Thank you for your Good Behavior: Doing What’s Ours; Letting Go of What Isn’t

Thank you for your Good Behavior Doing Whats Mine Letting Go of What IsntI truly hoped I would graduate from regular oncology check-ups when I moved to Texas. Gratefully, I’d passed the ten-year mark since completing my breast cancer treatment, and I believed I was finally beyond the time frame within which I was most at risk for a recurrence. I knew I wouldn’t be in the five-year class, since I’d had two kinds of cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes where it was also invasive. But ten years? I thought I was done!

But that’s not what my oncologist in St. Louis said. Instead, I learned about some new risks I had not quite heard before (maybe denial protects us from hearing more than we can handle all at once). Now I know that one reason for me to continue with regular oncology check-ups is that there have been recurrences beyond ten years with my kind of cancer. In addition, one of the chemo drugs I took can cause cardiomyopathy, and as an oncologist, she listened to my heart and other symptoms differently from a regular internist.
This sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I thought I had already dealt with my fear of death, the uncertainty of cancer returning, the dread of treatment, the waiting after tests, and pondering the unknown; instead, I discovered that such fears can resurface even after ten years. As I went through a whole new battery of tests (a full blood panel, an echo-cardiogram, and a PET scan) with my new oncologist in Frisco, I started obsessing about toxic ingredients in personal care and make-up products, constantly trying new ones that were organic and free of anything not approved by the Environmental Working Group. I splurged on a 10-stage water filter when Dan was out of town. I couldn’t control whether I got cancer again, but I could control my environment and what products I used as much as possible.

The fear driving my new obsessions was hard to explain, to name, and to face, partly because they were unexpected after ten years. Dan was mad at me for spending money unnecessarily and I was mad at him for not trying to understand how terrified and alone I felt. But we got there. It took some painful conversation, but I was finally honest about what was churning inside, and he was able to embrace me in it. I have stopped making irrational purchases while burying my feelings; he fills the water filter at night so we have filtered water ready for coffee in the morning.

I went to my new oncologist to get the results of this whole battery of tests, providing my new baseline for health. He is a soft-spoken, balding man with a gentle spirit and a slight Spanish accent who looked at me with a sweet smile and said, “thank you for your good behavior.” All my tests were negative and all my numbers from my white blood cell count to my cholesterol looked great. Such relief!

But the whole experience reminded me not to be lulled into a false sense of control. I am so glad that regular exercise and a careful diet show up in my test results; however, this experience taught me once again that I need to let go of the illusion of control over cancer or anything else that might happen. I can do what is mine to do regarding reasonable and responsible self-care and let go of the future and the “what-ifs,” giving them back to God. In every arena of life, this is the challenge of living a daily life of faith: doing what’s mine and letting go of what isn’t.

PS Please do your monthly self-exams and know your body! I was saved by self-exam because my tumor was in the 10% that did not show up on a mammogram. Remember that men can get breast cancer as well!


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Truth, Pain, Freedom, and A Lifetime Relationship with the Jesus

Truth Pain and Freedom A Lifelong Relationship with JesusA sermon preached for Reformation and Confirmation Sunday on John 8:31-36, Romans 3:19-28, and Jeremiah 31:31-34 on October 28, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas (I adapted a sermon from Reformation Sunday last year, so this may sound familiar in places!)

We’ve all heard that “the truth hurts.” In fact, if you google this phrase, you can find hundreds of posters about it on Pinterest.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Jesus doesn’t mention that the truth hurts—he seems to skip the part about the pain involved in between knowing the truth and being free.

One of the biggest reasons that we are not set free in so many situations, is that we are unwilling to feel the pain of facing the truth. Jesus is not talking about propositional truth—statements or doctrines of fact that we simply accept—but rather he is talking about the truth of who we are, the truth of who God is, the truth of our relationship with God in Christ Jesus, and the truth of how we live out that relationship in the world.

Psychologists write entire books about our defense mechanisms—all the ways we avoid the pain in the truth of who we are: we repress what disturbs us; we project what we don’t like about ourselves onto others, and hate them; we rationalize our errors, we regress into childhood behaviors and thought-patterns – we can look forward to this dynamic as the holiday season approaches when the whole family gets together, and we feel like we’re eight years old again!

And of course, denial, when we simply deny the reality in front of us until we’re ready to deal with the pain that comes with it. I just wrote about a recent realization of my own denial in the November newsletter (which I will post this week). When I or someone I love seems to be stuck in denial, I like to sidle up to them with a smile and say, “you know ‘denial’ is not just a river Egypt!”

When I was in seminary I dated a fellow student—I’ll call him Chuck. We looked like a good match on the surface, and I knew my parents would approve, so gosh darnit, I was going to make this relationship work. Chuck’s a great guy and he’s a wonderful pastor, but the truth was that our personalities, needs, and ways of expressing ourselves were not that compatible.

But I didn’t want to deal with the pain of that truth. I didn’t want to experience the pain of being alone, or the pain of admitting that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a way to really be myself in this relationship. The truth hurts, so I repressed, denied and rationalized my way into trying harder for almost two years.

When I was learning about the 12-Step program, I visited an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I will never forget the speaker that day who talked about Step 1, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.” He said the problem is that we think we can kick addiction or end a painful situation by just trying harder. But no matter how hard we try, we still fail, and then we repeat the cycle over and over again. Talk about pain.

“The truth is,” he said, “Step 1 happens not by trying harder, but when we admit that we cannot do it at all!” That’s a painful truth—we are powerless, and left to our own devices, our lives are a mess—and that’s the moment when we become ready to receive help from God. That’s when the feeling of freedom comes over us! Freedom comes when we “let go, and let God.”

That’s what happened in my relationship with Chuck. When I admitted I couldn’t fix or change this relationship by trying harder, or by being someone I’m not, and that I needed God’s help, I was ready to face the truth—that truth came with the pain of a broken relationship, the pain of being alone, and the pain of my own limitations.

It was the end of December and bitterly cold in Chicago. Chuck and I talked and cried late into the night because the truth hurts. This was before cell phones, so it would have been unwise for him to drive back to his parents’ house that night, so we pumped up the air mattress. We weren’t married, so when there were no alternative sleeping arrangements, we traded off who got the bed and who slept on the air mattress. That night, it was my turn for the air mattress.

We didn’t know that the air mattress had a hole in it, so as I slept, all the air seeped out and I ended up on the cold, hardwood floor. It sounds horrible, but it was the best night of sleep I’d had in months—because the truth had set me free. I was enveloped in the forgiveness and love of Jesus, and I finally trusted him with my whole life, even if I graduated from seminary and remained alone (which was my biggest fear). The pain that I couldn’t make my life work at all, was momentary, but the relationship with Jesus lasts for a lifetime.

We see this pattern throughout Scripture and in the lives of the saints who seek to be faithful to the truth of who they are, and the truth of who God is in Jesus Christ.

When Jesus appeared to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, he had to deal with the pain of who he was—having persecuted and killed the early Christians—he endured blindness and confusion, deep sorrow and regret. But the truth of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, made him free from that pain, and from his former life as a Pharisee.

The pain was momentary, but Paul was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime. Paul experienced that he was justified by grace as a gift, and we are still hearing about his freedom today, two millennia later in our passage from Romans.

Five Hundred years ago, Martin Luther grappled with pain of his own sin, and the truth that he could not—no matter how hard he tried—not by his own work or merit—make himself right before God.

Would the Reformation have happened if Luther repressed, denied, rationalized, and projected the pain of his sin on someone else, instead of experiencing it, and discovering in the process, forgiveness without price, and grace without merit?

The pain of his sin was momentary, but Luther was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime—even during excommunication from the church and a threat on his life.

Ashlee, Virginia and Rachel, today you are Confirmed as adult members of the Christian faith through this congregation. Even though you are young, we can tell from the Bible verses you chose for today that you are already grappling with the painful truths of human life alongside the hope of our faith.

Ashlee, your passage from Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that “for everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven—a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh.” Virginia, your passage from 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells the painful truth that there will be temptations and testing, but that God is faithful and will give us what we need to endure and come through stronger. Rachel, your passage from Philippians 4 is a beautiful proclamation that when we finally accept that we can’t do life on our own, we can ask God for whatever we need, and that with the freedom of grace, we receive the peace that passes all understanding.

Amazingly, you three young women already know that being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t give us an escape valve from the hardships or pain of this life, but rather, that our faith strengthens us through them, giving us a freedom and peace we cannot create or grasp on our own.

So I encourage you not to be afraid of the truth—the truth of who you are, the truth of how God made you, the truth of what you find to be life-giving and soul-nourishing, the truth of what you need to continue to grow into a whole and holy person who is so precious in God’s sight, and so loved by Jesus (and by me, and your family!), and so embraced by this congregation.

No matter what your future holds, your truth and freedom and peace will always be in the same place—in your abiding relationship with Jesus. “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The Word is the Bible, yes, but the Word is also Jesus himself, for he is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the truth of God’s love made real, and his word is written on your heart. He dwells in you, and is always with you, no matter what!

With our Confirmands, God invites all of us to trust in the truth of who we are in our relationship with Jesus Christ—that we are freed from our own sin and limitations and enveloped by God’s grace to love and serve with our whole heart. So wherever you are trying harder, wherever you are resisting the pain of change, wherever you are repressing feelings, or projecting negativity—that’s the very place Jesus calls you to greater freedom. It’s time to let go of trying harder! Tell God you can’t do it on your own and put your trust in Jesus.

The truth may hurt, but it doesn’t last because the freedom of God’s grace always catches us. Jesus sets us free for a relationship with him that lasts not only for a lifetime, but for eternity! And that’s freedom, indeed!

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Putting God First

Putting God FirstA sermon preached for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 10:17-31 on October 14, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I have to confess that I am not qualified to preach on this text today, because I have not followed Jesus’s instruction to sell all I have, give it to the poor, and follow him. But as soon as I say that I’m not qualified to preach this text, I have to admit that I’m not qualified to preach any text. How could a sinner such as I, have any way of speaking truth to God’s people?

How do we all not feel like we’re flunking our faith when we hear passages like this? When we hear Jesus’ words, we all have to admit up front that we’re just not there. We’re not ready to give away everything we have and join the Benedictines or the Franciscans in taking a vow of poverty. Perhaps none of us are qualified, but Jesus’s words are unavoidable, so I invite you to lean into the discomfort of this text with me, trusting that God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called—and that’s you, me, all of us—called into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ, who looks at us as he does the rich man—with love—inviting us to see ourselves and our life differently.

The rich mean asks what he must do to gain eternal life. First-century Jews did not have the same concept of life after death that Christians developed after Jesus’s resurrection, so what was the rich man really asking? The Jewish tradition made a contrast between two kinds of life—Fleeting Life and Lasting or Eternal Life. Fleeting life, “chayei sha’ah” is living a life that is only focused on everyday things—working, making money, eating, and sleeping. A Fleeting Life is self-focused on survival, but doesn’t carry deep meaning.

By contrast, a Lasting Life, a Life of Eternity “chayei olam” refers to living a life focused on matters of eternal importance—things that last—such as love, relationships, prayer, compassion, doing good, and being good in the world. A Lasting Life or Life of Eternity here and now expends energy outward in service and generosity that gives us meaning, and has a lasting positive impact on others.

So the rich man was asking not so much about the afterlife as we think of it, as he was about a lasting, meaningful life here and now—like Jesus had. He essentially said, “I want what you have, Jesus.” Jesus responded to the man’s question with the 10 Commandments, and the rich man immediately assured Jesus that he followed the law. But for Jesus, the Lasting Life, the eternal life, the meaningful life is about even more than living by the 10 Commandments. “You lack one thing” Jesus said.

It’s an ironic statement, isn’t it? How can the man who is wealthy lack anything? Isn’t that the point of being rich—to lack nothing? But Jesus wasn’t referring to a material possession; Jesus was talking about his state of being. A better translation would be, “you are lacking in one thing.” The rich man’s way of being, his orientation toward life, his understanding of Lasting Life, and Eternal Life is lacking.

“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man may have kept the 10 Commandments, but he was not looking beyond that, to the community at large, to those in need. Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus wanted the rich man to do the same—to look beyond himself, beyond of the law and daily tasks, and love the poor with compassion, helping them have at least a Fleeting Life—a life of survival. Jesus invited the rich man to love God enough to put others’ needs before his wants, others’ hunger before his comfort, others’ brokenness before his pleasure, others’ shelter before his luxuries.

To live a Lasting Life with an enduring impact means trusting that your deepest meaning comes from your relationship with the living God who is standing before the rich man in Jesus.

Why is it so difficult for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God, that is, to live a Lasting Life, a life of eternity here and now—one that is rooted in our relationship with God, filled with meaning, generosity, compassion and abiding impact? Because money is the easiest thing for us to revere more than God. It gives us power, choices, status, opportunities, comfort, enjoyment, access, education, travel, massages and facials (two things I’d like more of), and the list goes on. A spiritual relationship with God can feel pretty abstract next to all the things that money can do for us.

I read recently that 16 of the 38 parables of Jesus are concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing 1 out of 10 verses (288 in all) deal directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, fewer than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions. It’s our #1 temptation.

Jesus still loved the rich man, he just made it clear to him, how easy it is to love our possessions more than God. Jesus made clear how easy it is for us to pretend if we’re a good person who follows the commandments, that that’s all Jesus asks of us, and that’s good enough. But God doesn’t want to be second best in our life. God doesn’t want to be runner-up, the bridesmaid and never the bride, the consolation prize, the wild card, or the pennant-winner instead of the World Series champion. God wants to be #1—that’s why he sent Jesus to live with us and be like us. God sent his very best, his #1, so that we can give God our very best and make God our #1—the very first place in our heart above all else. 

This is why spirituality, and spiritual practices have become more and more important to me as I’ve gotten older and continued to work in ministry. I know how sinful and broken I am, how easy and quickly my own ego, my wants, fears, attachments, comforts, and issues can dominate my thoughts and actions. I need practices and tools every day to remind me that God is first, that Jesus is my #1.

There are also ways to manage our resources to keep God #1 in our life, and one of them is tithing, that is, giving 10% of your income back to God through the church. I didn’t know a lot about tithing until I attended a workshop my last year of seminary. This pastor was so excited about what a blessing it was to tithe—that you give your first offering to God, and you trust that God will provide for what you need.

I figured it was part of my job description as a pastor, so I thought I’d better try it. It was 1989 and my first congregation in Detroit paid me $17,000 and I lived in the parsonage next door. After I received my paycheck, I would write my first check back to the church, but the issue was the math wasn’t really adding up. It turns out $17,000 wasn’t a lot to live on when I had student loans to repay, I bought my first car and so on. But tithing was a practice I wanted to try to consciously put God first in my life, so I thought I had better stick with it. In truth, I was motivated more by perfectionism than trust in God.

A month or two after I started this new call, I was out visiting a homebound member who lived the furthest away from the church—I still remember her name, Gladys Steinheiser. It was a Tuesday, and I looked at my gas gauge which was below a ¼ tank. I thought to myself, “this will be my last visit this week because I’m almost out of gas, and I’m out of money, and I don’t get paid until Friday.” Gladys and I had a lovely visit, shared Communion, and then she walked me to the door. I gave her hug and before I could leave, she handed me an envelope and said, “here, this is for gas.”

I got in the car, looked up to heaven and said, “ok, I get it!” It’s just as the pastor said: you trust God with your tithe first, and God will make sure you somehow get what you need. And it’s been true ever since. We’re not perfect at it, it still doesn’t qualify me to preach this passage, and we need to improve--our growing edge financially and spiritually is to increase the percentage and grow in our giving.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was the founder of the Jesuit order in the 16th Century, wrote a brief Principal and Foundation for living a spiritual, lasting, eternal life. It focuses on not being attached to the stuff, comforts and outcomes in this life, but instead, on being attached to God. A spiritual mentor gave me a version that’s re-written as if it’s a letter from God. As you hear this, imagine this is what Jesus is saying to the rich man and to all of us:

The goal of your life is to live with me forever. I gave you life because I love you. Your own response of love allows my life to flow into you without limit.

All things in this world are my gifts, presented to you so that you can know Me more easily and make a return of love to me more readily.

As a result, appreciate and use all these gifts of Mine insofar as they help you develop into a loving person. But if any of these gifts become the center of your life, they displace Me and so hinder your growth towards your goal.

In everyday life then hold yourself in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as you have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. Do not fix your desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in you a deeper response to your life in Me.

Make this your only desire and your one choice: Want and choose what better leads to my deepening My life in you.

When Jesus offered this kind of deep abiding relationship, the rich man wasn’t ready, and he walked away. We don’t hear the end of the story. Did he return? Was he at the foot of the cross? Did he hear of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and believe, sharing his wealth for the sake of the good news?

Mark doesn’t tell us because he wants us to finish the story with our own choices. As we do so, remember that "for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for with God all things are possible!"

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Divorce, Justice and Vulnerability

Divorce Justice and VulnerabilityA Sermon preached for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost on October 7, 2018 on Mark 10:2-16, Genesis 2:18-24Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 at St. Luke's lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Perhaps you’ve heard the line spoken by Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, “Divorces are made in heaven.” He’s poking fun at the rules of Victorian England, and by implication, also of Christian thought, tradition, and biblical interpretation over the centuries. Our Scripture passages from Genesis and Mark today are two sources for the belief that  it's marriages that are made in heaven, and that divorce is unforgivable, creating reason enough to exclude people from Christian community.

In fact, since moving to Texas, I have met a retired pastor from another tradition who lost his entire pension because he married a divorced woman. Now at age 70, he’s considering learning how to sell cars and grappling with the fact that he’ll never be able to retire. I was appalled by this story and saddened this is practiced by those who call themselves Christian.
Is this really what the Biblical tradition promotes about marriage? That human brokenness and failure in relationships is somehow worse than other sin?

As in our Children’s Message today, one of our tasks in Biblical interpretation is to correct mis-interpretations that are culture-bound, affected by historical context, and limited by looking at the text only through the lens of patriarchal systems of power.

The Pharisees in our Mark text tried to start an abstract argument about the law with Jesus. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” It’s like a student going to a counselor to ask advice for “a friend.” But Jesus’s response is alarmingly personal, “What did Moses command YOU?” he asks. How are YOU treating YOUR wife and family?

The Pharisees quoted Deuteronomy where the law allows a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce. The Law allowed for divorce if a man’s wife proved to have “unseemly characteristics”—usually interpreted as unfaithfulness. Many Jewish leaders believed adultery was the only legitimate reason for a divorce. Other schools of thought, however, believed a man could give his wife a certificate of divorce if she displeased him in anyway, if he found someone he liked better, or whom he deemed more beautiful. The Talmud, a post-Biblical collection of Jewish texts, says that a man can divorce his wife if she burned his soup, wore her hair loose, or talked too loudly. In the patriarchal culture of Jesus’ time, a woman had no right to issue her husband a certificate of divorce and had no legal recourse if she or her children were abused or mistreated.

In his response, Jesus cited not only Genesis, but the 6th Commandment against adultery in making his argument discouraging divorce. He does this not because it’s an unforgiveable sin, not because there should be no divorce no matter what, not because divorce can’t be the best, healthiest option available, but because God’s heart is always on the side of those who are most vulnerable—those who have no rights, who are marginalized or powerless for any reason.

Women couldn’t own property, they were property. Divorce could easily leave women and their children destitute—with no means of income or support if the woman’s father or brother were dead or not able to take them in. Jesus knew human sin leads us to pursue our own self-interest at others’ expense, so by then raising divorce to the level of breaking one of the Ten Commandments, he was protecting women and children from undeserved suffering, and from being treated as disposable.

In the previous chapter, Mark repeatedly emphasized the importance of protecting the most vulnerable with stories about healing a child, welcoming children, and not causing children to stumble. In this passage, children still figure prominently when Jesus scolded the disciples for shooing them away and said, "‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them."

The writer of Mark doesn’t want us to miss the point that Jesus words about divorce are not only about personal morality, but also about society’s attitude toward those who can most easily be cast aside as disposable. God’s heart is always with those who are in need.

The universal truth behind the passage is that all of us are vulnerable and in need in some way. Most older people I know are not afraid of death itself, but of dying—the process—of losing agency and independence, of becoming dependent and increasingly vulnerable. Some are worried about taking care of someone who is losing capacity, or maybe you’ve already done that for your spouse and you wonder who will take care of you if you need it. Perhaps you have financial anxiety, and like the retired pastor I met, must keep working after age 70 and pray your body holds out, and that you can find a job or keep a job. For others, our vulnerability may be one of identity and meaning—we’re doing everything we’re supposed to--providing for our family, and we look like a success, but we wonder if that’s all there is. Maybe our vulnerability is something we hide, like many do with mental illness, chronic depression, anxiety, or addiction. Perhaps divorce is part of your story or of someone you love. Maybe it wasn’t a “divorce made in heaven” and you’d like to be free of the pain, or guilt that lingers and you just want to feel loved for who you are and where you’re at in life. Jesus’ words include you today, not exclude you.

All of us come with a vulnerability today—none of us escape the effects of human limitation and brokenness. We can’t simply issue a certificate of wholeness or healing for ourselves and change our situation to something that looks better. As harsh as Jesus sounds, he really is communicating God’s heart for those in need, and that includes all of us—single, divorced, married, partnered—no matter what our family configuration is. When we are in touch with our own vulnerability, we can enter the kingdom as Jesus calls us to—like a child, aware of our need for God and our dependence on Jesus Christ.

That’s why Jesus came, who, as Hebrews says, “is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” We may wonder as the psalmist, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?” Yet God sent Jesus to communicate God’s heart of love for us, making us one with him. Through his suffering and death, Jesus grants us forgiveness and newness of life, claiming us as precious children so that we might be sanctified with the one who sanctifies.

Because God’s heart embraces, loves and forgives us in our need and vulnerability, we can follow Jesus in protecting others who are vulnerable. We don’t have to go far to identify those who need our support. Some of us help care for our vulnerable family members. Sixty percent of students in the Richardson School District are receiving free or reduced lunch. Many seniors need to work and are having a hard time finding employers who will hire anyone over the age of 50. Increasing housing costs are making difficult for more and more people to pay their bills.

It can be as simple as leaving a bigger tip for low wage workers, remembering to offer prayer to those strangers we meet during the day, or responding with love to people in need who join us on Sunday morning, which I have already witnessed many of you doing. Jesus calls us, not to a perfect life, but to a life that is saved by the unmerited gift of God’s love so that we can join Jesus in protecting the vulnerable and making sure no one is treated as disposable.

In Jesus Christ, God issues all of us a certificate of eternal love and salvation and calls us to reach out to those who need it most and share the good news!



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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.