A FEW CHALLENGES, REMINDERS, AND PROMISES

The Bible instructs us with so many challenges, reminders, and promises that in all honesty I often forget and fail to put them into practice. This past Sunday I was privileged to preach in our church’s current study of I Peter, and as always when I preach, I got more out of it than anyone who heard the sermon.

The passage begins with instructions to church elders, but then moves to address everyone. The verses in the passage that speak to everyone are I Peter 5:5b-7, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

The challenges in this passage are “clothe yourselves with humility” and “humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand.” The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is filled with calls to be humble. Peter suggests “humility is to be worn like clothing.” One commentator suggests, “When we begin the day and dress, we must also be careful to include an attitude of humility.”

Peter reminds us how important it is by quoting Proverbs 3:34: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” God opposes and resists the proud, but he promises his special favor on those who are humble. Peter tells us if we humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand he will lift us up in due time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want God opposing me – but I would like his favor on me. Don’t you?

This passage concludes in verse 7 with a much needed suggestion and vital reminder for all of us: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” Peter is borrowing from Psalm 55:22 when he tells us to cast our anxiety on the Lord. Some of us struggle with anxiety more than others, but all of us experience it at times. Looking back over the last few months, and looking ahead to the coming months, these are times of anxiety for many of us. Peter reminds us that we need to take our anxieties to God.

Why does the Psalmist and Peter both urge us to cast our anxieties on the Lord? The answer is so comforting and encouraging: “because he cares for you.” I think it would be helpful and appropriate for us to remind ourselves from time to time that God cares for us. No matter what we are going through, one thing we can always be sure of is that God cares for us.

Challenges: Clothe yourselves with humility and humble yourselves under God.

Reminders: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Promises: God will lift us up and he cares for us.

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AN APP FOR MY PHONE I DON’T NEED

Since I stepped down in October of 2014 from my ministry of 30 years at Discovery Christian Church I have been reading and thinking a lot about aging, dying, and death. At the age of 63 I thought those were some things it would be good for me to learn about.

A few years after retiring from Discovery we moved to Texas to be close to our grandsons. After a few months of attending our new church I was given the opportunity to join the church staff as Pastor of Senior Adult Ministry. That position intensified my thinking and reading about aging, dying, and death.

Since November of 2018 I’ve been sitting on a Christian Century cover story about a smartphone app called WeCroak. Those who get the app are notified five times a day (at different times) of the same thing: Don’t forget, you’re going to die. While the message is true, it’s not something I want or need to be reminded of. Unless Jesus returns first, we all are going to eventually die (see Hebrews 9:27).

Death is something everyone thinks about from time to time and something many think about more often as they age. The Covid-19 pandemic has probably increased thoughts about death among those who are older.

What reminded me of this unneeded app was a visit earlier this week Jan and I had with an 85 year old man in our church who was recently put on hospice care. From the day we first met him when we visited what became our church home he reached out to us and always made us laugh.

During our visit in his home earlier this week he was still upbeat, gracious, and funny. One of the great things about hospice care is the goal of minimizing pain and making the patient comfortable. As I have said many times following such visits, our visit did as much for us as it did for our friend.

Ten months after the issue with the cover story about the death reminder app, Christian Century had an issue with the cover story “Preparing to Die: The conversation no one wants to have.” The headline of the article was We need to talk about death followed by two opening sentences: “It’s not as if it’s a big secret that we’re all going to die. It’s just that for many of us, most of the time, it seems like an event that’s going to happen to someone else, some hypothetical me in the future.”

I guess it is appropriate and needed for us from time to time to be reminded of and to think about death. Death is not pleasant, although it is sometimes a blessing, but it is real. And it is probably good to sometimes be reminded it is real.

When talking about death people are often asked about being prepared and ready for it. As a Christian my answer is that I am prepared, but I am not ready. What about you?

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TRY A LITTLE KINDNESS

Readers who are in my age range will probably remember Glen Campbell’s 1970 hit “Try a Little Kindness.” It was a good challenge for people then, and it is still good advice for us today – perhaps especially today!

Kindness is listed by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:22 and 23 as one of the nine fruit of the Spirit. Most versions translate the fifth fruit as kindness, but it is obvious that several of the other qualities listed overlap: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

We all know what kindness is when we see it, but how can we define the quality? In The Message Eugene Peterson renders the word “a sense of compassion in the heart.” But it’s more than that, isn’t it? In a 2017 Psychology Today article author Karyn Hall (Ph.D) suggests “Kindness is defined as the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.”

Some synonyms include compassion, gentleness, benevolence, thoughtfulness, mercy, consideration, and helpfulness. Perhaps the root of kindness is “a sense of compassion in the heart,” but kindness is expressed by both words and actions. Kindness can be as simple as smiling at someone or attentively listening to someone.

Kindness is not always automatic, but must be something we choose to practice. For many it becomes a habit that is automatic. We express kindness to our family members, friends, neighbors, and to those we don’t even know. Showing kindness is not contingent upon someone showing us kindness.

“What goes around comes around” is often true, but we do not show kindness with the expectation of something in return. Nevertheless, Jesus’ Golden Rule in Luke 6:31 applies to our expressions of kindness: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

The great example of kindness is seen in God’s actions toward us as well as demonstrated in the life of Jesus. Philip Keller notes “throughout the Scriptures the great theme of God’s unrelenting kindness is great toward us.” One of the reasons we are called to be kind to others is to respond with gratitude for God’s kindness shown to us.

It’s obvious that expressing kindness is important to God when it comes to his children. I like the title of Karyn Hall’s brief article in Psychology Today: The Importance of Kindness. She echoes God’s words in Jeremiah 9:24, “let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.

It goes without saying that being unkind should never characterize those who are followers of Jesus. I agree with Karyn Hall’s assessment, “While kindness has a connotation of meaning someone is naive or weak, that is not the case. Being kind often requires courage and strength.”

Christopher Wright reminds us that when we are shown kindness we sometimes say to the person “thank you, you’re very kind.” At other times people will say, “that was a very kind thing you did.” Wright summarizes, “Kind deeds are done by people who are themselves kind by nature and character” (Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, p. 84).

We are called not just to do kind things but to be kind peopleAnd listen again to or check out for the first time Glen Campbell’s song “Try a Little Kindness.”

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THE CHALLENGE, FRUSTRATION, AND SATISFACTION OF PRAYER

I just counted the books in the prayer section on my book shelf and I have over 25 of them. I’m pretty sure I have read all of them, and would think I’d be much better at prayer than I am. The title of one of the books, The Struggle of Prayer by Donald G. Bloesch, probably describes a lot of us in terms of our practice of prayer. It certainly does me.

I can relate to Professor W. David O. Taylor’s assessment, “My own prayer life comes and goes. At times I have prayed faithfully every morning before starting the day’s work. At other times I have managed only tired prayers at the end of the day, and they often have not been very good prayers. At still other times I have found myself without prayer, or, more truthfully, without any desire to pray.”

I want to pray, and I want to pray regularly, but that is a challenge for me. After all these years I have still not settled into a daily and consistent routine of prayer. I think Anthony Delaney’s observation that “we pray a lot more when we are trouble than when everything’s going well” is spot on. And I think he’s right because what he says is true for me.

The Bible says a lot of about prayer as well as gives us a lot of examples of prayer. Jesus clearly expects us to pray as three times in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-7) he tells us “when you pray . . .” what to do and what not to do. In verses 9-13 he gives us a model to follow. In his final instructions to the Thessalonians in his first letter the Apostle Paul tells them “pray continually” (I Thessalonians 5:17).

Pastor and author John Starke encourages me with his suggestion that “the Bible imagines prayer to be a very ordinary thing for very ordinary people.” (In other words, you don’t have to be a spiritual giant to pray.) And then he convicts me with his observation that “It’s not an overstatement to say that the most transformative thing you can do is to begin to spend unhurried time with God on a regular basis for the rest of your life.”

Professor Taylor’s definition of prayer also encourages me: “Prayer is a funny thing, of course, it is about talking to God and listening to God. In practice, prayer is anything but simple.” I think praying can be simple, but listening to God in prayer for me is more challenging.

I think for many who pray, what can be frustrating is what we consider no response from God. With simple honesty, in one of his books Scot McKnight notes “we lay ourselves before God and sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don’t.” As I have heard many believers say, God sometimes says “yes,” sometimes he says “no,” and sometimes he says “wait.” It’s the “no” answer and the “wait” answer that frustrates many who pray.

I would not charge anyone whose prayer answers were “no” or “wait” of being guilty of his warning, but Pastor Dustin Crowe’s words are worth our consideration, “If honest, many of us pray self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish prayers that sound more like ‘my kingdom come, my will be done’ than ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

In his book Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer C.S. Lewis makes a powerful point. He says the clearest asking prayer in the Bible is Jesus’ request in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Lewis writes, “He asked, but did not get what he asked for. But he asked with a reservation—‘nevertheless, not my will but thine.’ This makes an enormous difference.”

I’m thinking the challenge and the frustration of prayer are both real, but my prayer life could be much more satisfying if I would follow Jesus’ example and ask with the reservation he did.

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WHY THE CROSS MEANS SO MUCH

A few weeks ago one of my favorite families in our senior adult ministry called and asked me if they could stop by – they said they had a gift for me. Of course I said yes and when they came the gift was in a bag and very heavy. They told me it was for both Jan and me and so I told them I wouldn’t open it until Jan was home.

When we opened the gift we were taken back by a cross. As you can see in the picture above, it is not anything like what most decorative crosses are. Not only is it heavy, it is rough and rugged. It looks like it is pieced together and it has a smaller cross attached to it.

To Christians the cross is a central symbol of what God did for us through the sending of Jesus to die for us. We sing a variety of hymns, songs, and choruses that say something about the cross. One of our favorites is “The Old Rugged Cross.”

What cannot be seen on the picture above of our cross is the entire collection of Bible verses and sayings all over it. I want to share them with you to encourage, affirm, and challenge you as you give some thought to Why the Cross Means So Much to us:

Strength, Hope, Faith, love, grace

Trust in the Lord

A Friend Loves at all Times

May the Lord bless and keep you

Amazing Grace

Live Laugh Love

Trust in the Lord with all your heart

The Joy of the Lord is my Strength

Lord hear my prayer

Rejoice in THE Lord

Let’s also be reminded of some selected passages in the New Testament that speak to us and our relationship to the cross:

Luke 9:23, “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’

Luke 14:27, “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Galatians 6:14, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

I Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”

Hebrews 12:1 and 2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

I agree with hymn writer George Bennard, I love that old cross!

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HOW WOULD YOU ANSWER?

In a new book (The Art of Dying Well)  I’m reading about getting older, author Katy Butler asked a question that prompted me to do some thinking: “Have you mostly been a ‘taker,’ an ‘exchanger,’ or a ‘giver’?” Most of us I would think have one we would like to claim and one we hope doesn’t describe us.

Butler’s main point in her discussion is about what she calls our interdependence.  She suggests younger people want to be independent, but in later life interdependence is worth cultivation. All of us have probably had moments when we thought we wanted to be independent, but most of us have been interdependent all our lives.

Prior to reading Butler’s question, I don’t think I’d ever heard or thought about the idea of being an exchanger. Her definition of an exchanger is “one who keeps track and returns favors.” Of course all of us have done a lot of exchanging good deeds and help with others, but I doubt as Christians we have kept track of such things.

What most unsettles me about Butler’s question is the idea that some have mostly been takers. I’m sure it is true with some, but it is an ugly word. I would think no Christian would want to be called a taker only. But to be fair with Butler, I don’t think she meant by taker how most of us would understand it.

Rather than using the word taker, I’m more inclined to use either receiver or acceptor. And I would hope we all would be gracious and grateful receivers and acceptors. My sense is that our response to what someone gives us determines whether we are takers or acceptors. As I reflect back on my teenage years I am sorry I wasn’t more grateful and gracious with regard to everything my parents did for me and gave to me. If taker is an ugly word, so also is ungrateful.

Of the three possible answers Butler gives us to choose from, most of us would like to say we have mostly been givers. That does not rule out that we have been exchangers and receivers, only that we have also been givers. As I read Butler’s reflection I could not help but be reminded of what the Apostle Paul quoted from Jesus in Acts 20:35, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ All of us have been blessed by both, haven’t we? I have one more thought on being givers. When we give, and those to whom we have given thank us, don’t discount their gratitude by telling them something along the lines of “it wasn’t a big deal.”

I’m thinking all of us are interdependent in a variety of ways. How would you answer the question, “Have you mostly been a ‘taker,’ an ‘exchanger,’ or a ‘giver’?”

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DID JESUS CONTRADICT HIMSELF?

If you are reading this post I’m guessing the title probably got your attention. To clear the air I want to answer the question with an emphatic NO! Jesus did not contradict himself, but there are two passages in the Sermon on the Mount that some have thought to be contradictory.

The first teaching in Matthew 5:14-16 and is well known by Christians and those who are somewhat familiar with the Bible. Speaking to his followers Jesus explains, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” On first reading it seems pretty clear what Jesus was saying.

The second teaching is in Matthew 6:1 and at first reading seems to contradict Jesus’ previous teaching: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Again, it seems pretty clear what Jesus was saying.

Which is it? Are we not to practice our righteousness in front of others or are we to let our light shine before others? Are we to hide or show? I know to some it will sound like what is called “situation ethics,” but the answer is it all depends! What does it depend on? Jesus is saying in both these passages it depends on our motive.

Note the difference between what Jesus says in each of the two teachings. The first passage suggests if our motive is right we should show. Look again at Matthew 5:16, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 6:1 suggests if our motive is wrong we should hide.

If our motive is to draw attention to our self, to be seen by others in order to be complimented, what we do is not pleasing to God. On the other hand, if our motive is not about drawing attention to our self but to bringing glory to God, we have the right motive.

Not only that, if we have the right motive – we are not doing it to draw attention to our self, but to honor our Father – and someone compliments us, it seems to me we should simply thank them and not necessarily downplay what we have done.

On a personal note, through the years as a pastor I have been thanked and complimented for things I have done more times than I could ever count. I never downplay what someone is complimenting me for so as not to detract from their appreciation. While I’ve not done what I did to draw attention to myself, I think it would be rude to rebuff their expression of appreciation.

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GRACE: IT REALLY IS AMAZING!

This week I’ve been focusing on a passage of Scripture in which the Apostle Paul challenges his protégé Timothy in II Timothy 2:1 to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (NIV). The New Living Bible translates Paul’s words “be strong through the grace that God gives you in Christ Jesus” and The English Standard Version reads “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is encouraging Timothy with regard to his work for the Lord, but I think Paul’s instruction is applicable to all of us in terms of living the Christian life. Paul is telling Timothy he can’t fulfill his calling from his own resources, but needs Christ’s grace.

Exactly what is grace? The first definition I learned years ago for the meaning is “unmerited favor.” The idea is that we can’t do anything to win, earn, or deserve God’s grace; it is his gift through Jesus to us. And oh how we need it!

Our need for God’s grace does not end when we accept Christ, are forgiven, and become his follower. The reality is that even though we are saved by God’s amazing grace, we still need to be strong in it.

In the Old Testament there are many examples of people of God who turned their backs on him in a variety of ways including Eve, Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and many others. Perhaps the best known example in the New Testament is Peter’s denials of Jesus following his arrest.

God’s grace was poured out on Peter regarding his denials following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. John 21 records the occasion when Peter and the other apostles met Jesus on the shore and shared breakfast. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him and Peter told him he did. Jesus reinstated and recommissioned him.

Peter’s denials of Jesus is surprising to some given his promises not to, but apparently not to Jesus. What took place at that morning breakfast on the shore is a model of forgiveness and restoration for Christians who have failed.

Christians, you and I, regularly need God’s grace because of our shortcomings and failures. We need to be strong in grace facing up to and admitting our sins knowing that the Lord will forgive us. Being strong in grace does not mean we can be cavalier about our sin, but it does mean repentance from our broken hearts brings God’s forgiveness.

John Gill, a professor at California Baptist University makes a powerful point when he observes, “No Christian, not even a pastor, is a stranger to sin.” He then makes a humble statement with which we all can identify: “I will never outgrow my need for the Lord’s grace.”

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IS ANXIETY, FEAR, AND WORRY SIN?

I have multiple answers to the question I ask in the title of this post. Here are a few: “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure,” “not necessarily,” “maybe,” “sometimes,” “possibly,” and “it all depends.” Not everyone, of course, will agree with my answers – but some will.

It is true that the Bible warns us about the danger of worry, fear, and anxiety. Most of us have probably heard the report that the Bible says “fear not” 365 times – one for each day of the year. I wish it were that simple, but it isn’t. We might be reminded that the Bible also tells us “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).

One of the best known and most loved passages about worry and anxiety is Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:25-34. In this passage Jesus tells us “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear” (verse 25). Later in the passage Jesus tells his followers “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (verse 34).

Those are some powerful words of instruction from Jesus that all of us should accept and do our best to put into practice. I certainly try to; but the truth is I still struggle more than I would like with anxiety and worry. My sense is that most readers would also admit they too at least occasionally worry as well.

My mom was a worrier. I remember while growing up how she worried about my brother and me. I don’t know that I inherited it from her, but I clearly saw it.

During this time in which we are currently living I see, hear, and read about so much that we may be prone to fear and worry about. I won’t be specific, but there are some things a majority are anxious about and other things not as many fear.

I’ve preached multiple times from the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teaching about worry and anxiety. I not only try to challenge and encourage those who are listening to put Jesus’ teaching into practice, I try to do so myself.

In my study of Jesus’ teaching about this matter two of my favorite preachers and teachers say the same thing that troubles me. John R.W. Stott and Chuck Swindoll both declare in their writings about the Sermon on the Mount that “worry is incompatible with [Christian] faith.” Upon first reading, many Christian readers who struggle with worry and anxiety may question their faith.

I do not believe for a minute that a Christian who deals with anxiety and worry is lacking in faith or is not a Christian. I’m not even sure I would say anxiety, fear, and worry is a sin. I would suggest that some worry, fear, and anxiety is legitimate. However, as Christians we know we need to exercise our faith and grow in trust.

I think it is important to note in the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus calls us to faith he also tells us we will deal with trouble: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). I also think it is good for us to be reminded from time to time of Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

I think Dr. Gary R. Collins gives us keen insight into all of this in his book Christian Counselling first published [I think] in 1988, “According to the Bible, there is nothing wrong with realistically acknowledging and trying to deal with the identifiable problems of life. To ignore danger is fooling and wrong. But it is also wrong, as well as unhealthy, to be immobilized by excessive worry. Such worry must be committed to prayer to God, who can release us from paralyzing fear or anxiety, and free us to deal realistically with the needs and welfare both of others and of ourselves.”

In addition to others things going on in our nation and the world that I may be concerned about, one other item on my agenda is knee surgery in the morning. I have every confidence that it will be fine, but I am a little anxious.

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WHAT IS GOD LIKE?

To describe what God is like is an overwhelming challenge, but many of us try and keep on trying our best to do so. I was recently reminded how difficult it is in a discussion about God with my grandsons.

Today I’ve been thinking about what I suggested a few years ago is the best thing about God. To postulate what the best thing about God is may be presumptuous; and if it is not presumptuous, then it may be arrogant.

In the New Testament there are three specific statements I look to that shine a light on what God is like. The first comes from Jesus in John 4:24 when in a conversation with the woman at the well Jesus affirms “God is spirit,” and makes a connection of that with worship.

The second specific statement comes from the Apostle John in I John 1:5 where he declares “God is light: in him there is no darkness at all.” John’s basic point is that as God’s children it is our calling to walk in the light.

The third pronouncement also comes from the Apostle John in I John 4:8 and 16 where he presses the truth “God is love.”

If you would like to focus and meditate on these three statements about God I encourage you to go to the verses and read the context in which they are given. All of our questions will not be answered by doing so, but we may gain a greater understanding and appreciation for what they mean.

I want to note a few more things about the truth that “God is love” that should affirm, assure, encourage, and challenge us. To say “God is love” means even more than he is loving. Because he is love, everything God does, he does in love. Please note the Bible does not say “love is God.” Love isn’t God – God is God. We don’t worship love – we worship God.

The fact that God is love means that he loves us. And he doesn’t love us because we are wonderful and lovable people. He loves us because of who he is. Neither is his love for us contingent upon our returned love for him. God loves us because God is love. God created us to love us. We haven’t done anything, nor can we do anything, to earn or merit his love. God loves us because he is a loving God. And that’s why I suggest that his love is the best thing about God

Let’s hear John’s explanation in I John 4:9 and 10, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (Those verses are what prompted me years ago to say his love is the best thing about God.)

Our response to God’s love for us is to love in return. We are to love God, of course, but also people. I close with John’s assessment in I John 4:19-21: “We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”

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photo credit: babasteve <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/64749744@N00/25306637214″>Easter Week No. 1</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;