Hearts Of Stone

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Exodus 7:25-8:19, 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, Mark 10:17-31


In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul tells the people the law under Moses (which he calls the “ministry of death”) was chiseled in stone, while the ministry of the Spirit is written on their hearts. He also distinguishes them as the ministry of condemnation and the ministry of justification.  For people who were used to having all of God’s requirements written down in an agreed-upon format, this was an understandably difficult transition.

The New Testament wasn’t compiled until well after Paul’s death. When he preached about Christ, Paul wasn’t beholden to specific texts, a situation with both challenges and advantages. He had to constantly meditate on what the will of Christ might be, since he was the first person bringing this message to most of the people he encountered. On the other hand, not being bound by chapter and verse, he was free to speak the language of the heart, which created opportunities for mercy often unthinkable under the restrictions of pure law.

The New Testament is a collection of testimony and letters of advice and encouragement, not a basis for hard and fast laws, no matter how much some might like it to be. So how do we know what to do? The challenge of the ministry of justification is that we can’t actually read what is written on anyone else’s heart. Because it’s our nature to prefer defined expectations, we tend to assume it matches what is written on our own, and build our expectations for them on that basis. If we begin to judge people for not meeting our own self-imposed limits and rules, we are back to the ministry of condemnation, and the living words written on our hearts harden like stone tablets.

Our job is to understand what God has written on our own hearts, and live accordingly. Paul’s ministry of justification assumes the law is on our hearts, and encourages us to assume the same of others. Christ invites and trusts us to fulfill the law of love, and encourages us to allow others the freedom to do the same.

Comfort: The ministry of death has passed. Christ offers us new life.

Challenge: We are responsible for discerning, through our relationship with Christ, what is right and what is wrong.

Prayers: Merciful God, thank you for the ministry of life made possible through Jesus Christ. I pray for the wisdom and discernment to follow your will, not my own. Spare me from judgment as I spare my neighbor. Amen.

Discussion: What hard and fast rules do you cling to that may be more yours than God’s?

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World Piece

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In the cafeteria at work, there’s always a jigsaw puzzle in process on one of the tables. It’s there for anyone who wants to work on it. When one is finally complete it remains on display for a day or two, and then it’s time for the next.

I know – as a metaphor, the jigsaw puzzle has been played out. “We all have a unique role, life is a team effort, every piece is necessary, blah blah blah.”

What struck me recently wasn’t the metaphor of the puzzle itself, but of how we approach putting it together. Specifically, I was pulling together some pieces that looked like they would complete a tiger (they always seem to be “nature” puzzles with animals socializing in very unnatural harmony) when a co-worker commented, “We’re still working the edge pieces.”

That’s the most common approach, isn’t it? Finding the edge pieces, defining the shape of the thing. We like knowing the boundaries and limits in which we are expected to operate.

I believe that the human condition involves life breaking us into pieces and us putting them back together. Of course the number, shape, and size of the pieces vary by each person’s life experience. Most of us start reassembling ourselves by focusing on our borders – the exterior that assures people we know what shape we’re supposed to be. Doing so comforts us and comforts others. Maybe it comforts us in large part because it comforts others and reduces tension between us.

But not everyone is able to start with the borders.

Sometimes our box has been torn open so recklessly that pieces have been flung all over the place and we have to start with what we can find; years can be wasted burrowing under the couch cushions and clawing behind the dresser thinking we have to have all the pieces before we can start assembling any of them.

And sometimes there’s a moment of recognition and clarity – a chance to tame those tiger bits and reduce the chaos – that’s too good an opportunity to resist. Somebody is going to urge us to finish the border first (or even start working on it for us) because our progress doesn’t unfold like they want it to.  Yes it might be more socially acceptable to meet expectations, but better to fix what we can when we can than to ignore the tiger and lose the opportunity for who knows how long.

Of course this all assumes we know something about solving puzzles. Most of us cut our teeth on those four-piece jigsaws for toddlers. You know the kind – large, easy to handle pieces and simple pictures. Probably covered in drool. Our parents gift us with simple challenges so we can practice and work our way up to the hard stuff.

Not everyone is so lucky. Maybe no one ever taught you all the pieces were actually meant to be integrated into something bigger. Maybe they didn’t provide you (or accidentally or deliberately destroyed) a picture of what life should (or could) look like, so the outcome is a mystery. Maybe they were careless and some pieces are torn or damaged or lost or burned … and gone forever. Maybe you drew life’s short straw and your first puzzle is five thousand pieces all the same color with no edges; surely there are some puzzle enthusiasts who would love that, but most of us aren’t up to the challenge.

If we are unfortunate enough to start out with one of those really tough puzzles and no training, it may take a long while of handling those pieces one at a time before realizing they are incomplete parts of a greater whole – a whole we might not be able to begin to envision, let alone start putting a border around. To other people it might look like we’re sifting aimlessly through a pile they’re sure they could easily begin to solve. If they take the time to learn about the challenges of our particular puzzle, will they walk away? Fix it to their own satisfaction while leaving us still bewildered? Or do the hard work of helping us help ourselves?

So start with the edge pieces. Or the tiger. Or just by figuring out that a solution and strategy are possible. And for goodness sake don’t worry about puzzles that aren’t yours – whether to compare or to judge. Because once you get your puzzle together, you’ll discover it’s really just a single piece of an even larger puzzle. Whatever progress we make, there’s more to be made. It’s not only ourselves we’re rebuilding, it’s the entire broken world.

Peace by piece.

Fragrant

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Exodus 7:8-24, 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:6, Mark 10:1-16


In his second letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul wrote:

“[W]e are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”

Fragrances are complex. What smells pleasant on one person’s skin may be noxious on someone else. Just as body chemistry interacts with the composition of cologne or perfume, spiritual “chemistry” impacts the impression we make on those we meet. There is no single way to live as a Christian. If we slap on a particular style of speech or manners just because it is popular or endorsed by a celebrity, and it doesn’t authentically line up with who we are, the effect can be disastrous. At best we may seem like a cheap knock-off, at worst we will radiate a stench of deception. Authenticity is more important than brand recognition.

The powerhouses of attraction are not the fragrances we spray on, but those scents other people may not consciously detect. Pheromones are chemical signals secreted by animals and humans to trigger physiological responses in others. We don’t consciously control them, yet they can powerfully influence attraction or repulsion.

What signals of spirit and character do we unknowingly emit? When people encounter us, do they sense we are more interested in sharing the good news, or in showing off how “saved” we are? Do our words and actions leave an aftertaste of love or judgment? If we parrot Christ’s message of love, but demonstrate it through anger and condemnation, our fragrance quickly turns from sweetness to stench.

We can’t control other people’s perceptions, but we can cultivate authentic and loving hearts. Be truthful, even when it means admitting you have doubts. Reserve judgment, for someone sharing a beer and bad karaoke may reach a lost soul more effectively than a pew and a hymn – and vice versa. Don’t let your testimony be the cheap overused cologne that lingers unpleasantly after you go. Let it be the undetectable fragrance others can’t help but pursue.

Comfort: Your way of being Christian, as long as it grows from an authentic relationship with Christ, will speak to the people who need to hear it.

Challenge: Be authentic. God didn’t create you to be someone else.

Prayer: Loving God, may my words and actions be a sweet aroma, drawing the world to your grace. Thank you for meeting me where I am, loving me as I am, and challenging me to be more. Amen.

Discussion: Do any of the ways you express your faith feel artificial? How could you change them, or maybe even abandon them entirely?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Good News / Bad News

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 34; 146, Exodus 5:1-6:1, 1 Corinthians 14:20-40, Mark 9:42-50


We’ve all seen them: evangelists who go Full Brimstone attempting to convert non-believers. From the classic “If you’re wrong you’re going to hell!” to the modern “God Hates Fags” tactics deployed at military funerals and on cable, someone is always telling someone else why God is damning them to eternal suffering. Fear-based evangelism is notoriously ineffective except for fundraising from believers, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt to its practitioners and assume they are fumbling to share the core message of salvation through Christ. Then let’s meditate on some teachings of Paul and Jesus.

Paul advised the Corinthian that speaking in tongues impressed some believers, but to non-believers it was gibberish that at best said nothing and at worst confused or repelled them. He told those with the gift of prophecy to keep it reined in; believers and non-believers alike could be overwhelmed by more than two or three speakers at time. Zeal is admirable, but leading with the big guns doesn’t exactly tell people you come in peace.

Jesus told people it was better to cut off a hand or foot or to poke out an eye if those parts presented stumbling blocks to the little ones following him. This passage follows Christ’s rebuke of disciples who were unhappy to see strangers casting out demons in his name. Attacking their fledgling faith would have accomplished nothing, and may even have destroyed the good work they were doing.

Our convictions in Christ remain firm, but how we share them with others is important. When Jesus told the rich young man he would have to give up everything he owned to become a disciple … the rich young man walked away. If it doesn’t work for Jesus, it’s not going to work for us. The good news we have to share is not that hell is our default destination and we have the exclusive ticket out; the good news is God loves everyone enough to offer them eternal life. If that seems like a distinction without a difference, remember that famed dog- and horse-whisperers succeed because they teach by understanding their students, not forcing the students to understand them.

Comfort: There’s always another way to share the good news of our faith.

Challenge: Before sharing the Gospel, decide whether you’re trying to win souls or just win arguments.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for the good news of Jesus Christ! Give me the courage and wisdom to share your word effectively with those who need to hear it. Amen.

Discussion: Are you comfortable speaking about your faith? Is any discomfort you have about what you believe, or about what you think you need to say to share it?

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Not Against Us

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Exodus 4:10-20 (21-26) 27-31, 1 Corinthians 14:1-19, Mark 9:30-41


The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. claimed the most segregated hour in America was 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. Our chosen church communities tend to resemble us racially, politically, and economically. It’s comfortable and easy to be with people “like us” and erect tall walls on a foundation of small differences. However, comfortable and easy are not Christian virtues. Today’s readings contain lessons about being in community with people different from ourselves.

In Exodus 4, Moses meets his brother Aaron. Together they deliver the Lord’s message to the Hebrews. Moses was raised Egyptian, spent forty years living as a Midianite, and was slow of speech (possibly due to a speech impediment). Aaron was of the priestly Levite class of Hebrews and quite eloquent. Together they represented an effective marriage of substance and style.

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul addresses the importance of the spiritual gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and interpretation. While emphasizing the need for prophecy (defined not so much as making predictions but as speaking words of encouragement, rebuke, and consolation from God), he also asks the question: what good is speaking in tongues if no one understands? Without interpretation, a person gifted with tongues does not build up the community, and without something to interpret, a person so gifted doesn’t bring much to the table.

When the disciples complained about people who were casting out demons in Jesus’s name, yet were not following them, Jesus told them: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” He knew the common goal of spreading the good news overrode petty differences.

Insisting on our specific way merely protects our egos when other gifts and perspectives make us feel insecure about our own. When we build or join a community, do we seek those whose strengths and weaknesses complement our own? If a church wants to tackle poverty, but is mostly a lot of rich people deciding what’s best for “the poor” without knowing or even asking them, how effective can it be? A team of co-workers who all share the same perspective rarely create innovative solutions. Our diversity was not created to be a source of jealousy or conflict, but to help us help each other.

Comfort: Your weaknesses are an opportunity to appreciate someone else’s strengths.

Challenge: Make a point of attending a church service or social event with people you normally don’t interact with.

Prayer: Thank you, Creator God, for the great diversity of life. Teach me to appreciate the beauty in the abundant shapes and thoughts of your world. I praise your holy vision and creativity. Amen.

Discussion: In what areas of your life do you seek like company? Are these areas where it might make sense to diversify your community?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Who Gives Speech to Mortals?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 84; 150, Exodus 3:16-4:12, Romans 12:1-21, John 8:46-59


When God appeared to Moses from a burning bush and asked him to confront Pharaoh about freeing the Israelites, Moses was understandably hesitant. After all, the Egyptian king already wanted him dead, and Moses had spent the last forty years as a humble shepherd. How could he effectively present himself as God’s messenger? He wanted assurance the Egyptians would believe him.

To convince Moses that Pharaoh would listen, God commanded him to throw his staff to the ground. It became a serpent, and then a staff again when Moses grabbed it by the tail. The Lord then commanded Moses to tuck his hand inside his robe. When he drew it out again, it was white with leprosy. At God’s command he repeated the actions, and it was healed. Armed with these signs and more, Moses still resisted, insisting he was slow of speech and tongue. God, seeming almost exasperated by the this point, replied: “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”

Let’s consider for a moment the assurances God gave Moses. He didn’t arm Moses with magical amulets or enchanted weapons. Instead he said: show them your staff; show them your hands. God was telling Moses: “You are already equipped to do my work. Trust me.”

We often feel unwilling and ill equipped to do what God asks. Excuses come fast and easily. We lack finances. We lack time. We lack talent. But who gives us talent? Who makes us smart or senseless, rich or poor? When we answer the Lord’s call, he will equip us. This isn’t to say things will be easy. Moses experienced many trials both before and after his people left Egypt, and never entered the promised land himself, but God equipped him each step of the way.

Our gifts may seem completely ordinary until we trust God to use them, but when we do … who knows what miracles may happen and souls may be freed?

Comfort: You have been created with everything you need.

Challenge: Meditate on what you have to offer, no matter how small, that God could use.

Prayer: God of Creation, thank you for the many gifts you have given me. Teach me to see myself as you do: a child with limitless potential inspired by your love. Amen.

Discussion: What excuses do you use to avoid what’s asked of you?

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Love Never Ends

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 43; 149, Exodus 2:23-3:15, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Mark 9:14-29


Today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is frequently read at weddings because it beautifully describes the characteristics of love:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

This passage is actually not about romantic love at all, but about the type of love we as Christians are to practice at all times. It is the type of love Christ had for us, and which we are called to reflect into the world.

We are going to fail.

But Paul also assures us: “Love never ends.”

True Christian love is not a feeling we generate and maintain. We are not its source. Rather, this love comes from God and moves through us. It does not require us to feel affection. It does require us to treat others as Christ would have us do… even when we’d rather be doing anything else.

There is no patience without agitation. No peacemaking without strife. Kindness to our loved ones is no great virtue, but offering kindness when it doesn’t come easily – that is love. The love Paul describes does not require us to be emotionally perfected robots, but recognizes we are naturally irritable, resentful beings who can overcome our lesser impulses by relying on God.

The heart of love is humility. Not a humility which debases or degrades us, but one which trusts God more than our own feelings, intellect, and desires. A humility which bears and endures all things, because it is grounded in God’s love for us, as demonstrated by Jesus on the cross.

When our attempts to love are less than perfect, let’s remember there is always a chance to do better. Let’s be as patient and kind with ourselves as God is. Accepting God’s love is how we learn to love others.

Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Comfort: Love is always available for you to give and receive.

Challenge:  Find ways to love people you do not like.

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, thank you for loving me and teaching me to love. May I follow Christ at all times, and follow his loving example. Amen.

Discussion: Does your ability to express Christian love depend on your feelings? When have you been able to express love in spite of your emotions?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

My Own Worst Enemy

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Exodus 2:1-22, 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:3, Mark 9:2-13


Identity is a funny thing. We think of it as an internally generated sense of self, but in large part it is externally imposed upon us. The world’s opinion of us does not change who we are, but it does change who we are allowed to be. Take Moses, for example. As a male Hebrew infant, he was considered a potential enemy and targeted for death by the king of Egypt. When the king’s daughter pulled him from the river where his mother had set him afloat in a basket, he became part of the royal household. Scripture doesn’t say how or when he learned he was Hebrew, but by adulthood he was sympathetic to the plight of his people. After he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a Hebrew, his position in Pharaoh’s house no longer mattered, and the king wanted him dead again.

Moses fled to Midian, where he met his wife Zipporah. Upon their first meeting she assumed he was Egyptian. His accent and clothes told the world he was one thing. Inside he was another … but what exactly? Never a Hebrew slave under the Egyptian whip, never a fully privileged Egyptian, always conflicted. How long was it – if ever – before he felt like a Midianite? Moses had to do the hard work of being an authentic person with no real example to follow.

To some degree, outside expectations limit us all. Culture, economic status, and other forces categorize us without regard to our true selves and needs. It’s easy to internalize those expectations and never challenge them, but there’s more power in growing from the inside out. Able to see both Hebrew and Egyptian culture up close but with an outsider’s critical eye, Moses was uniquely qualified for the service God would soon call him to. Unable to conform to any labels, he was able to transcend all of them.

Your life experiences – especially those that don’t meet expectations – prepare you for a unique role. Moses was the key God turned to free the Hebrews. What blessings are locked behind a door only you can open?

Comfort: Your differences are a gift to the world.

Challenge: When you feel like an outsider, find a constructive way to use that perspective.

Prayer: God of creation, thank you for the good and bad times that have shaped me. Help me to understand my gifts so I may use them in service to your kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: Have you suppressed any of your natural traits and tendencies to fit in better with a group?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

 

On The Dime

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Exodus 1:6-22, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Mark 8:27-9:1


Have you ever heard the expression “life turns on a dime?” It refers to the way our fortunes can change with little to no warning. When a new king who did not know Joseph or Joseph’s family rose over Egypt, he did not look kindly on the Hebrews. This new king viewed them as a potential threat, should they decide to align with his enemies. To preempt any uprising, he put harsh taskmasters over them and turned them into a nation of slaves. He went so far as to tell the Hebrew midwives to kill any male children at birth. The midwives were clever, and said Hebrew women were strong and gave birth on their own before a midwife could arrive. In a generation, the Israelites went from famine to favor to fetters.

In what must have felt like a mid-stream change of course to the disciples, Jesus began to teach them he would have to undergo great suffering, die, and rise again to fulfill his mission as Messiah. After all the miraculous healing, multiplication of loaves and fishes, and adoration of the crowds, Peter couldn’t believe his ears. He tried to tell Jesus it didn’t need to be so, and Jesus famously responded: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Psychologists tell us change –– good or bad – is an enormous source of stress, and sudden change even more so. In truth, life is nothing but change. Our bodies are machines of change, transforming food and air into blood and thoughts. As we sleep, our planet moves around the sun and our sun turns with galaxies and we wake unimaginable distances from where we laid our head. Change is unceasing; only our awareness of it flickers.

At the center of it all is God. He is the fixed point on which all else pivots. No matter our fortune, no matter where in the universe we stand, Jesus is the north star of our faith, guiding us toward the loving creator at its heart. Whether we are showered with riches or stripped of dignity, focusing on the center keeps us from spinning out of control.

Comfort: Focusing on God keeps everything in perspective.

Challenge:  Talk with a friend about their perceptions of your ability to handle change.

Prayer: God of creation, you are my center and my focus. Thank you for your constant love. Teach me to keep your ways in focus. Amen.

Discussion: What changes do you find especially difficult? What makes you dig in your heels and say: “Enough!”

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Curveballs

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Genesis 50:15-26, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Mark 8:11-26


Imagine you are Jesus. You’ve just miraculously fed four thousand people with no more than a few loaves and fishes. Not long before that you fed a greater crowd with fewer resources. Now you are in a boat with your disciples trying to use a parable about yeast to warn them about the pharisees and Herod. After a few minutes of pondering what you mean, they decide you are upset because … there is only one loaf of bread in the boat. If you were Jesus, would you have been a little frustrated that no one could seem to get past the lack of bread?

Are we wiser than the disciples? Do we treat every challenge like it’s the first one, or do we learn from our faith journey? No matter how many difficulties we’ve experienced, when new ones arise it can be hard to remember what we’ve survived. If God has seen us through illness, addiction, or betrayal are we able to trust He will see us through the newest crisis on the horizon? It’s not always easy, especially when we face the unfamiliar. Our first reaction is usually fear. But as the disciples eventually learned, trust in God can displace the fear. Trust may not completely eliminate the fear – we are only human! – but it changes our understanding of it. The trick is to remember that to God, this struggle is no worse than the ones that have come before.

Even the “best” lives are not free of challenges. As our faith matures, we begin to recognize huge challenges that didn’t register as important before. Issues of injustice, for example, become more obvious and less acceptable to us. If we can accept that life will never stop throwing us curveballs, that we have not failed because our lives aren’t perfected, maybe we can stop being surprised and devastated by them. If we are more in control of our reactions, we can surrender our troubles to God that much sooner. Some days we may ask how the bread could possibly be enough, but God is leading us to the bigger questions.

Comfort: You are not going through anything that God can’t see you through.

Challenge: When you are frightened by challenges, say prayers of thanks for all the situations God has already brought you through.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for being with me in all situations. Forgive me when my fear interrupts my faith. Teach me to trust in you always. Amen.

Discussion: What things upset or frighten you because you can’t control them? Are you able to turn them over to God?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!