Those who go to Egypt for help are doomed! They are relying on Egypt’s vast military strength—horses, chariots, and soldiers. But they do not rely on the Lord, the holy God of Israel, or ask him for help. Isaiah 31:1
Who doesn’t want to feel safe and secure? Unfortunately, it’s easy to look for security in the wrong places. When we face our own weakness or feel threatened, it’s natural to lean on something outside ourselves. The resources can be material, like money or weapons, or personal—a leader, lover, friend, or parent—who seems to have it all together. There’s nothing wrong with looking for help from legitimate sources. But seeking support is not the same as relying on anyone or anything external to guarantee our permanent security. God is the only one who has all power. All forms of protection are illusory or fallible. Ask anyone who has looked for comfort and strength in a bottle, an investment portfolio, or charismatic speaker who seemed to have all the answers.
Over-confidence isn’t the only mistake. Isaiah’s audience was going to Egypt for help. Egypt! The nation that held the Israelites in slavery for 400 years! Who would escape from an oppressor and then go back to that oppressor for protection? It happens when people return to unhealthy relationships, substances, or destructive patterns of behavior. What situation is going to be improved by picking up a cigarette after having ‘kicked the habit’? But the alluring promise of relief and comfort is powerful. Turning to God seems much more challenging. Solutions don’t come as soon as we’d like, or in the way that we’d like. Prayer may not provide instant gratification. But those who have trusted God enough to rely on His plan instead of their own, have discovered an enduring source of strength and help: grace to endure or wisdom learned by walking through the storm instead of numbing out until it passes. Freedom from challenges isn’t where security lies.
Prayer: Lord, in my troubles, may I rely on You.
Reflection for sharing: What is promising me false hope today? How can I turn my attention to the source of true hope?
Live as free people; do not, however, use your freedom to cover up any evil, but live as God’s slaves. 1 Peter 2:16
How can we live as free people and live as God’s slaves at the same time? By not using our freedom to cover up any evil, according to the above quote. The Revised Standard Version translation says, “Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God.” It’s easy to see how, in the name of freedom, we can claim the right to do whatever we feel like doing—including those things that might injure ourselves or others.
A catch phrase some years ago said, “If it feels good, do it.” The problem is that so many things that seem to “feel good” initially can lead to pain, suffering, and problems multiplied. Lashing out in anger might release pent up emotion but hurt others and damage relationships irreparably. Excessive self-indulgence—whether with substances like alcohol, unhealthy romantic relationships, or a host of other behaviors—is a trap that can victimize us as well as those we care about. Of course these activities are appealing initially—that’s why they’re called temptations. Who would be tempted if the pain were evident right off the bat?
It is in serving God’s plan for the greater good that we become truly free: free not to be bullied by addictive behaviors, or by our own out-of-control whims or emotions. Temptations can be subtle and patient. Making the hard right choice allows us to exercise our free will. One hallmark of maturity is the ability to delay gratification, sacrificing short-term benefits for a greater good. As we grow in our ability to choose and act on what’s good in the long run, we are increasingly freed from pressures that do not have our best interest in heart.
Prayer: Lord, free me from the tyranny of self-will.
Reflection for sharing: What is the best thing I can do with my freedom today?
I tried to think this problem through, but it was too difficult for me until I went into your Temple. Psalm 73: 16-17a
The Psalmist was trying to figure out why wicked people seem to get along pretty well in the world. There are plenty of other problems too difficult for me to figure out on my own. Some problems just can’t be unraveled by our minds. The image of Star Trek’s supremely rational Spock may appeal to some of us, but we are total beings, not just intellects. Reason is good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough at times. Some situations we have to feel our way through with our hearts. We walk by faith, not by sight, as Scripture tells us. If we limit our vision to only what rational minds can understand, we may miss what can only be seen with the eyes of faith.
I find that when God is preparing me for a lesson of the heart, my mind usually becomes confused. Someone once told me that confusion is good, because that means I am getting ready to look at things in a new way. Confusion also slows me down, allowing God’s wisdom to get a word in edgewise between my flitting thoughts. There’s been more than one time in my life when a solution to a problem appeared only after I gave up trying to figure it out and prayed for guidance. For example, writing this meditation. I wanted to share a personal example in this meditation, but the more I tried to think of one, the more stumped I became. Finally, I gave up and left the piece unfinished. I prayed for guidance before beginning work today. As I reviewed what I had already written, it became clear that this process itself was an example. Entering God’s Presence opens us up to the wisdom of His bigger picture.
Prayer: May I remember to surrender my confusion and frustrations to You, Lord.
Reflection for sharing: Are you facing some confusion or frustration that you would like to bring into God’s presence today?
Falling In Love With The World
Demas fell in love with this present world and has deserted me, going off to Thessalonica. 2 Timothy 4: 10a
Demas was apparently a co-worker who abandoned St. Paul and their mission of faith. Why? Because “Demas fell in love with this present world.” Fell in love…such strong words.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying the world around us, but falling in love with it implies head over heels lack of perspective. What exactly did Demas fall in love with? Creature comforts? Who could blame him for an aversion to life on the road with threats of rejection, beatings, and shipwrecks? Bodily passion? Did an alluring woman (or two or three) catch his eye? A longing for prestige instead of derision, mocking and contempt from non-believing pagans and religious Jews?
Why did Demas join Paul in the first place? Did he fall in love with the Christ he heard Paul preach? Or did he fall in love with the idea of being a rebel/non-conformist? We’ll never know what motivated Demas and that’s okay. But it does bring up some interesting questions for ourselves.
What do I feel I am called to do at this point in my life? What am I in love with? How many of those loves are healthy? Are they helping me or hindering me on my journey?
Prayer: Lord, I’m in this world You created for a reason. Show me how to enjoy the world around me without deserting your plan for me.
Reflection for sharing: We are in the world but not of it. What does a healthy balance look like?
Some people brought [Jesus] a man who was deaf and could hardly speak, and they begged Jesus to place his hands on him. So Jesus took him off alone, away from the crowd, put his fingers in the man’s ears, spat, and touched the man’s tongue. Then Jesus looked up to heaven, gave a deep groan, and said to the man, “Ephphatha,” which means, “open up!” At once the man was able to hear, his speech impediment was removed, and he began to talk without any trouble. Mark 7: 32-35
This man’s healing involved being “opened up.” The man was deaf. He couldn’t hear what others had to say or the sounds of nature. He could also “hardly speak.” His healing was a package deal. When he could hear others, he was also able to communicate to them by speaking without any trouble.
Did you ever have a conversation where it seemed like you and the other person were just talking past each other? They make their point. You make yours. They didn’t seem to get it or else they would be agreeing with you by now. So you repeat yourself, maybe a little louder. They respond by making their point yet again. That happens to me more often than I care to admit. Just because I’m talking doesn’t mean I’m communicating. For any meaningful meeting of the minds, people have to listen as well as talk. Maybe it is no accident that Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears first and then touched his tongue. Maybe listening comes before talking. And maybe being open comes before listening.
It’s interesting that in order to heal the man and help him become open, Jesus took the man off alone, away from the crowd. I wonder how often a crowd mentality or peer pressure can hold us back from being open and really hearing what we need to hear. Might we need to go off alone with Jesus today to become truly open? Maybe that would help us listen to others and then say something worth communicating.
Prayer: Lord, open the ears of my heart and help me listen.
Reflection for sharing: Who or what do I need to listen to today? What might be blocking me from hearing what I need to hear? How can I become more open?
“The law of the Lord is perfect; it gives new strength.” Psalm 19:1a
The psalm says, “The law of the Lord is perfect.” It doesn’t say we are perfect. Jesus said that loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves were the most important commandments and fulfilled all the other commandments. If the law is perfect and if loving God, others, and ourselves is the summation of the law, then we do well to choose to love if we want to grow.
But the law is not only perfect. The psalmist said it gives new strength. How can love give strength? It often feels like love requires strength, especially if we are asked to love with everything we have. On the other hand, what do we have that hasn’t been given to us first? Are we able-bodied? Smart? Maybe both? A gift of genetics. Do we have a strong work ethic or a knack for being a good listener? No doubt we acquired these attitudes and skills from someone who modeled or encouraged us. Recognizing our abilities as gifts leads to gratitude. God loves us perfectly and has blessed us all with talents, even though He is well aware of the weaknesses and shortcomings we all have.
Strengthened by confidence in God’s law of love rather than our own unsteady and imperfect abilities, we are able to love who we are called to love today. Any time we feel weak or shaky, we can go back to the law of love and be renewed. We can drink in God’s love and, strengthened, go into our day to share it with others.
Prayer: Strengthen me with your love, Lord.
Reflection for sharing: How is God’s law of love strengthening me today? How am I being called to use that strength?
Humility deserves honor and respect, but a low opinion of yourself leads to sin. Sirach 4:21
How can having a low opinion of yourself lead to sin? One thing that comes to mind is that it may cause us to crave approval from others. We may knuckle under to peer pressure or hold back from speaking out against something we know is wrong so we can be accepted.
Having a negative attitude about ourselves can lead us to build ourselves up by focusing on false pride by bragging or by putting others down, even if it is only in our own mind. Gossip and slander is hurtful and damaging.
Low self-esteem can prevent us from venturing beyond our comfort zone. Fear of failure says we’re better off doing nothing than trying and not succeeding. The truth is we fail by default when we don’t even try. We fail to share the gifts and talents God has given us with others. Even focusing on how inept or unworthy we are keeps us centered on ourselves and limits our ability to relate to God and to others.
That self-centeredness might even be expressed by a flurry of activity of helping others and repeatedly putting ourselves last to the detriment of our own legitimate needs. I suspect that type of service for others often has strings attached. Trying to earn love, approval, or gratitude with good deeds interferes with genuine love. It is insidious because it is self-centeredness disguised as service for others.
True humility allows us to accept our place as a child of God, neither better nor worse than all His other children. What’s the difference between humility and having a low opinion of yourself? Someone said that humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.
Prayer: Lord, grant me the gift of true humility.
Reflection for sharing: How are my negative thoughts about myself blocking me from love?
“…The one thing I do, however, is to forget what is behind me and do my best to reach what is ahead.” Philippians 3: 13b
Regrets can really weigh us down. But wincing over past mistakes doesn’t do me any good and it doesn’t help those people I may have hurt in the past. Nor does daydreaming about some better future. St. Paul says he forgets what is behind him, but he doesn’t say that he obsesses about the future. He says he does his best to reach what is ahead.
What can make a difference is what we do in the present. If I have done things in the past which I am not proud of or which have hurt people, I can’t go back and erase those incidents. Confession is good for the soul. If I can also make amends without doing further damage to others by dredging up wounds that have been healed and forgotten, I can take action in the present. Perhaps a sincere apology, or restitution is in order. If the person is not available, or if contact would be inappropriate, prayer is always appropriate. Assisting a charity or some worthwhile cause may also help set things right. These are actions I take in the present.
We don’t have to let ourselves be held back by shame or guilt over the past. Jesus didn’t brow-beat those he encountered with their past failures. He lovingly accepted them, but charged them to go forward and sin no more. St. Paul had a lot to regret—he persecuted the first Christians before his conversion. But that didn’t bog him down. Once the scales fell from his eyes, St. Paul moved forward, one concrete action at a time. May we do likewise.
Prayer: Lord, thank you for forgiving my past mistakes. Help me forgive myself and move forward on in a closer walk with you.
Reflection for sharing: What are some ways to stay anchored in the present?
Now all this happened in order to make true what the Lord had said through the prophet, “A virgin will become pregnant and have a son, and he will be called Immanuel” (which means “God is with us.”) Matthew 1:23
As we take down the Christmas trees and put away the decorations, let’s remember the child whose birth we celebrated. As we begin this new year, let’s think about name the angel said would be called: Immanuel—God is with us.
God is with us. God: All-powerful. All-wise. Righteous but Merciful Love.
God is with us. Is: The Eternal One not only was; not only will be. God is, right now, in this present moment, in these present circumstances.
God is with us. With: The Lord of Love is not remote, but wanted to be with us, close to us.
God is with us. Us: The Creator of the Universe did not create just one person. He called us to be in community.
Prayer: Immanuel, thank you for the incredible gift of Yourself.
Reflection for Sharing: Our God is with us. What does that mean in your life today and what can it mean throughout the coming year?