Preparing A Straight Path

Preparing A Straight Path For A Full HeartMessage for Advent 2 on Matthew 3:1-12 given on December 8, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas.

Sorry for the late posting--this message works for preparing for the new year as well! I am recovering from arthroscopic hip surgery the day after Christmasit (it was a success). I am on cruthces for 2 weeks and it made Advent busier than usual!

“Repent, prepare, make the paths straight, you brood of vipers…every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!”

John the Baptist’s foreboding warning about Jesus’s coming judgement is not exactly the Jingle-Bells-Joy-to-the-World-Jolly-Old-St.-Nicholas-story we are looking for at this time of year.

John makes clear that the way we prepare for Christmas in our culture and the way we prepare for Jesus’ arrival in our spiritual life are two very different things. Don’t misunderstand me—there is nothing wrong with buying gifts, baking, decorating, and gathering with loved ones—our family is making all of those preparations as well—but these are not the activities that today’s Scripture calls us to as we prepare for Jesus’s coming. While our cultural preparations enable us to attend to the external needs of the season—what we will eat and do, share and see,—John the Baptist calls us to attend to our internal needs—something that is much more profound and jolts us into considering the deepest parts of ourselves, our minds and our hearts.

John actually does not even ask us to engage in his tasks of preparation—it’s not a suggestion, like, “let’s bake cookies today.” Rather, he commands us— "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." We do not have an option—there is no wiggle room here in the use of the imperative verb form.

The kingdom of heaven is here in Jesus and God wants us close to him, and showing up with our whole self—body, heart, mind and soul—no exceptions, nothing held back. Making a straight path for the arrival of our Savior and his kingdom means removing all obstacles that impede the full flourishing of God’s will, purpose and presence right here, right now. That a lot harder than wrapping presents, baking goodies, and planning feasts.

Making a straight path for the Savior begins not by identifying all of the sin out there in the world—although there is plenty of that for us to identify. Making a straight path for Jesus to arrive begins inside of us—for we cannot manifest in the kingdom outside of ourselves, what we have not experienced inside ourselves first.

John sees two kinds of people responding to his call to repent, prepare, and make a straight path. Droves of people from Jerusalem and Judea come to heed his call. They confess their brokenness, their need for healing, their desire to be released from hopelessness, depression, greed, self-reliance, control, self-pity or whatever is crooked within their hearts. They tell the truth and let this prophet wash them clean in baptism, so they are ready, open, healed and freed for to Jesus to arrive fully and wholly into their lives. Jesus describes these people who are ready in the Sermon on the Mount—the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning, the merciful, the pure in heart, the suffering, the peacemakers, the persecuted.

But there is another group who also come—the Sadducees and Pharisees—but they do not come with confession on their lips, repentance in their hearts, and honesty about their brokenness and need for forgiveness. John chastises them for the stumbling blocks that make their paths crooked instead of straight—excuses, agendas and rationalizations about their own justification—they cling to education and status as their ticket to righteousness, they rely on pedigree, snobbery, inheritance, anger, defensiveness, self-righteousness, or resentment at those who are not like them. Perhaps they came to crow rather than confess, to pose rather than prostrate themselves before the coming kingdom.

We can see two lines of people coming to the Jordan, responding to John the Baptist’s imperatives to prepare and become ready—a dualism of sorts—good people with open hearts, confessing; the other, bad people with hardened hearts, self-righteous, and justifying. It seems like we are supposed to decide which line we are in—but I suspect the real truth is that all of us are in both lines. I know I am.

There is part of ourselves that is “all-in”—the part that came to church today, the healthy, honest part of our psyche that knows we cannot make it on our own, that we need healing and grace for those parts our lives that we just cannot make right, that we cannot fix, and for which we do not have an answer. We come streaming to the river and we ask God to love as we are, but to please not leave us here. We can name our mistakes and our brokenness, and we are ready for Jesus to give us peace, healing and hope, and we trust—we trust that somehow, Jesus will give us what we need.

And yet, there is still a part of us, that is in line with Sadducees and Pharisees, not because we are bad, but because we are afraid. If we let go of control, what will happen? There are parts of ourselves where we have not let God in—there are roadblocks and boulders making a crooked path where we are not ready to release our dominance or agenda.

It could be that place where we are justifying our attitude, behavior or anger:

• the relationship where we are hanging on to resentment and blame;
• that self-righteous attitude that necessarily diminishes another;
• the secret superiority we feel as we judge those who live or believe differently;
• the defenses we put up to avoid emotional intimacy with our spouse or other family;
• the reliance on status or income for our sense of self;
• those past experiences we believe are too bad for God to heal or forgive--

Whatever it is, there are places in our hearts where we refuse Jesus’ entry and stand guard against grace.

The problem with the crooked parts of ourselves is that they cannot bear the fruit of the kingdom the way we can when we give ourselves completely over to God. It’s not that whole people will be cut down and thrown into the unquenchable fire, but that the parts of ourselves contrary to God’s will must be cleared out. The kingdom of heaven is at hand! God can cleanse everything! Jesus can redeem, renew and make whole every part of ourselves! Every part of our being can be made new, healed and bear the fruit of love and hope for the kingdom!

Jesus wants entry into every part of ourselves, so the chaff—the anger, resentments, self-righteousness can be burned away. This is why John says, “make a straight path”—it takes work on our part. Part of that work is examining the benefits we gain by remaining angry, resentful, controlling, or self-righteous in any situation or relationship. We only think and behave in ways that benefit us somehow, so we begin to make a straight path by telling the truth to ourselves about what we get out of a particular “character flaw.” 

I want you think of one area of your life where you are hanging on to worry, resentment, self-righteousness or anger and ask yourself, “What am I getting out of this? How does this feeling, attitude or behavior benefit me, feed me, help me feel better about myself even though it’s unhealthy?”

Over the years of doing this work on resentments, anger and perfectionism myself, I have discovered that I like being right; I want to look good and appear accomplished in front of others which drives perfectionism; I often feel responsible for managing other people’s feelings. But none of these motivations make me spiritually and emotionally available for Jesus to bear love, grace, hope and peace for the kingdom through me.

So, John the Baptist calls us to “make a straight path”—tell the truth and repent—so that Jesus can arrive in our whole heart, our whole person. With the fire of his Spirit, Jesus burns the chaff of anger or resentment or control away, and fully uses our whole life, our whole being, our whole experience—as a vehicle for God’s purposes.

In Jesus Christ, God makes God’s whole self available to us, so that we might make our whole selves available to God—this is the kind of Advent preparation John the Baptist beckons of our hearts and souls. When we make our own hearts and souls a straight path for Jesus’ birth and his in-breaking kingdom, then we will have those moments of transcendent peace and fullness that comes with our other Jingle-Bell-Joy-to-the-World-Jolly-Old-St.-Nicholas preparations.

This fullness of life in Christ is marvelously described in a poem Dan’s dad read in his sermon at our wedding. It was written by St. Symeon, the New Theologian who lived in the 10th and 11th centuries in Turkey:

We awaken in Christ's body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhead).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? -- Then
open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ's body

where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

In this Advent, John invites us to repent, to prepare, to make the path in our hearts straight, so that we can release the truth and allow Jesus to be born and become radiantly, fully alive in us.

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Frogs, Bugs, and Prayer

Praying Mantis Picture 2An Essay published in the newly released, House of Joy published by The Retreat House Spirituality Center, Richardson, Texas.

The Retreat House published four books in 2019 with essays and poems by affiliated spiritual dirctors; I have essays in each one: House of Love, House of Hope, House of Compassion and House of Joy. You can contact The Retreat House or me if you are interested in receiving copies ($10 each or all four for $30).

Sometimes God’s messages and presence seem silent, distant, abstract. Other times, they are so obvious, I must chuckle with the quiet joy that comes with deeper self-awareness.

Early this fall, I began skipping my morning prayer time and opting for prayer during exercise. That way, I could get to the office and attend to the many things piling onto my desk as the pastor of a congregation.

A week into this routine, I was up early letting out the dog. In the early morning darkness, I looked down and saw a dark blob on the floor just inside the door frame. Without my glasses it looked like a wet leaf. I tried to scoot it out with my toe and instead of brushing it outside, it jumped further into the house—a baby frog! I was not fully awake and I could not think clearly how to get it out of the house. So, I encouraged my morning-person husband, Dan, out of bed to solve the problem. He got a plastic grocery bag and when the frog jumped on it, it stuck to the plastic and he could easily take it out and release it. It would have taken two cups of coffee for me to get there.

It did not dawn on me until later why we had this little visitor that morning. Dan had just lost a promised job due to a staffing change and we were in an unexpected, frustrating situation. I remembered what I learned many years before in ministry about the meaning of FROG—Fully Rely On God. Of course! I texted Dan right away when I realized why we had a jumping visitor that morning!

Yet, I continued to pray during exercise rather taking time in morning meditation. A few days later, I was driving down the North Dallas Tollway to the office and I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked up and there was a brown praying mantis hanging upside down on the inside roof of the car near the rearview mirror. “Very funny, God!” I thought to myself, “Okay! I’ll go back to praying in the morning!”

I rolled down my window and gently tried to free it from the car, but he flew to the back of the car instead. When I arrived at the office, I opened the back hatch and released him. I could not let a heavenly messenger suffocate in the Texas heat that remained well into the fall months.

A couple of days passed, yet I was still anxious about all the work I had to do. And, it was hard to admit, but I was also angry about Dan’s job loss with no severance to bridge a new job search. In a flurry of thoughts and burdens, I poured my coffee and rushed off to the fitness center to exercise and squeeze in my prayers. I got to the office and worked as much as I could and then went out to the car to go to an appointment.

Another giant green praying mantis was on the handle of my car door! I could not get in the car without seeing her and moving her. When I tried to move her along, she stayed on the door. I laughed out loud! Such persistence—such love! Such presence from creation and from God’s Spirit in and through each moment of my life. Such joy to see God’s messages to me when I pay attention and behold in creation what the Spirit reveals!

I finally went back to my morning meditation to pray persistently like a bug and to Fully Relying On God.

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The King Who Suffers

The King Who SuffersMessage for Christ the King Sunday on Luke 23:33-43 on November 24, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

It’s hard to see Jesus as King when he is hanging on the cross.

That was the very point of crucifixion in the first century—a brutal form of execution used to cause shame and fear. Our passage from Luke has the officials naming Jesus as the "King of the Jews" three times. It is complete mockery—political theater on the part of the powerful to parade their might and to warn those who would dare to try to challenge their authority: “Your Jesus may be able to heal lepers or calm storms or feed thousands, but here is your king, helpless and dying on a cross. Rome wins and your king loses badly—stripped, bleeding and dying. Beware anyone who wants to follow him.”

Yet, here we are 2,000 years later, celebrating the last Sunday of the Church year before we turn toward Advent. This Sunday is always called, “Christ the King Sunday,” where we celebrate Jesus’s Lordship not only over this cross, but over the earthly powers that put him there, over the devil, the whole creation, the universe and even over death itself.

But still, we do not have a Gospel story of Jesus enthroned on high, we have this, a Good Friday story; one we would rather save for next April. It would be nice today in the midst of war and turmoil around the world, political strife in our own country, ethnic and political violence, human suffering in so many places and communities near and far, to hear about Jesus as victorious King of all, Ruler of the universe, but instead, we are back at the cross, with a suffering, seemingly powerless king, not a conquering, all-powerful one.

It’s hard to see Jesus as King, as Ruler of all, Lord of our life, when he is hanging on the cross.

I remember being so angry at this suffering-Jesus when I was enduring the worst physical trauma of my life. I looked back at some of my writing from eleven years ago and I found this letter to God:

I’m not sure I can believe in you or talk with you or trust you or put my life in your hands. My suffering has been terrible say nothing of that of the world. What have you to say for yourself? I say you’re a terrible God. I am not sure what purpose you serve if it is not to end suffering. Not to answer, “why?” Not to put an end to evil. Not to stand up and say something for yourself, make yourself known, unequivocally, without a doubt or question, that you reign supreme and have the final say. Where is Jesus’ power today? Where is his victory over suffering? His suffering has not ended my suffering nor that of the world. … I don’t find comfort in hearing that Jesus knows this suffering, that he suffers with me. I want him to take it away. I want it to end. I want the suffering of the world to end. I want to know what you are going to do about it and when.

There are other things I said in this letter to God that I cannot say in the pulpit, but I think Jesus and I have a good relationship now, because I never held back—whatever I felt—I let him have it. He was not the God I wanted in suffering because there was never a quick fix or an easy answer or magic healing.

So, what kind of King is this that God sent in Jesus, who hangs on the cross, and accepts pain and innocent death, who does not end suffering, but instead, chooses to enter it?

It is the kind of king who recognizes that the greatest power that exists in the universe is not power over others, but power with and through others, a power which brings life, and this power has only one name: love.

For isn’t it the power of love which created the universe to begin with? God could have remained an unfathomable ball of energy and light nearly 13.8 billion years, but instead, out of love and a desire for loving relationship, God’s whole being was broken open, exploding outward into trillions of galaxies with billions of stars—a self-sacrificing birth creating the universe.

And out of that vast universe of possibilities, God created us—each one of recycled stardust and holy breath, filling us with the Spirit of life and calling us into a love relationship.

And this love wanted to be in even closer to humanity, so the vast God of the universe pressed down into human DNA and became the embodiment of love in the person of Jesus, so we could experience how true love acts and speaks, responds and lives.

And when those with power were threatened and tried to kill the King of God’s reign on the cross, Love chose to absorb violence, and instead of perpetuating the cycle, and Love broke it with forgiveness. “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing—they do not yet know love.”

Love chose to turn the other cheek and not return evil for evil, but rather to overcome evil with good.

Instead of making a power-play, Love chose to suffer for us all the way through hell, because Love is the only power that can transform hell into heaven, and suffering into redemption.

Love chose to show the folly of “power over” others with a kingdom that has outlasted by 1500 years, the empire that tried to kill him.

For three days later love transformed Jesus from death into life—showing us that suffering is not the worst of what we experience in this life—it is a lack of love, it is isolation, apathy, loneliness, hatred, sin, disconnection—anything that separates us from God and from trusting that Love hangs with us no matter what.

And that’s what I have learned through the physical and other kinds of suffering in my life—that when I was only looking for God in the end of suffering in or in the answers that I wanted, then I almost missed the many ways that Love was showing up for me and keeping me connected: in the friend who took me to chemo, in the family who supported me, in the meals delivered, in the countless prayers, in the handmade prayer shawls and the quilt that hangs in my office, in the letters and cards, in the visits—I was covered in Love, which is to say, I was living within the kingdom of Jesus.

As John V. Taylor, Bishop of Winchester, England said, “The basic power beneath things is a weakness powerful only in the way that love is powerful—at the end of a long process of endurance, disappointment and vulnerability. In short, God’s only power is love.”

Colossians says it this way: Through this love, “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

Because we are created and saved and transformed in love, which is always present, God desires to work through us and with us to bring greater love, and embody deeper love for the world. That’s the true meaning and miracle of the Incarnation. Not just that God became human in Jesus, but that Jesus becomes human again and again and again through each of us, as his body in the world, loving people who are suffering, and transforming evil--not with retaliation, but with good.

We see the kind of love Christ our King calls us to, embodied in the life of Mahatma Gandhi, who read a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, every morning and every night for 40 years because he grasped the reign of God in Jesus’ Law of Love--that love is the only power strong enough to overcome evil. He challenged and rejected Western Christian theologians inability to take seriously, the fullness of Jesus’s message of love. Gandhi understood that Jesus’s Kingship was a reign of non-violent, non-retaliation, non-resistance to evil dedicated to transforming it through the multiplied power of goodness through love. Martin Luther King Jr. called Gandhi, a Hindu, “the greatest Christian of modern times.”

Is it still hard to see Jesus our King hanging on cross? Our hope today is to be like the criminal hanging next to Jesus—to see in his suffering, the advent of the most powerful kingdom in the universe, and to beg for entry into this reign of love that transforms all.

On Christ the King Sunday, our Lord who hangs on the cross, shows us that the fullness of his reign of love, must go far beyond our personal behavior and our private relationships. Indeed, his love has the power to change the world, to bring peace, to stop violence, and to have radical social, communal, and even national and global implications.

When we witness to this reign of Christ, we join with believers and saints who truly see the Kingdom of Love breaking into the world in Jesus Christ, and we are ready to join God’s loving transformation of the whole world.

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The Apocalyptic: Truth, Endurance, and Victory

Apocalyptic Blessings of Truth Endurance VictoryMessage for the Pentecost 23 on Luke 21:5-19, Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 given on November 17, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

My husband, Dan’s grandparents, Henry and Agatha Little, were very formal people whose grandchildren addressed them as “grandmother and grandfather.” Both loved to tell a good a story and even though grandfather was the Presbyterian minister, grandmother was the better storyteller.

One of Dan’s favorite stories came from a visit when he was in high school; his grandparents had been married for over 50 years by then. Grandfather was telling a story and grandmother kept interrupting him to add details he was forgetting, and annoyed, he said to her, “Agatha, shut-up!” Grandmother quickly replied, “You’re just lucky I put up with you.” And grandfather quipped, “Agatha, I’d be luckier if you’d just shut-up!”

Fortunately, Dan never adopted this as a model for marital communication or he would have found out how cold the couch is, but it’s become a joke in our family conversations, especially if you talk during movies. Truth be told, this is how I react when I read passages like this one from the Gospel of Luke. This is called an “apocalyptic” passage because it describes to the end times. But I really want to say, “Jesus, I’d be luckier if you’d just shut up!”

Apocalyptic passages in the Bible like Daniel, Revelation and other passages in the Gospels cause so much confusion, misinterpretation and wasted time and energy on speculation. There have been so many times over my years of ministry that people have said that they think we are living in the end times because of the wars, earthquakes, storms and signs we see everywhere—just like it says right here by Jesus himself.

I try to lovingly say, “Yes, it is distressing that these things are happening, but that has been true throughout human history. Every generation has thought it was living in the end times—"

• The Black Death in 14th century killed 60% of Europe’s population- I bet they thought the apocalypse was upon them.
• Those who suffered through World War I, one of the deadliest wars in history, and the flu pandemic that followed taking a total of 50 million lives, probably believed it was the end times.
• The “Great Chilean Earthquake”—the biggest ever recorded—and the “Great Alaskan Earthquake,” both in the early 60’s, must have added to the feeling that the Viet Nam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the social upheavals in that era of protest and civil rights, were all signs of the end times.

We can watch the news and speculate, just as every generation before us. Do on-going wars, terror, record-breaking storms, political conflicts, threats from Russia, Iran or North Korea, or the plague of gun violence signal the end times for us today?

There is one and only one answer to this question and it’s never the answer that we want or find satisfying in the least. We do not know. We never will know. Both the Gospels of Mark 13 and Matthew 24 remind us of this: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come."

This message of not knowing when the end will come is repeated in 1 Thessalonians 5, 2 Peter 3, and the book of Revelation. How easy it is to forget these passages in the Bible when wars and rumors of war fill the news, and our social media feeds. This is the very reason Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to stop living in idleness—some of them gave up the work of the church as if Jesus’ return would be the next day--we don't know, so stop being idle!

Because we don’t know, can’t know, won’t know—why does Jesus, and other apocalyptic writers in the Bible, spend time giving us a teaser? That’s why I want to tell Jesus that we’d be luckier if he’d just shut up. We can never get what we really want from this passage about the when and who and how, so what does Jesus offer us instead?

When we can set aside our desire for a crystal ball on God’s future, we can see that Jesus offers us three essential blessings as a faithful follower during difficult, tumultuous times:

1. Jesus tells the truth about the pain—The only thing worse than enduring pain or trauma in this life—whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual—is the temptation or expectation or need we have to hide it, suppress it, deny it, minimize it, pretend it’s not there, that it doesn’t matter, no one cares, that it could be worse, that others have it worse, so buck up.

Healing never comes from the denial of pain. We have to feel it, honor it, acknowledge it and work through it to move forward, so Jesus tells the truth: Life is hard, faithfulness is difficult, you will experience conflict, and suffering, and national strife.

For the first disciples and the early church, that did mean the possibility of being persecuted for their faith. We can exercise our faith freely but that does not mean that we have escaped suffering or the fear of terror or the experience of trauma, abuse, great sorrow or incapacity. Jesus does not need your denial and Jesus is not asking you to buck up; he is a truth-teller and invites you to be, as well, because it opens us up to receive what we really need, which is blessing #2.

2. Jesus gives us power, wisdom and endurance. When we suffer, we have an opportunity to testify—to share what Jesus has done and is doing for us in the midst of pain and difficulty. Jesus’s Spirit is right there with us because he has promised to be with us until the end of the age. Jesus promises that he will fill us with words and with wisdom and with strength and with endurance that we cannot muster on our own. We can always rely on a power greater than ourselves to take the next right step because we are never alone.

Apocalyptic passages always serve to encourage believers to remain faithful to Christ during tumultuous times. We don’t need to know “when” the end is coming because whatever we endure in this life, Jesus is with us and will give us the power, wisdom and endurance to get through to other side. You are not alone, and do not have to rely on your own strength or thoughts or even words.

3. Finally, Jesus promises a victorious future no matter what. “Not a hair of your head will perish and by your endurance you will gain your souls.” Jesus always wins, God will always be victorious in the end. It may not sound that way when you turn on the evening news because sin and human brokenness never take a vacation and they never will until Jesus returns—so every time looks like the end time.

But the resurrection of Jesus from the very jaws of death means that God has won and will win in the end every single time. So, don’t be discouraged by the signs of the time, and do not waste time living in idleness and speculating about what we cannot know. Instead—get on with the life and actions of a believer who trusts deep in their soul that Jesus is with them in all things, and God is victorious in the end—no matter what, no matter how, no matter when. As Malachi promises, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.

After church today, we are making new “Chrismons” for the Christmas tree—which are special white and gold Christian ornaments. The word, “Chrismon” comes from the words, “Christ” and “monogram” since Chrismons are usually symbols that represent Jesus—the cross, the lamb, the star, the dove and so on.

This passage from Luke and other apocalyptic writings are here to remind us that even and especially in the midst of turmoil and crisis—we are a “Christ Monogram”—marked with cross of Christ in our Baptism. You know what your fear and turmoil is today, so in the truth of that experience, put your hand on your forehead and retrace the sign of the cross made at your Baptism as you listen to Jesus words:

“Fear not for I am with you, I have called you by name, you are mine. In this turmoil or suffering, I am with you, giving you power and endurance. I have saved you, sealed you with my Spirit, claimed you as my precious child, and made you the very dwelling place for God. So, look to me for wisdom and strength, and trust that God is and always will be victorious in the end.”

Endure with hope, for you are a living offering, a Christ Monogram, a walking prayer, a Chrismon, carrying the victorious God of the universe with you wherever you go.

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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