pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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A Pure Heart

Reading: Psalm 51: 1-17

Verse 10: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me”.

Photo credit: Adrien Olichon

In Psalm 51 the psalmist begins by asking for God’s mercy to wash away their sins. The psalmist admits that “my sin is ever before me”. The author recognizes that his sin is against God and God alone. God has a right to judge him. We can all relate to what the writer of this Psalm is expressing and feeling. We’ve all been there.

The commonly accepted context for this Psalm is the aftermath of David’s affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. There was certainly a need for God’s grace and forgiveness at this point in David’s life. Although most of our sins are not this egregious, all sin separates us from God and damages our relationship with God and others. God’s mercy and forgiveness are universal needs.

In verse seven David begins to ask for God’s help in restoring the relationship that David broke. He cannot do this on his own. Here he asks God to “cleanse me with hyssop” and then, in verse nine, to “blot out all my iniquity”. These ideas, these phrases, resonate with the sacrament of holy communion. Once forgiven, once cleansed, David can ask God to “create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me”. In New Testament terms, the old is gone and the new has come. The old sinful self is washed away, replaced by a new self fully turned toward God. As a new creation in God, David desires to feel again the joy of salvation and to have a willing spirit within – one totally obedient to God.

This Psalm also resonates with our Ash Wednesday practices. Many Christians will seek to be restored and to dedicate themselves to a more holy and devout walk with the Lord as we begin our Lenten journey. The imposition of ashes reminds us of our finite nature and draws us to reflect upon our journey with Christ. It calls us to critically evaluate the condition of our souls. It draws us towards living with a more pure heart.

Our reading for today ends with these words: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise”. As we prepare to enter Lent may we find a new path to walk with Jesus, a path guided by just such a heart. With a pure heart we will be pleasing in his sight. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, bring me to that place of contrition, to the place of confession and repentance; show me the path to a closer walk, reveal the things I need to leave along the side of the path. Create in me a pure heart with a desire to be yours alone. Break my heart for what breaks yours, O God. Amen.


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Who Matters Most?

Reading: Mark 1: 29-39

Verse 35: “Very early in the morning… Jesus got up… went off to a solitary place, where he prayed”.

Photo credit: Cathryn Lavery

We are still in chapter one of Mark’s gospel. Much has already happened – John the Baptist prepared the way and baptized Jesus, Jesus is tempted by Satan, the first disciples are called, and then Jesus teaches and drives out a demon. And chapter one is not even over! Each of these events could be a whole chapter. Mark moves along at a quick pace, providing just enough detail for us to follow his story of Jesus. Sometimes life feels like this, doesn’t it? There will be stretches where it feels like we move from one thing to the next to the next…

After all of the busyness of ministry, it is not surprising that we read these words in verse 35: “Very early in the morning… Jesus got up… went off to a solitary place, where he prayed”. Jesus got up when everyone else was sleeping and slipped off to a quiet place. It has been a late night healing many and driving out many demons. Sleeping in would have probably felt good. But Jesus had a deeper need, a spiritual need. Having given much over that last few days he needed to reconnect to God, to be filled up by time with God, to be in conversation with God. Prayer is not meant to be a monologue but an enriching and fulfilling conversation. Considering Jesus’ example, it begs the question: do we follow? Do we take time each day to find our solitary place to connect with the Lord our God? Do we dedicate the time and energy to read and meditate on his word, to consider how God’s word applies to our life? Do we spend some uninterrupted quiet time talking with God each day?

Busyness is one of our greatest challenges on our journey of faith. Saying “no” or “later” to God’s call in big and small ways is so often rooted in our busyness. Listening to a quick podcast or audio devotional while driving to work or school is how many try and wedge in some God time. Uttering a quick prayer walking from the car to the office, school,… suffices for our daily prayer time. Did Jesus just pray as he and the disciples traveled to the next village? It did not matter one bit that the disciples said, “Everyone is looking for you” when they found him. Jesus knew who and what mattered most. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, day by day connect me to you. Day by day meet me in the quiet and dark. Day by day whisper your words of life into my heart and soul. Day by day fill me with more and more of you. Amen.


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Draw Others to Him

Reading: John 1: 43-51

Verse 46: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there”?

Philip is sold immediately that Jesus is the one, the Messiah, the Savior. Something about Jesus and something inside Philip connect and he responds to a simple invitation: “Follow me”. Some people come to Jesus this way. In a moment he is what they need or who they find healing or peace or strength or mercy in, and they believe in him. Most of us, however, are more like Nathanael – doubtful, skeptical, questioning. When invited to come to meet this Jesus, he scoffs: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there”? What good could ever come out of that small, insignificant town in Galilee?

People today might not question where Jesus came from, but we do question what he could do for us. What difference could Jesus possibly make in my life? Like Nathanael, we question and we doubt. We scoff. Even some who were raised in the church come to a place of questioning, of doubting. I was raised in the church – Sunday school, worship, confirmation, choir, youth group – the whole nine yards. I knew who Jesus was and I followed on the surface. I followed the parts that I wanted to. In college, I “drifted” even further. Life was just fine sort of being a Christian. Then things were not so good and I found myself seeking the Lord – and he was there. I met Jesus in a way that I hadn’t before. My walk with the Lord began anew.

Nathanael was one without anything false in him. Jesus called him a “true Israelite”. Even though Jesus was not what he expected, and even though he was skeptical, Nathanael went to meet Jesus. He was initially draw by Philip’s testimony. He knew about the Messiah, he had been raised in the “church”. There are many who know about Jesus, even some who have drifted. Today and each day of our lives, may our faith in Jesus Christ draw others to come and see, to meet him in a new way. May we, like Philip, invite others to meet our Jesus so that he can do “greater things” in their lives too.

Prayer: Living God, may your light shine brightly within me, being a light others see and are drawn to. Help me to be invitational, encouraging others to come and meet Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah. Amen.


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Learning to Walk

Reading: Matthew 22: 1-12

Verse 12: “Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes”?

This week’s gospel lesson is the second in a row from Jesus that focuses in on how he is rejected. They are stories of greed and arrogance and selfishness. These two parables are aimed at the religious leaders in their original context, but they certainly have application for us today.

As our passage opens, Jesus is clear that this parable compares the kingdom of God to a wedding banquet. Jesus begins by explaining that those originally invited refuse to come. A second invite is rejected as well. This time those invited mistreat and kill the servants. A voice had called out in the desert. Some came and heard the call to repentance. They were baptized as a symbol of readiness for the coming kingdom. But John’s call fell on many deaf ears as he ministered in the wilderness. Jesus himself came with a second invite, calling the Jews to really love as God commanded. Jesus’ message centered on the two great commandments: love God with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The religious leaders refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah, so the call or invite extended past the Jews. Anyone that can be found will be invited to the wedding banquet.

The religious leaders went out and heard John’s call. They hung around and heard Jesus’ words, saw the miracles. Showing up is something about anyone can do. There are folks that show up on Sunday mornings. Simply sitting in a worship service does not make one into a practicing Christian. In our parable today, a man comes to the banquet, but he is not prepared. He chose to hear the call, but failed to ready himself. In Jesus’ day, to attend a wedding, one must dress in the required wedding clothes. These clothes were special and required effort and preparation. But this man just showed up. He was simply there to consume and indulge, not to really be a part of things, not to celebrate with the bride and groom. The Jews and the religious leaders in particular had received the invitations. They still showed up for the Sabbath, thinking they were honoring God simply be being there. They went about their lofty rituals and wore their fancy clothes. They loved these things, not God. They were arrogant and selfish, loving only self and not the many neighbors who needed both physical and spiritual care. They lived inside their self-constructed walls.

We too do this. We do it on Sundays when we show up and go through the motions instead of being open to and looking for God’s Spirit to change us on a Sunday morning. We do it each day when we rush off into our day without first connecting to God in word and prayer. We do it each time we think ourselves a Christian and then ignore the poverty, oppression, and injustices of our communities and our world. Simply put, it is easy to talk the talk. It is much harder to always walk the walk. May we all better learn to walk the walk as we seek to follow Jesus Christ, loving as he first loved each of us.

Prayer: God of all, help me to more fully love you and all people. Turn me from selfishness and self-righteousness, becoming more and more willing to give myself away, becoming more and more willing to risk for the gospel. Use me as you will. Amen.


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Stories

Reading: Psalm 78: 1-4 & 12-16

Verse 4: “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord”.

On those days or in those seasons in life when it is cloudy and gloomy and stormy we desperately need a ray of sunshine. In those times when we feel stuck or trapped in the dark, we need the door to be cracked open, for a sliver of light to slice into our darkness. At times in my life there has been a weight upon me or a darkness and gloom hanging over me. It feels oppressive and defeating. On my own I was unable to move past that place. Looking back, though, I can recall specific conversations, lovely notes or letters, small acts of love – all done by family, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ – that lifted me up. Each person was living out the love of Jesus Christ, bringing light into my darkness.

Psalm 78, much like other similar Psalms, was a way for the people of Israel to tell one another and their children of times when God’s love lifted them up or was light in their darkness. Just as me recalling those times when God’s love rescued me, by singing or teaching the Psalm, the Israelites were reminded of God’s love for them. To be reminded, to remember that you are loved, is especially important in those times of trial and hardship. Instead of withdrawing and turning within, which is our natural tendency, by remembering we are turned outward and upward – to others and to the Lord. It is then that we become receptive to the love and hope offered by others and by God. Living in exile, Psalm 78 would be salve to their situation. The Israelites needed to remember that God loved them and to believe that God would provide a way through the darkness. By keeping that hope alive, the Israelites got to the day that allowed them to begin returning home.

My stories of when I was lifted up are like Psalm 78. I can recall them for myself and I can tell them to others walking in gloom and darkness. I can remind them of God’s love and care for them. Your stories work the same way. Who in your life needs a little encouragement or an act of kindness? They are all around us. May we be the love today.

Prayer: Most loving God, this day lead me to those who need to be reminded of your love. Bring to mind the story to tell or the Bible passage to share. Use me to open another’s eyes and hearts to your love. Amen.


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Refined and Reshaped

Reading: Exodus 16: 2-8

Verse 3: “You have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death”.

As the nation of Israel travels in the desert it is a time of testing and refining and reshaping. The journey began with a great freeing miracle in the Passover. The possibility of new life lay ahead as they exited Egypt. They were no longer slaves living in a foreign land. Shortly after leaving God again intervened on their behalf, providing a way through the sea. They were spared a return to slavery. But the experience of these powerful miracles soon gave way to the reality of their situation. The first grumbling for water was satisfied but it came with the first warning to “listen carefully to the voice of the Lord”.

About 45 days after leaving Egypt, the nation has now run low on food. Water and food are essential to life. The people begin to once again grumble against Moses and Aaron. Remembering the good old days – the days when they sat around pots of food as SLAVES – they say to them, “If only we had died at the hand of the Lord in Egypt”. Continuing on, the Israelites say, “You have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death”. They are once again testing God. When they feared dying when trapped against the sea, they complained and God provided the way. When they complained about the bitter water, again God provided the way. God will respond. God’s intent was not to bring his nation out of slavery just to die in the desert. But there are provisions this time. It will be necessary to begin listening to that voice of the Lord. As Moses speaks God’s commands, they must begin to listen. God is beginning to refine and shape their obedience. They are being readied for what lies ahead.

Our journeys with God include similar elements. There are times in our lives when needs are not being met. After one too many nights of Ramen noodles, it can be easy to slip into grumbling or complaining or having a “woe is me” attitude. We also have experiences where God provides a way – literally sending food our way or opening a door at other times. Like the parting of the sea and like water from the rock, as God reigns down food from heaven, it will reassure the people, it will refine their faith, it will begin to shape them into obedient people. Even so, the Israelites will again doubt, will again turn to fear instead of trust. We too are a work in progress. Our faith journey has its share of times when we need refined and reshaped too. We all need reminded from time to time that God is faithful and that God loves us dearly. Each time we are drawn a little closer, we are more assured of his love, and we emerge walking a bit closer, more obediently. May our loving and faithful God continue the good work that he has begun in each of us.

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for your continual work in my life. There was that time in the hospital when you were tangibly present. And there was that time when you opened a door when I couldn’t see a way. And, and, and… Through my doubt and worry, through my questioning and even anger, you provided the way. Thank you, God. Amen.


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Sincere, Devoted, Selfless

Reading: Romans 12: 9-21

Verse 10: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves”.

The section for today is titled “Love” in my Bible. If I had to choose just one word to describe or define God or Jesus, love would be the word. Love guides all that the divine does and says. In today’s passage, Paul encourages us to live the same way.

“Love” is a word that has many applications and even more degrees at the human level. Love, like most words, can be tossed around and can be easily manipulated. It can be twisted for our own purposes. These types of uses fall under the “hate what is evil” part of verse nine. Paul begins today by slicing through all of this by writing “love must be sincere”. Other translations use pure or genuine. It is a calling to love as God and as Jesus love. As Paul urges us to “cling to what is good”, I am reminded of the WWJD slogan. Well, Jesus would love.

In verse ten Paul writes, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves”. The first part of this verse mainly covers agape or brotherly love but the same ideas are essential with all forms of love. Being devoted means commitment and investment in the relationship. It means always honoring and respecting the other person. This approach naturally leads into the second part of this verse. Genuine or sincere love makes the intentional and purposeful choice to place the other person’s needs and wants ahead of our own. This is a call to selfless love. Often it is a sacrificial love. Here too we are reminded of the love that Jesus Christ modeled throughout his ministry and especially on the cross. There he put the needs of the entire world before his own wants as he conceded “not my will but your will be done” to God in the garden.

As we consider what sincere, devoted, selfless love looks like today, may we be thankful for Christ and for others who have loved and who love us this way. And may we strive to love in this model ourselves. May it be so with all we meet.

Prayer: Lord God, to have such a love is admittedly not always easy. The easier path is selfish and inwardly focused. Open my heart to love as you love. Help me to deny self and to even die to those parts of myself. Mold me and shape me to love as you first loved me. Amen.


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With Us

Reading: Matthew 14: 28-33

Verse 31: “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him”.

The disciples have just been a part of feeding 5,000+ with two fish and five loaves. As they headed out in the boat, life probably couldn’t get any better. Then a storm arises. That is usually how they come – out of nowhere. Life is moving along really well and then we hear the word “cancer” or the words “your position has been eliminated” or some other difficult news. All of a sudden we feel as if we are right there in that boat with the disciples. Fear, doubt, worry all rise up.

The disciples are in a storm. They are in need of Jesus’ presence and strength. He comes to them. Despite the words of encouragement from the teacher, Peter still doubts. He does not trust that Jesus is there in the storm. Peter demands proof. He demands a miracle. In our times of most desperate prayer we too can go here. We have all prayed the “God if you’re real…” prayers, demanding that the cancer go away or that God will ‘fix’ whatever else has fallen apart. These prayers belie our lack of faith just as Peter sinking revealed his failure of faith.

Jesus is there for Peter. When Peter sinks we read, “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him”. Right away. No delay. When our faith is teetering and we’re about to sink, Jesus does the same for us. He reaches out, he is fully present, he extends compassion and understanding. Jesus is there with us. Even if the cancer ‘wins’ or if the difficulty does not end as we had hoped, Jesus remains there with us, giving support and encouragement, peace and strength. Our faith cannot prevent some storms from running their course. But our faith promises a companion in the boat. Jesus promises to be with us. His grace is sufficient in all things. May we trust in Jesus.

Prayer: Loving Lord, your promise to be with us never fails. At times we fail to keep the faith, to really trust in you. When the storm causes me to begin to falter, whisper your love into my ear. Thank you, God. Amen.


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Strong and Powerful

Reading: Genesis 29: 15-28

Verse 18: “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel”.

After stealing Isaac’s blessing from his brother Esau, Jacob runs away to his mother’s family in Haran. His mother, Rebekah, had schemed to get the son she loved more the coveted birthright. Her love for Jacob led her to place him before his older brother Esau. Once Jacob safely arrives in Haran, he soon meets Laban, Rebekah’s brother. Laban says to Jacob, “You are my own flesh and blood”. All seems to be going well.

After staying with and working for Laban a month, Jacob is asked to name his wages. Being in love with Rachel, Jacob names his price: “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel”. He must love Rachel very much. The time flies by – “they seemed like only a few days” – and Jacob asks for her. After a big feast Laban sends Leah, the older sister, to lie with Jacob. In the light of morning he realizes he has been tricked. In that moment he must have known what Isaac and Esau felt when they found out what Jacob and Rebekah did to them. Just as Rebekah’s love for Jacob led her to do what she thought she had to do, so too does Laban’s love lead him to do for Leah, his oldest daughter. To Jacob’s protest, Laban replies that it is custom to marry off the oldest daughter first. He grants Rachel to Jacob too, in exchange for seven more years of labor. Jacob willingly agrees.

Love is a strong and powerful emotion. We have all done things for love too. And we’ve all had people look at us and question our decision. That is the path of sacrificial love too. It is a love that leads one to place the other before one’s own needs… It is the kind of love Jesus practiced and calls for from his followers. May we seek to love well today.

Prayer: Living God, your call is to do anything in the name of your great love. Give me a servant’s heart today. Make my love pure and generous. Guide me to be love in the world. Amen.