Overcoming

A number of years ago, my family and I were on a road trip which took us across the state of Kansas. I was driving, everyone else was sleeping, and I was trying to find something to listen to on the radio. As I was scanning through the stations, I caught part of a sermon in which the pastor made the statement: “Jesus is not only Lord and Savior, He is also Treasure.” I was intrigued and interested, and lost the station.  Thirty minutes or so later, I was still scanning through stations and came upon the same message at the same point: “Jesus is not only Lord and Savior, He is also Treasure.” Then I lost that station, but the Lord had my attention.  I began to ponder what it meant to have Jesus as my treasure.

In Revelation chapter 1, the apostle John heard a voice, and when he turned he saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man… Upon reading the passage, we learn that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the son of man is Jesus who has positioned himself among, in the midst of, the churches.

Jesus has a message of encouragement for each church, and also a challenge for each one to overcome.

These churches are known for their love, their perseverance in the midst of persecution, their faithful deeds,  their faithfulness in the midst of hardship, their faithfulness in the midst of poverty, their refusal to deny his name, yet each church also has areas of weakness. Ephesus has forsaken Jesus as their first love—their treasure. Smyrna is encouraged to remain faithful even though it’s going to get harder and the persecution is going to increase. Pergamum has allowed some false teaching to infiltrate their church, as has Thyatira. Sardis is asleep, they have let their guard down and stopped doing what they used to. Philadelphia has little strength, and Laodicea is lukewarm, apathetic.

John reminded us in his sermon that this message of the churches can be taken very personally. Each of us who call Jesus our Lord have a lamp to keep lit. Then together, with other lamps we make up our local churches and the capital “C” church that brings light to the darkness all over the world.

Jesus isn’t mad at us, and doesn’t point out these challenges in order to make us feel bad about ourselves. He is encouraging us to hold fast to Him, to love Him first, to let Him be the primary influence in our lives, to get our hearts and our thoughts in line with his heart and his thoughts, to remove influences, even pastoral influences that lead us astray, to test every teaching with His word, to renew our passion, to let go of apathy and live with purpose. And when we do this, the things that He promises to overcomers are beautiful.

John told us that the word “overcome” in this context is an ongoing action and has both athletic and military significance. In the athletic significance, it means to prepare yourself for the bigger challenge—train, and train, and train—engage in such a way as to get stronger.  I think we all recoginize that in the world of athletics, doing nothing makes us weaker and ill-prepared. So taking the personal responsibility as one person to be in the best shape we can be in through daily preparation and training is part of what “overcome” means.

In the military context it means rising up as a group and going after the common enemy. We work together as a team. We don’t face the enemy alone—we are after the enemy together—all of us together after the same enemy.

So as we each prepare ourselves individually to be in the best spiritual shape we can be in, we will collectively be prepared as the body of Christ to be the church that the gates of hell will not prevail against.

I think if we stop and ponder Jesus’ message to the churches, we’ll see things there for us to address, to recognize, to repent of.

Have we as individuals and as a body forsaken Jesus as our first love?  In this world of incredible uncertainty, are we choosing to be faithful to Him, place our hope in Him, even though the days ahead may be even more challenging than they are now? Do we live in media driven fear, or Jesus based hope?

Have we allowed false teaching to infiltrate our churches?  I think this is a big one for us to wrestle with and ask the Holy Spirit to help us see. One easy way to recognize false teaching is figuring out if the message we are hearing would be true in every country in the world. If it elevates any one country, one political party, one race, one ideology, get out your Bible and test to see if it’s true. The message of Jesus transcends country and culture, and it does not pit groups of people against one another. The message of Jesus values all people. Watchman Nee, a Chinese pastor was asked during the Chinese/Japanese war how he should pray. He responded by saying that he would pray in a way that if he were praying with a Japanese believer, they could both say “amen” at the end of the prayer. I am afraid that there is a lot of false teaching that we tolerate in our churches. Jesus is asking us to recognize it, remove it from our midst, and repent.

Are we asleep? Do we just go through the motions, attend church rather than being the church? Are we weak because we choose not to spend time with the Lord? Are we weak because we choose not to allow Him to use our gifts, to stretch us? Are we satisfied with second hand faith that is regurgitated through someone else’s walk with Christ?

Are we apathetic? Not hot, not cold…just nominal—not engaged in community, no passion for the Lord, no passion for His call, no desire to live out our purpose because it might interfere with our personal plans and goals?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Jesus walks among us, among our churches. He is encouraging us as individuals and as church bodies to remove anything that doesn’t belong in our midst—to rid ourselves of influences that pull us away from Him. He gives us opportunity to repent, and promises us incredible things if we choose to do this His way. Jesus and his unadulterated message of love and salvation, his transformational power, and his mission to bring others into the Kingdom  is what church is about. I am the church, you are the church. My light joins with your light and together we push back the darkness. We live to please Him and Him alone. We adopt his heart for the world. We recognize the false teaching of our day by testing it against scripture, we choose to be more influenced by Jesus than by our news sources, our political affiliation, our social media accounts. And how can we do this authentically in a way that is not mere behavior modification (which won’t be lasting)? We ask the Holy Spirit to help us return to our first love, Jesus our savior, Jesus our Lord, Jesus our treasure. Then we discover that He truly is worth giving everything else up for. It’s an “all hands on deck” kind of life. Are you in?

–Luanne

Overcoming is the process of preparation for what’s next—which inevitably includes more overcoming. It’s a stretching that brings growth and change in our lives. With every challenge we overcome, we look a little more like our overcoming Savior who has overcome even death. Every time we overcome, more of His light shines through us and draws a desperate and hurting world one step closer to Jesus’ embrace. This is how we are the light of the world. By living life Jesus’ way-letting go of the rules and religious activity and coming into the presence of Jesus so that we’ll reflect His light, His heart to the world. But it only really works when we do it together. Luanne wrote:

“Each of us who call Jesus our Lord have a lamp to keep lit. Then together, with other lamps we make up our local churches and the capital “C” church that brings light to the darkness all over the world.”

One lamp will scatter the darkness. Darkness has to scatter in the presence of light. But it will only scatter the darkness that’s near it. When we put our lamps together with millions of other lamps around the world, though… we might just find that darkness would cease to exist altogether. I wholeheartedly believe that this has always been Jesus’ desire for His Church. The challenge is: Will we put our lamps together and advance our collective light against the very present darkness of our enemy?

Luanne wrote, “The message of Jesus transcends country and culture, and it does not pit groups of people against one another”. So why do we see, time and time again, people using the “message of Jesus” to do just that, pit us against one another?

John said he can tell what news source people tune into based on the way they talk. The same can be said about what denomination or branch of Christianity we associate with-if we don’t understand and practice Jesus’ way of community. We can find ourselves judging our brothers and sisters who worship differently than we do, making critical statements about other denominations, joking about the displays of faith that we don’t really understand or that make us uncomfortable. We don’t realize that we are biting the bait and ingesting the hook of a critical, proud spirit, and playing right into our enemy’s hands when we do this. We are willingly destroying our family members—and the saddest part may be that we often believe we are doing the right thing, and we begin to see our extended family as enemies. Luanne identified that part of overcoming looks like this:

“We don’t face the enemy alone—we are after the enemy together—all of us together after the same enemy.”

Ephesians 6:12 tells us that, “…we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”

Our battles have never been against flesh and blood. But we have taken up weapons against one another instead of facing the real enemy together. What if we understood that the only way to truly overcome, to advance against our common enemy-our only real enemy-is to rise up together? What if we understood that victory never happens in isolation? What if our words didn’t identify us with a particular denomination, but rather with all of our brothers and sisters, all of us members of the big “C” church? That’s the kind of unity Jesus asked for in John 17:21: ”I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me”.

One of my new favorite authors, Carlos Rodriguez, says it this way:

“We need our Orthodox family. We need our brothers and sisters in the megachurches. We need the underground church in China as well as our Reformed relatives in America. We need one billion Catholics to join hands together with us in solidarity, in prayer, and in service…because I believe that not one of us owns the full expression of the faith we love. And maybe God made it that way so that we would have to come together. To learn from each other. To grow with each other. And to stop calling each other the Antichrist.”

This would be a game-changer, friends. If we understood how to overcome as individuals by getting rid of the pollutants from within ourselves and from the outside so that Jesus is what fills us and pours out of us, and then came together as one army-prepared yet always in process-battling the same enemy, we would see the world change. I am certain of it. We have to stop seeing people as the enemy. So that we can take on the real enemy together. And in the process, I bet we would find that all of our different churches have more in common with one another than we think we do. And we would find that with Jesus in our midst, we can overcome our fears of the other, our preferences, our pride, our critical spirits—and actually come to love one another.

Once again, we are faced with a choice. Are we happy living apathetic, lukewarm, burnt out lives that are being influenced by false teaching? Or will we throw off all that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and run with perseverance the race marked out for us? Will we make a stand and set our course to follow Jesus wherever He leads, understanding that continually overcoming is part of the process that creates His likeness in us? And will we have the courage to do it together? To use the light of Him who connects us all to advance against our real enemy and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to our waiting world? I’m in. Are you?

–Laura

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Stories-Angela

I can’t help but smile hugely when I think back over Angela’s incredible story. As I watched her giggle with what I can only describe as a free and innocent giddyness, I marveled again at the goodness of our God… The way He redeems our stories and leads us into freedom and then shows us how to lead others to freedom through our own stories. Angela said so many profound things, full of the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He moved through her today-a broken vessel willing to shine for His Glory.

She wasn’t always a broken vessel, though… She said at one point, “I had my walls and nobody was breaking in.” 

John said later on, “When we try to hide and protect ourselves, we actually build a prison around ourselves.”

When we live with fortified walls that can’t be penetrated, nothing bad gets in–but nothing, good or bad, can get out.

John referred to the story, from Mark 14, of the woman that anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. This alabaster jar of hers, full of perfume, could have been sold for more than a year’s wages. It was quite possibly the most valuable thing she had.

And she chose to break the jar and pour it all on the head of Jesus.

She was criticized by many who were present for her waste of what was so valuable. But she was accepted and affirmed by Jesus in response to her lavish and abundant gift.

Brokenness always leads to abundance… It is only through the breaking that new life is born.

The woman who (unknowingly) anointed Jesus for His burial had no idea that her gift would prepare Him for what He would soon experience. She had no idea that she would be remembered throughout the ages for her extravagant gift of love. She was simply willing to break the outer wall so that what was so valuable could pour out. 

Friends, Angela was the alabaster jar with the hard shell. And her story is the valuable contents it held inside. And the same is true for you and for me… 

Living broken-leading with our brokenness-is not popular. It is often seen as weakness. It is anything but. When Angela’s walls came tumbling down, when her outer shell was broken into pieces, the Glory of God was free to flow into and out of her. He flowed into her and healed her heart. And healing–experiencing healing–unleashes you to really live. Now, Angela can lead with her whole truth. She has been set free. In the breaking, she discovered the reality that her story, it holds so much value. It may be the most valuable thing she has, short of Jesus Himself. John said at one point, “Others need us to acknowledge and own our own stories”. He is absolutely right. It is through shared stories that we can identify with others and find the acceptance and healing we so desperately need…

But we live in a world that throws away broken things-and broken people.

So what do we do? We tend to hide, minimize and suppress our stories. We wear the masks and fortify the walls. And prevent by our fortified walls not only our own healing, but also the healing of others who Jesus wants to reach through our stories.

John shared a passage from Bryan Stevenson’s (AMAZING) book Just Mercy (seriously-go buy it!), and it speaks beautifully about our shared brokenness:

“I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”

We have a choice. Angela made hers. She let her walls fall and let the priceless story that was hidden behind them flood out-onto and into the lives around her. She chose freedom from her self-imposed prison, and now she helps open the cells of others and leads them into the life she has found. The life of abundance that only comes on the other side of the breaking.

What will we choose? Will we have the courage to acknowledge our brokenness and move toward freedom together? Or will we hide what is most valuable about ourselves-the story that is unique to each one of us-behind fortified walls?

I pray we have the guts and grit-and grace-to step out and let our jars be broken in the presence of Jesus, so that we can see our brokenness be transformed into abundance and freedom, too.

–Laura

Angela—a name that means “messenger”, “one who has a message”. I love that! I remember when Angela showed up to our women’s class eight years ago, and when she says that she cried through the whole thing, she truly cried through the whole thing—for weeks. She barely spoke at all, and she left quickly when we were through. It’s hard to believe that the woman I just described is now the vibrant, joy-filled, message bearing woman who shared her story with us today. But that’s the beauty of the transforming power of Jesus.

There are so many things that I love about Angela’s story. Life had been hard, she was broken. As Laura wrote above, Angela had walls of self-protection that she lived within, yet she knew she was searching for something—searching for value, self-worth, love, acceptance, healthy community, purpose…

She had tried to figure out who she was, but somewhere along the way had lost touch with herself. She had tried becoming who she thought others wanted her to be in order to earn their love, and further lost herself. She had lost her voice, was unable to speak up for herself. She tried to find her sense of worth through someone else, and it all fell flat.

And then, God used a scrapbooking friend to begin having real conversations with Angela. That friend invited her to church. At church Angela was accepted exactly as she was. She didn’t have to explain her tears, she didn’t have to say anything. She was allowed to be exactly where she was, and women began to gently reach out to her. One of the women coaxed Angela into staying for the church service and promised to sit with her. After a little while, a couple of other women became Angela’s safe people in the pew. As the mask began to come off, and the walls began to come down, Angela began to experience love and acceptance. God’s healing work had begun.

Angela decided to move out of her comfort zone a bit and signed up for the church softball team. That ended up being a great choice, since she went on to marry the coach!

The softball team provided new people to get to know. From there she signed up for a small group, she volunteered in the nursery, she helped with Awana’s, signed up for a LIFE group where God set her free from past shame, in her words she broke free. Her past no longer shapes her present, she is living in the now with Jesus. From the LIFE group she went on to lead a LIFE group, and now she leads the women’s ministry in our church.  Amazing!!!

So, what do I love about this? I love that God used scrapbooking and softball in Angela’s story of redemption. It’s a reminder that God can use whatever we love to do as a means to reach people for His kingdom.

I love that I am part of a church body that refuses to “play” church—we want to be real, and Angela experienced love and acceptance when she came in. No one asked her to clean up her act or get it together because we are a body that admits we all have a story, we all have brokenness, and we all need Jesus.  We’ve learned that when we take our masks off it gives others permission to do the same, and in that environment healing is found.

I love that Angela pushed herself beyond her comfort zone, and in pushing past that fear, she found life.

When John asked Angela to share a word with us she said: We all have a story. We may be affected by choices done by others to us or choices we made ourselves—but know that Jesus loves you no matter what. You are worthy of love, of friendship.  Come out of your comfort zone. What He’s done in me is amazing, and he can do it in you too. Let go of your pride and let the walls come down. You have to learn to feel. God has so much in store for us. God has changed me, and He can change you too. You can’t be worried about what people think about you; it’s all about your relationship with God—you have to let it all go.

John reminded us that in the midst of our hiding we create a prison for ourselves—Angela experienced that—but God sees the real us hiding behind those self-made walls. He knows who we are behind the masks. He draws us out, and when we finally take our masks off and become real, we recognize others whose masks are coming off and we run to them full of compassion. It’s one of the most exhilarating parts of being a Christ follower! We truly are the fellowship of the broken, and it’s in brokenness that communion is found.

Here’s what’s true—we know the One who loves, who restores, who heals, who forgives—the world needs to know Him, and in order for Him (Jesus) to be made known we need to be the maskless. And what Jesus can do through the maskless who aren’t afraid to share their stories of brokenness and redemption is beyond our wildest dreams.

Thanks, Angela, for being maskless and showing us the beauty of Christ in you!

—Luanne

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Stories… “Arise, My God”

When a person survives a life-threatening situation, we tend to focus on the miracle. We rejoice and give thanks for God’s goodness. And that is good and beautiful and absolutely appropriate. But it’s only a glimpse of the story, an incomplete picture at best.

This weekend, we were blessed to hear the other side of a miraculous story. The parts that we don’t usually ask about, the pieces that–while they’re not often celebrated–may actually contain the greater miracles. Kent’s story is a powerful one. It is a story of a dire diagnosis-Acute Myeloid Leukemia-that took him immediately away from home and into the throes of chemotherapy and hospital living. He endured infections, septic shock and at least one night at death’s door. We have seen God show up and do the impossible time after time in Kent’s life since the day he was diagnosed. From the perspective of someone who battled in prayer for him, it seemed that God was so near, so close–that He never left Kent’s side.

And He didn’t.

But what we learned as Kent shared so transparently with us, is that he wasn’t so sure. And after hearing about the less than glamorous side of this walking miracle, I am convinced that the greater miracle is what God did in the dark…

Kent shared with us that in the beginning of this journey, he sensed God telling him, “I’m going to teach you something more”. He said that when he heard this, he expected God to take him to new heights. Instead He took him to new depths. In this unfamiliar place, God seemed different than He had before. Kent was unsure of who He was. It was a dark, fearful, lonely place, and God seemed to have a harshness to Him that Kent hadn’t known before. Have you ever been in a season like that? A dark night of the soul, when God seemed cold and distant and out of reach? I imagine you have. To varying degrees, we all have probably experienced what Kent expressed.

It is in these places, these seasons marked with confusion and the threat of chaos, that we have a choice to make. Do we succumb to the fear, the loneliness, the lack of understanding and sink into the shadows of despair? Or do we lean in, trusting in what we know to be true of our God-even when we can’t feel Him near? There is a word for the honest, grief-filled cries of the soul that rise from our depths when we choose to lean in. That word is lament. The Psalms are full of laments. There is a whole book in the Bible dedicated to them. Choosing to lament before our Father requires a willing vulnerability. To lament is to bring your tattered, worn, aching heart before God without holding anything back. To lament is to implore God to listen, to act on behalf of our grief. It is bringing our hardest questions and asking our Father. It is ugly crying. It often includes shouts and wailing and indecipherable groans. It can look and sound different for each one of us. But it is always brutally honest. And it happens during dark, uncertain times, when we’re not sure God’s even listening.

What we rarely see in the moment are the treasures that are found in the darkness.

Isaiah 45:3, in the Amplified Bible, says this:

And I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.

In a book I keep coming back to, the author talks about these “treasures”. She writes, “We do not go through dark nights of the soul for nothing. We enter into these regions to find treasures that they alone hold. Jewels and precious metals are rarely found on the surface but rather are mined deep underground. Likewise, God’s treasures are unearthed when we enter, willingly or unwillingly, into dark regions and dig deep within ourselves and within the caverns of who God really is.” (This Beloved Road, Amy Layne Litzelman)

This same author writes elsewhere, “…a season of transition always stands between where we are and where He wants to take us. Something must be left behind and something gained in order to go on… We don’t understand how we can do what He has asked of us. And yet, know this: the moment we say with Jesus, “I want Your will, not mine”, mighty and glorious grace is released for the journey ahead.” 

During Kent’s dark night of the soul, he chose to lean in, to lament. He refused to let his journey be wasted, whatever the outcome. I believe the “outcome” is multi-faceted. There are pieces of his miracle left to unfold, as is true in all of our stories. But however the rest of his story unfolds, he found treasures in his darkness. As he placed his life in the hands of a God he couldn’t even feel in the moment, glorious grace was released for his journey. He saw God differently, he found unexpected beauty in unlikely places. His story speaks to the miracle of a healed body–and it testifies to an even greater miracle: A heart renewed in the truth of who his God really is. A God who never leaves us in our loneliest moments. A God who leads us into the darkness where we would never choose to go–because He wants to give us treasures that we can find no other way.

Are you living through a season where God feels far away? May Kent’s story encourage you to lean in, lament, and hold on-there are treasures to be found…

-Laura

I cried this morning while Kent spoke. I didn’t anticipate crying, but there was such beauty in the rawness of his season in the dark that it brought me to tears. He shared with us treasures, the type of treasures that Laura wrote about above, that if we are willing, they can be gems for us as well.

John asked Kent “What’s changed?”  Kent told us that upon receiving the life altering, possibly life ending diagnosis he asked himself, “What am I living for? What is truly important?” All of a sudden the treasures of this world didn’t matter anymore, and Kent had to wrestle, even in the spiritual realm with whether he wanted the things that Jesus offers—comfort, peace, presence—or if it was Jesus himself that Kent desired.  That’s a powerful question for us to wrestle with. Is Jesus alone our treasure? Kent pointed out in first service that there were only three, out of all the people who followed Jesus, only three that went to the cross. Are we willing to go the distance with him, to the hard places with him, the dangerous places with him, because he alone is who we desire? Or do we only “follow” him to get the benefits?

Kent talked about how alone he felt. For a portion of his lengthy hospital stay, after his closest call with death when he had to be intubated and coded, he couldn’t feel the presence of God, he couldnt’ feel the power or the warmth of the Holy Spirit. He wasn’t sure in that moment who God was,  the experience felt harsh, and it didn’t feel like something a loving God would do. In addition to that spiritual isolation, anyone who entered his room had to wear a mask, gloves, a gown, booties—no one could touch him. So not only was there no sense of God’s touch, there was no human touch either. There was fear, there was confusion. Isolation.

As Laura wrote above, Kent turned to lament. He reminded us that many of the Psalms are laments, that it’s okay, it’s healthy to lament; yet in the lamenting hang on to God’s truth.

And then the unanticipated beauty—Kent asked for someone to bring him his guitar. He sat in his hospital room at night and played songs of worship and sang. He did not know it at the time, but outside his door nurses would gather and listen, some patients would gather and listen. As Kent reached through the darkness for God, God was using him to minister to others in the hospital. That’s not why he did it. Kent was honestly seeking, searching, reaching, lamenting, praising, and God was using Kent’s raw honesty to reach others on that floor. Eugene Peterson once said that the people who made the greatest difference in his life were the people who weren’t trying to make a difference. Kent wasn’t trying to make a difference. He was merely being his authentic raw self—no masks, no pretense, no knowledge that God was using him—yet God was using him. What a beautiful reminder that when we walk humbly with our God, the world is impacted.

John asked Kent, “What would you say to someone who is battling today—who sees God as distant?” Kent emphatically replied that God is not distant, that He is here when we can’t feel or touch him. And then he said what may have been my favorite part of his sharing—he said that even though he couldn’t feel Jesus he got to see Jesus through the church, the body of Christ. Jesus touched Kent through our prayers, cards, text messages, visits, and Kent reminded us that this is what we are about. This is what the church is to be about. He encouraged those who may want to isolate, to stay connected because the Church truly is the hands and feet of Jesus—we are how the hurting get touched. Kent shared with us other major events from his own life, he called them “possible soul destroying” events, but his soul wasn’t destroyed because Jesus showed his love in each of those hard seasons through the body of Christ.

Then he reminded us that the church has a choice.  He said, “We can bless or we can curse and both go a long way. Be a blessing to those around you; love, pray, reach out, touch—it’s not about condemnation, it’s about calling people to a higher place…We know Jesus redeems but it’s the body that puts the touch to Jesus’ redemption…we point people to Jesus by being him.” 

I don’t know what those words do to you. I know that they fan the flame in me. My passion for Jesus’ prayer “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is really this simple. Know the Jesus of the gospels well enough to be Jesus to those around you. All others.  Bless, lift up, love, touch, reach out, listen to,  pray with, pray for, don’t condemn, don’t curse…we point people to Jesus by being him.  Can you imagine if the entire capital “C” Church made this our mission? That’s what I want my life to be about. How about you?

—Luanne

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Final Greetings (Colossians 4:7-18)

Paul’s final greetings–I had no idea I would get so much out of this sermon! John highlighted different names in this passage; names that mean “one who hits the mark”, “useful”, “a great ruler”, “lovely”, “light giver”, “bridegroom”, and “one who began something powerful”.   Adjectives and phrases used to describe them include “dear brother”, “faithful minister”, “fellow servant”, “fellow prisoner”, “co-workers for the kingdom of God”, “comfort to me”, “always wrestling in prayer”, “working hard for you”…. And John reminded us to follow their lead using these phrases:

  1. Fulfill your destiny.
  2. Be useful.
  3. Lead well.
  4. Keep praying.
  5. Share the story.
  6. Be ready.
  7. Don’t give up.

Can you imagine if today’s church, and by church I mean you and me, as in each individual that makes up the church, really grasped these seven things? When I think about Jesus saying to Peter “upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” (Mt. 16:18)  I hear Him saying “there is a plan for you, Church.  You have a destiny to fulfill.  Are you willing to enter in and do this My way?” 

As Paul describes these men and women, we see how they were united in one purpose–to make Christ known. They each had a role to play, and they were doing it. As a collective whole each individual role became part of something so huge that we are still beneficiaries of their obedience today.  We can live this way too! Today’s church can still impact the world;  however, we must acknowledge that as a whole we have become sidetracked. We are married to things other than Christ. We must humble ourselves, confess our infidelity, and renew our vows to Him and Him alone.

There are three statements that I came across on Twitter last week that I have been pondering:

  1. “A 30-minute sermon won’t teach people to love neighbors. Their cable news teaches them all week to fear/hate. They’ve already been discipled.”
  2. “People may hate me because of Jesus, he told us to expect that, but if they hate Jesus because of me there’s a problem.”
  3. “Choose the third way.”

Paul and his companions chose the third way; the Jesus way, which is all about beautiful, diverse community working in unity to make Jesus known. In his “final greetings” group there are Jews and Gentiles, there is a woman, there is a run-away slave (a dear brother) returning to his master, there are those who aren’t chained in prison and those who are, and they each understand that they have purpose and that they are living for something much bigger than themselves; something colossal. They have understood the call of Jesus to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your souls and with all your mind…and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37;39). And to express this love by going “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28: 18-20).  

And do you know what happens when we obey Christ (the way he asks us to), love God, love others, bring them into relationship with Christ and teach them to obey Him? The Kingdom of heaven comes on earth. It really is that simple.

Oh, Lord Jesus, take us back to the simplicity of your original call. All that the church has become that doesn’t line up with your Word–expose it for the idol that it is. Shatter the idols, the false gods, the false doctrines, the twisted scriptures, the cultural interpretations of scripture, the narrow lenses, the hate, the meanness, the judging, the racism, the pride. Refine your bride. May we be discipled by you, not our culture. Breathe new life into us as we pursue the third way; your way. May we be about love, peace and reconciliation, the way you’ve asked us to. May we heed the words that Paul spoke to Archippus when he wrote: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord” (v18), and may we chain ourselves to you, the real you, forever.

–Luanne

Luanne wrote:

“And do you know what happens when we obey Christ (the way he asks us to), love God, love others, bring them into relationship with Christ and teach them to obey Him? The Kingdom of heaven comes on earth. It really is that simple.”

I think she beautifully summed up what we’ve learned through our study of Colossians. It has been a call to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, to align our lives with His, to love Him and others God’s way and to usher in the Kingdom-on earth as it is in heaven.

On the last day of our 21 Days of Prayer, some of our children led our corporate prayer time by opening with the Lord’s prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13)

It brought tears to my eyes to see the next generation leading us–and it was evidence of the Kingdom advancing as their young hearts learned to connect with God’s in prayer.

I looked back through every blog we’ve written during this series and in 12 of the 13, one or both of us wrote at least a little bit about the Kingdom. And in the one that didn’t include the word “kingdom”, the concept was still there. I don’t think that’s an accident at all. I believe that Jesus desires his bride, the Church, to really get this, to grab hold of the idea that the Kingdom really can come on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus talked about it all the time during His ministry. And Paul, in his letters-especially in Colossians, tells us how.

John mentioned the Kingdom in this week’s sermon. He said this:

“Don’t sit back and watch the Kingdom of God expand without you being on the front line.” 

And that is the challenge. This week’s sermon hit me hard. Like Luanne, I didn’t expect to get so much out of Paul’s final greetings. I didn’t expect to be moved to tears more than once. I didn’t expect to feel the fire of the Holy Spirit engulfing my heart as I listened. But that’s what happened to me. I’m still processing all that God spoke and is speaking to me. But here’s what I know–

I don’t want to sit back and watch the Kingdom of God expand with me sitting on the sidelines.

Except when I do.

I think we all long to be a part of ushering in the Kingdom-to play our parts in the great symphony that is the Church. We were born with a God-given desire to realize our purpose and live our lives for something, Someone, bigger than ourselves. John laid out in his sermon seven ways we can follow the early church’s lead in bringing the Kingdom of heaven to earth. Luanne listed them above and I’m going to repeat them here:

  • Fulfill your destiny.
  • Be useful.
  • Lead well.
  • Keep praying.
  • Share the story.
  • Be ready.
  • Don’t give up.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Where our expressed desire to make a difference translates into leveraging our lives-all that we have and all that we are-to make that difference. The one that we were each uniquely created to make.

Which one of the seven holds you back? Keeps you from assuming your position on the front line? Is there more than one? For me, there are two. Lead well & Don’t give up. I’ve never seen myself as a leader, yet God has appointed me to lead in several different areas. I didn’t even realize it until today–I still haven’t fully embraced it. But I know that if I don’t embrace God’s call to lead in the areas He’s asked me to, I will be choosing the sideline rather than the front line. And, friends, the sideline is easier. But it doesn’t usher in the Kingdom. 

There are other things I know God has called me to do, but I’ve gotten scared… I’ve gotten lost in the how and the when and even the why at times–so I’ve given up rather than pressing in and pressing on.

In Colossians 4:17, Paul instructs Archippus:

“See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord”.

I’m not fully aware of the extent of the “ministry” I have received in the Lord. But I know that those words pierced my heart as John read them, and God spoke them directly to me in that moment.

So I will take what I have learned, what I’m still learning, from this beautiful book of Colossians, and I will use the tools I’ve been given to step into my position on the front line. Because Jesus is Lord of my life and my desire truly is to see His Kingdom come on earth. It takes all of us doing our part. We can do it, church. We can do it together. Will you join us on the front line?

–Laura

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Who Are We? Colossians 1:1-8

I love the book of Colossians and am super excited that we will be in that book for the next 10 weeks. Paul lays out a beautiful picture of the supremacy of Jesus in this letter–one that I think if we truly “got” would change us to our core.

In the first message of this series, John highlighted verses 1-8 of chapter one—Paul’s greeting. It says this:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father.
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. (NIV)

So many things stand out in this passage–
*Paul’s call “by the will of God”– Every person in Christ has a call by the will of God, including you and me.
*Paul’s acknowledgement of Timothy– Paul does not do ministry alone; neither should we.
*His acknowledgement of the believers in Colossae as “holy” or “saints”, not because of superior morality, but because of their position in Christ, they belong to, are set apart by the presence of Jesus in their lives. We too, are saints, holy–because of Jesus. Can those around us perceive that we are different? Not superior, but different.
*Paul encourages the Colossians, builds them up, acknowledges that he has heard about their faith, about their love for one another, about their hope in God’s big plan, about their acceptance of the gospel and the growth in their region because they are sharing it, about their understanding of the grace of God, and he lets them know that they are not alone–that the gospel is spreading throughout the whole world. And he mentions Epaphras, and says beautiful encouraging things about him. Building one another up, sharing life together, speaking life to one another, are indicators of the presence of Christ. Is that how we, the body of Christ, are living today? Are we known as life speakers? As encouragers?

John threw out some nuggets of his own in the sermon:

*Knowledge means nothing if it’s not connected to your heart.
*The ability to have faith and love comes from our hope–hope in all things becoming right, complete, because we know how it ends, we see the big picture and what God is doing in the big picture.
*Christianity was pushing into a world that didn’t necessarily want it.
*False teaching began to come in and Christianity was being twisted to meet the desire of the people, so Paul wrote to the Colossians encouraging them to keep Jesus Christ at the core of who they were, to shape their lives around him.
*We belong to Jesus, He does not belong to us.
*My identity, your identity is that we are followers of Jesus Christ. It’s all or nothing.

In the midst of all of these beautiful and profound things, my heart landed on Epaphras. Epaphras, the “fellow servant” of Paul and Timothy, the “faithful minister of Christ” to the Colossians, the man who presented the message of Christ so beautifully that the Colossians “truly understood God’s grace” and it changed their lives and their community forever.

We don’t know much about Epaphras. He is mentioned in one other book of the Bible– Philemon, and at that point he is a prisoner with Paul and is sending his greetings to Philemon who was a leader in the Colossian church. But what we do know about Epaphras is that he loved God, he understood God’s grace, he found his entire identity in Christ, he embraced the call of God–the will of God in his life, and he knew and presented Jesus in a very compelling way to a group of people in Colossae–it changed their lives and bore fruit.

Can that be said of us? Are we “fellow servants” with others in the ministry of sharing Jesus? Are we “faithful ministers of Christ”? Do we know and love Jesus enough that those around us can “truly understand God’s grace”? Are we in-all or nothing-as followers of Christ? Are we willing to push into a world that doesn’t necessarily want Jesus? Have we lost our hope? Do we feel alone?

John shared this video with us:  https://youtu.be/9h0zTWHQGP4

Isn’t that encouraging? While it’s true that Christianity is growing at a slower rate in the United States than our population growth, the annual world population growth is at a rate of 1.2%, and the annual evangelical growth rate is 2.6% (GMI.org) Just like Paul wrote: “the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world.” There is a permanency to the gospel. It is powerful, it will not be stopped, the gates of hell will not prevail against it! (Mt. 16:18)

So the question for us, who live in a part of the world where the gospel is not growing as fast…who live in a world resistant to the message of Christ (because, unfortunately, he has been so misrepresented here), are we each willing to be an Epaphras? Are we willing to fall in love with Jesus, recognize His beauty, His supremacy, ask Him to teach us to love the world, to connect our knowledge to our hearts–to His heart–embrace God’s will, God’s call in our lives,  and allow the Spirit to flow through us to those around us? May hope in the fulfillment of God’s big mission birth faith and love that leads to action in each of us.

–Luanne

I find myself a bit scattered as my fingers land on my keyboard… How can it be that there is so much packed into eight short verses? There are so many directions to go, points to expound on, thoughts to explore. As I read through Luanne’s words and re-read the verses a few times, one thought stuck in my mind.

All of the people mentioned in these verses were “all in”, fully committed to the work before them and fully committed to one another.

The letter is written from Paul-and he includes Timothy-to the church at Colossae. We know from all that is written by-and about-these two that they were committed to furthering the Gospel of Jesus. But what stood out to me about them in this short passage related to their commitment to the Colossians.

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you… (vs. 3)

I think this short verse is so beautiful. The two words I highlighted above, “always” and “when” say so much about the hearts of Paul and Timothy toward their brothers and sisters in Christ. “When” we pray, let the church know that they were being faithfully prayed for. And when they prayed for them, it was always with thanksgiving. We aren’t privy to all of the other things Paul and Timothy may have prayed in regard to this church, but we know that they always thanked God for them. What if we prayed that way for each other? First, that we actually pray–that’s the “when”. And second, that we always begin by thanking God for whoever it is that we are praying for. Thanking Him for the work He is doing in the people we pray for, starting there. Not with the gripes and a critical spirit–with grateful hearts that can see the life of Jesus working in fellow believers. I have this feeling that if we changed just this one tiny thing in our prayers, we would find that our own hearts would be changed and our relationships would grow stronger.

And the people they were praying for, the Colossians, they were “all in”, too. John gave us a breakdown of their story. He laid it out this way:

They were once disconnected from God, dead in their sin–us too, right?

They heard the Gospel, and they accepted it. We have heard-have we accepted it?

Their sins were forgiven and they were baptized and began living a new life. Do we know our sins are forgiven? Have we been baptized and have our lives been made new?

Jesus was Lord of their life. They lived in a way that testified to His Lordship. Where are we in this step? Can people look at our lives and see us unashamedly living Jesus’s way?

John also said, and Luanne mentioned this earlier, that they were pushing into a world that didn’t want them there. We will come back to this point…

I think it’s safe to say that the church at Colossae was “all in”.

And then there is Epaphras. Luanne wrote about him so beautifully, so I will use her description again here:

“…what we do know about Epaphras is that he loved God, he understood God’s grace, he found his entire identity in Christ, he embraced the call of God–the will of God in his life, and he knew and presented Jesus in a very compelling way to a group of people in Colossae–it changed their lives and bore fruit.”

Again, he was “all in”. Paul & Timothy, the Colossians and Epaphras-all of them lived lives fully surrendered to Jesus and fully on mission. These eight verses tell us more than enough about them to come to the conclusion that they were committed. They were in. Period. No turning back. And that is why they were “pushing into a world that didn’t want them there”… and having success.

When John spoke those words, I couldn’t help but relate it to us today. As Luanne mentioned above, the United States is one of the few countries where Christianity is growing more slowly than the population of the nation. It is not at all a stretch to say that, in our present day and culture, the world around us doesn’t really want us here. I agree with Luanne that a major contributing factor is that we have so misrepresented who Jesus is and what our faith is all about, but regardless of the “why”, we are definitely unwanted in the nation we call home.

What are we doing about that? Could it be said of us that we are “pushing in” to a world that doesn’t want us, as the Colossians did? Or are we allowing the world around us to influence us more than we are influencing them? Are we being shaped by culture or are we shaping culture? As individuals and as the collective church?

I believe that the reason the Colossian church was successful at pushing into and changing the world around them was because they were all in. Their understanding of who they were-ambassadors who represented Jesus, brothers and sisters who all were important to the family of believers and saints because they belonged to Jesus-directed every facet of their lives. They got it. They accepted it. And they lived in a way that proved that they believed it.

What about us? Can we effectively push into a world that doesn’t (know) they want us? The answer, I believe, is yes. If we go all in. If we can follow this beautiful example and live fully committed lives, we can and will see the statistics in our nation and the world change for the better. I want to live an “all in” life. Will you join me?

We would love for you to enter into the conversation with us through the comments section!

-Laura

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Who Are You Church? Why Are You Here?

Who Are You Church? Why Are You Here? What powerful questions these are! Shane made so many excellent points in his sermon, one of which was when things get confusing, muddled, lost in details that don’t really matter–asking ourselves these two questions will cut through all the fluff and get us back on track.

The beautiful verse mash-up that he read makes it all so very clear:

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light, all who received him those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, members together of one body and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus, you are the body of Christ and each one of you is part of it.” (1 Peter 2:9, John 1:12, Eph 3:6b, 1st Corinthians 12:27)

Who are you church? Why are you here?

Church. No matter who you are, the word conjures up some sort of image, some sort of thought. To many, church is a building, a place to go. “I go to church at such and such a place.” To others it is a place to be avoided–”I could never go to church, I would never be accepted there.” To some church is the place that dictates the do’s and don’ts of life, and makes one feel guilty or self-righteous depending on the current behavioral score card. To some church is boring, irrelevant, not necessary. To others church is a habit, a social experience, an expectation. To some, church is the place to get the personal spiritual tank filled on a weekly basis. To others, church is an exercise in trying to pretend that life is perfect. But to those who seek, to those who pay attention to what Jesus teaches about this thing called church that the gates of hell will not prevail against (Mt. 16:18), church is a God-breathed, life transforming living organism, built on the foundation of Jesus,  infused with the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit to carry out the greatest mission of all—-taking the love of and the Kingdom of God to every person, tribe, tongue and nation across the globe, and every new believer becomes part of this living, growing organism. Peter tells us in 1st Peter 2:5 that we are living stones, being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood. Do you see yourself in that way?

I grew up in church, a great church, but it became routine and I was nominal in my relationship with God and His church, so I became dissatisfied and bored. In my young adulthood I took a few years off, which led me nowhere good. I had no idea how vital being part of a living church was to my emotional and spiritual health until I decided to step away for a few years. Once I made a total mess of things, and truly had nowhere else to turn, I timidly re-entered the community of Christ-followers, and was welcomed with grace and joy. I began to realize that the church is me. I am the church. So, if the global church has the tasks of glorifying God and connecting with Him, of encouraging fellow believers, and of sharing Christ with those who don’t yet know him, the question becomes am I doing those things? Once I figured out that the more I immersed myself in the true mission of Jesus and His church, the more fulfilling my life became. I was hooked.

Shane made the point that the strength of the church is defined by the connections we have– not by our programs, our budget, our building, but by our connections.
Connection number one is do we have a strong connection with the triune God–Father, Son, and Spirit? Connection number two, do we have strong connections with other people in the body? Are we making intentional time for one another, fellowshipping together, doing life together, encouraging one another, sharpening one another? And connection number three, are we bringing others in so that they can connect with God, connect with fellow believers, find freedom, discover their purpose and become part of bringing others in.  All three of these connections are vital to being a Kingdom church.

It is not possible to fulfill the mission of the church without going all in. That’s just what’s true. Jesus was very clear, and modeled very clearly that his Kingdom is all about relationships, and it requires denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following him daily. (Luke 9:23). And you know what I’ve learned? It is not a heavy weight– it is a great joy. My dearest friends, my closest relationships, are all people who I do Kingdom life with–the world can’t offer relationships like these. My spiritual growth, the woman I’ve become and am becoming are because of my relationship with God and with others in the church. And there is nothing, nothing, nothing greater than getting to be part of God’s saving and transforming work in someone else’s life. There is nothing more fulfilling than being part of God’s global work of bringing His Kingdom of justice and love to the world. There is nothing greater than watching God break strongholds, chains, do the impossible, and blow minds with how truly great He is.

So–who are you church? Why are you here? Do you see yourself as a “living stone” a vital piece in His church? We’d love to hear your answers…

–Luanne

Luanne reiterated in her beautiful writing the three reasons Shane laid out for why the church is here:

“…the global church has the tasks of glorifying God and connecting with Him, of encouraging fellow believers, and of sharing Christ with those who don’t yet know him…” 

Shane spent a lot of time on the second point, encouraging one another. He reminded us of the definition of the word encourage–and I’m so glad he did, because I think we sometimes forget its full implications and end up operating out of a watered down understanding of what it means. The initial meaning is “to take heart”. But when it is broken down further, it means “to strengthen, foster or advance something or someone”.

If you presented me with the three points Shane made about why the church is here before I heard the message and asked me which one I thought was the most important, encouraging one another would have been last on my list. Because, obviously, connecting with God and glorifying Him and sharing Christ are the more important pieces of this puzzle… right? Encouraging one another can feel too inward-focused, maybe a little selfish… right?

I wrestled these thoughts through as I listened. And have prayed through them ever since.  And this is where I’ve landed–

We cannot successfully connect with God or share Jesus with those who don’t know Him if we haven’t first been encouraged by other believers.

I know that is a fairly bold statement to make, but stay with me for a minute…

As I prayed and wrestled with my own thoughts, I was reminded of my own journey with God, with faith, with church. How did I get to where I am today?

By the encouragement of other believers.

I am not talking about flattery, praise, “atta girls”. I am referring to the kind of encouragement Shane defined for us. The kind of encouragement that builds off of the love Jesus was talking about in John 13:34-35:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

How did Jesus love his disciples? That list is too large to cover comprehensively here. But it absolutely included strengthening what was weak in them, fostering an environment of growth and advancing them into roles and positions they could never have imagined for themselves. Through Jesus’s encouragement and example, they learned how to connect with God and glorify Him and they also learned what they would need to know to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. The book of Acts records how essential encouragement, in it’s full definition, was to the early church:

 Acts 9:31: Paul was preaching and when he left, the church “was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit.”                                                                                                        

Acts 11:23: Barnabas (whose real name was Joseph, but he was so known for being an encourager that he was nicknamed “Barnabas”, meaning “son of encouragement”. How cool is that?? I love Barnabas!) encouraged early Christians in Antioch “to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts”                                                                                                            

Acts 13:15: “Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak”                                                                                                                                               

Acts 14:22: Paul “strengthened the disciples and encouraged them to remain true to the faith”                                                                                                                                                

 Acts 15:31: People read the epistle and “were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers.”                                                    

Acts 15:41: Paul “went through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches”                  

Acts 16:5: Paul and Timothy visit “so the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”                                                                                                                        

Acts 16:40: Paul and Silas out of prison…”they met with the brothers and encouraged them.”                                                                                                                                                

Acts 18:23: Paul went throughout the region of Galatia “strengthening all the disciples”

 Acts 18:27:  the “brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.”  

 Acts 20:1: Paul in Ephesus, “after encouraging them, said good-by and went to Macedonia, “speaking many words of encouragement to the people”

These are a few verses from one book of the New Testament, but from this small glimpse, it is glaringly apparent how important encouragement was to the furtherance of the gospel in the early days of the Church. Jesus Himself had encouraged His disciples and Paul, and they were building His Church the very same way.

Earlier, I wrote that I have gotten to where I am today because of the encouragement of other believers. No matter what age we are when we meet Jesus, we all start out as babies in our faith. I won’t speak for anyone else here, but my personal experience was that I did not intuitively know how to connect with God or how to share Jesus with the world. I had to learn. And I am so grateful for those in my life who have been encouragers to me. Those who have strenthened, fostered and advanced me. Luanne wrote:

“My dearest friends, my closest relationships, are all people who I do Kingdom life with–the world can’t offer relationships like these. My spiritual growth, the woman I’ve become and am becoming are because of my relationship with God and with others in the church.”

“…the world can’t offer relationships like these.”

She’s right. It can’t. And it isn’t supposed to. We are to love one another and to encourage one another the same way Jesus loves us. And when we do that, we equip one another to reach the world around us and we learn how to better connect with God. All of which glorifies Him and shows the world around us what can happen when we encourage one another well.

So, which point is the most important? I have to say encouraging one another. Because it facilitates the other two points. Are the other two points more vital to Kingdom living? Probably. Definitely. But we cannot get there without first learning how. And that is taught the same way it was in the early church–through the encouragement we give one another.

How did you get to where you are? How has encouragement from other believers impacted your life and faith? We would love to continue this conversation with you!

–Laura

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