All posts by Jon Swanson

About Jon Swanson

Social media chaplain. Author of "Lent For Non-Lent People" and "A Great Work: A Conversation With Nehemiah For People (Who Want To Be) Doing Great Works." Writer of I help people understand. Understand some of the Bible. Understand what Lent can be about. Understand what it means to follow.


FullSizeRender.jpgIf you know Godspell, you know Psalm 103. It’s a great musical treatment. It wakes you up on a sleepy afternoon. (Here’s the Broadway cast).

The psalm starts “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits. ” Then the writer identifies some of the things that the Lord has done.

But the energy of the song gives only one interpretation of the text. When I read that Sunday morning, it wasn’t with a cheerful voice. It was a distracted voice, a heart that could not focus. I was making lists, identifying projects, thinking about everything.

You know that feeling, I’m guessing. It might be you right now. You are trying to concentrate on these words, trying to figure out how to listen to God.

I read the first line. My mind wandered. I read the second line, same words. I read through the list of “benefits.” And then I read through them again. And then again.

Somehow, the repeated phrases, the rhythm of the words captured my attention:

who forgives
who heals
who redeems
who crowns
who satisfies.

I wasn’t happy and bouncy. My reading was halting and thought-provoking. And, you will notice, it isn’t exactly a prayer. Psalm 103 doesn’t talk to God at all. It talks to me about paying attention to God. Kind of like, “Okay self, focus, you can do this.” Or, like the little engine that could: “I think I can, I think I can.” But unlike the engine, this is not the kind of self-talk that motivates, it’s the self-talk that points to God.

When we get frustrated with our inability to concentrate, we’re not the first. But consider David’s words: “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”


First published February 5, 2013

Remember the last sentence.

I get the Bible texts for our Sunday chapel services from a list that churches all over the world use.  As I was preparing for this Sunday, I created a file of the texts. I started reading to prepare for Sunday.

I got nowhere. I could not make sense of the combination of texts from Isaiah, Matthew, and 1 Corinthians. Asking God for clarity or direction or something didn’t work. All my creative thought leaps were ending up in mud.

So I went back to the calendar. I discovered that I had missed one sentence, one verse. I was looking at 1 Corinthians 1:10-13. I was supposed to include verse 17. And that sentence was the key.

goodnessIt happens that the sentence was about the gospel, the good news that we don’t have to save ourselves. That we, in fact, cannot be good enough or kind enough or self-sacrificial enough to be friends with God.

Paul says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” ‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭1:17‬ ‭ESV‬‬

It reminded me that sometimes the reason we can’t figure out what God is telling us that we aren’t reading the whole message. We’re skipping parts of the story. Our own notes are inaccurate.

In addition to praying, we probably need to go back and look at the assignment. In addition to working hard to make things make sense, we need to see what was actually said.

Now, I understand that even when we have all the words, when we’re looking at the whole text, understanding still is slow. Like cider, we need to add the ingredients to our mind and hearts and let it mull. We need to seek counsel. We need to quiet our hearts.

But getting the right text is a good start.


A couple years ago I compiled a reader for the church season called Lent which starts March 1. Lent For Non-Lent People is a guide to the 40 days before Easter. I just cleaned up some of the typos to get it ready for this year. A number of people have found it helpful. Perhaps it may help you, too.

John the pointer

John was expecting the messiah. He recognized Jesus. And then he pointed people to Jesus.

There is the one. Follow him.

goThat’s a rough thing. John had been pretty popular. He had crowds and followers and press attention. And from this moment, it started to disappear.

People actually started to follow Jesus.

Even John’s disciples, the guys he had been mentoring, became Jesus’ disciples. Because JOHN told them to go.

In a time when we watch leaders build followings, the idea of someone saying, “Don’t follow me, follow him” feels strange.

But John’s whole reason for living was to point people toward Jesus. Toward the king and the kingdom.

John didn’t understand it all. There’s reason to believe that John was figuring that the kingdom would start soon. Freedom from Rome. Freedom for God’s people.

It’s time for a recap from the last three days.

John’s way of living teaches us to live in expectation of the one who is greater than us. Expectation was baked into his calling. It was what he understood as the purpose of his life.  John was living toward the arrival of Jesus. So what are our lives pointing to? What’s the purpose?

John’s sensitivity to recognize teaches us to be sensitive.  John knew to listen for the Holy Spirit. But we have to be willing to recognize and to look where Jesus said that we were to look. To serve those who need rather than focusing always on our needs.

And John’s willingness to point away from himself toward Jesus teaches us to serve more than shout.  Proclaiming the presence of the one who is greater. Pointing out to other people that here is the one who is greater than we are.

John the recognizer

One day, John looked up and saw Jesus walking toward him. I’m not sure that he recognized his relative. As far as we know, they hadn’t seen each other ever.

But we know that John had been given instructions on how to recognize the king. How to recognize the one he had been pointing people toward. It’s not that he’d be wearing a carnation, or carrying a newspaper, or dressed in white.

“When you see someone drenched in the Holy Spirit, that’s the one you are expecting.” That’s what John says that he’d been told.

And on the day we read about, John recognized Jesus.

We know that Jesus came to John asking to be baptized. Not because he needed it, but because he wanted to identify with all of us who need it. John knew him because Jesus was dripping with the Spirit just as much as he ended up dripping with the river water.

I know people who are looking for Jesus. They want to touch him. They imagine that if they could just see him, or touch him, they would believe. They are looking at everyone, trying to recognize Jesus and not ever seeing him.

But here’s the thing.

IMG_1392.JPGMuch later in his work, Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

And the people around him said, “When?” “How did we miss you?”

Jesus said, “When you did all those things for the least of these,” gesturing to all of those people in need, at the fringes.

While we are expecting Jesus, working to prepare the way for him, we can open our eyes to recognize him in the people we are serving and loving and caring for.

As we care for them as IF we are caring for Jesus.

John the expecter.

(Part one of a three-part reflection from John 1:29-34.)

May I tell you about John the Baptist?

I know that you may know all about him, but I’d like to review.

John lived six months before Jesus. More accurately, he was born about six months before Jesus. Their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, were relatives.

Both of their births were miracles. John’s because Elizabeth was old, well past the time that anyone would expect her to be expecting. Jesus’s because, well, because he was Jesus.

Both of the pregnancies were announced by angels. You know the current partying around baby announcements, with blue or pink smoke or cupcake fillings or t-shirts? John and Jesus were predicted by angels. Take that Pinterest.

And their roles were predicted, too. John was going to “prepare the way for the Lord,” to help people get ready for the person who would save Israel, to point toward the Messiah. Jesus was going to be the messiah. The Christ. The one who would be the King.

John was called to get people ready for Jesus. The older to point toward the younger.

Jesus and John grew up separately.  John in the hill country, and then the wilderness. Jesus close to Jerusalem, then in Egypt, and then way up north in Galilee.

IMG_1458.JPGJohn eventually started preaching. He told people that the Holy one was coming. He told them that they needed to get their lives cleaned up before he came. Repent, he said. Turn your life around. The kingdom of God is close.

Some people laughed or argued. But some people knew that they were messed up, that the way they lived wasn’t what God wanted. So they wanted to change. John told them that one way to show that they were serious was to walk through water, to go down into the river and to come back out. It was called baptism. And John was called the Baptist.

After they were baptized, he told them how to live. Honestly, justly, compassionately. To live in a way that was consistent with their commitment.

But the whole time John was teaching and preaching and washing, he was watching.  Because he knew that the kingdom of God was close.

  • Close in time – soon – so that there was no time to waste.
  • Close in geography – nearby – so that he would see the king.

John had a purpose, a calling, a mission, a job. His whole life was about getting people ready for the kingdom of God. That sense of expectation was so strong that he didn’t waste his time on anything else.

His calling still has openings.