pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Markers of Success

Reading: Luke 16:19-31

Verse 19: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linens and lived in luxury every day.”

Photo credit: Falaq Lazuardi

Today we begin to look at a parable called “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” We will first focus on the rich man. We will turn to Lazarus and other aspects of the story later in the week. In the opening verse we read about the rich man. To dress in purple was a sign of wealth and power. To wear fine linens implied a life of leisure. Both of these are signs of success. Living in luxury every day was a sign of great wealth. The rich man has arrived. He has the life. That is how society would see him, right?

The standards haven’t changed much. Our culture looks at someone in fancy clothes, jetting here and there, living large as the epitome of success. In worldly terms, yes, they have achieved a certain status. For the rich man, this became his focus. Living for self became his goal. In the story it doesn’t sound like he gave Lazarus much thought. He does know his name. At some point he at least noticed the poor beggar lying outside his door. But Lazarus wasn’t worth much attention. Too busy enjoying and living life!

While I certainly don’t jet around or dress in fine linens, I do struggle at times to “see” those in need. I can get caught up in my version of success. By nature, I’m a doer, a checklist maker. These are my markers of success – getting things done, accomplishment, focus. I can get so busy chasing after these things that I can blow past the person in need that God has placed at my door. I can get frustrated when a person or circumstance is forced, rightly so, upon my organized and planned out life. What are your markers of success that can compete with loving the one that God places in your path?

Prayer: Lord God, when I get a bit too self-absorbed, bring me back down to the heart of love that lives inside of me. Gently nudge me, smack me upside the head – do what you need to do to remind me to love others as Jesus loves me. Lessen the self inside me so that others become my focus. All for your glory. Amen.


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Pray a Prayer!

Reading: Psalm 126

Verse 3 and 4: “The Lord has done great things for us… Restore our fortunes, O Lord.”

Psalm 126 is a passage that makes a great prayer. Many of the Psalms work this way. That is how and why many were written. In ancient times this song was a sung prayer, often used when going to worship or when traveling to Jerusalem for one of the yearly festivals. For the Israelites these sung prayers functioned like the early hymns of our faith. Both contained truths about God and our relationship with God. I think of songs like Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, Great Are You Lord, and All Who Are Thirsty as ‘modern’ versions of the Psalms.

Psalm 126 is a great example of God’s love and care, both past and present. This is illustrated well in verses 3 and 4. Verse 3 recognizes God’s past work on behalf of God’s people and verse 4 asks for God to continue to work amongst the faithful. The first three verses of the Psalm are reminders of God’s faithfulness and the last three call for God’s faithfulness to work in and among the people as they move forward.

The Psalm is a good one for us to pray too. We can pray it as it is. Or we can use the basic structure to personalize a prayer. To do this we can substitute in a time when God rescued or redeemed or saved us (in place of being brought back from captivity) and we can insert actions or outcomes that we desire in place of sowing, seeds, and sheaves. In doing so we are reminded of God’s faithfulness in our past and we are naming our need for God’s work in our present and future. With this in mind, pray a prayer today!

Prayer: Lord God, I rejoiced in my heart when you called me to Grace. I ask that you would continue to grow my faith as I seek to serve you and this community of faith. Amen.


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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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Trust in God Alone

Reading: 1st Corinthians 10:1-13

Verse 12: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall.”

As Paul works with the Corinthian church, trying to compel them to a more faithful witness, he tells them of the struggles of the Israelites in the desert. Being former Gentiles, they wouldn’t be terribly familiar with the exodus stories. But as we all know too well, the sins of idolatry and sexual immortality and the sins of grumbling against and testing God remain present even to this day. Even though the Israelites were all alone in the desert, God’s people found ways to sin. Even if we went off and lived as a hermit, we’d find ways to sin. Temptation and sin are ever present dangers. Paul reminds the Corinthians of this often. It is only when we are aware of our natural tendency to be drawn towards self and the lures of the flesh that are all around us that we begin to be on guard against such sin.

Paul reminds the Corinthians of all that was in favor of the Israelites remaining faithful: together they passed through the sea and were led by the cloud and by Moses. Together they ate the manna and quail and drank from the rock. And yet they sinned. The church in Corinth was all baptized into the one Christ and they were all indwelled by the same Holy Spirit. Yet they too sinned. To trust in our past or to rely on being a ‘Christian’ is not proof or guarantee against that we will be free of temptation or sin. Paul warns, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall.” Faith is not about the past or the future. It is about the present. Just as Jesus called on God the moment that temptation presented itself when he was in the wilderness, so too must we call on God in our present temptation. Right then.

Paul concludes by reminding us that “God is faithful.” When we too choose faith, God will “provide a way out so that you can stand.” In our moment of great need, may we trust in God alone. God is faithful. God is mighty to save.

Prayer: Lord God, turn me always to you and not to my own understanding or will power. Alone I will continue to fail. With you may I stand. Amen.


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Pause to Praise

Reading: Psalm 105: 1-6

Verse 4: “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always”.

Today’s Psalm is a song of remembrance and celebration. As a whole the Psalm recounts God’s covenants with Israel and the period in Egypt. It is part of the story of God’s ongoing faithfulness to Israel. The song would be sung as a way to help remember God’s love for his people. Most often it would be a song of worship and praise, but sometimes it also served to lift up their faith and spirit in times of personal or communal trial or testing or suffering.

Verse one begins with giving thanks to God for all that he has done. The charge is to make this “known among the nations”. The next two verses are about singing praises and bringing glory to God. Again, the context is to “tell of all his wonderful acts”. These ideas of making God known among all the nations and of sharing what God has done for us continues to be our charge as we seek to fulfill Jesus’ commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

As we turn to verse four we are reminded that our faith is not just rooted in the past. The past is our foundation and the future is our hope, but we live in the present. In verse four we read, “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always”. We remember God’s mighty acts from both the word of God and from our own faith journeys to build upon our foundation of faith. This base allows us to live day by day, looking to the Lord for strength and seeking his presence with an assurance that God will be there for us. We come to learn that the Lord was, is, and always will be present to and for us. Remembering and praising God for our experience with this truth builds up our faith.

As the psalmist reminds us to “remember the wonders… the miracles” that God has done, may we pause to praise God today for the ways he has touched our lives. In our own way may we each rejoice in God’s love today.

Prayer: Loving and merciful God, in the word I find the unfolding story of your love for us. Thank you for the stories and teachings that encourage me, that lift me, that grow my faith. On my journey you have been a constant presence. Yet some points stand out – in a church balcony, in an ER room, in a prayer space. They are easy to identify – milestones. But even in the day to day your love and mercy remember me. They touch my life each day. In the small and mundane, even there I find you. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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New as Well as Old

Reading: Matthew 13:52

Verse 52: “Therefore every teacher… who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven… brings out new treasures as well as old”.

At what I would consider my “home” church, back when I was still a middle school teacher, I was part of the team that began a contemporary worship service. That was over twenty years ago. At the time it caused a lot of angst and even some division in the church. When the service outgrew the “Upper Room” and needed to shift to the sanctuary, then we really upset the apple cart. Change is hard, especially when it involves something new and relatively unknown to many people in the group or organization. But a quick survey of almost every church offering contemporary worship will reveal that that service is their best attended service. Change can be good and positive and even life giving.

When I moved into full-time ministry just over right years ago, one of my secret inner fears was one day being appointed to a small, rural church with just an organ or piano that only sang hymns on Sunday mornings. Since helping start the contemporary worship service that was the only service I had attended. When we were out of town on a weekend, we would find a church to visit with a contemporary service. But after just a couple of months in pastoral ministry I came to realize that I loved the hymns and liturgy of traditional worship. Holding onto the past, to the tried and true, very often has its place. It is often the key component of a group or organization’s core identity. It is essential to who “we” are.

In today’s verse Jesus is talking about this same idea – the old and the new. Talk about someone with first-hand insight on holding onto the past yet also doing something new. If we keep nothing but the old in our faith and in our churches, then we become old. We all know what eventually happens to the old. But we cannot just change it all overnight either. Then folks look around and wonder where they are. Balance is the key.

The same is true for our lives and for our journey of faith. Growth is most often a slow and steady process that involves melding the good new with the good old. In our faith and in our churches may we be open to the new even as we hold onto the roots and traditions that make us the children of God. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to know, to discern, how and when and where to go in a new direction and why and where to keep the tried and true. Both are central to a healthy and growing faith and to a strong and vibrant church. Lead and guide me, I great Jehovah. Amen.


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The Struggle Within

Reading: James 4: 1-3

Verse 1: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you”?

So far in the book of James, he has built the argument that the things in our heart and mind are what guide our actions, control our tongues, and directs our decisions. In chapter four, he turns the discussion towards the disagreements and arguments that mankind often enters into. One only has to watch the nightly news for a short time to see plenty of examples.

James opens chapter four with two great focus questions: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you”? Once in a while we fight and quarrel for other reasons, but most often the battle begins with an internal issue or struggle. Maybe it is something that happened in our past that we haven’t gotten past or let go of yet. Similar events trigger us, pushing that button that leads us to desire to fight and quarrel. Maybe our desire to enter the battle comes from some perceived need or want and our envy or jealousy flares up. Sometimes it has to do with a lack of maturity. I can remember times in my greener years when I’d argue for the sake of arguing and times when I would argue long after I knew I had lost the argument. Pride was definitely at work.

When we come to the edge of a fight and quarrel, James suggests a few filters. We should ask ourselves questions such as these: What am I about to fight about? Is this about getting even? Are these feelings even connected this actual person or situation? Am I being stubborn or prideful? Again, in most cases the urge to fight and quarrel is driven by a struggle or issue within us. When we allow these to linger, they inhibit our relationships with God and with others. Only when we make peace within will we have peace without. James has a suggestion here too: seek God’s help with the right motives. Pray for help with the struggle within. God is faithful. He will rain down mercy, grace, forgiveness, and healing.

Prince of Peace, pour out your peace upon my inner being. Guide me to those that I need to reconcile with. Lead me to speak words of unity and healing. Wipe away all unrest and discord that is within. Help me to freely offer mercy, grace, and forgiveness so that I may receive them from you and from others. May I model your love each day. Amen.


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Build

Reading: Mark 6: 1-6a

Verse Three: “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son…”?

Can you remember when you were a child and you wanted to do something “adult”? I can remember my parents or others saying “You’re too young” or something similar. As a parent I can also remember being on the other side of these conversations with our children. Waiting to be old enough is part of growing up.

Jesus must have also experienced this growing up. He must have heard things like, “No, you can’t walk to your cousin John’s house. It is a long way and you are only seven”. Later it was probably something like, “No, we’ll work together on this kitchen remodel. You’re not old enough to do this on your own”. But being questioned because we are young or inexperienced is much different than being questioned because of our past. In fact, some people even move to a new town or a new company just to get a fresh start.

When Jesus returns to His home town, He must have come with a bit of a reputation from what He has been doing lately. Buzz from the miracles traveled from village to village and town to town. In our passage, Jesus begins by teaching in the synagogue and there He amazes them with His wisdom. But then someone remembers Jesus’ past and asks, “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son…”? What they were really asking was: “Isn’t this JUST the carpenter…”? They could not see He for who He had become. This is a hard thing to experience. It is real and many have and will experience it. The power of these negative thoughts is evident in how it limits Jesus’ power. He could not do big miracles and was amazed at their lack of faith.

This passage makes me wonder: when have I done this to someone recently? Am I always willing to allow others the chance to do what they think God is calling them to? Or do I squash their enthusiasm or question their motivation?

Lord, help me. Lord God, may I be an empowerer and an equipper, may I be a cheerleader and a person of support. May I be open to the God-inspired dreams and visions that you give to people. May I help them become realities. May I enable and work with others to build your kingdom here on earth. Amen.


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All Things New

Reading: Revelation 21: 1-6

Verse Five: “I am making everything new”.

Welcome to 2018!  The passage of time rolls on.  At this time of the year we naturally reflect on our past year and the passing of time.  It is an opportunity to live for a moment in the space between the past and the future.  This helps us remember that time is temporal.  All that was in 2017 does not necessarily have to be in 2018.  This is one gift of time.

Time keeps us moving forward.  Our sense of time always being in motion does not allow us get stuck.  Yes, we can procrastinate, but we still have this sense that things are moving forward anyway.  On the positive side, this sense also brings us an awareness of new possibilities and allows us to look forward to the next thing that God may bring our way.  What may this be for you in 2018?

Thinking about time also allows us to consider what has been and what is.  Within these considerations we find opportunities for fresh starts and for dreaming.  In these considerations we can also choose to change things or to make efforts to correct or fix things – relationships, choices, habits…  Just as our God is the God of second chances, a new year is also a time for us to make amends and to chart a new course as we enter a new year.  It is in this space that we must pay attention to the Holy Spirit.  Where in our lives is the Holy Spirit bringing conviction?  Where in our lives is the Holy Spirit nudging us to step out in faith or to tiptoe outside of our comfort zones?

In our passage, Jesus says, “I am making everything new”.  This is both a present and a future reality.  Yes, one day Revelation 21 will occur as God returns to dwell among mankind once again.  All will be healed and restored.  Let us not lose the present reality though.  Jesus will make us new every day as well.  He will dwell with us now in Spirit and will restore and redeem all things each day.  Yes, He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.  But He is the Lord of today as well.  This day and every day of 2018, may we call upon Jesus to make us a new creation, holy and perfect in God’s sight, ready to go out to be the hands and feet and love of Christ in the world.  Blessings to all!


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Great Things

Reading: Psalm 126

Verse Five: “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy”.

Psalm 126 is an interesting mix of past,present, and future.  It recalls the joy of returning home to Zion, yet it seeks for God to restore their fortunes.  It speaks of the great things that God has done for them and it speaks of sowing seed in tears.  This there and here and not yet is much like Advent.  We celebrate the joy of the birth, yet we seek to see the Messiah return.  We sing of the star, the angels, and the other wonders of God and we have moments of sadness and loneliness as we think of loved ones who have passed.

In the Psalm there is longing and there is thanksgiving.  There is the waiting and there is the expectation of God’s presence.  There is weeping and there is joy.  In this way, the Psalm is much like life and our faith.  Both are about holding onto the blessings of God because they strengthen us as we walk through the trials.  Both are about how “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” because we experience joy even in the sorrows of life, as God is with us in our times of need.  Like the psalmist, we acknowledge that God is near even as we cry out for God to be closer.

And just as the psalmist does, we too have a call to proclaim what the Lord has done for us.  The psalmist declares, “The Lord has done great hings for them”.  Let is also proclaim the good news about what Jesus Christ has done in our lives.  May we help others to know good news in their lives so that they can “reap with songs of joy”, joining us in rejoicing in what great things God has done and trusting into the great things God will do.