The Rewrite

(NOT a sermon – well in the strict sense)
“I killed a Bible study once.” Those were the words I had planned as the opening to my sermon on Hebrews – until the attack on Paris – and that event made this opening sentence completely inappropriate. Between Friday night and Sunday morning, I set myself to a rewrite. The story I was going to tell was of a time when a small group of American women in Germany (some 30 years ago now) gathered to have a study on the book of Galatians. The leader of the study was going verse by verse asking us how that particular verse could be applied to our lives. I looked at her rather stunned when she asked me that. The verse she gave me was the first part of a longer argument – at the end of which the author was saying that that verse (and those around it) should NOT to be applied to our lives. So I answered her that I thought we should read to the end of the argument to see what the author says we should do. The leader was shocked that I would counter her. When the other ladies agreed with me, the leader threw up her hands and declared us unteachable. We never met as a group again. I was sad about that, but I was right about the text.

Chopping up a book into bits can lead us straight down the path to misunderstanding (nearly every extreme right religious group is guilty of this). Whenever my children tell me that they have ‘read a book’, and then I find out they actually didn’t read to the end, I respond with, “You cannot tell me you have read the book if you did not read to the very last page!” Why? Because everything can change with that last word. The whole meaning of the book or passage can be turned on its head. My son recently said to me about a book he was reading, “But it was so depressing, and I could see where it was headed.” My response was, “Really, how do you know for certain? Everything can change on that last page.”

Just like we shouldn’t chop up scripture, we should also not chop up our lives. My story (and yours if you are reading this) is still being written. If you were to cut one area out of my life and knew about that one area only, you would be misunderstanding quite a lot about me. There are several intertwining storylines in my life – some are very depressing and others unbelievably inspiring. But my story is not finished. And neither is yours.

I can choose to focus on the negative – or get busy doing positive, choosing encouraging words, choosing love, choosing to author my own story as much as I possibly can. That, my friends, is where hope is found. Yes, things can go wrong, but they can also go right in ways you could not even imagine. Don’t get stuck on page 32 of your own story….

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The Ocean of Hebrews

BodenseeA Sermon on Hebrews 10:11-25
Persecution is not new. It has been around for centuries – groups of people being tormented or killed for what they believe, or in the case of the IS terrorists, for what those people don’t believe. Our reading this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews was written for a persecuted community, a community being destabilized in its faith through fear. It is not really a letter. It is actually a sermon. Just listen to the opening lines: ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.’ It is expository writing, which is a fancy term meaning to inform or teach, and the author’s tool is a rhetorical device of comparison ‘if you think this was good, how much better is this’. Jesus used this technique also: ‘If you who are human fathers know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more does the Father in Heaven know to give good gifts to you.’ Hebrews is in the words of one commentator, ‘One long sustained argument.’

It is an argument for belief in Christ that unfolds in waves. Reading Hebrews is like standing on the beach right where you are ankle deep in water and watching the waves roll in. Some waves are bigger than others, and knock you off your feet. Other waves are smaller and more refreshing. The waves in Hebrews consist of rhetorical arguments showing that the angels are good, Jesus is better; Moses was a good leader, Jesus is better; Aaron was a good High Priest, Jesus is High Priest forever in the order of Melchizidek; Abraham was faithful, faith in Jesus is better; the first covenant was good, the second one is better – for it completes the first one; the tent (first temple) was good, but Jesus went to the real Temple in Heaven; the sacrifices of the priests are good, but Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect and complete.

Our reading today is one of those HUGE waves – the kind that knock you off your feet. The daily sacrifices made in the Temple for sins were useful, but the sacrifice of Christ is SO perfect, so complete, that it wipes out the need for a daily sacrifice: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” I love the crest of this wave: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds…. I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” NO MORE, No More, no more. Just let those words sound into eternity. Your lawless deeds are remembered no more. The wave continues with a word of encouragement, “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary…. and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith…Hold fast to your faith… do not waver… encourage one another to good deeds… and don’t forget to meet together.” Very encouraging words. Words to live by. Words that tell us the author was talking to a persecuted community of Jewish Christians.

Our liturgical reading stops there, which leaves you feeling quite uplifted, but this is Hebrews and you need to keep reading. The wave hits hard with a HUGE warning. The next verses emphasize that the sacrifice of Christ is such an extraordinary gift that continuing to purposefullly sin is simply unacceptable. That was exactly why the daily sacrifices were ineffective. They did not cause the people to change their ways. You knew that if you sinned you could simply take an offering to the Priest for sacrifice and the sin would be forgiven, but you could go out and sin again.

Christ’s sacrifice is so wonderful that it should be honored with a change of lifestyle on your part and mine. The words in these next verses are very strong. This is where all the hell-fire and damnation preaching of the Puritans came from: “For if we wilfully persist in sin after having received the knowlege of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” The section ends with the words: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Now this text is NOT talking about sinning out of ignorance. What do I mean by that? We have a limited knowledge base, and we certainly cannot see the future.

I was once at a panel discussion in college about making end of life decisions on behalf of others. The panel members were getting increasingly negative and depressed about whether someone would be held accountable by God for a decision that he or she took which ultimately led to the death of another person – like unplugging life support for someone who is in a coma. I kind of blew up like a small bomb because our God is not like that. He is not going to hold us accountable for taking a decision based on our limited knowledge. That is just splitting hairs. God made us. God knows that we cannot see the future nor always know exactly what is right in every situation. God will not hold us accountable for something we could NOT possibly have foreseen. Basically, the text here in Hebrews is saying, ‘Don’t take Christ’s sacrifice for granted. Don’t bite the eternal goodness of the Hand that has saved you in such an amazing way.’ Intentionally sinning is just beyond disgraceful in light of the sacrifice of THE High Priest who spilled his own blood. It is about respect.

But do we stop reading here? No! This is Hebrews, so keep reading, another wave is coming. The next words of encouragement are reminders of the joy we experienced when our faith was new: “But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings… for you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something that was better and more lasting. Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward.” This wave of encouragement ends in the famous chapter on faith starting with the words, ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’

So what does the Letter to the Hebrews mean to us today? We are feeling collectively the effect of distant wars as their scared, scarred, and hungry land at our doorstep. Their fear is real. Their worries become our worries. Their trauma feeds our deepest fears. Their presence impacts our daily lives. Our boat is rocked. We hear and see the pain and death inflicted by terrorists in Paris, Beirut and Palestine. Our boat is rocked. We lose loved ones to disease, or our jobs to the greed and lies of corporate executives. Our boat is rocked. If your boat is rocking – and especially if your faith is rocking with it – get out of the boat and stand in the ocean of Hebrews. Let the waves of that ocean remind you of the one perfect sacrifice that defines you for all eternity. Do not give into fear, for we who have faith in Christ, have NOTHING to fear. We can stand solid – and more than that – we have the power to act, to love, to do good deeds, to encourage one another and to persevere. That is the message of Hebrews. Persevere in doing good. Do not grow weary. Do not lose heart. The perfect sacrifice was made already for you. Praise be to God. It is right to give Him thanks and praise. Amen.

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Spiritual Generosity

2013 Ethiopia Man at WindowGenerosity is most often aligned with the idea of giving money, time or talents. And that is correct. There is, however, a generosity of spirit that displays itself in somewhat surprising ways. A person who is spiritually generous makes room for the faults of others. Let me unpack that. I do NOT mean that a spiritually generous person allows others to abuse them. What I DO mean is that a spiritually generous person is not offended by other’s mistakes, inabilities, or weird behaviour. Spiritually generous people are centered. They know who they are, and that strong sense of identity allows them to look beyond the imperfections of the person in front of them.

A spiritually generous person will respond to the fact in another’s speech and overlook the emotion with which it is communicated. (This is a distinctly good trait to have when dealing with a tantrumy two-year-old.)

A spiritually generous person will treat disabled people as humans first, and disabled second.

A spiritually generous person will listen until the person speaking has completely finished their thought, and even let the other speaker have the ‘last word’ while completely disagreeing with them.

A spiritually generous person will recognize the fault in another person, but will choose to help train or encourage the person to correct behaviour rather than criticize. (Being quick to voice criticism is distinctly non-generous, and rather smacks of simply trying to show that you are smarter / better / quicker than the other person.)

A spiritually generous person is quick to forgive. (But don’t push it, they are still human.)

A spiritually generous person is not easily offended. Period.

People who give of time, talent and money are often also spiritually generous, but not always. Sometimes, people give of money because it is easier than giving spiritually. That is not necessarily bad. It is rare for anyone to be centered all the time, and sometimes one is simply too drained emotionally to be able to give spiritually. Still, I think that practicing spiritual generosity is a good thing.

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In the Valley, a Sermon on Psalm 23

IMG_1305The dress I am wearing is the traditional Easter dress from the Amhara region of Ethiopia. Some of you know that my family traveled to Ethiopia over Easter break. All the Christian women will be in their white dresses at Easter time and on special occasions. I thought it would be appropriate to wear it today – especially in honour of the Ethiopian Christians brutally murdered by ISIS recently.

(I am going to refer to ‘God’ in this sermon as ‘he’ because it is just easier for me. Sadly there is no good pronoun for God – who is so much more than our limiting gender definitions. I thought of calling God ‘hesheplus’, but that would be just confusing and hard to say. So I ask you to please bear with me on this one.)

What is the valley of the shadow of death? Have you wondered about that? When we were in Jerusalem, we were taken to a deep gorge just outside the city. At the bottom of it is a valley, which used to be a path for travellers. The gorge is so deep and so narrow that even on a bright sunny day (as most days in Israel are), the valley is very dark – almost like night. It was easy for muggers and thieves to hide among the rocks and surprise travelers.

Could that be the valley of the shadow of death for the Psalmist? Perhaps. I can think of many other kinds of valley of the shadow of death though. The most obvious, naturally, is a poor medical prognosis. Finding out you that have a short time to live – for whatever reason – seems like it would be a very dark valley indeed. But there are others… being persecuted for a situation that is beyond your control, for instance. The death of expectations or dreams or a child. How about the death of a marriage or a job? Even retirement sets off a grief all its own. In fact the list I started writing out was so long, it occurred to me that if you are ALIVE you are actually walking through the valley of the shadow of death. For your next moment is not certain. The passengers on the German Wings Flight could not have known it would be their last day alive. The migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean did not know it would be their last day. The poor people of Nepal right now as a result of continuing earthquakes do not know from one minute to the next who will be alive. If you are alive, you walk in the shadow of death. BUT I will fear no evil says the Psalmist. I will not fear. I will not worry. I will not succumb to my anxieties.

Have you ever followed someone you barely knew down a long path in an unknown place, trusting that that person was actually leading you where you wanted to go? During our trip to Ethiopia, I did just that. There were times when I felt a bit nervous as I couldn’t actually see a beaten path ahead of us. My female traveling companion, Rekik and I followed a young man through ploughed fields, swamps, herds of cattle and jungle – but there was no visible path! Was our guide leading us astray? Could we trust him? I had momentary doubts that I swept aside because we really had no option but to trust him. At one point, we entered through a gate-like structure and our guide turned to me and said, ‘Lots of wild animals live here -hyenas, leopards, lions.’ I replied, ‘As long as they don’t consider me lunch, I am fine with that.’ But I wasn’t terribly consoled by this information. The guide, however, assured us there would be a rock-hewn church at the end of our walk. All I could do was trust him, and keep walking. And indeed, there was a church worth seeing after our long journey.

The psalmist says: “The Lord is my shepherd”, my guide, my caretaker. I never need to wonder if where he is leading me is a good place. It will always be a place of refreshment – where water, food and rest are to be found. He restores my soul. In the midst of fear and danger, the Lord leads your soul to peaceful places of restoration. However, he can’t lead if you are not following! Jesus says in John, my sheep hear my voice. Are you one of his sheep? Will you let yourself be led?

“Your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” A shepherd’s rod is used to prod or gently nudge the sheep in the direction they are to walk. The staff is for them to see from afar where the shepherd is located. Sometimes, he is behind prodding them along. Sometimes he is in front leading them. And, of course, he is always protecting them.

During our travels, we arrived at a lodge in the Tigray region. Across from our rooms was a small mount with a large rock on one end. Do you remember the movie, The Lion King? There is a rock the King climbs to look out over his kingdom. Do you remember it? Well that is what this rock was like – except for one small detail – you didn’t walk straight up the middle to the end of the rock. No, this rock, you had to climb by walking along the edge in a circle to the top. When all five of us in our group scrambled up the mount to take in the view, we saw the path and the steep drop down one side and suddenly got cold feet. I mean it was a loooong way down. It was then that I noticed the presence of an older gentleman. He was wearing a shawl – a bit like a mexican poncho, and a white baseball cap. He had a staff in one hand. For awhile he leaned on the staff and just watched us. When he noticed that we were hesitating, he gently walked ahead and said, “Here, put your foot here.” And he tapped a place on the rock. At first, I shook my head no. He said, “Here, it is safe. You can do it. I’ll show you.” He stepped ahead of me and turned around. So I took a step. He smiled, tapped again, and said, “And here.” In this way, he gently led me up. It was very windy. I was scared. But I followed. The rest of our group came too. Some of us gained more confidence than others, but we all followed. I later learned that the older gentleman worked for the lodge. It was his duty to ensure that the guests got the most out of their stay. And a huge part of that enjoyment was regaining our lost confidence in climbing up rocks and hills. I say ‘lost’ because I remember having this confidence as a child. I had forgotten that I had that skill already mastered.

“The Lord leads me in the right path for his name’s sake” – not because he works for someone else, not to save my name or my family’s reputation or even my soul – but to honour His name! The Lord, our God, is one god. His name is pure and not to be blemished. He is a God with integrity. He will lead rightly because that is who He is. He IS righteousness. He can do no other.

And then what does He who is righteousness do for the psalmist? – “The Lord sets a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” He will preserve your dignity! Have you ever been under attack – verbal or otherwise – and had someone step forward to support you? This is what the Lord does. He steps forward and claims you as an honoured guest, anointing your head with oil and making your cup overflow. There will be more than enough; more than you need. And that leads me to the last verse: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever. “ I used to think this meant that only good things will happen to me, but now I wonder. Now I think that perhaps I will leave a trail of goodness and mercy from the overflow of the cup when I follow the shepherd. One summer day while walking in Durham, England, it started to rain unexpectedly.  I was wearing a purple cotton dress and found to my horror that there was a trail of purple-coloured water flowing behind me as I walked. That is what I imagine when I read that goodness and mercy will follow me. It will not only happen to me, but will overflow onto my path for those coming behind me.  Is this what the psalmist meant?  I doubt it, but it is a picture I quite like because goodness and mercy isn’t just about what happens to me, but also about how I treat others.

This psalm isn’t promising us that we will never experience death, but perhaps that death is not to be feared – just as life is not to be feared. Bad things will happen, but He does not abandon you. Remember who your shepherd is. The Lord is your shepherd. Are you looking for His staff? Are you listening for His voice? He will guide you gently step by step through the darkness and lead you to a peaceful place of restoration.  May He restore your soul today, this week and forever. Amen.

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The Language Handicap

Growing up in a golfing family, I often heard the phrase, ‘He has a handicap of 6 (or 18 or 22, etc.). I never really knew what that meant. One time I asked Dad to explain it to me. All he said was, “Well it is a number based on various factors, which allows golfers of different abilities to play against each other.” That was about as clear as mud.

But I got to thinking about it recently in relation to my ability to communicate in German. So I looked up in Wikipedia ‘Golfer’s Handicap’ to try and understand the calculation. The definition goes as follows:

A handicap is a numerical measure of an amateur golfer’s ability to play golf over the course of 18 holes. A player’s handicap generally represents the number of strokes above par that the player will make over the course of an above-average round of golf. The lower the handicap, the better the player. Someone with a handicap of 0 or less is often called a scratch golfer, and would typically score or beat the course par on a round of play (depending on course difficulty).

Well, that’s not so hard to understand, but it continued:

Calculating a handicap is often complicated, the general reason being that golf courses are not uniformly challenging from course to course or between skill levels.

And I will spare you the mathematical calculations involving slope and PGA difficulty ratings. How does this relate to language you ask? Well, language acquisition isn’t straightforward. Some languages are harder than others, just like golf courses. If there was a ranking system upon which we could say, ‘Okay, German is perhaps ranked 13 of the 20 most difficult languages for a foreigner to master.’ That would be one number of the calculation. Then the number of words mastered (vocabulary) combined with the number of sentences one usually gets grammatically correct (grammar) could be other numbers in the calculation. Of course, spoken calculations, or handicaps, would be different from written, so I could have a handicap of 8 for speaking, but 23 for writing (nearly accurate actually). Par would be grammatically correct spoken or written German, with below par being a ‘scratch’ player – using the actual phrasing of native speakers or ‘fluency’.

Not only would this be a useful tool on a personal level, but also on a social level where employment is involved. Does the person speak German? Understand German? Write German? Ahhhh… they are nearly always different levels. And of course, it would be useful to see if the person is improving over time. So this year I might speak with a handicap of 8, but next year that could drop to 5 or less.

While using the ‘handicap’ system of ranking progress made could be a really useful tool, it also could help the native speakers understand that ‘handicap’ does not mean ‘stupid’. Too often a person’s ability to communicate using language is used as an intelligence barometer. ‘When I was a child, I spoke like a child.’ However, when I was learning German, I spoke like a child also even though I already had completed a college degree (with excellent grades even). I was often treated as if I thought like a child, which means my language handicap was relatively high.

In my current workplace I have noticed that those who see my mistakes in written German think I am not very intelligent. When, however, they discover that German isn’t my first language, suddenly it’s all praise at how good my German is! Neither of those reactions are especially helpful. I wish I could put on my reports or emails “Language Handicap (written) is 15” with the reaction that those reading it would understand they are 1) to acknowledge that my intelligence is not equal to my ability to communicate; and 2) that they are to help improve my handicap by correcting the language, while respectfully answering the content. Is that not how we teach our children to talk?

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Where the Heart Is

Where do you feel at home? I mean the place you really want to be? I’m not talking about a city or country. Perhaps I should call it your ‘happy place’. For some people, it is the football stadium with other fans of their home team. They will spend half their income – or more – just following their favourite team from game to game. The football stadium is where they are happy, where they feel at home.

And I don’t know how many performing artists I have heard in an interview say, ‘The moment I cannot step onto the stage, I will cease to exist.’ – or something close to those words. The stage is where they are happy, where they feel at home.

My grandfather loved golf. He played 18 holes of golf almost every day of his life for most of the last 40 years of his life. He even wanted his ashes spread around the 18th hole of his local course. It didn’t happen, of course. The Pro in charge of the course would have nothing of it. But that is where my grandfather’s heart was. The golf course is where he was happy, where he felt at home.

In our scripture reading today, we meet the precocious pre-teen Jesus doing what most teens do, causing their parents a great deal of anxiety. It used to incense me that it took a whole day for Mary and Joseph to notice that Jesus was not with them. Now I take comfort in the fact that even the mother of God’s only son had trouble keeping track of him! But Mary had many children. We often forget that. Jesus was not an only child. He had lots of younger siblings. Going up to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival was a huge community event. The Holy Family would not have been traveling as a threesome. They would have been in a great big extended family and friends caravan. It was probably not unusual for Jesus to knick off and hang out with his cousin, John. So it would have taken awhile for the parents to realise that Jesus wasn’t there. But I can’t imagine the horror they felt. They had been traveling a whole day, so it took probably another day to get back to Jerusalem. Then they searched for 3 days in Jerusalem. Jesus was missing for 5 days!

Have you ever lost a child in a crowd? We lost one for a couple of hours on a crowded beach. It was terrifying. I couldn’t stop moving until that child was found. I can’t imagine not knowing for any longer than that. So I totally get Mary’s chiding Jesus for not telling them that he was staying behind. His response reminds me of something our son said once.

When our older son was 4, he left a LEGO toy under his dad’s pillow. The next morning when he came bounding into our room, his dad pulled out the toy and said, ‘Hey look what I found!’ Our son stood there with his hand on his hip and his brows furrowed. He declared, ‘Daddy, don’t find what isn’t lost!’ Jesus wasn’t lost, but more than that. Mary and Joseph KNEW who he was, and where his heart was. Jesus sort of gives Mary a virtual Gibbs -style head slap, ‘Think Woman!’ You KNOW who I am!’

If my grandfather in his old-age senility had wandered out the door, I would have instinctively known to check the path between his home and the golf course because that is where he would be headed. Mary and Joseph knew better than anyone who Jesus’s father was – they had angel visitations, dreams, wise men from the East… Why didn’t they look in the Temple first?

And really, who wouldn’t want to be in the Temple? By all accounts, it was beautiful. When I read Psalm 84, I am reminded of Durham Cathedral. Every time I visit I marvel at its beauty; I feel the presence of God there; the presence of daily worship. When I see the ushers – volunteers all – I am envious of them! And I hear in my head,

I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.

It is peaceful in the Cathedral. It evokes awe and wonder. In the presence of God, you can be yourself. There is no deceiving Him.

I am going to re-read this morning’s scripture. Don’t try to follow in your program, it will confuse you. Just lay the program aside and listen. Let the words wash over you. The Holy Spirit will choose which of these will sink into your soul:

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends.

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for her herself, where she may lay her young at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.

When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.

When his parents saw him they were astonished, and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’

Happy are those whose strength is in you; in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.

Jesus said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.

and Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
In 2015, where will your heart be? Will your heart long for the courts of the Lord? Why would you not? Why would you not want to stand in the pure Love of the Lord and let His Glory burn away your fears and anxieties? Why would you not want to feel the comfort of His Love? There are many blessings in the Courts of the Lord. May you have a blessed 2015. AMEN


Scripture verses taken from the New Revised Standard Version:  Luke 2:41-52 ; Psalm 84

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The Story of Mankind


Is this not the story of all mankind –

That cultural icons are born in stables
That a child’s birth is attended by angels
That every Mother treasures those special moments
That every human is betrayed
That all will suffer and all will die?


Where is God? Where indeed.

He is deep within the story –
in the stable
in the glory
in the precious
in the pain
in the joy
in the grief.

Be still. Stop talking. Be quiet.

Know Him.

He is and She is, and they both remain

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