pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Faithful and Loving

Reading: 1st Samuel 2: 1-10

Verse 2: “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no rock like our God.”

Today’s passage contains Hannah’s spirit-filled prayer. She is celebrating the God who heard her prayer for a child after all of these years. In the opening verse we read, “my heart rejoices” as Hannah praises God for lifting her strength up high. Hannah delights in God’s deliverance. Her suffering, the taunting, the feelings of being less than – they all have been wiped away with the birth of Samuel.

In our lives, when God answers a big prayer of ours, do we rejoice and praise God as Hannah did? When we have entered into a time of prolonged prayer, when we have persevered as Hannah did, and then when God answers – how great is our praise and thanksgiving? At these junctures in our walk of faith we should raise the roof of heaven with our praise of the God who listens.

In verse two Hannah prays, “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no rock like our God.” She recognizes that God alone is God. When we are in an extended time of suffering or trial it can be hard to hold fast to God’s presence. In seasons of hardship we can feel alone. Even though Hannah has just given her one and only child – just weaned – to serve in the temple under Eli, she is full of joy. Samuel will always be her firstborn. Hannah recognizes that she must be faithful to the promise she made to a faithful God.

In verse ten Hannah prays, “It is not by strength that one prevails.” She could not will herself to have a child. She could not control the behaviors of Peninnah or the looks and gossip as others judged her barrenness. Hannah knew God as faithful and loving. May it be so for you and for me as we live out our faith today!

Prayer: Lord God, hold onto me. Let me feel your presence and your strength in the trials and sufferings. Keep my eye on you. 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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A Friend

Reading: John 15: 12-15

Verse 12: “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you”.

Photo credit: Priscilla du Preez

As we continue in our passage from John 15 our focus shifts slightly. We look at how our relationship with Jesus informs our relationships with others. Love remains the centerpiece. Understanding yesterday’s call to agape love – that unconditional and often undeserved love – Jesus calls us today to live out that love just as he did. In our opening verse Jesus says, “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you”. It is a command not just to love the other as the world does but to love the other as Jesus loves us.

Imagine that the father of a young family living two doors down died unexpectedly. You buy a gift card from a local restaurant, slip it inside a nice sympathy card, and tuck it in their mailbox. That is loving as the world loves. You have chatted with them on your walks so you know them a little bit. You make the kids’ favorite meal and bring it over to the house. You help a shaken mom get the kids fed and you clean up as she gets them ready for bed. You hang around to see what else she needs – prayer, someone to listen, someone to watch the kids while she goes to the funeral home… You show up tomorrow and each next day as long as needed. This is loving as Christ loves. This is laying down one’s life for the other.

When we truly love as Jesus loves us, when we follow his commands, we are living out his agape love. We are not so much serving Jesus as we are being his hands and feet and heart in the world. When we live this way, Jesus calls us “friend” instead of servant. When we learn and internalize all that Jesus has passed along from the Father, we become a true friend of Jesus. It becomes natural to care well for that family two doors down. It becomes our rhythm of life to step into opportunities to share Jesus’ love. Loving like Jesus becomes who and what we are. Day by day may he become more of each of us.

Prayer: Lord of love, thank you for calling me friend. I want to be more, to be just like you – loving one and all without condition, without reserve. Continue to prune and shape me, molding and forming me more and more into your image. Each day, use me as you will. Amen.


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The Love of Christ

Reading: 1st John 4: 7-15

Verse 12: “If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us”.

Photo credit: Jon Tyson

As we begin with our 1st John 4 passage today, we quickly see that love is the focus. For John, love is God’s key attribute. God is the source of love – the highest level of connection and caring that we have with God and with one another. John defines love as the indication of knowing God: If you love others you know God; if you don’t, you don’t know God.

If love is the indicator of whether or not we know God, how do we define love? John defines it as God’s gift of his son as our atoning sacrifice. While that certainly does demonstrate God’s love for us, it is certainly not God’s literal expectation of us. That act of love has been done once, for all, by Jesus. So then, what does love look like?

For some love is time – time to do things with another, time to listen, time to invest in the relationship. For some love is sacrifice – extra hours to pay for that event, going without so that a child can have that special thing, giving up something one enjoys to be there. For some love is an act of kindness – flowers just because, a nice note, doing an unexpected chore or project.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we too practice these ways of love. But the love of Christ goes beyond these too. We give time to our church as we serve; we make sacrifices to support and equip our church for ministry; we do random acts of kindness for our church and in the name of Christ. And we are called to even more. We are called to love those others do not. With Jesus Christ we love the least and the lost, the marginalized and the oppressed… This differentiates Christian love from worldly love. The love of Christ is selfless, sacrificial, humble, complete. May this be the love of God that is in you and in me.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to love not just as the world loves, but to love as you love. May I see you in all I meet and love all as you love them. Amen.


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Two Actions

Reading: Mark 8: 34-38

Verse 34: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”.

Continuing on from yesterday’s passage, Jesus gathers his disciples and the crowd to explain the cost of following. Having just explained the price that he will pay, Jesus details what will be expected of those who choose to follow him as Lord and Savior. The words that Jesus speaks are powerful and challenging. His words will become even more so as the disciples reflect on the events of the last week of Jesus’ life.

Jesus identifies two actions one must take to “come after” or to “follow” him. The first is to “deny self”. This is what Jesus lived out his whole ministry. He placed the needs and wants of God first, closely followed by the needs and wants of others. Self was a very distant third. If we were to follow Jesus today, what would this look like? It would begin with listening to the Holy Spirit, the indwelling presence of God in our lives. The second step would be to respond to the guidance and direction of said Spirit as we respond to the needs of those we meet day by day. Jesus saw the other, the lonely, the hurting, the hungry… and ministered them as he encountered them. May we too have ears to hear and eyes to see.

The second action is to “take up” our cross. The cross represents the way of Jesus. For Jesus it was ultimately walking the path to suffering and death for the sake of others – for you and me. Along the way Jesus often took up the cross for others. He took up the cause of the marginalized and the sinners and the outcasts and declared them worthy of his time and of the kingdom of God. Each of these encounters against the powers of the world came with a price too. The way of Jesus calls us to sacrifice as well. Jesus calls us away from the things of this world by reminding us that the cost of trying to “gain the whole world” is to “forfeit” our soul. In contrast, following Jesus will save our soul. Giving up our selfish desires and leanings and focusing on Jesus’ example of sacrificial service will lead us to bless others as we live out the good news or gospel of Jesus Christ. May it be so as we seek to bring God the glory.

Prayer: Lord God, tune me in to the Holy Spirit within me. Guide me to not only hear but to respond, offering all I can to those I meet in the world around me. Empower me to shine your light in all I do and say. Amen.


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Impact

Reading: 1st Corinthians 8: 7-13

Verse 9: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak”.

In the second half of our 1st Corinthians 8 passage, Paul reveals how our behavior can affect other believers. Some of the mature believers in the community of faith were comfortable eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. They may have been eating at an event in the temple or they may have purchased meat in the market that had been used in a temple sacrifice. To these mature believers, idols were meaningless so eating this meat was fine. But to the new believers, to those who were not far removed from worshipping these idols, this practice was a “stumbling block”. If a new believer ate of this meat, their conscience would get the best of them. They felt like they had defiled themselves. If they chose to abstain and felt guilt or weakness for needing to abstain when others in the church were partaking, this would weaken their faith. Paul says to the mature: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak”. He is asking them to do this for the benefit of their new brothers and sisters in Christ.

Today we must be aware of potentially questionable situations that may also make a new believer stumble. For example, we would not want to talk up or invite a newly recovered person to join us in our bar ministry. If we knew someone had just left behind a sex addiction, we might do harm if we invited them to help in our outreach to sex workers. If we were aware of these conflicts and we asked anyway, we would be doing what those eating food sacrificed to idols were doing. We must also be aware of how our personal decisions and behaviors might adversely affect other believers.

There is a second layer to today’s reading that we as Christians and we as churches must also pay attention to. The mature in Corinth were not demonstrating concern for others. They were meeting their needs, doing their thing without regard for others. Although not explicit in the text, there must have been some conversations or some signal of their felt superiority and inferiority surrounding the eating of this food. Today we use “encouragements” like “if you just had enough faith” or “just trust God” that are hurtful to those new to the faith or to those struggling with their faith. Here we are not building up in love. Love would call us to be present, to listen, to walk with that person, to offer empathy.

Whether by our words or by our example, may we be mindful of our impact on others. May all we do and say build others up in love, for the glory of God and for the building of the kingdom.

Prayer: Lord God, make me aware of my impact. Use me for good in the world. Pull me up short when my example or my words have negative impacts. Guide me to build your kingdom here. 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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God Still Speaks

Reading: 1st Samuel 3: 1-20

Verse 6: “Again the Lord called, ‘Samuel'”!

We begin this week’s readings with the calling of Samuel. One night when Samuel lay down in the temple, as he had done for many years, God decided to speak to him. In some ways it must have been a shock but in other ways it was expected. To understand why, a little background from the previous chapter. Samuel was, after all, born to Hannah, the fruit of a desperate prayer to the Lord. This barren woman had taken her case to God and he responded. Eli was there that day in the temple as she poured our her heart and her pain. After understanding her prayer, Eli blessed her, saying, “May the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him”. When he is born, Hannah names him ‘Samuel’ “because I asked the Lord for him”. After Samuel is weaned he is brought to the temple so that “his whole life is given over to the Lord”. Samuel is raised in the temple by Eli, learning much about God. So, it is not a shock when God calls, “Samuel”!

Samuel’s story reminds me of my story and perhaps it also reminds you of your story. Long before I began to remember things for myself, my parents brought me before the Lord and baptized me, committing my life to a faithful walk with the Lord. My birth was an answer to prayer, some comfort to hurting hearts. Although I did not live at the church, worship and Sunday school were regular parts of my childhood. Youth group eventually replaced Sunday school. I was confirmed and became a member of the Congregational church. During my high school years I made the personal decision to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Perhaps your faith journey is similar to mine and, therefore, to Samuel’s. God has long been at work in our lives. God knows us well.

It took Samuel a while to realize that God was speaking to him and he needed Eli’s help to realize it. This too I recognize in my life. I do not always recognize that it is God “speaking” to me. At times I too need others to help me recognize the whispers, the nudged, the guidance. Sometimes three calls are just the beginning of the process for me.

Just as with Samuel, God has plans for our lives. God will call and call, full of patience and love. As we live out our faith each day, may we grow in our connection to the Lord so that we too are faithful in responding, “Speak, for your servant is listening”.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for your faithful and persistent call upon my life. I am grateful for each person that has helped me to hear the call throughout my life. Open my eyes and heart to hear you better and better each time you call. Give me a willing spirit, ever ready to respond. Amen.


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God is There

Reading: Genesis 1: 1-5

Verses 2-3: “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light”.

When the earth was formless and empty, God was there. The darkness swept over the “surface of the deep”. When nothing really existed, God was there. The Spirit hovered over the waters. God was there. God said, “Let there be light” and the light was created, pushing back the darkness. God was there. God saw that the light was “good”. God was there.

In the beginning God created order from the chaos. As the Spirit hovered over the waters, the decision was made to create order and to bring light into the world. As the process continued, creating order remained the focus, light continued to reign. This is still God’s way. As we cautiously edge into the new year, God remains at work, bringing order out of chaos, shining light into darkness. Our world longs for order and light just as our souls and lives long for these things. Created in the image of God, we love what God loves.

God spoke and brought order and light into the world. God was there. The Spirit continues to speak, bringing order and light into our lives. God is there. We – I at least – tend to want to be in control. I am often in God’s way. Perhaps you can relate. God spoke and created. As we consider the power and might of our God who speaks and creates, may we humbly give way to the God we seeks to bring order and light into our lives and into our world. God is there. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord, just yesterday I lit the Christ candle anew, reminding myself and all in worship that Christ’s light still shines. Today I was reminded of your love for order and light. May I order my life after the example set by Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.