pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Ever by Our Side

Reading: Psalm 23

Verse 1: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”

Photo credit: Felipe Correia

We return to Psalm 23 today. This is something we do again and again. These words are powerful. We recite these words at many funerals – a reminder that God is always with us. We recite these words in our minds when we are not sure of the next step to take in life – a reminder to ourselves that the Good Shepherd will guide and protect. We pray these words in our hearts – reminding ourselves that the Lord will be our still waters in moments of anxiousness or doubt. We offer these words as a plea – an assurance that the guardian of our soul will meet our every need. And we offer these words as a prayer of thanksgiving, remembering again and again how God is with us in all of life. With these words we rejoice in the Lord.

Today I invite you to an exercise. It won’t take too long. Take a little time to pray your way through the Psalm. Reopen your Bible or click on the link above. Pray through one phrase at a time. Not one verse – that is too much. Begin with “The Lord is my shepherd.” Offer words to God around this phrase. It may be words of praise. It may be a request. It may be gratitude or realization. Allow the Spirit to lead you. Then go on to “I lack nothing.” Take your time. Be with the Lord a while…

What a powerful reminder this exercise was for me. God is with me in so many ways. God brings so much to my daily walk and to my life. The Lord is ever by our side. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for this time today with this amazing Psalm. Draw me back to these words again and again – not only in moments of need but also in times of joy and thanksgiving. You are present in all of life, in every moment. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Our Shepherd

Reading: Psalm 23

Verse 6: “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.”

Photo credit: Patrick Schneider

“The Lord is my shepherd…” These are such familiar words. We know them and the words that follow mostly by heart. These verses bring comfort, peace, strength, assurance. These words are right up there with “Our father who art in heaven…” The image of a shepherd evokes thoughts of care and guidance, of direction and provision. All of this is found in the 23rd Psalm.

“I shall not be in want.” This is such a summary statement. It speaks of God’s all-inclusive, all-encompassing care for us. In a world that promises to satisfy our wants, we soon enough find out that all the world offers is shallow and temporary. God alone provides what we really need deep down – green pastures, still waters, the restoration of our soul, guidance in this life. These feel maybe a bit mundane or basic yet they are essential to our lives. In the good seasons of life, it can be easy to forget the source or to become ungrateful for all of these simple blessings that God provides.

“Even though I walk…” This verse reminds us of our deep need for God. In the valley – whether because of grief or loss or because our enemies seem all around us – God is with us, the rod drawing us close, the staff protecting us from all that assails us. This comfort and protection are both also all-inclusive and all-encompassing. So too are the blessings that follow in the Psalm. The table, the anointing, the cup – they all overflow. God is so good. “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for always shepherding your people. From the wilderness experience to the quiet whisper on the mountaintop and in many other ways, you lead and guide, you provide, you restore, you rescue. In the incarnation you gave voice to who and what you are in a new expression. You led and taught, you reconciled, you set for us an example to follow. And in the Spirit you continue the conversation, the provision, the guidance, the love and care. Thank you God for shepherding your people, for shepherding me. Amen.


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Love and Power

Reading: Acts 2:42-47

Verse 44: “All the believers were together and had everything in common.”

This week’s passage in Acts 2 paints a beautiful picture of the early church in Jerusalem. These words represent the church at its best. In a world where division and argument seem to be the norm, maybe one wonders if this is still possible. We must remember that the world was far from perfect for these early Christians. They lived in an occupied land that was primarily populated by a majority religious group that was against their religion. Even so, this beautiful community existed and thrived.

The early church was built first and foremost on Christ’s love. Because of this great love, they wanted to know Jesus more and to grow more like him. They “devoted themselves” to his teachings and to his example. The Spirit was alive and well in this community – “wonders and miraculous signs” were happening. Generosity and mutual care were the norm. Being selfish and inwardly focused – these were absent from this community. Needs that arose were me by the faith community. The early church both worshipped and fellowshipped together. This way of living in community attracted attention: “the Lord added daily to their number.”

Yes, the political and social atmosphere today certainly work against such a community. And, yes, the culture and society that we live in can make it hard to practice a spirit of love and generosity and compassion. But the power to live and be such a community didn’t and doesn’t come from the body itself. It comes from the love of Christ in us and through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in and amongst us. Here is the love and power to sustain and nourish and grow such a beautiful community of faith. Day by day may we connect to this love and power.

Prayer: Lord God, at her best, the church is a place of love and welcome, acceptance and support, generosity and connection. Guide us to rely on your love and power to enable us to truly be such a community of faith. May it be so, O Lord. Amen.


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An Ear Turned Towards Us

Reading: Psalm 116:1-4

Verse 1: “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.”

In Psalm 116 there is a remembrance of a time of anguish, trouble, and sorrow. Death was near to the author. We all experience times of anguish, trouble, and sorrow. Many of us have had death come near. We can relate to what the psalmist felt. Even people who do not believe in God feel these emotions. Anguish, trouble, and sorrow are common to all of humankind.

In verse 1 the psalmist expresses his or her love for the Lord. Why? Because the Lord heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.” In the moment of need, the Lord heard. As the psalmist cries out for mercy, the Lord hears the anguished cry. Being heard in the moment of need leads to the declaration that we find in verse 2: “Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.” Because the Lord was there in the great time of need, the psalmist declares faithfulness for all of his or her life.

When you have been in a moment of great need, did the Lord hear your voice? Did others hear your cries? If the answer is ‘yes’ to either question, you know how much that matters. For family or friends who respond to our cries, we are forever grateful. If not aloud, at least we think in our minds that we will value that connection forever. How much more so for the Lord! The Lord ever has an ear turned towards us. Our God hears the smallest whispers and the loudest cries. The Lord is always near. So like the psalmist, may we too declare our love for the Lord, ever turning to the one who awaits our voice.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for being ever present. You know us inside out – our thoughts, our feelings, our needs, our wants and desires. Yet you are eager to hear our voice. Thank you Lord. Amen.


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Blessed Are…

Reading: John 20:24-29

Verse 29: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Act 2 unfolds today. We learn that Thomas was absent from the risen one’s first visit. It seems odd that Jesus would first visit when one disciple was missing but the reason why becomes clear as we read on. Thomas refuses to believe. He insists on his own physical proof. How many times have you said or thought “I’ll believe that when I see it with my own eyes”?

Usually when I’ve said that, the person’s response has been something along the “Well then, I’ll show you!” lines. It is not said with grace or humility or compassion. Contrast this human norm with how Jesus speaks to Thomas. In act 2 Jesus once again appears and greets them. Then, turning to Thomas alone, Jesus offers what he needs: “Put your finger here…” I picture a kindness in Jesus’ eyes and I sense a mercy and compassion in his voice. I think this is because it’s what I’ve felt when Jesus has met me where I was at and has given me what I needed. Thomas immediately professes faith in “my Lord and my God.”

And then to Thomas, but certainly loud enough for all to hear, Jesus says, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” All there have now seen him. By seeing the risen Lord they have come to believe. Yet when Mary Magdalene came from the tomb with her good news… They all had doubt. They all needed more. So not only with Thomas but with all the disciples, he gave them what they needed to really believe. Jesus met them where they were at and helped them to step forward in faith. In Spirit, Christ continues to do this.

You and I fall into this “Blessed are…” statement. We have come to believe without physically seeing Jesus. How? Through the words of scripture, through the witness of others, and through our own experiences with Christ, we have come to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This day may our lives lay the groundwork for the Spirit to move the heart of another, drawing them towards faith in Jesus Christ. In whatever way we can, may we be part of other’s “how.”

Prayer: Lord God, use me today as you will. In and through me may others come to see and know Jesus in their hearts. Lead and guide me to help others toward the Lord and Savior of us all. Amen.


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How far…?

Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Verse 5: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

Before we delve into today’s writing from Paul, sit with the opening verse for just a minute. How far can that go? How far should it go?

To me there are four key phrases in verses 6-8 that we are called to emulate as followers of Jesus Christ. First, “he made himself nothing.” This is not to think that we are worthless. Instead it is to see the worth in others, to think of self last, to consider others in depth before taking into account our wants and needs. Second, “taking the very nature of a servant.” This is putting these first thoughts into real action. It is responding to the need you see, it is stepping into the opportunity to help and serve the church, your family, the community. Third, “he humbled himself.” This is the dual action of surrender and then looking to God alone from this place of humility. And, fourth, Jesus “became obedient to death.” Jesus’ cross was literal. Ours could be but is much more likely to be figurative. Our greatest death is to self. That’s really what the first three are about. It is a hard death and one that comes daily. The swath of evil and destruction that self cuts is broad: pride, ego, lust, envy, greed, jealousy, hate, judgmentalism…

So why should we have the attitude of Christ? Why should our heart and mind be conformed to Christ’s? To me there are three basic reasons. First and perhaps least important: our life is better. Focusing not on self but on God and others brings a joy, a peace, a contentment that the world cannot bring. Second, it helps our relationships flourish both with God and with the community of faith. It leads to collaboration and generosity, to cooperation and genuine love. And third and most importantly, it leads others to “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Living with the heart and mind of Christ draws others into this relationship and into new life through our Lord and Savior.

Rethink the opening questions for just a moment: How far can that go? How far should it go?

Prayer: Lord God, I believe you told us how far: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” May it be so in my life, O God. Amen.


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Seeking Presence, Seeking to Hear

Reading: Matthew 17:4-9

Verse 5: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Photo credit: Uta Scholl

Returning once again to the mountaintop we are present with the disciples as they experience the transfiguration of Jesus. The physical change in Jesus and witnessing his conversation with Moses and Elijah – life-changing. Peter, James, and John would never be the same. This was an experience that they could draw upon again and again. We too can have these experiences. We are not the same afterwards. My first experience with the presence of the divine happened in a church balcony my junior year of high school during an overnight event at the church. Two others were praying with me for a friend who has been in an awful car accident. As we cried and prayed I felt tangible arms around us. A holy presence surrounded us in that time of need. Suddenly I knew that God was real.

In Peter, James, and John’s experience, they saw and felt something that they had never seen or felt before. Peter wants to build dwellings, perhaps to hold onto the moment. But it could not last forever. From an even brighter cloud God says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” These words, from this voice, they validate Jesus, they define the holy relationship, they give Jesus all authority. These words prolong the disciples’ experience. In moments of fear or doubt or trial how these words must’ve echoed in their minds, giving them courage or assurance or strength.

The Holy Spirit offers the same to you and to me. If we turn to God, whether in prayer or meditation, coming to God with our need or worry or concern, then we open ourselves up to God’s presence. As we surrender our will, our way, our desires to God, we invite the holy presence to open our ears and minds and hearts to hear what God speaks. In that balcony long ago, I did not tangibly hear God speak but there was an overwhelming feeling that Keith would be okay. There was no doubt.

When we seek God’s presence, when we humble ourselves to hear, then the Lord our God will lead, guide, direct, comfort, strengthen, assure… Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, I am grateful for each of my encounters with you – those on the mountaintop, those in the valley, those that came upon me unexpectedly. Each has grown our relationship. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Living Out Love

Reading: Hebrews 2:10-18

Verse 14: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.”

Our text from Hebrews focuses on Jesus’ connection to us, to his brothers and sisters. Our connection begins in the garden, where God formed humankind in God’s own image. Perfection fell away quickly as temptation led to sin and to a new dynamic in our relationship with God. From that point on, temptation and sin would be part of our human nature. At just the right moment, God came in the flesh. Jesus, God incarnate, came and lived among our sin and suffering, among the pain and brokenness of life. Verse 14 puts it this way: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.”

In order to be the provision for our sin Jesus had to know what he was dying for. He had to know the depth of our need. Jesus had to be made like us “in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest” for us in heaven. Because of this experience Jesus can intercede for us and can stand between us and God’s wrath over our sin. And because of this experience, Christ “is able to help those who are being tempted.” Because he too felt temptation, in Spirit he helps us in our battles with sin. In Spirit, Christ is right there with us.

In his earthly life Jesus was face to face with suffering and hardship. Here too is another connection. In love he fully engaged this side of life. Jesus touched the sick and the unclean. He walked and ate with the outcasts and the shunned. Christ sought relationship with those outside the family of God. Jesus identified all of these as the ones he came to save, as the ones that he shared humanity with. Being brothers and sisters with Christ, may we too seek to live out love, caring for and ministering to the needs among us.

Prayer: Lord God, I am so grateful that in Christ you came and lived among us, experiencing all aspects of this life. You know our weaknesses and our proclivity towards self. In response you gave life for our sins and then you gifted us the Holy Spirit, your presence alive in our hearts. In and through this we find life – both here and now as well as one day in eternity. May my grateful response be to love as you love, especially amongst those most in need of your love, mercy, and care. Amen.


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The Love of God Almighty

Reading: Psalm 80:1-7

Verse 2: “Awaken your might; come and save us.”

Psalm 80 is an expression of lament that calls on God to be God. The words are couched in the Jewish understanding of covenant – God’s no-matter-what love for the children of God. The ‘how long’ feel and questions reflect the understanding that it is God alone with the power to keep the covenant. The great pleas are a recognition of how powerless humanity is and of how powerful and almighty God is.

Experiencing great loss naturally reminds us of these dynamics. For the psalmist and for the Israelites of his day, exile is their great loss and suffering. Their failure to uphold their side of the covenant has resulted in this hardship. They know that the drinking of “tears by the bowlful” is because of their choices and actions. The Israelites need God to rescue them. They need the Good Shepherd to guide them home. They need redemption and restoration from God Almighty.

This cycle of sin and separation followed by repentance and forgiveness is one that is played out again and again in the Bible. It is one played out over and over in our lives. It is in our human nature to struggle with greed, lust, jealousy… It is in God’s nature to love us in spite of and through these times and seasons of disobedience. With this understanding and with the faith and trust that it builds the psalmist can write, “Awaken your might; come and save us.” Because of the covenant love of God, the psalmist can cry out to the Lord Almighty, asking for God’s face to shine upon them, pleading for God’s mercy to save them. We are under this same covenant love. In our brokenness we too can cry out to God. Lord Almighty, come and save us!

Prayer: Lord God, your faithfulness began before creation and it will extend through all generations. Your covenant love knows no bounds, no limits, no exceptions. Hear the cries of your people today. Heal us, restore us, rescue us, redeem us, forgive us. Awaken your might, O God, and fill us with your power and glory. Amen.


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Lean In

Reading: Psalm 107:1-6

Verse 1: “Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; God’s love endures forever.”

God is always present, always there to love and care for us. God guides us and protects us from evil. Because of our relationship with God we often expect life to be good and blessed. We are often surprised when tragedies or suffering comes our way. We feel disoriented and unsure. We can question God as we come to feel like those in the Psalm, those whose “lives ebbed away.”

In times of suffering and pain it can be a time of testing for our faith. If we see God as a God who primarily gives us what we want, then we can feel abandoned by God in hard times. We can get angry at God and maybe even distance ourselves from God. But if we see God as a God of love and care and compassion, then we choose to lean into God in times that are hard. We recall times when God was present during our trials and we lean into these memories and experiences.

We can also look to Jesus, to the one who modeled leaning into God better than anyone. The greater the trial, the harder Jesus leaned into God. Christ held onto hope and trusted that God would always be there with all he needed for that moment. He cried out to God and God walked with him. Even in the valley, Jesus declared as the psalmist did, “Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; God’s love endures forever.” May we do so as well.

Prayer: Lord God, when we are hurting and suffering, help us to draw near to you. When life rages and we feel like joining in, pour out your peace upon our hearts. Call us to draw close, to enter into your tender and gentle love. You are all we need. Amen.