During Lent, we focus on prayer, fasting, and acts of charity to grow closer to God. It’s self-defeating if these acts become a set of spiritual hoops we jump through, congratulating ourselves on our spiritual gymnastics. We might end up so absorbed in our own goodness that there’s little room for God’s love.
The prophet Samuel corrected King Saul when Saul kept the plunder God had ordered him to destroy. Instead, Saul kept the best sheep, then “sacrificed” them to God. It’s no accident that on his way to the place of sacrifice, Saul stopped in the town of Carmel, where he’d built a monument to himself. (Samuel 15:12) As Samuel told Saul, God was not pleased.
We miss the point when we decide how we want to please God while ignoring the sacrifice wants from us: a humble heart. (Psalm 51:17) God wants hearts open to his will, not insisting on our own.
Choosing Lenten sacrifices to build up our spiritual bank accounts is ironic. We grow closer to God when we recognize our weakness and dependence on his love.
Wherever we are in our Lenten journey today, we can ask God to show us how to surrender our wills to his as we move forward.
Maybe that’s what Jesus meant by saying following him involved denying ourselves as well as picking up our crosses. Sacrifice might mean accepting the crosses life brings our way rather than choosing our own.
Prayer: Lord, help me accept the challenges life brings today and offer them to you.
Reflection: How are you being called to let go of self-will today?
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing. 1 John 1: 8-9
Where did some of us get the idea we have to be perfect to earn God’s love? Why do we think we have to cover up our imperfections to be acceptable? The Bible’s filled with stories of God’s love and faithfulness—in spite of our sins. We turn our backs on God, not the other way around.
God knows our weaknesses better than we do and loves us anyway. What else is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son about? Or the parable commending the tax collector who acknowledged his sins, trusting God’s mercy, as opposed to the religious official whose prayer to God was a spiritual resume? Or Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross to do what we could never do for ourselves—perfectly obey our Creator? As St. Paul said, if we could put ourselves right with God by keeping the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Galatians 2: 21)
Covering up our flaws is the world’s way, not God’s. Denying our wrongs, blaming others, creating excuses, that’s the way of the world. Trying to look good on the outside when we know the truth on the inside creates tension. No wonder the psalmist said his sins filled him with anxiety.
It doesn’t feel safe to be honest about our liabilities in the dog-eat-dog world. On the other hand, it‘s a relief to be honest about our faults with God and with ourselves. Surely we can find at least one trusted human being we can trust to understand and to keep our sharing in confidence. It’s fundamental to recovery for countless people in Twelve Step programs. The Catholic Church has wisely recognized it as a means of obtaining God’s grace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It does our hearts good to come clean in a safe atmosphere, and what atmosphere could be safer than God’s welcoming arms?
Prayer: Lord, I trust in your mercy and love.
Reflection: What secrets are creating tension within you? How can you find a safe and trustworthy way to unburden yourself?
There was no king in Israel at that time. Everyone did whatever they pleased. Judges 21: 25
Ever read the book of Judges? It describes a time in Israel’s history when “everyone did whatever they pleased.” Many of these stories about Israel’s national heroes don’t represent their finer moments.
Israel stopped worshiping the Lord who brought them out of slavery.
- Gideon, chosen by God to lead the Israelites against their oppressors, defeated the enemy against all odds. Gideon then created an idol out of the loot collected and worshipped it.
- Jephthah, also victorious, thanks to God, promised to sacrifice the first person that met him on his return home. That person happened to be his daughter. Nowhere in the Law of Moses had God demanded human sacrifice.
- Samson’s arrogance and willingness to put his love affairs before his better judgment led to his destruction, even though he took his Philistine enemies with him.
- When Micah created idols, the priest he convinced to be his personal priest betrayed him for a better offer, taking Micah’s idols with him.
- A Levite surrendered his concubine to sexual perverts to save his own skin, then, when she died as a result, he used her death to start a war.
Chances are, none of these people woke up one day and decided to get themselves in trouble. They were just doing “whatever they pleased.”
While the results of our willful choices may not be as devastating as those listed here, self-centered choices are rarely a good idea and often self-defeating. Thwarted self-will leads to frustration, conflict, and retaliation. We end up not being “pleased” at all. Whether it seems like it or not, it’s wiser to follow God’s will rather than our own.
Prayer: Lord, teach my heart to trust you and choose your will over mine.
Reflection: When have you done whatever you pleased? What happened in the long run?
As Jesus sat near the Temple treasury, he watched the people as they dropped in their money. Many rich people dropped in a lot of money; then a poor widow came along and dropped in two little copper coins, worth about a penny. He called his disciples together and said to them, “I tell you that this poor widow put more in the offering box than all the others. For the others put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had—she gave all she had to live on.” Mark 12: 41-44
While Jesus was eating, a woman came in with an alabaster jar full of a very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on Jesus’ head. Some of the people there became angry and said to one another, “What was the use of wasting the perfume? It could have been sold for more than three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor!” And they criticized her harshly.
But Jesus said, “Leave her alone! …She has done a fine and beautiful thing for me…She did what she could…” Mark 14: 3-6
One way or the other, money really is no object. At least, that’s how it seems according to these gospel stories. The widow gave what she had. Her gift of a penny was more than enough, and valued by Jesus. The woman who anointed Jesus gave what she had, too. Her expensive gift was not rejected as extravagant, but also valued by Jesus.
In God’s economy, it’s not about how much or how little we have to give, but the love and sincerity behind the gift that counts. This applies to more than material gifts. What about the abilities and talents we’ve been gifted with? We don’t need to worry that what we have to share isn’t good enough. We don’t need to worry that we’d be showing off by putting our talents to use. When we are offering ourselves and our abilities to God, we don’t need to worry about other people’s opinions or comments. We don’t even have to worry about the results. Neither the widow’s penny nor the lavish perfume made a huge difference in the worldly scheme of things, but both were precious and appreciated by the Lord.
Every time we overcome shyness, or feelings of inadequacy, or fear that people will think we’re trying to show off in order to share what we’ve been given, we are doing “a fine and beautiful thing.”
Prayer: Lord, help me recognize my gifts and share them.
Reflection: What are your gifts? Who can you share them with today?
Then Jesus called the crowd and his disciples to him. “If any of you want to come with me,” he told them, “you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me.” Mark 8: 34
- Forget: How does one forget oneself? How does one forget anything? Having studied French for five years in school, I used to be able to read and write it fairly well. Nevertheless, I only remember a few phrases. How did I forget all that French? Disuse. The knowledge was there, but I stopped acting on it. Maybe it’s like that with forgetting our “selves”. If you’re like me, self-will often makes demands. We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t, but we don’t have act on those demands, either. Self-indulgence makes them stronger. If we don’t pay attention to them, they’ll probably atrophy from disuse. Then we can better discern how to meet our legitimate needs and wants.
- Carry: Fewer demands on our time and energy leave more inner resources available to determine which crosses are ours and to accept whatever our cross might look like on any given day. We have a better chance of discerning what God is asking us to do—or stop doing. Without ego in charge, it’s easier to recognize our limitations and our need for help in carrying whatever crosses are ours. Sometimes our biggest cross might be developing the courage and humility to ask for help.
- Follow: Freedom from self-centeredness makes it easier to keep our eyes on the Lord. We can’t follow him if we don’t look at him. How will we know where he’s going? If we are self-absorbed, we’ll miss the guidance and promptings of his Spirit. If we’re pre-occupied with our agendas, we won’t have room for his directions.
It’s our choice. If, as Jesus said, we want to join him, we need to leave behind our pre-occupation with self, accept the challenges we face, and move, however falteringly, in his direction. We can trust that his grace, not our own strength, will empower us. It’s not all about us anymore.
Prayer: Lord, help me forget myself as I focus on you.
Reflection: Do you want to accept Jesus’ invitation to join him? If so, what will you forget? What will you carry? Where is he asking you to follow him today?
The entrances to heaven aren’t called the pearly gates for nothing. Pearls are created by an oyster in response to irritation. C.S. Lewis said that God whispers to us in our pleasure, but shouts to us in our pain. Could it be that only broken hearts are open enough to let God in?
God’s grace can transform pain into beauty. The glorious Resurrection followed the crucifixion. God’s power and grace continue to bring good out of suffering today. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, by turning to God and facing their addiction, developed a program that has helped countless thousands recover physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Restorative justice programs invite victims and offenders, under controlled and supervised guidance, to encounter each other so that forgiveness and healing can emerge. God’s power and grace can transform our pain, too, if we’re willing.
When we experience pain, we have choices about what to do with it. We can wallow and remain victimized by it or we can surrender our pain to God and turn to him for strength, wisdom, and grace.
- Sometimes pain allows us to recognize our human limitations. Some of us just won’t stop until we’re forced to. It can be scary when we’ve reached the end of our own strength, but that’s when we have no choice but to trust God.
- Sometimes pain motivates us to change. When selfish behaviors don’t get us into too much trouble, we continue to indulge them. Only when the pain they cause exceeds the payoff do we become willing to give up whatever benefits our self-centered actions seem to give us.
- Sometimes we have no choice but to simply endure, as best we can. If we’re going to be in pain anyway, we may as well offer it to God and use it as an opportunity to exercise our faith, trusting that we’ll be given what we need-even when we can’t see it.
Any of these options can take us beyond the pain to a different level of being, to a different perspective, to a glimpse of God’s heavenly kingdom.
Prayer: Compassionate God, who brought good out of the cross, help us trust you to bring good out of our pain.
Reflection: When have you seen beauty brought from pain?
King David, who wrote this psalm, is well-known in Scripture. He killed the giant Goliath with only a sling and a few stones. He led armies successfully against Israel’s enemies. It was through David’s descendants that the promised Messiah was to come. We know Jesse was David’s father, but who is his mother? We don’t know, because the bible never mentions her name. That didn’t stop her from being an influence in David’s spiritual life.
What is important—with or without her name being known—is that she served the Lord and that David served the Lord just as she did. Apparently, his mother remained in the background, quietly setting an example of service. David started off in the background, too, minding the sheep—until God had other plans for him. Chances are, David didn’t start out to make a name for himself. He gained fame because he met challenges as they were presented to him, trusting in God, not in himself.
Although David’s mother remained in the background, God used her. Maybe we’re like her, called to serve God without fanfare. Doing what needs to be done, quietly accepting and meeting the challenges that we find ourselves facing. Maybe in doing so we preach a sermon louder than we could with a megaphone or a microphone. David’s mother had neither and she influenced a son to serve God in a mighty way that made a difference for all generations to come.
Maybe being anonymous isn’t so bad.
Prayer: Lord, may I serve you-whether or not anyone else knows.
Reflection: Who might you be influencing by your quiet faithfulness today?
It will be like a man who goes away from home on a trip and leaves the servants in charge, after giving each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch. Mark 13: 34
Jesus makes it clear that we’re all supposed to watch, because we don’t know when the master will return, but watching isn’t all we’re supposed to do. Our Master has given “each one his own work to do….”
God made us all individuals for a reason. We each have a unique combination of talents, abilities, and interests. We all have a purpose and are uniquely situated to serve as we are.
Often, we need to grow where we’re planted. A shy homebody, hiding her beautiful singing voice out of fear disguised as false modesty, may decide to move beyond her comfort zone and take on the role of cantor when the need arises. A businessman might use his management skills to help the parish food bank get off the ground. The work we’re given to do goes beyond our vocation.
What would happen if we consider every person that crosses our path today as sent by God? Our work might be to give up a few minutes of our time to listen to them, offer a word of encouragement, or a simple smile. No one is going to encounter the same set of people that you or I do today. We each have a unique opportunity to reach out and touch someone.
The work God has in mind for us may or may not be how we earn our living, but it is uniquely ours.
Prayer: Lord, who do you want me to serve?
Reflection: What are your talents? How can you use them to be of service today?
What does an obedience have to do with loving God?
Does God give us obedient hearts so that we’ll obey his command to love him? Or do we love him out of gratitude for the gift of obedient hearts that protect us from our own self-destructive tendencies? Either way, in God’s kingdom, it seems that love and obedience go together.
The NAB translation of the above passage makes the connection clearer. Rather than “give” us obedient hearts, it says that God “will circumcise” our hearts. Physical circumcision removes a covering and exposes a very sensitive area. The procedure involves some pain. Thinking spiritually, you can imagine that a circumcised heart would be more open and sensitive than a heart covered over and protected. Circumcision of our hearts involves some pain, too, as self-will and self-centeredness are removed. When our hearts are vulnerable and exposed, we become more open and responsive to God, who loves us and has our best interests at heart.
We obey because we love and we love because we obey.
Prayer: Lord, open my heart to your love.
Reflection: What keeps you from obeying God? If you were going to respond to God’s love today, what would you do differently?
Farmers don’t constantly plow their fields and keep getting them ready for planting. Isaiah 28: 24
Preparation turns into stalling if we never move on. Why cover ground that’s already been covered? Fear, probably. What if we take the next step and it doesn’t work out? What if we fail?
IF we never actually take the action, we can always think we didn’t fail because we didn’t really try. The truth is, if we don’t follow through, we fail by default.
There’s no shame in failing if we do our best. A farmer planting seeds waters and weeds the garden. Beyond that, the results are out of his hands.
The same is true for us. We’re responsible for making our best effort, regardless of the outcome. This goes for our practical and our spiritual lives. Do we hear the gospel at Mass but never allow it to change us? Growth doesn’t happen just by hearing the word, but by doing it. Moving forward can start small. Bring canned goods to the next food pantry collection or attend a bible study.
We don’t need to keep polishing what’s already shiny. Ask God for the courage to move beyond your comfort zone. If you already spend quiet time in prayer, try volunteering for some service activity. If you’re always on the go, risk spending some time in silent meditation.
God will always guide us along the path he has in mind for us.
Prayer: Lord, show me what my next step should be and give me the courage to take it.
Reflection: What fields have you already plowed sufficiently? What’s the next step?