Wednesday’s Words: Life-giving Surprises

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When the Lord led his people through a hot, dry desert, they did not suffer from thirst. He made water come from a rock for them; he split the rock open, and water flowed out. Isaiah 48: 21

 

Isaiah says the people did not suffer from thirst. That doesn’t mean they weren’t thirsty. The people were not only thirsty, they complained about it to Moses. In fact, they called the place Massah and Meribah, which means testing and complaining. (Exodous 17:1-7)  I don’t blame them for complaining. They were in the desert with no water to drink. Who could have expected water to come from solid rock? But God is full of surprises.

 

My dad was a tough disciplinarian. When I was 17 years old, just four days after I got my brand new driver’s license, I asked for permission to take the family car for a drive. Dad agreed on one condition. “Don’t go to Perth Amboy,” he said. “It is a busy city and you don’t have enough experience.”

 

I agreed. Then I drove straight to Perth Amboy. I stopped at the stop sign—I really did—and then proceeded to plow into the side of a vehicle crossing the intersection. The police were there in a matter of minutes. Luckily, no one was hurt, but the policeman thought I must have been hurt because I was crying hysterically.

 

“My dad is going to kill me,” I wailed, tears pouring down my cheeks. The cop didn’t give me a ticket—even though I probably deserved one. I drove home filled with remorse, agonizing over my dad’s reaction. I dreaded facing him, but braced myself for the barrage of anger and criticism and confessed. I assured him that no one was hurt and told him how sorry I was. Dad looked at me with tenderness.

 

“Metal can be replaced,” he said. That was it. Wow. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was for forgiveness; I was too busy panicking that I’d never get it. Life-giving love and mercy from the last place I expected it. No punishment or tirade could have made me more willing to change my defiant ways than wanting to live up to my dad’s investment of love.

 

The power of love is surprising and life-giving; it can flow from the unlikeliest sources.

 

Prayer:  God of power and might, help us trust your providential love.

 

Reflection: When has sustenance—material or otherwise—come to you from and unexpected source?

 

If you’d like to share, please leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

Saturday Spotlight: Jeremiah

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[The Lord says] “I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for. Then you will call to me. You will come and pray to me, and I will answer you. You will seek me, and you will find me because you will seek me with all your heart…” Jeremiah 29: 11-13

 

The first time I read the Book of Jeremiah, I thought: What a downer. The book seemed to talk about nothing but the disasters coming to the Jewish people because of their sin. No wonder Jeremiah didn’t want to be a prophet. He was afraid of how people would respond to his dire warnings. But God told him not to be afraid and to Jeremiah’s credit, he spoke God’s word to the people, even though it got him into trouble.

 

Much of the book of Jeremiah is filled with prophecies of coming trouble: the fall of Jerusalem, the exile to Babylon, and Jeremiah’s own trials and tribulations for speaking an unpopular message. In spite of this, Jeremiah also conveyed a message of hope, as in the passage above. If someone acutely aware of trouble and hardship could still see his way to a message of hope in the midst of his own suffering, then that message of hope has credibility.

 

Why can’t we just skip through all the pain and get right to the future we hope for? Because Jeremiah tells us that hoped for future will come when we call to God and find him because we seek him with all our heart. Unfortunately, sometimes we only seek God when we’re in trouble. Intellectually we may know we should seek God all the time, but sometimes we don’t. If you’re like me, even though you might want to really seek God with all your heart, sometimes your heart just isn’t in it—until your back is against the wall. When the pain we’re in becomes worse than the fear of surrendering our will, we become ready to seek God’s way instead of our own.

 

I don’t think God zaps us with misery or thirsts for punishment. I think God loves us beyond our comprehension but knows we simply don’t seek him with all our hearts if we are too comfortable, so he allows the consequences of our poor choices to befall us, inviting us to turn around. Our God can bring good out of anything—even disaster. Jeremiah was able to see that. Can we see it too?

 

Prayer: Lord, help me trust your love even in the midst of pain.

 

Reflection: When has a painful circumstance motivated you to make a change for the better?

Wednesday’s Word: Self-esteem

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Humility deserves honor and respect, but a low opinion of yourself leads to sin. Sirach 4-21

 

What’s the difference between humility and low self-esteem? It’s been said that humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. Humility is being honest with ourselves, acknowledging not only our flaws but also our gifts and abilities. We don’t have to worry about being prideful when we acknowledge our gifts as long as we remember to say thank you to the Giver and remember that, like us, everybody else has talents and drawbacks as well. There will always be people better than us at some things and worse than us at other things. So what? We’re a mixed bag, and that’s okay. We are right where we belong with the rest of humanity.

 

A low opinion of ourselves seems innocent, but there are a number of insidious ways it might lead to sin or make it difficult to love others or ourselves.

  • Masked as humility, low self-esteem can lead to reverse pride. We might feel superior to braggarts and pompous people, while really priding ourselves on our poor self-esteem.
  • In spite of a self-effacing outward appearance, feelings of inferiority can fuel a desire to knock others down a peg, which can lead to gossip, judgmentalism, or self-righteousness.
  • Low self-esteem can also lead to self-centeredness. How can we be genuinely concerned about others if we’re desperately concerned the impression we’re making and what others are thinking about us?
  • When we’re down on ourselves, we crave approval from others to feel a sense of self-worth. Although everybody needs encouragement, when we rely on others to feel good about ourselves, we give our power over to them. It takes a healthy sense of self-esteem to say no when our peers’ activities don’t align with our moral compass.
  • Low self-esteem can also lead to sins of omission. We may hold back from extending ourselves to others in friendship or participating in any number of worthwhile activities because we fear failure, rejection, or looking foolish.

 

So what can we do to recognize our true self-worth? Here are a few suggestions. We can start by remembering we are a son or daughter of God, and that “God don’t make junk.” We can choose to be with people who validate our self-worth, not with false compliments, but those who can recognize and help us see our genuine assets, those who can model acceptance and forgiveness of our faults while calling us to grow beyond them. We can make a list of our good qualities. This might be a challenging task, but we can give it a try, and ask for help if we need it. As insurance against arrogance, we can write a letter to God thanking him for our gifts and asking him to show us how he would like us to use them today.

 

Prayer:  Lord, teach me to value the “me” you have created.

 

Reflection: What makes you feel good about yourself? How does that lead you outside yourself and help you contribute to the life around you?

Saturday Spotlight: Joanna

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Some time later Jesus traveled through the towns and villages, preaching the Good News about the Kingdom of God. The twelve disciples went with him, and so did some women who had been healed of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (who was called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had been driven out; Joanna, whose husband Chuza was an officer in Herod’s court; and Susanna, and many other women who used their own resources to help Jesus and his disciples. Luke 8: 1-3

 

What kind of problems did Joanna’s decision to follow Jesus create for her? How did accompanying Jesus on his travels impact her relationship with her husband? Maybe their relationship wasn’t that strong to begin with. I wonder what Chuza thought about his wife Joanna traipsing around the country with Jesus. Did it cause tension in their marriage? After all, Chuza worked for Herod, the officially recognized king of the Jews. Jesus’s teaching—his very being—presented a challenge to King Herod. It’s ironic that Joanna supported Jesus using the resources she presumably got from her husband, who was on Herod’s payroll. In effect, Herod was financing his rival. God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

 

On the other hand, maybe Chuza supported his wife’s decision. We aren’t told what Joanna’s affliction was, but whatever she suffered from, Jesus had healed her. Moved by gratitude, she seems drawn into the fold of love and healing. Maybe Chuza was grateful for the change in his wife. Maybe he felt that anything was better than the life of suffering she endured before. If her recovery meant she followed Jesus from town to town as well as in her heart, maybe that was a price Chuza was willing to pay.

 

People in recovery from addictions or certain other diseases sometimes have to be separated from those they care about—at least temporarily—to insure their recovery or to promote stabilization in a new, healthier way of life. Sometimes we have to leave our loved ones. Sometimes, we have to let our loved ones leave us. Sometimes they leave whether we want them to or not. When we entrust them to God’s care we can know that He is with them, wherever their journey takes them. Whether we can walk with them or not, they can’t travel beyond God’s love. Neither can we.

 

Prayer:  Jesus, walk with me and my loved ones today; may we follow where you lead.

 

Reflection: Joanna shared her resources with Jesus and fellow believers. What resources—time, talent, or treasure—are you being called to share on your spiritual journey?

Wednesday’s Word: Focus

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Nothing in creation is greedier than the eye; that is why it sheds tears so often. Sirach 31: 13b

 

When I was a little kid, my mom told me my eyes were bigger than my stomach. That was on Easter Sunday. Apparently my goal had been to consume the entire contents of my Easter basket by sundown. Mom looked at me and said, “Tomorrow is another day.” Yes, my young self thought, It’s okay; these goodies will all be here tomorrow. I still wanted to eat all the candy, but her words helped me hit the pause button, at least for the evening. I was too young to know my mom was quoting Scarlett O’Hara, but the classic phrase still saved the day.

 

Years later, I noticed myself in the cafeteria at work, checking out the desserts, day after day. Intellectually, I didn’t want or need the extra calories, but there I was, yet again, ogling the goodies and feeling my resistance weakening. Suddenly another classic quote popped into my head: “Custody of the eyes.” I’d come across the phrase in a novel about adjusting to convent life. A novice was told to employ “custody of the eyes,” which meant she had the power of choice about where to focus her attention. I have a choice, too, I thought. Yes, the pastries are tempting, but I don’t have to look at them. I came here for a cup of coffee, I can take custody of my eyes and direct them straight at the coffee pot. And by God’s grace, I did.

 

Our eyes can be greedy about lots of things besides food. Temptations are all around—and if they weren’t enticing, they wouldn’t be temptations. It may be true that nothing is greedier than our eyes, but we are not at their mercy. We don’t have to indulge our greed. We have a choice about where to focus our attention. We can turn our eyes in a new direction any time we choose.

 

Prayer:  Lord, direct my focus.

 

Reflection: Where will you focus your attention today?

 

Saturday Spotlight: Judith

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I am only a widow, but give me the strength to carry out my plan…Your power does not depend on the size and strength of an army. You are a God who cares for the humble and helps the oppressed. You give support and protection to people who are weak and helpless; you save those who have lost hope. Judith 9: 9b; 11

 

In the story of Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow single-handedly saved the Jewish nation from their enemies. Some scripture scholars believe that the book of Judith is a work of historical fiction that condenses several centuries of events into one story. The name Judith means “Jewish woman.” Judith exemplifies and honors the role of many Jewish women throughout the nation’s history. Judith’s story emphasizes that Israel’s protection was not dependent on its rulers or its military power, but on God.

 

In the patriarchal culture of that time, women without a man to take care of them were particularly weak and vulnerable. The fact that a widow became a heroine while traditional Jewish leadership remained ineffective against the enemy, emphasizes God’s power at work. Although Judith apparently had wealth and servants at her disposal, they were not her only resources. The pious and faith-filled woman had been blessed with inner resources as well.

 

The Assyrian army, led by Holofernes, was about to attack. Jewish leaders were planning to surrender, but Judith criticized their lack of faith and told them she had a plan. Trusting God, and armed only with her God-given gifts of beauty, wisdom, and courage, Judith entered the enemy camp on the pretext of defecting. Enticed by her beauty, an inebriated Holofernes attempted to make a pass at Judith after a night of drinking. She took the opportunity to kill him with his own sword and slipped out of his tent and the enemy camp. She made her way back to her people announcing that she had destroyed the Assyrian commander. When the Assyrians realized that their leader was dead, they panicked and Israel’s victory was secured.

 

Although it may be hard for us to accept the use of physical beauty and assassination as part of God’s plan, what is noteworthy about the story is the clear message that God works through whom he chooses—especially those with little value in the eyes of popular opinion. Victory from the most unlikely source can be accomplished–when we are willing to surrender to God’s plan for us and use the talents he has given us.

 

Prayer:  Lord, make me aware of the gifts you have given me and show me how you would like me to use them today.

 

Reflection: What are your talents and abilities? If you have trouble seeing them, ask God to show you.

 

Wednesday’s Word: Speechlessness

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And they did not know what to say to him. Mark 14: 40b

 

When we don’t know what to say, saying nothing might be the best response. Jesus had asked his disciples to keep watch with him during his prayer and suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane. He came back and found them sleeping. This happened more than once. When Jesus found them sleeping yet again, they did not know what to say to him. What could they say?

 

I think it’s to the disciples’ credit that they remained silent. It takes a great deal of humility and courage to quietly accept responsibility rather than put the blame elsewhere. What good are excuses? The truth is the disciples let Jesus down.

 

We all let others down sometimes. When we’re wrong, it’s tempting to justify ourselves and blame circumstances or other people. It’s hard to acknowledge to ourselves—let alone admit to someone else—that we messed up. Excuses don’t really let us off the hook, though. We know our weaknesses. Covering them up doesn’t make them go away. And excuses certainly don’t help the person we’ve let down or do anything to mend relationships. Excuses keep us anchored in ourselves rather than the person we’ve hurt.

 

At the very least, silence doesn’t add insult to injury. When we’re in the wrong, our silence can also speak volumes. It acknowledges our acceptance of responsibility and creates room to think about the other person rather than our need to defend ourselves. In those moments, we don’t need excuses, we need forgiveness. “Never ruin an apology with an excuse,” as Benjamin Franklin said. If we can’t bring ourselves to apologize in the moment, or we’re not sure how to apologize, at least let’s not ruin the silence with an excuse.

 

Prayer:  Lord, when I don’t know what to say, give me the grace to remain silent.

 

Reflection:  How comfortable are you remaining silent in awkward moments? Can you think of a time it might it have been better to remain silent? What might help you accept silence as a prudent response in the future?

Saturday Spotlight: Anonymous Service

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Jesus sent two of his disciples on ahead with these instructions: ”Go to the village there ahead of you. As soon as you get there, you will find a colt tied up that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. And if someone asks you why you are doing that, say that the Master needs it and will send it back at once.”  Mark 1:1b-3

 

Who brought back the colt? Jesus gave his word that he would send the colt back at once, so who got the job of bringing it back? We don’t know. On what we call Palm Sunday, the people of Jerusalem gave Jesus a red carpet welcome, the equivalent of a ticker-tape parade.  Jesus’s followers must have been enjoyed the enthusiastic greeting of the crowds, and basked in the reflected glory—all except for one. One follower of Jesus had to leave the festive atmosphere, donkey in tow, and make his way back to the little hick town where nothing was happening. I wonder how he felt about his inglorious job. Did he get any credit? Did anybody even notice he was gone? Did he realize that his humble, lackluster task was the gospel in action, testifying that Jesus keeps his word and that God is to be trusted?

 

We all have opportunities to evangelize, to carry God’s message behind the scenes through service. Daily tasks done to the best of our ability with respect and consideration for others may go unnoticed, but they speak volumes about what it means to follow Christ. We don’t have to calm a storm to comfort a friend who’s upset or frightened. We don’t have to multiply loaves and fishes to feed a hungry child. We don’t even have to speak words of wisdom to help someone who’s sad or lonely. Our silent presence and patient listening let’s them know they have value in God’s eyes and ours. Every time we do service—whether or not it’s noteworthy, whether or not we get credit—we help spread the Good News.

 

Prayer:  Lord, grant us willingness to do your will, whether or not others find out.

 

Reflection: Who is working behind the scenes in your life today? Why not thank them for their service?

 

Wednesday’s Word: Trustworthy

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Those who know you, Lord, will trust you; you do not abandon anyone who comes to you. Psalm 9:10

 

The God of love will never abandon us when we turn to him. So what keeps us from turning to him? Some likely suspects are: guilt; shame; anger; selfishness. I’m wondering if they might all boil down to fear: Fear that we aren’t good enough or that our past regrets are unforgiveable. Fear that we aren’t getting something that was due us. Fear that our version of justice isn’t being done.  Fear that things won’t turn out the way we want them to.

 

Someone said anger is not getting our way in the present, resentment is not getting our way in the past and fear is not getting our way in the future. But if God is trustworthy, we can trust that everything is under control, whether things go our way or not–even if we can’t see or understand it. We can be confident that when we turn to God, he is waiting to welcome us, no matter what we have done. We can believe, as a friend of mine used to say, that “God brought you this far; he’s not going to drop you on your head now.”

 

I have another friend who says when she is afraid of God or his will for her, she prays to know him better. Because if she knows him better, she will see that he is all good, all loving, and all wise and she will know that there is nothing to fear; whatever he wills is ultimately for the best.  When we know God, we will trust him; when we trust him, we won’t be afraid to come to him; and when we come to him, he will never abandon us. If he isn’t abandoning us, what can keep us from not abandoning him?

 

 

Prayer: Lord, help me know you better.

 

Reflection: What’s blocking you from God?  What might happen if you surrender that obstacle to him?

Saturday Spotlight: Eve

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The woman saw how beautiful the tree was and how good its fruit would be to eat, and she thought how wonderful it would be to become wise. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Genesis 3:6a

 

Would I have resisted temptation if I had been in Eve’s place? I doubt it. What is there about wanting to be wise?  Unfortunately, we often acquire wisdom by hard knocks. Part of the human condition seems to be learning from first-hand experience rather than taking the word of those who already know.

 

When I was little, my sister had a bad case of poison ivy. She told me how uncomfortable she was, but I wanted to find out for myself. So I purposely touched my finger to poison ivy. I got the experience and knowledge I was looking for, but I was so sorry I didn’t heed my sister’s warning. What did I find so appealing about finding out for myself what poison ivy felt like? I still don’t know. 

 

At least Eve had an excuse. The fruit looked appealing and gaining wisdom is a good thing. Unfortunately, knowledge apart from God leads to things like pride, shame, blame, conflict, and isolation. We long for good things, but, like Eve, we’re mistaken when we think we can circumvent God’s will and take a short cut to satisfying our desires on our own terms. “Sadder but wiser” became a cliché for a reason.

 

Wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We can pray for the gift and open ourselves to receive it. When we’re wise enough to benefit from the experience of others, we can spare ourselves a lot of pain. But even our poor choices present opportunities to gain wisdom if we’re willing to learn from our mistakes. Their consequences can teach our hearts that God’s wisdom is in our best interests.

 

Prayer:  Lord, help me trust your wisdom.

 

Reflection:  When has a painful experience brought you the gift of wisdom? Was it worth the price?

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Meditations

But Jesus answered “The scripture says, ‘Human beings cannot live on bread alone, but need every word that God speaks.’” (Matthew 4:4)

 

All Bible quotes are from the Good News Translation unless otherwise noted.

 

It is reassuring that Jesus called fishermen and tax collectors to be his followers. These were laymen, not Scripture experts. It is wise to seek guidance from religious scholars and clergy who have studied Scripture to avoid errors in interpretation. But the Bible is also a gift given to each of us, to use as a basis for prayer and meditation.

 

I’m not a Biblical scholar; I’m an expert only on my own experience. Following the Scripture passage is a brief meditation along with a question or two as a springboard for your own reflections. Please feel free to share your own thoughts or insights on the passage by adding a comment. All comments are moderated, so please allow some time for your comment to be posted.

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