pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Two Actions

Reading: Mark 8: 34-38

Verse 34: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”.

Continuing on from yesterday’s passage, Jesus gathers his disciples and the crowd to explain the cost of following. Having just explained the price that he will pay, Jesus details what will be expected of those who choose to follow him as Lord and Savior. The words that Jesus speaks are powerful and challenging. His words will become even more so as the disciples reflect on the events of the last week of Jesus’ life.

Jesus identifies two actions one must take to “come after” or to “follow” him. The first is to “deny self”. This is what Jesus lived out his whole ministry. He placed the needs and wants of God first, closely followed by the needs and wants of others. Self was a very distant third. If we were to follow Jesus today, what would this look like? It would begin with listening to the Holy Spirit, the indwelling presence of God in our lives. The second step would be to respond to the guidance and direction of said Spirit as we respond to the needs of those we meet day by day. Jesus saw the other, the lonely, the hurting, the hungry… and ministered them as he encountered them. May we too have ears to hear and eyes to see.

The second action is to “take up” our cross. The cross represents the way of Jesus. For Jesus it was ultimately walking the path to suffering and death for the sake of others – for you and me. Along the way Jesus often took up the cross for others. He took up the cause of the marginalized and the sinners and the outcasts and declared them worthy of his time and of the kingdom of God. Each of these encounters against the powers of the world came with a price too. The way of Jesus calls us to sacrifice as well. Jesus calls us away from the things of this world by reminding us that the cost of trying to “gain the whole world” is to “forfeit” our soul. In contrast, following Jesus will save our soul. Giving up our selfish desires and leanings and focusing on Jesus’ example of sacrificial service will lead us to bless others as we live out the good news or gospel of Jesus Christ. May it be so as we seek to bring God the glory.

Prayer: Lord God, tune me in to the Holy Spirit within me. Guide me to not only hear but to respond, offering all I can to those I meet in the world around me. Empower me to shine your light in all I do and say. Amen.


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Draw Others to Him

Reading: John 1: 43-51

Verse 46: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there”?

Philip is sold immediately that Jesus is the one, the Messiah, the Savior. Something about Jesus and something inside Philip connect and he responds to a simple invitation: “Follow me”. Some people come to Jesus this way. In a moment he is what they need or who they find healing or peace or strength or mercy in, and they believe in him. Most of us, however, are more like Nathanael – doubtful, skeptical, questioning. When invited to come to meet this Jesus, he scoffs: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there”? What good could ever come out of that small, insignificant town in Galilee?

People today might not question where Jesus came from, but we do question what he could do for us. What difference could Jesus possibly make in my life? Like Nathanael, we question and we doubt. We scoff. Even some who were raised in the church come to a place of questioning, of doubting. I was raised in the church – Sunday school, worship, confirmation, choir, youth group – the whole nine yards. I knew who Jesus was and I followed on the surface. I followed the parts that I wanted to. In college, I “drifted” even further. Life was just fine sort of being a Christian. Then things were not so good and I found myself seeking the Lord – and he was there. I met Jesus in a way that I hadn’t before. My walk with the Lord began anew.

Nathanael was one without anything false in him. Jesus called him a “true Israelite”. Even though Jesus was not what he expected, and even though he was skeptical, Nathanael went to meet Jesus. He was initially draw by Philip’s testimony. He knew about the Messiah, he had been raised in the “church”. There are many who know about Jesus, even some who have drifted. Today and each day of our lives, may our faith in Jesus Christ draw others to come and see, to meet him in a new way. May we, like Philip, invite others to meet our Jesus so that he can do “greater things” in their lives too.

Prayer: Living God, may your light shine brightly within me, being a light others see and are drawn to. Help me to be invitational, encouraging others to come and meet Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah. 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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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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Changed?

Reading: Matthew 22: 13-14

Verse 13: “Throw him outside, into the darkness”.

The parable that we began yesterday ends with a hard truth of our faith. Yesterday we read about the invitation to the banquet going out to all – “both the good and bad”. While many folks will hear about Jesus and many of these will hear or sense a call to follow him, many will reject Jesus just as the religious leaders and most Jews did. Jesus speaks to this in verse fourteen, where he says, “For many are invited, but few are chosen”.

The man thrown out of the banquet represents those who hear the invitation but refuse to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They refuse to change, to put on a new self. Instead, they remain a person of the world. The king tells the attendants to bind him and “throw him outside, into the darkness”. The darkness represents hell, where there will be much “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This hard truth reminds us that as we leave this world, there are only two options. Those that fail to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior will experience eternity in a place of torment and anguish. The few that are faithful will be chosen for an eternity in the light and love and joy of the King of kings.

The man made the choice to come unprepared. He put in no effort to be a part of the event, to know the host. He responded to the invite to get out of it what he could. Still today the appearance of faith can be a tool used to gain favor or standing or some other advantage in the world. In the end only a changed heart, a heart fully committed to Jesus Christ, will lead us in into the final wedding banquet. May it be so for you and for me. Amen!

Prayer: Loving God, when I try and get by with a shallow or pious or fake faith, convict me quickly. Continue to walk with me each moment, for the day and your is unknown. In all I say and do and think, may I honor you. Amen.


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Anything

Reading: Exodus 17: 1-7

Verse 4: “Then Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What am I to do with these people'”?

As the people come to be in need of water, they come to Moses and they quarrel with him about it. He is their leader. There is no water. They want Moses to do something about it. Moses realizes that he cannot do anything about it so he turns to the one who can. Even though he was frustrated, Moses turns to God and God responds by providing water from a rock in the middle of the desert.

I cannot blame Moses for being a bit frustrated. Time and time again the people have quarreled and tested both Moses and God. So much so that Moses names the place of the miracle as such! Moses does what he should do – he goes to God. Unfortunately many of us do not follow this example, myself included, especially in my past. When something was wrong or needed taken care of, I fixed it or did it. That was my nature. I was a “doer”. So much so, when I was moved to my first church as the only pastor, I had to learn a couple of hard lessons. I was warned by my district superintendent not to just do everything. He made my natural leaning seem like a bad thing. Even though I was warned not to do everything, to allow others to do, I had a learning curve that proved the wisdom of his words.

Whether it is pride or the need to be in control that drives us to be a doer or if it is fear of failure or of disappointing others that drives us to get inaction, like Moses, a quick turn towards God should be our first step. And often our second and third and…

In our passage today, God pretty much ignored Moses’ frustration. God led Moses to a rock, which he struck, and water poured out. Read that again. Yes, water came from a rock in the middle of the desert. God can do anything. Anything. If we but turn. Like Moses, may our attitude be one of surrender and may our first steps be toward God. Then we too will see and experience the amazing power of God.

Prayer: Lord God, continue to mold and shape me into who you intend me to be. I am grateful for the journey so far, and I know there is far to go. I am even thankful for the times you’ve had to squash the clay, to begin almost from scratch – painful but necessary steps in my process. Day by day, lead and guide me, shape and form me, O God. Amen.


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Vital and Connected

Reading: Psalm 114

Verse 7: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob”.

Psalm 114, like most of the Bible, tells a story. Today’s Psalm is but one part of the story of Israel. Other parts of the Bible tell other stories as well. For example, the Gospels tell the story of Jesus Christ. For Christians, this is also part of God’s story. From Genesis through Revelation the Bible tells story after story that illustrates God’s love for humanity and for all of creation.

Part of Psalm 114 connects to creation. The psalmist sees creation as part of the story. In verses five and six the psalmist poses the question of why the sea, river, mountains, and hills moved as they did. There is a connection to the created world here in Psalm 114 that we mostly miss with our modern eyes and ears. Yes, you or I might sense God’s power in a good thunderstorm or recognize God’s beauty in a stunning sunrise or sunset. But we do not see or understand these things as rooted in God, as responding to God, as seeking to please God. We see them as things controlled by or manipulated by God, not as things in relationship with their creator. Their “life” is in and through God’s hands. Imagine our world if we saw the created world more as the psalmist and people of Israel saw the world.

From this perspective, and from God’s perspective, the sea, river, mountains, hills, rocks… are as much a part of the story as the people who walked through the waters or those who drank from the rock. This morning I also wonder who different our world would be if we truly saw all of humanity this same way. What if we truly heard one another’s stories as part of our own story, as a part of who we are? The creator of all the universe sees all people and all of creation al vitally connected together. Imagine if we saw and heard others from varied cultures, places, races, neighborhoods… as being vital and critically connected part of who and what we are. Perhaps then we would more fully live out the command that is so prevalent in the story of God: love your neighbor as yourself. May it be so.

Prayer: God of all, help me to better understand and see and feel all of my connections with what you have created, with what is good. Guide me to live well alongside both my neighbors and the created world around me. In doing so, may I better live out your love. Amen.


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In and With Christ

Reading: Matthew 18: 18-20

Verse 20: “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them”.

Today’s verses remind us that if we seek to make Jesus a part of our decisions, our actions, and our prayers, then he will be there with us. Coming out of his teaching on the process of seeking reconciliation with a brother or sister in Christ, Jesus reminds us that what we bind on earth (or loose) will be bound (or loosed) in heaven. That is pretty serious. Yet when we have walked the process and have covered it in prayer, we are assured of the outcome.

Walking the process, staying attuned to Jesus’ teachings and witness, covering it all in prayer – these steps form the foundation of verse nineteen as well. If we gather with our brothers and/or sisters in Christ and we come to a decision that has been covered in Christ, then we are told that God in heaven will respond. Again, the condition is the same. In the last verse we read, “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them”. When we gather in Jesus’ name to discern the will of God or to bring our righteous prayers to God, then Jesus is always there. There is power in aligning ourselves with God and in inviting Jesus and his witness into our discussions, decisions, and actions. Jesus will shape and guide all we do when gathered as his disciples and as children of God.

As need arises may we gather physically with our brothers and sisters in Christ and with Christ himself in Spirit, trusting the Father to lead and guide and bless all we do and say and pray. May it be so.

Prayer: Loving Father, help me to always seek your will and your ways first and foremost. Lead me to like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ that we may seek your guidance together. Strengthen the community of faith through our communal prayers. Make us alive in you. Amen.


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When God Calls…

Reading: Exodus 3: 1-6

Verses 4-5: “God called, ‘Moses, Moses’! And Moses said, ‘Here I am’… God said, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place you are standing is holy ground'”.

Today we hear the beginning of Moses’ call story. It is God’s first direct reach out to Moses. God has certainly been present in Moses’ life – guiding Pharaoh’s daughter to find the basket and to be moved by compassion. God was there when Moses stood up for his kinfolk and was there guiding him to flee, preserving his life. We all encounter God in similar ways. God closes and opens doors for us, for example, to help guide our lives. God’s Holy Spirit leads us in our decisions of both action and inaction. God is always present and engaged in our daily lives. Out tending the flock, God comes close to Moses.

There on Mount Horeb, we read, “God called, ‘Moses, Moses'”! God called and Moses responded. Prerequisite one to being called is to have a relationship with God. Moses knew God and he recognized that it was God calling. The next necessary step is the response: “Here I am”. Like I do from time to time, Moses could have skipped this step. The burning bush probably helped. I too pay better attention to God when something in my life is on fire. But not always. In the day to day of life – especially in the day to day of life – when I am out there tending to the ordinary, I can miss the extraordinary. Moses is told that he has come close enough. As the story continues, God says, “Take off your sandals, for the place you are standing is holy ground”. The sand and rocks there on the mountain were not holy because of themselves. They were holy because of a holy God’s presence.

We also can encounter God in the ordinary, in the regular places that become holy because God has shown up. It can be in nature – by a pure mountain lake, beside the ocean, on a path through the wildflowers. It can be in a church. But it can also be in the grocery store aisle or at a concert or event. Our limitless God is not bound by time or physical spaces. Anywhere and anytime we can experience the holy. Our questions are these: when God calls our name, are we attuned enough to hear and are we courageous enough to say, “Here I am, Lord”?

Prayer: Omnipotent and omnipresent God, keep my eyes wide open and my heart fully in touch with you. Guide the Holy Spirit within me to lead me to walk in your ways and to practice your will and purposes for my life. May it be so. Amen.


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Hear the Cries

Reading: Genesis 21: 8-15

Verse 17: “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid”.

Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the wilderness. They are given a small amount of food and water. Soon these run out. Hagar must have been struggling with this fate – we all would. Why would life have to end like this? What do you think being rejected and cast out felt like? People all over our nation are wrestling with the idea of being outcast, rejected, marginalized. Some are like Hagar, on the inside looking out. Others are on the outside and many are trying to understand and are trying to be a part of the solution.

Hagar prepares to die, along with her son. Both weep tears. Ishmael’s are probably of sadness and loneliness and confusion. Hagar feels these emotions, but more: anger, hurt, unworthiness, isolation, hopelessness. But as they cry, God hears them. God says to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid”. Those words – “do not be afraid”. These words are echoed throughout the story of faith. They say, God is near, God is with us. Today is not the end. Hagar and her son will not only survive, he will become a great nation too. God is saying that they matter, that their lives are important to God. God hears the cry of the outcast and the rejected. They are of sacred worth to God. God is their God too.

God continues to hear the cry of those that some see as less worthy, as less than. Jesus certainly heard their cries too. He invited us to hear the cries of the needy, the marginalized. And he told us to respond, to meet needs, to love them just as he first loved us. There is a great need in our nation right now for social justice and equality. May we, as followers of Jesus Christ, hear the cries of the outcast and oppressed. And may we, like God, choose to walk with them.

Prayer: Lord God, strengthen me for the day ahead. Gird me up to love all people well, to model that love after Jesus’ love. Lead me to act justly and to love mercy as I strive to walk humbly with you. Amen.