pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Hard Decisions, Challenging Steps

Reading: Psalm 79: 1-4

Verse 4: “We are objects of reproach to our neighbors”.

The Babylonians invaded Israel and left a wake of death and destruction in their path. In Jerusalem, the city walls were destroyed and the temple was leveled. For the Babylonians this was just one more nation to conquer. But for the Israelites, the killing was the murder of God’s chosen people and the destruction of the temple was the defilement of God’s home. What is left is not a pretty sight. “They have poured out blood like water” paints a grim picture. To add insult to injury, “we are objects of reproach to our neighbors”. The tribes around them mock what is left of Israel.

As people of God living in an increasingly non-Christian world, we can have similar experiences and emotions. In parts of our world Christians face persecution and even death. In most of our lives, however, persecution does not rise nearly to that level. Yet being a Christian is not always easy in our modern, secular world. Many of the more recent cultural norms are decidedly anti-Christian. The rugged individualism of the past and the me-first attitude of today combine to make being a humble servant countercultural and difficult. To think less of yourself and more of others can lead to questioning and ridicule. To refuse to be immoral or unethical at work can cost one promotions and can draw the ire of those above you.

Satan works in these and in many other ways to draw us away from God and into the ways of the world. It can be hard to look at what your friends, co-workers, and neighbors are doing and to not want to go along. Inside we all have a strong desire to fit in, to belong, to be liked. At times our faith will deny us these things. Something else inside of us – the Holy Spirit – is also at work to lead and guide us to be faithful and true to the Lord our God. One day we too will be poured out and will breathe our last. But between now and then may we make the hard decisions and take the challenging steps to walk as a child of the light in a world of darkness. May we live a life worthy of the one who called us, Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Guiding God, sometimes it can be tempting to go along with the crowd or to say what pleases. Keep me ever focused on your will and your ways in my life. Hold my hand as I try to walk as a humble servant today. Amen.

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Clear Priorities

Reading: Luke 14: 25, 26 and 33

Verse 26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father… mother… wife… children… brother… sister… even his own life… he cannot be my disciple”.

Two of three of today’s verses are really tough verses. Jesus says to the crowd and to us, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father… mother… wife… children… brother… sister… even his own life… he cannot be my disciple”. That is hard to read twice in such a short time. He then concludes our passage from Luke 14 by telling us that we must “give up everything” if we want to be his disciple. Jesus is using hyperbole today to make his point. He is addressing a large crowd. Those following Jesus has grown quickly and they all do not clearly understand the cost of following Jesus. Today’s verses are a bit of a reality check.

Jesus uses the word ‘hate’ today as a term to define our priorities in life. If asked what our priorities are, almost all of us would respond: God, family, work (or school). But a look into our week and our choices and decisions might not actually reflect that order. Jesus chooses his words today to drive home the point that faith must be our clear #1 priority. It must be so clear that we appear to hate our family, friends, and even our own self when compared to how much we love God. Jesus wants us to understand that there must be a striking contrast between the devotion we live and show to God and all other relationships and priorities in life. Jesus had strong relationships with his mother Mary, with the disciples, and with friends like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. ‘Hate’ would not describe any of these relationships. But his devotion to God never wanted – it was clearly Jesus’ top priority.

In verse 33 Jesus addresses the sacred cow of the secular world. Culture identifies and defines worth by what we have and by who we are in the power structures of the world. Again, Jesus is calling us to put all this worldly stuff a distant priority when compared to our faith. When we turn away and pursue the things of the world more than loving and serving God, we have lost focus on what really matters. Our priorities have been reordered.

Jesus says “Follow me” to us. That means living the priorities that Jesus lived. That means clearly committing to our faith as the most important thing in our lives and then living that commitment out. Yes, it is a hard commitment. Jesus is the only way. May he be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord, at times walking a life of faith can be so simple and straight forward. At other times it can be a great struggle as the flesh inside me rises up and as the voices and things of the world call out. O God, help me to walk closely with you day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Amen.


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Our Hope

Reading: Psalm 71: 4-6

Verse 5: “For you have been my hope, O sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth”.

Each who is introduced to Christ must make a personal decision: is this Christ worth getting to know more? If the answer is ‘yes’ then a second decision looms: am I drawn in enough to continue this new journey? Some are curious and invest a little time. But soon they realize the commitment level and return to living in the world. Others go a little deeper but make the same decision in the end. The cost of surrendering is too high. A few decide that yes, Jesus is the only way, truth, and life and decide to surrender their lives and take up their cross to follow Jesus Christ. This process can unfold in just a few days at a place like church camp or it can play out over many years. Everyone’s journey is unique to them.

In verse five we read, “For you have been my hope, O sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth”. Because we have unique journeys, some may say since college or since marriage or since some other event. For a lot of us who grew up in the church, we can echo this basic statement. The early experience with the faith of our parent(s) led us into the process of making faith our own. For some the moment of surrender is a powerful experience that leads to asking Jesus to be Lord of their lives. For others it is a gradual and evolving relationship. One cannot identify the precise moment of total surrender, but one can trace the progression to living a fully committed life of faith.

However we arrive to that personal relationship with Jesus Christ, along the way we all experience those “deliver me” moments along with a host of other trials and sufferings. The road is not always easy, but we do not walk alone. As we turn to Jesus and come to rely on him more and more, he becomes our hope. We get to know a Jesus who is ever faithful and is always loving and is constantly present. We too join the psalmist in declaring, “I will ever praise you”.

Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for sticking with me on my journey. At times I wandered far off the path, but never too far for you. Always you were there, calling me back. Thank you, Lord. Please continue to walk with me through the highs and lows and everything in between. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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God’s Call

Reading: Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Verse 5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart”.

Today we hear God’s call on a young Jeremiah. It is a call to be a prophet to the people of God. Jeremiah is living in a time right before and into when Jerusalem falls and the people are carried off into exile. The people’s unfaithfulness leads to being conquered and taken into exile. It is into this situation that God calls Jeremiah. The call begins with these words: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart”. In these words we clearly hear that God has long had a plan for Jeremiah. Even before his body began to form in the womb, God knew him and had identified him as a prophet. That is a powerful call.

Jeremiah immediately tries to avoid the call. How like Jeremiah we all are! Jeremiah tries to put up two barriers to serving. He does not know how to speak and he is just a child. We too can quickly come up with reasons. We tend to do this much more quickly than we say ‘yes Lord’. Whether the call is a momentary call, like helping out a neighbor one afternoon, or if it is a call to full-time ministry, we too can find lots of reasons to not answer the call. Many times I have not stopped to help or engage someone the Spirit is prompting me to serve. I’m too busy, there is something more pressing… The reasons come so easy. Often I have chosen not to give when I could have or to volunteer when when I had both the time and the ability.

When I began to feel the call to leave teaching to become a pastor, the decision was hard to make. It required trust in God and it took a step of faith. God kept working on me, gradually leading me to take the step. After we made the decision, my wife and I told our three children. The oldest, then in college, simply said, “It’s about time”. It was one more reminder that, like Jeremiah, God knew me and had appointed me to serve his church.

Each of us hears God’s call upon our lives over and over. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ invites each of us into ministry with him. Whether as a pastor or school teacher or business person or coach or retired person or… God calls us all and leads us all into service. In whatever way God has created and equipped us, we are all called to follow Jesus’ commission to “go and make disciples of all people”. May we each answer the call today.

Prayer: God, thank you for where you have called me. The road is not always easy, the task is often challenging. Yet thank you for where you have planted me. I know you walk with me. Help me each day to be faithful in the small things that build up your kingdom here. Lead and guide me. Amen.


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Good Fruit

Reading: Isaiah 5: 3-7

Verse 4: “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it”?

Today we see the outcome of all the love and care that was poured into the vineyard. The yielding of bad fruit draws a passionate response from the gardener. The gardener wistfully says, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it”? When one considers all of God’s love and care and patience and guidance poured into Israel, one can begin to understand God’s pain and heartache and even a little anger. All parents experience this process, but usually on a much smaller scale. We raise our children as best we can and they still make poor decisions and bad choices now and then in spite of our best efforts.

God’s response to the vineyard Israel is to tear down the hedge and wall and to allow thorns to infest the ground. God even withholds the rain. God is stepping back from the relationship. God is not abandoning Israel, but is allowing them to experience the consequences of their decisions and choices. The injustice and bloodshed will not have good outcomes; the unanswered cries of distress will go on. All of this pains God deeply. Stepping back is a loving and merciful response. It is the response of a God who loves the people deeply.

I imagine that as God looks down on the world today, there is much that is painful to see. I imagine that God frequently asks the same “what more can I do” question. And then God sees the good fruit, the kind and loving followers of Jesus, working to bring light and love out into the world. God sees believers seeking to love God and to love neighbor. Yes, there are images of God sharing God’s love and care and compassion and mercy and justice with a world in need. Won’t you be one of them today?

Prayer: Loving God, lead me to love like Jesus today. Help me to be compassion and mercy and grace lived out. May it be so for me today and every day. Amen.


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Led by Compassion

Reading: Luke 10: 29-37

Verse 36: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers”?

Traditions and stereotypes are great influencers. They are a part of life. Growing up we inherit and learn about the world and people around us from our parents and families. Systems and institutions also influence us as we begin to go to school… These influencers can be good and they can be bad. We can learn to be compassionate and generous, to be honest, to work hard, to be a person of faith. We can learn to be selfish, to take advantage of others, to be prejudiced and biased.

In this familiar parable, the priest and Levite both pass by on the other side of the road. Depending on the influencers that we grew up with, their action can be seen poorly or as acceptable. These two men are also products of the families, groups, and institutions that they grew up in. Most certainly they too felt compassion for the man. Who wouldn’t? But the stronger force was the years and years of training and teaching that said to avoid becoming ceremonially unclean. It would break a law. Life for them was all about their position and living within the guidelines of the law.

I too have been guilty of passing by someone I could have helped. The “law” of ‘don’t be late for work’ has led me to pass by on more than one occasion. The “law” of ‘you have something more important to do, someone else will stop’ has also led me to pass by. Stereotypes and being judgmental have also led me to pass by at times. This parable is so hard because we’ve all walked many times in the shoes of the priest and Levite.

We do not know much about the Samaritan. We do not know if he was rich or poor. We do not know if he was a Godly man or if he worshipped idols. What we do know is that he allowed the compassion that all of us would have felt to become what drove his decisions and actions. He invested both time and money in caring for the one in need. We do not know much about the Samaritan, but we do know that if we were in Jesus’ story, we sure hope we’d stop too. It is a matter of choice. The lawyer knew who the neighbor was. So do we. Jesus encourages the lawyer to “go and do likewise”. May we do so as well.

Prayer: Lord, you call me to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you. Fill me with compassion for those in need. Lead me to stop and care for those I meet today. Amen.


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Relationship

Reading: Acts 8: 14-17

Verse 15: “They prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit”.

As we become better and better friends with another we can get to the point of being able to finish their sentences. After being married or after being best friends for a long while you even get to the place of knowing what they’re thinking. This deep connection forms a very special bond. But just how does this bond develop? Certainly an important element is time. Spending time with someone allows you the opportunity to get to know them. Time alone won’t do it though. One could spend a lifetime in a 6×12 prison cell with someone and never get to know them very well. One must also make an effort. One must invest in the relationship. This speaks of commitment.

In our passage today some folks hear the words that Philip shared and they come to believe in Jesus name. They do not receive the Holy Spirit so Peter and John are sent. Once they arrive, “they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit”. Why? Because the indwelling presence of the Spirit can be the beginning of a deeply personal relationship. The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit does not take you to “finish their sentence” status automatically though. It is the beginning of a relationship. In many the relationship begins “on fire” – you want to get to know that person more and more. Soon enough though, like with all relationships, it gets to a point where you ask yourself if you want the relationship to continue to grow or not. Usually there is a pinch point of some type. With the Holy Spirit it is usually that point where we realize it will require a full surrender of our will and our desires to the will and desires of God. It is a hard moment. Some choose to slow things down and keep the relationship on the “acquaintance” level. But if one chooses to go all in with their relationship with Jesus Christ, then one can get to the point of finishing sentences and knowing what the Holy Spirit is thinking before it whispers or nudges.

If one chooses to surrender, it is not a one time decision either. There is a reason Jesus said we must pick up our cross daily to follow Him. It is a daily surrender. In general, the cross becomes lighter and easier to pick up each day as the joy of the relationship makes it so. Yes, there are days or even seasons when self rears its ugly head. But the time and commitment that God has in the relationship always seeks to draw us back in, to restore us to right relationship. On our own the relationship would be in trouble. But we are not alone. God is fully committed to us. God alone makes our relationship possible. Thanks be to God for the amazing love that desires a relationship with each of us.

Prayer: Lord, when I look hard in the mirror, I am amazed that we are still great friends. Thank you for still loving imperfect and sinful me. You are an awesome God. Amen.