My Son Needed the Love of the Church. I Wasn’t Sure It Was Possible.

Including the cognitively disabled in ministry is a chance to live in a cross-shaped way.

Jennifer Brown Jones| May 8, 2019

“NO! I NOT QUIET!” The meltdown began—of course—just as the prayer was starting. My husband grabbed our son Mischa’s hand and left the sanctuary, as quickly and quietly as possible. It wasn’t quiet. I have no idea what the worship leader was praying, but my own desperate cry had become almost rote: “Lord, I can’t do this. Help. I’m so tired. I don’t remember not being tired. I can’t do this.” The lights came up and people began greeting one another. I took a breath, preparing to apologize. Again. We wouldn’t be able to come back to this church.

First appeared on May 8, 2019 on Christianity Today where the rest of the article is available.

How to Praise God When the World is Shaking

Have you wondered what it might look like to praise God by praying some of the Psalter’s hymns when life doesn’t make sense? That’s just what I talked about in my last post, but it may not be obvious how it works. It’s probably a bit different for every person, but I thought that rather than moving on to talk about the psalms of disorientation I’d give you an idea of how I’ve been praying one particular hymn when the world around me is shaking.

Psalm 111 is a wisdom hymn. It talks about a world that God clearly rules. In it, the speaker reflects on God’s provision and faithfulness. Sometimes we can focus solely on that provision and faithfulness, but sometimes our hearts are broken and we are confronted with the brokenness of the world. That is the kind of place my prayer comes from.

The prayer below shouldn’t be read as a translation or commentary. Instead, Psalm 111 served as a model and starting point for my personal prayer, although the original Hebrew, the Greek translation, and my wider studies in the OT have influenced my prayer. (If you have a question about how my studies influenced something particular in my prayer, feel free to ask in the comments.)

Praying Psalm 111

Let us praise You, Lord—in every circumstance; despite every circumstance.

Help me to praise You with the entirety of my being, even though I feel surrounded by loss.

Help me to see and tell of Your goodness no matter where I am: among those who love You and among those who may not.

Great are Your works. I am surrounded by them. I see the beauty and majesty of Your creation. I have seen Your answers to prayer. You have gifted Your people with Your word. No matter my circumstances, I can see these things. I can reflect on them. I can thank You for them. I can stop and allow them to show me Your nature and Your faithfulness. Help me to stop in the midst of my everyday craziness and reflect on Your works and what they teach me about You.

Sometimes we can focus solely on praising God’s character and works, but sometimes our hearts are broken and we are confronted with the brokenness of the world. In just such a place I am choosing to blend my praise and prayer. I am choosing to seek and to trust God in spite of my circumstances, letting my praise lead me to prayer for His kingdom to come.

You tell us that Your righteousness endures forever. Sometimes it’s easy for me to echo that statement. Honestly, though, as I look around the world that You created and see its brokenness, it can be hard to see how Your people reflect that quality; myself included. You have called us to put the needs of others ahead of our own. You have called us to love our neighbors as ourselves. You have called us to justice, holiness, and peace. Yet even within our church walls we fail at this. Please, transform the hearts of Your people—that we may reflect the cruciform image of Jesus; that we may be Your hands and feet with an allegiance to You above any worldly powers or agendas. May Your reign come and Your will be done in the hearts and lives of Your people! I confess that all too often it is easy to just go on dealing with my daily life and to forget about the bigger picture. Help me to see and love others as You do, especially those who are different from me. Fill me with Your grace and compassion. Show me how to demonstrate Your love to each person I meet today.

I thank You for Your faithfulness to Your promises and covenant. Throughout Your word we see examples of Your faithfulness in spite of human unfaithfulness. You deliver. You provide. You instruct. You call. You equip. I thank You for Your Spirit that works in Your people.

Your instruction given to us throughout Your word is trustworthy. You have established it forever. Jesus came to fulfill the Scriptures, not to abolish what had come before. His life on earth gives us a picture of what it means to be truly human and live as You desire. Help us to see where we fall short. Transform us to be more like Jesus through the work of Your Spirit. Show me today where I need to change and surrender things to You, especially in my small, daily choices. Transform me.

I thank You that You work in the lives of Your people. May we not only echo the teaching that fearing You is the beginning of wisdom. Help us to live it every day.

You, Lord, are holy. You are faithful. You are gracious. To You and You alone belong eternal praise. Lord, move in Your people. May we praise You not only with our lips, but also with our lives. Amen.

3 Ideas for Our Prayers

If you’ve read Psalm 111 lately, you probably noticed significant differences between my prayer and the original text. Sometimes, like the psalmist, we can focus solely on praising God’s character and works; but sometimes our hearts are broken and we are confronted with the brokenness of the world. In just such a place I have chosen to blend my praise and prayer. I am choosing to seek and to trust God in spite of my circumstances, letting my praise lead me to prayer for His kingdom to come. Here are a few ideas for praying hymns no matter where you are:

  1. Praise & prayer: I didn’t worry about changing the tone to reflect where I’m at. The psalm itself is heavily focused on praising God and affirming His goodness. Those points are in my prayer, but I also dealt with the world as I’m experiencing it right now. That means that I focused more on praying that God’s goodness will become evident in the world around me and that we as His people will exhibit His character.
  2. Structure: While Psalm 111 served as a starting point, my prayer is really rooted in my own stream of consciousness. After I had expressed my thoughts on a particular line or verse, I would move on to the next one. Sometimes I would find that my thoughts on that next line had already been expressed, so I just kept going.
  3. Personal & communal: My prayer goes back and forth between personal expressions and prayer for the wider church. If we are praying for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done, it isn’t just about us as individuals. Just because one particular part of my prayer is communal and another is personal, though, doesn’t mean that I think a particular doesn’t apply to me. It’s just how it came out.

My approach to praying this hymn isn’t the only one. It’s just what it has looked like for me lately. I’d love to hear about how you are praying or have prayed the psalms!

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Songs in the Dark

The other day a friend asked me to be praying for her family—her father is in hospice and it’s probably only a matter of days until they lose him. Another friend’s mother is also in hospice. Her fight with cancer has been long and painful. I’m praying for all of them, but right now my prayers are running along the lines of “Lord, I don’t know how to pray for them. I don’t have the words . . . so much death. So much pain. Please comfort them. Please give them strength and a sense of your presence.”

My husband and I have lost 3 people in 3 months. Two in the last 10 days. More loss is coming. These people are our friends and extended family members. They aren’t our spouses, parents, children, or best friends, but while not overwhelming, the sense of loss still lingers. And when I hear about yet another imminent loss, I don’t even know how to pray any more.

Human words, Divine words

While the Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray (Rom 8:26–27), Scripture also gives us words for times like these, especially in the Psalter. The psalms are human words to God. They were composed by His people to address a multitude of experiences and occasions. But they are also God’s word to us. He inspired the composers. The psalms give us words to express our joy and sorrow, but they also teach us about God, who He is and how He works.

Through the centuries, believers have often turned to the laments to express their grief. Interestingly, though, over the last few days God hasn’t been bringing me to the laments. He keeps taking me to the hymns.

 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth . . . What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

Ps 8:1, 4, NIV

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations. The LORD is trustworthy in all he promises and faithful in all he does. The LORD upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down.

Ps 145:13–14, NIV

These particular verses come from psalms that Walter Brueggemann has called “psalms of orientation.” His description highlights the “situatedness” of our words to God. Our prayers, our expectations, and our understanding of God can all change and grow based on our experiences and the situations in which we find ourselves. In this case, Brueggemann suggests that the psalms of orientation come from a place where people find God to be trustworthy. Our worlds make sense and life, if not what we expected, can be described as settled, if not good.

Unexpected Songs

I’m not really in that kind of place, though. So why does God keep bringing me back to these songs? Why not the laments? I think He’s teaching me that while these psalms of orientation often praise God based on our sense of God’s goodness and reliability, He can use them in our lives a in a variety of times and ways. Here, I’d like to suggest three:

  • Praise: Praise is the most obvious. Here, when we as individuals or as part of a community experience God’s goodness, we can use these psalms to praise our Father. We join generations of those who have worshiped Him in times of joy and sorrow.

But what about when we are hurting?

  • Reminder: Sometimes in our darkest moments, we need a reminder of God’s larger plan. Here, these hymns have been pointing me to the ultimate hope that we can have: a future where everyone experiences God’s goodness, justice, and rest. These hymns point to our hope for the new heavens, the new earth, and the resurrection.
  • Prayer: Prayer ties back to the reminder that these psalms give us. Here, whether we are experiencing God’s goodness or are struggling, we can pray that God’s reign will come, bringing the new creation that reflects God’s intended world. We can pray for that experience not only for ourselves, but for our friends, family, communities, and for all of humanity.

Today, God is reminding me that our lost, hurt, and broken world isn’t the final word. Today, as I’m praying for those friends, God is also teaching me to pray in a new way for His kingdom to come and His will to be done.

Getting Honest. Again.

“My Truth”

Being honest about my feelings of loss last summer wasn’t the end of the story. As I’ve continued to reflect on those events and experiences, God has been highlighting for me that this kind of honesty is something He calls each of us to continually. This call requires us to be honest with ourselves, even when it isn’t easy. In today’s lingo, we need to know “our truth.”

It’s become somewhat cliché in recent years to talk about our individual “truths.” Friends tell us to “own your truth” or “live your truth.” They say “my truth” is just fine, no matter what God has to say about the matter. These ideas are part of a culture where we hear over and over that “everything is relative,” and truth seems to be just another one of those relative things.

As a Christ follower, though, these conversations always make me uncomfortable. We serve an infinite God who is all-knowing and all-seeing. He is just. He is love. And, He is truth.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 14:6 NIV

If we accept Jesus’ claim here, then truth is not simply a relative concept, even if it feels like that might make life easier.

By contrast, we are human. We are finite. We are limited. Our ability to understand God, ourselves, and the world around us is limited. What we know in these limitations can be influenced not only by what Scripture teaches us, but it is also inevitably shaped by our personal experiences and our surrounding cultures. To that extent, our understanding of truth is relative—it is shaped by our situatedness in time and space. It is shaped by our cultures, our families, our life experiences, our churches, and yes, by our reading of Scripture and walk with Jesus.

If you don’t believe me or if this makes you uncomfortable, think back over your lifetime. Has your understanding about God, His ways, and His work in the world ever grown to greater depths? Have you ever been falsely accused and had your eyes opened to the reality that human authorities don’t always get it right? Have you lost a loved one and experienced the love of God and His people in your grief? Have you been angry with God and questioned His goodness? (Job was and did.) Has an experience of divine silence brought greater compassion for those walking in their own darkness? I’m not trying to say that our knowledge and beliefs are entirely wrong, only that we don’t have the full picture.

God’s Truth

So why do I bring all of this up? How does this fit with what we’ve been talking about? For me, the honesty I talked about last week led to a place of comfort in that moment, but that was just the start. I’d like to tell you that I took leaps and bounds ahead in my faith or ability to handle my circumstances, but I didn’t. The challenges I face daily continue. I have to keep taking my exhaustion, frustration, and yes, sometimes even anger, to God over and over.

In the midst of the challenges I face, though, I keep seeing God’s fingerprints and hearing echoes of His whispers. I have seen those fingerprints in unexpected financial provision that has enabled us to get some extra help. I have heard those echoes in friends with whom we can spend time and laugh or talk about God instead of trying to “solve” problems that don’t really have a solution.

I have to own “my truth”—that I can’t do this alone—even when I don’t like it. And I have to embrace God’s truth: I was never supposed to.

When I deny the pain, difficulties, or problems, though, the load gets heavier and the burden becomes unbearable. I have to own “my truth”—that I can’t do this alone—even when I don’t like it. And I have to embrace God’s truth: I was never supposed to. God doesn’t call His people to rugged individualism, however much my culture might prize it. No. He calls us to dependence and interdependence.

I need the Spirit to transform me into the image of Jesus, who poured Himself out for others. I need God’s people to help me see where my understanding of God falls short. I need them to encourage me to keep going. Sometimes I need them to come alongside and help carry the load. But just as importantly, I need to see their needs and take my eyes of myself, trusting that God will provide what our family needs when we help meet the needs of others.

How about you? Are you struggling right now with either your circumstances or your relationship with God? Is there an aspect of that struggle where God might be calling you to a radical honesty in His presence, even if it’s not pretty? Even if it’s not gracious or doesn’t seem “Christian”?

Job’s honesty in Job 3, while not addressed directly to God, is brutal. God doesn’t answer him immediately and when He does, He doesn’t provide the answers that any of us want. Instead, what God gave Job was an encounter with His complete “otherness” that reframed Job’s entire understanding of God, His ways, and His world. So, I’m not promising that our honesty will always be met with the comfort I experienced that day. But I do believe that God will give us what He knows we need. He isn’t situated and finite. He’ll get it right.

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All Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

Getting Honest

Confronted with Loss

Last summer, as we were driving through Glacier National Park, marveling at the views, I unexpectedly found tears streaming down my face. Not tears of joy for the beauty, but rather those of deep-seated grief and loss. I stared out the window, trying to hide them—the pain was raw, a never-healed wound that had ripped open yet again.

It all started as my husband and I were listening to Margaret Feinberg’s Fight Back with Joy on audio. In Chapter .005 Margaret, who reads the audio version herself, describes how she used ancient Jewish mourning rituals to express her grief as she fought breast cancer. At first my tears were for Margaret as I tried to imagine her experience. They turned into tears for a friend who was fighting cancer. But then Margaret’s words hit me where I live:

What do you need to grieve? . . . Sometimes we sweep away opportunities to grieve by convincing ourselves the loss is no big deal . . . sometimes the quieter losses prove to be the most important . . . the unmet expectations you’ve never said aloud, the unrealized dream that haunts you when you can’t sleep.

Margaret Feinberg

As she talked about how these ancient mourning rites invite “mourners to voice the unspeakable to God” I realized that the loss that continually confronted me was the one that I had never really grieved. It was one of those quiet losses of unmet expectations and unrealized hopes. It was the loss that in some ways I had never taken to God: our younger son Mischa’s genetic disorder.  

Worshiping in the Dark

If Margaret’s words challenged me to be honest with myself and with God, the keriah ritual she described took me back to Job. As Job talks with his friends, he demonstrates honesty with a vengeance. But the words and actions of the keriah ritual echo Job’s initial response. Job had lost almost everything. Only his wife and his health remained when

Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Job 1:20–21 (NRSV)

With these words, Job submits himself to God and worships (1:20). Before Job rages against God (chapters 3–31), demanding an audience, an explanation, and justice, Job acknowledged both God’s sovereignty and his own dependence on Him. Job worshiped the One that he held responsible for his loss.

Speaking the Unspeakable

When Job was afflicted with sores and his wife encouraged him to curse God and die, Job responded that we must receive both good and evil from God (2:10). But after Job’s worship, his refusal to curse God, and finally his silent suffering, Job becomes bluntly honest, saying exactly what he thinks and feels. He “voice[s] the unspeakable.”

I cried quietly that day in the car, but I wasn’t brutally honest with God. That only happened a month later as I talked about daily life with Mischa in a small group from church while we were discussing Rom 12:1:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

One of the women gently and kindly commented that it sounded like my husband Casey and I were living this out. I replied—actually, I think I snapped—that it didn’t count because I hadn’t chosen this path. And suddenly I could breathe. I’d finally been honest and stopped trying to put a brave face on it. My words weren’t pretty and I wasn’t gracious. But as I looked in her eyes, I felt understood and accepted. She got it. She knew. She hadn’t chosen her path either. She was a cancer survivor. And kind of like Job’s experience before his friends spoke, in that moment I knew that I wasn’t alone. She too had walked a difficult path that she hadn’t chosen and that many would never understand. God may have taken my dreams and expectations, but He had gifted me with understanding and compassion. In my mourning, He provided comfort.

What about you? What do you need to be honest with God about? Or do you need to be the understanding ear for someone who is finally ready to be honest? You are welcome to share a word or two, or perhaps someone’s initials if you need prayer. But even if you don’t, I’ll be praying this week that you will come to a place where you can allow mourning to lead to joy, saying with me:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

(Matt 5:4; Job 1:21)

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All Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

Rethinking Blessing: Celebrating Interdependence

At the end of my last post, Widows, Orphans, & Foreigners Still Matter, I suggested that we should celebrate our interdependence. While I hope that you enjoy the fireworks and BBQ’s today if you’re in the U.S., no matter where you are I pray that we as God’s people will all focus more on being citizens of God’s kingdom, learning to treasure the gift of our need for each other. May His kingdom come.

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All Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

Widows, Orphans, & Foreigners Still Matter

At Risk

Every year around the Fourth of July I reflect on our son Mischa’s adoption. I remember our adoption journey. I think about how God has adopted me. This year, though, God took me to James 1:27:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

The professor in me can’t help but yell, “Amen! Preach!” because throughout the Old Testament (OT) we see God’s heart for the marginalized. James is just picking up on a theme that he knows from his Scriptures—what we call the OT. (The New Testament was still being written.)

Throughout the OT we see references to the widow and orphan, as well as to foreigners.

[God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

Deut 10:18–19

God defends them. He loves them. He provides for them. And we are called to love them. That love isn’t about emotion. It is about action. This love can be seen His people’s obedience to His commands:

When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce . . . you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

Deut 26:12

In the OT foreigners, widows, and orphans were those who were most likely to go hungry, to lack a home, to be denied justice. They were what we in North America might call “at risk.” God’s call to care for those who are at risk didn’t end when Jesus came. James tells us that they still matter to God.

Thinking Globally

Thinking globally, God’s concern for foreigners tells us that what happens to immigrants and refugees matters, whether they come from Central or South America or from Syria. We can always find a reason to not help that person or that group, but are we willing to look Jesus in the eye and tell Him our reasons?

Are we willing to look Jesus in the eye and tell Him those reasons?

God calls us to love others with demonstrated actions, not to just spouting angry words. We are citizens of His kingdom first. So instead of falling back on political rhetoric on either side of the immigration issues, maybe it’s time for believers and our churches to consider our role and follow up with concrete actions that serve those who are at risk.

Thinking Locally

We also need to think locally. Those who at risk in our hometowns matter too and we may actually be able to make a bigger difference here.

  • What about kids in foster care? Maybe God is calling our families to provide temporary (or permanent) homes for someone who needs a safe place. Or maybe we can do more to support foster care families.
  • What about the homeless? When was the last time I invested time serving them, perhaps in a shelter?
  • What organizations that serve the differently-abled might we support with time and money? In the U.S., once these individuals age out” of the education system at 21, there’s is a huge need for job opportunities, social interaction, and housing. How can we as believers make a difference? What do special needs individuals in your country need?
  • Do we have skills or knowledge that could help immigrants navigate our medical system or governmental structures?
  • Maybe we help with ESL classes or tutor at-risk youth.

These are just a few quick ideas. I’d love to hear yours!

Back to James—what we believe matters, but what we really believe is seen in what we do. So maybe it’s time to get to work, starting at home. For those of us in the U.S., maybe instead of celebrating our independence this year, we can celebrate our interdependence. We are the body of Christ. Let’s become His hands and feet, loving those who are at risk in our communities.

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All Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

Sitting in Silence

Journeying Together

As I’ve reflected on trusting God and seeking His presence when life doesn’t make sense what keeps coming to mind for me is that we aren’t called to do these things alone. We climb the mountain tops and tread the shadowy valleys with others. We all have fellow travelers. Who are yours? Family? Friends? A church community? Coworkers? For me, today, these include a close friend who is dealing with life-threatening health problems and another whose daughter was assaulted. A third has unexpectedly lost her husband. It seems like all any of us can do right now is to sit in stunned silence.

When tragedy strikes I think most of us want to say or do something to make things better, but often words aren’t the answer. Just look at Job’s response to his friend Eliphaz:

Now you too have proved to be of no help; you see something dreadful and are afraid.

Job 6:21

I wonder if Job hasn’t picked up on something fundamental. Maybe our words aren’t only an effort to comfort or encourage. Maybe they are our way of dealing with our own underlying fear that we could be next. I know that I need to be slower to speak (James 1:19), but maybe I’m not the only one.

Sharing Silence and Suffering

Speech wasn’t the first response of Job’s friends, though:

When Job’s three friends . . . saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

Job 2:11–13

While teaching us how to help our friends who are in pain isn’t the point of the book of Job, these verses do offer us food for thought. Before the friends speak, they grieve for and with their friend. Their actions echo mourning rituals found not only in the Bible, but throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, from Egypt to Syria. Their tears and torn garments are a way of identifying with Job in his grief and loss.

The sprinkling of dust evokes the idea of death:

For dust you are and to dust you will return.

Gen 3:19

In Job 2:12, though, the sprinkling of dust not only points to the death that is every person’s fate, it also points to the friends’ willingness to suffer with Job. Here, C. L. Seow observes that the specific Hebrew expression for the sprinkling is used only one other time in the Old Testament:

Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on people and animals throughout the land.

Exod 9:8–10

The “festering boils” that result from Moses’ action are described with the same Hebrew word that is used for the sores that cover Job from head to toe in Job 2:7 (šeḥîn). These parallels suggest that the friends aren’t simply participating in a typical mourning ritual (Josh 7:6; Ezek 27:30; Lam 2:10), but that the sprinkling of ashes is their symbolic way of asking God to afflict them with the same sores. They don’t only share Job’s silence. They are willing to share his pain.

The sprinkling of ashes is their symbolic way of asking God to afflict them with the same sores. They don’t only share Job’s silence. They are willing to share his pain.

How are we responding to our friends’ pain? Are we willing to share that pain or are we trying to comfort them with trite theology? Are we responding out of love or reacting out of our own fear? Maybe we should consider starting with practices that transcend time and culture: shared silence, companionship, and a willingness to walk in their darkness. In these, we let them know that they aren’t alone. We listen without judgment, allowing their genuine, heartfelt expressions. We lift them into the presence of God and may, with time, become a source of His comfort in their lives.

Or maybe we are the ones struggling. How are we responding? We see in Job, the Psalms, and Lamentations that we can express our anger, fear, disillusionment, and loss. That may be appropriate, but sometimes we need to sit silently in God’s presence, making room for Him to speak into our circumstances.

What other practices might we engage in when we struggle or a friend grieves? How else might we show God’s love and our support to those around us? I’ll talk about one possible approach in an upcoming post, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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All Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.