pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Perceive It!

Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21

Verses 18-19: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

Photo credit: Chase Murphy

Our passage from Isaiah 43 begins with a recounting of God’s saving acts in the past. After recalling how God parted the sea and saved the Israelites from the Egyptian army, God says, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” Why would God direct them to do this? So often our memories of God’s power and presence in our lives encourage us as we face the next trial or time of suffering. By remembering and by being thankful we are reminded of God’s love and care for us and we are also reminded of our dependence on God

Yet just as pride can cross a line, so too can living in the past. To have pride in what we do and to allow that to guide us to produce a great product or service – that’s awesome. To allow pride to take the next step and to draw extra “look at me” attention – that’s not so awesome. We can take our past a step too far as well. When we allow what God has done in the past to limit what we think and believe God can do in the future, then we’ve made God small, we’ve hemmed God in. Like with all institutions, in the church limited thinking can lead us to the “we’ve always done it that way” mindset, keeping us stuck and limiting God’s work. The same is true in our personal lives and faith.

God proclaims to the people, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” God is ever at work, seeking to build the kingdom here on earth. But we don’t see it. I think this happens all too often in our lives and in our churches. We miss the opportunity that God is giving because we like the comfortable, the routine, the known. Yet God invites us to see way beyond the past and to walk faithfully into what God is already doing in our lives, churches, and communities. Lent, by its very nature, is a season of dying to old ways and giving new life to where God is leading. In your life and church, what new thing is God doing? How can you perceive it and then walk with God into that new life that God is offering to you and/or to your faith community?

Prayer: Lord God, give me eyes to see the plans that you have for me and for the church. Equip me with willing feet and a humble heart, walking where you lead. Amen.


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Fasting Practice

Reading: Psalm 63:1-8

Verse 8: “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me “

Today’s Psalm is an expression of both longing for God and of praise for those intimate moments with God. David’s soul “thirsts” for God, especially in the times when David feels dry and weary. There is also recollections of moments when David has seen God’s power and glory. For these experiences he praises God with uplifted hands. Because of God’s help and presence, David sings “in the shadow of your wings.”

As you consider these thoughts from David, reflect on times in your life when you’ve longed for God in a “dry and weary land.” Reflect on times when you’ve been a witness to God’s power and glory. Take a few moments to offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God…

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Lent is a season where we are invited to look within, to seek to become more like Jesus Christ. Fasting is one means of helping us to practice these spiritual disciplines. To give up or abstain from something brings us face to face with our weakness and vulnerability. In that moment when we long for what we’ve given up we see our limits and our need for God. Admitting our inability to keep our commitment on our own leads us to a place of seeking God’s power to overcome. This is a scary place to willingly walk into. But it is also a place of honesty and clarity. From this place we can take steps to becoming closer to our Lord and Savior.

Fasting can lead us to a beautiful place – to a sacred space where we encounter ourselves and where we draw closer to the Lord. I invite you to consider the practice of fasting as a part of your Lenten journey.

Prayer: Lord God, the fast that you require is one that leads me away from self and deeper into your presence. Guide me on this journey. Draw me closer to who you created me to be. Amen.


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Such a Love

Reading: Psalm 91:2 and 9-16

Verse 14: “Because he [or she] loves me… I will rescue him [or her]; I will protect him [or her].”

Lent has begun! For some, yesterday at an Ash Wednesday service we began by recognizing our mortality and our sinful nature. There was a commitment asked for: to enter into this holy season of Lent intentionally seeking to be made more like Christ. It is a season of preparation for Easter. The work done in Lent is hard work. It asks us to look within, to see ourselves honestly and to confess and repent of those things that limit our relationship with Jesus Christ. Lent can also be a season of investing in our faith. We can read our Bibles or a devotional on a daily basis. We can participate in acts of service. We can fast on a regular basis. Each of these piety practices has the same goal: to make us more like Christ.

Today’s Psalm – #91 – begins with a recognition of God as our shelter, as our refuge, as our fortress. These images paint a picture of a God in whom we can trust. They also remind us that our God is a God who is present and who watches over us. The second half of our passage begins with these words: “If you make the Most High your dwelling…” The key word, of course, is “if.” While God is ever present, God does not force us into a relationship, into being near to God. Just like a parent or grandparent, God is always right there, watching over, ready to respond when a child cries out for help. A child feels able to cry out because they know they are loved. A child trusts that the parent will respond. The parent responds because they love the child. Love is the key to this and any relationship.

In verse 14 we read, “Because he [or she] loves me… I will rescue him [or her]; I will protect him [or her].” God’s love is unconditional. God will love you and me no matter what. But a relationship is a two-way connection. We must love God for it to be a relationship. Within that relationship, God will rescue us. God will protect us. God will lift us up. God will answer and deliver us. God will forgive and redeem us. These are the promises of God. Thanks be to God for such a love as this!

Prayer: Lord God, entering this season of Lent I am reminded of how great your love is for me and for all of your children. Thank you for the love that rescues and protects, lifts and delivers, forgives and saves. Amen.


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Rejoice and Give Thanks

Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Verse 11: “Rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.”

Today’s passage from Deuteronomy is the story of where the Israelites came from and of their response. Through the giving of the first fruits God is reminding them that all they have is a gift from God. Being freed from slavery, being led through the wilderness, being given this bountiful and productive land – all gifts from God. Physically saying and hearing the words of this ritual is a tangible reminder of the gifts and if the relationship. It is a reminder that they would not be where they are without God. We too could say the same thing.

If we were not born into the family we were born into or if that person or these people hadn’t invited us to know Jesus, we would not be who we are today. Will Willimon wrote, “No one is born Christian.” This is absolutely true. For most of us our journey of faith parallels that of the Israelites. We’ve lived a life captive to sin. We’ve been in the wilderness, wandering and lost. We’ve been blessed, whether materially or educationally or physically or all these and more. All of this too is a gift from God. Yet, without God this is all just stuff – stuff that will change or fade or be left to this earth one day.

The ritual and giving prescribed in Deuteronomy is not because God needs the physical gifts. It is designed to draw the Israelites into deeper connection and into a stronger relationship with God. It reminds them that it was God who chose them, who pursued them, who reached out to them, who guided them, who provided for them. As we near the season of Lent we too are called to rejoice in the blessings and to express our thanksgiving. As a place to begin, may we take time now to thank God for the blessings in our lives and for those who have walked in faith with us, connecting us to the Lord our God.

Prayer: God, the blessings are many and are great. Over and over you have poured into me – whether in Spirit or by those who have raised and guided me. May my grateful response be to share the blessings and to walk with others on their journeys of faith. Amen.


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Emptied

Reading: Philippians 2: 5-9

Verse 7: “He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness”.

Photo credit: freestocks

Paul begins chapter two in his letter to the church in Philippi with an invitation to “being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” with Jesus Christ. Paul encourages the church to “look not only to your own interests” and invites them to this: “in humility consider others better than yourselves”. These are the ideas and invitations that proceed our reading for today. In today’s passage Paul calls on us to have the attitude of Christ.

Speaking of the incarnation Paul begins by reminding us that Jesus gave up his divinity, his “equality with God”. Jesus made the choice to be like us: “He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness”. Instead of coming as the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, almighty God that he was and is, Jesus emptied himself of all this and came in human form. Jesus humbled himself to walk as one of us.

The act of emptying oneself is something we are called to, especially during Lent. The ongoing invitation in the season of Lent is to look within, to find that which limits our obedience to God, and to die to these things. Jesus gave up much to be like us. We are asked to do the same for him: give up our human rights, wants, desires… to be like Christ.

So on this last Friday in March, as we stand on the edge of Holy Week, we ask ourselves: What do I need to empty from my life to be more like Jesus Christ? What do I need to die to so that I can serve him better? How will I let these parts of me go?

Prayer: Lord God, open my eyes and heart to that within me that keeps me from walking closer to you. Give me the courage to look within, whether deeply or in the shallow end. Elevate the voice of the Holy Spirit to speak truth into my soul. Make me more like Jesus Christ. Amen.


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Always, Always

Reading: Psalm 51: 7-12

Verse 11: “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me”.

Photo credit: Jonas Jacobsson

Originally the Psalms were songs or prayers used to worship God. The Psalms express the collective whole of our human emotions, the challenges of our faith, and the depth of God’s love for us. Psalm 51 is David’s prayer to God that encompasses all three of these expressions.

Lent is a time when we also express these things as we look within and seek to live a more faithful life. When we do as David does in this Psalm – bearing his heart and soul to a holy and just God – there is a deep trust that God will cleanse us and will bring us healing, that God will “restore to me the joy of your salvation”. There is also a hard reality too. To “create in me a pure heart” and to cleanse me, God has to get a good, clear look at my sins and failures. That is humbling. That feels vulnerable.

Have you ever messed up really bad and you know that you have to go and apologize? You know you need to try and make things right again. You want to restore the relationship. But you really messed up. In your heart and mind you wonder if they’ll forgive you or if they’ll send you packing. Even though David has walked a long time with God, there is a part of him cautious about bringing these sins before God. David really messed up. This feeling runs beneath the surface of the Psalm. In his mind, great is his sin. A part of David wonders if God will restore those “crushed bones”… In verse eleven David pleads, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me”. God, don’t send me packing. These words of David acknowledge God as the one with the power and ability to cleanse and restore, as the one who renews and sustains us. And these words express a desire to be in God’s presence, to continue in relationship with God. This desire connects into David’s request for knowing again the joy of salvation and of having a “willing spirit” within that sustains him.

In our human relationships we do sometimes wonder if they’ll forgive us. Did we mess up too bad this time? With God there really is no doubt, no questioning, no point of being “too bad”. God always, always seek to cast the net wide, to guide us back into a right relationship with him. As David did, we must enter into his holy and just presence, trusting in a love that is greater than all of our sin. Thanks be to God for his love.

Prayer: God, create in me a willing spirit, a deep desire to have a pure heart. Cleanse me daily of my iniquities, restore me often to the joy of your salvation. Grant me a willing spirit that seeks to be in an intimate and personal relationship with you. Amen.


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A Trusting Place

Reading: Psalm 51: 1-7

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

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

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

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

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


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Both… And

Reading: John 3: 19-21

Verse 19: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness”.

Today’s verses from John 3 speak of light and darkness. John uses the analogy that has been used since the creation story found in Genesis 1. From the dark and chaotic God brought forth light and called it “good”. Since the beginning, light has stood for God and goodness, dark for Satan and evil. Often in scripture this tension is represented as an either/or proposition. Our reality is that it is both/and.

In verse nineteen John writes, “This is the verdict”. There is an implied choice here. Choices have been weighed on a balance. John observes that men prefer the darkness. Humanity is by nature selfish, concerned with success and pleasure. If left without God it is hard to imagine what the world and humanity would degenerate into. We are not left without God. At the very minimum, all are born with the spark of the divine within. In some folks that is snuffed out and in others it us pushed so far down that it appears to be non-existent. In most of humanity the light of God remains present. And in most of us, the light of God is ever competing with the darkness of the world. This is the both/and reality that Christians live in.

In the season of Lent we are invited to look within, to see and root out the darkness in our hearts and in our lives. We are called to bring the sinful or evil parts into the light. There we see ourselves as we truly are. Depending on where we are on the light-darkness spectrum we either drag them into Christ’s presence and we seek to die to self or we quietly slide that part of us back into a dark corner so that the flesh can visit it again.

Light and dark exist in all of us. Deepening our faith and our connection to God draws us increasingly into the light. This is the hopeful final destination of our journey of faith. As we continue to seek to be in the light may we rejoice in verse 21. May we each “see plainly that what has been done has been done through God”. All that we are in Christ has and will be done through God alone. It is not through our own efforts or by our works. Faith is a gift from God. Thanks be to God for this gift.

Prayer: Lord God, each day we find ourselves at places along the spectrum of light and darkness. At times pride or some other manifestation of self rises up, drawing me towards the darkness. In those times, send the Spirit of truth, calling me back towards the light. Help me to walk each day more in the light. Amen.


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Great in Love, Rich in Mercy

Reading: Ephesians 2: 1-5

Verse 4: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ”.

Today’s passage is all about the change that God has made in us. Before Christ we were as Paul writes: “dead in our transgressions and sins”. We lived a life focused on self and on doing whatever we wanted to please self and our earthly desires. We lived according to the “ways of the world” and we were “disobedient” to God. For many of us older folks that meant distancing ourselves from the faith of our childhood and from the faith of our parents. For the younger readers, a larger segment grew up without a childhood church or faith. For all who came to faith the realization came that the things of this world are temporary. They never really satisfy or bring meaning and purpose to this life. Peace, contentment, joy… only come through the eternal relationship that we find in Jesus Christ.

Why didn’t God leave us there, dead in our sin? Why did God continue to pursue us even when we were running from him? We find our answer in verse four: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ”. God’s love is greater than our sin. We were created to be in relationship with God and with one another. God calls and woos and chases us until we make the choice to invite him into our hearts or until we draw our last earthly breath. Faith, however, does not stop at our decision for Christ. Once we accept Christ we are not finished. It is just the beginning of our faith journey. We are not suddenly sinless. Satan continues to pursue us, often with renewed passion, enticing and tempting the flesh still within us. Yet the battle is different, it is changed. The field is no longer level. With Christ alive in us, we do not fight alone. The Holy Spirit leads and guides, convicts and corrects, ever helping us to choose Christ over the world, good over evil, light over darkness.

Lent is a season that reminds us of this battle, that draws us into combat. In Lent we are called again and again to look within, to seek out the parts of us that still need to yield to Christ’s authority and reign. In this seeking and yielding it is grace and mercy that provide the way. In love it is God’s grace and mercy that say our past doesn’t matter, that our selfishness or pride or fear doesn’t control us anymore, that we are loved just as we are. In the season of Lent and in the hard work that we are called to, this is the good news: we are loved, we are forgiven, we are saved by grace. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for your love that is so deep that I cannot ever reach the bottom. Thank you for your love that is so wide that I cannot ever see the other side. Thank you for your love that always surrounds me, even when I stumble and fall. What great love. Amen.


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Looking Up

Reading: Numbers 21: 4-9

Verse 7: “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us”.

Photo credit: Carolina Jacomin

As the Israelites near the end of their journey in the wilderness they are tired, impatient, and irritable. Three weeks into Lent and perhaps a few of us grow tired of the themes of reflection and introspection. In the bigger picture, today the source of our weariness and impatience and irritability is the pandemic. As the Israelites grumble against God and Moses, they are expressing these emotions. They long to go back to what was. Tired of their current situation, they let go of their frustration via complaint. This is the fifth complaint story during their wilderness journey. God has had enough. God sends venemous snakes among the Israelites and many die. Consequences.

Like Jesus’ subversive actions in the temple, this response of God makes us feel a little uncomfortable. Our reality, though, is that we have been here too. We have had the tables turned over a time or two or… We have been bitten by our poorly spoken words or via our sinful actions. We too have experienced how the pain drives us to confession and repentance, to turning back toward God. As we look up to the Lord, just like the Israelites did, we find reconciliation and restoration and forgiveness. God is faithful and moves quickly to bring us back into right relationship.

Lent is a wilderness experience, a season of introspection and reflection. In that spirit, let us consider times when our actions have harmed or caused pain for others. Perhaps we are in the midst of such a time. What words spoken have caused harm? What actions have damaged relationships? What words left unspoken or actions left undone have allowed harm or pain to continue? To wrestle with these questions first requires a humble and contrite spirit. On Ash Wednesday we were reminded that this is the posture of Lent – a humble and contrite spirit. It is what leads to a new heart within us and to the place of healing that God so graciously offers.

The Israelites looked up to the reminder that God is in control, to the serpent fashioned by Moses. Today, we lift our eyes to our source of healing and hope, to the one who offers mercy and grace, restoration and wholeness – Jesus Christ. On this Lenten journey, may the God of love continue to sustain you and to give life, even in the wilderness.

Prayer: Lord of life, you are so gracious and merciful and kind. Your love is overwhelming, your patience without end. Just as you continued to walk with the Israelites, walk with me day by day. Reveal to me the ways that I have caused and do cause harm so that I can repent and become more like your son, the Christ. Amen.