pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Perfect Love and Fear

Reading: 1st John 4: 16-21

Verse 18: “There is no fear in love… perfect love drives our fear”.

Photo credit: Christopher Beloch

Today we continue in love as John further develops the connection between God and love. In the opening verse for today John writes, “God is love”. It is a simple yet profound statement. It is the truest and best description of God. God = love! John goes on to write, “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him”. Now, some may be thinking, ‘Love, love, love, … blah, blah, blah…’. Yes, faith is about more than saying we love God or that God is love. Yes, faith is more than believing God’s grace will forgive anything and everything because God loves us so much. These shallow or limited understandings of faith fall far short of the example set by Jesus.

When we love God and the other as Jesus loved these we allow love to guide all we say and do. Following Jesus’ model, love always places our relationship with God and our relationships with one another ahead of our relationship with self. When we fail to love as Jesus loved we have elevated love of self above all else and we slip into lesser emotions – lust, envy, greed, jealousy, pride, judging… Our sin works to separate us from God and from one another, sometimes even from ourselves. Here the guilt and shame can work to bring up fear and doubt in our hearts and minds. We fear that God’s love is smaller than our sin; we doubt that God still loves us that much. In those moments we need the Holy Spirit to remind us of John’s words that we read in verse 18: “There is no fear in love… perfect love drives our fear”. John acknowledges that our fear is rooted in being punished because of our sin. Here we reveal our humanity. John calls us beyond that; he calls us to “perfect love”. That is God’s love, not our love. God’s perfect love says the price has already been paid. God’s perfect love drives out the fear and guilt and shame, again reminding us that the cross says his love is greater than all of these emotions, greater than all of our imperfections.

This perfect love also calls us to more. As we live deeper into the perfect love of God, our love grows and is refined. God’s perfect love empowers us more and more to do as God commands: love one another. The deeper we grow into God’s love, the more we reflect that love towards others. Each and every day may we walk in God’s perfect love, bringing God the glory as we spread that love.

Prayer: Lord God, when my mind slips into things lesser than your love, remind me by the power of the Holy Spirit just how much you love me. Remind me again and again of your perfect love, of your no-matter-what love. Lead me to walk in that love. Amen.


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Willing to Die?

Reading: John 12: 20-26

Verse 24: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”.

Photo credit: Noemi Pongracz

Our passage begins with some Greeks wanting to see Jesus. They are probably in town for the Passover and are curious about this man. Perhaps they were in the crowd that waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna”! Maybe they’ve just heard a few stories – snipets of his teachings or whispers of miracles. These Greeks know enough to want to know more.

Jesus begins by announcing that his time has come. Soon he will be glorified. Jesus wants them to know that not only he will soon die but that all who follow will also pay a price as well. In verse 24 Jesus says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”. Jesus is paralleling his physical death with the emotional, cultural, spiritual… deaths that all followers of Christ are called to. During the season of Lent the question that Jesus might ask of us today is this: What kernels of wheat do we need to allow to fall to the ground? Is it being greedy with my money? Is it being selfish with my time? Is it judging those who are different than me? What is your kernel of wheat that you need to let go of so that you and those you meet can experience true life?

As a society we have come to see humility and death as the enemies – physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. We do all we can to stave off death. This is the right and godly thing to do with a child or young parent or many others. Yet for each of us there comes a time when our physical death is a welcome friend. As a society we look down on humility. Instead we are taught to be strong, to be independent, to work for success in life. We’re taught that once we accumulate these things, all will be good. Until we do. Then we learn that meaning and purpose and love and contentment and peace and joy and hope cannot be earned or bought. Living as a person of the world, these eternal gifts are elusive.

We must be willing to die to pride, fear, arrogance, anxiety, selfishness, doubt, greed, lust, envy, racism, jealousy, judging, anger, prejudice, worry, elitism, injustice… as we seek to follow Jesus. As Jesus says in verse 25, we must “hate his [or her] life in this world”. Only then will we be willing and able to die to self and to begin to walk as a disciple of Jesus Christ, following him daily and one day into eternal life. May you and I be willing to do the hard work of this call to die to self. May the Lord bless our journeys.

Prayer: Loving God, your Spirit leads and guides me daily, holding up to me those kernels that still need to die. I’ve plucked off leaves now and then. Help me to get to the roots. For those things that still separate me from you and from others, grant me the strength to die to these barriers and sins. Thank you God. Amen.


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Like a Mighty River

Reading: Ezekiel 34: 20-24

Verse 22: “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another”.

In today’s reading Ezekiel turns his focus to those who are leading, to those who are in charge. The Babylonians were powerful. They exerted their might and took many Israelites into captivity. In exile, the Israelites lived in a society that favored the privileged and wealthy, that allowed greed to exploit the weak, that turned a blind eye to injustice. Those who were wealthy, greedy, unjust are the “fat sheep” that Ezekiel refers to. As one considers our nation today, Ezekiel could very well be writing in 2020.

The ways of greed and inequity and oppression are not the ways that God intends for us to live. God therefore pledges to judge between the fat and lean sheep. God sees how the wealthy and powerful “shove with flank and shoulder”, forcing their agendas, manipulating the weaker, the less powerful. God will intervene, God will put an end to the sins being committed against his children. In verse 22 we read, “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another”.

Plunder is an interesting choice of words. It maybe feels like an old term, an outdated term. Yet it is very relevant today. A man in our community invested many years earning an advanced degree in college. He is a skilled professional in the medical field. The major corporation that he works for unilaterally cut all people in his profession to 30 hours a week. He, like his colleagues, now has no benefits. This corporation has plundered these people.

God promises to save his flock, to judge between the sheep. There is a promise to end greed, oppression, and injustice. To those living in exile, to those living in unjust systems today, these words speak hope. To the fat sheep, these words should be a warning, a call towards self-reflection. But only the sheep with ears to hear will be changed.

Just as God sent Ezekiel to the exiles in Babylon, we read that God will send David to the Israelites who are surrounded by enemies, who live daily under threat of assault. In time God will come in the flesh, bringing hope and salvation to the people oppressed by the Romans and their own religious leaders. Jesus charged his followers to do as he did: feed the hungry, tend to the sick and lonely and imprisoned, clothe the naked, unbind the captives, bring sight to the blind. It is no wonder many Jews thought Jesus the second coming of Ezekiel.

As we seek to do these things, to follow the example of Christ, we do so with the realization that they run counter to our culture, against the ways of greed and power, in defiance of the oppression and injustice that is too prevalent in our nation. May the Lord our God empower us as we seek to be light and love, peace and compassion, mercy and justice to the world.

Prayer: Lord God, give me feet to walk the narrow road, the hard path. Give me courage to stand for those who are weak, lean, powerful, voiceless. May your justice roll down like a mighty river. Amen.


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The Better Way

Reading: Matthew 13: 36-43

Verse 43: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father”.

As Jesus and the disciples return to the house once again they ask him to explain a parable. Jesus had just told a story about planting seeds and they needed help with the interpretation. Jesus explains that he is the sower, planting good seeds in people’s lives. He does this work in the world – everywhere he goes. At the same time, Satan is at work in the same world and even in the same people’s lives. Satan is planting seeds that grow into weeds. Each of us knows this very experience. Jesus plants seeds of love, hope, forgiveness… while Satan plants seeds of anger, jealousy, greed, hatred… Both are vying for control of the world and for every soul that inhabits the world. Both continue to till our soil, trying to secure our eternity.

Jesus reassures his followers that there is a plan. He, and probably they, already know that they are the servants – eager to be rid of all the evil in the world. So he first teaches patience and trust. God is in control. There will be a day when all is made right in the world. The final score will be God 1, Satan 0. Jesus explains that as he returns and makes all things new, the angels will come forth to harvest all the evil from the world. These will experience eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth in the fires of hell. And “then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father”. Those that have been faithful to Jesus Christ will dwell eternally with the Lord. They will live in his light and love, shining back Jesus’ light.

Sometimes it is difficult to see or live with the evils of the world. It is hard when evil people adversely impact our lives or the lives of those we love. Jesus dealt with and experienced evil during his time on earth. His interactions and clashes with non-believers and the religious leaders would be experiences setting an example for us. Jesus never retaliated or sought revenge or passed judgment. He offered love and sought understanding; he extended grace and worked to build relationship. As we seek to build the kingdom here on earth, may we be like Jesus, offering the better way.

Prayer: Lord God, when I encounter evil in whatever form it takes, may I be like Jesus. Guide me to first love and then to seek to build relationship and understanding. May I bear witness to my faith in Jesus Christ in all situations. Use me today to build your kingdom here. Amen.


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The Journey

Reading: Matthew 4: 1-11

Verse 10: “Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan’! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only'”.

After forty days of prayer and fasting Jesus is tempted by Satan. The tempting begins with the most immediate need: food. Not having eaten for a long time, Satan goes after the apparent weakness. We too face these attacks in our lives. For those living with hardships it can be easy to question God about how he is providing for food, shelter, clothing and other necessities. For those a little better off the new car or new home can be the provision that Satan dangles in front of the eyes. For some they may ask God why they only have a net worth of $3,000,000. Few are immune to the lures of want and greed. Contentment can be an elusive target.

Failing at the first attempt, Satan turns to testing Jesus’ relationship with God. Satan places Jesus in a position to throw himself off the tower. Let’s see if God will rescue you, Jesus. To turn away this temptation Jesus reminds Satan that we are not to test God. But oh how we can test God. Maybe it is with the crazy physical things we do. It could be reckless living or excessive consumption. It could be willful disobedience to see if God really loves us. At times this can also manifest itself in times of trial or grief. We ask or wonder why we are going through something; we wonder why it goes on and on. These thoughts are testing God or questioning God’s love for us, his plans for our lives.

When this does not work either, Satan offers Jesus the supreme enticement: power. Some crave all-out, total power over all aspects of life. Some just like to be in control of their own lives and decisions. Most of us fall somewhere in between. The lengths we will go to to attain or maintain our desired level of power can vary, but too often we can rationalize away whatever we seem necessary to reach that goal. Along the way we can bow down to any number of idols or false gods. In each case we are ultimately choosing to put self and our will ahead of God and his will. Jesus knew the only correct order: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only”.

The Christian journey is not easy. Satan is ever at work. To stay the course requires obedience, faith, and trust in God alone. May God ever be our companion on the journey.

Prayer: Loving God, just as you and your Spirit were with Jesus as he faced temptations, so too be with me. I am weak and Satan seems to know the chinks in my armor. Stand guard in those places, Lord. Be my shield and defender as I work to die to those sins. Build up my hope and faith in you alone. Amen.


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Open to Others

Reading: Luke 12: 13-21

Verse 15: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions”.

On its most basic level the parable of the rich man is about greed and the negative decisions it can lead to. In the parable a bumper crop triggered the man’s “mine” instincts. He decided he had to build bigger barns to store his new crop. He coveted his grain because in it he saw not only financial security but also a chance to take some time to enjoy life. He was very focused on self.

Possessions and wealth are not the only things we can feel greed over and can seek to covet. This morning I read about a small neighborhood church in a changing community that decided to take a chance and reach out. Instead of holding onto their church, they opened their doors and invited their new immigrant neighbors inside. They invited them in and began praying with them – to find homes and jobs and for comfort to their loneliness. The praying led to relationships and that small church grew as their new friends became brothers and sisters in Christ.

Some churches could see new faces as threats to what they have and know. In many cases immigrants are cast in an “us” and “them” scenario. And immigrants are not the only people groups that can be seen in an “us” and “them” framework. When we create perceived differences between ourselves and another group of people, we are denying that they too were created in the image of God. When we allow greed to put up a barrier between us and our neighbors, we are holding tightly to what we have always known or had and are not allowing God’s love to work in our neighborhood, in our community, in our world, or in our own heart.

The rich man was focused only on self. He could not see all he had to offer his neighbors. His greed prevented him from seeing beyond himself and from experiencing God’s love at work. In the end, what good did all that grain do him? Storing up and holding things for ourselves – goods, money, time, compassion, prayers, empathy, a place at the table – does not make us rich towards God either. May we all learn a little from the rich man and from the church that opened its doors to those outside. May we practice what we learn.

Prayer: Lord God, who is out there today for me to engage? Lead me to share your love with another today. Soften my heart and open my eyes, hands, and feet. Amen.


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Spirit Led

Reading: Galatians 5: 1 & 16-25

Verse 25: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit”.

The passage for today contrasts the fruit of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. In many ways these are polar opposites. The works of the flesh are the selfish desires that we all have inside and that lead us to living a life that is not in alignment with God’s plans and purposes for our lives. On the other side of the spectrum are the works of the Spirit. When we live in alignment with these godly things we produce good fruit.

The works of the flesh are many. We are each familiar with these things. Paul provides a list in verses 19-21 that are “obvious”, to use Paul’s word. This list of sins contains many that most of us struggle with: jealousy, selfish ambition, envy – just to name a few. We each could add to the list as well: pride, lust, greed, and gluttony – again, just to name a few. Paul warns us that those living this way “will not enter the kingdom of God”. It is the reality that we all live within and that we all struggle with because we are creatures of the flesh.

Even though we are of the flesh, our inheritance does not lie here on earth. As heirs with Jesus Christ, we are children of God. When we keep ahold of this side of our character, then we are led by the Spirit. There is still this conflict within us, but we are not fighting the war alone. We are not even in charge. When we live by the Spirit our lives are different. Instead of the fruit produced by the flesh, we produce Holy Spirit fruit. Instead of guilt and shame and doubt and fear and condemnation we experience love and joy and patience and kindness and… The fruit is both within and without. When led by the Spirit we produce good fruit for the building of our faith and for the building of the kingdom of God here on earth. Therefore brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, “since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit”. May it be so!

Prayer: Lord Jesus, my battle within is almost constant. But the presence of your Holy Spirit is always constant. Attune me better to the lead of the Holy Spirit so that the fruit of my life may ever be pleasing to your sight. Amen.


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All Over Town

Reading: Luke 8: 37-39

Verse 39: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you”.

Fear has been a common theme this week. Elijah’s fear drove him into the wilderness. Fear runs throughout this passage from Luke 8. Fear led the townspeople to first bind the demon-possessed man and then to drive him away when he kept breaking the chains. The demons inside the man fear Jesus more than another fear – being sent back the the Abyss. The townspeople fear Jesus, asking him to leave rather than risk the change he may work in their lives. The man who was healed also faces fear once again. It is the same fear that Elijah must have felt after he encountered God and was being sent back to the work of prophet.

The man only sits for a little while at Jesus’ feet before those who had driven him away come to drive Jesus away. He seeks a new community with Jesus and his disciples, begging to go with them. But God has a different plan for his newfound life. Instead of coming along, Jesus says to him, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you”. Jesus reminds the man of the power of God that has just brought him freedom. The man who had long been captive to demons was now free. The power of God is enough to lead him to do just what Jesus asked him to do. The man returned to his town and “told all over town how much Jesus had done for him”.

The truth of a changed life makes a powerful witness. The words of healing and restoration that come from the one who was made whole again can change lives. We have all found freedom in Christ. Our story may not be about being freed from something that possessed us, but it might be. It might be about the freedom we found in surrendering control to Jesus. It might be about the new life we found when we let go of our anger or pride or greed. We have all found freedom in Christ. We all have a story to tell that shares how much Jesus has done for us. May we claim our story and may we too share it all over town.

Prayer: God, thank you for grabbing ahold of me and making me new again. I was once lost, but you found me too. May I ever share the good news of what Jesus has done and continues to do for me. Amen.


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The Good

Reading: James 3: 9-12

Verse 11: “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring”?

James wants us to be consistent in our Christian walk. He encourages us to be faithful all if our days. But this is not the behavior that he always sees exhibited. We too struggle with this so today’s passage applies well to life as a Christian in 2018. Truth be told, it applied well in 407, 1268, 2001… and will apply well in 2047, 2206…

James uses some good examples to follow up his main point. We do use the same tongue to praise God and to curse our fellow men – “who have been made in God’s image”. We cannot love the Creator and hate His creation. That is as crazy, James says, as expecting fresh water out of a salty spring or figs from a grapevine. If in nature none of this occurs, then how can it occurs in us, the masterpiece of God’s creation?

If we are striving to live a Christian life, I do not think we want to intentionally cause harm to others. We do not wake up in the morning looking to curse at and fight with others. But we are imperfect beings living in a broken world. We will cross paths with people who hurt or wrong us or others. Satan causes greed and jealousy and pride and… to drive a lot of people’s decisions. Into all of this we are called to be light and love. When we are hurt or wronged, we are to handle it with grace and love and forgiveness. When we stand against injustice or bias or prejudice… we are to do do with peace and understanding and empathy. We are called to walk alongside those who are hurting and broken, bringing a burst of joy and mercy and compassion.

Sometimes it is hard. In those moments we must really search deep within the other to find the Creator. We must be patient and must persevere to find that which God created and seek to draw that out. There is good within all of us, just as there is evil. As followers of Jesus Christ may we work to be and bring forth the good in us and in the world.

Lord, give me patience when I want to react and perseverance when I want to just give up. Give me mercy when I want to judge. Give me grace when you just want to condemn. Most of all, give me eyes to see you in all and a heart to love as you love. In His name, amen.


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Evildoers and the Poor

Reading: Psalm 14

Verse 6: “Evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge”.

The second half of Psalm 14 speaks of evildoers. These are the folks who will do anything to become more powerful or wealthier. In order for anyone to gain more power or wealth, someone has to have less. What was true in David’s time remains true today.

Verse four speaks of evildoers as people who “devour” God’s people as “men eat bread”. In this verb there is an implication of greed and gluttony. It brings to mind the memory of placing a pizza before a group of teenagers who had been eating backpacking food for a week. The pizza was gone in the blink of an eye and I could see the look of “more?” in their eyes. But the evildoers that David writes of are not seeing “real food” for the first time in a week. They are folks who will eat and eat and eat – not because they are hungry but because they can. The lust for power and money is never satisfied. Getting some just wets the appetite for getting more.

Verse six reads, “Evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge”. For those living in poverty, it is an enending battle to simply stay afloat, nevermind getting ahead. Decisions like buying gas to get to work or buying food for the kids competes with decisions to buy your medication or to pay the electric bill. It is a world of decisions foreign to most of us. These thoughts draw me back to a prayer walk we were on during a mission trip to Racine. A large pile of belongings was soaking up a heavy rain on the curbside. The pastor explained that someone else had been evicted. Among the belongings was a mattress – no box spring or rails or frame. The mattress was all this person could scrape and save for thus far. It was now ruined because they chose another necessity over rent. Yes, there are legitimate reasons to evict someone and, yes, poor decisions could have led to the eviction. The deeper issues that need to be addressed are why the person cannot earn a living wage or find affordable housing.

Where do we fit into this world of evildoers? As Christians, we are called to stand with and for the poor and marginalized. We are called to speak out against low wages and other practices that intentionally and unintentionally keep the poor poor. We are also called to help alleviate suffering wherever we find it by feeding, clothing, visiting, teaching, training… May we each discern both the changes that need to happen and the differences we can each make in our neighborhoods and communities today. May it be so. Amen.