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Archive for the ‘transformation’ Category

The maelstrom roiling our days is filling many of us with grief, anger, bewilderment, fear and mistrust because of the lies told to us by a president and administration many did not vote to elect, by the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping over the world without regard for age or ethnicity or status and decimating health and economies in its wake, by the possible unraveling of a democracy promising justice and freedom that is being turned upside down by the very women and men elected to sustain it and us, by the destruction of the rule of law and the celebration of hate, racism, and cult of ignorance.

Yet, into this maelstrom walks the psalmist singing Psalm 31 with a lament we all could sing and a declaration of God’s presence and power to be a refuge and strong fortress in this storm because it is God who is in control of life and God will act to transform our current maelstrom because God has done so before.

This is a lament that if read in full  calls us to God’s reality with the confident line “My times are in your hands,” expressing the truth that wherever we are, whatever is happening in our lives God still holds our lives in God’s hands. The same God that created a world of interdependent relationships where the key to sustainability is mutuality and dependence. We are not self-created individuals, rather we are creatures birthed into a community that is itself only a portion of the entire creation community. Thus, we need to be humble in understanding that being self-focused and narcissistic is counter to the God reality teaching us to be outwardly focused on the people and the world around us, since their well-being depends on us as  much as our well-being depends upon the other people and, indeed, on all creation.

This hope also reminds us that because our times are in God’s hands we can lift up to God our petitions, our grief, our shame, our pain and we will be heard and somehow and in some way God will hear and will act to change our situation. This is indeed a call to vocalize our grief and our despair and realize God all ready knows our secrets and love us and hold us still, loving us to new life. This God reality maybe harder to hold onto because we often fail to see God acting to change our situation because, I suspect, we are too self-focused and to afraid to spend time discerning the opportunities for new life God places before us like the picture of process theology wherein God is continually offering us paths to follow and our response is sometimes to take them and to sometimes, unknowingly perhaps, to reject them in favor of something that looks good to us because we are viewing life through the misconceptions of culture and experience, rather than living through the authenticity of our selves as God’s creations, whose times are in God’s hands. The lament encourages us to re-orient our lives toward God and our authentic selves, so we might find that we belong to God and we belong to ourselves and do not need to fit-into the narrow confines of a culture or experience seeking to define us by their false standards and ways of being human in a vast creation we did not create.

Joining the psalmist is calling us to re-orient our lives is the writer of 1 Peter 2:11 and following asserting Christ is the cornerstone of our lives because it is Christ that is placed in our lives and around which the church is built and nurtured into being the people God has claimed us and named us to be. We are the people who have received God’s mercy. We are God’s people because of God’s mighty acts with God’s people and in Christ we come to know the most decisive act of God to draw all people into the community of God’s people. We are transformed by God’s mercy and grace and we taste and see this goodness in the Eucharist where we are fed by Christ and become the living stones of God’s house and we respond with gratitude and humility, empowered to go out to be witnesses of God’s mercy and peace and inviting the folks we meet to “come, taste and see the goodness of God.”

For 1 Peter it is about being a community created and built by God through Christ, and not about being individuals with our personal savior. This is the antidote to the American Christian’s misunderstanding of Christianity as a personal and private faith. Christians are part of God’s people-a community created by God into living stones of a living building-not majestic cathedrals or large steeple church facilities. It is not the building that makes us a Christian community, it is the people gathered to celebrate the thanksgiving of communion, where  we taste and see that God is good-is complete-is perfect-is the one providing the material food for the celebration that transforms us into being a people given mercy and claimed as God’s people. This is the same transformation that the Hebrews went through in the Exodus, the same transformation Abraham and Sarah experienced, the same transformation Jacob went through, the same transformation of the Exiles. A transformation made possible by God’s love which is patient, calling, acting to gather into the tent those outside the tent, so they might also be the living stones giving witness through their living the grace God has poured over them and through their living God’s way of gathering all people into the spiritual house of God, so together they might be a royal priesthood giving thanks for God’s mercy through acts of kindness and love which witness to Christ’s own acts of kindness and love.

There is no sense that we need to be effective or build great church facilities in 1 Peter because none of that matters and exemplifies our faithfulness to God. What is most important is to live the reality that Christ is the cornerstone of our lives,  that once we were no people, but now we are God’s people, once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy and this the reason we exist, this is our “why” to live and thrive.  Most importantly, we need to remember that all of this was God’s doing-not our doing.

May the Creator of Life dwell with you. May the Word of Life dwell with you. May the Fire of Life dwell with you. May the Triune God of Life dwell with you.

May the Sustainer of Life dwell within you. May the Peace of Life dwell within you. May the Breath of Life dwell within you. May the Triune God of Life dwell within you.

Today and every day.

 

 

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“You are free to make whatever choice you want, but you are not free from the consequences of the choice,” writes an Anonymous author.

“ There will come a time when we will have to sit down to a banquet of our consequences,” writes Robert Louis Stevenson.

“My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh.

All three of these quotes affirm the same truth; we all make choices or decisions and the consequences of those choices or decisions are ours. We own them whether we like it or not. I imagine Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and Bowe Bergdahl are discovering that very truth along with many other folks.

Now, sometimes we see those consequences clearly, but more often than not we fail to see all the consequences of our choices, those we intend and those we discover later as unintended consequences.

Certainly, the Hebrews in the wilderness failed to see all the consequences of their choice to abandon God in favor of worshiping a golden calf made out of their ornaments and jewelry. Yet, Moses knows that without God’s presence this “stiff-necked people” will have a hard time being the distinctive people God intends them to be. They will not be able to live into God’s way of living as the community of God’s people because they have not, yet, learned how their trust in God is connected to how they are to live in the world as the message of God’s grace and as a community where everyone belongs and is valued with dignity and respect.

This message of God’s grace invites everyone to come and join the community of God’s people, so they may see how life nurturing and life sustaining is this way of living in relationship with God and with each other. This is the reason God choose Abraham and Sarah in the first place and continued to choose this family as the instrument God will use to bless the world with wholeness and peace because God intends for everyone in the world to live together in this way of wholeness and peace.

Yet, the consequences of the Hebrews’ choices puts this relationship and way of living at risk because they failed to comprehend that faith in God has serious, but unavoidable consequences for daily life, from the most mundane issues to questions of life and death, particularly, as they live surrounded by cultures whose political, social and religious values are opposed to God’s way of being fully human.

Indeed, the Hebrews do not realize, at this point in their journey, that their identity as God’s people is part of an interwoven conversation about who God is and who they are because of their relationship with the God who creates life, saves life, and sustains life.

They do not realize that knowledge of God leads them to knowledge about themselves, individually and communally. Nor, do they realize that our ultimate obligation to God sets the boundaries and limits to all other obligations of our life, even recognizing we are defined by our relationship and connectedness to God, not by anything else.

The Hebrews’ problem was that they were like the group of alumni of a university who were all highly established in their careers and who got together to visit their old university professor. Conversation soon turned into complaints about stress in work and life. Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups — porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite — telling them to help themselves to the coffee.

When all the students had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said: “If you noticed, all the nice-looking, expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones. While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress.

Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink. What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups. And then you began eyeing each other’s cups.

Now consider this: Life is the coffee; the jobs, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain life, and the type of cup we have does not define, nor change the quality of the life we live. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee God has provided us.” God brews the coffee, not the cups. So, enjoy your coffee!

Enjoying the coffee-enjoying life as “God’s people” and recognizing how the choice to trust God has serious, but unavoidable consequences for daily life is the difference between where the Israelites in wilderness were and where the Thessalonians were.

The Thessalonians had done something quite remarkable in the middle of living in the vibrant seaport trading and cultural center of a major Roman city; they made the choice to turn to God away from the idols everyone else worshipped and served. They turned to serve the true and living God. Paul’s letter celebrates this choice, which was so complete that they became the examples for other Christian congregations in Macedonia and Achaia to emulate. Their spirit- derived joy empowered them to maintain their faith, their love and their hope and become the living messages of the gospel-the embodiment of God’s good news in Christ, even as they struggled against persecution from their families and their neighbors.

The church at Thessalonica, of course, was not merely a model where faith, hope and love were held onto like a display in a museum just waiting for people to walk past and admire, rather the church was the place from which the message of faith, the testimony of hope and the power of love went forth into in the world every day. Yet, at the same time, it was also a safe place-a sanctuary- where people lacking faith, feeling hopeless, feeling unlovable could find the great blessings of grace and belonging.

In many ways, every church, including ours, should be such a sanctuary where people in need of the good news of Jesus Christ and the great blessings of the grace and belonging can find them. The first-century Christians got that point, by the way. They saw the church as a safe place to go to survive life’s storms and calamities. One of the first symbols that the early Christians used to represent the church was Noah’s ark, the vessel on which representatives of all living creatures found refuge during the catastrophe of the great flood. The ark was the place from which those surviving people and animals went forth to participate in God’s re-creation of life as a community of mutuality and interdependence.

In similar fashion, the early Christians considered the church as the place from which God’s living messages of grace went forth into the world bringing the story of God’s saving grace to a world in need of faith, love, and most importantly, hope. That’s the reason churches have stained-glass windows of Noah’s ark or the dove with an olive branch in its beak as well as why many sanctuaries were constructed in the shape of a boat and why the pulpit was set up high above like a crow’s nest from which the leaders could see the horizon, see the coming storms, the rocky shoals, or the land where the ship might anchor and be resupplied before continuing its journey.

And, while you’re pondering all of that, think about the importance of faith, love, and hope as blessings of God’s grace and the way we, who are the church bring those blessings to others.

        First, the church is the place where faith is offered without embarrassment. There is an old saying that Christianity is always only one generation away from extinction. Without the passing of the knowledge about Christ and the testimony of faith from parents to children, from elders to youth, from those convinced of the faith to those who have not yet heard it, Christianity might eventually either die out altogether or be reduced to a curious historical phenomenon. Now we could make that one-generation-away-from-extinction statement about many things in life — about technology, skills, scientific discoveries and so on — but with Christianity, what is passed on is not only knowledge, but also the assertion that the meaning of daily life and the path of life is found in Jesus Christ.

Some youth workers, Christian educators and pastors today are wondering, “Will our children have faith?” They observe that young people today are actually quite interested in God, Christ and Christianity, but they aren’t particularly turned on by institutional expressions of it. There is a phenomenon afoot among some in the younger generations who individually express their love for Jesus but not for the church of Jesus. Individual spirituality is a good thing, but it seldom is enough single-handedly to pass the faith to the next generation. It takes communities of Christ’s followers to do that in an intentional way realizing that faith is caught in an environment where people are living their trust in God, expressing their trust in God in worship, and maturing their trust in God through the intentional discipleship of life-long learning; especially the discipline of consistent Bible study and theological reflection all done within a community of faith.

Second, the church is a place where love is exercised without limits. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and as we in the church understand that, he wasn’t talking about emotions but about behavior. He was talking about acting in ways that support the well being of others as opposed to exploiting other people. And when we really grasp that Jesus is calling us to love others as God loves us, calling us to compare the way we are treating our families, our neighbors, the guy who is annoying at work or the woman who is hard to get along with at the gym to the way God treats us and all other people, then we realize we come up short, but that doesn’t let us off the hook because it ought to cause us to dig deeper by realizing that love has no stopping point where we can say, “There, I’ve done my duty, and now I can forget about that person.”

        Third, the church is the place where hope is nourished without delusion. Certainly there are ample reasons to lose hope in life. In fact, it’s fairly easy to experience despair, because in the day-to-day flow of life it often seems so much more credible than hope. There’s generally plenty of evidence around us to encourage and engender despair, especially listening or reading to the news, tweets, or what happens to our neighbors and friends. But we in the church understand that hope is not rooted in what happens in the present moment. The hope the church shelters believes the kingdom of God is here, now and will come in fullness, without denying life’s sometimes tragic character or attempting to explain away tragedy as “God’s will.”

Hope is not some sort of wishful thinking that those of us with strong enough gumption can somehow muster up from some mythological place, like fantasyland. Rather, hope is the steadfast trust that when all else fails, when every other support gives way, our lives remain in God’s hands. The writer of Deuteronomy spoke of this hope when she said, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27, RSV). The image Deuteronomy suggests is of God’s arms creating a “floor” under us so that no matter how far down the weight and even the tragedy of life pushes us, we have a solid foundation on which to find our footing. Our task as the community of faith is to nourish this hope by being the strong advocate for hope in a community and a world too easily and too quickly grasping for the comfort of hopelessness.

Finally, faith, love and hope are the foundations and the fruit of a community of faith’s life as Paul certainly made clear in writing to the Corinthians, when he wrote at the end of the wonderful chapter about love, “And now faith, hope, and love abide.” They dwell together in a community of God’s people. That is, why he once again points to those three at the very beginning of his letter to the Thessalonians, “We continually remember before God, our Father, your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  When we look for the blessings rising from the community of faith’s life together, these three rise to the surface: faith, love, and hope. They are God’s blessings for life given to us, so we might be living messages of grace blessing the lives of other folks.

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“Welcome to the wilderness,” said the soon to be departing Dean of students at Colgate Rochester Divinity School to all the new seminary students gathered for worship in the Chapel during our first day of seminary.

Little did we know how appropriate that welcome would be, since the wilderness is the place a person enters leaving behind all that came before on the way to a journey to a new place with new relationships and new understandings of who a person or community is and how they are to live.

The wilderness is where the journey through transition takes place, but it can be a scary place and a place where survival is the first priority. That was true for the Hebrews and the other peoples who left Egypt with Moses. Egypt had been the Hebrews settled homeland for centuries where they had lived and thrived as a people, until Pharaoh got scared because they were more numerous than the Egyptians and he thought they might try a regime change by overthrowing him. So, Pharaoh did what every leader who is afraid does, he seeks to destroy his enemies. First, he enslaves the Hebrews, forcing them to work 24/7/365 building pyramids and other public works. Second, he orders Egyptian midwives to kill Hebrew male children, so the Hebrews are forced to intermarry  and have children with Egyptians.

This, of course, prompts the Hebrews to cry out to God, who hears them and answers their prayers by sending them Moses, who battles with pharaoh until pharaoh relents following the death of the first born child of every human and animal, except the Hebrews and those whose doorways were painted with the lamb’s blood, and allows the Hebrews to leave.

Of course, it all seemed wonderful to be leaving behind the life of slavery, oppression and death for a sojourn to the land of promise and abundance and the Hebrews celebrated because being a sojourner, like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph meant you were on your way somewhere, on your way to the fulfillment of a promised place and a new life. Sort of like the way every seminary student and every college and high school students feels on the first day of their new adventure. Sort of the way I felt as a child every time my family moved to a new town, new city, new neighborhood, new home, and new school, well not so much the new school.

Unfortunately, the Hebrews joyfulness and positive attitude didn’t last long because they realized this wilderness trek made them less sojourner,  less a resident alien, and more wanderers as they began coping with the stress of not having resources at their disposal like food and water, being out in the heat or the cold, subject to drought or famine and warring peoples, who were suspicious of large tribes of wandering peoples, not to mention not really having the sense of being on a journey toward a destination, but mostly just being out there. Even the word wanderer, according to Walter Brueggemann, suggests precariousness where survival is the key question of each and every day. “Will we survive today? Will we have water and will we have food? Where will it come from?  Israel, Brueggemann writes, experiences the bitterness of being landless, being exposed and helpless, victimized by anything that happened to be threatening them at any given moment. The people may have been on the way somewhere, but it was a dim comprehension of where they were going.

In the wilderness, faith is not easy. Anger and unrest are plentiful and reading Exodus and Numbers give ample voice to the whole menagerie of emotions the Hebrews were experiencing. Their wilderness experience is not really unlike that of our European ancestors, who came to this continent feeling they were on an Exodus journey to a new land God seemed to be promising to them, except upon arrival their fears of the wilderness became real, as they too experienced being in a precarious, frightening situation without resources, being victimized by everything, helpless, vulnerable, exposed and struggling for survival. Our ancestors had no actual experience of wilderness because they came from settled lands and in many cases from large urban centers, so they projected their anxieties about wilderness onto the new land they journeyed to get to. Thus, for our ancestors the wilderness was a place where the devil came to get you, it was unsafe and needed to be tamed and civilized so it might resemble the European culture and society they had left behind, a real re-creation of the good old days. Even the indigenous peoples who lived on the land needed to be conquered, enslaved, tamed or annihilated. Reading colonial era poetry, diaries of early colonial settlers or even Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” bears this out.

Curiously enough, congregations in transition feel the same way the Hebrews and our European ancestors felt as they, like the Hebrews, experience wilderness and romanticize the “good old days” while anger, resentments, fear, focusing on survival;  perhaps thinking they are short on resources, and feeling vulnerable, uncertain about where they are going and if they are really going anywhere at all. They feel more like wanderers than sojourners and faith is not easy.

Except, the Israelites were not alone and were not without resources for life because God was with them, leading them, feeding them, giving them water and protecting them, and teaching them how to be a people of compassion, wholeness and well-being. What God was trying to do of course was to mold and shape them into being a particular kind of people. That is, also, what the wilderness experience is about as the desert mothers and fathers called the wilderness the furnace of transformation. The place where all the business and confusion of our lives is burned away, so we might see more clearly how truly important are the choices set before us, choices of life and choices of death. So, we might meet God and gain clarity about what it means to be in a relationship with the divine based on trusting the promises of life God makes with humanity and creation and be transformed by the experience.

This is, also, the lesson Jesus teaches us by his journey into the wilderness furnace of transformation, the first place Jesus goes after his baptism and anointing with the Holy Spirit. There he was tempted by the devil with what Henri Nouwen calls, “the three compulsions of this world: to be relevant (turn stones into bread), to be spectacular (throw yourself down), and to be powerful (I will give these kingdoms). It was in this furnace of transformation that Jesus was tempted to turn away from God the way the first generation Hebrew wanderers did, the way our European ancestors did, the way congregations in transition do, but that isn’t what Jesus did. He affirmed God is the only source of life and identity (you must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone by serving those whom God loves, which is everyone, especially the least and the lost.) and if one trusts God, then there is no need seeking guarantees that the promises of an abundant life are real, nor is there a need to test God to see if God is really listening and paying attention to us. All a person, a community or a congregation need do is to learn the lessons God is teaching through the stories of the Hebrew wanderers, the story of God’s presence with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and the Israelites before, during and after exile as well as the stories of Jesus’ life and the life of the early church, being aware as George Herbert wrote in his poem about the Israelites’ struggles to enter the land God promised them, “their story pens and sets us down” which is to say their story claims those who remember it and retell it, marking and shaping all who do so by the same faithfulness of God, which elicits the same response of trust in God as the person, the community or the congregation live authentically their why, their identity as the reason God created them to serve God’s agenda.

I pray it may be so for us claiming to be a compassionate Christian community, fostering a personal connection with God for people of ages and expressing God’s love through worship, education, mission, music and fellowship living in a time of confusion and chaos where the old techniques and ways of doing church no longer work and we feel more like wanderers than sojourning pilgrims.

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              The Covid-19 reactions of panic, pandemic shopping with its trademark hoarding of toilet paper and weapons and ammunition buying  is a reminder about the way fear too often drives human behavior toward self-destruction as well as social destruction because we lack control over the circumstances of our lives and we desperately want control.  If one doubts this, just listen to politicians’ rhetoric surrounding the pandemic and their actions to stop a virus that no ones know enough about, including the doctors and researchers who study epidemics and disease. This fear is also happening in faith communities who are struggling to find avenues to gather people virtually together for worship as well as the institutional response I read recently coming from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) about celebrating the Lord’s Supper in worship that is being done through electronic venues.

           My own response is to calm, slow down and remember I am a follower of Christ, who celebrates Easter-who celebrates resurrection- of life rising out of death? I follow the God who makes a way for life to flourish even when it seems impossible for life to even exist. I follow the God who makes for life out of no way. And, this is simple truth echoed in the psalms of lament such as Psalm 130 that begins “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” and ends with “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with God is great power to redeem. It is the Lord who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.”

Every psalm of lament ends with the brutally honest expression of pain, sorrow and grief  rising up from the rubble of despair and the debris of their despondency like children trapped in the rubble of a building after an earthquake or bombardment. Yet, in all but two psalms of lament there comes the witness that God has changed the situation of the psalmist from death to life. We never hear what God did because the how is not as important as the reality that God transformed life’s circumstances, so a vibrant and thriving life arose like a phoenix from the ashes of despair and tragedy. The psalms of lament bear a strong unequivocal witness to God’s compassion enacting a new creation of life, gifting the psalmist with a sustaining hope that life will arise once again, no matter what has happened.

This is the same simple truth we hear in chapter 37 of Ezekiel when God calls the prophet to speak a word of comfort, of hope to the people Israel in Babylonian exile. Before the prophet can do that God brings him out to an ancient battlefield strewn with bones and asks him, “ben-Adam- song of man-can these bones live?

Ezekiel answers truthfully that only God knows the answer to that question. This is, of course, the moment God gives the prophet the words to speak to the dry bones, which the prophet does speak, stirring the lifeless bones back to life. it isn’t surprising that God would go to all this trouble because God intends Ezekiel to experience for himself the prophetic word God will give him to speak to the exiles because when he does speak God’s words of comfort and possibility; telling them God will lift Israel off rubble of despair; God will sift through the debris of despondency to bring them to new life; God will breathe new life into the people; God will raise up new faithful leaders and they will live once again in their homeland, the people Israel will hear the truth and the certainty of hope and trust that no matter what God is transforming their life circumstances.

They did trust because, as Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar describes, they are hopers , whose life story is a “partisan polemic narrative. It is concerned to build a counter community-counter to the oppression of Egypt, counter to the seduction of Canaan, counter to every cultural alternative and every imperial pretense. There is nothing in this narrative that will appeal to outsiders who belong to another consensus, or who share a different ethos and participate in another epistemology. To such persons, Israel’s narratives are silly, narrow, scandalous and obscuranist. The narrative form of the Torah intends to nurture insiders who are willing to risk a specific universe of discourse and cast their lot there,” according to Brueggemann. They are invited to make their lives coherent with that narrative or to say it another way toot their lives squarely in the stories of their ancestors’ experiences of God’s presence, compassion and steadfast love that creates life anew, so life flourishes as well as in their own lived experiences in a deep abiding relationship with God.

Followers of Christ are invited to do the same. No where is this made more clear than in Jesus raising Lazarus to life after Lazarus has been dead and buried for four days. Jesus meets Lazarus’ sister Martha outside the village and he reveals that he is the resurrection and the life, then joins the villagers and her sister Mary in weeping and grieving as an act of compassion before commanding Lazarus to “come out.”

In this tiny village, God’s life creating word comes, so these villagers might experience for themselves God restoring life an out of this experience trust God will restore their lives, will sustain their lives out of compassion and love for them no matter what their circumstances might be and we who read and hear this story, the psalms and Ezekiel’s story are invited to do the same and to root our lives in these stories.

We are not to root our lives in doctrinal statements, propositional truths, institutional dictates, economic theory, the trading of human lives for a booming economy as Trump and some conservatives have suggested, or joining the cult of ignorance and hate or systematic theologies based on neo-Platontic-Aristoelian modes of discourse, but we are called to root our lives in the God who is compassionate, who is merciful, who is steadfast in love and kindness.

Doing so, especially during this pandemic, because we trust God and trust God shows us how to live vibrantly through the gifts of healing given to doctors and nurses and researchers and others who are seeking to preserve life.  God is acting to transform this life circumstance, even if we cannot tell how or when.

 

 

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