pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Welcome Him, Welcome Me

Reading: Philemon 1-21

Verse 17: “Welcome him as you would welcome me.”

Photo credit: Markus Spiske

Philemon is a unique book in the Bible. This short letter is personal in nature but has wide application. It is written to one man, Philemon. The letter addresses a unique situation. Onesimus is a slave who stole from Philemon and has run away from him. Fleeing to Rome, probably hoping to blend into this big city far away, he encounters Paul and his life is forever changed. Onesimus comes to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. He longs to return home, to go back to Philemon. Paul appeals to Philemon “on the basis of love.” Paul asks Philemon to “Welcome him as you would welcome me.” Onesimus is now “useful” and wants to live a different life, a good life.

We all know people who have been difficult or hard to be around. Maybe they’re unhappy with their situation, like Onesimus used to be. A change of scenery leads to a change of heart. They return a different person, eager to reconnect. Sometimes we, like Philemon, need a little encouragement, a little prompting to fully receive them back. Paul uses his influence and the basic tenets of reconciliation and forgiveness in his appeal to Philemon. These are things we too have in our life and faith that we can use to build connections.

In our current culture there are many opportunities to practice the love of Christ and the acts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Division and barriers are abundant. As a society we are polarized, often galvanized in our positions. Acting in Christian love, walking in humility, we can walk across those gaps, past those walls. Living and loving as Christ did, we can seek to build unity, to begin reconciliation, to offer forgiveness to those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. May we seek to welcome these as we would welcome Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, you call us to live all people because all people are our brothers and sisters, all are created by you. So fill me with your love, fill me to overflowing. Use that overflow to begin the healing and reconciliation needed in our world. In your healing, may we all become one in the Lord. Amen.


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He Is Calling

Reading: Luke 13:10-13

Verse 12: “When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, ‘Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.'”

One day, while doing one of his regular things – teaching in the synagogue – Jesus notices a woman. She has been crippled by a spirit for 18 years. Unable to straighten up, this woman has stood out for 18 long years. The understanding of her day and her faith would be that sinned 18 years ago. That choice would’ve led to her crippled condition. She does not approach Jesus. Perhaps this is an indication or sign of acceptance of the consequences for her sin.

Jesus sees her. His focus is drawn to her. We do not know what Jesus was teaching about. As he taught I’m sure he scanned the crowd, looking for nonverbal cues to go on, to stop and reteach, etc. While looking around Jesus sees this woman. This was a true seeing, not a ‘look at that bird over there’ kind of seeing. Jesus saw not only the woman but all that she has born these 18 long years – the pain, the stigma, the living on the margins.

He calls the woman forward and says, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” In an instant, with just a few words, Jesus removes the pain, the stigma, the loneliness. He saw what separated her and removed these barriers to community, wholeness, abundant life. My friend, Jesus sees you. He calls out to you. The Christ wants to heal you, to restore you to community, wholeness, abundant life. Do you hear him calling?

Prayer: Lord God, you reach out in so many ways. Your desire is for us to have life and to have it to the full. May we hear your voice as it calls out and may we have the courage to step forward into all that you have for us. Amen.


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A Deeper Truth

Reading: Isaiah 58:1-5

Verse 4: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”

Today’s passage is titled “True Fasting” in my Bible. One could easily substitute “prayer” or “worship” for fasting, changing the corresponding descriptors, and God would be talking about the same thing: holy and righteous living versus going through the motions. The passage begins with God telling Isaiah to “shout it aloud, do not hold back.” Tell it like it is Isaiah! God goes on, “Declare to my people their rebellion… their sins.” Give it to them Isaiah!

As the passage continues God notes that the people “seem eager” to be near to God, to be faithful. Yet they do not sense God’s presence. They ask where God is. On the day of fasting, a day to be set aside as holy and one dedicated to God, the people “exploit their workers” and they “quarrel” and they strike one another with “wicked fists.” God is clear: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” It’s nice that you’re fasting and all, but that faith you claim – it must affect and impact all areas of your life or it’s just for show. Faith is not just a hit or miss thing. It must be 24/7/365.

While all of this is true, we must be aware of a deeper truth and our tendency to fall into a trap. Even though the Israelites are just going through the motions, God longs for them to turn to God with a sincere heart. No matter what they are acting like and no matter what they’ve done (or not done), God continues to call out to them. That’s what God is doing here as Isaiah fulfills his role as prophet. In this truth about God always calling out, there is a caution for us. When someone has been away for a while or when someone shows up because they do not know where else to turn and have exhausted every option, may we check our judgment at the door. Those twists and turns, those ups and downs – just God getting the soil ready, fertile. So as we hold the door open, as we pick up the phone, as we sit down for coffee, may we sincerely and genuinely welcome them into relationship both with us and with the God of love. God’s love always calls out to the list and the hurting – no exceptions, no limits, no barriers. May our love mirror God’s as we seek to walk faithfully day by day.

Prayer: Lord God, in the millions and millions of times that I have failed to love and in the zillions of times that I have stumbled and fallen short, not once have you rejected me, not once have you said “Do this” or “clean that up first”. Your arms are always opened wide to me. Help me to live and love this way too. Thank you. Amen.


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Helping Others

Reading: Luke 10: 46-52

Verse 51: “The blind man said, ‘Rabbi, I want to see.'”

Jesus stops as the cries of blind Bartimaeus reaches his ears. He tells the crowd to call him here. Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, jumps up, and comes to Jesus. He is excited because Jesus has heard him, has stopped, and is focusing on him. Imagine how the blind man’s heart was racing at this moment!

Once he navigates his way to Jesus, a simple question is asked: “What do you want me to do for you?” But before we get to Bartimaeus’ response, I wonder what was going through the crowd’s minds. What were those who had tried to hush up Bartimaeus thinking and feeling? Were the hushers still hard of heart? What were others in the crowd with illnesses or hardships thinking and feeling? Were these others who lived on the fringes suddenly hopeful?

Bartimaeus simply says, “I want to see.” He is asking Jesus to remove this barrier, this limitation. He wants to experience life in a fuller, new way. Many of us look the Jesus in this way. For some it is for a physical healing. For some it is for healing from an addiction or a harmful relationship. For some it is to be healed of our sin and to be made right again. The darkness that we are all in from time to time leads us all to cry out to Jesus.

The blind man is healed with a word from Jesus. His faith in Jesus brings him healing. Bartimaeus’ response is a joyful one – he follows Jesus as they head down the road. He wants to be a part of this energy, of this movement. This too is how we should respond to Jesus’ healing and saving touch. Following in his footsteps, sharing the good news, helping others to see and walk in the light – may this be our grateful response to Jesus!

Prayer: Lord God, how often have you healed me from my brokenness, how often have you restored me to right relationship with you and with others in my life. Help me to follow as Bartimaeus did, leading others toward the healer, the redeemer, the rock. Amen.


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Through the Cross

Reading: Ephesians 2: 11-22

Verse 14: “For he himself is our peace, who has… destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”.

Photo credit: Nathan McDine

As we turn to Ephesians this week Paul takes on a huge issue: walls that divide. Instead of division he invites those in the churches in and around Ephasus to find peace in Jesus Christ. Through the peace of Christ, walls can come down. There are two walls being addressed in today’s scripture. One is obvious – the wall between Jew and Gentile.

As Paul states in verse two, circumcision was the physical sign that separated Jew from Gentile. The act of circumcision was begun in Moses’ time and gave a physical sign that one was a Jew. It was a barrier of belonging. Underpinning this act was the Law. The Jewish Christians still lived under and followed the Law. They wanted the Gentile Christians to do the same. In essence, they wanted the Gentiles to first become Jews and then to become Christians. Paul counters this, saying, “For he himself is our peace, who has… destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”. He goes on to remind the Jewish believers that Jesus “abolished in his flesh the law”. Through his death Jesus destroyed the commands and regulations, uniting both Jew and Gentile through the cross.

Today our walls might not be between Jew and Gentile, but we still have plenty of walls. Just a few are rich-poor, Black-white, Democrat-Republican, American-immigrant. The peace of Christ desires to destroy all of these barriers and the hostility behind them too. Through the cross, Jesus desires to bring all people to himself. Jesus would bring down the barriers. So should we.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, fill me with your passion to draw all people to you. Strengthen me to bring down walls that divide and separate. May I begin in my own heart. Amen.


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Reconciliation and Restoration

Reading: Matthew 18: 15-17

Verse 15: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you”.

Today’s passage from Matthew 18 is about seeking the reconciliation and restoration of a relationship when it has been damaged. Above all else, Jesus’ call was to love one another. As the song goes, that’s how the world will know that we are Christians. This is especially true within the church. Here our love should be genuine and pure. It must be modeled in the church and in our relationships with one another. Jesus knew that the church would be just like all other organizations in one way: it is made up of imperfect people prone to sin and selfishness. As such, he knew that there would be conflicts and disagreements within the body of Christ. In today’s three verses we find practical steps for how to resolve conflict, especially in the church.

The causes for conflicts and disagreements can the gamut. The divide can be over deeply theological issues or it can be about painting a wall. Almost all issues, regardless of the root causes, will have deep ramifications for churches and individuals if left unresolved. So Jesus gives steps to avoid this. When conflict arises or when someone hurts or sins against another, the first step is personal. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you”. Yes, this is hard for most of us to do. But it does provide the necessary space for being open and transparent. No one else is there to impress or to save face in front of. Going to someone directly lets them know you value them and your relationship with them enough to risk for them. It provides a space for honesty and open dialogue. Most often this step leads to reconciliation and to a deeper relationship.

Sometimes this first step does not work. Pride or who can intervene. Embarrassment or lack of understanding can also create a barrier to resolution. Jesus advises us to then take along one or two others to help guide the conversation. By involving others we often open up the conversation and find new ways to seek reconciliation. As a group we can often work things out that two struggle to do on their own. When this step fails, Jesus directs us to get even more help figuring out the conflict. He tells us to bring the matter before the whole congregation.

Both of these last two steps often involve some soul searching on our part. The sin may be obvious and surely needs correction. But if there is grey or doubt, it is a call for a time of sincere prayer and honest self-reflection. This step is always a good thing. The Holy Spirit will clarify and lead us to our best approach to the situation. Jesus does not want any division in the body. By going to the throne in prayer we are inviting Christ to guide us to reconciliation. When we invite him, he will always go with you!

Prayer: Loving God, lead and guide our conversations and relationships to be safe enough to tread into these uncomfortable spaces. May your Holy Spirit show us the way to unity and reconciliation within our Christian relationships and within our churches. Amen.


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Loving the Outsiders

Reading: Matthew 15: 21-28

Verse 22: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me”.

Today’s passage is one with layers. A simpler version would tell of a woman who came to Jesus and received healing for her daughter. That is the basic story. But our story is layered with cultural prejudice and years of dislike and distrust. The story contains relatively few words between Jesus and the woman and the disciples. It does not get unpacked later in a private moment with the twelve.

By identifying her as a Canaanite woman Matthew is pointing out a barrier. In his world, you were either a Jew or you were not. If you were, you were in. If you were not you were an outsider, a heathen, unclean. Yet she identifies Jesus as “Lord” and as the “Son of David” – she recognizes him as the Messiah, as the Savior of the world. She begs for healing for her daughter. She at least knows that Jesus is a healer. Jesus does not answer her. She persists. What do we make of his silence? Maybe Jesus is testing her sincerity, her level of commitment, her faith. Perhaps he is struggling within with the cultural biases that he grew up with. Or maybe the time is allowed for the disciples’ benefit. The disciples buckle first, asking Jesus to “send her away”. Instead he replies, engaging her while putting her off. Jesus tells her that he came to the Jews only. He is reminding her that she is an outsider. Or… is he reminding the disciples? Or himself? Or us? She begs again.

Jesus adds insult to his next “no”, calling her a “dog”. This is cultural slang for all those below or outside of the pure Jewish religion. It is a degrading and demeaning term. This is not the Jesus we know and love, is it? So we must ask “why?” Is the human inside struggling? Is it to force the disciples to reconsider their own prejudices? They will soon enough be going out into the world of the Gentiles with the good news. Or is it to add emphasis to the healing of the other?

The Canaanite woman sticks to it, noting that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. She again identifies Jesus as the One, as the Lord of all, as the master. She does not want to take Jesus from the ones he is sent to, she just wants a little of him too. Her great faith is applauded by Jesus and the daughter is healed.

This is a powerful and complex story of how Jesus loves even the outsider. How will our love reflect his love today?

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for this story that challenges and forces my love and welcome a bit wider. Continue to work in me and in my heart, removing all that hinders and limits how I love others. Amen.


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On the Fringes

Reading: John 4: 27-42

Verse 35: “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for the harvest”.

When was the last time you met someone like the woman at the well? When was the last time you had a conversation with someone who was not like you, who was outside of your normal circles of friends and acquaintances, who was not among the popular and accepted folks in the community? Every community has them. It may be only one or two who live outside the norms of society. It may be thousands who live on the fringes in your community.

In verses 5-26 of John 4, Jesus made the choice to engage one of these people. He stepped over many barriers to draw in this woman at the well, to help her find the living water that only he can give. The disciples return just as the conversation between Jesus and the woman ends. They have been in town getting food. In response to their offer of physical food, Jesus speaks instead of the spiritual food he has to offer.

Some of the people we might meet on the fringes are in need of physical food. Some on the fringes are in need of a place to belong, to feel loved. Some are in need of support and guidance and direction in life. Some on the fringes have other basic needs – heating fuel, gas to get to work, clothes for the kids. Before we can begin to have the spiritual conversations with someone on the fringes we must cross a barrier or three and we must help them cross barriers as well to find a place of trust and security and honesty. Jesus models this well in the story we read in John 4.

Jesus also acknowledges that we all play a role. In verse 37 he says, “One sows and another reaps”. We may be like Jesus was with the woman at the well – beginning the conversation and following it through to a profession of faith. But most of the time we are just one step in the process of someone becoming a follower of Jesus.

In our passage today, Jesus encourages the disciples and us to be a step in the process. In verse 35 Jesus tells us, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for the harvest”. These words are just as true today as the day he spoke them. Some people are curious. Some are hurting. Some are angry. Some are alone. Some are grieving. Many are on the fringes and want to come into community. Open your eyes and look. The fields are ripe. Go forth to be the love of Jesus to one in need of connection.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to see those in need. Help me to live well – to foster a deep love for the marginalized and others with needs. Open my eyes and my heart, O God. Amen.


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Drawing In

Reading: John 4: 5-26

Verse 9: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink”?

The conversation in today’s passage is refreshing. Two people who do not previously know each other have an open and honest conversation. Wouldn’t it be nice if people who know each other could have at least this open and honest of a conversation? Let’s see how that may be possible.

The conversation we read in John 4 is honest and allows space for the other to speak and be heard. The woman is coming to the well alone in the sixth hour, which would be noon for us. All the other women came as a group in the early morning, in the cool of the day. As they came, drew water, and returned to the village they would have talked and caught up with one another. The woman at the well is alone and is isolated in her own community. After Jesus asks her for a drink, she replies, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink”? Jesus is attempting to cross a few barriers here in order to enter into a conversation. She points out both the Jew-Samaritan and the male-female barriers. He continues the conversation, crossing the barrier of isolation. Jesus chooses to engage someone that most others ignore or avoid. In spite of the initial barriers that she tries to put up, Jesus continues to try and connect with her. Jesus offers her the “living water” and she reminds him that Jacob drank from this well and gave it to the Samaritans. The Samaritan connection to Jacob is their claim to equality with the Jews. She is testing Jesus – will he bite and allow the conversation to be derailed? No, he continues to offer her the water that leads to eternal life. You see, the gift of eternal life is much more important than any earthly defined barrier or difference. How can we model this belief in our efforts to share Jesus with others?

In verses sixteen through eighteen Jesus identifies the thing that keeps her on the fringes of society, outside of community. He does name it but there is no judgment, no taking of moral high ground. She falls back into the Jew-Samaritan barrier in verse twenty, but again Jesus persists, opening her eyes to see how God is working to break down worship and religious barriers, revealing a time when all believers will worship together in spirit and truth. Jesus is again leaning into the eternal. The woman at the well is beginning to sense what Jesus offers, connecting to the day when the Messiah will come. The conversation ends for now with Jesus claiming, “I am he”. Drawn in, the woman will soon draw others in.

This is the pattern of discipleship – sharing faith in Jesus with one person at a time. May we practice this model today.

Prayer: Father God, lead me past any barriers my earthly eyes may see at first. Open my heart and mind to the guiding of your Holy Spirit as I seek to share Jesus with others today. Amen.


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Build the Kingdom

Reading: Isaiah 11: 6-10

Verse 10: “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for all the people; the nations will rally to him”.

Isaiah writes of a kingdom that seems hard to wrap our minds around. This vision of endless peace is difficult to contemplate in our day and age. Verses six through eight are filled with images that are very unlike the relationships that exist today. Wolves do not live with lambs; cows do not feed alongside bears. We shudder at the image of a child putting its hand into the den of poisonous snakes. What if this vision of harmony and peace were a metaphor for what God’s kingdom could look like today? What would this kind of world look like today?

We do catch a glimpse of it now and then. When the families of the children slain at school went and offered forgiveness and mercy to the shooter and his family, we saw a glimpse. When the concentration camp survivor hugged and offered grace to the camp guard, we caught a glimpse. It remains fully possible for the power of God to break in even in this day and age. That is part of what Advent is all about. As we live into and practice peace, hope, love, and joy we are drawn closer to the vision laid out in Isaiah 11. In verse ten we read, “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for all the people; the nations will rally to him”. Right now we await this day. The kingdom described here has not yet been fulfilled. We live in the “not yet”. It is a time of building, a time of drawing nearer to its culmination.

The question for us is this: what role will we play? Will we be but observers? Or will we have an active role in the building of the kingdom? If we are to be builders we must actively engage those we see as wolves and lions and bears and vipers. If we want to build the kingdom of peace, hope, love, and joy, we must be examples of these things in the darkness of the world. What barriers must we cross? What risks must we take? Are we willing to step bravely forth with God’s peace, hope, love, and joy? May it be so.

Prayer: Lord, reveal to me the darkness into which you are calling me to bring light. Encourage me and fill me with your Spirit to go where you want to send me. May I be your peace, hope, love, and joy today. Amen.