The Sacredness and Wrongness of Christian Death


A Christian’s death is such a wrong, but sacred thing. Life begins loudly, with groans, pain, a gasp, and a wail. But it doesn’t always end with such clamor. A life well-lived ends with sighs and closes with tears. The breathing slows. The heart stops. The believer opens their eyes to see their Savior for the first time. He no longer just tastes the sweetness of God’s presence; he feasts on it. She is never thirsty because Jesus has satisfied her forever. They no longer mourn, for their joy is complete. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, everything sad is coming untrue. The former things have passed away.

But even in the sweetness, the regrets come. For the life-liver, they arrive before the eyes are shuttered, for its lovers, after. We are haunted by time that has passed irretrievably, attempting redemption of yesterday through tomorrow’s plans. We pray for forgiveness and try to begin again. But the time has ended for what we could have done. The time has come for what must be done. We must gather the remaining shards and resume living.

Every little thing becomes significant–loose change, junk mail, denture cream, slippers worn once, hangers covered in yarn, matchbox cars, cassette tapes, pacifiers, the smell of cigarettes and heavy cologne, outdated cans of food–as they carry our remembrances for us into boxes and donation bins and storage lockers. We remember how she rinsed her Ziploc bags out, how he carried a ridiculous jug of tea everywhere, how they always ate boxed mashed potatoes, and how she sealed her packages with horrendous blue tape. The small moments loom large–ominous, but healing. We hear their whispers in the quiet; we feel their absence in good company.

As the hospital door closes or the coroner leaves and we say goodbye to the one we loved, we also say hello to the ones who love us. They claim empathy and silently sit. They make soup, overwhelm us with flowers, want to comfort, and need comfort themselves. In the crowd are the helpers, the moochers, the pastors, the questioners, the angels, the demons. Some words help; some words steal. Well-intentions wound while quiet embraces bind up. The tears in a friend’s eyes reflect and settle our own. Relationships lost are enfolded in relationships found.

In both the immediacy of the moment and the quiet moments after, the heart screams, “This is not how it is meant to be!” and whispers fearfully, “Why?” The sweetest moments in life now have a bitter aftertaste. Fun seems like a sacrilege. Conversations seem haunted by their memory. How can someone so alive not be?

Resurrection Hope in Death

Then He answers kindly, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

A gasping prayer replies: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Today, we feel death’s wrongness. Sin has had its foul sway. Our joy weeps in his presence, and our happiness feels bittersweet. But the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. Today, our whole world cries out for redemption in the rawness of loss. But in the beautiful tomorrow, we will know in full, even as God knows us. The small but sacred moment of death draws us nearer to tasting it–the infinite freshness of life everlasting–as the gospel promises: because we weep now, the joy will be sweeter still.

The Body of Christ cries out together: come quickly, Lord Jesus! Let the sacred death lose its dark tinge!

And it will. As our eyes close in death, they open to life everlasting. The promise is realized, because the blood and resurrection of Christ have opened the gate. He sits at the right hand of His Father–resting, ruling, and rejoicing. We see with flawless vision what we have seen with eyes of faith. This is the sacred of sacred; this is the holy of holies. What is wrong in death has been made right again. Jesus and we, His people, live.

7 Reasons To Not Give Up on Church

Church blog post

Have you ever felt or thought the following?

  • “I love Jesus, but I hate church.”
  • “I feel that my faith is something just between me and God.”
  • “I’m an introvert, and church – with all the people and loud music – is just overwhelming.”
  • “Church people just aren’t authentic. They come together and ‘praise Jesus’ but then treat you like dirt. I just don’t want to be a part of something so fake.”
  • “I feel like I can’t be real or share my issues at church, so what’s the point in going?”

If you have, you’re not alone.

It seems like everywhere I turn, people in my generation are giving up on church. I have several close friends that are either between churches, have given up on going, or are struggling with staying at their church. Some bloggers I respect and enjoy reading have recently shared on their websites reasons why they no longer attend a local church. It’s a theme that keeps popping up on my Facebook feed and in conversations. Church has become a bad word to many people.

I get it. I really do. Being part of a church can be painful and more discouraging than life-giving at times. I’ve been part of many different churches in my short lifetime. I’ve experienced church splits, backbiting, and the loneliness of fake smiles. But I’ve also experienced the flip-side: love, unity, and authentic community.

So, if you’re in this struggle too, I want to encourage you.

Here are seven reasons not to give up on church:

1. Being part of a local church is commanded for our good.

Hebrews 10:24-25 says this: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

If you’ve ever struggled with attending or committing to a church, you’ve probably heard this passage. But have you ever wondered why God expects this?

Earlier in the book, we find the answer. “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13). God calls us to obey this command so that we would be protected against spiritual blind spots. Having other believers around to speak into our lives keeps us from falling into sin’s traps and hardening our hearts toward God.

2. Being part of a local church gives us a context to practice the “one anothers” of Scripture and use our spiritual gifts.

“Love one another” and “bear with one another” are two commands we cannot obey without other people. When I’m connected with other believers (who are imperfect too), it’s going to be hard. It reveals my own sin as I react to personality differences, disagreements, and even others’ sin. In those moments, I can choose to take my eyes off my own needs and ask God to help me learn love and care for my church family. That’s why Paul wrote that “each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). God gives us spiritual gifts so that we can help and serve one another in Christ.

3. Being part of a local church keeps my faith from being merely an individual project of my own making.

It’s become more and more popular to make a “custom-built” faith. Just me and Jesus. The fact is, my faith was never designed to be only my personal relationship with Jesus. That is part of it, but not the whole story. The church exists as a Body–individuals in a family. There’s a communal aspect to it. God desires to put us with people and under authority to keep us from heading into error or isolating ourselves. Proverbs 18:1 has some wise words: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” Scary stuff.

4. Being part of a local church allows me to hear all of God’s Word preached – not just the parts I like or consider relevant.

Christians often will only read the parts of the Bible we enjoy (I’m guilty of this too – the Psalms are my jam), or ignore things that don’t line up with our way of living. We don’t want to wrestle with hard commands or questions. Thinking through things is good, but thinking that does not consider the whole of Scripture can lead you astray. A faithful church will not shy away from the hard parts of Scripture, which means a consistent church attender will have to deal with the conviction of the whole counsel of God. When the whole Bible is heard, the Holy Spirit can point out our hidden sin and make wandering off into error more difficult.

5. Being part of a local church expands my view of the grace and love of God.

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28). I love this passage. In my church, there are many people who are not like me, and that’s a good thing. Because of Jesus, all of these different people are brought together. Our God is great and He shows that greatness by saving a diverse group of people (Rev 7:9-12). I never see that if I’m only spending time with people who have the same background and interests as me.

6. Being part of a local church provides me with the wisdom of multiple generations and differing experiences.

It’s really easy to just hang with “my people” and not step out of my comfort zone. Being involved in a local church makes me do that constantly. When I do that, I open myself up gaining wisdom. It is good to have older people and younger people in my life. It is good to have people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, politics, ethnicities, and education speaking into my life. Their perspectives from walking with God in different circumstances and insights from their lives have a deep wealth of knowledge I can draw on. When I don’t have that, I could be on a path to trouble. That’s why Proverbs says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov 11:14).

7. Being part of a local church unites me with others in covenant and a common mission.

Have you ever wanted to be part of something bigger than yourself? Here is the greatest mission that has ever existed:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:18-20)

The Great Commission is a “co-mission”–a mission to do together. Like anything in life, if there is a large goal to meet, it is always better to have a team. Jesus’ team is the Church. When you join a local church, you’re becoming part of a band of brothers on mission.

In many churches (including my own), members commit to a covenant. It is a binding promise that the church is going to care for you, and you are going to care for those in the church. That church becomes a family to you on the basis of a solemn commitment. Through thick and thin, you are a part of that body and an essential part of its mission.

The early Church understood covenant well. Scripture tells us that “all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:42). Isn’t that a beautiful picture? That is God’s desire for today’s churches also. They often don’t measure up to the ideal, but my generation can be a part of making that happen – if we don’t give up.

Bonus reason: Jesus hasn’t given up on the Church.

She is His imperfect, but beautiful Bride. He died to save her, and His love for her is perfect and unending. If Jesus is my Lord, I should love and fight for what He loves and fights for. He sacrificed His life. I may have to sacrifice my preferences or comfort or self-protection. But if He thought she was worth it, she is.

Embracing My Smallness in God’s Kingdom

Several years ago, I took a study-abroad trip to China through my university. I never realized how large China is until I was actually there. We visited several cities, but Shanghai was especially enormous to me. Over 24 million people live there—almost as many as in the state of Texas.

China 2011 037

Not only is it large, Shanghai is also amazingly cosmopolitan. Next to a Chinese grocery store, you
will see KFC and an HSBC bank. On a corner where a street sweeper is working hard with a straw broom, you will see a Nike billboard featuring an NBA player. Myriads of bicycles travel along streets along with BMWs. 7-Eleven stores sell rice and fish balls. The icons of Western materialism have arrived and been transformed.

As the days went on, I felt more and more at home, but I also became more and more aware of my smallness. So many people that I never knew existed. So many hearts beating in one place. So many people that speak a language I did not understand.

China 2011 167While we were touring Shanghai, our tour guide took us to a riverwalk area called the Bund. To get there, you cross the Waibaidu Bridge. It was the first iron bridge built in China. Walking there feels like you’re entering an unknown, but familiar past. Then the tour guide tells you: this area is where westerners were allowed to settle and trade in years gone by. That explains it – here is where east met west. You can almost hear the footsteps of European traders in a foreign city.

Crossing the bridge, the gray Huangpu River flows to your left. The metal supports of the bridge loom large to your right, dazzling in their geometric symmetry. Ahead, you see a large stone walkway. It is wide and open to the river’s view. Food carts beckon, advertising Chinese soda pops that are pleasingly sweet, but barely carbonated.

As you step onto the Bund and look to your right, you’re surprised to discover Europe. Dutch, English, German, French, and Italian all whisper to you from buildings that once housed the best in western capitalism. Art deco, neo-classical, and Romanesque are all here in a playful decoupage of styles. Their windows, roofs, and shape don’t say “China” at all . . . where did we take this trip to again?

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Then your ears and eyes tune back into your immediate surroundings. The area feels so European, but you and your friends are the only Westerners in sight. Then you feel your smallness even more. You understand nothing being said. No one looks like you. You’ve never felt so connected to the world’s largeness, yet you’ve never felt so alone.

Can you feel it with me?

I felt my smallness then. But I didn’t really take it to heart in that moment. Instead, my friends and I invented a game that continued for the entire trip. It was unfortunately called “spot the white person”. We saw so few Westerners in China, it was entertaining for us to count them.

Today, it’s not the “white” people that stand out in my memory. I remember beautiful Chinese faces. Not one was the same. There were so many ethnicities. Millions and millions of people, all made in the image of God.

Looking back, I think this was the day I learned this: humanity is bigger than I think, and not everyone displays God’s image the same as me. I am not the sole picture of personhood. God is more creative than that.

Spot the “True Believer”

I have to admit, the game I played in Shanghai was immature and small-minded.

But I think that there’s a similar game many Christians like to play: “spot the ‘true believer’”.

I still catch myself doing it. I put myself in God’s seat as judge and ask, “Does that person really follow Jesus?”

When I was younger, I looked at other Christians and played the game like this:

  1. Evaluate them based on my standards, not God’s.
  • Are their clothes an acceptable length or style?
  • Do they refuse to read certain books or watch certain movies?
  • Does their music adhere to certain rules?
  • Do they attend a church just like mine?
  • And on and on . . .

2. Make a judgment call about their relationship with God based on what I could see outwardly.

3. Disassociate myself from them if they don’t measure up.

4. Whisper and gossip behind their backs.

5. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Pretty immature, huh?

Here’s the deal. I’m tempted to say that I don’t do this anymore, but I do.

It’s the same game. The questions I ask may look different, but it’s the same.

I like to point fingers at other people and say they are the judgmental ones. But in my heart, I know the truth. I judge other Christians based on me. Their Christianity has to look like mine. I take God off the throne and set my own standard.

IMG_0407Let me paint another picture for you. Last year, I attended a prayer meeting as part of a women’s conference. It was held in a large, carpeted room, decorated in the neutral tones of a convention center, with the typical padded conference chairs.

There was no seat to be found, though. This meeting was packed. I sat down on the carpet with my back to the wall, grateful to be off my feet.

To my left was an older Mennonite woman, with kind, blue eyes and a white, sheer cap covering her gray hair. We sat on the floor together, as the voices rose, petitioning God to work in our lives and praising Christ for His mercy.

I heard an African-American woman nearby praise the Lord Jesus with a joyful, rich voice that sounded like hands raised in the air.

I heard a Texan woman with large, blonde hair read us a psalm in a ringing treble.

I saw and heard women from India, the Dominican Republic, New York, and Kansas lift their hearts together to our blessed Lord.

I saw people of many different denominations and backgrounds joining together around one center – the gospel of Jesus Christ.

That day, I learned this: Christ’s kingdom is bigger than I think, and not every Christian looks like me.

Jesus Defines a True Believer

By rights, Jesus should set the definition of a Christian for me. This is what He says:

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35

“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” – John 14:21

Love for people and obedience to God’s Word (including the command to repent and believe in Christ) – those are the marks of a follower of Jesus. It’s not the clothes you wear or the worship style you use or the denomination you claim.

When I play “spot the ‘true believer’”—also known as legalism—I am not living like a Christian myself. I’m not loving my fellow Christians, and I’m not obeying my Lord’s commands to “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” (Rom 12:16)

I need to remember the smallness I felt in Shanghai. God’s Kingdom is bigger and more diverse than I think, because God’s grace is greater and more glorious than I think. When I try to make His people into my image, I try to make Him into my image too. Maybe instead of playing judgmental games, I should be pleading with God to change my heart toward humility, love, and obedience. And I am.

Today, I am grateful for His grace. God set the highest standard – His perfection and holiness. I can never measure up to that. But unlike me, God doesn’t gossip about me or turn away from me.

Instead, He sent Jesus. Jesus lived the life of perfection I never could have lived. He died the death I deserved to die for shaking my fist in God’s face. He was resurrected to give me new life and declare me righteous in God’s sight. And now He lives to stand as a mediator between God and His people. He will return and make all things new and right.

I don’t deserve to receive any of that. These gifts are grace. And that grace reminds me of my smallness. Today, I choose to embrace my smallness, and I’m asking God to give me the humility to match it.

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(Me in Shanghai – May 2011)

By Thy Help I’m Come

We went to the beach, the four of us, and spread out. The joke was that it was an “introvert party.” We all had our own things to process. I saw the rock barrier and instantly knew that’s where I needed to go.

I wanted to walk out to the end, but my lack of courage (and balance) kept me from going more than 15 feet out. So I parked myself on a rock with my journal and a towel. It was warm from the sun, but the breeze was nice. Refreshing.

From there, I had a clear view of the water and the sun and waves coming in. I didn’t realize there were so many colors of blue in the world. Deep blue of the sky far beyond the horizon. Murky, grayish blue of the waves in front of me. Muted, calm blue of the in-between. Even each of those had shades of depth and profundity. Levels of sadness; levels of joy.

The water was fresh, like the tears of joy they say fall first from your right eye. So many of my tears have been saltwater recently. Sorrow. Sorrowful tears aren’t really much different than joyful tears, chemically speaking. But they feel so much different. Tears are the place where sorrow is mixed with joy; bitterness of pain with the sweetness of relief you feel after a good cry. You still feel miserable, but somehow better.

Maybe this is what Paul meant when he wrote about being “sorrowful, yet rejoicing”. I’m sorrowful because my world is broken and has gradually gotten even more so. But there’s joy, because all things are being made new. Life consists in tears – sorrowful and joyful.

I could see down into the waves. The water was clear here, but only enough to see what was making it murky. There was sand and seaweed and rocks. Dead sea animals, shells, driftwood, sludge.

I realized it then: “All your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” God’s waves are love, but they knock me down. God’s love drudges up all the sludge I would rather not deal with. His love has to be violent sometimes to churn up what makes my heart murky. That grit and sludge – it makes its mark. The rock I was sitting on was smooth – not because anyone had made it that way, but because the waves had eroded it with the silt and sand they contain.

God has smoothed me out with the struggle of this past year. He had to bring suffering into my life to reveal all the pride, anger, and idols in my heart. He had to show me again how broken I really am. He slowly but surely eroded some of those rough edges of immaturity that seemed to follow me everywhere.

Sitting by Lake Michigan, I realized how angry I had been with Him. I had seen the waves in my life as hatred, not love. But God knew that I needed my pride broken down, my idols removed, and my dependence on others to hear His voice destroyed. He knew. So He did.

My faith had been hindered, like my prayers, because I was angry. I had been trying to hold onto things with a death grip that the Lord had chosen to take away. He gently pried open my fingers and said, “Give them to me. You can’t hold onto them any longer. It’s hurting you.” All the bitter tears of the past year were caught in His bottle.

Thinking about these things, I walked down the beach. Looking at the sand so I wouldn’t lose my footing, I began to see little stones – baby cousins to the one I had been sitting on. They were flat and smooth. They looked like they had been chiseled out to build a pyramid for the Pharaohs . . . or an altar to my God.

Spreading out my towel, I began to stack them into a pile. One after the other. 12 months, 12 stones. One memorial to God’s faithfulness over a very hard year. Like Samuel, I raised an Ebenezer – a stone named “God is my help”. He had been my rock and was faithful, even when I rejected His painful love and severe mercy.


“Here I raise my Ebenezer:

Hither by Thy help I’m come.”

This little rock pile, built with patience and hot glue, sits on my shelf as a reminder. Every time I look at it, I reflect on God’s faithfulness. His helpfulness. His grace.

Through every ebb and flow of the past year, He was the same. He never changed or left. I cried out in anguish many times. I raised my fist at Him more times than I care to admit. I lay prostrate on the floor – flattened by the misery I felt.

But He was unfazed by any of this. His care for me did not change. He was still a loving Father Who brought these things into my life to show me His painful love.

Even when I screamed into pillows and pounded the floor and sat in stunned silence, He still said, “I love you.” He said it to me in the moments of my deepest depression. He said it to me in the moments of my highest joy.

“I love you. I love you so much that Christ died to rescue you.” He whispered it into my ear when anything more would be painful. He shouted it when I shut Him out to wallow in my misery.

I’ve learned that His love is not a cupcake kind of love – all sugar and frosting and sprinkles. No. His love looks like a naked, pain-wracked man with gory wounds who is in the anguish of being forsaken by God.

If God’s love meant that for Christ, what does His love mean for me?

“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you face trials of various kinds.”

“Blessed are you when others revile you . . . on my account.”

He loves me – and that doesn’t mean everything will be sunshine. Instead, the storms show His love just as much as the rays of light. They show that He’s in control. He cares about me individually when the mess is much larger than anything I can see.

Life with God can be painful. But that pain reveals His love. If I didn’t feel pain in this life, I wouldn’t need God in this life. I have to be present in the pain, because God is in it. Like Elijah, I have to listen for His voice in the storm, in the wind, and in the calm. He’s there – in all of it.

Perfect Love for Trying-To-Be-Perfect Fear

Last post, I talked about my fear of being imperfect. Even as I wrote that, I realized how much farther I have to go. A year ago, I could never have admitted how much I struggle with my own sin. I would (and did) hide the majority of my life from those I love.

The Lord has made large strides in my life. He has given me freedom I could have never imagined, and I am so thankful. But it is still a struggle. I often catch myself trying to cover up my brokenness with a façade.

But that is not Jesus in me. Jesus is real. My “togetherness” is not.

Jesus’ love isn’t dependent on how “together” I am. It just is. The I AM, who is self-existent and unchanging, cannot love any other way. He is not dependent on any creature for His existence, and so is His love not dependent on any creature for its existence.

In simplest terms: He is. He is love. Therefore, His love is.

My weaknesses don’t change His love.

Instead, God is perfect; therefore, His love is perfect.

The apostle John understood this love. If you read his books very much, you realize two things: Jesus loved John, and John couldn’t stop talking about it.

He writes in 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”

John says that God’s love is the solution for my fear. Failing terrifies me because I’m afraid of the consequences. I say to myself: “What will people think if I open up? What if I try something and screw up?” I’m looking for a punishment around every corner.

But perfect love means I don’t have to fear punishment. As Romans 8:1 reminds me, “There is . . . now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Jesus already took my punishment, so God isn’t going to punish me.

I don’t have to fear people either. They can hurt me, but what they do will not take God by surprise. He is sovereign – the ruler of all things – and He is my Father – the giver of good things. I can trust Him completely, even with the painful actions of others.

John continues, “whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” My fears reveal something about my heart. They show me areas that I haven’t allowed His love to penetrate.

My fear of imperfection is a barometer of how deep His perfect love has really affected me.

The areas of my life that are controlled by fear – they’re not God’s fault. They’re mine. In those moments that I fear punishment, it isn’t because His love has changed. It never will, but my response to it can.

When I do allow God’s perfect love to cast out my fear of failing:

Instead of forgetting the gospel, I remember it. I can preach the gospel to myself through reading God’s Word and rehearsing the Truth. But, I also need other people to help preach it to me. In times that I can’t see past my fears, I will go to a friend and say, “I’m struggling. Please tell me what is true.” Other times, I pick up a book or listen to a sermon to hear a mature exhortation. All of these together help me to remember God’s love.

Instead of believing lies, I take them captive with the truth of God’s Word. 2 Corinthians 10:3 says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” This is a battle of the mind. My fears are not based in what’s true. When they come up, I have a choice. I can either believe the lie, or I can believe what God says to me in love and turn to Him for help.

Instead of trying to protect my reputation, I rejoice that the God who loves me will get glory. This is a hard one to believe sometimes. But as God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The more I am weak, the more He has to and can do in and through me. When I trust that, I also can “boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Instead of being afraid to use the gifts God has given me, I yield to His right to use them. Perfect love means that God has created and redeemed me. He owns me. On top of that, anything I have is also His, and is given to me so that I can fulfill His calling on my life. When I trust His love enough to let Him make demands on what He has given me, it makes me bold.

Therefore, instead of missing opportunities to make an impact, I take Kingdom-focused risks. I can step out into the unknown as God lovingly leads me. And the joy of seeing Him fulfill His purposes through me can be mine in its fullest. Many through the ages have taken Spirit-prompted risks. For some, it meant martyrdom. For others, it meant losing everything. For yet others, it meant dying of old age with a fulfilling life behind. But all understood a perfect love that cast out their fears. And they were compelled by that love with a faith that knew no boundaries.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus . . .” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Will you join me?