pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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The Vine

Reading: John 15: 1-8

Verse 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit”.

Photo credit: Rohit Tandon

Jesus begins John 15 with a familiar analogy. Vineyards were common in Israel – a good topic to use to describe the connection between disciples and the divine. In the first verse Jesus establishes himself as the vine and God as the one who tends the vine. You and I are branches.

Over the years, on my walk of faith, I have found it very important for me to stay closely connected to Jesus. Has this been true for you? When I am faithful about my personal disciplines – early morning prayer, reading and study, reflection, journaling – then my daily life is better aligned with Jesus’ mission. In those seasons when I am just going through the motions, my connection weakens and my faith begins to get dry and stale. Challenges and difficulties arise during both seasons. Working through these with Jesus is much different than going it on my own. Has this been your experience too?

A grape vine, like all living organisms, is either growing or it is dying. Seeing the leaves and then the grapes appear and mature is easy. Noticing the vine growth is not so noticeable. Left unchecked a vine will grow and grow. If left on its own, the vine growth will decrease fruit production. This reminds me of something that I must guard against. In ministry it can be easy to say ‘yes’ to many things. I’m active and am a doer, so this is my natural tendency. I want to try new things, to offer more opportunities, to just keep adding. Because of this tendency, I am thankful for the gardener. At times God prunes me. The Holy Spirit reveals a busyness that can be let go. A fellow Christian questions my latest, greatest idea or impulse. A colleague in ministry helps me to return to the focus of my calling. Each of these persons reminds me of the truth of verse five: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit”. To bear fruit you and I must remain closely connected to Jesus Christ, the source of our faith and love. May it ever be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Loving God, day by day, draw me to you. Fill me each mourning, nourishing me for the day ahead. Guard my heart and mind, leading me to walk the path you purpose for me. Connected to your son, may we bear much fruit. Amen.


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Wait on Love

Reading: John 20: 1-18

Verses 10-11: “Then the disciples went back to their homes; but Mary stood outside the tomb crying”.

Very early in the morning Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb. She is alone. She is filled with grief. She is still drawn to Jesus and his love. She returns to the scene of the end of a horrific day.

Seeing the stone has been rolled away, Mary runs to tell Peter and John. The two disciples run to the tomb – only to discover it as Mary had said. Only the grave cloths remain inside the tomb. Peter and John spend but a moment. “Then the disciples went back to their homes; but Mary stood outside the tomb crying”.

Peter and John return home. Clearly something is going on here. They go home. I too am like this sometimes. The Holy Spirit nudges me. Perhaps something is there – an opportunity to bless another, a chance to share the table with the other… I see the chance, but I go home.

Mary Magdalene lingers. She stands outside the tomb and criee, even though it is empty. Jesus is not here. She stands and cries, expressing the next wave of grief, responding to this next twist in the story. Looking into the tomb again, Mary sees two angels. They ask, “Woman, why are you crying”? Jesus is missing! Turning around, sensing someone behind her, she is asked the same question again, followed by, “Who is it you are looking for”? Through sobs and tears Mary inquires of Jesus’ whereabouts.

Mary has not lost her focus. Even though grief and heartache are almost overwhelming her, Jesus’ love is greater. Even though hope seems lost to the grave, Jesus’ love still draws her. “Mary”. He says her name. Love races past grief. Joy bounds by heartache. Hope soars over despair. “Mary”. He calls her name.

Mary lingered. She waited on love. Mary runs to disciples with great news: “I have seen the Lord”! This day, especially this day, may we linger, may we wait on love.

Prayer: God of all, your loves draws us in. Your love calls us to stay, to linger. In those sacred moments of waiting on the holy, draw us deeper into your love. Pour out upon us the blessings of the joy of resurrection! Amen.


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A Trusting Place

Reading: Psalm 51: 1-7

Verse 2: “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin”.

In Psalm 51 David is very honest with God. God has just revealed how all-knowing and all-seeing he is through the words of Nathan the prophet. Using Nathan, God revealed the depth to which David had sunk in his lust for Bathsheba. This harsh shock was a wakeup call to David’s cruise control life and faith. When David finally sees clearly the condition of his heart he is staggered by what he sees. This Psalm is the outpouring of this realization. David knows without doubt that he is a sinner in need of God’s mercy.

David begins by asking for God’s mercy. It is a mercy rooted in God’s unfailing love. Then, in verse two, David pleads with God, saying, “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin”. David needs God to take away his sin; this is something he cannot do. David needs God to make him clean. Again, this is something David cannot do. In those times when we sin we too need God’s mercy and forgiveness. We too need God to cleanse and restore us to a right relationship with him. Like David, we must also first come to a place of recognizing and owning our sin and then we must take it before God with a contrite heart and humble spirit.

Lent is a season in the Christian year when we focus in on our relationship with God. Quiet time in prayer and reflection bring us to the place that Nathan brought David. David knew that “against you, you alone, have I sinned”. David recognized the truth that sin comes against God alone. So to God alone David went. In Lent we are invited to do the same – to seek God out in the solitude, to be still and silent before God, to yearn for the Holy Spirit to speak into our hearts. In this place we learn truth and we are “taught wisdom in the inmost place”. This place is a vulnerable place, a trusting place. And it is a place where our God of unfailing love will pour out his mercy, washing us clean, renewing our souls and reconciling our relationship with God. May we trust God with all that we are, becoming new and clean each time we kneel at his throne of grace. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: God of mercy and grace, draw me into your light, to the place where all is revealed. Call out my failures and my shortcomings; wash away the guilt and shame. Whisper your truths and your love into my being, empowering me to share your saving grace and redeeming mercy with a world in need. Amen.


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Work in Progress

Reading: Mark 8: 31-33

Verse 33: “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man”.

Photo credit: Tom Barrett

Our passage for today begins with Jesus telling his disciples that he will suffer, be rejected, and be killed by the religious leaders. All is not to be lost, though. After three days he will rise again. These words must have been hard for the disciples to hear. But they are not totally shocking either. Jesus was often at odds with the religious leaders. Peter is the one to try and correct Jesus. He tries to tell Jesus that these things will never happen. He has to stay with them, he has to keep ministering to the people. It makes perfect sense that Peter is among those who will soon see Jesus transfigured on the mountain.

Jesus turns to Peter and says perhaps the harshest words to ever come from his lips: “Get behind me, Satan”! I imagine Peter fell back a step or two. This was the disciple who walked on water, who will pledge to die with Jesus, who will draw his sword to defend Jesus. Satan? This is also the disciple who chased the little children away, who will fall asleep in the garden, who will deny even knowing Jesus three times in the courtyard. Oh how I see myself in Peter. Do you?

In verse 33 Jesus lays this charge on Peter: “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man”. It is so easy to become focused on what I think matters, on what I want to do (or not do), on what I feel like in that moment, on what I think is right. Jesus is speaking to me too. Yes, too often I am not thinking first of the things of God. I am thankful that just as Jesus did with Peter, he does with me. The Holy Spirit convicts me, yes, but then leads me deeper into relationship, deeper into my commitment to following Jesus, as I seek to ever walk in the light. Like Peter, we are all a work in progress. We are all growing closer to our Lord and Savior. Jesus never gives up on us. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, you are ever at work in me. You are a loving but refining teacher. I so need both. Thank you for your patience and love, for your commitment and steadfastness. Amen.


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Pleasing to God

Reading: Isaiah 58: 1-12

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

Photo credit: Jordan Wozniak

Today is Ash Wednesday. This is a great passage to consider as we prepare to journey into the season of Lent. The words of this Psalm are a wake up call to Israel and to all who approach their relationship with God superficially.

The ashes that we will place on our foreheads reminds us of our mortality. Ashes were used for this same purpose in the days of Isaiah. Remembering our mortality reminds us that we are finite, limited, imperfect. Today begins the season that culminates the Saturday before Easter Sunday. On Easter Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ triumph over the grave. In his resurrection we find our eternal hope. We are invited to walk through Lent as a season of preparation for that day. These forty days are a time of reflection, introspection, refining.

The people of Isaiah’s day were putting ashes on their foreheads, wearing sack cloth, bowing their heads to God. They were exhibiting all the outward signs of fasting. Today we can show up at church and have a cross drawn on our foreheads. We too can go through the motions. In our passage God’s people fasted, yes, but also continued to exploit the marginalized, to strike one another with “evil fists”, and to ignore the injustices and the oppression all around them. Verse four sums up God’s response: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high”. We cannot come to church and go through the motions of worship or Bible study or youth group and then go out and live as the world lives.

In verses six and seven God shares the kind of fast that is pleasing to him. As fast pleasing to God changes our hearts and leads us to fight injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share food with the hungry, to give shelter to the wanderer, to clothe the naked. In Lent we are called to look within, to repent of our sins, our selfishness, our indulgences. Doing so we will come to have a heart focused on drawing God’s kingdom near.

Verse eight reveals what happens when God’s people turn towards him and become like him: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear”. May it be so.

Prayer: God of the brokenhearted, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the needy – lead me to the place of honest confession and sincere repentance. Make me aware of how I contribute to the pain and misery of the world and turn me from my harmful and hurtful ways. Kill in me all that keeps me from fully loving and serving you and all of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen.


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Focus

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10

Verse 20b: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God”.

In our passage for today, Paul implores us to be reconciled to God. To reconcile means to restore the relationship. Paul is writing to those in the church who have drifted from the faith, to those who have allowed other things to rise above their commitment to the Lord. Unless we are intentional and disciplined concerning our habits of faith, then this can happen to us too. A daily, focused walk with God supplemented by time with the community of faith have always been essential for solid Christian discipleship.

Moving into verses three through seven, Paul shares with the church how he and Timothy have lived out their faith. Note there is both good and bad, both joy and sorrow. Paul and Timothy have endured trials and hardships, persecution, abuse, and slander, as well as sleepless nights. In and through all of this, Paul and Timothy have practiced purity and patience and kindness. They have relied on the Holy Spirit and have sought to practice love above all else. They have always been truthful. Paul wants the church (including us) to know that a walk of faith is not always easy. He also wants to remind us that to walk or live out our faith we must rise above the norms of the world.

As we prepare to enter into Lent, a season of introspection and preparation, it is good to consider how we are walking out our faith. Have we allowed other priorities to rise above our faith commitment? During Lent some people give something up. What in your life could or should you give up to make room for a closer walk with God? Is there a habit or behavior that lessens your walk or your witness? Some people add a habit or practice during Lent. Some join a Lenten study, some read a book that enriches their faith. Some fast, finding new time to pray or to read their Bibles. And some do both – giving something up, adding something in. The point is to reflect on your current walk with Jesus and to find a way to deepen that walk with the Lord during this holy season.

In the last few verses of our passage Paul shares the beauty of a faithful walk. God has sustained he and Timothy in times of need, guiding them through the trials and hardships. Because of the presence of Jesus Christ in their daily lives they are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything”. Paul and Timothy have their eye on God’s goodness and on the salvation of their souls. As we prepare to enter this holy season of Lent may this be our focus as well.

Prayer: Lord God, prepare me to journey deeper with you during this season of Lent. Guide me to walk closer and more intimately. Show me the way. Reveal the path to walk. Amen.


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Connected

Reading: Psalm 50: 1-2

Verse 1: “The mighty one, God, the Lord, speaks and summons the earth”.

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Psalm 50 opens with the image of God, mighty in power, calling out to all the earth. God “speaks and summons” from east to west. To all of the earth – mankind, plants, animals, all of creation – God calls out. Can you see the trees straightening up ever so slightly? Can you notice the bluejay quieting its song for just a moment? Can you sense God’s presence there with you at the start and end of your day? What about the moments in between?

God is there for all of creation. In the beginning the work of his hands was pleasing to God. God called his work “good” or “very good” in the case of humankind. God, the Lord, continues to be in love with all of creation. It is all the work of his hands. The question that comes to mind this morning is this: how do we acknowledge and honor God’s connection to all of creation? In the general or corporate sense we begin by loving all of creation as God loves it. We continue to reveal his love by caring well for the created world and for one another. A second way we can love all of creation is by being connected ourselves.

God interacts with the world and with each of us every single day. One of my best and favorite ways to be connected is to literally write out each morning the ways that God blessed my life the day before. My list of 5-8 things contains mostly small ways that God blessed me or my day. I also close my quiet time each morning by writing about an act of kindness or two that I did to bless another that previous day. Both keep me focused on the love of God as it is revealed in the world and in my life. Both keep me mindful of my calls to love God and to love others.

In what ways do you seek to be in connection with God, with the created world, and with your fellow human beings each day? How do you take time each day to praise God for these connections and for the blessings in your life?

Prayer: Loving and compassionate God, each day it humbles and amazes me to pause and look at the ways you touch my life and my days. Thank you for your love and care. I too am blessed when I touch other’s lives in small ways, sharing your love and care. Thank you for these blessings. Continue to use me each day as the revelation of your love and care for all of creation. Amen.


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Being In and Sharing Out

Reading: Psalm 147: 1-11 and 20

Verse 11: “The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love”.

Using the opening verses of Psalm 147, we focused yesterday on some of the ways that God loves and cares for humankind. Recognizing God’s love and care led the psalmist and calls us to praise God. In verses ten and eleven the focus shifts slightly. Although God created the world and all that is in it, God does not find pleasure or delight in the “strength of the horse” or in the “legs of a man” or in any other physical thing or attribute. We feel loved when we reflect on God’s care for us, but we do not praise or worship the home or food or whatever else God provides. We worship and praise the one who creates and provides these things.

God finds pleasure and delight in us, those created in his image. In verse eleven we read, “The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love”. God delights in those who live in reverence and awe of who God is: holy and perfect, all-knowing and all-seeing, loving and merciful, just and compassionate. God delights in those who place their hope in his love. God finds pleasure when we live in close relationship with God, when we have faith in God, not in any of the things of this world.

How do we live our lives in such a way that shows God that our relationship with him is the most important thing in our life? It begins by striving to follow his example of love and compassion, justice and grace, healing and community. The example was given by God incarnate in Jesus. We show God by connecting with him – personally in prayer and study, corporately in worship and discipleship. If all we say and do is aimed at being in God’s presence and sharing that presence with the world, then we are “living praise” – bringing glory to the Lord. This day may we each be living praise, glorifying God in all that we are.

Prayer: Lord, you are my all in all. Without you I would be lost. Fill me to overflowing with your presence so that all I meet sense your love being poured out into their lives. Amen.


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Is God the Focus?

Reading: 1st Corinthians 7: 29-31

Verses 29 and 31: “…the time is short… For this world in its present form is passing away”.

Paul writes today of the constant tension that Christians have and always will live in. Our passage today begins with “What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short”. Here Paul is first thinking in terms of Jesus’ return. The first believers believed that his return was imminent. Paul is also thinking of our time here on earth. Our lives, even if we live into our eighties or nineties, is but a mist compared to eternity. Under both of these arguments, Paul is calling the Corinthians and all believers to really focus in on what matters most during our lives so that our eternity is spent in heaven with God.

In the body of this passage Paul tells his readers not to focus on family or on happiness or mourning or on the things we own. He warns us not to become too “engrossed” with the things of this world – status, wealth, titles, popularity… As folks who live in this day and age, we know the lures of this world quite well. Society and culture elevates these very things that Paul warns about as the meaning and purpose of life. Society and culture seek to tie our value and our identity and our “success” to what we own and to the power we have because of our title or position or wealth. According to Paul, all of these things are not to be our focus. He sums up our passage and his argument with these words: “For this world in its present form is passing away”. One day all of this will be no more. One day a new heaven and earth will be the reality. My house, my car, my bank account, my job, my titles, my accomplishments – all will be no more. And if I die before Jesus returns, I will not keep or take any of these things with me. They do not matter.

Paul reminds us today to focus on God as our first love, as our main connection, as the focal point in this life. The wisdom of the ages has taught us that where we spend our time and our money truly reveals what is most important to us. As you consider your allocation of these resources, do they reveal God as your focus? Is God your priority?

Prayer: Lord God, while I begin my day in time with you and while I “work” at a church, too often I am concerned with the things of this world. Draw me away from these concerns and desires and pull me deeper into love with you. Delve into my heart, be my all in all. Amen.


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Hour by Hour, Day by Day

Reading: Mark 13: 30-37

Verse 34: “He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task”.

As this chapter in Mark about the signs of the end of the age comes to a close, Jesus reminds his disciples and followers that no one knows when he will return. Even Jesus himself does not know when. Therefore he says, “Be on guard! Be alert”! As is often the case when we wait and wait and wait, our focus or attention can lag or fade. If I, for example, were to plan to run a marathon in October 2022, I probably would not start training today. If were planning to enter the next race as soon as I were able to run 26.2 miles, then I would start training today. That is Jesus’ point in this section of Mark 13.

In verse 34 Jesus says, “He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task”. About 2,000 years ago Jesus left this temporary house on earth to spend eternity with his father in heaven. Jesus left us each with a task or a role to play. These are the gifts of the Spirit that we read about yesterday in 1st Corinthians 1. Some are pastors, some are teachers. Some are encouragers, some are prayer warriors. Some are missionaries, some are singers. Some are greeters, some are readers. Some are audio-visual folks, some are cooks and bakers. There are many roles to play in the family of God, in the church. When the owner of this house returns, will he find us sleeping? Or will we be actively living out our faith, serving God and one another, ready to meet him at any moment?

Hour by hour, day by day, life by life, may we be ready to serve the Lord, his church, and his world.

Prayer: Lord of all, help me to always be ready to do your will. As you have gifted me, so may I serve. Put me to doing, put me to all things, put me to nothing. Use me as you will, O Lord. Amen.