My Noisy Heart

It is hard to hear the voice of God over the sound of your own heart breaking. When those you love fiercely are self-destructing, how do you silence the fears, disappointment, hurt, and even self-blame?

Love never fails. The noise of our hearts breaking is an echo of God’s heart. But love is not enough. Those who love others deeply often find themselves crying out for wisdom—for the counsel of God–so it is a problem when we can’t hear what God is saying.

Along the Oregon coast, near Yachats and right below Cape Perpetua is a place called Devil’s Churn. It is a long chasm in the volcanic basalt. The waves roll in and then bounce back from the sea cave that goes under Highway 101. The waves coming in crash into waves going out until a butter-colored seafoam is churned. Occasionally tourists fall in and are drowned or smashed against the rocks.

Sometimes I feel like I am in the devil’s churn. The intensity of my love makes me a mess of conflicting emotions. Those who fall into Devil’s Churn are most likely to survive if they catch an out-going wave and make it to open water.  

Sometimes I must pray my way to open water. Old-timers called this praying through. I begin with absolute honesty and tell God all I feel. Next, I pray through some Scriptures—usually Psalms. I pray Scriptures because they rid my emotions of any lies spoken by Satan. For instance, it is perfectly right to be sad over the pain and danger stalking those you love, but it is destructive to surrender to despair. God’s Word, as you pray it, will sanctify the pain and His Spirit will clean the wounds to your heart. God will keep you uninfected with bitterness, resentment, or despair.

Next, I walk on the water. By faith, I speak God’s promises over the situation and people that are breaking my heart. This is nothing fancy—just me telling God stuff he already knows. I let God know how much He loves those folks. I tell Him what wonderful plans He has for them. And so on. When I am done, I feel I am out of the Devil’s Churn.

In the open water I can begin to hear God’s voice and listen to his counsel. I can hear something other than the ventriloquism of my desperate desires putting words in God’s mouth. I am cried out—emptied out and done thrashing about. I am ready to be rescued.

Sometimes God gives me wise counsel for those I love. Usually God talks about other stuff—and ignores my agenda. I have learned to let God set the topic of discussion. On occasion, after my heart grows quiet, God says nothing. We sit on the beach together and watch the sun set—our hearts breaking for those we love.

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Dear Friend,

When you were a little kid playing at the church, I never imagined I would someday be praying for you to kick your heroin addiction. It seems that one year you did a weird church program we had—Caravans or something. It was corny and about twenty years out of date and Nazarene. I just remember Teckla and I trying to be “fun”—something I always find taxing.

I don’t know what happened. Whether something happened at your church or if it was the run-in you had with one of the pastors at our church.  Something embittered you against the church and perhaps against God. You have always been gracious to Teckla and me, but your hurt and anger showed up in the songs you wrote.

What can I say? First, on behalf of any believer who has been unkind or hypocritical, I apologize. Please forgive us. Yea, I see the irony of asking this of someone who may no longer believe in God. But really there is much “Christians” need to be forgiven. I would like to say, “Hey, I’m not like those folks that hurt you!” But I know that on a bad day I could be. So forgive us!

It is, however, also true that you were probably not hurt by Christians who were acting too much like Jesus. My experience is that it is always the opposite—people not acting much like Jesus at all. This point matters a ton. If the problem is people not being enough like Jesus, then moving further from Him isn’t the answer. It is hard to do, but really the wounds of unChrist-like people should make us follow Jesus even closer. Such wounds can, if given to God, deepen our commitment to let our words and hands minister only the grace and healing of Jesus.

I am not saying, as you probably often heard, to take your eyes off people and keep them on God. We need to look most closely at those people who are the “real deal”—genuine followers of Jesus who faithfully express His love. I am sure you know some. We do not have to pretend fake or mean Christians don’t exist; we just have to see them as flawed, struggling people—who like us are loved by God. God is calling them to wholeness just like He is calling us. In the end, it is true that our eyes must be on Jesus—but this a delight, not a denial of reality.

Second, I love you. I have prayed for you a lot over the years. When I imagine you surrendered to Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, I always see a prophet—someone like Jeremiah in whose bones God’s Word burned. In some of your beautiful blues songs, I hear the aching heart of a prophet. Sometimes after one of your sadder songs, I want to say, “It is time to stop hanging your harp [guitar] on the willows beside the rivers of Babylon. It is time to return from exile.” I still believe God is your heart’s true home. Please come home.

I hate how cliché and worn out important Biblical ideas have become. I am watching a rare snow storm here in Myrtle Point and wish these swirling snowflakes could express the exquisite beauty God offers to those who are born again: cleansing, purity, newness. I have seen the world-weariness in your eyes and heard the despair in your songs. But all my love for you cries  out—there is hope! Change is possible! God brings the dead back to life. He makes all things new.

Most importantly, I know God is there for you because every time I pray for you, I feel the depth of His love for you moving in me. I can feel how God longs to wrap his arms around you—his wandering son. Because of God’s faithful love, not all those who wander are lost.

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Against the Cult of Brokenness

You may have heard of Richard Russell. Last August he killed himself by stealing a Horizon Air plane, doing a few stunts, and then slamming it into a mostly deserted island near Tacoma. Russell had attended the community college where I teach and had been an active Christian in the area. I didn’t know him personally; however, before slamming the plane into the ground, he described himself as “just a broken guy.”

Even before this sad story, I had noticed how often Christians and contemporary Christian music celebrate brokenness. I have knocked around evangelical circles long enough to understand this emphasis. It is, I think, a pendulum swing away from Christian triumphalism that blended the gospel with self-help programs. For a long time, we have foolishly equated success with God’s favor and preached faith as a path for success. When God is presented as a guarantee of success, no believer feels free to be honest about their brokenness. Too often church has made the wounded and broken feel like second-class Christians.

So, in many ways our current emphasis on brokenness is healthy. But here everything depends on how we define brokenness. If we simply mean being humble and honest about our weaknesses and failures, brokenness should be embraced as a prelude to healing and repentance. We are all broken by our sin, and many of us by those who have sinned against us. We need to forgive and be forgiven. And we need to be honest and admit that growing in holiness and wholeness is a process—not making a trip to an altar or being zapped by the Holy Spirit.

Yet, there is a kind of brokenness that kills. The paths to this kind of brokenness are varied, but all end in a kind of despair that slams the door to healing. It creates scar tissue more damaging than the wound. When we celebrate brokenness as an end rather than a step on our journey to wholeness, we are in danger of embracing a brokenness that destroys us. It is, perhaps, the difference between having our pride broken and having our faith broken.

Some years back I confessed to my pastor that I was broken. It was not my pride that was broken; it was my faith. I felt I could go no further with God but was also convinced there was nowhere else to go. I had no relationship with God that could be called personal. I could not hear God saying anything to me personally. Mine was a very dangerous kind of brokenness—one filled with despair. The abyss into which I stared was the emptiness and pointlessness of walking with God. I don’t know, but I suspect, this may have been Richard Russell’s kind of brokenness. It is deadly.

When I spoke to my pastor of being broken, while shedding more than a few tears, I tried to explain that my brokenness wasn’t the good kind. I mangled the idea by saying, “I am broken in the way of not working anymore.” I was blessed to have a pastor that didn’t urge me to embrace my brokenness. Instead he prayed for me and stood by me in love.

I worry about the idea that brokenness needs to be our constant condition as Christians. I especially see a danger if we don’t define brokenness carefully. Yes, we should always walk as humble, dependent, and grateful recipients of God’s abundant grace. But the other kind of brokenness can kill us if we aren’t careful. We must be accurate in our diagnosis.

Many years ago, I foolishly jumped off some playground equipment and hurt my leg. Teckla drove me to the closest little hospital where the doctor on-call asked me a few questions, gave me some pain pills, and sent me home with instructions to have my primary physician to look at it on Monday. After my doctor x-rayed my knee, he said, “Your knee is shattered, you are in danger of blood clots, and need surgery immediately.” I was rushed to the hospital where I had surgery that rebuilt my knee with bone taken from my hip. The first doctor had not recognized how seriously I was hurt.

The wrong diagnosis can kill us. As I confessed my brokenness to the pastor, I realized all of it came from not hearing God’s voice or having any kind of relationship with Him. I desperately needed to return to a genuine relationship with God, not one based just on a set of theological propositions. In all my emptiness, I needed to hear His voice. This was the emergency surgery my brokenness needed. Affirming my brokenness as something inherently spiritual would have been foolish and dangerous.

As humble as it sounds to call the church a community of the broken, by embracing brokenness as our perpetual condition, we diminish the power of God to restore and heal. It is better to testify to God’s healing and the power of His grace to make us whole than to forever declare our brokenness.

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Ari’s Kissing Game

Ari’s lifts his chin and sticks out his lower lip when he wants a goodbye kiss. His mom and dad are loving parents, so he is a kissy kid—well, unless he is punching or headbutting you (Ari is two). When I come home and give Teckla a kiss, Ari wants one too. The funny thing is that after I kiss him, he points to Teckla, indicating I should kiss her again. And then he wants another kiss. Then he again points to Teckla. This is Ari’s kissing game.

Although this is cuter than anyone can imagine, I suspect the game expresses a deeper truth about love and the human heart. We not only long to be loved, but we also long for the people around us to love each other. Thus, Ari’s delight when I kiss Teckla. The other day after I gave him a kiss, he pointed to Teckla and then pointed to my brother Stanley to whom I blew a kiss. Ari only seems happy when the people around him love each other.

I think when we are lifting our faces to God in love and praise on Sunday mornings, God plays Ari’s kissing game. He delights in the kiss of our praise, but like Ari, God quickly points to those around us. God delights as much in us loving each other as in loving Him. He thinks the two should go together.

Ari’s instinct is right in another way. It should never be enough for us to be loved and blessed by God. Like Ari after a kiss, we should be asking God to kiss those around us with his grace and goodness. Our kisses should always ascend vertically to God and horizontally to those around us—kind of like a cross.

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Our Jagged Lives

When I was a kid, I thought it was a cool trick to break a pencil and then slide the jagged ends back together. If I was careful, I could fit them together so no one could see the pencil was broken. I could then amaze other kids by pretending to break the pencil with flick of my finger.

This memory came to me recently as I was thinking of how jagged our lives are. As much as we love symmetry, closure, and a good story arc, events seldom supply them. Instead our lives often have abandoned dreams, broken relationships, false starts, mistakes, and dead ends.

There is little poetic justice in life. I have friends whose children or spouses have died. No matter what words of closure we say at funerals—death is a jagged break. Several years ago, a series of strokes left my mother unable to swallow or speak clearly. She was living on a feeding tube. One day when I was talking to her about Dad who had died twenty years earlier, I saw a tear run down her cheek. I said, “You still miss Dad, don’t you?” She could only nod as I wiped away the tear. She still ached.

After leaving behind pastoring, my dad and mom moved to Myrtle Point where Dad taught high school English and Mom taught first grade. We attended a small struggling local church. After some especially hard years, Dad filled in as pastor and for several years applied all his salary to paying off the mortgage on the church. Because of my Dad’s humility, generosity, and gifts as a preacher, I expected God to help the church grow. Instead it limped along. The summer before Dad died of cancer, he told me he only regretted one thing—that he had never been part of a revival and outpouring of the Holy Spirit that changed a church and reached into the community. He died never seeing this. Families are often full of jagged edges of brokenness. Some who dreamed of a happy Christian marriage have been left putting their lives back together after the pain and loss of divorce. Parents often write happy narratives for their children’s lives only to see misfortune, mistakes, and self-destructive choices rewrite their children’s lives as tragedies.

If we make idols of our narratives or insist on symmetry and closure, it is easy to get angry with God. Those of us who are bookish and love a good story arc are perhaps most easily offended by God’s failure to tie together the loose ends of our stories. Sometimes the jaggedness is simply all our unanswered questions.  Did we truly hear God? Did our prayers go unanswered because of a lack of faith, the opposition of Satan, a misunderstanding of God’s will, or the free-will of people? Especially hard are the times when we step out in faith and obedience and nothing goes right—nothing bears visible fruit.

Can I say this? Our favorite Bible stories don’t help. Every reduction in our numbers should result in a Gideon-like victory over our enemies. Stepping out in courage should always result in Goliath falling. Humbling ourselves should always result in God exalting and vindicating us. Every journey home should end in a father’s embrace. Our prison songs should shake the walls and bring angelic liberation. But often this is not our story.

Of course, the Bible tells us this. We love the story of the angel freeing Peter from prison, but we forget that James was also arrested and executed. Hebrews 11 mentions those who by faith conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, and put armies to flight. However, there were also those who by faith endured mocking, prison, torture, and terrible deaths. Yikes!

I recently talked to a pastor who had completed his first five years of ministry. None of his goals for the church and his ministry had been met. Those he was preparing for leadership either left the church or slipped back into sin. Attendance is down. This pastor is rewriting his definition of success in terms of faithfulness and obedience rather than numbers. Rewriting is hard.

It is easy to fit together jagged ends of a broken pencil but only God and heaven can fit the jaggedness of our lives. Only the faithfulness, wisdom, and grace of God answers the brokenness of our lives. But there is coming a day when all that is partial and broken is made whole by God.

Our lives here are only the opening chapter and a little rising action in the story arc. We can’t make an idol of our narrative. We must hand the pencil to God and learn to read the story of grace He is writing into our jagged lives. He alone makes all things whole.

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The Prophetic Ministry of Life and Death

Life, and prophets, can throw us a curve ball. The widow Zarephath found this out when she took in Elijah. When they met, she was ready to die after she made her last handful of flour into bread for herself and her son. Elijah tells her not to fear but rather make a cake of bread for him, then herself and her son. He then prophesies, “For thus says the God of Israel, ‘The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth.'” I Kings 17:14

God was true to his promise. The oil and flour never ran out. This is where her Wednesday night testimony should end. But then the curve ball. Her only son gets sick and is on the brink of death. She says angrily to Elijah: “What do I have to do with you, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my iniquity to remembrance, and to put my son to death.” I Kings 17: Her initial question seems to ask, “What have I ever done to you?”

It is not clear to whose “remembrance” the widow is referring. It seems likely that she is accusing Elijah of reminding God of her iniquities with the result of God killing her son. However, her accusations make clear that she too has been reminded of her iniquities. In a sense, she is accusing Elijah of bringing both literal death and spiritual to her household.

We can only speculate what past experiences with prophets caused her to think that prophets are in the business of bringing people’s sins to remembrance. But she seems to grasp how prophetic ministry can bring either life or death.

The seer can either declare the hidden sins of people or hidden blessings God wants to bring to those who repent. The prophetic ministry not committed to the ministry of life will focus on past iniquities rather than future blessing. Even though a prophet sees what we have been, he or she can choose to minister life by declaring who God has called us to become. 

To Elijah’s credit, he goes to great lengths to minister life to the widow and her son. He doesn’t ask her, “What iniquities are you remembering?” Elijah, however, does question God, “O Lord my God, has Thou also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?” I don’t think this is an accusation against God. Instead, it is a recognition that punishing this widow by killing her son is inconsistent with God’s goodness.

We are not told if God answers his question, but Elijah stretches himself over the body of the dead boy and prays three times. Elijah ministers out of his revelation of the character of God.

The lesson for congregations is to recognize that it is not enough for prophetic people to have a genuine gift. We need prophets who minister out of deep personal revelation of the goodness of God. The power of life and death are in the tongue (Prov. 18:21). Congregations will only be built up by the prophets committed to the ministry of life.

The lesson for those in prophetic ministry is that your understanding of the character of God can color our prophecy without impacting your accuracy.  We must stretch ourselves to minister life.

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Holy Impatience!

As I age, I have become impatient, but perhaps in the best way. It’s not the “Get off my lawn, you darn kids” kind of impatience. Nor is it crotchety or curmudgeonly. It is tender. I am, I confess, terribly impatient with our failures to love.

I discovered this a few weeks ago while listening to a person share about a conflict with their spouse. I, who can actually give measured and wise relationship advice, found myself sputtering incoherently, “Come on you guys! Just love each other!” A roiling impatience filled my heart. I love this couple deeply.

I think the source is my age and the death of my last parent. I had a moment of clarity two years ago when I held my dying mother in my arms. I said over and over, “You are a good, good Mom.” It was as if I was trying to make up for the times I should have said this over the years. Mom was in her nineties, and yet I was struck by the shortness of life. What truly matters became clear. It is love and doing all the things love does.

My regrets are not those of a neglectful or unkind son. I have a clear conscience but still wish I had known earlier the value of expressing my love. I prayed for my Mom’s healing, but in the end all we could give each other was love. Love was everything and the only thing.

I have become impatient with the things that divide families: grudges, judgments, opinions, and offenses. I am impatient with those in church who make having their way and expressing their opinion more important than loving the people around them. I am equally impatient with those practiced in the art of taking offense. C’mon!

I want to slap, then hug, these people and say, “Life is short! God’s love is what matters!” It matters more than our success or ambitions. It is even more important than our health. Like a mountain it towers over our fears, regrets, and slights to our self-esteem. Expressing my love will always trump asserting my will. Love, it turns out, really doesn’t fail.

Yes, I see the irony. Paul does indeed declare that love is patient.  I see this a little like judging the judgmental. Honestly, I am impatient with Christians who are impatient with the brokenness and weaknesses of their brothers and sisters.

My only defense is that my impatience is first directly to my own failures to love. I am old enough to be without excuse. Not ever have I wished I had loved less or helped fewer. All my regrets run the opposite direction. My best investments have all been bought with sacrificial love.

As I age into the shadow of my mortality, my love grows urgent. My impatience is partly a recognition that each day is an opportunity to love. No matter how much or little we have loved in the past, today we have a new chance to love. Today is, as Scripture declares, the day of salvation. It is also the day of love. C’mon.

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How to Follow Jesus and Offend the Left and the Right

Those who follow Jesus faithfully and strive to live biblically can offend those on the political left and right by proclaiming the following:

  1. Left: that God promises prosperity to those who walk in his ways,
  2. Right: that Jesus told his disciples to give all their riches to the poor if they wished to be his disciple.
  3. Right: that Christ calls us to love our enemies and turn our cheek.
  4. Left: that Jesus is returning as a warrior who will destroy his enemies.
  5. Right: that those caught in sin like the woman caught in adultery should not be condemned.
  6. Left: that adultery is sin.
  7. Right: that creation is good apart from its usefulness to man.
  8. Left: that God has given humankind dominion over nature.
  9. Right: that the pollution of God’s creation is a sin against God.
  10.  Left: that our idolatry and sexual immorality also pollutes the land.
  11. Right: that God judges nations on how they treat the poor, alien, orphan and widow,
  12. Left: that some poverty is the result of sloth and foolishness.
  13. Right: that real faith in God means trusting in Him, not in weapon systems.
  14.  Left: that God really does destroy His enemies or even judge his people through armies with weapons.
  15. Right: that God desires to deliver the oppressed like He delivered Israel from Egypt.
  16. Left: that God will destroy some of the oppressed for idolatry like He did Israel.
  17. Right: that God is love,
  18. Left: that God is holy.
  19. Right: that God loves everyone without partiality,
  20. Left: that people can only come to the Father through his Son Jesus Christ.
  21. Right: that God loves the world.
  22. Left: that friendship with the world is hatred toward God.
  23. Right: that Jesus ate with sinners.
  24. Left: that Jesus referred to those he ate with as sinners.
  25. Right: that laws and government won’t create a moral society
  26. Left: that laws and government won’t create a just society.
  27. Right: that Jesus did not call us to judge the world.
  28. Left: that Christians are called to judge one another in righteousness.
  29. Right: that God calls us to forgive everyone.
  30. Left: that those who refuse to forgive others will not be forgiven by God
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Spruced Up

This summer we camped in a mix of Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. From our campsite we had a view of a huge old spruce which divided into four trunks about six feet from the ground. Sitka spruce only grow in the fog belt along the Northwest coast in what is sometimes called a temperate rain forest.

Curious to see how big it was, I waded through the salmon berry, sedge, and skunk cabbage to the base of this extraordinary tree. Under the moss and fallen branches bulged roots like green knees and thighs. The four trunks rose from a butt end that had circumference of 12 or 15 feet. My boyish mind immediately thought of the splendid tree-house it could host.

Sitka spruce are remarkable for their ability to make their own rain. We have had a remarkably dry summer along the coast, but water hung on the moss and sedge under branches of this spruce. The needles of the spruce capture the evening and morning coastal fog, dropping enough on the ground to make small puddles.

From the four beautiful trunks that curve skyward are smaller branches stretching horizontally into a canopy. The lower branches, deprived of sunlight, die but the wood is so strong that these dead branches hold on for years until the weight of fungus and moss brings them crashing down around the roots.

The tree not only waters itself; it makes it own compost from all debris it sheds. The result of this wonderful self-sufficiency is a wood that has an excellent strength to weight ratio. In WWI Sitka spruce was harvested extensively along the coast for the making of aircraft. Old growth spruce is still treasured for the excellent sound boards it makes for guitars, violins, and other stringed instruments.

  I watched this old spruce for five days. I listened to the wind in its branches and the slow dripping of water combed from the fog. I prayed for the spiritual maturity that in times of drought can make its own rain from the morning fog. I want the years and the things that have fallen away to nourish my roots as I my heart looks up.

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Forever Swallows Every Never

Maybe no word has more power to crush us than “never”.  It can slide into our lives at almost any age. The hearts of parents break when they watch kids realize they will never be a great athlete—never play for a Division One university or go pro. “Never” sweeps away dreams. Some in college will butt their head against their own limitations and realize some goals or majors are out of reach. The ubiquitous myth that we all can do anything if we try hard enough can make these “nevers” feel like personal failures.

Adults face even more devastating “nevers.” Infertile couples may face never having children. Those in failed marriages face the possibility of never knowing what it means to be loved, respected, and cherished. Some singles face never marrying. The death of a child floods lives with “nevers” too sad to catalog. As we age, we may realize career dreams will never come true—that we will never be a successful artist, writer, actor, musician, or athlete. Some respond with a midlife crisis; others sigh and trudge along in disappointment.

Less than a year before he died, my Dad and I sat at our kitchen table talking about revival and the moving of God’s Spirit that sweeps people into His kingdom. Dad said, “My one regret is that I have never been a part of a revival.” He died of cancer that December.

Hope and joy must run a gauntlet of “nevers”. Making this more difficult, in some ways, is that Scripture urges us to keep hoping and believing until the end. We have the examples of Abraham and Sarah who had given up having children but then had Isaac. Or Anna and Simeon who all their life had prayed to see the Messiah, and then one day in the temple held Jesus in their arms. So believers often have to qualify their “nevers” with a “probably”. This too is sad, no matter how much room we make for faith and God.

But recently another word ambushed my soul while reading the prophets and psalms. Again and again the word “forever” jumped off the page. Prophets would announce all the trials, judgments, and exile coming upon sinful Israel, but declare a day when God would gather his people back to Jerusalem and reign as king over them forever (Micah 4:7). I had usually not paid attention to these “forevers”, but on this day they exploded in my heart and mind—a blast of joy.

Something like a vision intensified this joy. My mother died two years ago. After a lot of sorting, rearranging, and painting, Teckla turned her room into an office and guest room, but sadness lingers. The room still has some of their books, photos, and Dad’s carvings. The other day I was thinking of my Dad’s unfulfilled dreams and the sadness I often saw in his face and heard in his voice. In the midst of this daydreaming, an image of my Dad’s face came to me. He looked about 30 and his face was beaming—full of strength, health, and joy.

He said nothing but his face said everything. I knew I need not be sad for him. Forever had swallowed up all grief, all broken dreams, all unfinished projects, all unrealized hopes. He was okay—better than okay. I saw glory.

Forever swallows up every “never” just like life and resurrection swallows death. The sadness of each “never” is still real but so much more bearable when seen against the tidal wave of “forever” about to break over every believer’s life. Seen against the coming wave of eternity, our “nevers” aren’t just small, they are momentary. They still hurt, but can’t destroy us, or our faith. Forever is, after all, forever.

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