For it is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it. God has made us what we are, and in our union with Christ Jesus he has created us for a life of good deeds, which he has already prepared for us to do. Ephesians 2: 8-10
Faith vs. Works? Paul spells it out for us in three short lines. We are saved by God’s grace through faith, not through our own efforts. It is a gift, not payment for a job well done. The fact that it is a gift protects us from the ego that tells us we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps and somehow merited our salvation. If we are all saved by God’s gift, there’s no room for spiritual one-upmanship, no matter how well-hidden that attitude may be.
Does that give us a passport to inertia? Of course not. A gift does us no good unless we open the gift and use it. Before I started college my parents gave me a typewriter. (There were no computers back in those days.) My parents knew a typewriter would make college life easier for me and even though we weren’t rolling in money at the time, they wanted me to have one. They didn’t expect me to pay them back. It was a gift. The best thank you I could give them would be to use that typewriter. What if I never unwrapped, opened, or used the gift? It would still have been a gift, but what a waste of my parent’s generosity and how much harder my life as a student would have been.
God’s gift of grace has made us what we are, each unique, with talents and abilities like no one else; to do those good things he has in mind for us to do. We can feel good about ourselves and our talents, while remaining grateful to the Giver. We do good deeds-not to earn salvation, we already have it-but to fully live out the gift of who we are.
Prayer: Lord, thank you for your gift of grace in my life. May I use it to do what you created me to do.
Reflection for sharing: How has God’s grace been active in your life? How are you being called to use God’s gifts today?
Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully! Matthew 5: 6
When I pray for something I want, I don’t necessarily have faith that God will grant my prayer. But when I pray for God’s will to be done, I can have perfect faith that prayer will be granted. Of course what God wants will be done…sooner or later.
The trick is getting myself to desire what God wants more than what I want. How can I make myself want God’s will instead of my own? Maybe a closer look will help.
Why do I want what I want? Because I think it will be in my best interests…or the interests of whomever I care about. Those prayers can be good and heartfelt prayers. It is good to bring our concerns, needs, etc. to God. But if I can remember that He is all good, all knowing, all wise, and all loving, maybe I can trust that His will for those I care about is even better than my plan.
For example, when my daughter was a child, I was so eager to help her that I sometimes jumped in too quickly, denying her learning opportunities. My “help” wasn’t always in her best interest. One day I heard about a man who saw a butterfly struggling to get out of it’s cocoon. Wanting to help, the man took out a pocket-knife, and slit open the cocoon. The butterfly emerged and staggered around for a few moments, but never flew. The man later learned that struggling to get out of its cocoon helps strengthen a butterfly’s wings so it can fly. Sometimes, doing what God requires—such as helping others—isn’t what our first inclination tells us. But if we desire to learn what God requires of us in any given situation, He will satisfy us fully.
Prayer: Lord, guide the desires of my heart.
Reflection for sharing: What would help you surrender your desires to God?
Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a real blessing. Psalm 127:3
Like so many others, my heart is broken with sorrow over the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The pain and suffering of the victims and of their families and loved ones is unthinkable. We who have faith trust that God can and will strengthen and comfort those who are grieving. We long to reach out in solidarity, to be with them—if only in spirit. People long to do what they can to help, although it’s difficult to know exactly what that might be. Every prayer vigil and impromptu memorial is a tribute to the fact that those suffering are not alone in their grief.
What brings me to tears is the photographs of the bright, eager faces of those children whose lives ended much too soon. As the President said, they had “their entire lives ahead of them: birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.” That they’ve been denied such life opportunities is cause for deep sorrow. I hold them and their loved ones up in prayer. I almost dare not speak this, lest it seem somehow to take away from this very real tragedy, but I also find myself thinking about the other innocents who won’t see birthdays, graduations, weddings, or kids of their own. They will never see the light of day or even draw their first breath because our culture doesn’t recognize their life. True, it may seem easier to overlook the loss…lives within the womb are not as easy to connect with, but do they have any less innocence? Or potential for a life ahead of them? Are they any less precious when their lives are interrupted before birth? My heart is heavy them, too. My heart is heavy for those parents who, because of pressures or any other reason, don’t feel they have any other option. My heart is heavy for the fact that as a society, we don’t always see children as a blessing.
But there is hope, always hope. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the baby whose love for us led to His own suffering and death, let’s be open to a Christmas of deeper meaning this year: a peace that the world can’t give or take away and a joy in the conviction that the story doesn’t end with suffering and death, but with Resurrection and new life.
Prayer: Lord, in your mercy, comfort and strengthen all those who are hurting and draw us all closer to you.
Reflection for sharing: What can you do today to nurture the life of someone else?
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?
“When the king of Egypt let the people go, God did not take them by the road that goes up the coast to Philistia, although it was the shortest way…Instead, he led them in a roundabout way through the desert toward the Red Sea…” Exodus 13: 17-18
There was a reason God led the Israelites out of their way. At the Red Sea, he was able to keep them safe and destroy their enemies. Had the Egyptians caught up with them on the shorter, solid ground route, things might not have gone so well.
Sometimes God leads me by a roundabout way, too. Impatience makes me want to achieve my goals immediately—if not sooner. That means no detours. But God’s ways often seem to lead me away from my goals. Sometimes the long road is the shortest way to my hearts desire.
In college, I wanted to major in English and become a writer. Instead, I ended up with a 33 year career in social services. It was not until I retired that I was able to pursue writing. Why the delay? Although I’ve always loved writing, I’m not so sure I had anything to say when I was 20. After 40 years of living, I’ve learned a lot of things I could never have learned in college courses. Now I can put my heart as well as my mind into my writing. I’ve also acquired the humility and willingness to persist in spite of rejection—an important factor in getting published.
Other writers may have been led to write by a shorter route, but the roundabout way was the way that brought me to a destination worth arriving at.
Prayer: Lord, help us trust you when our goals seem thwarted or delayed.
Reflection for sharing: When has a roundabout route been the best way to your heart’s desire?
There the angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing; yet it was not consumed. “This is strange,” he thought. “Why isn’t the bush burning up? I will go closer and see.” Exodus 3:2-3 NRSV
We know that in Moses’ day, fire gave light, warmth, and protection. Still, it’s impossible to think of something being on fire and not being destroyed itself. But that’s what happens when we open ourselves to God and his word becomes alive in our hearts. We gain insight, we are warmed by God’s love and are able to share that love with others. It’s easy to be afraid that if we surrender ourselves to God, we’ll lose our individuality and somehow become cookie cutter Christians all stamped from the same mold. But the Creator is infinitely creative. No two fingerprints are the same, how much richer is the individuality of our soul-prints?
Think of a stained glass window. When the sun shines through it, its beauty is enhanced, but the colors don’t all turn sun-colored. The reds glow with a more vibrant redness. The blues shine a richer blue, and so on. When we allow God’s love to burn in our hearts, we won’t lose our uniqueness. We’ll reflect God’s light through the prism of our own true selves. The fire of God’s love won’t destroy us. So, like Moses, it’s safe for us to get closer and see.
Prayer: Lord, draw me closer to the fire of your love.
Reflection for sharing: When have you felt on fire with love? Did that fire nourish you or consume you? Why?
To get this done I toil and struggle, using the mighty strength which Christ supplies and which is at work in me. Colossians 1:29
When I’m working hard or struggling, it’s easy to think I’m on my own. But St. Paul seems well aware that Christ is working within him. Even so, Paul acknowledges that he himself has to toil and struggle.
Christ said that he is the Vine and apart from Him we can do nothing. That doesn’t mean that with His vine-life flowing through us we have it made in the shade. Quite the contrary. God often leads us out of our comfort zone. Take Jean Dimech-Juchniewicz. She began a support group for couples coping with infertility in her parish because she herself needed such a ministry. As a result of the research involved and her experience working with other couples, Jean ended up writing a book about the subject. She wrote it in spite of her demanding work schedule, family responsibilities (she home-schools), and a disinclination to write! Because she was willing to toil and trust God’s strength and guidance, Jean produced a successful book: Facing Infertility: A Catholic Approach*, a helpful resource for couples coping with infertility and for those who care about them.
Like Jean, we can’t do a thing without God’s grace, and yet we’re not puppets. If we supply the willingness, He supplies the power. It isn’t always easy, but it is always good.
Prayer: Lord, guide our efforts and keep us humble.
Reflection for sharing: How can you become more aware of God’s presence in your struggles?
*For more information on Jean or her book, Facing Infertility: A Catholic Approach, visit: https://store.pauline.org or amazon.com
The Sovereign Lord gives me strength. He makes me sure-footed as a deer and keeps me safe on the mountains. Habakkuk 3: 19
Sure-footed as a deer kept safe on the mountains…that’s a curious image—especially since just before this line, Habakkuk says he will be joyful and glad, even if the crops fail and the cattle all die. He’s glad in the low times but needs protection in the heights?
Habakkuk has learned to see past disaster and trust the Lord to see him through hard times. That is admirable faith. It isn’t always easy to trust God when life is hard. But Habakkuk has more than faith. He has wisdom to recognize that he not only needs God’s saving helpwhen times are hard, he needs God’s saving help, perhaps even more so, in high times—the mountaintop experiences.
When we take the high ground, when we feel on top of the world, when we’re looking down on anything, it’s tempting to rest on our laurels. But the higher we are, the farther we have to fall. Habakkuk trusts God to keep him grounded, so he won’t lose his balance in the dizzying heights of apparent success.
Although it’s challenging to see God’s hand at work in our pain or trouble, sometimes it’s only when we come to the end of our own resources that we cry out to God. On the other hand, when things are going well, we can get complacent and even cocky. How wise of Habakkuk to trust himself to God in both the highs and the lows.
Prayer: Lord, keep me close to you in the high points and low spots today and every day.
Reflection for sharing: When am I most likely to lose sight of God’s presence—in good times or troubled times?
Our Best is Good Enough
“Is there anyone among you who can still remember how splendid the Temple used to be? How does it look to you now? It must seem like nothing at all. But now don’t be discouraged, any of you. Do the work, for I am with you…” Haggai 2:3-4
We don’t have to compare what we’re doing with what others have achieved. We don’t have to be discouraged by comparisons. We can focus on the task at hand. If we honestly give it our best shot, that is sufficient. We never have to do more than we are humanly capable of. Our best is good enough.
If we are sincerely invested in the present task, it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing, has done, or may do in the future. When we concern ourselves with being useful, rather than being impressive, we are more effective, and we take pressure off ourselves at the same time. If our efforts to do what we believe God would have us do are sincere, whatever we’re doing will end up just the way it’s supposed to. We can be confident and at peace.
Prayer: Lord, I know you are with me as I go about my work today. Help me trust that my best effort is sufficient and the outcome is in your hands.
Reflection for sharing: How can focusing on the effort rather than the outcome help you today?
We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many enemies, but we’re never without a friend; and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed. 2 Corinthians 4: 8
We’ve all faced trouble, doubt, enemies, pain…or all of the above. And yet, here we are today. God doesn’t promise problem-free living, but we are promised that we will never be abandoned.
More than once, I’ve felt crushed by my problems. While living alone, an MS attack left me unable to take care of myself for a month or two. I felt like I was drowning in my own helplessness. My inner enemies ganged up on me, with fear and loneliness acting as ring-leaders. My own strength felt non-existent at the time. All I had the strength to do was cry out to God and He brought me through. Family and friends—and people I never would have suspected—came out of the woodwork to help. I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I got everything I needed.
Jesus said that in the world we would have tribulation, but to be of good cheer because e had overcome the world. He also assured his followers that he would be with us until the end of time. What more could we want?
Prayer: Thank you Lord, for giving us what You know we need.
Reflection for sharing: Think of a time you were powerless over a situation. How did you get through it? How can this experience increase your trust in the future?