All Blessings Flow

A sermon based on Philippians 4:4-9 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11 preached on October 22nd, 2017

Sermon audio

This morning, I got up out of bed, a mattress put together in New Jersey by a factory full of workers. I picked out clothes, probably stitched together by a couple of underpaid ladies in China, and purchased from a salesman at Men’s Wearhouse who didn’t seem to mind taking the measurement of my inseam right after we introduced ourselves to each other. The hot shower I took was brought to me by a water heater assembled in Missouri, probably by a couple of employees in some factory just trying to put food on the table for their families.

I sat at a kitchen table handed down to me by Roger and Pam Nicholson, a retired Presbyterian minister and his wife who were moving back to Richmond after years of pastoring a church in Seattle. While I sat at that table, I ate 4 slices of bacon, provided to me by a pig farmer in Iowa. I also had a glass of kefir, made from the milk of a farm full of cows in California, delivered to our local grocery store by at least seven different refrigerated trucks all with drivers who spend weeks away from their families in order to keep up with their kids’ college tuition, or maybe to pay for their 7-year-old’s ballerina classes.

I turned on the TV and watched a couple of anchors who all got up probably around 4 this morning, maybe earlier, to get to work on time to go on air and give me the fantasy football insights I expect to hear whenever I tune into ESPN. By the time I left the house this morning, I had depended on 100’s, maybe even thousands of people who work hard, every day of their lives to provide me with the stuff of my livelihood. Food to eat, clothes to wear, clean water in which to bathe, a way to entertain myself. And that’s just the in the first two and a half hours of my day. Our lives are not our own. They are woven together in this huge web of interdependence. We do indeed belong to each other.

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These days, this world, and our hours in it, are busy. More than ever before, really. And sometimes we forget among the anxiousness of it all what we’re all so busy for. What’s the fruit of all this running around we do? And is the fruit good? That should be a question we ask ourselves often. It’s super easy to stay busy, maybe even exhausted, but why and what for? Is all the busyness and exhaustion worth it?

One of the worlds that will forever astound me is the one that takes place inside a hive. Most of us are unaware that bees were one of the early symbols of the Christian Church. The fervent activity of the beehive suggesting the church, hibernation suggesting the resurrection, and the honey offering a symbol of the abundant new life in Christ.

Bees are a symbol for ourselves as Christ’s people. Let’s give ourselves to that metaphor for a second. Bees—they’re not self-made creatures. They busy themselves gathering from the earth. They take from what’s already among them, given to them day in a day out. Nectar is collected from the earth. Bees trust it’s there, but they work to find it. Nectar is gleaned and gathered from an earth that is much bigger than they are. But then they work together to make something new out of it. Something sweet and nourishing, rich and satisfying.

Honey was the early church’s symbol of the abundant new life in Christ. Milk, honey, and first fruits are all metaphors for God’s grace because they are not ours—they were never ours. They are gleaned from the abundance of God’s good creation. We eat and are satisfied from what is not ours—what is never ours. Bees were also a symbol of the early Christian church because their day to day work was done unceasingly for the common good. St. John of Chrysostom said it this way in a 12th Century sermon:

The bee is more honored than other animals, not because it labors, but because it labors for others

We do the work we do, inside and outside the hive of church with an unceasing faith and commitment to the church, to each other, and to God’s purposes and intentions and promises to and for the world. Church is a hive who works and shares life together to produce the sweetness of God’s grace and mercy—from whom all blessings flow.

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We are in Deuteronomy. The verb Give is used seven times in these eleven verses. Last week we looked at the story of God’s gracious provision to His hungry people when He provided daily manna—daily bread for the journey into the Promised Land. And here we are at the end of their time in the wilderness. It has been 40 years. A generation.

Those who will soon enter into this long-awaited and long-promised land flowing with milk and honey are the sons and daughters of those who were delivered from Egyptian slavery. They are the ones who have never known anything but desert living. Manna and quail are all their tongues have ever tasted. For them, milk and honey was nothing but a rumor—some dream of plenty, a kind of abundance they had yet to experience. But now, at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is readying this new generation for what they will see. There they will live in bounty. There they will know lavishness.

Their future will be full of abundance and Moses knows there’s a danger in abundance. Abundance breeds amnesia. There’s a point at which we all forget—individually and collectively—that the profusion of resources surrounding us is a gift. And when we forget this, we begin to call it all ours. These gifts lose their giftedness in our eyes and they become resources we consume. We begin to think we have afforded them because we’ve worked hard to get them, and that’s when an attitude of entitlement erodes us.

We’ve been living in a world full of commodities available to us—not resources gleaned from and entrusted to our faithful use, but products wholly consumed, having convinced ourselves that we have earned them all on our own.

This is the delusion of autonomy, and Moses tells his people and all of us who are a part of the future generations of the people of God, that we have been designed by God to live in worshipful dependence and in humble interdependent community with other people. Our self-sufficiency is a delusion, but it’s a powerful one—one we have to fight off in ourselves ever single day just as Moses urges the Israelite people to do. As busy and hardworking as bees are, there’s one thing they are never, and that’s autonomous. Their one existence is community-based. That’s why they are the perfect illustration for us who call ourselves Church.

If there is a Creator and if we are His creatures, the work of his hands, the beneficiaries of His promises, the ones who have been delivered into life abundant by His hand and by His sacrifice on the cross, then there is no such thing as autonomy. So, we give back. We give back to the One who gave everything to us, for us. Who went to the cross with no notion and in no manner of self-sufficiency or self-preservation, no delusion of autonomy. And so must we. We give because in Christ, God has first given everything for us. And the only reason we have is because God gives.

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We have a promised land, and too often we take this as a sign of a special blessing from God, rather than a sign of special responsibility. We who call ourselves Church have been freed to give not in drips or trickles, as an afterthought from what’s left when all the rest of our life has already made its financial, emotional, and time demands upon us, but from our first-fruits. Before everything else takes, we give to the One from whom all blessings flow.

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I ask that you would find your Scripture insert.

God knows that when a people forget their past, they lose their present and future. So God has given us words we can use to remind ourselves of where we have come from, who we are, and what our responsibilities to God are.

Please, let us confess who we are by reading together from our passage of Deuteronomy, starting at verse 5 and reading through the end of that middle paragraph:

Then you should solemnly state before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous.

‘The Egyptians treated us terribly, oppressing us and forcing hard labor on us. So we cried out for help to the Lord, our ancestors’ God. The Lord heard our call. God saw our misery, our trouble, and our oppression.

‘The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land—a land full of milk and honey. So now I am bringing the early produce of the fertile ground that you, Lord, have given me.’

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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Our Daily Bread

Sermon based on Exodus 16:1-35 preached on October 15th, 2017

Sermon audio

Is God enough?

When a friend betrays us, is God enough?

When you or I have a health scare, and we suddenly figure out that our bodies are much more vulnerable, and our lives more finite than we ever realized before, is God enough? When we’re struggling professionally, or we’re not sure we’ve put away enough for retirement, is God enough?

When we don’t recognize our own value, is God enough? When the circumstances of our lives change dramatically—maybe through flood or wildfire—our homes washed away or burned to the ground, is God enough?

We ask these sorts of questions in one way or another all the time. They are not unlike what the ancient Israelites were asking aloud about their present circumstance. Here they are in the wilderness. Their leader, Moses, the one whom God had called to draw His people out of slavery in Egypt, has wrestled them out from under the crushing, oppressive grasp of Pharaoh. They are now free people.

For 400 years, the Israelites woke up each morning and went to bed each night when Pharaoh told them so. They slaved under the desert sun, making bricks and building pyramids because he told them so. They lived according to every word uttered from Pharaoh’s lips. That’s all they knew. So we cannot blame them for not knowing that there is a high cost to their newfound freedom. Here in the wilderness, on the other side of the Red Sea—the one God split in two so that they could be rescued—here, in this barren wilderness, they had a hard time imagining how God was enough.

“If only we turn back now, we could eat all the food we want…If only we had died…”

If only.

The word Manna comes from a question: Mannhu?, What is it? No one had ever seen this substance before.

The appearance and taste of this manna was unlike anything they knew of or had experienced. They thought they had seen it all, but here, God surprises them. This is God’s new food for them. And God promises to provide it every day. Every morning, except on Sundays, they will wake up to manna. God will give His people their daily bread. This is unexpected and unknown provision. It seems to materialize out of the clear blue sky. God provides in ways that we cannot expect, foresee, or can ever anticipate.

In the midst of the Israelites’ need and all of their questioning, God provides. But He doesn’t do so in any way they could have expected. The Israelites were not provided for by being sent back to Egypt—the only way out of scarcity they could imagine. God gave them more, right where they were. Daily bread to carry them through each one of their future days. God still does this for his people.

We must get used to this. God gives us exactly what we need for the moment—for this season of our lives. For the wandering Israelites, it was Manna, completely unanticipated and unexpected. An abundance they had no notion of until God gave it to them. And it was enough. More than enough.

That makes me wonder: Is there an abundance among us that we have no notion of?

Here’s what we must know about this story: God gives on God’s terms and not on our terms. If the Israelites got their way, if God would have relented to their desires, if God delivered them in the way they desired to be delivered, then God would have either sent them back into Egyptian slavery or He would have lifted them up out of the wilderness altogether and set them down gently into the Land He had for them. No painful waiting involved. Instant deliverance! Instant gratification!

But God didn’t do that. God’s people didn’t get that. When we rely upon God, we get what God gives us and we develop and adjust our expectations around it.

But we don’t like that. It wouldn’t be long until the Israelites would begin complaining about how gross manna tasted—how having it every day was a drag. They wanted a bigger menu. And they remembered what the buffet was like back in Egypt, and they actually entertained the thought of voluntarily giving themselves back into slavery to the Egyptians. Evidently, slavery is a small price to pay for a full belly. That sounds crazy, but that’s where their minds were. Back there in the past. They were willing to sacrifice their present freedom and the promised abundance of their tomorrows for a chance to return to the bondage of their past, because at least it was safe there, at least in Egypt they knew what to expect. They were willing to trade the promised plenty and the wide open spaces of their tomorrows because they could not let go of the nostalgia that chained them to their past. Because at least then, they knew what to expect.

There’s lots of talk in churches these days about what’s missing. About what once was. The yesteryears were great, we say. They were filled with plenty! We look back and we see abundance, and we want to go back. Back to the way things were. At least then, we knew what to expect.

Just like the Israelites, it seems like some of us would easily trade our futures for our past if we could. We cannot see God ahead of us because so often, we’re too busy looking back over our shoulders at the places and experiences of our yesteryears. Our nostalgia can keep us from recognizing the enoughness that is right in front of us and is promised for our tomorrows. Is there an abundance among us and for our tomorrows that we have no notion of? And if there is, mannhu? What is it?

Last Sunday, we kicked off our Stewardship season. Our theme this year is Growing Our Faith Through Generosity. In order to be freed for generosity, we must remind ourselves of a few things—a few biblical truths, the very substance of our faith. We can only be freed to live generously when we know that our daily dependence does not come from our own frantic and anxious efforts to gather enough.

Let’s learn that lesson from the Israelites: The ones who gathered too much manna—who attempted to hoard it—saw it spoil. They were given Daily Bread, and they tried to keep a part of it for the next day. When they woke up the next morning, the leftover part was spoiled and it began to smell. So, the people had to learn to trust, not in their own anxious efforts to gather more but in God’s promise that each new day, enough would be provided.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Stewardship is the practice of trusting in God’s daily provision—in God’s enoughness. This is faith: To rely not upon our own ability to keep what we have stowed away for tomorrow but to trust in God’s promise of daily provision and in that, find our abundance.

In order to grow in our faith, we must be generous. And in order to be generous, we must put our trust in someone other than ourselves—something other than our own ability—to provide. This is the one way forward. In order to give generously, we must be freed from our mistaken notions of tomorrow’s scarcity. We must trust that God will give us manna for tomorrow, and it will be enough for us.

So let me ask you, What do you rely upon? And what are you expecting? When you peer into your tomorrows and this church’s tomorrows, what do you see?

Is God’s daily provision a part of your vision? Are you okay walking into the future God has for us not knowing exactly where it will lead, but confident that the way forward will bring us to a place filled with milk and honey? Do you believe that? Can you believe that?

I know that when you look around, all you can see is a lack of what you had back there, back then. But would you believe it if I told you that what’s up ahead is even better? Can I challenge you to raise your expectations? God will see us through.

Let us live with the courage, confidence, and the conviction that there is enough for today and that there will be enough for tomorrow. There is abundance ahead.

There is abundance ahead.

Can you believe it?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

The Thresholds of Faith

A sermon based on Deuteronomy 11:18-21 and Ephesians 6:1-9 preached on August 27th, 2017

Sermon audio

As we’ve slowly made our way through Ephesians—passage by passage, instruction by instruction—we’ve seen how serious Paul is about getting the life of God—the large, eternal, infinite life of God—inside of us. The letter to the Ephesians is Paul’s attempt to get us to notice all the ways that God is inviting us through Christ to participate in resurrection living.

Throughout our summer’s exploration of Ephesians, we’ve heard one message said a dozen different ways: practice Jesus. In everything you do, in every place you find yourself—practice Jesus. His is the only life large enough for us. Everywhere else is cramped space. We have been invited into the resurrection life of Christ, and it’s a wide-open space. Only in Christ is there enough room for us to grow into the people God has created us and wishes for us to be.

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These are big ideas from a big God. We can easily be overwhelmed by it all.

The first few chapters of Ephesians contains multitudes. They’re here to wow us. To get us interested in becoming a part of something big and beyond us. Paul speaks in Ephesians chapter 1 of a divine mystery—something given to us by God that not one of us will ever be able to comprehend or conjure up for ourselves, on our own. But in order to get in on this divine mystery, in order to begin this vast resurrection life that Christ invites us into, we must give up our own ways of going about life in general, we need to sacrifice life on our terms. The Christian way is first and foremost life on God’s terms. Our ways need changing. The particulars of our lives, especially our relationships, take on new form. Jesus-form, servant-form, cross-form. That’s why halfway through Ephesians, Paul shifts his perspective from telescopic to microscopic, as if to say,

Now that you know about the infinite holiness of this God, this is how the mundane particulars of your minutes and hours and days, and every one of your relationships will be different.

Think eternally; act locally. Start practicing resurrection right where you are! Once we got to Chapter 3, we take the big vision we glance at through our telescopes, and we let it inform and shape what we see when we look into our microscopes.

In every next chapter of Ephesians, Paul has us focusing on ever smaller layers of our lives. First, Paul makes sure we know that we Gentiles have been incorporated into the covenant of God. We are part of the ancient promise given to Abraham and Sarah. The circle of salvation grows to include all of us. Then, Paul takes us to church—talks about the body of Christ, tells us how to live out the eternal promises of our infinite God as we gather together inside of these four walls.

Then, turning the dials on the microscope even closer, he gives us instructions for how to behave and treat one another—what our lives will look like as we practice Christ together. Then, when he’s done addressing life in church community, he focuses in even closer. Now, Paul wants us to pay attention to what happens at home. How spouses are to regard one another. No longer with an attitude of dismissiveness as if we own each other, but with reverence. No longer is it okay for women to be talked down to. Now we are to look at one another in equal measure, and search for Christ inside of each other.

I love this! I love this because this movement from eternal to specific confronts us every time. We have an increasing tendency to think of God in ethereal, new-agey ways. Those who call themselves spiritual but not religious love to talk about how spending time with other human beings inside of religious community is unnecessary when they can just get up every morning and see God in the sunrise, or in the birds soaring through the sky, in the crisp cool air, or the quiet sound of wind rustling through the leaves. They say these things as if no one else witnesses God in these ways—like they’re in on something new. But Paul will have none of that. The farther we go in his letter to the Ephesians, the more Paul insists that God is found in and by those who gather together in sacred community with others on a regular basis. God becomes flesh and blood this way—something more than some transcendent idea, Someone real and present, calling us to say no to all the ways our culture is disconnecting from what’s real and personal. All of scripture, and Jesus Himself, points to a God who insists on being found in flesh and blood relationships with our fellow human beings.

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Place these words inside your hearts. Get them deep inside you.

Those are the first words from our passage in Deuteronomy for this morning. Deuteronomy is all about the particulars. It’s Moses’ last sermon before he passes away, and after he’s gone, he needs the Israelite people to remember how God has changed their life. And just like Paul does in Ephesians, Moses drills down to the specifics in Deuteronomy. And the most specific layer of our lives—the closest our microscopes can focus down upon, is what happens at home.

Inscribe these words…on the doorposts of your houses. Teach them to your children. Do all of this on the soil that God has promised to give you. Get all this deep inside of you.

God is not happy being left outside of anything. It’s not enough to find Him in sunrises and sunsets or in crisp, cool mountain breezes, in the sound of crashing waves, or the soaring of seagulls. God wants into our houses! Our kitchens and bedrooms. Our living and dining rooms. This is ground zero for our faith: what happens at home. It turns out that the biggest thresholds of our faith are the ones we step through every morning and evening as we leave and return home. Home is where it all begins, where faith is formed and then matures.

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When my parents first told my brother and I they had decided to sell the house we grew up in, I found myself surprised that I wasn’t at all sad. There was no grief there. The only thing I questioned was why I wasn’t grieving it. I talked to my brother about this, and I found out that he wasn’t grieving either. This made me feel better.

As the days went on after this news from my parents, as the house went on the market, memories of life in that house began to surface. The front yard of this home was the one my brother and I and all the neighborhood kids tore up playing baseball. Ghost man on first and third. And what about the pile of unused bricks—the ones that sat in the same place in the backyard for 30 years? The ones we used to build forts with or hide behind whenever we played outside. And then there was the panel of unfinished drywall in the garage with pencil etchings all up and down it, where my parents measured our height every few months with the dates scrawled next to each marker. What would happen to that?

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Our lives are lived, and we are formed, in-house. Nowhere else is it more important to live out our faith than in the space behind our front door. Everything begins at home, and everything about who we are and how we are, mirrors home. I am who I am, and you are who you are, because of what home is like.

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As your Pastor, I can lose my voice and my breath teaching Christ to you. I could take crowds of kids to places like Montreat and Bluestone. I could run around all week long, and still I wouldn’t have as much an impact over your child’s or grandchild’s faith, your family’s faith, as you do. Study after study proves this: the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of children and adolescents is their parents. This sanctuary is not the space within which faith is formed. It is merely the place in which it is celebrated. As it turns out, our faith is born, instilled, grown, and brought to maturity in the same space we are born, grow, and brought to maturity—in our kitchens and dining rooms, in our living rooms and bedrooms. The primary responsibility of fostering Christ in our children resides with you, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.

Parents, you are painting a portrait of God for your children. What does that picture look like? What happens at home?

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Fathers and mothers, take your children by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.

The thresholds around the front doors, side doors, back doors of your homes—they’re also the thresholds of faith. This shouldn’t be surprising. Jesus did most of His earthly ministry around tables—the ones inside of other people’s homes—sharing food and drink with friends and enemies, outcasts and the well-connected.

We believe in a God who was born into a family. In a stable that was adjacent to a house. That is to say, we have an incarnational faith. A home-faith. A flesh and blood faith. A God-in-house faith. In the opening words of the Gospel according to John, in Jesus Christ, God has pitched a tent and moved into our neighborhood. God is born and still resides with us! In house. Teach your children well.

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The invitation and challenge we’re given as we enter the last chapter of Ephesians is to live a specific faith in a specific space. Speak no more flighty, five syllable words! No more floaty theological conjectures will do! God is not some concept or notion. God is a person who longs to take up residence among us.

So, what happens at home? I urge you to keep asking yourself that question.

As it turns out, faith is shaped inside of the havens of our homes. As it turns out, it’s the soil in which we have been planted that we grow—grow strong and mature in body, in mind, in heart…in Christ.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

The Ragamuffin Gospel

A sermon based on Jeremiah 7:21-28 and Ephesians 4:17-5:2 preached on July 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s been a few weeks since we’ve spent time reflecting on Ephesians, so a little bit of a refresher for us may be in order.

We’re a little more than half way through. With the end of Chapter 3 and the beginning of Chapter 4, we talked about how Paul shifts the discussion. The first half of this letter is full of big words, ideas about God and what God has done, and is still doing, through Jesus Christ. Paul wows us with Divine ideas that are as deep and wide as eternity itself.

Paul is inviting us into a new way of seeing absolutely everything through and in Christ Jesus. He’s telling us that we have been invited into nothing less than the immensity and mystery of a God who is beyond our reach or knowledge, and every bit of our comprehension. And the only way we can ever properly respond to a God this big, an invitation to enter this vast Divine life, is to worship. To stand in awe. To stop right where we are, to cease being distracted by all the small things that take up most of our time, and look up into the heavens with eyes and ears and minds wide open, and start paying attention to something—Someone—much bigger than ourselves. Our tiny little lives and everything that takes up space inside of them are not what we’re made to live for. We are made for so much more. This is news that should startle us awake. Push and pull on our hearts and minds. Throw us out of our ruts.

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The back half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is all about how to properly respond to this immense invitation to live bigger lives. Here’s when Paul’s words get a whole lot more specific. Ephesians chapters 4-6 are all about what it looks like when heaven comes crashing down to earth. What it looks like when the ways of God begin to change the ways we live and relate to one another.

If you’re of the sort who prefers practical advice and instruction about what to do, what to say, how to act in ways that are faithful and responsive to God’s call upon our lives, this is the part where you can start paying attention. All the sudden, Paul is done speaking in poetry. Our passage for the morning is full of  specifics. Short, instructional, no nonsense directives:

Take off your former way of life,

he writes.

Take a fresh breath and let God renew your attitude and spirit.Put on your new self (ok, that’s poetry). Speak truth. Work honestly with your hands. Share with anyone who has a need. Offer only words that build up. Take all the words that are used to tear others down and yank them out of your vocabulary. They have no place in this new life we’re given. Communicate grace, be kind, compassionate. Forgive one another. And, in so doing, you will do nothing less than imitate God—living all your life in all of God’s love!

Easy for him to say. Much harder for us to do. But in the very center of what Paul is saying is a word of grace. This is not so much a list of things to do or attitudes to adopt as it is how our lives, our relationships, our hearts will change as we take off our old self—our conventional attitudes and ways of seeing and engaging everything—and dress up in the life God has for us in Christ Jesus. We don’t do any of this. This—all this—is what God does in us as we put Him on, clothe ourselves in Him.

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This is The Ragamuffin Gospel. This book has changed a lot of lives. And like any good book, it’s also made a lot of others furious. It’s written by a former Franciscan Priest whose name is Brennan Manning. The entire book is a testimony to the goodness and grace of God.

Father Manning, for all appearances, had it all together. He was well-revered by his fellow Priests. He lived a contemplative life among the poor in France. At one point, he spent six months in a cave in the middle of no man’s land as a desert mystic—living in silence and prayer. After that, he became a campus minister at Broward Community College in Florida. It was there that he became an alcoholic. When he failed to find the affirmation he craved through his work—some notion of God-belovedness—he medicated himself with booze. He lost himself inside the bottle. He left the priesthood and got married. He went into a six-month addiction treatment, and in the years that followed, he had two relapses. After 18 years, his marriage ended—a casualty of his alcoholism. And then one day it hit him: Alcohol wasn’t the real problem. It was the thing that he used to cover up the problem. Brennan realized that the problem was this terrible life-long, effort-filled, exhausting, graceless pursuit of God—he had always tried his best to prove himself worthy to God.

All the sudden he found out that in an effort to find God, he has lost himself. This is why he was a broken man. Then, the grace of God invaded him. One of the greatest regrets of his life, Manning says, is all the time he wasted in shame, guilt, remorse, and self-condemnation.

This is what he writes in his Preface to his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel:

The Ragamuffin Gospel is not for the super-spiritual. It is not for muscular Christians who have made John Wayne, and not Jesus, their hero. It is not for academics who would imprison Jesus in the ivory tower of biblical scholarship. It is not for noisy, feel-good folks who manipulate Christianity into a naked appeal to emotion. It is not for hooded mystics who want magic in their religion. It is not for Alleluia Christians who live only on the mountaintop and have never visited the valley of desolation.

It is not for the fearless and tearless. It is not for red-hot zealots who boast with the rich young ruler of the Gospels, ‘All these commandments I have kept from my youth.’ It is not for the complacent who hoist over their shoulders a tote bag of honors, diplomas, and good works, actually believing they have it made. It is not for legalists who would rather surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus.

Manning continues,

The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out. It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting their heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.

It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay. It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God. It is for smart people who know they are stupid, and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags. The Ragamuffin Gospel is a book I wrote for myself and anyone who has grown weary and discouraged along the Way.

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Take your former way of life,

Paul writes, your crumpled old self—the version of you that used to devote itself to worthless pursuits, dead ends, sensual, greedy, appetite-driven, reckless living…and put on your

your crumpled old self—the version of you that used to devote itself to worthless pursuits, dead ends, sensual, greedy, appetite-driven, reckless living…and put on your new self: truthful, righteous, holy.

The old way has to go.

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In our reading from Jeremiah this morning, we hear God speak words of frustration to the young prophet. Jeremiah has a tough job to do. Here, God asks him to hold nothing back, to relay to the Israelites how God feels about their actions. They have not listened to God. They have not followed God. Instead, they have chosen their own way, and in so doing, they have not moved forward. They have slid backwards.

Speak to the people, Jeremiah. But they won’t hear you. This is a people who have refused to be taught.

Words like these occur throughout scripture. Even the most faithful among us have a tendency to trust our own wit and wisdom to make it through our days—to live our lives under our own power. To practice this self-help-centered Gospel, a life that, as Brennan Manning would say has much more to do with John Wayne than Jesus. No more of that, God says!

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It’s remarkable that in a letter all about spiritual maturity, we have these words: Stop trying. Even among all the imperatives in their passage, it should be clear to us that it is not we who do the work. It is not we who make the effort to arrive or achieve anything. All Paul is asking us to do is take off all that covers up and keeps us from sharing life with God and to put on something new and renewing. The way into new life starts with simply say Yes to God, letting him dress us with Himself, with truth, and righteousness, and holiness.

Stop trying to catch up to God—that’s the former way of life: trying to be your own God under your our effort, like Brennan Manning was doing. He destroyed himself from the inside out living that way.

All the effort here is God’s. We simply stop and let God catch up to us—take us over. Form us. Renew us. Change us. This is grace. So that we might not be filled with our own fullness, but be emptied of ourselves and then filled with the fullness of God.

The Christian life doesn’t start with us. It doesn’t even continue with us. It’s all God. Living the Ragamuffin Gospel means continuously growing into the truth that I am who I am, you are who you are, because Jesus is who Jesus is. We don’t become good in order to get to God. We are made good because God gets to us.

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The Jesus life isn’t about what we can accomplish for God. It’s about what God can accomplish in and through us when we stop trying to matter to God. So, let’s get out of the way of what God is doing in and among us.

This is the Ragamuffin Gospel.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Joining In

A sermon based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on June 4th, 2017

Sermon audio

Today we celebrate the many ways that God gives us new being. How we are forever and constantly invited into a life that is not ours but something given to us.

Pentecost is when we the Church realize that our life, our vitality, our meaning and purpose aren’t something that comes from within us. It all comes from somewhere else. Beyond us. We are not who we are on our own.

On the morning of that first Pentecost, the disciples were held up in a tiny room. Their minds, hearts, lives—their very purpose was gone, shrunk down and withered away. Frozen in fear. They thought they were alone. Abandoned. Orphaned. Left to themselves to make life work from here on out. Then they heard a rumble that came from the heavens.

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It is through Holy Spirit that we are given live, purpose, vitality. Holy Spirit represented by tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water.

Pentecost fire is not the sort that burns. It’s the sort that refines. Cleanses. Helps something made hard and rigid melt down into something pliable, shapeable, able to be remolded again.

Tongues of speech. Not the strange jibber-jabber heard in Holiness churches, but a new language that’s given to us so that we may understand one another and be understood by one another. We read the story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel where God confuses the languages of the people until they can no longer understand one another. What happens in Acts 2, on Pentecost, is the undoing of Babel.

Now, on this day, with the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, we have the ability to understand one another again. We borrow language that isn’t ours, and with it, we speak. We speak in the varied languages of our lives. We understand and are understood. And that’s a tremendous gift: to be understood. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit who speaks among us and between us.

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Holy Spirit comes upon us as wind, reminding us that we are born from borrowed breath. It is God’s breath that inflated Adam’s empty lungs and gave him life. The same is true of us. Until God breathes Holy Spirit into us, we have no life.

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And water. The waters of baptism are poured out upon us as a sign of this gift, the Holy Spirit. Water is another reminder that we are not our own. Without water, we wither away. It’s another life-giving gift. Something that we do not and cannot give ourselves; water is given to us. With the waters of baptism, we say that with God and with the people of God, we find ourselves. That being human is to belong. That to belong is to be human.

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Each one of these—tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water. They are all things that invite us into bigger life. Holy Spirit life.

Andrew, Brennan, Leela, nothing magical has happened today. But you did do something wondrous just now: In a world that prizes individualism—do it yourself-ism—you have just proclaimed with your presence and your voice that you will no longer live your life alone. You have in a few different ways, declared that doing life together, joining in, is the only way for you to find your purpose, your life, your shape, your language, your breath, yourself.

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The same is true for all of us. We all need to be reminded of the together-way. Life not only lived but formed and given meaning in and through the practice of Holy Spirit-community. And just like the disciples on that first Pentecost, this is just the beginning of our journey together.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

God’s First Move

A sermon based on Psalm 85:8-13 and Ephesians 1:3-14 preached May 14th, 2017

The world is so much bigger than we think.

There’s a book by Emma Donoghue, and the tie-in movie—both entitled Room—about a young mother named Joy and her 5-year old son named Jack. Jack’s mother has been held captive inside a 12 by 12-foot garden shed for 7 years, for all of Jack’s life plus another 2 before he came along. This 12-foot square room is all that Jack has ever known. He calls it “Room.” It’s his whole world.

When young Jack began asking questions and remembering their answers, his mother Joy decided it was best to tell him there was nothing more than these four walls that surrounded them—the ceiling a few feet above their heads. There were no windows in Room. Just a skylight above that gave them nothing to look at but blue sky and white clouds. The light of the sun and the dark of night was nothing more to Jack than a one-dimensional covering that he must have imagined existed just a few feet above Room’s ceiling. Jack’s world was tiny and simple.

When Jack turned 5, his mother decided he was old enough to comprehend the bigger picture. The black and white TV in Room, she told him, projected images of real human beings—other people who existed in the world and lived hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles away. We can hear Jack asking,

What’s a mile?

Joy tried her best to tell Jack that the world is filled with billions of people who were just like them. That people had to drive cars to get from one place to another because the places they needed to go were so far away. All this was lost on Jack. He didn’t believe her. How could he? He’d never known anything bigger than the cramped and dark 144 square feet of a garden shed.

At one point in the movie, Jack refuses his mother’s big words about this immense world she is talking about. He shouts,

I want a different story!

His mother quickly replies:

No! This is the story you get!!

Jack’s mind is no bigger than what his eyes can see, his ears can hear, and all they know are the tin walls of a ramshackle shed, the static-y murmur of a black and white TV.

I won’t give away the ending. It’s a profound story you must see for yourself. But, this I will say: Room is a story that should make us wonder about the vast entirety of the world—maybe even the cosmos—and our place in it.

Throughout, questions should bubble up in our minds: This world and this life we live in it, do we believe it’s only as big as what we’ve seen and been told by others, or do we know more? Could it be that we move about this vast planet of ours in our tiny little circles so repetitively that we lose perspective? In an effort to be comfortable with our own small version and vision of things, maybe we have taken the vast dimensions of God’s immense creation and shrunk it down into our own versions of a 12 by 12-foot room.

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Just like 5-year-old Jack, in order to grow to maturity, to know the truth about creation, the God who made it, and our place in it, we must first be made aware of how large the gap is between our tiny vision of things and God’s immeasurable power and grace. What else is there but what we can see through our own skylights?

No matter what we’ve been told, no matter how far we’ve traveled or how wide our eyes are as we go along our way, what Paul wants us to know, right off the bat is that everything about God, the grace He gives, the love He has for us, the plans He’s made for us—they’re all much bigger and louder, more wondrous and glorious than we could ever know. This is Paul’s message to those first Christians in Ephesus. And it’s still an important message for us. First, we must be told that, in the grand scheme of things, the only reason why we’re significant is because God has adopted us as his family through Jesus Christ, and because of this, we do not, cannot, live in our own world. This is God’s world, and in order to know our place in it, we must hand ourselves over to God—to persistently and intentionally give ourselves over to ways of Christ Jesus.

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In the original language this whole passage, verses 3 through 14, is one huge, marvelous, run-on sentence. At 201 words, it’s the longest sentence in all of scripture.

Paul must have thought that the urgency of these words was great enough to warrant the abandonment of proper punctuation and syntax. This news is so good that even a comma would disturb the power inside of this sentence! It’s enough to give any English teacher a coronary.

But the largeness, the grammatical abandonment, of this colossal, run-on sentence should be excused, even by the most strident of grammar Nazis, because its lack of punctuation and its sheer size echoes the gracious abundance of its subject: God.

This one-sentence passage is a torrent of God-activity that refuses to pause or come up for air. It’s an avalanche of blessing that gathers size and strength with every tumbling word, all of it mirroring God’s lavish generosity. How can we keep from singing? How can we stop talking about how amazing God is?! This is the Gospel. This is Good News that will not wait!

Right away, through this torrent of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the message is clear: in order to grow into the life that God has for us, in order to grow into spiritual maturity, what last week we identified as the goal of the Christian life, we must abandon all our shallow notions of who God is, all of our tiny twelve-by-twelve, Room-sized views of things, all of our too-small perceptions of how the world works and how God works in the world, and give ourselves over to the magnificence of what God is doing through Christ Jesus—the salvation He is working within us and among us, as well as far beyond us. God is not merely a part of our lives. That’s way too small and backwards, Paul says here at the outset of Ephesians. We are a part of God’s life.

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In order to open our eyes and then our lives to all this magnificence, Paul fills his run-on sentence with seven action verbs: blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gather up.

None of these verbs have us as their subject. God’s the One doing all the action here. We are the objects of all of these verbs. We do not bless, choose, destine, bestow, lavish, make known, or gather up ourselves. God’s the One who blesses, chooses, destines, bestows, lavishes us. God is the One who makes known to us who we are, and gathers us up.

God’s the first Mover. In this salvation life, we do not begin on our own. These verbs, they’re God’s ways of jump-starting the work of salvation inside of us and among us. God has the first move. All of our action is merely a reaction to all that God has done and is doing for us in Christ Jesus, His Son and our Lord.

These words are in chapter 1 of this letter for a reason. Paul wants us to know this from the start or else all of our starts will be false ones. Let us not waste any more of our time thinking that we are the ones who make any of this happen. Let’s not live one more second of our lives—including our life together as Church—under the delusion that we’re the ones who make something of ourselves. Notions like that are just as tiny as 5-year-old Jack looking up at a tiny patch of blue through a sky light thinking he’s seen the whole world. God has made room for us to stretch our vision. To see things we have never and will never be able to see on our own.

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The older we get, the less we know. You’ve heard that before. In our younger years, we think we know it all. But as we growth into maturity, as we step out into the world, we slowly begin to realize how small we are inside of it.

It’s those moments when we stand beside the ocean, as the song goes, and find ourselves small and insignificant in the vast array of God’s creation, that we begin to realize how tiny we are and how little we know. The moment we realize this is a moment of amazing grace. It’s the instance when we abandon all those overinflated thoughts we have about ourselves, when we slowly let go of our own significance and begin to find ourselves all over again in the vast and Divine family of things. This is the first step into spiritual maturity. When in one way or another, we say,

God, this is all you and none of me

As Paul writes,

It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.

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I hope I don’t give away the ending of Room if I tell you that 5-year old Jack and his mother, Joy, are finally freed from the confines of their 12 by 12-foot world.

Once outside of Room, Jack sees the immense glory of creation—what was once a mere rumor that he refused to believe. At the end of the film, we hear Jack say:

I’ve been in the world 37 hours. I’ve seen pancakes, and stairs, and birds, and windows, and hundreds of cars. And clouds, and police, and doctors, and grandma and grandpa. But Mommy says grandma and grandpa don’t live together in the hammock house anymore. Grandma lives there with her friend Leo now. And Grandpa lives far away.

I’ve seen persons with different faces, and bigness, and smells, talking all together. The world’s like the black and white TV in Room, but it’s on, all at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen.

There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops. Plus, the world’s always changing brightness, and hotness. And there’s invisible germs floating everywhere. When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know EVERYTHING!

And the book-readers and the movie-goers and God himself laughs, and we all say:

Jack, You haven’t seen anything yet!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Holy Soil

A sermon based Psalm 24 and Ephesians 1:1-2 preached on May 7th, 2017

It won’t be long now that we will have a Community Gardens in Barboursville. Just a block this way, along Depot Street, the field has been tilled. The soil has been stirred. Filled again with carbon dioxide. It’s breathing again. This is how land becomes ripe for growth. When its lungs can expand.

After years of sitting there, breathless and dense—compacted—a boring, lifeless, barren field is now being readied for cultivation. Readied for life. Readied for resurrection. Resurrection is what happens when what was once buried deep in the ground—breathless—comes to life again. When what was once stuck in place, unable to move or grow, is given vitality, meaning, and purpose. What was once fallow and inconsequential becomes vibrant and dynamic and life-giving once more. Resurrection is the process of readying the soil of our hearts and minds and lives so that we can grow, cultivate something new and holy among us—with God’s help. This is the Message of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

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Today, we’re diving into this life-giving letter written to the young church in Ephesus. This letter is only six chapters long. Any one of you can read it in a space of fifteen minutes, but don’t let its short length fool you. The book of Ephesians is nothing less than a Christian Opus. It’s been compared over and over again to a piece of music that stirs the soul to life. Many have said about Ephesians that it’s the one book in all of scripture that has woken them up to Jesus-alive, God-alive. One man said about Ephesians that through reading it, studying its words,

he saw a new world…Everything was new. I had a new outlook, new experiences, new attitudes to other people. I loved God. Jesus Christ became the Center of everything…I had been quickened; I was really alive!

Ephesians was John Calvin’s favorite letter. It seems as though nobody can read Ephesians without being moved to wonder and worship. What’s more, Ephesians is, for our time, the most contemporary and relevant book in the entire Bible. Its words—the promises made inside of it—have much for us in our current context. It speaks of community in a world of disunity. It promises reconciliation in time of estrangement and hostility. All of these 1st Century notions are also 21st Century ones.

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But, what makes the letter to the Ephesians so important for us—for we who call ourselves the Church of Jesus Christ—is that it doesn’t just offer us words of comfort and hope. It doesn’t simply encourage us to endure in this life, to hunker down in prayer and keep on believing. Instead, Ephesians gives the Church an action plan. It’s here to encourage us to become movers and shakers, to get in on the project of God. Pastor Eugene Peterson call this holy endeavor “Practicing Resurrection.” In a sense, Ephesians tells us what to do with Easter. Its main point is nothing less than the entire point of our Christian faith. Where all this walking in the Way of Jesus leads us. We practice our faith for a purpose. The point of it all is to grow into Christian maturity.

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I’ve been going to church since the day I was born. Maybe you have too. I can’t think of a Sunday when my family was in town and we didn’t go to church. When I wasn’t encouraged to attend Logos or Vacation Bible School, Youth Group, Sunday School. But have you ever wondered why? This thing called Church—why do we do this? Or maybe that’s the wrong question.

All this being Church—attending worship and spaghetti luncheons—where’s it all taking us? Where is all of this going? What’s the point of this? Is it all repetition for repetition’s sake? We are Church, but why and to what end? Ephesians answers this question: the point of all this is to grow into Christian maturity.

Much like the journey of physical maturity, however treacherous it is, spiritual maturity is about growing up in God. But Paul doesn’t just say that and assume we know what he’s talking about. He goes on to tell us what growing to Christian maturity looks like. Just like physical maturity, the right conditions for growing into a mature faith requires much care, the right kind of nourishment, guidance. So, we’re going to spend these summer months slowly combing through this letter to the church in Ephesus. It’s written to encourage us to grow into the full stature of Christ Jesus, right here in the holy soil into which we have been planted.

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I hope to a certain extent that the idea of spiritual maturity in Christ is a new one to you. It’s relatively new to me, also.

I bet that if you asked the average Christian what the goal of the Christian life was, he or she would say something about getting into heaven at life’s end. I think that’s a fine hope. I share in that hope, too. But there’s many a Christian who spend their life holding their breath, waiting for their reward in the afterlife, because it’s never occurred to them that there’s purpose for living this life too, and it has nothing to do with waiting for what comes next.

Hoping for a distant tomorrow seems like a lousy way to live your life today. God has something for us right where we are. On earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus prayed. Eternal life starts right here and right now—in the holy soil of earth. This is where Church starts. When a family of the faithful begins to realize together that living this Christian life is about practicing heaven on earth together—helping each other grow up together into the full stature of our living Lord, Jesus Christ.

Practicing resurrection, holding each other in the holy soil of Easter, all the while prayerfully encouraging one another toward full spiritual maturity—it happens with feet firmly planted on earth. Church is how we all get grafted into God’s salvation story. Church is the community garden of Christian growth. What others have called the Colony of Heaven.

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These first two verses of Ephesians are short, but they contain multitudes. They get us thinking about all that matters as we set out to grow into the full stature of Christ with and for each other. Growing into full Christian maturity takes one part grace as well as one part peace.

Grace and peace,

Paul writes.

This mention of grace and peace is a whole lot more than a greeting that Paul uses. With these two words, he’s laying out the landscape of our growth. It is first through grace, and then through peace, that we will mature into the full stature of Christ Jesus.

This summer, as we move from one passage of Ephesians to the next, we will have the very welcome opportunity to think more deeply about these two Divine promises, grace and peace. But for now, it’s important to talk a bit about them here at the beginning. Too often, we think and speak about God’s grace as if it’s an end in itself. We say things like,

There but for the grace of God go I.

Most of the time when we use the word, it’s too often the end, and not the beginning, of our conversations.

Grace too easily degenerates into the notion that being a Christian means simply believing in Jesus Christ and that’s it. It’s too often spoken of as our excuse for never growing in our faith—for staying in place in our faith—for our never being interested growing. Grace too often is mis-used as a means to inactivity. We see it as a good reason to sit back on our heels in our life of faith. There’s no reason to do more or be more because God’s grace holds us. It’s not that this isn’t true, but it’s hardly what scripture has to say about grace. If we listen closely to what Ephesians has to tell us—even what the second verse here has to say—grace starts to look more like the beginning of the salvation story instead of its end.

“Grace and peace,” Paul says. In that order, too. Grace is the beginning of our faith. It’s the first word God speaks to us through Christ in the lifelong conversation that God wants to have with us! Paul wants us to think of grace as the seed that’s sown into the holy soil of our lives—right at the beginning. And it is by grace that this seed grows. Becomes something living and breathing.

Author and teacher Stephen Rankin writes that grace, properly understood, is “the enabling power” through which we can make our way to Christian maturity. Grace is the fuel that powers our spiritual development. It’s the vitamin and the mineral in the holy soil of our faith that starts us off in our story of our growth and into the full stature of Christ.

In a similar way, peace—this second word Paul uses here—is another vital element in our growing into Christ-likeness. Peace is the foundation, the stability of ground that our faith needs to grow safely. Grace and peace. We need both. Neither of them are ends in themselves. As we will learn as we move forward in Ephesians, the end of our faith is full spiritual maturity.

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As we move through this letter to the church in Ephesus, I think it will become clear to us that it is also a letter to us, the church in Barboursville, West Virginia. Easter resurrection, Christian maturity, and growth into the full stature of Christ happens in the holy soil beneath the feet of wherever Christ’s people gather—as we practice being church with and for one another. Together, we use the fuel of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to nurture each other in this holy soil of Easter life.

Our whole purpose for existing is to practice resurrection together. To infuse the living promise of Easter into each other’s blood and bones, minds and hearts. That’s church in essence: The groundwork of God’s salvation. Holy soil. A people on our way to maturity in the world of God-alive, Jesus-alive!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.