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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Finding Peace

Reading: Philippians 4: 4-9

Verse 8: “Whatever is true… noble… right… pure… lovely… admirable… excellent… praise-worthy – think about such things”.

Yesterday, in the opening verses of this week’s passage from Philippians 4, Paul encourages the resolution of a disagreement in the church. Today Paul works out ways to be unified and at peace within our lives and within our churches.

To be at peace within Paul calls us to first rejoice in the Lord. When we are grateful daily for God’s presence and blessings in our lives, our outlook is changed. We become more positive, even concerning the challenges we face. Paul next reminds us to be gentle. It is a disposition we do not often think of. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, put it this way: “do no harm”. Paul goes on to offer an alternative to our anxious spirits – take everything to God in prayer. Be thankful for the good, be honest and forthright with our requests. From this place of prayer, Paul tells us that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds. This peace of God will guard us against worry and anxiety and fear and doubt and stress and… once we trust these things to God in prayer. Giving them up, acknowledging God’s love and power and control, will bring us peace.

To be at peace in our lives and in the church, Paul gives us a list of what to focus on. In verse eight he directs our thoughts to focus on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praise-worthy. In short, focus on Jesus. Jesus is all these things and more. This is what Paul strived to live out, to model, and what he taught. Continuing on in verse nine, he encourages us to take all of these things and to “put it into practice”. Live out there traits of Jesus and we will find peace in our lives and in our churches. May it be so for us all.

Lord God, guide me in all these things – truth, being noble, righteousness… Focus me in always on the things of Christ, not of the world, not of my inner self. Form me more and more into one who dwells in your peace. Build up the unity in the body of Christ as we all seek to walk in the way of Jesus Christ. 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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Loving the Outsiders

Reading: Matthew 15: 21-28

Verse 22: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me”.

Today’s passage is one with layers. A simpler version would tell of a woman who came to Jesus and received healing for her daughter. That is the basic story. But our story is layered with cultural prejudice and years of dislike and distrust. The story contains relatively few words between Jesus and the woman and the disciples. It does not get unpacked later in a private moment with the twelve.

By identifying her as a Canaanite woman Matthew is pointing out a barrier. In his world, you were either a Jew or you were not. If you were, you were in. If you were not you were an outsider, a heathen, unclean. Yet she identifies Jesus as “Lord” and as the “Son of David” – she recognizes him as the Messiah, as the Savior of the world. She begs for healing for her daughter. She at least knows that Jesus is a healer. Jesus does not answer her. She persists. What do we make of his silence? Maybe Jesus is testing her sincerity, her level of commitment, her faith. Perhaps he is struggling within with the cultural biases that he grew up with. Or maybe the time is allowed for the disciples’ benefit. The disciples buckle first, asking Jesus to “send her away”. Instead he replies, engaging her while putting her off. Jesus tells her that he came to the Jews only. He is reminding her that she is an outsider. Or… is he reminding the disciples? Or himself? Or us? She begs again.

Jesus adds insult to his next “no”, calling her a “dog”. This is cultural slang for all those below or outside of the pure Jewish religion. It is a degrading and demeaning term. This is not the Jesus we know and love, is it? So we must ask “why?” Is the human inside struggling? Is it to force the disciples to reconsider their own prejudices? They will soon enough be going out into the world of the Gentiles with the good news. Or is it to add emphasis to the healing of the other?

The Canaanite woman sticks to it, noting that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. She again identifies Jesus as the One, as the Lord of all, as the master. She does not want to take Jesus from the ones he is sent to, she just wants a little of him too. Her great faith is applauded by Jesus and the daughter is healed.

This is a powerful and complex story of how Jesus loves even the outsider. How will our love reflect his love today?

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for this story that challenges and forces my love and welcome a bit wider. Continue to work in me and in my heart, removing all that hinders and limits how I love others. Amen.


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Step by Step

Reading: Matthew 11: 25-30

Verse 29: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart”.

In the second section of this week’s passage from Matthew 11, Jesus begins by reminding us that faith comes to those who are pure in heart and who have a childlike heart. Faith is, after all, a thing of the heart, not of the head. The wise of this world have no need for faith in Jesus – at least in their minds. Only those whom God chooses to reveal the Son to will know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

In verse 28 we hear the invitation to come to Jesus, to turn over our weariness and burdens to him. When we give these things to Jesus, we find relief. When we trust him with our worries and fears, with our doubts and concerns, he will help to lift these things. When we are worried and burdened by our sin, when we confess and repent of these things, he will lift these as well. This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart”. A yoke implies a pair, a team, a partner. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked to him. He is inviting us into a relationship with him where we walk side by side, sharing the load together. As we do so, we do learn from him. We learn first that Jesus is gentle and humble. Love comes first with Jesus, followed quickly by grace and mercy, peace and joy, forgiveness and restoration. He is the gentle shepherd. Being humble comes next. Jesus teaches us to think less and less of self and more and more of God and other. He models a servant’s heart that is willing to serve one and all.

As we walk, yoked to Jesus, we do find rest for our souls. The burdens and cares of this world begin to pale. This happens as our trust in God grows to become more and more like Jesus’ trust in God. The further we journey, the more we come to understand that his “yoke is easy” and that the “burden is light”. As we mature in faith, the walk of faith becomes easier as our trust grows and following becomes more natural as we learn to walk step by step with Jesus Christ. Today and every day may we be yoked to Jesus, learning to walk more and more like him.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for walking with me daily, for showing me the way that leads to abundant life. Your love and kindness amaze me. Your grace and mercy astounds me. Guide my feet and my heart today as I seek to walk in step with Jesus. Amen.


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God’s Love

Reading: 1st Peter 2: 2-3

Verse 2: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation”.

Today’s short passage is a powerful metaphor that is packed with meaning. On the surface level our faith must be fed if we are to grow in our faith. We must nourish our faith with practices such as worship, prayer, meditation, and study. Investing in our relationship with God leads us to “grow up into our salvation”.

There are two roles in today’s passage. Peter casts us in the role of the baby. Although we are not quite as helpless as an infant, at times we can get ourselves so wound up over an issue or situation that we fail to turn to and to trust in God. But on most days we are like a baby with an innate sense of needing food and with an inner sense of whom to turn to for our “pure spiritual milk”. Within our souls we can feel a need to connect to God and to seek out his higher purposes. Just as a baby knows love and care and protection within a parent’s embrace, so too do we feel safe and secure within God’s arms.

In the other role we see God as the parent. When a baby is distraught, there is nothing a parent wants more than to comfort the child. When a baby cries for food, a mother yearns and can even ache to feed the baby. And we all know what happens when a parent’s baby is threatened or appears to be in trouble or danger – do not get between that parent and child, right? As beautiful as these image are, God’s love for us as his children is so much more than even the greatest parent-child love ever. That love is but a small candle in comparison to God’s love for us. God’s love for us blazes like the sun in comparison.

Today, as we celebrate the love of the many women we know – mothers, wives, mentors, aunties, teachers, and more – may we see in them but a glimpse of God’s love for us. Let us rejoice and be thankful this day!

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the love you pour out on me. It is a love that protects, nourishes, guides, corrects… And thank you for all the women who have been mothers in my life. Their love has also helped me to be who I am in you. Thank you, God. Amen.


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The Day of Salvation

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Verse 20: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God”.

Our passage today opens with Paul’s appeal for us to be reconciled to God. He explains how Jesus took on our sin so that we might become the “righteousness of God”. As he continues into chapter six Paul proclaims, “now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation”. We continue to live in the time of God’s favor and Jesus Christ’s salvation is both in the here and now as well as eternity.

The second half of today’s reading is entitled “Paul’s Hardships” in the Bible I keep on my desk at home. He begins by sharing how as “servants of God” they worked to commend themselves to the world. Through the troubles and the beatings thru showed great endurance. Paul and his companions worked hard, even when hungry and sleepless. In all times they strove to remain pure, patient, kind, honest, and loving. They saw themselves with heavenly eyes while the world just saw them from an earthly point of view. Paul and friends lived as beloved children of God, reconciled to him. They saw the world through God’s eyes, not the other way around.

We too strive to live lives that are reconciled to God. In the times we struggle to do so it is because we’ve begun to see with worldly eyes. Our challenge as Christians living in the world is to stay oriented towards Jesus Christ. Satan is regularly on the move, always seeking to get us off track. So we must be diligent and focused too.

We must be attentive to both the Holy Spirit and to our own spiritual disciplines. These two things work hand in hand to fend off the enemy. As Satan is constant, so too must we be constant. This season of the Christian year focuses us in on the habits of discernment and introspection, of confession and repentance. May we make the intentional choice to live in God’s favor and to proclaim with our lives that the day of salvation is at hand.

Prayer: Father God, thank you for your willingness to reconcile with me over and over. Strengthen me each day, both as I look within and as I live out my faith. Build me up and pour me out; help me to be more like your son today. Amen.


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The Joy of Our Salvation

Reading: Psalm 51: 1-17

Verse 12: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me”.

Psalm 51 is often read on Ash Wednesday and at other times of repentance and renewal seeking. The Psalm centers on God removing our sins and restoring us back into right relationship. Today many will be marked by ashes, an ages old symbol of humility and contrition in God’s presence. For many centuries the Israelites have put on ashes and sackcloth when coming before the Lord in times of deep prayer and confession.

The psalmist begins with “Have mercy on me, O God”. Many of us sinners have uttered these words an almost infinite number of times. We know what David is talking about when he writes “my sin is always before me”. While this is true, there is an even greater truth: God’s love is always before us too. And behind us. And in front of us. God’s love surrounds us always.

In verse ten we hear a familiar verse for this day: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me”. On Ash Wednesday this is ever our humble prayer. As we begin our Lenten journey towards the cross of Calvary we desire to begin cleansed and renewed by the Lord our God. As we allow our sins and failures to fall away in worship, we will experience God’s love and mercy working within us, making us new again. As God makes us new again we can join David in proclaiming verse twelve: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me”.

The joy of our salvation is not just a heavenly thing. It is that but it is also a part of our daily lives. The ashes that will be placed on foreheads and hands today remind us of our mortality, connecting us to the urgency of confession and repentance. The ashes also remind us of God’s grace. The ashes in the shape of the cross remind us that Jesus’ sacrifice has covered not only our sins but has secured our salvation as well. The victory was over both sin and death.

Our passage today closes with this reminder: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart”. May we be broken today by our sin. May we lay our whole selves before the Lord today. In his great love and mercy God will wash us clean; he will restore us to the joy of our salvation. May it be so.

Prayer: Loving God, you are my God forever and ever. Your love never fails, it never runs dry. On this day help me to trust fully in that love. I pray for a broken and contrite heart. Turn my heart inside out, search me and know me completely. Then and only then will you be my all in all. Only then will I be fully yours. May it be so today. May it be so, O Lord. Amen.


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Encouragement

Reading: 1st Corinthians 3: 1-9

Verse 9: “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building”.

Today is Valentine’s day. The day is named after St. Valentine. I learned just today that he was famous for writing letters. Valentine wrote many letters of encouragement to be a positive light in other people’s lives. His letters came from the heart, from a place of love. The word “love” is found throughout the Bible. There are four Greek words all translated to “love” and each had its own original meaning. The version most often used in the Bible is “agape love”. Agape love is a pure, sacrificial love that places the other ahead of self.

In our passage today Paul calls the Corinthian church to this kind of love. They are quarreling over a secondary issue and this has led to division. He correctly identifies both himself and Apollos as “only servants” and points the people toward the only one that can make faith grow: God. Only God can make the seed that Paul planted and that Apollos watered have life and grow to become faith. In verse nine Paul writes, “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building”. The church is the field or the building of God. Only by turning to God will the church grow.

We too are each God’s workers. We too have a role to play in one another’s faith. Today it would be fitting to encourage one another as we practice agape love. With a note, a phone call, a text, a personal post, take a moment to practice God’s agape love, encouraging another today.

Prayer: Holy God, thank you for the privilege of being a co-worker. Keep me looking to you as the only source of power. Give me words today to encourage others to follow you. Amen.


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Choose to Fast

Reading: Isaiah 58: 1-12

Verse 6: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen…”

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent. Lent is a 40-day journey that focuses on self-reflection, fasting, and prayer. The 40 days comes from Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness where He was tempted by Satan. During Jesus’ time in the wilderness, He focused on these three practices. For Him it was a season of preparation to begin His ministry. Lent is a season of preparation for us. During Lent, the 40 days do not include Sundays – they are holy days set aside for worship. At the end if Lent we arrive on April 21 at Easter, when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Isaiah 58, our passage for today, focuses on fasting and the effect that it should have. To be honest, fasting has become a little-practiced spiritual discipline. Traditionally fasting was a practice that led to prayer, study, and self-reflection. It was also practiced at critical decision points. Esther’s fast in chapter 14, verses 15 and 16, comes to mind. In general terms, abstaining from food should lead one closer to God. The meal time and the periods of hunger would be spent in study and prayer and reflection, drawing one closer to God. The physical hunger reminds one of our spiritual hunger for God. During Lent, some practice a fast and focus on self-reflection, introspection, confession, and repentance. Today many churches will use Psalm 51:10 to begin Lent as ashes are placed on foreheads. It reads, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me”.

Today many people chose to fast from an item or habit. People give up chocolate or pop or TV or social media. When the desire for this arises, it leads one to prayer, study, and self-reflection. Others choose to add something during Lent – a Bible study or a daily devotional or guided prayer. The goal is the same: to draw closer to God through self-reflection and repentance. Whatever fast you choose, this remains the goal. Fasting should lead to a positive change of heart and soul. This is what Isaiah is talking about.

Verse 6 opens with this line: “Is not this kind of fasting I have chosen…”. Fasting creates the heart of God in us – a heart filled with compassion for others. A more Christ-like heart leads us to speak up against injustice and for the oppressed and to share our food and shelter and clothing with those in need. It does not allow us to turn away from our brothers and sisters in the world. This is the impact of fasting that is pleasing to God. It leads to a pure heart that loves without conditions. It leads to a steadfast heart that walks out Jesus’ love every day with every person without limits.

Fasting connects us to God. It changes us and makes us more like Him. Then our “light will break forth like the dawn” and “you will call and the Lord will answer”. When we cry out, God will say, “Here I am”. This Lenten season, may we choose to fast, to come closer to the heart of God, to better know and serve our fellow travelers in the world.

Prayer: Lord, in this holy season, may my heart focus in on you and on the changes you seek to make within me. May my fast bring me closer to you and to those I meet in the world. Amen.