the Church to form us and shape us for His service and the "good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do" (Eph. 2:10, CSB). I will serve the people of St. John's as an impossibly weak, flawed, and broken under shepherd pointing to the great and only Good Shepherd. Even so you carry out your respective vocations as broken people put right by the Gospel. We are able to do so only because … We belong to Christ.

Whether you have supported and encouraged my family from the beginning four years ago or whether you have come alongside us more recently, I don't know how to adequately express what your kindness, your generosity, and your encouragement—not only financially, but also with your prayers, your notes that arrived unexpectedly when they were most needed, and countless other ways. It is no exaggeration to admit that at times one of the things that kept me going to persevere in my studies at the Seminary or while serving my vicarage, or even now as I prepare to formally accept my Divine Call to the Office of the Holy Ministry, was my desire to match and prove worthy of your devotion, unwavering commitment, and sacrifices of time, treasure, and prayer. I simply cannot express how you have displayed a perfect example of all that the Body of Christ should be. Your generosity has at different times allowed me to attend the Seminary tuition free, helped with book purchases, aided with premiums for my family's health insurance, helped to purchase groceries, relieved the burden of medical expenses, facilitated my period of study in the Holy Land, and so many other things which are too many to enumerate. I don't really know how to say thank you. You've helped a family of complete strangers answer God's Call to serve simply out of Christian love and generosity because … You Belong to Christ.

You've noticed by now with some variation the recurring theme: We Belong to Christ. One of my former professors, Rev. Dr. Joel Elowsky, wrote in a January 2024 article in Concordia Magazine:

A fundamental lie of our modern age is that we belong to ourselves, not to God. This lie forces upon us a different reality than the one we were created for: We become the ones to determine whether our life has meaning or not, as we sideline God. With God on the sidelines, we become the arbiter not only of what is right and wrong, but also over what has value or not—and over our very identity as human beings. Everybody is busy today crafting his or her identity, whether it is around gender issues, political ideology, health, wealth, status. We are in fierce competition with one another to be the truest form of whatever identity we have created for ourselves … But we inevitably fall short.

 If we belong to Christ, we are also interconnected with one another, as we all form His unified body—the Church. We worship together, study together, pray together, and support each other—all because of our shared belonging to Christ. Our lives are in the hands of our merciful Lord. As the apostle Paul reminds us, "If we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that He might be the Lord of both the dead and the living" (Rom. 14:8-9, NIV). The profound purpose behind Christ's death and resurrection was to assert His ultimate ownership of what truly belongs to Him—you and me. We belong to a King who willingly sacrificed Himself for His people.

You have been the hands and feet of our Lord Jesus modeling sacrificial love for your Church, the work of the Seminary, and for me and my family. We Belong to Christ. And we belong to one another. In just a few short weeks, I will stand before God's altar at St. John's Lutheran Church and publicly affirm that our Lord Jesus Christ has called me through His Church into the Office of the Holy Ministry of Word and Sacrament. I will joyfully and without hesitation affirm my belief in the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. I will profess the Creeds, the Book of Concord, and give my word to preach and teach in accordance with pure doctrine, to faithfully carry out the duties of pastoral care of my flock, and to life a holy life, study diligently, and pray for those in my care. After being
asked I will do all these things, I will respond—in what, in spite of my nervousness, will likely be one of the most earnest prayers I've ever spoken: "I will, the Lord helping me through the power and grace of His Holy Spirit.

Because I Belong to Christ, our Lord Jesus promises to help me to do all that my petty fears whisper in my ear that I cannot do. If I focus my fears outward toward Christ instead of inward toward me, I am pronouncing my dependence on Him as the one who does everything that must be done. I can say, like the Apostle Paul, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth" (1 Cor. 3:6-7, NASB). I am nothing. God is everything. God causes the growth—and I pray that the people whom I will serve at St. John's and in the community of Elgin will grow as disciples, ever more deeply rooted in the Word of God. And may the risen, ascended, and reigning King receive the glory for anything He does through me, an unworthy servant, one who yet Belongs to Christ.

As my time at the Seminary comes to a close, I think back to the time in the classroom, the late-night study sessions, through my vicarage year, and in all my moments of doubt, you stood by my side in particular ways. In a sense, we were together as I navigated the challenges, learned from my mistakes, celebrated the victories, and learned to submit to and lean on our Savior. And now my heart overflows with gratitude for each one of you (Phil. 1:3). We Belong to Christ. I hope those words will remind us that our connection runs deeper than a transactional sponsor/sponsored relationship, or even the ties of family or longtime friends. We are bound by a common faith and a shared hope until heaven comes. As I embark on the next chapter—serving at St. John's—I will carry your kindness, prayers, and well wishes with me. Because We Belong to Christ, we belong to each other.

Please don't hesitate to stay connected with me ( ) if you just want to say hello or if there's anything I can do for you. I would love to remain in touch with you. I will leave you with the words of a less familiar hymn text written by Richard Baxter called "Lord, It Belongs Not to My Care."

Keywords: thoughts, aaron, update, levenhagen