Understanding

Wednesday’s Words: Earthy Glimpses of Heaven

 “Jesus told them still another parable:  ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like this.  A woman takes some yeast and mixes it with a bushel of flour until the whole batch of dough rises.’”  Matthew 13:33

 

Have you ever baked bread from scratch?  I have.  The process is an interesting partnership of activity and rest. Flour can’t rise by itself. You begin by adding yeast to flour and other ingredients, but that isn’t enough.  Yeast is a living organism.  The rising of the dough is a result of the yeast’s growth. In order for the yeast to make the dough rise, you have to knead it all together.  Kneading, which involves pounding and stretching the dough, takes time and effort.  It doesn’t yield immediate results.  After kneading, the dough has to be covered and left alone in a warm place. Only after this quiet time will the dough rise.

 

Jesus tells us this is what the Kingdom of heaven is like.  What this means to me personally is that God’s Presence is like the yeast: a living entity.  Taking it in, whether through reading Scripture, receiving sacraments, or prayer and meditation, is not enough.  If I want God’s Spirit to be active within me and engender my growth, it will take effort on my part.  The kneading is the wrestling between Spirit and Self. Sometimes I feel pounded and stretched. Other times the process feels like a massage.  Either way, I’m pre-occupied and seldom see results during this process. Sooner or later, the effort stops.  I come to the end of what I can do or perhaps circumstances downshift. The quiet comes.  I might seek out the warmth of being with family or friends. I might take cover from my restless thoughts with simple diversions. I go on about my life.  Often when I least expect it, awareness comes. I may notice myself reacting differently to a situation that used to bother me.  Or an insight will occur to me “out of the blue.”  But it isn’t really out of the blue.  It’s just the dough rising.

 

Prayer:  Lord Jesus, thank you for showing us glimpses of heaven in the earthy ways we can understand.

 

Reflection for sharing:  What in your life could use some ‘kneading’ today?  What in your life needs quiet time in order to grow?

 

Wednesday’s Word: Character

 

 

 

Gold is tested by fire, and human character is tested in the furnace of humiliation. Sirach 2:5

 

 

It’s easy to think we could be saints—or at least a whole lot nicer—if we didn’t have to deal with certain individuals. Some people seem to bring out the worst in us. But the truth is, if they bring out the worst in us, that “worst” is in us to begin with. It belongs to us, not them.

 

We have a way of judging others using ourselves as the standard. As George Carlin observed, “Everybody who drives slower than you is an idiot. Everybody who drives faster than you is a maniac.” Of course, those drivers might be thinking the same thing about us. It’s easier to focus on the faults of others instead of our own.

 

A friend once told me that the people who annoy us are jewels, because they help us see the truth about ourselves: our impatience, our self-righteousness, our lack of charity. Accepting this truth might not make us any less annoyed, but it might help us see beyond our annoyance. Then we can redirect our attention to the place it can do some good: changing ourselves. What have we got to lose?

 

Prayer: God of Truth, help me trust your love enough to face my own imperfections.

 

Reflection: Think about the difficult people in your life today. What do they have to show you about yourself?

 

 

 

Wisdom and Love

 

At that time Jesus was filled with joy by the Holy Spirit and said, “Father, Lord of heaven and earth! I thank you because you have shown to the unlearned what you have hidden from the wise and learned. Yes, Father, this was how you were pleased to have it happen.” Luke 10: 21

 

There’s no IQ test to get into heaven. Most of those called by Jesus weren’t learned. In fact, Jesus seemed to have the most run-ins with the religious experts of his day.

 

While being familiar with scripture and the tenets of our faith is a good thing, it’s easy to confuse knowing it intellectually and living it. Jesus said the most important commandments are to love God, others, and ourselves. A superior intellect isn’t needed to live a life of love.

 

God invites us all to participate in his heavenly banquet. In the parable of the great feast, when the invited guests chose not to attend, the king invited the sick, the disabled, and anyone else his servants came across on the highways and byways. (Matthew 22: 1-14) These guests weren’t given an entrance exam. All they had to do was accept the invitation and respond accordingly.

 

We respond accordingly to God’s invitation by treating our host, ourselves, and all other guests with respect and love. If we have intelligence or any other gift, let’s use them, by all means—not to build up our own egos, but to help us love.

 

Prayer: Lord, teach my heart the wisdom of love.

 

Reflection: How can your abilities help you reach out to others in love?

 

 

Wednesday’s Word: Compassion

Tell them not to speak evil of anyone, but to be peaceful and friendly, and always to show a gentle attitude toward everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, and wrong. Titus 3: 2-3a

 

It’s so hard to keep from judging others. People do some stupid, infuriating, hurtful things. So how do we begin?

 

We might start by admitting that if we’re looking at others’ failings, it doesn’t mean we don’t have any ourselves; it just means we aren’t paying attention to them. So when we find ourselves looking down on others, it might help to call to mind the times we’ve done thoughtless, hurtful things. In fact, the things that annoy us most about others are often the very traits we have ourselves. You spot it, you got it, as they say.

 

We don’t have to beat ourselves up over the poor choices we’ve made. We can be honest about them and still offer ourselves some compassion. Prostitutes and tax collectors flocked to Jesus. He welcomed those who were well-aware of their own shortcomings. We tend to be open and receptive to those who are friendly and welcoming.

 

When we ease up on ourselves, we naturally ease up on others, too. We’re all in this together. Only One is perfect and he offered himself for us and for those we look down on.

 

Prayer: Lord, help me see myself and others with eyes of compassion.

 

Reflection: Who do you look down on? What do you have in common with them?

Wednesday’s Word: Compassion

iStock_000003550839XSmallIf you were in my place and I in yours, I could say everything you are saying. I could shake my head wisely and drown you with a flood of words. Job 16:4

 

“If I were you…” We’re never on firm ground when we begin there. It’s easy to speak from the sidelines we aren’t the ones going through the challenge. How might the listener react to our views on their condition?

 

“I know just how you feel.” No you don’t.

 

“You look so good.” Don’t you believe how much I’m hurting? You think I’m exaggerating?

 

“What’s done is done. Time to move on.” Too bad I can’t turn my feelings on and off with a switch.

 

When our loved ones are hurting, we want to comfort them. We may mean well, but what if our words of encouragement aren’t encouraging at all? With the best of intentions, I once told a hurting loved one I knew how she felt. She snapped back that I had no idea how she felt. She was right. I’ve also told people recovering from illness how good they looked, hoping to make them feel better. But when I was in the hospital and someone said that to me, I felt like my condition wasn’t being taken seriously.

 

Unless we have been through a similar challenge, it’s presumptuous to say we know how someone else feels. Even if we have been through a similar challenge, we may not understand fully the depth of another’s pain, not having their exact temperament, family issues, or extenuating circumstances. God made us all unique. Does that mean we can never offer encouragement to others? Of course not. It does mean we should choose our words wisely—perhaps an honest, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this,” or “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you,” or, “How can I help?” Sometimes there are no words.

 

Sometimes listening is the best gift we can give another. If you’re like me, seeing a loved one hurting is painful—especially when there’s nothing we can do to make the hurting stop.  I want to soothe their pain for their sake…and maybe also to relieve my own discomfort. The word compassion comes from the Latin root “to suffer with.” Maybe the most loving helpful gift we can give our suffering friends is the stand with them as they hurt and give them a safe place to express their grief, anger, sadness. Sometimes there is no going around the pain, we have to go through it. Blessed are we if we have someone willing to stand with us on the front lines, someone who resists the temptation to cover it up, rush us through it, or offer advice from the sidelines.

 

Prayer: Lord, grant me the courage to accompany my loved ones as they walk through challenges.

 

Reflection: What are some ways to support someone who’s hurting without drowning them “with a flood of words”?

Wednesday’s Word: Victory

iStock_000003550839XSmallAnd on that cross Christ freed himself from the power of the spiritual rulers and authorities; he made a public spectacle of them by leading them as captives in his victory procession. Colossians 2: 15

 

A victory parade? Crucifixion looked more like defeat. God’s idea of success is very different from ours. What was Jesus’ victory? He accomplished His Father’s will in spite of all the opposition the world could muster.

 

What looked like weakness actually brought us forgiveness and new life because our debts were nailed with Christ on the cross. Jesus did for us what we could never do for ourselves–free us from the bondage of our wrong-doing and the burden of guilt and same that goes with it.

 

“God, what does success look like to you in this situation?” I don’t know the source of this quote—if you do, please let me know. I love it because it reminds me to get over myself. Sometimes, success means refusing to continue a pointless argument. Sometimes it means being satisfied that one person got something out of something I wrote instead of worrying about the number of books I sold. Success can also mean letting go of my agenda and listening to someone who needs to talk.

 

These things don’t always feel like victory, and they may not look like it to most people. That’s okay. Every time I imagine what success looks like to God, I let go of my will and feel more peaceful in accepting things as they are. When that happens (and I wish it happened more often than it does) I can see my pride, self-will, impatience, being led away in Christ’s victory procession.

 

Prayer: Lord, what does success look like to you in this situation?

 

Reflection: How might your idea of success change today if you look at things from God’s point of view?

Wednesday’s Word: Stubbornness

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Jesus was angry as he looked around at them, but at the same time he felt sorry for them, because they were so stubborn and wrong. Mark 3:5

 

Jesus had mixed feelings about the religious leaders who couldn’t see beyond the letter of the law. They wanted to condemn Jesus for breaking the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day. What could be more holy than reaching out with compassion to relieve someone else’s suffering? No wonder he felt angry.

 

He also felt sorry for them. Why? Because they were stubborn and wrong. I can’t claim to know what Jesus was thinking, but I suspect it had more to do with their being stubborn than wrong. When we’re wrong, we can always change our minds once we’re corrected. But when we’re stubborn, the right information won’t help. We refuse to see the truth even if it’s right under our eyes. Stubbornness truly deserves pity. There is no hope of growth or change when our minds are already made up. We dig in our heels and refuse to budge.

 

What’s so hard about being open to another point of view? What’s the harm in looking at things in a new way? We have nothing to lose. If the new idea isn’t correct we can retain original position. But if we obstinately cling to what we think we know—without even considering other options—we’re stuck with no hope of growth. No wonder Jesus pitied them.

 

I’ve been stubborn more than once in my life, often for no better reason than, “I’ve been doing it this way for years, why change?” I said it in the 1970’s when our office computerized operations we used to do by hand. Luckily, my inflexibility gave way to the desire to keep my job. What if I had refused to consider the new procedure? I wouldn’t be writing this blog, for one thing. I would have shut the door on learning the skills that have become a way of life our culture today.

 

Stubbornness can stunt our spiritual life with even more impact. The Holy Spirt is dynamic. God’s truth doesn’t change, but our understanding of it and the way we live it grows as we grow. The religious leaders weren’t wrong in wanting to honor the Sabbath, but they were wrong clinging to their narrow interpretation of what that meant. May God grace us with open-mindedness as he deepens our understanding of his truth.

 

Prayer: Lord, grant me the humility to be teachable.

 

Reflection: What ideas are you clinging to that might be worth a second look? How can open-mindedness help you grow spiritually?

 

Saturday Spotlight: Psalm 10

OurMrSun-Psalms

Why are you so far away, O Lord? Why do you hide yourself when we are in trouble?

The wicked do not care about the Lord; in their pride they think that God doesn’t matter.

The helpless victims lie crushed; brute strength has defeated them. The wicked say to themselves, “God doesn’t care! He has closed his eyes and will never see me!”

But you do see; you take notice of trouble and suffering and are always ready to help. The helpless commit themselves to you; you have always helped the needy.

You will listen, O Lord, to the prayers of the lowly; you will give them courage.

Psalm 10: 1-2; 10-11; 14

 

Why are you so far away, O Lord? I’ve been in trouble and felt like God was far away many times. Once, when I was living alone, I felt scared and demoralized because medical problems prevented me from taking care of myself. No matter how much I wanted to feel close to God, I felt cut off from him and overwhelmed with despair. Days later, seemingly out of nowhere, he spoke to my heart: It doesn’t matter how you feel. Your feelings do not determine if I am present or not. I am bigger than your feelings. They aren’t powerful enough to push me away. What a relief! I’d been trusting my volatile emotions to gauge my closeness to God, but feelings come and go. Shifting emotions are not an accurate reflection of our relationship with God. Just because I can’t see or feel God’s presence in a given situation, doesn’t mean he is not there. After all, the sun is still in the sky, even if a cloud temporarily keeps me from seeing it or feeling its warmth.

 

The wicked do not care about the Lord; in their pride they thing that God doesn’t matter…but you do see…you will listen, O Lord, to the prayers of the lowly; you will give them courage. It adds insult to injury when those driven by greed, arrogance, or self-indulgence seem to “get ahead” in life. People who take advantage of the weak don’t always seem to get its comeuppance. When that happens it’s easy to question God’s justice. Apparently that was just as true in biblical times as it is today. But the psalmist tells us God not only sees, but is always ready to help the helpless and needy. So why are there still hurting people in the world? Why did God give us free will and leave us free to choose good or evil? Although I can’t answer that I believe, as the psalmist affirms, that God does listen to the prayers of the lowly. He will give them courage. It doesn’t say he will take away their pain this side of heaven, although the bible tells us elsewhere that God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Isaiah 25:8) and there will be no more grief, crying, or pain. (Revelation 21:4)

 

God’s promises can be trusted. Why we have to wait only he knows but it’s safe to believe that he has a reason. Maybe that’s why he gives us courage when we’re lowly, so we can walk through the challenges this life has for us, trusting that God can bring good out of anything. If he can bring good out of the cross, he can bring good out of whatever we’re facing. I think it’s safe to trust Him, even if I don’t always feel like it.

 

How about you?

  • When has God seemed far away from you? How did you get through those times?
  • What are your thoughts when the ruthless seem to get away with something?
  • What criteria do you think the wicked use to determine success?
  • What criteria do you use to determine success?
  • What do you think success looks like to God?
  • If God sees us suffering, why do you think he allows suffering to continue?
  • Why do you think the helpless are more likely to commit themselves to God?
  • As an answer to prayer, how can courage benefit someone in need?

Saturday Spotlight: Psalm 7

OurMrSun-Psalms

O Lord, my God, I come to you for protection; rescue and save me from all who pursue me, or else like a lion they will carry me off where no one can save me, and there they will tear me to pieces.

 

Rise in your anger, O Lord! Stand up against the fury of my enemies; rouse yourself and help me!

 

God is my protector; he saves those who obey him.

God is a righteous judge and always condemns the wicked.

If they do not change their ways, God will sharpen his sword.

See how wicked people think up evil; they plan trouble and practice deception.

But in the traps they set for others, they themselves get caught.

So they are punished by their own evil and are hurt by their own violence.

I thank the Lord for his justice; I sing praises to the Lord, the Most High. Psalm 7: 1-2; 6; 10-12; 14-17

 

O Lord, my God, I come to you for protection… Calling on God makes a difference. There are plenty of people, situations, problems that are bigger than we are—but no person, situation, or problem is bigger than God is. When we try to fight a powerful opponent in our own strength we become well aware of our weaknesses. It’s easy to feel like these problems will destroy us. When we focus on the trouble, it looms larger. Our very focus can give it added power to weaken our resolve. God created the universe, and is therefore bigger than any part of the universe—including our problems.

 

God is my protector; he saves those who obey him. I don’t think obeying God is something he demands as a tribute, or a deal whereby he will only agree to help us if we offer him our obedience in exchange. It’s more a statement of reality. How can God help us if we won’t cooperate with his plan to rescue us? If a drowning man resists a lifeguard’s instructions, he makes it harder for the lifeguard to save him. If he panics and fights the lifeguard’s efforts, the lifeguard may have to render him more helpless. If the man could save himself, he wouldn’t have needed a lifeguard in the first place. On the other hand, I don’t think God saves us from our problems by sweeping them away. Sometimes he saves us by allowing us to wrestle with the challenges while giving us the wisdom, strength, and support we need to endure through His power.

 

God always condemns the wicked…if they do not change their ways, God will sharpen his sword….in the traps they set for others, they themselves get caught. So they are punished by their own evil, and are hurt by their own violence. The wicked are condemned but not hopeless…if they are willing to change their ways. When we repent, we are no longer God’s enemies. If we persist in wrongdoing, God apparently punishes us by letting us continue to do what we want. We are then punished by the consequences of our own poor choices.

 

I thank the Lord for his justice; I sing praises to the Lord, the Most High. God is just, but also overflowing with mercy. He truly is worthy of our praise. When I think about this, I’m very grateful.

 

How about you?

 

  • When have you gone to God for protection? When have you tried to struggle on your own?
  • What issues are bigger than you are? How can you appropriate God’s help in dealing with these issues?
  • What is the difference between condoning evil and offering people a chance to change their ways?
  • Ever “practiced deception” and get caught in your own trap? What happened?
  • How has experiencing the consequences of your actions helped you become willing to change your ways?

 

I encourage you to read through the entire psalm and reflect on the phrases that speak to your heart today.

Saturday Spotlight: Gideon

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Gideon replied, “But Lord, how can I rescue Israel? My clan is the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh, and I am the least important member of my family.” The Lord answered, “You can do it because I will help you. You will crush the Midianites as easily as if they were only one man.” Judges 6:15-16

 

After [the Midianites had been defeated] the Israelites said to Gideon, “Be our ruler—you and your descendants after you. You have saved us from the Midianites.” Gideon answered, “I will not be your ruler, nor will my son. The Lord will be your ruler.” But he went on to say, “Let me ask one thing of you. Every one of you give me the earrings you took.”…Gideon made an idol from the gold and put it in his hometown, Ophrah. All the Israelites abandoned God and went there to worship the idol. It was a trap for Gideon and his family. Judges 8:2­3-27

 

When God first called Gideon to rescue the Israelites from their enemy, humble Gideon sought reassurance from God. Relying on God, Gideon obeyed His command to send over 15,000 soldiers home, and faced the enemy with only 300 Israelites. (God wanted it very clear that any Israelite victory was due to God’s power, not their own strength.)

 

Gideon should have known better than anyone the victory was God’s not his own. Whatever possessed him to build an idol? The danger of complacency is insidious. During crises, we turn to God as a source of strength greater than ourselves or our problems. When things are going well, it’s easy to think we’re doing just fine on our own.  We forget we need God even though—since we don’t manufacture the air around us—we’re dependent on God for every breath we take.

 

What are we to do? Should we hope for endless disasters to keep our faith up? Of course not. It’s fine to enjoy the good times when they come. Contentment and complacency aren’t the same thing. I think the difference is gratitude. Good health? Secure job? Loved ones? It’s highly unlikely we came up with these blessings completely on our own. If we remember to thank the Giver for the gifts, we’re in less danger of thinking we owe no one but ourselves.

 

Prayer: Thank you, Lord.

 

Reflection: List the good things in your life. How many can you see as gifts from God?

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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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