I’d Rather Sleep In The Street

One afternoon last week, a married couple came into the lobby of our ministry with a letter in hand. I recognize the letter by its envelope. It’s from the local Traveler’s Aid society. I see a lot of these letters. They are written after an individual or family have appealed through this aid society for emergency funds to travel to a destination by Greyhound where they will have support. It could be to a family member, to a friend, or to one’s own apartment, assuming someone is at a phone number nearby to verify. The letter tells me that they are stranded here in St. Louis and need support to afford a trip home. The Travelers Aid Society provides the voucher to the bus station and we are one of a handful of organizations, working together, who contribute to the fare. Depending on where they are going it can be quite expensive. Quite frankly, there are times when we have no funds at all to assist and the person has to stay until they can get a job and make enough money to travel on. And sometimes that’s not possible because of their disability. When I saw this married couple I stepped aside to meet with them personally.

The woman speaking told me of how a church in Colorado had all but $90 raised to get them to South Carolina. It wasn’t enough so they settled on St. Louis. I explained that we had some, but not all of the money to send both of them the rest of the way. And upon hearing that we could not get them on a bus that day she burst into tears. I try to be compassionate and measured in these situations. I don’t want to seem uncaring, and I don’t want to be overly sensitive. It’s not easy. I begin listing possible options for further assistance. I give the name and location and contact person of another church that assists. I point out that the amount they need to raise is for a Monday through Thursday bus ticket. She’s still crying. She wants on that bus now.

Finally I mention that we could provide shelter through the weekend, though we weren’t set up to accommodate couples. And this is when the conversation really changed. “Nuh uh, I’m staying with my husband. I’d rather sleep in the street. No way.” I politely told them that this would take time and that the choice was theirs. Then after processing their paperwork, I walked away.

“I’d rather sleep in the street.” The words now ring in my ears. Should I be offended when people tell me this? Should I consider them ungrateful? Should it make me doubt the sincerity of their need?

I really didn’t think much about it when it was spoken. But its just that I’ve heard these words so often repeated about our shelter and also other shelters. I know this couple have never met me before. They’ve never stayed for shelter here. They don’t know anything about it really. But when I mention “shelter” they recoil. They can’t be separated as a couple.

I understand their fears, I really do. If it were me in a strange city, appealing for help from a church I don’t know, stranded and scared, I might feel the same way, so I sympathize. But my sympathies won’t keep them safe from these cruel streets. When I think of the words of Jesus, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” I believe that my offer of shelter, though refused, is what I would want another to offer me. But what I also realize about the words of Jesus is that others are very different from myself. The good I would do may not be received as the good by them at all. Some people will not want an encounter for their good. They just want some quick cash.

Every house, be it a church or a family home, has rules and social guidelines. No smoking, drinking, drugs, weapons, fighting, cursing, etc. Someone has to clean the house. Someone has to attend to the food pantry and to the money. If the house is to survive someone has to care for it. In community, which is what our church is, an intentional community, we agree that we are each responsible not only for our own behavior but for the good of the house overall. So when something needs doing we all pitch in, albeit in different ways.

I’ve never looked down on anyone who refused to live in community. It’s a difficult life. It took many years of living in community for me to learn to ask for help. I’ve always wanted to do everything for myself. I just didn’t have the patience for letting someone else attend to my needs, not when I could get it myself. So I can sympathize with people who don’t like asking for help, and then refuse the help that’s offered.

But just because I understand these things, doesn’t mean that as one who offers the gift I will value the gift less, or will want to alter the gift because not everyone wants it. The gift of shelter is not for everyone, I know that. But many people do accept and appreciate it. They prefer to have a roof over their heads and they don’t consider it an indignity for it to be a free roof. They actually enjoy the experience and they have a degree of comfort in it for a time. They know its not the same as their own home, but it will do for now. And on that day when they do get their own place, I’m rejoicing for them.

Giving and receiving in this context is itself a gift. It’s a gift because life itself, every day is a gift from God. I cannot give what I do not myself have. And I cannot appreciate what I have unless I realize it is a gift.

Along with the gift of shelter come many other gifts. Food, prescription assistance, reading glasses, bus tickets, blankets, hygiene kits, and clothing. We give them because we receive them and receive them because we give them. We learned that last year we received far more in In-Kind donations (things people give with monetary value but that are not money, like clothes) than in cash. Those types of donations involve a wealth of people to receive them and process them and redistribute them. It’s the difference between having a pile of rags or a rack of neatly hung clothes to offer. When I consider that fact, I realize that NLEC is engaged in a life affirming work that appears unsettled all the time. We’re always a little unraveled. But I’d rather be unraveled than locked up tight.

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Meet Kenneth

I want to tell a little story about a man I’ve been meeting outside the building at NLEC. When I come into work in the mornings I see him standing on the fire escape outside our building. He’s not there loitering, he’s warming his hands under the dryer vent. He’s not causing problems. He’s alone. I walk up and ask him his name and I introduce myself. I’m a firm believer in the power of greetings and listening. I ask him some basic questions about himself, and he opens up.
I’ve not seen him before in the neighborhood so I offer assistance in learning his way around. I learn from Kenneth about the things he cares about. He tells me he feels frustrated because he can’t hear well, he’s partially deaf. He has trouble remembering things. He tells me a little about his recent history. Drinking years ago led to permanent problems with his memory. And that problem comes up as we talk because he can’t remember what he just said, or what I just said. I try not to ask too many questions, but I let him know where he can get a meal, where he can get access to a nurse, and I encourage him to get his recent “scrip” filled and get his meds because his seizures won’t go away.
A week later I see Kenneth outside again in the morning, and I ask how he’s doing. He remembers me as a friendly face and I try to keep the conversation short. I encourage him to come in the building later and we’ll talk more. Later on he asks for a private space where we can talk and I find an empty room off our lobby. He gets serious about his business. He talks about committing a crime so he can get locked up or committing suicide. But then he says he prays everyday and thanks Jesus for another day alive. I ask him if he wants to do God’s will. And he asks how he can know what that is. I assure him that God wants him to be alive and to see his health improve. God doesn’t want him to be so alone. And he questions whether that is true.
We talk about various possibilities relating to his needs. We discuss a plan to check in at another shelter tonight. We talk about his discharge instructions from the hospital recently. And the conversation comes back to the fact that he just wants to get his money at the end of the month. He wants out of this town.
I point out the fact that his seizure disorder is quite serious and that he should try to get his prescription filled. He says, “But my urine problem is so bad that I can’t ride a bus.” I looked into Metro’s Call A Ride for him but learned that appointments are backed up and it would cost $13 dollars each way to get to the hospital. He settles on bus tickets and instructions on which bus to take.
I’m not convinced he’ll make it there today, or that he’ll do anything. This is what it’s like here. Missouri has a grave disability clause in Mental Health services. A person has to be willing to harm themselves or another person before they can be committed involuntarily for treatment. In Kenneth’s case he has an organic brain injury. It doesn’t fall under the usual classification for mental illness treatment anyway.
I might be able to get him into a residential care facility, so we discuss that as a possible plan. He wants all the money from his debit card at the first of the month to travel. Even though his seizures could kill him without medication, he won’t consent to treatment. He goes to the hospital every time he has a seizure. They learn he has a “scrip” and they discharge him with care instructions.
There’s got to be a better way. I place calls to other mobile outreach providers and they take his name and location down. But when he won’t go to his appointments or get his meds there’s not much more they’ll do.
This is the face of homelessness that the government claims to have the answer to. He could easily qualify as chronically homeless and be placed in permanent housing. But no one is going to hunt him down and force him to take his meds and lock him in his apartment. That’s not how it works.
Does the public know how it works? Please keep this man in your prayers. And pray for a more just society here in Missouri and in our nation.

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I Believe! Help my lack of faith.

 

 

 

“I believe! Help my lack of faith!” (Mk. 9:24)

by Rev. Chris Rice 

John 14:1-8; John 16:25-33.

 

Dear Friends, 

One of the things I really love about the Gospel of John is that he takes us inside the room and replays the conversations Jesus had with his disciples about what was going to happen when he was crucified and raised from the dead. I love it because it is clear they are on a journey of belief, and they haven’t arrived. They thought they understood what it meant to follow Jesus. But as he talks about himself and the Father, and where he is going, they open their mouths and the confusion spills out. And then when they understand, and accept Jesus’ words, he lets them know that there is far more to come. 

So often we speak of faith and belief in very wooden and confident terms. And we only talk of doubt or lack of faith very impatiently, confessing that doubt may be present, but that God is always trustworthy. We’re afraid to talk about how we’re really feeling. Afraid that in talking about our problems, our fear and doubt will overcome our faith, and we’ll be lost. 

Let’s go to God in prayer now:

Heavenly Father, 

We come to you just as we are, perhaps half-heartedly, full of suspicions, fear, anger, and shame. We ask that you open our spiritual eyes to the wonders you have given. Have mercy on us, Lord Jesus, and bring to our minds the truth that we need. So that forsaking all else, we will cling only to your word and place our trust, our desires, our longings, solely in your hands. Have your way in us. 

In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Faith is a gift from God. It is not something we can buy, something we inherit, or something that a lot of education can bestow on us. I can’t pretend to explain how it works, except to say that God puts in all of us a sense of wonder and longing. We know that the truth is out there, and we have a lot of different ways of finding it. Our hearts are restless until they can rest safely in God. But we live in times where the words faith and belief are confused to be the same thing. When someone commonly says, “I have faith”, what they mean is that they have an assurance of something they can’t see. When someone says, “I believe” it can be taken as another way of saying, “I think, but I have no way of knowing for sure.” Now when the person says, “I know”, and with confidence, it’s understood as less of a stabbing in the dark and more of a way of describing their real experience. 

In the book of John Jesus spoke with the authority of one who knew what he was talking about. And this could be really disconcerting even to his closest friends, because they had no other frame of reference for his words. In John 14:1 (New Living Testament) Jesus said, 

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. 4And you know the way to where I am going.” (NLT)

But they didn’t know, and Thomas was brave enough to speak up about it. 

5“No, we don’t know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We have no idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

6Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. 7If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!”

The way, the truth, the life. The only way. In our day and age, these words sound too narrow. 

There’s a popular comic on the internet of Jesus standing at a door knocking, 

saying, “Knock knock.”

and the answer comes, “Who’s There?” 

And Jesus says, “It’s Jesus. Let me in.” 

And the answer comes, “Why?” 

Jesus say, “Because I’ve come to save you.” “From what?” is the reply.

And then the comic Jesus says, 

“From what I’m going to do to you if you don’t let me in.” 

This is how many people think of Jesus, someone who wants to come in and steal away their sins…or else.

First we’d like to imagine that we’re safest in the four walls of our own mind. We don’t need anyone or anything else, because we humans are fundamentally sound creatures who are doing a great job with what we have. There’s not really much evidence for that, but we feel pretty good about it, and it works for right now, so why change?

Jesus says, “If you really know me, you know the Father.” 

Belief is a fickle thing, and faith is nothing at all without the Father who gives it. We all place our trust in many things, beginning with our own reasoning, our abilities, and in what we can know from experience. And we question everything.

8Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Sadhu Sundar Singh, a Christian evangelist from Northern India, told this story “of a poor grass cutter who found a beautiful stone in the jungle. He had often heard of people finding valuable diamonds and thought this must be one. He took it to a jeweler and showed it to him with delight. Being a kind and sympathetic man, the jeweler knew that if he bluntly told the grass cutter that his stone was worthless glass, the man would either refuse to believe it or else fall into a state of depression. So instead, the jeweler offered the grass cutter some work in his shop so that he might become better acquainted with precious stones and their value. Meanwhile, the man kept his stone safely locked away in a strongbox. Several weeks later, the jeweler encouraged the man to bring out his own stone and examine it. As soon as he took it out of the chest and looked at it more closely, he immediately saw that it was worthless. His disappointment was great, but he went to the jeweler and said: ‘I thank you that you did not destroy my hope but aided me instead to see my mistake on my own. If you will have me, I will stay with you and faithfully serve you, as you are a good and kind master.'” (From Wisdom of the Sadhu, Plough.)

Thank God the Father that he did not come as we had expected Him. We come to God with all of our accusations and failed expectations. We come to Him looking for a reflection of ourselves. And when He’s not what we expect, we get frustrated and want to give up. Belief in Jesus means sticking around long enough to get confused, afraid, lonely, angry, weary, and yet hang on with expectation for gratitude.  True Belief is simply another way of saying, “I know that I am loved, that I belong. And even where I don’t understand, I’m staying.” 

Over time in the same setting, two chapters later, after Jesus had washed their feet and Judas had left, Jesus said, 

25“I have spoken of these matters in figures of speech, but soon I will stop speaking figuratively and will tell you plainly all about the Father. 26Then you will ask in my name. I’m not saying I will ask the Father on your behalf, 27for the Father himself loves you dearly because you love me and believe that I came from God. 28Yes, I came from the Father into the world, and now I will leave the world and return to the Father.”

29Then his disciples said, “At last you are speaking plainly and not figuratively. 30Now we understand that you know everything, and there’s no need to question you. From this we believe that you came from God.”

31Jesus asked, “Do you finally believe? 32But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:25-33, NLT)

Seeing how the disciples finally say, “we believe you came from God”, even where they had been with Jesus for so many years, might cause us to snicker and think, “How could they be so dull?” But instead let us look at ourselves. In what ways have we been with Jesus, seen him doing wonderful things around us, and yet have become slow of heart, confused about what’s next? It should not come as a surprise that Jesus’ disciples were learning to believe. It should come as a relief. God uses slow people, impatient, angry, ugly, sad, disorganized, frustrated, anxious human beings. And he is loving and patient enough to see the faith he gives us through the fire of life. 

Jesus question, “Do you finally believe?” comes to us aloud today, and I hear it not as an accusation, but as the assurance that our Lord, who knows my slowness of heart, and knows the road that lies before me, knows that the faith He has given, is strong enough to endure. Peace. Jesus tells the truth and offers peace.  How terrible it would be for us if Jesus had told us only what we want to hear. If he had said, “You will arise every morning full of sunshine, and your path will be laid about with moonbeams and rose petals. I will take all trouble from your mind and everyone will love you because you belong to me. And if anyone dare oppose you I will provide the political power for you to destroy your opponents. They will know you are followers of mine because of the glory that will follow you.” 

Sadly, I sometimes think that’s what many church goers want Jesus to say to them. Instead he promises us many trials and sorrows. Marked by sorrow, by trial, by the cross. And yet, we followers of Jesus are called to take heart, to rejoice, to be exceedingly glad! Because Jesus has overcome the world! 

Why do I believe in Jesus when life is hard? Why do I continue to accept His invitation to follow hard after him, when I find that I am accused falsely of all kinds of wrong? The daily service is not noticed by adversaries and I can’t seem to make my intentions clear to my family and friends. The devil would accuse me that I’m doing it wrong! The temptation to give up is in the corner doing push-ups. Is this really the Abundant Life? Surely there’s an easier way. 

I can tell you from experience that I have been the one who did quit, time and time again. I was the resentful one, the hateful one, the mocker, the one who stood aside and watched “all the hypocrites”. And that life led me to ruin. I believe in Jesus because life is hard! Because my faith is not contrived but is a gift. Because I belong to a worldwide body of believers who will not shrink from seeing this world in all its brokenness, and will not give up. God’s Spirit is alive and active on planet earth, caring for creation, blessing all that God calls good, and loving Him with our whole heart, mind and strength, living to His glory! And yes, calling sin—sin, repenting and turning from wrong to do right. 

I believe that the invitation to follow Jesus means being led by His Spirit into an adventurous life, where we don’t know what’s coming next, but we DO know that Jesus is RISEN from the grave and has opened up the reality of a past forgiven, a present redeemed, and a future victorious for all believers in Him. To believe is to live in worship, knowing that “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence.” (2 Peter 1:3, NLT)

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“For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up”

Psalm 75:5-6 “For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up; for it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.” NRSV

As i consider our situation in St Louis, that for years our church has advocated for more regional shelter and resources and instead we’ve seen the tragedy grow. When I consider that our own shelter has been ruled a detriment despite the fact that we raised over a 100k for our defense and I spent 18 mos. on call to gather files and mount a defense, it makes me wonder where our hope lies. Have we sought our hope within the legal system, which is easily manipulated by the rich and powerful, instead of God? Or have we just exercised our rights as citizens, raising money not simply to defend ourselves, but the many thousands who we help? Now we have filed a federal lawsuit against the city itself and we will have a hearing. This is a very expensive way to simply exist, and it takes away from much needed resources.
I am reminded in this Psalm that God is the One who executes judgment. As I consider what Michael Brown’s family is undergoing at this time, when they looked to the highest law in the land for justice and got the verdict that Darren Wilson is not guilty, acted within the law to use deadly force, I know that our redemption is not from our government. I recently sat with Steve, a brother in my church who is facing cancer. They found a lump in his jaw that it turned out was a tumor, and in removing it he was hospitalized. (He still awaits Medicaid, by the way.) Now he walks with assistance and can only rest to recover. And because he doesn’t have a phone or transportation, us pastors take him to appointments and he uses my phone. He’s looked after by all the brothers here in his room. He said to me, “I asked the Lord for healing, and if chemo and radiation are what it takes then I figure it’s worth it.”
And that word inspires me, that when we pray and believe God, and then take action as citizens to advocate and represent ourselves, we are never losers. Our situation may be uncertain, but we know God is in control. The real focus of Scripture is not the evil in the land. It is not corrupt politicians or the functioning of government. The focus is on God’s action to save. Scripture is salvation history.

I fully expect that even as so much of our advocacy, though right in front of the public eye, is overlooked or forgotten by the majority of our region’s fair citizens, our efforts are not for us or for them, but are for God alone. Before God we can honestly say we did all we could to bring the message “when I was a stranger, did you take me in? What we do for the least of these we do for Jesus.” Our question is not: What will we do next to take on the injustice in society? But rather, in serving Christ how shall we show His love in this world which is chasing frivolity and rewarding injustice? Lawsuits are the least we can do. It is an important something, but it is certainly not the same as our daily service. “For God alone my soul in silence waits.”

For too many suffering people life is a nightmare. It can only end where we act intentionally out of the love and suffering of Christ. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,to set the oppressed free.” Lk 4:18 (NIV) How this gospel of justice ever became a sanguine, domesticated, feel good American religion is beyond me.
There were many who did not welcome the transformation and healing that Jesus brought about in His own day. And it is no different now. But if we understand that our redemption is bound up with the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, we can understand what good news it is indeed.

I must still ask myself the question: Am I of any use? Have I let the world harden my heart and soften my body? Am I “laying my body down on the gears and the wheels on the levers and on the whole apparatus to make it stop!?” (Mario Salvio, 1964) Or am I affirming the system and the machine? Where does my help come from? It comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:2)

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New Sermon: Who is my neighbor? Who is my enemy? by Rev. Chris Rice

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)

Dear Friends,

There are few things more difficult than being opposed, especially when we are trying to follow the will of God. When you were a child, did you ever find a set of blocks and build a tower with them? And when you were just about to set the last block on the top of your tower or wall or house, can you remember another child coming over and knocking down your handiwork? How did that make you feel? Really angry, really sad, right?

I remember one Sunday sitting with a child in children’s church who just wanted to play by himself. We took a lot of time setting up a building together, and there was this other boy that made it his mission to come and destroy it. No matter how hard I tried to stop him, he found a way to come over and knock the blocks down. His fun that morning was in ruining our work.

As we set out to do the will of God, Jesus makes it clear, we will be opposed. It’s not a matter of if, but when. And what are we told to do in response? Love our enemies. On one level this doesn’t seem to make sense. Isn’t it just arming the devil to love those opposed to the work of God?

Why set out to do anything for God if someone can come along and attack and destroy that work? Then Jesus says I’ve got to love that enemy? Love for enemies is at the heart of the redemptive work of God in Christ. And Jesus means for us to take him seriously on this point. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer:

Heavenly Father, we come to you and ask that you make us eager to listen and obey. You know that we live in a world that is opposed to the Light of Love. Jesus promised that in this world we would have trouble. But then He said, “Be of good courage. I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33) So we ask that you grant us courage this day. In you we are overcomers! And your Love abides in us to accomplish this. Have your way in us completely. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Our Lord Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Let us take his words and let them sink deeply into us. In Leviticus 19:18 the Bible says, ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” And in Psalm 139:21, 22 it says, “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.”

As we consider how to love our enemies, first we have to ask ourselves the question, “Who is my neighbor and how do I love them as myself?” Or, in other words, the people that I share the land with, who are they to me? Am I “my brother’s keeper”? We cannot love our neighbors without careful, deliberate intention. We cannot just be alive, caring only for ourselves, and think that because we are not at war with our neighbor, we love them.

The second consideration in loving our enemies is, “Who am I in relation to my enemy?” Am I doing the will of God? Everything that God requires, He provides. The question is, am I seeking my own interests or the will of God? If I’m serving Jesus than the only enemies I have are Jesus’ enemies. Jesus loves his enemies and died for them to redeem them into the Kingdom.
I dare say that our first problem in loving our enemies is actually in defining our neighbors and then our enemies.

When I was a kid growing up I used to say to my sisters and to other kids in the neighborhood, “Jesus says I have to love you, so I do. But he didn’t say I had to like you, so I don’t.” It is often easy to set the hard teachings of Jesus aside, like this one, for our own comfort. Some people are more difficult to be around than others, we might say, so I’ll deal with them the best I can, but I don’t have to like them. That sentiment shows just how far we still have to go in loving Jesus.

Jesus didn’t say we’d always feel like loving. That’s not what love is all about. He said,
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”

I’m a firm believer in “greeting” all people because they have in them the image of God. What did it mean to greet or “salute” someone in Jesus and the Apostle Paul’s day? It meant addressing them with respect and honor by name. For Jesus’ disciples it meant that he knew them well and even gave them new names, like Simon, whom Jesus called Petra, or Rock. Paul would start and finish his letters like this, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

And Jesus said, “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (vs. 47) This is why it is wrong to pick favorites among the people we serve. This is why it is wrong to treat others only the way they treat us, instead of “as we would want to be treated”, as Jesus said.

It is wrong because my neighbor is the person God has placed before me to humanize and greet. The image of God in them, as difficult as it may be to see, is a gift that I must not meet with derision. When I mistrust someone made in God’s image, the stranger, the alien in the land, my neighbor, I offend God, and it offends the image of God in me!
George MacDonald, the fiction writer, poet and pastor, said, “But the question must be put to each man by himself, “Is my neighbor indeed my enemy, or am I my neighbor’s enemy, and so take him to be mine? — awful thought! Or, if he be mine, am not I his? Am I not refusing to acknowledge the child of the kingdom within his bosom, so killing the child of the kingdom within my own?” Let us claim for ourselves no more indulgence than we give to him. Such honesty will end in severity at home and clemency abroad. For we are accountable for the ill in ourselves, and have to kill it; for the good in our neighbor, and have to cherish it. He only, in the name and power of God, can kill the bad in him; we can cherish the good in him by being good to it across all the evil fog that comes between our love and his good.”

So when you look someone in the eye and call them by name you are performing a great service for them. You are acknowledging the power of their presence, and acknowledging their very existence. Don’t you understand that we live in an age where people are afraid to look each other in the eye for fear of their safety? As vulnerable people, especially poor people, we need and yet are afraid of eye contact. We’re afraid of people getting too close to us. We’re certainly afraid of being touched or hugged. This is why it is so important that we do this for one another in church. Our strength comes from building each other up in the Lord.

When Jesus said that our Father in Heaven is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, we can rest assured that the Love of God is stronger than any evil system that perpetuates bitterness, hostility, and animosity. Our God delights in redeeming people from their sin and transforming them into loving persons who cannot become overcome by fear, suspicion, resentment or bitterness. He does this in us, not through heroic sentiment or the example of godly individuals, but through believers in community who demonstrate confession of sins, repentance, and healing forgiveness every day.

Left to myself I can never love my enemies, and neither should I. As a child of God I am not meant to be alone or do anything alone, and neither are you. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19, NIV) and “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” (5:30) I have learned from other followers in Christ, including my Father and Mother, how to love my enemies. I’m not saying we’ve been perfect at it, but together we’ve learned not to be overcome by bitterness. My mother, Penny Rice, in an article she wrote for the New Life Zoa Free Paper, told her story:
“As 1990 came to a close, I found myself dealing with public criticism of our ministry by community leaders, financial setbacks personally and in our work, close friends who seemed to turn their backs on me, tragic disappointments among co-workers and the increasing problems of so many who had nowhere else to turn. The Grace of God that I had enjoyed swimming in during 1989 was abandoned as I allowed myself to succumb to fear and resentment…oh, how this bitter, weary heart of mine longed for a cure for its life-destroying disease…Fortunately for me, and all those who are sick with bitterness towards circumstances or people who have hurt them, there is a powerful cure for this deadly cancer. And this cure is effective even in the final stages of this disease. Here is the prescription:
‘Be gentle and forbearing with one another and, if one has a difference (a grievance or complaint) against another, readily pardoning each other; even as the Lord has [freely] forgiven you, so must you also [forgive].” (Col. 3:13, Amp.)
Jesus Christ, the One who paid for our sins by offering up His sinless body as a sacrifice on our behalf, said this: “For if you forgive people their trespasses [their [a]reckless and willful sins, [b]leaving them, letting them go, and [c]giving up resentment], your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses [their reckless and willful sins, leaving them, letting them go, and giving up resentment], neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15, Amp.)
Wow! It would be better to die from organic cancer with a clear conscience and forgiveness from God than to let my soul forever be tormented because of unforgiveness! How foolish it is to allow bitterness to fester inside for even one day. Many, who now reside behind prison bars because of one reckless act stemming from bitterness, are learning how true this Scripture is: “But if you have bitter jealousy (envy) and contention (rivalry, selfish ambition) in your hearts, do not pride yourselves on it and thus be in defiance of and false to the Truth.
This [superficial] wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual (animal), even devilish (demoniacal). For wherever there is jealousy (envy) and contention (rivalry and selfish ambition), there will also be confusion (unrest, disharmony, rebellion) and all sorts of evil and vile practices.” (James 3:14-16, Amp.)
Having been an observer throughout my life of the destruction that cancer can bring, I now rejoice that God has provided to all of us the cure for the most devastating of all cancers. If we forgive all the hurts in our hearts and rest in Jesus’ loving arms of forgiveness, you and I can truly say, “Ravaged by cancer….no more!”

She didn’t know as she penned this, that sixteen years later she would face another battle with bitterness and separation in marriage. She didn’t know that she would face cancer that would end in a holy Christian death. What she did know was that Jesus would lead her all the way—and he did! After much hard travail she and my father were reunited in their marriage and rededicated in their vows. She ended her life on this planet in love surrounded by her family who loved her. What more could any of us ask for? She faced our final enemy, death, with courage and gratitude.

For my part, I look back on that time as a touchstone for me. If God brought us through that, what can’t he bring us through? What won’t he bring us through? This was Paul’s confidence in Romans 8:31-39. “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In 1980, while performing the Mass on live radio, Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down in San Salvador. The year before he wrote: “If I have the joy of possessing heaven, I would not mind being in that heaven near to those who today declare themselves my enemies, because there we will not be enemies. I am never anyone’s enemy. But let those who without cause want to be my enemies be converted to love, and in love we shall meet in the blessedness of God.”

We have to face the fact, as Jesus did, that evil cannot be reasoned with. Our love and obedience to Jesus pose a threat in this world because they remind all those blinded by the devil that their rule is temporary. Their hatred cannot last forever. Their pride, money, fun, games, and popularity are as shallow as their memory. What really endures is love.

Let us pray: Lord, make me aware of neighbors, friends and enemies. Grant me the capacity to love my neighbor as well as my friends, but also give me the strength to love my adversary. Teach me to love myself so I can learn to love my enemy. Teach me to love without compromising my faith and principals. Help me to understand that there are those in this world who do not love me, do not respect me, do not care for me, and want to hurt me. Bless me with the wisdom to understand why my enemy does not love me. Grant me the ability to love my enemy without letting my enemy hurt me. Bless me to beat down my enemy, but to beat them down in love, without becoming my enemy! Teach me to respect my enemy even though they may not respect me. Teach me to be gracious and good, yet wise as a serpent with the gentleness of a dove! Help me to work to bring my enemies around to the table of peace. Encourage me not to settle for evil when good is what I should strive for. On that day when my enemy becomes as David would say, “My footstool”, help me not to gloat with insults and derision, but to welcome them as brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God. Through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior we pray. Amen (by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Hood, III)

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

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Look what I found! Let’s throw a party!​


“1 By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. 2 The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” 3 Their grumbling triggered this story. 4 “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? 5When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, 6 and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’7 Count on it – there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue. 8 “Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? 9And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbors: ‘Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ 10 Count on it – that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.” (Luke 15:1-10,The Message)

Dear Friends,
Jesus told two simple parables that are so small they might simply be overlooked. But these parables, like all his parables, tell us what God is like, and what we should be thankful for. Many of us at times can find it really difficult to find even one thing worthwhile to get excited about. Here Jesus gives us a picture of the greatest thing to throw a party for. Americans love to party. We love our holidays and reasons to spend money. But God doesn’t really have to be a part of that, does He? Parties without any real reason to celebrate are really just debacles. Get together to watch other people act stupid, get wasted, and hopefully get home and get to work the next day.
How much better to throw a party out of gratitude that something lost has been found! I had a friend who I knew for many years who in a very real way was very lost. His name was Isaac, which in the Bible means laughter. He was a homeless veteran, and he was a gambling addict who kept it hidden for many years. Most people never stopped to ask why he was here every week without fail for church, but a few of us pastors knew. We sat down with Isaac and confronted him about how he really needed to seek help for his addiction and use his monthly income toward housing. At one point I said to him, “Isaac, If you pull this off this time, after being here is 1985, I think the city should have you throw out the first pitch in the Cardinals game next season. There should be a ticker tape parade and the mayor himself should shake your hand.” He had been lost for many years, but now he would be found.
We developed a plan to access services and get into housing. And finally, I’m happy to say, Isaac got his own apartment. But sadly the years took their toll on his body, and like so many chronically homeless who get placed, he died within a short time. I share his story because even though most people never knew his name, and he never got that ticker tape parade, I know the angels in heaven knew him well. I know that Jesus knows Isaac. His life was no tragedy. Addiction or not, this sinner who repented was found.
Let’s go to God in prayer.

Lord,
Your Word says in Psalm 32, “Happy is he whose offense is forgive, whose sin is blotted out!” We pray with David, “While I refused to speak, my body wasted away with day long moaning…but when I acknowledged my sin to you, when I no longer concealed my guilt but said, ‘I shall confess my offense to the Lord,’ then you for your part remitted the penalty of my sin.” Lord we know that the torments for the ungodly are many, but unfailing love enfolds those who trust in the Lord. We rejoice in you and are glad, we sing aloud, honest in heart” because of your love in Christ. Amen.

In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin Jesus reasons with us that it would only be common sense to know the value of what we have, to scour and find our lost assets, and to rejoice with our friends with a party in celebrating what we have. Sadly, in our age of excess, our culture, like the Pharisees who despise sinners, has lost its sense of what is truly valuable, and overlooks so much of what really matters that its celebrations are not out of gratitude to God, but are a reason simply to forget our troubles, and age our bodies more quickly.

In these little stories of being lost and found we find three reasons for thanksgiving:
1. It is good to be alive. The wisest thing I have learned here at NLEC is the simple prayer: “Thank you Lord for waking me up this morning. For setting me in my right mind. For putting a smile on my face. For giving me movement in my limbs. For giving me sight in my eyes.” Life itself is a miracle. Life is a gift. Gratitude for another day alive makes no sense in a world where we do not ask to be born and we are allowed to do whatever we want with our bodies so long as it presents no danger to ourselves or others in the sight of the law.
Life is worth living because God loves sinners. All alone we cannot love ourselves rightly. Without God the greatest “love” we show ourselves is actually self-harm. Why? Because our profoundest aspirations can only imagine life as good for our own self pleasure. Without God there is never pleasure enough. Never real satisfaction.
2. It is good to know that God loves us and is for us.
My story is one of always hearing that God loved me, but of really struggling to believe it. I never left church or publicly turned my back on God. But for many years I harbored an unspoken mistrust toward God. I wanted to believe that I was loved, but I was more certain that I was unlovable. I had to endure a lot of pain and come to the profound realization that I wasn’t just a sinner but that I could not save myself. No amount of information about God could save me. No spiritual experience or lightning bolt from heaven could save me. I had to learn from other addicts just how lost I am. Then I learned how good it is to know that God loves me and is for me. That is my particular story. Ask yourself, am I now grateful for God’s love and favor? And how does that gratitude shape me day by day?
3. God wants us to value and love sinners, because that is what we were, and Jesus died for them.
One of the hallmarks of really loving God is wanting all others to know His love. When I feel that I don’t want to be around sinners, or when I only want sinners to do things my way, that’s when I know that my own heart is not right with God, that my own sin is standing in the way. I remember going out on a street patrol in Chicago with an old friend who had once been, in his words, a hopeless drunk. We were out there in order to see that the homeless of Uptown had blankets and food and water. If they wanted to come in for shelter we were there to drive them there. But my friend got more and more cantankerous as the night wore on.
He kept saying, “These guys just need to repent. What are we doing out here if we’re not saving souls? I used to be a hopeless drunk. I don’t even like the sight of these people.” After he got loud and abusive toward one intoxicated man in a bus stop I finally decided our night was over, and I drove him home. I wanted to lead people to Christ by example, not try to guilt them into the Kingdom. I told my friend, “I don’t like seeing the effects of alcohol on people any more than you do, I know it’s hard. But we can’t offer the love of Jesus by getting angry and yelling at people like that.”
Some people’s sins seem apparent to everyone, because of the stigma attached by society. People assume that drunks and prostitutes are worse sinners than anyone else. Jesus’ parables illustrate that God loves all sinners, whether we recognize them or not. The worst sins are those that are easily rationalized and covered up. When we lose sight of the goodness of God we generally also lose sight of our own sinfulness.

Heavenly Father,
We come to you with praise for this moment, this hour, this day to be alive! We celebrate the love you have for us, demonstrated in the death of Jesus Christ for us sinners. We ask that you stir up in us a love for all sinners and a desire to be your agents of reconciliation. Relieve us, O Lord, from our bondage to selfish things. Forgive us for considering our daily service to others a burden rather than a blessing. We thank you in particular for people to the left and right of us who are your creation. Help us to speak graciously and kindly to them this evening. In Jesus’ Name, we pray. Amen.

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Becoming A Trustworthy Laborer

Becoming a Trustworthy Laborer by Rev. Chris Rice

 

“Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.” (Duet. 8:17-19, NRSV)

 

Dear Friends,

Work is a gift from God. There are many definitions of work, but it is most truthful to say that work is what we do for one another and ourselves that in turn blesses God. This is the right vision for work. Within that definition we can fit the whole picture of employment or wage work, as well as service, or volunteer work, and especially household work, caring for our family.

 

Let’s go to the Lord in prayer, which is our purest work:

Heavenly Father,

We pray for our country in this time of economic turmoil. We pray that you lead and direct our elected leaders and supply them with divine wisdom and understanding.

Together: God of mercy, hear our prayer

We pray for those in our community who have lost their jobs, their health insurance, and their homes. We pray that you strengthen them in this time. We pray that they would be restored and made whole.

Together: God of mercy, hear our prayer

We pray for our neighbors and our community. We pray that injustice will not prevail on our watch, as we hold our government accountable for their actions.

Together: God of mercy, hear our prayer

We pray that the lessons of the past guide us into a path that will heal our land of its economic woes, in a way that uplifts all. Allow your compassion and love to prevail.

Together: God of mercy, hear our prayer

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

 

It may seem counter-intuitive, but in order to talk about work we must first talk about rest, the importance of Sabbath in remembering God. The Lord wanted his people to understand that he provided for them, so He brought them through the wilderness to test them and teach them for future generations. One of the things he did was to provide a heavenly substance for them called, manna, which means, “What is it?” (Exodus 16:25-30) And he gave them specific instructions on how to gather it to eat it.

He sent it for six days out of the week, but not on the Seventh day, the Sabbath day, the day when God rested after creating the world, the day when he told his people to cease from any labor. On the sixth day more was provided than other days, so that they would not have to go gather it on Sabbath. But sure enough, the people got up, just as they did every other day and went out looking for manna.

This story has a lesson for us. When God provides a gift and tells us how to receive it, we better listen. Work is a gift, it is not a guarantee. The problem with the American economy as we know it is that some feel very entitled to the fruit of labor not their own, while others who work very hard don’t have enough to live on. I believe that the only way to ensure that everyone is cared for is to acknowledge that work itself is a gift from God, not of our own hands.

Sabbath is a form of resistance to the belief that what I do is who I am. This is perhaps the greatest sickness within our society, and is a big reason for why people who are without housing are so stigmatized. We teach our children that the work they will someday do is what they are really worth. That is setting them up for failure, not for success. Sabbath causes us to question the very nature of success. Is success only the power to buy and sell? Sabbath teaches us that in silence, in quiet, we are simply a part of this created world. God is our creator.

The early Christians gathered on the first day of the week in honor of Christ’s resurrection. When they gathered, they celebrated the Eucharist or thanksgiving meal that he taught them in remembrance of Him. In their public worship of Christ they were celebrating his finished work on the cross and his resurrection. Our worship is an alternative to work as an expression of our being. It has become trendy these days for some Christians to say that they don’t go to church on Sunday because Jesus can’t be contained in a sanctuary.

They go surfing or hiking and say, church is inside me. But God’s word says, “Don’t forsake the assembling of yourselves together (Heb. 10:25).” To our frenetic culture worship is a royal waste of time that could be spent learning or working. But our worship is an alternative to this notion. The word liturgy (or order of service) means “the people’s work”. We gather the first day of the week to say, “Whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we do in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Col. 3:23-24)

So now that we know work begins with rest, let’s face the practice of work itself. To be alive is to struggle, and work is certainly struggle. How much struggle? How much toil? We all know that some work their bodies harder at what they do. Others work their minds harder. Some people go home from a difficult day at the office knowing that their hardest work begins at home, caring for children, remodeling the bathroom, mowing the grass, removing garbage, etc.

I recently saw a documentary about the writer Jack Kerouac. He was a writer so dedicated to his craft, that he typed sentences seven or eight hours a day. But he had to work other menial jobs just to eat and stay alive. The suffering involved in his survival fueled his art, and sadly, his depression, and substance abuse.

Our work is meant to satisfy and delight us. Jack had many friends who cared for him, but we must wonder whether he ever found his way out of the loneliness of his isolation. One friend of his who was interviewed for the film said that Jack kept suggesting to him that they commit suicide together. The friend kept putting him off, until one day he finally answered, “Ok, Jack. You first.” Jack didn’t like that. Many of us have friends we hang with who we really can’t help even if we try, because each person must first become willing to take the risk of accepting help, of sharing the deepest self.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30, NRSV) That word yoke is a reference to the device they would put on two animals to have double the pulling power for the work. What he is saying is that working for Christ is a co-laboring task.

How does that work? The question arises, “How much of what I do is God’s work, and how much can I feel good about?” Well, you can feel good about everything you do for Jesus! What part do you want to feel bad about? What part do you want to begrudge giving to Him as an offering? So, you see, you are yourself God’s handiwork. You are what He has made you, is making you, and will make you. (Eph. 2:9-10, 20-21) The question is, are you sufficiently grateful?

If we look to ourselves or to our society to determine our worth we will find no answer for the problem of time, mortality, or purpose. Corporations come up with these nifty ideas like “planned obsolescence” that we learn to accept. My laptop was perfectly new when I bought it for close to $1,000. The very year that I bought it, a new line of newer faster laptops were being constructed and shelved so that I could stay up-date with the latest software.

They assure me that it’s not that what I paid for is not good enough, and I shouldn’t think at all about it becoming obsolete soon, it’s just that they’re sure their improvements will be necessary soon. This is true of printers, phones, cars, clothing, and nearly everything else manufactured for daily use. We all find it frustrating that everything is new and old at the same time, but we just accept it and live by it.

I am grateful that who Christ is determines the why of our work. Because of Christ I know my value is not in the things I purchase, but in His love which I experience in relation to brothers and sisters in Christ. I live for Jesus and obey Him because of God’s work in me which “enables me to both will and work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12) I hope you understand that life is not separated into sacred and secular spheres, church being the place for worship and employment being the place for work. Everything we are is in and for Jesus! Our work itself is a way of worshiping Him.

 

It is this vision for all of life that causes us to hold our government to account for the oppression of prisoners, widows, orphans, immigrants, and the destitute poor. We want God to bless the work of our hands and prosper all of us, especially those fighting the greatest personal battles. Our advocacy and protest is a way of educating the world to the way things should be, and announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven is one of peace and justice.

This vision for life means that employees deserve a just wage for their labor. When prices rise on goods and services but wages remain low, jobs become shorter term, and the cost of education goes up. How is this not unjust? In our democratic society voters have become accustomed to remaining uninformed and uninvolved. Some actually measure the lack of participation as satisfaction!

But if we were to add to the measurement of the “satisfied” the number of those suffering from a stress related illness, those with an undiagnosed severe mental illness, incarcerated persons and those on probation or parole—if we were to include the hidden ones hovelled in abandoned buildings and tents while working full time, maybe we would arrive at the truth about our democratic “satisfaction”. The “cure for what ails us” is the disease itself!

The record of human civilization is not one of forward progress, but of cyclical deceit. Many are convinced that the post-human world is already upon us. In our modern effort to make a safer, stronger, more peaceful world of justice for all we’re actually destroying the planet at a rate outside our control. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6)  Our worship of Jesus in everything we do demonstrates a new way of being human.

We serve a higher purpose than to simply survive in this world. We’re not just biding our time until death takes us. With our every breath we can glorify God! Every task over time can seem mundane, and we can easily bore with it. Repetition leads to understanding, understanding to application, application to tedium, and tedium leads us to distraction and taking our eyes off our purpose! The devil waits around for us to take our eyes of Christ, and then he hits us with the temptation to despair.

Just like the bridesmaids waiting for the groom’s return in Jesus’ story, we can all fall asleep. (Matt. 25:1-13) But did we remember our oil? You can expect to get tired and bored doing any task. But are you prepared? Again and again Jesus reminded his disciples to watch and pray and wait. He poured out his Holy Spirit on them and empowered them for service. And we, together with the apostles and prophets, are His making.

Our relationship with God is one of trust because of Jesus’ perfected work. To be trustworthy laborers we have to be yoked together with Jesus. He will not give up on us, as difficult as we are, if we remain in Him. We will learn anew regularly that our need is God’s opportunity. Our challenges and battles will glorify Him if we do not lose heart. The devil wants us to give up. But as we surrender what we want to Jesus, he will always be victorious.

 

Yours in Christ,

 

Rev. Chris Rice

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