pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Hearing and Doing

Reading: James 1: 22-27

Verse 22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

In today’s part of our James passage for this week, we dive into one of the realities of the faith: following Jesus all of the time is hard. There are many voices and many interests competing for our time, our attention, and our devotion. Faith is but one of them. As a couple of small examples, how many times have you caught yourself mid-sermon thinking about your to-do list or next activity for Sunday afternoon? Or… have you ever heard a message about God’s love and grace only to scream at the innocent but rambunctious children on the drive home?

In verse 22 James says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Don’t show up for an hour on Sunday and forget all you’ve heard as you exit the church. Don’t get up early to read your Bible if you do not allow the words you read to change you. Don’t ‘practice’ your faith without applying it to your real life. Don’t fool yourself or others into thinking you’re all ‘religious’ when you’re just going through the motions. James’ illustration is the man who looks in the mirror then immediately forgets what he looks like. Sometimes, though, we don’t even get this far. Sometimes we don’t want to look, to allow our faith to speak into our lives because we either won’t like what we see or we don’t want to make that change. Other times we just look quickly, not really wanting to truly see. We don’t want to address that wrong or we don’t really want to deal with that person just then.

James calls us to look “intently into the perfect law” so that we can really hear and actually do God’s will, being blessed in the process. This is because there is a freedom to fully living out one’s faith. There are no stones left unturned, no ‘other shoes’ to drop. Living faithfully, there are no woulda-coulda-shoulda regrets. To really commit to who we are in Christ and then to go for living into that – it’s freeing. Cares and concerns for the things of this world fall away. Again, it is not easy, but how it is freeing!

Our passage closes with a frequent topic for James: the tongue. He really delves into it in chapter three. Today’s context comes within the framework of doing, not just hearing the word. To fully live into our faith we would take great care in how we talk to others. When we fail to be kind and gentle in our speech, we do harm. If we allow our tongue to harm others, then we are deceiving ourselves, our “religion is worthless.” By our very words we should set ourselves apart from the world. Deceiving ourselves and others is not how God calls us to live. James reminds us of part of our call: to care for the helpless and to remain unstained by the world and its ways.

In word and deed, may all we say and do bring glory to God.

Prayer: Lord God, it is so easy to drift spiritually, to allow the things of the world to creep in, to let those words slip from our lips. We are called to a walk of faith that is 24/7. It is not a walk of convenience or comfort. So gird up my heart, fill me with the power of the Holy Spirit, keep me ever true to you, O God. May it be so. Amen.


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Attentive

Reading: Psalm 130: 1-2

Verse 2: “Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications”.

Photo credit: Jon Tyson

The Psalm for today begins at a place of need, a place of hurting – “out of the depths”. This is a place that we’ve all prayer from. Whether death or illness or persecution or unwanted change or… we have felt alone and called out in desperation, “Lord, hear my voice”. And then we’ve longed for a response. At times it’s been immediate. God’s presence becomes tangible, the doorbell rings and God has sent someone heading our way, a song comes on the radio. At times we wait a bit. We do not feel abandoned yet we do not have an answer right then. So we keep on praying and then God answers one day – in a text or note or call, in a verse or devotional that we read, in something we hear at church. Most often in these moments we realize that God has been there all along. We just needed eyes to see or ears to hear.

Some of the time, though, it seems to become an extended period feeling alone, isolated, without love or support. We pray along the lines of the psalmist, crying out, “Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications”. Long enough, O God! Hear the words of my prayer, the need of my heart! We think, if you’ll but hear you’ll listen, you’ll respond God, you’ll be attentive to what I want or think I need. In these moments it is hard to trust, to wait on God. Just as God is faithful, so too must we be faithful. We must be diligent in our prayers, faithful in our daily walk with the Lord, attentive to our place within the relationship. In his time, God will respond, he will attend to our prayers. The Lord will not pass us by. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, in my moments of desperation first lift up me trust in you. Remind me of your faithfulness that has come again and again so that I too may be faithful. I trust in you alone. Amen.


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Go, Trust, Hear

Reading: Psalm 138

Verse 3: “When I called, you answered me”.

Photo credit: Alex Woods

David begins Psalm 138 with a declaration of praise. He will praise God with all of his heart and will sing of God before the “gods”. Even in David’s day there were many gods – the false gods of the pagan people all around Israel as well as the gods of this world that the Israelites chased: power, wealth, recognition. To declare one’s allegiance to God in the face of all these other gods is an important statement to make. David goes on to identify God’s love and faithfulness as the focus of his praise. These characteristics of God drive his relationship with God and will drive ours as well.

In verse three David gives us an example of how he experiences these two characteristics. Here he writes, “When I called, you answered me”. When David turned to God in prayer, God was there, God responded. This too is driven by love and faithfulness – both in David’s prayer and in God’s connection with David. We too can experience this intimacy with God. We too can turn to God and enter into his presence. We too can receive answers from God.

In the remainder of verse three we see the result of this intimate connection with God: “you made me bold and stouthearted”. David’s faith grew, deepened, was strengthened. As David did, may we also go to God in prayer, trusting in God’s love and faithfulness, waiting upon his presence. May we have ears to listen and hearts to perceive God’s response.

Prayer: Loving and faithful God, I praise you this day! You are ever attentive, always present. Continue to strengthen and deepen my relationship with you and my walk of faith. Give me patience to trust into your love, to lean into your presence. Amen.


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Set Aside

Reading: Psalm 4

Verse 1: “Answer me when I call to you… Be merciful to me and hear my prayer”.

Photo credit: Jordan Wozniak

In Psalm 4 David cries out to God. He is direct and open and honest. He begins the Psalm pleading with God to answer when he calls, to hear his prayer, and to grant him mercy. There is a trust that David has in God. Over the course of his lifetime David has experienced God’s faithfulness and mercy, his grace and love. As we journey in faith with God, we experience this same building up of trust in God.

David is distressed by those in Israel who have turned from God. They are chasing after false gods. David calls them “delusions”. David could be writing these words today to the many people who chase after worldly things – power, acclaim, wealth, popularity. David asks, “How long”? How long will they chase after these delusions? None of these things last; none of them bring peace of heart and mind, none bring true joy or lasting contentment.

David reminds these lost souls, “Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself”. This is not just for today or even for next year. It is forever. God wants all people to love him more than these earthly charms. Yet some do not recognize the Lord of life, the giver of peace. As children of God, we have been set apart. Yes, the things of this world still draw us in, still call out to us. But the power of the Holy Spirit is greater, God’s love for us is stronger. In faith may we remember God’s righteousness and mercy, being strengthened for each day. Being strengthened may we live as a child of God each day, set apart for his purposes. As such, may we be in the world but not of it.

Prayer: Father God, strengthen me for the battles ahead. Be they big or small, walk with me. Guide me thoughts, words, and actions. May self be set aside to bring you all the glory. Amen.


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Fellowship with the Light

Reading: 1st John 1: 1-5

Verse 3: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us”.

In his first letter John proclaims the life of Jesus and the eternal life of Jesus. Just as he did in his gospel, John begins our passage today by reminding us that Jesus Christ was present with God at the beginning, in the creation of the world. John goes on to state that he himself has heard, seen, and even touched the physical Jesus. John did so for three years as a follower of Jesus. He was also blessed to see, hear, and touch the resurrected Jesus, “the eternal life”. John shares all of this firsthand evidence to let his readers know that Jesus was really real and that the resurrection really happened.

There is a point to John’s sharing of these facts. In verse three he writes, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us”. John shares his experiences with Jesus so that we too may know Jesus and can have fellowship “with us”. John goes on to define “us” in the next verse. Fellowship is not just with John or with the community of faith, but it is also with God the Father and with Jesus Christ, his Son. Christian fellowship always includes the divine. Without this holy presence we are simply friends gathering for a social function.

Much of the world prefers to function on this surface level – pleasant hellos and how are yous, general acceptance, polite conversations… Deadening all this is the constant noise and buzz of information that we seem to prefer to live amidst. It is refreshing to pause and to feel and hear John’s excitement surrounding his real experience with Jesus Christ. It is inviting. This shines out in verse five where John writes, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all”. There is no noise, no buzz. The light is clear and bright. In the light we can see things as they are. It is easy to understand what we touch and are touched by. In the light, our journey of faith follows a clear path, easily seen as we study and learn about Jesus Christ. It is in this process that we too see, hear, and touch Jesus himself. As knowledge leads to belief, we are increasingly seen, touched by, and heard by Jesus the divine. Our fellowship with him deepens and our joy is ever made more complete. Thanks be to God for our fellowship with the light!

Prayer: Lord of life, continue to draw me into your son Jesus. As I walk each day, help me to see, hear, and touch Jesus both in my times of prayer and study and in my encounters with others in the world. To God be the glory! Amen.


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The Only Forever

Reading: Isaiah 40: 21-26

Verse 26: “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these”?

The section that we will focus on today and tomorrow is titled “Comfort for God’s People” in my Bible. The Israelites have experienced defeat and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Many have been taken into exile. Life feels chaotic and out of control. Many of the Israelites feel abandoned by God and they are questioning their faith. People today feel many of these things. Even though we cannot compare these events that happened 2,700 years ago to today, we can learn from them, we can grow in our faith because of our learning.

Our passage today begins with some questions: “Do you not know? Have you not heard”? Isaiah reminds us right away that since the beginning of time God has sat enthroned over the earth. The one who stretched out the heavens “brings princes to naught” and reducers leaders to “nothing”. The Babylonians, this four or eight year cycle – this too will pass. In the big picture, this ever remains the pattern. In God’s timeline rulers change “no sooner than they were planted”. Today our cycle are even short relative to our average lifespan. The forty or so years in exile was a long time to endure. One can understand why they were struggling with their faith, with their trust in God.

Encouraging the Israelites and us to see the bigger truth, in verse 26 Isaiah guides: “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these”? In four, eight, or even forty years, the stars will still be shining. The one who created each and knows them all by name will still be enthroned over all the earth. God is the only forever. May we trust in our God.

Prayer: Eternal one, thank you for the reminder today. All this earthly stuff, really small potatoes. The bigger bumps in the road – much less noticable when walking closely with you. You who holds the whole world in the palm of your hand – you hold me too. Thank you. Amen.


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Listen and Learn

Reading: 1st Samuel 3: 1-20

Verse 8: “Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy”.

On Monday I focused in on the call part of this passage. Just like Samuel, we all have a story of how God calls us. Samuel might not have known his call story if not for Eli. At this point, Eli is like Samuel’s father figure. Eli has raised Samuel since he was weaned from Hannah. Eli has been serving God a long time and has taught Samuel much, but “Samuel did not yet know the Lord”. Samuel knows who God is and knows a lot about God, but he does not know God. The head knowledge has not yet become heart wisdom. It is Eli that perceives that God is calling Samuel. Eli’s willingness to allow God to speak through another is a testament to his trust in God and to the love and trust that he has in Samuel. It is an example of humble servant leadership.

When Samuel does invite God to speak, the words are difficult to hear. Destruction will fall upon Eli’s household because Eli’s sons are “contemptible” and because Eli failed to “restrain them”. In the morning Eli presses Samuel, wanting to know what God said, probably sensing the bad news. Samuel speaks truth to Eli. Eli accepts the words, humbly acknowledging God’s goodness. I cannot imagine how hard it was for Samuel to say these words to Eli. Yet Samuel loves and trusts Eli enough to tell him.

Both Eli and Samuel understood that there was something bigger than themselves. Both Eli and Samuel loved and trusted God, as well as each other, enough to listen and to learn from each other. To listen and learn from each other. To understand the bigger picture. How our land needs these skills today! Both sides are so polarized that they cannot even hear each other, never mind listening to one another. Listening is essential. It is the only way to discern a good and right way forward. Yes, we can continue to plod down the road we are on, filled with self and contempt and half truths and rancor. We can walk the road of Eli’s household. Or we can choose a better way, one covered in love and peace and trust. These things will not come easy. Surrender never does. Elevating other over self, walking the path of unity and compromise, fighting for our way not my way – all are the work of a humble servant. May it be so Lord. Heal our land.

Prayer: Lord, the wind is howling here in South Dakota. Things are shaking and groaning. It reminds me of our nation right now. The winds can fan the flames or they can usher in something new. Bring a new sense of humble servant leadership to the land, blowing away the chaff. Bless us, O God. Amen.


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In Our Hearts

Reading: Psalm 139: 1-6

Verse 1: “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me”.

Psalm 139 speaks of the intimate and personal connection that we each have with God. The psalmist begins by telling of the heart and mind connection, perhaps because this is the most important. In the first verse David writes, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me”. It is both scary and comforting to really consider what this means. On the one hand, nothing is hidden from God. Our unkind or selfish or evil thoughts are all known by God. On the other hand, when we are hurting so bad that we cannot even form thoughts, God knows our pain and grief. I would not have it any other way. I can work on the condition of my heart and on the words of my mouth. I am helpless at times and then only God can help.

The tongue is difficult to tame. It is a good reminder to know that “before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely”. While it is still ruminating or festering or boiling in my heart, God knows the words I am pondering speaking. This is as unfiltered as it gets. It is God knowing me at my very core. It is where we are our most authentic selves. If we want to be right with God, we must begin by being right with God in our hearts – in the place no one else in the world truly sees or knows anything about.

It is in the secret place of our heart that we most need God’s guidance and direction, conviction and restoration. In public we tame our tongue to avoid looking bad or to not hurt others… This is good. But in the secret place we need help. The voice of the Holy Spirit is what will refine us and form us more and more into God’s image – if we but listen and hear. The Holy Spirit is God’s truth and love living inside our hearts. It is what will “hem me in – behind and before” if we allow it to. The voice, the nudge, the whisper, the shove – these will help keep us on the narrow road if we allow them to. David speaks of this in the rest of verse five, where he writes, “you have laid your hand upon me”. May we be aware of those thoughts rumbling in our hearts, feeling the hand of God upon us. And may we be aware of his truth and love welling up in us, also feeling the hand of God upon us. In all we think and say, may we be led by God.

Prayer: Loving and kind God, help to form my very thoughts. Begin them in a place of love and truth. Guide them to come forth in kindness and with compassion. May all I think and say be pleasing in your sight, bringing you the glory. Amen.


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Ascribe Glory and Strength to the Lord!

Reading: Psalm 29: 1-4

Verse 2: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name”.

David begins our Psalm for today ascribing glory and strength to the Lord. To ascribe means to give credit to or to attribute to. In verse two, then, David is asking us to attribute to the Lord the “glory due his name”. Connecting into the Genesis passage from yesterday, thinking of the creation story, it is easy to attribute glory and strength to the Lord. God spoke and created the world and all that is in it. Each day ends with the pronouncement that it is “good”. As David calls us to “worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness” it is easy to do so with the creation story fresh in our minds.

In the Psalm David hears the voice of God in the thunder that is over the waters. During a good thunderstorm one can certainly hear and feel the power in the thunder claps. It is a good physical representation of the power of God. In the remainder of the Psalm, which we will turn to tomorrow, the voice of God breaks cedars and shakes the desert, again revealing the awesome power found in the voice of God. In verse four David writes, “The voice of the Lord is powerful… is majestic”. Yes it is! All praise and glory and honor are yours, O Lord!

Volume does not always equal strength. Thinking of the power found in the voice of the Lord, my mind is drawn to a passage found in Luke 8. A fierce storm arises and the disciples fear drowning. They awaken Jesus and with a few words he brings total calm to the lake. In 1 Kings 18 the power of God is shown as Elijah calls upon God to turn the people’s hearts back to God. In response to his quietly spoken prayer in verse 37, the fire of God falls from heaven, consuming both the sacrifice and the altar. Having spoken, the people do turn back to God.

Yes, the voice of the Lord is powerful and majestic. It speaks out in many ways – in the thunder and the fire, in the softly spoken words, and, even now in the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. As you ponder today how you hear the voice of God, may you join David, ascribing glory and strength to the Lord.

Prayer: Dear Lord, I have felt your power in the spoken word, in the written word, and in the sung word. I have felt your strength in times of testimony and witness and in the softly spoken words beside the deathbed and at the grave. Your Spirit’s voice has brought me calm in the storm and peace in the chaos. Thank you for your words spoken to me, always in love. Amen.


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Calling Them to Come

Mark 1: 1-5

Verse 4: “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.

Last week we began Advent with the end of the story – the end of the age when Jesus will return in power and might. This week we jump back to the beginning of the story, with the ministry of John the Baptist. Mark begins his gospel quoting from two of the many Old Testament passages that point to Jesus Christ, the full revelation of God. Mark describes John’s ministry simply: “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. John set up outside of the temple, outside of Jerusalem – outside of all civilization for that fact. He was calling people back to a simpler way of life from a simple place: the wilderness. It was not a place to come and stay. It was a place to come to, to do what needed done, and to return home from.

As I try to imagine John out there in the wilderness, my mind thinks of “bullhorn guy”. He is that person standing on the street corner, yelling at people through a bullhorn, telling folks that they will end up in hell because of their sins. People tend to go the long way around street corners such as these. We, in general, do not like to consider our sins, much less confess them in public on a street corner. Although the basic message is the same – repent of your sins – John must have been as far from the bullhorn guy as one could get. Mark writes, “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to see him”. There were, of course, some curious folks who went out to see what all this was about. These folks appear in our churches once in a while. A bump in life leads them to check out this faith thing. Others come to appease a significant other or their family at the holidays. The religious leaders showed up too. Not to be prepared or to confess or to be baptized, but to assess the threat to their own power. A lot of people were going to see John. But most people, large numbers of people, went to see John to be made right with God. In verse five we read, “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him”. They emerged from the waters ready to live a new, more faithful life.

There was a hunger to be close to God, to be a better person, to live a more holy life. This is what drew people out into the wilderness to hear John’s message and to be changed. John called the people to more. As we too live out our days, may our witness call people to more. This day and each day, may our friends and neighbors, our co-workers and classmates – may they see the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christ within us, calling them to more.

Prayer: Lord God, may I be an example of your will and way. May all I do and say and think point people to you and to the saving relationship that you offer in and through Jesus Christ. Amen.