Whenever the cloud lifted, they moved on. Numbers 9: 18b; 21b
God led the Hebrew slaves to freedom through desert territory they’d never seen before. They were wise to stay put while the cloud of God’s presence covered them. It makes sense not to travel when you can’t see clearly where you’re going. Sooner or later the cloud lifted. Eventually they were led to the Promised Land.
Similarly, God sometimes guides me by allowing my mind to be clouded with confusion. It slows me down. When I can’t see clearly what action to take, I’m forced to wait. That’s when God has a chance to direct my thinking and actions. Otherwise, guided only by self-will, I zip along full speed ahead, impatiently following my own agenda.
Like the Hebrews in the desert, it’s good for me to stay put when my thoughts are cloudy. Sooner or later, the cloud lifts and I’m led to where God wants me to be. His plan is always so much better than mine.
Prayer: Lord, grant me patient trust in your guidance when I can’t see clearly.
Reflection: When has patience brought you clarity?
The apostles came back and told Jesus everything they had done. He took them with him, and they went off by themselves to a town named Bethsaida. When the crowds heard about it, they followed him. He welcomed them, spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and healed those who needed it. Luke 9: 10-11
The crowds interrupted Jesus’ private meeting with his apostles. How did Jesus respond? He welcomed the intruders.
When I’m interrupted, I’m a lot crankier. If unexpected events frustrate my agenda, my exasperation is as plain as the thinly disguised frown on my face. Although I usually rise to the occasion, it often involves working towards acceptance rather than being instantly welcoming.
Why is that? Because I forget that my agenda is not God’s agenda. I forget that I was created to know, love, and serve God, as my childhood Baltimore catechism told me. I forget that serving God does not mean flawless execution of my itinerary, however noble my intentions. I forget that God’s definition of success is not my own—or the world’s—definition of success.
If Jesus is my role model, success is welcoming others warmly when they interrupt me, sharing God’s love with others—whether that means offering them encouragement, listening to them, or just not snapping at them for getting in my way.
Someone—I wish I could remember who—once prayed, “Lord, may I take every interruption as coming from you.” What a powerful thought! Interruptions might be sent by God to jar me out of my prideful, narrow focus. God’s plan is better than mine, but sometimes I need reminding. How about you?
Prayer: Lord, help me welcome the people and events you send my way today.
Reflection: When we call on Jesus, he’s never too busy to welcome us warmly. Can we pass it on?
Submit to God and accept the word that he plants in your hearts, which is able to save you. James 1: 21b
When I was a little girl, my dad had a huge vegetable garden with carrots, radishes, cucumbers and more. I remember him showing me how to plant the seeds. First he had to churn up the hard-packed earth and loosen it. Then he dug holes or furrows. We’d put the seeds in and cover them lightly with soil. All the earth had to do was accept whatever seeds we planted. That sounds easy enough, but first the earth had to put up with being agitated, raked over, and having holes poked into it.
Sometimes it’s like that for us, too, when God plants his word into our hearts. It might take some upheaval to soften our hardened hearts, but they might not be receptive otherwise. The space created to make room for God’s word might first feel like a gaping hole, but we might not have room for God’s word if we’re filled with other things like pride, resentment, or self-indulgence.
When our lives turn upside down, that might be the shake-up needed to loosen our stubbornness in clinging to our comfort zone, and getting us receptive to new growth. When we feel empty or discouraged, that just might prepare our hearts to receive what God wants to fill them with. We don’t have to manufacture new growth on our own, we just have to accept what God plants and allow it to grow in our hearts.
Prayer: Lord, open my heart to your word.
Reflection: How can you yield to what God wants to plant in your heart today?
Then you will know that I am the Lord; no one who waits for my help will be disappointed. Isaiah 49: 23
How can God guarantee we won’t be disappointed when, so often, the things we pray for don’t happen the way we want or on our timetable?
The answer is knowing that God is the Lord. If our God is who he says he is, it’s safe to trust him. He is all-knowing. He is all-powerful. He loves us. We can trust that he knows what he is doing—even when things don’t go our way, even when we face challenging circumstances, even when we-or our loved ones-are in pain.
If we believe our Heavenly Father gave his only begotten son to save us from our sins, we can trust him. Jesus’ understandable request to be spared the cup of suffering was not answered the way he would have liked. He wasn’t spared pain and death, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Resurrection triumphed.
Our God can bring good out of pain and weakness. When we are in the midst of it, it isn’t easy to remember, but that’s what faith is. If we’re willing to wait, we’ve already demonstrated a faith beyond what our eyes can see or our intellects can understand.
Who can understand that when backed into a corner, a Red Sea can part? Who can understand that the death of Lazarus didn’t stop Christ’s healing power? Who can understand how God can bring good out of whatever we’re going through? Trusting God doesn’t mean we pretend things are fine or that we’re not worried about a sick child, a rocky marriage, or family crisis. It means we acknowledge the suffering but trust God to provide what we need to get through it. We trust God to provide his help—not the help we demand or the help the world tells us to expect—but the help of Someone who has our best interests at heart.
If we wait to see what God has in mind, we won’t be disappointed.
Prayer: Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
Reflection: When have you waited for God’s help? What happened?
My child, don’t get involved in too many things. If you try to do too much, you will suffer for it. You won’t be able to finish your work, and you won’t be able to get away from it either. Sirach 11: 10
Sirach was right. I did try to do too much and I did suffer for it. So did my family. At one point, my idea of relaxing was tackling chores I could do while sitting down, like paying bills. I remember one Saturday in particular. I had an impossibly long “to do” list. By supper time I was exhausted, but thankful that I had done everything on my list. Did I put my feet up and relax? No. I concluded I must not have put enough on the list and quickly added three more tasks to finish before collapsing into bed that night.
I was not much fun to be around in those days. How could I be? I was always either busy or worn out and cranky. Looking back, I have to admit I was ego-driven. Being busy made me feel important, needed, and worthwhile.
By the grace of God and with encouragement from family and friends, I began a long, slow journey to some kind of middle ground. I began scheduling relaxation periods into my days, in spite of the challenges. I remember trying to lounge in the back yard with a good book even though chores kept taunting me. I could almost hear the vacuum calling, “Come on, you know you want to.”
Instead of giving in, I started spending Saturday afternoons at the local park, where household tasks were not within reach. I reminded myself the chores weren’t going anywhere. They would wait until I could get to them. Meanwhile, I had more important things to do, like live my life and enjoy my family. Balance brings serenity.
Prayer: Lord, help me prioritize according to your will, not mine.
Reflection: When are you likely to get over-ambitious? What are some ways to let go of what is non-essential?
Don’t be angry with someone for every little thing he does wrong. Don’t do anything out of injured pride. Sirach 10: 6
It’s the little annoying things that can drive us up the wall. “Why can’t you ever come the first time I tell you dinner’s ready?” “Do you know you left the laundry room light on—again? It was on all night.” “Why do you always have to leave your dirty dishes in the sink when the dishwasher is RIGHT THERE?” Sometimes we’re just waiting for the other person’s dirty socks to land on the floor next to the hamper for the umpteenth time. Irritations have a way of gaining momentum.
Constantly pointing out annoying behaviors only contributes to the friction–nagging is pretty annoying, too. Besides, people tune us out when we harp on the same thing over and over again. On the other hand, trying to rise above minor irritations doesn’t always work. When we stuff our feelings down, they can fester and build until they finally explode. That leads to hurt feelings, damaged relationships, and maybe guilt—or at least embarrassment—about over-reacting.
So what can we do instead? Sirach offers us a clue when he warns us about pride. What does pride have to do with being annoyed? There’s a sense of superiority in pointing an accusing finger at someone else’s fault—especially a fault we don’t happen to share. It gives our egos the illusion of moral high ground.
How can we be honest about what we’re feeling without judging others? Maybe as we explore our feelings honestly we can follow through by acknowledging our own weaknesses. Maybe something like: Okay, I’m really ticked off that he interrupted me mid-sentence again, but let’s remember I do annoying things, too. How often has he complained that I come home late without calling? And yeah, he put the milk carton back in the fridge with just two drops of milk in it yet again, but who banged his head because I left the cabinet door open? After all, our comfortable habits might just be somebody else’s pet peeves.
Sirach also points our mortality further on in the passage. “We are only dust and ashes; what have we got to be proud of? …Even a king may be alive today and dead tomorrow.” (Sirach 10: 9-10) Life’s too short to dwell on the things that annoy us. Do we really want to squander precious time judging others? Lent begins with an Ash Wednesday reminder of our mortality and human limitations. Lent is also a good time to turn our attention away from other people’s shortcomings and face our own. As we recognize our need for mercy in our day-to-day living, we also become aware of the gift of mercy God offers us through his Son. God looks at us—warts and all—with eyes of love. When we remember this, it’s easier to look at others with those same eyes of love.
Prayer: Lord, may we forgive as we are forgiven.
Reflection: What habits of yours might be annoying to others? Are you willing to ask God to help you change? What else are you willing to do?
When the angel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus, the Son of God, she had many reasons for saying no: her youth, her unmarried status, her unworthiness, her fear of the consequences. Instead, she accepted, saying, “I am the Lord’s servant.” Instead of serving her fear, or public opinion, or false humility, she was willing to serve God. In surrendering to his plan for her, Mary served not only God, but other people as well. She brought Christ and his saving grace into a world badly in need of saving.
Mary could have ignored the angel’s words, or gotten busy with some activity to drown out the call. But she listened. She pondered and questioned how it could be, but she listened and accepted.
What are we busy with? Might our activity prevent us from hearing what God’s plan is for us? What might keep us from surrendering to his plan instead of our own? How is God calling us to be his servants? How might he want to use us to share his saving grace with the world…or perhaps with just one other person?
Mary didn’t have to know the future, all she had to do was say yes and follow, one step at a time. God provided all that she needed along the way, including a husband to provide for and protect her and the child. Everything unfolded as it was meant to. All Mary had to supply was the willingness to surrender her will to God’s. That’s all we have to do, too.
Prayer: Lord, I am your servant. Open my heart to your plan for me.
Reflection: What does God have in mind for you today?
How much longer will you hide yourself from me?
How long must I endure trouble?
How long will sorrow fill my heart day and night?
How long will my enemies triumph over me?
Look at me, O Lord my God, and answer me. Restore my strength. Don’t let me die.
I rely on your constant love; I will be glad, because you will rescue me.
I will sing to you, O Lord, because you have been good to me. Psalm 13: 1-3; 5-6
Sometimes it feels like the pain will never end. I’ve felt that way more than once: when loved ones were seriously ill; when my first marriage was ending; when a car accident left me bed-ridden for months. The pain was real and seemed endless, but I’ve been brought through ever nightmare I’ve ever experienced. Apparently God did restore my strength.
Although it might sound discouraging at first, this is a psalm of hope. The psalmist complained, but did not despair. Even in the midst of intense, long-standing pain, the he didn’t give up talking to God. He didn’t decide there is no God. The psalmist trusted God enough be honest. He trusted God’s love more than his own feelings. He affirmed that trust and made a commitment to sing to God…why? Because God had been good to him.
We don’t have to be pushed around by our feelings. It’s an amazing exercise to count our blessings when it seems like there’s nothing to be grateful for. Focusing on the good we’ve enjoyed in the past and searching for good in the midst of our problems (without denying those problems) bolsters faith. When our feelings, circumstances, or tunnel vision try to convince us there’s no reason for hope, pro-actively calling God’s goodness to mind does our hearts good. Putting evidence of God’s activity in our lives down in black and white has make a world of difference to me when things looked bleak.
How about you?
- When have you felt abandoned by God? What happened?
- When you feel bad, does it seem like good times will never come again? When you feel good, does it feel like bad times will never come again?
- Feelings come and go. How can that help you keep perspective in rocky times?
- When have you gotten through a challenge? Did you realize it as answered prayer at the time?
- How has God been good to you? Can you sing to him about it, or at least say thank-you?
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?
We have courage in God’s presence, because we are sure that he hears us if we ask him for anything that is according to his will. 1 John 5: 14
We pray for lots of things. It’s right to bring our needs and desires to God. After all, he knows what’s in our minds and hearts before we ask, so we may as well be honest. But asking for things in accordance with his will is trickier.
When my mother was seriously ill I prayed for her healing because that’s what I hoped for. As I prayed, I questioned whether she’d be healed. James warned that if we doubt and are tossed about like a wave blown by the wind when we pray we shouldn’t think that we’ll receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:6-8) Praying for Mom’s healing wasn’t a prayer I could make without doubting. I began praying that God’s will be done and that he hold her close to him. I was certain that was God’s will. I felt consoled as I pictured the Good Shepherd tenderly leading Mom home. Shortly before her passing she smiled and said to me, “Oh, Barbara, it’s all One and it’s beautiful.” I don’t know what she saw, but I know my prayers were heard and answered.
Honest prayer about what we want and for God’s will to be done can coexist. After all, if we can’t be honest with God, who can we be honest with? Sometimes my honest prayers look like this: “God, I don’t know if this is your will or not. I pray your will be done, but I know that you know what I really want is for this situation to turn out in this certain way. I recognize your power of veto. Help me accept your will.”
I never doubt that God is hearing and answering when I remember C.S. Lewis said God answers prayer in four ways:
- No, I love you too much.
- No, not yet.
- Yes, and here’s more.
- I thought you’d never ask
I think this matter of removing all doubt is clearest when I pray for God to change me. Usually, the first petitions that come to mind are for God to make a situation go a certain way, have a certain person brought through a challenge, a conflict resolved, etc. But I’m never sure if that is God’s will. But every time I have asked God to change me in whatever way I need changing and for openness to act on those changes, I have truly believed I have been heard. Those prayers have been answered. I started praying for patience, and was told patience can be acquired by letting go of self-will. When I started praying for God to help me let go of self-will, I could almost hear God saying, “I thought you’d never ask.”
Prayer: Lord, your will be done today.
Reflection: How confident are you of God’s response to your requests?