pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Pure and Steadfast

Reading: Psalm 51: 10-12

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

We return to Psalm 51 today. The Psalm comes from the messiness that has just occurred in David’s life. This is something we all experience. We cannot totally avoid sin – we are human.

Sometimes I think I could be less sinful if I lived an isolated life. If I were a monk or hermit maybe I’d sin less. But then I realize that my humanity would creep in. I’d get jealous of that monk who was recognized. I’d be angry that this other monk didn’t do his fair share in the garden. I’d long to be the one asked to lead this or that. Even in that monastic lifestyle I’d still struggle with sin. There too I’d have times when I failed to act, when I chose not to offer kindness, when I’d keep my gifts and talents to myself. I’d not escape these sins either.

David’s prayer for God to “create in me a pure heart… a steadfast spirit within me” needs to be my prayer too. Being pure and steadfast are always things I struggle with. Our section of Psalm 51 closes with these words: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me”. This verse follows David’s plea to not be “cast” away. Yes, our sin is ever before us. But so is God. Out of our repentance God will ever be right there to redeem and restore us. Yes, Lord, give us a willing spirit; sustain us all in this journey of faith.

Prayer: Lord God, so often I fail and yet your mercy remains. So often I harm our relationship or my relationships with others, yet your grace always abounds. Your love is so great. Thank you for loving me beyond myself. Amen.


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In God’s Presence

Reading: Psalm 24: 1-6

Verse 3: “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place”?

Photo credit: Steve Horner

As I read the first two verses of the Psalm my mind was drawn to the past three days that I spent in the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. As I saw tranquil lakes, majestic mountains, stunning wildflowers, marmot and moose, I was reminded over and over that “the earth is the Lord’s”. I often voiced praise to the creator for the works of his hands. The picture is our camping spot – a small sample of the beauty of God’s creation.

That small spot of creation was almost seven miles up the trail. Steve, Jeff, and I carried everything we needed to survive three days in the wilderness on our backs. As I read verses three and four today I connected the psalmist’s spiritual quest with my physical quest. As we topped crest after crest as we worked our way up to Lake Marion, on many occasions I questioned my ability to make it to our planned destination. I often thought, ‘What am I doing here’? I think that was what the psalmist was asking when he wrote, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place”? At times we all feel unworthy or unable to enter into the presence of the Lord our God.

The psalmist answers his own questions in the next verse: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart”. To stand in God’s presence we must be made clean. We must have a pure heart. On our own, we are powerless to make ourselves clean and pure. But we do not walk alone. Just as Jeff or Steve walking along ahead of or behind me gave me the power to continue hiking, so too do we have one who walks with us, one who cleanses us from all sin. The grace and mercy and forgiveness that we receive through Jesus Christ is the “blessing and vindication” that we are given in and through our Lord and Savior. Thanks be to God that we do not walk alone.

Prayer: Lord God, creator of all things, the beauty and splendor of the works of your hand are amazing and wonderful. Yet they pale in comparison to your love and grace. Thank you Lord for these blessings and your constant presence in my life. Amen.


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Always, Always

Reading: Psalm 51: 7-12

Verse 11: “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me”.

Photo credit: Jonas Jacobsson

Originally the Psalms were songs or prayers used to worship God. The Psalms express the collective whole of our human emotions, the challenges of our faith, and the depth of God’s love for us. Psalm 51 is David’s prayer to God that encompasses all three of these expressions.

Lent is a time when we also express these things as we look within and seek to live a more faithful life. When we do as David does in this Psalm – bearing his heart and soul to a holy and just God – there is a deep trust that God will cleanse us and will bring us healing, that God will “restore to me the joy of your salvation”. There is also a hard reality too. To “create in me a pure heart” and to cleanse me, God has to get a good, clear look at my sins and failures. That is humbling. That feels vulnerable.

Have you ever messed up really bad and you know that you have to go and apologize? You know you need to try and make things right again. You want to restore the relationship. But you really messed up. In your heart and mind you wonder if they’ll forgive you or if they’ll send you packing. Even though David has walked a long time with God, there is a part of him cautious about bringing these sins before God. David really messed up. This feeling runs beneath the surface of the Psalm. In his mind, great is his sin. A part of David wonders if God will restore those “crushed bones”… In verse eleven David pleads, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me”. God, don’t send me packing. These words of David acknowledge God as the one with the power and ability to cleanse and restore, as the one who renews and sustains us. And these words express a desire to be in God’s presence, to continue in relationship with God. This desire connects into David’s request for knowing again the joy of salvation and of having a “willing spirit” within that sustains him.

In our human relationships we do sometimes wonder if they’ll forgive us. Did we mess up too bad this time? With God there really is no doubt, no questioning, no point of being “too bad”. God always, always seek to cast the net wide, to guide us back into a right relationship with him. As David did, we must enter into his holy and just presence, trusting in a love that is greater than all of our sin. Thanks be to God for his love.

Prayer: God, create in me a willing spirit, a deep desire to have a pure heart. Cleanse me daily of my iniquities, restore me often to the joy of your salvation. Grant me a willing spirit that seeks to be in an intimate and personal relationship with you. Amen.


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Walking God’s Way

Reading: Psalm 19: 7-14

Verses 12-13: “Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins”.

In today’s reading David begins by reminding us of the beauty of God’s laws. In verses seven through ten David praises God for his laws, statutes, precepts, commands, and ordinances. Taken as a whole and commonly known as the Law, these ways of God lead and guide the faithful. David rejoices in the law, naming it as perfect, trustworthy, pure, right, radiant, and sure. To illustrate how much he values the law, David notes that it is more precious than “much pure gold”. Reading Psalms like this draw us into studying and learning about God’s ways. For David, and for followers today, the law both “warns” and also yields “great reward”. Understanding and living God’s ways is the path to true life now and one day in eternity.

Walking God’s path is not always easy. In verses twelve and thirteen David writes, “Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins”. At times we all suddenly think things in our hearts that we should not. These hidden sins feel private but are known by God. Even though committed in secret, we must confess them to God. We are also tempted on a regular basis. Satan is ever on the prowl, ever seeking to lead us to step off the path, ever enticing us to satisfy self. These are the sins that we have a choice in. The seed is planted and sometimes we allow it to grow and take root. When we allow this to continue to fruition, we commit a willful sin. These too must be confessed to the Lord.

Just as God’s ways are beautiful and life-giving, so too is his mercy and grace. Unlike the law, we are at times imperfect, impure, unjust, unrighteous. God forgives. God cleanses. God restores. As David prays, so too may we pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight”.

Prayer: God of mercy and love, guide me this day to walk in your ways, doing what is right and what is pleasing to you. Thank you for the love that always brings me back when I stumble. Amen.


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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.