Rejoice Always

PRAISEWORTHY

Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 17:5-10, 14-17 (18), Philippians 4:1-13, John 12:27-36


Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Paul shares these words in the concluding paragraphs of his letter to the church at Philippi. He also exhorts them to rejoice, to be known for their gentleness, and to attain peace by making their requests known to God through prayer and supplication.

Notice that the keys to peace are found in our relationship with God and in how we engage our hearts and minds. Is this what the church seems to focus on today, or do we spend a lot of time worrying about what other “sinners” – Christian or not – are doing wrong? Certainly throughout his letters Paul offers advice on how to deal with church members who are damaging the community through sin or conflict, but these are exceptions – extreme examples. And in the case of non-Christians, Paul tells us to mind our own business. If we find ourselves preoccupied with (or worse yet, eagerly anticipating) how and when to condemn people or (lovingly?) kick them to the curb, maybe it’s time for some serious self-examination.

Lifelong self-examination is a vital component of following Christ. God doesn’t ask us to examine anyone else’s heart, because we can’t know it. The primary question on our minds should not be “Are other people following Christ?” Rather we should be asking “Am I still following Christ?” All else – evangelism, charity, loving rebuke of our fellow Christians – follow from this, and ranges from hollow to dangerous if we always assume the answer is “yes” without engaging in regular, humble reflection.

Paul asked Euodia and Syntyche, two feuding Philippian women, “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” His next words were “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Being of the same mind doesn’t mean being in perfect agreement. It becomes much easier to do when we each agree to focus on the one heart we can know, the one spirit we can convince to rejoice.

Comfort: The Lord is near.

Challenge: For a week or two, keep a diary documenting whether you spend your time thinking about the things Paul recommends, or about negative things. Meditate on what part your own thinking plays in your feelings of peace.

Prayer: Teach me, O Lord, to set my heart on what is good and right. Amen.

Discussion: What are some of your pet peeves, and what do they say about you?

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Ambassadors in Chains

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 11:1-9, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 3:16-21


Today we enter the fourth and final week of Advent. We look forward to celebrating the end our period of waiting. The date is on our calendars this and every year. And yet …

Does it feel like we live more in an ongoing Advent world than in a post-Christmas world? Yes, Christ has come and yes, we sing hymns of triumph but does the world seem like it’s been redeemed? Does it act like it?  God’s justice, while undeniable, seems to unfurl not so much from “glory to glory” as with “fits and starts.” The expansion of the Kingdom is a long, irregular process revealed in God’s time, which only on rare and happy occasions – perhaps we call them miracles – happens to coincide with our time. Yet Advent always concludes with Christmas.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians from his imprisonment, he called himself as “an ambassador in chains.” Though he no longer considered himself under the Law, Paul still did not see himself as above the rules – the rules of decency, fairness, and love. The revolution he helped lead was one of peace and mercy. The body count was decidedly one-sided. While the powers-that-be were not constrained by love, Paul preached nothing but. Though playing by the rules – accepting our chains – puts us at a distinct disadvantage in the short term, the Kingdom for which we are also ambassadors demands a solid foundation. Force, coercion, and deceit are sand; even the Gospel crumbles when built upon them.

In our zeal to spread the Kingdom everywhere, Christianity has too often assumed the language and tactics of the empire we once confronted. We attempt to impose that which can’t even exist unless it is freely accepted. Winning people to Christ is not the same thing as using overwhelming force to make them act like “Christians.” Perhaps those chains exist because without them, we are dangerous to ourselves and others.

In many traditions, the fourth candle of the Advent wreath symbolizes love. Since Christ’s victory is already complete, we don’t need to worry about more victory. The best way to honor it is to share his love.

Comfort: Christ’s victory has already been won.

Challenge: Meditate on how you represent your faith to others. Is it an invitation or a demand?

Prayer: God of mercies, I seek to serve your Kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: Can you think of any modern examples of the church acting like the empire?

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A Little Yeast

solve through love

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Ecclesiastes 9:11-18, Galatians 5:1-15, Matthew 16:1-12


Paul fought diligently to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. He argued with Peter and James that there was no need for Gentiles to observe Jewish laws, since Christ had fulfilled the law and freed us of its chains. Imagine his dismay when certain members of the church at Galatia –which he founded! – began teaching circumcision was a requirement.

Paul’s response may be summed up as: “You were fine when I left you – what happened?! If you require this one law for justification, you will effectively bind yourself to all of them, and Jesus’s sacrifice becomes meaningless for you. Stop listening to these bad apples; they are spoiling the bunch!” More specifically: “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.”

Jesus also compared bad teachings to yeast.  To appreciate the analogy, we must remember that during Passover Jews ate only unleavened (yeast-free) bread to commemorate their flight from Egypt; even a tiny bit of yeast could rapidly grow to contaminate the whole batch and  make it unusable. At first Jesus was irritated because the disciples thought his words about yeast were a rebuke because they forgot to bring the bread, so he explained exactly what yeast – the contaminated teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees – they needed to be wary of.

What varieties of yeast threaten our faith communities today? What elements which start out tiny can – if left unaddressed – spread to ruin the whole batch? They are numerous and extend beyond bad doctrine. Bullies become more bold when we fail to address them. Cliques can form almost undetected until they are exclusive enough to be hurtful. Apathy toward justice issues saps the sense of mission. Political litmus tests (spoken and unspoken) may start to send messages about who the “real” Christians are. Left unchallenged, expressions of bigotry taint the character of the congregation.

Ignoring a problem when it’s small so we can “keep the peace” only allows it to fester and spread. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the ability to resolve conflict through love. Let’s diligently pursue true peace before it becomes impossible to do so: once the bread is baked, the yeast can’t be removed.

Comfort: Conflict does not have to lead to division.

Challenge: When unhealthy behaviors threaten your community, speak up but speak up with love.

Prayer: Loving God, grant me the wisdom to know which battles to fight for the good of your gathered people. Amen.

Discussion: Are you helping spread any yeast by ignoring it?

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Compromised

Compromised

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Ecclesiastes 3:1-15,Galatians 2:11-21, Matthew 14:1-12


Is there anyone among us who hasn’t at least once held their tongue or behaved, if not contrary, not quite in alignment with their beliefs to keep the peace? Maybe we didn’t want to ruin Thanksgiving dinner by responding to inappropriate comments from our racist cousin. Maybe we didn’t want to alienate a boss and agreed to a decision we knew was unethical. Maybe we grabbed a cigarette behind the elementary school with friends. Young or old, in large ways and small, peer pressure impacts all of us throughout our lives.

Though they had little else in common, Peter and Herod both found occasion to sacrifice their principles on the altar of appeasement.

In the years after Christ’s death, church leadership was up for grabs. Peter may have been Jesus’s rock, but many disciples considered James, the brother of Jesus, a more natural successor.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes a confrontation with Peter, who “lived like a Gentile” and was not overly concerned with observing Jewish laws until the arrival of some representatives from James (Paul calls them the “circumcision faction”). Suddenly Peter put up a good Jewish front in an attempt to please James and preserve unity in the fragile young church. Paul did not feel the same need for deference – since it bowed to the exclusion of Gentiles from the faith – and accused Peter of betraying the spirit of Christ’s teaching.

King Herod didn’t make good decisions. Contrary to Jewish custom, he divorced his first wife to marry his sister-in-law. John the Baptist publicly spoke against this arrangement. At a drunken party, Herod foolishly promised his step-daughter anything she wanted. At her mother’s urging she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Herod didn’t want to kill John and feared the consequences, but he was more afraid of losing face with his guests.

Giving in or going with the flow may feel easier in the moment, but it doesn’t sit well with our consciences later. In some cases it backfires and delivers trouble on a silver platter. Even with the best intentions, we must be careful how we compromise. Turning the other cheek is not an excuse for being two faced.

Comfort: You don’t have to make everyone happy.

Challenge: When you are torn between speaking your mind and keeping the peace, ask yourself what will be sacrificed if you say or do nothing.

Prayer: Loving God, guide me at all times in the balance of being faithful to you and loving toward your children. Amen.

Discussion: Is there a situation where you regret not sticking to your principles because you didn’t want to cause trouble?

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Make Time for Miracles

 

Nest

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Proverbs 8:22-36, 3 John 1-15, Matthew 12:15-21


So often our faith is tangled in doctrine, politics, and other distractions. We rely on it in (or find it lacking) in times of difficulty or sadness. The church emphasizes sin, sacrifice, and the cross. When we focus on the glory of resurrection, it is inevitably linked to the suffering that led up to it. These are all realities in our life, but they are not the only realities.

God called the creation good. We are loved enough to be saved. There is beauty all around us but most of our busy lives permit so little time to appreciate it and draw spiritual sustenance from it. Scriptures like Psalm 104 are important because they remind us the story of creation is not all about battling the forces of evil and repenting of our own wickedness; it is also about the marvels God has showered on this world.

When we have the opportunity, we need to take time to simply appreciate the wonders around us. When we are tired or hurting, it strengthens us to understand there is something glorious happening. The seasons themselves are cyclical miracles of rebirth, growth, maturation, and rest. Winter snows melting into spring rivers; summer harvest yielding to autumn abundance; no matter what time of year, we are in the middle of a miracle.

In addition to the seasons, the psalmist writes about the diversity of life, from birds to fish to cattle to trees to flowers. He writes about valleys with rushing rivers, majestic mountains, and lush fields. Day and night and everything they each reveal has a purpose. Between the tiniest creature creeping on the ground and the moon illuminating us from high above, the world is full of beauty that exists because God is good.

This goodness is not always foremost in our minds. When we experience disease, poverty, oppression, or any of a host of ills, it may seem far away, even impossible. Yet it exists alongside us at all times. Finding time to find the good may not solve our problems, but ignoring the good makes God seem all the more distant.

Comfort: You have permission to take time out from everything else to find beauty in the world.

Challenge: Each day this week, write down three beautiful things you have observed.

Prayer: God of Creation, thank you for the wonders all around me. Amen.

Discussion: In places of war or extreme poverty, beauty may seem absent entirely. Can it be found there?

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No Harm, No Foul

offense defense

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Proverbs 3:11-20, 1 John 3:18-4:6, Matthew 11:1-6


As Jesus’s ministry was beginning to really take off, John the Baptist was locked up by Herod. Even from prison John heard of the impact Jesus was having, and so he sent his own disciples to find out if this man really was the messiah. They asked Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Rather than answer with a simple yes or no (did Jesus ever answer with yes or no?) Matthew tells us Jesus instructed them to remind John of the signs he was performing, and concluded by saying, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Does simply lacking offense seem like a pretty low bar for blessings?  Later in Matthew 12 he will say of false prophets: “Those who are not with me are against me,” but in Luke and Mark, when the disciples complain to Jesus about strangers casting out demons in his name, he tells them, “Those who are not against us are for us.” People who look for reasons to draw lines between “us” and “them” may tend to favor the Matthew passage, but Jesus was addressing people prophesying falsely in his name, not neutral or uncommitted parties. Regarding people who aren’t actively condemning Christians, today’s scripture and the Luke/Mark passages seem to say: “no harm, no foul.”

So how is it Christianity has become virtually synonymous with trumped up outrage over things which don’t truly impact us?  Why do some of us insist an inability to impose our brand of doctrine on others is a form of oppression? If we’re going to own accessories branded with “WWJD (What Would Jesus Do)?” we better be prepared to answer “Root out hypocrisy in our own institutions and stop worrying about people who prefer ‘Happy Holidays!'” In some countries Christians are actually silenced, imprisoned, or killed. That is oppression. The local public elementary school celebrating an inclusive “Winter Festival” is peaceful pluralism. Besides, do you really want public schools teaching your children religion? What brand of Christianity would it be – if it were Christian at all?

Jesus and Paul spoke to and taught believers who would were part of a small, oppressed minority. Embracing that persecution mentality in a country where over 70% of the citizens identify as Christian can twist the good news into something scary.

Let’s opt out of outrage culture, and redirect that energy toward Kingdom work: feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, clothing the naked. If we are not for them, we are against them.

Comfort: People are going to disagree with you, and that’s OK.

Challenge: Leave it for God to take care of.

Prayer: Merciful and gracious God, please help me let go of my own ego and insecurity so I may offer a glimpse of Christ’s love to all I meet.

Discussion: Do you ever mistake being persecuted for not being charge, or being censored for being challenged?

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Word Power

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Zechariah 4:1-14, Ephesians 4:17-32, Matthew 9:1-8


Speech has the power to build up or to tear down. We might claim words are only words, but they impact the world around us and inside us in real ways. The words our parents speak to us in childhood can enhance or undermine confidence throughout our lives. Gossip can destroy reputations. Journalists can topple empires and poets can terrify dictators. As people following Christ, we are called to use our words constructively.

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

Gossip may be the low-hanging fruit of evil talk, but it is a bumper crop. Not every truth needs to be spoken to every person, especially uninvolved parties. On the occasions we find it necessary to share a harsh truth, our words can be direct without being vindictive. A message that shames or belittles for our momentary satisfaction is not necessary to offer correction or guidance. As rhetoric grows more divisive in this age of anonymous internet comments and confrontational “reality” television, we are encouraged to have an opinion about everything. In matters where we lack knowledge or have no stake, it’s perfectly acceptable to have no opinion at all and stick with it. When we “tell it like it is,” consequences be damned, we reveal more ignorance than wisdom. Bernard Meltzer advises us to ask ourselves if what we are about to say is true, necessary, or kind; if it’s none of these, perhaps we should practice silence.

Yes we must speak up to confront injustice. To share the gospel. To teach each other. But always – always – we are speaking to other children of God.

Words matter because they are manifestation of thoughts, and therefore ignite action. Let silence be a dam between your thoughts and your lips. Release their power in a controlled fashion so as not to leave chaos in your wake. What you hold back represents potential; what you spill can not be reclaimed.

Comfort: Your words have the ability to give grace to those who hear.

Challenge: This week, be especially mindful of when you are silent and when you speak.

Prayer: Loving God, be present in my thoughts, on my lips, and in my heart. Amen.

Discussion: How many of your unnecessary, unhelpful, or unkind words could be replaced with better words or silence?

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Sunday Schooled

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Contemplating how much I still have to learn…

This past Sunday I went to a weekly church service for the first time in a long time. Several years ago I left a church in which I had been very active – board chair, elder, various other roles – for years. My departure was painful for me. There’s no need to rehash my reasons for leaving. When people ask me about why I don’t attend any more, I simply tell them it is no longer a good fit for me. My ego is not so big that I need my personal grievances to become theirs. Just because it’s not my community doesn’t mean I need to run it down to people who may need it to be theirs.

STAGE 5: ACCEPTANCE

It was a tumultuous time for the congregation, and several other congregants also left during roughly the same period. For a few years afterward, I led a house church composed of other people who’d left, a few people who’d stayed, and some people who’d never been there. We interacted with other churches in the denomination and community, including the church most of us had left. Eventually the time for the house church ran its course, and it wound down and we dissolved it amicably. For me and others who attended, it was a time of grieving and healing – which, I believe, go hand in hand when we grieve well.

A friend who had attended both my former congregation and the house church invited me a few times to a church she had found. It was only a few years old. She liked the theology and the music. I checked out their web-site, and my first impression is that they are also involved in spreading the Gospel through service. That last bit is important to me; were I ever to consider “joining” a congregation again (I still think of myself as joined to the larger church as part of the Body of Christ), Gospel-centered service is in my top criteria.

I’ll check out a few more Sundays and other events to get a feel for the possible “fit” of this congregation. There’s another one that’s been piquing my interest lately, and I’ll want to visit it for a while also.  I’m in no hurry to make a decision, but a decision is inevitable.

The same friend has on numerous occasions reminded me of something I once said in a board meeting lo those many years ago: “I don’t know how to be a Christian without a community.”

LOST IN THE CROWD

Leadership positions are rewarding, but they can also be exhausting. This Sunday’s visit was the first time in almost ten years I had been in a worship service (this particular community called it a “gathering” in the apostolic tradition) where I wasn’t leading, facilitating in some way, or otherwise known to the congregation. Nobody was interrupting my worship experience by blurring the boundaries between “time to let you worship” and “time to complain about where Mrs. Smith set up the bake sale table.”

Except for my friend, I was completely anonymous. And I’m not sure how I felt about it.

I expected to feel relieved to experience the service in peace, but I also felt more than a little … let’s call it humbled, though it wasn’t quite so benign. These people were able to more than competently pull off an entire Sunday without needing anything from me. That was exactly what I thought I wanted to experience, but I was conflicted. What was going on?

IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME

Despite fantastic music and a terrific message, attending the Sunday gathering left me feeling … unsettled. All afternoon I reflected on why this might be so.

I’m not sure I figured it out, but a lot of old thoughts and emotions about my last church resurfaced. Whatever feelings of unease I brought into this new setting were undoubtedly related to my past experiences, but my problems with the old place couldn’t fairly be projected onto this new one.

So what to do? I needed to squarely face my own contributions to the prior experience, so as not to repeat them anywhere new.

Now I hadn’t acted with malice or carelessness. I really believe there’s nothing I need or needed to “confess” about my failings, yet there were some failings. And I think they’re pinned to leadership. More specifically, my suitability for the type of leadership I accepted.

I say “accepted” because it wasn’t anything I sought. In a small enough congregation, being reliable and competent and experiencing a few small successes is all that’s needed to get nominated to any number of positions.  And it’s flattering when people ask you to lead. If they ask enough times, you may even start to think you’re qualified.

But “accepted” is not passive. My initial hesitations were well-grounded, so I should have known enough to decline. Leadership comes in many flavors. Strategic leadership is not the same as project leadership. And if I’m honest with myself, I have some strong project leadership skills, but strategic leadership is not where I shine. There’s plenty of blame to go around when a congregation fractures, and I believe that’s the piece I need to own, the humble pie I need to swallow.

For a while I told myself I wouldn’t be sucked into leadership in any congregation I joined; that doing so was a sure road to dissatisfaction and stress.

It hadn’t occurred to me until now that maybe no one would ask. If that bruises my ego, Jesus and I need to walk it off.

LITTLE JESUS FISH IN A BIG POND

Turns out experiencing a whole Sunday service that didn’t need me was humbling in a good way. It’s not necessarily comfortable, but it’s not the chafe of the ill-fitting strategic suit I’d mistakenly tried on.

Maybe, wherever I end up, they won’t need – or even ask! – me to lead anything. Undoubtedly there will be plenty of opportunities to serve. There will be times I’ll feel called to step up. And I’ll try to live out one of the best lessons I’ve picked up from mission trips: need is about the served, not the servant.

Ego is a tricky thing – especially when it disguises itself as service. The next leg of my faith journey seems to be a detour down Humble Highway.

Think I’ll take my time.

Peace!

Don’t Worry, Be Lily

tiger lilies

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Leviticus 19:26-37, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12, Matthew 6:25-34


The United States is a nation of worriers. Advertisers prey on our insecurities about health, appearance, and status. The stock market can fluctuate wildly based on minuscule setbacks. Our twenty-four hour news cycle brings the most lurid concerns of the entire world directly into our homes. The difficult thing about worry is that it’s always got one toe in reality. Maybe our jobs really are in danger. Maybe the fruit we eat does contain unsafe pesticides. Maybe we did leave the curling iron plugged in.

Not many of us are like field lilies, neither toiling nor spinning yet relying on God to clothe us in splendor. Then again, few lilies have to plan for retirement. Given the nature of human life, is it really possible to be as care-free as the lilies? Or would that attitude be plain irresponsible? It all depends on what we value.

We may say “blessed are the poor,” but only the rare monastic aspires to poverty. More “Poor Richard” than “poor in spirit,” we cite “God helps those who help themselves” like scripture, then wonder why the world is full of people who do nothing but help themselves. Most things we do aspire to – big homes, nice cars, high-paying jobs, prestige education – may make life more pleasant, and are not wrong in and of themselves, but they do not serve (and may even hamper) our highest priority: relationship with God. When we put them in proper perspective, we realize our inner peace does not depend on external circumstances.

Of course we should take care of our bodies, be good stewards of our finances, and be responsible people, but not because these good habits are our primary sense of security. They guarantee nothing. The difference between responsibility and worry is the first addresses things we can control (our actions) and the second addresses things beyond our control (namely, everything else). If our health fails, our fortune fades, or our world somehow falls apart, our peace remains in the Lord. Worry changes nothing, but it can be a barometer of what sort of splendor we seek.

Comfort: The peace of God passes all understanding (Philipians 4:7).

Challenge: Make a list of the things that worry you, then burn it.

Prayer: Holy God, I will cling to your peace in good times and bad. Amen.

Discussion: What might be a more constructive response than worrying?

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Pass the Peace

Helping hand shakes another in an agreement

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Exodus 34:1-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20, Matthew 5:21-26


Most church services include The Passing of The Peace (or a similarly named practice). At that time, members of the congregation greet each other with phrases such as “The peace of Christ be with you.” Depending upon the denomination and character of the congregation, the greeting may be anything from a brief handshake with your immediate neighbors to several minutes of walking around the sanctuary hugging everyone you’re happy to see again. Liturgically it is usually placed shortly before the offering. Do you know the scriptural reason for this ritual?

Jesus told his disciples:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

– Matthew 5:23-24

The intent of passing peace is not to greet people because we are happy to see them, but to reconcile with the people we are probably less than happy to see. Imagine a moment in church where approaching someone, or being approached, was an admission of conflict. Not a very comfortable situation, is it? But Christ advises us to make amends quickly so we can offer our gifts without judgment hanging over our heads. Note that Jesus makes no distinction about whether we are in the right or the wrong – just that we need to be willing to take the first step toward reconciliation.

Jesus repeatedly emphasizes the connection between our willingness to forgive others, and our ability to be forgiven. In the next chapter of Matthew he teaches us to pray The Lord’s Prayer, which includes the line: “Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.” And in the next chapter he tells his followers: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” No offering, no matter how generous or perfect, makes up for the grudges we bear. We don’t have to accept, condone, or forget – we may even be called to offer loving correction – but Jesus makes one thing clear: we must forgive.

Comfort: Christ’s path is one of love, truth, peace, and reconciliation.

Challenge: When you “pass the peace,” pass it somewhere it hasn’t been in a while.

Prayer: Loving God, forgive my sins as I forgive those who sin against me. Amen.

Discussion: Whom do you need to forgive? Can you do it before Sunday?

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