pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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“I am with You.”

Reading: Isaiah 43: 1-7

Verse 1: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.”

Photo credit: Tobias Rademacher

These past two years have been filled with fear, unknowns, angst, grief, anger, conflict, sorrow. Perhaps we’ve had others seasons filled with these things, but outside of the great world wars we have not experienced a prolonged difficult season like this. Isaiah speaks to a people who felt all of these emotions and maybe more. The Babylonians swept in like COVID, bring much sorrow and pain and… As their years in captivity drug on, the Israelites surely asked questions like, “How long?” and “When can we return to what was normal?” These are very much the questions of our day as well.

Into the anger and sorrow and unknown and everything else, God spoke these words through Isaiah: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” Into these powerful and very real emotions, God reminds the people: “I am with you. You are mine.” Yes, this is an unprecedented time, but God is with the Israelites. Yes, it’s starting to feel like forever, but it is not. Going on in verse two we read, “I will be with you.” Those waters and rivers that feel like they’ll sweep over you? “No, I am with you.” Those fires that feel like they will consume you? “No, I am with you. You are mine.” These words of reassurance and hope kept the people going in exile. It sustained them until this season passed.

As we near the two-year mark for this current pandemic, we too need the hear these words: “I am with you. You are mine.” We too need to claim these words, to cling to them, to write them on our hearts. May our trust and hope in the Lord drive away the fear. May God’s presence carry and sustain us as we walk forward in faith.

Prayer: Lord God, you have been faithful always – forever. You have calmed fears and brought peace. Your love has strengthened and encouraged. Be with us on this journey, walking with us day by day. Amen.


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God’s Peace

Reading: Philippians 4: 5-7

Verse 7: “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Photo credit: Ben White

Continuing in Philippians 4 today Paul first encourages us to let our gentleness shine out to all people. Being gentle is a way of being in the world that is noticeably different. The ways of the world are often aggressive, taking, toxic. Being gentle involves empathy, patience, consideration for the other. Being gentle exudes love.

Next Paul instructs us to take all things to God in prayer. He says don’t pause and be anxious first. Take it to God right away. Do not wait until after we’ve tried every solution or answer that we can. Take it to God in prayer right away. And don’t begin by unloading the problem or concern. Don’t just vent to God. Begin with thanksgiving. Start by reminding yourself of all that God has done – rejoice in that. With a heart and mind in the right place bring all the rest to God.

This short passage closes with the “why” – “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” It is something we do not understand. The burdens, the fears, the worries – the weight of that prayer focus – it suddenly feels lighter if not altogether gone. That is what passes our understanding. When we turn it over to God in prayer, God takes the weight off of us. This opens the door for us to trust more deeply in God. There God’s peace guards our hearts and minds. Thanks be to God for the peace that comes through steadfast prayer.

Prayer: Lord God, when I want to just rush on today, slow me down, help me to be kind and gentle with all I meet. Build up my prayer life – I want it to be my first response, my first option. In that place may your peace and love wash over me. Thank you, God. Amen.


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Reflect the Reign

Reading: Psalm 132: 10-18

Verse 13: “The Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling.”

Today we turn to the second half of Psalm 132. The main theme continues to be relationship. This section of the Psalm begins with the Davidic covenant – God’s promise to David that his descendant would be on the throne forever and ever. This promise would be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In verse thirteen we read, “The Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling.”

Many years after these words were written God incarnate came to Israel and dwelled among the people. Jesus came and revealed what God’s love looks like when lived out to the full. Jesus took God’s love out into the world. On the back roads, by the seashore, in the temple and synagogues, by wells, in homes and on hillsides – here Jesus met folks where and how they were. Whenever and wherever, he ministered to all he met. Jesus prayed, fasted, worshipped God. He also walked into valleys and dark places, sharing the hope and healing found in relationship with God. Here Jesus experienced the pain and suffering of the world. Here Jesus brought love, peace, comfort, and strength.

Today is “Reign of Christ” Sunday in many of our churches. As we end the Christian year and move towards Advent next Sunday, may we remember Jesus’ example of love and may we strive to live and love with Jesus Christ reigning on the throne of our hearts. In the interactions we have with friends and family and with the stranger and the outcast, may all we say and do reflect the reign of Jesus Christ in our lives.

Prayer: Lord God, may your reign in my life be more than words on a page. In my actions may others see your love being lived out. In my words may others hear your love being made known and shared. Fill me with your love and pour me out into the world. Amen.


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Size

Reading: Mark 12: 41-44

Verse 44: “They all gave our of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything.”

Photo credit: Freestocks

The focus in the second half of this week’s passage from Mark 12 centers around the temple offering boxes. The first part of this week’s passage was about the showy nature of the religious leaders. As Jesus and the disciples begin to observe those giving to the temple treasury certainly some were like their religious leaders, waiting until just the right time to slowly drop in their gift, maximizing the attention drawn to their coins clinking down the funnel shaped receptacle. Were the disciples impressed by the clatter some big gifts made? Were they making gestures or exchanging glances about one gift being bigger that another or vice versa? It’s hard to read a person’s heart or motivation in this moment so judgment, both good and bad, comes at a surface level.

Then a poor widow comes along. How do they know she is a widow or that she is poor? What about her indicated poverty or age? Unless you know the person these are again surface level judgments. As the woman walks by she gives two small coins. The words Mark uses are loaded. The wealthy “throw” in their gifts while the woman “puts in” her gift. These words draw us towards considering the condition of the hearts of the givers. Jesus speaks, clarifying the differences.

Knowing more than we could ever know about people’s hearts, Jesus notes that the woman “has put more into the treasury than all others.” But it was just two small coins. Jesus points out, “They all gave our of their wealth.” Not so with the woman. Jesus continues, “She, out of her poverty, put in everything.” The woman put it all on the line, giving in a way that required great trust in a way that demonstrated her intimate knowledge of God’s love for her. This is the core lesson of Jesus’ teaching. This story is not about the size of the monetary gift; it is about the size of our trust in God’s love. May our lives mirror this story.

Prayer: Lord God, bend my heart to you. In times when you call me to give – whether financial or time or some other way – may I be generous. Lead me to trust fully into where you are leading me. Amen.


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Practices of Grace

Reading: Mark 12: 38-40

Verse 38: “Watch out for the teachers of the Law…”

Today we tackle the first half of this week’s passage from Mark 12. In these verses Jesus critiques the behaviors or practices of the religious leaders. The religious leaders are “showy” – long robes, important seats and greetings, lengthy prayers. And, oh yes, they “devour widow’s houses.” Some used their positions of authority to secure large donations from vulnerable widows, leaving them poor.

When we read this passage I think we tend to think of ourselves as Jesus or at least in that role. We like to think that we’re not all that concerned about how others see us, respect us, interact with us. We like to think we’d sit or talk with anyone anytime. We like to think that we never get windy or boastful. Just last Sunday many of us checked a second or third time in the mirror to make sure we looked good for church. Many of us probably sat in the same seat again this week; a few might have been a little miffed if someone else was in your seat. You felt a little better and almost glad that they were in church to see a grandson receive his first Bible. Then, during coffee and cookie time, as someone else was sharing a story, you at least thought about sharing your own story, which was clearly better.

The religious leaders were great about practicing the trappings of religion and they knew the letters of the Law inside out. But that’s as far as it went. God wants us to practice the means of grace and to meditate on the word of God. God is pleased when we worship from the heart, when we serve out of love, when we spend time each day in prayer and in our Bibles. These practices of grace draw us closer to God and to neighbor, falling deeper in love with both. This is how we grow as we walk in faith. May it be so for us all.

Prayer: Lord God, when I’m tempted to go through the motions, when I’m motivated by self, remind me of how these things look to you. By the power of the Holy Spirit draw me away from being religious. Pull me deeper into faith. Amen.


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Eyes of Compassion

Reading: Ruth 3: 1-5

Verse 1: “My daughter, should I not try to find a home for you, where you will be provided for?”

Photo credit: Paz Arando

As the story of Naomi and Ruth continues to unfold they find a relative or kinsman named Boaz who has begun to watch out for them in small ways. He instructs his workers to intentionally leave some extra grain for Ruth to gather. He invites Ruth to stay with his workers, giving her some protection. She is able to gather an abundant amount of barley. When Naomi finds out why she has so much she notes Boaz’s kindness and generosity. As our passage begins, “one day” Naomi says to Ruth, “My daughter, should I not try to find a home for you, where you will be provided for?”

Naomi and Ruth were both widows without any male heirs. In Israel widows were among the most vulnerable of all in that society. They are both well aware of the fragility and danger of their situation. To be without, to live hoping to find enough to eat each day – this is a really hard way to exist. Because of the kindness, generosity, and protection that Boaz has shown to Ruth and to Naomi through Ruth, Naomi believes that he may be the one to provide a home for Ruth and for herself through Ruth.

The need that Naomi and Ruth feel to be safe, secure, provided for are needs we all feel. To know we have food, shelter, clothing… are common needs for us all. If we’ve ever lacked for safety or a sense of well-being we can relate to or identify with Naomi and Ruth. Today, in all of our communities, there are people who lack the basics, who do not feel safe, who do not feel cared for. Do we, like Boaz, take notice of the needs right there before our eyes? We know what it feels like to be in need. Do we allow this to open our eyes and heart to the needs around us? Do we, like this kinsman Boaz, find little ways to show kindness and love to those on the edges of society? As we see the world today, may we see it with eyes of compassion and love, seeking to insure that all feel safe and that all experience well-being. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to recognize the places and ways that I can meet needs, that I can help another feel safe and cared for. Guide me to see with eyes of love and compassion as I seek to be a kinsman to all people. Amen.


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Heart Turned to God

Reading: Psalm 146: 5-10

Verse 8: “The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord gives sight to the blind.”

Photo credit: Freestocks

The second half of our Psalm for this week encourages us to put our hope and trust in the Lord. The psalmist is drawing the attention of the Israelites to the Lord God. Throughout much of their history Israel has either been off in exile or has been surrounded by other tribes or nations. All around them have been people worshipping “gods” – Baal, Molech, Dagon, Asherah… The Israelites often needed reminders to stay faithful to the one true God.

Reading these ancient texts we can be tempted to look down upon the people who worshipped these gods carved out of wood or stone. We like to think we’re better than that. Yet we too need to be reminded often not to worship the gods of mOneY, sPoRts, poPuLarIty, pOWer, SeLf… These gods that consume lived all around us can be powerful influences on our lives if we do not remain steadfast in our faith. All of these gods gain strength when we turn our eyes and heart inward.

In verse eight we read, “The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord gives sight to the blind.” These false gods are like prison – one chases and chases after more and never quite finds enough. Peace, contentment, joy… remain elusive. In the Psalm we read of what consumes God’s heart: the oppressed and hungry, those bowed down, the alien and the fatherless and the widow. To love these as God loves them not only aligns us with God’s heart, it also de-aligns us from self and from the ways of the world. When we truly love the least of these we break our own attachments to money, power, popularity… Seeing these as a means to better the lives of others, we develop humble servant’s hearts. With hearts turned to God we are set free and are able to see as God sees and to love as God loves. With hearts turned towards God we too can sing, “Praise the Lord, and my soul. Praise the Lord.”

Prayer: Lord, use me each day as a conduit of your love. Transform my heart to be more like yours each day. With your love, may I be a humble servant in your kingdom. Amen.


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Shout It

Reading: Mark 10: 46-52

Verse 48: “Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted out all the more, ‘Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!'”

Throughout the gospels Jesus takes time often to interact with those on the margins and fringes of society. These acts of kindness and mercy built up his popularity. I’d imagine almost everyone had heard of Jesus and of the amazing teachings and healings that came from him. After spending some time in Jericho, Jesus and the disciples are leaving the city to continue their ministry. There is a new destination ahead.

Bartimaeus is blind, not deaf or mute. He hears a crowd coming along the road and he surmises that Jesus is passing by. Bartimaeus shouts out to get Jesus’ attention. But in verse 48 we read, “Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet.” The people around him want to quiet Bartimaeus. What would possibly lead people to prevent a man from potential healing? What would lead them to try and keep him in his disabled state? Sometimes we like to have people below us in society. They make us feel better about ourselves. Sometimes we don’t want the down and out to shout aloud – it reminds us of our call to care for the least of these. Sometimes we prefer for those in the margins and fringes to stay there. When they draw attention to their cause we become uncomfortable because the injustice or oppression or abuse tugs at our hearts, prompting us towards action.

Ignoring those around him, those trying to quiet him for whatever reason, Bartimaeus “shouted out all the more, ‘Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!'” In faith he seems the one that can heal him. In that same faith may we call out when we are in need, especially when we choose to be blind or mute or deaf to the ills and struggles around us. In that same faith may we choose to walk with and to support those in need of Jesus, our healer, our hope, our redeemer. In faith may it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, use me as a voice for the weak and powerless, for the outcast and marginalized. Make me quick to recognize their needs and steady to respond in love and compassion. As you have blessed me may I be a blessing to others. Amen.


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Sees All, Knows All

Reading: Hebrews 4: 12-13

Verse 13: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.”

Photo credit: Hermes Rivera

So far this week we have read about Job and David coming before God, offering bold prayers. There was lament in their prayers. But there was also a recognition that God could act or intervene on their behalf in restorative ways. Both also struggle to sense God’s presence. In today’s passage we read, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.” We know this is true. Job and David were bold approaching God knowing this truth as well. Can we approach with such boldness? Or do we have parts of ourselves that we do not really want God to see?

In Hebrews we read that the word of God is “active and alive… penetrating” and that it “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Job and David felt alone; they could not sense God’s presence. Here in the New Testament we read that God sees and knows all things, that the word of God judges our thoughts and attitudes. Nothing is hidden from God. Then why do we try to hide some things or feel unable to bring all things to God in prayer? It is not because we do not want to “lay bare” these things to God – God already sees and knows them! To take these things before God fully exposed them in our own hearts and minds. What then?! What then do we do with these ongoing struggles within, with these parts of ourselves that are not pleasing to God?

We begin by bringing them to God, by admitting our failures and shortcomings to ourselves and to God. We allow the living and active word of God to penetrate and separate us from the things of this world that we so closely cling to. We commit to turning from these things in our thoughts, attitudes, and actions. We pledge ourselves to a deeper walk of faith in and through Jesus Christ. Yes, God knows and sees all things. A faithful walk begins with a humble and repentant heart. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: God of all creation, make my heart right today. Draw out of me those things that hinder my walk with you. Empower me to admit them to myself so that the work of rooting them out may begin. Strengthen me for this hard work. Amen.


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Hard Heart… or Heart for God?

Reading: Mark 10: 1-12

Verse 5: “It was because your hearts were hard…”

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

Today’s passage in Mark is typical of the ‘conversations’ that the religious leaders had with Jesus. Today’s conversation focuses on the topic of divorce. This was a topic widely debated and interpreted since the time of Moses. Jesus quotes from the beginning times, in Genesis, lifting marriage to a lifelong covenant as the two “become one flesh.” In Deuteronomy 24:1 the Law allows for a man to write a certificate of divorce if his wife “becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her.” At the time, this usually applied to cases of sexual immorality. However, in Deuteronomy 22 the universal punishment for all consensual sex outside of marriage is stoning to death for both parties. If these laws were followed, then divorce caused by sexual immorality would be unnecessary. The muddy waters around the topic of divorce have made it fertile ground for interpretation and debate. For example, in the Mishnah section of the Talmud, a book containing authoritative interpretation of the Law, one rabbi writes that divorce is permissable only for sexual immorality and another rabbi writes that divorce is permissable for something as trivial as burning supper. So for Jesus, there is no 100% right answer.

Jesus answers their question by reminding the religious leaders of God’s intent for marriage. It is to be a relationship where “two become one flesh” as they are united by God. The lifelong commitment is emphasized by Jesus as he says, “what God has joined together, let man not separate.” This is God’s intent for all marriages. In a perfect world every marriage would be ‘happy ever after.’ But we live in an imperfect world, often falling short of the glory of God. Human will has forever fought the will of God. As the ancient Israelites pressured Moses about really, really having to live out God’s intent for marriage, Moses permitted divorce. Jesus points out that it was “because your hearts were hard” that Moses refined the Law. The desires of mankind affected how God’s law was understood and then lived out. The hardening of hearts continues to affect how we as individuals, as communities of faith, and as a society in general live out God’s will for our lives.

Divorce or sexual immorality are far from the only arenas in which humanity says over and over, ‘God, do we really, really have to do this or live just that way?’ Our hard, selfish hearts often lead us to question the will and ways of God. In our passage Jesus is inviting his audience then and us today to better understand and live into the heart of God instead of into our fleshy hearts. God’s heart is a heart first guided by love, but is also backed up with mercy, grace, compassion, empathy, generosity, forgiveness, humility, kindness, gentleness, patience, self-control… May our hearts be filled with these things of God, bringing God the praise and glory. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, Jesus boiled down the Law to two central commands – to love you with all that we are and to love neighbor as self. When we truly live these out, all else falls in line. May we not be people who split hairs over this and that. Instead may we love as generously and universally as you love. Amen.