pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Looking Up

Reading: Numbers 21: 4-9

Verse 7: “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us”.

Photo credit: Carolina Jacomin

As the Israelites near the end of their journey in the wilderness they are tired, impatient, and irritable. Three weeks into Lent and perhaps a few of us grow tired of the themes of reflection and introspection. In the bigger picture, today the source of our weariness and impatience and irritability is the pandemic. As the Israelites grumble against God and Moses, they are expressing these emotions. They long to go back to what was. Tired of their current situation, they let go of their frustration via complaint. This is the fifth complaint story during their wilderness journey. God has had enough. God sends venemous snakes among the Israelites and many die. Consequences.

Like Jesus’ subversive actions in the temple, this response of God makes us feel a little uncomfortable. Our reality, though, is that we have been here too. We have had the tables turned over a time or two or… We have been bitten by our poorly spoken words or via our sinful actions. We too have experienced how the pain drives us to confession and repentance, to turning back toward God. As we look up to the Lord, just like the Israelites did, we find reconciliation and restoration and forgiveness. God is faithful and moves quickly to bring us back into right relationship.

Lent is a wilderness experience, a season of introspection and reflection. In that spirit, let us consider times when our actions have harmed or caused pain for others. Perhaps we are in the midst of such a time. What words spoken have caused harm? What actions have damaged relationships? What words left unspoken or actions left undone have allowed harm or pain to continue? To wrestle with these questions first requires a humble and contrite spirit. On Ash Wednesday we were reminded that this is the posture of Lent – a humble and contrite spirit. It is what leads to a new heart within us and to the place of healing that God so graciously offers.

The Israelites looked up to the reminder that God is in control, to the serpent fashioned by Moses. Today, we lift our eyes to our source of healing and hope, to the one who offers mercy and grace, restoration and wholeness – Jesus Christ. On this Lenten journey, may the God of love continue to sustain you and to give life, even in the wilderness.

Prayer: Lord of life, you are so gracious and merciful and kind. Your love is overwhelming, your patience without end. Just as you continued to walk with the Israelites, walk with me day by day. Reveal to me the ways that I have caused and do cause harm so that I can repent and become more like your son, the Christ. Amen.


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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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Living Witness

Reading: Psalm 85: 1-2 and 8-13

Verse 9: “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him; that his glory may dwell in our land”.

Today’s Psalm begins with things that we all long for: God’s favor upon the land and forgiveness for our iniquities or sins. Whether we are talking spiritual or emotional or physical favor, our land needs healing. We need restoration. Healing and restoration begins within each one of us. The psalmist clues us in as to how this starts within. In verse eight he writes, “I will listen to what the Lord God will say”. This is first a pledge to read and study and meditate upon his word. Then it becomes active, allowing the word to shape us, to define us, to restore us.

In the next verse we are reminded that God is close. God is always close to us. Verse nine says, “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him; that his glory may dwell in our land”. It is near, it is close. When we live out our salvation here in this time and place, God’s glory is revealed in and through us. Living out our salvation, we live into verse ten: “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other”. Imagine our world if we as Christians lived out these four traits each and every day! It is our choice. Living out love and faithfulness, peace and righteousness, may we bring God the glory every day.

Prayer: Lord God, lead me to be these things each day. May your love and faithfulness, your peace and righteousness flow through me and out into the world. In all things may you be glorified. 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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Partners of God

Reading: Psalm 99: 1-5

Verse 4: “The King is mighty, he loves justice”.

The psalmist’s love of and awe for God are obvious. In the opening verses the psalmist recognizes God’s reign over all the earth as well as God’s great and awesome power. God is exalted over all the nations of the earth because God is holy. It is a good and right thing to have a holy reverence for the Lord our God. Humility is then drawn forth from within us as we acknowledge the might and power of God as he reigns over the whole earth.

In the next two verses, however, we are reminded that God does not just reign with power and might. Yes, his voice can make the earth shake. But his gentle touch can also break the bonds of injustice and oppression. In verse four we read, “The King is mighty, he loves justice”. In our world today this is an odd combination. Often those powerful enough to rise into places of authority have done so on the backs of others and have lost their sense of justice and equity on their way to the top. They become insensitive or even callous to the plight of the poor and the marginalized and the powerless. Not so our God!

Our God loves justice and seeks to stand with the oppressed, the broken, the hurting, the downtrodden. God has always been a protector of these as well as of the widow, the orphan, and the imprisoned. Nowhere has this love been more evident than in the incarnation. Jesus, God in the flesh, fully lived out this love of justice and all who were oppressed or pushed to the edges of society. Providing the example of what God’s justice and love looked like when lived out to the full, Jesus then invited us to “come and follow me”. In our awe and love of God and as our response to our loving Savior’s invitation, may we too be lovers of justice and sharers of salvation from all that binds. May we become partners with God, working daily to bring wholeness and restoration and reconciliation to a world in need.

Prayer: Loving and awesome God and blessed son Jesus Christ, fill me with your love and passion for the least among us. Guide me to those places and people who need to know your healing love and your freeing grace. May I be an instrument of your peace and love this day and every day. Amen.


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Reconciliation and Restoration

Reading: Matthew 18: 15-17

Verse 15: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you”.

Today’s passage from Matthew 18 is about seeking the reconciliation and restoration of a relationship when it has been damaged. Above all else, Jesus’ call was to love one another. As the song goes, that’s how the world will know that we are Christians. This is especially true within the church. Here our love should be genuine and pure. It must be modeled in the church and in our relationships with one another. Jesus knew that the church would be just like all other organizations in one way: it is made up of imperfect people prone to sin and selfishness. As such, he knew that there would be conflicts and disagreements within the body of Christ. In today’s three verses we find practical steps for how to resolve conflict, especially in the church.

The causes for conflicts and disagreements can the gamut. The divide can be over deeply theological issues or it can be about painting a wall. Almost all issues, regardless of the root causes, will have deep ramifications for churches and individuals if left unresolved. So Jesus gives steps to avoid this. When conflict arises or when someone hurts or sins against another, the first step is personal. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you”. Yes, this is hard for most of us to do. But it does provide the necessary space for being open and transparent. No one else is there to impress or to save face in front of. Going to someone directly lets them know you value them and your relationship with them enough to risk for them. It provides a space for honesty and open dialogue. Most often this step leads to reconciliation and to a deeper relationship.

Sometimes this first step does not work. Pride or who can intervene. Embarrassment or lack of understanding can also create a barrier to resolution. Jesus advises us to then take along one or two others to help guide the conversation. By involving others we often open up the conversation and find new ways to seek reconciliation. As a group we can often work things out that two struggle to do on their own. When this step fails, Jesus directs us to get even more help figuring out the conflict. He tells us to bring the matter before the whole congregation.

Both of these last two steps often involve some soul searching on our part. The sin may be obvious and surely needs correction. But if there is grey or doubt, it is a call for a time of sincere prayer and honest self-reflection. This step is always a good thing. The Holy Spirit will clarify and lead us to our best approach to the situation. Jesus does not want any division in the body. By going to the throne in prayer we are inviting Christ to guide us to reconciliation. When we invite him, he will always go with you!

Prayer: Loving God, lead and guide our conversations and relationships to be safe enough to tread into these uncomfortable spaces. May your Holy Spirit show us the way to unity and reconciliation within our Christian relationships and within our churches. Amen.


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Preaching, Teaching, Healing

Reading: Matthew 9: 35-38

Verse 35: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching… preaching… and healing”.

Today’s short passage sums up Jesus’ ministry quite well. In verse 35 we read about the things that occupied most of his time: teaching, preaching, and healing. I believe that these three practices remain the core practices of ministry today. These three practices often work together to shape and form who we are as people of faith.

Teaching can occur in many settings and can cover many topics. In ministry, we most often think of Bible studies and other topical small groups as the main ways that teaching occurs. This tends to be the focus of teaching in our churches. There are other ways to teach faith. In intentional conversations and in the things we regularly do and say we teach about faith. For example, as parents our everyday words and actions are the main methods of passing our faith along to our children. In this time of COVID there has been a great deal of teaching in our churches on how to safely minister while honoring the need to social distance and stay at home. We have begun to teach about safely gathering again. More recently there has been an increase in teaching on racism and prejudice in America. These teachings have centered on understanding racism and on recognizing how we are all implicit in and impacted by this evil. Social justice has always been a cornerstone of Christianity.

Preaching is something we think just happens on Sunday morning or maybe on a Wednesday or Saturday night. These are the primary delivery times but it also occurs at various times in a variety of settings. These can range from a one-on-one conversation to retreats and camps and even to impromptu gatherings in a bar or the local coffee shop. In almost all cases, preaching centers on sharing, understanding, and applying faith to our daily lives.

Healing was the third aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Today we do not see as many physical healings as we read about in the New Testament. But the Holy Spirit is very active, working in and through Christians all over the world. Healing included restoration to wholeness, redemption from sins and bondage, being drawn into a community of faith, and finding new life in Jesus Christ.

In our passage we read that Jesus preached, taught, and healed for one reason: compassion. He saw those who were in need – the “the harassed and helpless” – and he ministered to them. Our very understanding of who is harassed and helpless has certainly grown over these last few months. In verse 37 Jesus notes, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few”. May we all be workers for Jesus Christ today!

Prayer: Leading God, day by day help me to use all three of these practices to minister to my congregation and to my community. Empower me by the Holy Spirit to bring fullness and wholeness of life to those in need. Amen.


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Lead in Love

Reading: John 20: 19-23

Verse 19: “When the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and said, ‘Peace be with you!'”

Following his death the disciples gathered together in their small community and were present to one another. The recent events left them feeling powerless and vulnerable. There was a sense of fear hanging over them. If this could happen to him, it could happen to any of them. If the Jews, the ones filled with power and fears of their own, could flex their muscles and cause this to happen to Jesus, the disciples were well within their reach.

Fear is certainly present in our society today. COVID has created many: fear of dying, fear of sickness, fear or losing a business, fear of financial failure, fear of isolation… Fear is also very present right now in some of our cities and in some of our social groups. Another senseless death has sent another ripple of fear through affected communities. The ripple had become a flood of emotion and response in some places. Even though there is no place for hate in God’s kingdom, it remains something that humanity is struggling with in this world.

As the disciples gathered on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, locked behind some closed doors, he came and said, “Peace be with you”! They were overjoyed. Speaking directly into their fear he said, “I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit”. Jesus encourages them to walk into the world tinged with hate and oppression as people filled with love and power. The Spirit would be the source of love and power and strength and hope. It was a presence the disciples would need as they set out to transform the world.

The Holy Spirit continues to lead with love. It is a love for all people, not just for some. It is a love that leads to compassion and understanding and empathy and unity. It is a love that is both culture blind and colorblind. Just yesterday I read a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “Protest is the voice of the powerless”. Yes, often it is. The root cause is powerlessness. Feeling powerless leads to feeling hopeless and helpless. In moving forward may the disciples of Jesus Christ continue to allow the Holy Spirit to lead in love. We with power must choose to be voices for those without. For the healing of our communities and of our world, may God’s love lead the way. May it start with each of us.

Prayer: Lord God, the Holy Spirit empowered the first disciples to transform their world. It began with them loving you above all else and then spread to loving one another. The community was based upon love and grace and mercy and compassion and justice. Their love changed the world. Make it happen again, Lord. Empower your disciples today to be change agents once again, leading the way across divides and through barriers. Let love be our guide, bringing healing and restoration. May it begin with me, O God. Amen.


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Thanks and Restoration

Reading: Psalm 66: 8-20

Verse 10: “For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver”.

The opening stanza in today’s Psalm feels a lot like life: times when I feel assured of God’s presence and times when I feel like I am being tested. In verse nine God preserves life and keeps feet from slipping and in verse ten we read, “For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver”. In verse eleven and the first half of twelve there is prison and burdens and hardship; in the second half of twelve God brings them “to a place of abundance”. Sometimes I wish every day were a good day. But the reality is that I need a day of struggle and testing and refining now and then. Both kinds of days remind me of God – one of my need for God and one of my gratitude for God’s blessings and love.

I appreciate the psalmist’s response that we find in verses thirteen through fifteen. It was the custom then to brings animals to offer on the altar to fulfill various responsibilities and to seek to be made right with God. The psalmist will offer rams and bulls and goats to God. Although we do not practice animal sacrifice, it is good to consider what we bring to God to offer our thanksgiving and to seek to restore our relationship when we have created separation due to sin. Giving time and efforts to both of these practices is good spiritual discipline. Giving can come in the physical form of a tithe or other support or it can come through service to the church and it’s ministries. We must also set aside time to address thanksgiving and restoration personally. Whether morning, noon, or night each day should include some time set aside to thank the Lord for specific blessings in our day and in our life as well as giving time to the acts of confession and repentance. Both practices remind us of our connection to and of our dependence on God. May we all do so today!

Prayer: Lord God, each day has moments when you intercede, when you guide, when you bless, when you convict… Each works to shape me more into your son’s image. Thank you for your ever-present hand, voice, nudge. May they always show me the path you seek for me to walk each day. Amen.


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Anyone Who Has Faith…

Reading: John 14: 5-14

Verse 12: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing”.

The opening verses of our passage center around the fact that Jesus is God in the flesh. Jesus’ statement that “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” is very clear to us but is outside the understanding of the disciples at this point. From our vantage point, we do not get how the disciples don’t get it. Jesus explains how the amazing words that he speaks are from God living inside if him and he reminds them that the “evidence of the miracles” offers proof of the divine within Jesus. By way of the Bible we too are privy to the words and works of Jesus.

In this moment in time, Jesus wants the disciples to understand that he is God. This is essential because part of Jesus’ mission was to better reveal the heart of God to humanity. For three years, the disciples see what that looks like. It involves healing brokenness and bringing restoration. It involves including the outcasts and the sinners. It includes being a humble servant and a compassionate listener. It entails putting God’s and others’ needs ahead of your own. It encompasses the offer of love and forgiveness without conditions or limitations. We do know that the disciples finally do get all this. We know this because they become the church as they practice being the heart of God as they follow Jesus.

In verse twelve, this is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing”. If you’re really a follower, a real disciple, Jesus says we will do what he did as he revealed the heart of God. Take a second and look back over that very limited list in the last paragraph – the one that lists a few ways how Jesus revealed the heart of God. How are you and your church doing with the “will do what I have been doing”?

We scratch our heads and maybe even snicker at how the disciples did not “get it” in our passage. Added to the words and works of Jesus that we find in the Bible, we have almost 2,000 years worth of faithful witnesses that have done what Jesus did – life after life that models the heart of God. What is one practical thing that you can do today to better do what Jesus did? May we all find at least one way to be like the real Jesus today.

Prayer: Loving and compassionate God, which can I do today? How will you use me today to reveal your heart to another? Surprise me today, Lord. Place me where you will, use me as you will. Amen.