Author: saraholver

The Shedding Tree

Source: The Shedding Tree

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The Shedding Tree

I saw this quote recently, probably on facebook or Instagram, and it stopped me.

The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let the dead things go.  –Annonymous

I’ve always loved when the trees explode in their own display of fireworks–the riot of red and blazing orange that woo our gaze with their warmth and heat the crisping autumn sky.  But I never realized it’s a celebration of dead things.

Before those leaves are shed, they’re colored crimson.

Before those leaves are discarded, they’re dipped and dyed flaming yellows.

But they will be shed, and they will be discarded, because those leaves, they are dead.

There’s no hope of life left to linger.  They are completely and utterly dead.

When autumn’s fireworks have ceased, we see the naked and bare limbs of maples, their trunks like elephant legs, and it gives us a quiet, lonely sense about the world.

But in their naked state, they’re actually more alive than when the flaming leaves hold on to their branches heralding autumn’s last hoorah.

They’re alive because they let go of the dead things.

They’re alive because they’ve shed that which, if left to stay, would prevent the budding bumps of new growth come spring.

Life means letting go of dead things.

If we hold onto to dead things forever, we cling to crumpled remnants of what will never be.  We cling to the grave.

We do that, don’t we?  Cling to the grave?

Hold onto a grudge when forgiveness is budding beneath, pressing and pushing and praying to be released in our lives.

Hold onto paralyzing fear when trust is a trigger ready to be pulled, and peace wants desperately to be launched.

Hold onto material things and worldly goals when eternal things and heavenly pursuits are shoots pushing at the surface of our soul beckoning us to release them into a hungry, hurting world.

We like the dead things because they’re deceptively beautiful.

Because let’s be honest, whether we want to lose weight but can’t let go of our lattes and french fries or we want to see our marriage restored, but can’t get past the years of hurtful, angry words, we’re holding onto things we think will satisfy.  Mirages of the soul.

But eventually, their beauty crumbles in our grasp, and we’re left with dust.

For years my sisters and I would take our children to Nana’s house to rake leaves.  We didn’t have a leaf-blower, and the yard was too big for my mom to clean up all by herself, so we made a game of it with the kids.  We’d all work together to gather the leaves in a massive mountain.  When the yard was bare, our kids were released to dive into the mountain of maple, poplar, and oak leaves.  I can still see them jumping in, taking turns diving and flipping, their cheeks pink with brisk autumn air and excitement.

But the leaves would get crushed and scattered.

We’d rake them back up over and over, but after a while, the mountain would become a hill.

The hill would become a bump.

And before too long, we’d drift away, lose interest, and the leaves would be left to decompose.

Because that’s what happens with dead things.

They don’t hold the weight of real life for very long, and they can’t stand up to actual use.

The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let the dead things go. 

The trees, they know the secret to a lovely life is releasing the dead and allowing the new to be birthed within us, through us, out of us.

Loveliness is the daughter of letting go.

Paul talked about this too.  He understood that as Christians, we’re literally in Christ and He’s literally in us, and therefore, the capacity for new life is in us.  He understood that if that holy capacity is within us, then it is for us to let go of the old ways and allow the new life of Christ to emerge.

You were living in your sins and lawless ways. But in fact you were dead. You used to live as sinners when you followed the ways of this world. You served the one who rules over the spiritual forces of evil. He is the spirit who is now at work in those who don’t obey God.  At one time we all lived among them. Our desires were controlled by sin. We tried to satisfy what they wanted us to do. We followed our desires and thoughts. God was angry with us like he was with everyone else. That’s because of the kind of people we all were. But God loves us deeply. He is full of mercy. So he gave us new life because of what Christ has done. He gave us life even when we were dead in sin.  Ephesians 2: 1-4a

The lovely life is the promised gift of God; the lovely life is a life that knows how to shed.

. . . seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self . . . Col. 3:9b,10a

To put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Eph: 4:22-24

When I shed the dead, I bear the likeness of God—the beauty of His holiness.

When I shed the dead, I bear the image of the divine.

It’s hard, though, isn’t it?  When the dead is that thing that broke us?  Crushed us?  And we never want to forget, so we hold it tight in one hand and reach for life with the other, hoping we can somehow have both.  But death and life are darkness and life and they don’t fellowship well with one another, and you and I? We’ve got to choose, don’t we?  Why do we forget that life comes when we let the old ways die?  Why do we hold on to that which will give us nothing but sorrow?  We bite the fruit over and over again thinking that this time, it will be sweet when only that which finds its source in Christ is sweet to our soul.

I can’t get this quote out of my mind,and I am determined to etch this shedding the dead into my heart.   So I go outside, and  I get a crimson sumac branch and break it from the trunk it’s clinging to.  I bring it inside.  This year, as I think of the holiday season approaching, the season of gratitude and then the season of giving, I think to myself, I’ll strip the dead things and replace them with living things.

So I place the tree in a pitcher and sit with my boys. I ask them to think of the dead things they may be clinging to.  I ask the same of myself. And as the Holy Spirit brings them to mind, we’ll remove one of the dried, brittle leaves and replace it with an ornament of life.

When we lay our electronics down—all of them, the laptops, the cell-phones, the television, and pick up a game to play together, we’ll remove a leaf and replace it with life.  Time connecting as a family.

When we apologize for the short, clipped words we used with one another, we’ll crumple and crush one of those leaves and replace it with life.  Kindness, patience.

When we surrender our lengthy Christmas lists to God’s economy, we’ll replace the dead with giving life to others.

I can’t grasp the living if I’m gripping the grave.  I don’t want my legacy to be that of a grave robber when the option to be a life-giver is out there.  

So, I’m going to choose to shed, choose life.

This will be the first Christmas tree we decorate this year.  Before the matching-pinteresty one, before the antique one loaded with ornaments from a life spent collecting memories and moments.  This tree will go up before the others.  This tree that was dead and brought back to life.

The Shedding Tree that becomes The Living Tree.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Revelation 21:25

All the dead things new this year.  He’s doing that in us, isn’t He?  It’s trustworthy.  It’s true.

Life.

 

While We’re On The Topic of Standing and Kneeling

In a world where a debate rages around a game played every Autumn Sunday on artificial grass, some lyrics and notes, and a piece of cloth made from strips of red, white, and blue, let us be a beacon of light that draws people’s eyes to the real issue at hand. Because in the end, folks aren’t really talking about flags and anthems and pigskin balls, are they?  

Of course not.

What we’re really talking about, the heart of the matter, the fulcrum on which positions rise or fall is actually just this:  I am here.  I am human.  I have a beating heart.  I matter. Somehow, we’ve bought into an idea that by allowing one to matter we must diminish or minimize another when in reality, there is enough room, enough space on the sprawling planet for all the hearts that beat to matter supremely.

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality . . .” (Acts 10:34,35)

God invented the idea that everyone gets a fair shake, that there’s enough love for everyone.  He’s limitless; He’s love, and therefore, there is enough of Him and enough of love for all the humans.

But as a society, it seems sometimes, that we live by the law of scarcity.  We allow ourselves to be controlled by a cataclysmally crushing view that there’s not enough respect and justice and love for everyone, that we have to fight to get what is our due. We’ve bought into a liar’s lament that we live in a land of lack instead of a land of plenty, a land where when one is esteemed, another is diminished.

So we’ve begun to categorize and compartmentalize because if I am to treat you less than a human being deserves, I must first somehow separate you from me.  So, I’ll call you black, and I’ll call myself white.  Or you’re a soldier and I’m a civilian.  Or I’m an independent, and you’re a republican.  And now, there’s room for me and mine to self-preserve, and if it comes down to a brawl, well, you’re in the other box, so we’ll come at you guns blazing.

But dad-gum, we’ve missed it.  We’ve flat-out missed this one thread that ties us all together–the heart that beats.

We’ve forgotten the hearts of humanity–we all have these hearts that beat and pump and keep us alive on this planet.  And it’s actually the heart that matters in the end.

My dad, he had his heart stopped and started several times last week.  Apparently his short-circuits.  The wires misfire and his heart races to catch up to the fireworks exploding inside his chest.  He lands in the ER where they know him by name, and they shock him.  They stop the beating in the hopes of stopping the misfiring, and then they restart him in the hope that he’ll catch the rhythm again.  The rhythm of a healthy beating heart.

And I think we the people may just need a restart too.

Because we’re beating to different rhythms and forgetting that hearts don’t beat to black, and they don’t beat to blue.  Hearts don’t beat to flags or anthems or nuclear weapons. Beating hearts got their start back in a garden when God breathed His breath into the nostrils of the first man.  And the first man managed to get out of sync pretty quickly, and hearts have been misfiring ever since.

See, we have this tendency to zoom in on color or politics and miss the heart of the matter entirely, don’t we?

The person who refuses to stand is broken over a broken world-a world they feel is unfair and unjust, and frankly, in truth, they aren’t wrong.  The world has been unjust and unfair and unkind because it began beating to the wrong rhythm.  Their heart is broken, and they’re fighting for air and breath, fighting to find the right rhythm.  But the rhythm can’t be found in a football stadium anymore than it can be found in congress.

The rhythm is found in a person–Jesus Christ.  So whether we kneel or whether we stand, if we don’t know Jesus Christ, we don’t truly have hope.

And while a debate rages on in our country, people lose loved ones, hurting heroes give up and commit suicide, people are diagnosed with terminal illnesses, children starve, and places like Puerto Rico remain destroyed.   And the followers of Jesus? Well, we followers of Jesus become distracted and ineffective because we forget the real needs and focus instead on a stadium full of padded athletic elites. Let us not forget that a world filled with needs is our stadium, and we stand for our anthem by walking across the street to our different skinned/same-hearted neighbors’ home and asking them to dinner.  We take a stand by feeding hungry humans.  We take a stand by holding the hand of a bereaved mother as she grieves an early parting.  We take a stand by insisting that the standard by which a life is valued is not the color of the life’s skin, the vocation, or the sexual preference of the human but by their beating heart.

It is the heart that matters.

Jesus always stopped and restarted the heart first.

Let’s make sure we get first things first.
Let’s stand for the true anthem . . . the anthem for which one day every knee will bow

Let’s stand for Jesus.
Stand for love.
Stand for peace.
Stand for long-suffering.
Stand for kindness.
Stand for patience.
Stand for gentleness.

That’s the restart we need.

Let’s do that in our classrooms at school, in our workplaces, in our sporting events,  in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in our communities.

As believers, we pledge allegiance first to Jesus Christ. And that should inform every other decision we make. If all believers stand well for Jesus Christ, these issues of inequality and injustice will be resolved as more and more people walk in the light. The flag represents a nation that affords us freedom, yes, but Jesus Christ affords us ultimate freedom and eternal hope. That can never be taken.

Some will read this and assume I don’t care about our flag.  They’ll be wrong.  That flag represents a nation that has given me the freedom to write these words freely.  The soldiers who have fought and defended that flag are men and women whom I love and want to stand and cheer for every time I see them.   A dear friend just said goodbye to her husband as he takes another tour across Afghanistan.  She’ll raise children alone while he bravely defends our ability to have these debates openly and without fear of retribution.  For that flag and those men and women, I’ll absolutely stand.  All day.  Any day.

Others will read this and assume I don’t care about the reality of systemic inequality that does exist in our country.  They too would be wrong.  I will stand all day every day for those who are measured by anything other than the equal ground of a beating heart.  On this planet, all humans are created by God.

He NEVER makes a mistake.

Each is worthy of life because the author of life in His great perfection and sovereignty breathed it into humanity. He gives life.

It is ours to respect, honor, and cherish.

Unborn life, aging life, colored life, poor life, different life.

All life.

All worthy of standing for.

Because Jesus–my flag, my anthem–came that they might have life and have it abundantly.

So, while we’re on this topic of standing and kneeling, perhaps we could do a stop and restart.

Let’s kneel to our God and stand for His ways.

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)

Teach me your ways, O Lord;
    make them known to me.
Teach me to live according to your truth,
    for you are my God, who saves me.
    I always trust in you.

 Remember, O Lord, your kindness and constant love
    which you have shown from long ago.
 Forgive the sins and errors of my youth.
In your constant love and goodness,
    remember me, Lord!

 Because the Lord is righteous and good,
    he teaches sinners the path they should follow.
 He leads the humble in the right way
    and teaches them his will.
 With faithfulness and love he leads
    all who keep his covenant and obey his commands.

 Keep your promise, Lord, and forgive my sins,
    for they are many.
 Those who have reverence for the Lord
    will learn from him the path they should follow. (Psalm 2:4-12)

Laying Tile and Raising Kids

Years ago we sold our home and bought another one.  I was skeptical of the potential new kitchen, and with good reason.  In addition to the not-so-level country-blue laminate counters was this ocean-blue floor made of tiny 2 by 2 square inch tiles.  That floor was the stuff of Mexico, and I wasn’t having it.  I live in the mountains of rural north Georgia for goodness sake.  So when we toured the house, Jeff said, “Yes, Sarah, we can replace the tile.”  “Yes, Sarah.”  He said that.  Direct quote, people.  Can I just tell you that tile has left me sea-sick for almost 5 years now.  FIVE years.  To tell you that I have loathed the shiny, cobalt ceramic squares is an understatement.  I L-O-A-T-H-E-D the tile.  So, when I found some peaceful grey (neutral is my love language) tiles on sale for pennies, I grabbed a hammer and chisel and told Jeff it was time.  Time he ante up.  He promised after all.  He was at work, probably doing something spiritual like preparing a sermon to share with your children on Wednesday  nights, but I interrupted with photos of the new tile and requests for permission to proceed.
And proceed I did.  The elation I experienced at busting those tiles with my hammer ranks right below having my children and my wedding day.
I was pumped.
By pumped, I mean I went insane.  I seriously put on lip gloss and fixed my hair for the demolition.  Legit.  Hammer in hand, Cort by my side (I think Jeff sent him a text and told him to supervise and make sure I didn’t hurt myself), I tapped the tile gingerly at first, and then with a gusto and vigor I can only explain as being “caught up in the Spirit.”  (Cort may or may not have thought I’d been overtaken by a demon, but really, he’s young, how could he know?)  I banged and bashed and brandished my hammer like a crazed banshee.
And then.
Then I noticed how SLOW the tile removing process was going. I noticed after about ten tiles, the hammer was getting heavy. (Seriously, in this day and age, why does a hammer have to weight 5 million pounds?)  I noticed I wasn’t quite prepared.  (Read:  I had to go get safety glasses because shards of ceramic are sharp and they slice skin without apology or warning.  Sorry about your leg, Cort.) But I was determined. Nate was at work, but Cort quickly saw that an intervention would be necessary, so he had mercy on me and assisted.  We pounded and chiseled, and pounded some more.  When Jeff got home, he found only a few square feet of tile removed and a wife who was utterly exhausted.  We had about 140 square feet to go.

(Some will judge my son’s bare feet.  Judge away.  I pick my battles.)
I was discouraged.
But I was still determined.
And I was invested.  You can’t really change your mind once you’ve busted out a few dozen tiles and cracked scores more. We were all in, like it or not.
Kind of reminds me of parenting.   Does it you?
So excited about having a beautiful family, we bring children into this world and it is all roses and butterflies and heavenly choirs for the first few minutes.
And then.
They don’t sleep.  They end up with colic.  (Lord help us, mommas of littles, how I remember those days.  What in the world was wrong with me, I thought, that made my kids the only ones that cried constantly?)  Or they don’t potty train.  Or they bite.  Or they hit.  And later, they talk back.  They use their phones to send inappropriate things. They hide things from you.  They disrespect you.  And if you’re like me, you’re convinced that you’ve done something wrong, you missed the memo on raising perfect, well mannered kids.  Or maybe they don’t do anything wrong, they just don’t do anything at all.  They don’t talk to you.  They don’t participate in activities with the family.  They just dissolve into their bedrooms, and you can’t find a way back.  You wonder how you can ever get them to actually talk with you.  They get a little heavy, don’t they?  And the work . . . the real work of parenting lies before us. And oh my goodness, it is way more difficult than we ever could have imagined. All of a sudden, we are in shock and a little uncertain if we will make it through.
But we’re all in.  They’re ours.  No return policy.
And the potential for beauty and joy is undeniable.
It’s just hard sometimes, isn’t it?
When Jeff came home, he grinned at me in the midst of my mess.  Then, he had this advice for me, “We just gotta keep going, Babe.  We’ll get it done.”
And you know, he was right?
And here is something so beautiful.  He said, “We’ll get it done.”
Did you catch that?  WE.
God NEVER LEAVES us to do this incredible work of parenting alone.  He doesn’t.

I will never leave you nor forsake you–Hebrews 13:5

We are all in, yes, but we are all in with the power, the might, the wisdom and the strength of the God who hung our planet into orbit and breathed life into mankind.  He’s way more invested than we’ll ever be.  He’s the architect!  This is his gig.

In the end, every muscle in my body was sore.  Look, I turned 40.  Things have happened.  My knees hate me.  My arms are like long animal balloons filled with water.  I’ll just tell you I was popping 12 hour Aleves and vitamin B12s like they were skittles.  And I have concluded that all flooring guys should be nominated for Nobel prizes and given raises after every job they complete, and also they should be knighted or sainted.  What?  I’m not even kidding.
But, I have a lovely, inexpensive (thanks to sweat equity and my husband who can do anything in the world.) neutral floor that no future home owner will want to curse me for.  It’s so pretty.

(And may the God of heaven and earth grant me new counters someday before I am 100.)
It came one way.
Hard work.
And hard work takes time.  Lots of time.  Lots of sweat. Lots of commitment.
Can we just encourage you to keep going?  Keep chiseling away at the tiles in your children’s lives that need removing.  Keep carefully, attentively laying the foundational mortar of God’s Word that will ground them for a lifetime.  Keep doing the things that seem basic and simple and not very glamorous, but are truly critical and vital to the end result. Things like reading them the same story for the millionth time.  Things like telling them tales of your own childhood.  Things like teaching respect and honor.  Things like requiring the truth and giving fair consequences for wrong choices. Things like Nerf Wars and dressing up like Super Heroes and watching all the Marvel movies.  Things like asking your kid questions even when they only give you one word answers.  Things like texting funny memes that they think are stupid, and like tucking them in at night even when they are long over it, and roasting s’mores in the middle of a rainstorm, or making them a coffee and bringing it to them in bed. The magic of insignificant things is that when you accumulate them over a lifetime, they become the mortar that cements your hearts to one another.   There’s no perfect formula.  Your things will be different than my things.  Don’t be tempted to compare.  Never measure yourself by another human.  Allow God to equip you with His tools, and that will always be enough.

Your children may not thank you now.  They may not always be dream-boats to raise. Sometimes they may be a lot like my blue floor–horrifying.  But they are yours.

God chose YOU and appointed YOU to raise them, to love them, to guide them in truth.

Keep going, friends and fellow parents.  In the end, you will reap a harvest.

I always knew the vision I had for our kitchen.  I didn’t look at the tacky tile and dismiss the kitchen as useless.  I knew deep inside of me just what that space could be.  With parenting, we have to keep the end in mind too, you know?  You and I?  We know what our children can be.  We know deep within us who they are meant to be.  What do we hope for our children in the end?  What kind of people do we want them to be?  And every choice, every decision, every word shared, every interaction should take that end goal into consideration.  We are NOT guaranteed that our children will walk with Jesus all their days.  They get to make that decision for themselves.  What we CAN guarantee is that we lay the foundation for them to walk with God.  That is the choice you and I get to make. Each day.  With each truth spoken, each kindness offered, each smile given.  We get to introduce our children to the heart of God by mirroring Him every chance we get.

Be imitators of God as beloved children–Eph. 5:1

Keep going.  Your children are beautiful.  Your work is sacred and holy, and it matters tremendously.  You may feel ill-equipped, weak, and unprepared, but you are all in, so keep going.  Because your YOU is not just you, it is you and HIM–God Almighty is working through you.

For it is God who works in you (and your children), both to will and to work for his good pleasure–Phil. 2:13

Encourage the exhausted and strengthen the feeble.  Say to those with anxious heart, “Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; The recompense of God will come, But He will save you.” Isaiah 35:3,4

Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  Deuteronomy 6:4-8

Maybe you look at the landscape of your child’s life, and you think, I want to keep going or even begin anew, but where do I start? I hear you.  It can be daunting and overwhelming.  Parenting is the stuff of heroes.  I have this one suggestion.

Just start with one tile.

And then the next . . .

and the next.

Just one tile.

Because it matters.

 

Filling Bowls

bowlI’ve rebelled against Revelation for years now.  I would rather have a root canal than watch a science fiction movie, and Revelation feels a lot like the science fiction crescendo of the holiest of books.  Around ten years ago, we were in a Sunday School class that studied the book.  The members of the class enjoyed the study so much, they did it again.  We quit Sunday School.  I mean really, Revelations?  Study that book twice? Yeah, no thank you.

But recently, Jesus invited me back to unfold the pages and unravel the words of that sacred vision recorded by John.  And when Jesus invites, who can resist?

So quietly, tucked under my fuzzy throw, french roast coffee steaming on the table beside me, Bible and journal in hand, I pushed beyond all the books filled with honey and bread of life, and stopped at the last of God’s Words to us.  There I discovered something I’d forgotten.

Maybe when I knew it, it hadn’t mattered as much.

Maybe then, I hadn’t needed it like I do now.

Maybe then, my heart was younger, more naive, and less broken and heavy.

There it was in the fifth chapter of the book.

 And when he (the Lamb of God) had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.”

Revelation 5:8-10

Did you catch that?

There are elders in heaven who hold golden bowls.

And those golden bowls are filled with incense which are the prayers of the saints.

That’s you and I–the saints.  And those are our prayers.

Your prayers.  My prayers.

All my prayers, poured out to Jesus.

Every single one.

He’s kept them.  He kept those heart cries and he kept those pleas.

Yours too.  He keeps our conversations in golden bowls.

And see this matters more to me now.  More because I’ve prayed more.  More because I’ve learned answers don’t always come when I want or how I want.  More because the stakes have gotten high in recent years.  More because I’m living life in way over my head.  More because when your husband’s a pastor and you have well over a hundred kids and leaders that you love and ache and fight for daily in prayer, you just really want to know your pleas have purpose.  When people text you saying they’ve lost all hope, and you tell them all you can tell them, and you listen all you can listen, and you finally promise the last resort–prayer, when that happens?  You just want to know that when you go to God with those desperate needs, He’s done something with them.

And I’ve gone.

Again and again.

To my Father with requests and with pleading and with every ounce of fight in me.

Because every single life matters.

When I read those words–golden bowls filled with incense which are the prayers of the saints–I think of all the helplessness I’ve felt in the last few years.  I think of all the times when I feel like everything is spiralling out of control, and there is no way I can ever keep up, or make a real difference.  I think of Haiti, and hungry, hurting hearts in that dry land where there is no water.  I think of how helpless I feel and how the little I do feels so microscopic in light of the magnitude of need in that place on the planet.  I think of my own precious boys, now young men with hearts young and tender and vulnerable.  I think of how desperately I want all that is good and true and real and honorable to fill their minds and souls and lives, and yet what control does a mother truly have over a son she’s taught to fly?  What trajectory can a mother guide when their wings are nearly fully developed and whatever’s in their hearts will determine their path?

But a mother can pray.  And I have prayed.  I have filled bowls.  And those  bowls?  They contain the fragrance of the throneroom of God.  When I cry out to him over the matters that crush my soul with their weight, heaven carries the scent of the incense of my supplication.

Heaven carries the scent of your cries too.

I have a collection of letters from my grandmother. Faded envelopes pasted with now-vintage postage stamps and inked in her telltale cursive slant hold her thoughts recorded on UNICEF cards and stationery–the ones she shared with me when I was young.  I keep them all tucked in a red purse on the top shelf of my closet because her thoughts matter to me.

And God keeps our thoughts because they matter to Him.

Jesus knew I just needed to be reminded of that–so He took me to the end of His Words to show me that in heaven our cries are collected and contained in gold.

John Piper understands these things and spoke about them too.

” . . .what we have in this text is an explanation of what has happened to the millions upon millions of prayers over the last 2,000 years as the saints have cried out again and again, “Thy kingdom come . . . Thy kingdom come.” Not one of these prayers, prayed in faith, has been ignored. Not one is lost or forgotten. Not one has been ineffectual or pointless. They have all been gathering on the altar before the throne of God.

And the flame has been growing brighter and brighter and more and more pleasing in the presence of God. And the time will come when God will command his holy angel to take his mighty censer and fill it with fire from the altar where the prayers burn before the Lord, and pour it out on the world to bring all God’s great and holy purposes to completion. Which means that the consummation of history will be owing to the supplication of the saints who cry to God day and night. Not one God-exalting prayer has ever been in vain.”  (John Piper, The Prayers of the Saints)

 Not one God-exalting prayer has ever been in vain.

See sometimes I grow a little faint with the facts as I see them and those bowls remind me that there is more to the story.

For our light and temporary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs our troubles.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  2 Cor. 4:17,18

And I can’t help but wonder if you’re like me, and you’ve just felt a little helpless sometimes.  Somehow this idea that I can go to God and fill a bowl seems to fill me with courage and will-power to do that simple thing God instructed us to do without ceasing. It gives me a burning urge to fill bowls until they are overflowing and God and all of heaven can’t help but notice the scent of Sarah’s heart poured out.   And isn’t it funny that the thing that’s collected in the golden bowls is not our effort or our hard work or our determined attempts?  It’s that which we’ve surrendered fully to God that gets kept.

It’s in the emptying of our hearts that we will fill heavenly spaces.

Maybe that’s why the Psalmist said it like this:

Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.  Psalm 55:22

And maybe that’s why Peter felt the same:

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.  I Peter 5:6,7

Because Peter, he spent time with Jesus.  He knew the heart of the God who dressed in flesh.  He knew.

God keeps our prayers.

I can’t think of a better place to leave my burdens, than in the golden goblets in heaven.

And now, now I think I understand a little more about the much to which James referred when he said,

The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. James 5:16

In desperate times, some say there isn’t much we can do but pray.

Much indeed.

The much of prayer is the filling of bowls . . . it’s the work of a soul who knows the Savior who saves our prayers and saves our lives and someday will return for us all.

Yes.  Much.

Election Fires: The Only Christian Response

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The mountains surrounding my home are ablaze. We’re 2 months without rain, and the hills are crying out for water.

Once when I was a child we had a brush fire accidentally get out of control out off of Smyrna road where my dad built a cabin with his own hands.  Our six acre parcel, mostly wooded, stood to go up in flames and with it, everything my parents had.  My job was to stand with a green water hose stretched as far from the house as possible and saturate the ground with water.  But now, during the driest 60 days in north Georgia’s history, there are acres–nearly ten thousand of them–desperate for water while raging hot, furious flames cross the land that has, until now, cocooned my childhood in a caldron of oaks, maples, sassafras and buckeyes.

My garden hose lies coiled like a lifeless snake now, powerless against the inferno.  People are pleading and praying for rain.

Remember Sherman and his flames that licked up the south like a ravenous dog?

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He lit a fire with the barns, the homes, and the towns from Atlanta to Savannah.  He was gasoline to a war-weary, deadly dry and thirsty land.  Our soil drank his fuel and we were lit up for two weeks.  It was hell on earth . . . literally.

Little survives a hungry flame.

My husband spent years learning fire’s greedy nature.  She’s a desperate, desert traveler demanding destruction as she quenches her thirst.

And water, when there’s enough of it,  will stop her.  Water will quiet her savage screams for satisfaction.

A country laid to waste with the blaze of a man determined to win.

And when the flames were silenced, I have to wonder, were the smoldering embers worse than the blaze?  Where could we go from that devastation?  What solace, what comfort could be found?

The nation was divided by an imaginary line.  Brothers had fought against brothers.  Mothers wondered if it was one son’s bullet that silenced the beating heart of another son.

A nation that went to war–for state’s rights, yes.  For freedom’s sake, absolutely yes.  For life.  For liberty.  For the pursuit of happiness.

A civil war.

A nation divided.

If a kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand.  Mark 3:24

And our nation, y’all?  It’s divided in these days, is it not?

An election that split our nation with hungry flames that lapped up our Facebook feeds and consumed the media with a heat that melted  and ravaged relationships.  People once friends bound by some past history saw that very history consumed in smoke and fire–the flames of a battle fought for values, for morals, for rights, for the futures of our children laid waste, did they not?

And we, the United States of America became ash and ember.

We were consumed.

We were.

I have known the devastation a fire can dole out.  The trailer where my mom and dad made their home in frigid New Hampshire caught fire one night when hay and furnace ignited angry flames anorexic with hunger.  They swallowed my home when I was just wee.

And after a while, when there was nothing left, my parents decided to start fresh; they’d need to move.  I was brought back to these quiet mountains where the dogwood’s pale white petals stretched and yawned as they awoke each spring.  Here in the Appalachians my parents would begin again.  Begin anew.  I barely spoke then.  Words were still taking shape on my lips, but a soul understands when it’s survived something.

And this soul knows that fires can be survived.

This soul knows that nations can be reunited after Sherman’s fire has cooled.

This soul knows that rebuilding will begin with a move.

And Christians, it’s our move.

This, followers of Christ, is our moment.

There’s no denying the destruction any longer.  But if we want to stand, we must reunite this nation.  Jesus taught us the pattern for reuniting, did He not?  He left heaven.  He came to be WITH us.  Then he laid his life down as a bridge to unite us with our Father.  If this nation is not to be divided, it will be our job to lay down our lives and be a bridge.  It’s our model and anything short of Christ’s ways is not of Him.

We have rebuilding orders.

1. Give Grace

Let no filthy talk be heard from your mouths, but only what is good for building up people and meeting the need of the moment. This way you will administer grace to those who hear you. Eph. 4:29 

Grace–that blanket of acceptance and love that holds no strings, knots no one up in per-requisite requirements, and simply says, “My favor is yours because I’ve been unconditionally and lavishly favored by The Grace Giver.”  If we are followers of Christ, we will dole out grace upon grace because:

We have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. John 1:16

Our words, our posts, our memes, our responses–they will quiet flames if they are only good for the building up of people, for the meeting the needs of the moment.

We will rebuild our nation as we BUILD UP those who disagree with us, not just those who agree.  Anything less does NOT find its source in Jesus Christ.

2.  Stop the Bleeding

Be completely humble and gentle.  Be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Eph.4:2

War means death and injury.  There are always casualties–those we find wounded and bleeding.  On both sides of the equation, we’ve wounded.

If we claim Jesus, then we will gently, patiently, humbly mend wounds.  That means having a conversation with people we don’t understand.  It means asking why they are hurting.  It means asking why they are angry.  It means identifying the wounds and finding the right salve.  No wounded human needs to be told if they are right or wrong in that moment.  We don’t attack a man trapped in a car, legs broken, and blood gushing from his stomach and tell him why his belief system is wrong.  We STOP the bleeding.  We ask WHERE does it hurt?  This is the bearing with one another Jesus wanted and modeled.  Anything less does NOT find its source in Jesus Christ.

3.  Cover

Above all, love each other deeply because love covers a multitude of sins.  I Peter 4:8

Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers all wrongs. Proverbs 10:12

Will I cover or will I stir?

When Noah was vulnerable and drunk, a low point in his life, he had two sons with the decency to walk in backwards and lay a blanket over his naked and bare body, two sons willing to cover that terrible moment in time. The other one exposed him.

Which son will I be?

Will I let love be the the blanket that suffocates, that quenches and quiets this inferno?

I can continue to declare why one side is right and another side is wrong.  I can continue to expose what this side or that side said.  I can be a billboard of blame or I can be a blanket of love.  Anything less does NOT find its source in Jesus Christ.

4.  LOVE ALL

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  Matthew 5:43-48

Do to others as you would have them do to you.  Luke 6:31

There is no real alternative for a follower of Christ.  There are those who will say love isn’t love if it doesn’t tell people why they are wrong and insist they repent.  There are those who will say love is the weak response of a wimpy Christian.  And to that I will say this:  Love is what God demonstrated for us WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS.  And if we do not love, we cannot share truth.  We earn the right to share truth by first sharing love.  Anything less DOES NOT find its source in God.

Love is patient

Love is kind

It does not envy

Love does not boast

Love is not proud

Love does not dishonor others

Love is not self-seeking

Love is not easily angered

Love keeps no record of wrongs.

God is setting this standard.  Let us lay down our weapons.  Lay down our matches and our kindling and our gasoline.  Let us pick up our hoses and cool one another with the refreshment that comes from Living Water that flows out of the love of God.  What’s done is done.  The flames have had their thirst drenched with the dredges of our most base selves, now let us rise from the ashes and leave the wrongs to be blown away in some soft, spring wind.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

And isn’t the truth just this?  We’re made to make our God’s name famous.  He’s different, isn’t He?  Different than all the other things mankind has found to worship?  Different because He defeated death, defeated evil, defeated all that we despise so that we might be like Him.  Isn’t the truth just this?  God loves.  The God of the universe loves mankind, and it is he and He alone that is a consuming fire satisfied only when He is reunited in eternal relationship with His creation.  Is not that the truth?  God wants us all.

Love always protects

Let us come together and protect now in this moment when there are vulnerable human beings who are afraid.

Love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

Love alone remains.

When the flames are quieted and we sift through the wreckage, what will we salvage?

Love alone remains.

May this be a reminder to my brothers and sisters who claim Christ–In this moment, we carry the water hose.  We carry Christ.  He does not keep a record of wrongs.  He does not boast.  He is not prideful.  And He invites everyone to His table.  His banner is love.  His invitation is to all mankind.  We are His written and irrevocable invitation to come to Him.

We either invite mankind to come to Him

or

we stone them with our words.

I remember well standing feet from my home pulling as hard as possible on that cool green hose.  I stretched as far as it would reach while hot smoke rose up the hillside making my  cheeks pink and my throat burn.  I’m stretching now too, reaching as far as I can with the water I have.

Wildfires ablaze, and I want to be the rain.

Christians, be Living Water with me.  This is the moment that will define us for years to come.  We will be known by our response.

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.  Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority,  or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.  Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.  Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. I Peter 2:12-17

We have a job to do. If we consider ourselves redeemed we have one work–to share the gospel–the good news, the coolest water to thirsting mankind.  This is when we know we’re not like Sherman.  He pilfered and looted his way home. We’ll not continue the wreckage, will we?  We’ll stop here and now, and we will rebuild.

We will pick up our hammers and our nails and our boards, we will walk to the homes of those who voted differently, those who wanted some other outcome, those who are bewildered and perplexed and frustrated and angry and even possibly hateful because they are hurting, and we will ask to rebuild their barns, their homes, their lives.

We will do just what Jesus said to do.  We will.  Because it is our identity.  It is who we are, and anything less DOES NOT find its source in Christ.

And if you happened here today, and you are frightened.  If you happened here today, and you are hurting because your person didn’t win and you see this as the potential beginning of the end.  If you happened here and you’re angry, can I just say to you, that there are countless believers devoted to bridging this gap.  Please don’t throw out Jesus because someone who claimed Him misrepresented Him.  The Jesus here in this blog is the only Jesus of the Bible.  Anything less does NOT find its source in Christ.

Please don’t turn from God because someone tried to beat you over the head with Him.

God?  He’s near you in this.  He’s with you in this time.  And so are we.  Where can we begin to rebuild with you?

He invites you.

There is love.  It’s something different.  It’s called Living Water and it is free, abundant, and all consuming.

Let the flames be extinguished.

Let love rise from ash and form a bridge that unites.

It’s our move, Christians.

Let’s carry the hose that extinguishes flames, and once they’re silenced, let’s go build bridges.

Because in the end, isn’t that what Jesus did for us?

When I look out over the horizon, I still see the smoke hanging herself over my mountains.  And I pray for rain.

But on this earth, we are that rain, aren’t we?

I think so.

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Values Voting: A Christian Asks Questions

In our home, when there are disagreements, they always come down to values.   (What? You thought pastor’s families didn’t have disagreements?  Hah, welcome to the truth.)

I value order.  One of my boys values order.

My husband does not.  One of my boys does not.

Needless to say, sometimes the disorderly 2 in our home begin to take over.  In any given moment if I value order over harmony and peace and you happen to be over—welcome to the fireworks show!  I’m not saying anything new, really.  James already said it himself—Why are there fights and quarrels among you?  Because of YOUR desires that battle within you.

We tend to value what we desire.  The tricky thing about values is that you can value one thing, I can value another, and neither of us is necessarily wrong.  But humans often try to canonize their values.  And sometimes that’s dead, dead wrong.

In fact the only, ONLY time it’s right is when we can attach scripture that speaks directly to that value.  Then and only then is it divine because it’s source is God, not our personal desires.

So I live in a place where God and country are supremely held values.  I live in a place where the words conservative, republican, and Christian are often considered synonyms.  And I live in a place where truth is sometimes mistaken for a republican platform.

I do.

And don’t misunderstand me or my heart.  I’m not pointing fingers.  I love this land we still call Dixie.

But truth only comes in the person of Christ and his written Word.  And if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, than I have to wonder if we who claim Christ are certifiable.  The louder we shout the less we are heard.

And unborn babies still die.

Because we are fighting for platforms instead of souls.  We’re fighting Washington when the enemy is Satan.  We’re fighting politics instead of making disciples.  And to one another we speak a language that is understood and makes sense.  We share values.  We speak the values.  We cheer for each other.  It works.  But only with one another.

Meanwhile, to a world that doesn’t share our values, we are a resounding gong and a clanging cymbal.  We aren’t taken seriously not because what we value is wrong but because we’ve confused values and truth, platforms and inspiration.  Our narrowly defined values are not reflective of the broad heart of God.

We have.

I’m in no way suggesting we change scripture to include things that go against God.  I’m well aware that God’s Word is clear that it’s a narrow path to eternal life–But that’s because the path is a person–Christ.  Access to the path is available to all humanity.  What I’m saying, and hear me on this, is that WE AS CHRISTIANS NEED TO ADJUST OUR VALUES TO TRULY REFLECT SCRIPTURE and we need to communicate Christ’s invitation not our condemnation.  We don’t change values from the outside in.  God transforms values when He gives us a new heart and fills us with His Spirit.

Is it possible in our zeal to obey we’re coming across as self-righteous?

I’m reminded of the Pharisees.  The religious right of Christ’s day.

Sincere people.  Following the rules.

They crucified their Messiah.

They did.

But they had their values.  They honored their sabbath.

And they missed the point.

Jesus.  Anointed to save.  Anointed to include ALL.  The Messiah of not just the Jew but the Gentile too.

Jesus.  Enough of Him for all mankind.  Enough of Him to cover our failures in his cloak of righteousness crafted out of His shed blood.  Enough of Him to take us as we are and begin the renovation of our values once we are a part of His eternal family.

God had Isaiah write these words.

Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words and honor me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from me, and their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote,” 

They take my breath away–those words.

What exactly does my reverence for Jesus Christ consist of?  What values have I thought were scripture when in fact they were tradition?  Could I be guilty of having a heart far from the values of my Savior?

Indeed, I could.

I often wonder had I lived during the time of Civil War here in Georgia, would I have stood beside a black woman and held my hand out to her and her babies?  Would I have invited her into my home?  Would I have let my husband travel north and fight against the south?  Would I have discerned the tradition of the south’s faulty thinking?  Or would I have sipped sweet tea and blessed their hearts all the way to the cotton fields?  Would my values then have reflected the heart of God or the culture of the day?

And where am I erring now, Lord?  Show me. Because I understand that where my treasure is, there my heart will be also. 

So that’s it, then, isn’t it?

I must treasure the things God treasures if I desire my heart to be near His heart.

Treasure the things God treasures.

And now I get the chance to vote for the things I treasure . . . the things God treasures.

And I have questions.  Many questions as I consider this election taking place here in America.

  1. If I am to vote my values, then is voting for the lesser of two evils actually voting my personal values?

Is it?  Is voting for a third party throwing away my vote because statistics tell me that is so? Or could it be that if I vote for someone who I do not believe is fit for the office, it is then I’m actually throwing away my right to vote? Is not a vote in its very nature the casting of a ballot for the person or thing which I most want and believe will be best? Is not this idea that I have only two choices a hijacking of my preference under the threat or fear of losing? Woven into the very DNA of democracy is the component of risk—I may or may not get what I personally want, but I will get what the majority want. Except if we keep buying into the idea that voting for a third party is a throw-away, than we are no longer even getting what the majority want. The majority is a fallacy created by a system perpetuated by fear. One person may place a high priority on the appointment of Supreme Court Justices who will align with their personal values  while another may place a high priority on quality of life that universal healthcare affords. Both are related to life. Both.  So we vote. We say what we personally value.

I have to wonder if it is possible that we only throw our vote away when we QUIT saying what we value and instead say what we fear or worse, say nothing at all.

  1. Do we equate character with belief systems? In other words, if a person believes differently than me, does that automatically give me the right to call their character into question?

Here’s an interesting thought:  Mother Teresa. My theology/belief system and hers do not 100 percent line up in every area, yet her character was without question pristine. I mean, hello? She probably has an entire wing of heaven designated for her. Character, it has been said, is what you are when no one is looking. Belief and faith systems are the hooks on which we hang out future and around which we shape our lives. Though faith can influence character, character can still be exemplary regardless of our faith system. In fact, ask a devout Hindu about character.  A truly practicing Hindu will spend their life trying to make good choices because their reincarnation depends on it.

  1. Can God redeem both republicans and democrats?

I’ve often heard the argument that God can change Trump’s heart. True, and I hope my view of God is large enough to recognize that He is also able to change Hillary Clinton’s heart, because after all, He has worked in my own heart. Here’s God’s desire:

“For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4).

He loves ALL. I do not have the right or rank to assume only some are worthy of His redemptive power.

  1. Am I expecting the government to carry out the mandates of my faith? In other words, am I saddling the government with the instructions Christ gave specifically to me and the church as a follower of Christ?

If I demand healthcare for all and refuse to help the person without healthcare to cover their cancer treatment costs, am I not a hypocrite? If I demand welfare and refuse to help my neighbor find a job or pay their electric bill when times are tough, am I not a hypocrite? Is it possible that much of what we call “big government” exists because too many (not all) of us who claim to be followers of Christ care little for our neighbor and much for our own comfort. Is it possible that the very source of change I long for in my country begins with me obeying my God’s instruction?

  1. To what extent does God value life? Have I allowed culture within church or society to limit or direct the value that I place on life?

This is worth repeating-worth dissecting.

To what extent does God value life? Have I allowed culture within church or society to limit or direct the value that I place on life? In other words, am I concerned about black lives because culturally we see a trend toward movements such as Black Lives Matter? Am I concerned about abortion because traditionally, the church places high emphasis on this act? Am I less concerned for refugees because many people equate the word refugee with ISIS at worst and at best with a potential threat because of guilt-by-association-ethnicity? When God said to care for the foreigner among us, did He mean that literally? Did he mean it literally when he said the only pure and faultless religion is the one that looks after widows and orphans? Doubtless the republicans have shouted loud their disdain for abortion and Planned Parenthood.  And rightly so.  But let this be said: Hillary Clinton has stood for life too. She championed the cause of foster-children, at risk children, and healthcare reform for children. Were I ever to meet her, I’d thank her for that. I would. The living also deserve life. Children are a voiceless, defenseless lot worthy of a champion. And what candidate is willing to stand for those in sex-trafficking? What candidate is willing to stand for those in slave labor? What candidate is willing to stand for the refugee, the orphan, the homeless? Let us insist on life, PERIOD. And absolutely, let us fight for those precious unborn. All life. All of it. Because this is the extent to which Jesus valued life.  He died for it.  Martyred so we could all live eternally with Him.

I have come that you (ALL of you) may have life and that you may have it to overflowing.

Life for all.

  1. Is God concerned about making America great again? Is that a value He expressed in scripture? I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that maybe, just maybe the rise and fall of America is lower on God’s priority list than, say, making His personal name great.  In fact, when we work harder at championing America the Beautiful than we do sharing the Creator of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, I have to wonder if our hearts are far, far from Him.

May I just say something specifically to my precious Christian friends knowing that you know my heart?  We have to be far more careful than anyone else on the planet. The world is watching just as they were the day Jesus hung from a tree, thorns piercing his flesh and the air slowly seeping from his body.

He called no one a name.

He ranted at no one.

He asked only that God forgive.

His work was redemption and when it was complete, He said, “It is finished.” As followers of Christ, our work is the same—that of redemption. We ARE indeed ambassadors, but not for any political party. We are ambassadors for Christ. Jeff recently preached a sermon reminding our home church of that—put on the uniform of an ambassador.

How would Jesus want us to represent Him in this election? Were Jesus on earth, I wonder how He would refer to human beings. How would he refer to people with different opinions than himself? When being crucified he wouldn’t have been wrong to call out, “You murderers!” But He didn’t. He did not do that. I wonder, would he refer to people using titles that describe their belief system? Would he refer to people by their sexual preferences? Would he refer to them by the color of their skin? Would he reference them by their political parties? Their socio-economic status? It pains me that a human being, a flesh and bone creation fashioned to bear the image of God would be categorized by anything other than God’s category: Image-Bearing Creation of the Most High God who made each of us for His pleasure and fame.  When we choose any label other than the ones God gives us as acceptable ways to refer to mankind, we are robbing ourselves and others of our God-given identity.   Remove God from humanity’s identity and we lose. Every single time.

I think about the people who may read this blog, and I want them to know that regardless of my political perspective, my spiritual perspective is this: There is room in my heart and at my table for ALL of God’s creation. Sure, we may disagree on things. My belief system will impact how I live. It will impact how I relate. It will impact my values.  It will impact how I vote. But it will never entitle me to assume I have the right to judge or condemn another human being nor will it entitle me to assume I am superior because my beliefs are different. In fact, my belief system puts all human beings, myself included, into one category–a being fashioned to bear the image of God, a being divinely loved and supremely wanted by a Savior who stopped at nothing, including death to have a relationship with all of us. Let us be so careful to recall our Savior and represent HIM well especially during this intense time in our nation.

And may our values find their source in The Way, The Truth, and The Life.

And may our platform be His Word.