WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?

I’m fairly certain all of us at one time or another have said something we soon realized we shouldn’t have said. We wish we could take it back, but it can’t be undone. We can apologize and say we didn’t mean it, and that may help, but similar to what card players often say: “a card laid is a card played.”

Soon after we say something we regret someone who heard it often asks, “What in the world were you thinking?” And the most common answer is, “That’s the problem – I wasn’t thinking.”

Last week I read two statements that immediately prompted me to ask, “What was this person thinking?” And I concluded, “They could not have been thinking.”

The first thing that caused me to ask the question was a summary of a Missouri pastor’s suggestion in his sermon last week. His suggestion was trending on social media and made the national news as well. He suggested that wives who “let themselves go is the reason husbands stray sexually.” My first thought was what in the world was this man thinking? My conclusion: he could not have been thinking!

As a husband and pastor I was stunned and disappointed to read this pastor’s inappropriate observation. I’m not interested in giving an opinion on why men stray, but I think it is far more complicated than the pastor’s shallow thought.

The second thing that caused me to ask the question was a piece we received in the mail from a church. There was no invitation to the church, but six passages from the Bible that all spoke about judgement. The front of the piece was in red, orange, and yellow with one verse, “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.” –Psalm 9:17

Having just read about the mailer we received from a church, I think you too are probably asking the question, “What in the world were the leaders of this church thinking?” Perhaps they were thinking they could scare some people to come to church, but I don’t think it is going to create much interest or bring many people. As a pastor I was surprised and disappointed by the mailer.

The question “what were you thinking?” usually implies you weren’t thinking. In reflecting on all of this I’ve realized that there are times when we are more likely to say something without thinking: when we’re angry, when we’re trying to be funny, when we want to impress someone, when we’re tired, or when we are frustrated. The challenge, of course, is to think about what we say all the time, but especially during those times when we may not be thinking. Perhaps we all should echo David’s prayer, “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3).

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LOOKING AT YOURSELF

All of us have mirrors and look into them every day to see how we look. Sometimes we are pleased, and at other times not so pleased.

In my Lenten Devotional reading today I was challenged to look at myself beyond what I see in the mirror. Day 9 in Paul David Tripp’s JOURNEY TO THE CROSS got my attention and nudged me to some self-examination.

The last sentence on the second page of the four page devotional stopped my reading and spurred my thinking. Tripp’s observation that “Anyone who argues against his [or her] own need of grace is in grave spiritual danger” (p. 56). We all need grace and most of us know it.

To further emphasize the point Tripp then called his readers to listen to what the Apostle John wrote in I John 1:8-10, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (NIV). I fully agree with Tripp’s assessment, “These are strong words, but we all need to hear and consider them” (p.57).

I can’t imagine that many people would deny that they have sinned, but Tripp reminds us that too often we “point the finger of blame” at someone else and “deny our own responsibility” (p. 56).

Tripp’s final paragraph pressed his point on me and gave me some direction I hope to take in the coming days and weeks and years. He begins the paragraph commenting on the season: “Lent is all about pointing the finger in the right direction. It is about humble self-examination, honest confession, and grief over sin that causes you to seek and celebrate the grace Jesus was willing to suffer and die for” (p. 58). And in his next to last sentence he spoke directly to me: “The more you see your sin, the more you will respond tenderly to other sinners and want for them the same grace you have received” (p. 58).

Don’t quit looking in the mirror, it’s ok to want to be presentable. But from time to time it is also good to take a look into our hearts.

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BASKIN-ROBBINS AND CHRISTIANITY

Those observations reminded me of something I have been saying in my teaching the past several years. When I was teaching Bible at Hope International University my classes included students from a variety of churches and denominations. The same was true more recently when I was teaching Bible at Amarillo High School and College.

On multiple occasions I reminded my students that Christianity can be compared with Baskin-Robbins in terms of their many flavors of ice cream. The flavors are different, but they all are ice cream. To me it is quite similar to the various denominations and churches within Christianity. For my money they are all Christians in terms of the foundation, but there are a variety of differences in terms of the flavors.

Not all readers of this post will agree, but I think we need to be more gracious in how we view those of different flavors and tamp down our tendency to try to convince them we are right and they are wrong.

I know what I believe and why I believe what I do, but I think as a Christian I should be respectful and understanding with regard to fellow believers who do not believe or practice their Christian faith exactly as I do. None of us should think or claim that we know it all and have it all together when it comes to what we believe and how we live.

I’m especially sensitive to this matter when it comes to Protestants and Catholics. In my role as a pastor I have been grieved more than once when a catholic questioned whether a protestant was a Christian and when a protestant questioned whether a catholic was a Christian.

All of us as Christians are free to believe what we do, but we need to be cautious about coming across as though we have it all together in what we believe and do while others do not. We can be convinced of what we believe and how we live our belief without attacking or arguing with Christians who differ from us.

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WHAT ARE YOU CALLED AND WHAT DO YOU CALL OTHERS?

A lot people use a variety of words to designate and/or describe others. The fancy name for these tags, labels, and nicknames is monikers. Recently I’ve been thinking about monikers people use for me as well as those I use for others.

What we call others can be affirming and honoring or demeaning and shaming. All of us have probably been on the receiving end of both as well as on the giving end. Obviously affirming and honoring monikers are pleasant and encouraging, but demeaning and shaming ones are hurtful and embarrassing (even if the recipient does or doesn’t respond).

When it comes to demeaning and shaming monikers the well-known saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is clearly only partially true. Yes, sticks and stones may break bones, but words can also hurt.

Here are just a few monikers I have heard people called that can hurt: flake, lazy, weakling, fatty, cheater, and loser.

I remember well an important teaching and insight I learned in a class in Marriage and Family I took over 40 years ago. The professors (a wife and husband team) stressed the potential long term damage that can be inflicted upon a child who is called demeaning and shaming names. And it’s not just children who can be damaged by such names.

The term those professors used for parents labeling their children a variety of monikers was scriptwriting. By scriptwriting they were not referring to a dialogue for a skit or play, but rather planting a thought in a child’s mind of what he or she is and could grow into being.

Scriptwriting can plant a thought in a child’s mind that is hurtful and demeaning, but scriptwriting can also plant a thought in a child’s mind that is affirming, encouraging, and challenging (and realistic).

I think the same basic idea can also be true when it comes to adults – spouses, families, co-workers, friends, and others. The monikers and nicknames we use have the potential to be affirming and up building or discouraging and hurtful.

Here are a few of my favorite monikers people call me: Jan’s husband, dad, grandpa, friend, pastor, teacher, brother, and golf partner.

Hopefully we will keep in mind the potential power for positive or negative impact when it comes to monikers.

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THE COMFORT OF GOD’S FORGIVENESS

Last month as I was reading the last several chapters of the book of Psalms I came across a couple of verses I don’t remember ever having read before.  Psalm 130:3 and 4 grabbed my attention, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you” NIV).

I thought to myself how grateful I am that God does not keep a record of my sins, but that he forgives me when I fail and fall short. Through the years I have spoken with a number of Christians who shared with me their concern that God may not have forgiven them. My response has always been not to chastise them, but to encourage and affirm them.

The reality is that all of us are guilty of sin. Romans 3:23 makes that clear: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (NLT). Not only have we all sinned, we also continue to sin. Hopefully we make progress as we live the Christian life, but we do not reach perfection.

The fact that God forgives us and does not keep a record of our sins is an expression of his love, mercy, and amazing grace.  In Romans 6:23 the Apostle Paul reassures us, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (NLT). Our forgiveness is provided through the sacrifice of Jesus. The most famous verse in the Bible makes that clear: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

I think a couple of observations are important to note in claiming the comfort and beauty of Psalm 130:3 and 4 and other verses. One is that it is entirely inappropriate and to miss the point to assume that God automatically forgives everyone’s sins. No real Christian will freely sin presumptuously thinking God will forgive no matter what.

The criteria for forgiveness is awareness, admission, and confession of sin as well as real and heartfelt repentance. I’m not suggesting that God won’t or doesn’t forgive us, only that we need to take seriously our part and guard ourselves from hardened and unrepentant hearts.

To any reader who has doubts or concerns about God’s forgiveness and salvation I would like to recommend the best book I have ever read about God’s love and assurance. GENTLE and LOWLY: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers was written by Dane Ortlund and published last year by Crossway. Ortlund cites and explains many passages from both the Old and New Testaments that bathes readers in God’s love and comfort for our sins.

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TALKING AND LISTENING

As I have done during January the last several years, I am again reading the book of Proverbs this year. There are 31 days in January and 31 chapters in the book of Proverbs. I read a chapter a day that corresponds with the day of the month.

On Monday I read chapter 18 and verse 2 jumped out at me: “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions” (NIV). The truth of the proverb has been especially obvious recently in many contexts such as family, friends, debates, Facebook comment threads, email exchanges, Bible studies, small groups, politicians, and many others.

Some readers of this post, as well as the author, have probably verified Solomon’s observation in some of our conversations and discussions. Hopefully, however, we have not been as extreme as Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message, “Fools care nothing for thoughtful discourse; all they do is run off at the mouth.”

Which is more important – talking or listening? My answer: both or neither. The proverb seems to suggest that fools are not interested in listening to others, but only in talking.

The person who wants to talk all the time without listening to others comes across as an arrogant “know-it-all.” I’m no psychologist for sure, but the fool described in Proverbs 18:2 may be insecure and/or trying to show off.

To do all the talking without listening to someone not only closes the door to growing in understanding, it is also disrespectful to them. To listen to someone certainly does not mean you agree with them, only that you hear them.

We should note that the NIV translation of Proverbs 18:2 tells us “fools . . . delight in airing their own opinions.” There is a difference between facts and opinions and sometimes we confuse the two. In our discussions with others we need to be honest about which is which. Opinion is exactly that – opinion, not fact.

Unfortunately some value their opinion or preference more than what is true. It isn’t always easy to know the difference. When it comes to discussions and exchanges about our opinions the challenge is to be both calm and respectful.

Sometime in the past I heard someone suggest that to be more productive in our discussions about disagreements we need to have more light and less heat. I think the instruction of James 1:19 is also relevant, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listenslow to speak and slow to become angry.”

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ON BEING SALT AND LIGHT

One of my Christmas gifts (that I requested) was a book by Gordon T. Smith entitled Wisdom from Babylon. It is a discussion and consideration about how the Church and Christians can relate to Secularity.

In two of the twelve chapters Smith explores “Four Contemporary Responses to Secularity” borrowing from Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 book Christ and Culture. Simply stated, secularity refers to the non-Christian part of the society in which Christians live. Option A is labeled “The ‘Go Along to Get Along’ Response,” Option B is “The Monastic Response,” Option C is “The Culture Wars Response,” and Option D is “The Response of ‘Faithful Presence’.”

Of the four options, it is clear that the preferred response is Option D: “The Response of ‘Faithful Presence’.” Option D is in tune with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to his followers in Matthew 5:13-16, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Faithful Presence means more than just influence, but it certainly does mean influence. Influence, either for good or bad, is not necessarily intentional. Like both salt and light, much of Christian influence is simply the result of the presence of Christians. As Smith reminds us, “We are not merely the church gathered; we are also the church dispersed and present in the world” (p. 140).

The starting point of the metaphors Jesus gives his followers to be salt and light is the example they set. And good examples are to be seen both in the church gathered as well as in individual members when the church is dispersed. Such examples often lead to opportunities to go further with those who have taken notice.

I’ve always been encouraged by the Apostle Peter’s words in I Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” The implication is that the way Christians act and live may create interest from those who observe how they conduct themselves.

Peter’s next instruction in how to respond is something all of us need to make sure we do when we talk about our faith: “do this with gentleness and respect.” It is not about being argumentative, preachy, pushy, judgmental, or condescending; none of which is setting much of an example.

Being the salt of the earth and the light of the world is both a privilege and a responsibility for Christians. It begins with our example and often results in opportunities to share our faith, as long as we do so with gentleness and respect.

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photo credit: symphony of love Albert Schweitzer Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing. via photopin (license)

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WHAT IS WATCHFULNESS?

Early in December I received a promo suggesting some books and I ordered the one that most intrigued me.  The title of the book is Watchfulness by Brian G. Hedges and was published in 2018 by Reformation Heritage Books. The title got my attention, but the small print RECOVERING A LOST SPIRITUAL DISCIPLLINE closed the sale.

During all my years of studying the Bible and theology I had never seen or read anything about watchfulness. Richard Foster’s popular 1978 book Celebration of Discipline has one short paragraph in the chapter on Fasting dealing with “watchings.” The index of Dallas Willard’s 1988 book The Spirit of the Disciplines cites six places in the book where he mentions watching as a discipline. I don’t remember any of the references.

Hedges’ book informed, inspired, instructed, convicted, and encouraged me to give some attention to the Spiritual Discipline of Watchfulness. What is watchfulness? The basic definition of watchful is to be “vigilant, wide-awake, alert meaning being on the lookout especially for danger or opportunity. Another suggested definition is “being watchful means staying alert and constantly vigilant.

The spiritual discipline of watchfulness is pretty much the same thing as the non-spiritual definition of watchful with a focus on one’s spiritual life as a Christian.

We’ve all probably heard or read these selected biblical references, but looking at them again all together (and in their context) tells us more:

“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

 “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong” (I Corinthians 16:13).

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2).

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (I Timothy 4:16).

“The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray” (I Peter 4:7).

“Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully” (II John 8).

Walter A. Elwell’s entry in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (edited) explains: “Watchfulness suggests a preparedness in order to avoid being taken unaware by an enemy (Psalm 127). It involves fighting carelessness to reach a desired goal (Proverbs 8:34; see Nehemiah 4:9; 7:3). In the New Testament three basic emphases are found: (1) be prepared for the Lord’s return; (2) be on guard against temptation; and (3) struggle in prayer. Watchfulness characterizes the attitudes of the disciples who await with hope the return of Jesus. The Pauline epistles echo a similar theme. Believers must resist evil so as not to be taken by surprise at the Lord’s coming. Watchfulness implies sobriety, an avoidance of worldly excesses associated with darkness. Paul urges the church to pray with unfailing perseverance. The actions of watchfulness and prayer are indissolubly united. Prayer is an act of vigilance and vigilance a consequence of prayer (Ephesians 6:18-19). Vigilant watchfulness is a manifestation of genuine spiritual life. It keeps the church faithful in avoiding being lulled into false security.”

Let me conclude with a few selected statements from Hedges’ book that impacted me:

“All believers, regardless of their season and station in life, need to be watchful” (p.2)

“Not everyone who starts well finishes well. Many aspire, but few attain. The dangers of backsliding and the warnings against apostasy are real” (p. 9).

“To be watchful is to be wakeful. Watchfulness also requires attentiveness” (p. 25).

“Watchfulness requires effort” (p. 39).

“Decay sets in gradually, slowly, imperceptibly. The same is true in our spiritual lives” (p. 58).

“It’s not enough to know what watchfulness is and that it’s necessary . . .” (p. 67).

I hope all of this whets your appetite and stimulates your thinking about this important but underemphasized spiritual discipline of watchfulness.

Perhaps we can become more watchful spiritually in the New Year.

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MARY: AN EXAMPLE TO FOLLOW

One of the key persons in the Christmas account in Luke’s Gospel is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Some protestant Christians believe Roman Catholics elevate Mary too high, but my sense is that in response to that Protestants don’t honor her enough. Mary should be highly regarded and is an example for all of us.

In Luke’s account Mary welcomed and accepted the gift of God’s grace. Both the greeting of the angel in Luke 1:28, “Greetings, you highly favored one! The Lord is with you”, and the explanation in verse 30, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God,” contain the root word for grace.

“Favored” and “favor” are essentially the same word as grace in the New Testament. The angel’s words make it clear that God’s favor is on her and that Mary is a recipient of God’s grace. Grace is an extremely important word in Christianity – perhaps the second most important word of all – second perhaps only to love. Grace is God’s unmerited love for us; we don’t do anything to earn, deserve, or merit it. We accept it from him.

Mary welcomed and accepted God’s grace. There is no achievement of hers that is being singled out, not mention of anything she has done to merit God’s favor. The emphasis in Christianity is upon God’s grace and not how we have to earn his love. Grace is about God loving and accepting us without measuring up.

Mary is an example of one who received God’s grace. And as Christians we too are those who have received God’s grace—his unmerited and undeserved love, acceptance, and forgiveness. And since we have received God’s grace, we need to live by grace and show it to others. We don’t live under a system of do’s and don’ts to earn God’s favor. We don’t live the way we live as Christians to be loved and accepted by God, we live the way we do because we have received God’s grace and know he loves us and has accepted us. And because of God’s grace given to us, we appropriately show it to others.

Not only did Mary welcome the gift of God’s grace, she also humbly submitted to God’s call for her to conceive, carry, and give birth to his son, the Messiah, the Savior. Remember, however, that her submission wasn’t immediate. After the angel’s explanation of what God was going to do in Luke 1: 34 Mary asked the angel, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” And that’s an obvious question given her circumstances – she wasn’t married, she was only engaged.

Some say we shouldn’t question God, but Mary did. She asked “How?” One insightful observer notes, “There is a difference between asking God ‘how’ and asking him ‘why’.” Asking how can be helpful. It’s obvious Mary’s question arose from her faith, not doubt. Following Gabriel’s explanation in Luke 1:38 Mary made it clear she would submit declaring, “I am the Lord’s servant.” It’s as though she responds, “Whatever God says, I accept.” We may be so familiar with the account that we miss Mary’s heroism.

I agree with one pastor’s reflection: “Every time I read Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement and explanation, I am awed. Here is a teenager facing misunderstanding and rejection from her family, her betrothed, and her townspeople. And yet she agrees. Mary affirms the bedrock truth that undergirds our discipleship: “I am the Lord’s servant.”

Mary’s response is an example for all us who accepted God’s grace and determined to follow Jesus. We have to decide if we are going to be and do what God calls us to do and be. Sometimes submitting to the Lord is challenging, but in the end it is always worth it. It’s part of our response of welcoming and accepting God’s grace in Jesus.

Let’s note finally, Mary wholeheartedly responded in faith and trusted God’s promises to her. Again, Mary’s question “How can this be?” was not a statement of unbelief, but a request for further information. Other than the appearance of the angel and what was said, Mary had no concrete evidence to believe. But she did have God’s promise from the angel and she believed it.

The heart of Christianity is belief and trust in the promises of God. That’s what Mary had and that’s what you and I need to stand on. Pastor James Kennedy reminds us, “When you and I come to the end our lives and look back over the years God has given us, we will see that everything has been based upon the promises of God.”

Even nature itself bears witness to the truthfulness of God’s promises. The changing of the leaves and the beauty of fall always comes after summer. And the freshness of spring always comes after the cold of winter. The light of morning always comes after the darkness of night. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem we celebrate this week is the fulfillment of one of God’s many promises.

Many of us who grew up going to church probably remember singing that great hymn “Standing on the Promises.” Perhaps we should ask ourselves from time to time, “Am I really trusting and standing on the promises of God?” There is the promise to us who have claimed Jesus as Savior and Lord that God will forgive us. There is God’s promise that he hears our prayers. God does not promise us problem and pain free lives, but in Romans 8:28 Paul tells us, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” And in I Corinthians 2:9 Paul reminds us, “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”— the things God has prepared for those who love him.”

I believe what God has said and trust that he will keep his promises. Do you? Mary believed the angel and trusted that God would he keep his promises. May he help us too have an unshakeable faith in his never failing word.

These thoughts are taken from the second part of the sermon I preached this past Sunday at Washington Avenue Christian Church. If you are interested you can watch the entire service and message at the following link:

https://wacconline.org/media/mary-an-example-to-follow-christmas-revolution-part-4

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Merry Christmas!

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AN OUT OF THE ORDINARY CHRISTMAS

Most us would agree that Christmas 2020 is out of the ordinary from what is usual. And the primary contributor to this year’s unusual celebration, of course, is the Covid-19 pandemic in which we find ourselves.

The photo above makes the point. It’s a Christmas angel that was on a gift I received in our staff white elephant gift exchange. Note the angel is made from two masks like the ones most of us have worn the last several months. The person who made it wrote the year 2020 on it as a reminder of what we have experienced this year.

Obviously we have not completely done away with Christmas, but we have cut back and will miss a lot. This week I went to do some shopping and could hardly believe how few shoppers there were.

Many will follow suggested guidelines and not travel to be with family, or even have family gatherings with those who live nearby. The reason, of course, is to avoid as much as possible being in situations in which the virus can be passed on to others.

In following suggestions from government officials a lot of churches will not have their traditional Christmas Eve services so as to avoid crowds. To cancel a tradition that so many look forward to each year is an indication of how serious the pandemic is.

As I have reflected on how out of the ordinary Christmas will be this year I have been reminded how out of the ordinary the first Christmas was. Although it was the fulfillment of prophecy and God’s promise, it was the only time what happened ever happened. It was certainly out of the ordinary – far more than our Christmas celebration will be this year.

Even if the ordinary happenings of Christmas like shopping, decorations, cookies, family gatherings, giving gifts, singing carols, feasting, and more may not take place this year, we can still celebrate.

For me four words express the heart of Christmas: hope, love, joy, and peace. The birth of Jesus that we celebrate reminds us of these four beautiful and needed words, ideas, and feelings. Even in this unsettling time, celebrating the birth of Jesus can renew the promise of peace, joy, love, and hope that he brought and still brings to us.

Perhaps our out of the ordinary Christmas this year will result in a more focused recognition of what it is we are celebrating. Merry Christmas!

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