Sunday, February 28, 2010


During Pastor Brad's greeting he reminded us of the story of the crippled man at the Well of Bethsaida to whom Jesus asked, "Do you want to get well?" It's not a foolish question. If you're desirous to get well, Lent is a good time to do it, to take the next step.

A Spaghetti Dinner Fundraiser for Garrett Franks was announced during the service. Dinner will be served from 4-6:00 p.m. on Saturday March 13 at Mr. D's Bar & Grill to raise money to help medical costs. Garrett and wife Christine are a young couple with immense medical expenses as a result of his early onset of diabetes, without health insurance.

We also sang Happy Birthday to Dawn Walsh, who turned 40 this weekend.

We were treated to an entertaining drama about Lent by the New Life Covenant Players. What is Lent about? We learned that it's about 40 days. (Actually, it's a time to reflect on what Jesus sacrificed for us.)

The offering was followed by three songs from the Kids Choir, which is always a treat.

Eli read from John 5:1-15 and Pastor Brad led us in prayer, preparing us for the message.


As is often the case, Brad began with the light touch, presenting a caricature of our modern Narcissistic culture. "I am Brad Almighty. I have an I-phone. I subscribe to Self magazine. My favorite song is Toby Keith's 'I want to talk about me.' My favorite movie line is from Finding Nemo: 'Mine, mine, mine.'"

Brad moved toward his topic. Not only do we tend to be self-centered, we also tend to think we should be self-sufficient. This is especially a problem when we're trying to overcome addictions and other personal failings. "It's a big mistake to think we can do it on our own. Self-help is an oxymoron."

Brad shared about a book he's been reading by Judith Twenge called Generation Me. The subtitle is, "Why Today's Young People Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable Than Ever."

Yes, we should pour encouragement and adoration on out kids. But we can go too far and lead them to an excessive pre-occupation with self. But Dr. Twenge notes this is the first generation in history to have self-esteem as a curriculum in school. Kids have grown up learning that, "I should do whatever makes me happy."

The Bible has a different prescription for us. "You shall have no other gods before Me." We always suffer when we put other things on the throne before God.

So it is when we deal with life's problems, we're look outside ourselves to for help. Self-deception and self-reliance always leads to self-destruction.

Do you want to get well? Do you want to live free? The first step to walking free is brokenness. When we admit our powerlessness and say, 'I am done pretending'... then we can begin to get well.

Brokenness and feeling bad are not the same thing. It is possible to be miserable and still remain unbroken. True brokenness prepares us for surrender.

Citing the Beatitudes, it is when we realize we're spiritually bankrupt that we can begin to be transformed. Blessed are the meek, Jesus said. Ask for help.

In II Corinthians 1 Paul writes frankly about the hardships he suffered during one of his trips.
"We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead."

Paul says they felt doomed, but this was so they would learn to rely on God in a more profound way.

Brad asserted that whatever we're struggling with, we're not alone in this community. The key question, however, remains... Do you want to get well?

God is willing and able to deliver and heal us, Brad affirmed, referring us to a favorite passage, Isaiah 57:18,19.

18 I have seen his ways, but I will heal him;
I will guide him and restore comfort to him,

19 creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel.
Peace, peace, to those far and near,"
says the LORD. "And I will heal them."

Are you ready to surrender your life? "Let go and let God" sounds cliche, but it is still true. There is a God who is bigger than you. A mustard seed sized faith is all it takes.

If your idea of God is wrong, "fire that God," Brad said. Our God will not fail us, will not bail on us. Here are just a few of His promises.

Psalm 56:8 states that God stores our tears in a bottle, and is well aware of our sorrows.

Psalm 103:13-14
13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.

Isaiah 43:2
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

Brad closed by stating, "You need someone bigger and stronger than yourself. Walking free begins with surrender."

Friday, February 26, 2010

Empty Bowls Fill Stomachs and Satisfy Souls

Last Sunday we invited people to the Newmans to make bowls for the annual Empty Bowl fund raiser. More than a dozen from our church showed up to share in the project, enjoying a pot luck meal and then pitching in to share in the joy of creation.

The Empty Bowl event, coordinated each year by the Duluth Art Institute, is especially interesting in the way it gets the total community involved. Artisans and amateurs alike spend months making the bowls. Then, everyone in the area is invited to come buy a bowl of soup. The bowl goes home with you, the money goes to the needy. You end up with your tummy full, and so do those whose stomachs need filling.

While travelling I discovered that the Empty Bowl is not unique to Duluth, and is practiced in a number of other cities, each with its own history. Ours began in 1994. Local artist Dave Lynas, well known local potter and famous for his creative "gnomenclature", suggested the idea of Empty Bowl to the Duluth Art Institute. At the same time, and only miles apart, Moira Johnson brought the idea to the Duluth Public Schools. Collaboratively, the project came to life raising $9,400 in its first year as the region’s only combined arts and hunger event. It's only grown since.

And so it was that a group of folks from New Life Covenant assembled in Susie Newman's garage/pottery studio to share the experience of making bowls for this good cause. It's amazing how many different kinds of bowls there can be.
According to an article in the Duluth News Tribune community members who want to make handcrafted bowls are invited to Duluth Art Institute’s Lincoln Park Studio, 2229 W. 2nd Street, to create bowls with an art instructor. Reservations are required and can be made by calling (218) 723-1310 or emailing Shannon Cousino A maximum of 10 people will be accepted for each nightly lesson and the cost to create an Empty Bowl is $20.00 and includes a ticket to Empty Bowl.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Now and Not Yet

Pastor Brad opened with service with his customary greeting, "I'm glad you're here today," and proceeded to introduce today's theme by summarizing the main point of our Ash Wednesday this past week. Lent is a season of new beginnings that begins with brokenness. It is a time of introspection, a time to admit "I need God's help." God, he asserted, is in the business of restoring lives. And by looking at Romans 8 he focused the direction of our thoughts toward this end: What does God's Promise look like because of Grace?

There were several announcements this morning including:
a) The youth of 1st Covenant Church, River Falls, were welcomed.
b) It's that time of year when we invite friends of our church family to become members. If interested in membership, contact Pastor Brad or look for the sign up sheet in the back of the sanctuary.
c) Caribou Lake School, as a potential future home, is no longer available. Please pray for our church leaders with regard to building matters.
d) Paula shared that we still have some holes in the sign up sheet for coffee rotation. All volunteers welcome.
e) There were many people who wanted to see the Secret Friend activities re-commenced for 2010. See Paula.
f) The Empty Bowl Project is a Duluth-wide fund raising event that helps the non-profit organization Second Harvest with the distribution of food for needy families. Anyone interested in making bowls to raise money for the needy can come to Susie Newman's Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. You do not have to be a professional potter. Please bring $5 for materials. Call 729-0818 for more information.

Darlene's introit, How Great Is Our God, produced a suitably moving introduction into the service after which three young people from First Covenant in River Falls led us in worship singing "Your Grace is Enough", "Yesterday, Today and Forever" and "Audience of One." Luke Richter then read from Romans 8:18-30, a passage from which Pastor Brad would be preaching today.

During our prayer time many painful and difficult circumstances were shared, after which Brad took the podium and shared from his heart and God's Word.

Now & Not Yet

If you're a Christian, you know that Christianity is supposed to be about joy. You probably know that you're supposed to experience joy in spite of circumstances. There's a joy that the deepest trouble can't extinguish, and that joy can overwhelm even the greatest grief.

In John 17 Jesus prays that His followers would know the full measure of His joy. And in the previous chapter Jesus says His disciples will rejoice and 'no one will be able to take away your joy." He said this while telling them they would be persecuted, robbed, tortured and even put to death. Jesus promised a joy that would withstand all of it.

Pastor Brad confessed that he struggled with some of this. Do we have that kind of rock solid joy in our lives? Why do things affect me so much? Why is my joy not relentless?

In Romans 8 the apostle Paul describes a world that is groaning for release, a broken world, a suffering world. There's troubles, persecution, poverty, nakedness... and one must ask how does joy fit into the picture? In verses 28-30 Paul offers three principles for finding joy in suffering.

28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

There were three points Brad sought to establish from this verse. Paul states that if we are in Christ, (1) bad things turn out for good, (2) our good things cannot be lost, and (3) the best things are still to come. These are the reasons for our joy.

Bad things happen to everyone. Christians are not exempt. A few verses later Paul states in verse 35, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?" In other words, you can anticipate troubles and hardships, even famines and swords. In point of fact, if anything good happens to us, it is because of God. And when bad things happen, God can take these and work them to good effect.

The story of Jesus and Lazarus is a good illustration. Jesus weeps and is even angry. He hates death, which is why He gave everything to defeat it. Likewise He hates loneliness and suffering, which He experienced in order to bring us relief. Christianity is not a Pollyanna religion for children, but deal directly with life's most difficult issues.

Many people teach and believe that if we are Christians we won't have as many bad things happen to us. But it's not true. There are horrible things that can happen to us, and believing in a loving God won't stop them from happening. Everyone will experience the decay of their bodies. Everything falls apart.

But even though bad things happen, this verse notes that God will work them for good. That is, they will be used for good effect in your life. 50% of discouragement is from being shocked when bad things happen.

God doesn't promise better life circumstances, He promises a better life. Jesus didn't suffer so that you wouldn't have a bad day.

In verse 30 he writes about being predestined... and in this passage it is a promise, a sure thing. Our future is fixed. God's aim is the development in us of the character of Jesus. And the full meaning here is that everything that happens in our lives serves to form us and polish us. Nothing will hold back His purposes for you. It's as good as done.

There's a portion of this passage which some people have stumbled over because it seems gender insensitive to speak of being adopted as sons. Paul was living in a time when daughters were second class citizens. What Paul was stating here is that there are no second class citizens in Christ. We're all sons. When you are a Christian, you receive all the benefits a son enjoys in a traditional culture. It was a subversive and revolutionary promise.

Finally, the best is yet to come. And when you get a glimpse of what's to come in the world to come, you can handle anything in this life. The notion of Heaven and glory does not trivialize our suffering. Your soul is too great for anything but this.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Service of Penitence and Confession

Ash Wednesday, in the Western Christian calendar, is the first day of Lent and occurs forty-six days (forty days not counting Sundays) before Easter. It is a moveable fast, falling on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter. It can occur as early as 4 February or as late as 10 March.

Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of repentance.

Last night, February 17, we gathered at New Life Covenant to share a meal and then celebrate our Ash Wednesday service. A spirit of thoughtful reflection and simple informality made it a special experience. Here are a few notes from that service.

Pastor Brad called it A Service of Penitence and Confession. Ash Wednesday is the commencement of Lent, a time of healing and restoration. He also said it was a time to feel sorrow for our sins while recognizing and acknowledging the power of the Cross.

Sometimes we move so fast through life that we do not take time to be broken. Brokenness is an important part of becoming useful for God. Brad cited examples. Horses need to be broken before they can be ridden. And a baseball glove needs to be broken in for maximum usefulness.

There is a power in borkenness. Jesus began His Sermon on the Mount with these words:

3"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted."

Ultimately, God wants us to be whole. This service is a step toward that wholeness as we acknowledge our sins and receive His grace.

Darlene's introit was especially suited for the occasion, helping transport us away from our busy days to a place of quiet thoughtfulness and receptivity. After a hymn, Brad read to us from Joel 2:1-2 and 12-17.

Our responsive reading concluded with the statement, "Cry, and God will answer. Call, and the Lord will say, 'I am here.'"


The meditation for this service began with humorous examples of words that aren't really words, but which could be. Ginormous, which is a combination of gigantic and enormous; Parentnoid, which is the fear of becoming like one's parents; Yoguy, what you are when you're the only one in the yoga class, and several others. The last was variation of hypochondria in which people who are not well always say their' fine. How are you? "I'm fine." Even though their not sleeping for weeks from depression, addiction, anxiety. Brad calls these people "hypo-fine-iacs".

This intro led easily into the story of the lame man whom Jesus encountered in John chapter 5 near the pool of Bethesda. The man had been lame for nearly four decades trying to get healed here, but Jesus asks him a strange question. "Do you want to get well?"

It actually isn't a dumb question. Many people find their identity through their illness. Brad noted, however, if you do want to get well, this is the place to get back to whole. God has the ability to break the chains that hold us back.

What's holding you back? Anxiety? Fear? Panic? The list was lengthy.... Bitterness, gambling, bigotry, alcohol, drugs, addicitions, porn, criticism, co-dependency, workaholism, bulimia, anorexia, other eating disorders, relationship issues, depression, insecurity, unresolved guilt... Brad threw out a wide net to catch as many of us as possible, but we all know our weaknesses, our hidden fears and struggles. The point is, this is a community of strugglers.

But God, who sees us and knows us, is on our side in this struggle, as noted in this passage from Isaiah 57:

18 I have seen his ways, but I will heal him;
I will guide him and restore comfort to him,
19 creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel.
Peace, peace, to those far and near,"
says the LORD. "And I will heal them."

Do you want to get well?

Many of us are tired of the spin cycle we're on. Try hard >>> Fail >>> Feel Bad >>> Try Harder >>> Fail >>> Feel Bad >>> Try Hard, etc.

The result is that many of us live in denial. Instead we focus on image management, making sure we look good in others' eyes, even if we're lousy inside. Or we lean on prideful self-help programs. But the addict's biggest fear is this: fear of being found out.

David, in Psalm 32 wrote about this when he said,

3 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

4 For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, "I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD "—
and you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

6 Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you
while you may be found;
surely when the mighty waters rise,
they will not reach him.

Self-deception and self-reliance leads to self-destruction. How bad does the hurt have to get before you take a step to get well? See the light today, and start to move toward God.

The first step is to admit, "I am powerless."

Brad cited the popular Eagles song Desperado to bring home his point. "Desperado, why don't you come to your senses, you been out ridin' fences for so long now."

In the parable of the prodigal son, there is likewise a point where the son "comes to his senses" and returns home.

There's a power in powerlessness. "Blessed are the broken," Brad declared. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God."

And in James, it says, "Humble yourself and you will be filled. God opposed the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Blessed are the broken.

At this, we prepared our hearts for the imposition of ashes. Ashes are not only a symbol of our mortality, but also of cleansing. (Matthew 11:21) From dust you came, and to dust you will return. Repent and receive the Good News.

Lent is a time of penitence and restoration. Life is short. This is the way to live it to the fullest.

Recommended reading: Psalm 51

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Valentine's Day Message on Sexuality

Today’s sermon was on the somewhat difficult and sensitive topic of our sexuality. Of all addictions, sexual addictions are the most prominent world wide. Everyone, every family has is some way or another been touched or troubled by the pain caused by it. Pornography is a billion dollar industry. More Internet sites are devoted to sex than any other subject. Sex has been used more than any other subject to sell every sort of product.

Prostitution has been referred to as the world’s oldest profession.

No hurt is so deep in a person as is one of a sexual violation, no scars as difficult to overcome as those of sexual molestation.

Because of the overvaluing of sexual attraction in our culture girls go to extremes to make themselves attractive, even so far as starving themselves. Powerful and smart people have ruined their reputations for sexual gratification. Why does sex have this power over us? How is it that it creates all the many feelings of longing, power, guilt, shame, hope, joy and remorse?

It is because sex deeply involves not just our bodies but our souls, our bodies and our souls are connected and intertwined. We are not created as a soul wrapped around with a disposable body. What happens in our body is intricately linked to our soul.

People both in America other countries and cultures have varying feelings about “personal space” but if we do not like a person, we do not want them close to our body either. When we connect spiritually to a person we express it in physical words such as “he moved me” or “touched me”.

God loves the idea of oneness. God is one in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
God created us in his own image, male and female. The capacity for oneness IS His image. Adam was created first but was lonely. God created Eve who was similar to him but different. In becoming one flesh they were enacting with their bodies the oneness of their souls.

So what’s the big deal with sexuality anyways? Isn’t it just our DNA that’s programmed, or just a biological need? No, it’s an expression of the longing of your soul. It’s saying “I don’t want to be alone, I was made for connection. G.K. Chesterton said that every man knocking on the door of a brothel is looking for God. Sex is a spiritual experience whether we acknowledge it or not. Engaging in sex without the soul permanent marriage commitment is giving away pert of your soul. You leave little pieces of your soul and your wholeness every time you have sex with someone.

The body was designed by God and for God, not for immorality. God created sex and is not opposed to it but it is reserved for the husband and wife in the bonds of marriage.

When a person has been illegitimately involved sexually they pay a price. They can be haunted by past memories, but also their spouse or children and others in their community are affected by it.

People say, “what’s the big deal about a marriage certificate, it’s just a piece of paper." Try saying that about other documents. How about on payday when you ask for your check and your boss says. “What’s the big deal? It’s only a piece of paper!” How about after you’ve worked to get through school and they tell you that you won’t get a diploma, after all it’s only a piece of paper, right? What if you got a traffic ticket and tore it up in front of the officer, saying it was only a piece of paper. The argument is silly and unreal. Marriage is a promise and a vow, an act of self giving. It makes life for children and for all citizens of a country stable.

If people are violating God’s intent and so not experiencing pain and guilt it is because they are in denial. It is like putting your tongue on metal in the winter, pulling it off and walking away claiming that you are not hurt. If you are not hurt it is because you have destroyed the nerve endings in your tongue. You have become dulled in your sensitivity.

Honor the marriage you might one day be in, or the one that you are in now.

God will restore souls. If yours has been broken by abuse, affairs or addictions God can restore you. But let us live to honor God with both our bodies and our souls.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Banquet Table

Pastor Brad, fresh from his Colorado trip, began the service by having us all stand for a moment of silence to honor Dale Fish, who passed from us this week, the funeral being yesterday.

After sharing with us that the pastor's conference was a rejuvenating experience, he also shared a few words about his snowmobile misadventures, which resulted in 22 stitches "on his cheek." Several announcements followed including:
1. The Sweetheart Banquet is next Saturday night, the 13th. If you forgot to sign up, contact Leonard or the church office and get listed.
2. If you failed experience The Truth Project at the Cresman's home, they will be hosting the series again through the spring beginning Sunday the 21st.
3. A spokesperson from Mentor Duluth will be here next Sunday to share briefly about this program designed to meet the needs of youth.

Upon completion of announcements, Darlene began the introit. The choir assembled at the front of the sanctuary and sang Come Thou Fount.

Ellie led us in worship. After the offering and a Scripture reading Brad took the pulpit to deliver his message.

The Banquet Table

Brad began by asking, "What, more than anything, got Jesus in trouble with the Pharisees?" Answer: hanging out with the wrong kinds of people.

Teaching, in Jesus' day, was not something one did only with words. The Lord, like the Old Testament prophets, also taught with pictures and symbols. A primary Old Testament symbol for the kingdom of God was a banquet table.

For example, this verse from Isaiah: "On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine-- the best of meats and the finest of wines." Isaiah 25:6

The banquet is a symbol of God's abundance. But the Pharisees wanted to limit who could be part of this feast. Mark 2 records what happened on one occasion when Jesus was having dinner with some "undesirables."

15While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the "sinners" and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: "Why does he eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"

17On hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Who does God want at His table? How exclusive or inclusive is God's kingdom? North Park scholar Scott McKnight said there was a Hebrew word that described the uncouth rabble whom Jesus was often found in association with. The word means tacky, common, riffraff... and perhaps today we'd call them by other names, perhaps dweebs.

The Pharisees had their lists of people who don't count, and if you are serious about your righteousness, you were not to hang around with them or dine with them. To dine with a person is a to make a statement. They were part of your community.

To be "in" with the Pharisees required a process. First, you had to repent. Then you had to become holy through ritual cleansing, etc. Then you could be part of the community of faith. Jesus reversed the order here. You can join us even if you don't have it together, if you are an outcast or undesirable.

Jesus was a prophet. He didn't just teach with words. His life was a statement. And while dining at Levi's house, the message was clear: "These are My kind of people."

There's Room At God's Table For You
The Pharisees kept a list of who was in and who was out. But don't we do the same? Don't we also keep lists? Who are you tempted to give up on? People with specific sins are on that list. Or it may be that we look down on people who are not bright... or not attractive. It may be ethnic or cultural groups who we don't associate with.

Then Brad asked, "Who are you inviting to the Table?" and he began a discourse on Luke 14 where Jesus went to eat at the house of a prominent Pharisee. Jesus speaks clearly to this matter.

12Then Jesus said to his host, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

The Pharisees saw these dining occasions as much more than for just eating. It was an opportunity to show off, to be recognized in the seats of honor, to be important. And the dweebs, the crippled, the undesirable, the blemished were to be excluded. They were not welcome.

How differently Jesus portrays God's heart then as this passage sets up the famous Parable of the Great Banquet...

15When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, "Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God."
16Jesus replied: "A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready.'
18"But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, 'I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.'
19"Another said, 'I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I'm on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.'
20"Still another said, 'I just got married, so I can't come.'
21"The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, 'Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.'
22" 'Sir,' the servant said, 'what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.'
23"Then the master told his servant, 'Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. 24I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.'"

Jesus is saying, "Your table is to be inclusive, not exclusive."

In the parable we see how the important guests snub the invitation. The party, however, is going to go on. The Pharisees might suppose that without them the party will be a bust. How can it be special without "the right people." But Jesus says all are invited. Bring the riffraff, the dweebs, the losers, the common... everyone is welcome.

The message Brad sought to bring us included an evangelistic note. As we celebrate the Lord's Table (Communion followed) "let's think of who is not here, and who should be here." God's grace is for all.