Category Archives: higher things

Which buys more – $3 or $30?

What is the true value of a dollar? When we spend our hard-earned money, what are we really buying? We usually like to think we know what we’re getting.

A chance encounter has made me think more specifically about what we get for our money. On the surface we’re buying ground turkey to make tacos, a new shirt to wear, or the latest book from our favorite author. But behind every purchase lies a deeper story, a bigger meaning. Recently some ground turkey got me a hug and a big thank-you from my son for fixing his favorite dinner. Well worth the price!

I look at the scattering of no-longer-played-with toys in our house, and it makes me hesitate to buy more toys. I’ve seen the scenario played out many times over the years: give kids a cool, new toy; kids play happily with new toy; new toy is set aside and forgotten.

Of course, some toys last longer than others, and some draw the kids back in time and time again. But others are sadly far too short-lived. It’s entirely possible to spend $30 on a toy that for some reason never gets played with. Instead of getting happy, engaged kids, we get some plastic to clutter the floor and we’re out $30. Probably not a good return on investment.

On the other hand, it’s also possible to spend a mere $3, and change a person’s outlook on life, at least for a while. When I gave a homeless couple $3 for a pair of city bus passes so they could get to services downtown, their eyes lit up and they cried tears of thankfulness. Sometimes a mere $3 can get hope, encouragement, real help.

I wouldn’t stop giving gifts to my children, of course. But there can be an inverse relationship between the amount of things someone has and how much they appreciate what they are given. It might be good, even healthy, to give our kids less, which would perhaps increase their appreciation for what they do have.

It might also be good, even healthy, to give more freely to those in need who cross our paths. The truly needy are typically full of appreciation, and even a little help from us can impact their lives in a big way.

Some people say they won’t give if they don’t know for sure how the money will be spent. But I dare to think it might not matter so much whether we can accurately judge how well the money will be used. We give for the needy person’s sake as well as for our own. When we help others, it blesses them and us. There is a balance between taking a reasonable chance on someone and being foolish, of course. But if we use our best judgment and act in faith, we can let God handle the outcome on the other side.

So, what do we get for our money? What are we truly buying? If we have $30 or $3, we still have a choice. Sometimes we buy passing pleasures or things we need. Sometimes we find we have bought hope, encouragement, or tears of joy.

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When It’s More than Just an Oyster Roast

The sun sinks low beyond the marshes as we gather under the canopy of trees in the cooling night air. Family and friends, old and new, swap stories, speculations, and pleasantries. And the fire crackles in anticipation of the oysters.

Men place the square metal table over the fire. Once the table is good and hot, oysters are tumbled on, ready to be covered in wet burlap. Ready to steam.

Not a fan of oysters myself, I’m here for the company, as well as the other food–Lowcountry boil; grits casserole with collards, broccoli, bacon, and secret ingredients; twice-baked potatoes; and more.

Our hosts are gracious and welcoming, happy to share the beautiful winter evening under the oaks with the whole lot of us. Adults mingle around the fire. Kids flock together, playing games. More than a handful of dogs patrol the area on the lookout for wayward food or just a good belly-rub.

Before long the first batch of oysters is ready, and an eager throng huddles around a long table, oyster knives in hand. A woman from Atlanta tries oysters for the first time, and declares they are worth moving to this area. I muster my courage to try one, and I don’t mind it, but I’m content to leave the rest for the more enthusiastic eaters among us. My husband can eat my share. Besides, he has a little help from our 10-year-old son who realizes he likes oysters alright, but he really likes opening them for his dad.

Spanish moss drapes down from the branches as laughter rises up with the smoke to the wide Southern sky. Like a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings of life. Somewhere through those branches above, the nearly full moon oversees the winding rivers and marshlands, impartial as a judge or a jewel set in the crown of this night.

My daughter and I sit a while at a picnic table, as my younger son fills up on crackers, cookies, and cake. My girl and I are eating Lowcountry boil when she announces we should do this more often. This oyster roast gathering of friends and family and food has made a good impression on her, and she’d like some more. And I think of how this is hers, in a sense, as it is ours.

This whole January-oyster-roast-with-friends-around-the-fire is part of the beauty and magic of the coastal South, an inheritance of tradition that mingles with the land. This land that clutches its treasures of history from Native Americans to Revolutionary War, through the Civil War to modern times, all cloaked in pine needles, acorns, and this sandy soil, and wrapped up in the distinctive scent of the salt marsh.

This is our inheritance, for those of us who call it home. Even for me, an adopted daughter of the South, raised here since the age of 12, the age of my daughter now. Here the hospitality is served with sweet tea, shrimp or blue crabs from the local river, oysters steamed outside on a chilly winter night, and good home cooking. Here we greet strangers, and hold the door open.

Though the heavy heat of summer drags on forever, and the sand gnats attack when the weather turns fine, still there is something special. The easiness in the sway of the Spanish moss in the breeze carries over into our easy manners, generous attitude, and good-natured stories. And our run-ins with alligators and snakes and flying palmetto bugs the size of your palm make for some great stories.

The evening draws to a close, and most of the crowd is gone by the time our family says our goodbyes. We load up in the minivan, and make our way down the dark dirt road sheltered by stretching live oaks. It’s time to head back to the paved roads and our usual daily routine. But we carry a little piece of the magic with us. It’s always there, just below the surface, a part of this unfolding story of our land, our region, ourselves.

Back at home, when the breeze blows just right, the scent of the salt marsh drifts down our street, reminding me of this privilege, of this inheritance, of this story we become.

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Of Hurricanes and Elections and All that Remains

In the days after the hurricane the sound of chainsaws filled the neighborhoods. And as the chainsaws droned on, the piles and piles of branches, trees, and debris grew, lining the streets as we worked to recover our Normal.

The fierce winds and drenching rains of Hurricane Matthew had tested everything in their path, shaking free the loose, the weak, the broken. From small branches to old, mighty oaks to shingles and boats, the shaken things were everywhere. The cleanup and repairs can be overwhelming, and will continue for months to come.

But there is some solace in knowing the strength and solidity of the things that remain. There is a certain confidence in the trees that weathered the storm and still stand. They are survivors with strong, deep roots and healthy trunks and branches, and some good fortune of circumstance. They are reminders that not everything succumbs to the storm. That we can suffer some wrath and come out triumphant on the other side.

The storm will shake a lot of things, but sometimes after the shaking, we have a clearer understanding of the essentials. We give thanks for life, for family, for beauty, for the strong things that remain, for our community, for the beautiful blue skies that follow the storm. And there is hope. And life goes on.

Tomorrow is election day, the culmination of a dreadfully long period of ugly campaigning, mudslinging, and other horrendous behaviors I’d rather not mention. It has been a trial, a shaking of sorts for our nation, where “leaders” for the sake of political power and greed have tried to deepen divisions between friends, strangers, races, socioeconomic groups, genders, political parties, and more.

I don’t know that the shaking will end with the election of a new president (probably not). And I don’t know how things will settle out when it’s all said and done. But I know that even in the midst of the shaking we can see the strong things, the true things, the greater things.

These United States of America are greater than politics, greater than government, greater than political parties. We the People will keep on keeping on regardless of political outcomes. On the micro level, where we actually live, most of us have pretty good sense and good intentions. We know how to pull together and get along. There is still common decency around even though we’re hard-pressed to find it in the news and on social media.

Maybe, instead of drawing lines in the sand and fitting people into preconceived boxes, if we actually talked with each other, listened to each other’s points of view, and embraced our common ground, our government might get more and better things done.

So forget what you think you know about liberals, evangelicals, progressives, conservatives, minorities, refugees, and so on. Go talk to someone different from yourself with the goal of understanding, not persuading. Listen. Learn. Engage.

And celebrate the things that I hope will remain after this shaking: the great American experiment of government of the people, by the people, for the people; a land of freedom (even if we’re still working out what that exactly looks like); a nation of opportunity so great that people from other nations long to come here, both legally and illegally. God bless America!

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Remembering 9/11 and Why We Must

September 11, 2001. A day to remember. A day that showcased both the worst and the best of humanity. A day that changed America, shattering our sense of security, our sense of separateness.

I remember the unspeakable horror as I watched events unfold as “breaking news.” The planes, the collapse of buildings, the terrible loss of life, the eventual loss of hope for survivors.

I remember having the news report on the television at Friedman’s Jewelers where I worked at the time. One young man walked up to the counter, saw the news, shook his head, and asked, “What country is that?” When I told him it was our country, he joined the rest of us in disbelief.

I remember standing with many employees and shoppers at the mall (where our store was located) as we circled up, and joined hands in the center court to pray. Prayers for the tragedy, prayers for our nation. The buying and selling of stuff was put on hold so we could tend to our nation’s wounds in our own way.

The horror of that day. So many people working just like any other day–suddenly gone. So many passengers flying to their doom. The jet-fueled fire consuming steel. The desperate who couldn’t bear to wait. The buildings’ collapsing, stealing away the hope of rescue for so many. The rescuers turned victims. The missing. The ache of the families searching for loved ones for so long afterward. The revelation that it was not an accident, but a planned attack designed to be horrific and devastating. The senseless destruction of life, of property, of the sense of security, of the world as we knew it.

The heroics of that day. The firefighters and first responders who ran toward the devastation in hopes of saving others. The “regular folks” who did the same. The courageous trapped inside who led others to safety with them against all odds. The brave passengers who overcame the evil, crashing into a Pennsylvania field instead of the terrorists’ target. The multitudes who helped and gave and prayed and did whatever they could.

We need to remember. To remember it all. Not just our personal stories or the stories of first responders. But also, especially, the stories of the Taken, the Survivors, the Brave, the Terror, the Terrorists. The immense distance between the deliberate choice to sacrifice in order to take lives and the equally deliberate choice to sacrifice in order to save lives.

In a way, this is the story of humanity. This is the story of us. Our lives, our hope, hang always in the balance.

We must remember.

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Be like butterflies

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Recently there was a monarch chrysalis on our garbage can just before trash day. Concerned about its fate with the garbage truck, Jon and I carefully removed it, clipped it to an office clip, and taped the clip to hang down from the top of our butterfly habitat in our house. A chrysalis is pretty delicate so we were not sure if this butterfly would live or not, but we hoped for the best.

A few days later, there was a butterfly in the habitat, clinging to the empty chrysalis. It was a male, flexing his wings to prepare for flight. And I did something I had not done before. I decided to release it by myself. Alone, with no kids. Just me and this butterfly rescued from garbage truck disaster.

Releasing butterflies has always been a team event in our family, complete with kids, excitement, attempts at photos, and figuring out whose turn it is to release the butterfly. This time it was so simple.

We went outside to the patio where Mr. Monarch fluttered his excitement as I unzipped the habitat top. Politely, he stepped onto my finger. I lifted him out, and away he flew. Up, up, up. Circling and gliding and fluttering.

He seemed joyful, exuberant as he flew. It occurred to me that this was his very first flight. And I wondered what a thrill it must be for a lowly caterpillar to awake from its chrysalis sleep to fly for the first time.

To fly.

This previously creeping, crawling, leaf-eating bug. Now a beautiful, delicate, flying creature embarking on an epic journey, soaring above the plants he had once munched.

I watched him fly all the way to a high branch of a pine tree where I presume he sat for a while as monarchs often like to do upon release. And I wondered how I had missed it before, the joy of first flight. But I saw it this time – the start of the journey, the deep joy of doing the long-awaited thing you were created for. My heart soared with my monarch friend, sharing in his joy, wishing him well.

I want to be like that. Transformed to soar, bold and brave in freedom, compelled to move forward into my purpose. Joy-filled for my part in history, regardless of the risk. Not content with a small and safe and sheltered life. Flying free and strong on my epic adventure.

May we all be like butterflies.

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How to Win an Inn

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There’s an inn to be won for $150 and 200 words. The transfer of real estate by essay contest is becoming a bit of a trend around the country, and the most recent example to catch our family’s attention is a lovely inn located in a cozy town in coastal Maine. I imagine the delicious wild Maine blueberry pancakes for breakfast, the friendly visitors, rocky shoreline, small town community, stunning scenery, and long, exceptionally long, winters.

And I wonder how does one win an inn? Out of 7,500 essays, what does it take to be the top pick? What can you pack into 200 words to convince the innkeeper you are worthy? Is she looking for credentials? A resume? Passion? Writing skills? Originality? If I write that I’ve always wanted to run an inn, does that make me enthusiastic and hopeful or just like 6,000 other innkeeper wannabes? Is it even worth saying, or is it a waste of precious words?

Maybe luck is the best you can hope for. Maybe a certain number of essays make the short list due to their likeability. But probably a whole lot of essays are just fine, so some are chosen and others discarded by sheer chance or whim. It’s kind of like the lottery, only with much better odds. And, after all, somebody’s going to win (unless there are not enough entries, in which case the deal is off and money is returned).

Though we have not decided to enter the contest, our whole family is excited just by the idea of winning the inn. After visiting Maine on vacation a year ago, our three kids think it would be great to live there. True, we visited for about a week in the summer with near-perfect weather, and had a lot of fun. Which is not at all comparable to living there year-round running an inn, but nevertheless… they are ready to pack up and move.

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It’s odd to me that our children are so eager to move away. When I was 12 years old, my family decided to make a big move, and I could not understand why we would ever move away from home. Home was a place back then, tucked in the context of extended family and history. It’s not so much that way anymore as our society has become so much more mobile. Most of our kids’ cousins live far away, only coming for visits from time to time. And we have had plenty of friends move away over the years, so why shouldn’t we move away, too? There is something to be said for being the one to leave rather than the one always left behind.

Will, who is nine, has another reason to want to move. He is sure that if we pack up all our belongings he will finally find his lost Gameboy. Never mind that he hasn’t wanted to play with it in ages until recently. Or that he has some issues with putting his toys where they belong. There is something to be said for being organized enough that you don’t have to rely on a major move to find your stuff. But enough of that… no need to launch into lecture mode.

But wouldn’t it be something if we were to win the inn? How exciting and terrifying and life-changing! It would perfectly turn our world upside down, which is sometimes what we need, or maybe what we crave, even secretly. A change big and bold and dramatic. Crazy enough to shake loose the cobwebs of complacency and comfort, to raise questions and eyebrows. Some might call it folly. Others might call it a fresh start. I would call it an adventure.

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Ready or Not – There Goes Summer

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So here we are, just over two weeks away from the start of a new school year, and I’m just not ready. It’s not that I haven’t bought all the requested school supplies – which I haven’t. It’s not that the summer heat still hangs oppressive, making me feel melty like a dweller of a Dali painting – which it does. It’s not that I’m aggravated by stores packing up summer and schlepping out the autumn merchandise – which I definitely am.

I’m just not ready to move on from these summer days. Days of relaxed schedules and time with my kids, whether fun or frustrating. Days to do something different like… well, maybe we haven’t done enough “different” this summer. Sure, we’ve had some fun, and done some neat things like play with butterflies and visit the Kennedy Space Center. But somehow I wanted something more.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I feel like this summer was just not enough. Not fun enough or special enough or meaningful enough. Maybe this summer – of stay-at-home camps and visits from relatives – pales a bit compared to last summer with its epic vacation to New England. Maybe I’m growing more sentimental as my kids grow older. Maybe I’m a little unsettled at the thought of Anna going to a different school – middle school – this year.

I treasure the time with my kids… time to enjoy them, laugh with them, teach them, guide them. Maybe there’s never really enough time for good things like these. Maybe my expectations are too high, too easily disappointed by the not-so-good stuff like whining and fussing with each other and not listening. Maybe I create stress for myself by wanting to do too much. Maybe I think too much (pretty sure about this one actually).

I can’t make the remainder of this summer the absolute best end-of-the-summer ever. But maybe I can be a little more deliberate, a little more intentional, and make the most of these together times before the rush of school and activities returns.

There is a saying I learned from a mom friend: “You take what you get and don’t throw a fit.” (In Southern, “get” and “fit” rhyme.) It’s a good one for stopping little complainers. But maybe what it really gets at is this idea of “enough.” We want and want and yearn for something… that other thing, not this thing we have right here. Our human nature cries it’s not enough, and sometimes that’s true. It’s not enough. But we are not promised “enough” on our own terms. And maybe God, in His wisdom, uses that unsatisfied yearning to draw our hearts to higher things.

In this season – this summer, this life – we can never truly do it all or have it all. But God does promise His grace is sufficient. His grace is enough. Grace is our resting place, far better than the fleeting, lazy days of summer. By grace, the pauper is crowned prince, and the ragamuffin trades his beggar clothes for royal robes. By grace we realize we are all ragamuffins.

On our own there is never enough. But we can look to the cross, and understand it is more than we could hope for.

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4 Reasons to Wear a Big Bandage on Your Face for a Week

Okay, so I had this rebellious mole surgically removed from my forehead last week, and now I get to wear a not-so-stylish bandage that covers half of my forehead for seven days. And the area around my eye is swollen.

It’s really not that bad. It could surely be much worse. The bandage fairly well matches my skin tone. My eye is not swollen shut. There’s no real bruising. And it’s temporary. My husband kindly says it’s hardly noticeable. But I notice it, and so do others. It’s there. And it’s different. And obvious.

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It’s obvious enough that I notice people notice it. I can see them wondering what happened and whether they should mention it or not. It’s interesting. And I wonder if I should mention it or not. It’s not a big deal, but it’s there. And I’m sure there is a lesson to be learned here.

So here are my top 4 reasons to wear a big bandage on your face for a week:

  1. You will gain insight into what it’s like for people who have some kind of obvious physical disability or challenge. Again, mine is a very minor issue, but it has made me consider more how others feel who are disfigured or physically disabled. They deal with the looks and reactions of people constantly, while I am just passing through this territory ever so briefly. My heart goes out to them in a new way.
  2. You can feel what it’s like to be viewed differently. As a true-blooded introvert, I do not appreciate too much scrutiny, so this has been a test for me. I can see people paying extra attention, processing what they see, wondering if they should ask. It’s a bit uncomfortable.
  3. You will learn about yourself through your own response to others and how you choose to deal with it. You can announce it from the start or joke about it, putting the issue out in the open. Or you may prefer to talk about it only if someone asks. It’s up to you.
  4. You may discover a new hairstyle to better complement (or camouflage) your bandage. It occurred to me that I could hide most of the bandage if I chose to part my hair on the opposite side. Being a creature of habit and not really wanting to hide, I decided against this option. It is a possibility, though.

Perhaps my list does not persuade you to wear a big bandage on your face for a week. But hopefully it does help you consider what it must be like for individuals who daily deal with physical deformity or disability.

While I have always thought of myself as a pretty compassionate person, sympathetic to the feelings of others, this experience has been enlightening. I suppose I have moved from compassion to empathy by dealing with my relatively minor appearance issue.

I think the real takeaway here is the age-old revelation that some good can come from anything. There are lessons to learn, wisdom to gain, blessings to celebrate even in the difficult times.

I heard someone say once that nothing is wasted in God’s economy. So, yeah, I had a little surgery, looked a little bad, and wore a big bandage for a while. But I also gained some insight, some empathy, and some gratitude in the process. That’s not so bad after all.

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Thoughts From a Plastic Surgeon’s Office: On Age, Appearance, and Life

I was sitting in the examining room, looking. Waiting for my new plastic surgeon to come in and talk with me about removing a mole from my forehead. I say “new” plastic surgeon to say that this is my first ever, a necessity caused by this misbehaving mole that makes me curse the sun.

So, one wall of the room is filled with framed certificates and diplomas, evidence of the expertise of this group of plastic surgeons. Another wall showcases an extensive collection of brochures about the various procedures available. Even better, the monitor on the counter runs a continuous video showing before and after photos to illustrate the different procedures.

Some of the before-and-after’s are quite impressive, while others strike me as rather frivolous. Still, there are enough different examples to cover anyone’s personal issues and insecurities. After three children and over four decades of living, this body of mine could surely use some work. A lift here, a tuck there… Wouldn’t that be nice? And still my conscience refuses to justify my vanity.

There are many great reasons for plastic surgery, as well as many purely vain reasons. It is not for me to judge. But I do see that the extreme emphasis our culture places on appearance is not healthy. We live with the pervasive message that all things old… wrinkles, gray hair, the effects of gravity… are bad. Perhaps this is a subconscious attempt to evade death, the inevitable. In this society where age is often not esteemed for its wisdom and experience, it seems the only ones who long to grow older are children, speaking from their inherent ignorance.

Granted, it’s hard to see ourselves change physically when on the inside we always feel like the young people we once were. Our inner person is still there, though it may wear a different mask and receive different treatment, whether good or bad. We have a certain sentimentality for the way we used to look, much like our nostalgia for our “glory days” whether they were in high school, college, or some other especially happy time of life.

Naturally, we judge others partly by appearance. But our culture encourages us, both openly and more subtly, to try to look younger.  Dye your hair so the grays won’t show. Watch what you wear (for example, “mom jeans” are out if you want to be in). Exercise more so you can look good in that swimsuit. A little Botox can take care of those wrinkles. And plastic surgery can lift your face, tuck your tummy, or restore your boobs to their original location. Isn’t it wonderful?

The message is that we are not good enough, that appearance is who we are. But it is not. We are not good enough, but the real work that needs to be done is on the inside. These bodies are mere vessels to take us through this life. How tragic to tend to the vessel so carefully only to find that the treasure inside has been neglected. Your body is not you. You are more than that. As the late Rich Mullins once said, “In the end it won’t matter if you have a few scars, but it will matter if you didn’t live.”

Are we living, thriving, creating a life of true beauty through our love and joy and kindness? Are we in some way making the world a better place? What if we invested as much in character development, our inner beauty, as we do in outward beauty? That could change the world.

And this world could use some changing. It could use some assurance and acceptance, some hope and grace. It could use some help from people who care enough about others to risk themselves. People brave enough to look beyond the surface to the heart, the soul, the need.

Sometimes life is risky, and we can get hurt. But it’s not so important to stay safe and pretty and young-looking as it is to make a difference, to love, to embrace the moment we are in for all it’s worth. That is the way to live and to leave a legacy that outlasts an imperfect body.

 

* You may want to read the book of John in the Bible for further insight into love and grace and hope.

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How Can I Love… ?

Recent events in the world – regarding Ferguson, Missouri, ISIS, Russia, and so on – have been deeply disturbing. There is so much unrest, discontent, hatred. Darkness. Big problems with complicated solutions at best can make us feel like we can do nothing. What must be done to bring resolution? What can we do?

And today I ran into this reminder to see the big picture. It’s about real hope and real change…

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation [atoning sacrifice] for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:10-11)

God loved us… this whole angry, hurting, prideful, mixed up lot of us. Not just me, not just me and you, not just Americans or Christians or people who are kind of like us or “decent folk” we like to be around. We are not okay, not one of us. No one is better than another. And he loved us still.

I catch my breath, and read the words again. There it is: the illustration and definition of what love is. The heart of God reached down into our little world, and loved us in spite of us. Enough to send his son, his only son, to death for our sake. That is some kind of crazy, strong love.

See, we are rebels, one and all, and his love is not choosy. We like to choose sides and jump on bandwagons, pat ourselves on the back and try to look good to others. But it is no good. It’s us – all of us – against God, and we have won our death. We are the rebels assaulting the beauty he created. He is the Grace redeeming us anyway.

He loved us. Enough to send his son as a ransom, buying us out of our own sin. One life for another. His life for all of us. Like a prisoner swap. Only it was his idea born out of his amazing love and unstoppable grace.

So then, here’s the catch: who are we – if he loved us so, loved us like that – who are we to refuse to love one another? Could we be so arrogant? But how can we love the liar, the rioter, the traitor, the thief, the executioner, those with hardened hearts of darkness and hate? Maybe we cannot. Cannot love those so similar to ourselves, by ourselves.

But God can. The power of his love is no small thing, and it is up to the challenge. He is eager to love us. To change our hearts. To love through us. To empower us to love.

That is the meaning of it all, the mystery of the ages. Our purpose in this life is to love. To be loved and to love, in that order.

So remember who you are, beloved, and go out loving. Through kindness and service, through prayer and sacrifice and maybe tears. No matter what the world might be doing around you, remember to love. Love God. Love one another. Amen.

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