pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Servant to All

Reading: Mark 9: 30-37

Verse 35: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Photo credit: K. Mitch Hodge

As we delve into Mark 9 today we look at one of the conflicts within all of us. On the one hand we want to be the best. We want recognition, titles, position, power. On the other hand Jesus calls us to be “servant of all.”

The disciples are not much different than we are. Walking along to road they argued about who was the greatest disciple. As kids we argued about who was the best player on the team and about who was smartest at math. As teens we argue about who is the coolest or about who has the best car, clothes… As adults we vie for promotions and titles. We try and demonstrate our success by the homes we live in, by the cars we drive… In our own ways we desire greatness, just like the disciples did.

Jesus knows what they were arguing about. He begins to counter this desire by saying, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” The radical, counter-cultural Jesus suggests another way. This “servant of all” approach is modeled by Jesus. This call to humble service is a call to always be humble, in all circumstances and with all people. It’d be easy to be humble standing on a basketball court with Michael Jordan. It’d be much harder to do so when staring at a kid who can’t tie his shoe, much less dribble a ball. In this illustration we’d love to find something, anything, that we could do for Jordan. Humility calls us to be equally if not more willing with the awkward kid. For Jesus, all meant all.

To serve all others is not always easy. To illustrate the depth of this call, Jesus gathers a child in his arms. He challenges the disciples to welcome children as he does. Jesus takes one who is an afterthought in most places in that society and elevates them to a place of full belonging and equality. The child represents the one with great needs who cannot care for themselves. More than just children would meet this description. To care for the least and the last always requires humility wrapped in a servant’s heart. Following Jesus’ example may we too strive to serve all.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to see and love as Jesus did. Help me to see, care for, and treat all people, regardless of who or what they are, as ones to love. Grant me both a humble heart and hands and feet willing to serve. Amen.


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Faithful Responding

Reading: Proverbs 22: 8-9 and 22-23

Verses 22-23: “Do not exploit the poor… for the Lord will take up their cause.”

Photo credit: Spencer Davis

In our passage from Proverbs the focus remains in those with and those without. Care and concern for the poor and needy is a very common theme throughout the scriptures. In the Law are provisions for the least of these – laws about not harvesting every single head of grain so there was still some left for the needy and guidelines for welcoming in the alien and stranger in your midst. Verse nine illustrates well the understanding of this charge to care for those in need: “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.” Blessings come from living out the heart of God.

Today we tend to see the care of the needy and poor one of two ways: that’s someone else’s job (either the governments or the pastors) or… here’s some money to help with that. Both approaches fail to comprehend the heart of God and the way we are called to truly care for those in need. Solomon did not say the generous man gave food to the poor. He shared his food with the poor. This implies sitting at the table together, sharing both food and time with one another. In a similar way the guidelines mentioned above implied opening your door and welcoming the other into your home to share in your generous hospitality. The heart of God is all about relationships and walking together with those that God places in our path and on our hearts.

In verses 22 and 23 we hear both a caution and a warning: “Do not exploit the poor… for the Lord will take up their cause.” The poor and needy tend to be powerless and voiceless. They are easy targets for some to take advantage of and for others to simply ignore. Jesus calls us to do just the opposite. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), for example, the plight of the man in need is the focus. The one who cared for the man in need is the one whom Jesus called us to “go and do likewise.” In our lives the voice or nudge of the Holy Spirit often reminds us of our call to care for such as these. This is the Lord taking up their cause. So when the Spirit speaks may we be faithful in responding to the need before us. Doing so we will not only bless the other but we will be blessed ourselves.

Prayer: Loving and compassionate God, your love for me is no more or no less than your love for my neighbor. Your care and concern for me is the same as your care and concern for the one far from you. Open my heart to live out these truths: all are loved, all are worthy and valued, all deserve to be cared for. With an open and willing heart, guide my hands and feet today. Amen.


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Heart Conditions

Reading: Mark 7: 14-15

Verse 15: “It is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.'”

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

As the discussion continues in Mark 7 concerning how Jesus’ disciples were eating, Jesus shifts the conversation. He gets to a much deeper matter: the condition of our hearts. To get their and our attention, Jesus says, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this.” Jesus is not just talking to the Pharisees. Yes, he is certainly talking to them, but he is also definitely talking to his disciples then and now. Sin is something we ALL struggle with.

Yes, it is healthy and wise and good to wash our hands before we eat. Jesus is not condemning or dismissing physical cleanliness. He is addressing inner cleanliness or righteousness. In our passage yesterday Jesus was drawing attention to the hypocrisy in the Pharisees’ hearts, to the harsh and judgmental nature of the way they practiced their religion. In verse fifteen Jesus reminds us that it is not the food or drink that we consume that fills our hearts with good or evil. Food and drink fill the stomach. They pass through our bodies without affecting the spiritual condition of our hearts in any way. Speaking of our mouths, Jesus continues, saying, “It is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.'” The words we speak are powerful. They can bring life and healing. They can bring death and devastation. Our words mirror the condition of our hearts. This is also what James was addressing in our readings earlier this week. What we allow into our hearts, the reservoir of our soul, will form our thoughts, the words we speak, and the actions we take. May we be wise and discerning concerning what we allow and do not allow into our hearts.

Prayer: Lord God, may the Holy Spirit be the filter, the barrier, and the defender of my heart. In that Spirit’s power, shape me and form me into someone who is pleasing in your sight. Amen.


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Good and Perfect Gifts

Reading: James 1: 17-21

Verse 17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights”.

Photo credit: Erik Van Dijk

As we begin delving into the book of James, we begin a journey with the brother of Jesus and one of the early leaders of the church. The book of James will focus on two main ideas: putting our faith in action and being aware that our words have power. As we begin today, James reminds us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights”. All good things come from God. Every gift, talent, ability… that we have is a gift from God. In the picture above, for me, the many rays of light represent the generous abundance of God’s gifts. For James, the first or primary gift from God is the new birth we experience through the “word of truth” – the Lord Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus we know that Christ is the greatest gift that God has given to humanity. In and through Christ we receive grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, salvation, eternal life… What an amazing gift Jesus Christ is to you, to me, to all people.

This gift is not one to be received and cherished, put up on the shelf to be admired from time to time. No, we are to be “first fruits” – we are to live as an offering to others, as a conduit of the gifts we have received from God, sharing these gifts with the world. We are to be the living examples of Jesus Christ’s grace, mercy, love, forgiveness… In order to help us live this way, James gives us some practical advise: “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger”. These three guidelines are effective tools for using the power of our words for good instead of for evil. When we are quick to listen we are giving value and worth to the other. We are taking the time to invest in them and in the relationship. We are seeking to better understand the other. When we are slow to speak we measure and weigh our words. Words of encouragement and affirmation become more genuine and heartfelt. When our thoughts or opinions differ, being slow to speak allows our words to be filled with consideration and meekness. Love is still present even though we disagree. Both of these tools or practices help us to be slow to anger. When we think more of the other than of self, not only are we fully present, but we are less likely to be angry or hurtful in our conversations, whether in person or online.

Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger reveals the condition of our heart. James’ advice to “get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent” improved the condition of our hearts. If we guard our hearts against the filth and evil of this world, then we are better able to be quick to listen… If we “humbly accept” the word of God into our hearts, then the words we speak will be filled with love and grace and mercy and kindness and humility and… Simply put: what we fill our hearts with is what will overflow from our hearts and mouths out into the world. May God’s righteousness and love guide us today.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the many, many blessings – those good and perfect gifts that you rain down from above. Most of all, thank you for the new life in Christ available for all people. Open my ears to hear as you hear, open my mouth to speak your words, and work within my heart to temper my anger. Fill me with your generous love. Amen.


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Seeking to Love

Reading: Song of Solomon 2: 8-13

Verse 10: “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me”.

Photo credit: Dominik Lange

Song of Solomon is a book of beautiful poetry that creates images and thoughts around being in love. On the surface it is a love letter from Solomon to his lover. And boy are they in love! Chapter two is filled with invitation and appreciation of one another. They are in the serious stage of courting, of wooing one another. In our passage today the young man comes and invites his lover to come with him, saying, “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me”. Spring is in full blossom, the flowers are budding! What a beautiful scene for an adventure with the one you love.

These words can guide us in our relationships – not just with our spouse or future spouse but in all of our relationships. The love modeled here comes from seeing and appreciating the unique gifts of the other and from finding their worth as a child of God. The hearts of these two people are bent towards deepening their love for one another. The words they speak flow from these hearts bent on love. Imagine how our world would be if we practiced these things in all of our relationships. Elevating the value and worth in all people, speaking from a place of agape love, we could live in a radically different world.

With this understanding some will read Song of Solomon and see a model for the love between Jesus Christ and the church. Jesus often used bride and groom language when describing his hoped for relationship with the church on earth. The perfecting of this love is found in the passages that detail the new creation that will arrive when Christ returns. In the interim we have been called by Jesus to love God with all that we are and to love neighbor as he first loved us. The language in our passage today could apply to these relationships and to our relationship with Jesus. It is not hard to imagine Christ saying to us each day, “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me”.

This day and every day may we rise, hear his call, and go forth into the world with Jesus in our heart, seeking to love as he first loved us.

Prayer: Lord God, above all, there is love. In love you call us into relationship. You lead us to know what love really is through the example of Jesus Christ, your son. Guide and use me today to be love lived out in the world. Amen.


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Standing Firm

Reading: Ephesians 6: 10-13

Verse 11: “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes”.

Photo credit: Nathan Dumloa

In his conclusion of the letter to the churches in and around Ephasus, Paul begins by addressing the forces of evil that assail the believers, the churches, and the world around them. He begins with a word of encouragement: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power”. As Paul prepares to detail the battle, he begins by reminding the believers that relying on God and divine power is the only place to begin the battle. Step two, then, is to “put on the full armor of God”. Heading into battle there are many pieces of equipment that are needed to protect oneself. Could you imagine entering deadly combat with three out of the seven available pieces of equipment? In the spiritual battle for our souls, our churches, and our world, the same idea applies. We need to put on the full armor of God. Tomorrow we will look at all of the armor.

Paul knows firsthand that the evil one works in many ways. He has experienced many attacks and lives daily with a “thorn in my side” that reminds him of his need to rely on God. He encourages the believers to put in the full armor of God “so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes”. In verse twelve Paul states that our battle is not primarily with “flesh and blood” but is with the “spiritual forces of evil” fighting both here on earth and “in the heavenly realms”. Satan works the way into men’s and women’s hearts, leading them to say and do atrocious, vile, and evil things. We are called to stand against the devil’s of our world. God’s armor will help protect us in these battles. These same spiritual forces of evil work to enter our hearts and minds – whispering lies, telling half-truths, raising up feelings of envy, greed, jealousy, judging… Satan and the forces of the evil one work the hardest in the lives of the believers. We are the threat to his power and dominion in this world.

With this in mind, may we each be strong in the Lord and may we put on the full armor of God so that we may “be able to stand our ground”. Only through and with the power and presence of the Lord will the victory be ours. May it be so for you and for me!

Prayer: Lord God, the battle is fierce and the attacks frequent. With the smallest of cracks the enemy sees an opportunity and surges in. Be my guard and my defender, O Lord. Raise up the voice and power of the Holy Spirit to stand with and for me against every assault. Enable me to stand firm and strong today and every day. Amen


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Better Is One Day

Reading: Psalm 84: 5-12

Verse 10: “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere”.

Photo credit: Kunj Parekh

Today’s portion of Psalm 84 begins with acknowledging the blessings and strength that can come from God. The psalmist identifies those “who have set their heart” on a journey with God as the recipients of blessing and strength. As struggles come, as we walk through the valley, the Lord our God will strengthen us over and over – “strength upon strength”. One way that we set our hearts on God and open ourselves up to God through prayer. This is what the psalmist is talking about in verses eight and nine: “Hear my prayer… listen to me… look with favor on your anointed one”. In these words we can sense the depth of relationship between God and this faithful servant. It is a relationship and connection that the psalmist values deeply.

In verse ten we read, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere”. The writer of this Psalm would rather have just one day in God’s house than many, many days elsewhere – Vegas, LA, New York, New Orleans, the Alps, the Riviera, the Grand Canyon, Moab, Vale… What place would you add to this list? No matter the earthly place the reality is that one day in God’s house, whether that is here on earth or one day in heaven, can be better than one thousand days anywhere else. Imagine feeling that way about a Sunday at church. That is how the psalmist really feels. How can we get to such a place in our faith life?

We get to such a place the same way that the psalmist got there – walking faithfully day after day, keeping our heart set on the journey deeper and deeper into God’s love. The psalmist got there by drawing close to God in prayer and by trusting God to respond to his prayers. He got there by striving to walk blamelessly and by looking to God for all things and in all things. Faith is a long, slow, and steady journey. As we continue this journey of faith, may we come to live and believe that one day in God’s presence is truly better than a thousand days any other place.

Prayer: Lord God, what faith is exhibited by the psalmist. I love being at church, delving into your word, serving you with my whole heart. But one day for a thousand elsewhere? Forgive me, Lord – I have a ways to go. Day by day draw me deeper in. Call me over and over to your love. Thank you for your faithfulness and patience, O God. Amen.


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The Living God

Reading: Psalm 84: 1-4

Verse 2: “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh cry out for the living God”.

Photo credit: Pablo Heimplatz

Psalm 84 is an expression of our longing to be with God, to live in connection with our God. In the opening verse the psalmist declares who “lovely” is God’s dwelling place. At the time of the Psalm it was understood that God dwelled in the tabernacle and then the temple, as evidenced in yesterday’s reading from 1 Kings 8. This thought held true until the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the gifting of the Holy Spirit – God’s indwelling presence in all who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit the living God came to dwell in each of us. From that perspective verse one takes on a whole new meaning and almost becomes a charge to us. Paul echoes this idea in 1 Corinthians 6, where he reminds us that our bodies are the temple of God and calls us to live accordingly.

Since the beginning of time humanity has longed to be with God. Created in God’s image we were made to live in a relationship with God. This longing has been corrupted by evil – some long to be a god themselves and others seek to have power and dominion over others. These pursuits are all empty and done in vain. In the end the soul is still left lacking and wanting. Some continue to pursue the things of this world and others come to live into verse two: “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh cry out for the living God”. True peace, contentment, joy, satisfaction – these are found only through a personal relationship with the Lord. Only there do we find out true home, like the sparrow and swallow in our Psalm: near to the Lord Almighty.

Our passage closes with these words: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you”. With the Spirit of the living God dwelling in our hearts, may all we say and do and think bring praise and glory to the Lord our God. May it be so!

Prayer: Lord God, how lovely is your dwelling place! How lovely is the heart of one fully in love with you. The yearning, the longing – fill me with your presence today. As I cry out for you, may you be found in me. Bless me with your abiding presence today, O God. Amen.


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Giving Thanks

Reading: Ephesians 5: 15-20

Verses 18 and 19: “Be filled with the Spirit… make music in your hearts to the Lord”.

Photo credit: Ben White

Continuing in Ephesians 5 today we get the practical or ‘how to’ of living out our faith. Paul’s words today remain in the foolish and wise realm. In verse eighteen comes the general warning: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery”. Wine was the issue in Paul’s day. Today we could include beer and alcohol as well as a wide variety of drugs. To the list of unwise or worldly living we could also add wealth, popularity, power, and even food for a few of us. There are many, many things that we, like the world, can pursue and consume that lead to sin, debauchery, gluttony, and other evils.

Instead Paul encourages us to “be filled with the Spirit”. Paul invites us to pursue and consume the things of faith, to be so full of God that we “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”. Filled with the Spirit, God’s words would be our words. Speaking God’s love and care and compassion and grace and forgiveness and comfort and equality and unity – we would stand out from the common language of the world: hatred, isolation, fear, criticism, division. Our words would be a fragrant offering to the vile and evil talk that too often dominates the secular world. Speaking words that draw others in, that make welcoming space for the other, that give voice to the weak and powerless – what a counter-cultural way of living!

There is also a personal side to today’s passage. When we choose to fill ourselves with the Holy Spirit, we will naturally “make music in your hearts to the Lord”. Our very lives will also be a pleasing and holy offering to the Lord. Our hearts will in turn be filled with love and joy and peace and hope and contentment. We will see and be in the world in a whole different way. We will see the world, the other, and our very self as gifts from God – gifts that we will always give thanks to God for. Giving such thanks, we will love as Jesus first loved us. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Lord God, fill me with your Holy Spirit! Fill me to overflowing so that all I say and do reflects your love being poured out for others. Use me today to reflect Christ to the world. Amen.


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Humble Connection

Reading: 1st Kings 3: 3-14

Verse 12: “I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart”.

As we continue in 1st Kings 3 today we see that Solomon’s burnt offerings and humble request were pleasing to God. Instead of asking for long life or wealth or the death of his enemies Solomon asks to be able to lead this “great people of yours”. Solomon recognizes both the role he has been called to play and the significance of God’s people among the nations of the earth.

Each of us has a call upon our lives. For most of us it is not to lead nation or even a huge organization. Yet we are each called to lead and to exert influence on the people around us. David was “righteous and upright in heart” – he led Israel this way and passed this faith along to Solomon. As Christians we too are called to lead by example. Whether our families or a business, whether our circle of friends or a church – we all have spaces that can and should be influenced by our faith. Understanding that, what are the offerings and requests that we bring to God?

In our areas of influence, are we giving of ourselves? Are we generous with what we offer to God and to those around us? When others are blessed by our presence in their lives, then we are bearing witness to the love of God within us, then we are shining the light of Christ into the world. To parallel David’s and Solomon’s hearts for God, are our requests in alignment with God’s heart? Do we pray for guidance and direction in the building of God’s kingdom here on earth? If these are the humble prayer requests that we bring to God, then God will use you and me for his purposes. Our lives will be a pleasing and fragrant offering to the Lord our God.

In verse twelve God responds to Solomon’s humble request with these words: “I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart”. As we walk in humble connection to God this day may we seek to live with an upright and righteous heart, pleasing God and lifting up our neighbors in love. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, to acknowledge the call and to accept the role can be scary and intimidating. All things are possible with you. Nevertheless, I humbly bow and offer all of me to you. Use me as you will, O God. Amen.