Sermon On the Philippian Jailer

When You Are Lost (Acts 16:25-34)

He thought this was going to be another night at the office. He was an ex-Roman soldier, working now as the head jailer in the Greek city of Philippi. His job was simply to keep prisoners safely locked away. For a setting, imagine stone walls, dirt floors, and a damp musty smell. This was where he worked each day.

He received two new prisoners, named Paul and Silas. Some kind of disturbance in the marketplace. Apparently they were preaching about foreign gods. He put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the wooden stocks. Then he went back to his desk to finish a bit of paperwork.

Later one he heard them singing. That was strange. Prisoners would either curse or moan. But these two men were singing songs of praise to their god. The jailer had never heard that before. He finished his work, blew out the lamp, and stretched out on his little bed to sleep.

Around midnight, his bed started shaking, and then he woke up on the floor. Was it an earthquake? Or had he simply dreamed it all? He wasn’t sure. Then he looked toward the cells and saw all the doors to the prison had opened. Something had happened. He didn’t know what.

All he knew was that his life and career were over. Open doors meant the prisoners had escaped, and escaped prisoners meant that he would be executed. The best thing he could do was take his own life. He took out his long sword, sharp point up, handle down resting on the ground. He leaned over and put the point of the sword over his heart. All he had to do was let his own body weight finish the task. All was lost. He was lost.
What do you do when you feel lost? Do you give in to despair, as this jailer does? Despair is one option when we feel lost. But there are other possibilities too.

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I love donuts. Especially Morning Fresh Donuts. They are the best. I usually get just one. But lots of people come in and get donuts by the dozen. They go in a box like this one.

I have noticed there are two ways people get donuts by the dozen. Some people pick a couple favorite kinds, and then they simply say “assorted” for the rest, leaving the worker behind the glass to finish filling the box. This is simple and takes the least amount of time.

But others insist on picking out every single donut that goes into the box. “I’d like one twist, one lemon filled, one chocolate glazed… not that one, the one next to it. How many more do I have now?” This way takes longer, and if the workers are short handed, everyone must wait.

Some people approach life in the same way. They assume everything that goes into their box must be something they chose personally. But life doesn’t work that way. In life we get to choose a few items in the box, but then there is an assortment of things we didn’t choose, some good and some bad.

The bad thing will happen. It will end up in the box. We’ll be tempted to feel lost. How we respond then makes all the difference.

I enjoy reading The Upper Room devotional. In one of the readings for August, Michelle Knight, from Indiana, spoke of an ongoing struggle with cancer in one of her family members, who is facing it a third time. Michelle writes, “In spite of the suffering and the pain, our family has witnessed firsthand God’s power and faithfulness. So with renewed hope, I find myself asking, ‘What will we discover about God this time?’”

This is the other option when you feel lost. It can be an opportunity for despair, as it was for the jailer. Or an opportunity for discovery. A chance to discover new things about God and about yourself.

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Just as the jailer in Philippi was about to fall on his sword, he heard a voice calling out. “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here.” It was the voice of Paul, who’d been singing songs of praise earlier. The prisoners hadn’t tried to escape after all. Which was as much of a miracle as the earthquake.

So the jailer calls for lights (highly symbolic detail). Then he asks Paul, “How can I have what you have?” He realizes he is at a turning point in his life. So Paul shares the gospel with him.

At the heart of the gospel is a simple idea. We who are far from God can come near to God through Christ. We who are alienated from God can become friends of God through Christ.

Paul shared with the jailer this glorious news that we can enjoy a daily friendship with God who made all things. This news astonishes the jailer, fills him with joy, and changes his life. He’s moved from despair to discovery.

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This past summer I read Walden by Thoreau. I hadn’t read it for twenty years. It’s his account of living for two years in a little cabin on the shore of Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

Sometimes Thoreau would visit friends in town, and he wouldn’t come back to his cabin till after dark. He had no lantern to light his way. He would feel his way along through the woods. His foot feeling for the path, his hands feeling for the trees, his eyes looking up at the stars to guide his steps. At times he’d get lost for an hour or two in the night.

But he found that those lost times were also times of discovery. He’d discover the world around him in a new way. He wrote about this in the words on the front of your bulletin: “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

If you are feeling lost today, feeling your way along in the dark. Don’t despair. Discover. You will learn where you are and who you are. Just as Thoreau did and as the Philippian jailer did. You will also develop a friendship with God that you never dreamed possible. And with God as your friend, amazing things can happen.

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Sermon on Faith

Today is the first of a three part sermon series on faith, hope and love. In the next two Sundays, Pastor Drew will talk about hope and love. Today, the topic is faith, what faith is and what it looks like. For a scripture, I have chosen the story of Gideon in the Book of Judges. I love the characters in the Old Testament. They are earthy and real, full of strengths and flaws, as we all are. Gideon’s story tells us about faith.

Gideon lived in a scary time in Israel’s history. They were being oppressed by the Midianites, who were terrorizing them and burning the crops. The Israelites had to hide away in caves to survive. Gideon is hiding in a wine press when an angel appears to him. The angel says, “You are a mighty warrior. God wants you to deliver Israel from the hand of Midian.” Gideon laughs in response. He doesn’t see himself as a mighty warrior. If there ever was a reluctant leader, it was him.

He proposes a test to see if the angel is for real. He puts a blanket on the ground. If the blanket is wet with dew in the morning, but the ground is dry, then he will know the angel is telling the truth. Sure enough, that’s what happens. But Gideon is still unsure, so he reverses the test: make the ground wet with dew, and the blanket dry in the morning. The angel sighs and agrees. And so it is in the next morning. Gideon knows it’s truly an angel speaking to him. He gathers an army together, and they go out to fight the Midianites. In our scripture today, the battle is about to begin.

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Let’s stop for a minute and talk about battles. We see battles play out in the news. Battles in Iraq. Battles in Missouri. Even battles in the mind of a depressed person who takes his own life. The world is full of battles.

And our lives are full of battles. There’s an old saying, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” The woman who rings up your groceries at the store is fighting a great battle. The man who changes the oil on your car is fighting a great battle. Many of you here today are fighting battles too. Some battles are with people in our lives, a friend or family member who is driving us crazy. Some battles are with things in our lives, a leaky roof or a budget that doesn’t cover all expenses. Some battles are with our own body – usually our body is our oldest friend, but sometimes it becomes our enemy. We may not be facing the same kind of battle that Gideon faced, but we face our own battles. We know the fear and the struggle that a battle brings.

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Even though Gideon is afraid, he is comforted by his large army of 32,000 men. There is strength in numbers, he thinks. But then God tells him his army is too large. He is to send anyone home who wants to leave. Two-thirds of his army goes home. But he still has 10,000. And that is still too many for God. So God devises a test. (Earlier Gideon tested God; now God tests Gideon!) God has him take all his soldiers down to the river to drink. Most reach down and cup the water with their hands, but a few hundred kneel all the way down and lap the water like a dog. This small group of lappers, only 300, are the ones God wants to fight Midian. The rest are sent home. God has reduced the size of Gideon’s army by 99 percent. Not so much strength in numbers anymore! The Midianites number many thousands.

Why did God do this? In a word, God wanted Gideon to have faith. God wanted Gideon to learn to trust, to trust in God’s resources rather than his own numbers. God is teaching Gideon about faith.

John Wesley said that faith is a disposition of the heart. An orientation of the heart, an attitude of the heart. A heart with faith is a heart that looks to God and God’s resources first because whatever resources we have or think we have can evaporate in a moment. Faith always looks to God first. God comes through for Gideon; he will defeat the Midianites in a dramatic nighttime encounter. God promises to come through for us as well in the battles we face.

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There is a great scene in the third Indiana Jones movie, the one where they are searching for the Holy Grail. Jones has come through a narrow passage, and he stands at the edge of a great chasm. There is no way he can get across. But he must get across to find the Grail. He checks his book to see if he is in the right place. He is. He can’t go back; he must go forward. So he takes a deep breath and steps out in faith. The picture for an instant shows his foot, hanging out in the air over nothing. Then he steps down on something solid. A bridge. An invisible bridge right in front of him. He couldn’t see it because the pattern of rock on it blended in with the far wall of the cavern. He walks across the bridge and finds the Grail.

I have shifted the metaphor from a battle to a bridge, but the idea is the same. Some of you today are facing a great chasm in your life, and you have no idea how to get across. But there is an invisible bridge before you. It is the very love of God, and it will carry you across. It is a bridge visible only to the eyes of faith. There is a scripture in Romans 8 that I love, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

When we face a battle in life, faith tells us God is our best ally who will be our strength in the struggle. And when we face a chasm in life, faith tells us God’s love is an invisible bridge that will carry us safely across.

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Shorter Morning and Evening Prayers

It’s been a while since I have posted from the Prayer Book for Earnest Christians, an Anabaptist resource I use on most days, coupled with the Psalms and Bible readings from the daily lectionary. Here are shorter morning and evening prayers.

Morning
Merciful, good God and Father, once again you have allowed the rising sun to shine upon good and evil. May praise and thanksgiving be declared to you, O good God, for your tender grace and for the protection and blessing I have enjoyed this past night. Let me enjoy your blessing this day as well.

Illumine my heart with your light of grace, so I may examine my faults and mistakes and recognize them. Shelter me today under the protection of your grace. Fill my heart with your divine love, with true humility and modesty. Strengthen me in faith, and let me grow and improve in all goodness from day to day.

Place my frailty and mortality squarely before my eyes, so I may constantly be on guard. Set your Holy Spirit to watch over my heart, senses, and thoughts, that if this should be my last day in this woeful world, I may be alert and attain peace of soul.

Thus into your hands I commit myself, body and soul and all that I have. It is no longer mine; it is totally yours. In times of distress and need, grant me patience. During times of testing and temptation, grant me strength and vigor. During prosperous days filled with well-being, grant me a thankful heart. And protect me from all evil, here on earth and there in eternity, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Evening
Praise and thanksgiving to you, almighty God and Father, for your protection and blessing, and for all the good which I have enjoyed this past day. I would gladly enter the inner sanctum of my heart to worship you in spirit and in truth. But it is still so full of impurity, for today I have been burdened with many scattered thoughts. Also, in my actions and life, I have not responded in the best way, for I am full of defects and mistakes; I am poor and miserable.

Although I am only dust and ashes, I still have dared to call upon your holy name. I pray and woefully implore you, O my God, forgive me all my transgressions and mistakes with which I have offended you. Cleanse my heart of all fleshly and worldly desires. Fill me with your Holy Spirit. Illumine me with your light of grace. Thus may I come to know how my hidden mistakes look in the light of grace.

Truly soften my heart, making it the bearer of remorse and sorrow. Through your grace bring about true regret and repentance in my soul. Give me the true, living, and saving faith. Kindle the fire of your divine love in my soul, and let it glow and burn until my selfishness is completely consumed.

I also pray for all people, for all the poor and unknown sinners, for all my enemies and opponents, for all the sick, and for all the widows and the forsaken. You know the needs of each one, and may you aid each one who needs your help.

Now I lay my body down into the arms of your grace and mercy and commit myself, body and soul, into your hands. Protect me with your holy angels. Bless and shield me from all evil, whether I am asleep or awake. Teach me to reflect upon my nothingness, my dying, and my death. Finally receive my immortal soul into eternal joy and rest. This I pray, O almighty God and Father, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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All That We Do

All that we do
we do in your sight, O Christ,
but we cannot
see the light of heaven for we
walk in the dark.
Hear our prayers for help as
we live our life in
the flesh. Hear and answer.

Today’s Lectionary Readings:
Psalm 65; 147:1-11; 125; 91
Judges 3:12-30
Acts 1:1-14
Matthew 27:45-54

Selected Verses:
O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come. (Psalm 65:2 NRSV)

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the LORD. (Judges 3:12)

They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. (Mt 27:45)

(This approach to the readings comes from here.)

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Be Open to Being Surprised By What Is Possible

Scientists in Colorado are studying the amount of light in the universe, and they have discovered a curious thing. There is far more light in the universe than they can account for, from the sources of light they know of. One of the scientists said, “The universe is like a brightly lit room, but you only see one 40-watt bulb. You wonder where all the light is coming from.” Then he said, “The way we understand light may be fundamentally wrong. The universe is exciting, scary, and mostly mysterious.”

I love this honest, humble admission of how limited our knowledge is. And it reminds me of what I call the ‘Thimble Principle.’ What I know fits into a thimble, and what I don’t know fills the rest of space. It’s always good to keep the Thimble Principle in mind and remember that what we don’t know if far more than what we do know, and even what we do know may be ‘fundamentally wrong.’

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Let’s turn to today’s Bible reading (Genesis 42:29-38). Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Jewish people. Jacob lived in the land of Israel with his family. A famine came upon the land, and Jacob had to send his sons down to Egypt to buy grain. He sent all of them except his youngest son, Benjamin. Benjamin was the only remaining son of Jacob’s wife Rachel. (He had 12 sons by several mothers; his was the original blended family.) Rachel is gone by now in the story, and her older son Joseph is also gone. All Jacob has left to remember Rachel is Benjamin, so he wants to keep him safe at home, and he sends his other sons down to Egypt to buy grain.

They meet with the head Egyptian official in charge of grain distribution. He is unexpectedly harsh with them, asking them many questions about their home and who is left back in Israel. He accuses them of being spies. He takes one of them hostage, Simeon, and he sends the rest back to their father Jacob, along with grain for food, but he tells them they can only return to Egypt to get more grain (and recover Simeon!) if they bring their youngest brother Benjamin with them. They return to their father Jacob distraught. Jacob himself has a meltdown. He doesn’t want to put Benjamin in harm’s way. Rachel has died, and Joseph, Benjamin’s older brother, is gone too. He doesn’t know what to do.

But what Jacob doesn’t know, and what his other sons also do not know, is that the Egyptian official they have spoken to, the man who was harsh to them and demanded that Benjamin come down to Egypt too — this man IS Benjamin’s older brother and Jacob’s lost son Joseph. You see, about 20 years earlier, Joseph’s brothers played a terrible trick on their father. They faked Joseph’s death because they hated him, and they sold him into slavery to a group of traders headed to Egypt. All these years that Jacob believed his son Joseph was dead, Joseph has been alive and having his own adventure in Egypt. Joseph is playing a trick on his brothers now by pretending not to know them, just as they played a trick on their father many years earlier.

Jacob is about to have a surprise that will blow his life wide open. The impossible is about to be possible for him. He will allow Benjamin to go down to Egypt with his other sons, and Joseph, on seeing his younger brother, will reveal himself to his other half-brothers, who had not recognized him before. (He spoke and dressed as an Egyptian.) Then Joseph will invite Jacob and the whole family to come down to Egypt and live as long as the famine continues in Israel. There will be a great family reunion.

But my point is this: this belief that Jacob had for 20 years that his son Joseph was dead, this belief was fundamentally wrong. That Joseph was actually alive was not in Jacob’s tiny thimble of knowledge. And when he discovered that Joseph was alive, he was astonished with the surprise of his life.

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Be open yourself to being surprised. Surprised by life. Surprised by God. Surprised by what is possible. Remember that what you know is tiny compared to what you don’t know. When you own your own ignorance, then this opens you up to being surprised. The ones who are never surprised are the ones who cling tenaciously to their thimble of knowledge.

There is a scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence must cross an awful, deadly desert. No one ever crosses it because no one comes out alive. But Lawrence takes his men across the desert, and they survive. Just as they are coming out of the desert, as the oasis is in sight, Lawrence notices that one of their camels is without a rider. The rider has fallen off and is back in the terrible desert. Lawrence determines to go back and rescue him. Everyone in the company objects. Lawrence’s friend Ali says, “It must have been that man’s time to die. It is written.” But Lawrence takes his camel back into the desert to rescue the lost man, while the rest of his company continues forward to the oasis and safety. Waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally, cue the dramatic music, and Lawrence comes out of the terrible desert a second time, holding the rescued man with him on his camel. He comes to the oasis and takes a drink of water from his friend Ali. Then he says to Ali, “Nothing is written.”

Nothing is written. That someone could survive that desert a second time was not in Ali’s thimble of knowledge. Lawrence taught him that the impossible is possible.

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So be open to being surprised by what is possible in your life. Remember that what you know or think you know is tiny compared to what you don’t know.

Be open to being surprised at what you can do personally. Maybe you are facing a desert, and no one thinks you can cross it. Maybe you don’t think you can do it either. But how do you know? Nothing is written. Allow yourself to be surprised at what you can do.

A group of us went to Cass Community Social Services in Detroit last Wednesday for a day-long mission trip. In the afternoon, we listened to the formerly homeless men there tell us their stories. They work in the little factory Cass has making mud mats, coasters, and flip-flops to sell. They used to live on the streets, and now they have jobs and apartments. One of them said, “I am learning to manage my finances.” It made me smile. He used to be on the streets, and now he needs Dave Ramsey! He must be surprising himself at what is possible in his life. Let yourself be surprised at what you can do too.

Also, be open to being surprised by what we can do as a community of faith. Some folks here think our congregation is going to continue to decline and then close the doors. But you don’t know that. The 184 year history of our congregation has already been written, but whatever happens from now on is a blank book with a bunch of blank pages in it. Allow yourself to be surprised at what will be written in those pages as we cooperate with God. Some things are disappearing, and new things are coming to birth here. Remember the thimble, and open yourself to the future.

I have my thimble here. I have a little piece of paper that I will fold and put into the thimble. It says three words: “I Am Loved.” That’s all I know for sure. I am loved. I am loved by Linda and my family. I am loved by my friends. And mostly importantly, I am loved by God.

When we know that we are loved by God, then that gives us a deep security. We know that God will always take care of us. And we can walk with confidence into an unknown future, step by step and day by day with the God who makes all things new. Amen.

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Fallingwater

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We attended a family reunion in West Virginia last week. First, second, and third cousins, all descendants of Linda’s father Carl, or his siblings. Perhaps fifty or so there at a resort in the mountains near Beckley. Afterward, as we came home, we detoured through western Pennsylvania to visit Fallingwater, a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s. We took the hour long tour, then spent the night in Donegal before coming home.

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The Source of Courage

The Source of Courage (Acts 9:10-19)

Many years ago I took a class in calligraphy from Nancy Culmone, a nationally known calligrapher. The week-long class took place at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. As we all learned our letters, Nancy shared with us about her recent move from Massachusetts to New Mexico. It was a scary change for her. But she said to us, “I have learned in life that what I am most afraid to do usually I most need to do.”

Often in life we find ourselves in a place where we are afraid to do something but we also need to do it. We may be afraid to move to a new place, start a new job, or go to a new school. We may be afraid when our family or business or organization doesn’t have enough money to pay the bills. We may be afraid when we are suddenly alone in life and we used to have a partner. Lots of things cause us to be afraid, but we know we need to keep going forward. What we need in those times is courage. I am wondering today where courage comes from. What is the source of courage? Let’s turn to our Bible story to find an answer.

Ananias was one of the earliest Christians. He lived in Damascus, north of Jerusalem, and he was a follower of the way of Jesus. In his world, the enemy was named Saul. Saul was a bad man who hunted Christians, imprisoned them, and killed them. Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest Ananias and his fellow Christians when the risen Jesus appeared to him. Saul had the original ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting! Afterward, Saul himself became a Christian; he was temporarily blinded by the light of the risen Christ. He made his way into Damascus, being led by the hand.

Then Jesus appeared to Ananias. He told Ananias to go and find Saul, and he even gave the address. Ananias was to pray for Saul to regain his sight. I love here how Ananias argues with the Lord about this. “But Lord, let me tell you about this man…” He is clearly afraid to go and see Saul, given Saul’s reputation. The Lord listens and then repeats the command, “Go.” He also explains to Ananias the larger story of what is happening. Then Ananias pulls his courage together and does a scary thing: he goes and finds Saul, the enemy; he calls him ‘brother’ and prays for him. Later, he baptizes him and welcomes him into the family of faith.

Where did the courage of Ananias come from? I’d say it came from his knowledge of Christ, that is, his richly interactive relationship with the risen Christ, who is alive now. Knowing Christ — knowing that no matter what happened Christ would always take care of him — this gave Ananias the courage to do a scary thing and befriend an enemy. And this brings me to the main point of this sermon. Four Cs. Courage Comes from a Connection to Christ. When you have a living connection to Christ, that very relationship becomes a conduit where strength and courage from Christ can flow into you and help you to do the thing that frightens you.

Let me tell you a story about John Wesley. When he was a young man, before he founded Methodism, he sailed on a ship across the ocean to America. He was going to be the pastor to British colonists in Georgia. The ship encountered a great storm, and people on board were terrified. As was John Wesley, who thought he was going to die. But there were a group of Moravian Christians on board who weren’t afraid at all; through the storm they sang hymns and prayed, and their faces had a deep look of peace and contentment. John Wesley was impressed. After they all survived the storm, he asked their pastor why they are not afraid. The Moravian pastor said to him, “Don’t you have faith in Christ?” Wesley, an ordained Anglican priest, said quickly, “Of course I have faith in Christ.” But he knew in his heart that the Moravians had a quality of faith he did not yet possess. it would be some time before he did, but he finally found that kind of faith. And out of gratitude to the Moravians, he translated from German into English one of the hymns they sang during the storm. It is called ‘Give to the Winds Thy Fears.’ We will sing it together in a moment.

We just finished our week of Vacation Bible School, five days and 80 children. Each day there was a different saying that we wanted the children to remember:

Even if you are left out, Jesus loves you.
Even if you are different, Jesus loves you.
Even when you don’t understand, Jesus loves you.
Even if you do wrong, Jesus loves you.
Even when you are afraid, Jesus loves you.

Each time, when the children said ‘Jesus loves you,’ we’d have them make a cross over their hearts to emphasize the point. Repeating these affirmations and making a cross over the heart were ways the children could begin to develop their own relationship with Christ. This is a relationship that can stay with them through the whole course of their lives. And when they come to a scary time, they can remember that “Even when I am afraid, Jesus loves me.”

If you are facing a scary thing in your life right now, I would counsel you to do the same thing we taught the children to do. Repeat an affirmation to yourself emphasizing Christ’s love and support for you. Then make a cross over your heart. Then step forward in the courage that comes from knowing Christ. You will find that Christ will fill you with a strength and peace beyond yourself. You will find resources for yourself that you never knew were there.

Let me close by sharing a little prayer from St Teresa of Avila. It was written inside her prayer book. I say these words sometimes when I am afraid.

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
All things pass away.
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
When you have God
you find you lack nothing.
God alone is enough.

When we have a richly interactive relationship with Christ, we learn that God is with us, God is for us, and God is enough. Amen.

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