Perfection Really is Overrated

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If there is one thing I have always yearned for, it is musical talent. I have none. Now before all you music teachers out there rush to tell me that anyone can sing or anyone can learn to play an instrument, I assure that I have tried. I spent my childhood singing in church and school choirs. I took flute, piano, and guitar lessons. I sing along to the car radio when I’m alone in the car and I sing only so God can hear me when I’m in church. The honest truth is that I cannot sing well enough to make anything other than a joyful noise and I will never be able to play an instrument since I cannot keep a beat to save my life. It’s just the way it is no matter how much I wish otherwise.

While in seminary I lamented this lack of musical ability often enough. It seemed to me that the vast majority of seminarians had musical talent. And there I was with my specialty in youth ministry without capacity to sing or play guitar. Unheard of in those days. How could anyone be a youth pastor and not be able to lead songs around a campfire or at youth group devotions time? I was cured of this lamentation when a friend asked me what talent I would give up in order to be able to sing. I could think of nothing I would give up. I was being greedy. I wanted to be the perfect seminarian, the perfect youth pastor, and the perfect Christian, but I’d learn to let go of my musical yearnings and be content with the gifts I had.

It was the desire to be perfect that was my personal demon. If I’m honest, it still is on occasion. During my teen years, I was so enamored with the idea of perfection that I nearly traded my life for it. I was driven by the idea that if I were perfect, then I would not feel pain and I would be loved. While I was quite good at a lot of things, I didn’t stand out. I was a good student, but not the best. I had some artistic capacity, but I was not the best. I wrote poetry and stories, but they were the fancies of an adolescent. You see where I’m going. I was good at a lot of things, but I wasn’t perfect at any of them. And I really believed I needed to be perfect at something. Even God expected perfection, or so I thought.

My mixed up understanding of perfection was all about performance and appearance. I became obsessed with the number 100. It was the only acceptable score, the amount of calories I could eat in a day, the number of repetitions for any exercise, and it was my desired weight. I utterly failed to grasp that my body was a temple of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, holy unto itself. In my desperate attempts to alleviate my own pain, I did not hear the message of love in Jesus words, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This does not mean that we have to match the perfection of God at all. It does not mean that we have to perfect our performance or appearance. It means that we have to seek the fullest, most complete love, love that is mature and unconditional. Jesus was calling us to live into God’s gift of agape. We are called to embody this unconditional, unlimited love for self, for neighbor, for creation, and for God. Of course, we cannot do this alone; this kind of love is only truly possible in community. This is how we are church – we love without condition and without limit.

The kind of perfection I sought in my adolescence was anything but this. It was not life-giving in any way. The perfection I thought I wanted and needed was life-destroying. It is the ultimate in human foolishness when we think we need to be perfect in order to earn God’s love or anyone else’s. God’s love is freely given. We can’t earn it or lose it, for that matter. We can be unable to see it or accept it and we can deny it. We can also refuse to live into the fullness of our abilities. All these things are sinful in one way or another as they hinder relationship to self, neighbor, creation, or Creator.

The whole Sermon on the Mount is a call to live into the limitless love God has for us, to use all that we have and all that we are to bring God’s realm into the now. It is a call to embody divine love to those who are most vulnerable. In these days of uncertainty and public displays of racism, Islamophobia, Xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, and so many other fear-informed bigotries, focusing on perfection is foolish; not one human being is perfect nor will any ever be. However, we can be agents of God’s grace. We can commit to loving to the fullness of our capacity, using all of our gifts to ensure that there is light and salt enough for all.

Teach me, O God, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.
Give me understanding,that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.

RCL – Year A – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Photo: CC0 image by Michelle Maria

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Jeans, a Bridge, and a Choice

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When I was in ninth grade, designer jeans were newly popular. Everyone I knew had at least one pair, or at least that’s what I thought. Those jeans were also quite pricey at $80.00 or more a pair. In the early 1980s that was a lot of money and more than I could afford. I remember asking for a pair of Calvin Klein jeans for Christmas. I knew the jeans were too expensive for anything other than a Christmas gift. I also knew my parents both had a tendency to get gifts similar to what I asked for, but not quite the thing I wanted. I remember the conversation I had with my mother when I told her I was going to ask my father to buy the jeans for me for Christmas.

“I’m going to ask Dad to get me Calvin Klein’s for Christmas.” I announced.

My mother looked at me and said, “Why do you want them? The jeans you have a perfectly fine.” Of course, she was right. The jeans I had were perfectly fine.

“Everyone has them. And I want a pair of Calvin Klein’s because Brooke Shields is their model.” Remember, I was 14 and always felt outside of things. Also, as a young teen I looked very much like Brooke Shields and was once mistaken for her during summer tourist season.

My mother told me I was “better than Brooke Shields” and didn’t need any fancy jeans. Then she continued with her version of some infamous parental words, “If all your friends were jumping off the Bourne Bridge (this is a 135 foot high bridge over the Cape Cod Canal), would you want to do it, too?”

Oddly enough, I did get those jeans for Christmas that year and they did not change my life in the way I had hoped. It turned out to be one of those life lessons I didn’t really pay attention to for a few more years. I thought wearing those specific jeans would somehow make me different. I would have more confidence, more friends, and my life would be like everyone else’s (whatever that might mean). None of that happened. Nothing I could wear or own was going to change the difficulties I would face in the months and years still ahead of me.

God puts before us the ways of life and death as is made clear in Deuteronomy as well as other places in the Bible. According to Sirach, if we choose, we can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of our own choice. The choice to go along with the crowd or go along with Christ is entirely ours. In the current U.S. political climate we would do well to remember that we can choose how we will act, what we will do, and what we will say. It would be easy enough to fall into a pattern of judgement and condemnation that serves no one. However, we are called to something else.

From years of working as a therapist and as a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital, I modified my mother’s question about jumping off the Bourne Bridge. When people tell me that they got into difficulty because “everyone was doing it” or that the other person “started it,” my response was that we should not allow other people’s behavior to determine our own. It’s easier said than done, of course. However, if we are seeking to follow the ways of life rather than the ways of death, not allowing ourselves to be pulled into the angry, fearful, controlling ways of the crowd around us is a good idea.

Remembering that the people of God have a long history of straying from God’s desires for us, of choosing pretty much everything other than the ways of life, can shift our perspective on what is happening now. God never abandoned God’s people in the past, no matter what choices they made or how dire the consequences. Instead, there was always a call to repentance and repentance would lead to rebuilding and restoration. It’s hard to repent when we are busy matching anger for anger or fear for fear. It’s much easier to repent and begin again when we remember that God’s love is ever before us. We have the choice to live in that love and embody hope or to remain a part of the crowd as it pushes and pulls along destructive paths.

Doing what everyone else seems to be doing will not get us to the place where we can make necessary changes. Now is not the time to blend in and go along, hoping life will get better. Now is the time to act faithfully, risk standing out, and embrace those ways of life God continuously sets before us.

RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 12, 2016
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or
Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Photo: CC0 image by Pexels

 

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Time to Jump In

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I am haunted by a recurring dream I had as a teen. The dream started out innocuous enough. I stood with a group of friends talking about nothing in particular, maybe planning what we do for the weekend. Then a thick black line would appear on the ground between me and them. Of course, as dreams go, I was the only one who noticed. As the conversation continued, the line would widen and deepen and divide my friends from me. When they would finally notice, they would tell me to jump over it and join them. At this point, they saw it as a gap a few inches wide while from where I stood it was several feet wide and growing. They were angry that I seemed to be choosing to stay away from them. I was frightened that I was alone. And then a voice would rise up out of the chasm, “The only way across is in.” This voice was deep and strong and terrifying.

Sometimes the dream ended here. Other times I would try to get across by building a bridge, throwing a rope, or finding a dead tree that would reach across. Whatever method I tried, wouldn’t work. If I tried building a simple bridge it would crack in half and fall into the chasm. If I tried throwing a rope to the other side, no one would be able to catch it. And, of course, the tree would always fall in, long before it reached the other side. My efforts to cross would always make my friends laugh and the voice would be louder and angrier with the same message, “The only way across is in!” I’d wake up scared and confused every time.

While I had this dream many times, I haven’t had it in decades. But I’ve been thinking about it this week in terms of the Isaiah text. The Prophet is pretty clear about where God is in the chaos of human actions. God is tired of meaningless fasts and empty rituals. The people have not noticed the chasm widening at their feet. They have not noticed the depth of injustice, oppression, hunger, homelessness, poverty, and shame right in their midst. Perhaps they even went to so far as to laugh at those who were trying to do something about these problems.

As an adolescent, I thought the dream was about my struggles with an eating disorder and depression. It very well may have been. But when I think about it now, it seems to be a comment on so much more than my own small life. The only way across the breach between me and God or me and my neighbor is in. Any attempts to avoid repentance and repair will be woefully inadequate and might even look funny to those standing by and passing judgement. I wonder how my dream would have ended if I had had the courage to jump into that great chasm, to sink into the depths and find a new way.

Every time I go to a march, a rally, or a protest, I am overcome with waves of emotion. Just this week I participated in a protest of the travel ban on Muslims. When I arrived there were a couple hundred people. By the time I left two hours later, there were more than 5000 people and they were still going strong on a Tuesday evening! The variety of voices and faces and ages chanting together, standing together, marching together for justice fill me with hope. Perhaps this is a glimpse of what jumping into the breach looks like…

The Prophet’s call is clear. The breach must be repaired. God wants nothing more from us than to create systems of justice, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the poor, and let go of shame. None of this can be done from the edges of the breach. It can’t be done by shouting instructions to those who are trying to make repairs. It cannot be done by laughing at faulty efforts. The breach that is disturbingly deep in our world, our country, our cities, our neighborhoods, our churches, and our homes needs all of us to jump into it. We need to experience the fear and discomfort of letting go of familiar, safe ways, and to allow God to guide us to something new. Then we shall be called “repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

May we all find the courage to offer God the fast God chooses.

RCL – Year A – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 5, 2017
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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A Pastoral Prayer of Confession

I’ve struggled to find appropriate words for this week. So I offer the following prayer. If you are looking for sermon help, try here.

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Patient and steadfast God, how is it that you continue to love us so completely? So many years have passed since you spoke with Micah and made it clear what we are to do. Yet, still, we ask what we can do to please you. We fill our lives with routine, worship you with hollow words, and make meaningless sacrifices to feel justified in claiming your favor. It seems that we would rather do almost anything other than what you ask. Self-preservation protected by hatred and fear seem more palatable than kindness. Hunkering down and clinging to our traditions and views of what the Bible says are so much easier than going out and actually doing justice. Mistaking self-hatred and shame for humility keeps us from taking the risk of wholeness. Have mercy, O God. Draw us out of our fear, away from false security and shallow beliefs, and into the abundance of life you offer. Remind us that your ways call us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Lord of all, so many of us claim to live in your tent and dwell on your holy hill. However, there are so few who are blameless and do what is right. Truth spoken from the heart is rarely heard these days, even from those who call your name most loudly. Threats to build walls and deny entry into this country based on religion sounds an awful lot like doing evil to friends and reproaching our neighbors. Fear and greed cannot be our ways if we want to live in your tent. Destroying sacred land with pipelines will not lead to peaceful living on your holy mountain. Remind us of your desire for us to be repairers of the breach rather than creators of more harm. Continuing the ways of the past only ensures the continuation of oppression and your Word speaks of liberation for all people.

Wise and wonderful God, how foolish we are! How little we have listened to you and learned from our history. We know what happens when our leaders seek only to serve themselves. We have seen the results of worshiping everything other than you. Yet, we are still fooled into thinking that human ways will save us from ourselves. We fall for it over and over again. When will we stop blaming you for all the challenges we face while congratulating ourselves on our successes? You name us Blessed when we are peacemakers, justice-seekers, and risk-takers. You promise your presence when we bear witness to suffering and speak holy truth to human power. Why do we, so often, think the easy way is the righteous way? Let us hear and claim your blessing on those who repent, resist, and repair for we shall be engaging in holy wisdom and be called fools.

God of abundant blessings, may your words fill our lives, change our hearts, and call us from our self-serving sinfulness. We who rest in our privilege when others cannot find safe harbor cannot claim your blessings when we do not live them. Blessed are the oppressed. May our hands be actively bringing in the realm of God. Blessed are those who mourn. May we offer gentle comfort even as we cry out for justice on their behalf. Blessed are the meek. May we step out of their way so they may claim their rightful place on earth. Blessed are those hungering and thirsting for righteousness. May we cry out until all are satisfied. Blessed are the merciful. May we be foolish enough to learn the ways of mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart. May we have the sense to let them lead us to you. Blessed are the peacemakers. May we have the grace to seek peace and pursue it until we are called your children. Blessed are the ones persecuted for the sake of righteousness. May we all have the courage to take our place alongside those who are persecuted on your behalf. Blessed are the reviled and falsely accused ones. May we align ourselves with the innocent until we all live on your holy mountain.

Merciful God, your faithfulness to us remains a mystery. You shower us with grace, forgiveness, and love and we fail to respond with our whole hearts. Let this be the day when we claim the blessings you lay before us. Let this be the day when fear gives way to hope and we recognize your presence in the midst of chaos. This may be a season of light and revelation, yet we are reminded that you can also be found in the depths and nothing can extinguish your wisdom. May today be the day we truly make your ways our ways. Grant us the grace to repent of our sins of fearful selfishness, the strength to resist the pull of the oppressors, and the courage to repair the breach with all our neighbors. Have mercy, O God, and hear our prayers. Amen.


RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – January 29, 2017
Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12


Photo: CC0 image by Petra

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Gone Fishin’

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Many people love fishing. They spend hours with their rods and reels waiting to catch “the big one.” I’ve participated in conversations about the best kind of bait to use and the right time of the day or year to catch particular kinds of fish. I’ve fished in lakes, ponds, rivers, and oceans. I cannot tell you how many stories I’ve heard about “the one that got away” that was the biggest fish ever seen in human history. And, yes, as a child I was up before the sun on many mornings to go fishing. I had my own fishing poles and I learned how to fly fish and tie flies. The problem is, I really don’t enjoy fishing at all.

I have nothing against those who fish for sport or for a living. I’ve been known to enjoy fish for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Fishing just isn’t fun for me. All those hours spent waiting and watching for a fish to bite always felt like I could be doing something else. As a child I’d rather have been reading if I was going to sit in a canoe for hours. It isn’t exactly boredom; it’s just not excitement. Even though worms creep me out, I don’t want to kill them just to catch another creature that I will also have to kill. Honestly, if I had to kill the fish I eat, I’d never eat fish. It always makes me feel sad. (Yes, I know someone else kills the fish I buy at the market or in a restaurant; I don’t claim to be rational about this.) I don’t need to kill to eat and my livelihood doesn’t depend on it. The bottom line is that I don’t like to get up early, I don’t like worms, and I don’t like to touch the fish, and really don’t like the idea of killing something.

Fortunately, the kind of fishing Jesus invites his disciples to do, doesn’t involve killing anything. Just the opposite, in fact. Fishing for people is all about bringing new life. Although, I wonder about churches today. For whom, exactly, are we fishing? I think it’s been decades in which we have not cast our nets wide enough. In fact, we might need a whole new set of nets.

fisherman-1592840_1920I’ve read so much about attracting Millennials to church, what we should and should not do. I’ve read a lot about the impact of Boomers as they’ve entered into retirement. All fine and reasonable information. But what happened to Gen Xers? Have we just written them off as lost causes? Why aren’t we interested in this generation that bridges the gap between what was and what is coming? Don’t we need these folks who are in the midst of their careers and raising their children? Some of these Gen Xers are now looking for ways to contribute to their communities now that their children are grown. Why aren’t we as concerned about their spiritual needs as we are about the Millennials’? These are some great fish who could really benefit from being part of our churches!

And what about the folks who might not add much to our budgets but could seriously benefit from being part of a loving, faithful community? Why are more churches not reaching out to those in recovery from addiction or mental health crises? How about reaching past the margins to those who are experiencing homelessness, living on the streets or in shelters? What of the folks who are most vulnerable around us? These are not small fish, useless fish. These are people who need community and a sense of belonging and to be affirmed as God’s beloved children.

I wonder if we have been fishing for the wrong purposes. It seems to me that we, as church, have been seeking those who could benefit us. You know, people who can chair committees, put money in the offering plate, and run our children and youth programs. Perhaps it’s time we start asking who could benefit from being part of our churches. Whose spiritual needs are going unnoticed and, therefore, unmet? Whose life would be changed by being shown that they are God’s beloved and they belong in a loving, faith-filled community? These are the fish we should be seeking. Are our nets adequate? Do we need to try fishing somewhere new?

In these days when life feels so uncertain for anyone on the lower rungs of the privilege ladder, wouldn’t it be great if churches could offer a place to be that is free from fear? Fishing, in the name of Jesus, is all about bringing hope to the hopeless, wholeness to the broken, peace to the anxious, and love to the hated. Let’s stop worrying about having the best boat and the latest and greatest in fishing equipment, and start paying attention to those who need to us to be church for them in real, life-saving ways.

I don’t know about you, but I am going fishing…

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 22,2017
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
I Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Top Photo: CC0 image by Lorri Lang
Bottom Photo: CC0 image by Paul Brennan

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What are You Looking For?

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This question Jesus asked those first two who followed him –  “What are you looking for?” – haunts me. I can’t escape from it. Those two followers neatly avoided answering it. I don’t thing they were all that concerned with where Jesus was staying so much as they wanted to stay with him a bit longer. Maybe if they hung around with him long enough, they would know what they were looking for.

What follows is a kind of dialogue that came to me while contemplating this question.

What are you looking for?
usually my keys or my glasses or my phone
sometimes my wallet or that thing I just had in my hand

What are you looking for?
something to make for dinner and tomorrow’s lunch
warmer socks and a heavier sweater

What are you looking for?
a wifi connection and a hot cup of tea
a few minutes to finish this task

What are you looking for?
time to be still and relax before the next meeting
an hour or so to go for a walk and release this tension

What are you looking for?
okay… okay… maybe some answers
more hope or more light or…

What are you looking for?
I don’t know… there I’ve said it
I don’t know, exactly

What are you looking for?
an end to violence and hunger and homelessness
and illness and fear and hatred and ignorance

What are you looking for?
You. Christ. I am looking for You
in them and in me and in everyone

What are you looking for?
what I can do… what I can be…
how can I, how can we, embody you?

What are you looking for?

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 15, 2017
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Photo: CC0 image by Martin Winkler

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After the Journey

camels-897658_1920Sometimes it’s what you do after the journey that matters. We spent four weeks preparing ourselves for Bethlehem. Four weeks to make a journey that we take every year. We see the sights – Mary nine months pregnant plodding along, Joseph new to this family thing worried about getting it right, an over-crowded city and an inn with no rooms, the stable and its manger ready for sacred use, angels singing good news to sleepy shepherds, a star shining and shining and shining until Magi from afar finally show up – and continue on without giving them as much attention as maybe they deserve. Then we celebrate our arrival and quickly leave, maybe not even waiting around to see who else has made the trip. Did it matter at all?

More than twenty years ago I went to Israel with a church group. I thought it would be the first of many such trips. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back yet, but that trip changed me in ways I wouldn’t understand for several years. Once we landed in Tel Aviv, there was a push to get us quickly out to a safer place. The day we were supposed to go to Caesarea Philippi we were rerouted because there was fear of retaliation for a suicide bombing. I was shocked when the bus stopped at a check-point before being allowed to enter Bethlehem. The Holocaust Museum with the display of children’s shoes and the names being read aloud kept me awake more than one night.

Then there was the night a few of us went to the baths somewhere in Jerusalem. I was approached by two young men. We were talking about the usual kinds of things young people talk about when they first meet. We exchanged names, which I no longer remember. They were nineteen-year-old twins who were reluctant to tell me where they were from. They were certain that if they told me where the lived I would not talk with them anymore. They were Palestinian and they told me that most Americans don’t like Palestinians. When I asked them why, they didn’t really know either. They said something about religion and politics and the conversation moved on.

Of course, there were other moments on that trip that have stayed with me, too. Seeing the wadis fill up and flood into the Dead Sea… presiding over communion in the Garden Tomb… renewing baptismal vows in the Jordan River… climbing up to see the ruins of Herod’s castle… and more.

Something stirred within me on that trip that has remained awake and restless since then. Seeing young soldiers on the streets and knowing that the violence of war was so close drew my attention to the world beyond my own experience. I am still haunted by those sweet young faces telling me that I wouldn’t want to talk to them because they were Palestinian. It had never occurred to me not to talk to someone just because of where they live or what religion they practice or what policies their government puts in place. At 29 years old, things that I had only read about became real.

I returned from that trip and made a point of learning everything I could about Israel and Palestine. I’ve tried my best to be aware of what is happening in the world, and to do my part to change things when possible. Mostly, though, I’ve tried to combat fear, hatred, and ignorance – especially when these things are enhanced in the name of any God.crossroads-997123_1920

I’ve been thinking a lot about that real trip to Israel.  It had a  significant impact on me and my understanding of ministry. I can’t help but think that experiencing the Christmas story through worship and community should change and challenge us in similar ways. The Magi who followed a star for years experienced something. They might not have known specifically why they felt compelled to make the journey, but they went. They encountered the Christ-child and went home by a different road. They were changed so much that they literally could not travel home the same way they had come. They altered the route to keep Jesus alive. Who knows what happened to them after that? At least they started out on a different path.

As hatred and fear seem newly unleashed in the U.S., I am somewhat haunted by that pile of children’s shoes in the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum and the faces of those innocent Palestinian twins. My fear is that we are not taking the lessons of history seriously enough, and remaining silent when we should be crying out for justice until our voices are hoarse. My fear is that we don’t trust that the Love that broke into the world and rested a while in the manger is enough to save us from ourselves. My fear is that we have forgotten the wisdom that faith has taught us, and we will not survive this current wave of hatred, fear, and ignorance. My fear is that we have convinced ourselves that the stories of our faith are powerless which would mean God is also without power.

We journeyed through Advent and Christmas, and we may have experienced joy, or sadness, or both. We might question the meaning of all of it. We might feel uncomfortable or unsettled. We may have encountered Christ and still experience the awe of the moment. This is all fine. However, no matter what we might want to tell ourselves to maintain our own sense of comfort and control, it really is where we go from here that matters. How will you travel differently?

RCL – Year A – Epiphany – January 8, 2016
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-2
Matthew 2:1-12

Top Photo: CC0 image by natasevilla
Bottom Photo: CC0 image by MoneyforCoffee

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