pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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The Journey

Reading: John 20: 25-31

Verse 29: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”.

Earlier this week we read about Jesus appearing to ten of the eleven disciples. Thomas was not there. As we begin today’s passage, the other disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord”! Thomas questions this, saying, “Unless I see the nail marks…”. He wants tangible proof that it really was Jesus. Because of this passage, Thomas is sometimes referred to as “Doubting Thomas”.

The reality, though, is the faith involves doubt. On our journey of faith, we will have seasons when we doubt, when we wrestle for answers, when we question God, our faith, ourselves… These are the struggles that often produce growth. It is when we dive deep and wrestle with the things of God that we are refined and encouraged. During a very difficult time in ministry, for example, I questioned deeply and often at first. This led to doubt. Much time was spent in prayer and scripture study. The end result was a better grasp of God’s love and mercy as well as a more solid understanding of the depth and breadth of his love and grace.

Jesus returns to the disciples a week later. Thomas is there. After greeting them, Jesus turns to Thomas and invites him to see and touch the proof. As always, Jesus offers what is needed to draw another closer to God. Seeing the scars, Thomas declares, “My Lord and my God”! It is a heartfelt profession of Jesus Christ as the Messiah.

Coming out of that difficult season of ministry, knowing that the living Christ had walked with me and has guided me through, I emerged with a stronger faith and with deeper convictions. God still has a way of meeting us where we are and offering us what we need to continue the journey of faith.

As you continue to seek God and to grow in your faith, may you who have not seen and yet believed be ever moving deeper in your relationship with Jesus.

Prayer: Lord God, great is your faithfulness! How vast is your love! Thank you for walking through the hard times, ever reminding me of your presence and guidance. You are so good to me. Thank you. Amen.


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Walking in Lament

Reading: Psalm 31: 9-16

Verses 14-16: “You are my God… My times are in your hands… Save me in your unfailing love”.

Psalm 31 is one of many Psalms of Lament. These Psalms balance lament and grief and sorrow with God’s love and mercy and presence. To walk with God through trial and suffering and affliction is such a blessing. The journey is much harder for those without faith. Verses ten through twelve sum up well what it feels like to be alone in our sorrow and anguish, alone as people utter contempt and conspire against us. At times we have all felt like David does in these verses. At times we all feel like “broken pottery”.

Psalm 31 shifts in verse fourteen. Here David’s faith begins to take over his emotions. In trust David says, “You are my God”. He is claiming his place within God’s unfailing love. In humility David continues, saying, “My times are in your hands”. Here David is acknowledging that God alone is in control. This humility undergirds his prayers for help and deliverance. David knows that all things work according to God’s purposes. It is freeing to turn it over to God. Inviting God to shine upon him, David asks God to “save me in your unfailing love”. There is an assurance that God’s presence brings salvation. With God, David will walk confidently into all that lies ahead. Even though there is great lament in the Psalm, David’s words also reveal the trust, humility, and assurance that are ours when we walk with God.

Reflecting on this Psalm my mind is drawn a week ahead, to the Garden of Gethsemane. In a time of deep sorrow and lament Jesus will wrestle with what lies ahead as he considers his journey to the cross. He is challenged by the thought of drinking the cup of wrath yet he too trusts in God, submits his will to God’s will, and moved forward, confident of God’s presence with him.

As we face times or seasons of lament, as our faith calls us to walk a difficult road, may we too live within God’s love and care, humbly trusting in the Lord our God. May it be so.

Prayer: Loving and guiding God, when tides rise, when clouds roll in, may I cling to you. Draw me into your presence, surround me with your love, assure me of the plans that you have for me. You are my God. In you I trust. Amen.


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Seeing Jesus

Reading: Matthew 25: 31-46

Verse 45: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”.

Today we again wrestle with this teaching. In the agriculturally based world of Jesus’ day, all would understand the need to separate out one flock or herd from another. There were times when you just did that. This practice continues today everywhere farming or ranching is done. For Jesus’ audience the idea of separating the sheep from the goats would not raise an eyebrow. The “why” is what makes his audience pause. It is what makes us take a pause. This makes us uncomfortable. It makes us squirm. It gives us an uneasy feeling in our soul. These things are part of following Jesus.

One of the points of this teaching is that we are to care for our brothers and sisters. In this sense it mirrors the second great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is a familiar command to most every Christian. We do not always succeed, but we all understand that loving all of our neighbors is part of the gig. Today, though, Jesus goes deeper. In verse 45 he says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”. When we have failed to love those who are hungry, thirsty, lonely – the least – we have done so because we failed to see Jesus in them. How could Jesus Christ be in the addict? In the homeless? In the murderer? He is there because each of these is just like us – created in the image of God, born with a spark of the divine within us. Jesus may not be readily evident in such people. But, hey, once in a while, folks have a hard time seeing Jesus in you and in me. Yet Jesus is still there. We are all and ever will be a child of God. If we all saw Jesus in every single other person, we would be much better at feeding, clothing, and including the least of these. May it be so.

Prayer: Loving God, fill my heart so with love that it colors all I see. Give me eyes that see you in others first, and only then, to see the hunger or other needs. The hunger… are just things. The person is your son or daughter, Christ’s brother or sister, my brother or sister. Help me to live this truth out more fully. Amen.


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“L” is for…

Reading: Matthew 25: 31-40

Verse 40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”.

In today’s passage Jesus sounds a bit like an Old Testament prophet. His words and what I imagine his tone to be evoke visions of Ezekiel or Isaiah. Jesus is once again speaking of heaven and hell. Passages like this naturally bring to our mind the question: am I in or am I out? Reading this passage I’ve often fallen into these ways of thinking. In my rule-following mind it was and sometimes still is hard not to feel some condemnation when I read this passage.

Jesus is clear in the overall message today. There is a right or faithful way to live with one another. Therefore, there is also a wrong way. The right way is to care for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned. The wrong way is to ignore them, to not care for them. In verse forty we read, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”. In verse 45 we read the result of failing to care for such as these: “you did not do for me”.

Reading this passage we can tend to think: Am I a sheep or am I a goat? The judge living inside of us can easily start to scroll through our lives, weighing the evidence for and against. The ‘in or out?’ question can become a balance scale of sorts. But then I stop and ask: does this align with the Jesus we see in the Gospels? Can you really see Jesus judging you this way when you one day stand before him? This is not the Jesus revealed to me in the New Testament or along my faith journey.

Then what is the point of the teaching? We cannot simply toss it or skip by it because it makes us uncomfortable or because it causes us to wrestle with our faith and how we live it out. In a way this was the underlying point of all of Jesus’ teachings. These words were spoken by the one that always calls us deeper into relationship, deeper into loving God and one another. So what if this teaching is about a way to live, about a rule of life? Jesus was one who sought to connect to the least, the lost, the last, the lonely. What drove him to do so was another “L”: love. Yes, the ideal is to always care for others, in whatever form that may be.

I struggle less with this parable than I used to. Now I see it as the model that Jesus set. I still fail at times. I don’t always feed the hungry… I do not always visit the lonely… But I do strive to love each to the best of my ability and capacity – to the best of my faith. When I fail, the Holy Spirit always goes to work within me, leading and prompting me to love deeper the next time God presents an opportunity. I am a work in progress. I’d guess you are too. May the shepherd continue to lead you and me.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for a heart that yearns to love more each day. Guide and lead my heart to be more and more like yours. Amen.


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Struggle with God

Reading: Genesis 32: 22-31

Verse 28: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome”.

For most of his adult life Jacob has been a schemer and a taker. As a young man his mother taught him how to steal Isaac’s blessing through the use of deception and dishonesty. During his time in exile he learned some hard lessons from his father-in-law Laban and then learned to out-scheme and take much more than he gave. When this caused his relationship with Laban to grow very tense, Jacob did what schemers do – he fled the scene of the crime. Now Jacob is not all bad. There is some good in him. He knows who God is too. On his initial flight from Esau and the land of Canaan, God showed him a vision at Bethel, where God promised to watch over Jacob and to bring him back to possess the land promised to Abraham and Isaac.

As Jacob is alone on the far side of the stream all that is his is on the other side. The stream is a symbolic line as well as a geographical line. Jacob means “grabber” or “schemer”. He has certainly lived into his name. Yet at a point all wheeler-dealer, schemer types want to step off the carousel. The wondering about who will catch up with you, the fear of finally being out- hustled, the unease at living a shady life – they weigh upon the heart and soul and mind. Alone, Jacob is ready for some soul-searching. Just as God had done twenty years ago when Jacob was in need of divine intervention, this night God comes and engages Jacob. The wrestling is real but also symbolic – man versus God, unethical versus ethical, taker versus giver.

Jacob is where we are at when we have been living for self and the things of this world. A part of us knows we are in a place we should not be. That part of us knows we should stop sinning and return to our walk with God. But there is still a struggle. That lifestyle, the sin, it is enticing and powerful. For Jacob, the battle goes on all night. Even after having his hip wrenched, Jacob will not let go of God this time without a blessing, a reassurance of his future. He has come to the point of surrender. Jacob is told, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome”. No longer “schemer” and “grabber”, he is now “he struggles with God”. Leaving his old ways behind Jacob will now focus on the things of God and not of man. The new walk will not be easy. The limp will be a constant reminder of the “cost” of following. It is the “narrow way” that Jesus spoke of.

It is a new beginning for Israel, just as it was the day we said yes to Jesus. That next morning Israel walked forward, ready to overcome whatever lay ahead, assured of God’s abiding presence. This too is our story. May we too walk forward in faith, assured of God’s loving presence in our lives.

Prayer: Loving God, each time that I have wrestled with you, in the end you always prevail. It is because of your great love. In that love you allow me to stumble and sometimes even to fall. But your love is always greater than my sin and is better than all the world has to offer. So you draw me back in. Thank you for your love. Amen.


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Wrestling with God

Reading: Genesis 32: 22-31

Verse 24: “So Jacob was left all alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak”.

As today’s passage begins Jacob is almost back home. He fled twenty years ago after stealing the birthright from his twin brother Esau. In the twenty years away Jacob lived in his ancestral homeland. Now he returns to Canaan with two wives and eleven sons plus many servants and large herds of livestock. Jacob is a successful man. Yet he fears the reunion with Esau. Earlier in chapter 32 he learns that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Ever the schemer, Jacob devises a plan. He will give Esau a large gift of three herds, each with the message, “your servant Jacob is coming”. Jacob is seeking to “pacify” his brother Esau before actually seeing him face to face.

On the eve of the meeting Jacob sends all he has on across the stream and he remains alone on the far side. Part of Jacob is still trying to wheel and deal his way through life. But just part of him. A part also knows God. Earlier in chapter 32 Jacob also turns to God in prayer. He thanks God for blessings so far and he asks God to save him from Esau. Jacob invites God into his situation. Sometimes that is the best step we can take too. Whether our situation is something we created or if it is part of life, we too are best served by inviting God into our situation. Often the invitation is accompanied by a self-realization that our hand played a role in getting us to the point we are at. This was the case for Jacob. Like it usually is with us, this was a crossroads, a turning point, for Jacob. God accepts the invitation.

God shows up and wrestles with Jacob all night long. The length and physicality of the battle are symbolic of the change working itself out in Jacob. They wrestle all night long. At daybreak the man representing God asks Jacob to let him go. But Jacob will not simply let go. He asks first for a blessing. Jacob has come to the point of surrender to God. His life and faith will be different going forward. Each time that we wrestle with God, may it be the same for each of us.

Prayer: God of power and might, you are amazing – omnipotent and omnipresent. And yet I, at times, dare to walk against your will, against your ways. Grab hold of me too and wrestle with my heart and soul. Lead me to a quick surrender and a swift return to following you closely. May it always be so. Amen.


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Call of Faith

Reading: Genesis 2:15-17 through 3:1-7

Verse 6: “the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye… took some and ate it”.

As we prepare to enter into the season of Lent, we face a decision. Will this just be another six weeks that we go to church on Sundays or will it be a season, a time to really wrestle with our faith? Will these forty days be about preparing our soul to meet Jesus at the empty tomb on Easter morning? Will Lent be about becoming fully ready to die to self as Jesus did on the cross or will self remain on the throne of our hearts?

Ever since the first people walked the earth there has been a battle waged in our hearts. It is a battle between doing God’s will versus allowing our own will to make the decisions and choices. To me the garden scene is like the Last Supper scene. Someone was going to betray Jesus. It did not really matter who. In the garden someone was going to eat from the forbidden tree. In both cases, evil found a way to winnow in and create separation between a person and God. Isn’t that the same way sin works in our lives?

The fruit just hung there. It looked good and had some benefits. A piece was taken and eaten. Eyes that had been innocent now saw themselves and the world around them differently. Selfishness had been elevated over the relationship with God. Humanity’s will had been chosen over God’s will. This is a choice we wrestle with over and over every single day. Our sense of self is engrained in us from an early age. The call of faith to walk this life as a humble servant is constantly at odds with this sense of self.

The journey of Lent is about the lessening the self-will and the increasing of God’s will. It is about looking deep within our souls and seeing that which separates us from God and doing God’s will. What we each see will be vast and varied. Some things will die relatively easily and others will require great effort. May we each resolve to admit that we are fallen and broken and may we seek God’s love and mercy so that we can be made into new creations.

Prayer: Lord God, as I enter the season of repentance and introspection, give me the courage to look deep and grant me the strength to purge those things that separate me from you or that limit my walk with you. Take me and make me fully thine. Amen.


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Night Light, Table Lamp, or Ceiling Fixture?

Reading: 2nd Peter 1: 16-21

Verse 19: “Pay attention to it… to a light shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart”.

Is the light of Christ like a night light plugged into the receptacle or is it like the table lamp in the corner or is it like the fixture in the center of the ceiling? It resembles none of these if the power is out or if the switch is “off”. To really answer the question one must assume that the power is on and the light is operational. Assuming both to be true, how would you answer the question? Night light, table lamp, or ceiling fixture?

Light is a necessity today. There is much darkness in our world. Satan seems to often be winning the overall battle. Wars and civil unrest rage, disease and plague-like locusts creep across the earth, modern politics seems to lean more and more into fragmentation, the wealth gap continues to widen in our society. As a whole we seem to have lost the gift of civil discourse and the art of compromise. In our culture the opinion or belief of the individual has often triumphed over the ideal of the common good and the dream of common ground. While we as individuals cannot address or affect all of this darkness, we certainly can address and affect some of it. Is the light of Christ within you shining into those places of darkness within your sphere of influence? Would others say your light is shining like a night light, table lamp, or ceiling fixture? Would they question if the power is even on?

Do not just read on. Ponder these two questions. Not yet. Ponder, wrestle, look deep. Read on when you’re ready.

We can make a difference in our world only when Christ is making a difference in our lives. Jesus Christ is the power, the juice that gives us light. Peter writes, “Pay attention to it… to a light shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart”. Dig deep into Jesus Christ. Understand his message of love and grace and mercy. Allow him to fill you up. Accept no other as your source of light and love. Be a person filled with Jesus so that his light shines like the sun in and through you. Then look at your world around you and go be the light to those living in darkness.

Prayer: Lord God, help me today to shed your light and love abroad in the places I inhabit. May all I do and say and think be ways to share the light and love of Jesus Christ with others. Amen.


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Best of All…

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 11-14

Verse 13: “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow”.

Verse eleven opens with God’s promise to ransom and redeem his children from “the hand of those stronger than they”. These words remind me of our daily battle with evil and the other lures of the world. Although God is way stronger, in our human weakness sometimes it feels like we are weaker. Paul wrote of this in Romans 7. We too do what we do not want to do and we fail to do what we want to do. We are ever wrestling with sin. The good news for us is that hundreds of years after Jeremiah gave this promise, God did ransom us with Jesus’ life.

Verse twelve turns to the peoples’ response. With shouts of joy the people celebrated the Lord’s bounty. They felt like a “well-watered garden” and they enjoyed the provision of God. Each of us is also blessed. There are so many things that I can count as blessings, but none more important than my relationship with Jesus Christ. As modern day Christians, we are so blessed. We too can join the Israelites in joyfully thanking God for the bounty we receive. In verse thirteen’s opening line dancing follows joy. Go ahead and dance if so inclined!

In the second half of verse thirteen we read, “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow”. This continues to be God’s promise. In this life we will have our times or even seasons of mourning. God’s promise still remains – to give us comfort and joy. God’s love never fails. It continues to wash over us, even in times of sorrow, when we are willing to receive his love.

As we enter 2020 today, these words of the prophet Jeremiah are great reminders. The general tone reminds me of John Wesley’s dying words: “Best of all, God is with us”. Yes, God is. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, as I begin 2020, I rejoice that I am yours and that you are mine. In the coming year, use me as you will. Lead and guide me, strengthen and encourage me. Walk with me into a world in need. Amen.


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Servant?

Reading: Romans 1: 1-7

Verse 1: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God”.

Paul begins his letter to the Roman church by first identifying himself as a “servant of Jesus Christ”. Pause for a moment and consider what that word really means – servant. In Paul’s time a servant was totally subservient to the master. As such, their whole life was wrapped up in doing things for the master. They would go where told, would do whatever they were told to do. Their own will, desires, wants, thoughts, feelings were rarely considered. Paul sought to be a servant of Jesus Christ.

Today titles are important. Back in Paul’s day family names and birth places were important – Jesus of Nazareth, the sons of Zebedee… These adjectives described someone. Today we are first identified by our occupation. Meeting someone new, the first question is usually ‘What do you do’? When asked, I tell people that I am a Methodist pastor. Our own self-identity is very much wrapped up in what we do. So imagine, for a moment, the reactions and responses I would get if I answered as Paul did, telling others that I am a servant of Jesus Christ. You too can imagine the responses that this answer would draw.

As followers of Jesus Christ we are supposed to be servants of our Lord and King. Jesus himself came to be a humble servant and called us to follow his example. Because we do not first self-identity as a servant of Jesus Christ, there are two truths we must wrestle with. These truths are at the core of why we do not identify this way. Perhaps we are unwilling to really assume this role. We are reluctant to make all of our desires and all of our will subservient to Christ. We are OK with “most”. The second truth is the reality that would come with claiming such a title. To say we are a servant of Jesus implies quite a commitment. In the Advent series at our church we have been talking about what it would mean to be an “altogether Christian”. Such a person is a servant of Jesus Christ. Paul is making a high claim in his title of “servant”. Are we willing to do the same?

Prayer: God, the journey has been one of committing more and more to you and to doing your will. Even then, though, I know I am just “mostly” committed. Help me to move closer to “all in”, closer to loving and serving you with my whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. May it be so. Lord, may it be so. Amen.