Tag Archives: social justice

Some Thinking on Thankfulness

While not a very religious holiday, Thanksgiving is still my favorite one to celebrate. This has to do with my love of gathering loved ones around a table in fellowship. It truly is the great American love-feast, and often comes the closest many of us ever experience in our culture to the table fellowship of the early church (or for that matter the holy feasts of the Old Testament). There is something holy in the love that our green bean casseroles were made with. There something holy (and wholesome) about dedicating a day to spend together with family thanking God for His providence.

Thanksgiving seems to break through our individualistic culture and provide a sorely needed excuse for togetherness. In our fragmented and disconnected world, there is something that food and fellowship around a table provide, that I believe, is sorely needed. It gives us an opportunity to invite in that weird uncle or aunt or neighbor who sees the world so differently than we do, and to love them where they are (not as we want them to be). As Quakers, we believe that everyone is imbued with the image of God; that all people have value. At Thanksgiving, many of us put that commitment to love our neighbor to the test! We need this grace to us more than most of us are willing to admit.

As an Osky transplant, I am blessed with a newcomer’s perspective. I see the many things about this community that are amazing. For me, it has been kind of like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting, in a very good way. I think as a community we have a lot of things to be thankful to God for, and that joining together in worship to celebrate God’s rich bounty is something that is worthwhile. While there may be theological differences and a variety of ways people experience God in worship in this community, I bet one thing we could all agree on is God’s goodness to us. This one brute fact should inspire us to live out our love modeling Christ’s example. If God truly loves us–US–warts and all…that should fill us with excitement.

In my Quaker values class I teach regularly about simplicity, something I like to define for a largely secular audience as “saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things.” I regularly do an exercise where I have the students physically stand in the left, middle, or right side of the classroom to show their response (agree, unsure, or disagree) to an intentionally vague statement. This really gets people talking because they have already made a statement in their walking. For the week on simplicity I pose the statement “having lots of money will automatically make a person grateful, happy, and enjoy a meaningful life.” I am always surprised with how this exercise reveals. Some, see money as giving a person the freedom to pursue a life of meaning unhindered. Others, resonate with money’s power to magnify good or problematic areas of a person’s life. They acknowledge statistics about high levels of suicide among lotto winners, and recognize that in many ways, massive wealth could undermine the things in life they value the most.

This is a crucial step in the class’ journey of exploring the intersection between simplicity and gratitude, something few of us wrestle with openly. To get the class moving in this direction, I read a quote from Robert Fryling’s book The Leadership Ellipse that asks such an important question:

“…Gratitude is the involuntary response of the heart to all aspects of life and ultimately to God. It is not based primarily on circumstance. Some of the most grateful people in the world are the poorest, while many that are rich often are characterized by their lack of gratitude as they seek to acquire more money or fame. If this is the case, what then makes us grateful, or how can we be more grateful people?”

I think how we answer that question powerfully shapes the direction of our lives.

It is easy for many of us to always focus on what we have not attained, to be driven (consciously or not) by our fears or pride, or other people’s expectations. Few of us ever stop and be grateful.

One girl, who warned me on the first day of class that she struggled immensely in all of her attempts at religion classes, ended the course having a spiritual awakening and getting involved in a local church. As she presented her journey of exploring simplicity, she found such freedom that as a part of her relationship with God, she had someone to be grateful TO for her many blessings and the beauty of creation. This, among many other extravagant luxuries, are easily taken for granted by us Christians. But at the end of the day–each day–so much of how we see the world is shaped by where our focus lies. We daily have a choice of what we choose to focus on–the blessings we haven’t yet received, or the ones we have. We can allow gratitude to fill our hearts…or jealousy. The only one who chooses this, is you or me.

How DO we become more grateful people? I think grateful people focus less on the negative aspects of their current circumstances, and more on their many blessings. It is easy to fall into the same trap as the nightly news which is basically to focus only on the terrible or controversial things that happen in the world, and to do so until we find ourselves ever torn between reeling in fear and addicted to outrage. There is a story of three couples–freshly moved to town–who encounter an old man on a bench. In separate encounters, he asks each of them, “What was it like where you came from?” One couple said everyone was always gossipping and backbiting, another that people were always looking down their nose at others as they kept up with the Jones’, and the last said that there were many wonderful people with friendships that had deepened over dozens of years. The man on the bench responded to each couple with the exact same answer, “You are going to find a lot of that here too.”

As Christians we are going to find a lot of what we are “looking for” as well. We may see slights or grace, good or evil, the fallenness of people or the faithfulness of God. Whatever we want to see more of we will find. But we seem to need extra grace to do as Paul exhorts in Phil 4:8,

“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Scott Mcknight once said “Tables build societies.” How might Thanksgiving be an opportunity to see God’s value in all people? How might some food, fellowship, or even board games around a table be an opportunity to share God’s love? That table of old where Jesus sat with his rag-tag disciples transcended the differences between a radical zealot and his nemesis a tax collector. It brought together rough and tumble fishermen, and even had room for a traitor like Judas. There is something about Thanksgiving that connects us to the table Jesus shared long ago, and reminds us of the Great Wedding Supper of the Lamb to come. I believe it is there to find for us, if we are willing to let God give us the eyes to see it.

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Loving Local

One social justice issue that College Avenue Friends Church cares about especially deeply is hunger. You can see this in the many among us who volunteer at the local ecumenical food cupboard, in Jan Palmer’s Take Along Lunch program that helps hungry kids get through the weekend, and the Oskaloosa Summer Lunch Program that I especially want to highlight here. The Summer Lunch program was pioneered by a wonderfully Christ-like woman named Martha Comfort, who launched and directed the program on a volunteer basis for its first three years. It became a non-profit under the umbrella of the United Way of Oskaloosa and because of the high poverty levels in our community it is both fully reimbursed for every meal by the USDA, as well as is not required by them to ask the children for proof of their neediness. It now has twelve sites in the Oskaloosa area. Martha recently stepped down from the program as she graduated from a graduate program in social work and plans to pursue further ministry in the new doors God has opened to her in a slightly different direction.

At a Golden Circle program (a monthly small group for senior members) the winter before last, Martha came and told us about her program, and immediately I wanted to learn more about what it would take to become a site. College Avenue sits of course right next to the Friends Park, the shadiest park in Oskaloosa on a hot summer day, and its recently updated play structures and sand pit are the perfect place for large groups of kids to play. Historically CAF had its Jack and Jill preschool whose legacy is readily seen in our facility’s ample kitchen and nursery, which is a wonderful plan B location in the case of rain or bad weather.

After finding out all that was needed was a small about of food safety training and a few volunteers, and all we really had to do was show up and love on the kids and serve them, we started last year out as a smashing success. Lunches were served MWF from noon till 12:45 with a fifteen minute craft or game following. Martha brought a bunch of donated sand buckets to give the kids at our first launch last summer and the first day we had around thirty kinds having a blast in the sand box! I mostly did the activities and picked up the food, and got a chance to meet many of the kids in the neighborhood and minister to them. One child known by many of the neighborhood kids had died tragically from an allergic reaction to the anesthetic from a simple tonsil removal, and though I was not technically allowed to proselytize because of federal funding, the kids knew I was a pastor and I was of course free to respond to their questions.

I knew all of this work was worth it when I saw the kids enjoying hospitality together as equals free of the poor kid stigma I grew up with, as well as mothers enjoying each other’s company in a welcome break from the isolation that comes with small children. Also, many of these kids did come out in the fall for our movies in the park, and I remember one day walking over to the church when seven kids riding their bikes all greeted me gregariously shouting “Hi Pastor James!” when before, they might not have even realized a church met there for worship or recognized me at all. Seeds of love were scattered very thoroughly last summer, and I pray some of these relationships that started last year will continue to deepen and grow, and of course come to discover that Jesus is at work.

This year our Peace and Social Concerns committee at CAF is beginning to gear up for launch May 31st. This year, my wife Liz will be the head cook of the program, and we recently built a weatherized bulletin board in the park to help communicate to people in the park opportunities they will have to experience the love of Jesus at work among us. Liz is especially suited for this work and has been gifted to serve in the area of hospitality. Her degree from George Fox was focused on equipping her to start a restaurant, and she spent three years as the head cook of Barclay College. The amount of volunteers that showed up and worked hard to bless these children is truly inspiring and there are many ways to get involved for those who have interest.

God’s heart for justice is clear, but not all justice ministries need be perceived as overly political. I believe most what is needed is eyes to see those in need in our community and compassion to serve. There are many tangible ways of ministering to the hungry that are very practical and dead simple, and perhaps even fully funded in some cases. All that is sometimes needed is a space and a helping hand. Love has to be shared, and I believe, must be seen in the form of action. How might we as the church better share the love of Jesus with those who are hungry, and perhaps build relationships where their spiritual hunger may also be addressed? It is my conviction that the more one knows God, the more one recognizes His love for the least, the lost, and the last. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and it is the natural response to first loving God. When someone asked Jesus who was their neighbor, he told them the story of the Good Samaritan. Love is a verb, an action word. It is also a command straight from the mouth of Jesus. Let us pray for ears to hear and eyes to see what God might dream for our neighborhoods, and our world!

Agape,

James


Lenten Journey of Justice: “Holy Saturday”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2Read Matthew 12:38-45; 1 Pet 4:1-8

Devotion

In college I had the pleasure once of having a Greek Orthodox priest come speak in chapel. Though this was unique and had never been done before, some of the Quaker mystical tradition had developed friendships with mystics of the Greek Persuasion, as well as some who had been working with the Apprentice Institute. If memory serves the man who came was called Father Gregory, and he gave one of the most interesting and controversial homilies to ever echo through Haviland Friends Church. Seeking to correct against the Protestant excess with the Penal Substitution theory of atonement (a Law/Punishment paradigm), this priest told us the gospel story according to Origen’s version of the Ransom Theory  (an overcoming Death paradigm). While I an many of my classmates listened in rapt attention to this radically foreign perspective on the gospel story, I admit I had some reservations. But when it comes to the atonement, I think most of the theories are valuable and mostly help us see that the truth of the gospel in a multi-faceted truth.

Father Gregory spoke in some fresh ways about what was going on during this interim time, a mostly silent time in Scripture though it is hinted at what happens during this time in the Apostle’s Creed and writings of the church fathers. In Gregory’s Greek Orthodox view, this was the time Jesus battled death in a spiritual reality beyond the cross. As Jesus went went into the grave it was seen has him being swallowed by death, going down into the belly of the beast so to speak.  Spiritually, Jesus descended into the bowels of death just as Adam and Eve had, and when Jesus arrived he found them there. Adam and Eve were trapped in their sin and could not get out, but death could not hold Jesus. According to this view of the gospel what Jesus did was essentially to grab Adam and Eve and burst back out from the belly of death,  giving Adam and Eve a path to their freedom and reversing the work of the devil.

While this stretched our protestant lens a great deal in chapel to seemingly speculate so much about how Jesus did this work of reversing the curse, I found it a helpful way to think about Holy Saturday. I do not know what to make of Jesus’ pointing to the sign of Jonah, nor or what to make of 1st Peter’s concept of Jesus. But I do understand that what is signified by them is is more than simply Christ resting in death. What happened during this period is a mystery, but one worth chasing a bit as we celebrate the gospel story at work within us.

A. Katherine Grieb, in her book, “The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness” argues persuasively that as Paul is arguing for Jesus’ work on the cross in light of his role as a New Adam figure, that Paul is borrowing from Jewish Holy War theology the idea of a representative fighting solo for his people, something akin to what David and Goliath agreed to do: they could spare the cost of war by choosing a representative from each side to fight for all. I like how these ideas blend together in reflecting on Holy Saturday, like David at Ziklag, Jesus comes to rescue a people in bondage. As Isaiah pointed to, Jesus came to set the captives free and break the yokes of slavery. He may not have fought an earthly battle but in facing off with Sin and Death the Lord was a warrior who took the fight to the powers and principalities of our darkened world crying out for redemption. Though scripture is silent or even confusing about what was going on on Holy Saturday, I think the case can be made that Jesus kept on fighting and took the fight into the belly of the Beast. Jesus conquered death, undoing the curse of Adam and Even, and leading God’s people to freedom.

Take 10 to 20 minutes in solitude to ponder the victory of Jesus, both on the cross above and in the realms below. At the incarnation God came on an all out rescue mission for our sake, at the cross that rescue took the form of redemption and atonement, and in the grave we find Jesus conquering sin and death. As we await the coming Act of the gospel story–the resurrection, let us not lose the importance of Holy Saturday; where the seeds of our redemption germinated and began to sprout, ready to burst from the soil Resurrection Sunday with unexpected glory and joy.


Lenten Journey of Justice: Good Friday

 

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Read Luke 23
Devotion
In Luke’s version of the Last Supper it ends in a cryptic dialog where, after fighting over who was the greatest, Jesus tells the disciples to go and by swords. Here Jesus performed a prophetic sign pointing to the meaning and significance of his death; He was to die as a Sufffering Servant, living out a vision of redemption envisioned in Isaiah 53. Another reason Luke include this is to foreshadow the actual way in which Jesus was to die: he would be numbered among the transgressors. It would be no shock to Jesus that he would die between two insurrectionists, but it was bitterly ironic for Jesus was not a Judas Maccab eus-style Messiah who came to raise up an army and drive out the Romans, he was a radically nonviolent Suffering Servant type, a type not on the radar of the Jewish paradigm’s land-centric focus.

He may have driven the money changers out this temple, but Jesus was not interested in building an earthly kingdom. He may have stood up to the self righteous and the status quo, but he was not as willing to kill for his beliefs as much as die for them. If one were left with any doubts about the humility of Jesus, we must recognize that the incarnate Creator of the universe here “Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his advantage, but rather poured himself out, taking the form and nature of a Servant (Phil. 2:6-7 translation mine). There is great truth in the Christian cliche that “it was love that held him on that cross” because staying there was not just a sacrifice but a choice. A choice of love he made for you and for me.

If Jesus hadn’t left it up to us I have my doubts that the day Jesus suffered through would have been called Good Friday. This rightly recognizes that this is the event at the heart of the gospel or “Good News,” but when I think of Good Friday I always recognize it was good for us, but not good for Jesus. And from the earliest days of Christianity it has been a day of sorrow, penitence, and fasting… something preserved in the German terminology for this day Kartfreitag, or Sorrowful Friday.

For Jesus this day would be a nonstop train wreck of pain, with Jesus fresh off his experience with betrayal to spend all night enduring three religious and three civil trials–none of which were as concerned about justice as they were with pleasing the court of popular opinion. Jesus endured a flogging severe enough it may have eventually killed him. He carried his heavy crossbeam through a mocking crowd hurling rocks, dirt, spittle, and insults. He had his hands pierced by cruel nails. And to make matters worse, while hanging on the cross the only way to keep breathing was to push his feet against the nail through his legs. The wooden footrest we see in pictures was considered optional and since they wanted to hasten the death and get things cleaned up for the the Passover Festival, it probably wouldn’t have been there.

Jesus had to earn every breath on a clock he knew he would never outrun. Near the end of this exhausting process his states of rest would be like waterboarding himself in a rapidly downward spiral of energy loss. Jesus experienced pain on a level we could scarcely imagine, he experienced the death of a criminal, a transgressor. It was a death reserved for those the Romans wanted to make an example of. It was a warning to all who would follow the path of this “transgressor.” It is a warning to us as we follow him that we are also on a journey of a cruciform life.

Good Friday wasn’t that good for Jesus, but it was exceedingly good for us. It was the culmination of a human life of suffering: Jesus grew up in a town that ostracized him for a scandalous birth, he fled a genocide as an infant, he was rejected in his hometown and nearly thrown off a cliff, he lived as a homeless man wandering the countryside teaching people about God, the very people who would reject him. He truly was, as Isaiah envisioned, a man whose life was well acquainted with hardship and sorrow. To die a painful death between two insurrectionists is the zenith of his suffering, but it surely wasn’t the beginning of Jesus’ many encounters with pain and brokenness.

The two insurrectionists who shared crosses with Jesus point us in two ways we can respond in taking up our crosses and sharing in the death of Jesus. One eased his pain by joining in with the mockers, rejecting outright the idea of a Suffering Servant. The other criminal recognized in this injustice that it was actually God at work through Jesus’ death on the cross; in sharing in the suffering of Jesus he recognized he was not innocent but that Jesus was. This latter path is the one where we earnestly share in the death of Jesus. We must recognize Jesus in his sinlessness, suffering the fate we deserved and ask to be identified with him. This man’s desperation led him to publicly identify with Jesus in the face of a mocking crowd. At times it can be that black and white… and when our chips are down in our suffering we see glimmers of where our identity is truly coming from. We face the same choice.

 

Friday Fool’s Challenge Prayer
Gather some paper and dark writing implements such as a sharpie or pen, and also a pencil. Spend some time doing your best to draw Jesus on the cross with a sharpie or pen. The drawing need not be very detailed, but if you have enough artistic ability to move beyond stick figures to a silhouette please attempt to do so. When you are finished flip the page over and look at where the figure of Jesus bled through the page. Next take the pencil or some other lighter weight writing implement and draw yourself onto the “bleeding through” silhouette of Jesus on the cross. As you draw prayerfully and artistically “identify” with this cruciform representation of Jesus, recognize the spiritual reality that your sin like, ink or graphite–where it falls on the cross– is identified with him and removed. It is forgiven, and you are free. Good Friday is Good News indeed!


Lenten Journey Of Justice: Maundy Thursday

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2Read: John 13:1-34

Devotion

Many of us feel a special kinship to Peter, a man who both shined brilliantly and failed mightily. His example give us who stumble hope, and us who are a bit cocky a needed does of humility. As Peter comes before Jesus with all his pride and frailty, it reminds us of how we all are before God; well intentioned, and yet ignorant of even what we do not know. Peter was oblivious to the work of the devil, oblivious to the ways his pride had shut up his ears and eyes to the call of Jesus to the mutual submission and annihilation of hubris that is taking the role of the servant.

Jesus would show a radically new way of being King in washing the disciple’s feet. It was a way of kinship that showed love through service, forgiveness and grace. It was a way of kingship that involved mercy, humility, and submission. Peter speaks for many of us with his gut response “No, you shall never wash my feet.” And then again, after realizing he has shot his mouth off with, “Then Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” We struggle to recognize our need for cleansing; our need for a savior. Like a dirty kid we are comfortable in our filth, and at first unwilling wash our filthy hands before supper. Next Peter overcompensates, asking Jesus for an entire bath, and Jesus points out that this is not what is needed.

At times dramatic cleansing is needed, but sometimes we just need to be freshened up by God’s forgiveness for small things. I think this speaks to relationship. There are times for radical redefinitions in a relationship, such as a proposal, but other times it actually undermines commitment and faith in the relationship to behave as if every day would result in a monumental change. If one proposed say every day, especially if one was unfaithful the next, this would not be a healthy relationship. Yet some of us come to God thinking everyday will be a radical transformation, like every day we should experience radical forgiveness and grace. At times we should trust in the grace we have already received, and we should submit to the routine opportunities for cleansing God sends our way. To do otherwise is to pretend to be greater than our Master.

We each come to God in need of cleansing, reluctant to receive it, and reluctant to offer service to others in humility. Obedience is a struggle for all of us, but it is through obedience that we demonstrate our faith in and love for God. Peter looked disobedient but came to be realigned with obedience, Judas looked obedient but was not where it counted the most. Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin biblical text where Jesus say “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Faith, love, and obedience intertwine in us, yet the example of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet shows us that these things intertwine around service and humility, the service and humility in following the example of our Servant King.

Fast, Read and Pray:

As you fast one meal today, reread John 13:1-34. Consider how Jesus’ Royal Law of Love works itself out in obedience, service and humility in your life today, or how God might want it to look anew with a bit of washing.


Tuesday Lenten Journey of Justice: “God’s Business”

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Read 2 Cor. 5:11-21

Devotion

A Jesuit spiritual director I know has an interesting art form he engages in; he loves mosaics. Some of his favorite works begin by getting a bunch of different colored glass and stoneware plates and smashing them to pieces with a framing hammer. He then picks up the pieces and arranges them in new ways that highlight the beauty hidden among the brokenness. These once perfect plates become essentially glued back together as if by grace, into a new creation; a reconciled creation. Far easier than reconnecting all these little pieces is to give up and walk away. Reconciliation takes time, patience, skill, and a lot of creativity. God’s business, and our business as Christians, is the business of reconciliation. But with God at work in our lives we can look past the pain and disorientation of brokenness because of the hope we have of becoming a new creation. Hope shows us that the brokenness doesn’t get the last word.

In the Old Testament the Hebrew word that comes the closest to “grace” is chesed. It is an interesting word that is not bound up as much in the idea of “unmerited favor” as it is in the idea of help that comes in time of need. It is often translated “loving-kindness,” but the idea really is more that of being helpless and crying out for help to someone who has the power to act, and when they do act, that is chesed. This Old Testament understanding of grace is one well acquainted with our need for God, a need beyond ourselves. Like pieces of colored glass shattered on the floor we are in no position to put ourselves back together, yet God takes us and makes us a new creation. He sees just the place we fit together once again and makes a mosaic, joining the brokenness back together into something beautiful beyond the jagged scars.

As Jesus journeyed to the cross he knew he would experience brokenness and suffering. He knew his body would be broken. He knew his blood would be poured out. But he also knew that God’s grace would knit the world back together through this act of obedience. Often, when we think of what things will be like when they are fully restored, our imaginations go to something more like the whole plates before the hammer. We think God will restore creation in a way that shows no evidence of its former brokenness. But Jesus’ raised body still bore the marks of his suffering. He still had holes in his hands and side. Reconciliation is not without its marks… but it shines forth like a mosaic with the scar tissue of grace binding it back together. It shines forth with beauty, beauty made even more beautiful by its brokenness; brokenness united together by love.

Watch

Pray

Pray that the Lord would reveal to you the patchwork of grace that has been woven through your life. While cliche, we often only get to see God’s grace from a “back of the tapestry” perspective. One day we will get to see the fullness of the beauty of God’s plan, but even now perhaps as you prayerfully look back at your story of redemption, God might reveal to you some of the beauty that has come through brokenness… Some of the good that has been brought forth from some of the pain.


Monday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Powerless”

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Devotion:

 

The Apostle Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. He came tot he church as an enemy, and joined the church as a trophy of God’s grace. Paul wrote Romans long after the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, yet he wrote about the theological realities at work in the gospel story. In Romans, Paul further explores the justice of God. He does this directly, but also indirectly as he elaborates in the mercy of God, and God’s heart for reconciliation. Paul reminds us that this divine mercy sought us out, that God heard our cries for a way back to Him. He sent Jesus, as the ultimate demonstration of God’s love of us,  and that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul points us through this passage to the spiritual reality of atonement at work in the actions of Jesus leading to the cross. It was to a world that was trapped in sin that Jesus came and died, but as Jesus died–so our sin died with him. As he would soon rise triumphant, the seeds of reconciliation and restoration sprung forth into the world… beginning to work themselves back into creation like leaven through the dough.

Lectio Divina Instructions
Lectio Divina (or divine reading) is a spiritual reading of scripture. We come to the scripture not for study only, but approach the text in a sense with openness to receive from God. The traditional lectio framework has four distinct stages outlined in the instructions below.

Reading God’s word (Lectio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 slowly twice (this is the larger reading from a physical bible). If you are doing this in a group have the listeners close their eyes to help them focus on hearing. As you read listen for a word or phrase that seems “illuminated” for you. Sit in silence a couple minutes.

Reflecting on God’s word (Meditatio)
Read the passage again. During the silence reflect on how the passage speaks to your life today.

Responding to God (Oratio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 again. During the few minutes of silence consider how God is calling you to
respond. Pray and tell Jesus your intended response to what you have heard. It might be praise or action of some kind, or something to think further on etc.

Resting in God (Contemplatio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 one final time. Rest in the words in silence for a few minutes. Close in prayer.


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