pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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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.


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God’s Gifts

Reading: Psalm 147: 12-20

Verse 12: “Extol the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion”.

Today’s Psalm reading is all about praising God for the gifts that he gives to his children. In the year we’ve had collectively, it is necessary to stop and to thank God for his gifts to us, even in 2020.

The first gift that we are to extol and praise God is for how he strengthens us and for how he gives us peace. God’s watch over us does not mean life will be free of pain or worry. We can face the sufferings and struggles of life with God’s presence, though. With God we have a companion for the journey, one to lean on at times, one to carry us in times when we cannot walk on our own.

The second gift to us that we are to extol and praise God for is our sustenance – the “finest wheat” and a whole variety of other foods and drinks. The third gift is the earth and ecosystem that God designed. The seasons along with their accompanying snow, hail, and rains… are all part of God sustaining us.

The last gift is his word. In the Jewish mindset this is the written word, the Torah. The law of Moses guides all of life. The holy scriptures are how they know God. This all is true for Christians as well. But we also have Jesus, the fuller revelation of God to humanity. Just as the Jews were God’s chosen people – blessed like “no other nation” – Christians are also blessed and set apart from the world. We are “in the world but not of it”. Our true home is in heaven with the Lord.

As we turn the page from 2020 and step forward into 2021, may we take a moment to extol and praise God for his presence, for his provision, and for his Son whom he shares with us every day. Praise the Lord!

Prayer: Lord, I thank and praise you for your presence in my life – in the highs, in the lows, and in everything in between. You are always there. I thank you for the many ways that you provide and care for me and my family. You are so loving and generous. And I thank you most of all for the gift of your living word, Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. Amen.


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Hope in Faith

Reading: Psalm 107: 1-7

Verse 6: “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress”.

Today’s Psalm reading begins with a great line: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever”. Every time I read that line I am reminded of a song (Forever) that just makes me happier. This line is found in several Psalms – it is a familiar refrain for the people of God. The thanks in today’s Psalm is centered on the redeeming and gathering power of God in verses two through four, and on the Lord’s deliverance and guidance in verses five through seven. The acts of redeeming and gathering, of delivering and guiding, continue to be reasons we today can also say (or sing), “Give thanks to the Lord…”

Psalm 107 is one of many Psalms of thanksgiving. The nation has wandered and has been dispersed. They have been hungry and thirsty, life “ebbed away”. In his great love, God gathered them back into community, leading them once again by a “straight way”. God’s steadfast love remained strong for his children. God hears their cries and God responded. Through no fault of their own, our current pandemic has caused many to feel difficult emotions. Many are or worry about being hungry and cared for as employment is tenuous in this new time. Many are stressed by anxiety over their health or by the health of loved ones and friends. Many long to be gathered back into community, feeling the pain of isolation and loneliness. Many in our churches and neighborhoods are longing to be redeemed and gathered, to be delivered and guided. Many are crying out, many are hurting. It is a time of struggle, even for some of us.

Verse six reminds us of the promise: “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress”. God will hear and deliver. There is hope in these words. Maybe we need to hear them ourselves. If so, spend some time today with this Psalm and in prayer with your loving God. Maybe we are people of faith who can share these words with those who are worried or stressed or anxious or lonely. As we live out and share our faith, may we each be a part of the healing of the nations. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, guide me and the church to the cries of the hurting and breaking. Lead us to respond in love and hope, offering fellowship and community, care and provision – offering faith in you. Use us to bring healing to our communities and neighborhoods. Amen.


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Finding Peace

Reading: Philippians 4: 4-9

Verse 8: “Whatever is true… noble… right… pure… lovely… admirable… excellent… praise-worthy – think about such things”.

Yesterday, in the opening verses of this week’s passage from Philippians 4, Paul encourages the resolution of a disagreement in the church. Today Paul works out ways to be unified and at peace within our lives and within our churches.

To be at peace within Paul calls us to first rejoice in the Lord. When we are grateful daily for God’s presence and blessings in our lives, our outlook is changed. We become more positive, even concerning the challenges we face. Paul next reminds us to be gentle. It is a disposition we do not often think of. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, put it this way: “do no harm”. Paul goes on to offer an alternative to our anxious spirits – take everything to God in prayer. Be thankful for the good, be honest and forthright with our requests. From this place of prayer, Paul tells us that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds. This peace of God will guard us against worry and anxiety and fear and doubt and stress and… once we trust these things to God in prayer. Giving them up, acknowledging God’s love and power and control, will bring us peace.

To be at peace in our lives and in the church, Paul gives us a list of what to focus on. In verse eight he directs our thoughts to focus on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praise-worthy. In short, focus on Jesus. Jesus is all these things and more. This is what Paul strived to live out, to model, and what he taught. Continuing on in verse nine, he encourages us to take all of these things and to “put it into practice”. Live out there traits of Jesus and we will find peace in our lives and in our churches. May it be so for us all.

Lord God, guide me in all these things – truth, being noble, righteousness… Focus me in always on the things of Christ, not of the world, not of my inner self. Form me more and more into one who dwells in your peace. Build up the unity in the body of Christ as we all seek to walk in the way of Jesus Christ. Amen.


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The God Who Saves and Guides

Reading: Exodus 14: 23-31

Verse 31: “And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed… the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him”.

In one short night the Israelites experience a wide range of emotions. They felt fear and worry as the Egyptian army closed in. They felt doubt and anxiety about their situation. They felt protected as God formed a barrier to keep them safe and they felt loved as God provided a way forward. They felt awe and wonder as they walked on dry ground. They felt a mix of relief and exultation and some sorrow when the waters closed in over the pursuing army. It all culminates in verse 31: “And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed… the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him”. Because of the great power they saw and were a part of that night, the people’s faith in God is solidified.

This experience of passing through the waters is one common to us all. In our nation’s past and in our family’s past, people passed through the waters and came to a new land. Some came bound in chains, fear and bewilderment stirring inside them. Others came in cramped quarters, carrying all they had in a suitcase or trunk, excitement and hope stirring in them. These two stories are part of our collective and communal story. They are part of shaping and forming who we are as people and as a nation. These two stories continue to shape and form us. Daily both slaves and immigrants make their way into our nation.

As the Israelites took their next steps on the other side of the waters, they realized there was no going back. Their direction was sealed. With God in their hearts they walked on into their future. Today almost all of those who end up in our land find themselves in a similar place. They have no means or ability to return, having come without anything, against their will, or selling all they had just to make the journey. Many feel lost and fearful. Many of these are without faith or true hope. They do not know the Lord. They cannot have faith or trust in God.

As God cared for and protected, loved and guided the Israelites, they grew in their faith. As believers we are tasked with caring for and protecting, loving and guiding those who are lost and afraid, those who are among the vulnerable and marginalized. As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to notice those in bondage and those who are seeking to make a new way. Through our acts of love and kindness, may they come to know the God who frees and the God who guides. May we see those who are without faith and may we help them to know the God who loves one and all.

Prayer: Lord God, guide me to see the stranger and the captive among us. Lead me to be love in the world, helping others to know your mighty power and great love. May I be light in the darkness and share hope for the future. Amen.


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Heart Condition

Reading: Matthew 15: 10-20

Verse 18: “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean”.

In response to the Pharisees, Jesus addresses what it is that makes a person ‘unclean’. A person who was unclean was cut off from or had to live outside of community. In terms of faith, it meant separation from God. For the Pharisees being clean or unclean boiled down to whether or not one followed all of the law. For Jesus, being clean or unclean came down to the condition of one’s heart.

At the start of chapter fifteen the religious leaders question Jesus about the disciples eating without following the ceremonial cleansing rituals. They did not properly wash their hands before they ate. The implication was that the disciples were now unclean. That meant seven days outside the temple, seven days outside of community – according to the religious leaders. Responding to their lack of understanding, he says, “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean”. Jesus bases the condition of our relationship with God not on what we eat but on what our heart is filled with. The “dull” disciples are sharp enough to know that these words jab at the religious leaders. Their man-made traditions and overemphasis on following the law of Moses has left them with a rule following, box checking religion. But no faith.

Today’s passage calls us to consider the condition of our heart. Does your heart contain some of what Jesus lists in verse nineteen – evil thoughts, false testimony, adultery, slander, theft? Or perhaps others – gossip, greed, lust, jealousy, pride? Or maybe doubt, fear, worry, stress, anxiety? What we have in our hearts will eventually come out of our mouths. Jesus’ point here is more about what is in our heart than about what comes out of our mouth. In the heart is where sin is born or is where we choose to stomp it out. If, instead of filling our heart with evil, what if we fill it with love and compassion, with mercy and grace, with generosity and a vent towards service, with kindness and self-control? Then there is less room for sin and evil.

What is the condition of your heart?

Prayer: Lord God, fill me daily with your word and your will. Send the Holy Spirit to whisper words of life into my heart. Guide me to be filled with your love so that I can be love in the world. Amen.


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With Us

Reading: Matthew 14: 28-33

Verse 31: “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him”.

The disciples have just been a part of feeding 5,000+ with two fish and five loaves. As they headed out in the boat, life probably couldn’t get any better. Then a storm arises. That is usually how they come – out of nowhere. Life is moving along really well and then we hear the word “cancer” or the words “your position has been eliminated” or some other difficult news. All of a sudden we feel as if we are right there in that boat with the disciples. Fear, doubt, worry all rise up.

The disciples are in a storm. They are in need of Jesus’ presence and strength. He comes to them. Despite the words of encouragement from the teacher, Peter still doubts. He does not trust that Jesus is there in the storm. Peter demands proof. He demands a miracle. In our times of most desperate prayer we too can go here. We have all prayed the “God if you’re real…” prayers, demanding that the cancer go away or that God will ‘fix’ whatever else has fallen apart. These prayers belie our lack of faith just as Peter sinking revealed his failure of faith.

Jesus is there for Peter. When Peter sinks we read, “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him”. Right away. No delay. When our faith is teetering and we’re about to sink, Jesus does the same for us. He reaches out, he is fully present, he extends compassion and understanding. Jesus is there with us. Even if the cancer ‘wins’ or if the difficulty does not end as we had hoped, Jesus remains there with us, giving support and encouragement, peace and strength. Our faith cannot prevent some storms from running their course. But our faith promises a companion in the boat. Jesus promises to be with us. His grace is sufficient in all things. May we trust in Jesus.

Prayer: Loving Lord, your promise to be with us never fails. At times we fail to keep the faith, to really trust in you. When the storm causes me to begin to falter, whisper your love into my ear. Thank you, God. Amen.


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Always There

Reading: Romans 7: 15-25

Verse 21: “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me”.

Paul’s writing for today is a passage that we can all relate to. Created in the image of God, born with a spark of the divine within each of us – yet we struggle with sin. The human part of us is ever drawn to the desires, pleasures, and other trappings of this world. Inside each of us is both good and evil. A friend once described these as two twin wolves, each fighting for control. His advice was to feed the good wolf because the one you feed is the one that grows.

If this idea were true to the point of starving the evil to death, then eventually we would not sin. Anyone who has sought to walk faithfully with Christ for a number of years knows this is not really possible. As we mature both in age and in faith, yes, some of the sins change or lessen but the evil within never totally disappears. Lust, for example, does not quite have the grip on us at 70 or 80 that it had on us at 20 or 30. But others sins, like fear and worry and control, they seem to gain power as we mature. Even though our journey of faith is one of becoming more and more like Christ, Satan is ever at work in our lives. Good and evil will wage a battle for our hearts and souls until the day we die.

Paul explains his own inner, constant battle in today’s passage. In verse 21 he shares this truth that we all live daily: “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me”. As inherently good and loving creations of God, we do want to do good in the world, we do want to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we do want to love one another as Jesus first loved us. Yet evil is always there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for that sliver of fear, that crack of doubt, that fleeting thought of jealousy or anger or envy or pride. Satan is just waiting to take advantage of our weakness.

Paul admits that he is a “wretched man”. We too all feel that way when we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. As one reads Paul’s words today, there is an undercurrent of hopelessness in Paul’s battle. We too are hopeless in our own battle with sin. We alone cannot defeat or overcome sin. On our own we cannot rid ourselves of the sun or of the guilt and shame that makes us feel wretched and unworthy. Yet into our hopeless and powerless situation steps Jesus Christ. Jesus has the power. He defeated both sin and death. In and through him we find forgiveness and grace, mercy and power. We too can join Paul in rejoicing in God’s gift of Christ. Through Jesus our Lord we can be made new again over and over. Sin never has the last word. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Dear Lord, Paul’s words echo as truth in my life. It seems that an evil thought or an unkind word slips out more often than it should. Gird me up with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Fill me with a firm foundation of faith for the daily battle ahead each day. Walk with me Lord Jesus. Amen.


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Daily Choosing

Reading: Romans 6: 12-23

Verse 14: “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace”.

Paul is writing to the church in Rome because they are struggling with living righteous lives. Sin is present. Some people have even adopted the belief that they can do whatever they want because grace will cover all sin. This passage remains very applicable today – maybe even moreso than the day it was written.

Paul begins by encouraging the followers of Jesus to not let sin reign in their “mortal bodies”. As followers today we understand why this encouragement is so necessary. Sin is ever present in our lives. The world and culture around us promotes sinful choices and indulgent living. When we are younger or just new to the faith the lures of the flesh and the desires of the world draw us towards sin. These things do lose some of their allure as we mature, but other struggles arise. Pride and ego grow and the need to be in control can become struggles. Our tongues remain something we must keep tightly bridled. Things like worry and fear, doubt and anger, jealousy and envy are lifelong battles for many of us who follow Jesus.

Paul reminds those in the Roman church and all of us today that sin should not be our master because “you are not under the law, but under grace”. The law points out our wrongs or sins and it condemns unrighteous behaviors and choices. But under the law our sin remains. The shame and the guilt become co-masters with sin when we allow sin to take root in our lives. Paul reminds us that we are living under grace. As such, sin is not in control. When we confess and repent of our sin, we are freed by grace from the sin and from the shame and guilt. We are made new again.

It is a wonderful and beautiful thing, this grace. One may even ask or think, then why not just choose grace? If it were that easy how good life would be! But sin is a near constant presence, the battle is always just right there. Daily, even moment by moment at times, we must “offer ourselves to God”, choosing to walk in his righteousness. May it be so today.

Prayer: Lord God, in the flesh the struggle with sin is so real, so regular, so present. Thank you that your Spirit is right here within me, reminding, guarding, encouraging… Strengthen my faith, O God, that I may walk in the light. Amen.


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Remember

Reading: Psalm 86: 1-10 and 16-17

Verse 5: “You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call on you”.

In our Psalm for this week, David cries out to God and he praises God for all God has done. The emotions and feelings in the Psalm cover a wide spectrum of our faith and of our lives. In the opening lines, for example, David asks for protection and mercy and to experience joy. In the next stanza we read, “You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call on you”. There is a trust and a confidence that God will answer. That trust and confidence are built upon the history of God and the chosen people. This thought is reflected in verses eight through ten. Then, in our closing verses for today, we hear a request for strength and then a plea to save a son. It closes with an almost desperate plea for a sign that God is still there. Where did the trust and confidence of the earlier verses go?

As one considers the reality of our faith – strong one moment and shaking the next, full of assurance one day and then nothing but doubt and worry the next… – the range of the Psalm is really representative of our own journeys of faith. Yet within the Psalm there is also an undercurrent that we must recognize. Throughout, God is steadfast and his love is always there for his children. On our “good” days we know these things to be true. May we also remember these truths as we cry out and plead with God. His mercies are new every morning and his love never fails. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: O Lord, how these days feel so much like the Psalm. As we prepare to go forth, one moment there is deep, deep sadness. Tears flow. The next there is a sense of excitement and anticipation of what you will do in our next place of ministry. I can hardly sleep. Guide us through, allow us to feel and connect with and to these wide ranges of emotion. Be with us, O God. Amen.