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?
He made the bronze basin and its bronze base out of the mirrors belonging to the women who served at the entrance of the Tent of the Lord’s presence. Exodus 38:8
The basin priests used for washing themselves before entering the Tent of the Lord’s Presence was made out of mirrors. Transformed by inspired craftsman, instruments of self-reflection helped people cleanse themselves as they approached God.
When I was a little girl, I played dress-up. With a white sheet draped over one shoulder, I imagined myself as a Greek goddess. I looked into our bedroom mirror saying, “Barbara, you’re a doll.” My big sister caught me and called me conceited. On the other hand, when I became a teen, I identified more with the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song: check my look in the mirror—want to change my clothes, my hair, my face. Not pretty enough, not nice enough, not good enough on the outside or on the inside. Both states kept me squarely focused on myself.
The aim of our self-examination during Lent is not to become overly focused on our shortcomings, but to move beyond ourselves as we recognize our need for God’s forgiveness and love. Negative self-absorption is still self-absorption. If our examination of conscience doesn’t draw us closer to God, we can get stuck in a hall of mirrors. How do we get out?
A beautiful example is Jesus’ temptation in the desert. The devil challenged Jesus to focus on himself and short-sighted desires for physical comfort, power, and satisfaction of intellectual/spiritual pride. The devil’s temptations directed Jesus’ attention to who he might be, what he might have the power to do, and how to satisfy himself physically.
Jesus responded by using scripture to shift the focus to God, who determined that people cannot live on bread alone. The devil then offered Jesus power and wealth. Again, Jesus shifted his focus back to worshiping and serving God alone. Finally the Devil tempted Jesus with pride, daring him to endanger himself and rely on his clout as the Son of God for protection. Although the devil himself used scripture in this challenge, Jesus countered by focusing on scripture’s message about His Father, not his own status.
As we begin this season of Lent, let’s ask God to direct our focus and transform our self-reflection into a deeper awareness of His mercy and love.
Prayer: Lord, guide me to reflect on you.
Reflection for sharing: How can self-reflection lead to a deeper awareness of God?
Reflection for sharing: What keeps you focused on yourself? What would it be like to surrender that to God?
Happy are the pure in heart; they will see God! Matthew 5: 8
What does it mean to be pure in heart? If it means being perfect and sinless, we’re out of luck. The bible says that all have sinned. That’s why we need a savior.
Actually, the first definition for “pure” listed in the Oxford American Dictionary is “not mixed with any other substance.” If we think of our hearts as being mixed with other interests, if our hearts are busy longing for or pursuing other interests instead of God, it’s easy to see why we might miss seeing Him. Our hearts can be pretty short-sighted sometimes.
We want to be happy. When we come up with our own ideas or buy into what the media tells us will make us happy, our goals can let us down. Disillusionment might be a good thing. If we feel empty, that’s when God can fill us. We have an opportunity to turn our attention from the substances that let us down and look for God. As Jesus said, those who seek will find.
Prayer: Lord, take the clutter from my heart.
Reflection for sharing: Where are you looking for happiness today?
The shepherds went back, signing praises to God for all they had heard and seen; it had been just as the angel had told them. Luke 2: 20
After the Christmas night events, the shepherds went back home, but they were changed. The shepherds are a familiar part of the Christmas story. While they were tending sheep, an angel appeared to them saying, “…This very day in David’s town your Savior was born—Christ the Lord! And this is what will prove it to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Then an army of angels appeared, singing God’s praise. Based on this revelation, the shepherds went to Bethlehem seeking their Lord and Savior.
They found Mary and Joseph living in a barn, with the baby lying in a cattle trough: not very impressive. Despite the pictures on Christmas cards, it’s quite possible that Mary, Joseph, and the baby did not have circles of yellow light around their heads. Other people probably saw the family in the stable—somebody had to take care of the animals housed there—but we don’t hear about townspeople giving the family a second look. Why the shepherds? What moved them so that they went back home singing praises to God?
Luke tells us it had been just as the angel had told them. The shepherds’ conviction began in the field when they saw a vision, heard a message, and had the faith to follow. Perhaps their sense of wonder sprang from the validation of their experience in the field. The truth of the glory, vision, and message was to be trusted because they found what they were promised to find.
Maybe the shepherds received the angel’s message because they were the only ones watching and listening. What else is there to do in a field of sheep? On the other hand, the mandatory census was a boom for business in Bethlehem. The town was crowded with bustling people.
Christmas is over. We all have commitments and obligations. but as a new year begins, who knows what we might find if we carve out some time to be still, watch and listen.
Prayer: Lord, help me notice what’s important, not just what grabs my attention.
Reflection for sharing: Where can you find a few minutes to watch and listen in stillness today?
As it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah: “Someone is shouting in the desert: ‘Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel! Every valley must be filled up, every hill and mountain leveled off. The winding roads must be made straight, and the rough paths made smooth. The whole human race will see God’s salvation!” Luke 3: 4-6
“No two snowflakes are alike and no two people are alike,” as my dad used to say. Preparing to welcome the Lord won’t be identical for all of us because we are all individuals. Some of us may have mountains of pride that need to be leveled off. Maybe we’re self-righteous and we’re looking down on others from some imagined higher ground. On the other hand, some of us may be entrenched in familiar ruts, not realizing that they’ve deepened into valleys. We may be afraid of venturing out or feel stuck in a low place of despair.
Although getting ready to receive the Lord may look different for each of us, we can all take heart. There are things we can do, whatever situation we find ourselves in, to open ourselves to God’s love. Becoming aware of what, in us, needs changing is the first step. What if the job looks too big for us to do on our own? That’s okay. We never have to do more than we can. We can ask for help—road crews never go it alone. What if we don’t know how to change ourselves? That’s okay, too. The Lord who is coming told us that He is the way. John the Baptist concludes his call to action by saying that the whole human race will see God’s salvation. When we do what we can, God will do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.
Prayer: Lord, help me remove whatever blocks your path to my heart.
Reflection for sharing: What mountains or valleys in your personal landscape are blocking your connection to God today?
May the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow more and more and become as great as our love for you. In this way he will strengthen you and you will be perfect and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all who belong to him. 1 Thessalonians 3: 12-13
Our Christmas preparations may include decorating, shopping for gifts, or baking holiday treats. Advent devotionals and church programs abound to help us make room for Christ in our busy lives crowded with our pre-Christmas “to-do” lists.
Ironically, inviting God into our hearts can be challenging as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth. How can we become more “perfect and holy” as we get ready to welcome Him? Paul suggests that we ask Him to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. We can ask God to make our love for others grow more and more. Meanwhile, we can practice paying attention to the love coming our way that might be easily overlooked during this busy season. We might have to shift our focus a bit. Lets invest a few moments to notice love being offered to us—whether it comes disguised as another driver letting us merge in front of him, finding the clean clothes already folded when we forgot to empty the dryer, or simply an exchange of smiles.
God’s love is all around when we have the eyes to see it. Accepting it and passing it on is a great way to allow it to grow—especially as we get ready to receive the Lord who is Love.
Prayer: Lord, grow us in love.
Reflection for sharing: How can you open yourself to noticing small gifts of love today?
The Lord is in his holy Temple; let everyone on earth be silent in his presence. Habakkuk 2:20
What else is there to say?
Prayer: Gently breathe in God’s peace. Gently breathe out all else. Shhhhhhh. Listen.
Reflection for sharing: What did you hear in the silence?
The Spirit has given us life; he must also control our lives. We must not be proud or irritate one another or be jealous of one another. Galatians 5:25-26
Don’t get on each other’s nerves? Don’t be jealous? Don’t be conceited? That’s a tall order. Who can do all that? It’s no wonder Paul introduces it by saying that the Spirit has given us life and must also control our lives. We’re human. We can’t do it on our own. But the more room we make for the Spirit in our lives, the less need we have to create friction with each other.
We don’t need to pump ourselves up with false pride when we recognize that we are precious and loved, just as we are. Why be jealous of someone else’s talent or status when we’re aware of and grateful for the gifts we ourselves have? How much irritation comes when we provoke each other by trying to prove that we’re right? As the saying goes, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” We can stand on our convictions and live out the truth without forcing others to knuckle under to our point of view.
How many times have we won the battle and lost the war? It’s easy to forget our goal – especially in the relationships that mean the most – when bickering about the day to day things (that we won’t even remember next week) gets in the way. When we are able to let go and let God, our perspective changes, and conflicts and pointless arguments can be avoided. Pausing to renew our awareness of God’s Presence in our lives can help us gain perspective that will enable us to let go of so much static in life.
Prayer: Come, Holy Spirit, and fill our hearts.
Reflection for sharing: What can I gain today by letting go of pride, or jealousy, or petty irritation?
I will always thank you, God, for what you have done; in the presence of your people I will proclaim that you are good. Psalm 52:9
As children, we have to be taught to say thank-you. Although we may spontaneously appreciate a kind word, or a helping hand, noticing and appreciating things to be grateful for can be cultivated. Expressing thanks is good for us.
We exercise our gratitude by thanking God for what He has done, but we develop it further when we say out loud to others that He is good. So I would like to go on record today as saying that God is good, based on what He has done in my life. Does this mean my life has been charmed and problem-free? Not by a long shot. Physical and emotional pain, chronic illness, death of loved ones, broken relationships, fears, have all been part of my story…but God is still good. When I was at the end of my resources, I was not abandoned. He gave me the strength to get through crisis after crisis that was beyond my power to deal with on my own. He provided friends whose loving concern buoyed me up even though they could not change my circumstances or take away my pain. Every time I have felt powerless in the utter depths of my heart, Power has been there to help me cope, endure, and grow. From the other side of these crises, I’m learning to see how my experience can be useful in helping someone else.
I can’t imagine where I would be without God’s sustaining grace at work during life’s nightmares, building faith and trust in the One who promised to be with me, with us, until the end of time.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for what you have done and praise to you for your goodness.
Reflection for sharing: Thank you, Lord for ________________ (fill in the blank)
Praise, you, Lord, for showing me your goodness by___________(fill in the blank)
Yet we who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots, in order to show that the supreme power belongs to God, not to us. 2 Corinthians 4: 7
Isn’t that awesome? We have spiritual treasure within our hearts! And yet, we’re often more aware of our clay pot-ness, our imperfections. It’s easy to doubt that we can be of spiritual value when we are so human and therefore flawed, but that’s exactly how God designed us. St. Paul tells us why: so it’s crystal clear that the power and the glory belong to God, not to us.
What a relief! We don’t have to be perfect. Instead, we can stay out of the way as God shines within us. Sometimes our efforts to show that we’re good enough can drive others away. We try to impress them instead of listening to or encouraging them. We may judge them, to push our self-esteem up by comparison. But if we have this treasure within us, God gets the glory, not us, so it doesn’t matter how good our outsides look. We can relax enough to be genuine. We can afford to think about others instead of how we’re coming across. Acknowledging our human frailty to someone else might be the most inspirational thing we can do, giving them the encouragement they need to accept themselves. Together, we can give the glory to God.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, that the power and glory belong to You, not us.
Reflection for sharing: How can accepting our weakness help God’s light shine through us?