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Faith enough

A reflection on Luke 17: 1-10 and 2 Timothy 1: 1-14

When the apostle Paul wrote to the young recruit, Timothy, he said, “Join me in suffering for the gospel . . . we’ll only be able to keep going by relying on the power of God, who first saved us and then called us to this holy work.”

You’ve got to wonder: is that any way to grow the church? Is that any way to inspire young people to sign on? “Come and join me in suffering for the gospel.” Yet, it speaks to the deep longing to give our lives to something that matters.

God is alive and active in the world, transforming it by healing brokenness, confronting evil, creating communities where love and forgiveness shape who they are. Given the nature of the work, there will be resistance, confrontations, rejection, suffering.

When the disciples caught a glimpse of what Jesus was asking of them, they realized that they were out of their depth. Overwhelmed, they cried out, “Increase our faith!” Jesus says, “It’s now about how much faith you have. If you have faith as small as a grain of mustard seed, you would be able to say to this mulberry tree,’Go jump in the lake’ and it would do it.”

How many mulberry trees have you transplanted lately? We can’t even convince our children to join us in worship on Sunday morning! All it would take is faith the size of a mustard seed?

We have our doubts; we feel inadequate; our failures loom large in front of us. Somewhere in his writings, Eugene Peterson says that the predominant characteristic of people in churches these days is feeling inadequate. Each of us looks around the sanctuary, sees the other people sitting there and is convinced that everybody else is more sure about their faith than we are. They are more confident; more committed; more settled.

Yet, our doubts, our feelings of inadequacy, our failures don’t seem to disqualify us in Jesus’ eyes. He recruits us for his mission anyway. “Just do it,” he says, long before the Nike shoe company adopted the slogan. “Just do it, the way servants just do the jobs they are given to do. Do what God gives you to do. Go into your workplace and speak the truth and act with integrity. Refuse to participate in the gossip. Create a home for your family. Pray for someone you care about and then pray for your enemies. Do your ordinary, everyday tasks and offer them up to God.”

Faith is not the opposite of doubt. It is not as if you have to have all your questions answered, all your uncertainties settled and then you can say, “Okay, now I have faith.” Faith is about venturing forward into God’s project, God’s transforming work, bringing your doubts and your feelings of inadequacy with you, and then seeing what God will make of what you offer.

It is not an easy time to be a disciple of Jesus. The truth is that nobody has enough faith for the challenges that face us. If you are not failing at least some of the time, if you are not being driven to your knees by the challenges you face, if you are not crying out, ‘Lord, increase my faith’, then you have probably settled for too little.

We serve a living God who is intent on nothing less than the transformation of the world. God is healing our brokenness. God is making a new creation where the lost and the lonely are fathered into a feast of love and a banquet of joy. Jesus invites you to join up, doubts, failures, inadequacies, uncertainties and all. He takes what you offer to him; blesses you; breaks your life open; pours his life into your life and offers you to the world. By the power of God’s grace, you become channels of Christ’s grace, instruments of the Holy Spirit’s peace, signs of hope for the neighbourhood and the world. Apparently you don’t need a lot of faith for that to happen. You just have to be willing to do what God asks you to do. The rest depends on the goodness and grace and mercy of God. Thanks be to God.

 

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A prayer based on Luke 24: 44 -53

We try to live our lives in faith, O God,
but then giants invade the places
we thought we held secure and safe.
We name them terrorists who threaten our world
and bullies on the schoolyard or at work
and diagnoses from the doctor that change everything
and job loss and divorce and addictions.

We try not to be afraid,
but we are.

Good Shepherd,
rescue your lambs:
our weapons
our carefully constructed armour
have failed us.
You are our only hope.

Send your covenant love
into the midst of our apathy and despair.
Speak your liberating Word
against the words that have shut us down.
Show us your cross and resurrection
and the power you have for life
where no life seems possible.

Train us for faith —
deep, transforming faith
in you, the Living God,
for Jesus’ sake,
and through your Holy Spirit,
the Three-in-One,
the One-in-Three,
who cares for this world
and for us
with love that is powerful
beyond our imagining.

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Scripture: James 1: 17 -27

A number of years ago, when George Buttrick was the minister of Memorial Church, Harvard University, he addressed a group of ministers on the subject of “preaching to an alienated generation”. One of the things he told them was, “Whenever someone says to me, ‘That was such a spiritual sermon’, I know I have abysmally failed. I did not come within ten miles of his pocketbook.”

People who tell Christians that we should stick to things spiritual ought not to expect to get very far with us. Ours is a very practical, personal, down-to-earth kind of faith. “It is no good just listening to the word,” says James in his letter. “You’ve got to put it into practice.” Later on, he says, “Faith without works is dead.” He touches very close to home when he describes what he means: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” “Control your tongue or your religion is worthless.” “Take care of orphans and widows in their suffering.”

Elizabeth O’Connor, in her book Journey Inward, Journey Outward, told the story of a group of people who discovered how difficult it is to live this faith out in ordinary, everyday lives. (What follows is drawn from that book.)  These people were members of a mission group connected with the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. The group was called FLOC – For the Love of Children. “ They felt called to focus on “Junior Village”, the district’s institution for homeless children. It was overcrowded, understaffed and dirty. FLOC was committed to finding foster homes for those children who could not be returned to their own families. They worked with the families from which some of the children came so that the families could be in a position where they could be re-united. They worked for changes in legislation and social conditions.

The demands were great because the need was so great. They were committed to working not in the abstract but directly with families: helping them to find housing and jobs; intervening with the Welfare Department; helping them through crises. At one point, every family with which they were working was in crisis. They were getting overwhelmed. They invited a psychologist who was experienced in working with the poor to meet with them. They met for three nights. He challenged them at different levels and they learned some things that they needed to know in order to keep going. (Journey Inward, Journey Outward, p. 161 – 163)

The psychologist advised them to set limits on what they would do. They should decide ahead of time when they would say, “I quit.” They told him that they had become friends with these people. “You don’t decide ahead of time when you are going to quit on your friends.”

He warned them that the Welfare Department would give them cases with the greatest possibility of failure. They should keep only the most hopeful cases for themselves so that their record would look good. They told him, “We believe that God can use us and we believe the power of this God has no limits. We cannot decide ahead of time what can and cannot be accomplished.”

He asked them again and again, “Why are you here?” They got clarity in their answer: they were there because Christ had called them to serve the poor and especially the children of Junior Village. They did not expect magic intervention but they believed there was something unique about a group of people acting in the name of Christ. They did not believe that the job would be easier because Christ was there with them. They said, “No, the job will not be easier, but yes, it will be easier, When God calls a man, he equips him” (p. 163).

When the evenings with the psychologist were done, they had regained the vision that had originally sent them to Junior Village: “Christ is on mission to those families, and we are along with him.” They had also gained a new awareness of how difficult it is to respond to Christ’s call when spiritual truths bump against earthy realities.

They could have bought into the professional model of doing things by setting limits and doing only those things that would work and show visible results. They would be realistic if they did that, but they felt that would also betray Christ who had called them into committed friendship with these people.

They could begin to think that, because they were acting in the name of Jesus, their efforts would be rewarded with success. If they thought that way, when they did not experience success and when the problems continued, they would grow discouraged and doubt the call.

They realized that what had begun as a crusade in which they prayed, “Free these children immediately, Lord” had become a mission that might involve them for the rest of their lives. They were learning over and over again the challenge of not just listening to the Word but also putting it into practice. (Journey Inward, Journey Outward, p. 157)

We may have plans to change the world. God has plans to change the world by changing us. We want to, as one song says, “build the land that God has planned where love shines through”. God sets us in the midst of other people who are sometimes very difficult to get along with, much less love. They disappoint us. They hurt us deeply. They oppose us fiercely on matters we think are critical. Before very long we come face-to-face with some very real roadblocks within ourselves to building a land of love.

We are tempted to blame others. “It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you are working with a bunch of turkeys,” we say. We are good at telling politicians the things that they should do to make this world a better place. We forget that the church always has its greatest political influence not when it tells others how to live but when it exhibits in its own life together peace, justice and reconciliation.

The hardest work is not ‘out there’. It is among us in our life together and within us in our wounded hearts and spirits. What makes other people hard to love are the fears that bind our own hearts, making us jealous and suspicious of what others are doing. What makes peace hard to find are the wounds that we protect behind walls of anger and resentment. What makes changing an institution or organization so slow are the confused emotions and tangles desires within our own hearts and souls that we do not understand. What hinders love is all that we have not yet brought to Christ for healing.

When the people who formed the mission group FLOC first got together, they wrestled with the question of how much time they would give to their inward journey. The task before them was so great; the needs were so urgent; the children they wanted to free were so desperate. Could they afford time and energy for common prayer and study and theological reflection and worship? Could they not move faster without those practices? When the debate was over, they decided to keep in balance the inward and the outward journeys. They knew that they could not move the mountain ahead of them in their own strength. They believed Christ had called them to the task; he would equip them as they rested in his Word. (Journey Inward, Journey Outward, p. 154)

As we seek to live out our faith, the real enemies are within. No matter how great the opposing forces outside us are, the real resistance is always found within ourselves. It is found in that part of ourselves that yearns for power and success rather than faithfulness to a suffering Saviour; in that part of ourselves that fears the cost of peace and love in the world and in our own hearts. If you are going to be on the journey outward, if you are going to have the strength you need to do Christ’s work in that part of the world to which he has called you, you are going to have to stay in close touch with the One who is already there.

In prayer, in contemplation, in our life together under Christ’s Word, Jesus offers to take down the protective walls of fear that we have built around our hearts. Again and again, as we offer ourselves into his hands, the Holy Spirit broods over us and we experience God’s creative, healing work in our hearts. God sets us free to participate in Christ’s healing, redeeming work in the suffering of our world. We become doers of the Word, not just hearers, and we will be blessed in our doing. Thanks be to God.

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New Life

Lord Jesus Christ,
our living Lord,
you have entrusted us with
a great and precious treasure:
the message that you have power
to create and to give new life.
Your Spirit moves among us
shaking up what has become settled and shut down;
stirring new life in the midst of our dying;
making a new creation in places where we have given up.

We yearn for your presence,
but we’re not sure we want your new creation.
Your newness sets us off balance.

It is awkward, unnerving
to step into your future
without knowing
without being sure
without seeming more than the next step in front of us.

The only assurance you give is that your Spirit will breath new life,
that you are the Way we are to take
that your steadfast love and faithfulness,
your mercy and your grace
will meet us in every step.

You promise that that will be enough.
So, here, now,
we dare to trust you to make all things new,
including us.
Teach us to sing your song
in this time,
in this place,
for your sake and to your glory.

Amen.

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2 Corinthians 4: 7-17
John 3: 1-10

Why do you participate in the life and mission of your church? There are lots of other things you could do with your time and energy. It is a difficult time to be the church. You could be giving your time and energy to something easier, something that looks more successful, something more popular. Yet, you show up; you give what you feel you can. Why do you do that?

When I have asked that question, the most common response I get is that people participate in their church because of the friendships they have there. The relationships keep them coming.

Those relationships are very precious gifts. We live in a time when many people are profoundly lonely. They are thirsty to feel welcomed in a community. They are looking for some place where they are treated with dignity and kindness. They want to believe that they matter to somebody.

Some of you have found those things among the friendships you have developed in your church community. Those friends have seen you through some of the worst times in your life. You have shared some of the best times together. You speak readily about how grateful you are.  “Why do you participate in the life and mission of your church?” Many of you answer, “Because of the friends I have here.”

Yet, as true as that answer may be, something more needs to be said. The Church is not just a social club. As William Willimon is fond of saying, “The Church is not just the Rotary Club meeting at an inconvenient time.” We gather in Christian communities not just for the friends we have. Lots of people have good friends without the trouble of being part of the Church.

We gather in Christian communities because something more in happening in and through your relationships with each other. Often God meets you through these other people. Someone says something at just the right time that helps you find your way forward and you discern that it is the Spirit of God working through that person. You are on the receiving end of some undeserved kindness or generosity and you realize that you are catching a glimpse of the grace of God that permeates all our days. Someone sits with you when you are going through a dark time and you feel God’s steadfast love and faithfulness flowing through him or her into your life.There is more to the church than just friendships with each other. Our friends become channels, conduits, through which the living God reaches out to you.

As great a treasure as all of that is, there is something beyond even that going on. Jesus promises, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20).  It is not just that other people are channels of God’s grace. It is that, when we gather together, the risen Christ is here. He shows up. He joins the gathering.

Often we do not recognize that he is present. Seldom do we acknowledge his presence. Yet, he is here, with us, beyond our ordinary human sight.

When the apostle Paul tried to describe this, he said, “In Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17)  In Christ, there is a new world: a new dimension to this world. Now that God has raised Jesus from the dead, there are two worlds that exist in the same continuum. It is like two notes playing at the same time. The one world is the visible world that we are used to seeing and touching and hearing — the everyday world. There is another world as well. It is invisible to our ordinary senses but it is still real and it has its effect on us.

A new creation came into being when God raised Jesus from the dead. This new creation is teeming with God’s mercy and God’s grace and God’s resurrection power. Because it is not visible, many people tend to overlook it or dismiss it. That would be a mistake. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “It is the invisible that moves the visible” (John 3: 5-6).

Much of living by faith is a matter of developing eyes to see and ears to hear God’s work. There is more going on here than what we are in our own selves and in our relationships with each other. There is the risen Christ saving and healing and bringing us into the power of the resurrection that is at work in our world. The risen Christ is bringing new life in places and situations that we have given up on as dead, as hopeless.

That is why in our lives and in our churches, we always need to remain open to surprise. We need to be supple, ready to change direction, ready to consider new possibilities. Our resurrecting God keeps showing up.

Often, when the risen Christ show up, he breaks open things that we had nailed down tightly. There are things in our lives that we have tried to keep so tightly controlled that all the life in them has been shut down. Jesus shows up and breaks them open so that there’s room for the Holy Spirit to blow through our lives again and bring new energy and new life.

That can be a very painful process. We like things the way they are. We have organized them that way. They work for us that way. At least, they did. Even when they no longer do, we hold on to them because they are familiar. There is a certain comfort in that.

God will not let us settle for comfort. God has something far better in mind for us. God wants to give us life, real life, abundant life. God want that abundant life not just for us but for our children and grandchildren and for the children of this neighbourhood and this city and the whole of God’s beloved creation. God’s Spirit moves against structures that stand in the way of God’s good purposes. The Spirit is in the process of dismantling them, of letting them die and disappear.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “When God’s Spirit shows up, it’s like the wind that blows where it will. You don’t know where it is coming from or where it is headed next.” The Spirit is a wild and powerful presence. Sometimes the Spirit-wind is like a hurricane that clears out the present order and makes room for something new to come. Sometimes the Spirit-wind is the kind of wind that catches the sails of a sailboat and takes us on new adventures.

Much of the New Testament was written to small Christian communities that we hanging on by their finger tips. Yet, Paul writes to them with amazing hope:
Since God has so generously let us in on what he is doing, we’re not about to throw up our hands and walk off the job just because we run into occasional hard times. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we are not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we are not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The thing we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4: 7-17, The Message).

We are not on our own. Our life together draws its energy and vitality from the greatness of God’s power. So, the church lives on tiptoe. The church is a community that is open to the impossible becoming possible. It is determined to live in the impossible possibility of the reign of God in our midst.

Why do you keep showing up? Thomas Long tells of being part of a spiritual formation class in a church where the question was asked, “Why have you stayed as part of the Church?” One man replied, “I’ll tell you what keeps me coming. it’s strange, I know, but I get the feeling here, like nowhere else, that something is about to happen” (Something is About to Happen, p. 9)  That, my friends, is a great gift. Thanks be to God.

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Many people in post-mainline churches have trouble talking about their faith in public. There are many reasons for this, but I began wondering about one of them the other day.

For many years, ‘faith’ was framed as something that was ‘private’. If it is ‘private’, then speaking about it to others involves risk — allowing oneself to be vulnerable. So, I wonder if one of the reasons people are reluctant to talk about faith is that they are afraid of being shamed.

For some people, the fear of being shamed comes because they do not believe all the things that they think they are supposed to believe. They have trouble with doctrines like the ‘virgin birth’ or the ‘resurrection of the dead’. They cannot believe that the miracles in the Bible really happened. Lots of people who follow Jesus also have trouble with some of the church’s doctrines. More accurately, lots of people have trouble subscribing to the popular conceptions about what those doctrines are saying. However, I have been surprised by the number of people who confess to me that they ‘don’t believe all those things’ as if such an admission might make me think less of them and their faithfulness. When I am looking at church websites I am amused by the study groups that have named themselves as ‘rebels’ and ‘revolutionaries’, when the focus of their group is nothing more daring than reading books that question some beliefs that are supposedly commonly held. Obviously, in some segments of the Church, there is still a mindset that considers being truthful about your doubts a risky thing. Some people are ‘rebellious’ enough to gather with others, admit their questions, and enter into conversation about them. Others keep their doubts to themselves and so do not talk about their faith in public.

On the other hand, I wonder if some people are reluctant to talk about their faith in public because they DO believe certain things and they are afraid that, in a culture of skepticism, others will make fun of them for that or will think less of them. Will they be mocked because they do believe that miracles happen? Will they be considered foolish if they admit that they have had an experience of Christ’s presence? ? Will people dismiss their answers to their prayers as a misinterpretation of the facts?

Churches could go a long way in helping people to speak about their faith publicly by cultivating an environment where respectful, open and honest conversations happen. In such an atmosphere, it would be all right to question. It would also be all right to believe. People wouldn’t be labelled as either foolish or rebellious. People would not be mocked for either belief or doubt.

Then, perhaps, churches could move the conversation about faith away from ‘belief’ to ‘trust’ — which holds even more risk because it moves the conversation from the head to the heart and will and body.

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A sermon based on John 1: 43 -51

A young journalist was sitting at a bar, feeling quite sorry for himself. “Nobody understands me, “ he lamented to the man on the stool next to him. His new friend asked, “Do you mean that there is nobody at all, not one human being, not a single, solitary person who understand you?” That’s right,” said the reporter. “Not a one.”
“You are a lucky man,” his bar companion told him. “Have you noticed how miserable I am?”

No, the journalist had not noticed because he had been too busy feeling sorry for himself.
“Yes,” said his friend,” I am just about the miserable-ext person on two legs.”
“Wy’s that? asked the journalist.

“Because there are two people in this world who understand me. They don’t understand me completely, but they understand me well enough. It’s awful being understood by one person but being understood by two is almost unbearable. If they understood me completely, the embarrassment would probably kill me.”

The journalist went on to write a newspaper column reflecting on the ways we defend ourselves against people understanding us too well. We don’t want them to see the confusion or the chaos that threaten to unsettle us. We don’t want them to know the fears and doubts that trouble the clam exterior we show to others. Much of the time we cover up who we really are. It works, of course, to help us function most of the time. It also leaves us feeling lonely, alone in the world. More than that, it is hard on our souls, which thrive only in the atmosphere of truth.  (Russell Baker, “We can all use a little misunderstanding”, source unknown)

Do you have someone who understands you? Do you have someone in your life who knows the real you? Is there someone who understands the joys and fears, and the deep longings that drive you to act the way you do? Not completely perhaps, but well enough? does that make you miserable because you cannot get away with anything? Or, do you experience it as a great and precious gift?

The gospels tell us stories of Jesus encountering people, seeing them for who they really were, and telling them the truth about their lives. For some of them, Jesus’ words are a great gift. They bring out what is best in them. They grow strong and courageous; they become generous and compassionate. For some people, Jesus tells them more truth than they want to hear. Jesus truth-telling exposes their hypocrisy or deceit, their manipulations and their abuses of power. Some of them eventually kill him for it.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story about a group of people who were on a religious retreat. The leader asked them to think of someone who represented Christ in their lives. Then, they were to spend some time sharing with the group who those people were. Near the end of the sharing time, one woman stood up and said, “I had to think about that one. I kept thinking, ‘Who is it who told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?’” (Truth to Tell)

In today’s gospel story, Jesus is gathering a community of people who hear the truth he speaks to them as good news. It is received as a great treasure. He invites Andrew and Simon to “come and see”; then, he finds Philip who finds Nathanael. Philip says, “We have been looking for someone who will save us. We have found him: Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.”

Nathanael is more than a little skeptical. Jesus was not what he thought God’s salvation would look like: a carpenter’s son from a no-account town like Nazareth? Philip does not argue with Nathanael. He does not try to prove to him that Jesus is the Messiah. He just says, “Come and see.”

While Nathanael is still making his way toward Jesus, Jesus says, “Look, here is a true Israelite. Here is someone who is a wrestler-with-God. Here is someone in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael is surprised by what Jesus saw in him, “How do you know me?” Jesus replies, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree.”

“Sitting under the fig tree” was an old saying used to describe someone who was genuinely searching for God’s truth and God’s salvation. You are “sitting under the fig tree” when you see a world being corrupted by evil and greed and violence and hatred and you say, “Surely another world is possible”. You are “sitting under the fig tree” when you are no longer content merely to skim along the surface of your life and you decide, instead, to find your place in God’s plan for the world. You are “sitting under the fig tree” when you search for wisdom and courage to navigate a faithful path through difficult and ambiguous choices; when you dare to speak your truth even when people want you to remain quiet and complacent.

Jesus sees you sitting there long before you are even aware of him. Long before you start searching for him, he has already been looking for you. He knows your questions, your doubts, your uncertainties, and the things you try to hid. “I can work with that,” he says. “Come, follow me. Follow me and you will find that your life is lived on holy ground. You are living at the intersection between who you really are and what God is doing in and through you.”

There is a great deal of interest these days in ‘the self’. You are told in countless ways that you need to get to know your self more clearly and ore deeply. Only as you do so will you will maximize your potential, develop your gifts, meet your needs and follow your dreams.

There is a healthy self-awareness: an awareness of your inner life helps you function better in the world. But, ultimately, the self is too small an environment in which any human being can flourish. It is not the kind of environment where your soul can deepen and grow and mature. You and I are made to love. We are made for community with other selves. The self cannot be itself, fully itself, unless it is in relationship: relationship with others and, most decisively, relationship with God.

The self is your soul with God left out. Focus only on your ‘self’, without reference to who God is and what God is doing in your life, and you are leaving out the most important part of who you are. The most decisive thing about your life is not who you are or what you are doing. The most decisive action in your life is what God is doing in you and through you. What most defines who you is who God says you are.

Jesus invites you out of the cramped world of the self and sets you into the large world of God’s grace. There is always more going on that any of us realizes. God acts in ways that are often invisible and unexpected. Yet, at every moment, you are immersed in the presence and the action of God. The God who is creating and saving and blessing and transforming you and the world, is permeating all of your life with God’s beauty and grace and love. You are standing on holy ground.

Early Christian theologians sometimes described the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a great and wonderful dance of perfect love. Each of us is untied to join the dance, and to add our moves to it. As you join the dance, you become more fully yourself than you could ever be apart from God.

Faith is not a journey of self-discovery as much as it is a journey of God-discovery. Faith is learning to pay attention to God; opening yourself to God; getting in on what God is king. It is a journey of learning to live beyond yourself because you are being drawn into God’s great and holy work in the world. Faith makes you more than you could ever be on your own. “Follow me,” says Jesus”, Let him teach you the steps you need to know to join in the dance: patience and love, truth and forgiveness, goodness and beauty, hope and courage, joy and celebration.

There will be times when the dance feels odd. You will be moving in ways that feel strange. How do you being? You continue what God has already begun in you. You risk: risk trusting as much of your self as you can to as much of God as you know. Then, let the Spirit draw you into the divine dance of love.

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