The Sacred Journey and Soul Care

For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses (misplaces) his own soul? – Jesus

Christian leaders are in trouble. And when the leaders are in trouble the church is in trouble. Our culture, both inside and outside the church is grinding down Christian leaders.

According to Thabiti Anyabwile one of the pastors of Anacostia River Church in Southeast DC, in an article he wrote for the website 9Marks back in 2014:

50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.

1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.

4,000 new churches begin each year and 7,000 churches close.

Over 1,700 pastors left the ministry every month last year.

Over 1,300 pastors were terminated by the local church each month, many without cause.

In my view, if the church is going to thrive in our post-Christian age then soul care is going to be essential for the ongoing vitality of the leaders of our churches.

My specific denomination has put a great deal of emphasis on the Great Commission found in Matthew 28: 19-20,

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.

Historically, we have been all about the Word of God, evangelism, and missions. And the Great Commission has driven all of that. And, by no means, would I want to dismiss that axiom. It is our calling card as a denomination.

And yet what do we do with the Great Commandment found in Matthew 22:37-40?

Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

If the statistics cited above are true, we are not doing a very good job at this commandment. Especially if our neighbor is a minister of the Gospel.

I believe Soul Care could be part of the solution.

While I completed my two-year certification program called The Soul Care Institute at Potter’s Inn, I was introduced to the following model. I owe my avocational ministry called The Sacred Journey to these concepts. The following is my personal spin on this model. It is a mixture of four disciplines:

:: Discipleship

This discipline is about basic doctrine, theology, and practices of the faith. Would it surprise you to know that I have encountered several ministers who believe in their head that they are saved by grace through faith, but spend almost all of their life feeling like they need to earn their standing with God? Would it surprise you to know that many pastors don’t know how to pray, read their bibles for soul nourishment, tithe, and even to share their faith in a relational way? I see it a lot.

:: Life Coaching

This discipline is primarily around life management skills. Things like conflict management, interpersonal communication skills, and goal setting. It might include analytic decision-making skills and assertiveness training. Certainly important tools for your toolbox.

:: Counseling

Here is where family of origin issues may need to be processed. Is the person increasingly becoming self-aware? How does emotional intelligence come to bear in life? In counseling is where addictions are addressed, obsessions uncovered, and personal identity struggles explored. And many other areas of felt needs would be properly analyzed and solutions pursued.

:: Spiritual Direction

This discipline is a bit of a misnomer. Because in spiritual direction there is very little, if any, actual directing. Spiritual direction is more about being a witness to what God is doing in the soul of another person. It’s about asking probing questions. It’s about sensing and discerning what is being triggered in the soul. It’s about being present to someone as they pursue an intimate relationship with the Almighty. It’s about prayer and discernment. This is a vital and missing piece of the journey of most of the ministers with whom I work.

Soul Care is Different

Soul Care is the confluence of all of those disciplines. It is a hybrid of all four. It is not one thing. It is not just the compassion of Spiritual Direction, it also might be the correction of discipleship. It sometimes is the thinking through a father-wound that goes back decades. It might be coaching through how to resolve a conflict with a church member. It might be an extended prayer for healing from past church-wounds or toxic relationships.

Soul Care is a holistic approach to ministering to ministers.

Our ministry at Sacred Journey is about helping the helpers. It’s about shepherding the shepherds. It’s about praying with and for those that pray. It’s about reminding ministers who have spiritual attention deficit disorder that they are beloved of God and are saved and kept by grace. It’s about sharing our stories of how we found the abundant life Jesus promised.

It’s about showing the way to an unhurried and reflective life.

A life of flourishing.

A life of shalom.

A life others would want to live.

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Encountering Jesus

“You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas”   – John 1:42

Sometimes you encounter someone in your life that you know you will never forget.

A little over a year ago, Lynette and I boarded a plane in Denver and flew to Munich, Germany. The first leg of our trip to Israel. I was stuffed into a middle seat and my knees were shoved into the kidneys of the person sitting in the seat right in front of me for the nine-hour flight. I felt like a size 14-foot stuffed into a pair of size 9 stilettos.

When we boarded our flight from Munich to Tel Aviv, our assigned seats were right in front of the exit row for that 5-hour flight. Again, a huge man in a little seat.

In the exit row sat a pint-size woman dressed in a long flowing black robe and habit. She had a window seat next to the exit door with no seat in front of her. She had enough leg room for Shaquille O’Neil.

I remember thinking, Dear Lord, what have I done to displease you on this flight to your homeland? Why does she get a seat with leg room she will not need, and I get stuck in the size 9, kidney-crushing, knee-bruising seat?

She said, “Sir, have you said your prayers today?”

I said, “Yes, I have spoken to God.” (thinking about my whining poor-is-me thought a moment before)

“Well, I am the answer to your prayers today,” she said.

Then she got up and gave me her seat and took mine beside Lynette. I stretched out, and despite my chagrined heart, fell asleep.

Lynette learned that she was from California and her twin sister was an actress in Hollywood. Her name was Mother Catherine and she served at The Church of Mary Magdalene which is a Russian Orthodox church located on the Mount of Olives, near the Garden of Gethsemane in East Jerusalem.

When we got off the plane in Tel Aviv, she invited us to have lunch with her at the Church of Mary Magdalene. She said the tour will take us down the route Jesus took on Palm Sunday and we would walk right past her church.

“Just knock on the big green door and ask for me and we will have lunch together,” she said.

Sure enough about a week later we were walking down that road and walked past a large green gate that was ajar and I asked one of the ladies inside if Mother Catherine was available. The lady said she didn’t know who I was talking about until she said, “Oh, Mother Katarina! No. She was unavailable right then.”

I asked her to tell Mother Katarina that a very large American man and his beautiful blond wife wanted to say hi and to thank her again for her generosity on the flight from Munich to Israel.”

She promised she would.

That is an encounter I will never forget with a woman who reminded me of Jesus.

In the New Testament, there is a place where Jesus meets the Apostle Peter for the first time.  When He looks at Peter and more than that—looks into Peter—he says in essence, “You have been called Simon all of your life but from now on I am going to call you Peter.” 

In the ancient near east names defined and described your life. They could be descriptive, or they could be prescriptive.

The name “Simon” meant “shifting sand.” It was a descriptive name depicting a man who vacillated and was highly impulsive. Over and over in the New Testament, we see that Peter is often the very first one to speak and the last one to think. He was often wrong, but never in doubt.

But Jesus looks Simon full in the face and gives him a prescriptive name, Cephas or Peter which means “Rock.” Peter must have gulped at the thought of becoming something so stable and strong as a rock. He understood what Jesus was doing. Jesus was saying to Peter that intimacy with me is going to change who you are. And that is exactly what happened to Peter.

Sea of Galilee

Peter started out with such promise and possibilities and yet at the end of the Gospels, we find him dejected, defeated, depressed over his failure of failures in denying Jesus three times. And then on the shores of the Sea of Galilee Jesus offers him breakfast and says to him once again: Follow Me.

By the end of the story of Peter’s life, we see somebody who has become a church leader, we see someone who possesses a calm humility and deep confidence in Jesus. We see somebody who is willing to stick his neck out for the Christian story. And then at the end of things we see somebody who eventually lays down his own life for his allegiance to Jesus.

When Jesus encountered Peter for the first time he easily could have said, “Simon Peter, have you said your prayers today? Because I am the answer to your prayers.”

Dear Lord,

I get easily gigged by so much in this world. My emotions run hot and often I speak before I think. I want to encounter you at such a deep level that my thoughts are your thoughts and my words are your words. Come deeper into my life so that I can avoid the firey darts of the evil one and the arrows thrown by our culture that cause me to react in ways that dishonor the grace you have given me.

Amen

 

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My “Wants” for 2020

You ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.”  – James 4:15

Predictions for the coming year are often fun and interesting. My friend Jamie Greening has written a delightful article about his predictions. You can read it by clicking on the link below.

Predictions for 2020

I’m not good at that stuff so I am going to set down a few of my “wants” for 2020.

10. That I will hold in my hand a finished and printed copy of my cowboy novel about two young men who are just discovering their sexuality and how their friendship develops in spite of their sexual confusion.

9. I want to hike the Rainbow Trail from Music Pass to Poncha Springs. And I want to bag a couple of fourteeners along the way.  The wilderness calls my name. I love the sense of accomplishment and the simplicity of the trail. Not to mention the fascinating people you meet along the way.

8. I want to interview someone who works with their hands (a plumber, farmer, or mechanic) about their journey with Jesus on the Potter’s Inn Soul Care Conversation podcast.

7. I want to be a gentle yet bold prophetic voice to white evangelicals who have lost their way and call them back to love of character and decency. And I am going to spend more time in prayer for white evangelicals and myself in order to minimize how much I get triggered by them.

6. I want to increase my soul care practice for ministry leaders, especially young pastors.

5. I want to hold my newest granddaughter, Cora Lee Chambers,  in my church on Mother’s Day for her baby dedication.

4. I want to read more novels this year.

3. I want to love and serve my wife in such a way that she thinks that I finally got religion and she feels deeply loved down to her bones.

2. I want to develop my Galilean accent so that with every laughter, conversation, prayer, lament, and sermon I utter—folks will wonder.

1.  I want to live my life in such a way that people who know me will hunger and thirst for more of God.

I can’t predict if any of those things will come true, but I will arrange my life in such a way that they have the best possibility to occur, Lord willing.

#ComeAtMe2020

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Finding My Freedom

If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven…”          John 20:23 (NIV)

In October 1914, Thomas Mott Osborne entered Auburn Prison in upstate New York, and like all the other prisoners, issued a set of prison grays, and led to a cell, four feet wide by seven and a half feet tall. The only difference between prisoner number 33,333x and the other 1,229 inmates was the issue of freedom. On his command, he could leave the prison anytime he wanted.

After his appointment to the Governor’s State Commission on Prison Reform, Osborne made it his mission to live as one of the inmates, study their experience, and emerge as their advocate. He voluntarily laid aside his freedom to experience life behind bars. He slept in a dank, drafty cell just like theirs. He ate their food and worked like they did. He even endured their most dreaded punishment, a night in “the box.” While he could order his own release at any time, he was nevertheless confined. He wrote,

“I am a prisoner, locked, double locked. By no human possibility, by no act of my own, can I throw open the iron grating which shuts me from the world into this small stone vault. I am a voluntary prisoner, it is true; nevertheless even a voluntary prisoner can’t unlock the door to his own cell.”

When I read that I wondered how many ways am I a voluntary prisoner of my own pathologies. Issues of narcissism, of self-medication, of willful blindness to the truth about myself, others, and the ways of the world. The truth is that while I may be much harder on myself than you will ever be, you can see my blind spots where, by definition, I can’t even get a good glimpse.

Talking to God about it is one thing but sharing my sin with someone else…no way.  Why can’t I just tell my sins to God and leave it like that?  Why do I have to drag someone else into this? Well, you can. But I think part of the reason it is vital to have a trusted spiritual friend is, like Mr. Osborne who was a volunteer in prison, we need someone else to open the door to self-revelation.  And beyond that, because it is the way God chooses to communicate forgiveness.

God has given us our brothers and sisters to be Christ’s ambassadors and make God’s presence and forgiveness real to us.  It is through the voice of our brothers and sisters that the word of forgiveness is heard and takes root in our lives.

When you risk honesty with one trusted person you will be amazed at the freedom that invades your life.

I am only as sick as my secrets. If you feel like there is a steel door between you and joy and wholeness, find a trusted spiritual friend soon so you can know what it is like to lay your burden down. There is nothing like telling someone trustworthy all your darkness. Remember what Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free!”

Who is a good candidate to help me out of my self-imposed imprisonment? Somebody you trust and who can keep a confidence. Someone who understands the value of what you’re doing and will respect the weight of your confession. Someone mature enough that they won’t be shocked. Someone who knows God well enough that they can reflect His forgiveness to you.

I love what Jesus’ half-brother said at the end of his practical little letter about the reciprocating nature of relational healing, “Admit your faults to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed…” James 5:16

My wife and I watched the Netflix original film The Two Popes starring Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict and Jonathan Price as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (later Pope Francis). Towards the end of the film, Pope Benedict asked his eventual successor to hear his confession. They went through the specific rituals and rites of proper Catholic confession and absolution then Pope Benedict said to Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in almost a whisper, “Thank you.”

In many ways, the film described how one man helped another man out of the confinement of his role as the Pope of Rome. I loved the story.

The truth is I can’t find my way out of my confinement without you. I need you or someone like you and you need me, or someone like me.

And we both need Jesus to set us free. Remember, even a voluntary prisoner can’t unlock the door to his own cell.

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What Is The Deepest Truth About You?

All of the things that we place at the center of our lives are extraordinarily demanding, brittle, and fragile. But what Jesus tells us is that if we belong to Him the most important thing about us, the thing that is most true about your life is not what you have done or not done, it’s not your degrees or the initials after your name. It’s not your socioeconomic status or your relationship status. It’s not whether you are a democrat or a republican. A conservative or a liberal. Irish, Native-American or Mexican. Or your old or young. Rich or poor.

Recently I recorded a podcast for Potter’s Inn Soul Care Conversations that will take you less than 29 minutes to listen for the answer to the question,”What is the deepest truth about you?’

I am certain it will encourage your heart. Listen by clicking here: You Are The Beloved of God

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From the Front Porch

We exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children, that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. – Saint Paul, (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12)

What do pastors do all day anyway? Of course, the joke is that we only work for one hour on Sunday mornings.

Sometimes we get strange requests. I’ve been asked to pray for a pet pit bull that it would be healed from a terminal disease. I’ve listened to so many strange stories I can’t tell you. I’ve seen snakes slither across the stage during church. I’ve seen deacons drop the Lord’s Supper elements during Communion.

About a year ago I received a note from someone attending our church…

Pastor,

I have an “unspoken” prayer request and please keep this “confidential.”

Signed,

Anonymous

Aside from the basics of officiating at funerals and weddings, visiting the sick in hospitals, preaching on Sundays…what do we do? Or better asked, “What should we be doing?”

On two occasions in my ministry, I have been called “Father.” Each time it took me aback. We Baptist don’t think of ourselves that way. It is foreign to our ears. I do find that over the years I have felt that the office has a paternal feel to it.

I’ll the first time this became apparent to me was when a part-time staff person who led our music when I was in my mid-thirties told me that I was a father figure for him. He was forty at the time. I couldn’t understand how I could be a father figure for someone older than me at such a young age. Then it dawned on me that it wasn’t so much me as it was the role and office of pastor.

There is an old adage that says, “a mother is only as happy as her saddest child.”  As a father, I know that to be true. Of my three adult sons, I have one son who is struggling with his faith right now and one is not living for Jesus at all.

Remember the famous story Jesus told about the two sons? Jesus never mentions that the reason the younger son wanted his inheritance early so he could leave and squander it was due to any failure on the father’s part. Perhaps I am reading too much into that, but I find some comfort in that thought.

This past summer my father and I were backpacking, and Dad asked a question and told me a story. He asked why me, my brother and sisters were so deeply committed to Jesus. We discussed that for a while then he told me a story. He said that my mothers’ grandfather, Dad Conway, who was a deacon in my dad’s first church and would come to him and say, “Let’s go to the church house to pray.” They would drive down to the church and pray. One time my great grandfather, Dad Conway, made a promise to my dad that he would pray for each of his children by name until the day he died.

He kept that promise.

Dad told me that he would to the same thing for my kids and grandkids. I told my mother this story and she said that she has been doing that for years.

My heart aches for my two sons. Their faces are always at the front of my mind. At the same time, there are many other faces that press against the glass of my imagination. Not children of mine. I see faces of congregants and friends; people who are trying so hard to find their way in this world without Jesus. Oh, they go to church. Some regularly, some intermittently but they are in my flock and I am their shepherd.

And while I am delighted with our church family and I am at peace with Jesus, I am also very aware that my sense of melancholy is tied to the saddest member of my church.

I am careful about boundaries. I am quite willing to let people feel the full weight of the consequences of their sins. These consequences can be their best tutors. It is a delicate balance for a pastor knowing how to be available to and accommodating with congregants and not neglect your own health or the health of other primary relationships.

There is a difference between legitimate needs and perceived needs. You learn on the difference the more kids you have. The first child you are a Shiite protective parent. You are there in the room with him every time he turns over or whimpers. By the third child, a crying baby is like your alarm on Saturday mornings. Getting up when it goes off is really optional.

Part of what pastors do is to discern the difference between an urgent need that is not very important and an important need that has turned urgent.

One time a man who had been recently married called me on Saturday and told me he needed to talk to me. Said it was urgent. I asked him to explain. “Well,” he said, “You know Betty and I have been married for seven days now, but I want an annulment. Do you do annulments? Can you help me?

I said, “Bill, I would be happy to help you. Let’s set up a time to visit the first thing Monday morning.”

He said, “Pastor, did you hear me say that I need to talk to you right away? This is serious.”

I can tell by the tone of your voice that it is serious, “Let’s set a time for us to get together the first thing Monday morning.”

He wasn’t happy with me but agreed to meet Monday morning and they are still married.

Not all pastors are good at this. But being sensitive to legitimate needs in a congregant’s life is one of the most important practices we have to learn. A haunting question I frequently ask myself is as follows:

“Am I daily living the life I am inviting others to live?

A life of reflection?

A life of obedience?

A life of prayer?

A life of silence and solitude?

A life of justice and mercy?

A life of grace and truth?

Other than my own father, Eugene Peterson has had the greatest impact on my vocation as a pastor. Most pastors consider him to be a pastor’s pastor. He is who we all want to be when we grow up.

His son, Leif Peterson preached at his memorial service a couple of years ago. Here is the way he closed his sermon,

When I was in high school, I used to joke with my dad that he only had one sermon. And although it was a joke between us, I believed then, as I do now, that it is largely accurate. My dad had one message.

A few years ago, there was a commissioning service in Colorado for the translation of the New Testament that my dad had completed. I was invited to say a few words. In preparation, I couldn’t shake that thought that for his whole life my dad only had one sermon—one message.

So I wrote a poem.

The Message

It’s almost laughable

how you fooled them.

How for thirty years, every week

you made them think

you were saying something new.

They thought you were

a magician. In your long black robe,

hiding so much up your ample sleeves,

always pulling something fresh

and making them think it was just

for them. And that’s just

the beginning. There was more.

Casual conversations at church picnics,

unmemorable chats at the local Denny’s

over eggs and toast. Counseling sessions

that saved marriages, maybe even lives.

And they didn’t know what

a fraud you were. They didn’t know

how simple it all was. They were blind

to your secret, only saw the magic

you performed, how you made the mysterious,

the ominous, the holy, into a cup of coffee,

how you made a cup of coffee into an act of grace,

how you could make

God into something that worked for them.

It’s so funny that they didn’t notice.

So many times I’ve wanted to

expose you. Tell them all what you’ve

been up to. And now you’re doing it

again. You’ve got this new group fooled

into thinking you’re worth millions.

They’re printing it on T-shirts, coffee mugs,

message pads, a new version every week,

for some new flock. But, I must say this,

they’ve widened your audience. Now you’re fooling

them all over the world, in churches, schools, homes,

prisons. It’s so funny.

Only my inheritance keeps me

from giving you away.

Because I alone know your secret.

I alone know what you’ve been doing.

How you’ve fooled them all, taking something

so simple, something a child could understand

and making it into a career, a vocation, an empire.

I know.

Because for fifty years you’ve

been telling me the secret. For fifty

years you’ve steeled into my room

at night and whispered softly to my

sleeping head. It’s the same message

over and over and you don’t vary

it one bit.

God loves you.

He’s on your side.

He’s coming after you.

He’s relentless.

Pastors carry you in their hearts. It is this love that keeps a father on the front porch looking down a long and dusty road for a broken and sad boy to come home. And when he sees the familiar stride of his child, to be quick to leap off the porch and run down the road to embrace his son.

And it is this same heart that makes a pastor stand on the porch of a little church every Sunday morning looking at a parking lot for that troubled family to drive up.

So, I wait and watch—ready to run to both my son and you.

For I am a pastor.

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Stumbling Towards Grace

The success or failure of my own formation in Christlikenss can be measured by how irritable I am. – Dallas Willard

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. – Saint Paul

One time I was traveling from Phoenix to my home in Seattle and got my usual window seat. I put the earbuds in, got my book out and got as comfortable as my 6’4” tall and wide-body can get on a plane. Then a lady sat down beside me and ignored my warning signs—scowl (stink eye), no eye contact, earbuds, book, etc— and started talking to me. I had to take my headphones out of one ear to hear her. She was nice enough, but she was clearly not heeding the markers that I didn’t want to be bothered. When she engaged the man in the aisle seat in a conversation, I reloaded my ear with my headphones and thought, “Just open up your book, turn the music up, never look at her, and maybe she will leave you alone.”

It worked for about 30 minutes. Then she tapped me on the arm and asked me a question. “What book are you reading?” I held the spine up so that she could see that it read The Care of Souls.

“What is that about?” she asked.

I mumbled something, but I didn’t tell her that it was about how to be present with those God puts in your path and really listen to them. I put my headphones back on and pretended to be more interested in my book than I really was.

She pulled out a newspaper she had brought on board. It was a copy of the latest National Enquirer with headlines like “Hillary Clinton gives birth to Alien Baby” and “Donald Trump Embraces Christianity” and other bizarre story titles. She spread the paper wide and leaned towards me so that our arms touched. Thus, I surrendered my territory on the armrest that separated us. I moved even further away from her. But the more I moved away from her the more she spread out.

Twenty minutes later she folded her paper up and went to the restroom. I closed my book and put my head in my hands and sighed. I was so weary of this person and it was only an hour into my two- and a half-hour flight. When she came back and saw me with my head down, she re-belted and began to rub my shoulders. “You must be very tense,” she said over the whine of the jet engine.

What could I do? I let her massage my shoulders for what I assumed was the appropriate time for a stranger giving a neck rub on a plane and smiled and said thanks. I opened up my book again, not reading—just staring at the page. I can’t describe the bile that came into my soul if not my throat.

About this time the man in the aisle seat pulled a care-worn Bible out of his briefcase and began to read. This caught her eye and she began to ask questions about God, faith, and spiritual things. The older man smiled and answered every one of her questions with grace and aplomb.

She shared with this older man some of her pain and struggles. He nodded, listened and gently asked if he could pray for her. She allowed that he could and then took her hand and pressed it between both of his knobby hands and prayed so sweet and low that the lady began to weep.

Thinking in Jerusalem

You would think I would have rejoiced that the old man had distracted her from bothering me. You would have thought I would have paused and prayed for this woman to hear the Gospel. But I found a strange thing happening—I began to sense the resentment that had reached a saturation point with the woman, start to leach toward the grace-filled gentleman.

Now I had two people with whom to be frustrated, an irritating-National-Enquirer-reading-sinner and an irritating-King-James-Bible-reading-saint.

The woman was offensive to me, no question. But so was the kind man who was a much better saint to her than me. Why did he offend me so much? I suppose it was because he was behaving like Jesus to the woman and I was behaving like—Joe. His kindness and grace were pointing a luminous spotlight on my banal behavior.

I can still see her face and sandy-colored hair in my memory.

Lord, we’ve talked about this incident before. I want to say again, that I am sorry for my boorish behavior. There is no way for me to apologize to the woman, but I can change the way I deal with others when I am grumpy and tired. I have tried to do that since this encounter. And by your grace, I am changing—incrementally—but changing nonetheless. I can also pray for her and so I ask that You,

…Bless her and keep her;
Make Your face to shine upon her, and be gracious to her;
Lift up Your countenance upon her, and give her peace.

This was many years ago, but the memory of the darkness of my heart that day serves to remind me that I am a long way away from the man God had in mind when he thought me up. I have to keep surrendering, stay with my training, keep remembering that I am stumbling towards Christlikeness.

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