pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Markers of Success

Reading: Luke 16:19-31

Verse 19: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linens and lived in luxury every day.”

Photo credit: Falaq Lazuardi

Today we begin to look at a parable called “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” We will first focus on the rich man. We will turn to Lazarus and other aspects of the story later in the week. In the opening verse we read about the rich man. To dress in purple was a sign of wealth and power. To wear fine linens implied a life of leisure. Both of these are signs of success. Living in luxury every day was a sign of great wealth. The rich man has arrived. He has the life. That is how society would see him, right?

The standards haven’t changed much. Our culture looks at someone in fancy clothes, jetting here and there, living large as the epitome of success. In worldly terms, yes, they have achieved a certain status. For the rich man, this became his focus. Living for self became his goal. In the story it doesn’t sound like he gave Lazarus much thought. He does know his name. At some point he at least noticed the poor beggar lying outside his door. But Lazarus wasn’t worth much attention. Too busy enjoying and living life!

While I certainly don’t jet around or dress in fine linens, I do struggle at times to “see” those in need. I can get caught up in my version of success. By nature, I’m a doer, a checklist maker. These are my markers of success – getting things done, accomplishment, focus. I can get so busy chasing after these things that I can blow past the person in need that God has placed at my door. I can get frustrated when a person or circumstance is forced, rightly so, upon my organized and planned out life. What are your markers of success that can compete with loving the one that God places in your path?

Prayer: Lord God, when I get a bit too self-absorbed, bring me back down to the heart of love that lives inside of me. Gently nudge me, smack me upside the head – do what you need to do to remind me to love others as Jesus loves me. Lessen the self inside me so that others become my focus. All for your glory. Amen.


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The Lord is our Refuge

Reading: Psalm 14

Verse 3: “All have turned aside… There is no one who does good, not even one.”

Photo credit: Nick Fewings

The psalmist looks at the world and sees many who live as if there was no God. They are “corrupt” and “vile.” God looks down from heaven and struggles to find any who truly seek God. In verses 3 we read, “All have turned aside… There is no one who does good, not even one.” In our minds we may be tempted to add, ‘All but me.’ Yet that line – “there is no one who does good, not even one” – it is also in verse 1. The repetition draws us to consider our place in this phrase. David’s“no one” includes us.

Our society is driven to achieve success and popularity and power over. Those who have these things exert a great amount of influence and control, especially over those without. While we may not be directly responsible for systems and laws that benefit those at the top, we often benefit too. And then we become reluctant to speak against unjust systems and corrupt ways. We want for ourselves and forget about those on the margins. For example, many of our churches received and were forgiven large PPP loans. Yet some who sit in those same pews complain about the forgiveness of relatively small student loan debt.

In verses 5 and 6 we read, “God is present in the company of the righteous… the Lord is their [the poor] refuge.” When we strive for justice and seek to end or fix systems that favor those with much, then we are working to build God’s kingdom, not our own. We may suffer a bit along the way. Yet just as God is a refuge to the poor, God will be our refuge too. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, give me the courage to see the ways that I benefit from or participate in unjust systems and practices. Give me the courage to stand for what is right, being willing to count the cost of discipleship. Amen.


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Choose

Reading: Luke 10:38-42

Verse 40: “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.”

Photo credit: Robert Bye

At the end of Luke 10 Jesus visits the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Martha, we read, opens her home to Jesus. Her home would become a favorite and regular place to stop on the way in and out of Jerusalem. They would become good friends.

As Jesus and his disciples relax and settle in, Mary joins them as Jesus begins to share with the group. We assume Lazarus was there too. Mary makes the choice to be in Jesus’ presence. Martha does not. In verse 40 we read that “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” Sleeping quarters must be made ready, there is a meal to provide – so much to get ready! Martha feels responsible.

We too can feel responsible. There are always deadlines and things that need done. We too can feel really busy. After all, it is what our world expects. Busyness is highly prized in our culture. It’s a sign of success and productivity. So we fill our lives and our schedules, not leaving a free moment. We can easily become like Martha. I’d really like to go to church but I have so much to do. Sure, I’d love to serve on that team, but I don’t think I can free up that one hour a month. Sorry, all 168 hours each week are spoken for.

While things like work and sleep and time with family and friends are all important, even necessary, Mary chose the “better thing.” She was intentional about taking time to be in Jesus’ presence. Jesus acknowledges Martha’s busyness and reminds her that “only one thing is needed” – time with the Lord. Each day may we choose as Mary did.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to keep margin in my life. Guard my heart and mind against busyness. May you be my priority. Amen.


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Rewards and Persecutions

Reading: Mark 10: 27-31

Verse 31: “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Photo credit: Thanti Nguyen

We begin our time today where our passage left off yesterday. We are once again reminded that “all things are possible with God.” As we once again hear Jesus’ call to lay aside the things of this world to follow him, we quickly realize that we need some divine help to walk out this kind of faith. Peter and the other disciples have just heard Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man and have heard the warning about the great difficulty of entering heaven if we are tied to the things of this world. Peter declares, “We have left everything to follow you!” Yes, they truly have. For almost three years they have followed the one who also did the same, leaving Nazareth, his family, and the family business to bring healing and the good news to the world.

Jesus then tells us that following comes with great rewards and also with persecutions. We receive much from our faith – little in the ways of the world but much in terms of living a life that is abundant and joyful and fulfilling. It is not always an easy life. It runs counter to the ways of the world so we also face some persecution. Sometimes it is blatant and abusive; sometimes it involves quiet suffering.

In the last verse Jesus speaks to the counter-cultural nature of God’s kingdom. He says, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Those walking in the ways of the world think they are ‘first.’ But in the economy of God, they are ‘last.’ Maybe ‘lost’ would be a better word. Conversely, those who seem to be last according to how the world judges success will be first in the kingdom of God. Living and loving as Jesus did, the faithful will enjoy the abundance and glory of heaven. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, your ways are not the ways of the world. Sometimes they are not my ways either. Guide me to a more faithful walk day by day. Amen.


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Possible with God

Reading: Mark 10: 17-27

Verse 21: “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor… Then come, follow me.”

Photo credit: Mitchel Lensink

Jesus speaks often about money and/or possessions. Both of these things are signs of wealth. Almost all of us who read this have been raised in a culture that values the accumulation of wealth above all else. We’ve all been taught to display our signs of wealth as a measure of our success. Things weren’t any different in Jesus’ day. The main character is described as “the rich young man.” He is not described as ‘the one who really wanted to follow Jesus with lots of stuff.’

The man runs up to Jesus, falls at his feet, and wants to know what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus begins with the commandments. Yes! The young man has kept all of these. Then Jesus goes deeper. We wish he wouldn’t. Faith would be so much easier if it were just keeping a few rules and knowing what Jesus said. We could just check the boxes and then get back to enjoying this blessed life that we’ve worked so hard to build. Going deeper, looking for more than surface-level commitment, Jesus says, “One thing you lack…” Boy this is hard to hear. There is more required? Yes. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor… Then come, follow me.” Everything? To rid ourselves of the clingy webs of this consumeristic world, do we really need to sell everything? We at least need to be truly willing to. The value of wealth is so deeply ingrained in us that this concept is probably too much for most of us to seriously consider. The man’s face became sad and he went away dejected. He could not do what Jesus asked of him. Would we too walk away sad?

When we pursue and love wealth more than we pursue and love God, we are not living a life that leads to eternal life in heaven. In our day and age can we even live outside of the cultural norm that values wealth above all else? On our own, no. In verse 27 we read, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” With God may we release our grip on the things and ways of this world, instead holding fast to God and the way that leads to life eternal.

Prayer: Lord God, bend me towards your will and way. Pry my hands off of my things and put my hands and feet and lips to service in your kingdom. May I build relationships and bonds of love, not piles of finite things. Amen.


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Your Plenty

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 8: 7-15

Verse 14: “Your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need”.

Photo credit: Dominik Lange

In chapter eight Paul begins by sharing about the example set by the churches in Macedonia. Even though they are in a time of trial they gave “as much as they were able”. And they gave with joy. With this example in mind, Paul turns to the commitment made by the Corinthian church. Paul first lifts up the ways that the church excels: faith, speech, knowledge, earnestness, love. Then he challenges them to also excel in giving. In verse ten Paul reminds them that they were the first to desire to give to support their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul’s challenge now is to “finish the work” – to make good on their original desire.

The idea of giving to a church or to an organization like the Red Cross or to a local mission or shelter is still common among many Christians. Yet our culture, as did the culture around the Corinthian church, teaches about rugged individualism and about striving for success. From an early age we are taught to achieve and to excel and to accumulate. So for some, Paul’s appeal towards “equality” among the churches runs counter to our cultural norms. The reality is that many see “ours” as “mine” and not “ours” as given by God to be stewarded by all of us.

Paul appeals to the church to “share the load”, to help a fellow church in its time of need. In verse fourteen he puts it this way: “Your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need”. Give when you can and trust that others will care for you in your times of need. Paul’s appeal in this case is financial. One can also give of one’s time or talents or presence or service. In whatever ways we can, may we each care well for one another, being generous first with our love and then with whatever else we have to offer.

Prayer: Lord God, you are the giver of all good things. You have blessed me abundantly. Open my heart to the ways I can bless others. Amen.


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Known by Justice

Reading: Psalm 9: 9-20

Verses 15-16: “The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug… The Lord is known by his justice”.

Photo credit: Kalea Morgan

David begins our passage by declaring the Lord a refuge and stronghold. God is a God of all peoples yet has a heart for those on the edges. This was clearly visible in the life and ministry of Jesus, God in the flesh. Jesus gravitated towards and attracted the marginalized, the outcast, the lost, the least. As a nation we have wandered far from the example set by Jesus.

In verses fifteen and sixteen we read, “The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug… The Lord is known by his justice”. In most “modern” nations individualism and greed have guided our culture and leaders. Finding a humble servant on that stage is rare today. Success and profit margins, status and power, appearances and materialism – all have become woes of our nation. Elevating these values and goals has clearly decreased how we as a society value those without these things. Worse yet, those with see it as their right to exploit, oppress, and manipulate these unjust economic and political dynamics to increase the gap between the haves and have nots.

How would God look upon our land today? “The Lord is known by his justice”. As Christians are we known for our stance against injustice, for our work to end oppression in whatever form it presents itself?

Later in the Psalm David writes, “The needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted perish”. As God’s people, may we walk alongside those in need; may we walk hand in hand with those being afflicted. May we join the Lord in the healing of the nations.

Prayer: Lord God, open my eyes to the needs and afflictions in my little corner of the world. The work must begin at home. Lead and guide me to stand for justice and equality for all. Amen.


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Caring Well

Reading: Acts 4: 32-35

Verse 34: “There were no needy persons among them”.

Photo credit: Priscilla du Preez

The early church thrived on Jesus’ love and compassion. Within this group that was of “one heart and mind”, they loved and cared for each other. In verse 34 we read, “There were no needy persons among them”. The early church was like a close-knit family, willingly giving to the community so that all had what they needed. This commitment ran so deep that they even sold significant holdings to provide for one another.

The early church stands in sharp contrast to our society today. In the common view of the world accumulation is the goal. Life is focused on earning more, on buying bigger and newer, on working up the ladder of success. To care deeply for the other, to give selflessly of what one has worked hard to earn – these Christian ideals run counter to much of western culture. Yes, the systems of our day are much different. In the days of the early church and for much of modern history, there were no government assistance programs. The family home was the retirement home. The family cared for the widows and the infirm among them. The church extended this idea, adding a layer of care to the existing norms of the day. Communities cared for those who were unable to care for themselves.

Yet the words of Jesus still call us to care for the widow and orphan, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry… In our communities today there are many in need. While we cannot help every person in need, certainly we can help some? How do we discern how, where, and who? We must begin in our community of faith, caring well for one another. We must also go beyond that, caring well for those in our communities who are in need. Can we meet every need? Can we alone care for all of the needs in our community? Probably not, but we can meet some as we are able. Led by the Holy Spirit, may we seek to model the love and compassion of the early church, caring well for those in need, loving one and all.

Prayer: Lord, your love for us is extravagant. It is generous. It is selfless. As I consider the needs around me and in my community, may I model your love well. Amen.


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Truth… Love

Reading: John 18 and 19

Verse 18:37 – “For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth”.

Photo credit: Leighann Blackwood

Under cover of dark betrayer and soldiers and religious leaders come to arrest Jesus. He is questioned by Annas and then Caiaphas. During these events Peter denies Jesus three times and then the cock crows. Early on Friday morning Jesus is brought to Pilate, the Roman ruler. Pilate finds Jesus innocent yet ultimately bows to the pressure of the crowd shouting “Crucify”!

As Pilate and Jesus are talking, Jesus tells him that his kingdom is not of this world. If it were, Jesus says his followers would have fought for him. Jesus goes on to tell Pilate, “For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth”. Jesus came to establish a new kingdom, one based on God’s vision for the world. It is not based on force or oppression or political power. So much of Pilate’s life has been wrapped up in these things. Today many people live by these and similar constraints. The steps on the ladder of success are built on the backs of those climbed over, stepped on, taken advantage of, exploited… Pilate is no different. In response to Jesus’ words, he utters, “What is truth”? Pilate clearly finds no joy, no love, no hope, no peace in his current life. Pilate needs Jesus’ kingdom just as much as the lost and broken of today’s world need Jesus.

Pilate fears losing what he has. A riot will cost him dearly so he bows to the pressure of the crowd and hands Jesus over to be crucified. Some today cling to what they have, materially and in title, afraid to trust in someone other than self. To lose this earthly life for one centered on Jesus’ kingdom of love and sacrifice and service feels like too big a step. Without witnesses to the truth of a life lived for Christ, none would take the step of faith. Here is where we take up our crosses and follow in Jesus’ footsteps, revealing the truth of his love and hope and peace and joy to the world.

Even as his own life was ebbing away, Jesus cared well for others. Speaking to John and to his mother, Jesus expresses his love for each by connecting them in a new way. This is his kingdom, one built upon love. As we each encounter others, may we too seek to love well, sharing his love with those in need.

Prayer: Lord, in the moments of trial and pain and even death, Jesus spoke and gave love to others. Though the road was hard, Jesus walked it faithfully. May I do the same. Amen.


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Willing to Die?

Reading: John 12: 20-26

Verse 24: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”.

Photo credit: Noemi Pongracz

Our passage begins with some Greeks wanting to see Jesus. They are probably in town for the Passover and are curious about this man. Perhaps they were in the crowd that waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna”! Maybe they’ve just heard a few stories – snipets of his teachings or whispers of miracles. These Greeks know enough to want to know more.

Jesus begins by announcing that his time has come. Soon he will be glorified. Jesus wants them to know that not only he will soon die but that all who follow will also pay a price as well. In verse 24 Jesus says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”. Jesus is paralleling his physical death with the emotional, cultural, spiritual… deaths that all followers of Christ are called to. During the season of Lent the question that Jesus might ask of us today is this: What kernels of wheat do we need to allow to fall to the ground? Is it being greedy with my money? Is it being selfish with my time? Is it judging those who are different than me? What is your kernel of wheat that you need to let go of so that you and those you meet can experience true life?

As a society we have come to see humility and death as the enemies – physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. We do all we can to stave off death. This is the right and godly thing to do with a child or young parent or many others. Yet for each of us there comes a time when our physical death is a welcome friend. As a society we look down on humility. Instead we are taught to be strong, to be independent, to work for success in life. We’re taught that once we accumulate these things, all will be good. Until we do. Then we learn that meaning and purpose and love and contentment and peace and joy and hope cannot be earned or bought. Living as a person of the world, these eternal gifts are elusive.

We must be willing to die to pride, fear, arrogance, anxiety, selfishness, doubt, greed, lust, envy, racism, jealousy, judging, anger, prejudice, worry, elitism, injustice… as we seek to follow Jesus. As Jesus says in verse 25, we must “hate his [or her] life in this world”. Only then will we be willing and able to die to self and to begin to walk as a disciple of Jesus Christ, following him daily and one day into eternal life. May you and I be willing to do the hard work of this call to die to self. May the Lord bless our journeys.

Prayer: Loving God, your Spirit leads and guides me daily, holding up to me those kernels that still need to die. I’ve plucked off leaves now and then. Help me to get to the roots. For those things that still separate me from you and from others, grant me the strength to die to these barriers and sins. Thank you God. Amen.