Virtuous Inadequacy

Last week I suggested that those who have courage may not feel as though they do. We often imagine that to be brave means that we would not feel fear. This is not true. We act courageously when we do not succumb to fear, rather than because we do not have fear. The same is true about faith. Those with great faith have fears and doubts, but trust God anyway. Is this not the case with love as well? A person of love knows very well that some are unlovable, but they care for them anyway. We practice any virtue only when to do otherwise is a very real and constant possibility and temptation.

Too often we mistakenly think that if we had inner qualities such as faith, hope, and love, or humility and courage, we would not struggle against hopelessness, despair, unloving thoughts, pride, or timidity. Such assumptions are a great hinderance to our progress toward maturity because we keep expecting what will not come to pass. A loving person does not think himself or herself as particularly loving, but is very conscious of how easily they could not love others. A humble individual does not believe they are humble, but rather is aware how fierce their pride can be.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. Philippians 3:12-13

Paul saw himself moving toward all he had been called to be and do, and yet not having obtained or arrived at the goal. This is the irony of spiritual progress: the more genuine progress we make the less we may feel like we are getting anywhere. Rather than growth resulting in a greater sense of our own capability, we are left feeling like we have not obtained what we are striving for.

When we are “distant” from God it is quite possible to think well of ourselves. The closer God draws us to himself, the worse we feel about our own selves even though we are being transformed. God is not intending to make us feel worse, but we become more aware of the reality of our ungodliness in the presence of God’s astounding goodness.

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Luke 18:13

In Jesus’ parable of the pharisee and the tax collector, the one who is far from God, in any real sense, prays confidently about his own maturity. The tax collector is the one who is much closer to God, and his prayer is devoid of any confidence. The man with the virtues of humility, love for God, faith, and hope, looks to God alone and thinks of himself as having nothing. He does not consider himself a man of virtue, and yet he has more than he realizes. Jesus’ point is that he has more than others recognize as well.

Do not trust “feeling” that you are strong in the Lord, nor worry much about being acutely aware of your weaknesses. Since the strength is the Lord’s, do not be surprised that you do not sense having it, but that somehow it shows up as needed.

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Persistence

Living in trying times and enduring through hardships, the disruption of life as we would like it to be, calls for persistence and perseverance. We all easily become weary of doing what is difficult. I am not speaking only about the stress brought on by the coronavirus, though this certainly applies, but to all trials shared and individual. What makes them worthy of being called trials and hardships is that they seem to stretch us beyond what we think we can bear. We may know that we need to persevere, but few of us feel as though we can.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

    his mercies never come to an end; 

they are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

These are the words of Jeremiah as he is lamenting over the destruction of Jerusalem, over the death and enslaving of his fellow countrymen. In the midst of this horror and tragedy, the prophet knows the persistence of God. Despite the people’s refusal to listen to Jeremiah, to avoid this awful situation, he knows that God still loves this stubborn, willful, disobedient people . . . and always will. God will keep extending mercy to those who have, up until now, rejected it. If we want to look for an example of determination and perseverance, of keeping going no matter how awful things are, God himself exemplifies what we are seeking. 

But what would such persistence and faithfulness look like in us? We may think that we are failing at this because we are struggling to keep going just another day. Thankfully, I believe that courageous people typically feel on the verge of collapse. Feeling like we cannot take another step does not mean we lack courage or cannot persist in doing what is good. Persevering may not “feel” like persevering. We may imagine that if we possessed such strength we would be able to press on effortlessly. But this is not true. Steadfastness is when we keep the faith, be it in loving the unlovable, pursuing virtue though we seem to be consumed by sin, or anything else even when we feel incapable. Those who persevere are the ones who were never sure they could. In the end, having passed through the dark times, they are usually unable to explain how they made it through.

We have more capability than we realize, because we do not know the help that God will give. The strength is not really ours, but what grace we will receive exactly when needed. This is why we do not feel sufficient, because we are not able by ourselves and have not received the grace before that moment arrives.

And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19

What Paul does not mention, but what I believe is true, is that the needed grace is supplied right at the instant it is required and not before. This is why we feel perpetually inadequate for what we are called to do, and will certainly be terrified if we think far out into the future about some possible calamity. God is not suppling strength or aid for what we imagine could happen but is not actually occurring, or might never come about. When we trust the grace for each moment, we discover that we can persevere through far more than we imagine. 

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A Cross to Bear

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24

Is Jesus calling his followers to excruciating suffering and misery? Is that what he is saying? He is not if we hear these words in the context of the faith and life of the church. Certainly, when Jesus first said this to his disciples they could not imagine an empty tomb, an Easter morning, triumph over the grave, and the beginning of a new resurrected creation. Initially these words were perplexing to them, but even then “bearing a cross”, as we read on, was not only about death.

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. Matthew 16:25-27

Notice that as Jesus continues he is not speaking solely about suffering and loss, but about finding life and coming in his glory to reward his followers. In Jesus’ statement there is the juxtaposition of suffering and glory, death and life. The disciples did not hear only a forecast of misery, and the church does not hear that today.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34

The cross is the symbol of victory not defeat, glory through suffering, and the triumph of God. The church that was called together on Pentecost gathered around a message of Good News which is the proclamation of the cross. Bearing a cross is not resigning ourselves to pain and suffering, but knowing that darkness is overcome by light, and present suffering is a passage to divine glory.

When the scriptures were written and the sayings of Jesus concerning bearing a cross were recorded, everyone knew how the story ended. Jesus is seated on the right hand of the Father, having conquered sin and death by selfless love for the sake of the whole world. The cross is a symbol of victory of another order, unlike anything that we ourselves would dream up.

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. Philippians 3:10

Whenever we talk about having crosses to bear, we are not sadly accepting an awful fate, but boldly claiming that no suffering ends in meaninglessness. Without a resurrection the cross is absurd. But we affirm that whatever the struggle, there is a new beginning. Trials and hardships which would surely prompt us to despair without Christ, become our crosses to bear because we know they are never the end. Calling them a cross implies that resurrection is coming.

This pandemic may be seen as a curse on us, either from an angry deity or simply a terrible twist of earthly fate. But Christians view it as a cross to bear, which means we add this suffering to all the hardships which will eventually give way to the promise of glory and reward. Suffering never has the final word. This too will end, like all evils both natural and moral, when all is made new.

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Church Unlimited

Let all that you do be done in love. 1 Corinthians 16:14

. . . the only thing that counts is faith working through love. Galatians 5:6

Christianity is the way of living which was that of Jesus himself. Paul’s statements above are not really reductionistic, as if only love matters, but all-inclusive, as were Jesus’ (Matthew 22:37-40). Everything is in the service of love. The beliefs, sacred scriptures, traditions, and church itself all train and support us in the practice of the love that Jesus taught. 

Sometimes a person will ask what they have to believe to be a Christian, or whether some particular belief must be held. The question itself belies a misunderstanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and the role of beliefs and doctrines. Beliefs do not make us Christian simply because we accept them; they tell us how to think and act as imitators of Jesus. Affirming the beliefs as true is not a pass/fail test to determine whether one is a Christian, but the more we are living from these beliefs the more we will grow in the practice of the love that is of God.

For example, consider three fundamental Christian beliefs: the Trinity, that Jesus was God incarnate, and Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. The first asks us to imagine that God is an eternal relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit, without hierarchy but in perfect loving oneness. We are invited into this seamless sharing that is the very nature of God’s own self, which is meaningful not as an idea to be believed but as a picture of how we are called to live with all others. 

Thinking of Jesus as the eternal God who became in all respects a human being speaks about the humility and self-sacrifice of this same divine love. That a simple peasant man was at the same time God-among-us encourages us to let the love of God be enfleshed in us as it was (and is) in Jesus. 

The passion of Christ is the death not only of a man but of God, and simultaneously a supreme vision of the boundless nature of divine selfless love. We also see the manner in which love defeats evil. Once again, the implications for how we are to live in love is the purpose of the belief. 

What I am demonstrating about these doctrines is true regarding the church and all of its gatherings, rites, and traditions as well. Participation in these does not make one a Christian, though these are what Christians do. Engaging and participating in these trains us to be like Christ in how we live daily, in thinking, perspective, action, affections, or all other parts of our being. 

Knowing that Christianity is a way of living out of the love of God helps us not be disturbed by the fact that we are not able to meet together right now. Foregoing face-to-face worship assemblies does not diminish the essence of what it means to be Christian. In fact, we have more opportunity, because of the extraordinary situation confronting us all, to practice what all the meetings were about! When the church cannot assemble, its vitality and mission is not lessened, unless we think the main point is to “attend church” rather than to live as Christ. The gatherings of the faithful are to worship God and encourage one another, to be further reminded and taught about the way of Jesus, but the church is most clearly itself as the dispersed believers ministering in the world rather than the gathered believers in assembly. The sacraments of the church open us up to the world and the life of love, offering a mystical and revitalizing presence of God to overwhelm and fill us. 

If we cannot gather for the eucharist, is it somehow absent for us? The same Jesus who praised the centurion for understanding his authority and that he could heal from afar (Matthew 8:5-10), would praise our confidence for knowing the bread and cup are the body and blood no matter how consecrated, and with whatever is received. The body of Christ cannot be starved of its bread of life and cup of blessing by any mere circumstances. Nothing is able to limit the church, because the church finds its strength in living the unconquerable love of God. 

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Beyond Desperation

You may notice some people hoping out of anxious desperation. We see this when a person is willing to jump at anything positive, no matter how unlikely. The old adage is that they are “grasping at straws”. Not only is this grasping frequently disappointing, it is fickle by nature. If we quickly fixate, without good reason, on a possible remedy, we will easily switch to another, and another, as each fails. Hoping in this manner provides no real peace or strength, just a series of short-lived dreams and much disappointment.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Romans 8:18-21

The hope that Paul describes is neither fickle nor short-lived, and not born from desperation. His hope is confidence that all creation will be set right, despite its present distresses. Thus, he starts with the declaration that our present difficulties and suffering pales in comparison to the goodness to come. In the meantime, he readily acknowledges that until all can be healed fully, freed to the glory intended, everything remains under the present imperfect condition.

The way for us to truly hope during the present pandemic is not to put confidence in vaccines, therapies, testing, and everything else that would be beneficial and truly lessen our suffering. We would all like for those things to be available, but they cannot offer ultimate hope. Our present crisis is not the final world-disrupting, personally threatening one we will face, nor is it the first. A vaccine will set the world right only until something else disrupts it, and then we will have to start all over again.

Each instance of suffering, whether shared tragedies like 9-11, or more individual ones like job loss or death of family member or dear friend, test our hope. We soon realize that we need a bigger hope than just for a terrorist organization to be dismantled, a new job to be found, or for us to get to where we are not grieving every day. We need hope beyond the desperation of the present suffering, one which addresses all suffering.

The final hope that we have in God’s love is that the broken, flawed, and imperfect world in which we live will be made right. Our present hopeful response, as we look to what God will do, is to busy ourselves in making things right as best we can, to participate in the healing of the world even in small ways, because we have seen the end . . . and it is an empty tomb.

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Solitude

As portrayed in the gospels, Jesus at times withdrew in solitude, lived in community, and ministered to  the crowds. His times of solitude were contemplative, prayerful interactions with his Father. Community for Jesus was through the close fellowship and shared life with his disciples. The crowds to whom he ministered included the curious, the hurting, the skeptical, the hostile, and genuine seekers. 

The most foundational relationship was the one Jesus enjoyed with his Father. It was a centering experience of seeing and hearing what he himself was supposed to do and say (John 5:19, 12:49), and a respite to be reaffirmed in his Father’s eternal love (John 17:24). The richness of Jesus’ time with the Father is what he was sharing with his disciples.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. John 15:9

Clearly, Jesus was encouraged by what he experienced with his disciples, just as his interactions with people from the crowds could refresh him. He described his discussion with the Samaritan woman as “food” for him (John 4:32) and he marveled at the faith that some demonstrated (Matthew 8:10). At other times, the crowds seemed to exhaust him, and his disciples could be exasperating as well (Matthew 17:17). 

Our experiences and relationships are no different than those of Jesus. Ministry to people can invigorate as well as drain us. The fellowship shared among believers can be encouraging but also trying. Like Jesus, the only relationship to which we may always return for true strength and energy is what we have with God. However, in some ways this is the one most difficult to nurture. We easily neglect this one. Quiet prayer and abiding with God, knowing oneself to be fully accepted and loved, requires dedication to abiding with the One not seen and yet visible everywhere. Though the hardest to not let slip into disregard, our life with God is by far the most sustaining. Those who have spent time with the Father, who know how to be “in Christ”, and to walk “in the Spirit” have gained greater inner resiliency.

The current disorientation of our world makes clear to most of us that we need to draw nearer to God. We find ourselves more shaken by circumstances than we would like, and perhaps our faith less equipped to guide us through these trials than we need. We ought to be hopeful, though, for in such times as these the faith of saints have always been forged.

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4

Perhaps we may use our current distancing from crowd and community, for nurturing solitude. Spending time with the One who never leaves us alone is where we find greatest strength.

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Trusting in Love

In times of uncertainty, we often hear the reassurance that God is in control. This statement is true if we mean that God is far greater than all else in the heavens and on earth, and is therefore able to accomplish his will despite whatever is happening. Paul affirms that God will ultimately bring about his good ends when he says that all things work together for good (Romans 8:28). However, if we say God is in control and mean that we ought to be at peace because God is causing and dictating all that happening, that all that happens is his plan, including all our present misery, this is not only more disturbing than comforting but something I do not believe is true. God is not the author of our suffering, but rather the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).

For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. 2 Corinthians 1:5

The sufferings of Christ were not caused by God but rather by the powers of darkness and people who were enslaved in that darkness. We share in similar sufferings, but God in Christ now extends that comfort to us as well. One sense in which God is in control is how he is fully able to comfort us no matter what difficulties we are experiencing.

Because the statement that God is in control is ambiguous and not found in scripture, I would rather say what is testified in scripture, that God is love. God is in love with the world he created, including everyone and everything in it. This is better way to speak about why we should not be afraid, because we can trust in the love of God. Saying God is in control leans more toward trusting in his power, but the power of God is his love. 

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. Romans 8:38-39

Paul’s confidence in this passage is not that God is in control over life and death, all spiritual beings, the present of future, and whatever may happen, but that the love of God is invincible. Paul knows that he is loved no matter what happens, not that whatever happens is somehow a plan that God is implementing.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.  Ephesians 3:16-18

When Paul speaks of having power through the Spirit in our inner being, it is a power to grasp the unsurpassable love of Christ. We find peace, joy, and courage in knowing we are loved by God which is how he remains in control. When awful things are happening, instead of saying God is in control which may sound to some as if we are claiming God is causing our suffering for his own purposes, we remember that despite all of this, we are loved by God. 

“I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:26

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Two Realities

On the eve of Good Friday, and in the midst of the tragedy of this pandemic, I want to reflect on Jesus’ statement from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

This question is a quote from the opening verses of Psalm 22 and is a cry of abandonment. The words express what I will call the reality of Jesus’ experience. On the cross, in his awful suffering, Jesus felt completely abandoned by his Father. These words are the truth of what he felt. However, the reality of what he was feeling was not the reality of what was happening.

For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
Psalm 22:24

Psalm 22 which begins with the lament of forsakenness actually states the exact opposite in this later verse, that God did not reject nor turn away from the one suffering. God hears our cries for help always, which is why Jesus can also say from the cross “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). The Father will not be unfaithful to the Son. God the Father cannot separate himself from God the Son, somehow dissolving himself and no longer, even for a brief moment, not being Father, Son, and Spirit, one God.

We are seeing two realties which Jesus was experiencing and which we do as well. We will often feel absolutely alone and forsaken by God. The feelings are real and honestly we cannot perceive any Holy Presence near to us. At the very same time, we are within the reality of divine love and care. The limitations of our capacity to sense the ever-present love of God is a harsh trial of the soul, sometimes called “the dark night of the soul.”

If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself. 2 Timothy 2:13

As strange as it might seem to some, we can and should talk about what God cannot do. God cannot abandon himself, but will unfailingly be true to himself. The Father cannot deny himself, which would happen if the Father abandoned the Son on the cross. That same eternal loving divine essence cannot abandon us either, even if we are not faithful, so says Paul. The reality of our feelings and limited perception is fortunately not the reality of what is true. God will never forsake us, but will be with us to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

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Raised to Hope

Last Sunday we looked at a couple passages, Psalm 30 and Ezekiel 37, which used resurrection imagery to describe what God does. Being raised up from seemingly hopeless situations was the theme for both David and Israel centuries before Jesus. Lest you think that we exhausted all references in the Hebrew scriptures which speak of God being the one who raises the dead . . .

The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. 1 Samuel 2:6

See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand. Deuteronomy 32:39

A time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, Ecclesiastes 3:3

Notice the order is always death then life (or healing). These texts are not talking about birth and death, as if they are saying God determines the beginning and end of our lives. They talk about death and life in that order. This is resurrection language! Though God may metaphorically bring down to “death”, this is in order to raise us back to “life.” The end God is planning and creating is always resurrection and life! He is the One who brings new beginnings out of apparently lost causes. The first passage is Hannah praising God for having conceived even in her barrenness.

The spiritual insight in both these verses and from Christ is that only the dead are truly prepared to live. This is why we are called to die with Christ, so that we will be raised with him (Romans 6:8, 2 Timothy 2:11). A losing of self, dying to self, or giving up our lives is how we move from futile attempts to hold on to what cannot be kept to having what cannot be lost. Jesus would call this indestructible gift treasure in heaven or eternal life. Death in this spiritual sense is essential for the move from the false to the true, from trusting what is untrustworthy to relying on what is real.

It is better to go to a house of mourning

    than to go to a house of feasting,

for death is the destiny of everyone;

    the living should take this to heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:2

The writer of Ecclesiastes is not advocating some depressing and morbid focus, but rather obverting how we must know our own finiteness in order to live well. Paul says the same by pointing out that strength is found in weakness. Until we know our inescapable vulnerability, we cannot live freely, joyously, or courageously. To live as children of the resurrection we must first die because real hope is born out of disappointment. Unless we become disillusioned with false hopes, lose confidence in temporary things, we will never hope in and hold onto what lasts.

Our capacity to thrive despite the current crisis and its threats to our health and economy is proportional to how much we have moved from death to life. Fortunately, this is the very gracious work which God has always been doing. In the “deadness” of our own weakness and limitations is exactly where believers have always discovered unconquerable hope by grace. 

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The Peace of Christ

But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”  Mark 4:38-40

How do we read this story in a time like the present, when events have made us aware of our vulnerabilities, weaknesses that we would rather pretend do not exist? We are not facing greater calamity now than ever before, but instead, despite all our apparent strength, ingenuity, and technology, our true frailties are laid bare. Naturally, we are afraid of our susceptibility to disease and economic calamity.

Matthew and Mark (who is actually giving us Peter’s version) tell us this story from hindsight, many years after that fearful night. I believe they are sharing this because it was an event which formed them, enabling them to live through many trying times that followed. If this is the case, what is the peace that they gained from the experience?

I do not believe that they are telling us to rest assured that Jesus will calm every storm that arises in our lives. Nearly everyone who was in that boat died as martyrs. Jesus himself was the first. By the time they are writing their accounts, storms had arisen and they were not instantly stilled. Reading this as a promise that God will command all the waves and winds to cease is to have a false hope, and one at odds with the lives of the ones who are relaying the story.

I believe the disciples retold what happened that night on the sea, in the middle of a violent squall, because they learned something that enabled them to face and live through all the trials and difficulties that would come. What they are teaching us centers on the question which they asked fearfully, “Don’t you care if we are perishing?” The point was not that Jesus calmed that storm, and could command the waves and winds to stop. They did not conclude that Jesus would cause every problem to disappear. Instead, that night they learned that God does care when we are perishing. Jesus stilling the storm showed that God does care, not that every trial would be removed. 

Notice how Jesus asks why they doubted and did not have faith. What were they doubting? Jesus had not told them, as far as we know, that he could calm storms. If he had told them he could command the wind and waves, then they would have been doubting his claim to be able to exercise power over the natural world. I think what they were doubting at that moment was that he cared. Jesus had told them he loved them, that his Father loved them, and this was what they were not trusting. They did not have faith in the ever-present love of God. Jesus is not saying ‘why did you doubt that I could stop a storm’, but ‘why did you doubt that I care when you are perishing?’

If that night taught them to not lose hope in the love and care of Jesus, which is the love and care of his Father, then this is the peace of Christ that they in turn share with us. I believe they were able to live through all the difficulties that lay ahead and ultimately go to their deaths because they knew they were loved. In all circumstances, and certainly in the current situation, the knowledge of the steadfast and unending love of God is the strength of the body of Christ. 

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid . . .the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. John 14:27 & 16:27

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