Sunday, June 29, 2008

New Life Covenant Celebrates Fifty Years

Today's service had a number of unique features that made it a very special gathering today. New Life Covenant today celebrated fifty years as a member of the Covenant denomination, though as noted in the service, God was at work in this community and in the place before that official designation.

In light of the past we were remembering, Pastor Brad Shannon opened the service citing the Scripture, "I will remember the deeds of the Lord." He also took the opportunity to remind us of the distinction between living history and dead history. The nostalgic longing to go back and recreate the past is not helpful. Rather, what is needful is to remember the past in order to propel us into the future. The same God who was active in our midst then is alive and active in our present to empower us for tomorrow.

Chuck Vanderscheuren led us in a call to worship followed by the quartet's call to worship with "There's a Welcome Here" and "Because He Lives."

Pastor Brad shared a children's moment about picking flowers. The pressed flowers of yesterday can be used to bookmark passages to help us tomorrow.

Suzi Lane, who helped make today's special celebration possible, shared some humorous anecdotes, and then read a pair of letters from former church leaders. Pastor Dunbar wrote that "our years there are remembered with fondness." And Frank Armstrong wrote about remembering how things used to be, stories, anecdotes, and reminders of the faith of the old timers. And the music.

Mentioning the music was, naturally, a perfect segway into two hymns by the Hartmark girls. The four sisters sang He Hideth My Soul, and Great Is Thy Faithfulness.

Leonard Armstrong, who spent the past two evenings (actually, more like all-nighters) preparing the remarkable spread of delicious food we enjoyed after the service, then shared the history of the church. The predominantly Swedish community settled the area in around the turn of the last century, which became a preaching point for Covenant circuit riders in the region. The Armstrong family arrived in 1923, after the great fire of 1918.

One reason the Covenant church was successful in reaching Swedes was that it has historically been a missionary minded church, and was not put off by ethnic barriers. This acceptance of other ethnic groups was part of the church culture.

In 1938 a Sunday school was started, which became a stepping stone toward the eventual development of a church community here. As late as 1957 the church building had been a school. Though services had been held here, the year 1958 is cited as the starting point for Twig Covenant/New Life Covenant because it was then that the church members became offical members of the larger Covenant.

In 1972 a new addition was added, along with running water for the first time. Of the many pastors who have served the fellowship, Pastor Brad Shannon is the first full time pastor to live in the neighborhood.

Many more details were shared than this blog writer could capture in his notes, but if we're lucky, Leonard will give us still more details in a written document for posterity.

Scripture readings today:
Isaiah 28:23-29
John 15:1-17

More Memories
Vern Robertz shared next. He grew in the property adjacent tot he church and remembers walking to church on Sunday mornings. He recalled that the church had a big old wood stove which Leonard would stoke up early in the morning. Though Leonard and Signe had no children, he recalls their faithful service as Sunday school teachers. He noted Pastor Hartmark's long prayers, and how empty the church was when he and his family of fifteen children were away on vacation. He recalled for us the many duets and groups who sang, the Sunday school picnics, sliding parties. "Most of the Christian values I hold today I received here," he concluded.

A Heart For God
Pastor Brad opened by asking this question: What is our Biblical narrative as a church? He said that one character in Scripture was especially appropriate, and that was David.

David was a true Rennaisance Man. Musician, warrior, statesman and poet, he was also outwardly attractive, a magnetic man, he was featured in over sixty-six chapters of the Old Testament as well as many New Testatment passages. But what was significant about David, in God's eyes, was his heart.

The passage Pastor Brad shared today was from I Samuel 16:1-13. It tells the story of how Samuel, in obedience to God, went to tiny Bethlehem to anoint a new king. What made obedience a challenge was that Israel already had a king, and though Samuel had a great legacy, having served a lifetime as God's prophet of that generation.

He'd been sent to the house of Jesse whereupon he prepared a sacrifice to the Lord, inviting Jesse and his sons. Brad re-assembled the narrative to make it alive for us in humor and intonations that are impossible to convey here. Jesse was bursting with pride, no doubt, since one of his sons would be the next king of Israel. In typical fashion he brought forth his firstborn, Eliab, and introduced him to the prophet. Scripture relates the events thusly:

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’* 7But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen any of these.’

This was not the expected outcome. Samuel looked at the first and based on appearance, he felt good about this youth. But God doesn't operate this way. God's way is to break all the cultural molds. God's ways are new ways.

When looking at Israel's history, from the beginning it was so. Ishmael was Abraham's first born, but Isaac the chosen. Of Isaac's sons, Esau was the firstborn, but heel-grabber Jacob was God's chosen. And so...

11Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.’ 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Culture obsesses over appearance and externals, but God says, "Not in My kingdom. In my kingdom everybody counts."

Our church may be small in stature, but we're rich in grace. God can do things here if our hearts are right.

And so, Pastor Brad outlined three of the qualities that made David's heart great.

1) Wild Abandon
David was passionate for God. Brad told the story of how David danced wildly for joy before the nation of Israel as the ark was returned to Zion, and asked, "When was the last time you jumped up and down for joy." It's not cold and calculating, it's wild and free.

2) David's Deep Reflection
Psalm 139 reveals the kind of reflection that exemplifies David's depth. A church is not about programs, it's about deep hearts.

3) Stubborn Love
David's stubborn love for God and others are revealed in all his writings and actions. He kept loving, despite and not because of circumstances, as witnessed in his respect for Saul even while Saul sought to kill him. It's the heart of a racehorse, Brad said... a heart that keeps coming back to God.

Can I say this about New Life Covenant? Wild abandon, deep reflection and stubborn love... Eternity starts here.

At the end of the service there was much fellowship in the sanctuary and Leonard's wonderful meal downstairs. A meaningful service of remembering and looking forward.

click on images to enlarge

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Morality Above the Law

It was Grandma’s Marathon weekend here in the Northland, and though a chill had come into the air this a.m. our hearts remained warm. Pastor Brad Shannon gave a heartfelt welcome, which was followed by several announcements. Brooke thanked the forty volunteers who made this week’s Vacation Bible School experience a success for so many children. And everyone was reminded that next week New Life Covenant will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with an exceptional dinner prepared by Leonard Armstrong to be enjoyed 11:00 p.m. after the service.

The Call to Worship began with Chuck reading David’s prayer from I Chronicles 29:10-13 and the quartet singing Holy, Holy, Holy. After a time of worship and singing Brad presented the Children’s Challenge.

Today’s Scripture readings were:
Jeremiah 20:7-13
Roman 6:1-11
Matthew 10:24-39

This morning we had a guest pastor present this week’s message. Pastor Jim Swanson, husband of the eldest of the Armstrong girls, had preached here 35 years ago and said it was good to be back in our pulpit.

Morality Above the Law
There is a tendency in church history for truths to lose their weight or significance after two or three generations. The circumstances which motivated the founders of a movement to react are different three generations later.

The truths of Scripture transcend time, but different circumstances affect what is highlighted or has more relevance.

Pastor Swanson spoke from Paul’s Letter to the Romans this morning. Most of Paul’s letters dealt with specific situations within the various churches for whom he cared. But Romans has a different purpose. It is a book of written to condense the theological insights he gained from his three year study of the meaning of the Gospel and how we relate to God.

For the purposes of context it is occasionally good to be reminded of Paul’s story preceding the many letters he wrote which became Scripture. Formerly Saul of Tarsus, Paul was a persecutor of the early church. He stood by at the stoning of Steven, a deacon of the early church, and led an entourage that was serious about maintaining the current order of things.

While heading toward Damascus, with murderous intent, Paul had a life changing experience. A light suddenly flashed around him and he fell to the ground whereupon he heard God’s voice, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” According to the book of Acts:

7The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

But it was a disciple named Ananias who’s obedience was really tested. The Lord spoke to him in a vision saying to go see the Saul who was murdering Christians for their faith. Nevertheless, Ananias obeyed and went to see the man whom had done so much harm in Jerusalem. Paul indeed had had his heart prepared by his ordeal and not only received the Word from this man but had his eyesight restored.

Changing his name to Paul, he went into the desert for three years to study the Scriptures and make sense of this new way to encounter God.

Paul’s Book of Romans is essentially a compilation of condensed theological insights, summarizing his distilled thinking regarding the meaning of the Gospel. In chapter three he writes about justification by faith. Justification does not simply mean we have been declared Not Guilty. It contains a bigger idea than this. God fills us out to the dimensions God intends us to be.

In chapter six of the Romans, Paul writes about the implications of baptism for believers. Baptism in the early church often took place in caves with streams, Pastor Swanson said. The one being baptized would enter the stream on one side and emerge on the other side to be clothed in a white robe. What it meant was that our sinful self was destroyed and a new life was now ours.

Pastor Swanson, then shared the story of a woman named Cindy whose alcoholism nearly destroyed her marriage. After a stint at Hazeldon, a prestigious clinic that treats alcoholism and other addictions, he saw her again with a new glow in her face. “I don’t have to do that any more,” she said.

It was Christ who met her there. And for the first time she had hope.

In closing we were reminded that there is a possibility of a whole different kind of life when we have been crucified with Christ…. in order that we might live a new life together.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Faith Works

It was another sunny Sunday morning. For our Introit today, Darlene played Great Is Thy Faithfulness to usher us into the service followed by a cute puppet skit about Father’s Day for the children’s challenge by Darlene and Ruth Ann.

Today’s Scripture readings:
Gen. 18:1-15
Romans 5:1-8

Faith Works
Pastor Shannon began his sermon by explaining the well known saying, “Re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Essentially, it is shortsighted to focus on deck chairs when there’s an iceberg ahead.

In life, we also have an iceberg ahead. It is called death, and with it comes judgment. (Hebrews 9:27) We will give an account for our lives and it’s a big deal.

“Now wait a second, Brad,” you might say. “I’ve got it covered.” And then you might go ahead and quote John 3:16 or Ephesians 2:8-9. But today’s passage from the second chapter of James adds a little turbulence to this self-satisfaction.

14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead…. 24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

It would appear, in light of the many passages pertaining to salvation by faith alone, that these words are out of line. There are four options, however, when we read these words.

1) It’s a contradiction that proves the Bible is not true and unreliable.

2) If this is the truth, then we’d better get to work on doing good deeds. We have a lot of catch up to do.

3) Hope that James is wrong.

4) Dig deeper and try to understand these things with more clarity.

If you analyze this passage a bit more thoroughly, there are some interesting insights one can obtain. In verse 14 notice the word “claims”… The word implies that there is a distinction between genuine and bogus faith. Brad compared intellectual belief with correct answers. This kind of faith, involving only mental assent, is actually a “dead faith” according to one commentator.

Jesus Himself said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 7:21) Just saying you believe doesn’t mean anything. As James affirms in verse 19, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”

In other words, demons have an emotional response to the truth in addition to an intellectual one, yet this does not make them righteous or change their hearts.

To bring a deeper understanding of the truth, James references the life of Abraham.

20You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[d]? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,"[e] and he was called God's friend. 24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

What is interesting is that a superficial reading of the passage implies that Abraham was saved by his works. This story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his son is from Genesis 22. Isaac was the promised heir, yet God asked Abraham to put him on the altar. It took a remarkable obedience on Abraham’s part to follow through on what he was asked. James appears to state that Abraham was righteous for what he did.

But the Old Testament verse regarding Abraham being credited as righteous, cited by James in verse 23, preceded the act that certified Abraham’s faith by more than two decades. Verse 23 is from the passage in Genesis 15:1-6 where indeed Abraham is credited as righteous “by faith alone.”

It is clear from what James explains here that faith and works go hand in hand. Our deeds are an outward act of obedience that authenticates the faith in our hearts. This outward authentication certifies that what happened in our hearts is real.

We get right with God by grace through faith. And our actions certify that this inward faith is alive, not dead.

In short, our mind, emotions and will are involved in true faith. We surrender our will to God’s will, and affirm that God needs to do for me what I cannot do myself.

It’s an internal reality that will manifest itself outwardly, will pour itself out and demonstrate to others that this faith is real.

James 2:26 sums up: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

Pastor Brad used the metaphor of a high performance car to illustrate what our lives are supposed to be. We are designed for high performance, and to be anything less is to miss what we were made for.

In summing up, the pastor reinforced the importance of a total involvement of our mind, emotion and volition in the living out of our faith.

1. We need to test our faith. Is it merely intellectual assent or something more?

2. Celebrate! We need to celebrate God’s work in our lives.

3. Authenticate… the work of God in us. Genuine faith involves the will and an outpouring of good works.

To God be the glory.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

You’ve Got Class

It was a beautiful morning again this weekend. Sunshine and the first hints of summer bathed the Northland.

After a welcome, Brook announced that Vacation Bible School will begin a week from tomorrow. Volunteers are always welcome. Be sure everyone with kids knows about it. The theme this year is Cosmic City.

Darlene opened the worship service with a moving rendition of Be Thou My Vision., and then the quartet led us in singing.

Today’s Scripture reading was from Genesis 12:1-9 and Romans 4:13-25.

You’ve Got Class

Pastor Brad Shannon brought to the service one of his high school yearbooks as an intro to his theme. It was from his freshman year in the 1980’s. He drew attention to the manner in which the school is not only divided by classes (Freshman, Sophomore, etc.) but also a range of sub-groups: athletes, drama, band, loners, stoners, in-crown, out-crowd, etc.

All through life people get designated by classes, and to our shame each of us tends to maintain secret lists in our minds of who is the in-crowd and out-crowd. Pastor Brad used this lead in to underscore the opening verse of today’s passage from James 2: “Don’t show favoritism.”

Jesus spent His whole life in the wrong crowd. God could have been born in a king’s palace, but instead he was born in a manger. Born to working class parents, in an insignificant village, He knew what life was like for people on the margins.

The problem with favoritism is that it evaluates people based on their outward appearance. God looks on the heart.

James wrote about this issue two thousand years ago, and it is still an issue today. We still, unfortunately, judge by externals, whether by appearance, or education level or social status. It goes both ways. We may look down on blue collar or we may pass judgments against white collar. We each have our inner lists of desirables and undesirables. But this list making is inconsistent with Scripture.

2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

How does God feel about the neglected, the poor, the people on the margins?

5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?

Many who first heard these words were slaves, or impoverished. And the words spoke volumes. They were revolutionary words. They said that inside the church things were different from the way things worked in the world. God’s values are radically different from the world’s values.

Taking a step further, James notes that the rich often obtained their wealth at the expense of the poor.

6But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?

Today, sadly, it remains no different. Predatory lending with obscene interest rates can be devastating to the needy. There are many ways in which the poor are exploited. James goes on by citing the Royal Law.

8If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right. 9But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Pastor Brad stated that we often dismiss favoritism as a rather small sin compared to the big sins like adultery and murder. But James takes a different view. And the pastor opened his heart to us by stating how these words from James cut him this week. And reiterating last week’s message he implored, “We cannot just be hearers of the word. We must do it.”

Equality is not the goal, but loving all wherever they are at, because in God’s eyes they are equally valued.

Mercy is love in action. It is not just words. Favoritism looks at the outward appearance. Mercy looks on the heart. Favoritism says, “How can you help me?” Mercy says, “How can I help you?”
Most importantly, how we treat others reveals how we feel about God. Who is in your life who could use your mercy?

And in closing we returned to the beginning: 1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Best Way To Live

Blue skies and warm temperatures ushered us into week two of our summer schedule with services beginning at nine-thirty a.m. The sanctuary was abuzz with energy from the beautiful morning here.

Pastor Brad welcomed everyone and noted that his sermon today was going to be more of a journal entry than a sermon. If we were to take nothing else away from this service, he underscored James 1:22 as a lynch pin in this morning’s message.

Announcements included two especially big events taking place in June. First, on June 29 we will be celebrating our 50th Anniversary. Stayed tuned for more information about this big event. And finally, Vacation Bible School will begin in two weeks, always an exciting time in the life of the church.

Today’s Scripture readings:
Genesis 6:9-22
Matthew 6:24-34

The Best Way To Live
Why would you ever want to place your life under God’s authority? Because it is the best way to live. He’s bigger than you, knows more than you, sees how things are for you, and more. God loves you, knows what's best for you and wants to lead you.

At the beginning of His ministry, when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan even He never considered going His own way. God’s way was the only way for Jesus.

Temptation comes to all of us. The enemy of our souls is relentless. But we can overcome temptation. We win by hiding the Word of God in our hearts. Preceding even this, we win when we become convinced that God’s way is best for us.

James 1:13-15 says that God does not tempt us.
13When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

To illustrate how temptation works Pastor Brad told a story about fishing with a friend who had a fish finder. The bait was dropped into the water and he watched as the fish came over to it, enticed. It was interesting watching as the fish looked at it from this angle and that, and after examining from all sides, he nibbles. Then after another nibble he grabs the whole thing and runs with it. Next things you know he’s hooked, cleaned, filleted and fried.

The congregation laughed out loud because of the vividness of this apt illustration.

Don’t be deceived, James write. God has good things for us, perfect gifts. These gifts are ours through the word of truth.

Pastor then underscored verses 19 and 20.
19My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.

Quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. Anger screws up your relationships, he said, calling it a “weapon of mass destruction.” Referencing Job 5:2, he said that anger hurts the angry person, so you need to let it. go.

Our culture encourages revenge and the nurturing of anger, resentments and bitterness. But God’s word says, “Justice is mine, says the Lord.” This is true freedom.

Verse 21 states, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” Humble acceptance of the word of life is an attitude for life.

The key verse that Pastor Brad emphasized was verse 22. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” The word “listen” in this passage is the root word we use for our word audit. In other words, don’t just audit, don’t be passive about it. Rather, apply it to your life. If you listen and do not act, you are simply deceiving yourselves.

The last verses in this section flow out of this thought. 26If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

If your heart isn’t growing toward the people God loves, then you’re missing something. Words without practice is one of the great self-deceptions. If you’re just talking about it, and not living it, you’re just kidding yourselves.

God’s word is a mirror. And it is life to us. Drink it in, live it out. God’s word can change your life. And God’s ways are absolutely the best ways to live. He’s not out to wreck your fun.

Read and re-read these passages. Truth leads to confession and action. Resolve now to apply it to your life.

25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

Why obey? Because we’re grateful for what He’s done for us. And it’s the right way to live.

After a closing hymn we shared in the sacrament of communion.