In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them…and said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day…a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2: 8-11
Why did the angel announce Jesus’ birth to shepherds?
Maybe because Jesus was born in a stable, and the likes of shepherds, who spent most of their time with animals, fit right in.
Maybe because Jesus would later identify himself as “the Good Shepherd” and his own would recognize him most easily.
Or maybe because Jesus was the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world, making shepherds the most appropriate welcoming committee.
It could have been any number of reasons, but I think—at least in part—it was because shepherds have a lot of time on their hands. We’re told they were out in the open fields, keeping watch. They were watching in case of danger to their sheep, but the act of watching means openness to observe anything that might happen—especially something out of the ordinary.
What if the angel’s announcement would have been observable to anyone receptive to it, but the only ones who noticed were the shepherds? Granted, they had an advantage. There probably wasn’t a lot else going on in the fields for them to see. It would have been more challenging for townspeople to notice the angel’s message—especially with the hubbub of the crowded city streets due to the census.
Like the townspeople, we may have many demands our attention during this hectic holiday season. We may not have the luxury of a work schedule that builds in plenty of down time. That’s why we owe it to ourselves to carve out some time—even if just for a few moments each day—to be still and listen to any message God might want to give our hearts. We don’t want to miss any good news.
Prayer: Lord, quiet my mind and heart and help me watch for you.
Reflection: How will you give yourself the gift of quiet during this Advent season?
Giving thanks is a mood changer! It makes us feel good. It enhances our enjoyment of life. When things are going well, it’s easy to take for granted just how good we have it.
That doesn’t mean we deny our problems or pretend everything is fine when it’s not. But it does mean that we have a choice about focusing on the negative. There are times when looking for the good things in our lives might take some effort, but we are worth the effort. Once when negativity had the best of me, a friend suggested that I take pen and paper and write out a gratitude list. As I put the good things in my life down in black and white, I was surprised by how long the list grew. As I exercised my “thankfulness muscle” it got stronger. Each time I thought I got to the end of the list, I’d ask myself if I couldn’t think of just one more thing, and the list kept growing. By the time I put the pen down, I was grinning from ear to ear. Writing the list didn’t take away my problems, but it did give me a balanced perspective.
Counting our blessings is worth the time and effort. If we’re having trouble getting started, we might begin with gratitude that God’s love is eternal-whether times are pleasant or uncomfortable, whether we understand it or not. Maybe the first thing on our list could be thanking God for the willingness to accept the challenge of looking for the good.
Prayer: Lord, Thank you for loving me. Open my eyes to your gifts of love.
Reflection for sharing: What unexpected places might your blessings be hiding in today?
Nathan answered [King David], “Do whatever you have in mind, because God is with you.” But that night God said to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David that I say to him, ‘You are not the one to build a temple for me to live in…’” 1 Chronicles 17: 2-4
“I was wrong.” Why are those words so hard to say? Even the great prophet Nathan got it wrong sometimes. David wanted to build a temple for God. That sounds like a good thing, right? It’s understandable that Nathan thought it was God’s will, but God had to set him straight…and then Nathan had to go and tell David that he was wrong.
I’m guessing Nathan didn’t kick himself for making a mistake, or question his fitness to continue being a prophet. Instead, we’re told that Nathan went back to David and told him “everything that God had revealed to him.” (1 Chron. 17:15)
Why is it so hard for us to admit it when we’ve made a mistake? Are our egos so fragile they can’t bear to acknowledge we aren’t perfect? We got it wrong. So what? All that means is that we’re human. It’s been said that acknowledging we were wrong is just another way of saying we’re a little smarter today than we were yesterday. We don’t have to wallow in our imperfections. Becoming aware of a mistake is an opportunity to correct it, to make amends if need be, and to get on with moving ahead.
Why are we reluctant to tell others we were wrong? Are we afraid they’ll find out we’re human? Are we afraid they’ll think less of us? Let’s think about it from the other side. When someone tells us they were wrong, do we think less of them? (If we do, that’s our problem, not theirs.) The times I can remember people telling me they were wrong, all I remember feeling grateful and admiring their honesty and courage.
Finding out we were wrong gives us the opportunity to feel good about ourselves and demonstrate our own honesty and courage. Let’s go for it.
Prayer: Lord, grant me the courage and humility to be honest about my mistakes.
Reflection for sharing: How can admitting a mistake set you free?
Anna didn’t start out to live the life of a contemplative. She was probably married at an early age, as was the custom at that time. Perhaps as a child, she imagined what her wedding day would be like. She may have daydreamed about married life and having children of her own. But after only seven years of marriage, she became a widow. She then spent her life fasting and praying in the Temple.
Perhaps as a young widow, Anna had opportunities to remarry but chose to remain single. Maybe her husband left her financially secure so that she could afford to spend her time in God’s praise. On the other hand, maybe she had no offers of marriage, no money, and fasted initially out of necessity. Living off the alms of others and God’s providence, she might have learned to trust that same providence. In any event, at age 84, she persevered in following what had sustained her throughout most of her life. Her husband had been taken away. If she had children, they grew to live their own lives. Lack of status, security and close family ties might have deepened Anna’s union with the one thing that could not be taken away from her: God’s love.
Anna was present when Mary and Joseph brought the child Jesus for presentation at the Temple. Both Anna and Simeon, another devout believer, began praising God when they saw the child and recognized, in Jesus, the salvation of mankind.
It’s quite possible that the religious officials in the Temple looked on Anna with disdain. The Lord had condemned religious leaders for taking advantage of widows. If so, Anna’s testimony about the baby Jesus, along with Simeon’s, was all the more remarkable. As often happened throughout Christ’s minsitry, the respected religious leaders missed the significance of Jesus’ presence. The task of spreading the Good News fell to the humble faithful who were open to recieve it.
Life doesn’t always turn out the way we plan it. Accepting circumstances beyond our control frees us to focus on the opportunities we find in our reality. People can be drawn to a contemplative lifestyle by vocation, nature, or circumstance. Some may find themselves isolated or homebound, if only temporarily, by physical challenges, or because they care for others with special needs. My own health problems left me homebound for months at a time more than once in my life. I’ve also found myself isolated in the middle of the night by insomnia. By God’s grace, I’ve been able to use these times alone for increased spiritual reading and prayer. Though initially force by circumstances, I came to appreciate, more often than not, these opportunities for time apart with God.
Even those of us with busy lifestyles do well to interrupt our demanding schedules periodically for times of rest and reflection. Whether we accept opportunities for quiet prayer or create our own, these times renew us. More than that, they can eequip us, like Anna, to share the good news with those still waiting to be set free.
Reflection: Widowed after seven years of marriage, Anna spent her life worshipping God in the Temple. When have you experienced, or observed in others, abrupt and unplanned changes in circumstances? what oppoortunities for spiritual growth were present in those times?
Adapted from “Fools, Liars, Cheaters and Other Bible Heroes”
Each one, as a good manager of God’s different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. 1 Peter 4: 10
What’s your special gift? Don’t think you have one? Think again. Special doesn’t necessarily mean spectacular. It also means “of a particular kind; for a particular purpose” according to the Oxford American Dictionary.
There is only one you. Who you are is no accident. Your individuality is as unique as your fingerprint. If God wanted us all to be identical, He wouldn’t have created us with such diversity. What are your gifts? Take some time today to think about the things you enjoy doing. Those are usually the things we do well. Don’t worry about how important they seem to be. Every ability can serve a purpose in God’s loving plan—if we aren’t afraid to use it. I was once told I have a “brownie ministry.” Seemingly unimportant in the grand scheme of things, my home-baked brownies were a tangible sign of hospitality that added warmth to a faith-sharing session.
We’re all gifted and our abilities can help others, whether or not we’re called to be in the spotlight. We can feed the hungry whether we organize a fund-raising event, volunteer at a food bank, or simply prepare dinner for our children. A warm smile can help a newcomer feel at ease and welcome. A gift of patience might enable us to listen to someone who needs to talk when we’d rather not. The blessing of financial security might enable us to donate generously to one or more worthy causes.
We never have to do what we can’t do, but we all can do something to help others. Let’s start by exploring and appreciating our own God-given gifts.
Prayer: Lord, thank you for the gifts you’ve given me. Show me how you want me to use them.
Reflection for sharing: What gifts of yours have you been overlooking? How can you make use of them today?
Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, was a victim of circumstance. He was crippled at the age of 5, when his nurse dropped him while fleeing. She was trying to protect him from David. The irony is that David meant Mephibosheth no harm. Although King Saul considered David his enemy, his son Jonathan and David had a deep friendship. For Jonathan’s sake, Mephibosheth would have been safe under David’s protection.
By the time David found him, Mephibosheth was a grown man with a child of his own. Raised to believe that David was out to get him, when he was brought before David, Mephibosheth referred to himself as a dog. However, out of love for Jonathan, David gave Mephibosheth all the inheritance due him and insisted that he join the royal household, eating all his meals at David’s table. What was it like for this man, who grew up living in fear and poverty, to accept lavish generosity–especially from someone he had been told was his enemy?
It isn’t always easy to accept good things when we’ve become accustomed to hard times. What’s familliar becomes comfortable–even when it’s painful. Change–even for the good–can be intimidating. But God works in all circumstances. Yes, we need to learn to accept hard challenges and turn to God for strength to get through them, but good times come, too. Jesus didn’t refuse a good time when it came his way…in fact, he was even accused of being a glutton and drunkard. (Luke 7:34)
Mephibosheth’s story demonstrates that the way things are at any point in time is not the way they will always be. Jesus embraced his times of joy and sorrow. As did Mephibosheth. As we are invited to do.
After one encounter with David, Mephibosheth’s circumstances drastically changed for the better. What do you see as the biggest challenge in accepting a change for the good? How can gratitude help you handle both blessings and misfortunes?
There an angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] as a flame coming from the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was on fire but that it was not burning up. “This is strange,” he thought. “Why isn’t the bush burning up? I will go closer and see.” Exodus 3: 2-3
When God saw Moses coming closer, He called to him from the burning bush. What if that had happened today? Moses might have been busy texting or checking his Facebook page and missed it.
Moses was watching sheep when God spoke to him. No doubt it was easy for him to notice the burning bush. There probably wasn’t much else going out in the pasture.
It’s more of a challenge for us today. So many things demand our attention and so many distractions are literally at our fingertips. How do we make room for God to speak to us in our busy lives?
It might start by us looking at our priorities. If God really is our Creator, wouldn’t it be wise to carve out at least a few minutes each day to connect with the Source of our being? Earning a living, family responsibilities, exercise, and chores: it’s a long to-do list for most of us. Spending time with God might seem like one more demand. It might be tempting to rattle off prayers or rush through our “quiet time” so we can check it off our list, but that misses the point. I’ve done it.
On time I tried to meditate but felt the pressures of the day nagging me.
Okay, God, I thought. I’m here. I’m listening. What do you want me to do?
I felt the answer in my heart.
I just want you to be.
Yes, but after that, what do you want me to do?
I just want you to be.
I know, but after that…
I don’t remember how long it took me to settle down and let go of the split-second timing my agenda seemed to require. I do remember coming away feeling relaxed and refreshed. Whatever I got done or didn’t get done that day, it all worked out okay—and I was in a lot better frame of mind.
Spending quiet time listening to God isn’t for His benefit, but for ours. Let’s not have our burning bush be the point where we are so worn out that we have no choice but to rest.
Maybe what He wants to tell us is we don’t have to try so hard.
Prayer: Lord, slow me down today.
Reflection for sharing: Who or what helps you settle down and listen?
“…The root of the righteous bears fruit.” Proverbs 12:12
We had a huge apple tree in our back yard when I was a kid. It was great for climbing. I used to sit up in the branches, pick an apple and munch it while enjoying the view from my lofty perch. The apples definitely came from the branches, not the roots. At least that’s what I would have told you back then.
Year after year, first the blossoms, then the buds, and finally the fruit would appear on those branches. The sturdy trunk supported them, but what supported the trunk? What kept that trunk from getting knocked over by wind when the ground was soaked with rain? The roots. I’m guessing that root system had to be very deep and extensive because that tree withstood hurricane gales that toppled a nearby cherry tree.
Thank God for our roots. Because they’re below the surface, we may not notice them, but roots nourish us and keep us anchored. What are we rooted in today? How can we strengthen that connection? How will a stronger connection to our roots enable us to bear fruit?
Prayer: Lord, keep us rooted in Your love today.
Reflection for sharing: God loves you just as you are, right now. How can taking in God’s love enable you to bear fruit today? What might that fruit look like?
Praise the Lord, my soul, and do not forget how kind he is. Psalm 103:2
Apparently, I’m not the only one who needs to be reminded that God is kind. Of course I believe that God is good and that He loves me, but I forget. I get caught up in how the day, week, or life in general is going based on my near-sighted perspective. When I am the center, things are good or bad according to how they line up with my plans, my goals, and my schedule. I forget that God is in charge and that things can be good even if they aren’t going my way.
Some years ago, a back injury left me physically unable to take care of myself for months. I panicked because I had always relied on my own ability to take care of myself. I worried about how my needs would get met if I couldn’t meet them myself. My spiritual mentor insisted that every day I write down five things I was grateful for. It seemed like a pointless exercise, but I did it. Each day, for the ten minutes it took me to look for, think about, and list the good things in my life, I felt taken care of. I felt safe. I felt hope. Although physically recovered, I still mentally review what I have to be grateful for every single day. It reminds me that God is indeed good to me–even when life tells me the opposite. When emotional storms hit, I pick up the pen and count my blessings in black and white, making as long a list as I can. It never fails to reassure me of God’s goodness and active presence in my life.
Praising God and thanking Him is not for God’s benefit: it’s for ours. If God is eternal, He got along just fine before He created us. He doesn’t need our thanks. We need reassurance that He is, that He is good, and that He is with us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
Prayer: Praise to You, Lord, for your power, goodness, and love.
Reflection for sharing: What are you grateful for today?
Then they rejected the pleasant land, because they did not believe God’s promise. Psalm 106:24
I read a story about a sixteen-year-old who wanted tickets to a concert for his birthday. He hinted strongly to his grandmother about it. On his birthday, he opened the present his grandmother gave him. Inside the box was a red shirt, which he politely thanked her for. Disappointed, he put the shirt in the closet without even taking it out of the box. Two years later, when he was packing for college, he came across the box. He took the shirt out and inside the front pocket; he found two tickets to the concert he had long since missed out on. I didn’t like that story when I read it. I identified with the boy. He got gypped. But the truth is, he really gypped himself. His grandmother gave him what he wanted and more, but not the way he expected it to come.
How often have we overlooked gifts because they came in unlikely wrappings? The car accident that left me bed ridden for months was painful but became an opportunity to re-evaluate my priorities. Although not welcome at the time, the gift forced me to trust my life and that of my loved ones to God’s care, not my own strength. Months of unemployment, devastating as it was, allowed me time to pursue my long-held desire to become a writer. God doesn’t zap us with misfortune, but he works through the most unlikely circumstances to gift us with opportunities to grow, change, and reach a better place. Maybe you’ve had experiences that you would never have chosen, but, in hindsight, can see the gifts that came wrapped in them. When we don’t believe that God can bring good out of anything, it is we who are rejecting the “pleasant land” that may be hidden in unexpected circumstances.
Prayer: Lord, open my heart to see your gifts, no matter how they come wrapped.
Reflection for sharing: When have I denied myself a “pleasant” state of mind because I didn’t believe God was working a particular situation?