The Bread of Life

It always gives me pause when I hear news stories of empty shelves and food shortages in American grocery stores. While it’s true that the pandemic continues to disrupt the process of getting food from warehouses, to trucks, to grocery store shelves, we are a long way from seeing completely empty stores. Even in the earliest days of the pandemic (the hunting for toilet paper days!) this was far from being true.

My extended family had a fun conversation over Christmas, trying to guess how long it would take one person to eat all the food in a typical grocery store. We started by imagining the bread aisle. Each loaf has about 15 slices. How many loaves? Now add in English muffins, tortillas, pita bread, and bagels. Then we moved on to pasta, rice, beans, and all the other grains. We spent some delightful moments picturing eating our way through the potato chip aisle. It was unfathomable to imagine consuming that much food. We hadn’t even gotten to dairy, meat, or produce, let alone the frozen food section. A poster on Reddit estimated that it would take one person over 300 years to eat everything!

But yet, we go to the grocery store and if one or two things that we like to eat are not on the shelves, we are dissatisfied. If on one particular day, we see one area of empty shelves, we begin to panic. We’re so used to the seemingly limitless supply of food, we’re not sure how to react when that view is challenged. 

I think this speaks to how we view abundance in our world. What does it mean to have enough? What do we really need to be satisfied? Where do we go for that satisfaction? Can we be creative in finding sustenance in our lives? I know the pandemic taught my family how to make do with some strange combinations of food. Back when it was hard to find eggs, flour, frozen vegetables, or soup, we figured out ways to make lunches and dinners with whatever we could find. Some of those meals ended up being our most enjoyable, because we were proud of our outside-the-box culinary creations. And maybe for the first time in our lives, we did not take for granted the fact that we had food on our table. 

Abundance began to take on new meaning.

All of our needs can be met with the abundance of God’s love. Overflowing, excessive, bountiful, crazy amounts of love. With God, there is no such thing as going hungry. 

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry,
and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” 
(John 6:35) 

I encourage you to reflect on moments when you’ve felt this abundance in your life; of how rich you felt in God’s love and grace. For me, that silly grocery store conversation on Christmas Eve was a perfect example. The love, laughter, and closeness filled my heart with joy.

If you’d like to become more aware of God’s abundance in your own life, I invite you to follow these steps:

  • Identify what it is you truly hunger for. For some it may be peace, or love, or inspiration. Lately I find myself hungering for evidence of goodness in the world.
  • Be on the lookout for the ways in which God is satisfying that hunger. Remember it may be in ways you don’t expect. Or it may come from places or people that surprise you. Be open to receiving this abundance, and you’ll begin to notice it everywhere!
  • Be grateful for God’s abundance. Best-selling author Melanie Beattie once wrote, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.” When your hunger has been satisfied, or a particular need has been met, take time to thank God for it.
  • Pay it forward. For just as God sends people into our lives to “feed” us along the way, surely we can be that food and sustenance for others.

As you spend time this week reflecting on God’s abundance, please share your thoughts in the comments section below. I would love to hear your stories of experiencing the Bread of Life in your everyday lives.

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

A Retreat Prayer

Dear Lord, as I enter into this sacred time,
may I feel surrounded by Your loving presence.
In the quiet stillness may I hear You speak to me.
In Your loving embrace, may I be restored.

Release me from all that pulls me away from You;
My doubts, my fears, and my need to control;
Noise, distraction, interruptions, and chaos;
The need to be constantly “doing” instead of “being”

Fill me with all that draws me closer to You;
Stillness, prayer, time to reflect;
Connection with my companions on the journey;
The simple wonder of knowing that You are here

Speak to me in the hushed quiet of prayer.
Open my heart to your stirrings in my life,
That I may let go of all that holds me back
From the life you are calling me to

As I move out of this time of retreat
Help me to carry this peace with me on the journey.
May I be reminded at all times of
Your presence, Your love, and Your goodness.

AMEN.

Background photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

To Retreat With the Lord

When a new year begins, I like to spend some time reflecting on the themes that filled the year (or years) I’m leaving behind. Last year held many moments of joy, family, friendship, and fun. But I would be lying if I said it wasn’t also marked by a lingering sense of isolation, withdrawal, and social distance. Many of us spent more time than we thought we would this year staying home. Avoiding crowds. Retreating from friends, family, and social gatherings. During the pandemic, the idea of “retreat” has taken on a new meaning, one which is a far cry from the kind of spiritual retreats that have defined my ministry over the past 13 years.  

The Omicron variant once again threatens to plunge us into isolation and quarantine. My husband and I have made the decision to hunker down as best we can for the next few weeks until this new (and hopefully final!) surge passes. But that doesn’t mean our time of retreat can’t also be a welcome sanctuary or a time of fruitful solitude. For today’s reflection, I would like to reclaim the idea of “retreat” as a spiritual practice—a way to grow closer to God, to deepen our faith, and to feel alive in the Spirit.

What does it mean to retreat with the Lord? Contrary to the effects of isolation and solitude, when you spiritually retreat, you aren’t bored and alone. You’re spending wondrous and meaningful time with your Creator. You aren’t hiding away from things that frighten you. You’re reaching out to a loving God who is waiting for you. You aren’t wasting precious time, longing for the day you can be free of this isolation. You’re spending precious moments with the One who chooses you, blesses you, and calls you to a life full of promise. When you retreat with the Lord, you are creating a spiritual practice that is rich and alive and full of hope. 

A retreat is an opportunity to come away to a safe, sacred space to reflect on your relationship with your Loving Creator. To listen for the still, small voice of God. To welcome the Lord into every moment of your life. Refreshed and renewed by God’s gentle grace, you will leave a time of retreat affirmed by God’s unconditional love, ready to continue your faith journey and to answer the call of God, wherever it may lead.

I usually recommend going away to attend a retreat—for a weekend, an afternoon, or even an hour-long program at your church or local retreat center. It makes such a difference to go away to another place, where you can open yourself to God’s whispers without the distractions of all that you leave behind. But we’ve learned from the pandemic that this isn’t always possible. And so I want you to know that it can be just as meaningful to engage in a spiritual retreat in the comfort (and safety!) of your own home. Watching a short YouTube video on a spiritual topic can be a retreat. Spending intentional time in prayer or reflection can be a retreat. Taking a walk in the woods can be a retreat. Even reading this blog post can be a retreat!

So I invite you to join me these next few weeks—whether you have chosen to stick close to home or not—to make January a time of retreating with the Lord. Let this be a time of searching and deep contemplation. Allow your soul to become a sanctuary where God’s love dwells and abides. Let your spirit respond to the spark of creation and mystery.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when doing this:

RETREAT WITH INTENTION

Set aside time for your retreat practice. Make it a sacred promise. Choose a regular day that you can devote to spending some much-needed time with the Lord. Be faithful to that time.

SET THE SCENE OR CREATE A RITUAL 

Make your retreat time different from your “usual” time of being home on your own. Use candles, music, or other sensory rich practices to bring you away from your daily activities into this rich and sacred time with God.

BEGIN WITH A PRAYER

Dear Lord, as I enter into this sacred time, may I feel surrounded by your loving presence. In the quiet stillness may I hear You speak to me. In Your loving embrace, may I be restored.

REFLECT ON YOUR POST-RETREAT INSIGHTS

Keep a journal to jot down any thoughts or inspirations that came to you during your retreat. Or call a friend or family member and share your insights with them. Look for patterns or recurring themes in your notes. That is what God most wants you to hear!

As your spiritual practice takes root in your heart, it’s my hope that you can reclaim the idea of “retreat” as a positive practice and not a lonely necessity. Let this first month of the New Year be filled with hope, possibility, and wonder.

​​Background photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

An Advent Prayer

Loving God, 
as we draw closer to that Holy Night 
The night of our Savior’s birth
We are filled with questions: 
Why did you come?
What did you come here to do? 
What does your coming mean for us today?

You came to serve. To feed the hungry. To heal the sick. 
To humble yourself to serve the very least of us.
Come, Lord Jesus! Help us remember that by serving 
Our brothers and sisters, we are serving you.
Teach us to use our talents and strengths 
To help those most in need
This season and all seasons

You came to comfort and to give rest to the weary.
To carry our burdens and give us peace from worry and fear.
Come, Lord Jesus! May our homes, our hearts
And our very presence offer comfort to those 
Who are worn out and stretched thin. 
May we offer them a kind word, a soft smile, 
And a warm heart.

You came to show mercy. To teach us to 
Forgive as we have been forgiven.
Come, Lord Jesus! May your radical mercy show us 
How to soften our hearts to those who have caused us hurt. 
Teach us by your example to forgive 
Even the deepest wounds
And to set ourselves free.

Above all, You came to love 
and to teach us how to love.
This Great Commandment gives us everything we could ever need.
Come, Lord Jesus! By your example, 
May we hold one another close this Christmas season.  
Close in our thoughts, in our hearts, in our words, and in our deeds. 
May we love by your example.
Come, Lord Jesus! AMEN.

Hearing God’s Whisper ministry wishes you a very Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year!

Mary and the Advent Story

The Advent story is full of rich and dramatic events, culminating in the birth of our Savior. For me, one of the most powerful ones is the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary in Luke’s Gospel.

God chooses Mary and comes to her with an invitation—to bring Christ into the world. Mary’s response to this invitation is life-changing and world-changing. It’s impossible to overstate how huge this moment was. EVERYTHING, the very salvation of the world, hinged upon her response.

There is a tendency to believe that Mary didn’t really have a choice in the matter. That Gabriel came—not to ask her a question—but to tell her what was to be. To tell her what her destiny was to be. The problem with this interpretation is that it takes away any agency from Mary and misreads the moment as a passive one, as if Mary were simply swept along into God’s plans, without the opportunity to make her own choice. Without the chance to say “yes.”  

And so it’s worth spending a little time exploring the other possibility: Could Mary have said “no” to God?  Did Mary have free will in this situation?

From the very beginning of God’s interaction with the human race, our free will has always been respected. From the moment we were created, we have been free to make our own choices. Why wouldn’t the same be true for Mary? Which means she wasn’t programmed to say yes, like a robot, or coerced into saying yes, like a soldier obeying an order from a commanding officer. This wasn’t like the scene from the Godfather: “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.” But instead, through the angel Gabriel, God was issuing Mary an invitation. How she responded was entirely up to her. Knowing that fact…doesn’t it make her answer that much more powerful?  In the words of poet and author Christine Valters Paintner:

“When the angel Gabriel visits Mary, she is given a choice rather than a demand. Mary is active in her “yes” to the angel’s invitation as well as in her surrender: “Let it be done to me.” God’s unfolding of salvation is dependent upon Mary’s full ‘yes.’”

So what characteristics did Mary possess that allowed her to say yes? Mary was open to God’s plans for her life. She was willing to trust God. As scary as the prospect of bearing a child under such circumstances might have been, Mary trusted that this was the path God had chosen for her. And she was willing to surrender her own plans to answer God’s call. 

How often do we do this? It is so easy to stubbornly cling to our own plans even when we feel God nudging us in a different direction. Remember…we were born with the same free will that Mary was. Our choices are ours to make. God can only invite us to follow. Can we trust enough to be open to the mystery of God’s plans for our lives? 

Our answer to God is always a choice. Mary was asked to bring Christ into the world, and she answered yes. As Christians, we are asked to do that very same thing. Not in the same way that Mary did, but in the way we live our lives. In the way we interact with others. In the words we speak. In the deeds we do. What will our answer be?

Background photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash

Let God Be Loud in Your Life

I spend a lot of time writing about God’s “whispers” and how it isn’t always easy to hear what God is speaking to our hearts. During this Advent season, I’d like to expand on that notion by looking at the ways we can let God be LOUD in our lives. 

I believe that God’s voice is a constant. Always there. Always speaking to us. Never fluctuating or changing. If that’s the case, why does God’s voice seem so quiet sometimes, and other times calls to us through a megaphone? Perhaps it’s the volume of everything else in our world that affects our ability to hear God. So if you would like God to be louder in your life, spend some time thinking about what is drowning God’s voice out.

We’re exposed to a lot of noise in our life, but we have some choice in the degree to which we tune in. Lots of things demand our attention, but we don’t always have to give in to those demands. Take some time this week to make a list of all the things that you are listening to these days. Some by choice, some by habit, some by non-choice. How do each of these things make you feel? Which of these things draw you closer to God, and which of them pull you further away? 

For example, you might listen to a certain person on the news or the radio, and they leave you feeling angry or hopeless. Or maybe you have an acquaintance who is always critical and leaves you feeling down. We were created to live in harmony with God’s loving plans for us. Might I encourage you to turn down the volume of anything that clashes with that harmony? 

Taking it one step further, there may be some “noise” in your life that you want to mute altogether—those things (or people) that make it almost impossible for you to focus on the voice of God. Picture yourself holding a remote control with a mute button. Do you have the ability to silence the voices that don’t serve you? I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and there are some accounts that are very bleak and fear-mongering. Once I figured out how to mute those accounts, my Twitter timeline became much more enjoyable. Would it help you to go on a news or social media diet—or even a blackout? Or maybe you need to take a long, hard look at some toxic relationships in your life.

As you begin to lower the volume of this noise in your life, an amazing thing will begin to happen. God’s voice will automatically become louder.  All the other “stuff” you’ve been focusing on will fade away, and the messages from God (through Scripture, through the Advent story, and through your daily encounters with Jesus) will increase, filling your ears and your heart.

And if you want to crank up that volume even more? Incorporate some spiritual practices into your daily life that will continue to bring God’s voice to the forefront…loud and clear!

PRAYER: What better way to achieve this than to talk to God in prayer? Think of your day as an ongoing loving conversation with your Creator. Speak what is in your heart and be open to what you are hearing in response.

STILLNESS: 16th century mystic John of the Cross once wrote: “Silence is God’s first language.” Silence is our gift to God. A “sacred pause.” A time to stop what we’re doing and listen. To soak in God’s presence and allow ourselves to be filled up.

AWARENESS: We hear God with our hearts, through an unshakable awareness that Jesus walks with us through all that we see, and do, and experience. Focus on what matters most in your life. Feel gratitude and love dwelling in your heart. That’s where God lives. 

My prayer for you this Advent season is that you will open your heart to God’s voice and let that voice be LOUD, like the chorus of heavenly hosts singing with the angels: Glory to God in the Highest and peace to all people on earth!

Background photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash

Finding Jesus in the Present

A few months ago, when I was struggling with anxious feelings caused by our nasty and unwelcome friend – the Delta variant – a colleague recommended I start learning about mindfulness as a way to stay focused on the present, so I wouldn’t worry so much about the future. I embraced this idea. Being alive to the present moment wasn’t always easy, but as I got better at tuning into the small details of what surrounded me in each moment, I began to see beauty, calm, and the finer details of the world around me and within me. I began a daily practice of meditating, taking walks outside, and breathing deeply until my racing thoughts subsided.

As fall stretched toward winter, and we began to approach the season of Advent, I assumed I would have to put away my mindfulness practices for a while so I could turn my thoughts to the themes of Advent – hope, peace, love, and joy.  I would need to switch to new daily practices to really do justice to this beautiful season.

As you can probably guess, I was very wrong about this! Mindfulness—the practice of being alive to the present moment—is the perfect mindset for Advent.

Advent means “coming”—and during this season we anticipate the coming of Christ in three ways. First, we await his coming as the baby Jesus, born on Christmas Day. Next, we consider the time when Christ will come again at the end of the world. And finally, in between those two events, we have the coming of Jesus into our lives each day.  It is this third one that I find myself drawn to these days, and it often becomes the most hidden aspect of Advent. Jesus comes to us every moment of our lives, but do we always recognize His presence?

Each and every moment that we live is an opportunity to encounter God. Jesus is present in the smallest details. But we have to be aware, alert, and awake to notice.

Advent is a time for being awake, and we are called to reflect on the ways we may have been “sleeping” in our lives. When we get lost in regrets of the past or worries about the future, we are in many ways asleep to all that is happening around us. This is exactly how I had been behaving in late summer with all my fears about what the future would bring. I was missing a lot of very good and important things that were happening all around me!  

This is not to say that every moment in the present will be joyful. In the words of Henri Nouwen: “God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful and painful.” We may have troubles that exist in our present moment, but that doesn’t mean we need to pile on with potential troubles that “may” happen in the future. Fearing the future can lead us to doubt God’s love. Remaining firmly rooted in the present lets us feel God’s love—through joy or pain.

Every moment you spend with God, you are living in the Light. When we are present to that Light, we are ready to answer God’s call. We will see and hear what we are being called to do from moment to moment. We don’t have to worry about the future because the beauty of God’s love is evident in all that we see around us.  

So I don’t really need to set aside my daily mindful practices this Advent season. Instead, I will invite Jesus to meet me there. When I’m breathing deeply I will call forth my own moment of Divine creation when God breathed the breath of life into my nostrils. When I take a walk, I will imagine that Jesus is walking beside me, pointing out all the wonders of creation in my path. When I meditate, I will soak in God’s presence and allow myself to be filled up with the love that can only be found in the coming of Christ. 

Wishing you a blessed and holy Advent season. May your spirit be alive to each precious moment!

Background photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash

Coming Back From a Spiritual Dry Spell

How is it possible I haven’t posted on this blog in over six months?! I had the best of intentions and lots of half-formed reflections that just never made it onto the page. I kept telling myself I would work on something next week or the week after…or the week after. Isn’t that how most people fall into creative ruts or writer’s block? And isn’t it possible that the same sense of drifting can happen in our spiritual lives?

Drifting away from God is easier than you might think. Slipping into a spiritual dry spell can happen so gradually that before you know it you’re in the middle of the desert without a drop of water in sight! It isn’t anything we do on purpose, and sometimes we don’t stop long enough to realize what’s happened. We just wake up one day and realize that our connection to God—the divine thread that ties us to our loving Creator—feels old and faded and brittle. Do any of the following words accurately describe your spiritual life right now?

DRIED-UP •  BRITTLE • WILTED  • STALE • BARREN

It’s perfectly normal to go through dry times in your faith life. We all experience days in the desert. Sometimes days turn into weeks and months. But that doesn’t have to be the end of your story! Let me share with you a story of hope. 

Over a year ago now, my husband and I took up kiddie-pool gardening as a “pandemic project.”  Basically, we planted assorted vegetables and herbs in a soil-filled kiddie pool on our back porch. Amazingly, we had some success, and we got such a thrill from eating salads made with our own cucumbers or eating margherita pizza made with our own basil and tomatoes, that we decided to give it a go again this summer. But this year, we diversified beyond cucumbers and tomatoes, thanks to my husband’s co-worker Bill, who gave us some small eggplant seedlings. 

Unfortunately, due to a bunch of factors—including a big family trip in June and a ridiculously long stretch of rain in July—we didn’t even get around to buying the soil for the kiddie pool until mid-July, let alone planting anything. That meant those eggplant seedlings—the generous gift from Bill—just sat in the garage, essentially abandoned, for a month. 

When we were finally ready to plant, Mark brought out the dried-up eggplant sprouts. I shook my head. They were shriveled and withered, and didn’t look at all viable. When I plucked them out of their plastic containers, the soil around the roots crumbled away in my hands. I thought we should just toss them and cut our losses, but Mark wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, he planted the eggplant, even though we had such little confidence those seedlings would grow, we didn’t even grant them a spot in the kiddie pool; instead, we relegated them to a big pot next to the pool. 

“Let’s just water it and see what happens,” Mark said. For a long time, exactly nothing happened. Then—much to my astonishment—the green sprouts began to grow. Taller and fuller. Healthy and lush. And one day in early August I came out to the deck and found this.

small eggplants growing

The eggplants grew and grew until they were big enough to pick and bake. I enjoyed the best-tasting eggplant parmigiana I’ve ever had. What I thought were dead plants came back to life and fed and sustained and brought joy.

So what appeared to be dried up and withered, was actually only dormant…lying asleep, waiting for the right moment to wake up and sprout and grow.

Instead of viewing your spiritual life as something dead and brittle, try to view it as temporarily asleep, anticipating that gentle nudge from a loving God who is waiting for you. God provides the water and sunshine, and you do the growing. Just let it happen. 

Feel God’s presence. 
Bask in the warm rays of the sun. 
Soak up the quenching rain. 

Don’t focus on doing the “hard work” of getting back in touch with God. That’s not the work of the desert. Start by simply letting yourself grow in awareness. In every living thing you encounter, God is there. God is alive! With you. Surrounding you. Sit with that feeling for a few minutes, and then more and more each day. You will find your dried up roots begin to stretch and strengthen. To dig deep into the soil, searching for new life. 

You may have drifted away from God for a time, but it has only ever been temporary.

Photo by laura adai on Unsplash

Allegory of Five Gardens (Part Five)

walled-garden

Long ago, in a land far away, there lived five sisters. The Master Gardener, who loved them all very much, gave each sister a gift – a small plot of land to plant a garden. With excitement and hope, they prepared the soil and planted seeds, giving them lots of water and sunshine until they sprouted into healthy plants. As time went on, the five sisters tended to their gardens in their own different ways.

Months later, the Master Gardener invited each sister, one at a time, to come and share with him how her garden fared. But the fifth sister did not appear. After waiting for some time, the Master Gardener went out in search of her, and found her sitting in her cottage, staring blankly at the walls.

“I come to ask about your garden,” he said. “How does it fare?”

“I have no idea. I prepared the soil and planted the seeds like you asked me to. And then I built a high stone wall around it to protect it from the rabbits and deer.”

“Tell me what grows in your garden?” the Master Gardener gently pressed.

“I really don’t know. I haven’t been in there in months. I just don’t see myself as a gardener. There are days I think about going inside, but it’s been so long now, that I don’t know what I would do in there.”

“My beloved daughter, I gave you this garden as a safe and sacred space. It is yours. All I ask is that you enter and sit awhile.”

The fifth sister did as the Master Gardener asked. She sat in her garden for a morning… and felt nothing. She returned for the next three mornings, and still nothing. On the fifth morning, she sat quietly in her garden and felt the sun warming her face. She watched a butterfly dance among the flowers. She breathed in the scent of earth and nectar and rain. She was overcome with a rush of feeling. A memory of the love she felt on the day she received this precious plot of land. Peace settled deep within. She vowed never again to wall herself off from her garden.

REFLECTION

A life of faith isn’t always easy. We wrestle with questions, doubts, and disagreements—matters that must be explored through deep prayer and examination of conscience. The process can be daunting. We witness those who claim to be Christian, yet do and say things that contradict the loving message of Jesus Christ. We see people use the name of Jesus to hurt and reject others. We don’t want to throw ourselves in with that lot. We don’t want to be anywhere near them. So we distance ourselves from the Church. It may seem easier to close ourselves off from the more challenging aspects of our faith. Avoidance is always easier.

Though our doubts may be justified, it’s our response to these doubts that can often drive a wedge between us and God’s love for us. But walling ourselves off from the love of God isn’t the answer. And the longer we do this, the more our faith becomes a remote and distant memory. Bring your questions to God. Bring your doubts, your anger, your dissonance. Trust that God loves you and will help you work through this time of uncertainty.

Just like the fifth sister, God only asks that you enter the garden and sit with Him for awhile.

Allegory of Five Gardens (Part Four)

sunflowers-268015_960_720

Long ago, in a land far away, there lived five sisters. The Master Gardener, who loved them all very much, gave each sister a gift – a small plot of land to plant a garden. With excitement and hope, they prepared the soil and planted seeds, giving them lots of water and sunshine until they sprouted into healthy plants. As time went on, the five sisters tended to their gardens in their own different ways.

Months later, the Master Gardener invited each sister, one at a time, to come and share with him how her garden fared. The fourth sister marched right up with her head held high and a satisfied smile on her face.

“How does your garden fare, my child?”

“Oh, you have to come see it!” she exclaimed.“I threw away the seeds you gave me because I knew they wouldn’t produce the biggest, most colorful blooms. The flowers I chose are amazing! The prettiest in the village. Every day I stand outside so I can see the villagers walk by my garden and marvel at how beautiful it is.”

“My beloved daughter,” the Master Gardener replied. “While it is true I gave you the garden to do with as you pleased, it seems as if your only goal is praise and admiration. Your garden can be used for so much more. To grow food for the poor. To provide a quiet place where you might sit and pray. You have turned it into nothing more than a showpiece.”

The fourth sister was humbled by the words of the Master Gardener, and she realized he was right. It had become too important to her to have the biggest, most beautiful garden. From that day on she replaced some of the more ostentatious blooms with beans, peppers, and tomatoes, which she shared with all who were hungry. And in the early morning, when no one else was around, she spent time reflecting and praying in her garden. Over time, it came to mean so much more to her than the dazzling display she used to show off to the village.

REFLECTION

If we take an honest look at ourselves, I’m sure there are times we’ve been guilty of behaving like this fourth sister. Putting on a show of our faith. Praying to impress. We may not even realize we’re doing it. It’s perfectly human to want people to think well of us, but it shouldn’t take the place of an honest and intimate relationship with our loving Father.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6).

A common misinterpretation of this Gospel passage is that Jesus is condemning public prayer. But we know this is not the case. When Jesus takes the seven loaves and fishes, he breaks the bread and very publicly gives thanks to God before sharing the food. This is what we do every Sunday when we gather to worship. Praying in community is not what Jesus calls into question here. Instead, Jesus challenges us to examine our motives.

Ask yourself these questions: Am I praying to put on a show, to garner praise from others, to compete? Is it more important for me to be seen as pious and spiritual than to really be present to God while I am praying? Am I making my prayer life all about me instead of all about God?

Years ago I belonged to a prayer group that gathered together once a week to pray for our children. I often received praise for the prayers I offered, compliments on a particular turn of phrase or the words I chose. I liked the feeling so much that the weekly sessions became like a performance for me. I was determined to impress each week with the prayers I offered. In my efforts to earn praise and compliments, I began to lose sight of why I was praying in the first place. It was a humbling lesson to learn.

Prayer life isn’t about appearance. It should go much deeper than that. Prayer is conversation with God—the words we speak to our loving Father directly from our heart. We don’t need an audience or a stamp of approval from our peers to achieve this kind of close relationship with God. Let your garden of faith become a time of quiet stillness. A time of praying and listening.