Posted by Mark Forstrom on May 5, 2016 in Personal Reflections
It’s hard to believe that ten years ago today we lost one of the godliest, artistically talented, and servant-hearted young women to ever emerge from our youth group. She was unexpectedly killed in a car accident on Highway 30 the day before she would have graduated from Iowa State University. I’ll never forget hearing that devastating news on that fateful day.
Her life continues to impact those she left behind through her art and her legacy of faithful service. Here’s a photo album of the art that was displayed at her memorial service
The art gleaned from her sketchbooks now graces the preschool hallways of our church, reminding us continually of this life well lived.
The lessons she taught me 10 years ago still affect me today. We miss you, Michelle!
Below is an edited transcript of what I shared at Michelle’s memorial service.
I had the privilege of being Michelle’s youth pastor for her 7 years of Middle School and High School.
Michelle’s death affected me deeply. I was devastated when I heard the news and overwhelmed with personal sadness. The moment I heard the news on Friday I realized how much of my life was touched by hers.
During the seven years of youth group and subsequent years being away at college, I grew to love, respect and appreciate Michelle. Her faith was strong and she kept it strong by being actively involved with other believers in this church.
We made a lot of memories together. Weekly youth group times, retreats and summer trips to New Orleans, Toronto, Mexico. She was such a blessing to our group.
And her faith and impact on others continued on in college.
She talked to me last fall about hoping to help out with the youth group after graduation and I was very excited about that. She planned to help lead a girls’ Bible study and use her artistic talents to spice up the group. But as we know, God had plans for Michelle we didn’t know about.
Since I work with students all the time, I’d like to say a few words to Michelle’s classmates both from Kennedy and ISU. I watched you Sunday night and yesterday and today and I was touched by your expressions of love and sorrow at her loss. I noticed that some of you share Michelle’s faith and so today is full of hope for you. Some of you though, haven’t yet found the hope and assurance she had. Yesterday one of her old Kennedy classmates shared with me how Michelle’s sudden, unexpected death filled her with terror. As I told her, it doesn’t have to be that way. Michelle loved this life, but she longed for heaven even more. Death to her was not about personal loss, but rather personal gain—the place where real life begins…
Whatever your experience, don’t, don’t miss the fact that what Michelle and her family have shown us is genuine Christianity and it works! Their personal faith in Jesus provides the only real answers for the ultimate questions we will all face regarding life, death, and meaning…
I was her youth pastor and I suppose I taught her a lot of things over those seven years, yet I’m sure she taught me more than I ever taught her.
Her life taught me.
- How to live a full, joyous, abundant life.
- She used her talents fully. Creativity reflects God’s creativity.
- She positively impacted others—grade school thru college shared at the vigil.
- She consistently lived what she believed.
- She dreamed of and longed for heaven, her real home.
Her death taught me a lot too.
- It reminded me of the preciousness of others. We forget how much we mean to others. Since Friday I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’ve begun telling people how precious they are to me. I’ve observed relationships being made, rekindled, and restored as this has reminded us of what’s really important.
- Always be ready for eternity. This will determine our priorities.
- Finish well with no regrets. That’s why someone was able to say: “This is the happiest funeral I’ve ever been to.”
Michelle loved children’s books. I want to close by reading a passage from the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.”
This morning our New Covenant church family was captivated by J. Warner Wallace, who gave compelling evidence for God’s existence. If you missed it, I hope you’ll watch the video.
At the end of his message, he gave a passionate charge to parents, adjuring them to send their teens this summer to the two-week Summit Conference! He urged us to fill our bus!
What is Summit? Rather than explain it, click here to watch a video that shows you what it’s all about.
From personal experience, Cindy and I are so grateful that both of our girls attended Summit while they were in high school. Their experiences there adequately prepared them for the spiritual, intellectual, moral, and cultural challenges they would face at the state universities they attended. Their faith was significantly bolstered by what they learned from their Summit experiences.
Professionally speaking — from my 23 years as a youth pastor at New Covenant — I’ve seen firsthand that college is a pivotal time where faith is either strengthened or abandoned altogether. That’s why we encourage all of our students to attend Summit before and/or during college to fully prepare them for life.
Obviously there is a cost to this two-week training, which pays for housing, food, materials, and face-time with some of best Christian thinkers, authors, and apologists from all over the world. But I don’t think of it as a cost — Summit is an investment! New Covenant offers some scholarships (and transportation to one of the sessions) because we think it’s so important. We hope parents and others will also consider investing in this important training.
Three important notes for those interested in going this summer:
- The early-bird price for Summit ended on March 31st, but Summit has made a special arrangement with our Intelligent Faith Conference to extend the early bird deadline until April 23. If anyone registers for Summit using the coupon code “IntelligentFaith2016” they will get that $200 discount!
- New Covenant is providing free bus transportation to anyone from the Cedar Rapids area to who wishes to attend Summit’s “Tennessee Session #1” (July 3-16.) There are 9 other sessions to choose from as well, but note that we only provide transportation to this session. Be sure to register for Tennessee #1 if you want to go with our group. This transportation offer is also open to people from other local churches, but people must contact me to reserve a spot on our bus.
- If you regularly attend New Covenant and want information about New Covenant’s Summit scholarship (applicable to any session of Summit, not just Tennessee #1) contact me.
If you have any questions, I’d love to discuss this with any of you!
Summit interviewed me in this professionally-made video, asking why New Covenant makes it such a priority to send our students to Summit. Enjoy!
Posted by Mark Forstrom on Apr 2, 2016 in Christian Perspective
, Event Promotions
One of the saddest things is to see people blindly embracing belief systems without any supporting evidence. God gave us minds to use and to not do so would be about as ridiculous as a person with good eyes living with blindfolds on. To not use what God gives would be a waste of His good gifts.
But some would argue — as I did in my satirical April Fools joke yesterday –that faith and reason are incompatible. As if certain things are matters of faith, whereas other things belong to the realm of reason. I want to challenge that argument. I would assert that faith and reason need to work together.
But first I need to define what I’m talking about when I use the term faith. Many skeptics think blind faith is the only kind of faith. Blind Faith is believing something without any rational evidence, such as believing that the moon is made of cheese.
I agree with the skeptics that this kind of faith is an unfortunate waste of grey matter.
But I’m going to suggest there is another kind of faith — Intelligent Faith.
Intelligent Faith has three components.
- a subject to consider (a chair, for example)
- a rational assessment resulting in a belief about that subject (the chair appears to be able to hold my body weight)
- committing to that belief (actually sitting in the chair, i.e. exercising faith.)
You’ll notice that reason itself has limitations. Even in our simple example there’s a slight element of uncertainty in step 2 — the chair “appears” to be sturdy. There is no absolute certainty that my chair will indeed hold my body weight — the wood may be rotten inside, the glue may be old, an earthquake may occur as I’m starting to sit down, etc. So we don’t make decisions based on absolute certainty, but rather reasonable evidence. Reasonable evidence is all a jury is asked to utilize in convicting someone — absolute certainty is never expected. We all step out in faith based on reasonable evidence. Faith fills the gap that reason alone leaves us.
So to put it succinctly: Reason assesses; Faith trusts. There is no conflict. Both are essential components needed to live life each day.
We all need to practice intelligent faith every day. It’s how we decide whether or not to cover our roses after the weatherman’s frost alert. It’s how we decide what we will allow ourselves to eat or not eat. It’s how we decide what’s worth living for, fighting for, and dying for. And what we believe happens after that.
I’m excited to be on the planning committee to present the Intelligent Faith Conference next weekend. This event will draw attention to the vast amount of reasonable, rational evidence that supports the Christian worldview, so no one will blindly believe anything.
The conference will be held April 8-9 at New Covenant Bible Church in Cedar Rapids. The cost is $25 by this Sunday, April 3rd, $35 after that. There is also a youth rally on Wednesday and a University of Iowa Q&A on the Resurrection on Thursday. For more information on these events, or to register for the conference, click here! I hope to see many of you there!
Posted by Mark Forstrom on Apr 1, 2016 in Personal Reflections
Posted by Mark Forstrom on Mar 27, 2016 in Personal Reflections
There are lots of great churches in Cedar Rapids and we are by no means the best. But there are some unique things about New Covenant that I really, really love.
One of those things is our commitment to being intergenerational. Rather than targeting one demographic–being homogeneous–New Covenant functions like a wonderfully diverse family, where each member is recognized and valued.
Here’s how I’ve seen this intergenerational approach lived out in our church family.
(In no particular order.)
- I love how Pastor Bob reiterates how our children and youth are not the church of tomorrow, but rather the church of today (as well as tomorrow).
- I love how our worship teams include all ages: currently from 15 to 75. If you include our 4 choirs, people serve in Big Church worship between the ages of 3 and 94!
- While it’s true we are age-segregated for teaching and training, I love the way the volunteers in these ministries come from all generations. Middle schoolers helping in the nursery alongside of grandparents. High schoolers helping in Children’s church with Pastor Mick and his team. Youth sponsors from all life stages sharing what they’ve learned about the Christian life with teens.
- I love how Kids Camp and Fall Fest are staffed by teens and adults of all ages, each pouring into these young lives.
- I love how the Pathfinders (older adult) ABF has adopted our high school group and prays faithfully for them each month.
- I love how we sing classic hymns as well as the latest Hillsongs praise songs.
- I love when my elderly widow friend hands me a $100 check and then she tells me to apply it to a teen who needs help going on a summer trip.
- I love how Pastor Gary utilizes the gifts of over 250 people in the leading of worship. There’s a place for everyone: flute players, violinists, timpani players, trumpeters like me, cellists, jazz saxophone and piano players, and even a harmonica player!
- I love how my own two daughters were raised in a church that recognized and called out their gifts and gave them opportunities to develop them.
- I love how the church budgets significant amounts of money to provide our children and youth ministry with functional facilities, reliable buses, and scholarships for trips such as Summit.
- I love how the MTAs and Blaze Teams bring together older, experienced mentors with young people who seek to be trained in ministry.
- I love the variety of musical genres we utilize that reflect our diverse church family: rock, orchestra, big band, contemporary, coffee house, brassline, acoustic, electric, and occasionally even classical opera!
- I loved it when 90 year olds like Galyn Peterson, Jean Bauer, and Perry Jane came in and shared with our high school kids how they’d seen God work in their lives over their lifetime.
- There can’t be too many churches our size that allow children’s choirs to sing in Big Church. I love how this shows kids their value and allows them to point us to Jesus.
- If a visitor walked into our church, it wouldn’t take them long to figure out that we’re a family of very ordinary people who take turns worshiping God in a variety of ways. They wouldn’t experience a finely targeted service catering to their demographic demands. I expect they would find the authenticity refreshing. If they do, they’ll likely fit in here!
- I love how our Family eXperience nights bring families together to learn and interact with truth as a family unit.
- I love that every week we do songs that aren’t my particular style because that means my church is not about me. This shows that in healthy families we take turns.
- In our culture of “moralistic therapeutic, deism” (which views God as existing just to meet my needs) I love how our intergenerational approach teaches young people that the world doesn’t revolve around them, their style, and their way. Instead of “me” it should be more about “we” and ultimately about “He”.
- I love how children, middle school, and high school are each given 2 weeks a year to lead worship in Big Church. I don’t know of any other large church that does that.
- I love “people watching” on Main Street (our lobby) and seeing the melting-pot of ages talking, laughing, and playing together.
- And most of all, I loved how when my daughter Brenda was trying to decide who to invite to her wedding, she had to invite the whole church, because so many people of all ages had invested in her life and she wanted them to be there to rejoice with her on that special day.
Posted by Mark Forstrom on Mar 21, 2016 in Personal Reflections
, Reflections on Parenting
Too often I’ve observed this progression within families.
- Unattended frustration in the home leads to resentment.
- Resentment in the home creates walls between family members.
- Walls between family members makes for a miserable existence.
- When the misery gets too unbearable such families finally ask for help.
Today I want to draw attention to what I believe is a common component within fragmented, unhealthy families: the inability to identify and address the frustrations of its family members. I’ve observed that when frustrations are neglected — even small ones — seeds are sown that can ultimately destroy families and marriages. Given enough time the accumulation of these unattended frustrations results in resentment, anger and hatred, and can result in the breakdown of the family unit. By this point it’s often too late for help.
What’s the antidote? Create a family environment where frustrations can be easily brought out into the open and addressed. Think of it like a pressure release valve.
In our house this environment was attained through family meetings. We made it clear that if anyone was frustrated about anything going on in our family that they should call a family meeting, where we would work it out together. We had a lot of family meetings!
Here’s an example from a meeting that I called when our kids were young to address two of my frustrations at the time. Being the family dishwasher, I was frustrated because I felt we were dirtying cups needlessly. (I was washing what seemed like two dozen cups per day for only four people!) I had also noticed that my family members were in the habit of getting a new bath towel after each use rather than reuse them! Wasteful! (Admittedly these issues seem pretty small compared to the other problems of the world! But this was becoming a daily irritation for me and I could feel resentment beginning to creep in.) Time for action!
So I called the family meeting to express my frustrations and to see if we could come up with a solution that would restore my tranquility. After identifying my issues (and they were just my issues!) we brainstormed ideas and figured out that we could solve my problem by color-coding our household items just like our friends the Calcaras had done. We negotiated over what colors we each would get (somehow I ended up with pink!) and then went to the store to buy plastic cups, plates, and bowls for everyone. We also got towels of the same colors, which now could be easily identified, hung up, and reused. We even extended our color matching to include toothbrushes (to this day my dentist’s office knows to give me a pink one!)
A few final thoughts:
- Personal happiness is not the main goal in life. Serving God and serving others is.
- We can’t promise our families that every frustration of theirs can be entirely removed — we’ll always have to come to terms with things that are beyond our control and it’s also not reasonable for each one to get his or her way all the time.
- It’s also important to communicate that a family is not a pure democracy — ultimately the parents are charged by God to make decisions for their family’s overall well-being. Our guarantee is not that we will resolve things to everyone’s satisfaction, but that we will listen, respect, and love each family member as we seek to honor God in our homes.
In summary, I’m prescribing a family environment where respect is shown for each family member, where verbalizing frustrations is the norm, where people’s feelings are validated, and where reasonable solutions can be worked out as a team if possible.
Families who operate under this kind of environment will enjoy a greater closeness, which brings glory to God.
Posted by Mark Forstrom on Nov 30, 2015 in Christian Perspective
, Personal Reflections
Recently the Starbucks “red cup controversy” made the headlines as it was purported by some to be a “war on Christmas”. I personally think it was mostly a publicity stunt, as I know of exactly ZERO Christians (and I know a lot!) who were concerned about it.
But it does remind me of my own journey. Until a few years ago I too might have been offended by such Starbuck’s cups — along with other Christmas trappings that exclude any mention of Jesus. So for those who haven’t heard my story, let me share what brought me out of Grinchiness.
I wrote the following in Jan, 2008…
Anyone who has been around me this Christmas knows that I’ve had quite a change of perspective with regard to Christmas. For the past couple of years I’ve had this ever increasing negative attitude, bemoaning the secular “X-Mas” along with its assault on the spiritual “Christmas.” After all, Santa is spelled with the same letters as Satan!
I was disturbed at how the true meaning of Christmas (Jesus’ birth) is so often obscured by frivolous holiday trappings (decorations, ornaments, trees, the obsession with materialism, and of course, Santa). They’re taking Christ out of Christmas!
My attitude hit an all-time low in early December  when I found myself at odds with my own family. They had the audacity of wanting me to join in the annual decorating of our home, setting up our tree, stringing the lights, etc. My preference was to throw the wicked tree in the recycle bin and go to my room to read the Nativity story instead!
Fortunately, my friend Steve Duffy sent me an email just in the nick of time (no pun intended). It was a 17 page summary of a book on the history of Christmas. I was captivated — to the extent that I immediately bought the book and absorbed myself in it.
The book, Christmas: a Candid History, by Bruce David Forbes, a professor at Morningside College, put it all in perspective for me and transformed my attitude completely. I recommend it for any of you remaining Scrooges or Grinches out there. Here are the things I came to understand.
- There is no record that the early church ever even celebrated the birth of Christ at all for the first three centuries. (The Death and Resurrection were their big celebrations.)
- Only 4 chapters in the whole Bible mention any details of His birth.
- Even so, the season of His birth was never indicated, nor was any commandment ever given about recognizing it in any way.
- Midwinter celebrations (like Saturnalia, New Years, and the Winter Solstice) had been held since long before the time of Christ as a way to bring cheer to a dark, gloomy season of shortened days (in the northern hemisphere). These popular celebrations were characterized by greenery (holly, mistletoe, poinsettas), gift giving, lights and feasting along with a lot of raucous partying.
- After Constantine legalized Christianity, church leaders added a celebration of Jesus’ birth to these Mid-Winter festivals in an attempt to “Christianize” the festivities and tame the revelry. (Had they tried to cancel them outright they would have faced stiff opposition.) December 25th was designated as the day to recognize His birth, adding new traditions to the winter festivities.
- Therefore the spiritual aspect to the holidays has always been an “add-on” to a mostly secular cultural phenomenon.
- Interestingly, the Puritans almost succeeded in killing Christmas between the 1600s to 1800s, making the point that it wasn’t observed by the earliest church fathers. Christmas thus fell out of public acceptance. Their influence is shown by the fact that Congress and public schools were still meeting on Christmas day until 1850!
- Just as interestingly, Charles Dickens’ short story, “The Christmas Carol,” and Queen Victoria’s elaborate royal family traditions were instrumental in bringing Christmas back to popularity — this time with a new emphasis on families and children. Shortly after that, legends of St. Nickolas began to morph into today’s concept of Santa Claus largely through the poem “T’was the Night Before Christmas, ” which added to this new focus on children, toys, and gift-giving.
- Capitalism, higher standards of living, and advancements in technology have naturally and understandably increased the consumer emphasis of all of our holidays, including Christmas.
All these facts helped me realize that my thinking about Christmas was skewed. I learned that there’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying a winter “holiday” with all it’s cultural trappings. And I learned that “true meaning of Christmas” wasn’t predominantly about Jesus’ birth at all. Instead of looking at the glass as half empty, I’m now looking at it as half full, rejoicing at how much Jesus remains a part of an otherwise secular season.
I rejoice that (for now anyways)…
• The name “Christ” in Christmas is still largely a part of the our holiday culture.
• Christmas carols, some clearly proclaiming the gospel message, have endeared themselves to our culture and are commonly enjoyed in public stores, holiday concerts, and on secular radio.
• Nativity sets, reminding the world about the incarnation, are commonplace and culturally acceptable.
• Jesus is thought about and talked about more during this season than any other time of year.
• TV and news specials about Jesus, Bethlehem, etc are common and generally positively portrayed.
• Church attendance at Christmastime has become a cultural family tradition for many–even the irreligious.
• Charity and unselfish giving are great values during this season—affording opportunities to share about God’s generous nature.
Since I stopped being a Grinch about Christmas eight years ago, I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoy the holiday season, red cups and all!
Posted by Mark Forstrom on Nov 23, 2015 in Reflections on Parenting
Many of you know that since becoming an empty nester, I’ve taken up Square Foot Gardening. The concept is unique: you build raised-bed platforms, fill them full of fertile soil, and partition each one into sections that are exactly 12 inches by 12 inches.
In each square you can plant different crops. The size and nature of each plant determines how many of them you can put into one square: 1 cabbage, 4 spinach plants, 16 carrots, etc. As you can see from my photo, I had great success with it this past summer. I had 96 squares, each clearly labeled with the type of seeds that were planted in it. With that many squares at my disposal I planted just about every vegetable known to man!
One day in June as I was doing some weeding, I noticed one square with a plant I didn’t recognize. It certainly wasn’t the jalapeno plant that my label indicated should be growing in that spot. I almost pulled it out. But it looked determined and my curiosity got the best of me, so I decided to let it grow to see what would happen.
Before long, that plant was the tallest in my garden. As it grew, Cindy and I began to suspect that this would turn out to be a giant sunflower plant. Sure enough, that’s what it was! (Ironically, this was one of the few plants I hadn’t planted in my garden.)
It dawned on me that our children are exactly like this. We may have expectations of who they should become or what they will accomplish. But in the end we have no control over that. They are who they are. Our job is to discover who they are, how God wired them, and help them develop into their potential.
Sometimes we parents have expectations of how we want our kids to interact with others or fit in socially. We may have specific ideas of how they should learn, grow or develop. Sometimes we may want our kids to follow in our footsteps, make us look good, or achieve our own unfulfilled dreams. But is it possible that in doing so we may be pressuring them to be somebody they are not? Could it be that God designed them in ways that are uniquely different than our expectations? I suspect a lot of parent/teen conflict stems from just such pressure.
Better for us to look at our kids the way I did with that renegade garden plant — with curiosity rather than particular expectations.
As I often say, “Be a student of your student.” Enjoy watching them grow into who God made them to be. The harvest may not be what you expected, but it will be every bit as fruitful!
Posted by Mark Forstrom on Nov 15, 2015 in Personal Reflections
, Reflections on Parenting
Over the years I’ve witnessed many families and friendships devastated by conflict.
I’ve observed how such people tend to position themselves as enemies, sparring with each other, inciting resentment, anger, indifference, or revenge. All are wounded, some deeply. Some for a lifetime.
So I don’t recommend sparring with your enemies. Murder them instead.
But before you go off and commit a capital offense, I’d like to redefine “the enemy.” Because I think we get this wrong.
Usually, those of us in conflict view the other person as the enemy, hurting them, correcting them, resisting them, or simply avoiding them. The outcome of this is that both parties end up even more wounded and the original conflicts actually end up compounded.
A better solution seems to be to declare the enemy to be the relational wall between you. Make the wall the real problem, not the person on the other side of it.
So how do you murder this true enemy, the wall between you? Here’s my 10-step battle plan.
- Stop focusing so much on how the other person needs to apologize, accept responsibility, change, or conform to your expectations. These things may be better addressed and received once the wall is down.
- Choose to be Unoffendable.
- Start talking about how awful it is to have a wall between you. How you hate being disconnected relationally. How you long for both of you to get to a place where you can be a blessing to one another. How you desire a lifetime of mutual enjoyment of one another rather than one of perpetual wounding.
- Express your commitment to begin removing the relational bricks that you contribute to the wall.
- Humbly ask the other person to identify the bricks they’d like you to remove.
- Listen. Seek to understand.
- Change what you can. Explain what you can’t.
- Always treat the other person with kindness, as a person you care about rather than a problem that you want fixed.
- When they’re ready, gently let the other person know what changes they might make that would be helpful to you, i.e. what bricks they may have unknowingly added to the wall and how they might remove them.
- Stay attentive to the condition of the wall and — as a team — keep working away at removing bricks one at a time.
Once you’ve set those bricks on the ground you’ll find instead that there’s now something else between you — a bridge! The wall will have been completely obliterated.
And those are murders I love to witness!
Posted by Mark Forstrom on Nov 2, 2015 in Personal Reflections
I want to shine the spotlight on a social trend I see running rampant in our culture today: opposing someone of a different perspective by using mockery, ridicule, name-calling, unflattering photos, out-of-context quotes, and unfair characterizations. These are ad hominem attacks, which are directed against a person rather than the positions they hold. I see it everywhere, especially on social media. And I think it’s leading our society down a dangerous path.
This strategy of “besting” our opponents by mocking their personhood seems like such an immature, “elementary school” tactic. The thing that made The Three Stooges so hilarious was the way that their slapstick pie-in-the-face methods of correcting one another were so obviously foolish and pointless. But now we’ve adopted these same tactics as a matter of course. Continuing on this track may soon make The Three Stooges seem like documentaries of modern culture.
Certainly we all hold divergent views about politics, morality, religion, and how the world should be run. These are important issues, which need to be discussed and debated and understood. But complex issues — such as these are — do not have simplistic answers. Though it may make us feel superior to laugh at our opponents, we will not solve the problems of the world by mud-slinging. Is this not bullying on an adult level? We need to hear each other, respect one another, and listen with open ears and open hearts to fully explore all sides of the issues.
In the end, how tragically ironic would it be if we won battles of politics and morality and religion by sacrificing human dignity in the process?
“How long, foolish ones, will you love ignorance? How long will you mockers enjoy mocking and you fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:22)