Long Suffering

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; Christ at the Pool of Bethesda

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda – William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Today’s readings):
Psalms 67; 150, Isaiah 47:1-15, Hebrews 10:19-31, John 5:2-18

Today’s reading from John is significant for several reasons.

First, Jesus performs a healing on the Sabbath, which – according to the Pharisees – breaks the Mosaic Law. In this way he establishes that he understands the law better than they do.

Second, he commands the man he heals to get up and carry the mat he’d been lying on. This was also prohibited, so Jesus assumed authority to exempt others from the law.

Finally, Jesus refers to God as his Father, declaring himself beyond their ability to understand or judge. This only intensified the Pharisee’s desire to see him killed.

John tells us the man Jesus healed was only one of many invalids lying by a pool with alleged healing properties. When Jesus learned the man had been suffering for 38 years, Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well, and the healing and its ensuing controversy unfolded.

But what about all the other sick people by the pool?

John skips ahead in the story so we have no idea whether Jesus interacted with anyone else. The Gospels tell us several times that Jesus healed crowds of people, but not this time. Yet it doesn’t seem likely Jesus simply wasn’t concerned with them.

The truth is, not everyone is healed. Most of us are more likely to find ourselves among the long-suffering than miraculously made whole.  Some theologians would blame it on a lack of faith. Others would say each healing miracle serves a specific purpose in Christ’s ministry.

We can find ourselves caught between seemingly contradictory ideas telling us on one hand that faith will heal us and on the other that suffering brings us closer to Christ. Can both be true?

We must remember that whatever our plight, Jesus still sees and hears us. He still moves among us. His love and compassion for us are as great as they are for anyone else who seems more “blessed.”

Until he died, even Paul suffered an unnamed malady, which he called the “thorn in his side.” Rather than torture himself about why, he considered his weakness a perfection of his strength.

Suffering is not a sign of disfavor. No one gets to impose their own meaning on your suffering, but both illness and health present opportunities to grow closer to God. Whatever the state of your life, God loves you and is with you.

Comfort: In sickness and health, God is with us.

Challenge: Do something – volunteer, donate, etc. – to support people with chronic illness.

Prayer: God of compassion, I will seek you even in my suffering. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever found meaning in suffering? If so, how?

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Blink and you’ll miss it.


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 1:1-9, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matthew 25:1-13

The world ended today. Did you notice? Probably not … if it wasn’t your world. But someone’s did. Someone’s divorce was final. Someone received a terminal diagnosis. Someone’s home was bombed to the ground with loved ones inside. The world ends every day.

We all long for a day when things will be just and fair and simply … better. We’ve never been patient about it either. Today’s letter from Peter dealt with both those who used the promise of Christ’s return for their own gain, and scoffers who said if it hadn’t happened yet it wasn’t going to – and only a few decades had passed since Christ was physically among them. Was the author’s response that to God “a thousand years are like one day” any more satisfying then than it is centuries later? It seems we are left to conclude that Jesus and those who claimed he would return are simply wrong. But if the world ends every day … maybe Jesus returns every day too.

Parables about the kingdom of heaven, like Matthew’s tale of the bridesmaids and the oil lamps, are never only about some future “rapture” or judgment; they also instruct us on what the kingdom is like right now. Unlike the foolish bridesmaids, we prepare for the groom’s return not just because we fear being excluded from the banquet, but because delays and midnight arrivals are par for the course. Jesus returns when someone accepts a 3 a.m. call from an abused spouse and offers a safe place to stay. Jesus returns when a Hospice volunteer sits with someone who is afraid. Jesus returns when combatants choose reconciliation over revenge. Our lamps must be filled with the oil of compassion and ready to light when the phone rings, the stranger cries, or the enemy uncurls a fist. Otherwise when Christ comes calling we – like the foolish bridesmaids – will be left in our own darkness, having missed the opportunity to join the groom and represent him to the world.

Today the world ended. Today Christ returned. If your lamp is full, you’ll get to see it all again tomorrow.

Comfort: Jesus returns every day.

Challenge: Look out for opportunities to show the Christ’s love to people in crisis.

Prayer: Loving and merciful God, I thank you for daily renewal. Amen.

Discussion: When have you felt like the world ended?

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Give ’em a break…


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 1:1-18, Romans 9:1-18, Matthew 23:27-39

The twenty-third chapter of Matthew contains some of Christ’s most scathing criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. He compares them to whitewashed tombs – spotless outside but full of decay. He calls them a brood of vipers. He accuses them of building tombs for prophets they had murdered while they claimed “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” … on one hand denouncing a murderous tradition while enthusiastically embracing it with the other.

This is the part where we can sit back, think of all the vipers in our own lives, and enjoy Jesus really letting those hypocrites have it!

Or is it?

Maybe this is the part where give the Pharisees a break. Or if not a break, a little empathy. If we look at them and say “that would never have been me!” we make the same mistake they did. Of course we like to believe that even under identical circumstances we would be different – better – than people who have made bad choices. For a few noble souls it may even be true. But most of us are not exceptional; we are doing the best with what we have, and failing more often than we’d like.

If we can entertain the idea that we might have been pharisaical … that if we’d been less privileged by intelligence or class we might have found ourselves in prison … that we might have been in the crowd that loved Jesus right up until it began shouting “Crucify him!” … we may find it a little easier to show compassion and forgiveness.

Romans 3:23 tells us all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Short is short and all is all: since the scale of God’s glory is infinite, our relative distance from it is irrelevant. Thinking other people’s sins are greater than our own robs us of compassion. Believing our sins are greater than other people’s robs us of hope. To be heirs of the kingdom, rather than heirs to the murderous tradition, we only have to believe Jesus died for all of us equally.

Comfort: Jesus offers forgiveness to everyone, including you.

Challenge: Jesus asks us to offer forgiveness to everyone, including ourselves.

Prayer: God of mercy, help me to keep a humble and loving heart. Amen.

Discussion: How do you think our secular culture influences our ability to feel compassion?

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Casseroles and Compassion


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3, Galatians 3:1-14, Matthew 14:13-21

When we study the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we usually focus on the most obvious part – namely, fives loaves and two fishes feeding five thousand men plus women and children. It’s an important and miraculous story on its own, but since the Gospels have been broken into chapters, verses, and headings (absent from their original format) we often read a section without considering the context of what comes before or after.

The first sentence in Matthew’s version of this story – “now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” – is more meaningful when we remember “this” was the beheading of John the Baptist. More than a prophet announcing the Messiah, John was (depending on which scriptures you read) Jesus’s cousin, teacher, and friend. He prepared the way of the Lord. John’s death was a signpost on the road to Calvary.

How eager would we be to learn thousands of people had followed us to the place where we sought to mourn in private? Many of us would have turned them away. Jesus though “had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Even after he was done – probably many hours later, as it was evening by then – he didn’t choose to turn them away.

John’s parents were probably dead already. Jesus was possibly his only family, and many people who sought Jesus on that day were undoubtedly John’s disciples. According to legend, John did not get a traditional burial, so this gathering may have been as close to a funeral as things got.  What happens after most funerals? Friends of the grieving family bring food and offer support. Note that Jesus did not distribute the food himself: he instructed the disciples to do it, as they would have traditionally done if visiting Jesus in his home after a loss. John may not have had a funeral, but the meal afterward was thousands strong and presided over by Christ … in the only home he had … among his followers.

In the face of death, Jesus responded with healing, nourishment, and generosity – and persuaded the crowd to do likewise.  Whether we grieve or support someone who does, Christ offers hope and new life in ways we can’t imagine until we live them.

Comfort: We never grieve alone.

Challenge: At times we may be called to be compassionate when we really want to be left alone. At those times, can we remember that service is sometimes a path to healing?

Prayer: God of compassion, be with me when I grieve, and help me support those who suffer loss. Amen.

Discussion: What (if any) parts of– funeral rituals do you find most comforting?

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Overcoming the Limits of Empathy


Bumper Sticker Wisdom

A few days ago while sitting in traffic I saw a bumper sticker that gave me pause. It read: “There’s only one race: the human race.” On most days I probably would have read it and nodded in agreement with its message of solidarity, but my audiobook had just ended and I was alone with my thoughts.

The basic sentiment was true enough, but does its oversimplification contribute anything substantial to our social discourse? More than once when I’ve engaged in conversations about racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism or other systemic ills, some well-meaning soul or other has offered up a comment like: “We’ve all been picked on or bullied for our looks, or intelligence, or weight, or something. We need to acknowledge everyone’s pain and love each other for who we are.” And again, on the surface that is true enough, but it’s a conversation-stopper. Specific forms of discrimination have specific causes, specific effects, and specific solutions. Not every unkind word or instance of bullying has its roots in systematic oppression; sometimes people, individually and in groups, are just mean. An inability or unwillingness to see the difference is not enlightenment, it’s self-indulgence.

Woke or dreaming?

Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t see race?” It’s almost always intended to be supportive of racial equality (though most of the time I cynically suspect it’s begging the rest of us to notice how woke the speaker is), but in practice it erases the experiences of people of other races. You or I may claim not to see someone’s race, but that person doesn’t have the convenience of forgetting about it; they have to live with the 24/7 reality of all the people who do see their race and treat them differently because of it. Truly seeing someone means acknowledging hardships they experience but we don’t, not pretending we’ve all had the same hardships and opportunities simply dressed up in different clothes.

Another example of erasing someone’s experience is woven throughout some men’s reaction to the #metoo movement. Right away we saw responses like “not all men” or “men are sexually assaulted too.” Both true, and neither is helpful to the situation being addressed. The first dismisses women’s experiences in favor of comforting men who can’t separate their defensiveness from the actual problem, and the second derails the conversation away from behavior that has become largely normalized and tolerated by equating it with behavior that for the most part is already unacceptable.

The Worst Offense is a Bad Defense

In a culture where we are encouraged to empathize with others, we need to recognize the boundary between empathizing with someone’s story … and trying to make it our own story. When someone tells us their story, we don’t need to figure out how to relate to it, we need to listen. By all means develop a strong practice of empathy – but also recognize its limits.

As uncomfortable as we might be with discrimination, when someone tells us it has happened to them, let’s suppress any initial instinct to discredit that claim (“oh that happens to white people too” or “maybe you’re being overly sensitive”). Of course we can and should think critically about the situation and information, but here’s an example where empathy applies: how do you feel when someone tries to tell you your interpretation of your lived experience is wrong? So how should people feel when you do it to them? Other people understand their own experiences as well as you and I understand ours, so let’s stop trying to tell them (and ourselves) otherwise.

We don’t necessarily launch these reactions from a negative place. Perhaps our intention is to be impartial. Or maybe our intention is to learn. Or to be an ally. Or something else that seems positive to us. The hard truth is, in interpersonal relationships, especially those entangled in the realities of discrimination, intentions might not matter. We feel like they should, but if the practical result of our reaction is that someone feels further alienated and tells us so, does it cause us any harm to consider how we might be wrong? If a conversation that starts with someone’s experience of discrimination ends in a discussion of our hurt feelings about their reaction – that is, if we need comfort because someone else has spoken about being oppressed – the empathy train has gone off the rails. And we have to own that.

The Bigger Story

Not every story has to be about or even relatable to our own story to merit compassion.

I’ve learned this the hard way, because I’ve been guilty of some flavor of pretty much everything I’ve mentioned. The one thing I’m wise enough to know is that no matter how “woke” I think I am now, there’s always more to learn, and that’s done by listening, not by explaining and defending.

As Christians, we are obligated to listen and to be compassionate because every human being is part of Christ’s story. Isn’t that what it means to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet? And isn’t that idea so much bigger and better than our own tiny story?

Let’s find commonality where we can. And where we can’t find commonality, let’s find Christ.

Gleaning Compassion



Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Leviticus 19:1-18, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, Matthew 6:19-24

Sometimes it can feel difficult to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament. Even if we consider Christ’s sacrifice a watershed event (the moment when we were freed from the law and its harsh demands), the God who wiped out entire nations to make room for the Israelites seems very far from the God of Christ who wants us to love our enemies. But even in the hundreds of laws laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy we see glimpses of Christ’s teachings.

Amid rules like being cast out for eating sacrificed food after three days, God commands his people not to harvest to the edge of their fields, and not to pick up the fallen crops and grapes. This is so the poor and alien among them – those whom Jesus might call “the least of these” – can find food. This practice, called gleaning, was a mandate to the nation. God tells his people to render justice impartially, without regard to poverty or wealth, foreshadowing Paul’s message that in Christ there is no slave or free. Perhaps most tellingly, God instructs them to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When most people use that phrase they’re thinking of the Gospels, not rule-laden Leviticus.

In 1 Thessalonians Paul advises: “test everything; hold fast to what is good.” When tackling difficult portions of the Old Testament, the standard against which we can test them is Christ’s message of love. Even though Christ tells us to refrain from judgment, we must be careful not to set the standard as “all is forgiven so anything goes.” The Old Testament, even the parts that seem barbaric by modern standards, contains many valuable lessons and we do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss or ignore them. At the very least, they help us understand how our perception of and relationship to God has evolved over the years.

Paul also tells them “to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” From gleaners to Thessalonians, in every age God teaches us to love and care for all his children.

Comfort: God always loves us.

Challenge: Be open-minded about weakness, whether yours or another’s.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for allowing me to test all things. Teach me what is good, that I may hold fast to it. Amen.

Discussion: Are you patient with people you see as weak, idle, or fearful? What weaknesses do you have that you wish you could hide from others?

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Holy Friday


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-33, 1 Peter 1:10-20, John 13:36-38

Readings for Good Friday:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42

If “Good Friday” seems like an odd name for a day commemorating a crucifixion, understand that good used to mean holy. All over the world, Christians re-enact Christ’s journey to Golgotha (also called Calvary) and his terrible execution. From congregations reading the passion together, to prayer groups walking the stations of the cross in troubled neighborhoods, to entire towns becoming Jerusalem for the day, Christians feel compelled to relive the story.

Because we know how the story turns out, we may find it easy to judge the crowds whose cheers turned to condemnation, or Peter, who – as Christ predicted – denied knowing him not not once, not twice, but three times. Certainly we would not have shouted “Crucify him!” We could never deny him … could we?

Let’s assume we could. Actually, let’s assume we have – because it’s true. None of us lives perfectly. That being the case, isn’t it comforting to know the person Jesus hand-picked to found the church was as flawed as we are? Maybe that’s why in passion stories most of us play the angry mob: to be reminded each of us is in need of forgiveness, and so don’t have the right to judge anyone. Christ later assured Peter he was still loved, but surely the knowledge of that moment of fear, weakness, and betrayal never left him. And almost as surely that memory helped forge the compassion and mercy for others that would have been necessary to speak for Christ.

When we feel like judging, let’s remember Peter – weak, frightened, impulsive, imperfect Peter. Then let’s remember Christ forgave him, as he forgives us, and calls us to forgive. It was the sin of the world that Christ forgave on that cross, including the sin of our own imperfect mercy and tarnished compassion.

From noon this day until Sunday morning, the disciples were without Christ. They thought the story was over, and despaired. This holy Friday and Saturday, let’s contemplate what it would mean to live without hope of forgiveness for ourselves and others. Today Christ hangs on the cross. We shouted “Crucify him!” Now we weep.


Challenge: Pray for forgiveness.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Discussion: What does Good Friday mean to you?

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World Piece


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.

No Excuses


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Genesis 46:1-7, 28-34, 1 Corinthians 9:1-15, Mark 6:30-46

In what ways are we humans responsible to each other? This question produces heated debates about public policy for everything from healthcare to school lunches to seat belt laws to immigration. While one side cries “nanny state” and the other cries “class warfare” both seem less interested in compassion than in domination. People of faith can not look to secular leaders – even Christian ones – for answers about how to respond to God’s call to compassion. Fortunately, we have Christ as our guide.

When Jesus led his disciples to what he hoped would be a place of rest, and instead found a great crowd already waiting, he didn’t complain or look for a different place. Rather, “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Compassion drove him even when he sought rest. Does our own compassion take precedence over our immediate fears and desires, or is it a slave to budgets, calendars, and convenience? It is tempting to make excuses when compassion asks for more than we want to give, especially to strangers. Compassion can be inconvenient, and may make demands of us when we are tired, hungry, or poor ourselves.

When the disciples asked Jesus to send that same crowd into town so they could find dinner, his response was: “You give them something to eat.” The disciples’ first reaction was to claim they couldn’t afford food for everyone. How often have we answered the call to compassion with similar excuses? Yet Jesus only asked them to give what was at hand, which turned out to be more than enough. He didn’t ask them to evaluate who was truly deserving, or to run a stewardship campaign to determine what resources were available. He trusted that God would use the gifts of the people to provide what was needed.

We can try to instill fairness, wisdom and compassion into secular society and government, but in the end Jesus is telling each of us: “you feed them” (or clothe them, or heal them, or help them). Will we respond with compassion or an excuse?

Comfort: The gifts you already possess are enough to make an important difference to someone.

Challenge: Of course you can’t be all things to all people at all times, but also try not to let yourself off the hook by dismissing what you have to offer.

Prayer: Gracious God, thank you for the gifts you have entrusted to me. Please bless me with the strength and will to use them in your service. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways are you stingy with your compassion? What excuses do you make for not using your gifts?

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!

Dress for Spiritual Success


Today’s readings (click below to open in new window/tab):
Psalms 111; 150, 1 Kings 3:5-14, Colossians 3:12-17, John 6:41-47

Whether you leave your house dressed in a bathrobe, a suit and tie, or a wedding dress, it’s the same you underneath. Despite employer dress codes, you are no less competent on casual Friday than you are when dressed for a board meeting at 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday. However there are times when what you wear is crucial. A nurse treating infectious patients must wear protective clothing. Hikers need footwear to provide both comfort and stability. Dancers are hindered if their clothes do not allow freedom of movement.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says they should clothe themselves “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” and “love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Some clothes communicate how we intend to interact with the world. Opposing teams and referees all wear different uniforms for a reason. Someone can say “I’m a professional football player” but until they’re suited up and on the field, they’re not playing professional ball. We can quote scripture and doctrine all day long, but if we haven’t put on a Christian attitude, why would anyone believe us?  Sure, meekness might itch a little and sometimes we can’t wait to slip out of that patience at the end of the day, but they are part of the dress code for the best job in the world.

The good news is, once you’ve broken them in, they are pretty comfortable. Kindness feels less like a tie choking off your breathing and more like a scarf keeping you warm. Humility changes from a girdle squeezing in your less virtuous bulges to a support that helps you keep your back straight and head high. None of us are able to display Paul’s list of virtues all the time, but the more conscious we are about putting them on, the more they become part of us, and the more prepared we feel.

These garments will protect you. They will provide comfort and stability. They will give you confidence to move freely in a world that doesn’t always understand what you’re doing. Dressing for success doesn’t have to cost a dime.

Comfort: Love of God and neighbor is the most beautiful thing you can wear.

Challenge: As you are getting dressed for the day, be intentional about putting on your garments of faith as well.

Prayer: Loving God, I will clothe myself in faith to please you and serve your world. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your favorite item of clothing and why?

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