Monthly Archives: July 2012

What Will You Make Today?

What will you make today?  Mako Fujimura in his commencement address to the 2012 class at Biola asks a question that we may expect of artists.  (You can watch the commencement address here .) They, of course, are in the business of creating.  However, he was speaking to a students going into many different fields – finance, medicine, teaching, and more.  Ultimately his point is not to make everyone into artists, but help them become more conscious of the image of the Creator we carry within us.  Are we stepping out as creators, aware of what we are making in this world or are we satisfied with consuming the creations of others?   

This is a very different stance than my usual way of starting a project or even waking each morning.  Usually I begin by considering everything that I have to do, often driven by outside forces.  Sometimes it gets to the point of my barely being able to start the day because it seems so laden with the expectations of others.  I feel shackled.  I’m not making anything, just continuing along the same rut of getting things done.

Yet, asking the question – what will I make today – does change my perspective.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that I will throw off all responsibilities that I have to others.   I do have duties to fulfill for those with whom I work, to family, and to a church community.  However, if I see myself making something in these relationships instead of just being pushed along, a new sense of freedom emerges.  Instead of being frustrated with shopping for yet another meal I have to make for students, I can create a feast around which people will gather and build community.  Or, instead of having to plod through the steps of finishing a family estate plan, I can help create a legacy.  At times, the end product may look the same, but how I relate to the activity and the people involved are very different.

It is vital to be conscious of what we make each day.  Our interactions with others are creating relationships and may give people hope or despair.  In the small tasks we do we can see a bunch of scattered work that amounts to nothing or a series of activities that God has put into our lives.  As we move into this way of thinking, maybe we start to get rid of unimportant and unnecessary activities or see them anew.  We may even take on the latent yearnings deep within us.  What will I make today?  I will start putting together landscape quilts of pilgrimages.  I will work on deepening friendships.

A significant part of this creation comes because we are made in the image of God, the ultimate creator.   How does this making relate to God’s creative Word?  It’s comforting to know we are not alone in this making or without guidance.  Even so, there is a need to be careful in the making.  Why are we doing it?  Is it constructive – or destructive?  How does it relate to the community?  How do we see ourselves, as the all mighty creator or as the servant to others?  When we are aware of what we are making, we can become aware of how this making effects others.

So, what are you making?  A book, a blog post, a journey plan, a new friend, an environment for people to see God, a picture of hope.  This question of making helps us find that story that leads us on pilgrimage.  What will you make today?

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A Pilgrimage of a Bible Study

I’ve cut and pasted sections of past work research and writing into a new document.  It’s now ready to look at it from a new perspective, for a new audience – a Bible study on pilgrimage for a local church.  This isn’t so much following the theme of pilgrimage throughout the Bible (which is another project that would be fun), but delving into historical and theoretical research I’ve pursued in this field and weaving it together with passages from scripture.

Part of me is reluctant to put together this study.  If I keep this work safe on my shelves and in my mind, then no one can criticize what I’ve done or tell me that I need to look at these ideas in a different way.  Yet, does such an attitude accomplish anything?  I remember my initial enthusiasm for reading about the stories of individuals who struck out on these journeys to reach sacred sites – and for many different reasons.  St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, traveled Jerusalem and is said to have discovered the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.  A nun, Elgeria, went to the Holy Land to have a deeper experience of God’s Word.  In the Middle Ages some individuals may have trekked long distances on pilgrimages wanting primarily to get out of town on one of the few accepted reasons for travel.

As I look at this new study, I want to share some of these intriguing stories of early pilgrims, along with a simple description of how pilgrimage ‘works’, and ways that people can step into pilgrimage even without traveling to the ends of the earth (though such journeys are pretty amazing).  This is an uncomfortable liminal space for me – one of starting conversations about pilgrimage even though I may not know the outcome.  I’m between feeling goad about my research (a somewhat finished product) and putting it in front of other people to interact with.  What will they ask?  How will it meet them in their life stories?  What will I learn?

Will this change the world?  Probably not.  But it may change me and maybe a few people – opening us to that that pilgrimage dynamic, that transformation that can occur in the midst of place, story, and pilgrim.


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A New Companion for the Journey

We encounter many companions on our journeys – some stay with us longer than others.  Some aren’t even human.  After half a year without a cat, following the death of my faithful companion Virginia, I decided to bring another into my life .

At the animal shelter I walked up to a large cage that held five kittens. The all-gray one was playful, but also seemed alone.  Not really part of the group.  I took and held her.  She purred, resting in my arms.  This was the one. (Though I could have easily adopted several others as well, except I don’t want to become the crazy cat lady.)  It’s great having a kitten around again.  Josephine is a great distraction when work gets a bit heavy.  A welcome presence when I’m reading as she sits on the back of the chair.  She also reminds me of several important practices.

Rest.  Not that I needed to much encouragement to do this anyway, but watching a cat asleep in a bath of sunlight reminds me that life doesn’t have to be so stressful.  Maybe I just need to lay down for a bit.  When I wake I can attack the pests lurking around me.

Curiosity.  Everything the world is new and needs to be checked out.  Sometimes even the same toys each day.  Some items need caution when approaching – like a brightly colored collar.  A few tentative pats with the paw reveal that it’s okay and the hunt can continue.  Other things like a bunch of feathers just need to be bounced on right away.  You never know what you will find.

Play.  When awake, go wake up the other cat.  It’s time to play.  Bat around a stuffed green sardine.  Jump up in the air.  Race around.  Even try to get on the people table. Everything is a possible toy.

These cat lessons may be obvious.  Still it’s encouraging to remember again these small practices when I get caught up in daily ruts and feel I’m drowning.  Instead of flailing in the surrounding chaos, maybe I can seek ways to step out and play – even if just for a moment.  Who knows, new journeys could begin from such breaks in my routines.  Hey, what is the light doing on the floor?  I wonder what will happen if I follow it?

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Questioning My Response to the Mission

So what do you do when the trip that everyone said was going to change your life, make you a different person, doesn’t?  When people said that going on a mission trip to Haiti would forever change me, I would tacitly agree.  Still I wondered.  Would this trip really make me see the world in a new way?  Draw me into a life of mission work?  I know several friends who can pinpoint a change in their faith journey to a mission trip.  Compassion for the children and adults they encountered filled them and they changed their career plans.  However, similar experiences in my life did not follow that pattern.  Still, I held out hope this time.

As we drove over the mountains to Jacmel, about two hours south of Port-au-Prince,  I  pictured myself serving with this team and being transformed.  On the other side of these mountains a whole new life awaited. Trucks and motorbikes filled the roadways of Jacmel, while people carrying everything from tools to turkeys were sidestepping piles of garbage on the sidewalks.  We arrived at the Isaiah 61 Guest House and were soon out of the noise and dust of the main streets.  This former hotel with its large bedrooms and spaces to relax made me wonder if I had happened into a retreat instead of a mission.  I was happy to have this unexpected comfort, but wondered if this gated and guarded house would keep me safely out of the chaos of city life and from any significant change.

After an evening of rest at Isaiah 61, we headed out into the city.  First we went to the new guest house under construction at the Lutheran Village.  We spent several hours scraping its newly cemented walls to prepare for painting later in the week.  In the midst of the noise and dust of the metal shovels scraping against rough concrete, there wasn’t much connection with people outside of our team.  After lunch we gathered with members of our partner church in Haiti to hand out clothes and food in a tent city.  Our organized plans were quickly thwarted as people mobbed us.  In this chaos, I focused on keeping the group safe and getting through the narrow corridors of tents.  Every once and a while I looked at the people around me.  How had they come to this situation?  Would I act any differently?  But, for the most part I was analyzing the situation, distancing myself.  At the end of the day, that promised change had not yet come.

I was hopeful that this ‘change’ would start entering my life the next day during vacation Bible school.  Over 200 kids came and I told the story of the prophet Jeremiah’s call from God with the help of an interpreter.  Again, I was so focused on the task before me that I didn’t really connect with individuals.  Were the kids getting anything out of the story?  Other team members returned with stories of children hugging them and wanting to play.  I returned with a remembrance of questioning and sometimes blank faces.  The week continued like this – sporadic connections with kids and adults in the community.  There was always a distance – we were ‘blancs’  (white outsiders) – with all the baggage that brings.  I continued to want to unpack this with the team, but didn’t want to stifle the connections they were making with Haitians.  So, I kept these thoughts to myself, along with my growing disappointment.

I especially felt this disconnect between myself, the Haitians we met, and even the other team members when we were handing out Bibles in a newly occupied UNICEF village.  Though people welcomed us each house, I didn’t feel it was always with open arms.  I got to the point I felt we were just sharing a spiel.  Were these people so welcoming because we were ‘powerful’ Americans with something to give them?  In such a desolate place who wouldn’t invite someone in just to enliven the day?  We could only trust that God would work through our awkward, one-time interactions.  However, based on comments from the rest of the team, they saw people open to hearing God’s Word and having others pray for them. This was life changing.  In the midst of their excitement, I was more cynical than ever and seemingly further from change than before.

I had truly wanted to be transformed in this mission – more drawn to share the gospel, to go on service projects, to reach out in care to others.  But, no.  That aha moment never materialized.  At least I never found myself saying with the other team members that my life would be different from this moment forward.  The common line that seeing the hope the Haitians exhibited in the midst of poverty didn’t seem real to me.  I didn’t know the lives of the people we met well enough to assume anything about them or how my being there had effected them.

Yet, maybe I was looking for the wrong change. The wrong place of transformation.  Instead of the people, the land had made an impression on me.  Throughout the week we took time out for rest and to get a fuller flavor of Jacmel by visiting small art galleries, going to beaches, riding in the back of a pickup, hiking to a waterfall, and eating a meal outside of the pastor’s home. In these times I saw the richness of this country that I eventually also saw in the people.  I was drawn to opportunities to be in new places and walk in new paths.

Also during these times team members let down their guards and shared how they were changing.  Our leader saw her vision come to life as she looked out of the guest house and saw a group serving with vacation Bible school, another group giving away eye glasses, and an English class happening in the church.  One of the team members was thrilled to be working with a local artist to paint a cross in the altar area of the new church.  These moments instilled in me a greater desire to do the same at home – to draw people together for meals, to provide opportunities for new experiences, and to take time to rest and explore.  In these moments I felt free.  This was an affirmation of what I had been doing and wanting to do through the practice of pilgrimage.  Yet, this small cry of ‘yes’ within me was its own form of transformation.

In the end I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell the change stories others and I had expected.  But that’s okay.  These moments in place, especially the morning rooftop views of the sunrise over the mountains, were openings to different stories that would continue to unfold at home.

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My Haitian Story – A Question Filled Beginning

So I read the stories, got the vaccines, packed the bags, and headed to Haiti.  I knew that the team was planning to work on a guest house, help with vacation Bible school, and pass out Bibles.  Still, I remained unsure about the trip.  What story was I heading towards?

Our travel plans had us changing planes in Miami – the following morning.  So 17 hours after leaving Kentucky we were still in the United States.  A lull before the storm.  This was time for the team to finally meet one another.  I wanted to share the stories I had read and see what others thought.  However, everyone else was talking about their excitement to serve – they were on board with the story of heading on a mission trip.  There weren’t a lot of questions.  At this point, it didn’t seem the place to redirect the team’s attention.  I was the one on the outside of this story.  So, I sat back and watched.

The flight into Haiti was uneventful.  Then we landed and saw the destruction that still hadn’t been repaired following the earthquake.  Here was the place where planes had been backed up after the earthquake.  We were familiar with these stories.  Navigating into the chaos of the airport and to our waiting van was like being thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool and frantically swimming to stay afloat.  Surrounded by people crowding in on us, we had to stay with the team.  Eventually we were outside.  The caribbean sun beat down as we waited for the van and people to load our 18+ bags.  While waiting I watched – UN troops, airport ‘employees’ looking for work, people waiting for family, vehicles parked randomly in the lot, chaotic driving patterns, dust.  How would I keep all this in my head?  What does it mean?  What’s the story here?

Driving to Jacmel provided another time to listen for the story.  First we encountered crawling traffic through Port-au-Prince.  All arteries were backed up.  We just had to wait.  The narrow roads were full of cars, taptaps (buses), and motor bikes.  Some of the roads were well-paved, others had gullies that could serve as pools.  People were everywhere – walking, selling, living.  Seas of tents filled every large, open space.  Crumbling buildings, including the National Palace, were the backdrop to this scene.  The cathedral looked like a ruined abbey; however, instead of being demolished by the edict of a king, an earthquake took this one.  Booksellers were amidst vendors of all other products along the sidewalks.  The inertia was apparent.

Slowly we made the way out and started up the mountains.  Roads were before us – narrow and winding, but free of traffic.  With our windows now open, I continued to watch out the window seeing the beautiful, though deforested mountainsides.  Several times team members made comments about how resourceful people the people were who created the terraced farming.  Maybe, but there is a larger story beyond what we saw.  Wouldn’t it be better to have retained most of the forests to help prevent erosion and land slides?

Throughout this drive questions kept coming to mind as I watched the scenery pass by and tried to take pictures of the valleys below.  I yearned to capture the stories behind the views but knew that I would always miss.  Miss the photo as the van drove faster than my fingers and eyes could connect with the camera, but, more importantly, miss truly connecting with the lives of the people we passed.

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Stories of Haiti – Preparing for a Journey

(It’s now been a year since I made a trek to Haiti on a mission trip with a great.  The next few posts will reflect on this time.)

As I prepared to travel to Haiti on a mission trip, I realized that I really didn’t know much about this land.  Most of my knowledge came from reports following the 2010 earthquake.  So, I started to immerse myself in other stories of this foreign land.  In the midst of the physical preparations of shopping, getting vaccines, and organizing projects, I also read and questioned.

Libete: A Haiti Anthology, provided a view of a land that has been constantly invaded by outside forces – starting with Columbus; used by conquerers for resources – including France, Spain, and the U.S.; desirous of freedom and proud of its revolution – while continuing the enslaving practices of the colonizers.  Since the revolution of the slaves, a series of bad and even despicable leaders has kept the population far from prosperity. Centuries of struggle, oppression, and at times terror have shaped a populace that appears reconciled to living this way.  These readings contained shards of broken stories to be careful of when walking through the land.

Memoirs added to these stories.  Whether written by travelers, anthropologists, or novelists there remained an underlying current of anxiety mixed with the desire to move forward.  Nothing was easy or transparent in this land.  The rule of law could not be expected.  Transportation was difficult.  Basic needs weren’t met or even known.  There was always someone to fear.  Trust of those in authority was non-existent.   Yet, the country’s artists and writers were depicted as holding a key to breaking out of the country’s past and present.  They could see the land differently and move beyond the stasis that has been the modus operandi of this country for so long.

In novels I continued to see the fear that has been a central element of Haitian life: hiding and running from the authorities, crashing into blockades, being spied on.  Many of the novels were written in fear of the ruling parties.  Some were written about the past, but referring to the present. They are responding to questions.  How could this island, once the pearl of the French colonies, now be in such desperate straits?  Were they waiting for someone to save them or content with their lot?  Those from outside Haiti see a need to save it;  those within, to accept and even re-create.

One thing I noticed from these readings was the presence of creation even in the face of fear.  Hiddenness is a part of this creation.  Books were written and published outside of the country.  Masks which hide a person’s face are an important art form in Jacmel.  Even the spiritual life is hidden – at least that of voudou.  Churches are visible across the country, but the popular religion, voudou, takes place in secret. It’s not something with which an outsider can connect.

Yet, even as Haitians live within the boundaries of their country, they find ways to create dangerously – as Edgwidge Danticat writes.  These stories helped me better understand the land to which I would be traveling – not primarily as a place in need of help from outside, but a place with a rich history that would teach.  It was also a place where the team could look for opportunities to create together.

Some Haitian readings:

Libete: A Haiti Anthology.  Ed. Charles Arthur and Michael Dash.  1999.

The Kingdom of This World.  Alejo Carpentier.  1957.

Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Triptych.  Marie Vieux-Chauvet.  Trans.  Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokur.  2010.

The Comedians.  Graham Greene.  1966.

Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti.  Ian Thomson.  1992.

After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti.  Edwidge Danticat.  2002.

Mountains Beyond Mountains.  Tracy Kidder.  2003.

Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.  Edwidge Danticat.  2010.

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Broken Sabbaths

I don’t know about you, but I have many broken sabbaths under my belt.  I hear about people taking Sunday, or perhaps another day of the week, to rest, spend time with family, and open themselves to God.  A part of me longs for such a day.  However, work intrudes, especially church work – meetings, reports, activities.  Then, by the time the day has ended I look back and wonder what just happened.  Rushing from one activity to another I become lost, unhinged.  Once the evening hits I’m weary, definitely not eager for the work week to begin.  Reflecting on this manic days, several common threads occur to me.

  • My work and I are indispensable.  I must be part of all these activities or things will fall apart.  If I’m not at a meeting, who knows what will happen?  In a similar vein, I have a sense that  I must get all the work on my calendar finished in order for other people’s activities to proceed.  Sometimes this is true. However, the list never really shortens no matter how much I work on Sundays.
  • Poor planning.  Empty days rarely remain such on my calendar.  If someone comes and offers an opportunity, I rarely say no.  With the calendar full of events, I don’t leave time for the care needed for the most important projects and relationships in my life.  To address this problem, Sunday often becomes a day of cleaning up loose ends.  Yet, when I get to Monday, even if I’m a bit ahead with my list, I’m so exhausted that I find it difficult to work effectively.
  • I can live without it.  Doing is more important than being.  Even though I may not voice it, a deep part of me believes that those people who need to take a sabbath are weak.  I, on the other hand, don’t need to rest from work.  So, I come home from church, where I spend time meeting with people, planning activities, and putting chairs in order, and jump into a project.  A nap might be sandwiched in between, but I am proud of the work that is calling me.

Ultimately fear underlies all these other issues. What will I do?  The emptiness of the day scares me.  I should be doing something productive.  Something of worth.  Not wasting time.  It’s easier to set myself up to work on the next project, than to meet this emptiness.  Even relating to people gets dicey.  Meetings and such are well-defined, but just hanging out . . .  What will happen?

Looking at just a few of my reasons for not keeping the Sabbath, it’s clear that it’s not the Sabbath that’s broken.  I am the one slipping into faulty reasoning and comfortable ruts.  In the midst of all this rushing, on the Sabbath and other days, I have a growing sense that I am losing something even more important than getting work accomplished.  The community around me is slowly eroding.

My first response is that I just don’t have time to keep up relationships.  However, Judith Shulevitz in her book, The Sabbath World, contends that the Sabbath actually creates space for community.  This practice allows for the time needed to draw people into relationships.  Without the need to rush around to work and other obligations, people come together – for meals, games, being.  Sounds plausible.  It also speaks to a deep need within my soul.

So, as a first step in keeping the sabbath I will be sitting down with this book.  Anyone want to join in?

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Ministry Outside the Boundaries

Lately I feel myself being frustrated with how ministry is not following the plans I have laid.  It is not fitting into the map I or others have created.  University advertising during last year’s Welcome Week at UC seemed to be nearly absent and new students didn’t show up at our planned events.  Now, a year later, I’m struggling to address this lapse and figure out ways to bring many more new students in this year.  The offerings at the church I attend won’t cover a full salary for a pastor – or at least the salary suggested by the denomination.  So once again the congregation starts the same old dance of focusing on raising money for this salary in lieu of other activities.

But are the real problems in either of these situations the ones I and others are seeing?  Are the goals we set those that should have our focus?  In the case of the campus ministry – a large influx of students at the beginning of the year – and for the church – a full-time minister paid at a level a denomination recommends.   At some level we believe that if only we can get to this point then things will be all right.  We’ll have it under control.

That’s the problem.  We’ll have it under control.  These goals are human-based.  But I’m nearly positive that God does not work that way.  Instead, look at Gideon in chapter seven of Judges.  He had a large army, Israel would handily defeat the Midianites 32,000 men.  However, God kept paring it down until only 300 men were left.  This would be God’s battle – and Gideon’s trust would have to be in God.  Even though it was difficult, this time the battle was won.  But what about the prophets who continue to trust God even when battles weren’t won?  Jeremiah lived in the midst of Jerusalem’s fall.  There was no victory here, no happy ending reached.  But he continued to proclaim God’s word.  This is a very different way of engaging in the world and with God than I am naturally inclined to do.

In my own battles, I’m finding myself longing for the final story and uncomfortable with the transitional moments.  I look for shortcuts to get to the end I envision – the thriving campus ministry and the fully salaried pastor.  Instead of quickly jumping to the end, maybe God is forcing me to work in the uncomfortable space in-between – a place where my trust must rest in him and not in results.  On campus, a single advertisement can’t replace the more difficult, yet transformational work of stepping out and challenging students on their discipleship journey or building relationships within the administration.  At church, maybe the focus should not be on having a budget that pays staff to do ministry, but a budget that supports more ministry by the members.  Neither of these new ways are comfortable or even always measurable.  But one thing, it does leave room for God to work, to change up plans and hearts.

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The Mind of the Maker – Solving or Creating?

What problems do I have before me this week?  Figuring out how to involve more students in leadership in campus ministry, planning for fall programs, and setting up a better writing schedule are just a few.  I’m ready to go – but somewhere deep within I recognize that students won’t quickly fall in line with my ideas, plans for a few months in the future will lack energy, and another writing schedule will fall apart.  Life will get in the way and I’ll again wonder how to solve these and other problems better.  But maybe this is the wrong attitude?  Maybe there’s another mind set that I could take into the week – not of solving a problem, but being part of a continuous work of creation.

Idea.  Energy.  Power.  These are three elements that go into the creation of a work of art: the original idea, the incarnation of the idea, and the effect of this energized idea on those who interact with it.  It’s a continual relationship and conversation.  This could also be another view of the Trinity – the thee-in-one Godhead that Christians are always trying to explain but yet can’t fully grasp.  I’m intrigued by Dorothy Sayers’ exploration of this trinity in The Mind of the Maker as she, herself a thoughtful creator, uses the work of the artist as an analogy of God’s working in the world.

I was particularly drawn into her discussion of problem solving versus creatively addressing the world.  She posits that in the industrialized world we seek to define problems and then search for a solution.  Like detective novels, of which Sayers is an expert, there is a satisfaction in having a clear and bounded problem – solving the crime – that will resolve by the novel’s end.  She understands the populations’ interest in such books, puzzles, and other solution-based activities as a “vicarious sensation of achievement.”  When a solution is reached, the doer can rest.  It is finished.  I see this attitude in today’s culture.  We want the results now and expect them to fulfill our needs.  Searching for information on the internet, texting friends – everything happens instantly.

But in reality, how much in life is really a problem to be solved?  Can these small achievements truly satisfy in the long run?  I begin each day with a simple crossword puzzle because I enjoy the feeling of completing something.  Yet, when I’m finished, there’s nothing really that I gained except this “sensation of achievement.”  It’s not until I head into the mess of putting together blog posts, editing a book that’s been hanging on for years, planning campus ministry events, and having students drop by unexpectedly that I recognize there really isn’t a solution that will organize this chaos.

Part of me wants to complete work, close the calendar, and say it is done.  I can then rest.  But that never happens.  Once I think I have finished an job – say a schedule for the next semester – the reality of working with people enters.  Maybe on one level I have solved some problems of organizing and planning a schedule, but on a larger level I am creating opportunities for people to interact with one another and with God.  Once such relationships enter the picture, there is no real ending or solution.  Instead the events or solutions are jumping off points for something new.

As Sayers would describe this process – a person has an idea, the idea is incarnated in a finished work, but an essential part of that created work is how it affects people who interact with it.  In this continual conversation, people exist in an active role.  We are within God’s larger creation that involves God’s Idea of creation at the beginning of the world and ongoing even now, God’s Incarnated Energy in the person of Jesus Christ and his life on earth, and God’s Power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s amazing to be part of this continual creation.  When I look at it this way I don’t want to stay stuck in a problem solving world – although there will be problems to be solved from time to time.  I want to be swept up in the energy of the ultimate Creator.

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