pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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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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The Presence of God

Reading: Mark 1: 4-8

Verse 4: “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.

As we delve into Mark’s gospel we get right into the years of Jesus’ ministry. The first gospel written jumps right in with John the Baptist. Quoting from the Old Testament, John’s authority is established. John is the prophet spoken of long ago and is the one sent to “prepare the way” for the Lord. John was very different in his approach. In verse four we read, “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. He set up out in the wilderness, a place representing the condition of people’s souls at this point. He dressed and ate differently than any other religious leader. His open air, honest, straight forward style was different and was a foreshadowing of the ministry of Jesus.

Many people came out into the desert to hear John. His words brought a quick conviction and a renewed dedication. Many people stepped into the river to confess their sins and to commit to a more devout life. They did so because the presence of God was evident in John’s life. The Spirit if God upon John drew others to want to know God in a more personal, more intimate way. The presence of God could not be ignored.

Wouldn’t that be a great thing for others to say about you? To notice about you? I think so! As we each consider the living out of each day, may we seek to make God known through our words and actions and attitudes. May we be set apart from the world, pointing to the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

Prayer: God of all, so fill me with your Holy Spirit that all will see you in me and in my life. May your presence abound in all I say and do and think, bringing you the glory and praise. Amen.


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Baptized into Jesus

Reading: Acts 19: 1-7

Verses 5-6: “They were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus… the Holy Spirit came on them”.

This week we have been looking at God’s creativity and power and strength and majesty found in creation. The call or response has been to praise and give glory to God. The passages from Genesis 1, Psalm 29, and Isaiah 60 were mostly corporate, focusing on God’s love for and interaction with those who believe. In today’s passage that love becomes more personal.

As we begin, we learn that Paul travels to Ephasus to preach and teach. Upon arriving he encounters some disciples of Jesus. There must have been something different about these men. Paul asks them if they have received the Holy Spirit. It is something they have never even heard of. Finding out that they received John’s baptism (a baptism of repentance), Paul points them towards being baptized in Jesus’ name. Desiring this baptism, the men are baptized in Jesus’ name. It is then that the “Holy Spirit came on them”. The result of the indwelling Spirit is that they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There was an obvious change in these twelve men. The baptism in Jesus’ name led to transformation. They were different now.

As we consider the sacrament of baptism about 2,000 years later, the same essentials remain. Whether your faith tradition baptizes mostly infants or mostly adults, whether your tradition immerses or sprinkles with water – it does not matter. It is not the pastor or the priest that changes or transforms the person in any way. God alone has the power. The clergy person is certainly a part of the sacrament but God is the change agent. To think otherwise would be akin to saying the kid who brought the new batch of baseballs to the umpire is responsible for the home run hit two pitches later.

In baptism one is inviting the power of God to be a part of that person’s life. Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior remains the catalyst for baptism. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit remains the result of baptism. Inclusion into the family of God begins the transformation process as one speaks and lives in a new and different way. The language of God’s love becomes the baptized believer’s primary language. It is a language that we become more proficient with as we continue to grow in Jesus Christ as we are led by the Spirit, being transformed day by day.

As we go forth in the world today, may we celebrate our place in the family of God, seeking to speak the language of love to the world. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, you lead and guide me from within and without. Your presence lives in me and your word and example are also a part of my daily life. Thank you so much for calling me and claiming me as one of your own. Amen.


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To God Be the Glory

Reading: Romans 16: 25-27

Verse 25: “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ…”

The three verses that we read today come at the end of Paul’s letter to the Roman church. These verses are the doxology or blessing given to the church. At the end of a letter we may write “best wishes” or “yours truly” or “until the next time”. Paul’s closing is more of a summary. In just a few verses Paul summarizes what he has said to the church in Rome in a long letter – fourteen typed pages of size 12 font in my Bible.

The people in the church in Rome are believers for two primary reasons. First, they gave heard Paul’s “gospel” – his good news story. For Paul it is the story of how he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and of how his life was radically changed. The “proclamation of Jesus Christ” is that he offers salvation and eternal life to all who believe in him as Lord and Savior. Paul spent much of his life preaching salvation in Jesus Christ and of the peace, hope, joy, love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, contentment… that comes to all who believe. Paul used both his story and Jesus’ story to draw others into the faith he knew and lived so that “all nations might believe and obey”. That was Paul’s mission and focus in life.

You and I have what Paul had – a personal faith story and Jesus’ Christ as our Lord and Savior. We too are called to do what Paul did: to help others to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And we are called for the same reason Paul was called: “to the only wise God be glory forever”. As we seek to witness to our faith, sharing the love of Jesus Christ with others, may we bring God the glory this day and every day!

Prayer: Wise and true God, thank you for your saving grace, your tender mercies, and your inclusion of me in your family. The mystery of faith has changed my life. Help me to share my faith with others, opening the way for the Holy Spirit to change their lives too. Amen.


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Pray, Listen

Reading: 2nd Samuel 7: 1-11 and 16

Verse 2: “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent”.

At this point in his story, David is at a good place. He has conquered all of his enemies. He has established Jerusalem as the capital. He has a beautiful home made of expensive wood. Life is good. David calls in his advisor, the prophet Nathan, and says to him, “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent”. Nathan thinks it a splendid idea to build God a big fancy home. But before David can even begin to line up all the workers and start gathering up all the materials, God reigns him in.

God begins with a question. He asks David, “Are you the one”? God reminds them that he has not had a house, well, ever. God once had a garden… But God has never once even asked for a house. A house is, after all, a human construct. God is perfectly content with a tent. It is adequate. It is simple. It is humble. In this season, it reminds me of the manger.

David does something here in today’s passage that I can do too. I can set my plans out before God’s plans. This happens one of two times and both are equally dangerous. Like with David, when things are going well, I can strike off with my own grand idea for ministry or service. On the other end of the spectrum, when things are going really bad, I can try quick fixes, much like firing darts at the dartboard while blindfolded. In both cases I fail to do what David failed to do: pray. Include God at the planning and thinking stages instead of at the point that the ship is sinking. Too often our plans can be formed and executed without God’s help and guidance. Usually these end with God reigning me back in, with me learning another hard lesson. Step one: pray.

As I read and pondered this passage this morning, at first I thought, ‘If only I had a Nathan’, one sent by God to guide me, to help me, to lead me, to walk with me. And then I realized that I do. The Holy Spirit is my personal connection to God. Thinking back on my hard lessons, I can see when I ignored the quiet whisper, when I shoved back against the gentle nudge. Step two is to listen, to hear.

To pray and to listen are two key steps on our walk of faith. Both align us and keep us in tune with God. May all we do and say and think begin with these two steps: pray and listen. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for this reminder today. In my too frequent battles with pride and wanting to be in control, reminders of your ways are always needed. Thank you for the reminder today. Amen.


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Look Upon Us

Reading: Isaiah 64: 5b-9

Verse 8: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter”.

As we continue in Isaiah 64 today, the second half of the passage begins in verse 5b with an admission: “When we continued to sin, you were angry”. Yes, God will come to the help of those who do right, but the sinners? Isaiah asks the correct question: “How then can we be saved”? As a people living in sin, the Israelites were taken into exile. God still loves them, but what can God do with his children who continue in their rebellion? The prophet laments that they have become “unclean” and that their faith has “shriveled up” like a dry leaf. In verse seven his words are honest: “No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you”. The situation, the condition of the people’s faith, is not good. Yet there is hope. There is always hope with God.

In verse eight Isaiah speaks of that hope: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter”. Our God never gives up on us. Yes, we may choose to distance ourselves from God and from our relationships with one another. Our sin leads to separation. Even in the midst of our sin, even then we can cry out to God. Like a petulant child, we cry out only half-heartedly because we remain unclean. We want our way and we want God to do our will too. At that point God hears but does not respond. This is where almost all of Isaiah’s audience is at spiritually. Yet the one who speaks for God has hope. Isaiah knows that God can and will reshape the people. Through the process of defeat and exile, God will fashion Israel back into obedient children once again. Our passage ends with a humble plea: “Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people”.

In this season, especially in this time of division and discord, in this time of online worship and personal distancing, in this time of illness and loss, Lord, look upon us. We pray for all of your people. Great potter, shape us into something new.

Prayer: Lord God, show us the way. Help me to work through this discord in my soul, through this time of unease. Bring healing to our land, O God. Not just physical healing but also spiritual and emotional and relational healing. Unite us, O Lord, in your love and grace and mercy. Amen.


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Once New Again

Reading: Judges 4: 1-7

Verses 1 and 2: “The Israelites once again did evil in the sight of the Lord. So the Lord sold them into the hands of…”

Today’s passage is from the book of Judges. This book covers the time period when there was no king in Israel. One after another a judge rules or leads Israel. In today’s reading Deborah the prophetess is acting as the judge or ruler of Israel. In our opening verses we read, “The Israelites once again did evil in the sight of the Lord. So the Lord sold them into the hands of…”. In today’s passage it is Canaan who rules over Israel. The … can be followed by many different names – Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans… The process of “doing evil” is familiar: the people sin, there is a period of oppression, this leads to crying out to God, and then God restores Israel. This is an often repeated process for Israel.

This is a process that we are also familiar with, especially on a personal level. In our battles with sin, in our attempts to be obedient and faithful, we often have our “how did I get here again?” moments. How did I let pride get in the way of doing right again? How did I allow anger to win again? How did I give in to ___ again? Our weak, imperfect human condition makes us prone to the same cycle or process that we see scattered throughout the Old Testament and continued into the New Testament. The ministry of Jesus did not fix us; it did not remove our human weakness and our tendency towards the things of this world. It did, however, change the process. The “time in the hands of…” is no longer required. The time in oppression, the time in exile, the loss of freedom is no longer needed. On the cross, Jesus made atonement for our sins. With his life Jesus served the consequence. Sometimes there is an earthly consequence that we must suffer through. Our sin can damage a relationship or can violate earthly laws. There are costs to these things. But through the gift of grace and the giving of mercy, we are made new again, our sin is washed away, we are restored back into right relationship with God. In the process we do learn, we do grow from our failures, we do gain strength in the battle again sin. More importantly we learn just as Israel learned: God never gives up. God keeps working in our lives, keeps restoring us, keeps calling us to deeper obedience and to a more faithful walk. May it ever be so.

Prayer: Dear God, thousands and thousands of times I have stumbled and fallen. Even though it is almost beyond counting, your grace is greater. Even though I struggle to forgive just a few slights, your mercy never ends. So great a love is hard to fathom. In utter humility I thank you for loving a sinner like me. You are truly love and grace and mercy lived out. Thank you, God. Amen.


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Audience of 1

Reading: Matthew 23: 1-12

Verse 5: “Everything they do is done for me to see”.

Yesterday we looked at the warning to do as the scribes and Pharisees teach, not as they do. There is a disconnect between what they preach to the people and how they themselves are living their lives. The middle section in our reading today begins with verse five. Here we read, “Everything they do is done for me to see”. This can be a trap we too fall into. Being human, we like recognition. When we do something “good” and no one notices, we feel hurt or let down or we can even question why we did it. Some of the time, we can also be like these religious leaders, waiting for an audience before we do our good deed, insuring publicity or recognition for our actions.

The scribes and Pharisees loved to be seen and recognized. It reinforced both their authority and their ego. They wore large phylacteries and long tassels – two symbols of their deep connection to God. Today, one may give a large donation, thinking the size of the gift will reflect the depth of their faith for others. Some will want it announced in church or published in the bulletin or will want a plaque placed on the item so that all will know of their good and generous gift. The scribes and Pharisees wanted the best seats or places at events or in worship. This prime real estate is where others will notice they are there. In a similar way, they loved to be called ‘rabbi’ – a title that was revered, respected, honored. It pumped up the ego to see all bow a bit as the people acknowledged the religious leaders. The title separated them from the rest of society. It also insulated them from those outside of their religious circles.

Today, some still like to have a title connected to their name – doctor, professor, reverend, pastor, officer… Titles convey power and authority. These titles can be used to gain admittance and to avoid consequences. It is a good thing, for example, when the pastor title gains entry to pray with a dying person during these pandemic restrictions. Yet it would be a bad thing, for example, to pull out my pastor ID card first, instead of my driver’s license, if pulled over for speeding. Titles can be abused, they can separate, they can be used to manipulate, they can be used for personal gain. Jesus is warning us against such things, to check our egos, and to be aware of our motives and intentions.

When we practice our faith, when we offer acts of kindness, may it always be for an audience of one – for the Lord our God.

Prayer: Lord, when I am tempted to shine the light on me, remind me of the call to humble service. When I want others to notice or see what I’m doing, check my pride and remind me of humble service. When I’m drawn to playing the pastor card, remind me of the call to humble service. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Glimpses

Reading: Exodus 33: 12-23

Verse 16: “How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us”?

Last week in Exodus 32 we read about how God was displeased with and angry with the people for making and worshipping an idol. Moses stood in the gap for the people and God’s wrath relented. Between then and today’s reading, two significant events happened. Moses called the Levites to himself and then sent them out into the camp armed with swords. 3,000 people were killed. We believe these were the ringleaders in the doubting of Moses’ return and in the forming of the golden calf. The second event is the setting up of the “tent of meeting”. Moses set up a small tent just outside of camp to inquire of the Lord. The people could see Moses go into the tent and know where he was. The pillar of cloud would stand at the entrance to the tent when Moses was inside, indicating God’s presence. In these times the people would worship God.

At this point, apparently God is considering sending the Israelites on into the Promised Land on their own. In today’s passage Moses first reminds God, “these are your people”. Moses then makes it personal, asking God to go with him. God is willing to be present to Moses because he has been faithful to God. Moses continues to press the issue, saying, “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here”. In essence, without God, what would be the point of going any further? Moses then asks, “How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us”? Without God’s presence, the Israelites are indistinguishable from any other people on the face of the earth. The same is true for us. Without God’s presence in our lives, we would be just like most of the world. At best, we’d just be some nice, kind people gathering in nice buildings.

As the passage continues, God agrees to continue being Israel’s God. Next Moses asks to see God’s glory. If God is willing to be present to and with him and the people, Moses wants to have a glimpse of God. God agrees to cause “all of my goodness” to pass by Moses. God hides Moses in the cleft of a rock at the moment of his passing by. To see God’s face would bring death. God’s hand shields Moses in the critical moment and then Moses sees God’s back as God walks on.

We too long for glimpses of God in our lives. We also want to tangibly feel close to God and to his presence. At times we do. These moments can be in worship at church or in a sunrise or along the path in the woods. It can be wrapped in the kindness or love of others or it can be in the way we feel after a time of reverent prayer. These are but a few of the ways we can catch a glimpse of God in our lives. Where else have you caught a glimpse of God? As you and I reflect on this question, may we rejoice and praise the Lord our God for his presence in our lives.

Prayer: Living God, thank you for your presence in my life and for all the times I have literally felt you with me and for the times when I have seen you in another or in the created world. You are so kind and good to me. Thank you, Lord! Amen.