The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 6

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Is it Reasonable?

Our premise is that God speaks, that He is the initiator of a conversation into which each of us it seems is called—a conversation broad enough to include everyone ever conceived in human history, and specific enough to be heard as if you and I were the only ones here on planet Earth. In this series we are looking at the record in Hebrews 11 of men and women who listened intently to God’s voice and how in consequence the course of their lives changed. But were those changes necessary? Was it reasonable for those people to try to hear God? Did it make logical sense to go to such extremes? And most importantly, is it reasonable for us today to listen for the call of God?

“By faith Abraham,” begins verse 8, “when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Imagine Abraham. The current phenomenon of leisure travel that we know today did not exist in Abraham’s era. There were virtually no resources out there to ensure anyone’s safety and survival when traveling. When Abraham heard the itinerary God had planned for him, he knew it would be anything but easy. Or safe. There were no consulates, prophylactic travel meds, or Fodor’s guides to the territory through which he would be traveling. God had not even told him the details of where he was going. Abraham would need to exchange security for uncertainty, community for loneliness, and the life of a landowner for that of a nomad in enemy territory. Listening to God would, within two generations, reduce his descendants to 400 years of slavery nowhere near the land God had promised to Abraham. Was it reasonable to hear and obey God’s call? And more to the point, is listening to God a logical, sensible course for any of us to adopt for our lives?

Firstly, we must admit that all decisions have risks associated with them. We cannot guarantee outcomes. Sometimes our choices have wonderful results—intended and unintended ones. Relationships flourish; opportunities abound. Other times our choices spin and spiral back to bite and devour us. Wisdom teaches us that when we take carefully calculated risks based on the trustworthiness and reliability of a person or course of action, we put ourselves in the best position for good outcomes. Listening to God is no more a risk than refusing to hear Him or admit His right to our lives. What could be more logical than attending to the Creator and lover of our souls?

Secondly, while God rarely reveals to us the short-term implications of obeying His call on our lives, He does promise long-term blessing. While Abraham suffered many hardships as a result of obeying God, he gained something far greater: the friendship of God, a right standing in God’s sight based on his trust in God’s provision of a Redeemer, and a true home in eternity with the community of other God-followers. Each of these outcomes was not promised only to Abraham. God promises them to you and me too. Our vision for the distant future is part of the impetus that drives us to listen to God.

And thirdly, it is a self-evident truth that personal growth requires us to look and listen to wisdom outside of ourselves. We are not the source of knowledge. We admit the need to submit ourselves to instruction from others in every realm of life from arithmetic to zoology. How much greater is our need—and the associated benefits—of learning from the source of all life, from God. The more we open ourselves to God’s voice and message, the more we will be enabled to grasp it, absorb it, digest it and integrate it into our lives. And it is imperative that we do this because of God’s goal for our lives.

“(Y)ou must realize from the outset,” explains author C.S. Lewis, “that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal.” “When troubles come along,” continues Lewis, “—illnesses, money troubles, new kinds of temptation…God is forcing (us) on, or up, to a higher level; putting (us) into situations where (we) will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than (we) ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us” (Mere Christianity).

By all the laws of reason and logic, listening to God and obeying Him makes sense. It is reasonable. It is the best of risks, the surest of long-term investments, and is our only hope of becoming wholly complete people. It is not easy. It is not safe. But can you imagine anything truly better for us?

(Photo Credit: By Maria Ly – Flickr: rock climbing @ lei pi shan, yangshuo china, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16221809)

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Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Part 7

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Is not Self-seeking.

Nothing is more natural to us than to look out for ourselves. We do it all the time, and sometimes it is even good for us. We prepare our meals keeping our fingers away from the sharp edge of the knife; we look both ways before crossing the street; we don warm clothes in winter and sunblock in summer. But paradoxically, nothing is more of an obstacle, barrier, and impediment to love than looking out for ourselves.

The writer of I Corinthians 13 has been scrutinizing the notion of love. He has been examining, defining, and virtually dissecting every facet of love for those who care to listen. The ancient text was written specifically to new believers in the Greek city of Corinth (c. A.D. 56), but also to “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.” He wants people to understand some hard lessons about love.

He has started by explaining that love is patient and kind, that it does not envy or boast, and that it is not proud or rude. Those were the kindergarten and elementary lessons on love. We need to work on those, but they are child’s play compared to what’s coming. Now the Apostle Paul propels us into graduate-level course work. Enough of the easy stuff; it’s time, he seems to suggest, to get down to the real labour of love—the nitty-gritty, ‘get your hands dirty or get out of the garden’ kind of love.

“Love…” Paul explains, “is not self-seeking.”

Adjectives for self-seeking are: self-esteeming, self-interested, self-important, self-serving, self-centred, self-absorbed, and self-obsessed. Read that list again slowly, thoughtfully and carefully. There are other adjectives that go even further, descriptors like egotistical and narcissistic—pathologic extremes of self-centredness—illustrating how destructive the tendency in us can become. But for now, let’s choose from the ‘self’ list one adjective that describes, at least to some degree, our own experience. Let’s put it under the microscope and see what the fuss is all about.

Paul warn us against self-seeking behaviours because in the long run, when we put self-interest ahead of others-interest and ultimately God-interest, we destroy ourselves. Our self was not made to bear the weight of our own inward focus. God created us to find our greatest fulfillment by centering ourselves on Him first, on others second, and on ourselves last. Reversing that order is counter-productive to our need for love. So why do we do it?

We do it because we fall for the world’s oldest lie. The deception is: “The only way to truly be happy is to look out for myself.” We won’t go into where that lie originates; that’s a story for another day. Self-seeking motives hide deep in the recesses of our souls, come imbedded in our very DNA, and cause at least three injuries to us.

Firstly, they are isolating. When we are making decisions based on how to ensure outcomes that benefit us, they are bound to segregate us from others—especially the ones who suffer from our benefitting. When we become preoccupied with our own issues (our external appearance, our social media standing, our finances, our passions, and even our sufferings and experiences as victims) we fail to concern ourselves with others. We become care-less in looking out for the weak, the hurting and the love-needy. We become self-determining islands of isolation, focused only on our self. And selfishness ultimately makes us unlovable, further reinforcing that isolation.

Secondly, self-seeking motives are disillusioning. The lie sets us up to believe that the more we attend to ourselves the better things will be for us in the long run. We begin making choices out of fear for our own happiness, but find happiness an elusive thing to grasp. The older we get, the more we realize the labours of our lives ending much differently than we had planned. The disillusionment that follows this disappointment is often nothing less than overwhelming. Look at any example from the world’s highest pedestals of success and we see the carnage of lives crushed with disillusionment.

And thirdly, the inner drive for self is, in the end, self-destructive. The lack of love for others makes us not greater ourselves, but lesser. Our souls shrivel; our thoughts become disordered; our words take on twisted deceptions; we lose our hold on truth and reality and our actions become self-limiting. The goal of creating ourselves into masterpieces results in a corrupted shell of the glorious individual into which God envisioned making us.

What is the solution? In a word, Jesus. Jesus taught, “whoever finds his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” It’s a bold statement. It’s an impossible task. But here’s the miracle: Jesus came down to earth to live a life of selfless servanthood toward His heavenly Father and to all of humanity—to you and me. He repelled all temptations of self-interest and sacrificed His very life at the call of the Father to deliver us. And He offers His own Spirit to empower us to live for Him and to be like Him. That’s the breath-taking solution, designed and modeled by Love Himself. Here’s our opportunity. Each day He awaits our invitation to begin or continue the process of learning to love.

Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Part 5

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Does Not Boast, Is Not Proud.

“That’s one small step for man,” the granular transmission of Neil Armstrong’s voice wavered, “one giant leap for mankind.” It was 1969 and Armstrong’s Teflon-booted feet had just stepped onto the surface of the untrodden moon. What was happening here? Was this project to put a man on the moon the natural expression of the ingenuity, curiosity, and wonder of the human species, or was it something less lofty? Critics view the Apollo 8 mission as an exorbitant and meticulous tactic in the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union to claim national superiority—to boast of being the best. Billions of dollars were spent to fortify that boast. Armstrong’s address implied more than a giant leap of scientific progress for all of humanity; it boasted supremacy.

National arrogance notwithstanding, what is it about boasting and pride that is a problem? The term ‘pride’ is commonly used in today’s culture with an almost virtuous ring to it. Merriam-Webster explains that the word has undergone semantic drift (an “evolution of usage resulting in changed meaning”). But there is something timeless about I Corinthians 13, something unabashed in maintaining, “love…does not boast, it is not proud.”

Biblical synonyms for pride are arrogance, conceit, and haughtiness. To be proud is to esteem one’s self-importance higher than one ought. But what do we mean by “ought”? Is there a higher authority than a person’s own judgment of herself, some higher bar that calls us to better choices, more authentic living? Bump up against an arrogant person and you will immediately experience the angst of an existential principle being violated. Why? Because you will recognize a proud person’s lack of love for his neighbour.

God is all about love. He is the full expression of love. “It’s,” explains Chris Webb (‘God-Soaked Life’), “his essential nature.” Having created our world as an articulation and demonstration of that love, God put an innate infrastructure within us that is synchronous with love. God’s purpose and focus in this universe is to create a community of unparalleled love through which He Himself lives, moves and has His being. We must love—we are made for it.

“(T)he crucial question is not whether we love or not;” explains Webb, “in the end we cannot escape our own nature. We will love. We’re helpless to do otherwise. No, the crucial question is this: what will we love—and what will our loving do to us and to the world around us?”

So our discomfort with pride—if we will admit it—is that it twists the proper focus and expression of love—the love that God designed us to have. It focuses love on oneself ultimately. Pride wants to lift up self, to put it on the plane of something to be worshiped, and to be unhindered in its behaviours as a deity would be. Boasting is merely the verbage that expresses the inner fomenting of pride.

The Apostle John comments on the problem of twisted love and its attendant pride and boasting. He warns, “—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (I John 2:16,17).

It’s like turning on a lamp only to have the bulb flash, crackle, and then suddenly burn out. Have you experienced that? Some have called it the Edisonian-equivalent of a supernova. The flash and destruction of the light bulb is not a random, unexpected phenomenon; what has happened to the light bulb is a result of what has been happening inside the light bulb over a long period of time. Electric current passes through an incandescent bulb’s thin filament wire to produce heat and light while the filament becomes imperceptibly thinner. At first this thinning is just gradual, but over time the current flowing through the thinning tungsten filament produces heat that exceeds its operating temperature. In the case of our in-house ‘supernova’, the wire melts, a gap in the circuit is created, and a ‘tungsten arc’ flashes out the bulb’s final burst of light.

The thinning of the bulb’s filament is like pride. At first it’s almost unnoticeable. A thought here and there arises in our minds telling us ‘we are in control. We are the source of our power, our abilities and our successes. God may be out there, but we’d rather be independent of Him.’ Over time, though, there is a sort of runaway effect. The more we replace the presence of God with ourselves, the more we imagine our lives as self-determining, and the less we attend to our need for God to sustain us. Our filament-like souls become thinner and more fragile, but we are too busy thinking of the brightness we are creating.

Pride and boasting must be replaced with humility or we will self-destruct. God is love. He calls us to be filled with Himself but His love is only accessible if we come to Him in humility. The author of I Corinthians 13 recognizes that. He is giving us operating instructions for our human lives. When he explains that love “does not boast (and) is not proud” he is trying to help us see into ourselves and discern this uncomfortable truth. So let’s look at this aspect of our lives today and, God helping us, choose humility.

(Photo credit: By No machine-readable author provided. Dickbauch~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=583483)

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 9

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Puppet god?

The disciples were silent. Conversation among the twelve had risen and fallen like the undulations on the hilly landscape around them until Jesus had pulled them aside for a rest stop. Rather than refreshing them, Jesus had for a fourth time predicted His imminent betrayal and execution. That was a conversation-killing moment.

Their minds may have been racing but their tongues were silenced as they struggled to make sense of Jesus’ forewarning. ‘How could this terrible reversal be true?’ they must have wondered. Their understanding of the ancient Scriptures had led them to believe the Anointed One—Messiah—would be a conquering leader, the sovereign of a mighty and glorious kingdom; their historical subservience to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans—to any earthly nation—would become but a distant memory. What glory! But this: the death of their leader, could it happen? They were speechless. Unbelievable or traumatic news often has that effect. For others, disturbing news opens the very floodgates of speech. Adrenaline can loosen tongues; words—long pent-up thoughts and feelings—rush out in unheeding cascades. This was the case for James and John, two of Jesus’ closest friends.

“Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.”

“What is it? I’ll see what I can do.”

“Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.” (Mark 10:35-37 The Message).

It seems the two had been listening to Jesus. They had heard him say that those who had invested time and energy to follow Jesus would not fail to earn profits on that investment. It didn’t take much more than ambitious collusion for the two to agree that what they wanted was their share of the power and prestige when Jesus, by their interpretation, imminently overthrew the Roman Empire.

But their hearing had been more than a little selective. They had failed to take into consideration Jesus’ teaching and consistent modeling of humility and servanthood. This, not sought-out honour, was the criterion for sharing in the glory of God’s kingdom. James and John had been with Jesus when He had explained, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:34-36).

To their credit, it seems they recognized the sovereignty of Jesus and had unflinching faith that He was the long-awaited Messiah. They might even have been beginning to grasp the truth of His claim to be the Son of God—the eternally existing all-powerful One. Their request was a prototype prayer, of sorts. But they were missing a very important piece of the equation.

“Prayer,” explains Timothy Keller, “ is not a consumer tool. It is a Refiner’s fire.”

This is a good thought for us to ponder if we want to learn from James’ and John’s experience with Jesus. The request of the brothers illustrates our own tendency to develop a consumer mentality in our relationship with Jesus. When we defend our selfish prayers with the explanation “Jesus wants me to be happy!” we’ve short-changed ourselves. The divine plan for humanity is to be recreated in the vast completeness of Jesus’ likeness: not just happy, period, but happy and wise and good and just and compassionate and sensitive and true and noble and right and pure and lovely and admirable and excellent and…and the list goes on. It is inexhaustible. This is the eternity for which God created us, and—as the disciples would discover—for which Jesus would die for all humankind.

Jesus is not a puppet god. He’s not a genie in a bottle waiting to receive our wishes as his commands. He’s the One who offers us far more than that. He offers us escape from our selfish selves and entrance into a life of acceptance and companionship with Him as little by little He makes us like Himself. He wants us to approach Him with confidence knowing that He wants and will ensure our greatest good. So rather than saying, “Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us,” we can ask, “Jesus, what would you have us to do today, in this situation, that would best glorify You?” Then listen for His answer.

(Photo Credit: By John Leech – http://posner.library.cmu.edu/Posner/books/book.cgi?call=937_A138C_1850, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1064389)

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 2

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Identities.

“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?

From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.

Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.

Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.

“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).

This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.

Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.

Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.

Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.

If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.

(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)

WHO IS JESUS? #5

Sinless One.

Certain truths can be more intolerable to us than their corresponding falsehoods. For instance, accepting a rejection for promotion is more repugnant than assuring oneself that the hiring process was flawed. Or, learning to live with the effects of aging can be more frustrating than spending thousands of dollars trying to reverse those effects. A recent president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) found it more distasteful to be identified as a white woman of European descent than to falsely claim African-American heritage.  “I identify as black,” she claims.

As Jesus stations Himself to engage in a conversation with the hypocritical religious ruling class of His day, He claims something that infuriates them.

“I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come” (John 8:21). His listeners’ ears would have burned hearing that absolutely intolerable phrase— “you will die in your sin.” A flush of anger would have arisen up necks and merged with darkened faces. Not only had Jesus communicated a condemnation of their lifestyle (you sin— you die), but He had also deliberately conveyed a ‘holier than thou’ message.

Foreshadowing His own imminent death at their hands (“I am going away”), Jesus was not saying ‘like you, I too will die in my sin.’ Rather He contrasts Himself with all of humanity by claiming, “Where I go you cannot come.” He would die, but with not even a shadow of sin staining His person; contending to be uniquely sinless, He claims sole admittance to eternal life.

He is not saying that the concept of sin is passé. Jesus is not an early forerunner of today’s materialistic ideology that promotes tolerance of all personal choices, of the broad-mindedness that condones all pursuit of ‘trueness to self,’ of the rejection of the concept of sin.

He is saying, You are all sinners and will perish in never-ending death. I will die but will not perish because of my sinlessness. I possess the power of eternal life.

Now that standpoint is intolerable to many. To those who have never really explored Jesus’ claims about Himself it might even come as a shock. That perspective seems so illiberal and parochial—so old fashioned. Yet without that foundation to our understanding of Jesus we cannot move on to the offer He makes us. We must accept His sinlessness and its corollary—our sinfulness—if we want to avail ourselves of the eternal life that He possesses.

Most of the Pharisees never accessed the hidden offer in that so-offensive claim of Jesus. One or two did. They took the bad news along with the good. They understood and accepted the reality of Jesus’ sinlessness as the redeeming exchange for their own sinfulness and became recipients of Jesus’ gift of eternal life. Nicodemus was one of them and the Apostle Paul was another.

Here’s where we come in. How ought you and I to respond to this dichotomous news, this claim that Jesus is the Sinless One—eternally holier than us—and that we are dying in our sin?

If we accept that Jesus’ claim represents the magnificent intolerance of God to sin’s destructive presence and of God’s intention to ensure that the final end of it will be the death of death itself for those who entrust themselves to Him, our whole attitude to sin will change. We will by increments embrace a lifestyle that desires pure and holy living. We will respond more and more quickly to our conscience’s urgings to love God and to love the people around us like Jesus. We will choose to be more patient with people in our world; we will care for others’ needs to the point that our resources are more focused on them than ever before.

Rather than being offended by His claims, we can take comfort in Jesus’ sinlessness because it means He is the perfect lover of our soul and supplier to us of power to love others. One of the most beautiful epithets ever applied to Jesus—ironically by the self-righteous Pharisees themselves—was ‘Friend of “sinners”.’ May Jesus be that and much more to each of us as we have a fuller understanding of who He really is.

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #10

Prayer Acknowledging God’s Help (Paraphrasing Psalm 124)

Without You, God, without Your faithful, loving and all-powerful help, I would have been swallowed up alive by the enemy; the subtle attacks of the spirit of this age, the insinuation of the evil one—enemy of my soul—and my own foolish whims and rebellious plans would have engulfed me. Like a great and hungry wave they would have crashed over my head and drawn me into their deep watery grave, senseless, faithless, hopeless.

But You were there for me; You were and are and will be ever near, protecting my soul for Your eternal kingdom.

Somehow I sensed Your presence, believed what You said about me, and came to You for forgiveness. And what did I receive? Love—Your soul deep, ever-present, faithful compassion, calling me Your dear child.

Like a bird released from the fowler’s snare, I have escaped the deception and self-destruction I see all around me. I am breathless thinking about my narrow escape. May I never forget that my help is in Your Great Name, Jesus, O Maker of heaven and earth.