pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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With the Heart

Reading: 1st Samuel 15:34 – 16:13

Verse 7: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”.

Photo credit: Tom Swinnen

Last week one of our readings was from 1st Samuel 8. In this reading the Israelites demanded a king. They wanted to be like all the other nations around them. God grants their request. But Saul, the first king, soon needed replacement. As Saul’s leadership declined, Samuel spoke out, becoming unpopular and feared. In 1st Samuel 15 God finally rejects Saul as king and, as our reading today begins, God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint the next king of Israel. Saul is not dead yet. He remains king.

Overcoming Samuel’s objections God sends him to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons. When Samuel sees Eliab, Jesse’s oldest, he thinks surely this is the one – eldest, tall, strong. ‘Not this one’, God says. In verse seven we read, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”. Six more sons pass by Samuel – none of these either. Samuel asks Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have”? The youngest is out in the fields tending the sheep. Eliab once tended the sheep. Then Abinadab came along and it became his job. And so it went. These were the norms of the day. The oldest son, the one who inherited a double portion, the one who is tall and strong – surely he will be the anointed one. If you choose as man would choose. God sees things differently. God looks at the heart.

We continue to struggle with the practice of judging by appearance. Or with our preconceived notions or with our inherent prejudices. We look at how someone dresses and dismiss them as a potential friend. We look at how someone looks and we dismiss them as a potential employee. We look at someone’s ethnicity and dismiss them as a potential teammate. We look at someone’s behavior and we dismiss them as a potential brother or sister in Christ. When we judge in these ways, may Samuel’s words echo in our head: “The Lord has not chosen this one either”. And may we realize that the Lord is speaking to us, about us. When we judge another by dress, looks, ethnicity, behavior, or any other human metric, we are far from the heart of God. May it not be so. May we see as God sees: with the heart.

Prayer: Loving God, when my prejudices, my experiences, my notions… rise up and begin to judge another’s worthiness, cut me off. Use the Holy Spirit to draw me up short, to prune me off where I need pruned. Open my eyes and heart to see and love as you see and love. Amen.


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Belonging in God

Reading: 1st Samuel 8: 4-9

Verse 7: “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”.

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Our passage for today and tomorrow begins with the elders of Israel coming to Samuel to request a king. In all of their history they have never had a king. They have always had a leader and some have been great ones: Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Samuel. Yet even under these leaders God was clearly the one leading the people. The request for a king is driven by a few “concerns”.

The first concern is for their future. Samuel has led well. Next in line are his sons. But they are corrupt, evil. They “do not walk in your ways”. The elders recognize what a disaster it would be to have Joel and/or Abijah assume Samuel’s role. The second concern is a common human desire – to fit in, to be like others, to feel accepted. All the other nations have a king. The Israelites want one too. They want someone to fight their battles for them. Ironically, Samuel has just subdued the Philistines. The third concern centers on control. Samuel has kept the Israelites on the straight and narrow, best as he can. Samuel carries authority as the voice of God and God seems to just keep sending Samuel around. There is no wiggle room. A king would give them a little more breathing room, a bit of space between them and God. God recognizes this. In verse seven God says to Samuel, “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”.

As I reflect on these concerns, I realize that they are our concerns too. We all want a good leader, be that a prophet, judge, king, pastor, boss, or political leader. We want to feel safe and secure yet want some freedom and sense of control too. We still want to fit in and to belong, to be accepted. We too can look around and want a new car too, a new job title or position, a fancy vacation experience, or even a pastor like that church down the street. We easily see how “different” we are or how green the grass looks over there – and we want to fix that. These two concerns boil down to the third one when we’re honest. For the Israelites they wanted the freedoms of the people living around them. At times we too feel that God has been holding our feet too close to the fire. We feel conviction instead of realizing that it is refinement and sanctification.

Instead of rejecting God (or our faith or our church) for any or all of these reasons, may we first find our belonging in God. We are each a beloved child of God. This is our identity, our place. That love is more than we will be able to comprehend until we see face to face. In that truth may we walk as a child of God, day by day trusting in God’s provision, content with his care. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, when my eyes or heart strays, remind me of your love and care. Draw me back to the narrow way, to the only way. It is the best path to walk. May I faithfully follow in Jesus’ way each day. Amen.


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Listen and Learn

Reading: 1st Samuel 3: 1-20

Verse 8: “Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy”.

On Monday I focused in on the call part of this passage. Just like Samuel, we all have a story of how God calls us. Samuel might not have known his call story if not for Eli. At this point, Eli is like Samuel’s father figure. Eli has raised Samuel since he was weaned from Hannah. Eli has been serving God a long time and has taught Samuel much, but “Samuel did not yet know the Lord”. Samuel knows who God is and knows a lot about God, but he does not know God. The head knowledge has not yet become heart wisdom. It is Eli that perceives that God is calling Samuel. Eli’s willingness to allow God to speak through another is a testament to his trust in God and to the love and trust that he has in Samuel. It is an example of humble servant leadership.

When Samuel does invite God to speak, the words are difficult to hear. Destruction will fall upon Eli’s household because Eli’s sons are “contemptible” and because Eli failed to “restrain them”. In the morning Eli presses Samuel, wanting to know what God said, probably sensing the bad news. Samuel speaks truth to Eli. Eli accepts the words, humbly acknowledging God’s goodness. I cannot imagine how hard it was for Samuel to say these words to Eli. Yet Samuel loves and trusts Eli enough to tell him.

Both Eli and Samuel understood that there was something bigger than themselves. Both Eli and Samuel loved and trusted God, as well as each other, enough to listen and to learn from each other. To listen and learn from each other. To understand the bigger picture. How our land needs these skills today! Both sides are so polarized that they cannot even hear each other, never mind listening to one another. Listening is essential. It is the only way to discern a good and right way forward. Yes, we can continue to plod down the road we are on, filled with self and contempt and half truths and rancor. We can walk the road of Eli’s household. Or we can choose a better way, one covered in love and peace and trust. These things will not come easy. Surrender never does. Elevating other over self, walking the path of unity and compromise, fighting for our way not my way – all are the work of a humble servant. May it be so Lord. Heal our land.

Prayer: Lord, the wind is howling here in South Dakota. Things are shaking and groaning. It reminds me of our nation right now. The winds can fan the flames or they can usher in something new. Bring a new sense of humble servant leadership to the land, blowing away the chaff. Bless us, O God. 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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Faith Formation

Reading: 2nd Samuel 2: 18-20 & 26

Verse 26: “The boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and favor with the Lord and with men”.

After being dedicated to God, young Samuel continued to grow both physically and spiritually. Hannah would make him new priestly garments every year and would bring them to him at the time of the yearly sacrifice in the temple. Our passage tells us that “the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and favor with the Lord and with men”.

As I think about Samuel’s upbringing I think about how we raise our children – both in our nuclear families and in our church families. Just as Samuel was dedicated to God at birth, so too do people of faith dedicate their young children to God. In some faith traditions we baptize our infants, marking them as a member of the family of faith and pledging to raise them in the faith. In other faith traditions, infants are dedicated or consecrated with the same marking and pledge to raise them in the faith. In both cases the congregation has a role to play. The congregation pledges to do all they can to help raise the child in the faith.

As soon as they are able to we begin to bring our children to Sunday school or perhaps to a Wednesday night faith formation class. They learn the stories of the Bible and begin to apply its teachings to their lives and decisions. At some point we hope our children grow out of the faith of their parents and into a faith of their own. In some churches baptism marks this point and in others confirmation does.

As we look at Samuel’s life and at other examples we find in scripture, we see that the plan that God has for all children is to be raised in the faith. May we be attentive to all of our children, ever aware of our roles as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, mentors, teachers, pastors… to be a part of their faith formation, helping them to always “grow in stature and favor with the Lord and with men”.

Prayer: Lord, help me to be faithful in leading and guiding my children and all of the children that come under my care, helping each to know you more and to draw closer to you. May I ever do these things with both my words and my actions. Amen.


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Faithful

Reading: 1 Samuel 2: 1-8

Verse 2: “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no one like our God”.

Today we hear Hannah’s response to having a son. Years of suffering are over as she gives birth to Samuel. Hannah then raised Samuel until he was weaned and then she kept her promise to God. She gives Samuel to Eli, dedicating Samuel’s life to the Lord. Then, in grateful response to God, she offers up the prayer that we find today in our passage.

The prayer begins with Hannah rejoicing in the Lord because “in the Lord my horn is lifted high”. She has found strength in God and delights in the deliverance that she has found. She is no longer barren. She is no longer on the outside looking in. She has given Elkanah a son.

Hannah now knows joy instead of sorrow. She knows that God has been with her throughout. Yes, she spent years in shame but she was not alone. Yes, she spent year after year praying for a son that just never came, but in the end God was faithful. In verse 2 she rejoices: “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no one like our God”. Only God could answer her prayer, only God could give her a son. Yes, there is no one like our God.

A verse later Hannah prays, “The Lord is a God who knows, and by Him deeds are weighed”. Hannah kept her focus on God and on living well. She did not stoop to the provocation by Peninnah. She remained confident in God. God heard her cry for a son and He blessed her with Samuel. We too can rejoice with God when we are faithful, when we walk the narrow path of Jesus Christ. May we trust as Hannah trusted, day by day, walking faithfully so that we too can rejoice in our God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for Hannah’s witness of steadfast faith and perseverance with you. Thank you for your faithfulness to her and to me. Praise God! Amen.


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On the Throne

Reading: 1 Samuel 8: 4-20

Verse Seven: And the Lord told him… “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”.

The Israelites come to Samuel with a request: give us a king. The people want a king to lead them. A king rallies the troops and goes out in battle before the army. A king can negotiate with the nations around them. The people say, “then we will be like other nations”. But this is not God’s plan. This was not God’s intent for the chosen people.

Samuel senses right away that their request is a bad idea. Their request displeased Samuel. But God says to him, “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”. Yes, Samuel is God’s voice as the prophet, but it is ultimately God that they are rejecting as their leader. The Israelites are creating a system that we ourselves know is difficult to follow. One cannot serve two masters. One cannot chose both God and the world.

Samuel gives the people a litany of ways that a king will use his power to take their sons and daughters, their crops and livestock, and even some of them as slaves. The people do not heed the warning. They simply say again, ‘give us a king – we want to be like all the other nations around us’.

We too can sense the danger in this line of thinking. We question the logic. But how often do we choose other ‘kings’ over our relationship with the one true King? The primary king we often choose is self, placing ourselves on the throne of our heart. When we do do we soon are like the Israelites, focusing on the other things of the world in pretty short order: power, possessions, status, recognition, popularity… We top it off by justifying it, saying we’re just like all the other people around us. This too is a rejection of God. But God will never force or coerce us into loving or obeying. God is a true King.

When we are tempted to follow anyone or anything other than God, may we remember the cost of that choice. May we also remember the awesome place we find ourselves when we keep God on the throne of our hearts.


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Trust

Reading: 1 Samuel 3: 1-20

Verse 17: “What was it He said to you?  Do not hide it from me”.

No one likes bad news.  No one likes to hear bad news.  No one likes to be the bearer of bad news.  We can all relate to what unfolds in today’s scripture.  For Samuel, he is young and inexperienced with hearing from God.  The bad news pertains to his mentor, who is old and in failing health.  For Eli, the first news is unspoken: the torch has been passed.  God will now speak through another.  Eli mush have known that God spoke something to Samuel and because Samuel did not come right away to share the news, that the news must not have been good news.

Both Samuel and Eli could have sat on the bad news.  Both could have waited it out – maybe God could bring a new word.  Eli is old and failing, but he remains faithful to God, in spite of his failure to deal with his sons.  Eli calls Samuel and begins with, “Samuel, my son”.  I can envision Eli putting his arm lovingly around Samuel and looking deeply into his eyes as he says these words.  Eli then encourages Samuel to share, saying, “What was it He said to you?  Do not hide it from me”.  Samuel tells Eli all that God had said.  As a witness to his faith, Eli acknowledges that this will be done according to God’s good will.

What can we learn from this passage?  The first lesson comes from Eli – help the bearer of bad news to know that it is OK to share the news that they have been entrusted with.  Also from Eli we can see the example of receiving bad news knowing that God is and will be present in and through it.  The third lesson we learn comes from Samuel – trust in God for the strength and courage to share what He has given us to share.  In all of this we are called to learn from Romans 8:14: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”.  He loves us and will care for us.

Our God is just and loving and true.  We can trust into all that God has for us and for our lives.  May it be so.  Amen.


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Speak

Reading: 1 Samuel 3: 1-20

Verse One: “In those days, the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions”.

As Eli aged the word of the Lord was not often heard.  Eli had chosen to ignore the immoral actions of his sons in the temple, thereby allowing them to continue to sin against God.  Ultimately God will not forget – there will be a consequence to pay for their actions.  I wonder if this is how God looks at us and at our world from time to time.  As a whole, Christianity is not the voice that rises up against obvious wrongs or injustices.  Does God think we too often sit silent when we should speak?

It can be difficult to speak out, especially when it seems to go against the norm or the popular or accepted thought of the day.  Even within our communities of faith, it can be difficult to hold one another accountable without seeming like we are being judgmental.  But if we are open to it and seek to hear what God is saying to us, like Samuel, we too can receive guidance and instruction from the Lord.

All it takes for God to speak is one receptive ear.  Our passage today tells us, “In those days, the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions”.  Eli had turned a deaf ear to the messages about his sons.  So God turned to Samuel.  But Samuel was young and Eli was still seen as the prophet of God.  It took a few times, but Eli did realize that God was calling out to Samuel.  Eli must have realized that this signaled a changing of the guard as well.  Perhaps this is why Eli pushes Samuel to tell him what God revealed to him.  Eli appears to know that the bad news pertains to him and his household.

How receptive are we to the voice of God in our lives?  Do we create time and space for His voice to be heard?  Do we try and discern if God is speaking into our life or into a situation in our life or in our world?  God desires to be active and involved in our lives.  May we be receptive to our God and His word.  Like Samuel, may we too say, “Speak, for your servant is listening”.


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Beneath the Surface

Reading: 1 Samuel 16: 6-7

Verse 7: Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

Today’s passage fits our world to a tee.  Modern society gloms onto trends and rising numbers and shiny images like never before.  Relationships across real life and social media platforms are a hundred thousand friends wide and as shallow as the teardrop that never falls.  As a whole, we prefer to stay up on the surface level because it is less commitment and there is less risk of being hurt or having to get involved.

Samuel illustrates this today.  He sees the oldest son, Eliab, and is impressed.  Must have been tall and handsome and well-built.  Must have looked pretty kingly.  Samuel thinks Eliab is the one.  But then God delivers the famous line: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”.  Son after son passed by.  There is the definite implication made that we too should look past appearances, past the surface level, and get down into what really is important, to the core of the person: to their heart.

Of course, this is difficult.  I think this is so because it costs us our most precious commodity: time.  It is so much easier to just take a glance, to make a quick judgment or decision, and to move on to the next choice, the next option, the next person, the next sound bite.

But if we look at our story today and if we look at all of Jesus’ interactions in the Gospels, nothing is quick and easy. God did not settle for Eliab or even any of the other six sons who were present.  Jesus did not settle for a quick yes or no answer so that He could move on to the next need or so that He could give the next parable.  God invested time and waited for David to arrive – the one who had a heart for God.  Jesus took the time to see each person for who they were, to really understand the need they brought, and to patiently offer them all that He could offer.

In our busy lives it is a challenge to slow down, to look beneath the surface, to invest in each other.  In our faith, we are called to live in community, to love one another deeply (warts and all), and to walk alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ through the good and the bad. To do so, we must live beneath the surface.  May we delve deep this day.